Monday, January 31, 2005
Iraq Elections. I'm happy the Iraqis are making this first step toward democracy, but the media cheerleading is overdone. Is this about an American success or about the Iraqis getting a government in place that will expell the American presence there?
I was watching Chris Matthews last night, and the cheerleading there was a little bizarre. And did anyone catch Judith Miller, intrepid reporter from the New York Times, reporting that the administration is going to reopen channels with Chalabi? Maybe this is just wishful thinking on Miller's part concering one of the chief sources of her "scoops," but how can she get on tv at this point in time and expect to be taken seriously in suggesting that Chalabi be taken seriously?
Anyway to put the Iraqi election into historical context, read Juan Cole's piece yesterday.
Update on Miller/Chalabi Connection: Just found this piece by Slate's Jack Shafer who was as dumbfounded as I was regarding Miller's "scoop." The next time I hear about the liberal bias of the New York Times . . . Miller is an embedded reporter--a neocon embedded at the Times.
Sunday, January 30, 2005
What? Me Biased? Of course I am. None of us, even those who are closest to the action, see the whole picture. We have only our best judgment, and our best judgment is profoundly fallible. And so being biased isn't the problem. Failing to understand how our biases shape our perceptions is. And so the real question is not whether or not we are biased, but whether our underlying assumptions about how the world works are basically correct.
Take the recent debate about Social Security. I cannot claim to have paid that much attention to it; I just want to use it here superficially to illustrate a point. At first glance it looks like a civics textbook debate about a public policy issue. There's nothing wrong about questioning whether the Social Security is the best way to provide retirement income for the people who invest in it. There's nothing wrong with asking whether it can be improved. So why is this such a sacred cow for the Democrats? Why are they so unwilling to entertain ideas about improving it? At first glance it would appear that the Dems are being overly rigid and ideologically obtuse. But are they?
I'm not against tinkering with it, but I am against dismantling it. And my biases lead me to perceive that the GOP intent is not to improve Social Security but to destroy it. Am I right about that? I have to say I don't know for sure; I haven't been paying enough attention to have formed a solid opinion about it. But I have formed an opinion about the basic GOP agenda, and I have been convinced that radicals within the party are bent on returning the country to where it was before the New Deal. So it stands to reason that Social Security, the most successful of the New Deal programs, would be a big target. For the GOP radicals it's a symbol of everything they hate about what happened to America in the last seventy years.
So my biases lead me to believe that this is not a debate about whether Social Security can be improved--I'm sure it can be. It's really a debate about the New Deal and whether the government should be playing a role in providing for the social welfare of its citizens. The radicals within the GOP think that the government should get out of the social welfare business, and they are entitled to their opinion. But they are not framing their attack on Social Security in those terms, because they know that they would lose if they did so. Similarly the neocons knew that they could never have convinced the American people to go into Iraq if they were honest about their real reasons for doing so.
The radicals are a minority within the GOP, but they have been remarkably successful in overcoming whatever tepid resitance they have met from moderates in both parties who are uncomfortable with this agenda. The radicals are not interested in honest debate. They have an agenda, they understand how power works, and they use it in whatever way they see fit to ram their agenda through, and deceiving the American public about their real motivations is the least of their sins.
Am I right that this is basically what's going on? In all honesty I can only say that it is a working hypothesis that is open to revision and could be proven completely wrong. I'm open to debating it, but the debate has to take place on the appropriate level. The real question here is not whether Social Security can be improved, but what is the real agenda driving policy in the Bush administration.
And ultimately it is a question about whether one's judgment is mostly sound or mostly flawed. Do my assumptions as I've laid them out above lead me to perceive what's going on more accurately, or are they obstructions which are blinding me? I don't really know. But none of us does. We have to proceed by our best lights, but we must always, always remember how provisional our perceptions and opinions are.
That's an idea that seems lost on radicals, whether they are on the left or on the right, and that's what frightens me most about this crew in Washington right now. They are so convinced that they are right. They are so unwilling to question their assumptions. They have created an environment in which questioning those assumptions gets you fired or demoted. If you play on the Bush team, you gotta believe. I'm all for being a believer. But is theirs a first-naiveté believing or a second naiveté believing--or is it just delusional believing. More on that another time.
Saturday, January 29, 2005
Second Naiveté.To me the most important cultural divide is not between east and west or north and south, but between premodern and modern. And the essential thing that distinguishes the one from the other is that in the former people live for the most part in a 'given' world and in the latter in a chosen world--or at least in a world where choices are available in a way they are not in a classic premodern society. The zombie traditionalist who haunts modern societies is in effect a premodern wannabe. Such a one longs to live in a time when the world would once again be delivered to him as a given with a universally accepted order. No choices, no confusion, no fuss, no muss.
I believe the objection of the zombie traditionalist, for instance, to homosexual marriage/civil unions is not primarily a religious spiritual issue. It has more to do with how they see yet another element of what remains of the world given to them by tradition being attacked. In other words, what frightens them is not that these "sodomites" are all going to hell, but that they are the latest agents of modernity’s campaign to destroy what remains of the world given to them by the traditonal authorities.
They fear that the whole society is being dragged into hell, which is for them normless chaos. Zombie traditionalists don't really care about the tradition; they care about social order--an order with as little real freedom in it as possible. For without a strictly normed social order, they don’t know who they or how they should act. All of that has to be given or prescribed for them.
They feel like cornered animals whose territory in that corner is shrinking. They see themselves as an endangered species and now they are lashing back, fighting for their survival. And they have taken the mainstream culture by surprise because the mainstream never took them and their worldview seriously. They've been a laughing stock since the Scopes trial.
There is a basic dynamic working in history for the past five hundred years that in the balance between the individual, his freedom and is rights on the one hand and the the society and its norms, rituals and obligations on the the other, the scale always tips toward freedom and the individual. The dynamic that characterized the conflict between Catholics and Protestants 500 years ago is the same dynamic that characterizes the conflict between Islamist radicals and the West now. And it's at work in yet another way in the conflict between red-state mentality and the blue-state mentality. The second group in each of these pairings is, relative to the first, more individual and choice oriented. The first group in relation to the second is more group, authority, and ritual oriented.
Those in the second group see themselves as heroic, cosmopolitan individualists and the first as frightened, naive bumpkins. The first group, if they are not among the zombie traditionalists, has historically seen the second as the American Indians saw the white man--as people who have no understanding, people who have lost their soul because they have lost their connection to everything worth being connected to because they have become so selfishly individualistic. Those in the first group see themselves as people who understand the deeper interrelatedness of things, an interrelatedness that is celebrated in the rituals that the second group judges to be irrational and meaningless. The first group people see the second group as having shriveled souls and as such rendered incapable of responding to a mystery in things that is to them self-evident.
So there's a part of me that connects with the traditionalism of the first group, but I would make a distinction between a living traditionalism and a zombie traditionalism. A living traditionalism is supple, adaptive, sacramental; a zombie traditionalism is brittle, rigid, non-adaptive, a mere going through the motions. The second is for the most part more characteristic of the extreme cultural right in this country right now, because the traditional forms they celebrate really don’t convey life in the way they do in a living traditionalism.
