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Dec 21 2012

Mayans, Moral Panic, and the Narrative of the Apocalypse

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A couple of years ago, Harold Camping rocketed to infamy when he predicted that the end of the world would come via divine Revelation on May 21st, 2011. When the day came and went without incident, Camping retreated from public view for a time before re-emerging and claiming that, actually, May 21st was merely an ‘invisible judgement’, and that the real end would come five months later, on October 21st. Again, the date came and to the surprise of almost no one, the world did not end.  Camping was hardly unique in his predictions: throughout the history of the human species, countless millions of us have held deep, unwavering convictions that the end of the world would come in our lifetimes; clearly every single one of us has been wrong… so far…

A little more than a decade ago, those who believed in the coming end-times set their sights on the dawn of the new millennium, conveniently forgetting that according to the Chinese calendar, the year was 4697, and if we all measured time by the Jewish calendar, January 1st, 2000 would have been marked as the 23rd of Tevet, 5760. Nevertheless, I remember the anxiety that surrounded Y2K, not only because of the supposed collapse of global banking and communications systems, but because of the heightened millenarian fervor that surrounded that particular date. One way or another, some people believed, the world was going to end, and we had all best get right with God/Allah/Thor/the Universe.

We humans are funny creatures; we design arbitrary systems of timekeeping, and then affix deep symbolic meaning to particular points on in those systems. We invent a system of counting based, say, on the fact that we have 10 fingers, and then decide that measurements that are divisible by ten have some sort of divine meaning. We have evolved, so we are told, brains that include hardwired pattern-recognition systems yet apparently lack any sort of evolutionary safeguard to tell us when the patterns we see are illusory. We are strange, strange animals.

These sorts of social phenomena are extremely interesting, from a sociological point of view, for a number of reasons. One of the top reasons for me is that they serve as a handy point of focus for those who study the concept of moral panic. The reason for this is simple: for those who believe – fervently – in a given end-times scenario (Mayan prophecies, Y2K, Revelations, etc.), the end is often coming for a reason. Of course a purposeful annihilation isn’t always the case, but let’s consider some of the more common ‘theories’ about what the Mayan ‘prophecies’ mean. The world will end because of environmental collapse (brought about by rampant consumerism, reliance on fossil fuels, etc), or because of global thermonuclear holocaust (in some version of “The United States versus Nation X”); or maybe the world will end because of some sort of spiritual crisis or event, or because Jesus is angry or because Shiva has had enough already.

Behind each of these possible examples of how we’re all going to die is some explanatory narrative or another, which tells us why the environment is collapsing, or why Shiva is on the warpath, or why the Mayans foresaw this time and place as being the site of Armageddon. In other words, beneath the trappings of almost any millenarian belief you will find a laundry-list of things the believer is afraid of or disgusted by. Jesus is coming back to judge the living and the dead? You can be that he’s going to judge all of the people whose lifestyles you hate. Is the world too sinful/corrupt/consumerist/complacent, in your view? Well good news! Catastrophe ‘X’ is coming to wash it all away and let you and the other survivors begin anew.

There can often be a touch of fantasizing on the part of the believer too; since it’s their end-times belief, they will most likely count themselves among the survivors (if they’ve not been raptured away, that is), due to some learned or innate property that makes them ‘worthy’ of survival. They can watch all those ‘weaker’ or ‘inferior’ people vanish, and then they can build their perfect society on the ashes of the old.

But none of this will happen – at least not right now. Today will come and go, and the world will remain. Civilization (by which we of course mean our civilization, the only one worth mentioning /sarcasm) will not have been destroyed; Christmas will come and go, then New Years after that. The people that believed in the Mayan end-times will continue to believe in a reckoning to come; only the date will change and maybe, if a cooler looking doomsday comes along, the form. Perhaps, once their disappointment or embarrassment over their end-time of choice failing to materialize abates, they’ll move on to embrace a new apocalypse; maybe they’ll start buying into Nibiru, or begin warning the world about the coming doom from the planet-killer asteroid Apophis. After all, Apophis is an Egyptian name, the name of a god – the god of dissolution, non-being, and the void; surely that means something, right?

