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What If We’re Too Prepared For the End of the World?

Or, “the Avalanche Has Begun and We Are the Stones”

People talk a lot about the unprecedented nature of the current environmental crisis, or as Gro Harlem Brundtland termed it in her world-changing Our Common Future in 1987, “interlocking crises.” But this assumes that the main way we are experiencing declining biodiversity, increasing environmental toxicity, a changing atmosphere, rising radioactivity and the other major ecological problems of our day is through a direct, physical relationship to those events.

The reality is that we, and other species whose primary activity is hanging out with each other, experience almost all events, even the most significant in our lives, in a socially-mediated fashion. Our main experience of the declining capacity of planetary life support systems is the collective responses, reactions and understandings of the people around us.

That’s one of the many reasons human beings, and especially those situated in Christian and post-Christian societies, are having a lot of trouble dealing with the actual ecological crisis that is unfolding. The year it was written and nearly every year since, the Book of Revelation has appeared to describe the events unfolding on the day it is being read. War? Check. Strife? Check. Hunger (actually better translated as wage and price manipulations by elites)? Check. Death? Must be just around the corner. And it’s not just the horsemen; there’s the succession of empires leading to some kind of crescendo of global imperialism.

The genius of Revelation and, I think, the reason for its persistent resistance to highly rational arguments for its de-canonization in the fourth century, and in every major review of the Bible’s contents since, is that it just seems so up-to-the-minute relevant even to non-Christians. While both Martin Luther and Jean Calvin originally argued for its removal from the Bible along with the rest of the Apocrypha, its irresistible power in the present ultimately scuttled those plans. It was simply too expedient to go along with the throngs of Protestant revolutionary volunteers who were already convinced of the Reformers’ ultimate position: that the Pope, himself, was the Antichrist, the main character introduced in Revelation.

For nearly two millennia, Christians have been expecting a world-ending cataclysm that includes, among other things, destabilization of the climate, befouling of the land and seas, accompanied by big explosions any day now. The problem isn’t so much that the human race is taking the most important exam of its career and it hasn’t studied; it’s that we have been studying for this exam every day but based on a really out-of-date copy of Cole’s Notes.

Before I get to the implications of being over- not under-prepared for climate change, ozone depletion, nuclear containment breaches, oil spills and the like, I need to square away some messy terminology. People often refer to the events in Revelation as the “apocalypse.” Actually, “apocalypse” is a literary genre from ancient and medieval times; it refers to a piece of writing in which the narrator is lifted up above the world and shown the whole structure of space-time by a god or other powerful entity. The “apocalypse” or revelation of Saint John the Divine refers not to the events narrated but to the way in which they are narrated. The events themselves would have been understood at the time as the eschaton, a Greek work meaning an end-times reckoning, of which only the adjectival form has survived in English (eschatological).

 

Unfortunately, nearly two thousand years of preparation of the Christian eschaton has caused us to entertain a number of ideas about the interlocking crises we currently face that actually serve us worse even than uncomprehending shock and confusion.

1. The elect will be spared: Today, there is a popular illusion that if one makes the correct consumer choices within the matrix of present-day First World capitalism, one can live sustainably. This is, of course, nonsense. We live in such an energy-intensive society that any participation in the systems that transport people, goods and information guarantees a high impact on the biosphere. Furthermore, the extent to which one alters consumer choices to reduce one’s environmental impact typically produces a proportional reduction in one’s efficacy as an activist for systemic change. The more “sustainably” one lives, the more time and money go into food and household maintenance, the harder it is to move both oneself and cargo from one location to another, etc.

Why, then, is a slight, meaningless reduction in one’s ecological footprint within a massively over-consuming, over-polluting society so important to environmentalists, given the terrible cost to the movement’s efficacy incurred by making these sacrifices? I would like to suggest that much of this is bound up in our vision of the eschaton. In the reckoning at the end of the world, those who are spared will be those who have lived their lives according to the ethical precepts of the virtuous minority. For when the time comes to enter into the New Jerusalem, “people will bring into it the glory and honour of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Revelation 21:26-27)

Furthermore, “the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 22:3-5) In other words, virtuous conduct in the present is what will determine who governs the society to which the eschaton will give rise. Those who lived in an ecologically moral way shall be the new rulers. In other words, the act of witnessing and the act of opting out are understood to confer on those engaged therein an exemption from the coming reckoning; they are the 144,000 who will march into the Kingdom of Heaven intact.

On the other hand, bad people who use their mainstream political connections and wealth to fly around the world in gas-guzzling planes and rely on rare earth technologies to communicate are hypocrites by virtue of choosing efficacy over irrelevance.

2. The eschaton will be physically fair: Related to the previous idea, and brilliantly dramatized in the climate change disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow, the physically destructive forces of climate change punish people based on a hierarchy of virtue, like the monsters in teen slasher movies who take out victims based on their relative promiscuity.

The back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s and its descendants today are best situated in the venerable tradition of Saint Antony, considered by some to be the founder of Christian monasticism. While the rhetoric of physical distance and self-sufficiency often power this very fossil fuel-intensive lifestyle, I would suggest that the reason not just the geography of Antony’s movement but its aesthetic of coarse, modest garments and long beards continue into the present day is because what members are attempting to do through isolation and distinctive appearance is to mark themselves as exempt from the scourging of the eschaton.

Like the Israelites who marked their doors with the blood of slaughtered sheep or the Millerites in the white robes on the day of the Great Disappointment (see my strategic voting article), today’s elect engage in practices of geographic and social isolation that seem far more interested in marking themselves as exempt from the terrible consequences of ecological collapse but are dressed-up as practices of self-sufficiency.

And this is why there is often a hard-to-disguise glee on the faces of people warning of the ecological eschaton; they are experiencing a strange internal sense of security, of invulnerability. Although they know better, because they are often highly educated in the physical and social sciences, when they warn you of the impending calamity, they experience an irrational reassurance that the very act of warning will protect them from the coming scourge that will exalt the elect and punish the wicked. That’s why my activist friend Ira can never stop himself from smiling when he announces the next timetable for the total social and environmental collapse of our civilization. He knows that the scourging forces of nature will be focused on the most iniquitous and not on himself and, furthermore, that they will, independent of human action, be agents of the changes he favours.

