The movie 2012 opens Friday, predicated on the notion that on December 21, 2012, as the most recent Mayan long-form calendar cycle (5,125.366 years) comes to an end, along with a unique planetary/solar alignment and a high level of solar activity, the world will cataclysmicly end one era and enter another. With earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and all sorts of devastating destruction in the process.
The movie is not the only source of prophetic notions of doom, or at least cataclysmic change, that are gaining increasing play and attention as 2012 approaches. There are books, websites, and even several other movies scheduled for release on the subject with all kinds of angles, from secular and New Age to religious and indigenous folk legend.
Now, even if it were true that the Mayans had predicted some apocalyptic ending of the world at the end of their long calendar cycle (they had several calendars and ways of marking time; that was just one of them), it's a bit odd that we'd grab onto that one particular prophesy and belief system of theirs. After all, the Mayans also believed in human sacrifice, and we don't exactly leap on board that train in attempting to maintain civic and theological order.
But according to Sandra Noble, executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI), the truth is, the Mayans didn't have any apocalyptic predictions for 2012. "There is NOTHING in ancient Maya records that predicts the end of the world; no apocalypse, no destruction, no cosmic clashes. Nothing," she says.
But, wait. What about Quetzacoatal returning and all that? Big sigh from the folks at FAMSI. In a fascinating paper available from the FAMSI website, Dr. Mark Van Stone, who has studied the Mayan culture for over a decade (and can read and write in Mayan hieroglyphs) provides an illuminating and entertaining cataloging of why all the doomsayers are off the mark and includes some great photo exhibits regarding the astronomical events scheduled for 12/21/12. Here's a sample, from his "9 Reasons Why The Mayan Prophecies Should Be Read Very Critically":
Though Aztec, Mixtec, and Maya sources provide us a number of narratives, different versions disagree. For example: the Aztec predict that this Creation will end on a 4-Movement day in a 2-Reed year, if it ends at all. The next possible Aztec end-date will be in 2027. Maya literature does not explicitly predict any end at all, and their so-called "end date" in 2012 is a 4-Ajaw [4-Flower in Aztec cycle] not 4-Movement. Mixtec Creation stories mention 2-Deer in 13-Rabbit, and other dates.
So perhaps in on the 2-Deer day in the 13-Rabbit year, under a 4-Flower Moon, we might have cause to worry -- except that it seems the Mayans never corrected written mistakes (the original, and literal, "carved in stone" approach). And the Aztec official responsible for a lot of how that culture's history was written apparently had a bit of a Machiavellian propaganda minister's streak in him. Which is to say, even what they did say should be taken with a handful of archeological salt.
December 21, 2012 is still a significant day for the Mayans. It's the equivalent of our Gregorian Calendar's December 31, 1999; the turning over of a new millennium and era of timekeeping. So it would be a big celebration. But that's about it. Of course, there were also a slew of predictions about disaster and doom surrounding our own "end of a cycle" mark at the end of 1999. None of which came true, as you may recall.
So why are we so drawn to these apocalyptic notions and prophecies of doom, gloom, and destruction (even if it eventually leads to a shining new era for the select few who are chosen or manage to survive)?
The answer apparently dates back to the very earliest days of human existence. "Apocalypticism," as it is academically known, arises from a deep evolutionary sense or need for social justice, according to Allen Kerkeslager, an associate professor in Religions of the Ancient World at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
"The sense of social justice, fairness in dealing with each other, and a felt need to cooperate with each other was already in place long before our hominid ancestors reached the cognitive ability to reflect on it," Professor Kerkeslager says.
As long as humans lived in the relatively egalitarian hunting and gathering societies that dominated up until about 10,000 years ago, that need was sufficiently met and enforced, because the survival of the group depended on cooperation. But when humans moved into more agrarian societies with land ownership, where a more hierarchical structure evolved, disparities increased. So those who had less had to come up with a way to explain the differences and satisfy their need for an eventual leveling of the scales. Apocalypticism, according to Kerkeslager, fulfilled that need and gave people a way of still believing that the gods were good and fair, even in an unfair world.
"Typically," he explains, "[apocalypticism] involves claims to prophetic authority among the leaders of the movement, an emphasis on visions and other forms of direct experience with the gods, and prophecies of a future transformation of the world that will bring relief to the afflicted members of the apocalyptic group and destruction on their enemies."
Not surprisingly, the phenomenon typically springs up among groups who find themselves in the minority, threatened, or repressed unfairly--at least, in their own view of the world. The Christian Book of Revelation came about under perceived Roman repression of the fledgling faith. The Anabaptists of the 1500s came out of a society stressed by economic disparity between rich and poor. Native American cultures developed apocalyptic narratives in the 1880s and 1890s, when those cultures were in danger of annihilation.
