Another Perspective

We Are All Mayans

Even Joe Biden, who would head the commission about how we got it all wrong.

By 12.28.12

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The apocalyptic vision of the ancient Mayans, the destruction of the world, did not come to pass on December 21. Indeed, the cosmology of those ancient people, who inhabited Mexico and Central America from roughly 2000 BC, has given countless wackos a raison d'être, a platform for the ultimate “gotcha” theory. As the world awoke to sameness that day, there was doubtless relief that the grim tocsin of the Mayans was just an eschatological goof.

But before being too critical of the Mayans, known for their temples, metallurgy, and ancient writing, we should remember that other civilizations have similar concepts of reckoning. For the West it is the Second Coming of the Messiah who shall come to judge. For the Hindus it is the tenth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, known as the Kalki, who visits the Earth at the end of the current age, known as the Kali Yuga, with an agenda of ridding the world of defilement. There is nothing new about vindictive eschatology, the branch of philosophy dealing with all that is final.

One could imagine what might happen if the United States were to make such a prediction of global doom that did not come to pass. Would the world hold us accountable and short our equity and debt securities and currency? Would American financial assets, commercial aircraft, ships, and real estate be attached by foreign court orders -- and would American nationals abroad be harassed, arrested, and greeted with shrieks of execration? Would angry foreign mobs seize tall macadamia lattes with extra foam at Starbucks everywhere? Not even an iPod would be safe. The doyens and doyennes of media would be handed the gift of gifts, engaging in chic America-bashing in perpetuity. A saturnine Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid might commence self-flagellation before us all. A resolute House Speaker John Boehner could stare down the world, like John Wayne facing off against angry desperados. These are of course imponderable contingencies and eventually we must move on and constructively ask, “So where do we go from here?”

Obviously the initial step would be to demand an apology from the descendants of the Mayan civilization. The Mayans of today are mainly a rural people engaged in animal husbandry and in agriculture, raising legumes and corn. Finding them without a GPS should not be difficult, although the question of accountability for the misguided predictions of their ancestors may seem unfair and unduly punitive. As an emissary, Vice President Joe Biden with his standard grimaces could be enough to elicit apologies from all over Mexico and Central America, but he would also need to spend some time at Berlitz learning key Spanish vocabulary and idioms to show the cross-cultural sensitivity of a partner to the north.

But even as we contemplate extracting an apology from an ancient civilization, it becomes obvious that we must first hold ourselves accountable -- to occupy the moral high ground. This is the hard part, however a review board chaired by the vice president could be charged with finding out what bucks have stopped where, where they should have stopped, and what the stoppage actually accomplished — and what the opportunity cost of non-buck stoppages is to our society if too many people are engaged in passing bucks. The review board would address whether the expression, "I am accountable," actually has any meaning in public life. This would not be an easy mission for the vice president, although it would show the world that we stand for accountability and best practices in buck passing.

Ultimately the United States, a superpower, would need to facilitate global reconciliation. Europe is too preoccupied with maintaining the euro order of things, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin is not known for soothing words and deeds. China, which is both industrial behemoth and developing country, depending on its objectives, does not yet project enough trust in the West.

A Rose Garden meeting of the world’s cosmological thinkers, where Dos Equis and Coronas could be served, might be the needed catharsis. Experts who study final events everywhere would converge on Washington -- jubilant in their hour of glory. President Obama, statesmanlike, nuanced, and sveltely kitted out in Hartmarx would say reassuringly to grateful eschatologists, “We are all Mayans.”

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About the Author
Frank Schell is a business consultant and former international banking executive. He serves on the Dean’s International Council of the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago where he is a lecturer.