Millennial Jitters

On December 31, 999 A.D., the people of Rome and travelers from throughout Christendom gathered in old St. Peter’s to greet their Lord. In the past year, millennial anticipation had broken out all over Europe: Church-building had ground to a halt, religious revivals swept through the peasant population, masses were said, confessions heard, incense burned. Time was coming to a close, and the faithful would be ready. As midnight approached, Pope Sylvester II lifted the monstrance high, so that the Sacrifice of Calvary would be reenacted even as Christ returned in glory.

Now, Christ certainly will come back in glory one day to claim His kingdom, but as you can see, making predictions about the precise date is problematic. God is remarkably taciturn about His divine timetable, though this fact hasn’t stopped quite a few people from making predictions. Early Christians—even St. Paul—were sure that Christ would be returning shortly, probably within their lifetime, which explains much of the loose-jointed quality of early Christianity: Why build enduring institutions if things are ending soon? Anglican archbishop James Ussher, in the 1650 treatise The Annals of the Old Testament, Deduced from the First Origin of the World, pinpointed the date of Creation at noon on October 23, B.C. 4004, and placed the end of the world in the fall of 1996—a perfect 6,000-year arc. William Miller, who founded the religious sect that would become the Seventh Day Adventists, predicted that the world would come to a close between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. When that date passed, he announced that he had miscalculated, but surely October 22, 1844, was correct. The Millerites sold their possessions, abandoned their homes, and fled to the mountains, pelted all the way by the mockery of onlookers. When October 22 passed, thousands wept in anger at the “Great Disappointment.”

But modern man is above such silliness, right?

Well, not really. Even the most jaded observers agree that the approaching third millennium has driven all sorts of paranoid fixations, bizarre prophecies, and neurotic impulses out of the psychological woodwork. (Remember the Heaven’s Gate tragedy in San Diego, where 39 people killed themselves in anticipation of being taken by aliens to a higher plane of existence? That incident is only the most obvious example of millennial jitters getting out of control.) Despite the polite assumption that time is an arbitrary construct bumping along blindly, we can’t quite shake the feeling that the world has a beginning and an end, an end that might just be precipitated by the clicking of a millennial clock. Most people don’t buy the hokum of Christ reclaiming the world, broken seals, blood-red seas, Babylonian whores, and the like—but old habits die hard, and a post-Christian world creates its own post-Christian apocalypses. An updated book of Revelations, if you will, with symbols, grotesqueries, and phantasmagories galore: We’ve got our own case of the millennial jitters.

The Y2K: Why Not?

“Dave, Dave, I’m frightened. Please, Dave.” —The computer HAL in 2001

Here’s the most popular doomsday scenario: Sometime after midnight on January 1, 2000, as weary partygoers pack it in for the evening, date-sensitive computers that monitor electrical plants will be confused by the sudden click from “99” to “00.” Reading this as an error, the computers will trigger fail-safe mechanisms and shut down plants all across the United States and North America in a tsunami-like rolling blackout. As the power goes out, refrigeration failures will leave food spoiled on the shelves, causing shortages and mass starvation; the elderly and sick will die of exposure to winter temperatures; transportation and shipping will grind to a halt; and armed urbanites will pour out into the countryside seeking food, shelter, and safety. The rule of law will collapse, replaced by the rule of the strong.

Or, as most Y2Kers suggest, the rule of the prepared. Wired, the information age’s journal of record, ran an article several months ago on the millennial preparations of Year 2000 specialists who have despaired of ever fixing all the bugs. One former programmer has purchased a desert plot in California, where he’s storing food, water purifiers, and a cache of guns and ammo: “In the next year or so,” Wired quotes him as saying, “the most common cocktail party chatter will be, ‘What are you doing to prepare for the Y2K?’ But by then, it will be too late.” Not exactly the kind of thing you expect to hear from the lovable nerds of Silicon Valley.

Of course, their concern might stem from guilty consciences. In the early days of computers, when chip capacity was at a minimum, programmers set the numeral for the year on internal calendars with only two fields: “67” instead of “1967.” This saved a little space, and most programmers assumed that later chips would replace the flawed systems well before the end of the century. What happened, of course, is that the problem was largely ignored until the 1980s, and by that point systems had been built upon systems, much like the layers of a city in an archeological dig. Imagine having to mark every pottery shard under the streets of Athens. That’s akin to the task of changing the billions of lines of code that would have to be altered to avert the Y2K problem. You can see why some technicians are getting a bit edgy.