The point is that in the U.S., and I presume increasingly in the other developed countries, living traditionalism is increasingly rare because the social institutions that conveyed the life of their traditions have been destroyed. Those traditions simply have not been able to adapt quickly enough to the onslaught of changes that have accompanied advancements in technology and the the disorienting effects of affluence with its dizzying array of choices that increase exponentially with each passing decade. Sure, there are still lots of people with traditional values, but they are disembodied traditional values. I consider myself to be a traditionalist, but when I am with zombie traditionalists, I feel suffocated and depressed. There's no life there. There's no wisdom, just this dead-wooden formalism.
I am amused when people talk about creating “new” traditions. I know what they mean, but probably the word ‘ritual’ would be more accurate. And I think that creating new rituals is really what needs to be done. We need rituals that will en-soul our life together again. But if a ritual is eventually to become a culture-wide tradition, it cannot be arbitrary. It has to resonate deeply. It has to have a kind of “authority,” or it’s just cast to the side as soon as people tire of it or some other behavior presents itself as more compelling.
In other words effective rituals arise in response to deeply felt needs, and they have to work. They have to satisfy the need, and they have to be more satisfying than the “unhealthy” behaviors people are inclined toward without them. So the question for me is whether in this fragmented social environment in this time in our history the creation of such “new traditions” is even remotely possible.
I don't know for sure, but for me the idea of retrieval/second naiveté offers a clue asa to how it might happen. Both come from Paul Ricoeur, a French philosopher of religion that I read years ago as an undergraduate. I’m not sure I’m using these terms precisely in the way he does, but the idea is that in premodern societies where everything is a given, you have “first naiveté.” You simply accept uncritically the world as the ancestors have passed it on to you. With the coming of critical consciousness, (Socrates being its first practitioner) you start questioning the assumptions on which naive consciousness is based and inevitably you lose your naive faith that the way things are defined as “given” really has much to do with the way things are.
But while critical consciousness is good at saying No—at debunking—it’s not very good at saying Yes. And so in order for it to be possible to to say a deeply resounding Yes, one finds that he must go back and revisit the world as it was presented to naive consciousness, but now with “second naiveté.” This does not mean 'going native', i.e., reverting to first naiveté, but opening up to or becoming vulnerable to the reality that was self-evident to the consciousness with first-naivete--without losing critical consciousness. So the challenge becomes one of rediscovering what has been lost, remembering what has been forgotten. My hunch is, and that’s all it is, a hunch—that if “new traditions” are to be created, they will not have enough ballast or resonance unless they are in one way or another the retrieval of older, previously rejected traditions and rituals, but now adapted to our very different circumstances.
More on this as we go along.
Thursday, January 27, 2005
The End of History. Because we live in an age that is dominated by bourgeois values and the bourgeois worldview, we assume that this is the way it will always be. Francis Fukuyama, echoing Hegel, asks whether becoming bourgeois isn't the whole goal (end) of history--the bourgeois as the pinnacle of human development. Well, I hope not.
There is much to commend
in the bourgeois as the type who replaced the courtier aristocrat as the
modern age supplanted the medieval. But the bourgeois has become a degraded
type now very similar in moral stature to the degraded aristocrat of the
17th Century. The bourgeois has become increasingly the Last Man who is interested
only in his bread and circuses. Nazism, for instance, was among other things
born of a kind of revulsion with the degraded bourgeois, and its appeal lay
in its enshrinement of the older ideal embodied in the Aryan warrior as the
national type. That longing for a more noble, pre-bourgeois past is the key
to the emotional appeal of fascism.
We look now at Hitler and Mussolini as clowns, each in his own way a joke whom it is hard to believe now any one took seriously in their day. But if we are to learn anything from that experience, it’s most important to understand what made fascism so attractive to so many people. The resurgence of fascism is quite possible even in countries like the U.S., because the conditions that gave rise to it—namely, the spiritual vacuum created by the dissolution of modern rationalist optimism, still define the cultural mood of the contemporary West.
We have lost faith in the ideals of Enlightenment humanism and with nothing having taken its place, we have defaulted to the Last Man, the man who is incapable of transcendent aspiration. These ideals still shape our world to some extent, but they won't stand up to pressure. They didn't stand up in Germany, which was a great creative center for the development and propagation of Enlightenment rationalism, and we are deluding ourselves if we think that we Americans are strong enough to stand up to the kind of pressure we're likely to face in the coming decades.
Fascism is not something that presents itself in obvious ways. It sneaks up on you, and the next thing you know the country is electing someone like Hitler. The Germans who voted for him didn't think he was an evil guy. And if it happens in America someday, the Americans who vote to put such a one in office won't think so either. It will happen to the best of us.
We wonder how in retrospect brilliant minds like Martin Heidegger and Ezra Pound could have fallen for fascist rhetoric and could have bought into its twisted vision. But for them, and for so many others, the attraction lay not so much in what fascism affirmed, but in what it rejected—modernity and its Last Man mediocrity. We look in hindsight at Heidegger and Pound and regard them as morally deficient for their fascism, but what attracted them to fascism was not its brutality, but rather its hatred for modernity and its business culture, and the hollow, flat-souled, overly cerebral human type it created.
Sure, it’s easy in retrospect to condemn fascism because now we know the horrors it perpetrated. But our dismissal of fascism has become so automatic, so thoughtless, especially among our editorialists and other keepers of the bourgeois faith, that there is very little understanding about what makes it so attractive, especially to young people.
Fascism is best understood as a primitivistic, anti-modern movement that attracted people with its romanticism of a return to the purity of its warrior tribal origins. Fascism was a celebration of the bold, audacious will to power--an adolescent preoccupation, perhaps, but no less dangerous for that. It’s a lot easier to imagine a boy idolizing a gallant warrior, even if he’s an outlaw—even if he’s a Nazi storm trooper--than to imagine him doing the same for a shrewd investment banker. The first is Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, Al Capone, Michael Corleone, romantic anti-establishment heroes all. The second is Ebenezer Scrooge, J. P. Morgan, Michael Millken, Ivan Boesky, Donald Trump, Martha Stewart—greedy, calculating villains all.
If you are a dyed-in-the-wool bourgeois, it’s extremely difficult to understand the appeal of the National Rifle Association exactly for this reason. Owning a gun, like piercing one’s tongue, is an effective way to say I’m not one of those empty corporate or bureaucratic suits who has no real idea who he is or what he stands for except to measure his life by his climb in the hierarchy or by the amount of money he has made. “I own a gun,” says the NRA redneck. “I am a hunter warrior--don’t mess with me. Just try taking my gun away, you gutless bureaucrat. Make my day.”
