Friday, February 24, 2006

Cisterns of Fear

If you are at all like me, you are wondering where all this political confusion came from and how it can possibly work out. If like me you read the left political blogosphere and, if you discuss the passing events with your friends and colleagues of a like mind, it becomes ever more apparent that we are stuck in a most unusual place, a logical conundrum in which millions of people with just about the same public experience have come to completely and irreconcilably different conclusions. There has to be a human reason for this!

On the one hand there are people, like us, who see George Bush as a malignant growth on the body politic, a first-stage melanoma right in the middle of our national forehead, threatening with every passing second the demise of the whole republic when, as surely it will in a matter of moments, metastasize into the brain. On the other we have people who see this dark spot not as a cancer, but as a beauty spot! They love it and him! What can they be thinking? How can so many be so continuously stupid? Do they really hate Liberalism more than they love America? Or is it something else in them, some kind of a familiar quirk of personality that separates them from us, some mental door that has slammed shut on their cognitive processes?

I am reminded of Joan Dideon's December 2003 piece in The New York Review of Books, which seems to describe the state of the intelligentsia since the national portcullis came clanking down in the wake of 9/11.

... people recognized even then, with flames still visible in lower Manhattan, that the words "bipartisanship" and "national unity" had come to mean acquiescence to the administration's preexisting agenda-for example the imperative for further tax cuts, the necessity for Arctic drilling, the systematic elimination of regulatory and union protections, even the funding for the missile shield-as if we had somehow missed noticing the recent demonstration of how limited, given a few box cutters and the willingness to die, superior technology can be.

These people understood that when Judy Woodruff, on the evening the President first addressed the nation, started talking on CNN about what "a couple of Democratic consultants" had told her about how the President would be needing to position himself, Washington was still doing business as usual. They understood that when the political analyst William Schneider spoke the same night about how the President had "found his vision thing," about how "this won't be the Bush economy any more, it'll be the Osama bin Laden economy," Washington was still talking about the protection and perpetuation of its own interests.

These people got it.

They didn't like it.

They stood up in public and they talked about it.

Only when I got back to New York did I find that people, if they got it, had stopped talking about it.


I found that what had happened was being processed, obscured, systematically leached of history and so of meaning, finally rendered less readable than it had seemed on the morning it happened. As if overnight, the irreconcilable event had been made manageable, reduced to the sentimental, to protective talismans, totems, garlands of garlic, repeated pieties that would come to seem in some ways as destructive as the event itself.

... [W]e began to hear what would become in the year that followed an entrenched preference for ignoring the meaning of the event in favor of an impenetrably flattening celebration of its victims, and a troublingly belligerent idealization of historical ignorance. "Taste" and "sensitivity," it was repeatedly suggested, demanded that we not examine what happened. Images of the intact towers were already being removed from advertising, as if we might conveniently forget they had been there. The Roundabout Theatre had canceled a revival of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, on the grounds that it was "not an appropriate time" to ask audiences "to think critically about various aspects of the American experience." The McCarter Theatre at Princeton had canceled a production of Richard Nelson's The Vienna Notes, which involves a terrorist act, saying that "it would be insensitive of us to present the play at this moment in our history."
Similarly, I found that "the death of postmodernism" had also been declared. ("It seemed bizarre that events so serious would be linked causally with a rarified form of academic talk," Stanley Fish wrote after receiving a call from a reporter asking if September 11 meant the end of postmodernist relativism. "But in the days that followed, a growing number of commentators played serious variations on the same theme: that the ideas foisted upon us by postmodern intellectuals have weakened the country's resolve.") "Postmodernism" was henceforth to be replaced by "moral clarity" ....
There was the adroit introduction of convenient straw men. There was Christopher Hitchens, engaging in a dialogue with Noam Chomsky, giving himself the opportunity to generalize whatever got said into "the liberal-left tendency to 'rationalize' the aggression of September 11." There was Donald Kagan at Yale, dismissing his colleague Paul Kennedy as "a classic case of blaming the victim," because the latter had asked his students to try to imagine what resentments they might harbor if America were small and the world dominated by a unified Arab-Muslim state. There was Andrew Sullivan, warning on his Web site that while the American heartland was ready for war, the "decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts" could well mount "what amounts to a fifth column." There was the open season on Susan Sontag-on a single page of a single issue of The Weekly Standard that October she was accused of "unusual stupidity," of "moral vacuity," and of "sheer tastelessness"-all for three paragraphs in which she said ...

