For the last few weeks I’ve been making my way through the dense prose of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, the most important work to come out of the existentialist school of philosophy. Why? Partly for no better reason than that a cheap paperback copy happened to turn up in the philosophy section of a used book store I frequent; partly because, just as dogs like to chew on big hard bones, I like to get my jaws around equally tough and toothsome lumps of philosophy from time to time, and Sartre’s 812-page tome promised many hours of pleasant gnawing. Still, there’s another factor, which is that my previous forays into Sartre suggested that he had something extremely useful to say about one of the most prevalent (and thus inevitably one of the most unmentionable) features of our time.
As I’ve discovered, he does indeed have something useful to say about the thing I have in mind, though it takes some teasing out. Let’s take it a step at a time. Discarding the baroque obscurities of the vocabulary he learned from Husserl and Heidegger, this is some of what he was trying to point out:
When we look around ourselves, we confront a world full of things that simply are what they are. This cup is a cup, this table a table, this pen a pen, full stop, end of sentence. We can learn to see those things as something other than they are—for example, if we study physics, we may convince ourselves that cup, table, and pen are in reality complicated patterrns of stresses in four-dimensional spacetime, or what have you—but that requires us to insert reflective thought between ourselves and the world. What confronts us when we face the world bare, without reflection, is a world of things that are what they are.
The one thing you experience that can’t be described that way, Sartre points out, is yourself. Ask yourself “What am I?” Nearly all the answers you can come up with, when they don’t simply refer to external circumstances of environment and heredity, are descriptions of choices you have made in the past, and you could choose something else a second from now and make any of the answers obsolete.
If I say, for example, “I am an American,” or “I am a moderate Burkean conservative,” or “I am a Druid,” or “I am a writer,” those don’t define me the way it defines a rock to say that it’s a rock. The rock will still be a rock an hour from now, unless some outside force intervenes, but in that same hour I could up and decide to emigrate to Ireland, embrace democratic socialism, become a Buddhist, and pursue a new career as a potter. I won’t, but I could, and nothing but my own decision to keep making the same choices I’ve made earlier in my life stands in the way of those or even more drastic transformations.
When you think about that—and Sartre, of course, spent a lot of time thinking about it—that’s an excruciatingly uncomfortable thing to have to deal with. You can never just be something; at each moment, whether you admit this to yourself or not, you have to choose to keep being what you’ve chosen to be. Your freedom surrounds you like an empty space, separating you from a world of things that don’t have that insecurity to cope with, reminding you at every moment that nothing but your own will makes you keep on choosing what you’ve chosen in the past. That’s not too difficult if you’re entirely happy with the self you’ve chosen to be, but how many of us can honestly say that that’s true of ourselves?
What’s more, if you go looking for some essence you can call your own, some permanent identity that is neither a choice you keep making or part of the world of things on the other side of the empty space defined by your freedom, you won’t find one, other than the bare fact of your existence. Existence precedes essence: that’s the core formula of existentialism, and it neatly sums up the challenge we all face as human beings. What you are, at the core of yourself, is that empty space of freedom, that moment-by-moment choice to keep living the live you’ve chosen or to do something else instead. Look into that steadily and you’ll feel the vertigo of the abyss.
Thus, as Sartre pointed out, one of the great longings most people have is the desire to be something the way a rock is a rock, to get out from under the terrifying burden of freedom that’s hardwired into human consciousness. People use religion, politics, ethnicity, gender, and a vast array of other things as resources in that attempt to flee from their own freedom, to convince themselves that they are what they are and aren’t responsible for the choices that have made them what they’ve chosen to be. Sartre’s term for this cascade of evasions is as simple as it is useful: “bad faith.”
The essence of bad faith is the habit of claiming some enduring identity that doesn’t depend on the accidents of circumstance or the free and constantly repeated choices of the self. Normally, since the lure of bad faith is strongest to those who are most dissatisfied with what they are but don’t have the courage to embrace their freedom and change it, the supposed identity people choose in an act of bad faith is usually very, very far from the identity they’ve defined by their past choices and actions. Seen in isolation, as a mere verbal abstraction, that seems harmless enough, but there’s a catch. It’s a curious fact of history that the deeper people get into bad faith, the more likely they are to commit atrocities. There’s a reason for that propensity, too, and understanding it will take us a good step closer to the unmentionable realities of our time.
