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Jewish World Review Oct. 5, 2001 / 18 Tishrei, 5762

Dave Shiflett

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Future schlock -- CHURCHILL tells us the first victim of war is truth. We can add that the same bullet fells skepticism as well, as we have seen all too clearly since the September strikes. Americans terrified of what the future may hold are richly rewarding anyone claiming the talent to peek beneath time's skirts. Accordingly, these are plush days for palm readers, star gazers, crystal ball consultants, tarot card professionals, dream interpreters, entrails diviners, and anyone else advertising the ability to read the future like a book.

Investors, take note.

No soothsayer has experienced a greater post-911 boon than Nostradamus, the French astrologer of the 16th Century. His prophecies, collected as the "Centuries," were published in 1555 and thanks to an immense 21st Century following he might today win a vote as the Wisest Man in History, Bar None. Those who sell his wisdom are no doubt thanking their lucky stars, if not bowing before them. For this they can be forgiven. Bidness is, after all, bidness.

Those of us in the hack writing industry are forced to bow in his direction as well, yet we are also inspired to mutter "Well done, you old crank." For who can help but shudder while contemplating that huge numbers of fellow citizens truly believe Nostradamus foresaw natural disasters, wars, the space shuttle crash, and lately the attack on the World Trade Center (the Pentagon hit seems to have escaped his attention). His prophecies have also been used to help identify the Antichrist, or close approximations thereof. In the wrong hands, that sort of information can get someone strung up.

In more skeptical times, there was great delight in pointing out Nostradamus's serial errors. A few years ago, for instance, true believers informed us that the 72nd stanza of the 10th book ("In the year 1999 and seven months from the sky will come a great King of Terror") meant that the end of the world was to commence on July 4 of that year. It is widely believed this prediction did not come to pass. Indeed, Nostradumus's more persistent critics point out that his "predictions" are so murky and incoherent that they can be used, after the fact, to predict any number of events.

That is absolutely true. By piecing together a few lines here and there I can predict with some confidence that some time in the future Cleopatra will rise from the grave and marry W.C. Fields, and the two will thereafter rule Canada. If for some reason this does not come to pass, let us merely blame a misinterpretation of the "data."

For now, however, skepticism has been drowned in a sea of credulity. Immediately after the 911 strikes, the Internet came alive with a startlingly precise Nostradamian prediction of the event. In this case, the prediction was shown to have been faked. That mattered not. As my somewhat ravishing and largely non-superstitious researcher Kathleen Thomas discovered, the keeper of one Internet site with a Nostadamus connection reports his typical 300-400 hits a week soared to over 140,000 in a three-day period after the strikes.

Not bad for a dead astrologer, astrology being a scam whose practitioners insist they can tell one's future according to the locations of immense balls of flaming gas thousands of light years away. The fact that more newspaper space is accorded to horoscopes than to serious scientific information tells us something about human nature, but what can that lesson be?

Clearly, belief in future-telling is a search for certainty. Or, as those who toil in the brain balming community might put it, this represents yet another "control issue." By lifting the skirts of time we behold the future's secrets. Time itself comes under our control - or, at the very least, it is rendered incapable of launching a surprise attack.

That's an extremely marketable concept, and as Paul Tabori, the great historian of human stupidity, has pointed out, entrepreneurs have risen to the occasion, diving the future from laurel, dice, bones, smoke, fountains, sycamore leaves, fallen leaves, ashes, sand (geomancy), onions (cromniomancy) and cockfights (alectryomancy). This is only a partial list. And while this diversity is admirable, one is fairly confident in suggesting that practitioners have tended to demand payment for services in cold hard cash.

There is no doubt that some of these entrepreneurs believe in their craft, yet as Tarbori points out, "crime and the occult have always had a natural connection, and those who exploit the credulity of the true believers can do so only because there is a rich soil of stupidity in which their harvest of superstition and deceit can flourish." Which brings us to the chief complaint. Those of us who make a few dollars as pundits do a bit of prognosticating ourselves. We don't need anyone edging in on our territory.

JWR contributor Dave Shiflett writes from central Va. Comment by clicking here.


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06/05/01: Never the Twain shall they meet
01/11/01: Letter From the Bush: Not the momma!
04/30/01: 100 Days of Platitudes
04/24/01: Sluggards, Unite
04/03/01: The Inn Crowd
03/30/01: Atheist for sale
03/27/01: Can you hack it?
02/13/01: We’re All New Yorkers Now: In praise of provincialism
02/09/01: Mind your manners and NEVER say "Monica Lewinsky" --- or you may well get sued!
01/30/01: A Stiff Warning: Bushies beware
01/26/01: Babes in Boyland
01/23/01: Dubya, First Philistine? It depends on how you define the word 'artist'
01/19/01: Goodbye L.A., Hello Nashville
01/12/01: Elvis and the Rock of Death
12/07/00: Col. Sauls-ders roasts some ducks
11/23/00: Democracy may be under siege, but now comes the fun
11/21/00: The dolt vote
11/15/00: Now what will we do for fun?

© 2000, Dave Shiflett