Kearneysville, WV. My neighbor is teaching a friend to shoot a gun. This friend is concerned that times are going to get tough and he wants to learn how to hunt so he can provide for his family. There are, to be sure, no shortage of serious folk, along with cranks and doomsdayers, who are convinced that our lives of peace and plenty are soon to be disrupted. A couple weeks ago, a group of economists warned that the short-term recovery will end when the stimulus money runs out later this year. The mid and long-term prospects are not promising. A news report put matters this way:

“In the long run, the United States must face up to inevitably being overtaken by China as the world’s largest economy. And it may have missed a chance to rein in its largest financial institutions, many of whom remain too big to fail and are getting bigger.”

Harvard’s Martin Feldstein  is not optimistic.

“There’s really not much help coming from fiscal policy in the year ahead. Woes from the dire situations of state and local governments may actually be a drag on growth.

Growth got a lift from a lower saving rate in 2010, but that probably will not last this year as households worried about an uncertain future return to paring back debt and socking more away, Feldstein added. Discouraging declines in home values mean there is less to save from.”

According to Dale Jorgenson, also of Harvard,

“The United States will need to come to terms with the fact that its prevalence in the world is fated to come to an end. This will be difficult for many Americans to swallow and the United States should brace for social unrest amid blame over who was responsible for squandering global primacy.”

As if economic turmoil and social unrest weren’t enough, greenhouse gases threaten to change the climate of the planet and wreak havoc on humans and non-humans alike. Starvation, water shortages, flooding, and fires. No mention of locusts, frogs, or flies, but they are likely in the small print.

And it’s not just the economists and climate scientists who are predicting the end of things as we know it. A radio minister named Harold Camping insists that the world will end on May 11, 2011. This is not the first time he has struck a prophetic pose.

“On Sept. 6, 1994, dozens of Camping’s believers gathered inside Alameda’s Veterans Memorial Building to await the return of Christ, an event Camping had promised for two years. Followers dressed children in their Sunday best and held Bibles open-faced toward heaven.

But the world did not end. Camping allowed that he may have made a mathematical error. He spent the next decade running new calculations, as well as overseeing a media company that has grown significantly in size and reach.”

If you are interested in wading through his textual proofs, there is much more here. Curiously, for all his study of scripture, he seems to have overlooked that bit where Christ insists that the day and the hour are unknown. Camping has cracked God’s code and is spilling the beans. God may not be pleased.

For those who prefer a more pagan flavor to their apocalypse, the Mayan Calendar apparently predicts the end of the world on December 12, 2012. There is, to be sure, controversy about the nature of this end. Some foresee a real end, the final curtain and lights out. Others merely predict the end of one age and the beginning of a new one (a sentiment with long roots). Others insist that the date is no more significant than when the odometer in your car rolls over. This latter option is admittedly a bit of an anti-climax if you are attracted to world cataclysmic events. What? No bang? Not even a whimper? Some will no doubt demand a refund.

Nevertheless, all this gloom and doom is contagious. We live in a time when a certain respectability seems to attach to those who predict the demise of America, freedom, prosperity, or even the world. Of course, this kind of thinking is not new. Uncertain times naturally breed pessimism about the future. Recent books like Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road pretty well sum up the grim future envisioned by some (perhaps the same people who are learning to shoot guns). Or if you prefer a sort of techno-dystopia, Huxley’s Brave New World is frequently cited as an accurate predictor of a future where the terror is coated with a veneer of drug-induced happiness. Guns aren’t much use in Huxley’s world and ammo is scarce in McCarthy’s. In either case, there is plenty to fear.

Happily, not everyone is predicting the end of the world. In fact, there are some who still hold on to the notion of American Exceptionalism and cherish a hope that America can once again be a shining city on a hill if only the liberals can be thwarted. This view is prevalent on talk radio where apocalyptic pessimism seems to go hand-in-hand with the Reaganesque belief that it’s always morning in America. The extremes play well together, for on the one hand, the pessimism validates both the uncertainty that many are feeling as well as the animosity toward those who have supposedly created the mess. On the other hand, the optimism suggests hope. All too often the solution is quite simple: throw out the liberals and return to the principles of Reagan. Simple diagnosis. Simple solution. Would that reality was so simple.

Oswald Spengler’s 1917 book The Decline of the West put forth a cyclical view of civilizations. Civilizations, in his view, have a life-span much like a biological organism. For those who see America in decline, Spengler’s thesis provides a powerful validation. It suggests a sort of historic inevitability. It seems to provide a perch from which the enlightened can sadly (but wisely) shake their heads as the West slowly collapses into degradation, decay, and finally death.

Spengler may be right. Civilizations don’t last forever. Nations come and go. History is nothing if not change. But at the same time, we should resist the temptation to despair and we should utter our prophecies of doom with great circumspection. As another theorist of history once wrote, “the owl of Minerva flies at dusk.” We come to understand the meaning of history only in retrospect. If this is true, counsels of despair are counsels of cowardice. We are given a moment in history to play a small part in a drama that we only partially grasp. Ours is to remain steadfast. To be faithful. To use our freedom in the belief that all is not lost, that much in this world of goodness and sorrow is worth saving. Indeed, the light may be growing dim in the West. According to some, the world itself is in its final hour. Such pronouncements, however, are best left to the historians of the future and ultimately to God. In the meantime, plant a tree. Be a good neighbor. Have children. Put away a bit for a rainy day. And it might not even hurt to learn how to shoot a gun.

