Do Americans always look for the worst in the best?  Is the one thing we universally share with each other a national Death Wish?


In a recent article, author Camille Paglia argued:

Catastrophic weather is built into the American experience. Europeans, with their more moderate, predictable weather, rarely have our terrifying encounters with the sublime. It may be one source, aside from Christian fundamentalism, of the American instinct for the apocalyptic.

I now wonder if the “American Instinct for the Apocalyptic” stretches beyond Christian fundamentalism and into the mainstream, every day, ordinary warp and woof of our lives.

Don’t gun owners have an Apocalyptic view of the world — and that is why they stretch the need for handguns from the home and into the concealed-carry street?

Don’t politicians have an Apocalyptic view of the world — and that is why they use end-of-the-world invocations of terror and demand forced military action against non-threatening nations?

Don’t some young people living in the urban core have an Apocalyptic view of the world — and that is why thy join gangs and create grey market economic systems that only provide for their own narrow self interests?

How many terrible things have been wrought on the earth in a false defense against an impending Apocalyptic — and how many innocent lives were lost, or forever damaged, in that ineffectual, and hateful, effort?

18 Comments

  1. My childhood felt dominated by this: we kept on ramping up our arms production because the Evil Soviet Union was also ramping up their arms production and the result was that we fell deep in debt and so did they and we never even fired an actual shot at each other. Not sure how that helped either of us. That’s right around the time that people started saying that the world would be better if the military had to have bake sales and schools got the funding they needed.

  2. That may be so, Karvain — threatening us with the end of the world does send a chill down one’s spine — but when that effort is never ending… it loses its power and focus to be effective.

  3. I guess there’s no escape from threatening the end of the world, Gordon. We get it now in Iraq and at home with Global Warming and in many Christian churches. I’m not sure what the fun of living is if we’re all going to die in some big apocalyptic event. That threat certainly doesn’t make the world any sweeter for me.

  4. David,
    There is an escape and it’s all down to our own perspective. The muckrakers of the early 20th century are not fundamentally different than the muckrakers of the 21st century – we just have to remember, as my History teacher Mr. Hand said that we should look up from the muck and see that there is hope if we know to look for it.
    There is much to be learned from Nachum Ish Gam Zu Letovah – that was the name given to him (Nachum was his name but the rest was appended – it means “Man for whom Everything is For The Good) based on the fact that no matter what happened to him, he would always say, “This too, is for the good.” Through that outlook on life he endured many hardships with happiness, knowing that today’s tragedy may turn into tomorrow’s triumph.

  5. It’s good you’ve found a way to keep up the hope, Gordon, but is your hope able to be shared? Or must one be of your culture and your religious leaning to divine meaning and purpose in the looking up?

  6. Actually one of the ideas of being jewish as I am is that one does not have to be jewish in order to get the meaning and purpose of looking up – and you don’t even have to look up in a religious way; just looking up and admiring the beauty of the architecture of a bridge, or the fascinating way in which a five layer burrito is put together, or even the way that everyday ordinary stories can come together to make something called “This American Life” – sounds like something I just wrote about 🙂

  7. Gordon — You may be right one doesn’t need to be Jewish to look up, but I imagine your history and training better influences your appreciation. Anyone can look up, but without the context of teaching and the direct experience of learning, the moment can tend to be hollow and fallow.

  8. Right. I left out the important part. One of the roles of the jewish people is to be, so to speak, a light that illuminates the beauty of looking up. Not telling a person that they have to be jewish – but telling a person the wonder of just looking up. I suppose you could say we help de-hollow / de-fallow things. 🙂

  9. It’s all about presentation. I personally have never been mocked. I also have rarely presented it as a religious thing. I think that people generally like to hear that there is a possibility that life is not a giant fecal matter festival, where everything is just doom and gloom. So yeah, in my experience it has been pretty well appreciated.

  10. That’s a fine thing to know, Gordon. It’s good you just present it as something good and not something hardwired to a belief system that must first be enforced.

  11. Gordon–
    I’m all for looking up toward the light, but I fear future generations will be looking through gas masks, dense smog, and swimming in their own garbage if we don’t take some collective and mandatory action soon!
    I try not to have an apocalyptic view of things but experience tells me otherwise. That we must physically care for the things we would like to maintain and keep going. Optimism is helpful and can often translate into productive action. But it’s not enough–

  12. WOW there have been a lot of changes since I last visited – you have been busy!
    Hellfire and Brimstone has always been a good control measure through the ages. Fear is always the key to keeping people in order – when one fear runs out of mileage another one will be found to replace it by the powers that be.

  13. Nicola, baby! There you are! Where have you been? How are you? I hope there’s no crisis!
    Yes, lots of changes around here. This is the most recent post why:
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2008/04/24/pair-networks-quickserve-dedicated-server-review/
    Oh, and plus this is what started it all:
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2008/04/04/urban-semiotic-moved-from-wordpress-to-movable-type/
    You’re right that fear and suffering and pain are powerful tools to control the behavior of the masses of the meek.

  14. msdemmie!
    you make a great point. fear is the key. and the source of fear is immaterial and keeps changing to suit the state of the world and the needs of the powerful.

  15. I have been hibernating 😉 and healing and getting rid of a fair amount of emotional baggage.
    I have also celebrated my tenth anniversary with budgie – got my decree nisi from my last marriage.
    My youngest gets her degree on June 24th – her undergraduate papers are going to be published in a major scientific journal and she has been awarded her PhD course.
    Your move seems complicated = and rather technical – I can however totally understand and relate to why you have made the move and respect your integrity.

  16. I’m so glad things are going better for you, Nicola. That’s why I’ve wondered about you, but left you alone. There are times for checking in and times for leaving things alone awhile. Great news about your youngest! Big congrats! The move here is a good thing. The longterm benefits will be astounding.