Denial and fear; fear and denial, all electronically mediated. Do you remember the anthrax scare of 2001 – and how it disappeared from the news once Congress passed the Patriot Act?
Do you remember how the government took this lunacy to its logical extreme with its color-coded alert system, how we all awakened daily to a degree of anxiety that shifted according to government “findings?”
Who determined the nature of these “findings?” How – and why?
Recall how this anxiety diminished once the invasion of Iraq began, and how, as in any addiction, the reduction in stress was only temporary, until the next “threat” arose? Do you remember when all three TV networks introduced series about alien invasions? Do you remember the “immanent” terrorist attacks that never happened, that six in ten people expected a terrorist attack in 2007, how fifty percent of us were not opposed to torturing suspected terrorists? Be very afraid.
And yet – and this is where Americans really are exceptional – studies showed that most people had the existential experience of nothing being particularly wrong in their personal lives, at least until the economic crash of 2008. It’s falling apart all around us, but I’m OK. It’s all good.
This is critical to understanding our American state of mind, so let’s explore the implications further. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz summarizes Google search rates for anxiety since 2008, noting that they have more than doubled (and are the highest in 2016) since they were first tracked in 2004. Surprisingly, “terrorism” and “Trump” are not major indicators of anxiety. And the places (Google can do that) where anxiety is highest are overwhelmingly concentrated in less educated, poorer parts of the country, particularly Appalachia and the South.
He sees two relevant factors. The first is the economy. Areas that were more deeply affected by the recession saw bigger increases in anxiety. The second:
I put “panic attack” in Google Correlate, and one of the highest correlated search queries was “opiate withdrawal.” Panic attacks are a known symptom of opiate withdrawal…The places with high opiate prescription rates — and high search rates for opiate withdrawal — are among the places with the highest search rates for panic attacks…(these) searches…have continued to rise over the past few years, even as opiate prescription rates have finally fallen.
These areas include, once again, the South, precisely the area where Trump’s support is the strongest, where white male identity is most under threat and where Republicans have been mining fear for forty years.
A helpful psychological concept is intermittent reinforcement, a conditioning schedule in which a reward or punishment is not administered every time the desired response is performed. Typically, the desired behavior lasts longer than with normal, predictable, continuous reinforcement. An example is gambling. One doesn’t win every time or with the same amount. The intermittent reinforcement (winning) causes a euphoric response that can lead to gambling addiction. Another example is how people remain in abusive relationships with narcissistic lovers whose unpredictable behavior convinces them to hope unrealistically for an unattainable ideal.
The double bind is a dilemma in which someone in authority gives conflicting messages. When a successful response to one message results in a failed response to the other, we are wrong either way. The double bind occurs when we cannot confront or resolve the dilemma. Gregory Bateson proposed that growing up amidst perpetual double binds produces anxiety and confused thinking. In extreme situations, the child experiences it continually and habitually within the family context from infancy on. By the time he is old enough to have identified the situation, it has already been internalized, and she may only be able to confront it by withdrawing into delusion and schizophrenia.
Or consider Marx’s idea of mystification:
… misrepresentation of what is going on…in the service of the interests of one socioeconomic class…over or against another class…By representing forms of exploitation as forms of benevolence, the exploiters bemuse the exploited into feeling at one with their exploiters, or into feeling gratitude…and, not least, into feeling bad or mad even to think of rebellion.
R. D.Laing extrapolated this idea from politics to the family:
…failure to see what is “really” being experienced…to distinguish or discriminate the actual issues…Thus, the mystified person is by definition confused, but may or may not feel confused…He may experience false peace, false calm, or inauthentic conflict and confusion over false issues.
For example, the parent or authority figure may tell the child, “it’s just your imagination” or “you must have dreamt it”. A deeper form of mystification happens when the authority figure disconfirms the content of the other’s experience and narcissistically replaces it with their own projection:
A child is playing noisily in the evening; his mother is tired and wants him to go to bed. A straight statement would be: “I am tired, I want you to go to bed.” Or “Go to bed, because I say so.” Or “Go to bed, because it’s your bedtime.” A mystifying way to induce the child to go to bed would be: “I’m sure you feel tired, darling, and want to go to bed now, don’t you?”
