Posts Tagged ‘Anxiety’

Boredom, Anxiety and Envy: a Kierkegaardian Attempt to Understand The Trump Question (pt.4)

July 6, 2016

CONCLUSIONS

In Two Ages, Kierkegaard compares the present age to a Roman emperor, fat, bored, wandering through his palace and through life looking for something to amuse himself. He isn’t evil, exactly, so much as simply sullen, lethargic and self-centered, and desperate for something new to stimulate his senses. He torments others simply out of boredom. Likewise, Kierkegaard says, the present age delights in having a tabloid press to torment and humiliate the best and brightest, anyone who stands out from the crowd, simply so the rest of us can watch and be entertained for awhile. Kierkegaard started his authorship with a discussion of boredom, and here when he is beginning a new phase in his career he is returning to it. Boredom and envy are connected, in a way neither is to anxiety, leading Kierkegaard to mention them both in the same breath.

The connection is passion. This seems to be an easy concept to misunderstand; in The Logic of Subjectivity Louis Pojman, who is normally a pretty sharp cookie, compares Kierkegaard’s discussion of passion to Hume’s notion that “reason is a slave to the passions.” This is clearly off target, since Hume’s point is that we have no real freedom to act against our desires while Kierkegaard is saying we should strive to free ourselves from just that sort of bondage to our whims and appetites. Taking what Kierkegaard says about passion in various references and bringing it together, it is clear that the essential quality of the life of passion is that the individual feels that what he or she does matters. Don Juan, lost in the moment of pure pleasure, feels absolutely alive.[1] He is totally immersed; no part of him stands outside what he is engaged with; he is passionate. However, that sort of passion cannot survive reflection or even self-awareness; it starts to collapse as soon as it is put into words. The pre-moral, esthetic life described in Either/Or is a life lived for arbitrary goals, and thus is essentially meaningless; the more one becomes self-aware and reflective, the more one finds oneself standing outside oneself, unable to fully immerse in whatever arbitrary project one has chosen. It is simply too small. And being essentially meaningless, it is essentially boring. Don Juan can pull it off mostly because he is a fictional character in an opera, and exists only in imagination and music; a real person is never safe from the threat of self-reflection. Kierkegaard thus depicts the egoistic, pre-moral life of the esthete as something of a willful self-deceit, where the esthetic person either invests his or her life in some petty project or rotates between petty projects, and avoids boredom mostly by luck if at all.

In the age of revolution, people are swept up in a shared passion. That may not be a good thing; the same passion that led to the overthrow of tyranny also led to The Terror and to the destruction of the Napoleonic wars. Passion, in and of itself, may not be moral; but it is at least alive. People feel that things matter. Without reflection to go along with that passion, you can have wildness, irrationality, and a loss of sense of individuality; but at least you have the vital force. With both reflection and passion, you have liveliness together with self-awareness, and you have a community of moral individuals. With reflection and no passion, as in the present age, you have triviality. Nothing matters, and what’s more, we feel clever because our reflection has shown us that nothing matters so we are not being fooled. We don’t fight for the good or against the evil, because we don’t feel that either matters; we simply don’t think those words apply to us. We might temporarily flare up in some passing enthusiasm, but it soon fades because it is as arbitrary as anything else, and we lapse into bored triviality. I think of how outraged we all were when Cecil the lion was killed, for awhile, but how little most of us think about the extermination of the world’s most majestic species. No one really cares about the moral principle; they just wanted to be part of the moment and part of the crowd gathered to mourn Cecil. If anyone had actually acted on all that outrage, either to avenge Cecil or to dedicate his or her life entirely to saving Earth’s endangered animals, we would have considered it madness. It is acceptable to get angry and to tweet death threats even, to sign a petition and to talk about it endlessly on Facebook for two weeks; but then, really, you have to get on with your life, right?

In an early journal entry, written when Kierkegaard was merely a perpetual student, he wrote that he was seeking “the cause for which I can live and die.” That is what it is to live a life of passion! And that is what is lacking in the present age, according to Kierkegaard. No one has a cause. In the age of revolution, everyone has a cause, whether you are a revolutionary or a reactionary; either way, you are part of the same passion, and the revolution matters. People in a revolutionary age don’t all agree, but they all care about the same thing; even if some love it and some hate it, “it” is the same. In the age of reflection without passion, we have no cause, and those who do seem strange, even fanatical.