My point here is not to justify fascism or the NRA mentality, but to try to understand its pervasive and persistent appeal. It goes back to a longing to assert ourselves as a people of valor by showing that we are willing to refuse craven self-interest, and to gallantly risk all for an honorable cause. We don’t look at Nazis that way, but that’s how they looked at themselves. We don’t look at Islamic terrorists that way, but that’s how they look at themselves. And all of our action movies celebrate the same pose. We admire the gallant risk taker, the man with guts, not the sweet guy who wants everybody to be safe and happy.
It’s all regressive and nostalgic, especially now since real warfare in the twentieth century has offered little possibility for gallantry from the mindless mechanical slaughter in the trenches during WWI to the bureaucratic futility of Vietnam to the high-tech risklessness of the airwars in Serbia or Afghanistan. The warrior has evolved into the technician, and the technician is a classic bourgeois. Perhaps that's another reason we went into Iraq--Americans needed to prove to themselves they still had the guts to fight on the ground.
There is still some residue of the gallant warrior in some of our sports figures, but that image and our ability to admire them as warrior heroes has been compromised by their bourgeoisification as millionaire businessmen, too often more concerned with their contracts and endorsement deals than with the good of the team, or loyalty to a city and its fans. It's rare for any of them to display the idea of honor in the old-fashioned sense. That’s why we have such feeling now for icons such as Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson. They had “class”; they were each aristocrats in the old-fashioned sense, and among our contemporaries Michael Jordan is the only one who comes close to what they represented then to the culture at large. (Cal Ripken displayed something else, more of a lunchpail, blue-collar stolidity. I don't think of him as an aristocratic warrior.)
So it’s understandable that many spirited people loathe what the bourgeois has come to symbolize and feel a compelling need to define their own lives and identities over against the bourgeois image. They have to find some way to act out to prove it to themselves. Some do it by demonstrating against the WTO or the World Bank. Some by joining a Fight Club, others by risking their lives in extreme sports, and now even the rise of smoking among the young. All of these things and so many behaviors are ways of rebelling against the soulless, prosperity- and security-obsessed, slavish Last Man degradation of the bourgeois as a type that emerged in the commercial technological era.
But these are all ways that are in the mode of rebelling without a cause. There can be no cause if there is no vision of future possibility.
Wednesday, January 26, 2005
The Coming Crisis. If you have the time, read Richard Clarke's piece entitled "Ten Years After," which appears in The Atlantic Monthly, but which you can read online here. In it he writes a history of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. from the perspective of 2011.
It's pretty chilling. But it reminded me of the piece based on Strauss and Howe's cycles in American History that I wrote back in '97 which you can read here. What made me think of it was Clarke's imaginative depiction of 2005 as being the year when things get really bad regarding terrorist attacks on American soil. As I write in my piece, according to Strauss & Howe's scheme, 2005 would be the year the country would enter into what they call a Crisis stage, which initiates a new historical cycle. The historical cycle now ending began with the Great Depression/WWII Crisis. The cycles last around 80 years, give or take.
There's no way of knowing whether what Clarke or Strauss & Howe have written has has any real predictive value. They are simply exercises in the historical imagination that invite you to think about how things can be very different from the way they are now. We always assume that the future will be pretty much a continuation of the present, but we might be going into a phase where things in 2009 will look as different from the perspective of 2004 as they did in 1933 from the perspective of 1928. Things can change very quickly.
What will things look like
if the U.S. comes under serious, sustained terrorist attacks as Clarke describes
them? I don’t know about you, but I think that this kind of thing is
more likely than less likely, and it’s obviously going to have huge
impacts on markets and on the American psyche.
In my view the current administration is doing everything it can to aggravate the conditions that will make this crisis more severe. However bad things seem now, I believe they are going to get worse before they get better. According to Sy Hersh’s sources the administration neocons are planning military operations in Iran likely this summer. He also said in remarks I heard today on NPR that the European Union is dismayed by Amercan policy in the Middle East and is going to start applying pressure to restrain us, mainly by developing strategies to further weaken the dollar. Some Asian countries might join with them. It could be a real mess. We've really ticked off a lot of people, and what goes around comes around.
To me American policy in the Middle East is insanity, but even if I’m wrong, and this aggressive neocon strategy will succeed in bringing long-term stability to the Middle East, in the short run, we’re going to have a very, very bumpy ride. In my view it increases several fold the likelihood that there will be retaliatory terrorist strikes on American soil. And if that happens, there is going to be a huge shift in the mood of the American soul. Five years from now we're going to be living in a very different world.
Saturday, January 22, 2005
David Brooks: Mayor of Fatuous City. I still don't know whether David Brooks is sincere or cynical. His role seems to be to present neoconservatism's reasonable, decent, idealistic face. And so I suppose ultimately you have to decide whether neoconservatism is sincere or cynical. My inclination is to believe that guys like Brooks really do believe their own propaganda. Maybe even Bill Kristol does, but I'm less inclined to think so. He impresses me as coming from the school that teaches politics is all about power and that whoever has power defines reality.
But Brook's column today about the inaugural is so typical of the kind of thing he does. Essentially his message is "Don't watch what we do, just believe what we say":
What you saw in Washington that day is what you see in America so often - this weird intermingling of high ideals with gross materialism, the lofty and the vulgar cheek to cheek.
The people who detest America take a look at this odd conjunction and assume the materialistic America is the real America; the ideals are a sham. The real America, they insist, is the money-grubbing, resource-wasting, TV-drenched, unreflective bimbo of the earth. The high-toned language, the anti-Americans say, is just a cover for the quest for oil, or the desire for riches, dominion and war.
But of course they've got it exactly backward. It's the ideals that are real.
Is there anything to support your assertion besides your wishing it so, Mr. Brooks? He goes on:
Two years from now, no one will remember the spending or the ostrich-skin cowboy boots. But Bush's speech, which is being derided for its vagueness and its supposed detachment from the concrete realities, will still be practical and present in the world, yielding consequences every day.
With that speech, President Bush's foreign policy doctrine transcended the war on terror. He laid down a standard against which everything he and his successors do will be judged. . . .
The speech does not mean that Bush will always live up to his standard. But the bias in American foreign policy will shift away from stability and toward reform. It will be harder to cozy up to Arab dictators because they can supposedly help us in the war on terror. It will be clearer that those dictators are not the antidotes to terror; they're the disease.
In your dreams, my friend. I don't detest America, and I love its ideals. But this administration has as much to do with American ideals as the Inquisition has to do with Christianity. As I said the other day, America has squandered whatever moral authority it may have once had. All it has now is a big stick. Nobody buys Brooks's storyline except credulous Americans who want to believe they are white knights riding out to save the world from itself. But there are an awful lot of fairminded people in the world now asking themselves who's going to save them from the white knights?
How and Why. No civilization has existed that has not had some religious/metaphysical ideational structure which organizes its imagination and experience of reality. These structures are the narratives that answer both the Why questions and the How questions. Modern civilization has narratives that answer both questions, but what makes it unique is the way each is split off from the other, and that now in the West the Why has no place any more in the public metanarrative. It's somewhat embarrassing to talk about the Why of things, but perfectly permissible to talk about the how. The first is subjective; the second objective.
