It might be just me, but I can’t shake the gloomy, ominous feeling that there is something really wrong with the world these days. The economy might be hitting record highs, but our politics are at a record low. There seems to be a constant confrontation regarding pretty much everything: gender, race, the environment, sports, the flag. It is almost as if the world as we know it is coming to an end. It might not literally be coming to an end, but I think we are going through a transitional period from something we know (the post-WW2 period) to something yet unknown. This feeling seems to be echoed by a lot of recent TV shows that have the end of the world as a central theme: it is part of The Walking Dead and its spin-off Fear the Walking Dead, it is in Game of Thrones with its “Winter is Coming” prophecy, it was at the heart of HBO’s The Leftovers last year, and it is going to be central to the upcoming American Horror Story: Apocalypse. The most compelling exploration of the end of days I have seen recently though, can be found not on TV or film, but on a comic book: East of West.
East of West and the End of the World
Over the summer, I picked up the comic book series East of West, published by Image Comics, and created by writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Dragotta. I was not able to put it down until I was all caught up (the series is right now in #38), and wanting more (Hickman recently announced that #47 will be last issue). East of West takes place in a dystopian future version of the United States, with an alternative historical timeline in which the Civil War did not end in reconciliation between the North and the South, but in a further fragmentation of the country in seven different states: the Union, the Confederacy, an African American monarchy (The Kingdom), a Native American technocracy (the Endless Nation), a territory for Chinese immigrants and exiles (the PRA), another with Texan separatists (the Republic of Texas), and the sacred land of Armistice.
What puts an end to the confrontation is the ominous crash in 1908 of a comet in central Kansas, which is renamed from then on as Armistice, followed by the simultaneous revelation of independent but related prophecies by a soldier in the Confederacy army, and the leader of the Endless Nation. These two prophecies are completed 50 years later, in 1958, by a new and final one by Mao Zedong. The “message,” revealed by these complementary prophecies is quite clear: the end of the world is near. The story is much more complex, involving the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a love story between Death (one of the Four Horsemen) and Mao Xiaolian (the daughter of Mao V), whose child is believed to be “the Beast,” and a group of 6 “Chosen,” one from each of the six nations (with the exception of the Kingdom).
What attracted me to the story was not only Hickman’s great writing and the beautiful art of Dragotta, but how this story of political strife, religious fanaticism, and the end of the world resonated so much with our current troubled times. The first volume of East of West was published in March of 2013, but its reading of the geopolitical landscape even during the first issues was so prescient that Hickman himself joked in November 2016, right after our last presidential election: “I may not be the best writer in comics, but I am the most prophetic.”
One of Hickman’s key insights in East of West has been to create a narrative that echoes our present politics, one that understands that, as one of the central characters says “the things that divide us are stronger than the things that unite us,” and boy was Hickman right about that. The political tensions within this alternative version of the United States mirror, in many ways, the current deep divisions of our country, as well as the profound geopolitical readjustment that we are seeing all throughout the world. Also, it seems inevitable at this point to see in some of the characters, like President (of the Confederacy) Archibald Chamberlain, Madame President (of the Union) Antonia LeVay, or Ezra Orion (the high priest of Armistice and keeper of “The Message”), unintended echoes of current political figures such as President Trump and Stephen K. Bannon. I don’t think this was ever Hickman’s intention, particularly since the first issue came three years before the election of Trump, but our new political context surely has affected the way I read the comic.
The High Priest of the Apocalypse: Stephen K. Bannon
A central character in the story is Ezra Orion, the adopted son of Conquest (one of the Four Horsemen) who becomes the keeper of the Message (as the Prophecy is known), and the premier of Armistice. He is constantly pushed by Conquest to become “what the Message demands,” and Ezra in a dramatic moment of the story becomes one with the message after ingesting the Scripture. Reading the story in 2018, it was not difficult to see the parallels between Ezra Orion and Stephen Bannon. If you think I am exaggerating, you only need to read Bannon’s own prophetic visions for the future of America and the world, and the extent of his efforts to make sure that vision becomes true (i.e. his early support of Trump).
As in the case of Ezra, Bannon is not really a prophet himself, but the high priest of an apocalyptic political prophecy written by William Strauss and Neil Howe, in their books Generations (1991) and The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy (1999). In those books, Strauss and Howe, outlined their theory (prophecy) of a cyclical history compressed by cycles of 80-100 years each with four distinctive periods. I won’t go into the details of those cycles (you can find lengthy explanation of it online), but according to the authors, we are right now in the midst of the 4th turning or “Crisis” which marks the end of a cycle, and opens the door to a new one. Bannon is a big believer in that theory and has spoken at length about it in several interviews and speeches.
