Liberal Apocalypticism

In an earlier Bulletin post, I discussed briefly the emergence of “Prepper” subculture, that is, largely white, middle-class Americans who, out of a conviction that society stands on the brink of collapse, are stockpiling food, weapons, ammunition, and supplies of all kinds, attempting to learn various survival skills, all in an effort to survive the coming apocalypse, not just for themselves but their close friends and families. As recent coverage at National Geographic attests, Preppers are in other ways a diverse lot, with a kaleidoscope of personal histories and motivations informing their participation in this larger social practice. Still, by far and away Preppers tend to reason about the world from socially, politically, and religiously conservative perspectives, with much Prepper anxiety deeply entangled with what Jonathan Alter, in his study of the first year of the Obama presidency, has called “The Obama Hate Machine” at Fox News and innumerable talk radio programs. (The Promise, p. 450)

From such developments it is tempting to conclude that apocalyptic preparatory practices are necessarily linked to conservative worldviews. Recent (if somewhat forgotten) American cultural history, however, suggests otherwise. During the presidency of George W. Bush, for instance, a wealth of liberal/progressive discourse suggested affinities linking Bush’s political agendas with those of Hitler and the Nazis. Not infrequently, there was discussion as to how liberals, Democrats, and other persecuted minorities might successfully “get out of America” if and when things here took the same kind of draconian turn they did in 1930s Germany. At some sites of liberal social production, lengthy series of preparations for emergency departures were offered. One website in particular offered a “60-Day Plan” in which,

“three steps to leaving the country – Choosing a destination that will be both safe and open for immigration; Assembling the documents you will need to start your new home abroad; Gathering your assets and making them transportable to your new home – [are] divided up into eight one-week periods [and color-coded lists]. In less than 60 days, you can be out of the country with the documents you need to obtain residency in your new home and some money available for a new start.

Rather than hunkering down in well-stocked bunkers, liberal/progressive Preppers imagined leaving the U.S. for other more enlightened shores, as found in Canada or Western Europe. Like present-day Prepperism, I suspect that liberal Prepper imaginings provided a satisfying retreat from a larger political context reality they felt unable to influence.

Now, it will likely be objected that the key difference here is one of scope: contemporary Preppers come in far greater numbers. One wonders, though, how much more widespread the “get out of America before Bush morphs into Hitler” movement might have extended where it articulated and buttressed daily in a mass-media “Bush Hate Machine.”

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2 Responses to Liberal Apocalypticism

  1. Matt Sheedy says:

    “Like present-day Prepperism, I suspect that liberal Prepper imaginings provided a satisfying retreat from a larger political context reality they felt unable to influence.”

    I like this line of reasoning, especially as it hits on at least one common denominator, which is the relative sense of helplessness and disconnection from processes that impact one’s life. What interests me here in particular in light of your comment on the “scope” of these two movements, is how claims are situated in relation to: 1) a reasonable assessment of the situation at hand (i.e., how many variables are being factored-in, tied together, and weighed against counter evidence; and conversely, 2) how the perceived enemy/threat is variously mystified, reified, and misrepresented in order to justify these positions.

    My thinking here, to draw on your Hitler example, is that while both Bush and Obama have been compared to Hitler and for a variety of reasons, it would seem that the “liberal/progressive” charge is at least closer (on the whole) to a validity claim given legitimate charges of war crimes surrounding Iraq and what we might call proto-fascist tendencies exhibited by his administration. Whatever else we might say about Obama’s policies in this regard, the Hitler comparisons with him tend toward a conflation with other un-thematized signifiers like “communism,” “socialism” and then tied to concerns with healthcare and the like. So my question is whether we can speak of a qualitative as well as a quantitative difference between the ways in which so-called conservatives and liberals are prone to apocalyptic thinking based on a relative proximity to reality?

    Johnathan Haidt’s soon to be released book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, deals with these questions in an interesting way (see interview with Bill Moyers:

    . While I think Haidt hypostatizes “liberals” and “conservatives” in ways that are often problematic, he does touch on a number of issues that you allude, including the tendency to defend certain ideals uncritically. While I think this claim is defensible in general, Haidt seems to present both “sides” as equally problematic and makes it seem as though irrationality is pervasive and so in the end its all a wash. While I don’t get this sense at all from your comments, this may be an interested point for analysis and comparison.

    • Kenny Paul Smith says:

      Thanks for this wonderfully thoughtful response. I’m intrigued by a number of your suggestions. Indeed, you’ve got one or two potential Bulletin posts here, including a mini-book review that would fit nicely under our “book notes” series. Many many thanks.

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