Sartre was a veteran of the French Resistance during the Second World War, and so it’s not surprising that he discussed at length in some of his writing the role that bad faith played in the delusional racial politics of the Nazis. At the heart of the Nazi worldview was the insistence that “being an Aryan” was more than a mistaken identification with a piece of outdated philology borrowed by a crowd of insecure bigots, that “being a German” was more than an accident of the political history that landed certain places and people under one government rather than another, and inside some arbitrary set of borders. No, the Nazis insisted, “being an Aryan” and “being a German” defined them as Übermenschen, superior human beings uniquely blessed with a special destiny in the world, not to mention the right to trample anyone who got in the way.
That was the lure that the Nazi movement offered: the chance to shed the burden of individual freedom and become a thing. More to the point, that’s what the Nazi movement claimed to be able to offer, and that its followers claimed to get from it. In theory, and only in theory, you don’t have to settle for being Hans Schultz, stuck in a dead-end job and a failing marriage—and “stuck,” of course, only because you aren’t willing to face up to the fact that you can change things in a galaxy of ways, from changing your attitude toward life to catching a train across the Alps to Italy and never looking back. No, without having to take responsibility for your own choices and your own freedom, you can be Hans Schultz, German, Aryan, Übermensch, member of the National Socialist Movement—a thing among things, supplied with a nice shiny identity you can use to hide from the dizzying void of bare existence.
There are two difficulties with that superficially appealing choice. The first is that the identity you claim in the service of bad faith doesn’t do the velveteen rabbit trick and become real, just because you say it does. Quite the contrary; bad faith always undercuts itself. As you deny something about yourself that happens to be true, you have to keep one eye surreptitiously fixed on the thing you’re denying about yourself, so you can deny it in detail, and of course that means that the more frantically you deny the thing you’re denying, the more obsessively you have to attend to the thing you’re denying. So you never actually get away from the thing that you’re denying; the harder you try to pull free from it, the tighter it clings to you.
Making sense of the second difficulty requires us to take another step along the path we’re tracing. To whom are you so loudly denying this thing you deny about yourself? Not to yourself; to yourself you’re simply not noticing the thing that you are, and not noticing the act of avoidance you’re using not to notice the thing that you are, and these are among the things you can do with your freedom. The problem is that you’re not all by yourself. Cups and tables and pens aren’t problematic in this regard; they are what they are, which means among other things they don’t regard you, and they don’t react to your bad faith; you can write reams of dishonesty about yourself, sipping coffee all the while, and the cup, the table, and the pen can be counted on not to look over your shoulder, read what you’ve written, and tell you that you’re shoveling smoke.
Other people are the problem. Other people regard you. Other people perceive you, and you have no control over how they see you. Just as your freedom gives you the capacity to see the people around you in whatever terms you choose, however wildly delusional those might happen to be, their freedom gives them the same right to do exactly the same thing to you. If you’re facing your life and your world with a clear grasp of your own freedom, and aren’t committed to the attempt to pretend you’re not something that you are, that’s not so big a deal. If you’re mired in bad faith, though, the gaze that other people turn on you becomes—in the most literal sense—an existential threat: their freedom is, among other things, the freedom to see you as you are, rather than as your bad faith leads you to try to convince other people you are.
This is especially crushing to the Hans Schultzes of the world, the people who try to hide from the vertiginous freedom of bare existence behind some ready-made collective identity or other. As we’ve already seen, the imaginary identity embraced by an individual in an act of bad faith is normally very far from the identity embodied by that same individual’s past and present choices and actions. Mass movements such as Nazism claim to be able to erase that difference, but that’s simply another round of bad faith. Hans Schultz can insist to himself, to his fellow Nazis, and to everyone else that he really is the square-jawed, iron-willed scion of the Herrenvolk he wants to convince the world that he is, but the more loudly he proclaims this, the more haunted he will be by the fear that everyone else in the world actually sees him as Sergeant Schultz from the vintage television show Hogan’s Heroes—not least because down below all the pretense and bellowing rhetoric, he knows that they’re right.
