Archive for the ‘Anxiety’ Category

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (Review, pt. 3)

September 6, 2017

Niebuhr is claiming that the Bible is not early science or “superscience,” nor is it history or any other sort of strictly factual report. It is also not a set of laws and proclamations by the Cosmic Legislator. Rather, Niebuhr sees Scripture as an expression of the true nature of God, the cosmos, and ourselves. This truth is that God is love, and we are free beings capable of living by the law of love but who inevitably choose otherwise because we are anxious. We are anxious because we are free and self-aware creatures. As creatures, we are finite and hence not fully in control of our own fate; we suffer loss and eventually death, and often for reasons that are either unforeseen or unpreventable. Unlike animals (says Niebuhr) we are self-aware, and thus recognize our own limited and mortal nature. As free beings, we are essentially capable of choosing how to react to our nature; we can live in love with one another and in humble reliance on God, or we can fall into anxiety and seek to preserve ourselves and our peace of mind by denying our true nature as creatures before God and in community with others. Because of the pervasive effects of anxiety and our own constant temptation to self-medicate (through prideful attempts to deny our creaturely limits, or sensual attempts to deny our rational and spiritual potentials, etc.) we inevitably sin. As creatures that are essentially created to be good and loving, but who are also anxious and inevitably succumb to sin, we have to rely on justice to approximate the sort of society we should have.[1] Justice is the human attempt to actualize God’s law of love. It is never perfect, but God shows us what perfect love is and calls us to strive to emulate that. The commandments, the prophets, and even the teachings of the Gospel are not so much instruction manuals or to-do lists as they are pictures of what a loving world should look like, and condemnations of what an unloving, sinful world looks like instead. To rely strictly on those words would be to absolutize the historical contingencies of the world where they were first spoken and written, a world very different from our own, where people lacked the factual knowledge that we now have, and where even social experience was primitive. By and large, fundamentalist Christians today tacitly admit this; only a few would insist that diseases are caused by evil spirits instead of germs or that slavery is acceptable. Niebuhr would say that examples like these show that we can and should use the knowledge we have to understand the world, and then apply the law of love in solving the problems that knowledge shows us using the tools that knowledge gives us.[2]

Jerry Falwell takes a very different strategy to understanding the fundamental message of the Bible and to applying it to the Christian’s political life.[3] He does not purport to be discussing the meaning “behind” the words or God’s nature revealed “through” the words; he claims instead that the political principles he advocates are directly spoken by God to the authors of the Bible, who wrote them down without error or contradiction. Proper political activity thus is simply a matter of taking the direct warrant of God’s word and creating laws and enforcement mechanisms as these command. The Bible says that righteousness exalts a nation, so if we want America to be strong we need to be “righteous” and “holy,” which Falwell says means we must uphold strict sexual ethics with heterosexual monogamy or chastity the only options. Falwell asserts that the Book of Proverbs clearly defends the principle of private property, so the Bible supports capitalism as the only righteous economic system. Jesus told us to “make disciples of all the nations,” so America must remain militarily strong so that it can serve as a launching pad for worldwide evangelistic missions. If, at any point, science, moral philosophy, economics or any other area of human thought seems to contradict the Fundamentalist teaching that traditional, patriarchal, laissez-faire conservative American values are God’s will and the true expression of reality, then that science or ethical insight is to be cast aside as a temptation, which has been superseded by God’s revealed truth.

Politically, the difference between the two views is stark. For Niebuhr, the goal of politics is “justice,” which is the human attempt to express the law of love. Such an approach means that the Christian’s political activity should focus on finding where people are suffering, or where people are being denied full and equal participation in society, and trying to adjust the laws of the nation (and international relations) to reduce the suffering and oppression. For Falwell, “justice” is a matter of determining what the law of God is, and making sure to punish lawbreakers. The goal is not to make a more “loving” society, but a more “holy” one, one more pure, more devoted to obeying God’s commandments as spelled out in the Bible, in order to preserve social order and to make America strong. If America is strong, it can serve as the base for evangelism overseas; and if it does that, God will reward it with miraculous wealth, victory over its enemies and every other manner of blessing.

As Comey points out, Falwell’s claims of direct warrant for all his policy recommendations do not bear close examination. His claim that the Scripture is one harmonious message is only sustained by deliberately ignoring passages that seem to contradict each other. As Comey writes, Falwell’s harmonization of Scripture “flows smoothly in large part because small, troublesome passages are ignored.”[4] And while he offers direct warrant for his claim that all governmental authorities are ordained by God, citing Romans 13, he offers no such citation for his claim that life begins at conception because there is in fact no such obvious, clear scriptural backing. The Bible simply doesn’t discuss abortion at all.[5] It wasn’t an issue. His claim that God endorses capitalism is similarly baseless. Falwell often, at crucial points in his argument, simply claims to be speaking the plain and clear word of God when he is doing no such thing. Instead, Comey points out that Falwell’s own autobiographical statement is that he was a patriotic American before he became a born-again Christian, raising the possibility that Falwell is interpreting the Bible selectively to support his conservative political assumptions rather than deriving his political claims from the Bible as he says.[6]

[1] Comey., pp. 25-33

[2] Comey, pp. 33-54

[3] Comey, pp. 55-74

[4] Comey, p. 7

[5] Comey, pp. 9-10

[6] Comey, p. 93

Niebuhr is claiming that the Bible is not early science or “superscience,” nor is it history or any other sort of strictly factual report. It is also not a set of laws and proclamations by the Cosmic Legislator. Rather, Niebuhr sees Scripture as an expression of the true nature of God, the cosmos, and ourselves. This truth is that God is love, and we are free beings capable of living by the law of love but who inevitably choose otherwise because we are anxious. We are anxious because we are free and self-aware creatures. As creatures, we are finite and hence not fully in control of our own fate; we suffer loss and eventually death, and often for reasons that are either unforeseen or unpreventable. Unlike animals (says Niebuhr) we are self-aware, and thus recognize our own limited and mortal nature. As free beings, we are essentially capable of choosing how to react to our nature; we can live in love with one another and in humble reliance on God, or we can fall into anxiety and seek to preserve ourselves and our peace of mind by denying our true nature as creatures before God and in community with others. Because of the pervasive effects of anxiety and our own constant temptation to self-medicate (through prideful attempts to deny our creaturely limits, or sensual attempts to deny our rational and spiritual potentials, etc.) we inevitably sin. As creatures that are essentially created to be good and loving, but who are also anxious and inevitably succumb to sin, we have to rely on justice to approximate the sort of society we should have.[1] Justice is the human attempt to actualize God’s law of love. It is never perfect, but God shows us what perfect love is and calls us to strive to emulate that. The commandments, the prophets, and even the teachings of the Gospel are not so much instruction manuals or to-do lists as they are pictures of what a loving world should look like, and condemnations of what an unloving, sinful world looks like instead. To rely strictly on those words would be to absolutize the historical contingencies of the world where they were first spoken and written, a world very different from our own, where people lacked the factual knowledge that we now have, and where even social experience was primitive. By and large, fundamentalist Christians today tacitly admit this; only a few would insist that diseases are caused by evil spirits instead of germs or that slavery is acceptable. Niebuhr would say that examples like these show that we can and should use the knowledge we have to understand the world, and then apply the law of love in solving the problems that knowledge shows us using the tools that knowledge gives us.[2]

Jerry Falwell takes a very different strategy to understanding the fundamental message of the Bible and to applying it to the Christian’s political life.[3] He does not purport to be discussing the meaning “behind” the words or God’s nature revealed “through” the words; he claims instead that the political principles he advocates are directly spoken by God to the authors of the Bible, who wrote them down without error or contradiction. Proper political activity thus is simply a matter of taking the direct warrant of God’s word and creating laws and enforcement mechanisms as these command. The Bible says that righteousness exalts a nation, so if we want America to be strong we need to be “righteous” and “holy,” which Falwell says means we must uphold strict sexual ethics with heterosexual monogamy or chastity the only options. Falwell asserts that the Book of Proverbs clearly defends the principle of private property, so the Bible supports capitalism as the only righteous economic system. Jesus told us to “make disciples of all the nations,” so America must remain militarily strong so that it can serve as a launching pad for worldwide evangelistic missions. If, at any point, science, moral philosophy, economics or any other area of human thought seems to contradict the Fundamentalist teaching that traditional, patriarchal, laissez-faire conservative American values are God’s will and the true expression of reality, then that science or ethical insight is to be cast aside as a temptation, which has been superseded by God’s revealed truth.