In this boredom, when nothing matters, our attention has no common focus and no higher focus than one another. That reflection that tells us that nothing matters turns on our neighbors, as we determine to prove that any claim to “matter” is arrogance. Therefore, we level. Leveling is the prime social expression for passionlessness, which is the literal meaning of “apathy.” The leveling society is the apathetic society, knocking down the highest out of sheer boredom.

The escape from boredom, which Kierkegaard traces through Either/Or to the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, is to choose to live a life where things do matter. As his pseudonym The Judge says, it is not to choose the good, but first to choose to allow the concepts of “good” and “evil” into one’s life. As Ron Green points out in Kierkegaard and Kant: the Hidden Debt, Kierkegaard starts with a very Kantian notion of what “ethics” means: that one lives according to the moral law that one discovers with one’s own moral reason. Just as logic is a purely mental law that dictates what is rational or irrational thinking, so the moral law is a purely rational principle that dictates what is moral or immoral action. To reject either logic or morality is certainly possible; in fact, few of us live totally logical or moral lives. But insofar as a person is not a slave to whims and appetites and irrational impulses, one lives according to these laws of rationality and morality that one finds within one’s own reason. The only way one can escape being determined by the essentially meaningless pursuits of the egoist is to choose the ethical life. When one does this, one has something far more important to deal with than whether one’s neighbor is getting too uppity; so the moral passion of the ethical life can be the antidote to envy.

Thus, the escape from boredom and from envy is the same: reject apathy and embrace the life lived for what matters. However, at this point anxiety rears its head. As Kierkegaard says, to live with the knowledge of good and evil is to live in anxiety. One first becomes aware of the distinction by becoming aware that one has done the evil, and cannot undo it, and might even do it again. The more one tries to escape from anxiety through one’s own power, the more anxious one becomes. Eventually, since anxiety is “the dizziness of freedom,” the only escape from anxiety is to try to escape from one’s own freedom. For this reason, says The Concept of Anxiety, the person may be tempted to try to immerse himself or herself in the trivial and philistine life of social conformity. I find myself to be desperately bored; I realize my life and my concerns are meaningless, and seek to find what really matters, that is, what is good; when I find it, I realize that I have in fact done what is worthless and evil, and that it still remains a tempting possibility; the more I try to live a meaningful life the more stressful and anxious I find this constant threat of falling again into what I now know to be the evil; and finally I choose to simply embrace the soulless conformity of the passionless, reflective society. Thus boredom and envy are not just the problems of those who know nothing more in life; they are much more the characteristics of those many who are actively choosing to live lives without a relationship to what is truly good.

The only true escape from anxiety and envy, according to Kierkegaard, is to choose the religious life. Again, this is a claim that is likely to be misunderstood by postmodern Americans. Most of what we typically call “religious”— social conformity and judgmentalism, blindly following a charismatic leader, allowing others to tell us the moral rules and convincing ourselves that using our own minds is somehow wicked and rebellious—- this is actually what Kierkegaard would consider more of that anxious, envious, self-immolating life that Kierkegaard labels “objectivity,” “idolatry” or “demonic.” True religiousness starts with the attempt to find the good: that is, with the ethical. For Kierkegaard, the attempt to live an ethical life by following one’s moral reason serves much the same function as the Law in Paul’s epistles and Luther’s theology.[2] One must first try to live according to the ethical, and fail, and in failing realize one’s need for grace. At the same time, grace is not there to free one from trying to live a good life; it is there to free one from the burden of one’s past failures, so that one can try again. Grace allows one to finally be free from the overwhelming burden of anxiety, which otherwise leads one to flee the whole attempt to live a life as a morally directed individual.[3] Particularly in Concept of Anxiety, but consistently throughout Kierkegaard’s authorship, “the good” is individuating; to pursue the good is to be an individual, and to try to evade the personal effort of being an individual moral agent before God is to choose the evil.