It is for this reason that peak oil has had such a seductive conceptual hold over environmentalists. If we can rely on the eschaton, itself, to reward to elect and punish the iniquitous, to establish the social order of the future, we can expect that fossil fuels will run out, that uranium-235 will run out, while the water collected by microhydro systems will remain intact and the sun absorbed by solar collectors will remain just as abundant. It would simply be unfair for there to be ever-increasing fossil fuel and fissionable material availability, while destabilizing weather systems wreak havoc with microhydro and solar energy systems. Indeed, it will be those who have profited most from our current regime of ecological destruction who will be best-resourced to survive any disaster coming our way.

3. The New Jerusalem will be eternal: The peoples of the Ancient Mediterranean, Near East and Mesoamerica are sometimes thought to have had an eschatological theory of time. But Hesiod and the author of the Annals of Cuauhtitlan saw a succession of ages stretching forward through time, each ending in disaster. The Golden Age might end in a world-destroying disaster but it was to be followed by the Silver Age; the fourth sun might set but the fifth sun would rise. What makes Christian history so distinctive is that this is the last round of musical chairs, that however we the elect are socially organized at the eschaton will become the ultimate social order of the human race.

This means, effectively, that the way in which the elect currently live or aspire to live will be the eternal social order that will be installed by the eschaton and never fall. When we look at the bizarre and highly inefficient social and organizational forms of movements like Occupy or the intentional communities that still dot rural British Columbia take on, these are not forms that arise out of a plan to efficiently organize projects of witnessing or dissent. They are forms that arise out of an attempt to imagine the terminal human social order. The fascistic substratum of what appear to be innocuous social experiments is a function of their participants imagining that how they are living is how all people should and will be made to live for the rest of time.

Correctly rejecting “sustainable development” as proposed by the Brundtland Commission for its plan to save the planet by increasing human impact on the biosphere more than tenfold, environmentalists hit upon a term that expresses this theory perfectly, “sustainability.” A policy or practice is sustainable if it can be started now and continue until the earth ceases to support life .While the idea of not making resources in the present unavailable to future generations is a compelling one, trying to simultaneously answer the questions, “how should we live now?” and “how shall people live for all eternity?” produces crazy answers. Alloyed with Gandhian, “we must become the change we seek” rhetoric, this way of thinking becomes not merely absurdly totalitarian, in that people acting are understood to be deciding how all people shall live for the rest of time, it makes environmentalists intrinsically hostile to transition strategies.

One of the most penetrating ecological thinkers of the early 1990s, David Lewis (no relation to the NDP dynasts) labeled this kind of thinking as “embrymoronic.” His political opponents in the Green Party were fond of stating that the party itself was not so much a tool for bringing about systemic change as an embryo of future society itself. Instead of its organizational features being evaluated based on their conventional efficacy, they were based on their aesthetic resemblance to the terminal social order of the human race that will be practiced in the New Jerusalem.

4. We know all about the New Jerusalem: “It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb …The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, one hundred and forty-four cubits by human measurement, which the angel was using. The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth cornelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.” (Revelation 21:12-21)

Related to the eternity of the New Jerusalem is its specific knowability. If we know the precise geometry of the New Jerusalem, the position of God’s throne, the materials of which it will be fashioned, its duration and population, there is little left to discover about it. Furthermore, one of its properties is that it is specifically measurable and describable in the terms of the society of the present day.

Russian Marxists, also steeped in a secularized reading of the Christian eschaton, struggled with this question in the early days of the Soviet Union. Fortunately, Eastern Orthodoxy was much more strongly infused with doctrines of the unknowability of God, descending from the influential theology of the Pseudodionysus, at least permitting people to consider that the New Jerusalem might be so different from the sinful world of the present that those of us implicated therein would be unable to fully envision it. So it was that prior to Stalin’s seizure of power, Lenin’s dictatorship of the proletariat did not claim to be able to fully know what communism would be. For Stalin, on the other hand, and for the Christian West, the terminal dispensation of human history was knowable down to the last detail.

The doctrine of the knowability of the New Jerusalem further reinforces the idea that a local Occupy camp is not so much a witness against capitalism as the socio-economic order that will replace it. Worse yet, it spawns absurd utopian social theories like bioregionalism which design and purport to tell us what a sustainable/eternal society will look like, not just with respect to human geography and infrastructure but in terms of culture and religion.

The desire to refute liberal technocratic dismissals of radical social change feeds into this kind of false omniscience too. The absurd claim that one cannot witness against a thing unless one has designed its replacement is bait to which environmentalists rise all too often.

With the notable exception of Lewis, most environmental thinkers are cowed by this nonsense into one of two equally unrealistic camps: (a) a sustainable society isn’t that different from ours: everyone will ride their bike to solar-powered bullet trains where they video-conference on their IPhones on their way to work or (b) a sustainable society is radically different: we’ll spend our days making art, raising crops and going to interminable unanimity-driven meetings where everybody’s input will be valued and respected.

This kind of thinking doesn’t just produce bad political tactics; it minimizes how hostile to the created world capitalism is and how deeply implicated we are in the system of relationships it entails. Why should people this deeply enmeshed in the society of the present possess the capacity to imagine a society sufficiently different to offer hope for arresting human-caused omnicide?

5. The eschaton be sudden and total: Despite the eloquence of Paul Ehrlich’s metaphor of the boiling frog, the environmental crisis remains, in most people’s thinking, something that has not yet started or, even if it has started, something that will build to a crescendo of massive dislocation and chaos.

But let us consider the much more frightening possibility, that the systems by which global capitalism perpetuates itself are strong enough not just to continue functioning but to create the perception of a stable social order. Often, the most radical reformulations of an ideology or way of life are presented either as continuity with the past or as the restoration of a prior social order, cloaking their unprecedented character. It is in this way that the Roman Catholic Church could transform itself in less than two centuries from the elite gay dating scene of the West and the world’s largest abortion provider into not just an intractable foe of homosexuality and abortion but into an organization that has always been so.

