Choosing Apocalyptics

Choosing Apocalyptics May 27, 2016

In the closing chapter of Heaven on Earth, Richard Landes considers the import of the two major apocalyptic threats of the early twenty-first century—anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and global jihad warming (GJW). Both seem to portend TEOTWAWKI, the end of the world as we know it.

What we find most threatening says a good bit about our politics: “Westerners generally find the ‘AGW’ apocalyptic scenario much more appealing, not only because of the powerful empirical evidence, but also because it ‘suits’ self-critical, modern and postmodern, psychological orientations. Saving the earth is a noble progressive cause: Earth is the victim of our own assaults, the last and most disastrous ‘conquests’ that Western, Promethean hubris has achieved over its various rivals. Because we are at fault, because the ‘other’ is a beneficent victim, because repenting means ceasing to rape (our mother nature!), AGW registers positively with all our progressive priorities: paying attention to the ‘other,’ self-criticism, self-restraint” (469).

We don’t want to deal with GJW: “Ferocious apocalyptic movements inevitably trigger ‘us-them’ instincts among their enemies, indeed, as one of the ‘laws’ of apocalyptic dynamics states, often with a matching apocalyptic dualism: one person’s messiah is another’s antichrist. The Western public sphere, steeped as it is in progressive principles, finds such reactions deeply troubling, reminders of the kind of atavistic fascism that brought such catastrophe to Europe in the mid-twentieth century” (471).

Landes knows that this is short-sighted: “Jihadis have engaged in an (outrageously hopeful) asymmetric war with the West, which, to most observers, even Muslims, seems ludicrous. But it is only a ludicrous fantasy if the opponents of such a dream act decisively to discourage it. Failure to acknowledge the threat and respond appropriately can have direct consequences on jihad itself. For apocalyptic warriors, perceived weakness on the part of ‘the enemy’ encourages aggression and wins over fence-sitters. Neglect not only allows, but encourages the apocalyptic movement to grow” (471).

Conservatives are more apt to worry about GJW; progressives about AGW. The different threats match instincts about the way the world works.

Landes admits to being something of a “rooster” on both counts, an alarmist and apocalypticist. He doesn’t apologize for it: “even the most superficial glance at the course of the aughts of the twenty-first century suggests that Western elites are thoroughly disoriented by the challenges of the new, global millennium, that our ‘traditional’ political choices, including our ‘right-left’ political spectrum, seem increasingly inadequate to the task. Indeed, rather than lead to deeper and richer discussion, our internal political conflicts have produced a superficial, ever-widening and hostile culture war symbolized by the self-defeating split between roosters and owls on GJW and AGW.”

Committed as he is to the “demotic” apocalypticism that made so much of the modern world, he feels that he owes “to this culture and its progressive commitments the wit to discern and the courage to sound the trumpet when a major (apocalyptic?) threat arises against ‘us’” (474). He knows its future isn’t guaranteed: “societies based on equality before the law and granting all their citizens freedom of speech are the anomaly, not the rule. There is no reason to believe that our experiment is immortal” (475).

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