Marc Estrin : Our Better Angels May Have Fled

Our better angels may have fled

By Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / December 6, 2010

“In each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the molding of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.” — Capt. Ahab

So they — Pynchon’s “They,” the Blue and Red Meanies, visible and undisclosed — won’t renew unemplyoment benefits, want to kill ’em all, anywhere, with drones or nukes if possible, are prepared to starve out Palestinians and Caterpillar their homes, drown low-lying peasants, and assassinate or execute any whistle blowers so they can do their deeds in secret. Who are these people?

“Greedy” and “mean-spirited” are the mildest adjectives one hears describing the attitudes and projects of heads of state, their underlings, and the CEOs that drive them. And last — but definitely not least — the populations that applaud them.

It might be possible to assume that Mr. (and the occasional Ms.) Big and their followers have human hearts (Cheney’s contraption notwithstanding), love their children as we do, and hope to pass on to them a better world. What is it, then, that drives them to propose and cheer on such callous proposals and systems?

While differing in personal details, it’s likely that each actor is driven by what the Frankfurt School called the “Authoritarian Personality,” whose fundamental trait is the urgent need for, and privileging of, order. Freud, Fromm, and Reich explained the psychodynamics of weak ego structures that underlay the Authoritarian Personality, while Adorno and Horkheimer analyzed the social repression that encourage it and leave its marks on individual souls.

When Alles in Ordnung becomes the highest value, and all else seems threatening, many things follow:

1) Powerful leaders are assumed to be needed to keep society in line, secretly if necessary, and to restrict it to conventional, middle-class values. Exaggerated assertions of toughness and strength become the norm. Trickle-down theories designed to protect the powerful are understood to be in the interest of all. Though greed and lust for power may be involved, they are justified by an appeal to the general good.

2) Democracy becomes a threat and must be limited. In The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governed Ability of Democracies To the Trilateral Commission, Samuel Huntington warns about the consequences of an “excess of democracy”:

The arenas where democratic procedures are appropriate are, in short, limited… The effective operation of the democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups… Marginality on the part of some groups is inherently undemocratic, but it has also been one of the factors which has enabled democracy to function effectively.

The need to control the unpredictability of excess democracy has guided American foreign and economic policy throughout its history. The pattern of marginalizing the general population and supporting rich or dictatorial strongmen is driven as much by a rage for order and fear of chaos as by a simple selfish need to maximize profits — profits.

3.) Individualism becomes suspect, a negative value to be minimized or stamped out. Difference means unpredictability, and thus “bad.” Fear of an unpredictable, uncontrollable Other spawns all the “-isms” which rampage today: racism, sexism, classism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia. Nature itself becomes an enemy Other to be conquered and subdued.

4) Rigid moralism of stereotypical values seems the most secure protection against anarchy. The psychosexual chaos at the core of an authoritarian personality simultaneously fascinates and repels. There is exaggerated concern with and (often hypocritical) denunciation of libidinal art and sexual “goings on.” God hates fags, don’tcha know. Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t be. At the same time, unconscious emotional impulses are projected outward, and the world is seen as a wild and dangerous place in which worst-case scenarios abound.

5) Fear and guilt about chaotic thoughts within and deeds without is so potentially threatening that psychic numbing becomes a typical response, with emotional dissociation from the consequences of deeds. Knee-jerk patriotism in response to moral questions is an effective defense mechanism. Yellow ribbons blindfold eyes against our corpses. The story of the Enola Gay or 9/11 must not be told. Control of information makes compassion difficult.

6) A culture of punishment follows hard upon. Offenders against official order must be heavily penalized. Dominance and submission become crucial. Pro-life and pro-death penalty attitudes flourish together. Sanctity of life is secondary: the important thing is to punish transgressors. Tender-mindedness is for bleeding heart liberals.

Thus, the Authoritarian Personality — individual and social. While no “angry white male” leader or follower may display every trait, they are all on collective display in the current reactionary zeitgeist. To characterize them as simple greed or mean-spiritedness is to misunderstand their psychic origins, and to limit effective response.

Can there be an effective strategy in response?

Each of the characteristics above can be substantially addressed. In dealing with any particular individual, from talk show caller to senator, a crucial move might be to speak to his or her insecurity and need for order:

1) Powerful Leaders. We can emphasize the collective wisdom and surprising knowledge of larger groups, and the limitations of powerful, but narrow, leadership. We can point to the possibilities of decentralized planning and decision-making. If trickle-up energy can be recognized and honored, trickle-down economics will make less sense.

