Of Black Swans and GUBUs

Of Black Swans and GUBUs December 21, 2018

I have posted here before about issues of predicting the future, specifically in religious matters. Based on what I have been doing in my current book project on the US in the 21st century, I offer a couple of new concepts to add to that discussion.

As I have argued previously, predictions of America’s near-future have a very mixed record of accuracy, although some seemingly wild prophecies have turned out far more accurately than their authors dared believe. As early as 2000, The Simpsons set a story in a near future in which a Trump presidency has devastated the US economy. Also in 2000, I myself wrote a satirically-intended commentary on a forthcoming US invasion of Afghanistan, an event that I absolutely did not foresee as a literal prospect.

By chance, seers can achieve real successes. In late 1976, All in the Family featured an election discussion, in which Archie Bunker warned his liberal son in law that “You’re gonna get Reagan in 1980, wise guy!” The audience reaction alternated between sick horror at the prospect, and uproarious delight that anyone could imagine such a crazy vision as vaguely within the bounds of possibility. In retrospect, Archie looks like a prototype of that later-familiar political specimen, the Reagan Democrat.

One of these accidental triumphs of foresight was Billy Joel’s 1976 song “Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway).” It portrayed a Manhattan devastated by violence and terrorism, as its skyscrapers tumble to the ground. After September 2001, that vision seemed eerily prophetic, and as in the song, the catastrophe really did force authorities to “send a carrier up from Norfolk [Virginia].”

Most spectacularly, in March 2001, the conspiracy-oriented television series The Lone Gunmen depicted a plot to fly an airliner into the World Trade Center, with the goal of starting a war to enrich profiteers. I obviously don’t accept that as a motive for the attacks that actually did occur, but the general scenario was frighteningly realistic. For a while, the show’s writers worried intensely that they might have given Qaeda the idea for the attack (they hadn’t).

But referring to the September 11 attacks also makes us realize how unwise we are simply to extrapolate contemporary realities into the future, to extend graphs of contemporary trends. History can be and often is reshaped by sudden events foreseen by very few at the time, and certainly not by the political establishment. Only in their aftermath can we trace the stages leading up to such unexpected and crucial developments, what are termed Black Swan events. September 11 was an obvious instance, and so in its way was the 2008 crash. If many expected a financial reckoning around that time, few foresaw its catastrophic scale. Some would add to that list the 2016 US presidential election.

Looking back, everyone can tell you about the events leading up to those events, and even claim that they were inevitable. In reality, very, very few people claimed so in advance. At the start of 2016, how many people foresaw a Trump presidency? Probably not even anybody named Trump.

My newest book – Rethinking a Nation: The United States in the 21st Centuryis structured around those three Black Swan dates, of 2001, 2008 and 2016. The rest of the narrative revolves around them. (The book should be out in mid-2019).

Some writers use the acronym GUBU for such epic happenings, which are “grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre, and unprecedented.” Of their nature, we simply cannot predict the Black Swans of the next twenty years – the wars, or epidemics, or insurrections, or sneak attacks, or natural disasters, or economic crises – although we should assume that one or more such GUBUs will occur. They are simply beyond our reckoning.

Assume that such events are the hinges of history. Does that apply to religious developments? I can see some candidates, in no particular chronological order. The Second Vatican Council of 1963-65 is one such, and is so critical because it transformed the religious lives of by far the largest Christian body. And while everyone can tell in retrospect why change on that scale was inevitable, very few thought so in advance.

In American history, I might look at the transformations of 1739-41, the heart of the Great Awakening, which I have linked to the dreadful climatic catastrophe in progress at that time. Yes, there were stirrings of religious debate and revival in preceding years, but the revolutionary upsurge arrived very suddenly at that time, when the world froze. The climate was, well, grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre, and unprecedented, forcing people to seek the reasons for God’s wrath, and to know whether the apocalypse was in fact near.

Here is a suggestion. Religious history is not linear or neat. It proceeds in its courses until it is thrown into a new mold by a catastrophe or Black Swan event, from which it takes several decades (at least) to recover. We should incorporate such Black Swan theories into our conventional religious narrative.

Any thoughts about other examples?



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