Perhaps you heard this message from your own parents:
“But you can’t be unhappy. Haven’t we given you everything you want? How can you be so ungrateful as to say you are unhappy after all that has been done for you, after all the sacrifices that have been made for you?”
Are these silly examples? I don’t think so. What if you heard them regularly throughout your childhood? They are wounds – ungrieved wounds – of the soul. I’m suggesting that most of us did experience those messages, that our loved ones conditioned us, if unconsciously, to become adults who would not perceive the nature of our own willing participation in the simultaneous denial and distrust that I’ve been describing.
The pathology of this condition is that the soul is subject to persistent messages that its emotional intelligence – its intuitive knowing of the sheer craziness of modern life – has been completely discounted. This happens every day to almost every one of us for our entire lives. And it carries an underlying, irresistible lesson: My ways of evaluating reality are failures.
But this is America, and we all carry the legacy of Puritanism, which tells us: If my ways of evaluation are failures, then so am I. And – since failure in America is always moral failure, then I am also bad – I am a sinner. This has contributed to a massive epidemic of depression, substance abuse (legal or otherwise) and retreat from political involvement – or the need to enter politics so as to identify and punish a scapegoat.
The scapegoat: what is the deeper meaning of police violence against unarmed people of color? When societies begin to collapse, they turn to human sacrifice. I covered this issue in depth in a previous blog series:
To deny something is to declare it taboo. And “taboo” (“kapu” in Hawaiian) means “too sacred to mention.” The sacred is a secret, and this is the secret: Americans are unified in their fear of the evil Other, and they (at least enough voting-age white Americans) will regularly declare their allegiance to a culture whose primary religious ritual is the sacrifice of this Other. He is sacred because for a while he takes our sins away.
But this mode of sacrifice – the “shock” of localized violence – cannot fully re-invigorate the “awe” of denial, because its scapegoat suffers only within the polis. Horrifying as it is, the function of racist violence is really to divert our attention from the deeper madness, the regular sacrifice to our god of nationalism. As Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle write:
The doctrine that provides the central experience of Christian faith is the sacrifice of an irreplaceable son by an all-powerful father whose will it was that the son should die violently…Sacrifice restores totem authority and reconsolidates the group. This is why we die for the flag and commit our children to do so. To resolve totem crisis, the totem must re-create its exclusive killing authority out of the very flesh of its members. Blood is the group bond. Blood sacrifice at the border, or war, is the holiest ritual of the nation-state…Our deepest secret, the collective group taboo, is the knowledge that society depends on the death of this sacrificial group at the hands of the group itself…But what keeps the group together and makes us feel unified is not the sacrifice of the enemy but the sacrifice of our own (my italics).
As more flaws appear in the fabric of our mythic narratives and as the crazy-making conditions of our lives make it more obvious that the old story is dying but no new story has yet arisen to replace it, watch for the next sacrificial ritual.
Watch how your fear of Trump motivates you to vote for Clinton (“I’m the last thing standing between you and the Apocalypse.”) even in California and the other 40 states that are safely Democratic.
Watch, 25 years after the fall of communism, how we fall back on the tired, old red-baiting, even without any reds! Watch how the Democrats invent the latest threat – Russians hacking our elections.
Faith in the U.S. Election! This is religious language, and the gatekeepers would not be united in giving this sermon if they weren’t aware of how many of us need to be reminded. Fortunately, we can still find more nuanced reporting here:
It’s all about the anxiety. And the situation really does demand of us that we stay awake and step back from our tendencies to reflexively parrot the liberal – yes, the liberal – media. Watch your willingness to see Clinton as a savior. Watch her willingness to trash talk “the Russians” even as we celebrate the first woman President. Watch your need to remain innocent, to be reassured that it’s all good. Watch how much money you’ll be willing to spend to be ceaselessly told that it is. Christmas is coming.
In Part Four, we’ll think about what we can do about the dilemma we’re in.