The How question focuses on how things work and how to do things properly. It embraces both issues that relate to technique and issues that relate to ethics. We learn from those who have learned before us how to make the things we make, whether they are meals we eat or the technologies that enable us to land a spacecraft on the moon. But the quality of our making and doing is always implicated with ethical and moral issues, and those ethical and moral issues depend in turn on our imagination of ultimate ends. And our ends are defined depending on how we answer the the Why question--the why-are-we-here question. That's the question we're embarrassed to talk about.
Modernity is either agnostic, nihilistic, or naively utopian in a materialist way about ultimate ends. It has never really been able to offer a deeply satisfactory answer to the Why question, and so we satisfy ourselves with ends that are more tangible, mostly ends defined by the subrational and which relate to our private ambitions.
Our public life in America has become profoundly impoverished as a result. It didn’t happen right away. It took awhile for the public traditions we inherited from our premodern cultural life to dry up. But as they did, a new narrative emerged—in the mid 19th century—in which the public sphere became dominated by a crude materialistic evolutionism driven by subrational impulses. And this narrative sees meaning only in the random processes of natural selection, and the significance of the human lies mainly in its sitting at the top of the food chain.
If there is no reason for us to be here except to live out the random processes of evolution, the only answer to the question about How we should live is ‘Eat or be eaten’. That’s the ethic that pretty much guides how people operate in the commercial and political spheres of our culture (no matter what platitudes they profess to the contrary). Those are the rules of the “real world” as most of us have come to understand them. There are exceptions to be sure, but these people are always swimming against the current.
And so the public sphere of our lives, the part that is dominated by the media, the courts, by our political and commercial institutions, by our scientific and technological projects, and even our schools is shaped primarily by this agnostic, implicitly Darwinist narrative. And the basic understanding in this narrative is that everyone is out for himself, and our public culture consists primarily in its setting up rules to make sure that we don’t crush one another too badly in our rush to get what is ours in the public sphere, which is primarily defined by the eat-or-be eaten narrative. This is where the ethic of "niceness" comes from. Go get yours, but, you know, be nice about it, if you can.
Despite this implicitly nihilistic narrative, hardly any American while standing in his or her private sphere would say that he really believes that the meaning and purpose of his life is to eat or be eaten. Most of those players in the commercial and political spheres come home to families and go to church on Sundays where different rules apply. I wouldn’t be surprised if most Enron executives, even the most scurrilous among them, are good, church-going Christians and lead exemplary family lives. Because they, like most of the rest of us, live the split between the public and the private, and just accept that you live by completely different rules when you’re in one or the other.
Our working in one world and living in another accentuates the schizoid nature of what it means to be a Modern. Our collective psyche is torn in shreds and we suffer as a culture in ways that are profound in their negative consequences. We accept the splits and have adjusted to them as a normal part of our cultural experience. We even justify them in the name of diversity because we fear any overarching meta-narrative leads to authoritarianism.
And I understand that concern. The thought, for instance, of living in a culture whose public narrative is defined by Protestant fundamentalists is nightmarish. And so is the idea that the impulses out of which Nazism arose, which derive largely from a might-makes-right, eat-or-be-eaten narrative, could also overtake us at some time in the future. But it’s precisely because those scenarios are a possibility—I would even say a likelihood—that another more progressive public metanarrative must be developed.
The development of a robust, suprarational alternative is not going to happen overnight. It took three hundred years for Christianity to be come the primary narrative of the West. It took about the same for the Modern narrative to supplant the Medieval, and whatever is changing now in our culture is something that will take several generations to complete. And it will happen not by people reading blogs like this and changing their minds about how things are, but in a more gradual shifting process similar to the way immigrants see their children and grand children become completely different in their attitudes and values as they adapt to a new cultural milieu.
The optimal scenario would involve a slowly developing consensus that will emerge out of a synthesis of old and new and not be something imposed by an aggressive minority. The consensus will develop in a healthy way if a new narrative can be developed which will be gladly chosen by those who long for a deeper, richer life because this new narrative enables its achievement. The new narrative would emerge as an orientation of soul, a sensibility for which I would tentatively use the word ‘sacramental’ that will enable people to see possibilities for their lives together that simply are not visible now.
A new public narrative will work only if it satisfies the basic human yearning for a consensus answer to the Big Question--the Why-are-we-here? question. On the one hand such a question must be answered in a way that can be affirmed by most people because it resonates with the fundamental Judeo-Christian narrative that is hardwired into the cultural psyche, and on the other, it must integrate the most important things we’ve learned in the last 500 years. And it must do both in a way that does not seek to be a totalizing system run by authoritarians.
We need a narrative that honors the scientific method and its effectiveness in the answering our various questions about how things work. But if we don’t have a suprarational end for which we can put this how knowledge to work, that knowledge is put to subrational purposes by default.
The de facto state of our current public ethics is very crude, and it is simply not up to the massive challenges that will confront us in the coming century. Whether the issues concern genetic engineering, environmental degradation, or the distribution of the earth’s resources, our current private ethics are powerless against the forces, particularly the economic and political forces driven by greed and powerlust, that otherwise shape the public agenda. So the main question is whether a new story can be developed that is compelling enough that a new public consensus can develop around it.
If the current narrative doesn’t work, you have either to go in search of one that does work or create one that does. St. Augustine’s is the archetypal story of such a search. He found a basic narrative that worked for him, that satisfied his deepest personal longings, and in his thought about that became one of the principal architects for what became the medieval narrative. We are all now in a situation similar to Augustine’s—at the end of something and the beginning of something. And it’s up to us to begin shaping the narrative of the era to come.
Friday January 21, 2005
Spreading Liberty or Just Spreading It Thick. I don't know what to say about the inaugural that isn't obvious. It's not about what this president says; it's about whether you believe him or not. Is spreading liberty and democracy what the U.S. is about under this president? All I can say, again, is the obvious. Don't listen to what he says or what his spinners in the media say. Watch what he does. If you need some help there, check out this article in today's WaPo.
But this story doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of how our foreign policy has always been about supporting those who do what we tell them to do and crushing those who don't. It doesn't matter whether you're a democracy or not. Are you fer us or agin us? That's all we really care about. All this grand talk about spreading democracy and liberty, even if it were possible to do in the way these ideologues profess, is not something these people care about in any real sense of what those words mean.
We have no credibility. Our rhetoric is empty of any real content. Whatever our sanctimonious perception of ourselves might be, we're perceived by others as world bullies. We have no moral authority; all we have is a big stick. We have the power to push people around and to get our way. But, once again, let me point to the obvious. What goes around, comes around. In the long run we're gonna pay big time for our foolish, blinkered arrogance.
