I wrote a post, a couple of months ago, about the persistence of religious belief under secular guises, including in our public discourse. God, the Devil, Heaven, Hell, sin, redemption—all remain among us, traveling incognito. But the most enduring figure, the one we’re least equipped, it seems, to do without, is the Messiah.
There is always some one, or some thing, that is just about to save us from ourselves. Of late the leading candidate has been the Web. It’s going to unleash a flood of innovation. It’s going to usher in a golden age of creativity. It’s going to transform our politics. WikiLeaks; the cult of Aaron Swartz; the collected works of Thomas Friedman; the belief that a legion of Joyces and Dylans, freed from the shackles of the culture industry, is about to spring forth—all these are signs of technological messianism in its latest form.
Older incarnations looked to nuclear energy, or the Suez Canal, or even the movies. Ours is intertwined with another arena in which the millennial impulse reliably flourishes, politics itself. Elections, revolutions—both of which are brought to you, these days, by social media—there’s always another watershed on the horizon. Anyone who remembers the hopes for change that greeted our current president will know what I’m talking about. Every four years, one side or the other manages to fall for the same old dodge. Elect our man, and everything will be set right again. (Though it doesn’t have to be a man, of course; just wait for Hillarymania.) The anticipated “suicide” of the Republican Party is, for liberals, a version of the same idea. The Tea Party in 2009 and 2010, the Arab Spring and Occupy in 2011: we seem to be breeding salvific movements, of late, at a clip of almost one a year.
It isn’t hard to understand where the messianic impulse comes from. It speaks, I think, to the little child in each of us. Once upon a time, an omnipotent being did swoop down and lift us up from our troubles and fears. But the haven of our parents’ arms is the only heaven we will ever know.
Why does all this matter? Because there really is a peril that we need to be delivered from today. Apocalyptic dread is also a persistent feature of the religious imagination, but this time it’s different. It isn’t God who’s going to end the world; it’s us. And we’re not going to end the world; we’re ending it. I grew up in the shadow of nuclear war. Then, at least, we were properly panicked. We had seen what the warheads could do, and a sudden stroke of annihilation was all too easy to conceive. But this—a slow extinction that’s already underway—we don’t seem psychologically equipped to come to terms with. The feeling has to linger, even among the most rational, that somehow, something is going to rescue us. That’s the only explanation I can think of for the lethargy, the apathy, the stunned catatonia of our response, the fact that we aren’t all running shrieking, every hour, in the streets.
I’m haunted by a line from Rosemary’s Baby. Mia Farrow is being raped by the Devil. “This is no dream!” she cries. “This is really happening!” This is no dream. This is really happening.
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