The irony of envy is that from the religious perspective, it is right. Envy says, “You are no better than me;” the religious person says, “Indeed, I am no better than you; we are both individuals before God, dependent entirely on grace.” Accepting this is what allows the truly religious person to escape the bondage of envy. The faithful person has the complete security of being worthwhile and even loved by God, despite knowing himself or herself to be morally unworthy of that love. The faithful one thus has no need to enviously tear down others, and can rejoice in their value before God as much as in his or her own. Therefore, if you see someone whose sense of self-worth is dependent on asserting superiority over others or tearing them down, you can be sure that this is not “religious” zeal but is in fact faithlessness.

The desire to tear down scientists and scholars and “the elites,” while adulating some self-promoting huckster whose only claims to superiority are the purely mathematical ones of wealth and popularity, is an expression of faithlessness and the bondage of sin, as Kierkegaard understands it. This is true whether the would-be idol is a political demagogue or a religious charlatan, or some combination of the two. It is a sign of an age that has, in Kierkegaard’s words, “annulled the principle of contradiction.” It is an age that fears to let Yes be Yes and No remain No, and wants to eliminate all ultimate distinctions between true and false, good and evil, logical and irrational, so it can avoid having to make a decisive choice. The present age says that all truths are partial and relative and based on perspective, so there is no need to rationally discuss or to question one’s own views; the reflective and passionate view is humbled by reflection but inspired to seek truth nevertheless, admitting that the quest for truth is never-ending while remaining devoted to the quest regardless.

When “the principle of contradiction has been abrogated,” as Kierkegaard said using the language of Hegelian philosophy, there is no absolute truth. Every concept is simply one side of a larger reality. Hegel still had an historical optimism underlying his annihilation of the distinction between truth and falsehood, good and evil; he believed history is progressing towards a state of greater human consciousness, and eventually the race will attain an apprehension of reality that encompasses all of the various perspectives. But for Hegel, that day is not yet; in the meantime, your moral values are simply expressions of your culture’s values and your own class interests. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th and the French Revolution was succeeded by the Munich Putsch, that optimism was harder to sustain. Today we have even more thoroughly abrogated the distinction between true and false, epistemologically and ethically, in what Cardinal Ratzinger called “the dictatorship of relativism.” There is no truth, so anyone who claims to know truth is simply an oppressor trying to impose his (maybe her) will on others; thus the only morally proper and epistemologically correct option is to admit all views are equally valid, even contradictory ones. The problem with that is that the “tolerance” and “honesty” that supposedly demand this admission are themselves moral and epistemological virtues, and thus themselves become victims of reflection. What we end up with is moral nihilism and a contest of irrational wills. As Harry Frankfurt discusses in On Bullshit, today we have a whole category of verbal behavior that is neither truth nor lying, because the speaker is simply unconcerned with either sharing or avoiding the truth. And this may explain Trump’s method and success. Donald Trump does not lie; he bullshits. He says whatever will serve his purpose, and is not concerned with whether what he says is true. Much of the time he does not even know. And to the morally and intellectually vacuous public today, this seems entirely appropriate. In a world where no one can “dictate” truth, and where truth itself cannot dictate, every single person can believe whatever he or she wants to believe. If I want to believe that slavery never happened, or that solar energy sucks heat out of the air and will freeze us all to death unless we burn more coal, or that most American Muslims are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers even though I don’t actually even know how many Muslims there are in America, then I have a right to my opinion. Truth and goodness are replaced by the language of “rights,” and the stupidest and most selfish has as much right as the wisest, for we are all equal. The ability to get others to agree with you is seen not as a triumph for fact over fantasy, but just as a victory of one will over the others. From the point of view of the postmodern person, there is no truth and the best leader is merely the best bullshitter; and the bullshitter who has persuaded the most people to give him or her the most money is clearly the best. From the point of view of the one who is religious in Kierkegaard’s sense of the word, the wisest is the one who recognizes that there is truth, who loves the truth (particularly moral truth) and who attempts to live according to the truth so that his or her life might have some real meaning, but who knows that human existence is always to strive for truth, never to possess it completely. That person will know that anyone might have a piece of truth, and thus anyone is worth listening to, just as Socrates listened to politicians and slaves alike as he went around Athens asking questions. And just as Socrates seemed more than a little odd in a society dominated by demagogues and Sophists, so today any real truth-seeker seems goofy at least, if not absolutely insane. The popular teachers in the days of Socrates were the ones who said “man is the measure of all things, what is that it is, and what is not that it is not;” and the popular leaders were the ones who did not try to make their citizens better morally or better informed, but took them where they were and pandered to their appetites. And in the days of Socrates, that sort of relativism led to moral and epistemological nihilism, leaving nothing to guide the society but the naked ambition of its politicians; and themselves being unguided either by moral principles or factual truth, they led the nation into defeat and destruction. The age without faith is the age without truth, without a love for truth, and thus without guidance how to live or what to choose, a mindless herd following the loudest voice without knowledge of whether it is being led to the sheepfold, or to be sheared, or to the slaughterhouse.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, “The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical Erotic,” in Either/Or, v. I, edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987) pp. 45ff