Politically, the difference between the two views is stark. For Niebuhr, the goal of politics is “justice,” which is the human attempt to express the law of love. Such an approach means that the Christian’s political activity should focus on finding where people are suffering, or where people are being denied full and equal participation in society, and trying to adjust the laws of the nation (and international relations) to reduce the suffering and oppression. For Falwell, “justice” is a matter of determining what the law of God is, and making sure to punish lawbreakers. The goal is not to make a more “loving” society, but a more “holy” one, one more pure, more devoted to obeying God’s commandments as spelled out in the Bible, in order to preserve social order and to make America strong. If America is strong, it can serve as the base for evangelism overseas; and if it does that, God will reward it with miraculous wealth, victory over its enemies and every other manner of blessing.

As Comey points out, Falwell’s claims of direct warrant for all his policy recommendations do not bear close examination. His claim that the Scripture is one harmonious message is only sustained by deliberately ignoring passages that seem to contradict each other. As Comey writes, Falwell’s harmonization of Scripture “flows smoothly in large part because small, troublesome passages are ignored.”[4] And while he offers direct warrant for his claim that all governmental authorities are ordained by God, citing Romans 13, he offers no such citation for his claim that life begins at conception because there is in fact no such obvious, clear scriptural backing. The Bible simply doesn’t discuss abortion at all.[5] It wasn’t an issue. His claim that God endorses capitalism is similarly baseless. Falwell often, at crucial points in his argument, simply claims to be speaking the plain and clear word of God when he is doing no such thing. Instead, Comey points out that Falwell’s own autobiographical statement is that he was a patriotic American before he became a born-again Christian, raising the possibility that Falwell is interpreting the Bible selectively to support his conservative political assumptions rather than deriving his political claims from the Bible as he says.[6]

To be continued…

[1] Comey., pp. 25-33

[2] Comey, pp. 33-54

[3] Comey, pp. 55-74

[4] Comey, p. 7

[5] Comey, pp. 9-10

[6] Comey, p. 93

Notes on City of God, Book XIV, chapter 13

February 29, 2016

Notes on City of God, Book XIV, chapter 13

 

 

This is relevant to my paper because I am researching Augustine and Kierkegaard on humility. Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, argues that Kierkegaard did not promote any particular values or virtues, except a vacuous “sincerity” of commitment to totally arbitrary values chosen by the individual. In this, it provides an important step in his historical argument that the virtue tradition has collapsed, and with it all notion of good or evil, and that moral language cannot be salvaged except by adopting MacIntyre’s own communitarian version of secular Thomistic virtue ethics. But in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? MacIntyre offers a more detailed description of the Augustinian tradition, including a passing mention of Kierkegaard. Understanding the Augustinian tradition, and possibly Kierkegaard’s place in it, has several important possible consequences. First, if Kierkegaard is indeed part of the Augustinian tradition, that means MacIntyre’s depiction of the history of liberalism’s breakdown is seriously weakened. This in turn undermines his insistence that his philosophy is the only alternative. Furthermore, if Kierkegaard is a modern mediator of the Augustinian virtue tradition, that means that the 20th century successors to Kierkegaard, particularly the dialectical theologians, may offer a valid alternative for the postmodern world as well.

The scholars we have seen have pointed out the importance of humility in Augustine’s personal life. In the Confessions and in his sermons we repeatedly see him call on God for guidance and renewal, pointing to both a sense of personal humility and the importance of humility as a hermeneutical tool. This is reinforced when we see Augustine’s repeated references to the limits of human reason, including his own, and reason’s inadequacy to fully comprehend the vast treasury of God’s wisdom and truth. But the essence of the Augustinian tradition is that humility is not just a useful virtue, but the cardinal virtue; and pride is the original sin. Adam and Eve sinned because the serpent’s promise that “you will be as gods, knowing good and evil” was so flattering to their pride. As Augustine says, they wanted to stand on their own instead of relying on God. They wished, he says, to be “self-pleasers.” The irony, he argues is that as created beings only, they could only be “like gods” by participating in God, using similar language to how Plato describes a merely earthy triangle as having its triangular nature by participating in the Form of Triangle, or a good act or good person as participating in the Form of The Good. By turning away from God in pride and in a desire to be like self-sufficient gods, they became less godlike and fell away from God; had they remained humble and turned towards God they would have been more like God, and as much gods as their created nature was capable of being.

To use terms in keeping with MacIntyre’s description of a moral tradition, the “fulfillment” that the Augustinian tradition aims at is oneness with God. This is so because, in its understanding, God is Being, to be close to God is to exist fully and to turn away from God is to exist less. The act of will in turning one’s heart and one’s attention away from God makes the individual exist less, to have less being; but to exist at all is still to participate in God to some extent. Therefore, the proud person who turns away from God becomes a lower grade of being, less fulfilled, less “god-like,” but does not completely cease to exist. To be completely fulfilled (or “happy” in the sense of that first great moral tradition, Aristotelianism) one must be humble and turn to God, to “participate in” God (in Augustine’s words) or to be “grounded in” God (to use the metaphor of Tillich, a more modern and liberal successor). When thus grounded in or participating in God, one is more good and more fulfilled. This means that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee, O Lord.” It also means that God will make the tree good, and then the fruits will be good; when the humble person turns to God, that person’s will becomes more inclined to do good. Thus humility is the cardinal virtue, just as pride is the mortal sin from which all other sins flow.

Possible links Kierkegaard:

First, as discussed in Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation, the near-simultaneous release of the Fragments, the Concept of Anxiety and the upbuilding discourse discussing Adam’s Fall gives a picture of how sin leads to the desire of the individual to control his or her world out of a feeling of anxiety, how these efforts lead only to greater anxiety and to the complete bondage of the will, and how only the appearance of God in our existence in the person of Jesus can give us a way out of that anxiety so we can begin to turn back towards God.

Second, Hamann’s empiricist epistemology is based on his understanding of the revelation of Christ. The world gives itself, reveals itself to the senses, just as God reveals Himself to us through Christ. Truth must give itself, and the individual can only receive this truth if he or she is humble enough to accept it. By contrast, Hamann claims, the Enlightenment is a time when human pride led to attempts such as Descartes’ to found human knowledge on the efforts of human reason, which led only to greater confusion and disagreement; which is why Hamann saw this period as more of an “Endarkenment.” Kierkegaard shares Hamann’s empiricist epistemology about the world, together with his Augustinian/Lutheran metaphysical beliefs about God as Creator who reveals Himself in Christ.

Humility is necessary to understanding not only God, but also this world. First, without humility, we are tempted to fall into rationalism or other attempts to gain knowledge that is not revealed to us through our senses or to seek more certainty than the nature of our existence allows. Hume’s mistake (from Hamann’s perspective) is also a sort of pride, though different from Rationalism’s. Hume’s mitigated skepticism is too proud to risk error, and thus holds back from making any commitments. However, Hamann argues, to refuse to believe the truth is just as bad as believing an error: both are mistakes. Rationalism believes too much and tries to go beyond the world’s self-disclosure; Hume believes too little and refuses to accept the fullness of the world’s self-disclosure. Humility accepts the need for revelation while also recognizing that one’s own imperfect and limited nature means that one will never have a full and perfect revelation and will in fact sometimes make mistakes; but that is the price one pays for being open to the truth.

Notes on “Modern Liberalism and Pride: An Augustinian Perspective.”

January 24, 2016

Krom, Michael P. “Modern Liberalism and Pride: An Augustinian Perspective.Journal of Religious Ethics, 35.3:458-77.

 

This essay examines the argument by Paul Weithman in “Toward an Augustinian Liberalism” that modern liberal political theory, with its beginnings in Thomas Hobbes, should see itself as a development of Augustinian political thought. For Hobbes, pride is the source of social chaos, in that individuals compete for superiority and domination. The only peace is found when every citizen admits that he is equal to every other, and that all owe obedience to the sovereign/State that protects them all and enforces peace. Augustine, too, regards pride as the original sin, and humility is the cardinal virtue; therefore, we should be able to construct an Augustinian liberalism that can balance the need for humility with the need for legitimate exercise of control by society. Krom analyzes Aristotle’s “magnanimous man” as the epitome of virtue in contrast to Augustine’s notion of humility. The magnanimous one has justified pride, being neither vain nor self-effacing; he knows he is morally superior and superior in other ways, and in fact only acts in ways that will support and increase the honor he is due. Likewise, he is ashamed to accept favors or ask for help, since his superiority implies independence and the ability to sustain himself. However, Aristotle also acknowledges that the magnanimous person, if he is to be truly happy, most have some degree of good fortune; in fact, there are many things that he cannot control. This is part of why he shuns accepting help: to do so is to admit that he cannot control all, and is in fact weak in some way.