There are various responses to the crisis of bad faith, but one in particular seems to draw the Hans Schultzes of the world the way a picnic draws ants. (As far as I know, Sartre didn’t discuss this response in so many words—I’m still gnawing on the bone in question, so can’t be quite sure—but it follows directly from the points he does make.) Since your freedom includes the freedom to see other people in whatever terms you choose, however delusional those may be, you can choose to see them as you know yourself to be. It’s a less honest version of the same reasoning children use when they respond to another child’s taunting with the chant “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, what you say is what you are!”
If you’re committed to bad faith, that’s a hugely tempting option. You can take the sum total of your choices and actions, the self you’ve made, and attribute it to the other person. These things you dislike so much about yourself, they’re not your characteristics at all—no, no, they belong to that other person over there, the one you can then spend all your time hating.
The results make for high comedy if you don’t mind the body count. In the case of the Nazis, again, it so happens that if you take the standard caricature of Jews from Nazi propaganda, what you get is a remarkably clear description of your common or garden variety Nazi. The insistence that Jews want to take over the world, that they think that all other nations and peoples ought to be subservient to them, that they spew lies through the mass media, and so on through the whole dreary litany, not to mention the physical caricature of the dark-haired, pasty-faced, stoop-shouldered, physically unimpressive urbanite—why, good morning, Herr Hitler! We were just talking about you.
So that’s a very common way for bad faith to work out: first, the shrill insistence that the person over there has all the unwelcome characteristics you don’t want to recognize in yourself; thereafter, a torrent of hatred ostensibly directed at the person over there. That hatred can never be satisfied, not even by the mass extermination of the person over there and everyone who resembles him, because the person over there is only filling in for the actual target of the hatred. His own face has been erased, so that he can serve as an unacknowledged mirror in which the haters can see their own despised reflections.
With that in mind, we can turn to the present day here in America. It so happens that a very specific and, to the historically literate, highly familiar kind of bad faith is endemic to certain classes in today’s United States. Despite the massive shifts in military and economic power that made the US, however temporarily, the world’s dominant nation, in cultural terms the US remains a colony of Europe—a point I’ll be discussing in some detail in a later post. As usual for colonies—Arnold Toynbee discusses this at quite some length—its educated classes clutch at a set of ersatz identities borrowed from the colonizing culture, and cultivate contempt for the mere “natives” who don’t aspire to those borrowed identities; that’s why some facility with European cultural forms remains de rigueur for much of the bicoastal intelligentsia, and why a shrill disdain for American folk culture and American identities is even more enthusiastically cultivated among these same strata.
As Toynbee points out trenchantly, the difficulty here is that the privileged intelligentsia of a colonized society falls between two stools. Having alienated itself from the members of its own culture, it never really manages to become part of any other. If you, dear reader, happen to belong to the privileged intelligentsia of the US, you know what I’m talking about. You may fancy yourself suave and cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world, and frantically try to distance yourself from any connection with those beer-swilling, pot-bellied, NASCAR-watching buffoons your imagination conjures up when you think the word “American”…but if you sit down and talk to an Italian or a Russian or an Iranian or an Angolan or anybody else from any other part of the world, you know, and I know, and they know, that in the irreducible freedom of their regard, they look at you, and they think “American.”
What’s more, they’re right. It really is as simple as that.
And what do they think when that word crosses their mind? It varies from person to person, from culture to culture, from nation to nation, and doubtless across many other sets of variables as well. It so happens, though, that I’ve listened often enough to people from other societies as they shake their heads in disbelief about what we Americans have gotten up to this time, and read enough accounts (in several languages) of their reactions to us and to our society, that I think I can sketch out a very rough general outline. What are we in their eyes, in the irreducible freedom of their regard?
You know the answer as well as I do, dear reader. We’re loud, brash, coarse, rude, vulgar, and of course one must not forget loud. We’re crass, clueless, blustering, and hamfisted, without the least trace of subtlety, sensitivity, or tact—oh, and did I mention that we’re loud? We blunder through the world with a stunning degree of naïveté, missing every nuance, flattening the intricacies of the world into a set of simplistic notions that would be embarrassingly crude in stories meant for the nursery—and worst of all, despite all the vices and follies I’ve just enumerated, we’re successful. Insufferably, infuriatingly, incomprehensibly successful.