Thursday January 20, 2005
We're in Fatuous City. I haven't been commenting much on the political events of the day, because what is there to say? It's all so depressingly inevitable, whether it's Condi Rice's appointment to State or the gaudy celebrations surrounding the inaugural. What exactly are we celebrating here? The triumph of what, exactly? Our utter fatuousness? Our day-by-day slide ever deeper into muck and death in Iraq? The foolish people who put us there?
It's as though this huge joke is being told, and everyone in the world gets it except the Americans, who take themselves and their president so, so seriously. It really is embarrassing to be an American these days. And it's going to get worse before it's going to get better.
Wednesday, January 19, 2005
American Dream or Narcissistic Revery?
It becomes particularly difficult for people in democratic societies to take questions with real moral content seriously in public life. Morality involves a distinction between better and worse, good and bad, which seems to violate the democratic principle of tolerance. It is for this reason that the last man becomes concerned above all for his own personal health and safety, because it is uncontroversial. In America today, we feel entitled to criticize another person's smoking habits, but not his or her religious beliefs or moral behavior. For Americans, the health of their bodies--what they eat and drink, the exercise they get, the shape they are in --has become a far greater obsession than the moral questions that tormented their forebears.
In the history of the West we can talk meaningfully of a Classical metanarrative, a Christian Medieval metanarrative, and most recently of the Modern metanarrative. One major narrative shapes a culture’s values and experience of reality but eventually breaks down because new technologies are introduced that change consciousness, compelling new information is introduced that no longer can be explained by the old narrative, or because there has been a collective shift in what the culture most deeply longs for. Beatitude, for instance, was the deepest longing of the Medieval Period; physical security is the deepest longing of the Modern. Medievals were mostly anxious about their souls; Moderns are mostly anxious about their bodies.
The Christian metanarrative defined the highest aspirations of European civilization during the medieval period. But at the same time it lay on older foundations already in place from classical antiquity as well as from a variety of Germanic, Celtic, and other tribal cultures. It’s safe to say that during the medieval era there were many Europeans whose ‘real world’ was more shaped by the lingering pagan tribal narratives than by the Christian narrative. Nevertheless, there is no question that the Christian narrative shaped the minds and souls of the best and most creative individuals of that period.
Cohesive cultures have a cohesive metanarrative that defines their highest aspirations, but they also have lots of little narratives that explain all the details of day-to-day life, and those are the local mythologies that give particular local cultures their color and distinctiveness. In the history of cultures, Eliade has pointed out there is very often the Great God, usually remote and sleeping, a deus otiosus, unconccered about human affairs. And then there are the local gods, the local stories, the local narratives that that give life soul, zest, and particularity. The Judaeo-Christian narrative is the story of the remote god becoming a local god, and how everything changed because of it.
The medieval period in the West was a time during which the story of the great god having become a local god became the big story, and during that period it found a way to live in peace, for the most part, with the local gods. The modern period was the time during which both the big story and the little stories were rejected by mainstream thought. The result has been that we have neither a compelling metanarrative that gives our lives meaning, direction, and purpose, nor do we have vital local cultures that are soulful, that give our lives zest and joy. Globalization is essentially the story of local cultures being homogenized into this larger commercially driven, bread-and-circuses megaculture. Our political apathy is an understandable response to the powerlessness we feel when confronted with the seeming inevitability and overwhelming power that drives this narrative and which has such a profound influence in shaping our lives. So we go to sleep.
But the point that I want to suggest here and develop later is that the Enlightenment rationalist narrative, which is at the heart of what we mean by the Modern, had a different kind of relationship to the dominant narrative that preceded it. The medievals saw their job as an integrative one—to absorb the most important elements of the Classical and tribal narratives into its “catholic” vision of universal salvation. The Enlightenment narrative saw its task as rejecting the Medieval metanarrative and its irrational, superstitious local narratives by setting up shop on an entirely new basis--Reason. The medieval project was primarily directed toward synthesis—seeing the connections; the modern project toward analysis, breaking everything apart—seeing the separations, and doing a pretty good job of disconnecting things even more. The Modern narrative is a retelling of the story of Babel, the story told whenever a human project conceives of itself apart from the larger story of salvation history, and it is a story that sooner or later ends in wreckage.
The Modern rationalist narrative, because it was never effectively integrated with the medieval narrative that preceded it, is for all of its practical benefits in improving our physical lives, fundamentally nihilistic, and the most prominent postmodern thinkers, starting with Nietzsche, have done a good job in making that implicit nihilism explicit. In doing so they have done an important service in clearing the decks to make way for something new.
In the meanwhile we’re so impoverished, we don’t even know it. Most of us, if we’re among the relatively few with good jobs and a good income, have made our adjustments and have found a way to make a life. But if one has been paying any attention at all to the serious film and fiction of the last seventy-five years, he will have been impressed with how it has vividly reflected back to us the true state of our collective soul. The fragmented, soul-withered, cultural wreckage presented there is not pretty, but it is accurate.
So for the time being it seems ok to live in our disconnected little worlds. But our doing so is like living off fruit fallen from the tree. It is good because it came from something good, but it is no longer intimately connected to the source that gave it life. And as our artists and thinkers have been telling us for so many years now, the fruit is rotting; whatever isn’t rotten is all but consumed, and we’re in trouble.
Hardly anyone takes such ideas seriously so long as it seems to them that they have their own private provisions to help them get by. But, as Kierkegaard said, the nature of despair is to be unaware of itself—to be asleep or to be in denial about one’s real danger. Bourgeois culture, focused as it is on material comfort and physical security, reinforces American sleepiness. Americans are living in a narcissistic revery, and sooner or later they are going to be awakened from it. The rest of the world will see to that.
Tuesday, January 18, 2005
Real and Unreal. The ‘real world’ is much more malleable than most of us take it to be because our experience of the real world is mediated to us through our ideas about what is real or unreal. And one of the very interesting things about the time in which we live is that we are moving from one set of assumptions—one set of ideas—about what is real into another. What interests me is how these assumptions change and evolve.
The assumptions taken for granted during the Modern era are giving way to something else, and for want of a better term, because we don’t know what the new thing is yet, we call it the Postmodern. As those who lived in the chaos of the sixteenth and seventeenth century found out, the old medieval order was not as stable as was once thought. They lived through its shaking and crumbling to give way to something new, and this new thing that we’ve since come to call the Modern has now become the old thing which in its turn in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is shaking and crumbling.
The real world, therefore, is an evolving human construction. The process by which the mind constructs it is the interesting thing, and how that process works is something we don’t understand very well. But at a very fundamental level our evolving construction shapes what we can see or cannot see, what we can hear and what we cannot hear, what we really believe is there and what we cannot believe is there.
An aborigine who experiences the world within what we call an animistic consciousness sees a bird or a tree as something very different from the way a modern, literate mind does. The modern mind assumes that all minds see the bird just as it sees the bird, but it is as seeing black and white stick figure to seeing something in psychedelic multidimensional vibrant color. The modern mind tends to see even live things as dead objects; the premodern mind sees everything in the world as having a living, mysterious “otherness,” with which it feels a bond that moderns get a glimpse of from time to time, espcially when they're out in the wilderness.
