Seeking Comfort

I follow conservative libertarian Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog (subtitled “Small Steps Toward A Much Better World”). Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, has now written a book called The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream and is on the interview circuit. This gist of the book (which I have not yet read) is that the U.S. has stopped investing in long-term big ideas and grand projects and is no longer a dynamic society but rather a stagnant one; it’s become complacent, medicating itself against pain, setting up “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” seeking comfort instead of taking risks to improve life. One example: We use technology to separate ourselves, stay indoors, hunker down, and satisfy a need for comfort (Facebook, Netflix) instead of to expand horizons and spur dynamism and productivity (driverless cars that will make sluggish commutes better, high speed rail, an internet of things, smart homes); or as the National Review puts it in their review headline, “When the Pursuit of Happiness Becomes the Flight from Pain:”

“Americans are making deliberate decisions on a mass scale that collectively add up to a culture that is avoiding risk, seeking comfort, and clustering together in like-minded communities.  Americans are less willing to move, to start new companies, or to live or work with people from different socioeconomic classes. We’re clustering with people of like mind, similar income, and the same race. It’s a devastating portrait of a nation that is losing its dynamism in favor of, essentially, ‘digging in.'” (in National Review‘s review)

Another artifact demonstrating a change in attitude: Science fiction written years ago was about how much better it would be in the future; now science fiction writing is mostly dystopian, envisioning a scary, chaotic, dark future.

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Cowen spoke this week briefly on NPR’s Morning Edition and at length on WBUR’s “On Point” (and probably elsewhere; those are the two interviews I heard) and I really think he is on-target about how the U.S. has become risk-averse and self-segregated, and how this self-segregation leads to complacency but also surprise at how others think and act:

“[I]f you cease being challenged [by those whose lives are quite different from your own] and you think your way of life is the only way, ultimately that way will become weak, it will be subject to less improvement, you will enter a kind of bubble and continually be surprised by the challenges the outside world keeps on throwing at you. But you’re not very well-equipped intellectually to handle them. … [W]ealthier people tend to live together more than before and so do poorer people. And this is bad for the country as a whole and we see a version of this in the last election where so many people are shocked by the candidate who actually won.”

I wasn’t shocked by Donald Trump’s party nomination nor by his appeal to so many in the general election, partly because I live in a purple state and know and spend time with more than a few Trump supporters.

I’m also aware that support for the federal government has fallen precipitously in the last 50 years, and Trump  — a rich, mouthy businessman with no political experience whatsoever and who rarely spoke his lines from the teleprompter — was the ultimate anti-government, anti-establishment candidate. In 1964, 77% of Americans said that they trusted the government in Washington “to do what is right” all or most of the time.  In 2016, only 19% did. As Tracy McKenzie notes in his essay “Abraham Lincoln on the Rise of Donald Trump” (June 2016), “[p]opular trust began to fall off sharply after the Kennedy-Johnson years, thanks largely to Watergate and Vietnam, and although it has fluctuated sharply from time to time, the overall trend since then has been decidedly downward.”

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But the main reason I wasn’t shocked or surprised is that I’ve studied Rene Girard’s work with mimetic theory, his keen understanding of how populism appeals and caters to resentment, and you only have to listen to or read interviews with Trump supporters to get a sense for the high level of resentment they feel. For example, for her book The Politics of Resentment, political science professor Katherine Cramer spent a few months with rural midwestern voters and found that “politics have increasingly become a matter of personal identity. Just about all of her subjects felt a deep sense of bitterness toward elites and city dwellers; just about all of them felt tread on, disrespected and cheated out of what they felt they deserved.” (Cramer’s article about her research in Vox, 16 Nov 2016)

[To be clear, resentment of the party/person in power usually drives us to vote for the “other side,” so we typically bounce from party to party in elections, switching back and forth every 4 or 8 or 12 years. In fact, Kelly Cramer, in her interview with the WaPo, says about liberals now: “One of the very sad aspects of resentment is that it breeds more of itself. Now you have liberals saying, ‘There is no justification for these points of view, and why would I ever show respect for these points of view by spending time and listening to them?’;” in other words, now liberals are resentful of Trump voters and their perspectives. But that said, in this election cycle I think there were deep, long-held, even existential resentments at work, and that they were stoked and played upon by Trump, rather than tamped down with calls for unity and candidate promises to work across the aisle for the good of all, as is usual.]

Cowen, in his interviews this week, mentions a few of the reasons Trump supporters might be resentful, including ongoing job losses and severe wage stagnation over the last 50 years for most men. One could also point to the loss of whole job sectors, such that some skills are no longer useful; the loss of a way of life for many  — some because of policy changes like the closing of coal mines, and some because times change and jobs change with them, which is why there’s not a thriving blacksmith trade these days; the reality that now often both partners/parents in a middle-class family feel they have to work to make ends meet, which leaves little time for a rich family life and which makes them twice as vulnerable to potential job loss; the fact that home prices aren’t rising like they used to and in fact have fallen in some places over the last 10 years, leaving the middle-class, many of whose largest asset is their house, either underwater on the mortgage or unable to move or retire; and the student loan debt burden and difficulty finding jobs that young people are facing, among other factors. (Trump voters offer a number of reasons for voting for him, at Deadspin, 3 Jan 2017.)

Strict economic resentment is not the whole story, though.  Political scientist Roger Petersen points out  that globally, ethnic conflict often stems from “the feeling of injustice on the part of a privileged portion of society when it sees power slipping into the hands of a group that hadn’t previously held it.” Petersen says that “one of the underappreciated causes of ethnic violence was a change in the legal and political status of majority and minority ethnic groups.” But in countries with strong, legitimate governments, the loss of status by a privileged group that could have turned into ethnic conflict and slaughter instead is “channeled into another way of clinging to power and preventing another group from attaining it. Like, say, elections and government policies. ‘Dominance,’ Petersen writes, ‘is sought by shaping the nature of the state rather than through violence.'”

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Girard’s work in mimetic theory, and the work of others who have written on the topic, tells us that we, humans, are fundamentally imitators of each other. We imitate each other unconsciously or unknowingly, and also consciously at times (especially when admiring celebrities, e.g.). We share desires among ourselves — desires to have things as well as more abstract but even stronger desires for status and identity — and we can either cooperate towards these desires (this is called love, and is related to a sense of abundance) or we can lock into competition and conflict with other desirers (this is called hatred, resentment, envy, and it’s related to an experience of scarcity).

In the U.S. (and elsewhere) lately, there has been a sense of scarcity — arising from the recession of 2007-2009 and our extremely slow economic recovery, and actually even before that, since the 1970s when income inequality really began to increase — as well as a sense of injustice among those previously privileged in society (i.e., white men at all income levels, 63% of whom who voted for Trump in 2016, and to some extent white women, too, 52% of whom voted for him), who feel their power and privilege slipping as others in society demand more, both of which give rise to a widespread resentment among those who feel they are getting the short end of the stick, that they don’t have a fair chance anymore, that they are being treated unjustly, that life used to be better for them. Those are the people at whom Trump aimed his 1950s-nostalgic, retro campaign message “make America great again.” (Cowen has dubbed him “the placebo president” and sees Trump’s look-backward message — bridges, tunnels, and coal mining, rather than the smart grid, broadband, long-term R&D — with its emphasis on short-term results as a kind of complacency itself.) As Cowen says, “We’re seeing a political backlash, yet without identifying the target correctly.”

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I think that Eric Gans (in “Donald  Trump, Metaconservative,” March 2016) puts his finger on one key appeal of Trump to many white voters in 2016: Not only did Trump, almost alone among the Republican candidates, actually speak against “PC” values — what Gans calls victimary issues or victimocracy, and which some Girardians see as a “promotion of minority concerns not as group interests but in the guise of victimary social justice” — he also persistently embodied disregard for “PC” values:

“The term “PC,” by which conservatives refer to the victimary phenomenon when they do so at all, reduces it to a matter of etiquette, ignoring its deeper political implications. The Republican presidential candidates have almost entirely avoided victimary issues despite their preponderance in the Democratic program: reducing incarceration and criminal prosecution, restraining the police, raising women’s pay from ’77 cents on the dollar’ and granting women sex-related health benefits, granting ‘transgendered’ boys access to women’s bathrooms, identifying voter-ID laws with ‘voter suppression,’ and generally treating Wall Street, the ‘one percent,’ ‘millionaires and billionaires’ and ‘the Koch brothers’ not merely as greedy cheats but as sustainers of ‘white privilege’”—not to speak of encouraging the ‘crybullying’ about racism and the ‘rape culture’ that goes on at college campuses. Only Trump and, while he was active, Ben Carson (whose recent endorsement of Trump confirms their agreement on this point) have conspicuously denounced PC, and none have made it the focus of their campaigns, except on the point of limiting immigration, which Trump has made so to speak his trump card. … As I pointed out [previously], Trump embodies far more than he articulates resistance to the victimocracy.”

