The Spectator

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.

Maybe those obsessed with making the world conform to rigid rationalities are the most vulnerable to the shambolic visions of mystics who can “explain” the anomalies and mysteries that elude their “Science of Detection.” And, as always, consolation is likely to be a big factor in the swelling of 2012 superstition: The vastness of the cosmic event swiftly approaching (check your iPhone app for exact hours and minutes) will dwarf any petty sorrow and frustrations one experiences between now and then. (Isn’t there something too ironic about the possessors of the apex of technological science consulting their Flintstones-era apocalyptic calendar of ignorance on the iPhone, that icon of intellect?)

Whatever the cause, I see a tidal wave of swill poised to overwhelm all media beginning with the November release of the 2012 film. (Possible ad slogan: “Will this be the last Christmas?”)

It’s hopeless; grit your teeth; it’s coming whether you like it or not. And don’t be surprised when you find the same people who sneer at creationism start talking about the prescience of the Mayan calendar-makers who, by the way, thought the world was flat and was created 4,000 ago. Some have already tried to correlate the calendar with the end-time prophecies of the Book of Revelation.

So, as a public service, if you do have to be polite to an otherwise rational friend who wonders about the coming 2012 apocalypse, here’s a link you should send them: “The Astronomical Insignificance of Maya date 13.0.0” by Vincent H. Malmström, professor emeritus (geography) at Dartmouth College.

It leaves 2012 in shreds. Shreds and patches of pseudoscience starting way back with the Mayan “astronomers” themselves who fiddled with dates and calendrical cycles and logic. Malmström writes: “The world is recorded as having begun on a day numbered 4 in the sacred almanac, and one numbered 8 in the secular calendar which reveals at once that this date [Dec. 21, 2012] was derived from projecting each of the two time counts then in use, backwards in time.” In other words, the Maya started from an end date they liked and fiddled with their calculations so that they ended up with different (and nonzero) starting dates.

The Maya have long been a source of mysticism to archaeologists who couldn’t grok their language and to Northerners who came down to Central America to seek visions from psychedelic plants like yage (first William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg; later, Pinchbeck) with local shamans. The focus on the Mayan calendar has led to questions of when it really ended—was it Dec. 21, 2012, or some alternate or specific “Time of Troubles”? This is just one of the many unresolved issues that give 2012 a shaky foundation. Some people have wondered why, if the calendar ends on a certain date, you can’t just turn the page on your Mayan wall calendar or buy a new stone tablet that starts the next day.

The question has been around since the ‘20s and ‘30s, when an archaeologist named John Thompson began writing about the calendar. In the latter part of the last century, the 2012 theory was taken up by Mayan calendar “prophet” José Argüelles (who now believes that UFOs are going to be involved) and then it gradually filtered into the easily excitable cortex of the New Age and of New Age “entrepreneurs”—let’s call them—who knew that there was a buck to be made exploiting fear and superstition with a mystical twist.

Professor Malmström gently rubbishes recent western “expert” claims. The whole focus on the date, Dec. 21, 2012, he says, “is only true if one employs the discredited revised version of Thompson’s calculation. … [T]hey [the New Age hucksters] have chosen to disregard Thompson’s own admonition against attempting to assign astronomical meaning to dates recorded by the Maya because, he argued, they were not true ‘astronomers’ but really ‘astrologers’ instead.” He sums up his feelings by saying categorically: “That to suggest this date will have any meaning or importance to anyone but a historian of chronology is to embroider it with significance it was never intended to have.” He is fairly harsh on the “shoddy ‘research’ ” by self-proclaimed 2012 experts who have “sought to profit from ‘science fiction.’ “

It’s pretty convincing, and I’d bet anyone who’s a 2012 believer a steak dinner on Dec. 22, 2012, that it’s all going to go the way of the Hale-Bopp comet (remember that?) and Y2K.

