Article by Alexander Cockburn.
Americans were offered closure Wednesday to one of among the multifarious strands of our national dementias. It took the drab guise of the “long-form” birth certificate, signed and filed in Hawaii on August 8, 1961, indicating that the president is a legitimate occupant of the Oval Office. But will the White House’s release of the certificate finish off the “birther” movement? Certainly not. We’re dealing here with cognitive dissonance.
Harold Camping, president of Family Stations Ministry, has been preaching for some time now to a vast and devoted national audience that God’s plan is to inaugurate the Second Coming and end the world by flooding on May 21, 2011 (thus achieving a Judeo-Christian planetary closure before the prime current pagan rival, the end of the Mayan calendar, scheduled for December 21, 2012.)
It’s a safe bet that Camping and his disciples will be saying on May 22 that his math was merely a year or two off, and the end is still nigh. His congregation will have its faith fortified. Membership will probably increase, as it did after the failure of Camping’s last prediction of the Second Coming, which he scheduled for September 6, 1994.
Sociologists call the phenomenon of increased commitment to a batty theory, at the very hour of its destruction by external evidence, “cognitive dissonance.” The theory was developed by three sociologists, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, who infiltrated a group headed by Dorothy Martin of Chicago who had received messages from the Planet Clarion that the world was scheduled for destruction by flood in the predawn hours of December 21, 1954. A flying saucer would save the group, whose members had abandoned, often at considerable expense and upheaval, all terrestrial commitments, pending transfer to Clarion.
The sociologists theorized that, when neither spaceship nor flood materialized, the group’s best strategy to avoid public humiliation would be to dismiss the failure of the prophesied events as due to minor miscalculations and then to proselytize vigorously, advertising a re-dated flood and interplanetary rescue. Dissonance between nutty theory and reality would be diminished amid growing popularity of the nutty theory. Anyone following the growth of the Christian religion in its early decades, or the Lesser of Two Evils crowd advocating support of a Democratic candidate, will recognize the dynamics.