This Is the End-Again

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:09

    I've mentioned Daniels' work several times since the early 90s, when he was one of the first in what would become, as the century ticked down, the faddish business of tracking apocalyptic beliefs and millennial movements. Saying that he has remained one of the very best minds in that now well-trodden field does not quite do him justice. Since the mid-90s, when his newsletter Millennial Prophecy Report became a subscriber website ('ve had a comped press subscription for several years), it's been a great source for immediate yet informed analysis of events and groups that were making headlines worldwide?Waco and Oklahoma City, Heaven's Gate and Aum Shinri Kyo?without always generating much intelligent commentary.

    A Doomsday Reader just skims the surface of what Daniels knows about millenarianism; it's a primer, mapping the surface terrain of apocalyptic thought from early Hindu and Hebrew texts up to the Montana Freemen.

    Daniels excerpts primary texts, from The Turner Diaries to a Hale-Boppers' sales pitch called "Crew from the Evolutionary Level Above Human Offers?Last Chance to Advance Beyond Human." But the bulk of the book is his own writing, summarizing millenarian beliefs through history.

    In a fine gesture that sets this book apart from much else written on the topic in the last few years, the first examples of modern millennial beliefs Daniels cites aren't UFO loonies, Koresh crazies or, in fact, any kind of "fringe" or "cult" or even religious phenomenon whatsoever. He gets to all the cultists, but the first three modern apocalyptic belief systems he describes are: Marxism, Nazism and the environmental movement.

    Daniels would be the first to tell you he didn't invent the notion of these movements as apocalyptic?it's pat in the case of Nazism?but I still think it nicely subverts reader expectations to use them as his book's first examples. Of the Communist Manifesto he writes:

    This little pamphlet shares many attributes with other apocalyptic texts. First, it offers hope and consolation to believers. It foretells the perfection of the world in a cataclysmic overthrow of the existing order: the revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat...

    When the Communist Manifesto's promised fulfillment failed to materialize as quickly as some adherents hoped, apologetic texts appeared accounting for this failure in terms familiar from religious contexts...

    Similarly, he notes that Hitler's Final Solution was "his millennium, his racial paradise for Aryans." And of the strong doomsday strain in environmentalism: "Old political alignments, the familiar progressive left-wing versus conservative right-wing battles, sometimes converge, blur and ultimately get lost in modern apocalypticism. This is especially true in the environmentalist movements," where "apparently unshakable" progressive and humanist sympathies are matched by strains of elitism, poorly disguised religious ideas about The End and, at the Earth First! radical extremes, an antihumanism as rabid in its way as Hitler's. (As slurs go, "eco-Nazi" can be unusually apt when applied to the visionary leading edge of the "deep ecology" movement.)

    I e-mailed Daniels to ask about his putting these phenomena first.

    "I don't know that I had anything as radical as 'subversion' in mind," he replied, "but I did want to make the point that these ideas turn up in places we don't expect to find them, and?here maybe I do get a little radical?that they are part and parcel of the Western rationalist world view. Far from being fringe beliefs, these are at the core of Western Civ, though the people who give them their clearest expression do tend to be somewhat far out."

    I asked his opinion of the general quality of coverage of millennial topics lately in books, on tv and in the press.

    "It varies widely. It is only recently that some commentators have begun to recognize that there is a little more to the millennium than lunacy. But I still have to deal with reporters who think (a) that I will know of terrorist millenarians fixing to off themselves/everybody else and (b) tell them?the reporters?about it. It's quite possible that there are people doing that, but if so they're sure as hell not going to tell me or any other tool of Antichrist about it, and if I had heard, I'd be talking to the FBI, not the press. The presumption still persists, and is very widely held in the media, that the year 2000 has any bearing on millenarian ideas. It may, but the connection is nowhere near as potent as they assume. Very few people I know of are naming that year or any other for the fulfillment of their hopes. Instead they insist that it will be any minute now, as they always do. Since that span includes 2000, or part of it, then in effect they are making it the date, but that's to some extent coincidental."