Why is this tsunami of stupidity so irritating to me? I think it has a lot to do with one of the more recent moronic convergences I found on some 2012 site. One that supposedly aligned the Maya’s 2012 thing with the Hopi end-times prophecy. The best cultural explanation I found for this flowering of idiocy said that New Age fads like the Hopi prophecy and 2012 are a kind of cultural colonialism in which white people endow the minorities they have wiped out or repressed with mystical powers made more mysterious by their virtual vanishing.

But I have a personal connection to the Hopi prophecy: a sad episode in my past involving the prophecy and the flying-saucer con man who was exploiting it.

It was one of my early reporting junkets for the Village Voice. I had escaped from Taos, N.M., where I had spent a lot of time not interviewing Dennis Hopper at the ranch that D.H. Lawrence had once rented, and I loved the desert and desert hot springs. So I was traveling west, and I remember I stopped at a broken-down filling station while driving through the Hopi Reservation in Arizona and saw a sign for a strange rally. It seemed to be in support of a 101-year-old Hopi “prophet” who was claiming that UFOs were coming soon to fulfill the age-old Hopi prophecy and that everyone should show up to greet them at this rally.

According to a grungy pamphlet tacked to a bulletin board on the gas station’s interior wall, the UFOs were signs referred to in the Hopi prophecy. The pamphlet showed this sketchy-looking white guy in a cheap suit next to the alleged 101-year-old Hopi prophet and claimed that Mr. Sketchy was in psychic communication with the UFOs and had confirmed that they were arriving to vindicate Hopi mythology about the end of time. As far as I could tell, the sketchy guy had arrived out of the blue and insinuated himself into the confidence of one of the two most ancient and revered Hopi holy men—let’s call him Prophet A—and convinced him he had messages from the ETs saying that they were coming to help him fulfill the Hopi prophecy of the end of time. There’s a lot in 2012 literature that tries to connect the Maya calendar to the Hopi prophecy as if one is evidence for the other.

UFOs in the Hopi prophecy? Sure, why not? A lot of people believed UFOs were going to be involved in the Maya calendar apocalypse.

Unfortunately, it turned out there was another 101-year-old Hopi prophet, Prophet B, who wasn’t buying the whole UFO business. He expressed skepticism about the sketchy newcomer who was acting as middleman between Hopi Prophet A and the UFOs. A schism, a virtual civil war between the two centenarians, was brewing, dividing the Hopi tribe.

Then … well, I remember at the end of the couple days I spent in the dusty little town reporting on this story I ended up in the lovely terra-cotta cottage of a refugee from Greenwich Village, an elderly woman who had left New York, where she had danced with Martha Graham, to come to the “highly spiritual” Southwest, where she had been caught up in the Hopi-flying-saucer prophecy and come under the spell of the sketchy UFO middleman, who claimed prophetic powers himself. She believed in the mysticism of love, she told me earnestly, and she thought the sketchy guy was somehow a prophet of love. It also seems he told her that he was a bit short of cash and had to borrow the whole of the poor woman’s savings to pay for the rally where the UFOs were going to land and prove everything he said about the prophecy. The aliens had to be given a proper reception. Only they held the rally, and not only did the UFOs not show up; the sketchy guy didn’t show up, and he and her savings were in the wind.

The poor woman was trying to keep the faith. I witnessed Festinger-style cognitive dissonance in action. But something more sad and touching, too. Jealous people were plotting against the sketchy guy, he had been telling her. Agents of Prophet B and even the U.S. government. False charges of a shady con man past were being leveled. He might have to leave town for a while, but he’d be back, he assured her. She hoped that would happen before she lost her home and became destitute. But whatever happened, she told me, she still believed in Love and the Spirit of Love that she knew was the essence of the Hopi prophecy.

It reminded me that New Age stupidity isn’t always harmless, that it can be a cruel hoax playing a con game with people’s hopes and fears. I’ll never forgive the sketchy con man who stole that poor woman’s money and illusions.

Get real, 2012 people. It’s an embarrassingly silly scam. Prepare for cognitive dissonance.

See you on Dec. 22, 2012. I like my steak medium rare.