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15 comments

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  1. 1
    usingreason

    Woa, is this hell?

  2. 2
    tort

    Camping always predicted that the world would end on Oct 21, never at any stage did he claim it would occur on May 21. He said the rapture would occur on May 21, followed by 6 months of natural disasters, earthquakes and suffering then the world would end on Oct 21. When nothing happened on May 21 he claimed that god had chosen to be merciful and forgo the 6 months of suffering.

  3. 3
    Marcus Ranum

    he claimed that god had chosen to be merciful and forgo the 6 months of suffering.

    His mistake was that the god he was listening to was Exu. (or Loki, if you prefer)

  4. 4
    left0ver1under

    Regardless whether it’s a local preacher threatening everyone, “Yer goin’ tuh HEEEELLLLL!” or a loon predicting the “End is nigh!”, it’s all done for the same reasons.

    (1) They crave attention.
    (2) The want to control people, and do it through fear.
    (3) They want money for themselves.

    And sometimes, it’s done so they can get sex (e.g. David Koresh was the only man allowed to have sex with the women, not even their husbands).

  5. 5
    grumpyoldfart

    If the schools taught the half dozen steps involved in the Scientific Method, explained ten or twelve of the most commonly used logical fallacies, and included some basic probability theory in arithmetic class, we would still have gullible theists – but not so many of them.

  6. 6
    smrnda

    I’m a programmer, so I’m used to having problems come up simply because we don’t have a uniform system for measuring time and dates. I guess another thing is that, given that most religions focus on relatively small numbers said to be ‘significant’ the appearance of a 3 or a 7 doesn’t seem particularly prescient or ominous to me.

    I think that behind a lot of apocalyptic fervor is a deep-seated belief in moral decline, which I can’t see how anybody with any understanding of history could believe in. It wasn’t too long ago that it was perfectly acceptable, if not fashionable and obligatory, to express a desire to dominate, oppress or exterminate people from a different ethnic group. Violence was most certainly more prevalent, and we have to also account that things we plainly see today and label child abuse or domestic violence would not be noticed as anything wrong in the past.

    Perhaps the belief in ‘moral decline’ is a very white-male-centric vision, because it ignores the fact that circumstances were pretty bad for people outside of that demographic in the past.

  7. 7
    aziraphale

    “the supposed collapse of global banking and communications systems”

    I was working in IT support at the time of Y2K and the danger to some systems was very real. Many systems stored only 2 digits for the year, so when 1/1/2000 rolled around it would be interpreted as January 1, 1900. Everyone would suddenly have an apparent age less than zero and be ineligible to vote, drive a car, have a bank account etc. Calculations of wages, dividends and anything depending on time intervals would go crazy. It didn’t happen because IT professionals put in a lot of work to prevent it.

  8. 8
    Nathanael

    Of course at least some of the catastrophes of global warming are going to happen; more if we don’t prevent them now.

    They won’t spare the righteous, not even the entirely-sustainable-household people, and not me.

    But further, we seem to be really terrible at predicting when the disasters will happen.

    So really it’s a very unsatisfying apocalypse from a moral-panic point of view. Probably the same is true of most real disasters.

  9. 9
    jesse

    @smrnda — belief in moral decline is cross-cultural, actually. In western culture you can find references to it as far back as Socrates, and a quick read of the Baghavad Gita throws the idea out there as well, if in slightly different form. But the upshot is the same: “Kids today…”

    I think it’s genetic. There’s a “get off my lawn” gene that dates from when we lived on the savannah, and older hominids were trying to keep away those whippersnappers who came up with that new stone tool. :-) “Get off my patch of grassland, dammit. I don’t need a new piece of flint, In my day we had to use our teeth and drag a carcass uphill both ways in the hot sun after the lion was done with it.”

  10. 10
    Argle Bargle

    aziraphale #7

    My company spent several thousand dollars having our software made Y2K compliant. Like most corporate and government organizations, we took Y2K seriously and took effective measures to deal with a real world problem. As a result, it became a non problem.

