As anyone who has taught here knows, the Chinese are more-or-less obsessed with the 2012 prophecy. The movie was hugely popular over here, (there was a movie, right? I never saw it.) and the Chinese interwebs are bursting with fake Mayan doomsday prophecies.
Throughout the world the Mayans are celebrated as a quasi-mystical super-race, who used their superior knowledge of astronomy to predict the end of the world in the year 2012. Then, much like the people of Atlantis, they vanished into the mists of theYucatan, abandoning their great cities to be reclaimed by the jungle.
So the Mayans were clearly geniuses who could see into the future. That begs the question: why didn’t their visionary leaders avoid their own grisly fate? One can certainly see a sense of fatalism coming into play. Imagine yourself in a Mayan throne room, sometime in the 10th century:
Mayan General: My Lord, our worst fears have been realized: the peasants have revolted. They’ve stormed the palace. What can we do to save the city?
Mayan King: Eh, screw it…the world’s gonna end in 1200 years anyway. Quickly, fetch the time machine! Let’s get us some caveman hookers!
We’re all fascinated by these “mysterious” lost societies, the ones that left such impressive monuments and then seemingly vanished into thin air. It’s an offshoot of “Dead Rockstar Syndrome” – we love the Mayans because they lived fast, died young and left beautiful ruins. To use the Cobain Analogy of Pre-Columbian societies: they arrived on the scene, laid down some quality work (Tikal= In Utero,Chichen Itza= Unplugged inNew York), then were hip enough to shoot themselves in the face with a shotgun before grunge went out of style (i.e. the conquistadors arrived).
I’ve been guilty of my fair share of dead rocker hero worship over the years, and as I’ve grown older I’ve found it to be one the more disturbing patterns of human thinking: the kind of gross perversion of reason which makes people cringe at the sight of a bloated old Stevie Wonder. Sure, you think to yourself, he was great back in the day, but every record he’s made since70’s has been complete shit. And now he’s tarnishing his legacy every time he waddles on stage at the Grammy’s. How dare he look so happy and content with his family, his millions of dollars, and his lifetime of unsurpassed musical accomplishments?
Many people reserve similar judgment for pre-Colombian societies: the Mayans had the skills to pay the bills (architecture, science, writing, zero), and those other loser Indian societies have never done anything of consequence, unless you consider “surviving” to be anything to write home about.
What does this say about our collective values? Just as Stevie Wonder doesn’t owe us a fucking thing, just as Kurt Cobain wasn’t exactly a genius for blowing his brains out, so it is that any society’s first priority should be its own survival. So how could a society as complex as the Maya, with their science and writing and zeros, end up stuffing the shotgun in their collective mouths and pulling the trigger.
The biggest surprise concerning the downfall of the Mayans is how completely unsurprising it looks in hindsight, once all the facts are considered. Archaeologists and scientists have already discovered why their civilization collapsed: their population exceeded their agricultural capacity. The ruling class of Mayan city-states, the ones entrusted with ensuring the public welfare, instead squandered their precious remaining resources in fierce religious and military rivalries with their brother cities. Each city stripped its forests to make plaster for temples and various other dick-measuring projects. Eventually man-made famine led to civil war, anarchy and societal collapse. The Maya abandoned their great temples – despite centuries of fanatical devotion, in the end they simply walked away. I would have liked to have been in a Mayan temple as the last priest in the city walked out for the last time, just so I could ask him his thoughts on the 2012 prophecy. Somehow I think he was probably more concerned with finding his next meal.
One thing we seem to hold in common with the Maya is a certain Apocalypse fetish. Our fascination with the Apocalypse is nothing new: Western Europe spent the better part of a millennium, from the fall ofRomeuntil the Renaissance, obsessing over the end of the world. That period was so delightful and constructive that we now refer to it as The Dark Ages.
In America, the trend seemed to pick up steam leading up to the year 2000(round number!), particularly with the success of Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” book series, essentially the Harry Potter of Armageddon. (former Growing Pains teen idol Kirk Cameron = Harry Potter, the antichrist = Voldemort, God = Dumbledore…but wasn’t Dumbledore gay? ABORT ANALOGY! ABORT ANALOGY!)
I was hoping we would move past this morbid obsession once we passed that arbitrary year number in a calendar based on a since-refuted guess as to the year of Jesus’ birth, but boy howdy was I wrong. The past 11 years have been rife with apocalyptic talk. When I went home last year I was horrified to find that my beloved History Channel had been defiled, not only by reality shows about ice road truckers, but by a whole slew of documentary series concerning the End of Days.