[2] see W. Glenn Kirkconnell, Kierkegaard on Ethics and Religion, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008) pp. 76-107

[3] see W. Glenn Kirkconnell, Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010) pp. 40-57

 

Boredom, Anxiety and Envy: a Kierkegaardian Attempt to Understand The Trump Question (pt.2)

June 15, 2016

Next, anxiety: Kierkegaard wrote during the 19th Century, which was a famously optimistic period in most of Europe. It was an age of exploration and experimentation, of invention and economic growth, of capitalism and commercialism. Kierkegaard frequently criticized the philosophy and theology of his time as both shallow and overconfident; his advice, through his pseudonyms as well as in his own name, was to cultivate a humble spirituality. His words largely fell on deaf ears, and he was nearly forgotten in the years after his death. His greatest influence was in the early 20th Century and beyond, in response to some of humanity’s darkest times. As theologians and philosophers sought to understand how so many millions of their fellow citizens could gladly throw away their freedom and their professed religion to follow earthly self-proclaimed Fascist and Communist messiahs, they found Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous discussions of anxiety to be uniquely instructive.

Most of Kierkegaard’s discussion of anxiety comes through his pseudonym Vigilius Haufniensis, in the book The Concept of Anxiety. Important additional insights come through his religious discourse, “Every Good and Perfect Gift is from Above,” one of his Four Upbuilding Discourses (1843). Haufniensis describes anxiety as “the dizziness of freedom.” What does that mean? The experience of freedom is the realization that one can do something that one knows one ought not to do. Haufniensis takes the story of Adam as a true account of anxiety and sin, and points out that before rebelling against God Adam is described as “without the knowledge of good and evil.” But Adam did know that there was something he ought not to do. There was a possibility, a real possibility. And realizing that there was this real possibility of something was both attractive and repulsive, like the sudden urge to jump off a cliff. We can’t really say Adam chose to do evil, since he didn’t know what evil was; but once he had chosen what was evil, he both knew what good and evil were, and that he had chosen badly.

http://www.gocomics.com/9chickweedlane/2006/06/27

At least as far as Kierkegaard was concerned, only human have the freedom to choose in this way, what the later pseudonym Climacus called an “existential choice,” a choice of what would be the highest guiding value of one’s life. And the realization that one has that freedom is disorienting. Every human falls, Kierkegaard claims, and falls in this same way: by throwing away his or her innocence and choosing to do wrong, as Adam did, one finds that one has succumbed to this vertigo of freedom. It cannot be explained more than that, because it is a free choice and thus has no “cause” that can explain it. Without that freedom, one would not be a rational spirit; but while an animal cannot help but obey God and be what it was made to be, humans have the ability to make themselves, an ability they discover only when they choose first to deform themselves and then must strive to be remade.

