Isaac Asimov’s 1941 short story Nightfall is considered one of the best in the canon of modern science fiction. I have found it to be a useful parable in interpreting the firestorm of hysteria created last week by Tuthmosis’s viral articles. In Asimov’s tale, a planet called Lagash is located in a stellar system in which six suns provide continuous daylight to Lagash’s inhabitants. Night and darkness are unknown concepts. Due to this fact, Lagashians are smug in the knowledge that their stellar system constitutes the entire universe. In their view, nothing outside of them exists. Not being able to experience nightfall and the resulting sight of other stars in the sky, they have no conception that there are other stars, other planets, or other worlds.
However, scientists on Lagash make some disturbing discoveries. Some irregularities in the orbit of Lagash, and archaeological evidence of cyclical civilizational collapse, provide convincing evidence that Lagash’s primary sun experiences a full eclipse every 2050 years. The eternally bright planet is plunged into darkness for a brief period of “night.” Since no one has ever experienced nightfall, it will come as a profound shock to the Lagashians. In an instant, they will become aware that they are only a small speck in a vast universe of planets. It becomes clear to the scientists that another eclipse is approaching soon, and that it will likely trigger civil unrest, chaos, and terror among the population.
Nightfall comes. The horrifying penumbra of darkness creeps across the face of Lagash’s primary sun, and the coddled, sheltered inhabitants in an instant become aware of the vastness of the universe and of their relative insignificance in the immensity of existence. This realization drives them insane. As the story ends, an ominous red glow begins to light up the night, as cities burn and civilization once more undergoes destruction.
To those familiar with last week’s internet drama, the analogy is obvious. Young women in the West have become so sheltered, pampered, and spoiled, that any opinion or spectacle that contradicts their worldview drives them into paroxysms of panic and lunacy. They are unable to cope with any contradiction of their sacred mantras. Sudden exposure to worldviews that mocked their cherished beliefs sent them into a frenzy. The reactions to the articles were truly something to behold: death threats, swooning, fulminating, and irrational feminist goose-stepping to a prescripted program of fake outrage.
The reactions, while disturbing, were not entirely unpredictable. Gustave Le Bon, in his landmark 1895 study The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (required reading for anyone interested in mob psychology) noted the essential feminine nature of crowds. Their fickleness and irrationality lent them to easy manipulation. Le Bon noted three elements that characterized the irrationality of the mob:
1. Anonymity. The individual can submerge her identity in the mass, and join in the actions of the mob without taking any responsibility for her actions.
2. Contagion. The hysterical nature of feminine crowds means that their emotions spread in the same uncontrolled way that a disease pandemic would.
3. Suggestibility. The feminine crowd is suggestible in that the slightest tweak of its sacred mantras can send it into swooning, frothing hysteria.
All of these elements were on display last week. Although Asimov’s story Nightfal is fiction, there are indeed historical analogues for the idea that a sudden onset of darkness can trigger mass hysteria. Columbus, on his final voyage to the New World in 1504, was saved from certain death by hostile Indians on the island of Jamaica by his dramatic prediction of a lunar eclipse, a feat which made him appear godlike to the unlettered Indians. Columbus, stranded in the Caribbean, was in possession of an almanac of the mathematician Regiomontanus which contained astronomical tables. He also had a keen knowledge of human nature and the suggestibility of crowds, and used this to his great advantage. Similar feats of “magic” were recorded in the 19th century by early European explorers in the heart of Africa.
When people are confronted by a spectacle that completely upsets their worldview, the knowledge can drive them mad. Expect bursts of insanity, irrationality, and violence. It is one thing to know this in an abstract sense; but it is another thing entirely to witness it first-hand.
I can only imagine what the pandemonium must have been like when Columbus foretold the lunar eclipse to the Indians back in 1504. It must have been an awe-inspiring scene.
“Look, O cacique!”, cried Columbus. “See how we, the white men from the stars, swallow the sun!”
And slowly, gradually, the dark penumbra played about the edges of the bright disc, and as it did so a shudder of horror, of abject anguish, arose here and there among the gathering crowd on the beach.
“You have asked me provide a sign of my powers,” intoned Columbus solemnly and raising his hands with his palms forward, “and now I will show you how we can engulf your world in shadows.”
“He is a liar,” muttered one of the cacique’s female attendants, “he cannot do what he claims to do.”
But the cacique fidgeted nervously, turning pale beneath his ruddy complexion, rocking back and forth in distress as the lamentations and moans of his handlers grew in frequency and volume. And then a loud wail of terror played across the assembled mass; women threw themselves on the ground, gnashing their teeth in panic, while young warriors bedecked in feathers, pendants, and weapons stamped their feet in hot fury. On and still on, the inky ring of the penumbra drew itself across the surface of the pulsing solar disc, until it became a blood-red orb hanging in the sky; and a great and awful silence fell upon the crowd, with only hushed whispers being heard here and there among the edges of the multitude.
“They have swallowed the sun…the white wizards have killed the sun! What will become of us?,” whispered the cacique in horror.
And now the darkness was nearly complete, and a heavy silence descended over all; and in the sky, the stars began to burst forth in the firmament, now here and now there, until the darkness was consummate and the heavens glistened with starry points of light. Columbus and his party, linking their arms in the darkness, made their way back to the shore and their boats, amidst the terrible spectacle of the mounting hysteria and the haunting shrieks of the Indians.
Last week was Nightfall. The internet primitives, like Columbus’s Indians and the Lagashians in Asimov’s story, could only roll in the sand and gnash their teeth in fury and terror.
And nothing will be quite the same again.
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