Daniels, a shaggy, shambling 60-year-old from Philadelphia, "discovered"the millennium before anyone else. In 1987, soon after he finished hisdoctorate in folklore and folklife from the University of Pennsylvania, hewas doing what people with such narrow-niche credentials tend to do: workingfor a soon-to-die record company in Manhattan that specialized in folkmusic.
At work one day, quite out of the blue and related to absolutely nothing, he"had a vision," as he likes to say with a Twilight Zone voice and an ElmerGantry glaze in his eyes: the millennium was coming and no one was payinganyattention to it. He would be the first to turn the millennium into aprofession.
And indeed, he was. He started a newsletter, the Millennial ProphecyReport, which he published for five years until he turned it into the morefashionable communique du jour -- a website (www.channel1.com/mpr). After13 years of eavesdropping on oracles, soothsayers and seers, he hascharted the predictions of more than 1,200 "prophets," all of whom livein the United States. And while he is unswayed that any of them haveanythingapproaching unerring accuracy, he is still impressed with their fervidimaginations.
"We don't like living in a world of sin and hate and discomfort," hesaidrecently in a Washington cafe while on a tour to promote his book, ADoomsday Reader: Prophets, Predictors and Hucksters of Salvation.
"We live inmeaning like a fish lives in water. We all crave to know that our livesmatter. Take that away and life is not worth living."
But the millennium was supposed to give people a chance to divinemeaning, to invent meaning, to plumb the universe around them and returnwith reconnaissance reports about whatawaits us in the Great Beyond. For some, the future is grim and bleak; forothers, it's pristine and slightly sterile. For most of them, though,it's no more than a Rorschach of their temperament or their theology.
After compiling every conceivable prognostication, Daniel's favorite is:"The hollow Earth stuff. These people say that there's a sun inside theearththat provides light and heat and where Nazis have been hiding and breedingsince 1945, when Hitler fled there as he was losing the war. All the Nazishave secret, ancient wisdom and someday will take over the planet with theaid of aliens flying UFO's. The earth will then turn into a giant feedinglotfor the aliens."
Daniels has little desire to live in the paradise that any of thesebelievers espouse. "If it's perfect," he said dismissively, "I wouldn't wantto be there. It would get boring pretty soon. I'd want something with alittle bit of an edge to it so I could have a break from perfection. Aweekend in Vegas would help." But then, Daniels began his millennial pursuits as a self-described"secularist" who escaped the Congregationalist church in NewHampshire. He hasn't returned toreligion since; chronicling thousands of faith-based predictions for thefuture hasn't given him the inclination to do so.
Nevertheless, he concedes that society has benefitted from some strains ofmillennialism: "TheShakers were the first feminists in this country. The Millerites [disciplesof William Miller, a 19th century preacher who self-destructively setspecific dates for the end of the world] had the first chain of newspapersinevery major city in the United States."
Daniels says there's something very American about millennialism."Columbus came here looking for the 10Lost Tribes of Israel," he said. "The Pilgrim fathers came here to find aShining City.This was paradise. And we're still trying to make the world over in ourimageand make it safe for democracy with our 'police actions.' Everyone came hereto start over, to find the streets paved with gold. Even the Chinese, whoworked on the railroads.
"The people who make these predictions remind me ofSterling Hayden talking about 'bodily fluids' in 'Dr. Strangelove.' Theytalkcalmly and speak utter nonsense. They're world saviors, although none ofthemsucceed in that, and they probably end up burned out and bitter."
By Ted Daniels
By Arthur Magida