    So millenarianism will continue after the millennium?

    "Without doubt. It always has. It's a universal mythic construct, and those don't go away so quickly."

    Might there be, as Kurt Andersen suggests in Turn of the Century, a kind of postmillennial letdown, a period of depression as the year 2000 grinds on and everyone realizes nothing special happened?

    "Don't you have a hangover after a big party?"

    Or will it have a cognitive-dissonance effect and only spur millenarians to greater heights?

    "That too, to the extent that they set any store by the date."

    I asked his opinion of Y2K: Legitimate worry or apocalyptic hysteria hyped by the media?

    "A point that everyone seems to miss is the fact that the Y2K bug is the first apocalypse of capital. It will destroy our economic base, in the most dire scenarios, and the route to salvation is capitalism's universal remedy: buy stuff. Get computer upgrades, kerosene stoves, diesel generators, land in the country and ammunition. As one survivalist I know of points out, with the last items you can get all the others free.

    "...[A]nother point about Y2K is that it reverses the state of affairs we find in other prophecies, where we are told in great detail exactly all the awful things that will happen to the non-believers but rarely do we hear just when it's going to come to pass. With Y2K we know the very instant of doom, but nobody's telling exactly what's going to happen."

    Along with the new book, Daniels has an exhibition opening this Thursday at the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library in Philadelphia, called "American Apocalypse: Images of the End from the Millennium Watch Archive" (up through Jan. 28). The press release says it includes "newsletters, pamphlets, magazines, and other ephemera [that] document a widespread belief in the coming of a sudden, dramatic global change. Mostly American in provenance, the material comes from New Age, Christian, Jewish and Islamic sources as well as from UFO cults, hollow earth adherents, various militias, 'patriot' groups, radical ecologists, scientific rationalists, and other ideological sects." Friday afternoon, he hosts a scholarly symposium I'm sorry to miss, called "American Apocalypse: Beyond the Fringe and Back to the Center."

    In my e-mail I asked him what about the Millennium Watch Institute?will it self-destruct on Jan. 1, 2000?

    In the prophetic tradition, his reply was a cryptic "Don't know yet."

    Quarterly Review I think I've figured out the editorial program at The New York Review of Books: Act like it's a quarterly, though it's published 20 times a year. Save up all the good articles and stuff them into a single issue roughly four times a year, spending the intervening months putting out one deadly dull issue after another while you're saving up all the good stuff that comes in for another quarterly winner. That's the way it seems to me: maybe four issues a year justify my renewing my subscription. The current (Nov. 4) issue is one of those. It's packed with provocative arguments instead of the usual drowsy, fat-bottomed mumblings. "The Decline and Fall of Literature," by Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco, is one of those feature-length NYRB review-essays, this one subsuming reviews of seven books into a terrific overview of the debased, rancorous laughingstock the university English department has become in the postmodern era. It's not an archconservative's rant but a professional's thoughtful, quietly devastating rebuke of his colleagues, who started out correctly wanting to expand the literary canon and ended up trashing it all instead. Delbanco outlines the history of teaching literature from Matthew Arnold up to pomo celebrities like Michael Bérubé and sadly concludes that:

    The field of English has become, to use a term given currency twenty-five years ago by the redoubtable Stanley Fish, a "self-consuming artifact." On the one hand, it has lost the capacity to put forward persuasive judgments; on the other hand, it is stuffed with dogma and dogmatists. It has paid overdue attention to minority writers, but...has failed to attract many minority students. It regards the idea of progress as a pernicious myth, but never have there been so many critics so sure that they represent so much progress over their predecessors... It denounces the mass media for pandering to the public with pitches and slogans, but it cannot get enough of mass culture. The louder it cries about the high political stakes in its own squabbles, the less connection it maintains to anything resembling real politics. And by failing to promote literature as a means by which students may become aware of their unexamined assumptions and glimpse worlds different from their own, the self-consciously radical English department has become a force for conservatism.