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He is the author Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (Potomac Books, 2012). He is co-editor of another book titled, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. Currently he is writing a book on private property. In 2008-9, while on sabbatical at Princeton University, he and Jeremy Beer hatched a plan to start a website dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. A group of like-minded people quickly formed around these ideas, and in March 2009, FPR was launched. Although he was raised in Montana and still occasionally longs for the west, he lives in Virginia with his wife, three sons and one daughter where they are in the process of turning a few acres into a small farm. See books written by Mark Mitchell.

17 COMMENTS

  1. I like: Camping has cracked God’s code and is spilling the beans. God may not be pleased.

    But you forgot one of the main groups that preaches the apocalypse. You hear from them every time Congress thinks about cutting taxes. When that happens those sandwich board preachers have nothing on your leftwing bloggers, pundits, and hangers on.

    • I expected more than just another whack at the partisan pinata from you, John. What’s happened to FPR? It’s gotten decidedly more partisan snarky in here.

  2. Mark – Your last paragraph is especially refreshing. Hoping for the best but expecting the worse may be considered trite but could not be more appropriate during these times.

  3. “Ours is to remain steadfast. To be faithful. To use our freedom in the belief that all is not lost, that much in this world of goodness and sorrow is worth saving. Indeed, the light may be growing dim in the West. According to some, the world itself is in its final hour. Such pronouncements, however, are best left to the historians of the future and ultimately to God. In the meantime . . .”
    Mark,
    Thanks for encouraging faithfulness. Articles on this site often condemn the hubris of our “control of nature.” You are right, neither Camping, or any of the rest of us, have a complete command of history–especially the history of 2011. Thinking, or acting as if, we do is another kind of arrogance.

    • To put it in the words of a (fictional) character facing an even more hopeless situation, “despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.”

  4. I always chuckle when I hear the Reaganesque American Exceptionalism types, which include most of my family. Oh the hubris! If only they could understand that they follow liberalism just like those “LIBERALS” they condemn so vigorously.

  5. As far as China goes, they have their own, and VERY serious problems that if not address will bring that country crashing to its knees rather quickly.

    Funny enough, facing those issues is not something the Chinese government seems like it wants to do.

  6. If the people believe the prophets of despair, then indeed hope vanishes, for everyone seeks his private hidey-hole, endeavoring to content himself with ephemeral pleasures.
    But is the people, not believing the prophets of doom and their self-fulfilling prophecies, still retain faith in a moral order joined to a social order-why, then indeed hope has not departed for it remains possible for men and women to brighten the corners where they are and to confront together the difficulties of the time. Given hope, great renewal is possible for a people.

    -Russell Kirk

  7. “Indeed, the light may be growing dim in the West. According to some, the world itself is in its final hour.” A certain amount of this sort of bluesy thinking – and I’m expecting it to increase mightily – I’ve always attributed to the boomers’ narcissism. We are getting old and frail, and it’s hard not to see decay everywhere we look. Which must mean the world is about to end.

    And when I put that way, it sounds silly. And to a certain degree, I think the reports of darkness we hear are silly, but they also holds a truth. The world is not ending, but the world of the boomers is. The world has died a million deaths this way. The preeminence of the United States will most likely, at some point, go away – but whether it is because our lights fade or are eclipsed by a brighter light I think is an important discernment. China may outshine us for a time, but perhaps only because of how much they are currently sacrificing upon the altar of economic growth.

    Even more, I think the obsession with being preeminent has brought about gross distortions in our society. It is a burden we need to lay down so the bones and muscle of the republic can be made straight and whole again.

    When I come across a Jorgenson writing “The United States will need to come to terms with the fact that its prevalence in the world is fated to come to an end.” – well heck, just coming across a Jorgenson I tend to throw things at them, since I know a few transplants – but I read that as some cause for optimism, not fear.

    I have found staying hopeful requires more courage as I age. Seems to me to be a test of character. In any event, I’ve been looking at seed catalogs.

  8. Personally, I will not mourn the death of American Exceptionalism or our prevalence in the world one bit. We got along without it just fine before we had it and will do so again. As a matter of fact, the ideology of exceptionalism and the drive for prevalence it has encouraged are a big reason for the mess we’re in . Good riddance to both!

  9. It would seem to be not so far-fetched , based on the effects upon Great Britain of being demoted…….. that the best thing for the Big Strappin Superpower U.S. is to follow the advise of Brer Rabbit and scream not to be tossed into the “decline” briar patch of non-superpower status but enjoying it once we find it conceals a fine escape hatch to a better place.

    As to an Apocalypse, it already happened, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series and we are still alive. We shall not hazard a guess on the earth shattering potentials of a Chicago win though
    Not to mention Sting Singing “Roxanne” with a Full Orchestra. Cripes if that don’t create alarm, IK don’t know what else might .

    Here in New England, we get the first New England Winter in years and they start calling it “snowpocalypse” like nobody has ever seen snow cover and 10 below temperatures. Personally, I can’t wait for the “Apocalypse Status” notations on Facebook.

  10. I don’t dread the end. I only wonder this: when it’s all over, can we stop being exceptional and become just regular folk for a change?

  11. Say, I’ve got some pretty good ‘Doom & Gloom’ graphics here
    http://normanhooben.blogspot.com/2011/01/it-is-big-takeover-by-federal.html and here
    http://normanhooben.blogspot.com/2011/01/results-are-in-who-wants-to-smoke-pot.html and here
    http://normanhooben.blogspot.com/2011/01/so-this-is-collective-salvation.html
    and elswhere on my blog feel free ot use any or all…I make all my own

    sorry I didn’t read this entire blog else I would comment…the hour is late and I’m about ready to hit the sack…I’ll be back and check this out again…may want to cross-post onto my blog…

    Norm

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