That is to say, what people in other countries see when they look at Americans is precisely what you see when you look at Donald Trump.
There are certainly plenty of valid reasons why Americans might reasonably oppose Trump’s policies and want to vote him out of office. There are doubtless at least some valid reasons to dislike him as a person. What’s more, raucous criticism of our elected officials is an important if unofficial part of our political process here in the United States, one of the little ritual acts we use to try to remind our leaders that they are after all citizens like the rest of us, and have their current positions only because we gave those to them. Yet I’d like to suggest that a significant part of the shrieking rage and hatred that’s been flung at Trump since his election, and especially the odd note of shrill self-pity that pervades so much of it, goes far beyond that.
Has Trump said and done things that many Americans dislike and oppose? Of course—but it’s easy to show that plenty of other presidential administrations in the last half century, including some on the Democratic side of the aisle, have done far more of these same things, and not come in for anything like the same degree of venom. Thus I’ve come to think that what infuriates a great many of Trump’s most frantic opponents more than anything else is simply that he takes a thing about themselves that they find intolerable—their own cultural identity as Americans—and wallows in it. He is the walking, talking, appallingly hairstyled, gaudily orange-framed mirror in which all their attempts to act like sophisticated citizens of the world can be seen as the forced and artificial poses they are.
Starting two weeks from now, we’re going to take a hard look at the background I’ve sketched out very roughly in this post, at the schism that’s run through the heart of the American project since colonial times, and the way that schism has played out in the age of American empire. That may look like a departure from the theme of my recent posts here—the need for a new model of adult self-education as the academic industry prepares to crash and burn around us—but that’s only an appearance. One of the core purposes of education—from a certain perspective, the core purpose of education—is to become a conscious and reflective member of one’s own culture. To find appropriate roads to that end, we’re going to have to grapple with the future of American culture itself.
Where does this leave the American colonies? Would they be caught between the cultures of Europe, America, and their own? I’m also now considering if perhaps the fact that cultural, America is a colony explains why Americans usually can’t admit that they have an empire….
Inspired by the old ADR blog, I finally picked up some Toynbee. Got a copy at Powells here in Portland for a lot less than the amazon shock prices (some of the paperbacks go for $500, crikey!):
Opening essay is wonderful. I posted a bit here, might be of interest:
I found many of his discussions VERY interesting, and much more useful ways of looking at the problems of the modern world than pseudo-left / ‘liberal’ SJW-identitarian theories of blame/shame/guilt, etc.
‘splinters of technology’ changing the cultures that adopt them. Splinters insert themselves into the society and grow, until the society is transformed. Example: the sultan in Egypt who allowed a European naval base to bring their own doctors. Within a few years, the islamic taboo on male/female separation was collapsing, as people wanted their wives to have the best health care. A few years later the society was transformed.
‘cultural radiation’ (as opposed to appropriation), in which two cultural forces overlap one another, example being Greek culture (dominant at the Greek world’s core) creating an interference pattern when it encountered Asian culture.
‘herodianism vs. zealotry’ (the hobson’s choice facing colonised people). Which may be more on-topic for this thread: the choice to assume some of the features of the imperial invaders (Herod’s adoption of Roman systems) vs. Zealotry (the decision to remain pure and go down fighting as Glorious Martyrs of the Faith).
Of course, the zealot must eventually accept a splinter, just a teeny weeny splinter, if he is to survive, and those who do become herodians over time. ISIS/Daesh sprang to mind when reading this. Now there’s a group of people who fit ‘bad faith’ to a tee.
What response might you have for those who say that we are a spark of divinity? That the answer to “Who am I” is God?
I wonder if part of the desire to be something the way a rock is a rock is more like the desire to be something the way a dog is a dog instead. If you accept the views of reincarnation you’ve articulated earlier, then we’re used to being something without a great deal of freedom, relying on instincts instead.