    Edwin, educate yourself before you gibe at something. That will keep you looking less like an idiot to those of us who do know about the situation you’re dismissing.

  11. 11
    Edwin

    Edwin, educate yourself before you gibe at something. That will keep you looking less like an idiot to those of us who do know about the situation you’re dismissing.

    Right, see here’s the thing, Rodney: I did some digging around and it turns out that the doom and gloom predictions of the “Y2K” scare were fairly exaggerated. Just because you spent thousands of dollars to fix the ‘problem’, doesn’t mean that the problem was that big of a deal. Were you justified in spending that money? Sure; after all, everyone was telling you that you should. But hindsight offers us a different perspective. In countries where their Y2k protocols were lagging, we should have seen the sorts of collapses everyone was predicting. We didn’t; for they most part, they fared as well as countries that spent billions at the urging of IT companies who made out like bandits as a result.

    I do my research, Rodney. Just because you don’t like the results doesn’t make me an idiot, though it does make you look rather childish for deciding to say so.

  12. 12
    Argle Bargle

    Y2k could have been a major problem but (a) the problem was identified quite early and (b) a concerted effort was made to fix it. You may not think it was a big deal but the IT world would disagree with you. Sure, some Third World countries didn’t do all the testing and redundancy that the First World did, but banks and government ministries even in places like Eritrea and Haiti took effective steps to minimize the problem.

    As the Straight Dope article you linked to said:

    The Y2K-was-real crowd explained the quiet millennial dawn by saying that the developed countries that depended most on computers marshaled the most resources and fixed the problems. Less developed countries didn’t do as much but used fewer computers, so less could go wrong.

    You could reply by quoting the last sentence of the paragraph I just quoted:

    That’s not a credible argument. Italy had plenty of computers but its Y2K effort lagged; despite this, its problems were no worse than elsewhere.

    Italy’s Y2K effort may not have been as massive as, say, the US or Germany’s, but it wasn’t non-existent nor minimal. It was enough to keep Italy from having major problems. It’s true there was some overkill in other parts of the world but that was because IT people, i.e., the people who actually work with computers, recognized the problem and used multiple methods to combat its possible effects.

    Since 2000 it’s become fashionable among non-technical people to claim the Y2K problem was non-existent. Cecil Adams is an intelligent, well-informed man willing to pontificate on many fields. Sometimes he makes authoritative pronouncements that aren’t quite as accurate as they might be.

    Your other link has a bit of equivocation in it:

    Y2K simply wasnt anywhere near as much of a problem as many experts suggested. Looking back at the scale of the exaggeration, I have to think that there was an awful lot of lying going on. The motivation—mostly consulting fees—was all too obvious. But there were also a lot of experienced people with no financial interest who deeply believed “the problem.” [emphasis added]

    I’ll agree that the problem was overblown. I do not agree that it was non-existent and I resent a non-expert pretending he knows more about the problem than I do.

  13. 13
    Edwin

    I don’t think you will ever know how little your resentment means to me, Rodney. Here’s the thing; I’ve linked a few articles showing that the fears – and indeed the problem – of Y2K were overblown and not at all representative of the actual threat to civilization many of the doom-and-gloomers promised it would be, and all you’ve done to counter that is to assert – repeatedly – “nuh, uh, it was totally a big deal that was only averted because of IT heroes who saved us all!”. So between my sources and your assertions, I think I’ll stick with the sources, thanks.

    PS: Never once, in my OP or in my comments to you, have I ever claimed that the issues surrounding Y2K never existed, as you seem to be trying to imply. I claimed that the doom-and-gloom predictions were hyped and, lo and behold! My assertions are backed up by the evidence. So thanks for constructing that straw-man; I hope you had fun trying to knock it down.

  14. 14
    CX316

    To be fair, Apophis is real, it just isn’t a planet killer, and isn’t incredibly likely to hit. But still puts it ahead of all the imaginary stuff on the list.

  15. 15
    John Horstman

    I prefer the interpretation that the apocalypse has already occurred, and that’s why the world is fucked. :-P

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