And not just the technicians. A company named Emergency Essentials—which advertises itself as “the right place, before the wrong time”—is selling freeze-dried food and other survival gear for the whole family. The newsletter at a recent Christian Coalition convention carried an article from president Donald Hodel that urged churches to lay in supplies for the coming disaster. Rev. Jerry Falwell, along with Christian figures such as Gary North and Jack Van Impe, are touting the Y2K as the global disaster that will precede the Rapture, when believers will be removed from the Earth just before the Great Tribulation takes place; Falwell has reported brisk sales of his $19.95 video, A Christian’s Guide to the Millennium Bug. The Canadian military is preparing plans to stanch civil unrest in the wake of the Y2K. Even educators are getting ready for the coming social disintegration: A homeschooling outfit on the web is hawking a post-apocalyptic curriculum called Prepare and Pray: “Learn outdoorsmanship, survival skills, simple living, from a literature-based unit study for all ages! Face perilous times with faith, courage, and prudence! Based on Swiss Family Robinson!”

More sober-minded analysts urge restraint. John Koskinen, chairman of the government’s Y2K Preparedness Council, is certain that government agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration, the IRS, and Medicare, will be ready for the Year 2000. (Too bad about the IRS.) Koskinen has already booked a flight on January 1, 2000, so confident is he that planes won’t fall out of the sky as the air traffic system goes down.

The question, of course, is whether this is all simply overblown hype, fanned by entrepreneurs looking to turn a quick buck, or a true disaster in the making that could end life as we know it. Many suspect the former; several disturbing incidents of system breakdowns during Y2K tests, however, have been compiled by the Cassandra Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates national Year 2000 preparation. Many point to these episodes as signs of a coming meltdown, and even the otherwise optimistic Koskinen suggests that some difficulties are inevitable.

Overall, it’s unlikely that civilization will grind to a halt, but scattered blackouts, minor disruptions in credit, billing, and trade, and shortages akin to those experienced during a bad storm do seem possible. But why the hysteria?

The Year 2000 problem has all the makings of a secular version of the Tower of Babel or a modern rendition of Oedipus Rex, exploiting the unease that has accompanied society’s increasing reliance on computer technology and automation. The religious overtones have already been provided by computers theorists who spout ideas about the melding of man and machine as the next step in the spiritual evolution of humanity, like Erik Davis in his book, Techgnosis. All the elements of a good Greek tragedy are available: larger-than-life figures (programmers frequently think of themselves as above the law, like industrial magnates of the 1920s); overweening pride; the small, unseen slip that leads to destruction; even a portentous soothsayer or two. As anxious chorus, enter stage left the vast mass of Americans who are squirming a little without precisely knowing why. Science fiction, of course, has made this unease a theme for decades, but always in outlandish terms: computers achieving sentience and deciding to rid their environment of troublesome humans, like in the movies Terminator and 2001, or the man vs. machine stories of Isaac Asimov. The Year 2000 problem, on the other hand, is as real as the ATM around the corner. And thinking about all the potential problems only makes your average American starkly aware of just how dependent he has become: Unable to raise crops, slaughter animals, tan hides, spin cloth, or build shelters, modern man relies on a long line of unseen mediators to provide him with almost all goods and services. The Y2K threatens that thin lifeline. The last thing most people want is to be left to their own devices.

Aliens Among Us

“The Truth Is Out There.” —Slogan of The X-Files

However, if the computer shutdown doesn’t destroy society, the alien landing definitely will, right?

Of course, many Americans believe the aliens have already been here: They crash-landed in 1947 at Roswell, New Mexico, an incident that was covered up by the Air Force. While this fact might seem to support nothing more than the notion that a certain number of Americans will believe anything, it can’t be denied that aliens have become a strange kind of pop icon in the waning days of the second millennium.

Exhibit A is The X-Files, the popular Fox television program that is in the middle of its sixth season. The series has spawned one movie with another on the way, as well as a cottage industry of web chat rooms where “X-philes” trade plot predictions and conspiracy theories.

The X-Files is actually one of the more intelligent programs on TV, despite a plot that revolves around two FBI agents busily unraveling a secret government collusion with hostile aliens. Along the way, we encounter a cabal of fat, white, wealthy men who smoke (what could be more sinister?), rogue agents, alien-human hybrids, killer bees, mediums, vampires, and other assorted freaks. The plot is properly postmodern in its vagaries and misdirection; the whole thing is done with a noir feel that heightens the suspense.

