Thursday, December 20, 2012

Culture Shock 12.20.12: It's the end of the world (again)

When even George Noory, the host of the radio program "Coast to Coast A.M." — a nightly tour of the paranormal and just plain paranoid — thinks he'll still be on the air, broadcasting as usual, after Dec. 21, it's probably safe to say there is nothing to the Mayan apocalypse.

Nothing for us, anyway. For the Mayan civilization, the end was centuries ago.

Yes, like a joke too long in the telling, Friday is finally the day, the day "preppers" have been prepping for. (Can you believe they have a name, like "truthers" and "birthers?") Although how you prepare for the end of the world is a mystery to me. If the world is over, where are you going to live? As the Rocket Man said, "Mars ain't the kind of place to raise a kid."

By now it seems like the world is ending every other year or so. In fact, it was just last year that Harold Camping's prediction that the Rapture would take place on May 21, 2011, went unfulfilled.

And who can forget the year 2000? Y2K was the secular answer to the Christian End Times. On Jan. 1, 2000, computers would malfunction, airplanes would fall from the sky, the power grid would fail, nuclear power plants would melt down and all of humanity's works would would lie in ruins — a Luddite's paradise.

Now here it is, 12 years later, and my computer is actually running a reasonably stable version of Windows. Winning!

But at least in the case of Y2K there was a real technological problem. The doomsayers weren't entirely delusional. They just greatly overestimated the extent of the challenge and greatly underestimated our ability to meet it. They were done in by what social scientists call "pessimistic bias." Other doomsday enthusiasts don't have that excuse.

Calendars, however useful, are human inventions, and their start dates and end dates — when they recycle back to the beginning — are largely arbitrary. For example, the next Chinese New Year is Feb. 10, by which time most Americans will have long gotten over their New Year's Eve hangovers.

So why the Mayans and their infamous "long count" calendar? What's so special about them? To hazard a guess, it's because the Mayans play into two popular but misguided ways of thinking about ancient civilizations. The first is to regard them as keepers of lost spiritual wisdom that the modern world needs to rediscover. As such, the Mayans, like the Egyptians, have much to teach us, or so the story goes. The other is that civilizations like the Mayans and Egyptians were so advanced they must have had help from aliens from outer space. And that extraterrestrial boost is what gave them access to secret wisdom we must now recover if we are ever to reach our true potential.

The first view is cartoonish, and the second is condescending. The Mayans, like other ancient peoples, were people. They created an advanced civilization, especially for its time, and were pretty good with things like astronomy (a necessity for an agricultural society) and math. But they don't seem to have had access to otherworldly insights.

Still, some people entertain the possibility that super-secret knowledge is to be gained from the Mayans. It's enough people to fuel a cottage industry of books, movies and TV shows.

Syfy, History and Discovery are just three cable channels airing Mayan doomsday specials this week. And the 2009 movie "2012," which got an early start on this year's apocalypse, not only expected us to take doomsday seriously, it expected us to accept John Cusack as an action hero.

Oh, and by the way: That picture of the Mayan calendar you've seen on the Internet? You know, the stone disk with the face in the middle sticking its tongue out at you. That's not the Mayan long count calendar. It's the Aztec Sun Stone.

That's the punchline.

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