Augustine says that this pride, which Aristotle calls a virtue, is in fact a vice. The “magnanimous” person is not in fact independent; he is a creature of God as is every other person and thing, with whatever gifts and needs that God has given. By seeking to be independent, the pagan rebels against God and is also self-deceived.

The Hobbesian understanding of “pride” is the tendency of each individual to strive for superiority against every other. Augustine sees this not as the original pride, but as an outgrowth; first the creature declares independence from the Creator, and then begins to assert control over the rest of humanity. Thus, the pride that liberalism is concerned about is not the same sort of pride as that which most bothers Augustine. We can see this further when we look at Aquinas’ attempts to rehabilitate magnanimity and reintroduce it into Augustinian ethics. St. Thomas does this by insisting that the properly magnanimous person recognizes that his (or her) gifts all come from God, and thus is proud of those gifts only as a way to give glory to the giver. To hide his or her gifts would be to hide God’s gracious power, and thus to deny neighbors the opportunity to appreciate those gifts and praise God. The magnanimous person thus can take proper pride in the gifts, but must also be humble enough not to take credit as the author of his or her own virtue.

This would again oppose the liberalism that flows from Hobbes, and sees all claims to superiority as dangerous. To liberalism, each person can claim no superiority at all, whether from God or his or her own nature; each is perfectly equal. The magnanimous person is claiming a superiority, and even at least implicitly asserting that the rest of us should honor his or her virtue; in the Hobbesian scheme this threatens the peace since social peace is based on the notion that all must bow equally to the will of the Sovereign. Krom concludes by arguing that while this shows that liberalism is not especially consistent with Augustinianism, the Augustinian tradition can coexist with any political structure that will accept the independence of the City of God. This is in contrast to Augustinians such as Reinhold Niebuhr   and Paul Ramsey, who argue that democratic liberalism is the best or perhaps only political structure that takes account of human sin and thus the only one that admits the Augustinian demand for humility.

MY PROJECT: I am looking at pride and humility in Kierkegaard and Augustine, to help explore Kierkegaard’s relationship to the Augustinian tradition, to see what this reveals or clarifies in Kierkegaard’s thought, and whether this offers any resources for us today.

Kierkegaard’s discussion of envy as a social force could relate to this analysis of pride in liberalism. The “age of reflection” denies all distinction except sheer numbers (Two Ages). What Krom presents as simply a description or fact of liberalism, Kierkegaard presents as a sickness; what Krom presents as a striving for equality, Kierkegaard calls “envy.” Although Kierkegaard was not a student of Aquinas, he did know his Aristotle; and while I am not aware of precise words to this effect, it is clear that he would have been drawn to this description of the “magnanimous” one who combines a realistic appraisal of his (or her) own gifts with the humility before God who is the giver of all, and also the one who judges all as equally sinful and equally loved. He repeatedly says, for example, that the simple man and the simple wise man get equally far, but the simple man knows, and the simple wise man knows that he knows or knows that he does not know (I think this is from the Postscript; these are notes so I’m working from memory). But in the Present Age, the simple wise man who admitted to being wise, even if he allowed that his wisdom did not amount to anything essential, would be set upon by the forces of envy. By contrast, a thousand arrogant fools would represent authority from numbers, while the one humble wise man is despised because he is not in the majority and therefore is wrong (and if he is distinguishing himself by admitting his is wise, he is seen as attacking the herd and set upon).   For this reason, the magnanimous person cannot openly admit or display his gifts; he must behave as the “secret agent” and teach only indirectly.

My primary interest, however, is not political, but epistemic, psychological and soteriological. How does pride distort our perception of reality? How does this lead to anxiety and the bondage of the will? How does faith restore us to something resembling our original state, so that we can again approach reality in humility and freedom?

Krom cites Hobbes as saying that it is pride that leads us to each strive to control others. Kierkegaard, in his upbuilding discourse discussing Adam, describes how before eating the fruit of knowledge Adam perceived God immediately—God was not separate or hidden, but completely present and immanent all around. In disobeying, Adam establishes himself as separate, and begins to understand how dangerous and unpredictable the world can be; so Adam seeks to control the world. Thus for Hobbes, we might say, pride leads to a desire to control others; but for Kierkegaard, pride goes further, and is the reason for the desire to control the world, including others. For Hobbes, the danger of this is that all the other people are trying to control each other, so you too could be killed or enslaved. For Kierkegaard, the danger is more immediate; you can’t control, and the more you try the more you realize the impossibility and thus the more anxiety. In the end, this attempt to assert freedom before God becomes completely unfree, as everything one does is dictated by one’s anxiety, and everything becomes self-defense. Kierkegaard further develops this notion pseudonymously in Concept of Anxiety, published the day after this discourse. There, the fear of the world becomes anxiety about possibility in general, since every possibility is the possibility to go wrong; and the more the individual tries to fight his or her way out of anxiety, the deeper he or she becomes ensnared. The only way out is outlined pseudonymously in the Fragments.

 

Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety: addendum

July 10, 2013

Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety:  addendum

 

 

 

            Recently, the United States has been rocked by/comforted by/bored by/confused by (make your choice) the revelation that the National Security Agency is logging every electronic communication made ever, whether it be cell phone, e-mail, Skype, Facebook or whatever.  Reactions seem to cut across ideological lines, with conservatives like Rand Paul opposing conservatives like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and liberals similarly divided.  One news report discussing this ambivalence is here:

 

            http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-june-11-2013/good-news–you-re-not-paranoid—taking-sides

 

As this report stresses, there is a deep irony in the support of NSA surveillance offered by conservatives:  yes to government recording and storage of virtually every electronic communication by everyone, yes to government listening in on private conversations by U.S. citizens with secret and seemingly perfunctory oversight by the judicial branch, but absolutely no to any sort of gun registration.  If the government has a record of who owns a gun, says Senator Graham, they may be able to confiscate guns from law-abiding citizens, and that would be bad.  But if the government has recordings of a citizen’s phone calls, e-mails, etc. there is absolutely no danger of any sort of overreach or misuse of that information.  The very same people who believe the IRS and the White House engaged in a sinister conspiracy to deny conservative groups their rightful tax-exempt status (despite the fact that they did in fact get tax exemption, and the fact that no evidence of a conspiracy has been found after extensive investigation) are some of the people most vociferously defending NSA universal surveillance and calling for the prosecution of Edward Snowden, who exposed this surveillance program.  How is it that the right to own a gun is so sacred that it must be protected even at the known cost of protecting gun dealers who repeatedly sell to criminals (possibly including terrorists) but the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” without the threat of government blackmail by the threatened exposure of one’s legal but possibly embarrassing texts or phone calls is so trivial that we are willing to spend billions of dollars to enable to government to collect this information?  Why is there one area where we deliberately blind our government, while allowing it unfettered access to the private lives of millions of people?