Reading Gans’s list of ‘victimary issues’ in the Democratic program, above, it’s not hard to see why white men (and many women) would either not care about these things — after all, if you already have privilege in a culture, why would you want to restrain the police, reduce incarceration, change how bathrooms are assigned, loosen voting laws, increase income for other people, etc.? — or would actively resent these commitments to groups of people who are mostly “other,” mostly people you don’t see or personally know in our self-segregated society.

Beyond the fact that the programs and issues don’t necessarily resonate for many white voters (i.e., those who don’t have to worry much about prison, cops, rape, racism, voting restrictions, and finding a safe public restroom) is the deeper anger at being perceived and talked about by liberals and in the (so-called liberal) media as unjust, ignorant, and in fact “deplorable” (Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate term) because they disagree with liberals’ agenda. It’s maddening from the liberal perspective that they don’t recognise other people and groups as victims of a structurally and historically unequal, unfair, and often oppressive society; but from perhaps their own perspective, these Trump voters simply resent government interference in their lives, the coddling of weak-willed whiners, the redistribution of their hard-earned dollars to lazy/illegal and undeserving swindlers, and being told what they can say and what they can’t say by condescending intellectual effetes.

Trump’s constant rejection of the teleprompter telegraphed to his supporters and would-be supporters more than any specific words could do his refusal to be tamed and made politically correct by anyone. His crude off-the-cuff remarks, his mocking of a disabled reporter, his blaming sexual assault in the military on putting men and women together, his refusal to release his tax returns, his bragging about his penis size, his calling Senator Elizabeth Warren ‘Pocahontas,’ his disparaging comment that men who change diapers are ‘acting like the wife,’ and so on, all convincingly signalled his rejection of the PC culture that many supporters find, variously, obnoxious, silly, undermining, blasphemous, threatening.

Gans goes on to talk about how Trump, while rarely talking about PC by name, managed to loudly proclaim by his demeanor

his rejection of White Guilt. … Trump’s unexpected staying power … reflects to my mind far more than attractiveness to the benighted bearers of poor-white resentment. On the contrary, Trump’s continual emphasis on ‘deals’ suggests a sharp intuition of how to adapt conservatism to the current victimocratic context. … The contempt of the voting public for Washington’s inability to ‘get anything done’ reflects the fact that under the current [then-Obama] administration, the shift of Democratic politics from liberalism to progressivism, from focusing on the concerns of the working class to those of ascriptive minorities, involves a fundamental change from defending interests to seeking justice. The first can be negotiated on a more or less level footing with opposing interests; the second can only be be resisted by unregenerate evil-doers, which is more or less the way [Obama] and his potential Democratic successors characterize the representatives of the other party. In this noxious context, the (meta)conservative position is not to deny victimary claims, but to normalize them: to turn them back into assertions of interests to be negotiated as political questions were in days of old — in a word, into issues that can be settled by making a deal. …

“In their preoccupation with denouncing Trump as a false conservative, the guardians of the flame forget that at a time when the victimary left seeks to portray the normal order of things in American society as founded on privilege and discrimination, Trump’s supporters turn to him as a figure of hope because his mind, unclouded by White Guilt, views the political battlefield, foreign as well as domestic, as a place for making deals. This used to be called Realpolitik.”

This assessment makes a lot of sense to me. Some Trump supporters probably just wanted to stick it to the liberals, stick it to the status quo conservatives, and the hell with the consequences; some are really racial bigots and/or misogynists who feel Trump is one of them; some just hated Hillary Clinton for what she’s actually done, said, or been, or for what they mistakenly and conspiratorially believe she’s done, said, or been, or because she’s not feminine enough or too feminine; some wildly hoped Trump would really bring back coal jobs, expel Muslims, and lock immigrants out of the country; but many others probably voted reasonably in their own interests for someone whom they trusted to effectively and palatably negotiate progressive actions away just like a civil business deal. In identifying with Trump, they were (and are) identifying themselves as on an equal footing with those who are eager to judge them; they’re affirming that they deserve to be treated as moral equals with progressives and liberals in discussing civil rights and social justice, not as moral inferiors and deplorable humans as they have been accused.

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[Added:] On the other hand, as Eric Meier notes in the comments, one could say that while Trump doesn’t articulate resistance to political correctness but rather embodies it (as described above), he certainly articulates, in his inarticulate way, that he is a victim (he claims the status both for himself and for his supporters) — and claims to victimhood are the stuff of which many conservatives would tell us that PC is made.

Anyone who follows Trump’s Twitter feed knows that he feels victimized and persecuted by the media and certain celebrities. He feels he was a victim of voter fraud (and in the primaries, that they were rigged against him), Trump yelled out at a rally in Oct. 2016 “I am a victim!” Kellyanne Conway, senior White House advisor, has explained how Trump and Trump staffers are victims of the biased media (more examples in How crybully Trump and his supporters excel at playing the victim).  Trump supporters also express outrage at their victimhood, at how the left and the media are so unfair to them, at how modern society’s too-soft, too-feminine culture causes them suffering (The Precarious Masculinity of 2016 Voters: Several recent surveys suggest that when men feel persecuted, they turn to Donald Trump for affirmation, The Atlantic, Oct. 2016;  Trump’s supporters believe a false narrative of white victimhood  : Trump voters believe that whites and Christians face discrimination — but they call the left sensitive snowflakes, in Salon, 17 Feb 2017; and Psychology explains how Trump won by making white men feel like victims. (Quartz, 11 Nov. 2016)

The Giradian point is that just about everyone and every group in our culture sees the benefit of claiming to be seen as a victim, even while diligently accusing the other group of playing the victim card. In his book Evolution and Conversion, Rene Girard notes that “Very often, Christian principles prevail in a caricaturist form, whereby the defense of victims entails new persecutions … You have to prove that your opponent is a persecutor in order to justify your own desire to persecute.” And in his book When These Things Begin, Girard comments that “In the United States and everywhere, a lot of current cultural phenomena can be unified by describing them as the discovery of new victims … It’s no longer possible to persecute except in the name of victims.” This is where we are today.

Dwight Longnecker talks about this phenomenon in “The Rise of the Bully Victim” at The Imaginative Conservative: “The problem is that everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. Being a victim is fashionable—ironically, becoming bullied is now the best way to bully others. It works like this: If you want to move forward in the world, make progress for you and your tribe, further your ambitions, justify your immoral actions, grab a bigger piece of the pie, and elbow others away from the trough, simply present yourself and your tribe as victims. Once you successfully portray yourselves as a poor, outcast, persecuted, minority group you instantly gain the sympathy of all. The first key to success in this campaign is to portray your victim condition as something over which you have no control. … The third stage of the campaign is the release of anger. Once the victim is identified and the information is widespread, the rage can be released. The anger must be expressed because, without knowing it, a new cycle of tribal scapegoating has developed. As the tribe gathers around the victim in sympathy, they must find the culprit, and their search for the culprit (whether he is guilty or not does not matter) sends them on the same frantic scapegoating quest that created their victim in the first place. The supposed persecutors have now become the persecuted. The unhappiness of the tribe (which presents itself as sympathy for the victim) is now focused on violence against the new victim.”

It sure didn’t hurt Trump’s cause, his claim to victimhood for himself and his supporters, when Clinton called them deplorables. Instant victim status there.

Gil Bailie in his book Violence Unveiled, talks about victimhood in the context of King Herod’s slaughtering of the innocents. He references a 1992 essay by Robert Hughes that seems ultra-relevant today:

In recent years, skewering the politically correct and the political correctness of those mocking political correctness has become a thriving journalistic enterprise. One of the more interesting examples of the genre was a cover-story essay by Robert Hughes, which appeared in the February 3, 1992, edition of Time magazine. The essay was entitled “The Fraying of America.”  In it, Hughes cast a cold eye on the American social landscape, and his assessment was summarized in the article’s subtitle: “When a nation’s diversity breaks into factions, demagogues rush in, false issues cloud debate, and everybody has a grievance.”