This idea will be developed later, but the point that I want to make is that how the modern mind sees is not the only way, nor is it necessarily a better way. The modern mind is the musical score without the music. This was, more or less, fairly or unfairly, Blake's criticism of Newton. It's not that Newton is wrong; it's that he valued the husks more than he valued that which produced it. Newtonism led to valuing the mechanics of the smile while bracketing off considerations about the smiler.
So, therefore, the real world as most Americans experience it is a real world only in a provisional sense. Whatever seems real about it is culturally constructed, and as the culture changes so will its sense of what is real or not. And what is real or unreal is fundamentally a metaphysical question, and what we can talk about as real or unreal is framed in a very fundamental way by the narrative that underlies the discussion.
The underlying narrative also sets limits on what can be understood. Newton’s ideas about gravity would have been impossible to understand in a pre-Copernican, pre-Gutenberg world. Had he lived two hundred fifty years earlier and if heliocentricity was his personal conviction and by some quirk he was able to develop his gravitational theory then, it would have only appeared as conjectural—interesting but hardly world changing.
But it’s extremely unlikely that if Newton had lived in the pre-Copernican geocentric consensus reality, he would have been capable of developing his ideas. It would not have been possible for him to do so until there was a a “real” world in which the earth revolved around the sun, and that real world was not in place until the 17th century. By the same logic, there are many things that could be asserted today, for instance about spiritual realities, that simply cannot be understood because the consensus reality has not evolved to a point where it would be possible to grasp them.
What, for instance, is more real, Mind or Matter? Until the Modern period, most educated, thoughtful people would have answered Mind. During the Modern era, especially in the Anglo-American world, the emphasis shifted to matter. And in the last century, because of developments in physics and cognitive psychology, there has been a very significant shift toward Mind again, and the assumption during the modern period that mind is subordinate to matter is one of the fundamental pillars supporting the Modern narrative that is shaking and crumbling.
I think that this shift will have huge implications, and will change in a very fundamental way the terms upon which we can discuss things and how we come to value what is real or unreal. And I think it offers a tremendous opportunity, even an obligation, for religious believers to shape the new narrative that will begin to emerge in the coming decades. If the culture’s narrative shifts in such a way that matter is once again seen as subordinated to Mind, new possibilities are open for us to ask metaphysical and religious questions that seemed previously beyond the scope of legitimate inquiry in the public sphere, not the least of which is the Big Question, the Teleological Question —the ‘Why are we here?’ question. what is it that lies before us 'after the future.'
Friday, January 14, 2005
In Defense of Typology. I'm finding the need to read more than to write lately, so my posts here might be a little less frequent than usual. There just isn't the time to do everything I need to be doing these days. But my recent reading of John W. O'Malley's The Four Cultures of the West, has put me in a mind to talk about out a subject that most moderns feel uncomfortable with, namely the attempt to think using typologies.
The four-part typology that O'Malley uses divides Western civilization into four main impulses around which a certain kind of social psychology has developed. He calls them the Prophetic, Artistic, Academic, Humanistic. He takes an interesting look at how these four kinds of minds have operated in the West over the last three thousand years.
You can see my own foray into this genre here (pdf) in an article I wrote some years ago entitled "American Soul." So I understand well the desire to divide the world into four parts, and I also know that it comes across as a contrived rhetorical device. Nevertheless I think there is more to it because underlying the types, I would argue, are archetypes that operate in our experience on several different levels. And I would argue that these archetypes are transcendentals that play a larger role in structuring our experience than most of us in this post-medieval, post-Platonic world are willing to give them credit for. (I am more of a Platonist when it comes to thinking about archetypes than a Jungian. I think that Jung was on to something, but I reject the idea, implicit in Jung, that the archetypes are exclusively intrapsychic phenomena.)
One of my pet theories is that in the postmodern period there will be a trend driven by a deep need that we have to retrieve from the premodern period what the Moderns rejected . This is not the same thing as those trends that are driven by nostalgia. Nostalgia is cliinging to the past. Retrieval is reawakening to what was forgotten.
My idea of retrieval is better exemplified by the impulses that inspired the Renaissance five hundred years ago. The Renaissance was an awakening to deeper human possibilities that was stimulated by a rediscovery of texts and ideas that had been lost or forgotten. And curiously there was, especially in Florence, a revival of Platonism that was central to the inspiration of the great Renaissance artistic geniuses.
To use O'Malley's typology, this Neoplatonic impulse was the domain of the humanists and artists, but as the West plunged more deeply into the Modern period, the Academic/scientific/ rationalistic model emerged as the dominant paradigm. The Platonic impulse made a comeback with the Romantics in England and Germany in the period 1775-1825, but that was beaten back by the new anti-idealism promoted by the Darwinists and existentialists in the 19th and early 20th Century.
I have a hunch that a revived Christian Neoplatonic humanism adapted for our times will be key to any future Renaissance in the West. I know that sounds wooly-minded, but one of the things that I hope to do in this blog is make a compelling case for its plausibility and relevance.
I have a lot more to say about this and how my so-called Platonism has been influenced by some work I've been doing for a market research company whose sociologists have developed a typology that works with what they call the "world model." In developing their typologies they focus on social systems rather than individual demographics or psychographics. In other words the research does not focus on the behavior of individuals, which is very hard to typify, but rather on how people behave when they participate in a particular world, adapting to its rules and values while in that world, even if they act very differently when they are outside of it.
It's difficult to generalize about individual people, but it is easier to generalize about group mentalities. Some people in a group are more identified with its core attributes, others are dabblers or confrom to get along while temporarily participating in the group, the way a visitor seeks to speak the language of the country in which he is touring.
This seems to be an approach that is well adapted to our pluralistic, fragmented social experience. The individual identities for the typical contemporary American are not subsumed by any one group identity. Our lives are too fragmented for that to happen in the way, for instance, it does for people in tribal cultures. But we do tend to behave in predictable ways when we are in a particular world, and our behavior in one world can be very different from our behavior and values when we are in another. The most common example of this is the difference between our family world and our work world. A more extreme case would be Patty Hearst. And Woody Allen plays with this idea in Zelig.
The case I am aiming to make here is for the relevance of thinking about types as transpersonal phenomena that have both subrational and suprarational origins. It's a complex subject, and it will be a challenge for me to make it clear and interesting. I'm not sure I can do that, but it's where I'm at right now.
Wednesday, January 12, 2005
Nashville vs. Hollywood. A lot of people on the left are quick to point out the inconsistency if not the hypocrisy of those on the cultural right who fail to live up to their own self-professed moral standards. Republicans are no less likely to be caught in moral improprieties than Democrats, and yet Democrats are perceived to be the party of moral laxity and permissiveness. I think that where the confusion lies is not that the behavior is any less common among one group or the other, but lies in the moral valuation that one group or the other gives the behavior.