 

            To a Kierkegaardian, this puzzle that so confuses John Oliver is no puzzle at all.  First, remember that most people are sinners.  This is no particularly controversial claim, at least not to a Protestant like Kierkegaard.  As a pastor of mine is fond of saying, “Hell is full of forgiven sinners.  So is Heaven.”  Or as Paul said, “All have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God.”  What is a bit more controversial, or at least more philosophical, is Kierkegaard’s understanding of sin and the results of sin.  Sin leads to anxiety.  In prelapsarian innocence, humanity (represented in Adam and Eve) lived in easy confidence within the world.  When they sinned, they  lost that confidence and lost their sense of closeness with God; God was still everywhere, but they hid themselves.[1]  “The Garden of Eden was closed; everything was changed, the man became afraid of himself, afraid of the world around him.”[2]  Anxiety is “the dizziness of freedom,” as Vigilius Haufniensis says; “anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility.”[3]  As such, anxiety is not itself a bad thing; it is a sign of spirit, and thus paradoxically the more profoundly one experiences anxiety, the more truly spirit one is—despite the fact that anxiety is itself a profound danger to the spirit.[4]  There is one legitimate response to anxiety:  to live in the anxiety, through faith.  But this is not so easy as it sounds; more commonly, we look for human responses to our anxiety.  Anxiety is a fear of nothing, a fear of possibility itself; so one can free oneself of anxiety either by fearing something finite and particular, or by divesting oneself of one’s sense of possibility.  For example, to be earnestly concerned with death is a mark of spirit, and a sign that one is spiritually developed.[5]  Death is absolutely certain and absolutely uncertain; we all know we are going to die, but if we are honest, very few of us have any real idea when death will occur.  As such, death is an object for anxiety more than it is for fear; it is a possibility, the possibility of non-possibility, but it is not an actuality; “when I am, death is not; and when death is, I am not,” as Epicurus said, so we never experience the actuality of death.  The honest, earnest response is to recognize that all our finite cares and ambitions are passing away, and that only what has eternal validity truly matters; but most of us are not that earnest, says Kierkegaard.  Too often, we seek to deny the possibility of our own death.  One way, as Kierkegaard discusses, is to refuse to take death personally, but rather to think of it as something that happens only to others or to think of it as simply fulfilling our worldly desires a la the movie “Ghost.”  The other way is to finitize death, to transform the possibility of death into the possibility of some particular kind of death.  If I can take the uncertainty of death away, I can control it, and it is no longer an object of anxiety but merely something to be feared.  My sense of my own mortality induces anxiety; but if I transform “fear of death” into “fear of death by some burglar or other stranger,” it becomes something I can control.  Now, if I only have a gun, I am safe from death and can assume that I will live forever (or at least until I have completed everything I wanted in this world, and am ready to rest).  If I have more guns, I have more control.  In much the same way, a germaphobe can rightly point out that germs are a real danger and hygiene is important, but because this danger has become the focus of his or her anxiety in general, he or she must pursue irrationally extreme methods to be “safe.”  The person who is using fear of violence to avoid anxiety will react as irrationally to the danger of gun confiscation as the germaphobe will react if you attempt to hide the Purell.  And just as there is a billion-dollar industry devoted to stoking people’s fears of sickness in order to sell more medicines, there is a vast economic and political complex devoted to promoting the legitimate concern over crime to irrational proportions, and then selling solutions to this irrational need.  Senator Graham, and many others, are good examples of this.  Rationally, we know that a large percentage of the guns used in crimes are sold by a very small percentage of unscrupulous dealers; but because of irrational fear of the Gun Confiscators, the Federal government is forbidden by law from keeping track of who is selling guns or even from requiring gun dealers to keep accurate inventories of their own merchandise to ensure nothing has been stolen!  Painkillers can be regulated, registered, tracked and monitored by the government; but peoplekillers cannot be. 

 

            When we turn to the question of government monitoring cell phone conversations instead of monitoring gun sales, the anxiety equation shifts.  Generally, the object of “fear” is something external:  terrorists.  Greater government intrusiveness seemed like a threat to an individual’s control over the object of fear; but now, greater government intrusiveness is a way for the individual to feel safe from the object of fear.  Rationally, spending billions of dollars to collect personal, private information from every American just so it can be sifted through to look for the 0.001% who might be terrorists seems pretty inefficient and excessive, a sacrifice of vast personal freedom for a relatively small gain in security that might have been achieved some other way.  And the threat from terrorism was never that great, statistically speaking; after all, you have a far, far greater chance of being killed by your own handgun than by a terrorist in the U.S.  But we are not talking about rationality or cold, hard statistics; we are talking about anxiety.  Admitting that rationally there are a thousand ways I could die that are more likely than terrorist attack would be to admit that there are a thousand unpredictable and often uncontrollable ways I could die, which is to recognize my own mortality and the relativity of most of the things that charm me most in this life.  Feeling that there is a Big Brother who is watching over me (albeit by watching me), keeping me safe from harm and so on allows me to transform the anxiety over mortality into fear of a particular danger, and then to feel that that risk is being controlled so I can ignore both the fear and the anxiety. 

 

            In a way, both unrestricted, anonymous gun ownership and unrestricted, anonymous government surveillance serve the same purpose.  Both serve to “protect” the anxious person from an object of fear that, while legitimate, was also adequately controlled by less extreme methods.  And the politician who panders to anxieties and fears can always be assured of picking up votes from the anxious people whose security blanket was allegedly threatened.  The fact that that politician must at one time defend the anxiety-ridden voter from the boogeyman of Big Government, and a week later must defend Big Government, a problem only for logic, which means only rational people will notice it; and as a prominent politician once observed, you need way more than all the thinking voters to get a majority.

 

            Now, some statistical studies have shown that conservatives tend to be more anxious and fearful; and this makes sense, since the essence of social conservatism is “don’t rock the boat,” and one who is already anxious is likely to become more anxious at the prospect of change of any sort.  But really, anxiety reactions can be “liberal” or “conservative.”  The person who thought that electing Obama would magically cure all the nation’s ills by 2010 was just as much a security fetishist as was the person who ran out and bought three more handguns when Obama was first elected.  The person who runs out and buys an AR-15 because he saw a story on a mass shooting and owning an assault rifle makes him feel safer is clearly irrational, since the rifle won’t defend your child unless you are with your child, with your gun, at school, at the playground, at the movie theater, and everywhere else.  But the person who is so anxious that he or she just wants to eliminate all guns, and feels that passing a law will make him or her not just incrementally safer but absolutely safe, is just as irrational in the other direction.  Sure, we need to do what we can to make the world a better place; but even after doing all we can, we cannot control everything.  We can either try to blind ourselves to that reality, allow that uncertainty to drive us to irrational fears, or learn to live with it.  Kierkegaard’s argument is that one either draws on the power of a relationship with God to allow one to live in faith despite life’s uncertainties, or one will succumb to anxiety, and fall deeper into anxiety the more one tries to work oneself out of it. 

 

            We really shouldn’t be surprised, then, when some politician or citizen calls for the death of Big Government in one breath, and summons the beast back from its grave with the next.  The impulse to gut the Fourth Amendment flows from the same source as the impulse to expand the Second to the infinite degree.  Anxiety explains how apparently rational people can both demand an end to Big Government intrusion into their lives, while supporting making that same government $6 billion bigger (for starters; that’s just the part of Prism we know about and is only the hardware, not the annual upkeep, staffing etc.).  Kierkegaard would say it is essentially a lack of faith.  Faith, for Kierkegaard, is not the confusion of God with Santa Claus, whistling in the dark and blindly asserting that everything will turn out happily ever after.  We always want to control God, just as we want to control everything else.  The belief that we can prevent terrorist attacks by fighting against gay marriage, that God punishes us with hurricanes for allowing abortion and so on is one more anxiety reaction; if I can only stop Those Other People from doing these things that I know are wrong, God will make me happy and keep me safe.  That isn’t faith, because that isn’t God.  God is in control, and does what God wills.  Doesn’t God punish sin? No, thank God!  Before God, we are all always in the wrong.[6]  If God punished everyone according to his or her deserts, we would all be condemned (Psalm 130:3-4).  And in any case, the person seeking to use religion as a crutch doesn’t get to tell God which sins to punish and which to forgive.  Maybe God will punish the hypocrisy and intolerance of the one who says Katrina was caused by the gay pride parade in the French Quarter.  Maybe God will punish the one who made money by causing global warming, which led to more devastating storms and death and suffering for many while some businessmen made billions of dollars.  Maybe God will punish the nation for faithlessness and sexual decadence, just as Pat Robertson and his ilk always claimed.  Maybe all three are true, or all are false.  Faith, Kierkegaard would tell us, only knows that whatever God does is for the best, and that whatever God does, each of us still must act as an individual, doing what we ought to do and having faith that we are both called to obey God and called to recognize that our efforts to please God are less important than a child’s helping a parent fix the car.  The point is to do and to live faithfully, and to turn one’s fears and anxieties over to God—-whatever may happen.

 

            All of us are imperfect in our faith; all of us succumb to anxiety.  But for the many who seek to deal with anxiety without faith, the anxiety only gets worse.  So we call on Big Brother to save us, at the same time demanding someone protect us from Big Brother who wants to take our guns, maybe.  Politicians generally sell their services just as any other huckster does in a consumerist economy; if anxiety creates a felt need for more unregistered and untraceable military hardware in the hands of private citizens, while also creating a demand for an omniscient and omnipotent government that knows everything (except who owns guns) and is able to stop all the Bad Guys, then the politicians will sell their services as defenders of our right to have a government that is simultaneously all-seeing and blind. 

