Why It’s Important to Mock Harold Camping
Looks like everyone’s favorite Prophet of Doom, Harold Camping, has revised his prediction and given us a new date for the end of the world: October 21st. The evangelist has just sent the Apocalypse Game into wholly unwelcome extra innings–bad news for those of you who were already sick of Rapture jokes.
There are some who have decried the merciless dogpiling on Camping and his followers, saying they are more deserving of pity than scorn. Ferrett Steinmetz has a particularly thoughtful post on the subject, comparing the treatment of Campingites with the ostracism he suffered as a child for being different.
I’m certainly no stranger to the feelings of alienation Ferrett writes about; I empathize completely. At the same time, though, I have to disagree with his conclusions. It seems wrong-headed of him to equate his own experience with Camping’s. Not all ostracisms are created equal. Some of them are entirely justified, even necessary. For some extreme examples, consider the way we ostracize murderers, rapists, and pedophiles. We cast out maniacs like Ted Bundy, Timothy McVeigh, and Ted Kaczynski, and we do it for the safety of society.
Nor must a behavior reach the level of criminality before it becomes worthy of shunning. Someone who is boorish, venal, or vapid quickly finds herself on the outside looking in, and deservedly so. Such behaviors evince gross disregard of/disrespect for the needs of others, and so should not be positively reinforced. We impose social sanctions to discourage them.
In Stephen King’s book Danse Macabre, Harlan Ellison pointed out that the Ayatollah Khomeini, by his actions, forced us all to live in a madman’s dream world. So, for that matter, did Osama bin Laden. To that list of miscreants, I think we can safely add Mr. Camping. Ferrett Steinmetz’s fondness for the work of Tolkein does not begin to compare with the damage done by Camping and his drooling band of crazies. Ferrett didn’t deserve to be mocked for his literary tastes. Camping, however, does not get the same pass. He and his hateful fellow travelers have forfeited any right to kind consideration. Pity them if you will, but don’t tell me that they are entitled to it.
Harsh sentiments, I know. One might counter that we catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, that by heaping derision on these poor people, we negate any chance to win them back to the side of clearheadedness and socially acceptable behavior. For a retort, one need only consider Camping’s latest revision of his own prediction, or the myriad bullshit rationalizations we are hearing from his True Believers in light of his failed prophecy. Do you really think you’re going to reach these mooks? Ask yourself this: how many more times would Camping have to be wrong before he admits he doesn’t know what he’s talking about? Two times? Ten? A hundred? More important, how many more failures will his followers tolerate or rationalize away? How much more harm will they inflict on themselves and others before they reject his toxic theology? Perhaps most important of all, how much more damage are you willing to let them do?
Stop fantasizing about the day when Camping calls a press conference to say, "OK, it’s pretty clear by now that I have no gift for prophecy. None whatsoever. I call upon everyone who ever listened to me to . . . well, just forget the whole thing. Sorry for the inconvenience." That day will never come. These people are lost causes. You can’t reason a man out of a position he didn’t reason himself into, as the saying goes, so we must act to preserve ourselves. If we hold rational discourse dear, if we believe that profound anti-intellectualism erodes our society, if we ever aspire to learn even a little from the past, we must enforce the boundaries that separate eccentric behavior from the actively dangerous.
Jonathan Swift and Kurt Vonnegut knew a little something about the proper function of mockery. Granted, they did it with rather more subtelty and style than some of those currently deriding the Camping people. Even so, if by cracking a Rapture joke or two, I can help further a noble and necessary tradition, well, I guess it’s my patriotic duty.
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