Have you ever been struck how one of the most common themes of Red America's country music is infidelity and cheatin' hearts. This is a universal theme in all pop music, but the difference between red Nashville and blue Hollywood is that Hollywood accepts that cheating is as natural for the human heart as rutting is for rabbits, while there is still some vestige of the old Christian morality in Nashville. Cheating might be as common in Nashville as it is anywhere else, but it's still considered wrong. In Hollywood, it's accepted as normal. It's the way humans are built. Fidelity is a sexual hang-up.
Brad and Jennifer are breaking up, but one wonders why they bothered to marry in the first place. I know nothing about their relationship, but it's a safe guess that one or the other of them has found someone more interesting. Time to move on. What bothers people on the cultural right is not that people have cheating in their hearts or that they act on those impulses, but that it's no longer even perceived as a failure.
It used to be that marriage was a public act. It was something that had public import. It wasn't just about two individuals and their mercurial feelings for one another. It was grounded in something bigger--a web of family and social connections that made demands, to be sure, but which also provided essential supports. And that framework created the conditions for something deep and enduring to grow between two people once all the buzz and flash subsided. Not always, of course. There have always been bad marriages. But it seems nowadays that so many good people who really have the best intentions are simply not able to make things work, and you have to wonder why. I think that in part it's because at some point that web unraveled--it became more oppressive than life-giving. And so now all married couples have is one another. And for some lucky couples that's enough, but for most I think it's not.
So I sympathize with Nashville insofar as it doesn't want to give up on the ideal, but I also recognized that we're living in a world where these traditional values don't really sustain us because they are abstracted from a social milieu that no longer exists. I would defend the idea that fidelity is an ideal that transcends cultural milieu. A promise is sacred. Keeping one's promises is never something that is "culture-dependent." But people have to figure out things for themselves in a way that often does not resemble conventional ideas about how things should be. We're wandering in the wilderness, and have to find our own way.
Update: According to th Tabloid headline at my local Safeway, Jen and Brad are going to try to make it work. More power to them.
Friday, January 7, 2005
Winning the Battle, Losing the War. What a rush it must have been for Osama when he took on the Soviet Empire in Afghanistan and defeated it. What a rush it must be for him now to take on the American Empire and to have success against it as well. Americans think of themselves as the good guys and the Soviets as the bad guys, but for Osama, there's little difference between the two. They are for him simply western powers who seek to dominate and control Muslims in their own homelands.
In the American storyline, the insurgents in Iraq are thugs who are killing our soldiers and the patriotic Iraqis who want to build a new, democratic Iraq. In the Osama storyline, the insurgents are the real patriots who are fighting for the independence of their homeland and the Iraqis who cooperate with the Americans are collaborators and traitors. Whose storyline will eventually win in Iraq?
Iraq isn't Vietnam, but the central importance of winning the storyline is true of both of them, and in the long run it might be the only similarity that matters. In the long run it is about whose storyline wins in Iraq. The U.S. left Vietnam in failure not because it lost militarily, but because it lost on the level of hearts and minds.
The Vietnamese chose the story that for whatever reason they found more compelling. Does anybody believe that the Americans have a shot at winning the storyline in Iraq now? At some point we have to ask why we are losing the battle for the storyline. Maybe because it was a bogus story from the get go.
I don't think that the insurgency represents anything good for Iraq's future, but it's a problem that to a very large extent the U.S. created. I don't know if the Amdericans can control the Iraqi insurgency. It's hard to see how without turning Iraq into a police state approaching the repressiveness of Saddam's. And if that's the eventual outcome, what will have been the point?
Sooner or later things are going to stabilize in Iraq. The question we have to face is whether the U.S. presence there is bringing that day sooner or whether it is and will continue to be the the primary stimulant of its instability.
Wednesday, January 5, 2005
Going Postal. What do Littleton's Klebold and Harris have in common with Osama bin Laden? They all seek a remedy for feeling powerless by resorting to violence. Feeling powerless correlates with feeling humiliated. Being humiliated is being made to feel that you are a nobody. When someone makes you feel that way, you burn with anger and resentment and want to turn the tables, and make them feel like a nobody. Osama blew up the World Trade Center and Klebod and Harris shot up and planned to blow up their High School. Both buildings were symbols for them of the power that made them feel like nobodies. They both made a lot of somebodies nobodies on the days of their crimes.
Being dead is being about as much of a nobody as one can be. If you're the one to turn a somebody into a nobody, that must mean that you're more powerful--a bigger somebody than the person who used to be a somebody, and the more formidable the somebody you killed, like a celebrity, the more formidable you must be. Or if you kill lots of people and get your name in the paper, that means you must be a god.
We all want to be somebody. We all want recognition. We all have had moments in our lives, or still do, when we have dreams of glory. We all want to be thought of as strong and successful, confident and effective. We all want to be admired and respected for our power. It's just there in us; it's the way we're built. It's "natural" in the way most subrational impulses are natural.
But we don't go out and kill people to get that feeling of being powerful. We do it by striving to do good work. We do it by seeking to be "winners" in sports and on the job. And that's all fine to a point. But we all know people for whom "winning" and being thought of as a winner is a little too important. These are people who have a very weak sense of self, and who feel the need to compensate by winning no matter what the cost, no matter what it takes. There's a difference between wanting something and needing it.
So it's a matter of degree. Listen, I'm a big sports fan, and I have no patience for people who go off on sanctimonious rants about the evils of competition as if we could all just decide to be uncompetitive. The drive to compete is there in all our psyches, and it's absurd to think that it should be suppressed. But the drive to compete, like all subrational impulses, needs to be humanized. Games and ideals of sportsmanship and fair play are a step in that direction. It seems to me that that's the point of games, to give us an opportunity to humanize our aggressive instincts. Games put us in touch with our aggression and force us to deal with it.
Let me digress for minute on this. I'm a pretty big baseball fan. I'm not into all the statistical minutia that some are, but I love the seven-month soap opera, and the almost game-a-day way the season unfolds. From April to October it's always there as a kind of background music, and I'm tuned in, and for me it's a great pleasure.
But I also realize that my moments of joy and disappointment as they relate to the performance of my team are rooted in this primitive, subrational layer of my psyche. And when I see the more fanatic fans behave the way they do, I understand where they're coming from, because that's in me too. But clearly some people plunge themselves into the larger identity of the team because they have so little sense of their own identities. It's a way for them to feel like a somebody when they otherwise feel themselves to be a nobody.
For these people it's not just a game. Something much bigger is at stake. And what's at stake is their sense of self and their sense of self-worth. Why are some fans who call in to the local sports radio show so angry after a disappointing loss? Why are they directing all that anger at the coach or manager? Because that coach is responsible for making him feel diminished and humiliated. The coach is his surrogate in the primitive prestige battle which these games enact in which the collective 'we' earns either glory or shame.