Thanks for this interesting post, which I will read again. I thought of posting this link on the ‘Mountain Dulcimer’ post, but now that you say you’re going to continue the theme, I think the following article might be quite relevant: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2018/05/the-theology-of-foreign-policy
All the best,
From a druidic perspective then, is the emptiness of freedom the Persona we are choosing play from moment to moment and the pure existence that we actually are the One Life?
More on-topic re American culture — you’re spot on, by the way, that we are embarrassingly crass, loud, and up-to-now successful — your analysis really does help make sense of the over-the-top reactions to Trump I read and hear. (I kind of picture America historically as the unrefined new-money oil baron rubbing shoulders with European gentry at some posh Mediterranean resort and making everyone cringe with off-color jokes and loud belching at the table. Bring in the so-subtle-as-to-be-imperceptible cultures of Asia and we aren’t even in the same universe.)
JMG, you lay out the facts so accurately, honestly, and precisely, the ones no good ‘mericun wants to admit. I guess that is why you get (or give yourself) the “fringe” label. Still, it is brilliant nonetheless. Looking forward to where THIS leads.
Thanks for this great post!
Many Germans, on the left or liberal part of the spectrum, try to avoid being German at all costs, for example by saying they are more European than anything else. Living abroad has taught me that this is both impossible and absurd: I will always be a German to people from other countries, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Political identities have crystallized very fast and hard over the last few years in Brazil, as apparently in the USA: you are what you post on Facebook.
Good morning JMG,
Incredibly personally synchronistic post! Why, I have only to thumb through the recent pages of my journal to pick out contemplations of self as self vs. self as ____(insert thing/label/identity here), and past examples of my seeking the latter!
I appreciate the expansion of the topic into the same contemplation at a larger scale and look forward to the conversation.
(PS- related, sort of: As I prepare to take action to close off all the last doors to my former efforts to drown my freedom in an identity, I’m getting some seemingly out-of-the-blue attention from that direction, once even happening simultaneously with my booking a place for part of the work of “closing”! I’m taking it as a signal that I’m doing the right thing 🙂 )
Hello Mr. Greer,
I know this may be tangentially related to your post, but have you read American Nations by Colin Woodard? He argues that North American has 11 regional cultures.
I’ve only lived in the Southwest (southern California until I was 25, southern Arizona until I was 30) and in the Lower Midwest (currently in southern Indiana). When I moved to Arizona, I had to get used to the terrain and the climate, but I noticed nothing really all that different with the people, regardless of their race/ethnicity. It wasn’t until I moved to the Midwest that people in general started to seem… different. Both white and black people behaved differently compared to how they’d behave in the Southwest, often in ways that are had to articulate.
According to Woodard, the parts of California and Arizona that I grew up and lived in are both part of “El Norte,” a regional culture with a strong Mexican/Hispanic influence. This would explain why I didn’t notice any real differences between the peoples: they’re essential the same culture. The part of Indiana I live in now is part of “Greater Appalachia,” a regional culture with strong (if I recall correctly) Scotish, Irish and Northern English influence.
How does this fit into today’s post? It seems to me that these cultural elites are more disdainful of regional cultures that they might have more in common with (“Greater Appalachia”) than those that they do not (“El Norte”),
JMG, you’ve certainly laid the groundwork for upcoming posts with a very consistent train of thought concerning the present conflicts, and how “bad faith” manifests itself in poor behavior. One of many things I’ve taken away from your last decade of posts is that blaming others for society’s ills is energy wasted, and that the old proverb of “three fingers pointed back at you” makes much more sense.
I’m not sure where the philosophy and inward reflection ends, and the external manipulation begins, but your example of Hans Shultz and identity certainly paints the dangers of 1930s Germany being all around us again. And I couldn’t agree more that venom directed toward the so-called “left” and “right” sides of the aisle is based, in at least a significant portion, upon a deep down inability to process and correct our own hypocrisies and weakness of character.
Becoming a conscious and reflective American as the Long Descent continues will be a challenge. A never-ending challenge, at least in my case.
This post covers a huge area, from the highest peaks of philosophy to the Death Valley of politics. I find myself in disagreement with a lot of what you say so I eagerly await the next posts on this topic!
