The United States traditionally traces its foundations to the Mayflower Pilgrims of 1620. But schoolbook histories often overlook the Pilgrims’ apocalyptic beliefs. Even before the ship made landfall, William Bradford exhorted his followers that humankind’s eyes would focus on Massachusetts as the Pilgrims constructed the New Jerusalem promised by God on American shores. The Pilgrims literally saw themselves enacting the Book of Revelation.
Betsy Hartmann, historian and activist, sees this as the beginning of the America Syndrome, a sort of social delusion that we’re always, somehow, living in the End Times. True believers constantly see evidence of imminent Apocalypse, which only American ingenuity and resourcefulness can avert. It’s the “last best hope” myth, placing humanity on a coin flip between extinction and salvation. And somehow, America’s always prepared to rescue humanity from itself.
Hartmann divides the America Syndrome into five broad categories: religious apocalypses, utopian social engineering, Cold War fears about atomic destruction, fears of Malthusian overpopulation, and misplaced climate change fears. Some of Hartmann’s categories are surprising, like utopians, whose superficial optimism concealed deep Second Coming tendencies. Others, like climate change, need explanation, lest readers find Hartmann’s position misleading.
Though William Bradford claimed his Pilgrims were building God’s kingdom in America, that fervor eventually got diffused; inside eighty years, American apocalyptic Christianity got sidetracked onto witch hunts and woman-shaming. But the religious mentality crops up periodically, in various Great Awakenings and Moral Crusades. Somehow, the language of Revelation always matters more than the Gospels. Religious zealots persistently see the end of Creation as their final vindication.
Nuclear paranoia encouraged End-Times behavior, like purging impure thinkers from the community, and demanding loyalty to abstract ideals. But surprisingly, so did fears of global overpopulation—what Hartmann calls “the Church of Malthus.” Conservatives latched onto nuclear fears, while progressives still claim overpopulation will destroy the Earth tomorrow. In both cases, fear of complete destruction steers a hugely complicated network of political and social agendas, often heedless of the cost.
Even global warming, the one fear actually capable of imminently destroying humanity, gets treated in bleak apocalyptic terms. Supposedly rational scientists pitch doomsday scenarios as proven fact, which they presumably intend to spur action, but which actually provoke feelings of helplessness and malaise. Linking climate change to national security results in using the military to practice social engineering on foreign soil. Doomsayers pitch climate change’s effects as brown-skinned and Malthusian.
Apocalyptic philosophies share some characteristics, beyond simply believing the end is nigh. They demand absolute devotion, and tend to treat skeptics like heretics. They see circumstances in bleak terms: if you don’t believe Earth is violently overpopulated, for instance, then obviously you’re with the despoilers actively destroying humanity’s future. Apocalyptic preachers can’t see it’s possible to see a problem that needs addresssing, without racing headlong into Prophets Of Doom territory.
Worst of all, apocalyptic thinking, which Hartmann calls the America Syndrome, encourages moralistic thinking. Population, climate change, and global war aren’t problems that need solved; they become demons that need slain. This prevents sober consideration of causes and consequences. Everything stops being a knowable fact, and becomes monstrous, Satanic. Then we clothe military interventions, Presidents, or America itself in sacred robes and congratulate ourselves on saving the world from, well, something.
One category Hartmann doesn’t address, I consider an oversight: why no chapter on pop-culture apocalypses, from The Terminator to Left Behind? These mostly aren’t social movements, Hartmann’s domain of expertise, and perhaps she considers literary analysis of pop culture beyond her skills. But I’d consider these important, since these cultural phenomena keep populations geared toward apocalyptic thinking. Maybe someone like me, someone more literarily minded, needs to write that book.
It’s easy to point fingers and blame somebody else for the America Syndrome. Obviously Trump’s rosy-eyed nostalgia, or Bernie Sanders’ economic utopianism, is the real problem, and I’m innocent. But Betsy Hartmann encourages readers to understand, the entire American enterprise is founded on delusions of imminent Armageddon. The situation isn’t bleak; she offers alternative views on America’s persistent problems. But until we overcome apocalyptic thinking, the underlying problem will just keep happening.