The Fourth Turning is particularly alarmist, and contains prophecies (under the disguise of theories) that predict the imminence of a catastrophic conflict:
History is seasonal, and winter is coming. … The very survival of the nation will feel at stake. Sometime before the year 2025, America will pass through a great gate in history, one commensurate with the American Revolution, Civil War, and twin emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II. The risk of catastrophe will be high. The nation could erupt into insurrection or civil violence, crack up geographically, or succumb to authoritarian rule.
The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next, p. 6.
Bannon does not only believe in these prophecies, but he has become an active agent to fulfill them. a catastrophic conflict, or even a war, is according to him (and to the 4rth Turning prophecy) inevitable. What is important is what America can and should do to come out on top when that conflict happens. And here it is where it gets scary, because for Bannon, what matters is not only to get ready for the possible wars and conflicts to come, but force them into existence. Instead of avoiding tensions with other nations such as China, Russia, or even traditional allies like the European Union, our best bet according to Bannon is to run towards the inevitable, making a prophecy a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“We’re at the beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict. We are in an outright war against jihadist Islam — Islamic fascism […] And this war is, I think, metastasizing almost far quicker than governments can handle it.”
This is also a central theme of East of West, where we have not only the idea of a Prophecy, but willing participants (the Four Horsemen, the 6 Chosen) who become agents of that prophecy to make sure it becomes a reality. And this is, sadly, what we have seen with our own current government with Trump at the top. His meetings with Putin and Kim Jong-Un, his attacks on traditional allies, his undermining of trade deals. Bannon may not be part of the cabinet now, but he was the one that convinced Trump of the power of this apocalyptic political vision, one that resonated with some of the worst instincts of Trump (his thirst for power, his need of constant conflict, his dangerous tweets about using nuclear force). This apocalyptic vision became clear in Trump’s inaugural speech with the famous reference to the “American carnage:”
Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge. And the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
How Prophecies Really Work
Now, I don’t want to end on a gloomy note, so let me point out a problem with this apocalyptic vision based on prophecies as espoused by scholars like Strauss and Howe, and brought into the political arena by people like Bannon and Trump. The ironic paradox of prophecies, is that they do not really predict the future, but only confirm the past: they operate backwards in time and not forward. Prophecies in a religious context are usually written in a way that allows them to insert themselves in an already established narrative, confirming expectations set up in the past. Prophecies are always self-fulfilling prophecies, they need agents who believe in them in order to transform them into reality.
I have written about this before, but an important aspect of prophecies, as seen in East of West, but also in the faith that Bannon and others in the conservative movement have in their vision of the future, is not that these prophecies usually fail, but the mechanisms developed by the community of believers to justify why they did, and why the prophecies will be fulfilled in the future. Festinger, in his book When Prophecy Fails called this phenomena “cognitive dissonance,” mainly the ability we have as humans of holding two or more contradictory beliefs or ideas at once. In this remarkable book, Ferstinger chronicles not only the failure of the prophecies about the end of the world by the leader of a cult, but how the followers of this new religious movement, would rationalize and explain its failure while keeping up the hope that it would be fulfilled in the future. As Ferstinger argues, “a man with conviction is a hard man to change“:
“Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point. We have all experienced the futility of trying to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his belief. We are familiar with the variety of ingenious defenses with which people protect their convictions, managing to keep them unscathed through the most devastating attacks. “But man’s resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view. “
Belief and faith, it seems, trump rationality (pun intended). Christians, for example, have been waiting for the end of the world since the very early days of the religion, and Christian prophets have been attempting to predict the actual date of the end of days and failing for centuries. The failure of these prophecies, though, do not discourage many Christians of their certainty. The Republican party, with Bannon as one of their more prominent high priests, seem to have taken succesfully the apocalyptic message into the political arena. Bannon realized the mobilizing power of prophecy, he capitalized on his ability to tap into the willingness of people to believe that he can predict the future, that in a world of chaos and uncertainty, there is a way to know what will happen. He seemed to offer certainty in a world of uncertainty.
This is something that Hickman captures really well in East of West. Yes, there is a prophecy. Yes, there are the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, and a secret group of six chosen ones that believe in the prophecy and have promised to make sure it is fulfilled, but that is the key element: the prophecy has to be fulfilled and enacted by individuals by making sure the conflict actually happens. It is not inevitable… and that’s the element that gives me some comfort. It is really up to us to stop what as of now seems inevitable (some sort of catastrophic collapse of American democracy, a larger worldwide conflict, etc.). As Hickman himself points out when discussing East of West: “The end times are imminent and we all hate each other too much to come together and solve our problems. Our final destination is imminent, and it is the Apocalypse. And then, in the face of all that despair and gloom, somehow there is still hope.”
So we do not know how or when our current political crisis will end, but it is really in our hands that Bannon’s prophecies do not become a reality. What I do know, though, is that Hickman has already announced when this compelling series will end, and I can’t wait to read it.