by Barry Edelson


Portents of Doom

When will the media stop giving credence to
the raving of idiots and charlatans?


On the morning of May 22, 2011, denizens of Planet Earth awoke to find the world much as it was when they went to sleep the night before, notwithstanding the apocalyptic predictions of an otherwise obscure religious fanatic. Christians in good standing were not hoovered from the surface and miraculously transported to their heavenly reward, much to the chagrin of the faithful (and of many skeptics, too, who would have wished them well on their journey). Famine, flood, pestilence and poverty continued to afflict mankind, though penitents and sinners appeared to bear the brunt of misfortune in random and equal measure, as they always have. To paraphrase the great unbeliever Mr. Twain, reports of the world's demise were greatly exaggerated.

If we were able to visit every Christian house of worship in North America on any given weekend — from the National Cathedral in Washington to the rented basement in the hinterland where the congregation brings its own folding chairs — we would no doubt hear any number of unhinged and/or unscrupulous preachers proclaim that the end is nigh. In the same excursion, we would also be treated to all manner of interpretations of the testaments, old and new, that bear scant resemblance to the books we recall studying in Sunday school. Nonetheless, the Bible is a text so vast in conception and self-contradictory in execution that the sufferer of any human neurosis or psychosis can find its counterpart among the printed verses. We may not read "God hates fags" in so many words, nor find exhortations to burn the holy book of a different faith that did not even exist when the Jewish and Christian books were first scribbled onto parchment. Never mind, it's all there; you just have to know where to look. Listen to the weekly ramblings of the self-appointed saviors of souls, and you will soon discover that there is no claim so outrageous, no act so egregious, that it cannot find its justification between the black leather covers of God's magnum opus (autographs in the lobby after services).

Why, then, if portents of doom are as common as tornados in Kansas in April, do the worthless ravings of one particular shepherd of one particular flock (whose name shall not gain any further renown by being repeated here) rise to the level of national consciousness, while the equally worthless ravings of all the other idiots and charlatans echo in well-deserved obscurity? The answer has as much to do with the excesses of our media nation as it does with the derangement of the objects of our curiosity. One might as well ask why one young actor of modest ability rises to stardom while others of far greater talent languish in regional theater. Or why serious politicians who have proven their merit through actual accomplishments in government are overshadowed by publicity whores who barely scraped through high school. Such is the nature of a society that values celebrity above almost every other attribute. The cogs of the vast media machine are forever turning and churning, incessantly seeking new fuel to feed its insatiable engines of fame. At any given point in time, some heretofore unknown person is thrust into the spotlight: the machine demands it. Why it turns out to be this particular individual and not another is less a matter of the zeitgeist than the increasingly undiscerning nature of the machine itself. The disappearance of arbiters, whether of good taste or newsworthiness, leaves the media to which we are constantly exposed increasingly at the mercy of random forces, mitigated only by the tenacity and ruthlessness of the world's fortune seekers. Asking why so-and-so is famous but not me is like wondering why so-and-so was mauled by a grizzly bear but I was spared.

Surely no news editor could have been worried about what would happen to him if he alone among editors failed to cover the end of the world? So why would any real news organization (among the handful remaining) dirty its hands with this story? Perhaps the answer can be gleaned from the coverage of this latest prophecy of doom, the tone of which bore an unmistakable hint of mockery. Many correspondents and their audiences had a jolly good time pretending that this was serious business (wink, wink), all the while using the deluded believers as a foil against which to display their own eminent sensibleness. How far the news has fallen in respectability that it must seek objects so base and irrelevant against which to highlight its severely tarnished credentials. How shameful to have what limited oxygen is available for the combustion of important stories wasted on such acknowledged triviality.

It is bad enough that the feeding frenzy veers every few days from headline to screaming headline: from political scandal to audacious swindle, from natural disaster to Hollywood debauchery, from sports cheating to blowhards bleating, from police corruption to weather disruption. It is worse still to squander precious column inches and readers' scattered attention on a story that all but a gaggle of pathetic misfits knows to be absurd. Can we please stop bestowing fame upon the worst clergymen in creation — or are our minds so addled by the drug of celebrity that we yearn to touch the garment of even those we acknowledge to be beneath our notice?

May 28, 2011


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