2012: Carnival of Bunkum
I like a good apocalypse as much as the next American, which is why I’ll be braving the Stepfordian horrors of the local mall for the opening of 2012, the German director Roland Emmerich’s latest exercise in disaster porn. The trailer is awesome. It’s got John Cusack in a puddle-jumper plane dodging collapsing skyscrapers, John Cusack in a car playing dodge ball with a meteor shower, and John Cusack squealing around a corner on two wheels, yelling, to no one in particular, “When they tell you not to panic, that’s when you run!” Plus, it’s got every New Yorker’s idea of schadenfreude-gasm: California barrel-rolling into the Pacific.
According to the movie’s press packet, Emmerich and his writing partner Harald Kloser got a brainstorm when they learned that “the Mayan calendar is set to reach the end of its 13th cycle on December 21, 2012—and nothing follows that date. […] ‘You will find millions of people, from all walks of life, who believe that in 2012 there will be some kind of shift in society, or a shift in spirit,’ says Kloser. The scope and variety of theories provided inspiration for Emmerich and Kloser as they penned their screenplay.’”
Millions of people? Really? From all walks of life? Or are we just talking about a few thousand woo-woos whose mental engine blocks have cracked from one too many psychoactive alkaloids? In any event, however many people are investing this arbitrary date with cosmic significance, it’s entirely too many. As a throwaway plot premise for a Hollywood blockbuster, New Age “theories” about The Coming Shift in Global Consciousness (not again!) are harmless chaff. Who cares if every tie-dyed Elmer Gantry working the Esalen hot-tub and Burning Man circuit is predicting ecstasy, or dread, or both, in 2012?
The answer, in brief, is that the stories we tell ourselves, as a culture, do matter. Profoundly. Daniel Pinchbeck, author of 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (the Nahuatl name for the feathered serpent god of the Mesoamerican peoples), is an object lesson in the hidden costs of myth. Bidding fair to become the media face of the 2012 phenomenon, Pinchbeck is a tireless publicist for the global cataclysm and universal outbreak of cosmic consciousness he believes will ensue when the digital alarm-clock numbers click over to 2012.
Which makes him the poster child for all that’s worst about the 2012 craze. Pinchbeck’s feathered serpent-oil salesmanship offers a case study in some of its most pernicious aspects.
First, there’s the gape-mouthed credulity required of true believers in the 2012 prophesies — the unblinking, irony-free ability to swallow groaners that would make a cow laugh, such as Pinchbeck’s pronouncement that 2012 may beckon us through a psychic portal, into a “multidimensional realm of hyperspace triggered by mass activation of the pineal gland.”
Pinchbeck, like New Age thinkers all the way back to Madame Blavatsky, preaches a refried gospel of ancient wisdom and mystical, supra-rational knowledge. In 2007, he told The New York Times that “the rational, empirical worldview…has reached its expiration date…we’re on the verge of transitioning to a dispensation of consciousness that’s more intuitive, mystical, and shamanic.”
Well, somebody say “Amen”! There’s entirely too much rationalism and empiricism clouding the American mind these days, in a nation where, according to the Harris and other polls, 42% of Republicans are convinced President Obama wasn’t born in the United States, 10% of the nation’s voters are certain he’s a Muslim, and 61% of the population believe in the Virgin birth but only 47% believe in Darwinian evolution.
Placing our faith in ravings about a “multidimensional realm of hyperspace triggered by mass activation of the pineal gland” is a luxury we can no longer afford.
Much of the 2012 shtick is a light-fingered (if leaden-humored) rip-off of the late rave-culture philosopher Terence McKenna’s stand-up routine, without McKenna’s prodigious erudition, effortless eloquence, or arch wit, and Pinchbeck is no exception. For Quetzalcoatl’s sake, if you’re going to start a religion, at least invent your own cosmology. Even L. Ron Hubbard was canny enough to concoct a pulp theology for ham-radio enthusiasts out of leftover SF plots. But every time I see Pinchbeck’s glum mug, regarding the world with a sort of forced bliss, I think: Would you buy a used eschaton from this man? (McKenna, by the way, knew which side his ectoplasm was buttered on. When I asked him, over dinner, why a man of his obvious intellectual nimbleness endured the saucer abductees and trance-channelers who plucked at his sleeve at New Age seminars, he rolled a knowing eye and replied, I thought wearily, that he owed his daily crust to “menopausal mystics” and thus had to suffer them, if not gladly.)