In the pseudonymous Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard’s alter ego writes from a psychological perspective only; then the discussion gets too theological he breaks off with a comment that “at this point, we leave the problem to dogmatics.”[1] When he writes in his own name, he is much more explicitly religious. In “Every Good and Perfect Gift is From Above (1843)” he discusses how Adam’s sin breaks the sense of God’s presence, and the results of this. Before his disobedience, Adam “walked with God,” as Genesis puts it, in apparently easy fellowship. There was no division between God’s will and Adam’s, or between Adam and any other part of Creation. Once they made that initial decision to try to “become as gods, knowing good and evil,” Adam and Eve both realized that the world is outside their control, and thus threatening. The anxiety gave the occasion for freedom to break from God; the choice to actually do so creates a separation that then opens the door for genuine fear. Concept of Anxiety focuses on how human freedom apart from divine grace, responds to this situation. Asserting my freedom meant separating myself from God and thus also from God’s creation; now I am surrounded by threats and by mysteries. Once I knew what it was good for me to do, since it was simply to obey God; but now I am left to seek the good, and faced with the danger that I will again choose what I know is wrong. And that anxiety also leaves me fearful, and particularly fearful that I could die separated from my ultimate fulfillment. “To be or not to be?” becomes a terrifying question for one caught in anxiety.[2] Every attempt to gain a sense of security and certainty by my own efforts just leaves me with an overwhelming sense of my own inadequacy. The world is simply too big and too confusing for me. There are only two possible responses. One is faith, at which point I leave the psychological and philosophical perspective of Concept of Anxiety and turn to God, accepting that “every good and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change or shadow of variation” (James 1:17). But most of us never reach that state of faith; for most of us can only escape this overwhelming anxiety by choosing to throw away our freedom. We submerge ourselves in the spirit-numbing social conformity of the modern commercial society, which Kierkegaard calls “philistinism.” Instead of struggling to find our own life values, we let the crowd around us dictate our life choices. This was the aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought that so intrigued the existentialists and dialectical theologians, as they watched their world go mad. What would make civilized people swarm into a stadium where they could throw their arms in the air and shout “Sieg Heil!” until they were hoarse? What could make millions of people worship a Stalin or Hitler or other tyrant? Anxiety offers a key. If trying to create my own values has become an overwhelming burden, turning to a strong authority who promises to tell me what is good and evil is a relief, not an oppression. And if my anxiety about myself has metastasized to fear of the world, a strong protector becomes a shield, not a cage.

No, I am not saying that Trump is just like Hitler or Stalin. But the impulse towards social conformity and authoritarianism is certainly the same in both. It is the same force that drives the Christian Dominionist and the Muslim Jihadi. It is the desire to be part of a herd and to have a strong, visible, concrete shepherd. Polls say Trump does well among self-described Evangelicals who only occasionally attend church. That is, he does not do well among those whose faith is a daily part of their lives or a directing force; he does do well among those who are social Evangelicals, who long for a traditional world with stable values and a single voice replaces the clamor of all the hawkers in the marketplace of ideas.

[1] Kierkegaard’s reasons for using pseudonyms are too complex to deal with here; for more on this, and some pointers on sorting it all out, look at W. Glenn Kirkconnell Kierkegaard on Ethics and Religion and Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation, both published by Continuum Press

[2] For an example of a person who, though not Christian, is quite religious in Kierkegaard’s sense, look at Socrates in the Apology. He says that either death is like a long, dreamless sleep, which is actually a pretty good night, or else it is a beginning of another existence; and he is confident that if death leads to an afterlife, that it will be a just and therefore enjoyable one. Thus he accepts the death sentence from the Athenian jury without regrets. In Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous work Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Socrates is presented as the archetype of prechristian faith.

To be continued….

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.

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

 

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. x)