(From New Yorker Magazine)

The disconnect between last Tuesday's monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a "cowardly" attack on "civilization" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free world" but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word "cowardly" is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards.

Our leaders are bent on convincing us that everything is O.K. America is not afraid. Our spirit is unbroken, although this was a day that will live in infamy and America is now at war. But everything is not O.K. And this was not Pearl Harbor. We have a robotic President who assures us that America still stands tall. A wide spectrum of public figures, in and out of office, who are strongly opposed to the policies being pursued abroad by this Administration apparently feel free to say nothing more than that they stand united behind President Bush. A lot of thinking needs to be done, and perhaps is being done in Washington and elsewhere, about the ineptitude of American intelligence and counter-intelligence, about options available to American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and about what constitutes a smart program of military defense. But the public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality. The unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress seemed contemptible. The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.

Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy--which entails disagreement, which promotes candor--has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. "Our country is strong," we are told again and again. I for one don't find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that's not all America has to be.
--Susan Sontag

Although Dideon recalls Susan Sontag's courageous call in NYr's first post-9/11 issue, still after two years of intelligent scrutiny Dideon did not understand the full effect of 9/11, and daily it seems neither do we. Dideon's statement that "the irreconcilable event had been made manageable, reduced to the sentimental, to protective talismans, totems, garlands of garlic, repeated pieties that would come to seem in some ways as destructive as the event itself..." is decidedly accurate and penetrating, but it does not identify causes. We know from PNAC declarations of purpose that George Bush has taken advantage of the situation to promote an agenda designed to permanently install a radical branch of the Republican Party in federal office and simultaneously to "kill the beast"—to starve federal social and economic justice programs—by engaging in a "long war" designed to implant permanent bases in the oil-rich middle east and thereby drain the federal coffers. How could we have known that the target, the final target, was the Constitution itself? And even then, their machinations are not the Cause of the mental shutdown, but rather Effect.

How were they able to drag us to this spot in history, this precipice, this junkyard of our liberal dreams? And what of our liberal dreams? Are they in any way complicit in this descent into fascism? Why is it that whenever we see light shining on the abuses of Bush and his administration no one cares to do anything about it? Or, from the other side, you hear "But, isn't he cute."

The horror of 9/11 is the trigger for what has happened, but only the trigger. First and foremost it was horror, that trick of mental life that allows us to identify with victims and, thereby, bring ourselves into those once proud buildings and into a state of acute anxiety which we call "horror." The next emotions after the horror are very much dependent on the personality. Anger, terrible vengeful anger, arises easily and in some it subsides quickly into a variety of more complicated mental states, or for others anger itself becomes the raison d'etre, a habit, a joy (in fact) for it masks that variety of more complicated mental states which are neither understood, nor at all pleasant. I am going to suggest that the supporters of Bush are prey to this habit of anger.

Among the more complicated states we have "guilt." America knows guilt like the back of its pale hands. Whereas the pale sides do the work, the color of the back of the hand determines the reward. Guilt is one of our keys. The other is fear—fear with all its tags and fixtures, its couplings and buckles, fear of sudden horrific death, fear of losing personal power and prestege, fear of being wrong or inept, fear of the wrath of peoples we have trampled in our headstronglong rush to world preeminence!

We have to understand the DLC and the guy across the street with the yellow ribbon emblazoned on his SUV. We have to understand the quisling Democrats in Congress and the not so quisling but rather dishonorable oath-forgetting Democrats among whom the quislings swim. We have to understand that fear produces diurnal bouts of anger under which conservatives can hide their fears. As liberal intellectuals we have to understand our own dependence on and simultaneous aversion to guilt, our embarrassment at being wrong and shortsighted.

