First, the bad news: Throughout history a succession of serious philosophers have reminded us that life is a dead-end journey in which everything good is fleeting. A trajectory of entropy ensures that the elation we experience in life is really an illusion, and that time will ultimately cure us of this fantasy. It’s pessimistic and sad but technically irrefutable. We are all going to die—sooner than most of us would like to admit—and someday, without fail, everything we have created will perish without a trace.
Existential psychology reveals that many of us use the concept of freedom as a distraction from the dread of oblivion. This preoccupation is so wrapped up with our sense of identity that parsing the two can be difficult. The good news is that if we can simply come to grips with the bad news without blaming others for our existential anxiety, then facing this poignant certainty can add direction and greater meaning to our lives.
Think of it this way: Near the center of human concern is a black hole of negativity, and the inevitability of nonexistence is at its core. Only through awareness, existential honesty, and good will can we keep this insatiable force from draining away our humanity. As we age, the black hole’s gravity pulls us ever nearer, while the most fearful among us tend to react by trying to change the subject or lashing out at others.
Physicists tell us that the most omnipresent material in the universe is something we can’t even see: dark matter. We don’t even know what it does, although there’s a possibility that it holds everything together. In society, we also have something that functions as a universal backdrop. Society’s dark matter is an emotional background of angst and aspiration. It’s both ill will and good will. We can’t see it, but we all know it’s there; it’s everywhere. Anxiety and aspiration are like matter and antimatter. The anxiety emits cultural bias, a strain of attitude, that forms a milieu of invisible but projected contempt and prejudice which is felt as stigma by those targeted. The aspiration is the force of creativity found in science and the arts and spurred on by kindness, civility, and appeals for justice and equality.
Societal dark matter ranges from the noble aspirations of the humanities to malignancies of genocidal hatred—it can bring us together or tear us apart. Considering what research in psychology has revealed about human behavior, we should be willing to allow for the possibility that society’s dark-matter angst is, to some extent, misspent anxiety—a rejoinder against life’s brevity. Better to align with the aspirational forces, in hopeful efforts not only to make the best of the time we have, but also to be grateful for having had the opportunity.
The certitude of impending death has a psychologically distressing effect on us, both consciously and subconsciously. Unfortunately, the angst that naturally follows can lead to war. Too many lives are cut short because we lack understanding about freedom’s association with our sense of identity.
What is your definition of freedom? If a person is free to go anywhere, for any reason, at any time, but can’t earn enough money to rise above abject poverty, is that person really free? In underdeveloped countries, are people who live in trash heaps free? After all, as is often said in America, anyone has the right to sleep under a bridge, the rich included, although the rich seldom take advantage of the opportunity. If people can’t quit their low-paying jobs for fear of losing their health insurance, are they free? What about individuals who are so inhibited by what others might think of them they never do anything they really want to do, but instead restrict their life choices to only those acts that they believe will gain them social approval? Are such people really free? How about the groups with which we identify—have you ever considered how they might influence our idea of freedom?
There is a mountain of research to support the notion that our respective cultures serve as psychological safe havens, sheltering us from existential angst and anxiety. As soon as we come to realize that our parents are not omnipotent and cannot save us from the inevitability of nonexistence, we begin to invest our psychological good will in our culture and especially the groups we associate with. Geography shapes our views by shaping our language, evidence the differences in geographical dialect. We seem to know intuitively that the groups we associate with will serve both as distractions and shelters from the distress that is sure to come from facing life’s chaotic complexities.
The inevitability of oblivion can’t be changed, so the mistaken but seemingly most comforting thing to do about it is to change the subject. Counterintuitive as it seems, however, confronting death has been shown to greatly enhance one’s appreciation for life. Nevertheless, even if we know this, we invest so much of ourselves in our culture that it becomes a big part of our identity. We are temporary, whereas our culture can go on for centuries. Consequently, we can become so wrapped up in our factional uniqueness that when our group identity is threatened, we take the threat personally.
For us to die as individuals is one thing, but it’s quite another for our kind to cease to exist. This existential sensibility is often expressed as threats to one’s freedom, but more often than not, it’s not about freedom at all—it’s about otherness masquerading as an obstacle to freedom. It’s almost as if the very fact of another’s existence keeps one from being free to be oneself. Think, for example, of all of the instances of homophobic individuals we’ve heard complaining about having homosexuality “in their face,” so to speak. The experience is frightening to them because overt otherness is related to change; psychologically, otherness turns out to be death’s cousin.