May 8, 2013

            Towards the end of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous phase, he wrote a book review in his own name:  Two Ages:  The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a Literary Review.  Being one of Kierkegaard’s signed works, it is a much more straightforward expression of his views.      This is a review of a novel; it is neither a fantasy nor a role-playing exercise, though it is fiction.  As fiction, it does share some qualities with the fairy-story. Kierkegaard says of the novel Two Ages that “The author has been faithful to himself.[1]  In this we see that the author has, as Tolkien would have put it, been consistent in creating her Secondary World for the reader to enter.[2]  Like Tolkien, Kierkegaard even compares the creativity of the writer to that of the Creator, although he does not go as far or become as explicitly theological in his comparison.  It is not quite religious, says Kierkegaard, but it tends in that direction; it knows “actuality’s way out” from the pain of life, rather than “religion’s way out.”[3]  And for this reason, it can offer “a place of rest” for the reader.[4]  This sounds very much like the role of Escape in the fairy-story, as described by Tolkien.  And the “way out” sounds more than a little like Consolation.  One difference is that while Tolkien is ready to describe the fairy-story as a kind of gospel, Kierkegaard takes pains to specify that no novel or work of “poetry” could be truly religious, since the realm of the religious is actuality and the poetic deals only in possibility.  But the novel simulates actuality and can thus offer insights into it.  I suggest that in the same way, a role-playing game can simulate life and in the process suggest truths about life (or, if the game is badly written, suggest lies).

 

            The “two ages” Kierkegaard discusses are the “age of revolution” and “the age of reflection,” or “the present age.”  The novel compares these two ages by presenting two love stories, both of which take place in Denmark (the country of publication).  The first takes place with the French Revolution as a backdrop.  A group of French travelers, including envoys of Napoleon, arrives at the house of a well-connected Danish merchant.  Their stay brings the passion and historical power of the Revolution to the home, stirring passion among the Danes as well.  This passion flows through everything from world-historical struggles and ideological debates to clandestine love affairs.  After love, separation, an illegitimate birth and reconciliation, young lovers are finally reunited and the first part of the novel ends.  The second part of the novel likewise revolves around a love affair, but it takes place in the reflective, petty age we live in now.  No charismatic foreigners come to Copenhagen to arouse the passions; there are no passions to be found.  Instead there is backbiting, gossip, envy and indecisiveness.  Instead of lovers who are driven by passion to do forbidden things, there are young people afraid to love because he doesn’t have enough money to support her.  Instead of the dangers and trials of a world at war, there are the snide comments of servants ridiculing the young stepdaughter of the family.  As Kierkegaard puts it, “If we say of a revolutionary age that it goes astray, then we must say of the present age that it is going badly.”[5]  As his own first pseudonymous work put it, in the Old Testament people have passion:  they murder, they curse their descendents, they sin; today they lack the energy, and at most try to weasel their ways through life with a little self-indulgence here and there.  This is what he sees illustrated in the novel.  The characters are driven by petty concerns to indulge in petty behaviors.  Instead of being united by some great passion and forced to decisively choose whether to be for or against (but all concerned for the same thing, the Revolution), today all are only interested in one another, in who is getting too full of himself or herself, who needs to be brought down a peg.  The only social force uniting people is envy, and the only result is not revolution but leveling.[6]  In the novel, Kierkegaard sees this illustrated in the petty meanness to which the heroine Marianne is subjected, merely because she is a stepdaughter (and hence vulnerable) and because she dares to love and to hope.  Kierkegaard sees this same dynamic playing out in society as a whole, becoming a social force on its own.   In the age of revolution, people looked for a great person, a Napoleon or a Luther, who would incarnate the great ideas and towards whom they could orient themselves either by joining or opposing; but today “the age of heroes is past.”[7]  Now, they only seek out the great ones to watch them, hoping to see them fall so they can all mock them for thinking themselves superior to the rest of us, or so they can tell themselves that the deed really wasn’t so great, anyone could have done it really, so again envy is satisfied:  “whereas a passionate age accelerates, raises up and overthrows, elevates and debases, a reflective apathetic age does the opposite, it stifles and impedes, it levels.”[8]  Whole social institutions (most notably the modern press) exist solely to tear down what is great and noble and exceptional, without anybody having to take responsibility for doing so. 

 

To be continued….


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages:  The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a Literary Review; translated with an introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1978) p. 13, italics Kierkegaard’s. 

[2] Kierkegaard knew full well that the anonymous author was a woman, but respecting her anonymity he consistently refers to the author as “he.”

[3] Two Ages, pp. 14-15

[4] Two Ages, p. 21

[5] Two Ages, p. 69

[6] Two Ages, pp. 68-96

[7] Two Ages, pp. 87-89

[8] Two Ages, p. 84

 

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. 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 )