In this way, we may be continuing to anticipate the imminent eschaton even when there are only a few thousand of us living in subterranean caverns, eating vat-grown meat. Habituated, as we are, to biodiversity declining every year, carbon levels and radioactivity rising, we assume that we are situated in the lead-up to the eschaton and not already in the thing itself. This is why witnessing against the interlocking crises is conflated with warning of an impending future disaster when, to paraphrase Babylon 5, the avalanche has already begun – and we are the stones.

6. The eschaton will happen to us: In Revelation, the eschaton is punishment for human iniquity. Thus, while human actions cause the poisoning of the seas, they do so at a remove. It is not us poisoning the seas but rather us behaving so badly that the seas are poisoned as a consequence of the universe’s abhorrence for misbehaviour.

Like stones falling down a mountainside, announcing that an avalanche is coming, we are unable to understand that we, ourselves, are the avalanche. The ecological catastrophe is not some future reaction, avenging, justifying by the biosphere to the damage we are doing to it. We, ourselves, are the catastrophe. Ecological collapse is not a future event in which we will get our comeuppance for our bad behaviour; it is the bad behaviour itself.

Belief in a half-personified avenging Mother Earth who will chastise and scourge us when we have gone too far is a fairy tale the human race, the world’s first self-conscious natural disaster, tells itself. Desperate to be punished for our own misbehaviour, we keep acting out in the irrational hope that dad, or God, will come home and finally sort things out.

In this way, the eschaton is mistakenly understood by environmentalists as the brutal force that will arrest human iniquity. Somehow, things will get so polluted, so toxic, so lethal, so lifeless that the very processes by which we are destroying the world will be arrested. But this is a fairy tale. The worse things get, as material desperation re-enters the equation, the more temptation there will be to double-down on cheap, polluting energy, dangerous or untested chemicals and ecologically destructive military technologies. Unlike the Christian eschaton, we are not bit players in the battle between God and Satan to be judged and scourged. Like it or not, we are both Christ and Antichrist, the scourge of the world.

 

Of course, the biggest problem with the heritage of the Christian eschaton is not its pernicious impact on the environmental movement but on those who hear its warnings. Over the past four score generations, we have learned how to react to the madmen on the street corner or behind the pulpit who proclaim, “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Despite their penetrating social criticism and moral indignation at the evils and hypocrisies of their age, we have learned to take this sort of thing with a grain of salt not because the prophets are wrong but because they are a constant.

The fact that the befouling of the seas and skies is now backed by peer reviewed science is merely incidental, just another of the myriad absurdities of our age. The fact that today’s doomsday cults’ claims about the environment of the near future have finally met the evidentiary standards of the Age of Reason is unexceptional when we remember that such claims, made by other heralds of the eschaton in ages past, were also validated by the epistemologies of their day. The Franciscan mendicants who believed they lived in the end times were among the world’s great scholars in their day and also had the ear of the princes and emperors. And they were just another movement in more than a thousand years of social movements explaining that human iniquity was going to cause a civilization-ending disaster.

Were it not for centuries of habit, we might take seriously the physically unprecedented events of our day and the dire warnings associated with them. But after claiming that Justinian’s corruption and marital infidelity and Arthur’s philandering produced the Darkening of the Sun in 538 and the associated wasteland and making similar claims in every major climate episode since, it seems to our ears, as though the prophets of doom are crying wolf. We didn’t cause the Darkening of the Sun; we didn’t cause the Medieval Warm Period; we didn’t cause the Little Ice Age; why would we have caused the current climate episode? Over the centuries, we have built up an incredible arsenal of emotional equipment to reassure ourselves that what is happening is not caused by us and will stop on its own, and these reactions have been right more often than not.

The David Suzukis of the world fit into the well-established role in the Christian West: the prophet of doom, preaching repentance. They are, at once, honoured as speakers of truth and recognized as part of the background noise of a stable society, utterly domesticated into the social order of their day. Suzuki’s journey from doomsday prophet to lightbulb selling mascot situates him in the grand tradition of Saint Francis of Assisi. And sadly, it situates his message there too, a stern warning to be honoured and heeded, but not too seriously. After all, the eschaton has been impending for two thousand years.

The Return of the British Israelites and the Age of the Intentional Gaffe

Let us consider that one of the reasons Barack Obama chose Joe Biden over clearly superior running mates like Ted Strickland was for his alleged downside. Biden, the theory goes, is a smart guy and a great campaigner, save his propensity for verbal gaffes. Yet he’s such a loveable, train-riding old codger that the president chose him despite this deficit. According to this theory, Obama was going to announce his support for gay marriage on The View and the VP upstaged him, stealing his thunder and ruining his carefully-crafted policy rollout. Certainly, the White House leaked like a sieve, quite accidentally I am sure, to get that message out.

But let us consider the alternative: what better way could Obama reverse on gay marriage than to be dragged, kicking and screaming into supporting it by a silver-haired, loveable old gentleman from the Upper South, entirely by accident? I, for one, cannot think of better cover for such an announcement. With this rollout, Obama was not making social issues front and centre when Americans really wanted to talk about the economy but instead cleaning up Biden’s mess. Obama could not be accused to leading the charge for gay marriage; instead, he was grudgingly moving with the times, like a late-middle-aged church-going swing-state voter whose nieces, nephews or grandkids watch Glee on the big TV when they come to visit.

What if American political scripting is so good, and given the amount of money going through the US political system, it’s hard not to think it is being done by anyone other than the best and the brightest, that all the really important “gaffes” are also part of the script? That’s certainly my view and the one on which this essay is based.