“Like others, Hughes found himself puzzling over how and why the status of ‘victim’ had become the seal of moral rectitude in American society. He began his essay by quoting a passage from W. H. Auden’s Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being. The lines he quoted were ones in which King Herod ruminates over whether the threat to civilization posed by the birth of Christ is serious enough to warrant murdering all the male children in one region of the empire. (The historical Herod may have been a vulgar and conniving Roman sycophant, but Auden’s Herod, let’s not forget, is watching the rough beast of the twentieth century slouching toward Bethlehem.) Weighing all the factors, Herod decides that the Christ child must be destroyed, even if to do so innocents must be slaughtered. For, he argues in the passage that Hughes quoted, should the Child survive:

Reason will be replaced by Revelation . . . . Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish . . . . The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Age, when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.

“Hughes quoted this passage from Auden in order to point out that Auden’s prophecy had come true. As Auden’s Herod had predicted, American society was awash in what Hughes termed the “all-pervasive claim to victimhood.” He noted that in virtually all the contemporary social, political, or moral debates, both sides were either claiming to be victims or claiming to speak on their behalf. It was clear to Hughes, however, that this was not a symptom of a moral victory over our scapegoating impulses. There can be no victims without victimizers. Even though virtually everyone seemed to be claiming the status of victim, the claims could be sustained only if some of the claims could be denied. (At this point, things become even murkier, for in the topsy-turvy world of victimology, a claimant denied can easily be mistaken for a victim scorned, the result being that denying someone’s claim to victim status can have the same effect as granting it.) Nevertheless, the algebraic equation of victimhood requires victimizers, and so, for purely logical reasons, some claims have to be denied. Some, in Hughes’s words, would have to remain “the butt of every farce and satire.” Hughes argued that all those who claim victim status share one thing in common, “they have been denied parity with that Blond Beast of the sentimental imagination, the heterosexual, middle-class, white male.

“Hughes realized that a hardy strain of envy and resentment toward this one, lone nonvictim continued to play an important role in the squabbles over who would be granted victim status. Those whose status as victim was secure were glaring at this last nonvictim with something of the vigilante’s narrow squint. Understandably, the culprit was anxious to remove his blemish. “Since our new found sensitivity decrees that only the victim shall be the hero,” Hughes wrote, “the white American male starts bawling for victim status too.”

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Michael Boyle, at The Sound of Sheer Silence blog, has actually (in May 2016) addressed this Cult of Victimhood, as he terms it, very articulately, and he links it to Trump’s strategy in this recent election. He goes into some detail about the Girardian take on victims, then outlines three problems that occur in society when we move from the fact of victimhood to the status or narrative of victimhood, the group identity as victims:

The first is that “the identity of the group is tied up in the status of being a victim.  Thus, perversely, there is an incentive for the minority to seek to be victimized, because it supports and reinforces the group identity, leading to counter-productive co-dependent relationships with the persecuting majority.”

The second, that “it creates a tempting platform to seize the moral high ground.  In light of the message of Jesus, we have an obligation to have special moral concern for victimsas victims.  But it does not follow that those that are victimized have some special moral qualities or status by virtue of being victims.  Being a victim does not necessarily make you wiser, or more just, or better able to discern moral realities in the world around you, because being a victim is ultimately and fundamentally arbitrary. As the great Ta-Nehisi Coates says, ‘[w]e, too, are capable of fictions because, as it turns out, oppression confers no wisdom and is rarely self-improving.’ … [T]his is an inversion for the old vision of the Sacred — whereas before the society explained that victims became victims through some narrative of moral failure, now the victims understand their victim status through a narrative of their own moral superiority.” This ends up dividing the world into victims (righteous) and victimizers (unrighteous), which “acts as a kind of moral shield for their own behavior.  The logical chain goes like this:  because I am a victim, I am righteous; because I am righteous, those that challenge or critique that righteousness (especially if the critique comes from those that victimized me) are per se wrong and their critique is per se illegitimate; thus, I can stay in a comfortable bubble of my own imputed righteousness. ”

And this lead to the third problem: “Because of the power of feature #1 and especially feature #2 of the Cult of Victimhood, everyone wants to get in on the action.  And, given both the pervasive nature of scapegoating and the cultural awareness of the phenomenon (even if inchoate) brought about by thousands of years of Judeo-Christian presence, everyone can get in on the action if they look hard enough.  Everyone can craft a story of why they are the “real” victims over and against some group of victimizers.”

So, Boyle concludes, to resolve this deadlock, we “try to adjudicate who are the ‘real’ victims and who are the ‘fake’ victims.  Girard would insist that this is an utterly futile activity, because all of these stories of victimhood are on some level true and on some level self-serving nonsense.  The fact of being the victim is true, but the narrative of why the victimization occurred, tied into to some group identity and moral status, is not. … Again, it’s crucial, here and elsewhere, to draw a very clear line between the fact of victimization and the status as a victim.  People get victimized, and we have a moral obligation to try to end the victimization.  But the Cult of Victimization makes that project more difficult, because it weaponizes victimization and intermixes genuine victimization with dubious claims of moral righteousness.  It also incentivizes out-and-out bogus claims of victimization, because the power of victimhood status is to enticing. ”

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One more thing I found interesting in Cowen’s comments: He suggests the idea of a coming “reckoning,” which he says has probably already started, involving 1. an external crisis (foreign policy catastrophe, pandemic, economic crash, etc.), and our government not having the wherewithal to respond effectively fiscally, organisationally, and attitudinally — due to not having fiscal freedom within the budget to gear up spending, due to our waning credibility in foreign affairs, due to our preference for fighting against each other instead of seeking a solution we can all get behind; 2. rising debt burdens that we have trouble paying; and 3. a decline in the quality of governance in decision-making and execution, which he says we are seeing already:

“When you have a growing pie, most people are happy and they’re very forward looking, and they think about a brighter future and how they can contribute to that brighter future. When you’re closer to a fixed pie setting, people fight over the scraps on the table, politics becomes more combative, more rooted in insults, social media play a bigger role … and that is to some extent the world we’re in right now.”

Cowen thinks we don’t have the ability now to respond to a new crisis, and for those who have read much about mimetic theory, loud warning bells go off.  Rowan Williams, then-Archbishop of Canterbury, in 2008 well-summarised what happens in a society when internal divisions proliferate, when mimetic rivalry grows to a fever-pitch, pitting those in the society against each other:

“Because we compete for the same goods and comforts, we need to sustain our competition with our rivals and maintain distance from them. But to stop this getting completely out of hand, we unite with our rivals to identify the cause of the scarcity that makes us compete against each other, with some outside presence we can all agree to hate. … It doesn’t take much imagination to see how internally divided societies find brief moments of unity when they have successfully identified some other group as the real source of their own insecurity. Look at any major conflict in the world at the moment and the mechanism is clear enough. Repressive and insecure states in the Islamic world demonise a mythical Christian ‘West’, while culturally confused, sceptical and frightened European and North American societies cling to the picture of a global militant Islam, determined to ‘destroy our way of life’.”

Williams goes on to say that our tendency to unify against an identified enemy in order to reduce internal conflict “gives a fragile society an interest in keeping some sort of external conflict going. Consciously or not, political leaders in a variety of contexts are reluctant to let go of an enemy who has become indispensable to their own stability.”

And this is true in every context, both when we mark foreign powers and groups as enemies (and in fighting them feel comforted in our own unity against them) but also before and after we focus on those external enemies, when we see some of those in our society as the enemy, the “other,” as this last election cycle has made very clear that many of us do in the U.S.  Having an enemy always gives humans the sense that what’s wrong is out there, which is very comforting, because not only can we feel morally superior but we also don’t have to change anything in ourselves (or “our group”). We can just expel the enemy from our midst (who is already seen as other) or vanquish the threatening external enemy and all will be well, we mistakenly think.  In fact, we are addicted not only to soothing opiates these days, as Cowen notes, but we humans have always been addicted to the drug (pharmakon) of scapegoating to create unity, to the poison that feels like a remedy: we expel the other, who is seen as poisonous, and in doing so we temporarily heal the group’s inner division, which feels good. Briefly.

