We confess. There is nothing we dislike more than the particular kind of fear-mongering that we call the apocalyptic dirty trick of predicting death and destruction.
We dislike politicians who use this dirty trick to demean and diminish their opponents and who attempt to opportunistically grab the spotlight and to promote their own influence and interests.
We dislike religious spokesmen who use this dirty trick smugly to justify their own narrow sectarian beliefs and practices while at the same time bad-mouthing and smearing their competitors with it.
To spell this out we first explain here what we mean by “apocalyptic.” Then we consider some of the variations on this theme that we have been monitoring in recent pronouncements by two representative isolated public figures -- former vice president Dick Cheney, in the political sphere, and former Yeshiva University president Norman Lamm, in the realm of religion.
In our conclusion we explain why we call it the invocations of apocalyptic predictions by such individuals “dirty tricks.”
Some background. For years we’ve studied the genre called “apocalyptic” because it is a part of our biblical heritage. Our course in “The Bible: Wisdom, Poetry and Apocalyptic” covered the Ketuvim of the Tanakh and dealt extensively with the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Daniel.
Those visions, and many others like them in the books sacred to Judaism and subsequently in Christianity, purport to uncover hidden secrets. When those relate to a narrative about the end of time, we call that brand “apocalyptic eschatology.”
When teaching the literature of apocalyptic in the university, we take the genre seriously. We explain its noteworthy and identifiable literary characteristics. The genre accounts for only a small portion of biblical literature. Accordingly we seek to locate the phenomenon within that segment of ancient culture that finds it pertinent and meaningful.
There are a variety of scholarly theories that attempt to explain the social and historical conditions of those who value predictions that uncover secrets about the future. Convincing cases have been made that apocalyptic appeals to the disenfranchised and the powerless on the limns of society, those who seek to imagine and to justify the restoration of their centrality after some imminent coming upheaval.
Among the theories, some biblical scholars argue for instance, that we should consider the Book of Daniel as an appropriate outgrowth of Jewish life Hasmonean times, a period later than the traditional date assigned for the biblical text. In that later era, the academics argue, groups who were on the fringe of power sought to project a message of the imminent inversion of the social and political landscape by promulgating the symbolic visions of Daniel.
Even with its panoply of strange visions of beasts and cosmic battles, the biblical brand of apocalyptic provides to a collective group some hope and meaning during a time of crisis. That makes it meaningful and worthy as part of the sustaining framework of religious thought.
How does this compare to the (sometimes equally strange) predictions of war and death that have been shooting forth from individual political and religious leaders in our current day and age?
We classify many of these purely manipulative fantasies as the bastard cousins of the grand genre of “apocalyptic.”
Let’s look briefly at two provocative examples.
Dick Cheney has been going around of late and proclaiming that we are “less safe” now then we were under the Bush-Cheney administration. He’s been telling prophetic apocalyptic stories for months, such as, "President Obama… is making some choices that, in my mind, will, in fact, raise the risk to the American people of another attack." Cheney has predicted a “high probability” of a nuclear or biological attack in the next few years.
Truly, the former vice president’s storytelling ability is limited, and he does cast his narratives as if they were military intelligence reports. But really he is spewing forth a somewhat lame prediction of cosmic and generic death and destruction by some fearsome beasts. As he tells it, the present power structures (in which plays has no part) need to be overthrown and replaced by a regime in which he leads his people to safety.
In this perspective, it looks to us like Mr. Cheney is promoting a set of stories that justify his plans to run for president – to resume his “rightful” place in the sun of cosmic history.
In recent days, in another corner of our current events, yet a second former leader has popped up pronouncing his narrative for the future of a segment of our population -- of the Jews and of Judaism. Rabbi Norman Lamm gave out a few weeks ago his now infamous predictions about the death of certain kinds of religious institutions.
“With a heavy heart we will soon say kaddish on the Reform and Conservative Movements,” the good Orthodox rabbi uttered. He revealed for us some of the elements of his story of the secrets of the coming upheaval of power in his own community. Where now the Orthodox Jews are a minority group in a minority religion, soon things will be very different. The powerless and peripheral will become powerful and central to the future of Judaism.
Here we have it. Two men, telling two versions of the future, both self-serving and not supportive of any larger cultural need. Both men, older and out of power, seek to cement their legacies at the expense of reality, with their statements of fearful revelations of the secrets of the future.
These proclamations of death and destruction are part of the negotiations that these men and their ilk are engaged in -- negotiations with their own destinies.
Student of negotiations are taught by their professors to identify the legitimate components of a negotiation and to separate them from the dirty tricks that parties attempt to force into the process.
What then makes the apocalyptic prognostications of people like Cheney or Lamm so disagreeable is the combination of the dirty moves that they foist on us with their narratives. They employ (1) emotional intimidation and they combine it with (2) the exploitation of the trappings of their former power to (3) increase their narratives’ appearances of legitimacy -- three of the canonical dirty tricks of negotiations.
Bottom line though, the predictions of these folk have no redeeming social value. They provide no support or interpretive framework for any group of believers on the limns of a culture.
In fact they are just the dirty tricks of individual manipulators fruitlessly seeking to further their own failing ambitions and hopelessly attempting to aggrandize their own fading legacies.