Moreover, the presence of what seem to be extreme cultural differences presupposes the possibility that one’s beliefs, customs, and most cherished ideals could be wrong. For most of us, this possibility is consciously disturbing, but for some, it’s subconsciously terrifying. The prospect of reaching adulthood, especially the fall and winter of life, and discovering suddenly that one’s foundational assumptions about the world are egregiously in error may be one of the most psychologically threatening things that can happen to a person. For someone who harbors deep emotional fears about the certitude of nonexistence, such a discovery could mean having to admit that one’s whole life amounts to little more than a mistake. The common reaction is to dig in and stand one’s ideological ground.
Our metaphor that blood is thicker than water is a truism, but many other kinds of associations can also trump our moral ideas about right and wrong. It’s not uncommon that we forgive our group members for most of their transgressions and hold those of our enemies against them for eternity. Any group who perceives their identity is under attack experiences feelings of being marginalized (and marginalization is metaphorically akin to death by degree), whether they are young, old, male, female, black, white, liberal, conservative, or any other defining distinction. If one’s sense of identity is diminished in any way, the effect is a subtle reminder of demise.
My point is profoundly important but seldom acknowledged publicly: at the heart of human anxiety about the essence of freedom is the reality that we can never be free of the thing we fear most—death. Clinging to beliefs and to one’s group identity may offer temporary solace, but ultimately it is not a satisfying refuge. On the contrary, it exacerbates fear while it spawns contempt as a defensive reflex. Further, the psychological conflict resulting from a diverse range of opinions and feelings about religious faith within our culture ratchets up group animosity to the level where it becomes commonplace for individuals to give voice to expressions of hatred in public; rage masks real fears, and contempt serves as a bonding mechanism for intensifying group affiliation.
Today’s Tea Partiers are a conspicuous assemblage incurring serious existential angst over their tenuous grip on their sense of identity. A New York Times poll recently suggested that those who self-identify as Tea Partiers earn more than most people do on average and that they are better educated. I can believe the former but not the latter. Better educated by what standard and by whose measurement? Mind you, this was a poll, so I wouldn’t expect people unaware of their ignorance to do anything other than exaggerate their level of education. Tea Partiers are anxious about their sense of identity and their economic security, and they have good reason for worry about the second point.
The purposeful middle class enabled by progressive tax policies both before and immediately after World War II has been eviscerated by special interests and by the Republican Party in particular. Whereas a half-century ago almost any “white” adult male could get a full-time job and earn enough money to support a family, today even an advanced technical education guarantees neither employment nor a living wage. Many white- and blue- collar communities have been ravaged by home foreclosures, unemployment, and factory shutdowns, while crime is rampant and fear-mongering politicians increasingly point to others as the cause of this misfortune.
Illegal immigrants catch the brunt of this dark-matter animosity, while the fearful among us ignore the prosperity we enjoy from their back-breaking efforts in America’s farms, factories, and fields, performing jobs shunned by the general public. Hispanic immigrants are only the latest to garner such attention. Throughout American history there has never been a shortage of out-groups to absorb contempt-driven wrath for their overt otherness; they pose an existential threat in the minds of the general populace. In Arizona, for example, the crime rate has dropped appreciably in recent years, while the fearful unease of the middle class has escalated into a kind of paranoia, proportionately out of touch with the current reality. In the meantime, the political power to be gained by politicians in fanning the flames of public sentiment is so great that there is little chance for achieving a reasonable solution to the problem of illegal immigration.
Lots of people are deeply worried because the president of the United States is of mixed race. He’s perceived by many as being a foreigner. He’s not of their group, and he speaks constantly of change. Even the fact that he is an eloquent speaker is used as evidence that he is not a regular guy, but is instead an elitist and a liberal to boot. People who can’t relate to him consider his presidency illegitimate, and hence the incessant complaints by those who have come to be known as birthers.