Not all X-Files fans believe in aliens, but the series has struck a chord with viewers, especially the running theme of government perfidy: “Trust no one” is the show’s other, oft-repeated slogan. In the series, the government is devilishly clever in its misinformation; in real life, it seems, the powers-that-be are not quite as smart, considering the widespread belief that aliens do exist and have actually visited the Earth—a third of the population, according to some polls. For example, on the 50th anniversary of the “Incident at Roswell,” which was marked by extensive media blather, the Air Force issued a report that acknowledged that there was a crash and a cover-up, not of a flying saucer, but of a sensitive Air Force spy plane. Painfully bureaucratic in its solid, unimaginative explanations, the report convinced no one, and in fact prompted quite a few conversions to the camp of the believers. As any conspiracy watcher could have foreseen, the report proved to many that they must be hiding something.

One of the most appealing aspects of The X-Files is the series’ tongue-in-cheek attitude: Like good deconstructionists, the writers will never quite commit themselves—or the show—to definite opinions vis-à-vis the existence of aliens. But there are many true believers out there who profess to have seen or even been abducted by aliens. To them, the government conspiracy is full-blown fact. This group is getting far more respectful attention these days than is quite healthy.

Prominent among those paying attention is John Mack, a Nobel prize-winning, Harvard med school psychiatrist who in 1997 wrote a book, Abductions: Human Encounters With Aliens, in which he claims that there must be some truth to alien abductions, since the individual stories resemble each other so strongly. Dr. Mack bases this claim on extensive interviews with hundreds of alleged abductees. In almost every case, the people reported large periods of time when they could not account for their whereabouts; unusual cuts, bruises, and sores with no obvious explanation; and blinding lights. Most of the abductions seem to revolve around medical experimentation and sexual abuse: the removal of sperm and eggs for cross-breeding purposes, the probing of orifices, etc. Many of these victims were later re-abducted and presented with the hybrid products of these experiments. (A sign of the times: the self-help group Abductees Anonymous.)

Sadly, a large percentage of abductees were, as even Dr. Mack admits, sexually abused at some point in their life, and most psychiatrists claim that these visions are their psychological defense against painful memories. For his part, Mack believes that aliens are visiting Earth to warn us of imminent environmental destruction. As he said in an interview on the PBS program NOVA:

It may not be that these [hybrids] are literally our babies. It may be that [they] are what we will have to be. It’s a kind of insurance policy if the earth continues to be subjected to the exploitation of its living environment to the point where it can’t sustain human and other life…. Another area is the whole visual, environmental, and informational aspect of this in which people are shown … scenes of environmental destruction, of the earth polluted; a kind of post-apocalyptic scene in which even the spirits have been routed from their environment because they live in the same physical and spiritual environment that we do. Canyons are shown with trees destroyed; pieces of the earth are seen as breaking away.

Well, OK, but you’re unlikely to see Greenpeace enlisting alien support of logging restrictions any time soon.

The example is instructive, however. Like environmental mania, belief in aliens is really a pseudo-spirituality that replaces God with vaguely beneficent “forces.” Chesterton’s pearl—when men stop believing in God it’s not that they believe in nothing, it’s that they believe in everything—seems apt here. Gaia, the Earth Mother, trendily enviro-conscious Beings From Beyond: We make these creatures up to fulfill a need for belief that we can’t quite shake. Look at The X-Files‘ slogan: The truth is out there. If humans can’t—or won’t— have the truth of the God made man, we’ll take the truth of activist aliens from somewhere “out there.” Despite our supposed sophistication, we are increasingly beginning to resemble prehistoric peoples who stared at the sky and saw strange beings in the night.

A Grab-Bag of Neuroses

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” —A popular bumper sticker

Have you ever wondered who “they” are, as in, “They say that such-and-such is a secret Communist” or “the Anti- Christ” or “a Fascist”? Who are the they who possess such vast knowledge?

“They,” of course, is properly the third person plural pronoun, but more than that it connotes the abstract in language—the vehicle of our ability to get beyond singularities and make convenient abstractions. This ability to abstract is a sign of linguistic sophistication; the leap from “this boy, this other boy, and this other boy” to “them” saves time and energy, moving thought forward and making possible that progress which depends on classification and grouping. But it also has a certain potential to strip the individual iterations of a set of the particularity they possess as singular beings.

