The End Times Hits Primetime

"Now where was I? Oh right, our complete annihilation at the hands of fundamentalist Arabs. I was thinking about this on August 22nd, and some very smart people -- even smarter than me -- thought it was very possible that Iran or one of those other merry pranksters in the Middle East could have made a big move and vaporized every one of us. But August 22nd has passed, and that hasn't happened. Yet... Hezbollah could push the "Launch" button while I'm enjoying some chips and dip and watching that cantankerous House on TV. Maybe it won't happen, but you never know. And by won't happen, I mean the Hezbollah/launch part, not the chips and dip part. Me, some French onion and a bag of Ruffles is so happening." -- Glenn Beck, talk show host, CNN Headline News
It's hard to imagine anything that better encapsulates the spirit of life in America under George W. Bush than primetime CNN pseudo-prophet Glenn Beck's recent warning about the end of the world. A dire warning about Armageddon, strategically issued during election season, that includes -- a plug for Ruffles!

Beck is the new hotness in the world of O'Reilly-Hannity-esque shrieking TV windbags; a former drug addict who is a late convert to Mormonism, Beck's shtick is that he's a conservative but not a Republican, allowing him to claim a kind of objectivity while he does things like fantasize about murdering Michael Moore and call Michael Berg's dad a "scumbag." His TV come-on is part comic, part carnival barker, and one if his favorite themes is End Times -- he's a strong believer in the literal second coming of Jesus and, between cornball jokes, never wastes any opportunity to remind his audience that the end is nigh.

Coupled with the horrifying on-air persona of Headline's eight-chinned Court TV exile Nancy Grace, who gives periodic angry news updates during Beck's program (Grace was apoplectic when John Mark Karr was allowed to wear regular clothes on his flight to Colorado), Beck's 7 p.m. slot on Headline has to be one of the weirdest news programs in American history.

Or is it? There have been indications lately that this whole End Times business is fast becoming more than a crazy hobby among the mutant-evangelist set, and is actually playing an important role in Middle East politics, specifically in guiding America's Israel policy.

End Times had its coming-out party in the mainstream media via a now-notorious editorial penned in the Wall Street Journal on August 8 by former Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis. In it, Lewis posited that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was planning a "cataclysmic event" on August 22 (the same date Beck was focused on), because that was the date that corresponded, on the Islamic calendar, with the 27th day of Rajab of the year 1427, said to be the date when Muhammad flew on a winged horse to heaven and back.

That seemed to start the ball rolling on the Aug. 22nd front. From there, a whole host of ostensibly serious commentators started appearing on American television braying horrible warnings about the coming end of the world. Worse still, some of them claimed real ties with the White House. Chief among those was probably John Hagee, a San Antonio pastor whose End Times credentials have already been reported in many outlets (among others, by Sarah Posner of Alternet).

The significance of Hagee is that he chairs a group called Christians United For Israel (CUFI) which believes that the U.S. must unite to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran to precipitate Armageddon, followed by the more desirable Second Coming of Jesus. Hagee would be just another sweating evangelist lunatic if it weren't for the fact that his group has the ear of the White House. RNC chair Ken Mehlman took time out from bashing Ned Lamont to speak at CUFI's inaugural banquet in Washington in July, and both Sam Brownback and Rick Santorum also addressed the group. Meanwhile, Hagee at the banquet reportedly read out greetings from Ehud Olmert and George W. Bush himself, who apparently said, "God Bless and stand by the people of Israel and God Bless the United States."

If that weren't scary enough, the Washington Post on August 4th published a story by Dan Froomkin suggesting that a certain Joel C. Rosenberg, another prominent subscriber to the Aug. 22nd theory, had been invited to the White House. Rosenberg told Froomkin that he had spoken to a "couple dozen" White House aides on February 10, 2005, and had been in touch with some of them ever since. Rosenberg said the meeting came after an unnamed White House staffer called him and said "A lot of people over here are reading your novels" -- novels which presumably include the recent The Ezekiel Option, which is about, God help us, a White House staffer who urges a highly religious president to bomb Russia and bring about the End of Everything.