But the worst of the 2012 bandwagon, epitomized by Pinchbeck’s lectures and writings, is the blithe cultural arrogance and staggering anthropological ignorance evident in the movement’s appropriation of Mayan beliefs and history. In a discussion hosted by Pinchbeck’s online magazine Reality Sandwich, the cultural theorist Erik Davis puts his finger on the minstrelsy implicit in the ventriloquization, by white, first-world New Agers, of the Maya. “[I]t seems to me that there is very little concrete sense of what ‘the Mayans’ (whoever that grand abstraction represents) thought about what would happen in the human world on 2012,” he writes. “To my mind it is kinda disrespectful to the Mayans to force them into our own narrative.”
The technoculture journalist Xeni Jardin sharpens the point of debate. While Jardin is no expert on, or spokesperson for, the Mayan people, she is well-positioned to reveal the 2012 phenomenon for the carnival of bunkum it is. Her adoptive father is “of indigenous descent,” she told me in an e-mail interview, and working with his nonprofit in Guatemala, “doing cultural and philanthropic work” for the country’s indigenous peoples, has brought Jardin into close contact with the Maya. “We work to help these communities sustain their culture and social integrity,” she says, providing microloans and scholarships, working to bring clean drinking water and healthcare to the villages.
When I asked her what she thought of Pinchbeck’s invocation of Mayan beliefs, and of the 2012-ers’ use of the Maya in general, she was blunt. “What makes me angriest about Pinchbeck’s bogus, profiteering bullshit isn’t so much him, but the fact that that many people are racist enough to believe any asshole white guy who declares himself an expert in Mayan culture. Did it ever occur to anyone to ask practicing Maya priests out in the villages? […] It absolutely enrages me that while people I know in Guatemala, traditional priests, are struggling to figure out how to provide clean drinking water to their families, how to feed their communities, how to avoid being shot by the gangs and thieves that plague the roads more than ever—while they’re struggling to survive and keep their communities intact, assholes like Pinchbeck are making a buck off of white man’s parodies of their culture.”
In a moment worth its weight in black-comedy gold, Jardin told one of the priests in a K’iche village about the New Age’s obsession with 2012 and the ancient Mayan myths that supposedly foretell apocalypse. “I tried to explain to him that a lot of gringos believe that the chol q’ij says that in the Gringo year 2012, the world will end, or rainbows will fly out of a unicorn’s ass, or Mayan space aliens will land on the earth and our chakras will explode,” she says. “I told him they’re making a movie out of it, and how much a movie like that costs to make, and stands to earn. The priest laughed, and said in K’iche, more or less, “Well, that’s gringos for you, what do you expect.” These people are well-accustomed to being exploited and ripped off, and having their cultural rights shit on. That is the tragedy, and what makes me feel such disgust and contempt for the likes of Pinchbeck. They get away with it.”
In his Reality Sandwich remarks, Davis wondered “what is gained by… believing that the wizards of a rather bloody jungle culture foretold our moment of rising C02 levels and suicide bombers.” Point taken. Premonitions of the End of Days and prophecies of a Space Odyssey-like leap in species consciousness, in 2012, are just the same old bedtime story — a story we never seem to tire of hearing, about the moment (forever forestalled) when there will be “wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below,” as the Book of Acts has it — when the sun will go dark and the moon will turn blood red and time shall be no more. The environmental crises and geopolitical pathologies of our times — “rising C02 levels and suicide bombers” and the sufferings of the wretched of the Earth, like the Guatemalan Maya — demand that we step up to our social responsibilities and engage passionately with the issues of our age. Placing our faith in wet-brained ravings about a “multidimensional realm of hyperspace triggered by mass activation of the pineal gland” or “a dispensation of consciousness that’s more intuitive, mystical, and shamanic” is a luxury we can no longer afford. We’re out of time.