Visions and prophecies have been found in writings dating as far back as 2,000 B.C., according to Kerkeslager, although not all cultures had an equal need for thunder and lightning delivery of justice. In a polytheistic culture like ancient Greece, the need for apocalyptic beliefs was less, because a multitude of warring gods could explain misfortune or disparity. You might simply be the casualty of a power struggle between Hera and Zeus.
But as cultures became monotheistic, the disconnect between a supposedly fair and just God, and an unjust world, became harder to explain away. Hence, Kerkeslager says, apocalyptic notions in the Hebrew Book of Daniel, which was written only three years after a Greek King named Antiochus had begun a brutal repression of the Jews in Jerusalem, including turning the Jewish Temple into a shrine for Zeus. The revolt of Jewish revolutionaries, including the restoration of the temple in 165 B.C. (the same year that the Book of Daniel was written) is the basis for the Jewish holiday of Hannukah. But at the end of the Book of Daniel, the author predicts that an apocalyptic end will come to the repressive Greeks 1,290 days after their desecration of the temple. Unfortunately, as with other apocalyptic prophecies, it didn't happen. So the last line of Daniel changes the date to 1,335 days.
The fact that that date, too, came and went, didn't seem to fluster believers, any more than a failure of the earth to end on January 1, 2000 has stopped people from believing that it might still happen in 2012.
"The stubborn and often surprising ability of apocalyptic groups to ignore or explain away the failures of their prophecies is one of the most well-known features of apocalyptic groups," Kerkeslager says--a phenomenon also known as "motivated reasoning," as I discussed in an earlier piece here.
So with all that knowledge and understanding, can we all breathe easy? Not quite. "The belief in an apocalyptic doomsday is still alive even in the most skeptical societies," Kerkeslager says, "because it is very much a real possibility ... The earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and has sometimes been characterized by global transformations that have indeed had an apocalyptic scope." Some of those events were natural disasters that caused mass extinctions. But many civilizations, he points out, have brought about their own extinction "by practices that exhausted their natural resources and gradually undermined their ability to sustain their own populations." Including, ironically enough, the ancient Mayans.
So perhaps the Mayans did leave us a prophecy or warning worth heeding. Just not the one everyone's talking about. But in director Roland Emmerich's defense, I have to admit that it would be a lot harder to make a blockbuster action-adventure-thriller out of recycling your grocery bags and developing renewable energy sources than something that results in an aircraft carrier on a tidal wave wiping out the White House. Which is something spinners of apocalyptic tales figured out long before there were aircraft carriers, movies, or really cool special effects.
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
Without any of his key appointees confirmed by the Senate, the incoming president has turned to existing officials to help smooth the transition.
Donald Rumsfeld is not joining the Trump administration, but one of his most famous rules is: “You go to war with the Army you have—not the Army you might wish you have.” Or the secretary of the Army, as the case might be.
With the process of vetting and appointing, to say nothing of confirming, executive-branch officials well behind the optimal pace, incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said during a briefing on Thursday that “over 50” members of the Obama administration will temporarily remain in their posts to help smooth the transition to the Trump administration.
Spicer did not name all of the officials, nor did he indicate whether others had been asked and declined to stay on. A message to the Trump transition team, asking for a full list, has not been answered. Reuters reported Thursday afternoon that some individuals on a list, dated Tuesday, of appointees being asked to stay on had declined to do so, including the principal deputy director of national intelligence, an undersecretary of state, and an assistant secretary of state.
How the vice president spent a few of his closing days in office
When I boarded Air Force Two for Vice President Joe Biden’s final overseas mission, he had four days left in office. His leverage was diminishing by the hour, with every new question at a Trump nominee confirmation hearing, with every new @RealDonaldTrump tweet.
There was no chance of a miracle at that point, a few days away from Vice President-elect Mike Pence getting Biden’s keys to Air Force Two—to somehow rid Ukraine of its debilitating corruption, pull off a Cyprus deal, or stand between Kosovo and Serbia and neutralize the tension between them for good. It’s hard to shame Russian President Vladimir Putin or to inspire him to spiff up his behavior if the president-elect seems to accept Putin just as he is. And of course, there’s Iraq.
In the age of the digital hermit, a psychologist explains what it means to avoid other people—and what to do about it.
People today might not actually be avoiding social interaction any more than they did in past decades, but they’re certainly more vocal about it. The rise of digital communication seems to be spawning a nation of indoor cats, all humble-bragging about how introverted they are and ordering their rides and groceries without ever talking to a human.
Sometimes reclusiveness can be a sign of something more serious, though. Social anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses, but it’s still poorly understood outside of scientific circles. The good news is that it’s highly treatable, according to Stefan G. Hofmann, the director of the Social Anxiety Program at Boston University.
I recently talked with Hofmann about how social anxiety works and what people who feel socially anxious can do about it. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Curfews, sports, and understanding kids’ brain chemistry have all helped dramatically curb substance abuse in the country.