 


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety:  a simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin; edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Reidar Thomte in collaboration with Albert B. Anderson (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1980) pp. 25-80; Genesis 3:1-13

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1990) p. 127

[3] Concept of Anxiety, pp. 42, 61

[4] Concept of Anxiety, p. 155

[5] Søren Kierkegaard, Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1993) pp. 70-102

[6] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, pt. II, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, with introduction and notes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987) pp. 339-54

 

Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety: postscript (pt. 2)

September 17, 2012

Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety:  postscript

Continued from pt. 1

            For that matter, and I have not said enough about this, it is clear that much of the Obama mania of 2008 was also an anxiety reaction.  In the chaos brought on by Republican economic dogmatism, many people were looking for a messiah, a miracle man who would change everything by his mere presence and our faith in him.  I listened to Obama’s speeches, and I heard a call to action; but I for one never thought it would be easy.  Clearly, judging from the profound disappointment of many, there were a lot of people who were literally expecting miracles.  I think giving him the Nobel Peace Prize may have been a bit of magical thinking, although even more it represented the profound relief of the rest of the world that the U.S.A. would not be led by a party publicly committed to imposing its own will rather than working cooperatively.  Heck, if I lived in another country, and I understood that the Republican Party is dominated by Christian apocalyptic teachings that the United Nations was or soon would become the Antichrist and try to take over the U.S. I’d be more than relieved to see any Democrat take over.  White anxiety, fear marketing and a patently flawed interpretation of the Gospel into the “Left Behind” Christian Zionist/Prosperity Gospel/Doomsday cult amalgam that is Corporate Evangelicalism may be a toxic brew for American politics; but for American foreign policy, it is Angel Dust, a euphoric to be sure but also a potentially psychosis-inducing, rage inducing poison.  Would YOU want to live next door to a heavily-armed, extremely wealthy PCP abuser, who was convinced of his own invulnerability and immortality as well as of your essential evil?  That is how the U.S.A. appeared to much of the world from the time of the Iraq invasion until 2008.  They saw Obama, by contrast, as the healing angel (or fairy or whatever) who would immediately cure America’s blood-madness and end all conflicts.  Instead, he turned out to be merely a pragmatic, rational human, quite willing to kill his nation’s enemies, and lacking the omnipotence to end injustice and conflict everywhere.

So the disappointment some foreigners and many Americans feel about Obama is testimony to the irrational expectations they had.  These expectations are furthermore testimony to the anxiety that drove them.  Pragmatism would say that it took nearly a decade to inflate the housing bubble, and that it will likely take about that long to fix the problems its bursting exposed.  Anxiety, by contrast, says only that before it was at peace, now it is in turmoil, and something needs to happen right away make everything feel right again.  Anxiety says, just do something, anything!

If this is right (and I wouldn’t be a very good Kierkegaardian if I didn’t admit that nothing is certain, including my pronouncements), then November will bring one of two outcomes.  If Obama wins, it most likely won’t be with the desperate, magical hopes that carried him to victory, but rather with the pragmatic (if not grim) realization that there’s a lot of work to do.  After all, “Change” is something magical; “Forward” is something you say to an army moving towards a decisive challenge.  In the meantime, the fear merchants and anxiety demagogues are already predicting armed civil war when Obama opens up the death camps he’s been secretly building (this from elected Republican officials and candidates, as well as prominent spokespersons and leaders of the conservative movement today).  They will either retreat back into their echo chambers to shout doom to one another some more, or strike out preemptively against the evil Feds.  Anyone remember Oklahoma City?

On the other hand, if Romney wins, it will be largely because of the same anxiety-fueled faith that originally propelled Obama to victory.  The people who wanted America to return to the stable, powerful status quo they remember from childhood will feel victorious.  But America can’t go back.  Those “illegals” are actually, in many cases, legal American citizens.  Minority births outpaced white births, according to the most recent census estimates.[1]  That means that America will continue to change.  Mosques will continue to open where they weren’t before, and to expand where they are already.  Spanish will be spoken aloud on streets and in workplaces.  Technology will lead to new social patterns.  The heroes of your youth will die.  And people will question your settled values and certainties, just by existing as your neighbors and holding different views.  Anxiety is not going away.  And pragmatically, rationally speaking, there is significant empirical evidence that the Obama stimulus plan worked, and that at least some jobs were saved or created, which most of the jobs that were lost disappeared before he took office or before the stimulus bill was passed.  Also, there is significant reason to believe that returning to the economic philosophies that caused the economic meltdown are unlikely to solve it.  Kevin Phillips has been saying for a decade that wealth gaps like we have are unsustainable; and he started saying that when the wealth gap was much smaller.[2]  That is the same Kevin Phillips who was the chief economist for President Richard Nixon, and the one who predicted the Republican Revolution that propelled Reagan into power.  This is no commie-come-lately; this is a bona fide conservative economist, once one of the esteemed inner circle, now cast out of favor because he began predicting that just as Democrats lost power for breaking faith with the middle class, so too would Republicans soon lose power for the same reason.  Romney’s professed intentions (and God alone knows what he’ll actually do) are to exacerbate the wealth gap, accelerate the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few plutocrats, and shift more of the tax burden to the poor and middle classes.  In fact, a Republican shibboleth these days is that we need to “broaden the tax base,” (which means we need to make poor people pay more in taxes) “so we can reduce the burden on the job creators” (which means cutting taxes for the wealthy).  Economists estimate that we would have to seize 100% of everything the poor have to offset the tax cuts that have been planned for the 1%.  That is not going to happen.  Since that is not going to happen, the fact is that the numbers don’t add up, and Romney will not be able to deliver on the expectations his base have for him.

What Republican political strategists are saying is that, given the demographic shifts already occurring, the Republican Party will have to change.  And “change” is anathema.  When Sara Palin mockingly asked, “How’s that hopey-changey thing workin’ for y’ah?” a huge crowd cheered.  Their hope was that there would not be any change.  If only nothing had changed, then everything would be great today!  But change was always inevitable.  If Romney changes, the base will be livid.  If he doesn’t, then the world will change and the base will be livid.

Ergo, as long as our politics is based on anxiety, we should expect wild political swings, political polarization, and rampant paranoia, on all sides.


[1] Hope Yen, “For First Time, Minorities Surpass Whites in US Births;” Associated Press 5/17/2012 (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/47458196/ns/us_news-life/t/census-minorities-now-surpass-whites-us-births/#.UDeuRnC5hds)

[2] “Wealth and Democracy,” PBS Newshour, July 17, 2002, (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/july-dec02/democracy_07-17.html)

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

September 10, 2012

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

The Age of Anxiety (pt. 2)

August 31, 2012

The Age of Anxiety (pt. 2)

 

            With the “postmodern” age, both the confidence in shared truth and in inevitable progress are shattered.  Instead of truth, there are truths, and in the new pluralism it is rude and oppressive to claim that one’s truth is better than anyone else’s.  My belief that individual freedom and self-discovery are merely Western values; the Chinese Communists can claim that individuality is an evil, a threat to social harmony and an intolerable burden for any person; and who is to say which is right?  If I want to say Cleopatra was black because she ruled in Africa and believing she was black empowers my sense of self-worth, who is some historian to point out that her ancestors were all Greek conquerors who never married into the native population, and indeed rarely married even outside the family?  If I want to believe that Washington, Jefferson and all the other Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to free the slaves, who are you to point out that they and most other Founding Fathers actually owned slaves throughout their lives?  Stop imposing your liberal elite historical facts on my truth!

