Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Delusion-Based Community

History is basically a collective nightmare. And some people, now and again, believe they've awakened from it.

If they get the power, one of the first things they tend to do is declare war on the past. They start calendars anew, from the Year Zero. They burn books, and sometimes their authors. They deride outdated ideas, and outlaw outdated beliefs, preferring the resplendence of newly minted delusion to the dull patina of age-old common sense. Whatever ideas aren't mocked or banned outright, they twist into a cunning nest for their newly hatched regime. And at last, freed from the mental detritus of that fitful dream formerly called "reality," they make entirely predictable decisions that lead to entirely predictable results, and many people die, and another grim chapter is written in the annals of human stupidity.

OK, that was fun, but let's continue in plain English. If it was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for us!

When you hear that "9/11 changed everything," what you're basically being told is that the New Age is at hand, and the old world is well and truly gone. It's not just that we have to approach terrorism differently (which is a false proposition in any case), it's that all former ideas are subject to reinterpretation or complete devaluation by BushCo. After 9/11, reality need not be admitted to the White House unless its papers are in order.

This is why neocons get furious if people say "If you do A, the result will be B." All that sort of talk is suspended until further notice; for now, it suffices to know that where there's a will to power, there's a way.

It all does seem very Nietzschean, or very postmodern (which makes me wonder if the Right's railing against postmodernism is yet another confession of guilt). But it may just be that diseased minds think alike. Either way, we now have a group of people in power who apparently believe that they create reality by acting and that, as the Bible says, "the former things are passed away."

That's not a new idea, by any means. Actually, it's as old as the hills. By the time the German people (with a little help from their friends) had come to hold this ancient delusion more or less en masse, Albert Einstein wrote a rather sad letter to Sigmund Freud, in hopes of figuring out how to bridge the gap between reality- and delusion-based communities. Here's what Einstein said:

[P]olitical power hunger is often supported by the activities of another group, whose aspirations are on purely mercenary, economic lines. I have especially in mind that small but determined group, active in every nation, composed of individuals who, indifferent to social considerations and restraints, regard warfare, the manufacture and sale of arms, simply as an occasion to advance their personal interests and enlarge their personal authority....How is it possible for this small clique to bend the will of the majority, who stand to lose and suffer by a state of war, to the service of their ambitions. An obvious answer to this question would seem to be that the minority, the ruling class at present, has the schools and press, usually the Church as well, under its thumb. This enables it to organize and sway the emotions of the masses, and makes its tool of them....Is it possible to control man's mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness? Here I am thinking by no means only of the so-called uncultured masses. Experience proves that it is rather the so-called "intelligentsia" that is most apt to yield to these disastrous collective suggestions, since the intellectual has no direct contact with life in the raw but encounters it in its easiest, synthetic form - upon the printed page.

Freud's response, for the record, was more or less equivalent to the "Nevermore" of Poe's raven. But at any rate, this is the sort of thinking we're dealing with from BushCo: the disastrous thinking of intellectuals who've fallen prey to their own conceits, and the pretty things they read in clever books, and the pretty dreams they dreamed in cozy beds.

They honestly believe that on 9/11 a new and, God help us, a better world was born. The flames that we saw as a ghastly sunset on our world, they saw as a beautiful sunrise on theirs ("I love the optimism of that picture," Bush might say). They believe they've woken up from the circular nightmare of history, and can now see a straight path that leads away from all the old follies and delusions, away from all the old laws of fate that once called Great Men to account for their stupidity and hubris. But as Flann O'Brien said, "Hell goes round and round."

(Originally posted 10/20/04.)

13 comments:

Speechless said...

Phila,I'm so glad you reposted this, it's so well put together. I've thought about the issues you raise often since I saw this posted here the other day. And since then, I 've seen so many ways that the truth of your observations are borne out in the public psyche.

One thing I'm not sure about though is your last paragraph. I'm not sure whether Bush and the Neo-Cons actually believe in the New World they claim to see. Or if they do, I think they are using the language in a far more cynical way, alluding to a new world so that the unaware hear those words as if related to some sort of apocalyptic fantasy, while the Neo Cons mean something far simpler and more self-serving.
Einstein's letter to Freud really lays out the challenge we face as a supposedly free people. We need to apply ourselves to the question of how free people can live in a democratic society and not be taken for the ride the Neo-Cons have put us on. We need to consider and reckon a way to awaken the masses from the opiates they're being drugged with.
We could surely overcome the call to war, the tacit aceptance of environemtal degradation, the exploitation of the poor and vulnerable if we were equipped to respond effectively to the cunning guile of cynical double speak we hear from the Neo-Cons. It seems to me that the questions you raise here are central to the whole concept of a true democracy,

Phila said...

