Hello. My name is Mary, and I am a recovering anthropologist. It’s been over 20 years since I worried about tenure, but I suppose I will always be an anthropologist. As Ray Bucko, my dearest Jesuit friend, once told me, “Having a Ph.D. is a permanent condition – like the Catholic priesthood. Or herpes.”
Anthropologists used to say that Homo sapiens was a unique and special species because we were the only ones who used tools, or who were self-aware, or had language, or passed culture to our offspring… Then we started finding out that chimps and dolphins and crows and African grey parrots and snow monkeys were making a mockery of our pretensions to uniqueness, so we’ve kind of shut up about all that in recent years.
If you want a nice reductive definition of our species, I could defend this: “Human beings are bipedal tailless primates who tell stories.” That’s probably just as stupid as earlier definitions, but it’s catchier than my other version, which is “Human beings are a dangerous, invasive weed species that has invented central heating, air conditioning, and food that can be stored for up to ten years, so not even a direct hit by an asteroid would likely make us extinct.”
I thought that last one up this morning when I was reading a Maureen Dowd column about the claim that the Mayan calendar predicts that Planet Niburu will collide with Earth on Dec. 21, 2012. The astronomer David Morrison from NASA’s Ames Research Center debunked that nonsense for Dowd, and accused its purveyors of trying to make money by ginning up a hoax.
Like many insomniacs, I sometimes listen to late night talk shows on AM radio, and it’s struck me that the 2012 Doomsday “threat” is just like the hugely inflated Y2K “threat” a dozen years ago: predicting disaster is a good way to sell gold, survivalist kits, generators and guns. (This might be a good time to mention Agnes Shanklin’s warning at the very end of Dreamers of the Day. “Never buy anything from a man who’s selling fear.”) But there’s more at stake than making a buck off frightened people.
As Dr. Morrison said of the people selling Doomsday 2012, “The worst thing is, they really do frighten children. I have at least one email a day from a kid who says he can’t sleep. Some are threatening suicide. I heard about two sets of parents who talked about killing their children and themselves before [Dec. 21, 2012] and a girl hanged herself in England last fall, worrying about 2012.” Noting the growing popularity of “cosmophobia,” Morrison asked Dowd, “Why is our society so focused on potential disasters?”
Well, that kind of question is like handing a recovering anthropologist a shot of bourbon, and I’ve been thinking about it all day.
Personally, I like a good disaster movie now and then. There’s something soothing about watching a rerun of “The Day After Tomorrow” in our warm and cozy living room. A story about somebody else’s fake disaster makes me feel safe and secure while eating popcorn, and I suspect I’m not the only one.
Disaster stories also let us rehearse our reactions to a crisis. The sinking of the Titanic is perfect for this. Other big ships have gone down, but they usually sink quickly. The Titanic took a couple of hours to go under, and that was enough time for people to stop panicking for a minute and make some decisions about how they wanted to behave during the last hours of their lives.
When my son Dan was little, we used to watch “A Night To Remenber” every year or so, and it was an interesting way to observe the maturing of his sense of ethics and morality. When he was five, he hated that women and children were put into the lifeboats, even though he was a child, cuddled up on the couch with his mom. “I don’t like that they leave the daddies,” he said. “They should keep the families together.” Later on, he admired the calm chivalry of the gentlemen, and sneered at the guys who tried to sneak into the lifeboats. We both loved how the baker got drunk but still helped people, and invented a raft made of deck chairs. And we decided that if we knew we were going to die soon, we would try to be like the old man who adopted a little boy separated from his family, and held onto him tightly as the ship went down. Chokes me up, just thinking about that, even now.
I suspect that the real reason why we love stories about disasters, and battles, and fatal diseases is this: they reduce life to a single imperative. The complexity and competing demands of a rich, full, difficult life fall away, and all that’s left is This Crisis. Nothing else matters. That’s the key. In a disaster story, everything is simple. If the world is going to end in December, you don’t have to worry about raising your child in this crazy world. You don’t worry about whether you’re saving enough for retirement. It doesn’t matter if you owe more on your house than it’s worth.
All the problems of a complex, difficult, demanding, normal life can be eliminated if you can identify a single fact or threat that makes everything else pale in comparison. No more trying to understand other people’s points of view. No more compromise. No more debate. No more weighing of complex alternatives. And that, I think, is the key to why crisis comes as relief, almost: you can relax into a single truth. Nothing else matters.
The rebels fired on Fort Sumter. Nothing else matters.
The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. Nothing else matters.
Two planes have struck the World Trade Center. Nothing else matters.
A Hatfield killed a McCoy. Nothing else matters.
It’s cancer. Nothing else matters.
S/he cheated on me. Nothing else matters.
It’s interesting to me, as an anthropologist, that this year’s presidential election is also being couched in terms of impending disaster. Forget December 21, 2012 — Doomsday is November 6, 2012. Why try to convey thoughtful analysis of global economics, climate change, the complexities of foreign policy? There’s no point in discussing crumbling infrastructure, the myriad causes of contemporary American poverty, and the colossal mess that is American health care, when you can say, “If my opponent is elected, America will be destroyed. Nothing else matters.”