05.21.11

A Reality Check for the Doomsday Unhinged

Succumbing to a bit of End Times enthusiasm? Our doomsday fever is utterly predictable, given the economic downturn and aging boomers—and on Sunday morning, Harold Camping will be revealed as just another con man leading the fearful.

Succumbing to a bit of End Times enthusiasm? Our doomsday fever is utterly predictable, given the economic downturn and aging boomers—and on Sunday morning, Harold Camping will be revealed as just another con man leading the fearful. Plus, your guide to the end of the world and Bryan Curtis on the man who spent his savings to tell New York about the Rapture.

Doomsday cults have a lousy track record. You’d think that alone would make it more difficult to dupe new recruits.

But devotees of the Family Radio network have been taking to the streets and subways of New York, handing out fliers talking about the “awesome news” that the end of the world is coming. Billboards making similar predictions about the Rapture have been lining American highways for months. D-day, for the uninitiated, is scheduled for Saturday, May 21.

This is but one prominent example of a troubling trend—increased chatter about the Apocalypse. Glenn Beck has devoted the final months of his show on Fox to darkly hinting about the end of the world (which might help account for the lack of interest among advertisers—it’s hard to sell appliances when the audience is told that the hereafter’s fast approaching). But warning about the end of the world is the ultimate extension of the conflict/tension/fear talk-radio script: Keep ’em anxious and tuning in.

The baby boomers are beginning to face retirement and their own mortality. The more unhinged among them seem to feel that the world must end when they do. It won’t.

Demagogues always do well in economic downturns, and the doomsday prophet is a durable version of the theme, preaching special knowledge to the superstitious. But there’s something else going on here.

The susceptibility of otherwise sane folks to End Times enthusiasms is odd but perhaps a bit predictable.

It seems like the last logical extension of the baby boomers’ narcissism. The boomers are beginning to face retirement and their own mortality. The more unhinged among them seem to feel that the world must end when they do. It won’t.

Even when tsunamis were smashing into nuclear reactors, predicting the end of the world is not a constructive response. But months later, we are witnessing the Arab Spring and Osama bin Laden is dead. Things change, and often for the better.

Here’s a reality checklist for the unhinged at home. You know the old saying that when things sound too good to be true, they usually are? Well, the inverse is true as well. When things sound too bad to be true, they usually are.

To be sure, we’ve faced these forces before, fear-mongers posing as men of faith, selling special knowledge to their followers about the end of the world. The founder of the innocent-sounding Family Radio, Harold Camping—a civil engineer, not a priest, by training—had last predicted the Rapture in 1994. His followers were disappointed; they got Newt Gingrich and the Macarena instead. But Camping has new followers now, and some have forgotten. Likewise, Andy Newman of The New York Times wrote a great look back at a doomsday cult from 1925 led by one Robert Reidt that ended, well, predictably.

History is littered with self-important little men convincing the unmoored and unhinged that the world is ending, combining superstition with a hint of science (in Harold Camping’s case, the mathematical veneer of numerology). The temporary success of these conspiracy entrepreneurs speaks to people’s deep desire for a sense of purpose—even if it’s a preview of the Apocalypse—rather than drifting on undefined in their lives.

It was sad to see the poor dupes dotting the New York City subway stations this week. But a fool and his money are soon parted, as a retired MTA worker will soon find out when he realizes he’s liquidated a $140,000 taxpayer-subsidized pension nest egg to pay for subway ads telling the people that the world is about to end.

I admit that I am a bit offended by fear-mongers and their minions, whether I see them on the television screen or in the subway. The survival of civilization is serious business. It takes the work of each generation. Succumbing to fatalistic superstition, or projecting your own fears outward onto the world, is a waste of time and emotion that can better be directed to trying to solve problems.

The only people who seem to have handled this particular mini-panic with grace and humor are at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They deserve great credit for posting a guide on “ How to Survive a Zombie Attack” as a new way to spread the word about disaster planning. The feature has been so popular that it crashed the CDC’s website. But no doubt someone is out there making the irony-free case that the CDC was warning us that zombies are real.

Humor is good. Humor is our friend. Humor is a societal corrective. And not coincidentally, a sense of humor requires a sense of perspective. That’s what cult members and cult leaders and extremists of any stripe definitively lack.

The sun will rise on Sunday. Common sense will defeat conspiracy theories, again. And this cult—don’t demean faith by calling it a church—will be revealed as just another con man leading the fearful, nothing more.

John Avlon's most recent book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.