In the meantime, can you point me to any book/article about free will? As far as I can tell, less and less people believe we actually have it – see for example https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/#3.3. The only way I can imagine it is through conscious control of the collapse of the wavefunction, but that is just a “God of the gaps” argument because we don’t know how quantum collapse actually works.
About Sartre – if we start from evolutionary principles we can see that we define ourselves in terms of other people and society. People that are part of a tight society or live like lone monks have no need of identity. The problem starts appearing when the individual and the gregarious pull opposite directions.
One more note about the nazis – people wrote many many pages investigating the psychological and sociological roots of that phenomenon. The risk here is that we forget that the capability for out-group demonization and mass-murder is intrinsic to our ape nature. The oldest examples I know are documented in the bible. What the nazis did was to add the industrial assembly-line efficiency to the horrible process.
Amen to all that. And I suppose encapsulated ironically in Sartre’s remark “l’enfer, c’est les autres.” I would only add that the business of projecting ones own despised persona onto another and then hurling enough abuse to drown out the self-loathing is not confined either to the coasts or their intellectuals. I have more than a few poorly educated and often financially strapped friends and acquaintances who think their problems stem from other working people and not from wealthy industries and individuals who quarantine vast swathes of the world’s money and resources and place them outside the reach of most of us. And if you want to hit a brick wall fast, try suggesting that they stop buying cheap gimcracks from Walmart or Amazon or Home Depot, all of whom have well-established records of abusing their employees. Donald Trump is definitely not the problem but the symptom. We’re all the problem, and until we all start facing that and embrace the big scary freedom to live differently, and on less, and to share, we’ll continue to manufacture our own hell.
I find it interesting that the caricature you describe is not only the stereotype of an American, but also bears a strong resemblance of the Southern stereotype of the Yankee. I heard more than a few of my fellow Texans say, “He’s nothing but a darned Yankee, but…” before enumerating their reasons for voting for Trump. There was a certain note of admiration for his Yankee jackassery, which is not at all usual. It struck me as odd at the time.
Also, I wonder if the rise of identity politics and the rather extreme rhetoric (and occasional action) around them emerge at least partly from this desire to be something the way a cup is a cup. Even the transgender movement, which you’d think would complicate the very notion of solid identity, seems really shrilly insistent on the idea that once one has identified as trans, not only are they absolutely, really, indisputably the gender they have identified as, but trans-ness itself is seen as something that they always were and always will be, unchangeable–and thus whatever surgical, hormonal, etc. interventions are desired are exempt from what might otherwise be considered reasonable concerns based on age, side effects, psychological state, long-term medical dependence, fertility, etc.
(I do want to be clear that I’m not trying to pick on trans people here; I am not totally comfortable with some aspects of the trans movement and cultural phenomenon, but I have no interest in armchair-quarterbacking other people’s lives, and no problem with people who do decide to transition).
I wonder if Sartre ever went through the work of water, because the first part of this essay is exactly the feeling that came flooding up during my meditations on that element. That what I had thought of as a solid “I” was in fact just a big clump of nodes (adjectives, experiences and judgments of those experiences) and connections. Even the cells of my physical body replace themselves and reorient a lot faster that that rock on the table beside the cup.
That like a flowing river, these connections were always in flux, and I could (with effort) choose to drop old nodes and connections that no longer served, and add new ones that do. And that the version of me that others see isn’t even made of those same nodes and connections I use, but the different and limited knowledge and experience that they have of me.
If Heraclitus can’t step in the same river twice, the river can’t flow past the same foot twice, either.
Of course I didn’t manage to take that into the second part of the essay. Line for line, this was solid gold. I’ll be rereading it a few times–working the whole “slow” thing discussed here recently.
I find what you had written to be most fascinating to read. America was originally part of the British Empire, after all. This would, of course, explain a whole lot of things. I am really excited about you getting into the nitty– gritty about American Culture, and where it is going. Americans denigrate in Germans, what they dislike about themselves. And one of the things Americans dislike about themselves is how racist their own society is.
I should probably read Sartre some time. You make him sound truly interesting.
Yes. It also amuses me that so many people complain about Trump’s ridiculous tweets by tweeting ridiculously themselves.