 

“We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and [Mitt Romney] feels that the relationship is special… [Obama] didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have,” one of Romney’s advisors announced to the British media on July 25th, explaining that a key contrast between the two presidential candidates was Romney’s Anglo-Saxon heritage. This apparent gaffe was quickly addressed by Romney who concurrently affirmed the “heritage” argument even while he distanced himself from the attack on Obama, “it goes back to our very beginnings – cultural and historical. But I also believe the president understands that. So I don’t agree with whoever that advisor might be…”

Of course, the Republican base learned months ago how to interpret “I believe the birth certificate is valid,” “I think the birth certificate matter is closed” and “I believe the president was born in the United States.” Tepid denials following swift on the heels of clear signals indicating the opposite view is how Republican leaders’ racist and conspiratorial views of the world remain true in the FoxNews echo chamber while simultaneously being off the table in the mainstream media. And this strategy is spelled-out by Sean Hannity and his ilk for those who are too slow on the uptake to understand Romney campaign double-speak. FoxNews talking heads spell-out to viewers that it would damage Republican chances too much to just come out and explain that Obama is a Muslimatheist communist fascist born in Kenya and raised in a fundamentalist madrassa on Java to destroy America; and so Romney must focus on the economy while his allies like Donald Trump continue speaking the truth.

I class the “Anglo-Saxon heritage” remark with the finest work by Trump or Joe Arpaio on the birth certificate file: a clear signal to the Republican base dressed-up as an unintentional gaffe, yet another of the great orchestrated gaffes of the 2012 presidential election. But if that is the case, what is the point of this move?

As the son of a man born in a Mexican polygamous colony created by refugees in the late nineteenth century and as bishop of a religion practiced by only two percent of Americans, Romney must constantly remind the xenophobic white Republican base that his otherness is exceeded by that of Obama. As a member of the leadership class of a religion that is accused of polytheism, necromancy and fraud routinely by evangelical religious leaders, Romney’s hold on the racist right will remain completely dependent on depicting the president as more alien and unchristian than himself. Without Trump to remind the Haley Barbours of the world, who wax eloquent on the nobility of the Klan, that someone even more alien than him sits in the Oval Office today, the forces of intolerance might just sit this election out. And on that basis alone, the Anglo-Saxon gaffe is fully explicable. Romney’s Anglo-Saxon blood is what qualifies him to be president; whereas the African blood that taints the current president renders him intrinsically unqualified.

But, as intentional gaffes go, there are other, more noteworthy ways in which this one delivers. In both his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, Romney has praised the writings of W. Cleon Skousen. Skousen, a Mormon conservative activist from the 1940s until his death in 2006 produced a massive corpus of writing that largely languished in obscurity during his own life. Skousen dreamed of a united front among fundamentalists, conservative evangelicals and his coreligionists against communists, sodomites and all the usual bogeymen of the far right based on a shared set of teachings that he labeled “Judeo-Christianity,” something that had a very specific meaning for him.

The Five Thousand Year Leap, which was declared “divinely inspired,” vigorously promoted and ultimately republished by Glenn Beck in 2009, achieved posthumously for Skousen that which he had sought his entire life: widespread conservative evangelical endorsement of his teachings. As the top-selling book on amazon.com in 2009, Skousen’s idiosyncratic, Mormon-infused meta-history of the American Constitution elicited praise from Texas governor Rick Perry and a host of other unanticipated fans. As one of the most widely-read books among Tea Party types, Leap serves as one of the best means by which Romney can connect with the deeply suspicious Republican base. Not only does it domesticate and naturalize Mormon thinking into the evangelical worldview; it offers a powerful theory of world history that appears to speak directly to the 2012 presidential race and the urgent necessity of choosing Romney over Obama.

Today, nearly half a million copies of Leap line the shelves of America’s hardcore birthers and theocrats. Unfolding a story that Skousen spent six decades repeating in various forms, it begins on Mount Sinai where Moses received two documents from God, the Decalogue and the American Constitution. Upon receiving these documents from the Lord, Moses came down the mountain and was elected President of Israel, with Aaron as his Vice President. For centuries the Israelites lived under the American Constitution until they became involved in sodomy and miscegenation.

Following what was a scriptural principle in Mormon historiography until 1981, the skin of the iniquitous Israelites began to darken; and so the true, white Israelites fled north to the present-day Ukraine to avoid being tainted by this impure blood and the impure teachings that axiomatically accompanied it. After living there for a few centuries, they were led by Odin, a white Israelite prophet to present-day Saxony where they became – you guessed it – the Anglo-Saxon race.

Americans, Skousen explains, must understand that they, like their English progenitors, are the true Chosen People, the elect, pure Israelites of the Bible unsullied by the pagan sacrifice, miscegenation and sodomy practiced by the corrupt Jews who stayed in the Promised Land. Following their invasion of England in the six century, the Anglo-Saxons, who had maintained biblical law by oral tradition, re-established the American Constitution, under which they lived until the Norman Conquest of 1066. King Alfred the Great, according to Skousen, should really be remembered as the most successful president of the English republic.

According to Leap and the rest of the Skousen corpus, what makes America great is its Anglo-Saxon (i.e. white Israelite) blood. While the Constitution is divinely-authored and the basis of all virtuous states that have existed at all times on all possible worlds, it cannot be used to govern people who are not the Lord’s elect, a group that, for Skousen, is racially bounded. That is why high-level miscegenation is one of the greatest dangers an elect people can face. And he blames interracial marriage for the failure of Moses’ republic and David and Solomon’s kingdom.

For anyone who accepts Skousen’s theory of world history, like Perry, who, despite his anti-Mormonism, promoted the book far more vigorously than Romney, there is no greater imperative than to remove a dark-skinned, racially mixed person from high office in latter-day Israel. Indeed, the fate of the entire world hinges on the racial purity of the man in the White House. To do otherwise would be to invite the kind of scourging God visited on his people in the past for miscegenation and tolerance of sodomy. Anglo-Saxons, like any group of Israelites, might disagree about important matters but they must come together to protect the racial purity on which their nation’s elect status depends, even if it means electing a polytheistic necromancer who follows a false prophet for the next four years.

Strategic Voting and the Magical Worldview

I was going to post something completely different today about Vancouver municipal politics but I have been involved in a debate that has driven me to do another reprint post. Here is my pre-2011 Canadian election piece on the ways that magical thinking is producing millions of wasted votes in Canada.

