Monday, December 06, 2010

Feeling a Bit Hopeless Today

After finishing Margaret Atwood’s wonderful The Year of the Flood, I find myself running a bit low on hope.

Imagine a cult which has, for the sake of argument, 1000 members. These thousand people have come to believe that the world is going to end on December 6th of 2011, and their great Master Examplicon will call them all home to paradise in the form of poisonous kool-aid falling from the sky. They also believe that there will be signs which point to the coming of Examplicon, chief among which will be people getting hit by city buses. This happens rarely, but they take each instance as a proof. Then, as the date draws near, they decide that too few people are being hit by buses, so they take to jumping in front of them on a regular basis. Some 50 of their members die in this way. At this point, it becomes a hazard to everyone. We, as a society, not only decide they are a bunch of loonies, but that they are a danger to themselves and others. But they are firm in their faith, and go underground, waiting for the day. As a few more continue to pop up in front of buses, we try to convince them that they are crazy.

“Examplicon is not making this happen,” we say. “You are!”

“Prove it,” they say. “Only, don’t use science, as the Great Examplicon teaches us that science is a fraud. And don’t use logic, since we believe the supernatural trumps logic.”

“Don’t you see that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy?” we say.

“You are elitists who think you know better than we do because you went to fancy colleges.”

“But we didn’t. We went to colleges you’ve never even heard of. We didn’t get the highest SAT scores. We’re not super-scientists or world leaders. We’re just normal people who want you to stop jumping in front of our buses.”

“You are condescending. You think you know better than we do.”

We stare at our feet. “It’s not very flattering, but yes, we do think not jumping in front of buses is preferable to jumping in front of them.”

“You’ve just been duped by the liberal media, which paints our unusually high death rate by bus as some kind of fault in our religion.”

“No, they show you jumping in front of buses. We’re the ones who think that’s a bad idea.”

“See?” they cry. “They’ve tricked you and you don’t even know it.”

Exasperated, we feel guilty, especially the liberals among us, who would prefer to think of ourselves as open minded and tolerant of other people’s religions. But people keep getting injured when buses slam on their breaks, and people are traumatized when they see the cult members smashed bodies lying in the street. Not to mention the effects on the cult members themselves. It’s a bad situation. And it’s getting worse.

As the day approaches, the membership in the cult has dwindled, but not much, since all the victims on TV have convinced some new converts that these folks are really on to something. After all, they say more and more people will get hit by buses, and it sure seems to be the case if you watch the news.

Then, on the night of December 6th, 2011, the cult members come out of hiding and throw a big party in the ballroom of a hotel. The leader puts poisoned kool-aid in the sprinkler system, and when it rains down on the people, in the last minutes of their lives, they are certain that Examplicon has come for them, just like they’ve been told.

Now, what would you think of these people when you heard the story the next day on the TV, or read a long expose about it in Time Magazine? Be honest. Would you think they were crazy? Stupid? Deceived?

But what if the cult didn’t have 1000 members? What if it had a hundred million? And instead of jumping in front of buses, they believed plagues, famines, and natural disasters were the signs of the coming apocalypse? When a massive oil spill fills the gulf of Mexico, they say, “Well, that’s a sign.” When ice caps dry up, leaving people without fresh water, they say, “Well, that’s a sign.” When modern agriculture forces too many animals too close together near populated areas, creating new pandemics, they say, “See, that’s one of those plagues we’ve been warning you about.”

And even though scientists tell them these things are all the products of human activities, they say, “We don’t believe you.”

Or, imagine that, instead of believing the end of the world is coming in the form of poisoned kool-aid, they believe that democracy is coming to an end and the American government will fall. So they consistently vote for people who share this view, and those politicians actively work to make sure the government doesn’t get anything done. When popular legislation comes up for a vote, they filibuster it into oblivion, or load it up with so much pork it buries the country in debt. Then, these people say, “See? The federal government is bloated and ineffectual.”

“But the party you keep voting for is responsible for most of the pork, most of the corruption, and most of the inactivity of government.”

“Oh,” they say, “you’re just accepting that liberal media bias.”

“No,” we protest, “the candidate himself said he would vote against everything except tax cuts, higher defense spending, and pork for his district. That simply can’t be sustained. He kept quoting that Reagan line about government being the problem, and that Grover Norquist line about shrinking it until he drown it in a bathtub. He had no intention of governing wisely or well. And now the government is in shambles.”

“See? The federal government doesn’t work,” they say. “And, by the way, you’re a socialist.”

Like the cult members, there will be no moment of realization. When the devastation caused by global warming gets to be too great, in whatever form it ultimately takes, they’ll say, “People dying because of droughts or plagues or natural disasters… but it’s cold out today, so it’s not a global warming problem. You’re wrong. It’s just the end times.”

Or (who knows which will come first) when the Californication of the federal government is beyond repair, and the government can’t offer basic services because it refuses to tax the wealthy and can’t squeeze any more out of the poor, they’ll say, “See? This is what happens when you let a bunch of socialists have say in government and ignore the Constitution.”

I don’t want to say “I told you so,” while people lose their unemployment insurance, then their health care, then their social security, then their public schools, then their local fire fighters and police officers.

I don’t want to say “I told you so,” while people die in massive storms, or from a lack of fresh water, or in new wars over dwindling resources.

“I told you so” won’t make me feel any better, and besides, these people self-identify as deniers. They will refuse to see it anyway.

But I will be the old man who breaks a hip when the bus slams on its breaks. My son will be the young man who goes sliding up the aisle. And I feel like there’s nothing I can do about it.

1 comment:

Neil said...

Ben,

You can agree with them that what they see is indeed a sign. Then shame them for thinking that they can understand the workings of their version of the examplicon. You can remind them that pride is a sin, proof of the devil's work. And you can point to the suffering in the world as the examplicon's revenge on their hubris. For you are one of the fallen, so you have no problem believing you can understand the workings of the examplicon. In fact, if they question your ability to understand, they must also question there own.

Then, you make sure that the 45million people who voted in 2008 and did not vote in 2010 vote in 2012.

Neil