And if shared truth and shared value have been tossed aside, a shared sense of progress is impossible.  How can we possibly all believe in progress, when we can’t agree on where we are going or where we should be going?  After the 9/11 attacks, people of many different religions, political affiliations, nationalities and social classes felt themselves drawn together.  To many, it seemed as if the world had been changed forever.  From now on, the defining conflict of our society, and indeed of the world itself, would be the conflict between civilization and barbarism, rational debate and violent anarchy, rationality and superstition.  And while we mourned the tragic deaths and the future deaths that were certain to follow, we were united in the sense that there was good and right and that the forces of humanity and life were now aligned together against the forces of death and chaos.  What I for one did not anticipate, however, was how deeply threatening that vision was to the people who now call themselves the Tea Party.  To the hard-core culture warriors, the “Religious Right,” this all was deeply threatening.  These were people whose entire defense against anxiety is based on an entirely different reality than that shared by many others.  Where some see nations coming together as equals to talk through problems, they see Satan attempting to enslave the world.  Where some see peace as good, leading towards a better life for all, they see war as good and inevitable, since only when the whole world is plunged into nuclear conflict will Jesus return to save the righteous and establish his reign on Earth.  Where some see the United States as perhaps the best nation, but still one nation that ought to deal with others fairly and respectfully through persuasion, they see God’s nation in a cold war with virtually the entire rest of the world (except Israel).  Where some see Americans, they see Us and Them, Real America versus Liberals.  And their entire identity is tied up in that tribalism.  The day after 9/11, the leaders of the Religious Right began a concerted effort to fight the growing sense of unity Americans felt with one another.  And they succeeded.

Is that good or bad?  In the postmodern world, there is no “good” or “bad.”  There is no truth; there are only truths, each held by its own tribe.  The modern conservatives are the perfect embodiment of postmodernism.  Once it was the Marxists who said that oppressed peoples had the right to reject bourgeoisie truths, such as adherence to science and history, in order to embrace claims that advanced their political-economic struggle.  Now, conservatives claim they are the ones who are oppressed, and thus claim the right to create their own truths.  Once, I saw myself as conservative, because I rejected the right of liberation theologians to write such things as the claim that Cleopatra was black and that Europeans are innately selfish and vicious “ice people” while Africans are naturally peaceful and generous “sun people,” (ignoring the obvious empirical realities that Cleo was a Greek whose family tree was Egyptian only in that it has as many branches as a Nile papyrus reed, while the history of war shows that Africans and Europeans and Asians are all equally human in their capacities for greed and violence, generosity and mercy).  I saw myself as conservative because I believe firmly that all Americans should learn a core curriculum of shared history and cultural values, and learn the good of even the “oppressor” dominant culture as well as of other cultures.  When liberals laughed at the idea of devoting oneself to the study of dead white males, I saw myself as keeping a flame alive, because while I freely acknowledge the many shortcomings of Euro-American culture, I also see good in it, including a capacity for self-criticism.  But now, I find that I am a liberal, without myself changing one bit so far as I can tell; because now it is the conservatives who reject scientific and historical and empirical reality for the sake of self-empowering myths.  If once I was conservative for advocating a certain core curriculum for high school and college students, now I’m a liberal for advocating college at all.  If once I was conservative for advocating critical assessment of the truth claims of liberals, now I’m a liberal for advocating critical assessment.

My point is that, in the postmodern age, there is no point.  There are only points, points on a compass, and everyone runs as fast as possible in all directions.  One anxious person invests his sense of security in his identification as a “real American and true Christian.”  Another invests her sense of identity in being a “good Muslim,” outdoing all the born Muslims in her adherence to all the external rituals of her newly acquired faith.  Another is gay, another liberal, another Latino and so on.  To varying degrees perhaps, each has his or her own unique truth claims, which he or she believes are beyond all rational criticism or justification.  And to varying degrees, all find the others to be profoundly, existentially threatening, because the mere existence of an Other with other values calls my idolization of my particular values into question.  The other must be demonized; he or she is not real, not human, not part of my country or even my world.  For the postmodern person, the Other represents a call to individuality, because the Other is a living embodiment of the reality that one’s own values are partial and perhaps arbitrary.  We could discuss those values, perhaps find a more inclusive truth or at least ways to work together productively; but when the very presence of the Other awakens anxiety, the natural response is to want to do away with the Other.  Whether that “doing away” is achieved by extermination, self-deportation, concealment, or by dehumanizing the Other as some lazy, ignorant, vice-ridden Them, it is all the same; as long as my idol is victorious, I need not think for myself or awaken my own freedom, and anxiety with it.

I call this “The Age of Anxiety” because our anxiety seems so much closer to the surface, and our evasions are so much more fragile.  Once I had to look over the mountain to see a community whose values challenged my self-security; today, I cannot walk ten feet outside my door, or turn on my television or the internet, without encountering Others whose self-certainty challenges my self-certainty.  Athens had one individual, Socrates, and found him intolerable; today, there are Others everywhere, some individuals and some who are just members of a different tribe or clique, wherever I look, their differentness challenging my trust in my private values.  How can I trust my sense of superiority and control, when all around me are others with different values and an equal sense of their own superiority?  The faithful response would be to recognize that indeed I am not superior to anyone else, and to “leap, then, into the embrace of God.”[1]  As a single individual relating to God as an individual, I would find true faith, what H.R. Niebuhr described as “radical monotheism,” and thus not so much escape anxiety but rather be sustained in it.  But most of us all the time, and all of us much of the time fail to sustain such faith and individuality.  Instead, the all-too-human response is to dig deeper into one’s own idolatrous tribalism, to take comfort in one’s own herd and in its values and choices.  In the words of Isaiah 51:10, “Which of you fears the LORD and obeys his servant’s commands?  The man who walks in dark places with no light, yet trusts in the name of the LORD and leans on his God.”[2]  It is terrifying to be in the dark; most of us are like those the prophet warns us against, those who light their own light so they can see for themselves rather than letting God lead them by the hand.  Anxiety is that darkness; it is the possible, the not-yet, the undefined.  Life must be lived forward, choosing without a clear guide, trusting God alone to guide us.  Life is only understood in retrospect.  But of course, we want to go where we can see clearly, which means ultimately we always wish to go backwards, away from anxiety, away from possibility, away from the future, towards the safety of the dead past certainties and dogmas.

Kierkegaard said that anxiety is the mark of the individual; the more anxiety, the more self.  In that sense, living in an age where it is so hard to escape from anxiety is a blessing.  The futility of our evasions and the incompleteness of our idols are always before us.  On the other hand, the depth and omnipresence of anxiety also evokes even stronger efforts at evasion, and even more hostility towards Others.  It is natural that an age where technology and politics and social mores and the very Earth itself seem to be in such rapid flux, that we should also become the most tribal, the most partisan, the most fanatical and close-minded.   Many of us cling to our old myths even to our own harm, with the desperation of a drowning man clinging to a razor blade.[3]  The inexplicable is not that some should insist on the falsehood of global warming and the truth of trickle-down economics despite all empirical and historical evidence to the contrary.  The inexplicable is that anyone should recognize these truths, recognize the challenge they present to the American myth of inevitable progress and the omnipotence of the rugged individual, and yet still remain ultimately patriotic and hopeful that a better future might still be possible, if only by the grace of God.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages:  the age of revolution and the present age; a literary review; translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1978) p. 108

[2] From the New English Bible

[3] Agatha, Christie, Witness for the Prosecution; directed by Billy Wilder, Hollywood CA, Arthur Hornblow, producer:  1957

The Age of Anxiety (pt. 1)

August 28, 2012

The Age of Anxiety

            When Kierkegaard so ably described anxiety, he presented it as the fundamental reality of human existence.[1]  Adam was born innocent, and free of anxiety; but from the moment he conceived of the possibility of sin, we have all labored under the burden of anxiety.  How can I, a self-proclaimed Kierkegaardian, speak of an “age of anxiety”?  Was one age less anxious than another; was there a time when humans were not anxious?  That sounds suspiciously Hegelian!  Kierkegaard is clear that the story of Adam is not the history of the race, as if the race progressed from innocence to falleness to self-awareness and salvation; only if we each reenact the experience of Adam and personally travel from innocence through anxiety and sin to faith can we be true individuals.  No one gets to cut the line by virtue of being born into a more advanced age; we all start at the beginning.

And yet, even if all have had the problem of anxiety for as long as we have been free, rational beings, it also does seem as if this so-called “postmodern” age is uniquely anxious.  It is not, I think, because we are more capable of anxiety, but rather because it is so close to the surface and our strategies of hiding our anxiety from ourselves are breaking down.

At the dawn of philosophy, the individual could always choose to submerge himself in the polis.[2]  By identifying as a citizen, one could absolve oneself from responsibility to make any decisions; I belong to this polis so I will honor these gods and follow these laws, and as long as I fit in I don’t have to worry about values or the meaning of my life.  Concept of Anxiety discusses this escape from anxiety; and The Sickness Unto Death identifies it as the despair of philistinism.[3]  That is to say, this evasion of anxiety may have been present in the pagan, ancient world, but it was alive and well too in nineteenth century Danish Christendom.  Indeed, it is readily identifiable among us today.