We have to know that the emotions of 9/11 fell like a torrential rain filling to overflowing and ponderous weight the cisterns of fear emptied when the Soviet Union disappeared in a twinkling, ... and soaking into the ground and aquifers to be pumped to your kitchen to boil potatoes, that process of removing nourishment from good things while adding to the mounting mass of flesh we have become.

(It is true that America is overweight, but it is not well understood that this phenomenon is but one symptom of the ghastly mental health of this nation, the neurosis of 9/11 fear that creates helplessness and hopelessness. America is committing slow suicide because it cannot deal with its guilt and its fears and its anger.)

The flood of grief and horror was turned to fear, then anger and guilt, anger for the conservatives, guilt for the liberals. These, especially Fear, are emotions more befitting the processes and platitudes of organized religion. It is not surprising, therefore, that fundamentalist religion with its narrow tolerances has flourished in the aftermath, bringing real and imaginary solace to horrified people who cannot shake the imagery of planes being driven like stakes into the heart of American military-industrial-corporate icons, nor deal with the marrow anger they have because of it.

All Americans have been traumatized, not just our weakest minded or our obviously vulnerable, not just conservatives, not just low IQ people. All of us have. We just respond differently. Even the strong of heart have been manipulated and the strong of mind duped by none other than their own basic reflexes and, of course, with a little help from people who care not a bit for democracy, the Constitution, or humane principles. The left intellectual search for meaning and for redemption of ideology after 9/11 had the unintended (but nevertheless foreseeable) effect of paralyzing their principles and humane work. With the source of confidence held in check, they were left flopping like so many multi-colored fish in emptied goldfish bowls, derided by detractors, pilloried as effete and irrelevant. It only took a few.

It will be relatively easy to throw off the effects of the self-centered and powerful, the corporations, the proto- and neo-fascists when we have learned to stop allowing ourselves to hide in paralytic fear. Yes, terrorists are bad, but they are not ubiquitous, and our quest for social and economic justice in America does not promote their madness. It does not.

Perhaps more than any, our elected Democrats have been bludgeoned into submission by their fears. This is not surprising, since the real epicenter of the aftermath is Washington, not New York. Some (many perhaps) have feared that they will be held accountable for the 9/11 terror and aftermath, for in their arrogance they took themselves to be more than representatives. Some will fear financial loss, for after all, the immediate aftermath was recession and much was lost, confidence and cash. Some fear the loss of constituency to parties that promise more and demand less. Some fear the de-emphasis of principles upon which they rested their case before the polls. Some fear fear itself and have forgotten how to not fear. Being the minority pulls them into inactivity and after a thrashing by the arrogant radical right, they cower on their side of the aisle in terror of further humiliation. Ask Senator Leahy; it only took a few.

When the Administration plays a fear card ALL fears twitch, ALL fears throb, ALL fears glower over better instincts. The fears of the right that convert quickly to anger and relived horror twitch and throb. The fears of the left that convert quickly to guilt and destruction of confidence in liberal principles twitch and throb. It turns into a game of operant conditioning with the Administration zapping us mice with aversive stimuli. The solution is to find a way to recognize a fear card for what it is and to forgive yourself for autonomic responses, ... but to not forgive yourself for pandering after the adrenaline high of horror and anger and guilt.

Each age has its honor and its toil!

Listen! Hear the steady voices of integrity, of honest humane care.

It may be that radical deconstructionist post-modernist relativism is wrong or disabling in other ways.

It may be our ethics need repair, our honor burnish, our means more closely match our ends.

It may be that despising the palpably fatuous has allowed them to gnaw a hole through to our hearts, and that we may die.

But, something, principles of rational and civil discourse, must survive.

Come, my fellow Liberals, arise, and beat down the oppression of your fears, the familiar fears and the ones you cannot name. Be not guilty more than your part and fraction.

Arise and, throwing off the pall of guilt, reset our course for freedom and democracy, for though we are not that force which in former days built social and economic justice, that which we are, we are, today's defenders of individual liberty and the rule of law. We are Liberals and Progressives. We are strong of mind and heart, we are the vanguard force of a thousand years of human progress, and we will not yield!

James Richard Brett