A Swim in Denial

What we can't think about and how it shapes us.

Love, Death,and Denial in the Voting Booth

Appetite for more life is also survival greed. It's How We're Built, Stupid

 

 (Labor Day on daNile) The nation has indigestion. Call some problem-solvers.  What turns up? Propaganda. Cookie cutter lies, repeated brazenly in hopes that finally you won’t be able to figure them out. No wonder you're queasy. People are confused, like the Tea Party protester who barked, "Government keep your hands off my Medicare."

This is not a popular topic for holiday fun.  But let's take a step back to look at the psychology and biology underlying denial to see if some rethinking could be useful, eh?

Start with you and me, the voting animal.  We bipeds are social creatures.  We've always had to make decisions about kin and kind. Food. Bed. Wiping baby's bottom. Do we love or kill the tribal chief today?  But we're conflicted hominids: biological animals but also symbol-users. Your family is also your symbolic "families," from hobby groups to the global billions of us. We're anxious animals but brainy. Yet it can be stupefying to sort out abstractions such as "Gross National Product" trailing zeroes like a comet's tail and always a moving target. We're naturally ambivalent about everything. We want to be protected but also fearlessly independent. We're submissive and reverent toward our leaders when we don't resent them and gun them down as in the 1960s King and Kennedy assassinations.

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So for the voting primate, problem #1 is that the world is always much bigger than we are, and for better or worse, we know it is. Hence the all-purpose tool, as advertised on TV. Denial.  We create cultures to make the world usable by codifying experience of what works. But even cultures face threatening changes and denial may gum things up.  In the "roaring" 20s as in the tech/banking bubbles of the last decades, the wisdom was "It's different this time." 

 Duh.

Leaders and wannabe leaders routinely take advantage of this confusion.  Not because they're evil, though they can be, but because they can be just as conflicted as followers. The world may better or worse than last week, but it's always somewhat out of our control. We'd be busy problem-solving if we weren't continually trying to protect ourselves through denial. So Problem #2: denial makes you happier unless it keeps you from problem-solving and destroys you.  Some policies will always be better than others, but you need criticism to sort them out.  Nobody has the proverbial magic bullet.

Stop right there, hombre. Magic bullet. The idiom instantly reminds us that we're equipped—or trapped in—a central nervous system built around fight or flight behavior. One of our strongest creaturely motives is the impulse to kill what frightens us. If starvation threatens, then kill the sheep; if it's a cold, kill the virus; if it's mean neighbors next door—hand me that there blunderbuss, Bessie.

So all leaders understandably want to keep real conflicts blurry because nobody has the perfect policy, yet some policies will be healthier for us than others. The leaders' second incentive is to rouse followers to attack something in order to turn nervous-system flight into pumped-up fight.  You feel as if you're mastering the threat of death by killing, as if you can subdue death itself.1 It may be delusion and bad for your health. So Problem #3 is, how to simmer down and reality-test.

That's where denial puts glue in your brain. Take the simplest motives behind this election. We're built with survival appetites, for food and sex and the problem-solving accomplishments of culture. We want more life: we want to grow self, offspring, tribe, full pantry cupboards. But the minute we compete for more life, conflict crunches. Most political campaigns put our conflicts over our appetites in sensational terms such as crime or warfare, bad manners or hoodies. It's always about them.  Some stranger, friend or foe.

But here's a liberating insight. Back up a step and you see you see that the conflict is built into us and turns on a drop-dead crucial paradox. Appetite for more life is also survival greed. All human history, all cultures, have worked on the problem. In the hybrid socialistic capitalism of the west (and increasingly China and others too), more life = more production, bigger business, more sales, more profit.  For governments, more life can mean more taxes = more public service, military power, more social insurance, more education, more subsidies and bailouts for failing banks. 

The paradox is punch-in-nose simple yet denial makes it hard to grasp. If success means you eat the kids' food in order to grow, you have only shriveled starvelings to help out at work, and the family dies. In economic life, if success means that the few at the top have more and the rest have less, then there's no one to buy business products, no one to pay taxes, no one who wants to risk their neck fighting questionable wars against strangers. This is the current American bind. Since the freewheeling 1980s after Vietnam, the few have become dysfunctionally powerful and wealthy.  "The 400 richest Americans now have more wealth than the bottom 150 million of us put together." And since money at the top has deeply penetrated government, government policy has the same hang-up.  Huge expenses for unfunded wars and Wall Street and social insurance (Social Security, Medicare) need to draw in money, but those drained of cash can't then afford the taxes that keeps the safety net intact and the system healthy. 

Your mother said it: "You can't have your cake and eat it too."  Today that sounds like a dieting cliché.  It could mean be "lean and mean." But the proverb can also be urging you to share the wealth so nobody starves or gets robbed. It's good to eat, and good to save food for tomorrow. The values aren't the problem.  It's how to balanace things out fairly.  The primitive business model simply demands ever-increasing consumption. In a "supersize me" market, corporations take advantages of economies of scale for profits.  But profits that deplete the customer are in a death spiral.  If appetite for more life is also survival greed, then no wonder we feel nauseated bewilderment when we're urged to forget that the beautiful possessions of the rich may also be stolen mother's milk.

