Patriotism v. Paranoia

This post is a followup to the last post on Patriotism v. Nationalism, in which I argue that the hard-core Right is not patriotic, but nationalistic.

Saturday at Huffington Post, EJ Eskow posted “Shot Through the Heart and You’re to Blame: Conservatism as Psychopathology.” Eskow disagrees with Glenn Greenwald that our current “conservatism” is a Bush personality cult.

I think the truth is simpler and sicker than that. People don’t slavishly obey and follow every whim of Messrs. Bush (and now Cheney) because they revere them. They do it for a more basic reason: They’ve got the candy.

Bush, Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld … they’re Mafia bosses doling out the largesse in return for unquestioned fealty. And today’s so-called “conservatives” respond in kind. Will Roger Ailes get more exclusive interviews if he peddles the daily GOP lies and spins? As you wish, Godfather. Will Arnold Schwarzenegger become Governor if he pumps for Bush at the convention? Thank you, Don Karl. Will “Straight Talkin'” John McCain be rewarded with a chance to run in 2008 if he forgets what they did to his wife and kid? It’ good to kiss the ring again, Mr. President. Let me hug you.

Everything conservatism used to stand for, from fiscal restraint to obeying the law to good manners, is being turned on its head by the Bush Regime. And the faithful love them for it. Eskow writes,

Wrecking the country’s finances. Trashing civil discourse. Law breaking. Ruining the earth itself for our grandchildren. That’s some sick s**t. Now, we have the sight of Mr. Whittington — by all accounts a good and decent man — being forced to crawl on broken glass to stay in the club. Hey, too bad about Harry — but business is business.

But now to the psychopathology — Eskow points out that the recent shooting incident (“Get loaded, shoot a guy in the face, tell the world it’s his fault, then make him crawl.”) is illustrative of antisocial personality disorder as defined by the DSM psychiatric manual. Well, yes; Bush, Cheney, and the rest of the top officials of the Bush Administration could fill the Personality Disorder Hall of Fame. But does “they’ve got the candy” really account for Bush’s following among the people of the U.S.? It might explain why other Republican politicians kowtow to the Bushies, but it doesn’t explain Bush devotion among the hoi polloi.

According to some guys at Berkeley, 50 years of research literature reveal these common psychological factors linked to political conservatism:

* Fear and aggression
* Dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity
* Uncertainty avoidance
* Need for cognitive closure
* Terror management

Fear, aggression, avoidance, terror. As Glenn Greenwald wrote,

When all else fails, what we end up hearing from Bush supporters, usually in quite strained and urgent tones, is that we have no real choice but to consent to the latest item of controversy on the Bush agenda (which now even includes allowing the President to break the law when he decides that our protection requires that), because if we do not, we will all die violent and horrible deaths at the hands of the powerful Islamic terrorists. Our very survival is at risk — the people who want to kill us all are coming — and given our dire state, anything and everything is justified to stop them.

I think righties are genuinely baffled when they find others who aren’t as afraid as they are and who aren’t being driven by fear. Like, for example, lefties. They assume we are innocents who don’t understand how dangerous the world is. And I think they’re unhinged. Yes, terrorism is frightening. Terrorists can knock down buildings and kill people. But terrorists can’t destroy America. There aren’t enough terrorists with enough weapons in the world to invade and occupy America. Terrorists can’t destroy the Constitution or cancel our civil liberties. Only we can do that. And fear is driving the more unhinged elements of the Right into doing exactly that.

In “Bush and the Cultivation of Fear” I argued that support for George W. Bush is built on fear. Even neocon-ism, which on the surface appears to be all about self-confidence and dominance and spreading American hegemony, is an ideology born of fear. I see neoconservatism as proactive isolationism. Foreigners scare us, so we’ll make them be more like us so they’re not so scary.

Relating this to the last post on nationalism — I see nationalism and fundamentalism and most other right-wing isms as essentially driven by fear. In the past century or so our species, worldwide, has undergone some seismic social shifts. People no longer remain neatly sorted by skin color, language, and cultural history. All over the globe people of diverse ethnic and social backgrounds are having to learn to live together. Once upon a time “foreign” places were far, far away. But air travel has brought them closer in terms of travel time; now every foreign place on the globe is just over the horizon. Soon foreigners will be sitting in our laps.

I think nationalism arose and became dominant in the 20th century largely because of these seismic social shifts. People who can’t handle the shifts retreat into nationalism as a defense.

This is from something I wrote in December 2003:

I’ve observed my whole life how Americans can be frightened into stampeding off cliffs. Fear of Communism gave birth to McCarthyism, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the War in Vietnam. Today the Republicans are using fears of terrorism, foreigners, ethnic minorities, and various aspects of sexuality to keep the serfs in line.

