POSTSCRIPT: Philosophy, Politics and the Age of Anxiety (pt. 1)

Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety:  postscript

In the AP report, “GOP Eyes November with Optimism, but the Future?” Republican strategists and political leaders speak of their short-term optimism and long-term concerns for their party.[1]  While the speakers in the video report are optimistic about their success in channeling the anxiety and fear of voters caught in an ongoing economic malaise, some worry about their monolithic base.  In 2004, George W. Bush got 91% of his votes from Caucasians; in 2008, McCain got 90% of his from whites.  The country is becoming more ethnically diverse, while the Republican Party is becoming as segregated as the voting rolls in the Antebellum South.

From a rational point of view, this is insane.  Even Jeb Bush has said that he finds himself out of step with his party on some issues, such as immigration, because it alienates the rapidly growing Latino vote.  But when one considers that the postmodern conservative movement is driven by anxiety and not by reason, it seems both natural and inescapable.  The Tea Party is not, primarily, about issues.  It is about feelings.  Its slogan, shouted again and again at town meetings across the nation, is, “My America is changing so much I don’t recognize it anymore, and I want my America back!”  I first heard this exact phrase shouted, tearfully and desperately, by a woman attending a town hall meeting about health care.  At that time, there was no health care plan.  It was being debated.  Nothing had been decided.  There had been no major initiatives to change the direction of America.  Obama had inherited both the economic freefall and the TARP bailout from Bush, and had tweaked the bailout to stop the collapse; and it was working.  Empirically, there was no reason for panic.  But that woman, the entire room full of older white voters, and rooms full of older whites across the nation were in full panic.  “We want our America back!”  was the rallying cry.  What was so terrible?  The only thing that had changed was that there was a black, Democratic family in the White House.

I do not believe most of the people in those Tea Party crowds were racists per se, and I am uncomfortable with those who expand the notion of “racism” to include any sort of race awareness.  But two things were occurring to fuel the white panic in 2009.  First, conservative media were spreading conspiracy theories, fantasies and distortions.  These things generated huge income; the more anxious people are, the more they listen to doomsayers; the more people who tune in to listen to the “truth” they are “denied” elsewhere, the more radio and television stations can charge for advertising; and the more anxiety, the more people will pay for everything from overpriced gold coins to luxury survival bunkers.  Anxiety has become a commodity.  The manufacturing of anxiety, which is then repackaged as fears for which cures can be purchased, is big business.

The second thing that drove the Tea Party Panic, and continues to drive it, is not the fact that there is a black family in the White House, but what that symbolizes:  that the old certainties are vanishing.  Abstractly, when the U.S. Census projects that by 2040 whites will be a minority, that certainly raises eyebrows; but that is abstract, and distant, just words echoing down a decades-long corridor.  The Obamas on television are a walking, talking manifestation of that future, and that future is now.  But it isn’t just the racial make-up of the nation that’s shifting.  We are talking about the decline of white culture, and the extinction of white bears.  When I was a child, I needed a quarter to call home on a pay phone; today, anyone can call from anywhere, if one has the money to pay for a cell phone plan (but good luck if you still need a phone booth!).  Vietnam was considered remarkable because television brought the war into our homes; now, we fear that war will be made against our homes, maybe by some sleeper cell or radicalized neighbor we’ve lived next to for years.  As Kierkegaard points out, death is both “the only certainty, and the only thing about which nothing is certain.”[2]  For some, this can lead to earnestness, by which Kierkegaard means a recognition of one’s own limitations, a subsequent reliance on God, and a sober recognition that every moment of life is precious.  For most of us, however, this leads only to one or more strategies for evasion.  Death is the ultimate indefinable.  My death is never an actuality, and always a possibility, as long as I live.  And anxiety is precisely the dizziness of freedom when it recognizes the importance of possibility and knows it must act and live with uncertainty.  The more the symbols of stability and the cultural assumptions around me change, the more my own mortality and my own anxiety are made visible to me.

It is clear that much conservative angst centers around the presence of a minority family in the White House.  The racial slurs and attempts at humor that flew around the Internet, were seen on Tea Party signs at rallies, and so on testify to that.  At the same time, I think the shock and outrage many Tea Party members feel at being called “racist” is genuine.  They do not hate all minorities; they only hate and fear what they think is being done to their America.  And of that, roughly half is paranoid fantasy concocted by Fear Inc. and the 24 hour Anxiety Telethon, and the rest is simply the unfocused, free-floating anxiety of people caught in a flash flood of change.

To be continued…..


[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, translate, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1993) p. 91

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2 Responses to “POSTSCRIPT: Philosophy, Politics and the Age of Anxiety (pt. 1)”

  1. David Garnett Says:

    XXXX, Though I couldn’t express it well as you, this is about my take on things as well. There is a fear among some of unavoidable change. The whole world is becoming multi-racial/multi-cultural, and resistance to it is futile. It is going to happen with or without us, and I think life favors those willing to adapt to that new reality and punishes those who can’t.

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      Whatever is not busy being born is busy dying.

      F. Nietzsche

      Change is inevitable; only what is dead does not change. Change is also terribly disorienting for the individual, removing the props we held onto to fight the dizziness of anxiety. It is natural that we would fight change. And, while I may not be an expert historian, I think you’ll find that every empire that ever fell, did so because it refused to change once it was Number One. The Chinese, the Muslim Umma, Rome, Egypt, all began as innovative, technologically inventive, philosophically creative forces; then, decided that they had reached perfection, and turned their energies to preserving the status quo rather than improving on it; and finally, were surpassed by some group that was not happy with the status quo and thus had a vested interest in joining the processes of change. On that cheery thought, TTFN

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