A significant number of people who call themselves Tea Partiers may earn above-average incomes and they may be technically literate in their career fields, but they are egregiously ignorant of the knowledge that serves as our aspirational guide toward civilization and helps us to mitigate our worst instincts. Tea Partiers see their way of life as coming apart at the seams, and they are desperate to simplify their predicament by finding someone to blame. They claim to want to put things right again and thus regain their freedom or “take back our country,” as they often describe it. This freedom, however, is not so much to do as they please as to not be reminded of their existential fears by the overt presence of othernesss. Tea Party pronouncements of what must be done to set the ship of state afloat show utter disregard for the conditions that find us run aground in deficit spending. They tout remedies that bear no relation to a realistic approach for solving our current problems without throwing the country into a severe economic depression worse than the 1930s.
Listen closely as Sarah Palin stands before a crowd and asks, “Do you love your freedom?” and it’s easy to discern that it’s not freedom but identity she’s talking about. Freedom, as Timothy Ferris explains in The Science of Liberty , is a product of liberalism. He says, “Liberalism is inherently nonpartisan: It means freedom for all, or it means nothing at all. It maintains that everyone benefits from everyone’s freedom, and that all are diminished whenever one individual or group is not free.” But this is not how Palin characterizes freedom. Practically everything she has to say about the subject is couched in dogmatic terms. Her rhetoric is all us and them, and liberalism—or the freedom to do other than her group advocates— is precisely what she decries. Railing against mandatory health insurance is not about the freedom to go without coverage; it’s about a surplus of social contempt aimed at people who are thought not to deserve health care because of their beliefs and moral shortcomings.
America is suffering an anemic economy, high unemployment, underemployment, skyrocketing debt, the threat of fanatical terrorists, and the effects of global warming, and yet, our undoing is more likely to come from ignorance or perhaps, more specifically, from a sad misunderstanding about the essence of personal identity and how our existential fears get tangled up with the notion of freedom. In other words, we may self-destruct because of spite. We are drowning in misinformation, and the shrillness of Palin’s voice serves as a metaphor for an identity-based politics that is blind to reasoned negotiation in favor of an in-group ethos that says, “If you are not one of us, then it doesn’t matter what you do, or what you say, because we are right by nature of who we are.”
One can’t reason with Palin supporters because they believe themselves to be locked into an emotional battle of good and evil, and those who do not belong to their group have no legitimate platform from which to present an argument. If you belong to Palin’s constituency you can say or do anything with impunity, as she so often demonstrates. If you don’t belong, however, then you can do nothing right, regardless of the circumstances or the nature of your argument or contribution.
There is no way to say this with decorum: Tea Party politics, to a significant degree, are driven by ignorance dressed up as patriotism and nonsense about preserving the Constitution. At the same time, as I’ve already said, it’s not as if the Tea Party’s arguments have no validity. There are clearly a lot of things to be upset about. But the current shrill rhetoric of public ire is being orchestrated by political ideologues and media pundits, who depend on public outrage for audience share—a situation that’s antithetical to the sound judgment needed to sustain democracy.
Tea Party mania is not about freedom, it’s about not being able to relate to the president personally. Barack Obama’s presidency is thought to be illegitimate, just as George W. Bush’s presidency was by people who could not relate to him. And all one has to do to affirm this assertion is let the majority of Tea Partiers explain themselves and prove for certain that they suffer from a MRSA-like form of ignorance. There is nothing new in the problems they complain about. The previous Bush administration brought us to the very edge of the economic abyss, and the Tea activists have been way late in paying attention and speaking up. But not for their inattention to the matters they are now up in arms about, we wouldn’t be in such a mess. By and large, the Tea Party movement to take the country back is not about freedom or the Constitution; it’s about identity and the existential angst that comes with the territory of human mortality.
Only a quarter of our population is college educated. Of this quarter, many are well educated in the technical discipline of their chosen career field, but they are fundamentally uninformed of the many aspects of the humanities that function to keep us above the fray of political pettiness and moral collapse. We don’t rely on the humanities for our personal sense of morality; that’s something science reveals may be inborn and partly due to our upbringing. But in a broader sense, the humanities keep our nation’s “eyes on the prize,” so to speak, and help us resolve complex moral issues. The humanities represent a guide to a just society as expressed aspirationally in the Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. When contempt born of petty politics becomes the dominant consciousness of the day, we desperately need the wisdom of the ages, and we need to keep our eyes and our thoughts on those things that appeal to our better nature. In other words, we need the guidance of the wisest among us, both living and dead.