Consider also the Religious Right. In her magnificent book The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism, Karen Armstrong demonstrates that fundamentalism arose in response to modernity, especially to scientific rationalism. “Fear is at the heart of fundamentalism,” she writes. “The fear of losing yourself.” This is true of Islamic fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden as well as our homegrown types. Liberals cherish tolerance, democracy, pluralism, and civil liberties; fundamentalists fear these values as weapons of (their) annihilation.

    It is important to recognize that these theologies and ideologies are rooted in fear. The desire to define doctrines, erect barriers, establish borders, and segregate the faithful in a sacred enclave where the law is stringently observed springs from that terror of extinction which has made all fundamentalists, at once time or another, believe that the secularists were about to wipe them out. The modern world, which seems so exciting to a liberal, seems Godless, drained of meaning and even satanic to a fundamentalist. [Armstrong, The Battle for God (Ballantine, 2000), p. 368]

I postulate that existential fear is at the heart of most “isms.” And although there’s no objective measure of angst that I know of, the world may seem scarier to We, the People, than it used to, and not just because of terrorism. Collectively, our props are falling away. Compared to fifty years ago (as far back as I can remember), communities are fragmented, families are scattered, jobs are ephemeral. Across rural and small-town America, communities that were once homogeneous are becoming multiracial and multiethnic. “Givens” about God and Man and Sex and other big issues are being openly challenged.

Thus, fearful voters can be incited into voting against their own self-interests by the terrifying specter of gay people getting married.

If you understand the fear issue, then what I call Erin’s Paradox (named for my daughter because she noticed it, not because she has it) becomes more understandable. Erin’s Paradox says that the further away Americans live from any likely terrorist target, the more fearful they are of terrorism. “Likely terrorist targets” are urban, and city dwellers learn to be comfortable with multiculturalism. If you live in some homogeneous little town out on the prairie, however, it’s more likely you are not comfortable with multiculturalism at all. Thus, dusky Islamic terrorists from unfathomable foreign places scare the stuffing out of them, much more so than the potential Timothy McVeigh wannabee next door.

Bottom line: When you are looking at a rightie you are looking at a nationalist; and when you are looking at a nationalist you are looking at someone who has already surrendered to fear. The terrorists have got ’em right where they want ’em — terrorized.

Later I want to tie this in to hate speech from the Right, but I think I’ve gone on long enough for now.

27 thoughts on “Patriotism v. Paranoia

  1. Dear Barbara,

    You are doing a terrific job tying those ends together. Great read, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

  2. Props to Erin. She is SO right. Multi-culturalism is much more frightening to those who aren’t immersed in it. Further, familiarity not only breeds contempt (really?), but it breeds comfort. When your next door neighbor is black, jewish, gay or whatever, you usually realise they are just like you.

  3. If you read a description of a sociopath, George Bush — or those who control him — fits it to a tee. He — or those who control him — has no conscience. He accepts no responsibility. He keeps the goal post moving, and manipulates with fear. There was an article in the NY Times yesterday about a program training school bus drivers to be alert to terrorists. Do we really need to be worrying about terrorists in Columbus, Ohio kidnapping a bus full of children going to school? Contrary to common belief, there is not a terrorist lerking behind every boulder. But, it is the constant reminder that produces Bush worship, manipulation by the most powerful sociopath in the world.

    Your posts are thoughtful and on point. Keep up the good work.

  4. thank you, thank you for so well stating the obvious. I have noticed for a long time that fear drives us, in the small ways, in our personal relationships, and it is helpful to recognize the pattern from the small to the large, i.e. our personal struggles with abusive use of ‘power’ and the similar subjugation evidenced in our collective body politic, both in this country, and universally.

    I am concerned with solution, with ways to heal, with how to correct, in a personal way first, then at a larger scale, the detrimental effects of terrorism as perpetrated by those driven by fear, and their attempts to externalize the source of the fear, resulting in the ruin of others.

    I grew up in a ‘bad’ neighborhood, in NYC, and thanks to the influence of some enlightened analysis, early on learned to recognize and navigate the local politics of fear. I was able to see thru the bully tactics of the local punks, the police, the school authorities, the social service agencies and the social groups, the ‘cliques’, that every schoolchild knows so well. I was not able to always avoid getting slammed, but I always saw the fear in my opponents heart.

    We all actually, at some level, know this – sports, culture, familiy relationships, and now the large scale of our collective dysfunction has brought this heartbreaking crisis to the surface. It is actually a great opportunity for those who are not fearful to step up, and you are certainly doing your part.

    Thank you.

