Jen Gerson: This is the apocalypse
The end is always nigh, and the ride never ends, baby.
If you spend a few hours devoted to consuming episodes of the reality TV show Doomsday Preppers, it becomes impossible to avoid this obvious conclusion: doomsday preppers are probably the least prepared of any of us to survive the apocalypse.
Take Season 2, Episode 14, for example, in which a 44-year-old man in Hawaii believes that he will use his intuition and limited backcountry skills to survive a tsunami — his first such intuition is to get into a boat.
More typically, the television show documents Middle American families who believe they can buy their way out of society's collapse by burying bunkers and stockpiling food, weapons and tactical gear.
Most of them seem paranoid. A few come off as genuinely disturbed. All of them seem sad.
Ask them what they're so afraid of and they will list their apocalypse of choice: electromagnetic pulse, financial collapse, famine, drought, coup, a population-devastating plague.
The show exploits the most extreme disaster LARPers, but their visions of the apocalypse are typical. We were all prepared for zombies, and aliens — the surround-sound end-of-the world in which we would take up arms against invading forces and ferry our children to the bug-out Eden in the mountains.
Nobody pictured the apocalypse would like this; stuck at home for months at a time, pounding Oreos and beer at 11 a.m. and watching Doomsday Preppers on Netflix while faking a work day on the couch. For most, heroism has been an act of idleness.
We got the apocalypse all wrong.
For that matter, we don't even use the word "apocalypse" correctly.
The original meaning did not indicate a world-ending catastrophe, as it does now. It comes from the Greek ἀποκαλύπτειν. The prefix ἀπό (apo) means "off”, and καλύπτειν (kalýptein) which translates to "cover." Off goes the cover — apocalypse means to uncover, or to reveal. It's an utterly mundane word.
The O.E.D notes an early use in Old English in 1175: "Herof seid Seint Johan þe ewangeliste in apocalipsi." The first record the dictionary notes for the word "apocalypse" is a reference to the final book of the Bible.
The Book of Revelation is the disputably canonical final prophecy offered by St. John the Divine, in which he lays out the visions and portents that will signal the end of this world.
The "apocalypse" isn't the disaster. The word refers to John's vision itself.
The Book of Revelation is a good read in a dark mood, even for a non-believer like myself. It's one of the most evocative chapters of the Bible. The Four Horseman, the Whore of Babylon decked in gold and drunk on the blood of Christians; the mark of the Beast; the anti-Christ; a great red dragon with ten horns, and seven heads wearing seven crowns.
It's not hard to read the passages and imagine that the Book of Revelation is, indeed, warning us of an imminent and irrecoverable collapse.
"The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood. And they were cast upon the earth; and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up," might remind one of the Australian wildfires, perhaps.
Or read: "a third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died" and the mind wanders to the bleaching of the coral reefs.
The prophecy has maintained its hold on the Christian imagination for 2,000 years for good reason. The crises John describes are always imminent.
Revelation's warnings of plagues, wars, famine, and corruption — these are not the end of human civilization — they are human civilization. The warnings and symbolism are infinitely recyclable, and, thus, always applicable to the terrors of the current moment.
The end is always nigh, and the ride never ends, baby.
What marks the difference between a mere disaster and an apocalypse isn't the depth or size of the catastrophe — oh no, human history is a horror show all the way down, and it always has been. The apocalypse isn't the crisis; the apocalypse is the revelation — it's the vision of the world we knew dying.
Consider, for a moment, the following data points: Canada, like the rest of the world, is expecting to see a large surge in post-COVID-19 divorce rates. We are recording record drug overdoses. Experts are warning of a spike in domestic assaults, child abuse, mental health crises and suicide attempts.
I don't think it's any great stretch to tie most of these phenomena to an extended lockdown and economic retrenchment.
What happens when a society is unable to access the outlets that allow for its own complacency?
There's no escaping a fight with a spouse to grab a drink with friends; no pawning off the kids; no soul-restoring banter with beloved colleagues; no buying our way out of our problems, not this time. Not when the bars, schools, offices, and malls are closed.
At its heart, a lockdown is a forced confrontation with the reality of the life we have built for ourselves.
Of course, the apocalypse is taking place en masse as well. COVID-19 has revealed the failures, the shallow ineptitude of many of our leaders. In particular, the fragility of the American political system, the lies that underpin its health care; the stark racial disparities in health outcomes. Our neighbour appears to be in a state of crisis and near collapse.
The revelation feeds conspiracy theories like QAnon, and millennial Woke politics. It's the catalyst for the Great Awakening, and the Awokening, depending on your politics. Was anyone really surprised by the protests and riots?
The prophecy of St. John the Divine has either yet to pass; or it has been fulfilled over and over again. It depends on how you look at these things, I suppose.
The Book of Revelation isn't about social collapse; it's a book about a vision that took place at a specific moment in Christian history. Written in around 96 C.E., the prophecy is a reaction to the persecution of Christians in Asia Minor. It should be understood, then, not merely as a warning of imminent calamity, but also as a rally to hope. Those who manage to repent their sins and to stay faithful in a time of tribulation were promised a new Jerusalem.
Personally, I don't have time for exhortations of faith or obedience, and I don't believe that there is any such kingdom of God except that which we make for ourselves.
If so, this is not the moment to anesthetize our own suffering, to avoid the difficult questions of our own lives — to hide in our prefab Netflix-equipped bunkers surrounded with freeze dried food and rifles.
If we have been left to our own devices to re-make the world as we would wish it to be, then so be it. It seems to me that an apocalypse is as good a time as any to bring such a thing about.
Elsewhere on The Line, Montreal-based freelance journalist Kareem Shaheen describes how his former home, Lebanon, was already in a state of imminent collapse before the massive explosion that destroyed its port in Beirut.
Conservative strategist says Ken Boessenkool that the government response to the imminent childcare crisis has been tepid. And he admits there may be some, sigh, systemic issues at play.
Oh, and if you thought the battle for free speech on campuses was fraught, just wait until you see what Canada’s inmates have to put up with. Justin Ling on why prisoners deserve to have their speech rights defended, too.