The Dumbness of Doomsdaying: One Person's Story

Cute film about a nuclear bunker.
I missed the political conventions this summer (in prior presidential elections, I posted commentary on the Democratic and Republican National Conventions). I wasn't sorry. As I told a good friend, "I pretty much knew the type of thing I was going to hear from both candidates, and I didn't want to hear it."

I have an immeasurable distaste for what I call, for lack of a better word, doomsdaying: the rhetoric that insists that the end of the world is coming (in some form) if one doesn't act today ("He'll destroy America!" "No, she'll destroy America!"). I discuss specific devices embedded in that rhetoric in a different post. The purpose of this post is to place my distaste in context.

I grew up at the end of the Cold War, living out most of my teen years in the 1980s. I encountered folks who were absolutely convinced--as convinced as anyone I've encountered recently--that the end of the world was right around the corner.

Not "a decade away" or "five years away" or "sometime this century" but Tomorrow! Tomorrow the Nuclear Holocaust will arrive! Tomorrow we will need to run to the safety of our homemade bunkers! Tomorrow we will need to protect our families and our wheat with rifles! 

Oddly enough, this was years after Khrushchev banged his shoe on the table at the U.N., the Cuban Missile Crisis threw the nation into a dither, and even more years after Stalin murdered a large portion of his populace. The Soviet Union was far less of a threat than at any time since World War II.

Some analyst somewhere once postulated that people become more concerned about events, even advocates of those events, when the time of crisis is over--that is, a populace will begin to hark back to what it's "lost" when it's lost it. Nobody started to complain about prayer in school until a large percentage of the population lost interest in the subject.

To a huge extent, this theory explains the tail end of the Cold War.

In the Numb3rs episode "Dirty Bomb," Charlies explains
how far-reaching the potential bomb could be: a city
block; the radiation would have greater impact, though not
beyond the city limits. It is a bad scenario, and the bomb is
a small one, but the math is still more scientific than
80's scares which argued that one bomb would destroy
the planet. Even nuclear weapons have  limitations.
In my post on rhetoric, I mention that my parents were hardly the types to succumb to the argument, "I got a 'D' in math because I'm so scared of the bombs!" I never even considered being so ridiculous. But outside my home I was often informed by conservatives and liberals that the end of the world was coming (it rather depended on whether they blamed the USSR or Reagan). If I looked skeptical, I was accused--as I sometimes am now by political doomsdayers--of hiding my head in the sand.

My personality already tended towards skepticism, but the 1980's reinforced a strong dislike not only of doomsdaying but of the con-artist techniques that accompany it. I am as susceptible as the next person to a hard luck story, but I have been surprisingly well-fortified throughout my life against threats of imminent lifestyle collapse by insistent salespeople; it isn't that I can't be talked into buying a dumb car; it's that I can't be talked into it by people who try to tell me that my life is doomed if I don't. 


I'm a huge advocate of a free press--I simply don't appreciate having a decision forced down my throat by bandwagon news. This is the main reason I refuse to sign petitions thrust at me by badgering people in public places (on top of which, allowing petitioners and spouses of candidates at voting areas on Election Day gets my blood boiling; it's the one day of the year when I think "secret" as in "personal, private, unimpeded, me-on-my-little-island, non-socializing, secret ballot" should be respected).

The types of studies I trust--when it comes to politics, religion, sociology, psychology, the hard sciences, and the end of the world--usually begin with statements like, "After five years of collecting data and comparing it against our prior study done ten years ago, we discovered . . . " and end with statements like, "Although we discovered that X, Y, and Z are important factors for consideration, the financial costs would entail . . ."

This is one reason I almost always end up getting upset in policy meetings. It isn't that stuff doesn't need to be discussed. It's that the conclusion "Hey, I guess we don't have to do anything" so rarely occurs. Suggesting, "I don't think we have the manpower or the time-frame to do that, so let's not" is treated as callous. SOMETHING MUST BE DONE! EVEN IF IT IS DONE INEFFICIENTLY! I have posted elsewhere about why this type of thinking  is problematic.

To end with an example: I recently questioned the extra building of windmills due to the imminent danger of a cyber-attack. I lived through the imminent danger of nuclear holocaust without freaking out unduly. I figure I can live through another threat without too much nuttiness.

Die Hard 4 has fun with an unrealistic cyber-attack.
"Not too must nuttiness" means questioning (1) whether a cyber-attack would even work; (2) whether building windmills might not be the equivalent of spending millions of unnecessary money on unnecessary nuclear bunkers.

No amount of threatening doom is going to force me to change my pace on this topic. I would need to see multiple long-term studies (20+ years), taking dead birds, noise pollution, financial costs, and actual tangible benefits into account--the kind of studies that don't contain a hint of "THE END! THE END!" no matter what the recommendations or opinions of the writers (these types of writers do exist--they have agendas, but they aren't doomsdayers, so whatever conclusions they come to, they never couch them in threats: see Cool It by Bjorn Somborg about judging environmental measures on their economic feasibility).

In the meantime, sure, the cyber-attack may occur. The Federal Government could also take away people's right to bear toothpicks--evil Hollywood could start sending Barney the Dinosaur into our homes with porn under his arm--Red States could drive their trucks in Blue States and force the populace to watch religious videos--all the hard-working immigrants who go to school and get good grades could take over the country, which sounds like an excellent plan to me!

Whatever happens, I'll enjoy my life so much more if I don't climb on-board the fear. And I'll retain my pride. My version of the world could be wrong, but it's a version I can live with.
If you're keen on spending eternity buried alive with a group so
narcissistic they think outliving humanity is a good idea, I'd rather
melt with the masses and get it over with, wouldn't you?


Joe said...

The weirdest thing about doomsday plots is that they almost always hinge on people ceasing to be people. When I read about war or disasters, or see documentaries on the same, I'm continually impressed at how resilient people are, even the "pampered" upper classes, and how creative they can get in the worst of circumstances.

Then you have the economic doomsayers (like Instapundit on California and most the chattering classes on Brexit) who seem to think that we're all one tiny step away from complete anarchy. Based on what? Even at the height of the [1930s] Great Depression, most people did okay. Yes, it was tough, but it was rarely, if ever, at Steinbeck-at-his-most-gloomy bad and certainly not bordering on Road Warrior. Heck, go back to The Black Death (1346–1353); Europeans survived and, gasp, even prospered.

Katherine Woodbury said...

The weirdest thing about doomsday plots is that they almost always hinge on people ceasing to be people.

I recently finished watching Elementary Season 4. In one episode, Sherlock makes one of the best non-conspiracy points I've ever heard. He points out that while people may think a specific corporation ("they") are conspiring against the "common man"--therefore, that corporation must have committed the murder--no single individual in the company benefited from the murder. A murder still has to be planned by individual(s) and no individual associated with the company would have gained.

Even a conspiracy has to be carried out by complicated and often very unreliable--in terms of movie plots--individuals.

FreeLiveFree said...

There's a really haunting Iron Maiden song about this....

I agree with Joe about doomsday plots. If anything people act better the worse things get! It's when everything is fine that people become selfish and often are the most miserable.