  5. There’s an interesting program on C-SPAN now. The subject is Presidential Authority and NSA Survelliance. The program is a panel discussion. It is a special program in observance of President’s Day.

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  7. Maha, thanks for inspiring us and for providing this much needed forum! Erin’s insight was right on the nose. It’s human nature, isn’t it?

    “Foreigners scare us, so we’ll make them be more like us so they’re not so scary.” Isn’t this “The American Way”? That’s why we want to be a “melting pot,” isn’t it? That’s why this makes us feel all cozy and warm. I think that this is what the Soviet Union’s absorption of other cultures was all about, too. “If you’re like us, we can trust you.” But I never understood this element of our national psyche quite so clearly before – that fear has such a bearing on it.
    And yet, I suspect it has an evolutionary source, don’t you think? Look at the trouble France is having with its “separated” national populations.
    And our troubles with racial equality stemmed from so many Americans being dishonest about wanting to include all the races in our “melting pot.” Again, because of fear. It’s a constant tightrope we walk. Stay over there, we don’t know you. You’re over there, so you’re a threat. We’re still biological animals after all.

    Fascinating program on C-SPAN, Britwit. Thanks for mentioning it! Real adults were discussing the issue! (They are repeating the program tonight, they just said) Bush was on CNN now talking about…”we’re addicted to oil” again.

    And Jim, in the last post – Eric Hoffer opened my eyes thirty years ago and I was never the same again.

    Voice from the hills, I’d like to hear more of your insights.

  8. samiam – re: Comment no 8. I was just logging on to advise that the C-SPAN1 program is going to be repeated tonight and I see that you already posted. I believe that the time is 9:00 PM Eastern for those who want to watch. In my comment no 6, I called it a panel discussion but I must correct as C-SPAN is calling it a Town Hall.

    I thoroughly enjoyed also. I especially enjoyed John Dean’s comments as well as the Professor from Harvard.

  9. Ken Wilber has synthesized a model of moral development and consciousness from a number of traditions and schools of thought. He addresses the culture wars in terms of the characteristics of the premoderns, moderns and postmoderns.

    Premoderns tend to be traditional, conventional, ethnocentric, econocentric and mythically oriented. Moderns are rational, scientific and mental in orientation. Postmoderns are multicultural, egalitarian with diversity as an oritentation.

    Each of us, and each group, has a center of gravity, or baseline that expresses our predominant orientation. As the world and its people slowly moves away from the premodern as a center of its gravity those who find premodernism as a comfort zone become fearful, agitated and tend to see any movement away in terms of threat to self and social constructs.

    Each stage of development has its strengths and deficits and we all have to tread the early steps in order to reach where we are now.
    Premodern folks are fear based in this regard and I think are first baffled and then outraged that others don’t see THE THREAT. How many times have I had Neville Chamberlin (“peace in our time (with brother Adolph) thrown in my face as I am dismissed as niave and gullible.

  10. Those ‘common psychological factors’ of conservatives looks similar in its core to the Umberto Eco’s “Eternal Fascism:
    Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt”.

    The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition.

    Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism.

    Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake.

    To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country.

    Like Huey Long said, when fascism comes to the U.S., it will be disguised as good old fashioned Americanism.

    Wave that flag and tell those evil doers to bring it on.

    Evil doers. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to think of that phrase and not want to wretch.

  11. Maha, when you were scouting through Bartlett’s quotations the other day, did you notice if the Reverend Jim Jones was quoted?

    ” They’re coming, they’re coming with flamethrowers, drink your Kool-aid!”

  12. “…When you are looking at a rightie…you are looking at someone who has already surrendered to fear…”

    No. You are looking at a sadist, and it is not permissible to make excuses for that.

  13. Over 40,000 Americans were killed in automobile accidents in 2005. How many were killed by Islamofascists?
    If 40,000 Americans were killed by Islamofascists last year,
    we would be living under martial law!
    I want a war on reckless drivers!
    If people were as afraid of being killed on a highway by a reckless driver as some are of O’sama and co., there would be far less traffic, and our energy crisis would be lessened.
    Many people do not go swimming at Floridas’ beaches because they fear sharks. Automobiles kill and maim far more people than sharks, venomous reptiles, alligators, crocodiles, spiders,grizzly bears, lions, tigers, pitbulls, and serial killers worldwide.
    The armed forces of America and The U.K. have killed and maimed more people than all of the above combined since operation Shock ‘N awe began.

