Kooks galore

I noted yesterday in my post about my reading habits that I enjoy what I call “kookery” — stuff about all those belief-systems you find out on the fringes of society. I just finished a nifty book about just such people, Apocalypse Pretty Soon: Travels in End-Time America, by Alex Heard. Heard is a former editor of WIRED Magazine who wrote this book out of a fascination with people who believe that the world is soon to end, or that humanity is soon to evolve, or that death will soon be conquered, or that the government will soon be overthrown. Soon.

Over the course of the book, Heard details his adventures and misadventures as he tracks down, meets, and in some cases, lives with “millennials”. We meet people like the Unarius Academy of Science, which is pretty unique in that the organization survived the passing of its charismatic founder. He profiles a farmer named Clyde Lott who is trying to breed red heifers (cattle which are somehow important in the whole Armageddon thing, I think, or in heralding the reclaiming of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem). We meet UFO enthusiasts and glimpse a bit into the clash of personalities that are familiar to anyone who reads much about the UFO community. Heard shows us researchers who wish to literally conquer death: cryonicists, alternative medicine specialists, and people who wonder if severed human heads can be kept alive indefinitely. (In one hilarious passage, a “severed head theorist” speculates on whether museums would have to restrict “discorps” — discorporated heads — to visiting on certain days, since the sight of a head-in-a-vat being wheeled through, say, the Guggenheim might put off the whole-bodied patrons.)

Heard also takes us on a week-long retreat to some outfit that studies “out of body transit”, and to meet some libertarians who want to literally build an artificial island in one of the oceans so they can live in peace, thus going way over the heads of those more down-to-earth libertarians who simply want to take over one of the fifty states. And in a particularly disturbing chapter, Heard delves slightly into the mind of one Ron Cole, who comes off as a right-wing militant revolutionary wanna-be. “Don’t be surprised if you hear the name again,” Heard writes of Cole, who at the time of his writing was in jail on a weapons charge.

Interestingly, Heard mostly avoids the kind of condescending, “You gotta be joking” tone one might expect, although he doesn’t go all the way into sympathy with them, either. What seems to impress Heard the most — with the exception of the chapter about Cole and the Texas militants — is the general air of happiness and optimism he finds in the groups he profiles. “If I had to identify one unifying theme about what motivates contemporary millennialists,” Heard writes, “it would be this: they’d hopeful. Mainly, they hope for change in a world that annoys them.” Heard notes that while most of them believe that things are reaching a breaking point, they are loath to make specific predictions as to when that is to happen, or if they do, they leave themselves convenient “excuses” for why it didn’t take place as planned.

As enjoyable as the book is, there was a dark undertone that Heard certainly didn’t intend, as he wrote this during the late 1990s (the book came out in 1999, and Heard worked on it for several years). I wouldn’t mind seeing some follow-up, if not to the specific people profiled in the book, but as to how 9-11-01 affected millennialism in general. Some of the groups don’t seem nearly as benign in the light of those attacks. Still, the book is less than five years old, and as the few links I turned up above show, the organizations and people Heard profiles are still active. Hope springs eternal, I guess — even the hopes of “kookery”.

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