Many on the “left” accuse Trump and his supporters of scapegoating victims, of blaming our society’s woes on Muslims, Hispanics, so-called illegals, women, welfare recipients, Obamacare supporters, Obama supporters, climate change believers, scientists, the list is long — while many on the “right” accuse liberals of blaming and scapegoating Trump and his supporters, White House press secretary Spicer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, climate change deniers, gun rights advocates, the list is long. Meanwhile, Trump has demonstrated both a strong desire to unify us against external enemies and a vanishingly slight grasp of diplomacy.

Makes you want to zone out with a good romantic comedy, doesn’t it?

 

René Girard has Died

ReneGirard

“We must face our neighbors and declare unconditional peace. Even if we are provoked, challenged, we must give up violence once and for all.”

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The “Immortel” founder of mimetic theory, René Girard, has died today, less than two months before his 92nd birthday. He has had probably the biggest influence on my life of anyone, from the time I first read The Girard Reader (1996, ed. James G. Williams) and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), in 2003 or 2004, after learning about him through Paul Nuechterlein’s Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.

I’ve often wondered how much of his influence on me is due to his presenting a new idea that changed ever after how I thought, and how much due to his ideas resonating with what I already felt. I think it’s both: Girard’s ideas resonated because I already felt the truth of them in my life, but until I read his work, and that of other Girardians, I didn’t have a hermeneutic, a method for reading and interpreting both printed texts and situations in life, that was consistent and clear to me; I was trying to fit my observations and insights into other theologies, philosophies, anthropologies, sociologies and psychologies, and finding a mismatch.

If you too feel this way — that the way you read the motivations and consequences of situations in your own life, characters in a novel, history, politics, etc., seems uncorroborated by the media, philosophers, theologians, historians, those around you — then you might read some of his work and see what you find.

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“The true threat to the world today comes from the mad ambitions of states and capitalists bent on destroying non-modern cultures. It is the so-called developed countries that plunder the planet’s resources without showing the least concern for consequences they are incapable of foreseeing.”

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Online References

Eminent French theorist René Girard, member of the Académie Française, dies at 91 by Cynthia Haven, Stanford News, 5 Nov. 2015

In Memory of René Girard: The Truth about Life and Death  by Adam Ericksen at The Raven Foundation, today.

History is a test. Mankind is failing it: René Girard scrutinizes the human condition from creation to apocalypse , by Cynthia Haven in Stanford Magazine (2012?). Good introduction to the man and his work.

Contemplation in a world of violence: Girard, Merton, Tolle, by James Alison, Nov. 2001. Reflections on 9/11. Excellent.

What Is Mimetic Theory? by Sherwood Belangia on his blog, Shared Ignorance: Toward A Defective Reading of Plato. Quite a good introduction to the key ideas.

In theory: Mimetic desire: Nearly 50 years on, René Girard’s theory remains a powerfully illuminating insight into both literature and the world, in The Guardian, 8 Feb. 2010. Focus on mimesis in literature.

We didn’t invent sacrifice, sacrifice invented us: unpacking Girard’s insight by James Alison (2013/2014), a sort of introduction to this aspect of Girard’s thought

Blindsided by God: Reconciliation from the underside by James Alison, Jan. 2006.

The Apocalypse of Modernity by Thomas F. Bertonneau, in The Brussels Journal, 18 June 2012, on two of Girard’s books, Evolution and Conversion and Battling to the End.

Intersubjectivity: René Girard’s Vision of Mimetic Desire and Economic Dynamics, Centre for International Governance Innovation, 18 April 2013. A fascinating video that starts with mention of Bill Buckner, the scapegoat supreme in New England.

Rene Girard and the Death Penalty by Charles Bellinger, 23 Feb. 2008.

Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory & The Scapegoat, at 180 Rule: Examining Psychopathy Through the Lens of Girardian Theory, 31 March 2012.

Mimetic Theory and American Exceptionalism (17 Sept 2013) by Suzanne Ross and Adam Ericksen, Raven Foundation.

My own notes on Girardian thought.

Books

By Girard
The Scapegoat. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. (1982 in French as Le Bouc émissaire)
Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 1987. (1978 in French as Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde)
I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001. (1999 in French as  Je vois Satan tomber comme l’éclair)
Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origin of Culture, with Pierpaolo Antonello and João Cezar de Castro Rocha. Bloomsbury Books, London, 2007.
Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2010. Published originally as Achever Clausewitz, Editions Carnets Nord, 2007. Review at SF Gate.
When These Things Begin:Conversations with Michel Treguer. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2014.

By James Alison
The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1998. Excerpt.
Raising Abel, The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996.
Faith Beyond Resentment, Fragments Catholic and Gay, New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2001
On Being Liked, New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2004.
Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2006.

By Mark Heim
Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross.  Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006.

By Wolfgang Palaver
René Girard’s Mimetic Theory. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2013.

By James G. Williams
The Girard Reader. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996.

 

The Heterotopia of Facebook

I’ve written quite a lot before about heterotopias. Heterotopias are ‘counter-sites,’ places positioned on the margins of or outside of normal cultural space, irrelevant to the practical functioning of most people’s everyday life. They are real places, with a relationship to other real places, but they are absolutely different from other sites. Traditionally, they were places set aside for people undergoing  transitional crises, part of the common stages of life like adolescence, menstruation, pregnancy, dying. Nowadays, we have the military and the honeymoon trip to stand in for these, as well as “heterotopias of deviation,” like prisons and psychiatric hospitals, places where we put people to keep them away from the rest of us.

Heterotopias don’t have to be places of deviation or rites-of-passage, though. Some further examples of heterotopias, as noted by John Doyle and others, might be museums, libraries, the theatre, fairs and festivals, cemeteries, gardens, airports and train stations, tourist towns, a ship. Disney World might be another example.

A heterotopia might be any place that:

  • Juxtaposes and merges incompatible spaces “like ‘private space and public space, family space and social space, cultural space and useful space, the space of leisure and that of work’ into spaces of otherness.”
    Michel Foucault, who coined the term in the 1960s, describes “a heterotopia as a space that disrupts the continuity and normality of common everyday places. … [Heterotopias] relate to other spaces by both representing and at the same time inverting or distorting them.  … A cinema, for example, is a space of otherness amid more ordinary spaces, ‘a very odd rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two–dimensional screen, one sees the projection of a three–dimensional space.’  In it, the real world and the fiction of the movie are juxtaposed, and the visitors are drawn into the story of the heroes and villains projected on the screen.”
  • Links to “‘slices in time,’ often breaking with traditional time in certain spaces.” Doyle writes: “Heterotopias open onto heterochronies — disjunctures from the evenly spaced and empty continuum of time. Theater time passes differently from the time that surrounds the theater. The cemetery is a juxtaposition of the end of time and eternity. Museums and libraries accumulate past time in a place outside of time. Resort towns exist only at certain times of the year.”
  • Represents ordinary life but also inverts it in some way, either by exposing it as an illusion or by compensating for its imperfections. Heterotopias invite reflection on their relationship to other spaces. They are “‘counter–sites,‘ a kind of effectively-enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” They function by “unfolding between two extremes: between providing an illusion that exposes the real world as still more illusory, and providing a space of perfection to compensate for the flaws of real life. The otherness of a heterotopia, whether it is characterized by illusion or by perfection, calls into question the reality of the ordinary spaces around it. Heterotopias are disturbing.”

So I was pretty excited to come across this article, “The Heterotopia of Facebook,” by Robin Rymarczuk at Philosophy Now (h/t to Peter Johnson at Heterotopian Studies). And then to find a much fuller treatment of the topic by Rymarczuk and Maarten Derksen in First Monday, June 2014, from which I’ve drawn most of my quotes.

In the paper published at First Monday, Rymarczuk and Derksen enumerate the ways in which Facebook is a heterotopia — in fact,  “a heterotopia par excellence,” “able to reflect just about any other site in our culture — the office, the living room, the café, the amusement park, the brothel — at the same time turning them into something completely new.”

You can read the paper at the link. It’s fascinating, especially concerning the Trinidadians’ embrace of Facebook as village-like.

For me, the most interesting aspects are two: Facebook’s distortion of time — conflating past and present, in particular; and its revelation of our carefully constructed identities as illusory:

Tɪᴍᴇ ᴅɪsᴛᴏʀᴛɪᴏɴ: Not only does time seem to fly when we’re using Facebook, and other online resources, but Facebook’s Timeline “collapses past life, present life and afterlife into something very other. … Like a museum, Facebook accumulates time.  … Facebook keeps the past present, but in a way that is much more direct because it is accessible in the same space where the present happens. The past becomes transparent in a way that many people … find unsettling.”

