Thursday, December 4, 2014

Fear and foreboding

Ruminating on the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, Brian Kaller poses the serious question of why Americans are so afraid.

We're grappling with homicides committed by policemen too frightened to serve the communities they are meant to protect - in Cleveland, St. Louis, and New York City, and communities that are themselves frightened and angry.  But as Kaller notes, fear, paranoia and divisiveness thrive like viruses throughout our society.

What Kaller sees at the root is the breakdown of social and community ties and interactions that used to enmesh people in a skein of fellow human beings.  These lent not only security, but a framework of action and understanding, which individuals and families could navigate with some competence and confidence.  Gradually, that "quilt of community" has been replaced by an anxious dependency on "strangers in distant and possibly unaccountable institutions".

As America's Age of Prosperity breaks down under the twin stresses of an empire in decline and the end of cheap oil, individuals who have little in the way of real social networks are increasingly adrift and worried about being failed by the institutions that have served to take their place.

I think Kaller is exactly right, but like most major trends this one is overdetermined.  There are other forces pushing Americans toward fear and paranoia and away from confident and courageous engagement with the challenges that beset us.

For one, consumer capitalism requires a dissatisfied customer to work upon - an insecure subject who can be bullied into buying things they don't need.  In Kaller's richly interconnected human world entertainment was a thing of human interactions and creativity, where art, gossip, confession, handiwork, story telling and just visiting filled those hours that are now filled by the passive reception of products from a corporate-owned, corporate-sponsored media - an enormous industry whose income devolves almost entirely from marketing and advertising for ever more passive consumption.  As a sideline, its "news" departments spew out an incessant flood of fear-mongering and disconcerting stories that seem custom-designed to erode even further whatever faith and respect we still retain for our fellows or our institutions.

There are other forces at play.  Fear has always been a tool of statecraft, and mature states want docile subjects. Likewise, the corporations who have aligned with the state want a docile workforce.  Up to now, instilling a fear of naked, physical violence has mostly been directed at the marginalized - minorities, immigrants, the poor, vulnerable dissidents - and women.  But fear is also wielded upon everyone else through convenient bugaboos like ISIS, surgent China, Black rioters and Mexican drug lords, which are paraded in front of us on the one hand - and shadowy billionaires, militarized cops, Vladimir Putin and the NSA on the other.  Fear is used to divide us against ourselves as hostile caricatures of race, class, region, faith and politics replace first-hand experience.

In the closing years of the Cold War it was said that the West had been better at leading people around by their appetites than the East had been at pushing people around by their fears.  Today people are not being led anywhere by their appetites, except perhaps in circles.  The aspirations of consumerism are weighted down by busy-ness, anxiousness and clutter.

The Archdruid,  John Michael Greer, maintains that people are, or will be, adapting to the end of material progress for all but a tiny minority, to the reversal of US political ascendancy, and to the broken promises of science and technology.  The resultant breakdown of our guiding religion of Progress is throwing people into spiritual and existential crisis.

I suspect that here is another primary cause of the great American fearfulness and one which serves to give it its particular odd flavor.  Fear can be a helpful and adaptive response when a lion stalks you or an avalanche threatens you.  But the fear among Americans doesn't seem like that sort of response.  We don't seem afraid of any of the things that actually do threaten us.  It is more akin to a neurosis.  The anxieties that accompany neuroses are not constructive, well-directed fears that motivate us to avoid dangers or find solutions.  On the contrary, neurotic fears are promiscuous, misplaced anxieties that come from an unwillingness to confront a reality that we fear and want to reject.

And what we fear is the failure of - for lack of a better word - Progress.  But Progress is a thing so engrained in the American sense of ourselves and our futures that we cannot confront such an idea openly or honestly.  We pretend that our fears apply to other things - like, for example, lazy crazy Blacks or vicious homicidal cops, Islamic terrorists, Frankenfoods or black helicopters.

As yet, people are not being given any vision or any project of future-building that they could embrace in an honest and clear-headed way.  So legitimate fear and neurotic anxieties both build.  Anyone who's ever tried to handle a terrified animal can understand the dangers inherent in such a moment.


  1. Ugh. This makes sense. But it's so dark. Is there a way forward out of this mess?

    1. I guess it depends on what you mean by forward. I don't think we're going to get the future we were promised, but a future will come nevertheless. Humans find meaningful life in all sorts of situations, and I guess that's my goal for myself and my children.

  2. I guess you could call it fear. To me it is the flip side of anger at being denied something you are entitled to. I see it with both the Tea Party and Occupy folks. They want something (to simplify ever generous SS benefits, and free college) that we very likely cannot afford. The Europeans have been doing the same thing over job-security issues forever. Mind you, these are not unreasonable ideals, its just that you need a certain level of real (versus temporarily borrowed) wealth to sustain them. A lack of "progress" sucks, but that seems to be where we are.

    I find Greer frustrating. Because he is well read, and thoughtful, it is likely I hold him to too high a standard. Some of his areas he discusses his expertise is stretched very thinly. He is the type of expert (common) that you think is knowledgeable, but when he talks about areas you know well yourself, you find him wanting. Case in point. He talks about the transportation system being the bottleneck in the collapse of Roman technology/economy. What he seems to willfully ignore is that there is no evidence that transportation failed until a bunch of (mostly) Germanic tribes were sitting on Roman soil. He also ignores that the stronger part of the Empire, that fortunately avoided much of the civil war infighting, survived into the 15th century, and also mostly bit the dust through enemy conquest. In other words, the Rome collapse story is too muddy to be a great example of the Toynbee, Spengler, and (ridiculous) Tainter collapse theory that he so dearly loves. Which is a shame because there are better thinker out there on the subject, but he doesn't feel compelled to expand his knowledge. His military discussions are even worse. But as I noted, he still has more sense than the folks who think the Chinese are going to invade San Francisco.

    1. Russell, the sense of entitlement for Americans is complicated because people tend to believe that they are in a meritocratic society, but that's a different essay! As for Greer, I agree with you that he spreads himself thin, and sometimes he gets too attached to favorite, tidy patterns. But I agree with his fundamental point that we are stuck between delusional happy-talk on the one hand - and apocalyptic defeatism on the other. His blog is a rare oasis of creative thinking about futures that seem more plausible to me than any of these others.