I've read The Ezekiel Option. It's a compendium of every dipshit hocus-pocus Christian pseudo-scientific political idea you can think of, written in that childishly mechanical literary style peculiar to American blockbusters of the Da Vinci Code and Left Behind ilk -- in which every character has a name like Mike Stormfield or Andrew Porchdale, romance is watching a White House aide plant a church-sanctioned kiss on a CIA agent, and human beings seemingly can only think in italics ("Now Jibril was finally making sense, thought Gogolov"). Moreover, the people in the book only come in two types -- absolutely evil or absolutely good. The evil people are all Muslims, communists, Europeans, academics or lefties, and the good people are innocent peace-loving Americans who all have titles in the American or Israeli government or security services.

The book is a remarkable document if only because it is such an accurate depiction of mainstream delusional paranoia in the Bush era. In Rosenberg's take on modern history, the Iraq invasion was a rousing success ("The White House could barely contain its optimism. A peaceful, prosperous, democratic Iraq... would forever transform the modern Middle East"), and the new democratic Iraqi president in the book is an almost perfect representation of Thomas Friedman's mythical "Iraqi Thomas Jefferson" character -- a man who under Saddam had published books full of coded messages aimed at helping readers find contraband copies of the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence in Baghdad's public libraries.

Imagining that Iraqi Muslims under Saddam read the Declaration of Independence for inspiration is a little like an Afghan Imam dreaming of Kentucky coal miners gathering at a diner to read Ibn al Taymiya before a strike. It's nuts, but this is the way many people in our country view the world; there are people out there who think that even pygmies in Africa grew up dreaming of Ben Franklin's kite.

The plot of the book revolves around the hijacking of a Russian passenger plane. When the hijackers steer the plane towards the White House, the Jesus-loving president MacPherson waits until the last minute before blowing it out of the sky, then weeps for the 173 passengers aboard. Naturally the whole world turns against the United States for this monstrous act, and when ultranationalists seize Russia in a coup they are joined by, who else, France and Germany in denouncing the American "aggression."

Eventually the entire world bands together under the auspices of the U.N. to declare war (with the Antichrist's million ground troops on horseback, no less) on Israel, and only a plucky and intrepid White House aid named Jon Bennet, who comes back to Jesus in the book, realizes (after a half-baked Da Vinci-style Biblical investigation) that history is following the apocalyptic script of Ezekiel. He must tell the president! But it is too late, as both sides destroy each other in a fiery nuclear battle that is presented in the book as a sort of highly satisfying, orgasmic rhetorical release. And in the end, Iraq -- now immensely strong and vital in the wake of the invigorating invasion by America -- rises again as the new Babylon, the new power on earth...

All of this silly horseshit wouldn't normally inspire anything but laughter in anyone older than four, except for one thing. Joel C. Rosenberg, born into an Orthodox Jewish family but a convert to Christ at 17, is a former senior advisor to Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Natan Sharansky and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Think about it: a former high-ranking Israeli official returns to the United States and starts writing a new genre of End Times bestsellers whose main ideological thrust is that the United States must stand by Israel to guard against a future invasion by a mega-powerful multinational Antichrist, one that includes the forces of the Arab world, Russia, Germany, and those goddamned French -- an invasion which, he repeatedly says in numerous television appearances, is about to happen at any moment.

Can you think of a more effective way to secure the support of the modern American Republican base? You take a group of people who've been softened up by fifty million copies of the Left Behind series and tell them that if you urge the president to keep supporting Israel, they can meet Jesus -- next week! If I were the head of the Mossad, I'd be pissed I didn't think of this first. Or, who knows -- maybe I did.

Rosenberg was on Fox numerous times throughout this summer's Israeli-Lebanon conflict, warning of a cataclysmic attack by Iran. He appeared on Neil Cavuto's show on August 16 and claimed that the Iranian president was saying that "the end of the world is rapidly approaching and that it's his mission to bring it about by destroying Israel." At no time did he mention that he himself was the author of apocalyptic novels.

When the end of the world is being soberly predicted on most of our major television networks and the Wall Street Journal, and a group dedicated to End Times fantasies can summon the attention of Senators, a Republican Party chairman, and the heads of two nuclear states, this matter stops being a conspiracy theory. We might have to face the fact that American politics has departed the world of the rational and has entered the realm of a cultist dynamic.

Consider this possibility: with its administration's earthly policies in shambles, and no way left to compete in the normal political arena in the upcoming elections, Karl Rove and co. may be flirting with selling the same thing cult leaders throughout history have sold their followers: the afterlife. And who better to sell a Revelations storyline than the guardians of the world's biggest army, already deployed in the Holy Lands against the unbelievers? It's a crazy idea, but it's also inspired. And would you put it past them?

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