And, “[t]he past lives on in another way as well. Like a cemetery, Facebook houses eternity, but here the dead wander among the living. It’s estimated that by 2015, there will be 50 million social ghosts or profiles without a living owner on Facebook .”

*      *      *      *

Last week, a Facebook friend of mine died suddenly. In one sense, she was a virtual friend, because I never met her in person, though I heard her voice on my voicemail when she called me after my mother died, one of very few of any of my friends who did. We also exchanged very tangible Christmas gifts, baked goods, pickles, and cards. But our primary interactive space was on Facebook, in the Timeline, on post comments, and in private messages. We were in touch daily for most of 3 years. I felt a more intimate connection with her than with most of my “in the flesh” friends, mainly because she was completely integrated into my ordinary, daily life, even though our meeting space was often somewhere in the ether between my house in New Hampshire and hers on Long Island, NY.

I miss her the same way I miss my dog, who died in June 2013, which is more than I miss my parents, who have both died. Daily, meaningful connection — virtual or not — is intimate connection.

And seeing her Facebook page now that she has died – still being filled with tributes, (virtual) tears, photos, comments, and her past-but-no-longer-present postings — is a touchstone for me. I hope it remains online always.

*      *      *      *

Tʜᴇ Iʟʟᴜsɪᴏɴ ᴏғ Iᴅᴇɴᴛɪᴛʏ: This is the most interesting facet of social media for me, the construction and presentation of an online identity and how it differs from our normal identity construction and presentation. The writers argue that Facebook — often seen as illusory, deceptive, a constructed performance — reveals the illusion of real life identity:

“A heterotopia has a function amidst the other spaces in a society. Because heterotopias are spaces of otherness, outside the normality of everyday life, their function revolves around the distinction between reality and illusion. Foucault gives the example of a brothel, ‘a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory.’  In the case of Facebook, organised as it is around personal profiles, status updates and postings, it is the reality of personal identity that is at stake.”

Rymarczuk summaries, in the piece at Philosophy Now:

“Erving Goffman argued in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) [that] the self is always a performance, in which individuals attempt to control the impression that others have of them. This fact is unsettling, because it means that in recognizing the way we present our lives and construct our identities on Facebook to be a performance, we then come to question our personal identity offline too. It is exactly at this juxtaposition of reality and image, where the virtual defines the real, that the heterotopia undermines the notion of ‘real’ reality, through undermining the notion of ‘real’ identity. So on the one hand Facebook opens up a new kind of space where the selection, formulation and articulation of content concerning our identity is more readily available; but on the other hand, this new-found malleability makes us question what our everyday ‘identity’ actually means. … Facebook exposes not the increasing reality of the virtual, but rather that our reality, our identity, has been virtual all along.”

Of course, on some level most of us know that our identity is always constructed, in the tangible world as well as in the virtual world. We know we act one way with one group of people and another way with another group. We always choose which aspects of ourselves to convey, whether consciously, subconsciously, or completely unaware that we’re doing it.  I think somehow knowing that we construct and present our identities for various audiences — which for some reason makes us feel inauthentic, though it is vastly human — lies at the heart of the discomfort both users and non-users of Facebook and other social media share:

“In Foucaultian terms, Facebook is a ‘disrupting’ space which turns our usual world on its head by disturbing its ‘continuity and normality’. You exit the normal world when you log in; but still you are involved in representing a version of normal life. … Whereas Facebook is attractive to many primarily as a social networking tool, it is repulsive to some as a site, a heterotopia.”

Reconciliation in Action

joshuaandwillisjohnsonfergusonMOAug2014Yesterday, All Things Considered’s Melissa Block interviewed the Rev Willis Johnson of Wellspring Church in Ferguson, MO, a town where what’s apparently been simmering for a while has come to the boil this week with the police killing of a teenager named Michael Brown there last weekend.

I hadn’t really been following all the details of the shooting and aftermath, but that made the impact on me of Johnson’s comments and actions no less powerful. I consider his embracing of 18-year-old Joshua Wilson a deeply heroic, Christian, Buddhist, human act . And I use all those words to describe it because his actions and reflections on it reveal:

recognition of himself in another person, including when the other person is shaking with anger, about to do what he thinks is a mistake. And that awareness comes to him as a human, living a particular human experience in time and place (“I’ve been Joshua before”), and because “I do understand what it means to be that angry.” This reminds me of tonglen practice in the Buddhist tradition, where we bring up our own experience of emotion to tap into compassion for others feeling the same way. We all know what strong emotion feels like and knowing that, we can understand “the other” at a deep level even when we don’t fully understand. I think this is good action in and of itself (this heightening our awareness of the sameness of self and other), but Johnson takes it further when he

risks self, by touching, speaking, holding the other person in the midst of chaos, and accepting into himself the other’s pain and his desire to harm: “I’d rather you, if you gonna fuss and cuss and be mad, I want you to do it with me, do it in my ear.” This is the essence of being a hero and of being a Christian, to my mind: being willing to carry and bear another’s pain, regardless of potential cost to self. Not in a martyr sense, not in a belief that ‘I’m strong enough to bear your weakness,’ but in a clear

realisation of interconnecteness, a felt sense that my being willing to carry your pain is not only for your benefit but for my benefit, too: “We kept each other from harm’s way.” Johnson realised he needed affirmation, embracing, and being held back as much as Joshua did. I see this sense of interconnectness as a particular facet of the Buddhist tradition as well as of the Girardian Christian tradition, where we are all seen as interdividuals, our identity constructed not in and of the self but in the relationships between and among us.

Finally: Johnson speaks several times in this 7-minute piece of “human nature,” what makes us human, including empathy for others as well as feeling deeply the pain of the human condition: “If it’s not touching you, if it’s not personal, that’s where there’s a problem.”

Co-mingled with his words about being human are the tears when he talks about being a black man in America today: his father’s fears for him, his own fears for his teenaged son, feeling like a scared kid when he’s pulled over by cops.  He speaks of a need for “reconciliation, resolution and resurrection.” I see actions and reflections like Johnson’s as enacting reconciliation and resurrection here on earth.

Fascination with the Apocalypse Now

horseriders on Driftwood Beach, JI, 27 April 2012

THE QUESTION

Someone recently asked, at a sort of salon conversation gathering on 21 Dec. — the day that some believed the world was going to end (as implied by the Mayans’ calendar ending on that date) — why we humans are so fascinated by speculation about the END OF THE WORLD. It’s a good question.

After all, although the Mayans didn’t really predict the end of the world — their  ancient calendar simply rolled over, beginning a new 394-year century (baktun), which some believe may usher in a new and perhaps more peaceful age — lots of groups and people throughout history, since 2800 B.C.!, have predicted and prepared for Doomsday, Armageddon, the Rapture, the Second Coming, Judgement Day, the Apocalypse, the End.

THE HISTORY

Plenty of religious folk in particular — popes, cardinals, rabbis, prophets, nuns, Shakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventist forerunners the Second Adventists, the Nation of Islam, Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Millerites in the 1840s, Herbert W. Armstrong, founder of the Worldwide Church of God (in the 1930s, 40s and 70s), Billy Graham in 1950, Hal Lindsey in his bestselling The Late, Great Planet Earth (my mom had a copy), Pat Robertson on the 700 Club — but also others, like 16th century seer and apothecary Nostradamus (who may have said that the world would end in July 1999), UFO cults, numerologists, pyramidologists, alien channelers, the white-supremacist group Aryan Nations, John Napier (the mathematician who discovered logarithms), scientists who expected comets and asteroids to wipe us out — have been predicting the end of the world practically since humans have existed on the planet.

Some contemporaries of Jesus interpreted his words as written in Matthew 16:28 (“Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom”) and in Matthew 24:33-34 (“So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.  Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled”) as a prediction of the world’s imminent demise then, and religious people have been predicting specific dates ever since, despite Jesus’s assurance immediately following (Matthew 24:36) that ” of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.”

Perhaps the “the first bona fide Christian doomsday cult” was founded around 156 AD and lasted for several centuries even though Jesus didn’t show up. Some thought the world would end 6000 years after it was created, or no later than 500 A.D.  There were “end dates” during the 800s, 900s, and every century thereafter, dozens and dozens of them. New England preacher and witch hunter Cotton Mather predicted it would end three times (1697, 1617, and 1736), Christian preacher Harold Camping has predicted “Judgment Day” on May 21, 2011, and again in 1994, and they’re not alone in their serial predictions.