All of us want our teams to win so that we can bask in their glory, and all of us identify (to different degrees) with the feelings of humiliation after a loss. Think what it must feel like to be one of the players or a diehard Oklahoma fan this morning. Do you think Bob Stoops and Jason White have just shrugged it off and said, "Hey, it's just a game." Well it is just a game, but a game is a pretty big deal. There's a lot at stake in our games. And we can learn a lot about ourselves from them.
The point I'm trying to get around to here is that the most dangerous, violence-prone people are those who feel weak and powerless and are ashamed of feeling that way. The most dangerous are those who have the least interior feeling for who they are as independent spiritual beings, and so their sense of self depends entirely on where they fit in a social system and on how they are perceived by others.
When such people are slighted even in minor ways they experience it as a humiliation which detonates deep, deep reserves of anger and resentment, and they seek a remedy. And there's nothing that will give someone who feels himself to be a powerless nobody the feeling of being a powerful somebody than blowing the person who insulted him away. "Happiness is a warm gun," as the Beatles sang. It's all about trying to feel powerful when in fact you feel powerless. Klebold and Harris and Osama bin Laden have that in common, and that's what makes people like them so dangerous. When you have no self, you are easily overtaken by the subrational, and that's never a good thing.
Meet Me at Dawn. I mentioned in an earlier post that the whole honor/losing face system of premodern social systems with its duels and feuds required that one's sense of identity was completely a social construction. Personal identity in such a society is wholly linked to reputation, in other words, to what other people think. If people perceive someone to be an honorable person, then he is a somebody. If people perceive him to be dishonorable, then he has "lost face." He has become diminished, and he must kill the person who has diminished him, and in doing so he restores his reputation.
It doesn't matter if in fact he did something dishonorable. It's not what happened that matters; it's whether it's talked about in a way that diminishes his honor. If someone in his social circle talks about what he did in a way that dishonors him, then he has to kill him. If he wins the duel, then he has more personal power than the person he killed, and honor and reputation in such a system is all about personal power. And, of course, history is written by the victorious.
You don't like my version of what happened? Meet me at dawn. Otherwise, shut up.
Nowadays you have to be a sociopath to think like this, but as intelligent a guy as Alexander Hamilton felt the need to clear his reputation using this particular mechanism. Duels were still common in the 19th century. So what has changed? Are we more civilized than people like Hamilton or the courtiers of the seventeenth and eighteenth century aristocracy? Do democracies generate social systems that undermine this method of identify formation? Or is it that we have just become lumpen, self-absorbed Last Men who could care more about bread and circuses than "honor."
Maybe we just project this kind of thing onto our action heroes in the movies or sports heroes on the field? And I think it's legitimate to ask whether we indulge in a similar projection onto leaders like our president. There's a certain kind of patriotism that is really all about the assertion of power in this primitive sense. We want to bask in his glory as we want to bask in the glory or our sports teams. And some of us become furious with our president when he diminishes our national glory or brings humiliation on us in any way. I think this explains a lot of the hatred many people felt toward Bill Clinton. They felt diminished by him.
Our presidents are not just human beings we hire to do a job; they are our surrogates in the struggle for collective prestige. Think about how the war in Iraq was covered especially during the early months. It was a huge sporting eventwith Rumsfeld as the coach, and Bush the GM. Here was great opportunity to feel like winners and to bask in the glory of our team's overwhelming victory. But it's not just a game. And thousands upon thousands of lives have been and will be destroyed by it. This has been about American grandiosity from the beginning. And reality is slapping us down for it.
This has been an underlying theme in everything I've written about the war in the last year. I've said before that I'm not a pacifist. (Pacifism is to power as celibacy is to sex? Have to think about that.) I think that the use of violence is sometimes justified, especially when it involves protecting innocent life. But it is always wrong to use violence for national "honor" as it was described above. And one has to ask how much of the neocon vision for "national greatness" isn't really motivated by such fantasies of national self-aggrandisement. How is it different from the French after the Revolution who thought that they were bringing fraternite, liberte, and egalite to the world? Why do we feel a need to do do the same for "democracy" and "freedom" in such a grandiose fashion?
Do we really think the neocons simply want to protect the country from terrorists? That has all along been for them a secondary benefit. It's not what they're really after.
Monday, January 3, 2005
The Two Primal Fears. I don't have much time this morning, so this one is going to be a bit of a ramble that I'll revise later or develop further in future posts. But I've been thinking a lot lately about this subrational and superrational dynamic and how they play themselves out in our lives and how they interpenetrate with one another. The most common and fundamental manifestation of the subrational is fear.
I've written in previous posts how thinking that is controlled by fear is really not thinking at all. It's just the brain in the service of the survival instincts, and the perhaps cartoonish label for this state is the lizard mind. And I've spoken about how courage is precisely the action of the suprarational through the human will to behave in a counter-instinctual way--to neither fight nor to flee as dictated by the hormones released by the brain when we are in a survival mode. Courage is by definition action rather than reaction, and the measure of one's courage is his ability to master one's fear when fear seeks to take hold of the steering wheel.
But what do we fear? I think humans experience fear in two basic ways: fear for their physical survival and fear of humiliation. The first is about basic issues of life and death, the second about identity and self-worth. It's possible to be physically secure but living in a state of indignity and humiliation. It's possible to live with enormous dignity while at the same time living in a chronic state of physical insecurity.
Conservatives have always argued against the paternalism of the welfare state because of the unintended negative consequences of its good intentions. It aims to provide for the physical security of people while unintentionally robbing them of their dignity. Liberals have always argued that dignity for anyone isn't a possibility if he or she is always living on the margins of physical survival. Conservatives counter by saying that people earn their dignity and self worth by becoming self-reliant and meeting their own physical survival needs. Liberals counter when they say that's nice in theory, but very difficult in practice, and the most enterprising of the poor people are forced to meet their survival needs by entering into criminal activity because legitimate means to earn a living are not available to them. Conservatives counter that it's better to be poor and honest than to be a successful criminal. Liberals counter . . . and on the argument goes.
Both are right and both are wrong, and maybe some other day I'll give my take on how that mess needs to be sorted out. My point now is that the two are intertwined. It's at root a question of social or cultural psychology. There are many cultures where people live lives of joy and dignity with hardly anything in the way of material prosperity by US standards. And in the developed countries like the US there are lots of people living lives of anxiety and high stress whose standard of living is a hundred times those of the first group.
I would argue that the real fear for most Americans has little to do with threats to their physical survival, but with threats to their identity, individual and collective. There is something about American culture that promotes what I would describe as a dignity deficit. People who have dignity are secure in their identities. They are people who know who they are.
The mechanisms that promoted identity formation in traditional societies are not at work in American society, and while it's important to understand the historical cultural reasons why this has happened, it's important first to identify the problem. Many, many Americans are living in a continuous state of anxiety about being humiliated. It seems silly and counter-intuitive that the most powerful nation on earth should promote a populace which should feel this way, but I think it's key to understanding our predicament right now. When I have more time I'll make a more extended argument that reflects in many way Christopher Lasch's arguments in The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self.
The solution, obviously, is not to hand out buttons to people that say, "I'm special."