Funnyman composer nerdy mathematician Tom Lehrer had it about right — when it came to things going south.
I’m off to drop the bomb
So send me a salami
And try to smile somehow
I’ll see you soon when the war is over
About an hour and a half from nowwwwww.!”
(OK. That’s from memory, quotes used as a “more or less” accurate. But that’s the gist.)
We love to ‘imagine distaster,’ as Susan Sontag observed in a famous essay written in the good old days of US-Soviet Mutually Assured Destruction. We in the multipolar, asymmetric, post-9-11, jihadi war on terror world are rather nostalgic for the era of bomb shelters and civil defense siren warnings and hiding under our school desks during A-bomb drills (and making sure to face away from the windows, lest the nukes send shards of glass to slice up our homework assignments).
We love to get off on getting off. In the first couple of centuries after Jesus, literalists headed into the desert, ready for the end of days. The gospel of John is quite colorful about all the bad stuff that will go down — you know, sooner or later.
Marxist history has its own end-of-days (for capitalism). Freud theorized that we’ve got a death wish, before he trashed that theory. Ernest Becker, dying of cancer, talked about the “denial of death.” More recently, Sam Huntington coined the “clash of civilizations,” which is no day in the park.
(There will be a test on all this name dropping. Please read Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body and Life Against Death for next week.)
In these battles — us versus cancer, Christians versus Muslims, the Pleasure Principle versus the Reality Principles, the fat cats versus the proletariat — there are winners and losers. For the winners, the prize is life everlasting, God in the clouds, a World Series ring, utopian socialism, cancer-free remission. For the losers, it’s the booby prize. Upside down in a bucket of shit (where Dante dumps the corrupt popes), or a one-way ticket to palookaville.
Back in the Sixties, when culture went on an extended acid trip, Bob Dylan sang about folks wanting to get you down in the hole where they are. There’s nothing so tonic for the blues than learning that an giant asteroid is cruising Earthward at the speed of extinction.
Hollywood loves that plotline, and has given us “The Day the Earth Caught Fire,” and a long stream of end-of-the-world flicks. Opening soon, it’ll be “2012” and “The Road.” A few years ago I took my son to “The Day After Tomorrow,” a climate-change spectacular, with hurricanes the size of Jupiter that scoop up waves that wash over New York City, followed by the dawn on an Ice Age.
It’s the kind of story Bill McKibben and Elizabeth Kolbert cook up when they’re in the apocalyptic zone.
So we’ve got competing cultural-political narratives: The Jesus Is Coming With a Sword millennarianism of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, and The Polar Bears are Drowning With You and Me meteorological fantasies of McKibben & Co.
Neither story — from the firebrand right or the rogue-wave left — has a happy ending, as they frame the old war between religion and science.
For Carville-Clinton in the Nineties, it was The Economy, Stupid.
These days: It’s the Apocalypse, Stupid!