John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to email@example.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.
Monday, February 1, 2010
The Rev. William Miller, a Baptist divine, calculated from prophecies in the Book of Daniel that the world would end in 1844. Some of his followers set the date at October 22 of that year, and by October 23 had experienced what came to be called the Great Disappointment. Some immediately began making fresh calculations.
On Friday, the San Francisco Chronicle granted ink and pixels to Harold Camping, an 88-year-old civil engineer who scoffs at the recent furor over the Mayan calendar and the predicted end of the world in 2012; he knows that the world is going to end on May 21, 2011.
Of course, his previous calculation that the world would end on September 6, 1994, required some adjustment.
John Allen Paulos, the mathematician, asked rhetorically on Twitter, “Why do respectable newspapers still publish such Pat-Robertsonian numerological nonsense?” (He had also marveled at a Washington Post feature that analyzed “congressional votes along various dimensions, including astrological signs!”)
Much as I respect his views and his authority, I have to disagree. I share H.L. Mencken’s delight in being an American:
The United States, to my eye, is incomparably the greatest show on earth. It is a show which avoids diligently all the kinds of clowning which tire me most quickly—for example, the royal ceremonials, the tedious hocus-pocus of the haut politique, the taking of politics seriously—and lays chief stress upon the kinds which delight me unceasingly—for example, the ribald combats of demagogues, the exquisitely ingenious operations of master rogues, the pursuit of witches and heretics, the desperate struggles of inferior men to claw their way into Heaven. We have clowns in constant practice among us who are as far above the clowns of any other great state as Jack Dempsey is above a paralytic—and not a few dozen of them, but whole droves and herds.
And it is not just the Parousia (from the Greek, “being present,” the technical theological term for the Second Coming of Christ) that draws them
Remember the newspaper articles about the people who were going to spend New Year’s Eve in 1999 in their basements with their canned goods and handguns, awaiting the dread Y2K? I snorted with delight while reading them.
Amazon.com lists recent books claiming that Francis Bacon wrote the plays of Shakespeare, and there are Web sites devoted to the same crackpot cause — some of them relying on calculations of numerological or cipher evidence in the texts of the plays.
Surely nowhere else but in this glorious Republic could two wielders of the slapstick and the bladder such as Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann be mistaken for serious commenters on the political affairs of the day rather than mere gasbags.
Or consider the tapestry of hypocrisies unfurled by such statesmen as Sen. John Edwards and Gov. Mark Sanford. Mr. Edwards has not yet bestowed any gift upon the English language, but to Mr. Sanford we owe a sterling euphemism, “hiking the Appalachian Trail.”
No, no, I am in no hurry to goose the Parousia along. Where we live now is already Paradise for crackpots. And spectators.