    Handily, the very next piece is a review of two new books on mythology by U. of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger, in which reviewer Jasper Griffin, an Oxford fellow, politely points out the fatal logical and intellectual flaws in Doniger's attempts to retrofit ancient Indian and Hebrew myths to a contemporary feminist political agenda.

    Jason Epstein considers the question of why humans find it so easy to kill other humans, in a (necessarily inconclusive) essay that references 10 new/recent books on war. The issue also includes too-brief excerpts from Seamus Heaney's handsome new translation of Beowulf; Hitchens on Conan Doyle; and readable mini-lessons on Sir Francis Bacon, George Washington and Freud that are in the best NYRB tradition of the book review as instructional device. In fact, I'm thinking it's the best issue of NYRB this year, and wondering why, if it can rouse itself occasionally to be this stimulating, it has to be such a bore so much more often.

    Who You Calling Tiny? You wouldn't think it'd be easy to discomfit a guy like Paul Lukas by calling him a genius, but The Washington Post's Peter Carlson figured out a way. Carlson began a piece in the Tuesday, Oct. 12, "Style" section with: Paul Lukas is one of the great eccentric geniuses of American magazine writing. Unfortunately, he keeps getting fired from magazines. It's not that he does anything reprehensible. It's just that magazine editors?a group never noted for their sagacity?don't know what to make of him.

    Having thus implicitly described Lukas as a bright but chronically unemployable whiner (at, the link was headlined "Is Paul Lukas the most fired magazine writer in NYC?"), Carlson went on with rote descriptions of Lukas' oeuvre?Inconspicuous Consumption, Beer Frame, the Brannock fucking Device?as though he'd just discovered Beer Frame the week before in an Adams-Morgan zine shop. Well, no, actually he doesn't seem to know what a fanzine is; he describes Beer Frame as a "tiny magazine," which is technically not incorrect yet conveys a dismal cluelessness all the same.

    But I admit the part that had me on the ceiling was:

    Meanwhile, he was hired to do his thing in a column, first in a tiny weekly called the NY Press, then in New York magazine, then Fortune, then Spin. But he never lasted long. Typically, the editor who hired him would leave and the next guy in the job would look at Lukas's column and say some variation of What is this thing about pork brains? and Lukas would be back on the street.

    Again, much of this is technically not untrue, and yet it manages, in a way that's peculiar and endemic to daily newspaper reporting, to be both uninformed and very misleading anyway. I'll let Lukas explain:

    The guy called me about six weeks ago, after someone at the WashPost had given him a copy of Beer Frame. He liked it, which was nice, but he clearly wasn't familiar with fanzines, so I explained what Beer Frame was and how it had more or less given birth to my various writing gigs, and so on. I certainly never told him that NYPress was "tiny" or that I was fired by NYPress?both statements are obviously untrue. I also certainly didn't describe myself as "the most fired writer in NYC" (or whatever that media gossip site says) and don't consider my career to be any more turbulent than that of the average freelancer?if anything, in fact, I've been lucky enough to have had more than my share of steady columnist gigs. I did tell him that several magazines have hired me to be a columnist and then let me go a year or two later, usually after the people who hired me had gone on to other publications (when Kurt Andersen got canned at NYMag, e.g., I was pretty much finished there?as were many other writers who were sent packing when Caroline Miller took over). But I hardly consider this garden-variety writer/publication turnover to be the defining aspect of my "career," such as it is, and never suggested as much to the guy?he apparently felt that he needed an angle of some sort, and this is the one he came up with.

    After my lone chat with the fellow, I sent him a package of clips, Beer Frames, etc., and never heard from him again. He never called back to confirm any info, and neither did a fact-checker (not unusual for a daily paper, natch). The overall tenor of the piece was positive, of course, and I'm happy for the kind words. Too bad about the faulty spin he put on things, though.

