The sounders of the general alarm meanwhile don’t lack for precedents. Across the span of the millennia, the evolving shape of the Beast of the Apocalypse evokes corresponding changes of descriptive adjective. The poetic metaphor becomes the scientific treatise, physics takes the place of metaphysics, the verses of Isaiah give way to the World Wildlife Fund’s list of endangered river dolphins. Collate the secular rumors of doomsday with the religious visions of hell, and the fear of the future becomes an exhibit fit for Washington’s National Gallery of Art, readily available for a politician in search of votes, for a general intent upon the upgrading of a weapons system, for a preacher passing the collection plate, for a journalist in need of a headline.
The last-named beneficiary accounts for the media’s preoccupation with what some of our less well-informed critics still insist on deploring as “the bad news.” They miss the point. The bad news is the carnival-barking spiel that sells the good news, which are the advertisements. First, at the top of the network hour, the admonitory row of corpses being loaded into ambulances in Brooklyn or cleared from the streets of Islamabad; second, an inferno of fires burning in California, of bombs exploding in Libya; third, a muster of criminals, political, financial, and sexual, shuffling offstage in chains. The fear of a deadly tomorrow having thus been firmly established, the camera makes its happy return to the always-smiling anchorwoman, and so, with a gracious waving of her snow-white hand, to the previews of salvation sponsored by Jet Blue, Pfizer, and Mercedes-Benz. The lesson is as plain as a medieval morality play. Obey the law, pay your taxes, speak politely to the police officer, and you go to the Virgin Islands on the American Express card. Disobey the law, neglect your mortgage payments, speak rudely to the police, and you go to Kings County Hospital in a body bag.
I don’t discount the news value of a tornado in Missouri or a war in Afghanistan, but neither do I regard them as harbingers of Kingdom Come. It is the business of the future to be dangerous, as it is also the condition of the present, but the manifestations of its ill-will invariably come as a surprise. Not what the soothsayers had been mumbling about (Soviet armies ravaging Paris, Vietnamese communists wading ashore in Santa Monica) but something else entirely—civilian aircraft destroying the World Trade Center, General Motors subsiding into bankruptcy. The foretelling of the end of the world is as old as the wind in the trees, and so it has often come to pass—for the Romans in Pompeii in 79, for the Confederate States of America at Appomattox in 1865—but although terrible, the work is never complete. No matter how broad the flood or how ravenous the flames, the living outnumber the dead, maybe not in the immediate vicinity of the Katyn forest or the Hindenburg trench, but within reach of a new generation, salvaged, like all generations, from the wreck of time.
Always careless about keeping appointments, the barbarians at the gate tend to show up fifty years sooner than anybody expects or six months after the emperor has fled. They depend for their victories on the fear and trembling enthroned within the walls of the city, and it doesn’t make much difference whether they come armed with slingshots and spears or with subprime loans and credit-default swaps. The waiting around for their arrival is the bait and switch alluded to both by the poet C. P. Cavafy and by the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who asks “whether anything can be more idiotic” than the directing of one’s purposes “with an eye to a distant future.” The doing so suspends the will to think, saps the courage to act.
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