Thanks for your kind words, Speechless!

I see where you get that impression about the last paragraph. But when I talked about "their world," I meant exactly what you said: "something simpler and more self-serving," in the sense of Bush's observation that dictatorship is a lot easier than democracy. Sheer sloppiness on my part (stick around and you'll see more of it!).

I certainly didn't mean to imply they had any kind of religious vision, though I can see how the language suggested it. I know I'm in a minority on this, but I really don't think that BushCo's religiosity is sincere in any way.

Anyway, thanks for your comments!

Speechless said...

Yes, the Bible Belt is being taken for a ride, we're pretty sure about that. But what do you make of the Neo-Platonic idealism supposed to be underpinning the Neo-Conservative gang?

So many people dismiss it as intellectual window dressing, but to my mind, the siren song of elitism, that the king rules for the benefit of the few while deluding the many is very hard to steer away from.

I don't see a way out of the Platonic idealogical box when most of "the many" are these days willingly sitting in a cave, watching the tv screen and repeating the mantra "we live in a peace loving society," completely oblivious to the bombs that are being dropped on innocent people in other lands in their name.

It's a horrifying vision.

Speechless said...

Yes, the Bible Belt is being taken for a ride, we're pretty sure about that. But what do you make of the Neo-Platonic idealism supposed to be underpinning the Neo-Conservative gang?

So many people dismiss it as intellectual window dressing, but to my mind, the siren song of elitism, that the king rules for the benefit of the few while deluding the many is very hard to steer away from.

I don't see a way out of the Platonic idealogical box when most of "the many" are these days willingly sitting in a cave, watching the tv screen and repeating the mantra "we live in a peace loving society," completely oblivious to the bombs that are being dropped on innocent people in other lands in their name.

It's a horrifying vision.

Phila said...

I completely agree. Except that I wouldn't call it Neo-Platonic, since that term already refers to people who are a lot more interesting and admirable! And I wouldn't call it idealism, necessarily, because to me that implies an otherworldly sort of highmindedness that I don't think these guys have.

But the Platonic notion of caste - his eugenic ideas, in a nutshell - seem to be at the root of a lot of this, definitely. As with the Bible, it seems like a few of these thugs took the ideas they liked, warped 'em and coarsened 'em, and then went around playing guru. That's what I think, anyway.

Speechless said...

So regarding them what is deluded, what are the deep myths that hold the Christian conservative spell-bound? I have to say that I find their's a bloodless, myth-less sanitized version of religion. I don't think their Church religion is the myth which holds them close to the right wing radicals. Even their notions of the rapture are pretty airy and not the stuff of depth psychology.
I think it's not the Christiam myth alone but more the "America" myth paired with religious teaching and ideas of the all-American family which is being manipulated and turned against us.
Getting at the "America myths," and trying to understand how the Christian conservatives feel under threat is definitely trickier because the American myths are less readily identifiable, and so perhaps more deeply fertile.
And it's hard for those of the tolerant left leaning perspective to start naming the held but not articulated American myth because we are very quickly then labeled un-American.
It's a smelly business all around, like needing to clean out the outhouse with a shovel and a pair of wading boots. --Focusing on how the Christian conservatives feel themselves imperiled and addressing that fear may be our best hope of moving past it.
We need a Beowulf for our time who will identify the deep monsters and their mothers and chase after them, and then nail up their hands or other parts so that all may see what the monster was and that it's gone. The trouble is the Neo-Conservatives claimed naming rights on the monster they claim to be fighting, and no one has challenged them successfully about that.

Phila said...

I don't think there's a myth involved, really. Or if there is, it's completely beside the point, and if anything acts as a form of shielding. I think we're dealing mainly with a personality flaw.