Humans recognize this, sometimes philosophically but usually deep in our gut. We fear the obliteration of distinction; the theme runs through literature, art, and popular culture. What is it about popular depictions of aliens that we find so frightening (or at least those of us who don’t welcome them as environmental prophets)? It’s the fact that they all look alike. Their depicted sameness does not comfort; it chills.

It is much this way with conspiracy theorists from the right and left, and even the ones that leap, screeching, from the realm of possibility. At some point in history the Masons, the Catholics, the Jews, the Blacks, the Religious Right, the Rich, the Poor, and just about every other racial, economic, social, political, and professional group has been the subject of somebody’s paranoid fears. This isn’t simply prejudice, the stalking horse of certain liberal imaginations. Real prejudice is usually rooted in a kind of general misanthropy and expresses itself in individual hatreds: that black man who is so uppity, this Catholic who worships Mary. Abstract hatreds work the opposite way, from the particular to the general, and hence can express themselves in far more destructive ways. Timothy McVeigh may have suffered indignities at the hands of individual representatives of the government, but he didn’t blow up the McMurrah building because the DMV clerk was rude. He blew it up because these individual experiences lost their human dimension— “this government employee”—and became ensconced in his deluded imagination as one large faceless monolith—”The Government.”

Conspiracy theories and millennial prophecies have always been marked by distinct strains of Gnosticism and Manichaeism, heresies that purport to divide the world between good and evil forces and invest certain factions with “secret knowledge” that is the key to understanding the mysteries of the universe. Both these heresies, in turn, depend on a certain anti-materialism that has contempt for creation, especially the body. (Heaven’s Gate, for example, was blatant in its belief that the body was a sinful “container” from which man needed to be freed to attain paradise.) We are witnessing a resurgence of this ancient human tendency on the eve of the third millennium; life seems to be growing more apocalyptic by the day, and we are conditioned to view the apocalypse in terms of symbols. For this we can blame the father of the genre, John of Patmos. It seems unlikely that John meant for us to take the Revelation account of gilded whores, angels with fiery swords, and triumphant horsemen of death quite literally. In fact, the injunction at the end of the letter to alter not one word seems to be an implicit warning: Don’t start filling in the blanks of this allegory with your own particular demons.

John knew that madness lies that way. We seem to have forgotten this, and many have begun to look for their particular harbingers of destruction, even those who no longer profess a belief in the Christian religion that underpins Revelation. So right wing nuts read Bill Clinton as the Anti-Christ and his administration as the legion of false prophets, while left wing nuts are certain that the Religious Right is so powerful even their existence drives people to kill homosexuals. Hillary Clinton has uncovered a vast conspiracy out to get her; militias are certain that the UN has marked Midwestern road signs to guide the invading force (who knew the UN could be so competent?); and everybody knows the Jews control the international banking cartel, along with the Council on Foreign Relations and the IMF.

Amidst all the nefarious plotting, double dealing, and secret society-ing that marks a nation obsessed with impending millennial doom stands the pope, who, were he a more mean-spirited fellow, would certainly be chuckling at us right now. John Paul recognizes that the coming millennium demands prayer and reflection, but he refuses to be overtaken by existential angst. The pope knows well that time is shot through with the glory of the person of Christ; without His entrance into human history, the millennium is nothing more than another random revolution of the Earth about the Sun. In his preparation for the millennium, the pope invites us to ponder the person of God—in His majesty, His concern for us, His assurance that He shall love us until the end of days, which includes the days near the End. This call to concrete and particular relationships is the answer to the Gnosticism that drives the millennianist into a rejection of the goodness of material creation that can only end in horror: By uniting ourselves with Christ, we unite ourselves with the whole human family, which makes it a bit more difficult to see the Anti-Christ in every man on the street.

Francis Bacon said that “superstitions, like bats, fly most at twilight.” In an age largely devoid of faith and full of uncertainty and anxiety, it is easy to see why the coming third millennium looms so large in the popular psyche. Humans need a story, an explanation, to guide their actions and give meaning to life. Having jettisoned the Christian tale of salvation and redemption, men stand naked before the inexorable ticking of time and fear the worst. The love that surpasses all understanding is precisely the balm for nervous humans who view every computer as a programmed time bomb and scan the night sky nervously for visitors from another planet: the perfect cure for millennial jitters.


  • Justin Torres

    Justin Torres is a writer and attorney in New Orleans.

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