It’s a little before 3 p.m. on a sunny Friday afternoon and Laugardalur Park, near central Reykjavik, looks practically deserted. There’s an occasional adult with a stroller, but the park’s surrounded by apartment blocks and houses, and school’s out—so where are all the kids?
Walking with me are Gudberg Jónsson, a local psychologist, and Harvey Milkman, an American psychology professor who teaches for part of the year at Reykjavik University. Twenty years ago, says Gudberg, Icelandic teens were among the heaviest-drinking youths in Europe. “You couldn’t walk the streets in downtown Reykjavik on a Friday night because it felt unsafe,” adds Milkman. “There were hordes of teenagers getting in-your-face drunk.”
More clues that the Facebook founder is eyeing a run for office
There’s a long-running theory that Mark Zuckerberg has presidential aspirations. It makes sense to wonder. After all, if the civically engaged and ambitious billionaire leader of the most powerful media company on the planet wanted to take on a new challenge, why not try running a country? It’s not like he has many other opportunities for a promotion.
But only in recent weeks has a Zuckerberg run for the American presidency started to seem like a legitimate possibility. First there was his personal challenge for 2017: Zuckerberg’s aiming to visit and meet with people in all 50 states by the end of the year.
And not just that, but he framed the exercise in a way that sounds, well, political: “Going into this challenge, it seems we are at a turning point in history,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “For decades, technology and globalization have made us more productive and connected. This has created many benefits, but for a lot of people it has also made life more challenging. This has contributed to a greater sense of division than I have felt in my lifetime. We need to find a way to change the game so it works for everyone.”
William Jennings Bryan, the populist presidential hopeful, warned of an “epidemic of fake news” in his day.
Fake news is everywhere. The power of the press is said to be waning. And because the nation’s most famous populist—the man with his sights on the presidency—can’t trust the lying media, he says, he has no option but to be a publisher himself.
Oh yeah, and the year is 1896.
The would-be president in question is William Jennings Bryan. In an era before the internet, television, or radio, the best way to reach the masses is with newsprint. So, without the option of tweeting his grievances after losing the election to William McKinley, what does Bryan do? He starts his own newspaper. And he uses it to rail against “fake news.”
I don’t need to tell you a lot of this sounds weirdly familiar.
“There seems to be an epidemic of fake news from the city of Lincoln, [Nebraska], and it all comes from Mr. Bryan’s ‘friends’—names not given,” Bryan’s newspaper, The Commoner,wrote in 1907. “It would seem unnecessary to deny reports sent out to which no name was attached, and yet it has been necessary to send a number of telegrams to notify other papers that the report was unauthorized … As Mr. Bryan has a paper—The Commoner—through which he speaks every week, and as he is speaking often and giving out interviews frequently, a newspaper ought to view with suspicion any report sent out from Lincoln or anywhere else purporting to state what Mr. Bryan thinks or intends to do.” (In this case, the issue at hand was Bryan’s stance against a third term for Teddy Roosevelt, which some papers had apparently questioned.)
A mix of patriotic balladeers and apolitical acts will take the stage on Thursday and Friday.
It is not true, as a lot of commentary would have it, that Donald Trump’s inauguration will feature “no stars.” Some of the entertainers who have signed on to play have, in fact, built their success on entertaining millions of people. But it is true that what’s considered “the A-list” will be conspicuously absent, as will be acts from other lists: The B-Street Band, a Bruce Springsteen tribute group, backed out from an unofficial inaugural party after outcry; Broadway singer Jennifer Holliday reneged from the main concert event.
The mix of entertainers lined up for Thursday’s “Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration” on the National Mall and Friday’s swearing-in ceremony represents a hodgepodge of ideology and expediency. In a savvy MTV essay about Trump’s national-anthem singer Jackie Evancho, Doreen St. Félix argued that booking the 16-year-old America’s Got Talent runner up was “a matter of scavenging, and then gilding over the spoils”—a description that could apply across the lineup given the many headlines about Trump’s team getting turned down by celebrities then saying that not having famous people is a good thing. But in its relative lack of glitz, and in its coalition of performers well familiar to state-fair stages, this week’s bill may inadvertently achieve the stated inaugural goal of projecting an image not of Trump but of the people who elected him.
The president-elect filled out his Cabinet on Thursday by nominating former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue for agriculture secretary.
Updated on January 19, 2017
A day before his inauguration, President-elect Donald Trump has filled out his Cabinet.
Trump on Thursday morning announced the nomination of former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue as secretary of agriculture, completing a search that took the duration of his presidential transition.
Perdue, who served as governor from 2003 to 2011, grew up on a farm in Georgia and earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine. “Sonny Perdue is going to accomplish great things as Secretary of Agriculture,” Trump said in a statement. “From growing up on a farm to being governor of a big agriculture state, he has spent his whole life understanding and solving the challenges our farmers face, and he is going to deliver big results for all Americans who earn their living off the land.”