On the recommendation of several friends, I spent the better part of a recent weekend ("better part" as in the time I could have been doing something better, like having brunch or washing the dog) learning about what to do in the event of a world agricultural collapse or the North and South poles switching places.
You guessed it: I lost my weekend to "Doomsday Preppers," National Geographic's TV celebration-cum-gawkfest of, in Nat Geo's words, "otherwise ordinary Americans preparing for the end of the world as we know it."
The paranoia is far-ranging: A Tennessee farmer builds a shelter in anticipation of the global earthquake described in Revelations; an Orange County man assembles an enormous truck designed to protect his family when terrorist cyber attacks "turn the U.S. into a nation of panicked, violent mobs"; an affluent middle-aged couple are directed by a voice — "Greta" — to take all possible measures to protect themselves from a globe-destroying comet.
"Doomsday Preppers" is Nat Geo's top-rated show, impressive for a channel whose other offerings include "Chasing UFOs" and "American Chainsaw." The latest hit in a genre we might call "mental illness TV," it takes the voyeurism and rawness of shows such as A&E's "Hoarders" and "Obsessed" and combines them with the derangement and bombast of a certain brand of wingnut who occasionally shows up on cable news.
In other words, if you enjoyed radio host and gun activist Alex Jones' dyspeptic and now legendary appearance on CNN with Piers Morgan last month — the one in which Jones all but destroyed his larynx proclaiming that "1776 will commence again if you take our guns" — you'll enjoy "Doomsday Preppers."
And I mean the earnest kind of enjoyment as well as the ironic kind. If you're a would-be prepper who dreams of building a luxury condo inside a missile silo, you'll find "Doomsday Preppers" educational and inspiring. If you're an average citizen whose idea of preparedness involves keeping a flashlight by the door even though the batteries died years ago, you'll find it hilarious and mesmerizing.
The show is already in its third season, but the renewed debate over gun laws has lent it a sudden political relevance. The kind of high-capacity gun magazines the Obama administration would like to see regulated are on prominent display on "Doomsday Preppers," along with the assault-type weapons Sen. Dianne Feinstein would like to ban (one prepper custom-built his by combining an AK-47 and an AR-15). Vice President Joe Biden even gave a subtle nod to preppers in a recent pitch for gun control: "If you want to keep people away in an earthquake," he said, shotguns are a better bet than assault weapons.
Of course, not all preppers are as colorful and obsessed as the outliers that wind up on TV, just as not all assault-weapon owners are preppers. Still, gun-control advocates take no end of pleasure in the idea that their opposites are all delusional crackpots who look forward to the day when they can take out all four horsemen of the apocalypse with a single pull of the trigger.
After all, "Doomsday Preppers" is as much about fueling the paranoid fantasies of mainstream liberals as it is about showcasing the paranoid fantasies of preppers. As with Jones, a well-known radio shock jock and conspiracy theorist whose "debate" with Morgan seemed largely designed to contribute to the echo chamber of blue state righteousness ("See, this is what gun people are like!"), the ammophiles on "Doomsday Preppers" are catnip for the anti-gun crowd. Like religious conservatives who point to the Kardashians or Lindsay Lohan as examples of how society as a whole is wretchedly materialistic and morally adrift, liberals validate their worldview by watching a show packed with oddballs (most of them Republicans, we're to presume) who run around in gas masks on weekends.
The problem is, it's not that simple. Lots of different kinds of people own lots of different kinds of guns for lots of different kinds of reasons. Those of us who want to make it harder for guns to be bought and sold would do well not to write off all our opponents as members of a lunatic fringe.
As much as we'd like to think they're all confined to luxury condos in missile silos, they'll never make it that easy on us.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times