2) The Threat of Democracy. We can call on any reserve goodwill for the founding ideas of this country. In their research for Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah’s group of sociologists discovered a pervasive “second language” of civic republicanism and biblical tradition flourishing alongside the seemingly dominant American language of manipulative instrumentalism. World Bank strangulation of the global poor, for example, can show up — at least to the masses — as profound injustice if this second language is brought forward and appealed to. Bellah’s book is an important read for activists thoroughly discouraged.

3) Suspect Individualism and Dangerous Others. “New” and “different” are not negative terms in American culture. Current advertising appeals to it all the time. Ethnic music and restaurants thrive — so why not the folks that originate them? Today’s xenophobia may not be an indelible characteristic of the American psyche, but a relatively superficial effect of economic hard times. Many positive sensibilities are there to be addressed, and one can try to locate blame where it belongs — on the power structures, not on their victims.

4) Rigid Moralism. Puritanism and profligacy have always existed in dubious battle. Hawthorne’s “Maypole of Marymount” teases the most rigid among us, creating chaos within control. Understanding the inner workings of self and others is a possible key to a more peaceful order. Mitch McConnell (married to an Asian-American) may be secretly fascinated with Louisville’s gay pride parade, but he has no conceptual tree on which to hang it. Can we make it okay for him and his to ponder such things, if only as examples of the human condition?

5) Patriotic Psychic Numbing. Now that the information highway has invaded the world, images of Others seep daily into consciousness. For all the “good guy/bad guy” media spin, there may be a perception of common humanity lurking under the thickest hide, kept in place only by fear. Should that hide begin to melt, psychic numbing will disappear with it and blinding patriotism might be open to fascination and even generosity. “They’re just dumb, greedy sonsabitches” sells short even a right-winger’s capacity for wonder.

6) The Culture of Punishment. As nuclear power, once projected as “too cheap to meter,” has priced itself out of existence, so must three-strikes prison building make its idiocy felt. When the quick fix fails — as even a casual observer can see it must — Americans will have to confront the contradictions of dominance. And here our egalitarian “second language” can come into play, creaking open through cognitive dissonance. If even Dick Cheney supports his daughter in her lesbianism, can angry, punishing America be all that far behind?

All right. But as Cheney so famously said, “So?”

These approaches to the Authoritarian Personality do seem overly optimistic in the era of our once and future Congresses. And surely social and political structures of domination are firmly in place, prejudicing events and guiding their outcomes. But Melville directs our attention to the glimmer of hope, the “unknown but still reasoning thing” behind the unreasoning mask. Far better, perhaps, to organize toward that glimmer and engage that reason then to lapse into despair, and the powerless calling of names.

But can the vestigial better angels of our nature swell the chorus of a new, more humane union? Or have badder angel systems so suffocated us, for so long, that the better angels have turned their backs, taken their leave, and fled?

Lincoln’s angels must by now confront Walter Benjamin’s Angel:

…an angel who seems about to take leave of something, something at which he is staring. His eyes are wide, his mouth open and his wings outspread. This is what the Angel of History must look like. His face is turned toward the past. What look to us like a chain of occurrences appears to him as one great catastrophe incessantly piling wreck upon wreck and hurling it at his feet. He would very much like to stay, to waken the dead and make whole what has been shattered. But a storm is blowing so strongly from Paradise that his wings are pinned back: he can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile before him grows. What we call progress — that is the storm.

As the winds increase, I’m not betting on the outcome.

[Marc Estrin is a writer, activist, and cellist, living in Burlington, Vermont. His novels, Insect Dreams, The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Golem Song, and The Lamentations of Julius Marantz have won critical acclaim. His memoir, Rehearsing With Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater (with Ron Simon, photographer) won a 2004 theater book of the year award. He is currently working on a novel about the dead Tchaikovsky.]

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1 Response to Marc Estrin : Our Better Angels May Have Fled

  1. I believe that one useful tactic is to educate people about how the authoritarian personalities function. In particular, in this age of high bandwidth right wing news, it’s important people understand the various propaganda techniques they use and what’s likely to be said for specific events.

    To give just one example, the r.w.a.’s endless victimization. People say “Happy Holidays” and the rightwinger proclaims he’s being victimized by the “War on Christmas.” Some right wing starts a physical conflict and then loses the battle, only to see the right wing blogosphere go wild with the claim that the left wing is out of control as a “deranged liberal” attacked the poor man and bit his finger off. Several people get killed in the Arizona shootout but Palin’s the real victim. etc. etc.

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