Listening to late-night radio for about five minutes the other night, I heard something I can’t get out of my head.
The host of the show was talking to an “expert” of some kind, who had alarming things to say about the fate of the Earth in light of experiments underway at CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider.
They both kept talking about “perturbations” in the earth’s orbit that were supposedly being caused by the extremely powerful particle collider in use at CERN, on the French-Swiss border.
At one point the host said the heat generated by the collider was “100,000 times more hotter than the sun.” Yes, the man who correctly used the word “perturbations” also used the phrase “more hotter.”
Anyway, for a minute or two, the discussion stayed pretty close to science, or at least made use of terms sometimes associated with science, talking about how the powerful magnetic forces unleashed at CERN could throw the Earth entirely off its orbit, or even cause a literally Earth-shattering explosion.
At that point the discussion simply sounded like yet another pseudo-scientific exchange, similar in tone to what you might hear from a believer in Noah’s Ark explaining how evolution can’t be true.
Then, suddenly, the discussion veered off into left field and sailed over the fence. The guest, still sounding like a sober-minded scientist, said there was a real possibility that the particle collider might open up the gates of Hell.
He cited a passage from the Book of Revelation that supposedly referenced just such an occurrence, adding that CERN happened to be built on top of a Roman temple that in ancient times was thought to contain a portal to the underworld.
I know this sort of thing has been a staple of late-night radio for a long time, but stumbling upon it at this moment in our national history made me realize that this stuff couldn’t be laughed at any more.
When I used to drive across the great empty spaces of North Dakota and Montana at night, I loved listening to whatever hellfire-and-damnation preacher from Oklahoma or Texas I could pick up on my car radio, or, better yet, a late-night crank spinning tales of alien abduction or the second coming of Elvis.
Back in those innocent years you could laugh at the nonsense because you felt yourself part of a large majority of rational people. You figured the audience for such patent absurdities consisted of pitiful recluses holed up in lonesome hollers or half-educated half-wits who listened to the radio while frying up a squirrel.
But this year, the year that Truth folded up its tent and surrendered the field to falsehoods and fables, everything feels different. As I listened to the discussion about Revelations and particle colliders, I felt a cold dread, not at the prospect of existential doom but at the growing futility of trying to establish the truth of anything.
It’s as if a majority of people, having decided that the world is just too complex these days, have given up trying to figure anything out, abandoned the effort to sift fact from fiction, and given themselves over to purveyors of untruths, the more outrageous, titillating and frightening, the better.
The cow would yield no more milk, as a wit once observed, so they’ve gone to milk the bull.
In the most famous defense of free speech ever written, John Milton said there was no danger in letting truth and falsehood fight it out, because “who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”
But could even John Milton, with his capacious poetic imagination, have imagined falsehoods on the order of a scientific experiment in the Swiss Alps unlocking the gates of Hell? Or for that matter the rumor that a presidential candidate and her campaign chief were running a child sex ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza joint?
I find myself almost wishing that the gates-of-Hell story were true. If this is all the further we’ve progressed as humans, whose brains are supposed to separate us from all the other creatures on earth, maybe we deserve a doomsday.
Of course, I would have to go down with the ship and would regret not being able to report on the biggest news story of all time. But if the gates of Hell really did open and devour the planet, that would make the story true, which means no one would believe it anyway.
So bring it on, Beelzebub, bring it on.