Adorno pegged this stuff pretty well, IMO, in The Authoritarian Personality. Having conducted a bunch of psychological surveys, he saw the right-wing mentality as a syndrome comprising varying degrees of conventionalism; submission to authority; aggression; anti-intraception (which is essentially a rejection of subjectivity); superstition and stereotyping; worship of force; contempt for values normally thought of as "human"; projectivity (meaning the assumption that everyone else is as aggressive and hostile as they themselves are); and a morbid fascination with the sex lives of other people.

Adorno and his colleagues came up with that list in 1950, and it's certainly timely today! What it suggests to me is that the outward political or religious manifestations of authoritarianism are kind of meaningless. If anything, the ideology is protective, in that it gets debated instead of the underlying psychological problems.

Speechless said...

Interesting, a psychiatrist friend of mine recently observed the same thing about the authoritarian personality time coming out more amongst those without over-arching & compelling myth systems.

And you know, I've got to say, painting with a vry broad brush, that authoritarian extremist personality style is really highly identified with the "good father (crew cut) good citizen type who mows their lawn every weekend and takes their kids to see "the game."

A sort that's always made me itch, and is very hard to warm up to. (Though I still think their's mythic undertones-- not of the ancient God's, but something, the American Good Father Myth perhaps-- at work making these folks so susceptible to the manipulation at hand.

Phila said...

Could be. But I tend to see it as boiling down more and more to the sense of self. Still, what you say about fathers is certainly in line with Lakoff's views. And, to give another shout-out to the Frankfurt school, Max Horkheimer's "Authority and the Family" makes some similar points.

I think the particular myth is ultimately just something that fills a person-shaped hole, though. Or at least, that's what I think this week. I wrote a bunch of stuff here on the mythopoeic side of things, but I haven't revisted it much. That's partially because my views on this stuff aren't carved in stone, but mainly because I hate using the word "mythopoeia" so much...it makes me feel like a jerk, frankly!

But if the shoe fits...

Speechless said...

Maybe you Should use Mythter Poeiea for this line of discusssion??

I'm going to check the links you listed. Very interesting area I've avoided thinking about but am of course surrounded by, all the authoritarian Americans...I'm coing to see them as perhaps a defining aspect of a so-called American cultural type. (No wonder I married out of country!)

Of course another American cultural type is tolerant, enthusiastic regarding newness and different points of view etc, though that connect to the discussion at hand, it's just nice to remember that the Authoritarian type doesn't hold all the cards. Still a bully --even a psychological bully-- will still rule the playground when they can.

Thanks for pursuing all this with me Mythter P.!

Cervantes said...

An interesting conversation about a question which has greatly puzzled me. Of course the neocons are cynically using the Christian fundamentalists (although who knows what Chimpy himself believes, it's hard to tell if he personally is a user or a usee, but who really cares?).

However, it also looks like there is a real, grassroots resurgence of irrational beliefs and in particular, a strangely desperate clinging to the most archaic parts of the Hebrew Bible. It seems the people have a deep emotional need for this ancient desert God who is vengeful, abusive, intolerant, hateful and dictatorial. Skepticism, independent thought, critical thinking, reason -- these are all dangerous to the stature of their tyrant God, so they must be tools of the devil.

At the same time, they absolutely need to perceive themselves as persecuted and oppressed -- even as they are running the country. Perhaps their paranoia is justified in a sense, I don't see how their movement can do anything but decline in the long run. But what is the fundamental ground of these self-contradictory, world destroying spiritual needs? You've talked about Adorno but he really begs the question. Okay, lots of people are like this. Why? Why now?

Phila said...

Cervantes,

All good questions. As I hinted above, I've never thought the problem was religion per se. I think the problem is the personality type that is drawn to one form of religion over another.

Why now? Intense social stress, is my guess. Rapid change, economic hardship, cultural anomie...all of these things are going to make stability attractive. But on top of the need for stability, there's a huge amount of anger in the face of powerlessness, a huge amount of lashing out, and a huge amount of blaming scapegoats. And fundamentalism feeds off of these things. Of course, it channels and intensifies it too...but I've always felt it was an oversimplification to see fundamentalism as the cause of intolerance. I think religion serves as a distraction from the real issues, and that the Right is thrilled to have us debating evolution or life after death, instead of the misuse of power.

Speechless said...

I think religion serves as a distraction from the real issues, and that the Right is thrilled to have us debating evolution or life after death, instead of the misuse of power.

Philathetes, I believe you've managed to name the whirlwind.