    I sent an e-mail to Carlson that began, "Peter, I found your piece on Paul Lukas uninformed and misleading. I'm going to mention it in my column in next week's issue of the 'tiny weekly' I edit." I then described NYPress and its history, since he clearly had done zero homework on us, and continued: "Your article gives the impression we fired Lukas because he was too much the eccentric genius for us. Ridiculous. In fact the opposite is the truth: We discovered him, if you will, shortly after Beer Frame appeared, and recognized him as the sort of eccentric intelligence we like; his column ran with us until he decided to take an offer from New York magazine, which he thought (falsely, as it turned out) would be a better venue. We gave him our blessings and parted amicably, and he has continued to contribute occasional pieces for us. In short, we never fired him, and he tells me he never told you we did. But your article clearly leaves that impression, lumping us in with all those clueless magazine editors who never understood him."

    I added that his warped view of Lukas' career suggested he didn't know much about New York freelancing, where what he depicts as a turbulent career has actually been a relatively stable and successful one.

    What I got back was:

    Well, I'm glad you got that off your chest. Hope you feel better now. I'm sorry I called your paper tiny. Obviously I was wrong. I regret to say I've never seen NYPress, although I'll have to pick up a copy next time I'm up there. I interviewed Lukas about his career and he told me he started with you and I somehow got the impression you were smaller than you are. Sorry. He never told me you guys fired him. He told me he went to NY mag for the money. The other places he worked gave him the heave-ho?that's why I wrote "Typically, the editor who hired him would leave and...etc, etc." I was shorthanding the ups and downs of his career. I didn't think a detailed rendition of his complicated life would be of interest to my readers?so if they got the impression that the editors of NYPress were among the dunderheads who fired him?again, sorry.

    Somehow, though, I think the readers of this piece who'd never heard of Lukas?about 99% of readers?got the basic idea of what he does and what his career has been like. As for zines?I know what they are?they are "tiny magazines" just like I said. I first heard of Lukas and his work years ago browsing in a bookstore and seeing his book Inconspicuous Consumption. As for the zine itself, I never saw it til one of my readers sent me a copy a few months ago and suggested I write about it. That's when I called Lukas. So I guess on the hipness and cutting edge scales you and NYPress are way ahead of me. Oh well, I'll just have to try and live with that. Carry on the good work.

    Ignorance and arrogance, always a handsome combo. I replied:

    Thanks for your concern, but I haven't quite gotten it off my chest yet. I'm sure this must seem a minor point to you, but if you've "never seen NYPress" what gave you the license to invent a factoid and pretend you knew what it is? If you're not going to do the homework yourself, don't you have factcheckers or interns at the Washington Post who can do that sort of research for you? Lukas tells me no one called him to check, or he would've corrected a few of the errors that did appear. It's got absolutely nothing to do with my thinking NYPress is more "cutting edge" than the Washington Post?that's a given. It's about basic checking your facts before you run with them.

    And got back:

    Hello again. It's always so nice to hear from you. Sorry, but I did not invent a factoid about your newspaper. I called it "tiny" which reflected the information given to me by Lukas about the paper when he wrote a column for you, which was in 1993 as I recall. Just how huge was NYPress in 1993? I talked to my distinguished colleague Michael Powell, a born-and-raised New Yorker who used to write for Newsday and the NY Observer and he laughed about your previous note. He says you certainly were tiny in 1993. He also says that your current circulation figures are dubious in that the paper is given away free. We have a similar paper here?the City Paper?and its former editor, Jack Shafer, used to refer to it self-mockingly as "a found-on-the-floor weekly," which pretty much sums it up. So: Again, I'm sorry I insulted you. I really just thought I was mentioning your paper in passing in a column about a different subject?i.e. Mr Lukas. But really it doesnt make a whole hell of a lot of difference, does it?

    Love and kisses,

    Peter Carlson

    PS?I would never have said anything bad about you if I had known that you carried a column by that esteemed journalist Taki. Is he still sad about the demise of the Greek junta?

    And me to him:

    Our circulation figures are audited. Which is more than can be said for Michael Powell's Observer.

    I'll pass along to the Washington City Paper your high regard for their work. I'm sure Taki will care as well.

    PS?Great article on Fabio today. That repeated pun about him picking up women?no, literally! That's quality journalism.