2012: Tsunami of Stupidity
Why the latest apocalyptic cult is a silly scam.
The growing harmonic convergence of apocalyptic stupidity that goes under the rubric 2012 or "the Mayan Calendar Prophecy" has not yet reached Y2K proportions. And while it's broken out of the New Agey cult status where it's been fermenting for some years, there are still many in the chattering classes who haven't heard about it. "The end of the world in 2012?" my friend Stanley said. "You mean I have to wait that long?"
The cult around the date Dec. 21, 2012—the supposed apocalyptic final day on something referred to knowingly as "The Mayan 'Long Count' Calendar"—has been the subject of fevered fantasies on the net and the free New Age "magazines" given away at health-food stores. But last week Newsweek gave it serious attention, and there's a metastasizing web of 2012 sites, including at least one anti-2012 site, which has a section devoted to debunking the apparently limitless number of gullible airheads who have become 2012 believers.
Even within the web of believer webs there are bitter mini-schisms already: Some believe that Dec. 21, 2012, will mark the end of the world in some kind of fiery apocalypse, planetary collision, gravitational reversal, black-hole disappearance, spontaneous combustion, or planetary rotational reversal of some sort. Then there are those who believe that the end of the old Mayan calendar will be something to look forward to: a transformational moment in the history of creation that will be all good for earth's peeps—a "harmonic convergence"-type thing. (Remember that from the '80s, when a bunch of planets lining up were supposed to work wonders on Earth?) In 2012, human nature will undergo a rebirth, the beginning of a New Age. (The Age of Aquarius at last! Maybe it's all hype for the revival of Hair.)
And, of course, there's at least one major motion picture of the cataclysm school, Roland Emmerich's 2012, due this November. And, needless to say, the New Age section of your local chain bookstore is bursting with 2012 titles. There's the literate Daniel Pinchbeck's 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl. I was an admirer of Pinchbeck's brave first book, Breaking Open the Head, about his search for shamanic experiences, and must admit I'm disappointed that he seems to have reduced all that mystery and wonder to a single number in 2012—although I'm sure that's not how he would put it.
And, finally, there's the frankly exploitive: everything from Beyond 2012 to (I swear) The Complete Idiot's Guide to 2012(a bit redundant). Then there are the "2012 survival kits," a 2012 iPhone app, an "official" 2012 store, and other foolishness—the whole Y2K survivalist huckster aspect of 1999 replicating itself.
It's a harmonic convergence all right, a harmonic convergence of ignorance and superstition—a tsunami of stupidity—worthy of the millennial cults of the 19th century most enjoyably anatomized in Leon Festinger's famous study, When Prophecy Fails, a look at the way end-of-the-world cults grow even stronger after their prophet's end-of-the-world date flies by and the world confoundingly continues to exist. (Festinger's study gave rise to the term "cognitive dissonance.")
In addition to 2012 the date, 2012 as a concept has its harmonic convergence (or maybe cataclysmic convergence) with an ever-widening spectrum of New Age idiocies. It's like a magnet for mindlessness. There's the literal convergence with "Planet X," for instance.
Don't tell me you haven't heard of Planet X? Obviously not, otherwise you'd be aware of the following compilation of Planet X lore I found on a skeptical Web site:
Apparently, Planet X (aka Nibiru) was spotted by astronomers in the early 1980s in the outermost reaches of the solar system. It has been tracked by infrared observatories; seen lurking around in the Kuiper Belt, and now it is speeding right toward us and will enter the inner solar system in 2012. So what does this mean to us? Well, the effects of the approach of Planet X on our planet will be biblical, and what's more, the effects are being felt right now. Millions, even billions of people will die, global warming will increase; earthquakes, drought, famine, wars, social collapse, even killer solar flares will be caused by Nibiru blasting through the core of the solar system. All of this will happen in 2012, and we must begin preparing for our demise right now …
Sounds scientific to me. I hope I have flashlight batteries for when Nibiru comes "blasting through" the solar system. (As far as I can tell from a brief survey of the subject, "Planet X" is an artifact of some infrared anomalies that may or may not have "planetary" reality. Scientists disagree, but few have formed apocalyptic cults around it.) Of course, this summary leaves out the various UFO versions of Planet X (and 2012) theories in which space aliens are going to manifest themselves, maybe hopping off Planet X during a flyby as either Wise Teachers or Sadistic Destroyers.
Spiritual idiocy doesn't afflict only the ignorant, of course. See this recent account of how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the great rationalist detective Sherlock Holmes, got taken in by spiritualists.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.