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  15. I’ve been saying the leaders of the repubs were psychopathic since researching the condition a couple years ago. True psychopaths are born not raised, 1% of the population is born without a conscience, totally lack empathy, are narcissistic and enjoy the sport of lying. Usually intelligent (OK that one doesn’t apply) they develop socially depending on how they are treated as children. Abused and molested they can be serial killers, with good nurturing they can become a ruthless CEO’s and politicians. It can be quite an advantage in certain positions to have no conscience, they baffle normal people, fool many forever, enjoy lying and don’t care if you know it. This is the first time I’ve seen anyone actually apply the term where it belongs. I’ve been thinking it, some have clearly described it but no one would say it. Half of all violent prisoners are psychopathic, all the serial killers and the President of the U.S. It explains everything. Do some research. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bush attempt to retain the presidency in ’08. Check it out…..the glove fits.

  16. Aw, I’m famous!

    I’d add also that terrorism is something that we city dwellers (New Yorkers in particular, but places like Oklahoma City, too, or any city that’s had to deal with riots or other sorts of calamity… Detroit, LA, New Orleans, and so on) have seen terrorism with our own eyes, so we know what it is and what horror it can wreak, but we also know that (collective) we can survive and get through it and cope and move on. People who live in rural areas don’t have those same experiences, so it becomes more intangible. The president gets on TV and tells you to be afraid, like it’s possible or even likely that a man in a turban will drive a 757 into your grain silo, and so you’re afraid because you have no alternate frame of reference.

    Fear of the unknown is also a factor; it’s the reason for people like Annie Jacobson. She wrote a series of columns and then a whole book on the time she saw a couple of brown men act strangely (to her sensibilities) on a plane and suddenly it’s the most frightening thing that’s ever happened to her, even though it turned out that air marshals were aboard the flight and that the men were Syrian musicians and, in point of fact, nothing happened and the plane landed safely.

    I’m wondering if terrorism is also an easier thing to be afraid of than, say, losing your job or having to pay for your father’s medical treatment when the insurance runs out. The latter are problems far more likely to be faced by the average American, so they’re real and tangible. Maybe it’s easier to be worried about the ingtangible. (I don’t know, I’m just postulating. I live in Manhattan, but personally, I’m more concerned with being able to pay my rent next month than I am with terrorism. Besides, the Bush administration has made it pretty clear to New Yorkers that it cares far less about actually fighting terrorism than it does with getting reelected.)

  17. re: fear, power and some thoughts on the abiding human need to belong –

    which means, that practically speaking, someone must ‘not belong’ – we need to exclude the ‘others’ to help define ourselves. That is,until we create the space within ourselves for the realization that we are the others.

    Viewed in terms of human relationships, fear and power are always in play. Parents to children, bosses to workers, men to women, spouses to spouses, elders to youth, sophisticated to provincial, rich to poor, and the local bi-polar distinctions of left to right, and the global dis-parity between ‘democracy’ and ‘not democracy’. So many words. We have the skills to know when we are being lied to, but sometimes we don’t have the courage to look at why. We humans have lived for eons in Fear, and we don’t even consider it an abnormal state anymore.

    Empathy, as a tool for survival, has been an effective tool for me, in surviving, opposing and transforming conflict and fear in my own life. It is entirely possible to stand up for yourself without beating someone else down, but the bullies have taken the low road, and few are providing examples of anything else, for use in the current political arena.

    Fear disconnects us from our imagination. Fear drives us into emotional dead-ends. The use of fear to control others is an ancient and primitive tool, and among folks who can examine their own lives honestly, it is clearly recognized as the tool of the coward. Fear creates a vacuum which is filled with anger at that which has caused our fear. Without processing, this anger feeds itself…we take the easy way out – we can say, with rightous indignation, ‘he hit me first!’ and justify the retaliation, not with justice, which requires reason and compassion, but with vengence, which feeds on emotion.

    There’s always a duality…I am myself, but I have the human capacity, using raw imagination, to relate to what is not myself. If I am being attacked by someone, instinct provides me the action to defend myself, but imagination asks ‘why is this person doing this…to me?’ which can, if the thought is allowed to mature, lead us to interesting, but not always comfortable, self awareness.

    In the 60’s, we had this phrase -‘consciousness raising.’ As a side effect of the political turmoil in this country at that time, many, many people fueled the normal individuation instincts of youth with mind-expanding drugs and collective shredding of traditions – sex, marriage, civil rights, world peace, activism, the draft, the military-industrial-complex – all these ‘big’ ideas were collectively being thought about and acted on in a short amount of time, by a huge number of people, creating a critical mass, with great force and substantial results.

    If we are no longer willing, as we did in the 60’s, to endure minor personal discomfort in the interests of collective (not just american, but human) benefits, some would say we are doomed, but we have some help.

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

    The re-evolution is on. Out with the King. Thanks for listening.

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