When I think of Trump I think of this scene from Scarface. “You need people like me so you can point your @#$% finger and say ‘That’s the bad guy’…what that make you, good? You not good, you just know how hide how to lie.”
Thank you for your post. I really enjoyed it. Come to think of it, the old Doctor Fu Manchu character is truly fascinating. For, not only is he a lot like the stereotypes the Nazis had about Jews; but, more significantly, he is also a lot like the stereotypes that Americans, in their turn, have about Nazis. Basically, Doctor Fu Manchu is a witch, and is depicted as carrying out witchcraft against the British Empire!
The thing I find interesting about that is that I’ve heard an awful lot of people here in Canada (which, culturally, is an extension of the northern US) use the descriptions to describe Southern American culture. It really does seem like a case of projecting the shadow…
Excellent explanation of bad faith. The “nausea” that Sartre speaks of is a reaction to what the Buddhists consider an essential aspect of enlightenment – the realization of the emptiness of the concept of self. Gurdjieff considered the realization of one’s nothingness to be an important goal of work on oneself.
“To study the Self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe. To be enlightened by all things of the universe is to cast off the body and mind of the self as well as those of others.” Zen Master Dogen
Dear Mr. Greer, I would be very interested in reading more about your assertion that, culturally, the USA remains a colony of Europe. I have always thought that the United States is not Europe West, any more than we are Mexico North or China East.
I would respectfully suggest to European readers that there are two factors about the USA which they might not have considered. The first is that, while the classically educated Virginians and Bostonians might have written the founding documents, our country was settled and built by European peasantry. I think we never have been elegant, refined, polite. The other factor is the violence of the continent itself. There are what, three, active volcanos in Italy; we have about 13 in the lower 48, another string in Alaska, and then there is Hawaii. I imagine that for many people overseas, the word ‘landfall’ refers to a ship coming into harbor. For us the word means a hurricane has just come ashore. I asked a tornado watcher if any other countries have anything like our “tornado alley” and he said no. The occasional cute waterspout in Naples harbor is nothing like a tornado system, when ten or more twisters rampage through one town. A wildfire last summer jumped across the Columbia, a huge river, comparable to the Danube or the Rhine. One of the reasons we have proportionally fewer nuclear power plants than other industrialized countries is that we literally cannot find safe places to put them.
Will, we’ll get into that in quite a bit of detail in the posts ahead. I’ll be drawing on one of Spengler’s important concepts — pseudomorphosis — and also on Toynbee’s very fruitful discussion of what happens in contacts between civilizations…
Dermot, excellent! Yes, and we’ll be discussing all of those things as we proceed.
Beau, it depends very much on what they mean by that exceedingly vague monosyllable.
Will, and that’s also a possibility — and not one that Sartre would have taken into account, of course.
Monk, thanks for this. It’s going to take careful reading.
David, exactly. You could as well take a Schopenhauerian perspective and see the bare existence that is the self as the Will expressing itself, and willing its relationship with the representations that surround it.
Mac, oh, I’m definitely on the fringe. How well do you think this would go over in any part of the mainstream?
Matthias, well put. You always have the ability to choose how you relate to the circumstances of your life, including where you were born and what culture you were raised in — but some of those choices are more authentic, as Sartre liked to put it, than others…
Bonnie, that kind of attention seems to be hardwired into the structure of things, so yes, you’re definitely doing the right thing. 😉 (BTW, got a certain package yesterday, for which many, many thanks.)
Ray, there have been several attempts to sort out the regional cultures of the United States; I haven’t read that specific one, but I’d agree that the US is a political union of many distinct nations. That’s going to add some additional complexities to the discussion ahead…
Drhooves, it’s an ongoing thing for all of us. That’s one of the things Sartre was trying to point out — there is no end state, no point at which you become “a conscious and reflective American” the way a rock is a rock. It’s always a matter of continuing to choose…
NemoNascitur, I really do have to take apart the fallacy of determinism one of these days, don’t I? Of course belief in free will is unpopular these days, especially in the industrial world; it’s a great way to insist, “No, no, I’m not responsible for the world my choices are helping to make, it’s all predetermined,” and so on. Sartre talked in some detail about how people flee to determinism as a way to try to evade the constant dizzying reality of their own freedom — that is, as a classic example of bad faith. Still, that’s going to take a post of its own in due time.