This is a major reason the economy is under pressure. If you hoard money and power at the top by paying working folks less, then stagnant consumer salaries can't buy what you sell.  Their only defense, organized labor, has been slammed. Meanwhile raw materials and other costs keep going up. In reaction, nearly everybody has an urge to grab. Hence the epidemic of obesity and diabetes and the vast weightloss and glamour industry. Hence the bloated bonuses for failing bankers, a corporate military budget so big it's literally unfathomable. You want guns and money to feel safe even in your fortified suburb, because after all, the higher you are, the harder you can fall.  The more you pursue fantasies of symbolic immortality, the any loss to your stash looks like the plunge to social death.  

After all, this is why the super-rich have to scorn the poor as indulged, lazy welfare parasites and, as Medicare foe Paul Ryan calls them, "takers."  You have to blame the victims of pain and deprivation for not solving their own problems.  Otherwise you'd be monstrous. And you might not feel guilt, but being shamed would annoy you. When a wealthy politician from behind a podium compares himself to a gasping worker squeezing by on part-time jobs—with nothing to fall back on—the effect is nerve-wracking to behold. Why?  Because if we recognize death-anxiety, most people will usually either duck into denial or fantasize about helping as we'd wish to be helped. The emotional conflict is thunderous.  Denial and rescue fantasies may help keep us calm, but the job of reality-testing and problem-solving remains.

So we come to a denied conflict that's making the current presidential campaigns maddening. Generally, Republicans argue for self-reliance, Democrats argue for people helping each other.  Republicans imagine the self as powerful enough to face down all threats. Democrats see us caught up systems that need a group effort.  Republicans see banks as business and government as a "too big" rival business.  Democrats see government as your insurance policy, your bank, your school. It's you— or should be you. 

But here's the creaturely reality again.  Nobody in politics talks about the reality of terror and suffering everyday folks feel when they're alone, without support, facing failure and loss with the right tools to fix things.  Just think how bizarre those words would be in campaign settings. One party demands government stop giving away those survival tools. The other party thinks of the "giveaway" as a loan to be repaid in taxes once you're back on your feet. One party wants more for the top so that elites can rescue those below. The other claims the system has stalled and people need to push together to get things moving again. 

 Okay, in reality there's some shadow-boxing and denial on all sides.  It's the caption "No real animals were hurt making this film."  So at a time when we know we should be problem-solving, we're set adrift in ad slogans, distractions, and shameless lies. So voters are marooned in denial.

 But though we're all clever at denial, some policies will work better than others.  Again the paradox: ignore your denial, and you may feel more anxiety and aggression because reality will bite you. You think falsely secure and virtuous, but if it's false, it undermines your personality. You become all role and no character. Who can be surprised that political partisans in denial live on phony "attack ads" insinuating that their opponent wants to sicken, pervert, destroy, or otherwise kill the nation—and you. Instead of talking about actual people, such conflicted thinking fantasizes about Messiahs and Satan. Meanwhile the operatives are carrying out a Post-Civil-War effort to tamper with IDs and block the poor from voting at all. 

 Yes, the economic storm is real. The American middle class has been seriously dwindling since the two-earner family and homelessness became regular news terms in the Reagan 1980s. The quality of jobs is under attack. Finance and the military are disproportionately hogging the nation's resources for adventures almost no one really believes in. Time magazine writes about the epidemic of suicides among military men, echoing official mystification. Simpler would be to ask if it's reasonable for remote wealthy leaders to order anyone to kill strangers and risk his life for an unnecessary "mission" based on lies ("Saddam Hussein will wipe us out with his secret weapons of mass destruction").

 How did the US get into today's acute bind? The world has been rebalancing since "we" won WW2 and emerged full of industrial muscle, with no competitors left standing. Victory psychology would also prove to be bubble psychology. At first the need to honor sacrifices made for postwar generosity toward labor and middle class prosperity of a new kind. But over the years much of the new business muscle went abroad seeking easy-to-discipline cheap labor and more triumphal wars, as in Vietnam.  Its replacement has been an uncertain "service" economy, now dominated by Wall Street speculation and the corporate military. Cocky executives in the last decade (think Enron, say) have triggered historic criminal scandals. Now multinational corporations and wealthy tax shelters operate outside any single nation's laws. Nobody seems able to enforce accountability.

Living standards were bound to adjust. The global wage difference couldn't be sustained forever. It's been good for a lot of poor folks over the horizon. The question was always, how would the rebalancing be managed? Who would fairly portion out the anguish and rewards? Government is our common insurance pool. Who can we trust to see that it works well for people who have no lobbyists and limos and an unlisted number? Who will call home history's most expensive military from its hundreds of bases in other countries—especially when so many careers and pensions now depend on pumping up some justifying threat?  Who will reason through the nets of lies and denial? Who will show some imaginative sympathy with other people? 

Snugging our dhow into the shallows of Da Nile for the evening, watching the farm kids onshore prod lumbering beasts home to the stable, you can't help wonder: Who will speak up wisely for the common good?

 

1. If you've just joined the expedition, have a look at Ernest Becker's Escape from Evil and <<http://www.ernestbecker.org/

 

Kirby Farrell, Ph.D.'s most recent book is Berserk Style in American Culture.

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