One of the reasons that the four proportional representation referendum campaigns on which I have worked have failed has been the geekery of the electoral reform movement in Canada. We have consistently been so excited about explaining the cool, better system with which we will replace our current first-past-the-post that we have never really put FPTP on trial. As a result, most Canadians have only the vaguest idea of how their votes translate into political outcomes on and after election day. And while Canadians look down our noses at Americans when it comes to our superior knowledge of global institutions and phenomena, the abject negligence of our school curricula in explaining how our system of government functions should be anything but a source of national pride.

In place of any real understanding of how our votes produce political outcomes, Canadians have developed what, as a scholar of religion, I am tempted to term a magical understanding of how we make our political reality. I use the term “magical” in place of the somewhat less offensive “mythological,” advisedly. It is not just that Canadians believe a series of myths about their democracy; their views of how their votes work, in various ways, mirror what we might label magical understandings of the very operations of cause and effect. The magical nature of Canadian political thinking is often obscured through apparently neutral or unprovocative terminology and also by the ubiquity of certain habits of political speech rendering their unreason peculiarly normal. So, in the hopes of challenging some of these understandings, I’m going to make use of my expensive vocabulary of religious terms and analogies to highlight some of magical modes of thought I witness every day.

1.      Eschatological/Apocalyptic Voting: “Did you know nearly half of registered voters didn’t vote last time?” “People all over the country are waking up to what is really going on.” “It’s an election. Anything can happen! Remember Reform in 1993?” “With the Greens finally included in/arbitrarily barred from the debate, people are really going to sit up and take notice.”

These kinds of innocent phrases tend to precede what I characterize as eschatological voting.  Although things have been bleak up until now, the reasoning goes, we are on the verge of a sudden paradigm shift, after which time everybody is going to behave differently. Such thinking is common amongst new converts to small political parties or political movements that make claims of impending disaster if there is not a radical change in the course of things political. Often such thinking is accompanied by very real examples of rapid shifts in political opinion in the past, such as the Reform Party’s 1993 breakthrough.

But beneath the superficially plausible invocations of past events is a mode of thinking more commonly associated with doomsday cults like the Millerites of the nineteenth century who stood, by the thousands, clad in white robes, on roofs all over the American Midwest on the appointed day of Christ’s return. Many of the followers of the Baptist preacher, William Miller, were recent converts whose own sudden experiences of conversion they assumed were about to be shared by millions of their fellow Americans as judgment day drew nigh. Indeed, operating in a volatile, missionary environment, this experience was often affirmed by direct personal experiences of converting others.

Of course, any quantitative look at support for Millerism would have alerted Miller’s followers to the fact that their movement had some retention problems, much like contemporary Green parties. Of course, this was not a huge concern to the Millerites as these sudden conversions were but a minor sign of the impending eschaton, when Christ would return and all would be rectified in his millennial rule. Most signs were “wars and rumours of wars,” “disturbance of the elements” and other bad things that are almost always going on but can be easily narrated as massively escalating by people who have suddenly turned their attention to these things, as, subjectively, they have for these new converts.

Like the Millerites, eschatological voters expect a massive, apocalyptic reordering of society primarily based not on signs that things they like are happening but instead on signs that things that worry them are happening. The very fact that voter turnout has fallen to barely more than 50%, that the tar sands are generating massive pollution, that the Prime Minister brazenly endorses the forging of documents and the withholding of financial information from parliament, etc. are taken not as signs that people concerned about social justice, parliamentary ethics and environmental responsibility are on the defensive but instead that the rectifying political eschaton is imminent, that the millennium is just around the corner when millions of apathetic youth will show up at the polls and elect 200 Green, NDP or Canadian Action Party MPs. In religious discourse, this is called “pre-millennialism,” a theory of history in which our optimistic expectation of Christ’s return and the vanquishing of Babylon by the elect correlates not to positive, measurable signs but to an invisible reaction to ever-worsening signs.

This is very different from the rise of parties like Reform or the Bloc; signs that their popularity was rising was measurable in huge rallies and daily polling showing their popularity waxing every day of the campaign. Although they mobilized many eschatological voters around the impending break-up of Canada and the belief that the elections of the 1990s were make-or-break for the federation, their rise was confirmed by signs of their growing popularity and mobilization and not, as in the case of today’s non-parliamentary parties, increasing disorganization, demobilization and falling poll numbers.

Eschatological voting inverts conventional understandings of cause and effect: fringe personal experiences that cause one to join small groups are irrationally generalized to people not joining these groups; signs of defeat and loss are taken as signs of impending victory; the absence of evidence of a phenomenon is taken as indicative of its magnitude.

For the eschatological voter, casting a ballot is not about trying to figure out how to elect the best possible MP in their riding. Such considerations are not part of the calculation because literally ANYTHING could happen this time, given how fed-up people are. Voting is more like donning a white robe and reporting early to the roof to join in the rectifying eschaton that will inaugurate the millennial kingdom when the powerless shall be uplifted and comforted and wield power over their former oppressors.

2.      Homeric/Sympathetic Voting: “The more people who vote Green, the better environmental policies will be.” “The more people who vote for parties that elect no MPs, the more pressure there will be to bring in proportional representation.” “Every vote for this cause will make a difference.” These are some of the apparently benign catchphrases that underpin Homeric or sympathetic voting.

Karl Popper first identified this kind of thinking in his seminal essay on conspiracy thinking in which he observed that conspiracy theories are often premised on the idea that conspirators’ intentions are translated directly into real world outcomes, unmediated by any theory of causation. If the Rothschilds and other important families, for instance, are rich and powerful, one can reasonably conclude that most political and financial events must be what they intend to happen without ever having to consider the specific mechanisms by which these events might be brought about. In this way, vast global conspiracies can be understood by looking at major events, assuming them to be intentional and then assigning the intent to cause them to whatever powerful, semi-secret clique on which the conspiracy theory is based.

Popper was clever in tracing this kind of reasoning to the epics of Homer in which events in the world are understood to reflect the conflicts between the gods in the world above. Real world outcomes proceed directly from the resolution of competing divine intentions with minimal operational explanation. This is because such a worldview doesn’t really understand causation in a conventional way. Things don’t happen because they are caused by other things but because they correspond to a higher reality. Imagine reading Midsummer Night’s Dream minus the character of Puck. This might trouble many of us in that the causal link between the faerie kingdom and the duchy would vanish; without Puck, there would be no explanation of how events in the faerie realm caused events in the mortal world. A Homeric worldview is unconcerned with such links; it is simply self-evident that as the familial, social and political order of the faerie world is restored, an identical process will unfold in the mortal realm.

