A Swim in Denial

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

The Threat Workout

Pumping up with pop paranoia and the righteous high.

Depressed? Anxious? Can't sleep? Feel everybody hates you?

 If so, you could be vice-president of the National Rifle Association, Wayne La Pierre, who confessed his inner anguish to the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).  Here's a taste—forget the politics, just listen to it as an influential public voice triggering loud applause:

In this uncertain world, surrounded by lies and corruption everywhere you look, there is no greater freedom than the right to survive and protect our families with all the rifles, shotguns, and handguns we want. We know in the world that surrounds us there are terrorists and there are home invaders, drug cartels, carjackers, knockout gamers, and rapers, and haters, and campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse our society that sustains us all.>>

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What makes this speech more fun than a Martian invasion is that its paranoid excess has become so routine in the US that you might not even notice its violence. Like rant radio and guts & gore thrillers, the man earns a living by telling horror stories to pump up adrenalin and righteous outrage in true believers. What's striking is that neither the man nor his audience seems to see how over-the-top the rant is: everything's corrupt, on all sides people want to wipe out you and your power grid. Huff puff pant pant pant.

Oh, and how self-important. We're so special that everybody hates "us," "our" power grid, "our" society. Luckily. with all the guns we want, we'll be the special heroes who will save us all. It's like the deputy in an old cowboy melodrama crying "Mount up, boys. The sheriff's gittin' up a posse."

I call this berserk style, because it makes radical fear and rage so familiar it encourages trigger-happy accidents. It also invites copycats, like rampage killers, who convince themselves they're avenging wrongs and saving the world—or annihilating a rotten world—with a more sensational death toll than the last berserker. A close look shows you that most rampage killers are well aware they're competing to command the world's attention.  Just as terrorists do.

This sort of speech is really an emotional workout. Pump up a little sweat and potency. The people on the treadmill next to you aren't terrorists, they're "responsible gun-owners" who can impulsively kill people ringing their doorbell after dark, or blow away black teenagers playing loud music at a stoplight. Seductive laws invite you into the gym, coaching you to "stand your ground" and get up some muscle and hair-trigger reflexes. And the gym keeps you repeating the drill over and over until the commands are natural habits and you don't have to waste energy thinking about them.

The physiology is clear: in a panic, one reaction is to turn flight into fight. After all, that's exactly what rant broadcasters do every day for depressed and anxious listeners. Better to feel pumped up than bored and depressed. It's a morale massage. The problem is, enemies get stale. The pitchman has to keep the message intoxicating to keep spirits and adrenalin up. Give a man an enemy, and he'll be thrilled today; teach a man to hate a world of enemies and he"ll feel good until doomsday and send you money.

This is a mild form of the crowd hysteria that used to culminate in regular lynchings in the south from the end of slavery till the 1950s. Excited lynch mobs targeted black males whose supposed sexual threat would pollute and potentially extinguish the white race. Crowds tortured and killed scapegoat blacks in atrocious ways, cutting off body parts for souvenirs, evoking a fad for postcard mementos (I kid you not). Like the crowds attending public executions, lynch mobs enjoyed the adrenalin high of witnessing righteous killing and enjoying their own escape from death.

Gun mania is inflammatory. It has no logical end. How much is enough? Give us "all the rifles, shotguns, and handguns we want." Just one weapon won't do. Why? Because the group fantasy is now so self-intoxicating that threats are everywhere, and preaching about it wins the applause of the faithful. And you are the target: you who would defend your kids and all of civilization from monsters, as the Messiah would do.

Pass me that there musket, Agnes, or they'll "collapse our society" and kill us all.

Nah.

  

Resources used in this essay:

Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil

Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power

Kirby Farrell: Berserk Style in American Culture

Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence

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

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