Historically, the problem with this sort of submergence in the polis was that by the time of Aristotle, the polis was dying, crushed under the weight of the Macedonian phalanx.  Even as Aristotle described the truly happy life as the life of the rational citizen in the polis, philosophers were beginning to describe themselves as “cosmo-politian:” citizens not of this or that city-state, but of the universe.  Alexander’s empire threw people into a new, wider world, where the old certainties no longer held true.  Instead, they turned to mystery religions, and to personal philosophies such as Cynicism and Stoicism.  Both of these attempted to answer the basic need of individuals to deal with their anxiety in new, more personal ways, since the society that had served as their shelter from anxiety was itself shifting and mutating into the world empire.  Before, a person was a citizen of a compact, fairly closed community.  It had long-standing traditions, a shared history, and if you didn’t know all the citizens you probably at least knew something about everyone important.  From the time of Alexander until the collapse of the Roman Empire, people were now members of vast transnational empires, whether they liked it or not.  The vast majority knew their Emperor or King only from seeing his head on a coin—-and in fact, those pictures were often not even the actual ruler but some standard mold.  More and more, people sought to form their own senses of identity, their own senses of personal worth and their own bulwarks against anxiety.  Some simply fled awareness of their anxiety, through the Games or other pleasures.  Others chose between one of the many competing mystery cults, which promised a personal encounter and relationship with the divine reality that the state religion did not offer.  And still others embraced one of the many competing philosophies, whose adherents often preached in the marketplace much like today’s street corner preachers.  Philosophers and cultists alike promised personal salvation, immortality, and/or inner peace.

The Middle Ages saw a new escape route from anxiety.  In the West, Roman Catholicism became the one unifying reality shared by countless villages surrounded by the chaos and ruin of the Dark Ages.  In Eastern Europe, the Byzantine Empire provided something Rome had failed to produce:  a welding of the state religion with the promise of a personal relationship with God.  Islam became heir to much of the Eastern and Western Roman Empire, as well as the Parthian culture, and likewise married personal religion with state bureaucracy.  Some still sought personal solutions to their personal anxiety.  Many of these became monks or nuns or Sufis; others doubtless passed through history unnoticed, concealing their inner individuality.  But for many, cultural conformity and spiritual subservience allowed an escape from anxiety.  If anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, as Haufniensis writes, then in the “Age of Faith” was the perfect time to evade the challenge of anxiety by evading one’s personal freedom.  And while conformity to the ancient polis had offered only peace in this life, and devotion to one of the many private philosophies of Hellenism had offered only a personal peace separate (more or less) from the obligations of society, the medieval theocracies combined both, so conformism also promised personal salvation.

As the medieval world transitioned into the modern, the old refuges against anxiety fell apart and had to be replaced.  With the Reformation, one’s religious affiliation became a choice.  The more freedom, the more anxiety is manifested; and as salvation became a matter of choice it became more a matter of anxiety.  The Enlightenment and modernity did, however, present some new comforts.  By and large, the modern age had faith in progress, in the ability of human reason to sort out and improve the world.  It may not be perfect now, or even the best possible (philosophers disagreed on that question); but if it isn’t, then it will be, and we will make it so.  Thinkers as diverse as Leibniz and Marx share that basic optimism; they only disagree on whether the world is fine the way it is or inevitably improving towards some greater fulfillment.  This also means that the modern age, more or less, shared a sense that there was truth.  The philosophers debated how best to find truth, but not that truth exists and that there was a best way for us to live, which all could understand and share if they wish.

Kierkegaard wrote his insightful analyses of anxiety towards the close of the modern period.  He recognized that the confidence and satisfaction that most of his contemporaries manifested was not so much a solution to the riddle of life, but rather an evasion of it.  Rather than discover what I should do with my life, the modern conformist looked around at what everyone else was doing and sought to fit in.  I was no longer I, but rather one of Us.  In the herd, there is comfort and safety from the wolves of anxiety, that threaten to drag one away into the darkness not to devour, but rather to leave one alone in the darkness to make one’s own way.

To be continued….


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, with introduction and notes (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1990) pp. 125-39; The Concept of Anxiety, a simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin; by Vigilius Haufniensis; edited and translated with introduction and notes by Reidar Thomte in collaboration with Albert B. Anderson (Princeton NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1980)

[2] I’m using gender-specific language here because, let’s face it, in ancient Greece few women had any choice about whether or not to express their individuality.  If they were individuals, they had to keep it secret; although really, to some extent, all individuals are incognito.

[3] Concept of Anxiety pp. 93-6; Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death:  a Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuiling and Awakening, by Anti-climacus; translated, with introduction and notes by Walter Lowrie (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1975) pp.  166-68

Why No Call for Gun Control? Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety (pt. 2)

August 26, 2012

Why No Call for Gun Control?  Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety (pt. 2)

 

 

            The anti-intellectualism that is so rampant today also makes sense when seen as an anxiety reaction.  Logically, you would think that anxious and fearful people would long for a smart person to come along with all the answers.  However, the true thinker is anathema to anxiety, because the true thinker challenges others to think.  The anxious person does not want to think; reflection only increases anxiety.  The individual thinker is a challenge to the others, presenting them with the possibility that maybe they too could wrestle with the big issues.  On the other hand, the small-minded blowhard gives everything and asks nothing.  The one who has no ideas or only bad ones does not make me feel inferior or lazy for not thinking about the world; he gives me easy answers and then reassures me that I am smart and important because I was smart enough to hand over all my thinking to him and important enough to submerge myself in a herd.  That, more than anything else, is why college dropouts with histories of drug abuse can become national heroes, and Nobel Prize winners are laughed at.  Limbaugh and Beck tell me that I don’t have to be an individual; they’ve thought it out for me, and they didn’t get a formal education either.  I can tell myself how smart I am simply because I am afraid of who they tell me to fear.  Authority takes away responsibility, fear and conspiracy theories allow me to trade in my anxiety for easily managed fears, and anti-intellectualism allows me to feel smarter than those people who challenge me to think and make me feel more anxious.  The miracle isn’t that Beck, Hannity and Limbaugh are national authorities despite manifest and documented lack of expertise in everything; the miracle is that there is anyone who will take up the challenge of being a single, reflective individual in such a fluid and anxiety-inducing age as this one.  Really, it is no wonder that Chu is laughed at when he proposes simple and reasonable solutions to combat global warming; he only has a Nobel Prize in Physics, while his critics have the sense to know that offering a solution to a problem means admitting there is a problem, which means the world has changed from before when the climate was fine.  Chu offers us anxiety and thinking and the call to solve problems; the clever self-promoter offers us self-delusion and thus the security of believing that all is as it always was and can never be different.

Anyone who finds it paradoxical that the hard-working lower-middle class people vilify the poor and idolize (I use the word deliberately) the wealthy, simply does not understand anxiety.  Logically, it makes the most sense to apply Rawls’ “veil of ignorance:” If you did not know whether you would be rich, poor or somewhere in the middle, would you choose this nation as it is or would you change things?  If you would, it is fair and just; if not, that implies it is unfair.  Today, it is increasingly difficult to move up the economic ladder, increasingly easy to fall into poverty, and increasingly improbable that any rich person will fail to get richer from the sheer inertia of interest payments.  Clearly, this is not what Rawls would call a “fair” society.  But to even take up the challenge of thinking in those terms is to admit the very real possibility of becoming poor.  On the other hand, if one holds fast to the delusion that hard work is always rewarded, one can calm one’s feeling of loss of control.  To the anxious person, the poor are a threat the same way a chasm is a threat; the best way to avoid dizziness is to not look at how far you might fall but to keep moving forward.  So we find it easier to blame the poor for being lazier or stupider than we are, rather than admit that they may be smarter and more industrious than many of the wealthy who control our economic world.  And we would rather believe that the rich are rich because they deserve to be, since then we can believe that if we too deserve to be rich it will happen.  Anxiety cannot bear to hear what reality shouts at us every day:  that wealth in America has more to do with the luck of having rich parents than with anything else.[1]  Falsely idolizing the supposed merits of the wealthy and falsely demonizing the supposed vices of the poor both allow me to reassure myself that I am powerful and in control, that my anxiety is false, and that all I have to do is work harder and everything will be fine.  To see the poor as human would awaken the possibility that I might become one.