Some people still interpret the books of Revelation, Daniel, Isaiah and Ezekiel in the Bible to be apocalyptic prediction, with a heavy focus on events in Israel seen as ushering in the end times.

(Lists of predictions are available online for those interested, via Wikipedia’s List of dates predicted for apocalyptic events and Chris Nelson’s rather more detailed A Brief History of the Apocalypse.)

THE FEARS and THEORIES

Many people, families and small groups now  (religious and not) are quietly planning for a cataclysmic end to life — either globally, nationally, or regionally — as we know it. There are so many ways we imagine we could go! To name just a few:

  • the consequences of climate change, ranging from scarcity of water, food and oil to a new ice age or extreme flooding caused by glaciers melting;
  • government attack on gun owners or on non-Christians, or conversely, an armed citizen insurrection against the government;
  • a terrorist act or series of them, involving nuclear or chemical warfare;
  • widespread natural disaster like an asteroid hitting, or a super volcano, or a massive earthquake or shift in tectonic plates;
  • widespread public health disaster such as antibiotic-resistant infection or highly contagious and lethal disease;
  • technological (or Congressional?) disaster that could freeze the flow of money and keep us from accessing bank accounts, causing worldwide panic;
  • the planet Nibiru could enter our solar system and become a second sun;
  • the magnetic poles could shift again

And the list goes on. The Telegraph, in its Dec. 2010 article, “Armageddon in 2012? The truth behind the doomsday theories,” listed and rated some of the most popular doomsday theories.

We recognise the dangers of being mortal and of living on Earth, and some of us spend a lot of time thinking about it and preparing for threats. Even those of us who don’t do much to prepare may feel perennially anxious in the shadow of a cataclysmically disastrous future.

As a recent CNN article noted, there are a number of popular TV shows about preparing for the end, including Doomsday Preppers (a reality show, on National Geographic Channel), Falling Skies (fiction, TNT), Revolution (fiction, NBC), and The Walking Dead (AMC, fiction about the zombie apocalypse). The article also reminds us of the “Left Behind” series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins that are based on the dispensationalist idea of a rapture, or the Second Coming, and the years of tribulation on earth afterward. Post-apocalyptic fiction and tales of werewolves, zombies and vampires abound. Disaster movies have been popular for many decades, from the first apocalyptic film in 1916, The End of the World.

JUST AMERICANS?

Of course, some think it’s just Americans who are obsessed with doomsday prophecies. In July 2012, the BBC considered “America’s Fascination with the Apocalypse — “There is a long tradition of such apocalyptic thinking in the US. But … it has now moved beyond religious prophecies into the secular world. … [A]ctivists from both the political left and right have embraced apocalypse thinking, issuing dramatic warnings that everything from the traditional American way of life to the very existence of the planet is under threat” — and in Sept. 2012 at Fordham University in NYC a lecture was held with the title “Apocalypse Now: America’s Fascination with Doomsday and Why It Matters,” with Elaine Pagels, Jim Hoberman, and Andrew Delbanco speaking on the topic. In the BBC piece, author Matthew Barrett Gross (The Last Myth) calls it “an idea that unites all Americans” and says it has “played a central role in the American story since the very beginning.” Apparently there are 3 million “preppers” in America, preparing and stockpiling for an apocalyptic future.

EXPLANATIONS

Scientific American also covered the phenomenon this month in a collection of  articles, essays and blog posts (originally published from 2009-2012) on its website and devoted a print issue to it, with the headline “the end. or is it?,” in Sept. 2010, including Michael Moyer’s “Eternal Fascinations with the End: Why We’re Suckers for Stories of Our Own Demise,” which suggests that “[t]he impulse is partially a consequence of our pattern-seeking nature … It is in our nature to weave a simple story from a complex set of data points.”

That CNN article I referred to earlier, and many other sites online, offer a number of other explanations for our obsession with the end of the world, despite the fact that “apocalyptic prophecy behavior is puzzling at first glance because people tend to be optimistic, rather than pessimistic.” They boiled down to a few main ideas:

  • Apocalyptic tales give us a safe theatre to explore death and the unknown, as they “embed a tale of fantasy into reality.” This might be called counterphobia, “the idea that we pursue what we are most afraid of in an attempt and effort to control anxiety over it. I think at some level, the fascination with the end of the world – whether a book or in movie form – gives us a way to control the uncontrollable, to master anxiety over death which is inescapable. For that reason, it provides us with a degree of comfort,” says psychologist Lawrence Rubin, quoted in The Apocalypse in Popular Culture: What’s the Fascination? by Calum Robson.  Richard Beck discourses on length and with great insight on this idea in his series of posts The Theology of Monsters, including “Monsters, Horror & Death.” More on this below.
  • Related to and deriving from the first but diverging slightly: Apocalyptic scenarios and predictions give us a sense of greater control, not just over death-anxiety but by offering an opportunity to reimagine and remake our world, to change our lives, to become more self-reliant, to feel we can control and co-create our future and mold it so that we feel we are not victims but survivors. In this last — seeing selves as survivors rather than victims — it’s still very similar to the first idea, that we can face (the possibility of) our own death and yet live. We can expect the end of the world and prepare ourselves so well for it that we survive it. And it’s similar to the last idea (below), that our lives feel humdrum, so we long to shake them up by imagining — with that delicious frisson of terror we experience when watching horror movies or telling ghost stories — the unimaginable. But there is also a New Year’s resolution feel about this explanation, a belief and feeling that we can co-create a new and improved world, that whatever comes may be better. In a way, that’s still a strategy for reducing death anxiety (like a belief in a happy afterlife), by means of imbuing us with a sense of renewal and even hope.
  • Another explanation is that these doomsday scenarios allow us to rise above our petty differences of gender, colour, race, creed, class, etc., and cooperate for the good of all against a powerful adversary. (Rubin, again, in The Apocalypse in Popular Culture: What’s the Fascination? by Calum Robson). It’s a narrative that captures our sense of the heroism of humanity. We feel good about ourselves because we are in the struggle together, making communal and noble sacrifices against a common enemy.
  • Finally, for some, these stories may offer a way out of despair or simply the boredom of a humdrum, unsatisfying life: “[T]hose who hope the world will end [may] need a little excitement in their lives or secretly want society to start over.  ‘There’s a lot of benefit that may come for some if the world ends, unfortunately, and some people look forward to that.'” (CNN) And along the same lines, we like to imagine the world ending on our watch (as people also did in ancient times and ever since) because it enhances or validates our sense of being a key part of something absolutely monumental: “We all believe we live in an exceptional time, perhaps even a critical moment in the history of the species. Technology appears to have given us power over the atom, our genomes, the planet — with potentially dire consequences. This attitude may stem from nothing more than our desire to place ourselves at the center of the universe. … Imagining the end of the world is nigh makes us feel special.” Cracked magazine (go-to source for this sort of thing, right?) says it this way:

As a species, we like the apocalypse in the same way that a mopey teenager might like the idea of their own funeral: We want to see our decaying remains and revel in the tragic glory that we couldn’t appreciate until it was too late. We want to see crumbling skyscrapers and flooded metropolises and know that, once upon a time, we built those things.

Not only do we feel part of something incredible, but imagining THE END — whether of our own life or of everyone’s life all at once — boosts our appreciation for what we have in the here and now.

ONE EXPLANATION TO RULE THEM ALL

I said before that these explanations boil down to a few main themes, but really I think there is only one underlying theme: Seeking to comfort ourselves by controlling anxiety about what we can’t control. And what we most can’t control, and what everything else we can’t control hints at, is our own death and the death of those we love. We want to be survivors, but history and medicine tell us that we won’t be, if surviving means that our hearts keep on beating. Most of us won’t even be remembered beyond a generation or two.

We want to be the heroes of our own stories — noble, good and strong — but in the end we will be bones, ashes, compost (if we’re not locked inside titanium vaults).

DEATH, DEATH, DEATH

In the past, and in less developed countries now, people have been more in touch with death, because it was ordinary. It happened in the home, it happened often, it happened accompanied by a lot of pain and undeniable suffering. People feared it but they were also conscious of it.

Now, in modern times and places, we still fear death and dying, even though we rarely see it first-hand, in our homes, in the streets, every day. Still, the absolute threat of death is just as prevalent as ever — we are all still going to die — but now we are much more able to repress the thought of death from our conscious minds. Most of us don’t smell its stench. We rarely see it and when we do, it’s often in antiseptic hospitals, or on a mediated screen.