Many Canadians believe in Homeric democracy, that if twice as many people vote Green, the country will become twice as Green, irrespective of where the votes are cast or whether they result in the election of candidates. For them, national popular vote shares reflect a superior reality and the day-to-day events in parliament, business and society will naturally correspond with that higher reality through some kind of unseen sympathetic magic. The lessons of the post-Nader US wherein progressive politics have yet to recover from the disaster of the 2000 election have little effect because, fundamentally, the Homeric worldview arises from the inability to ask a crucial question: how do these particular votes cause a particular outcome?

3.      Microcosmic/Macrocosmic Voting: One of the biggest challenges I faced when campaigning for proportional representation was the widespread belief that it was already in force in Canada. The assumption on many voters’ parts was that the share of the seats in parliament did, in fact, correspond to the share of the vote a party received. If this didn’t happen, it was because not all electoral districts had the same population or too few young people came out to vote. Worse yet, this discrepancy was understood to be caused by strategic voting – if everybody who really planned to vote for a party actually did, the party’s share of the seats really would match their vote share because that’s the kind of outcome the voting system was designed to produce provided everyone showed up, was properly educated and voted based on their true intentions.

Although, as per the basic Homeric assumptions of many voters, the means by which a set of geographically-drawn electoral districts with variegated populations could produce such outcomes was never really an issue, I came to realize that this wasn’t simple Homeric reasoning. This kind of thinking was based on the idea that everybody’s votes were being dumped into a single pool and MPs were being doled-out to ridings based on their party’s national vote share. In essence, proportional representation was already in effect – our would be, if only districting panels and voters behaved properly.  Similar to Homeric voting, there was an appealing sense that in some way never explained, the correct voting behaviour in every riding was the same as in any other riding because, effectively, there are no ridings in this reality; just a big national pot into which all the votes go and out of which comes fairness and correct representation. For many magical thinkers in Canadian politics, there is an assumption that one’s local electoral district is a perfect microcosm of the nation’s politics and whatever would be the right move in a 308-member at-large district electing MPs by proportional representation is the right thing to do in one’s own single-member district.

Of course, the most pernicious magical thinking in this area goes one step further and is practiced most frequently by shills for the Liberal Party of Canada and comes from a rich tradition of microcosm-macrocosm reasoning from classical Aristotle to the Social Darwinists of the Gilded Age. Instead of conceiving of a 308-member at-large district centred in Ottawa, true microcosmic magic derives from the belief that every riding is a perfect microcosm of the nation’s politics. If the Liberals are in second place nationally behind the Conservatives, it only makes sense to vote Liberal if one is anti-Conservative because the politics of the nation are recapitulated in 308 identical microcosms from Labrador City to Prince Rupert.

Appearances are deceiving. Sure, your riding might have an NDP MP, no French-speakers, five Indian Reserves and no public transit but it if it is established fact, by virtue of the latest Nanos poll, that the Liberals are in second place; so you must switch your vote from NDP to Liberal, even if the Liberal candidate came third last time. To do otherwise, will allow Stephen Harper to win.

What makes this kind of thinking magical as opposed to merely wrong is that none of its practitioners imagine that local ridings don’t exist or really are identical. Instead, they appear unable to entertain the idea that the local manifestation of a phenomenon can be anything other than a perfect and identical microcosm of the whole phenomenon. Neolithic peoples worshipping idols at temples did not construct the whole presence and attention of the same divinity at some other temple as a problem any more than young children construct the presence of Santa Claus at all the other malls as an issue or medieval people objected to the presence of the same saint’s relics at multiple churches. The idol/church/Christmas display they were at functioned as a perfect microcosm in that it was identical with the macrocosmic reality, not a representative or conduit but the reality itself. Eaton Centre Santa isn’t a piece of a bigger Santa; he’s not one of many equally valid Santas; he certainly isn’t a distinctive unique Santa with his own personality. He is the one and only true and omnipresent Santa.

4.      Incarnational Voting: I am indebted to Mormon theologian James Faulconer for this final category of magical thinking about voting. In trying to perform the Herculean task of explaining how the narrative in the Book of Mormon is true, Faulconer compared the act of reading Mormon scripture to medieval Roman Catholic understandings of the Eucharist. The reasoning goes like this: the truth lies in the act itself not in things to which the act refers. In other words, the host doesn’t represent the body of Christ; it doesn’t refer to the Last Supper as an historical event; it IS the body of Christ during mass. In this model, the mass doesn’t represent Christ’s atoning sacrifice; it IS Christ’s atoning sacrifice while it is going on. In the same way, Faulconer argues, the Book of Mormon narrative need not represent events external to itself; it need not refer to anything; the story simply IS true while it is being read/told/enacted. Anthropologists have made similar cases to oral storytelling cultures in indigenous communities; legends are not really referring to what their listeners comprehend as past or future events; they simply ARE true during their enactment.

For many voters in Monday’s election, their vote will be an incarnational experience. Their placing an “X” next to the name of a candidate will not really refer to the candidate or comment on her. Furthermore, thanks to our dysfunctional voting system, the vote will probably not contribute to the election of that candidate. But for the Liberal voter in the Saguenay or Vancouver Island, for an NDP voter in Brampton, Mississauga or Calgary or for a Green voter pretty much anywhere, their vote will be vested with magical importance because, in the privacy of the polling booth, for a few brief moments as they perform the ritual of marking their “X,” they will be like a Catholic priest ritually incarnating a Green, NDP or Liberal government. Their vote need not refer to their local candidate or result in their candidate’s election because the vote’s significance will inhere in the ritual action itself, because during that ritual, the outcome described on the ballot will be fleetingly true.