A fair number of people seem to think that we are living in the end times, and their reasons range anywhere from “absurd” to ludicrous. I’d like to cover a few of my personal favorites at present:
–The War on Terror as a prelude to Armageddon: Look, I get it: a War on Terror sounds pretty apocalyptic. In 80 years we’ve gone from Franklin Roosevelt’s declaration that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” to literally fighting a war against fear itself, gallivanting across the globe like a better-armed Don Quixote, bombing the ever-loving shit out of Terror wherever we find it. And yet Terror somehow endures…almost as if it cannot be killed, almost as if it were never really a killable entity in the first place. But if Terror cannot be killed with bombs, then wouldn’t the idea of declaring war on some ephemeral emotion seem ridiculous and self-defeating, kind of like declaring war on “a case of the Mondays” and shifting the work week from Tuesday to Saturday? Maybe so. It certainly seems to me that the threat of a ragtag-yet-well-funded fundamentalist criminal organization doesn’t call out for Armageddon. If anything, it called out for a SEAL team to find their leader, cap him in the head, and dump his body in the ocean.
–Obama as the antichrist: The number of people who openly admit this to pollsters is staggering. You know who should be most insulted by this little pet theory? Lucifer. It’s his job to unleash the antichrist, and the antichrist is supposed to do his best to tempt and seduce you over to the dark side. So if you think that Lucifer chose Barack Obama to tempt you, then you must think Lucifer is pretty fucking stupid. You think Satan doesn’t know that you don’t trust black people? We all know you don’t trust black people, buddy. I would think that Satan knows enough about good ol’ fashioned American prejudice to realize the Bible Belt isn’t going to be seduced by an antichrist named Barrack Hussein Obama. I mean, seriously guys: a black antichrist? We’re talking about the Prince of Darkness recruiting a human army for his war against heaven, not Mel Brooks remaking Blazing Saddles.
Most disturbingly, this kind of thinking has invaded the body politic. Take the case of US Representative John Shimkus, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Environment and Economy. During a hearing on climate change, he basically admitted that the earth is getting warmer, the icecaps are melting, and that humans seem to be the ones responsible. He then proceeded to brush those facts aside as completely irrelevant, quoting the Biblical story of Noah and the gospel of Matthew:
“And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds from one end of the heavens to the other.”
Long story short: climate change may be real, but it’s no biggie.
“The Earth will end only when God declares it’s time to be over. Man will not destroy this Earth. This Earth will not be destroyed by a Flood,” Shimkus asserted. “I do believe that God’s word is infallible, unchanging, perfect.”
Is this worse than the textbook straight-up denial of climate change? It certainly seems, on face value, to be slightly more creative than sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears and shouting “LALALALALA.” And it’s certainly in line with the traditional Judeo-Christian, “this whole town’s a pussy waiting to be fucked,” environmental paradox: namely that God created the Earth, but He doesn’t really give a shit about it. I for one love the idea that apocalyptic thought can so quickly pivot 180 degrees, from “you better mind your P’s and Q’s because Jesus is coming back” to “we can do whatever we want because Jesus is coming back to bail us out.”
But I’m about to raise an issue that would blow John Shimkus’ motherfucking mind: it might be possible for the climate to change and the oceans to rise without ever relating to the Apocalypse. Let’s say that God has no plans to destroy the world again by flood. OK, cool. That said, the oceans could still rise, the coastal areas of the world (which hold a disproportionately large segment of the world’s population) could be rendered useless, triggering a humanitarian disaster. The important thing to remember here, John Shimkus, is this is not the end of the world. Maybe billions would die. Maybe the United States – which had some pretty valuable seaside property, last I checked – would be thrown into anarchy and ruin. But humanity still limps along. The angels’ trumpets haven’t sounded yet. The end times haven’t come yet. John Shimkus is technically correct.
Some might argue, however, that John Shimkus, as a member of the United States Congress, has some kind of responsibility to prevent that not-quite-doomsday scenario from happening. Why bother working for the government if your answer to every problem is “God will/won’t let that happen?” You could just as easily find yourself an audience preaching on the street. Please leave the government jobs for people actually interested in real-world solutions.
Our nation is facing serious challenges on a variety of fronts – climate change, religious fundamentalism, the rise of China– and our knee-jerk response has been to pull the Apocalypse card. That, in the words of the late Bernie Mack, is like holding the ball and waiting for the clock to run out – a punk move. I’d like to believe we were once a nation of problem solvers. Try to imagine some of America’s greatest achievements, like the Space Race, being undertaken in this current environment. How would a modern-day Kennedy react to a rival country beating us into space? One can only image him standing before the cameras, ready to utter the immortal challenge:
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of doing absolutely nothing…of waiting for Jesus Christ to return and smite our enemies. “
The only thing left for us to do as a society is to set our own doomsday year – not 2012, of course, but some consensus, Mayan-style prediction of Armageddon. I’m just gonna start throwing numbers out there – 2276? 3862? Do you have any ideas? Perhaps, when future archaeologists are sifting through the ruins of our civilization, they might come across the date and get a kick out of it.
 A word to those at the History Channel: unless the End of Days you’re referring to have already Ended sometime in the past, then you are, in fact, speculating on the future…which is the exact opposite of History. Trust me guys, the future is literally as far from history as you can get. Do me a favor and stick to actual history…and stop with the reality shows!
 Why are those two lumped together?