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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Let's Talk Apocalyptic Thinking with Matthew Barrett Gross

What motivated you to write your current book, The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us About America?
At the end of 2004, there was a great deal of hand-wringing in the mainstream media about the role evangelical Christians played in the re-election of George W. Bush. At the same time, we began to observe the tendency among those on the left to utilize the apocalyptic narrative to sound the alarm about global warming and peak oil. Rather than imagining apocalyptic thinking as something only the crazy, other side engages in, we began to ask, "What if apocalyptic thinking is actually uniting Americans regardless of political persuasion?"

How did your book collaboration come about? How long did it take to put together the book?
At the end of 2004, we both were working separately on memoirs that in some way played around with the apocalyptic ideal. I was working on a memoir of my work in presidential politics, and Mel (who is my wife) was writing about an illness that had befallen her. We were going through a personally very apocalyptic moment, with the Dean campaign having ended and Mel's health in serious question.

One day we both realized that the conceit of the apocalypse was far more interesting than what we thought were the main subjects of our books, so we decided to collaborate on that. Little did we know that it would be nearly six years before we finished the book.

How does your process work? Do one of you focus on the research?
We researched together and wrote together, but one of the challenges when writing about a topic as broad as the end of the world is that there are a lot of rabbit holes! At one point the book was twice its final length, and so the last year was spent relentlessly editing and trimming down the manuscript. Much has been written about the apocalypse, but little of what has been written about the apocalypse is of interest to the non-religious or non-conspiratorial or non-academic reader. We wanted our book to appeal to a general audience.

Apocalyptic thinking is nothing new. Centuries ago, The Mayans foretold that a major apocalypse or earth change would occur this year. Science teaches that everything entropies. Is it really an obsession or just another wave of passing interest?
What we've found is that in Western history, these flourishing moments of apocalyptic expectation come at great pivot points in history. We find an outbreak of apocalyptic expectation just prior to and after the Reformation, when the Catholic Church was losing its hold over much of Europe.

We again find an outbreak in the United States during the 19th century, as the agrarian way of life began to give way with rapid speed to the process of industrialization. And so the question becomes: if we are again experiencing such an apocalyptic outbreak, what might this signal? Simply the end of the American century, or something larger?

One of the crucial points we make in the book is that measuring apocalyptic expectation can give us clues to what is happening on a broader, more historic scale. To fall back into the factually untrue argument that "people have always believed in the end of the world" is to miss those clues. 

Your bio says you were the director of Internet Communications for Howard Dean. Would you consider yourself a “spin doctor”?
I'd consider myself a teller of stories that seek to put the audience in the lead role -- because the end goal of all political communications is not merely to get people to believe something, but to get them to act on that belief.

An excellent example of how to spin a story! What was your activity in politics prior to that?
I think the power of the Dean campaign was that I hadn't been active in national politics at all prior to that. I simply got into my pickup truck one day in Moab, Utah, and drove to Burlington, Vermont and joined the campaign. Others on the campaign had similar stories. This wasn't a campaign filled with seasoned, cynical operatives. The campaign was filled with people who believed. It was a true expression of citizen involvement.

There have always been and always will be “true believers” in every campaign that are drawn to a campaign by their own lofty ideals. That same “true believer” involvement was also part of the Reagan campaign years before Dean.

That brings me to my next question. With the opportunity to photo shop or edit speeches to distort a candidate’s stand,  do you think political campaigning has gotten more negative or is it that because of the internet we are more aware of it?
There's no question in my mind that the Internet has given more people more power to get involved in electoral politics -- and that is a good thing. The problem is that this improvement has happened at a time when the media has become ever more focused on the horse race, or the process. The end result seems to be more people with more power to effect politics, but more people choosing to tune it out in disgust. In fact, in 2012, you have the lowest percentage of voters who are satisfied with the candidates than in any presidential election in 20 years. And with good reason. 

What do you think is the current percentage of voters who actually take the time to research the candidates as opposed to those who just rely on political ads? What do you think it takes to become a more cognizant voter?
These numbers are tough to pin down, but I think the number of people who simply rely on political ads is smaller than we often think. For example, some 58 million people watched the first presidential debate in 2012 on TV -- and that doesn't count the millions more who saw parts or all of the debate through secondary sources such as YouTube, or read about it online or in newspapers. That's nearly 50% of the actual electorate that will turn out in November.

The real "problem" as I see it is not that people don't understand the candidates, its that they often don't take the time to fully understand the issues. Any salesman on the lot can tell you something that "sounds good" or sounds "true" -- but if you don't have your own, independent knowledge about cars, you're just setting yourself up for disappointment.

Yes, you need to know the candidate before you vote. Our presidential choice should not be based on who you may think is cute or would be fun to have a beer or a glass of wine with in an evening. It should be someone who you think will support your values. This should be judged on their record. If you are happy the way the current President has handled the economy and foreign affairs, then vote for him because his record as President speaks for what he will continue to do more than campaign speeches.

Using our current President’s own standards as when he ran in 2008, if you don’t like the way the country is going, then you need to vote for a change in government. The choice is yours – be an informed voter or don’t vote at all. 

If you would like to purchase The Last Myth, here is the Amazon link 
or if you'd like to connect to it via Facebook.

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