Of all forms of magical voting, this is the most pernicious. Instead of being premised on false ideas about how a real world electoral outcome will result from the vote, the vote is, in and of itself, a sufficient, true and real electoral outcome. When per-vote financing was first introduced, Green Party candidates would attempt to claim that the transfer of $1.75 per year was an external electoral outcome that was precipitated by such an act. But that particular piece of rhetoric was ultimately abandoned because it cheapened the powerful experience of incarnating the government one truly desires through a ritualized performance.

Ultimately, the self-sufficient and transcendent character of thinking about one’s vote in this way actually points to a profound cynicism and pessimism. Just as the incarnational reading of and interaction with the Book of Mormon is designed to obscure the disenchantment of a constituency of believers who have stopped believing that it tells the story of ancient America, just as Eucharistic practice became the centre of Christianity only when hopes of Jesus’ imminent return were dashed, incarnational voting really just covers up despair. People have given up hope that we can really use our votes to make governments that can build the kind of society in which we want to live and so we console ourselves by making the ritualized act of voting the centre of our political culture instead of focusing on the outcomes our votes might produce.

“Ideology” is the Wrong Word: What We Can Learn About Modern Capitalism from the Ancient Mediterranean

Aberdeen University’s Steve Mason, a scholar of the ancient Mediterranean world, was kind enough, nearly a decade ago, to seek my feedback on a fascinating article he produced on the origins of the term “Judaism.” While the peoples of the ancient Mediterranean were well acquainted with the state of Judea and ideas of Jewishness, the term “Judaism,” it turns out, was a rare and peculiar term. “Ιουδαϊσμός” and “Iudaismus” were largely absent from pre-Christian scripture, having been introduced in the apocryphal second and fourth books of the Maccabees, written in the two centuries prior to the Christian era.

When the use of the term finally did take off, it was not in documents written by Jews, who did not begin making use of it until the fifth century, but instead in Christian writings. Saints Paul and Ignatius introduced the term early on and by the third century, it caught on as an important piece of terminology as Christians argued with each other about who they were and what they stood for.

Back then, however, other terms were used to refer to the customs and traditions of the Jews. Our modern sense of “-ism” (originating from the Greek “-ισμός” via the Latin “-ismus”), referring to an ideology or set of beliefs, like Marxism or liberalism, was not one of the possible meanings this suffix held. So much of Mason’s work in the article was to excavate what, exactly, this term meant when it began to appear in early Christian writing.

It turns out that the original “Judaism” of the Christian Bible, both in Maccabees and in New Testament writings, actually refers to something much less abstract. The original “Judaism,” against which Pauline Christians inveighed, referred to the process of turning into a Jew. The Judaizers, an important faction in early Christianity, responsible for the Gospel of Matthew, believed that circumcision and keeping kosher were essential Christian practices for converts of all ethnicities, be they Gauls, Greeks, Romans or Numidians. Judaism, until the fifth century, was not the ideology of Jewishness but instead the process of changing into a Jew.

Mason’s discovery has major theological implications for how Christians read their scripture. But I am not interested in talking about them here. Instead I want to momentarily reverse the linguistic transformation of Late Antiquity in which our current meaning attached to “-ism” and see what light the earlier one can shed on the modern age.

People claim that capitalism is set of teachings or ideology. But is that how people really experience it? Generally, when people speak about capitalist ideology, they do not use the term. Nobody talks about believing in capitalism. People will identify with particular schools of thought within capitalism, advocating variously for “liberalism,” “free enterprise,” “the free market,” “progressivism” or “objectivism,” or they will inveigh against “casino capitalism,” “crony capitalism,” or “state capitalism.” And yet we all agree that capitalism shapes our daily experience as modern Anglo-Americans. Perhaps we should consider the possibility that the ways in which capitalism shapes our lives long ago transcended the merely ideological.

Could it be that capitalism is better understood in the ancient Greek sense, not as a set of teachings or principles, but as the experience of being transformed into capital itself? What if we understand capitalism not as something that people believe in but as something that is happening to us all? As current tort law attests, our bodies were turned into capital some time ago. And as the market extends further into the realm of the intangible, rendering our aesthetic preferences and ideological loyalties commodities to be extracted and traded via Facebook and the ubiquitous corporate “rewards” cards, as our very thoughts come to be commodified and financially commodified through intellectual property laws, capitalism has transformed from a mere ideology to a universal and inescapable experience of being transformed into capital itself.

No Demographic Apocalypse for Republicans

I read yet another article the other day reiterating some comforting falsehoods that opponents of the US Republican Party like to repeat to themselves.

The argument goes like this: non-white people just don’t vote Republican in large numbers. And because America keeps getting less white, little by little, the GOP will be destroyed by simple demographics. Democrats living in red states like Texas are especially enticed by this line of thought. It seems to offer some kind of permanent future victory that flies in the face of the country’s increasingly conservative turn over the past four decades. This analysis, if it can be called that, has a very serious flaw: it assumes that race is heritable, permanent and unchanging, a belief typically only held by racists. It is a theory that accepts the falsehoods on which American racism is based.

In reality, there is no fixity to what whiteness is in America. With the exception of the Republican lock on black voters from the 1850s to 1930s, the Democrats, since their inception under Andrew Jackson, have been the party of the non-white and the newly white. And it is this second category to which those predicting demographic Armageddon for the Republicans would do well to pay attention.

A century and a half ago, it was impossible to be Catholic and white at the same time in America. More recently, it was impossible for light-skinned people with black parents or grandparents, people like me, in other words, to be white. But this is no longer true.In the mid nineteenth century, the Irish started turning white; a couple of generations later, the Italians did the same, soon followed by the Poles and then other Slavs. The Japanese and Turks were briefly white in the early twentieth century but it didn’t stick. On the other hand, the Jews only turned white about ten years before I did.

Many Latin American immigrants to the US are white in their country of origin and, to their surprise, turn into non-white “Mexicans” after crossing the border, irrespective of their country of origin, people like Florida Tea Party senator Marco Rubio. How hard would it be for America’s ever-changing racial system to re-evaluate their whiteness? Not so hard, I would suggest. Or how about proud members of the Aryan race like Republican governors Bobby Jindal or Nikki Haley?

