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My first thought was that the world is already ending, supposedly, on Dec. 21, 2012, according to the Mayan calendar, and it makes sense to wait until one doomsday passes to start ballyhooing another — two looming at the same time is like putting out the Christmas merchandise before Halloween is over.
The second thought is that journalism is slipping — in truth it slipped long ago. I saw this latest doomsday in a Time magazine online "NewsFeed" titled "Judgment Day: Will May 21, 2011 Be The End of the World?"
Mmmm . . . that’s a toughie. News reporter Megan Gibson did not put the story in context of the periodic false predictions of the world’s end going back centuries. She didn’t even mention the Mayans. No, she juxtaposed it with another story in the headlines, claiming, "This prediction is pretty eerie in light of the mysterious animal deaths in Arkansas."
It is? The media always deadpans this kind of report, because we believe faith deserves respect, no matter what that faith is about, or maybe the reader is expected to get the joke.
It is Time’s helpfully serving up the animal die-off as evidence of the apocalypse that bothers me — anybody who knows squat about birds or fish knows they occasionally die in huge numbers for murky reasons.
I turned for comfort, again, to When Prophecy Fails, the classic psychological study of a doomsday cult led by an Oak Park housewife named Dorothy Martin, who in late 1954 predicted that the nation would be destroyed by floods while she and fellow true believers were whisked to paradise by flying saucers.
Researchers secretly joined her cult, hoping to test their theory of cognitive dissonance: that a zealot, "presented with evidence unequivocal and undeniable" that his belief is wrong, nevertheless "frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than even before."
Unlike what passes for journalism today, the book recounts the rich history of America’s doomsday fixation, and the ridicule it once received ("What! — not gone up yet?" people mockingly inquired of earthbound Millerites in the 1840s. "Aren’t you going up soon? — Wife didn’t go up and leave you behind to burn, did she?")
Though frankly, viewing Mrs. Martin and her devotees moved me, not to scorn, but to pity. They are so credulous, so purely naive.
Well, not all. My favorite person in the book is Mr. Martin who, as his wife is preparing to greet the flying saucers, is described as: "A man of infinite patience, gentleness, and tolerance amounting almost to self-abasement, he never believed that his wife could communicate with other worlds, yet he never actively opposed her activities or sought to dissuade her . . . He simply went about his ordinary duties in the distributing company where he was a traffic manager, and did not allow the unusual events in his home to disturb in the slightest his daily routine."
An inspiration for all husbands.
The appointed hour — midnight — approached. A dozen true believers waited in Mrs. Martin’s living room on South Cuyler. The lapdog media watched, reporters phoning in, TV trucks outside. The male believers ripped the zippers out of their trousers, the women removed their underwire brassieres, because metal, Mrs. Martin insisted, would burn up on the spaceship. Her husband went to bed hours earlier and was sleeping peacefully.
"The last ten minutes were tense ones for the group in the living room. They had nothing to do but sit and wait, their coats in their laps."
Midnight. 1 a.m. 2 a.m. 3 a.m. The saucers, need I say, did not come.
A few were disillusioned. "The others, however, were neither willing to accept the disillusionment nor tranquil about the failure of the escort to appear at midnight."
They only needed proper perspective.
At 4:45 a.m. Mrs. Martin "once more summoned everyone to the living room, announcing that she had just received a message which she read aloud." The end of the world had been avoided, it seems, by the strength of their faith. "Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room," she read.
"This message was received with enthusiasm by the group," the researchers noted. "It was an adequate, even an elegant, explanation. . . . The cataclysm had been called off. The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction."
This news was "released immediately to the newspapers."
In the next day’s Tribune: "WORLD SPARED FOR TIME, SAY DOOM PROPHETS." There’s an evergreen headline that will come in handy come this spring.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 6, 2011