I think that every crazy thing we see in politics today can fruitfully be understood as the fruits of anxiety.  We seek false fears that we can then conquer.  We seek false security and a false sense of power, rather than risk confronting our anxiety.  Today the news is full of the Congressman who claimed that rape victims can’t get pregnant.  What a comforting myth that is!  “We need not fear the rapist; he cannot impregnate our daughters or wives unless they themselves wish it, which of course is impossible.  And we can be sure that those who do get pregnant wanted it and enjoyed it, in which case they deserve whatever happens.  So we can be assured that our easy answers have no moral collateral damage, and we can be sure that the true horror of this evil cannot touch us or the good people we love.  Forcing women to have babies born of rape and incest is therefore just hunky-dory, since the pregnant women must have chosen to be pregnant and such a thing will never, never happen to the good women we care about.”  By embracing this myth, Akin and the many who agree with him can quiet the anxiety stemming from a lack of control over our world, and the anxiety over oneself and whether the “good” one champions is really so good after all.  What good is science, when it just makes me question my settled moral assertions?  How can I possibly get on with the important work of reforming the world, if I am constantly examining myself?

Just try looking at every irrational, self-defeating stance adopted by the American people, and try understanding it as a reaction to anxiety; I think you’ll find that while you may still be dismayed, you won’t be mystified anymore.


[1] “If a man has $100 and makes ten more, that’s work; if he has $100 million and makes ten million, that’s inevitable.”    From The Barefoot Contessa

Why No Call for Gun Control? Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety (pt. 1)

August 23, 2012

Why No Call for Gun Control?  Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety (pt. 1)

            Journalists have wondered why the massacre in Colorado has not inspired any calls for gun control, unlike previous atrocities such as Columbine.  True, there have been some pleas from die-hard activists and even from non-politicians such as Jason Alexander.[1]  Jon Stewart has pleaded with us to at least have a conversation about the need to balance gun rights and gun dangers.[2]  But politicians do not dare even discuss gun control, and Americans are more opposed to gun control than ever.  We can talk about banning costumes in movie theaters, but we can’t talk about banning guns in movie theaters.  Are we more afraid of turning our movie theaters into Castle Frank-n-Furter than we are of turning them into war zones?

A quick Internet search (Wikipedia followed by checking the sources used there) reveals some interesting facts.  First, gun violence overall has fallen significantly over the last decade.  Second, most gun deaths are suicides.[3]  When you add in the gun deaths from accidents, from lost tempers during family disputes, and from previously unarmed criminals who take the owner’s own gun and use it, it seems clear that guns are, on the whole, far more dangerous to their owners than to criminals.  And yet, despite these facts, people cling to gun ownership more tightly than ever.  Even the assault weapons ban was allowed to lapse.  Why not legalize machine guns?  At least a .50 cal requires a tripod, which would be a lot harder to smuggle into a movie theater than an M-16 without being much more dangerous to the innocent.  If the 2nd Amendment is absolute, then banning any weapons is unconstitutional; if it is permissible and moral to ban machine guns, tanks and RPGs then it is not qualitatively different to ban other military hardware.  Banning guns is banning guns; if society has the right to say that heavy machine guns are too much firepower and thus beyond constitutional protection, then it has the right to make the same judgment about any military-grade weaponry.  That is not so much a plea for gun control as it is a plea for logic.  As a society, we have in fact made judgments about what weapons our neighbors and ourselves will be allowed to own, and what we will not.  It is illogical to claim that such judgments are illegal or immoral while we continue to make them.

If logic cannot explain waning support for gun control, perhaps psychology can.  Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety is a philosophical, psychological and religious analysis of anxiety as a personal and social force.  His discourse “Every Good Gift and Perfect Gift is From Above” is a theological examination of anxiety as the fruit of sin.[4]  Together, these writings present an analysis of anxiety as a primordial driving force in human life.  Briefly, anxiety is described as “the dizziness of freedom.”  Life is full of choices that are both significant and underdetermined by the facts.  We experience anxiety because of this.  This anxiety is compounded when we begin to be anxious not only about our own capacity to choose wisely and justly, but also about the world and the uncertainty of existence.  In the face of such anxiety, the common human reaction is to seek for authorities that can take the burden of freedom from us, or to transform our anxieties into fears.  Both play into the current state of the gun control/rights debate.  Logically, the idea that “I will be safer if I have a pistol, so I can stay and fight a madman in Kevlar hurling tear gas rather than running for an exit” is a stupid idea.  But as Kierkegaard points out, the person in the grip of anxiety will latch onto anything to regain the delusion of security.  The only logical, not to mention pious reaction is to admit that we live in a dangerous world and that we cannot hope to fight off all dangers; we can only commit our souls to God and then live as we are called.  The faithful person is the one who is schooled by “the earnest thought of death,” recognizing that death is both the one certainty in life and yet absolutely unpredictable, so that the only fitting response is a humble recognition of one’s own powerlessness and a commitment to live each day for values that are truly worthy.[5]  Instead, as most of us are not truly faithful, we seek a false sense of security and then turn around to devoting our time to trivialities.

Gun sales always spike after a mass shooting.[6]  Logically, what should spike are calls for gun control.  But from the point of view of anxiety, “gun control” means “I am not the master of my fate;” no control means “I can have a gun and feel safe, relying on my own power.”

In much the same way, the call for voter I.D. laws have caught the imagination of the electorate:  I say “imagination” because all the evidence is that that is where the fraud these laws supposedly will prevent exists.  Millions of dollars are being spent to prevent voter impersonation fraud, which has never taken place in sufficient numbers to affect an election.  These laws even encourage fraud by pushing more people to use the easily-faked absentee ballots instead of showing up in person.  At a time when we cannot afford to repair bridges, pay teachers what we promised them, feed the hungry, and on and on, we are spending millions to chase phantoms.  Let me repeat that, because it bears repeating:  at a time when we cannot afford to honor contracts signed with our teachers, firefighters and police; at a time when we cannot afford to fix the bridges which we cross every day, at a time when we are capable of feeding every person on the planet and yet we claim to not even have enough money to feed, cloth, shelter and provide health care for all of our own citizens—-at this time, we are ready to spend millions of dollars to fight a crime which the best evidence available suggests occurs once per state every two or three years, on average.  It is as if we were to unplug the life support system for Grandma in order to power up the yeti-repelling force field.

But from the anxious perspective, it makes perfect sense.  Those whose sense of security is invested in a certain social order find that security undermined when they contemplate the latest census.  In a few decades, whites will be a minority in this country for the first time since we invaded and occupied it.  As Kierkegaard would point out, faith is “to be out over 70,000 fathoms and yet be joyful;” but most of us don’t have faith, and want to imagine the water is only a few feet deep.  We can reestablish that sense of security first by transforming our anxiety into fear.  Anxiety’s object is really nothing; it is the possible, and thus cannot really be controlled.  Fear is fear of something actual; we feel that if we can only defeat the object of our fear we can be safe.  The fact that the whole world is changing daily and unpredictably induces anxiety; but by focusing on “illegal aliens” and convincing ourselves that if we can just control those “illegals” we can solve everything, we quiet our anxiety.  Someone comes along and says, “Don’t be anxious about the vast range of possibilities the future presents, and your responsibility to respond to them; just be afraid of illegals, and then we’ll pass laws to protect you from illegals stealing your vote and you can rest easy.”  And we jump at the offer of phony solutions to false dangers that can distract us from our real anxiety.

To be continued….


[1] Jason Alexander, reposted on Salon (http://www.salon.com/2012/07/22/jason_alexanders_amazing_gun_rant/) Sunday, Jul 22, 2012 04:38 PM EDT

[3] “55% of all Gun Deaths are Suicide,”  July 21, 2008 (http://www.shortnews.com/start.cfm?id=71736)

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, with introduction and notes (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1990) pp. 125-39

[5] Søren Kierkegaard, “At a Graveside,” from Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993) pp. 71-102

[6] Dylan Stableford, “Gun Sales Spike in Colorado After Shooting, Just Like They Did in Arizona,” The Lookout July 24, 2012 (http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/gun-sales-aurora-colorado-shooting-spike-tuscon-161409369–finance.html )