It may be that the prominent place of Jindal, Rubio and Haley in today’s Republican Party is indicative not of the party branching out and seeking support from non-whites but of America’s colour line shifting again. Just as Catholic voters have gradually shifted towards the Republicans the whiter they have become and the longer they have been able to stay white, let us consider the possibility that the increasing number Hispanics and South Asians are emerging into leadership roles in the GOP is evidence of the whitening of subsets of these racialized communities. Similarly, the Republican-Likud bloc among Jewish Americans continues to grow at the expense of the Democrats, a process also intimately tied to the community’s increasing whiteness.

To believe that race has an inflexible and historically consistent relationship to ancestry, skin colour or physical features is to buy into the junk science of racists and to ignore four hundred years of race-making and unmaking in America. Democrats who imagine some kind of triumphant demographic eclipse of the Republican Party are missing the flexibility and dynamism of racism; if racial categories were inflexible, America’s racial hierarchies would have collapsed under their own weight long ago.

Gradually, over the coming decades, not only will Marco Rubio and millions of other Hispanic Americans who would be white in Latin America will turn into white Americans and so will all of their ancestors, just like Nikki Haley’s are about to. And then the Republican Party’s demographic problem will vanish again, just as it has so many times before in the past century and a half.

Political Geography of Community – Part 1: Why the Left’s Love Affair with Neighbourhood Empowerment Must End

The first election campaign on which I ever worked was Harry Rankin’s 1986 campaign to become mayor of Vancouver. Rankin, a bona fide socialist, prohibited from entering the US due to his communist sympathies, ran a polarizing, brutally honest campaign that talked about how renters, poor people and residents East Vancouver had been receiving a raw deal under both the NPA and the beta version of Vision Vancouver, TEAM (The Electors’ Action Movement).

Neither in that election nor as a city councilor did Rankin shy away from the geography of inequality in Vancouver – the Downtown Eastside was in desperate need of help; East Vancouver was underserviced. But he also didn’t do what successive generations on the Vancouver left have mistakenly done: worship neighbourhoods. Rankin, especially when I got to know him at a more personal level in the 1990s, was not just unmoved by the fruits of the 1970s New Left and its rhetoric, for instance, of neighbourhood empowerment; he was deeply suspicious.

In 1992, when I first entered Vancouver civic politics as a candidate, I ran against a very different COPE than the one for which I had worked in 1986. The party was running on the slogan “It’s About Neighbourhoods,” its implicit slogan in every campaign since. In the twenty years since, the party has increasingly become a caricature of the New Left ideas that Rankin disdained and “empowering neighbourhoods” has become its raison d’être.

So what, is wrong with empowering neighbourhoods? Doesn’t everybody love apple pie?

Empowering neighbourhoods does pay immediate dividends for the Left because that is the language that is used when low- and middle-income people mobilize against gentrification; it is also the language that is used when environmentalists mobilize against unsustainable development. Perhaps this is why it seems like a good idea to legitimate the concept that the people who live right near a potential site of development or change should have special rights to modify or stop it, beyond those enjoyed the rest of the city’s residents.

And self-styled progressives feel extra secure because neighbourhood activists can be relied-upon to show up and advocate for measures to maintain the current “character of their community,” whatever its current aesthetics and income mix are. But usually, when we think about those community struggles, we picture Mount Pleasant or Commercial Drive. Given our sensibilities, it seems only right to empower people in those neighbourhoods to defend their character.

But somebody needs to explain to me why the it is such a good idea for the residents of Shaughnessy, MacKenzie Heights, Dunbar, Kerrisdale, West Point Grey, Coal Harbour, Southwest Marine and Yaletown to be as empowered as possible to maintain the character of their communities. Why should the permanent exclusion of the poor from these neighbourhoods be reimagined as a civic good?

We think that reifying neighbourhoods as self-governing entities is a means of combatting the suburbanization of poverty but the reverse is true – because it means gentrification cannot be undone. And given that the main means by which neighbourhoods are “empowered” is by participating in processes designed for wealthy, white collar people with flexible work hours, any neighbourhood that gentrifies will be far more empowered to defend its new status than it was to preserve its previous character.

And that costs us, not just as the urban dominoes fall and we lose mixed income neighbourhoods one after another but in direct wealth transfers from the poor to the rich. When the time came to create a rapid transit line in the 1980s, they ran Skytrain through Rankin’s yard on Victoria Drive. Cedar Cottage simply did not have the wealth to be as empowered as it needed to be to defend its character.

More than $100 million could have been saved in construction costs had we run the Canada Line at grade or elevated up the Cambie Boulevard, and even more had we used the pre-existing rail line that runs along Arbutus Street. But the residents of Shaughnessy are very empowered. In fact, their neighbourhood is so empowered that they got the rest of us to pay to bury the Canada Line to maintain the ritzy character of both the Cambie Boulevard and the Arbutus corridor. Our increased transit fares and higher taxes are a direct result of our having raised conservative, classist neighbourhood parochialism to an unassailable civic good.

Most troublingly, the doctrine of neighbourhood empowerment is part of the Left’s larger problem of cowardice. Because we are too afraid to appear anti-development, anti-corporate or, worse yet, engaging in what FoxNews terms “the politics of envy” or “class warfare,” we hide behind the empty rhetoric of community empowerment. Because we are afraid to stand up and oppose the environmental and social disaster wrought by capitalism, we endorse essentially conservative NIMBY organizations because they are more likely to share our anti-development agenda in the short term.

But we do so at our peril. While we like to talk about neighbourhood difference in terms of lifestyle, sexual politics or religious and ethnic diversity, those are not the main things that inscribe neighbourhood boundaries on our city. The prime determinant of where people live is their wealth. When we empower neighbourhoods to defend their character, the main thing we are doing is empowering the wealthy to exclude the less wealthy from their immediate vicinity, to etch the widening gap between rich and poor more deeply into our city’s soil.

The Left needs to oppose bad development decisions, not because neighbours don’t like them but because they are bad for our city, because they magnify inequality and destroy the environment.

If we want people to share our beliefs, we first must develop the courage to tell them what they actually are.