This fine little BBC video presents an able summary of the central role that the idea of the apocalypse has played in American history right from its earliest beginnings. It effectively serves as a summary of and introduction to the 2012 book The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us about America by Matthew Barrett Gross and Mel Giles.
Here’s the video’s description from the BBC:
The end of the world is nigh. Or so you might think if you immersed yourself in American popular culture. From TV adverts to Hollywood movies, depictions of post-apocalyptic worlds are everywhere. There is a long tradition of such apocalyptic thinking in the US. But as Matthew Barrett Gross and Mel Giles argue in their book The Last Myth, it has now moved beyond religious prophecies into the secular world. The authors also claim that activists from both the political left and right have embraced apocalypse thinking, issuing dramatic warnings that everything from the traditional American way of life to the very existence of the planet is under threat. Barrett Gross spoke to the BBC in Utah to explain why he believes the rise of apocalyptic thinking prevents some people from trying to reach more pragmatic solutions to 21st Century problems.
Source: “America’s fascination with the apocalypse,” BBC News Magazine, July 18, 2012
For a more recent take on the same theme, see the current (Summer 2013) issue of The Hedgehog Review, which is devoted to exploring the history, current status, and multiple shadings of “the American Dream,” and which contains an equally fine examination of America’s raging apocalypse fervor, written by University of Virginia literature professor Paul A. Cantor:
We seem to have survived the Mayan apocalypse predicted for December 21, 2012, but maybe we should not get too cocky. American popular culture is overflowing with doomsday prophecies and end-of-the-world scenarios. According to film and television, vampires, werewolves, and zombies are storming across our landscape, and alien invaders, asteroids, and airborne toxic events threaten us from the skies. We might as well be living in the late Middle Ages. Our films and television shows seem locked into a perpetual and ever-more-frenzied Dance of Death. Whatever happened to the popular culture that used to offer up charming images of the American dream? Where are the happy households—the Andersons, the Nelsons, the Cleavers, the Petries—when we need them? Film and television today are more likely to present images of the American nightmare: our entire civilization reduced to rubble and the few survivors forced to live a primitive existence in terror of monstrous forces unleashed throughout the land. Has the American nightmare paradoxically become the new American dream? Is there some weird kind of wish-fulfillment at work in all these visions of near-universal death and destruction?
(Thank you to David Pecotic for calling the Cantor essay to my attention.)
It’s amazing what you don’t learn in school. Even more so, it’s amazing how much “common knowledge” has absolutely nothing to do with the actual facts. I’m not talking about folk wisdom here but the assumptions that the majority of supposed experts cling to when discussing the reality that underlies our common lives.
Mitch Horowitz, Editor in Chief of Tarcher/Penguin, has been working for several years to mitigate some of the amnesia that has arisen around our collective history. In his book Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, he exposes a few of the forgotten influences that have shaped the American consciousness, from former Vice President Henry Wallace’s engagement with the Russian mystic Nicholas Roerich to the fact that the very materially minded Mohandas Gandhi’s engagement with the Bhagavad Gita was influenced by his relationship to the Theosophical Society in the U.K.
In an article for The Wall Street Journal on filmmaker Vikram Gandhi’s recent documentary Kumaré, Horowitz outlines the process that slowly softens these facts until they become part of the culture: Read the rest of this entry