Beck’s post on Monsters and Death, mentioned above, addresses this:

Thanatologists, those scholars who study how cultures deal with death, call our current era ‘the pornography of death.‘ That is, modern life in America is typified by systematic cultural death repression. That is, death is systematically pushed out of consciousness. Consequently, to discuss death in the public sphere is inappropriate. Like pornography, talk of death is illicit.

He sees the Industrial Revolution, which changed the way we got food from killing and processing it in our yards (“Farm children lived with death on a daily basis”) to buying nuggets that look nothing like a chicken (“Boneless meat fosters a kind of death repression”) as one thing that distanced us from death, and the other is of course the modern hospital: “Before the rise of the modern hospital we died at home in our own beds. After death, the body was prepared and displayed in the home. The wake was in the home. In short, death and dead bodies were common features in every American household.” Now we have a funeral industry and we’ve moved corpses out of our back yards and into memorial gardens.

In short, “In modern America [and elsewhere], one never comes into contact with the dead. This lack of contact fosters death repression.”

DEATH REPRESSION

The ways most of us do come in contact with death are precisely through our imaginations (as humans have always done — including when we lived daily with actual, ubiquitous death — through “grimm” fairy tales, ghost stories, fables, doomsday books, art imagery, and so on) and now also through the media, which present us with stories, photos and videos of plane crashes, natural disasters, terrifying encounters with sharks and grizzlies, mass shootings, tragic highway deaths, acts of terrorism and war, etc. We also have extremely violent and popular video games where people kill and are killed over and over.

I think the glimpses of death we get through the media, even through those video games, only serve to keep death safely in the unconscious realm. We think if we rehearse it, if we acknowledge its existence in fantasy, in the lives of other people in other circumstances than ours, that we will somehow defeat it. But we don’t. And we won’t.

THE SACRED CENTRE

I said earlier that I think that apocalypse-speculation all boils down to one explanation, which is seeking to comfort ourselves by controlling anxiety about what we can’t control. I’ve explained how I think that motivation underlies our urge to explore death in a “safe” space (far away, in imagination, non-immediately) and our preparations and affirmations that lead us to believe we are survivors and not victims; and I think that the same explanation also underlies the satisfyingly noble feeling we have when we feel we’re cooperating together, rising above our differences, against a common enemy (aliens, comet, germs, NRA, government, terrorists, etc.) as well as how special we feel to be part of something extraordinary. Whether religious, atheistic, pagan or other, we humans seem to want a “sacred centre” to give our lives meaning, to give us a feeling of transcendence, goodness, unanimity in righteousness. To give us identity.

As always, I feel James Alison explored and expressed the psychology of the “sacred centre” and the unanimity, grief and fear attendant with it — all of which are important to us when speculating on all things ending — in his talk on contemplation in a world of violence, after 9/11. I’m quoting at length because I think his insights are complex, deep, and widely applicable:

I would like to take us all back in our memories to the afternoon of September 11th — the afternoon, that is, for those of us who were on this side of the Atlantic. What I want to suggest to you is that we were all summoned to participate in something satanic. Now, by ‘satanic’ I don’t mean an over-the-top figure of speech, but something very specific, with very specific anthropological content, something whose very ability to be decoded by us is a sign of its failing transcendence.

“[I]mmediately we began to respond, and our response is to create meaning. It is our response that I am seeking to examine. Our response was sparked by two particular forces: the locations chosen for the suicide with collateral murder — places symbolic of power, wealth and success (never mind that many of those killed were neither powerful, wealthy or successful); and the omnipresence in the cities in question, and particularly New York, of rolling cameras and a hugely powerful media network which enabled a significant proportion of the planet to be sucked in to spectating from a safe distance. An already mimetic center, drawing more attention than ever towards itself, on that day became virtually inescapable.

“As we were sucked in, so we were fascinated. The “tremendum et fascinosum,” as Otto described the old sacred, took hold of us.  … And immediately the old sacred worked its magic: we found ourselves being sucked in to a sacred center, one where a meaningless act had created a vacuum of meaning, and we found ourselves giving meaning to it. All over London I found that friends had stopped work, offices were closing down, everyone was glued to the screen. In short, there had appeared, suddenly, a holy day. Not what we mean by a holiday, a day of rest, but an older form of holiday, a being sucked out of our ordinary lives in order to participate in a sacred and sacrificial centre so kindly set up for us by the meaningless suicides.

“And immediately the sacrificial center began to generate the sort of reactions that sacrificial centers are supposed to generate: a feeling of unanimity and grief. Let me make a parenthesis here. I am not referring to the immediate reactions of those actually involved — rescue services, relatives, friends, whose form of being drawn in was as a response to an emergency and a family tragedy. I am referring to the rest of us. There took hold of an enormous number of us a feeling of being pulled in, being somehow involved, as though it was part of our lives. Phrases began to appear to the effect that “We’re all Americans now” — a purely fictitious feeling for most of us. It was staggering to watch the togetherness build up around the sacred center, quickly consecrated as Ground Zero, a togetherness that would harden over the coming hours into flag waving, a huge upsurge in religious services and observance, religious leaders suddenly taken seriously, candles, shrines, prayers, all the accoutrements of the religion of death. …

“And there was the grief. How we enjoy grief. It makes us feel good, and innocent. This is what Aristotle meant by catharsis, and it has deeply sinister echoes of dramatic tragedy’s roots in sacrifice. One of the effects of the violent sacred around the sacrificial center is to make those present feel justified, feel morally good. A counterfactual goodness which suddenly takes us out of our little betrayals, acts of cowardice, uneasy consciences. And very quickly of course the unanimity and the grief harden into the militant goodness of those who have a transcendent object to their lives. And then there are those who are with us and those who are against us, the beginnings of the suppression of dissent. Quickly people were saying things like ‘to think that we used to spend our lives engaged in gossip about celebrities’ and politicians’ sexual peccadillos. Now we have been summoned into thinking about the things that really matter.’ …”And there was fear. Fear of more to come. Fear that it could be me next time. Fear of flying, fear of anthrax, fear of certain public buildings and spaces. Fear that the world had changed, that nothing would ever be the same again. Fear and disorientation in a new world order. Not an entirely uncomfortable fear, the fear that goes with a satanic show. Part of the glue which binds us into it. A fear not unrelated to excitement.“What I want to suggest is that most of us fell for it, at some level. We were tempted to be secretly glad of a chance for a huge outbreak of meaning to transform our humdrum lives, to feel we belonged to something bigger, more important, with hints of nobility and solidarity. What I want to suggest is that this, this delight in being given meaning, is satanic.  … A huge and splendid show giving the impression of something creative of meaning, but in fact, a snare and an illusion, meaning nothing at all, but leaving us prey to revenge and violence, our judgments clouded by satanic righteousness.

“When I say satanic, I mean this in two senses, for we can only accurately describe the satanic in two senses. The first sense is the sense I have just described: the fantastic pomp and work of sacrificial violence leading to an impression of unanimity, the same lie from the one who was a murderer and liar from the beginning, the same lie behind all human sacrifices, all attempts to create social order and meaning out of a sacred space of victimization. But the second sense is more important: the satanic is a lie that has been undone. It has been undone by Jesus’s going to death exploding from within the whole world of sacrifice, of religion and culture based on death, and showing it has no transcendence at all. … [W]e no longer have to believe it, we no longer have to act driven by its compulsions. It has no power other than the power we give it.

I think speculation about the end of the world enables us to explore death from a safe vantage point, to prepare for it “if” it comes, and mostly, to feel better about our humdrum existence, to feel we are part of “something bigger, more important, with hints of nobility and solidarity.”

UNCOVERING and DE-SACRALIZING

Alison goes on in his remarks to offer another alternative:

We are given a very specific and very commanding example of the divine regard: it teaches us to look away, not to be ensnared, to de-sacralize. It is the very reverse of apocalyptic.” … We are tempted to imagine that suicide planes, collapsing buildings, increased security, the unanimity of the rich and powerful, and of course, bombs and more bombs and more bombs, are signs of power. Are creative of a new world order. … But what Jesus suggests is that all that power is a dangerous illusion. His talk is of a quite different power coming, scarcely noticeably, in the midst of all those things, weaning us off our addiction to the sort of crowd desire which makes that power possible and apparently all englobing.

