Fear and anger can be invigorating, even intoxicating. It’s worth thinking about why.
For all too many men — and let’s face it, the vast majority of violence, personal and political, originates with men — the strong, stoic, squinty ideal of masculinity means that whole ranges of emotional experience simply go unacknowledged, unnamed, and unprocessed.
Some boys are purposefully taught to be ashamed of any hint of vulnerability. They’re taught that empathy is a sign of weakness. Their affect is actively suppressed. This comes from repressed, repressive fathers who themselves had repressed, repressive fathers, and so on back through a genealogy of domination and displacement.
More commonly, though, boys simply aren’t taught or encouraged to discuss their feelings. Even well-meaning parents can buy into the myth that boys aren’t as "sensitive" as girls, and of course this myth is encouraged in a thousand ways by our culture. (When I found out I was having a boy, I read a ton of material on this stuff. See, e.g., Real Boys by William Pollack.)
By commission or omission, the result is the same: emotional illiteracy.
Language, however, is the primary tool by which the brain — specifically the perisylvian area of the left hemispheric cortex — makes sense of the Babel of hormones coursing through the endocrine system. It fits our experiences into conceptual categories, enabling us to reason and to modulate our responses. Without language — without words with which to name and order our feelings — what’s left is a subconscious stew that bubbles up dimly understood impulses and urges.
Just as the written word can cause the illiterate to experience frustration and self-loathing, emotional ambiguity or complexity can do the same for the emotionally illiterate. An emotionally illiterate person in a situation with multiple conflicting interests, motivations, and attitudes will feel like someone in a room filled with foreign-language speakers. It can be disorienting, even maddening.
In the face of that confusion, the crystalline clarity of fight or flight can be a relief. It puts everything into two easily identifiable boxes: friend or foe. It calls forth the most primal qualities: strength and weakness. It’s something everyone understands at the most primal level. For that reason, though no one would say so consciously, many people seek it out and welcome it when it arrives.
This impulse is obvious when it’s a meathead in a bar, but the same dynamic is at work in politics. Emotional illiteracy will always tend to yield a Manichean worldview (or, in the Bushies’ debased language, "moral clarity"), with Good Guys and Bad Guys and nothing else. There will always be leaders willing to manipulate that worldview to gain political power.
Take the geopolitical situation in the Middle East. It’s extraordinarily complex, with overlapping tribal rivalries that date back centuries, overlaid with a charged history of colonialism. And while we have obvious energy interests in the region, the direct danger to Americans from scattered groups of disaffected jihadists is, while not negligible, hardly existential.
Yet Bush and the neoconservatives have always sought to cast America’s latest intervention there as a face off between good and evil, the civilized and "the terrorists." To them, it is a zero-sum struggle against a fearsome foe that hates freedom and life itself. Their supporters want it to be that kind of struggle, because in that kind of struggle, only strength and weakness matter, only fight or flight ("stay the course" or "cut and run," as the phrases of the moment have it). Just listen to Joe Lieberman:
"I’m worried that too many people, both in politics and out, don’t appreciate the seriousness of the threat to American security and the evil of the enemy that faces us," … He called that threat "more evil, or as evil, as Nazism and probably more dangerous than the Soviet Communists we fought during the long cold war."
(Oh, how the hawks miss the Cold War. Now that was the kind of Manichean battle they could really sink their demagoguery into! Why, it’s enough to make Sen. James Inhofe "wistful.")
But note that this "enemy" is never clearly defined. Nor is the concrete nature of the threat ever spelled out. It’s all just vague, looming danger. Indeed, any attempt to complicate this picture, even to the minimal extent of acknowledging that there is a factional civil war being waged in Iraq, is attacked quickly and viciously by Bush’s media courtesans.
Anyone who expresses anything but the most full-throated fealty to the absurdly dubbed "war on terrorism" is branded a traitor or an "appeaser" — both of which amount to the same thing: a weakling, someone who’s chosen flight over fight. This simple appeal to fear and anger has carried Bush and his Congressional majorities to multiple electoral victories, and may yet carry them to another in November.
It’s difficult, in the thick of things, to look past the details of this or that particular terrorist plot or threat alert or political attack. But it’s important to see that there’s a pattern at work; there has been for a while now, well before Bush came on the scene. As The Power of Nightmares argues, the political elites have suffered a loss of credibility and ideas over the last 40 or 50 years, and in the absence of new ideas or inspiration, they have turned to fear to retain power.
Right now, we are on something of a cusp. The cycle of fear and violence threatens to send the U.S. into Iran, a move that could easily trigger a cascade of events pulling us into a world-wide conflagration. (Once again, politicians on the right are leaning on the intelligence community to hype the threat; once again, the neocons are beating the drums of war; once again, according to Kathryn Jean Lopez, "NRO readers seem to be increasingly itching to bomb Iran.") We continue to stand by as Bush seeks ever greater unchecked executive power, at the expense of the Bill of Rights.
Meanwhile, in the background, serious energy shortages creep ever closer, the earth’s climate continues to accumulate excess heat energy, and our fellow species disappear at an unfathomable rate.
Which direction will we take from this point? And how can we influence it? More on that next post.