Image by Pete Linforth
Let’s face it: some people are probably excited about COVID-19. I can envision some preppers happily telling their acquaintances, I told you so, as they stockpile weapons and cook their meals with firewood. Just as some kids might join the military because they got bored of playing Call of Duty and want some real action, some people might be bored of watching The Walking Dead and thrilled that coronavirus is not just some simulation in a comic book or videogame.
But this is not just about the influence of the entertainment industry. This apocalyptic enthusiasm goes back a long way. There have been countless failed apocalyptic prophecies over the past two thousand years. Doomsayers may scare the devil out of their listeners, but both the prophets and their audiences seem to get a kick out of it. As with horror movies, the more you are scared, the more you enjoy it. When the prophecy fails, the prophesiers produce some cheap explanation as to why things did not happen as predicted, and make a new prophecy, which attracts new audiences, in a clear example of cognitive dissonance.
Plagues are a favorite resource of those standing on street corners with The End is Nigh! signs. In the canonical Urtext, the Book of Revelation, one of the dreaded horsemen is traditionally thought to represent plague, as is the sixth trumpet blown by the angels.
Revelation is an extremely bizarre, even psychedelic, book: perhaps the hallucinatory visions of an exiled man on an island, deeply versed in first-century Roman persecution of Christians. But contemporary Christian fundamentalists regard Revelation as a sort of manual of the terrible things to come. It is no surprise, then, that many of them see coronavirus as confirmation of what Revelation announced two millennia ago. Amidst the havoc, these doomsayers are probably smiling.
But their satisfaction would not come solely from the excitement of proving an ancient text right. They might be far more thrilled by the prospect of what lies ahead after the catastrophe: a millennium of joy. For, despite all their grimness, apocalyptic movements are optimistic, which is why most of them have a millennialist dimension. They offer hope. To the apocalyptic mindset, things are currently bad and will only get worse. But hitting bottom is a good prospect, because it might provide an opportunity to renew everything and make everything great.
This is usually a form of escapism. It’s a bit like white flight. Many white folks living in US cities were not happy to have members of ethnic minorities as neighbors, so they moved to suburbia. In a sense, apocalypticism and millennialism work the same way. In Jesus’ time, the Essenes moved to the Dead Sea in the expectation of doomsday, leaving Jerusalem behind. Contemporary right-wing militias (many of which overlap with preppers) move to the countryside because they do not like liberal urbanites’ values and their disdain for weapons. UFO cult members want to be abducted by aliens. Fundamentalist Christians are eager to be taken in the Rapture. They all hope that the place they abandon is consumed by fire in some catastrophic event, so they get to be the survivors who build a new paradisiacal society from scratch. That is the logic of millennialism: doomsday followed by eternal bliss.
Apocalyptic and millennialist movements are very dangerous. Escaping from problems does not contribute to their solution. If anything, it makes them worse. In their eagerness to build a paradisiacal society from scratch, these movements may contribute to destroying current society. Conspiracy theories about the origins of coronavirus in laboratories have so far been debunked. But authorities are ever mindful of the prospect of apocalyptic sects using biological weapons to cause havoc, in the hopes of building a new civilization.
From the very beginning, apocalyptic movements have appealed to the persecuted. Those who suffer persecution feel powerless and escapism is their last means of fighting back. Jesus himself seems to have been one such character. He experienced Roman oppression. But, whereas the zealots of his time thought that they could drive out the Romans by stabbing them, Jesus preached his own form of escapism: if people left things in the hands of God, a mysterious Son of Man would come down from the clouds, destroy the Romans and all other oppressors and make everything right. In the face of oppression, Jesus—and countless other preachers of his time—escaped into apocalyptic and millennialist fantasies.
Sometimes, apocalypticism can be fueled by perceived, rather than real, oppression. John of Patmos, author of Revelation, was exiled, but historians now think that Christian persecution was not particularly severe—even though many Christians perceived it as such—until the fourth-century reign of Emperor Diocletian. Likewise, right-wing US militias are not particularly oppressed, though they certainly feel that they are.
Herein lies yet another danger of identity politics and the cult of victimhood. In the current political climate, there is a race to the bottom to claim victim status. Everyone has some sort of grievance, whether it is based on something real—such as poverty—or more dubious—such as microaggressions. Once everyone becomes convinced that they are victims, everyone feels oppressed. Apocalypticism and millennialism typically follow. For, in their perceived oppression, people feel that the only way for things to get better is for some apocalyptic event to occur.
Hopefully, we will defeat the coronavirus. But, once that is done, we face the longer-term challenge of diminishing the reach of apocalyptic and millennialist thinking. One important part of this task will be to tone down the obsession with identity-based victimhood and to counter the populist politics that, by evoking a paradisiacal age to come, repeats many of its tropes.