In short, Alison says that fascination with the sacred centre is “a distraction, dangerous to us, but of no consequence to God, a distraction from the real coming into being of an entirely gratuitous, peaceful, creative meaning, and one in which we are invited to be involved.”

For myself, I think the “apocalypse” is ongoing, every day. It’s, literally, the uncovering, the unveiling, the revelation of a world that we can be part of all the time, when we notice that the sacred centre and its attendant grief and drama is a lie; when we resist the temptation of feeling morally good and right, either because of what we do or what we believe, and instead let that go entirely so we can receive what’s freely given; when we look through the illusion of meaning, identity and security that’s gained through violence, unanimity, and sacrifice; when we stop locating evil in others, justifying our own violence, and making distinctions between good and bad violence. When we stop looking for the end of the world as we know it … and just live it.

As Mary Oliver writes:

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:

to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

The Lives of the People

I read two essays yesterday that reminded me how differently we live our lives (as if Facebook weren’t reminder enough!). Of course, the variety of viable choices available to different people can differ wildly depending on when and where we’re born and how we’re raised; and while I don’t think we necessarily have as much choice about what actions we take and even what attitude to adopt as we sometimes think we do, yet I think that each person has some choice in these matters, and a life is shaped by these small and large choices.

* * * * * * * *

The first piece I read was an essay about “opting out of the national religion” of the U.S., i.e., shopping, which described a bit of Kathy Kelly’s life and accomplishments before offering her suggestion that Americans might stop our devotion to buying things for a bit and instead focus our undistracted energy and attention on the poor around the world, “especially those who are stuck in warzones.”

Kathy Kelly

is a three time Nobel Peace Prize nominee and lives a fascinating life. She is an advocate of nonviolence on a global scale and has been arrested more than 60 times in the US and abroad for nonviolent protests. Kathy has traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq more than 26 times, remaining in dangerous combat zones during US led military strikes. She risked her life by going to Baghdad during the United State’s infamous ‘Shock and Awe’ campaign. … Just a few hours after our interview, Kathy flew to Kabul, Afghanistan, to meet with young Afghans about building peace in their country.

* * * * * * * *

Very soon after reading about Kelly, I read the obituary for the boxer, Héctor “Macho” Camacho, who was gunned down in a car in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at age 50. His friend Adrian Mojica Moreno was also killed. There were nine bags of cocaine in Moreno’s pockets, plus a 10th bag open in the car.

Camacho, a boxing champion in three weight classes, was flamboyant:

He was known for his hairdo, which featured a spit curl over his forehead; his clownish antics at news conferences; his brashness and wit, especially whenever a reporter with a pad or a microphone was around; and his dazzling outfits. He variously entered the ring in a diaper, a Roman gladiator’s outfit, a dress, an American Indian costume complete with headdress, a loincloth and a black fox fur robe with his nickname, Macho, stitched across the back in white mink.

He was also

a brawler, a serial shoplifter, an admitted drug user and a car thief …. He was arrested numerous times on charges including [car theft], domestic abuse, possession of a controlled substance, burglary and trying to take an M-16 rifle through customs. This year he turned himself in after a warrant charged him with beating one of his sons. A trial was pending at his death.

I notice a couple of similarities in the lives of Kelly and Camacho, even within these very cursory accounts: both were arrested over and over again, and both to some extent chose dangerous vocations, in the midst of violence.

I can’t help but think of lines from Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day:

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

More on Kelly and Camacho at Wikipedia.

Mimesis in Real Life and in Fiction; or, Wherever Two or Three Are Gathered, Look for Victims

I’ve seen several articles and essays pertinent to mimesis and rivalry in the news this month:

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Another child dies in a hot car, and Gene Weingarten asks: Why was this a crime? in the Washington Post (15 March 2012)

We demonize, villainize and stigmatize others when we’re afraid that we’re actually like them; in this case, when we fear that we could make the same potentially fatal mistake they’ve made. And we could.

‎”The compassion that was eventually shown to Murphy in court led — as it almost inevitably does in these cases — to an ugly spasm of online denunciation, in the form of anonymous reader “comments” on news stories reporting the plea deal. “Mommy Dearest will be popping open the bubbly tonight,” predicted Tommy McGuire on The Washington Post’s Web site. On WJLA’s site, Lucre3 thundered: “SHE NEEDS  TO BE LOCKED UP AN [sic] FORGOTTEN. HONESTLY SHE DOESN’T DESERVE TO LIVE.” Many suggested forced sterilization. Said RJM: “Maybe she should get one of her vet friends to spay her.”

“If the ugliness seems puzzling to you, it doesn’t to psychologists who have examined this phenomenon. It’s a form of denial, they say: Deep down, people understand that all lives are fragile, that we are all capable of momentary mistakes or misjudgments that could destroy us. We don’t want to face this terrifying fact. So we must convince ourselves that the people to whom it happens are unlike us. To sustain our delusion of safety, we must make them monsters.”

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Closed-System Sibling Knowledge at The Last Word on Nothing (12 March 2012) asserts that siblings may be hard-wired to not to be knowledge rivals but to have their own niches that encourage competition. The Girardian explanation would be that this adaptation exists, if it does, to prevent mimetic violence between the subject and the model/obstacle.  Envy, and rivalry in general, doesn’t come about just because we view someone else as having what we want or being who we want to be; it comes about when that other is proximate to us in space, time or status. Siblings are about as proximate as you can get: They live with us, we spend a lot of time together, and we generally view them as equals, similars, anything but remote. Only twins could be closer.

So it makes sense to me that we would try to differentiate ourselves in many ways from siblings, in order to keep from feeling envious, being rivalrous, and possibly resorting to violence against our siblings.

(Some more of my thoughts on differentiation)

(And some of Alain de Botton’s thoughts)

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Why Won’t They Listen? “The Righteous Mind,” by Jonathan Haidt (23 March 2012)

This is a book review by William Saletan of Haidt’s book. Haidt is “a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who … seeks to enrich liberalism, and political discourse generally, with a deeper awareness of human nature.”

Saletan writes:

‎The worldviews Haidt discusses may differ from yours. They don’t start with the individual. They start with the group or the cosmic order. They exalt families, armies and communities. They assume that people should be treated differently according to social role or status — elders should be honored, subordinates should be protected. They suppress forms of self-expression that might weaken the social fabric. They assume interdependence, not autonomy. They prize order, not equality.

As those familiar with Girard’s work will recognise, according people different status and value based on hierarchy is an excellent way to maintain order.

Later, he writes:

Another aspect of human nature that conservatives understand better than liberals, according to Haidt, is parochial altruism, the inclination to care more about members of your group — particularly those who have made sacrifices for it —than about outsiders. Saving Darfur, submitting to the United Nations and paying taxes to educate children in another state may be noble, but they aren’t natural. What’s natural is giving to your church, helping your P.T.A. and rallying together as Americans against a foreign threat.

Again, valuing one’s own group over “the other” and rallying together against an outward threat is also an excellent way to maintain societal order. It provides an outward focus and target for any enmity and rivalry that may build up within the society, thus protecting the society from doing violence to itself. Unless you consider that an us-them orientation promulgates its own violence.

_________________________________________

Finally , on to fiction. I haven’t seen or read The Hunger Games film or trilogy, though friends have and have described it for me.

Father Robert Barron (Professor of Faith and Culture at University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, IL) writes in the National Review Online about The Hunger Games movie with specific reference to Rene Girard’s work. He cites Shirley Jackson’s story, “The Lottery,” as well as the real-life practices of the Romans and Aztecs in an interesting essay titled The Hunger Games: A Prophecy? (27 March 2012).

From which:

The really interesting question is this: Why has this motif of the sacrificial victim played such a large role in the human imagination for so long? Why do we keep acting out this scenario, both in reality and in our literature? The contemporary literary theorist Rene Girard has speculated that practically every human community is grounded in what he calls “the scapegoating mechanism.” This is the process by which we discharge our societal tensions onto a victim whom we have decided, collectively, to punish. In this, we effectively (at least for a time) manage to bring some peace and stability to our always volatile communities — which goes a long way toward explaining why the scapegoat dynamic is so popular with governments and why it is usually given a quasi-religious sanction.

His conclusion:

Human sacrifice flourished in the midst of some of the most sophisticated and intellectually advanced civilizations in history. …

What haunted me as I watched The Hunger Games was that the instinct for human sacrifice is never far from the surface and that it could easily exist alongside of tremendous cultural and technological sophistication.