In my forthcoming book, Existential Aspirations: Reflections of a Self-Taught Philosopher, I propose that what we need desperately as a culture is an existential education. The humanities cannot be considered elective educational subjects unless we set out to be inhuman. This is not, however, just an American problem. In advocating a Socratic method of education in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities , Martha Nussbaum writes, “Democracies all over the world are undervaluing, and consequently neglecting, skills that we all badly need to keep democracies vital, respectful, and accountable.” Indeed, how do we do this if we can’t even be realistic about the source of our own existential anxieties?
A noteworthy number of our citizens have always maintained an anti-intellectual life stance, disparaging the need to learn more about very things that make our lives possible. My own father, when he was alive, would have stomped off cursing under his breath at the mere mention of the wordintellect or intellectual in any sentence, no matter how it was used. I grew up under a veil of ignorance as part of a southern anti-intellectual culture, and I know firsthand how psychologically debilitating it can be. But these days, in light of what recent research in psychology and neurology reveals about our political behavior, ranting about one’s political opposition as being the incarnation of evil is like trying to pursue vacuum-tube computing in the age of digital formatting. That so little is known by the public at large about issues so crucial to understanding human relations is disappointing beyond expression.
In an earlier essay about Tea Party political angst, I quoted Shankar Vedantam in his fascinating book, The Hidden Brain , where he argues that beneath human consciousness resides an “unconscious bias” whose job is to enable us to “leap to conclusions.” This may well be the understatement of the decade. How else can we explain the fact that so many of our citizens argue passionately about subjects they clearly know nothing about? Worse, how can a person attend four years of college and escape an education, as Palin clearly demonstrates? She is not inhibited by her lack of knowledge; to the contrary, she is driven by it, proud of it even. As the saying goes, “the fewer the facts, the stronger the opinion.” But where does the arrogance come from that causes people to rant about subjects that they have knowledge of only through hearsay, Internet gossip, and Rush Limbaugh dittos? What causes systemically oppressed people to associate their economically downward trajectory with a lack of freedom instead of the sleight-of-hand, special-interest-lobby manipulation that is likely the cause?
We don’t need extensive formal education to tell us that things are not as they appear. We experience this daily. Most everything we take the time to look into turns out to surprise us. And yet, there are hundreds, thousands, even millions of sign-carrying protestors who, when asked a few questions, will reveal that they clearly do not understand the complexity of the issue they are protesting about. Worse still, they will repeatedly and without fail bite at the stick instead of the hand that holds it. They will point fingers at people even more economically marginalized than themselves as being the problem for their plight instead of at the people with string-pulling power over the economy.
We do know that hatred feeds off its own misspent surplus of angst, which is itself fueled by ignorance. But how is it possible to continue living this way when there is so much evidence demonstrating how destructive it is to invest hate- filled emotion into political conflict, call it democracy, and then argue incessantly about things without seriously studying them? Why do we scramble to run a democracy fueled mostly by contempt instead of our higher aspirations?
For some levity, I picked up Idiot America by Charles P. Pierce and Deer Hunting with Jesus by Joe Bageant. The books are both humorous and serious about the malignant nature of ignorance. Pierce says the rise of idiot America amounts to a war on expertise and claims America is the best country in the world for crackpots and public cranks, in part because our country was founded on untested ideas. No argument from me. But I would point out, as many others have, that it takes a lot more effort and ingenuity to maintain a democracy than to start one, and we are coming up short on intellectual effort to do so. Pierce says, “Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough,” and that it’s common for people to infer that fervent belief is proof of truth. Sarah Palin is an archetype of this phenomenon.
Pierce argues that the terrorist acts of September 11 have acted as an accelerant for public lunacy, from the X—Files to the “torture porn” by Kiefer Sutherland’s character on television’s 24 series. He reminds us that America “was founded by people who considered self-government no less a science than botany.” And yet, these days we find placard-wielding Tea Partiers who can’t name the three branches of government, who don’t know that Medicare is a government program, and who think President Obama is going to take away their guns and put a stop to sport fishing in America.
The hilarity of Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus is offset by its deeper message about the utterly debilitating, destructive nature of ignorance. Bageant’s book is centered on his hometown of Winchester, Virginia, a place he characterizes as fast becoming the bedrock of a permanent underclass. He tells us that our country is three-quarters working class but that most of us are conditioned not to think of ourselves as such. With a flair for making the issue of class ring out, Bageant writes, “If your high-school-dropout daddy busted his ass for small bucks and never read a book and your mama was a waitress, chances are you are not going to grow up to be president of the United States, regardless of what your teacher told you.”
From here he gets into the mud and the blood and the beer and the sheer hopelessness of so many uneducated but well-meaning people locked into a merciless feedback loop of lashing out about the wrong things for the wrong reasons. A self-described lefty agitator, Bageant was writing about the angst that fuels Tea Party sentiment long before there was a Tea Party. He identifies the time-worn but dependable tools of the political right: propaganda, ignorance, fear, and emotion as a substitute for thought.
If you really want to understand our current knowledge deficit, I highly recommend Susan Jacoby’s book, The Age of American Unreason. Jacoby puts our predicament in historical perspective. She characterizes the early nineteenth-century lyceum movement through the early 1960s as a culture of aspiration. But today, Jacoby points out, we increasingly find ourselves in a culture ill with a “mutant strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism” where un-mindfulness is promoted by politicians and media executives who depend upon non-thinking voters and vacuous sound bites.
In his essay “Compensation,” Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us that, contrary to popular belief, we do experience justice in this world—and not the next—through the simple rules of cause and effect. “Every sweet hath its sour,” he says, and elsewhere, “All infractions of love and equity in our social relations are speedily punished. They are punished by fear.” Finally, “A man cannot speak but he judges himself.” Carry around nonsensical signs that ring of hatred if you must, but first try hard to figure out what they really mean and what you are really afraid of. If you don’t, the injury will be to yourself.
In their book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger,Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett offer thirty years of well-documented research removing all doubt that growing inequality leads to contempt on steroids. In other words, inequality results in an exponential increase in the range of angst in our cultural dark matter. They write, “The problems in rich countries are not caused by the society not being rich enough (or even by being too rich) but by the scale of material differences between people within each society being too big. What matters is where we stand in relation to others in our own society.” To which I will add that a failure to understand how our unconscious fears lead us to disdain otherness is an existential booby trap and an emotional cul-de-sac that often results in social catastrophe.
Socrates declared that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I have always thought he overstated the case. But if he had made an equal argument about the need for exploring the fears born of our mortality, then there would be no objection from me. Had he done so, he might have saved countless numbers of people from an early death by enabling them to come to terms with their own existential angst, instead of attempting to take it out on others. Of course, Socrates was disadvantaged. He knew the human race is heavily populated with fools, but he didn’t know that our bicameral minds, with their split-brain architecture, enable us to park our fears in one hemisphere with only a vague awareness of it in the other. This arrangement sets us up with a pattern-matching capability to make inferences that will allow us to mask our real concerns by focusing on small problems as substitutes for big ones, and the process haunts us with smoldering anxiety.
In the final analysis, the notion of freedom will always be tainted by the reality that there are some fears that we can never fully free ourselves of, and that we need desperately to learn to live without avoiding our fears through the seductiveness of distraction, diversion, and targeted blame. Emerson said, “All things are moral.” He also reminds us that no view of life is valid if it omits life’s harshness. Indeed, in spite of centuries of avoiding the subject of mortality, embracing it head-on is a shortcut to experiencing freedom as an aspiration of authenticity and an acknowledgment that genuine freedom is experienced in a life free of the angst of ignorance and the bias and pettiness of contempt. By all means let’s get on with a Tea Party political discussion, but first put down your nonsensical signs and do your homework.
Having spent my formative years in the grip of a regional ideological illusion, I can relate to George Bernard Shaw’s illuminating line from Caesar and Cleopatra, “Pardon him, Theodotus: he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.” It takes a sustained intellectual effort to get beyond the self-justifying parochial worldviews we internalize growing up. But until we do, we can make no claims on having understood the concept of freedom or the psychological fears that, without our awareness, can serve as little more than a refuge of ignorance and as bastions of contempt.
The subject of freedom deserves serious study in its own right, but for starters it should not be confused with the notion of identity and as an escape from the existential reality that is part and parcel of being mortal. So, I suspect that if Shaw were here nowadays to hear Sarah Palin ask an audience if they love their freedom, he would say, “Pardon her, Theodotus, for she is from Wasilla.” But then, what can I say? So am I.
Cross posted with Self-University Newsletter.