Liz, and that’s also a good point.
Jen, one of the things that I’ve wondered about the trans movement is the extent to which so many people involved in it seem to think of “male” and “female” as fixed, absolute boxes into which human beings have to be shoved, rather than complex, blurry, and contested culturally constructed categories with a broad but flexible basis in biology, which can be challenged and redefined by individuals in ways that don’t necessarily involve surgery and drugs. Still, it’s not something I have to deal with personally, so I haven’t drawn any conclusions.
JMG, I wonder if what you just said about Trump wasn’t true in a lesser degree concerning Reagan, the Bushes and Clinton, too, but not Obama. BO always hada different vibe to us, non Americans, that these other presidents had. It was almost if he wasn’t really an American, but at least partially “one of our guys” sitting in the White House. Of course that was just an impression, Obama’s presidency was just as imperialistic as his predecessor’s, but it surely didn’t felt like it.
And yet so many Americans and Germans I have met are friendly, hospitable and charming people. All rather scary really.
Kyle, I don’t think he did so in any formal sense, but the experiences triggered by that part of magical initiation can also be encountered through introspection, or by way of the ordinary events of life. You’re right, though, that the experience seems to be pretty much the same!
Twin Ruler, what every society dislikes most in its neighbors is their own reflection. History’s a great way to study that in action!
Greg, that’s a great example. Thank you.
Twin Ruler, nah, Fu Manchu is the Western caricature of “the inscrutable Oriental,” and thus shows a slightly different side of our collective bad faith.
Mike, and that’s also one way to approach it, of course.
Nastarana, we’ll be discussing that at length. Keep in mind, though, that a colony isn’t a clone of the colonizing culture; it inevitably becomes a thin layer of the colonizing culture over a far deeper and more powerful substratum that derives from the land itself, and from the human encounter with the land. It’s a common delusion of colonizers to think that a colony can in fact become “Europe West,” in your phrase; what inevitably happens is that you have a long and complex relationship between the colonial influence and the native substratum, from which ultimately something wholly new emerges. More on this as we proceed!
Bruno, that’s why Obama inspired so many messianic fantasies among the US intelligentsia. He was their dream of not-American-any-more come to life.
Jill, I’ve met several friendly, charming, hospitable people who are members of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s only in bad Hollywood movies that the bad guys are always and in every way repellent. Hitler, according to the people who knew him, was great with children and very fond of dogs…
The conclusion of this post made me reflect on something I have observed fairly often in my experience. The thing that many people just cannot honestly come to terms with when they study the culture and history of the United States is that much of the conflict, strife, and discord that we find ourselves in today has, to varying degrees of intensity, been there the moment Jamestown was established. It is easy to think that this is all brand new, or at least has never been this bad. That Trump makes a suitable stand in for the evil Lord Sauron of Mordor, a curse upon the land not yet seen under the sun. But you can only think this way if you have either never studied, or only selectively studied, the history of our country (which the poor excuse of an educational system in this country is helping to make happen), or have studied it but have gone out of your way to avoid the implications of what you have learned.
People have the freedom to not only regard themselves as something that their past actions show that they are not, but also regard their cultural history as something that the sum of all past actions made by the people who make up that culture is most assuredly not.
You are most welcome.
This discussion seems to have some resonance with a question someone recently asked over on MM – “do you believe in soulmates?”, with the same kind of response. There is no one, true, destined identity you can seek, become, and finally attain in a blaze of perfected glory.
OH, my, that was a good one.
I agree with you about the fallacy of determinism. One example of bad thinking is saying that if our choices are predetermined, we should not punish bad actions (like a murderer, for example). This shows up consistently in tv and movies where finding out about a killer’s childhood somehow explains/excuses his actions.
The answer to me is very simple – nobody thinks that lightning has free will but we stop it from killing us by installing ground connections to our houses, in effect “imprisoning” the lightning. Why not do the same with people, regardless of the reason for their actions? Same reasoning applies to mad dogs or any other dangerous natural phenomenon that we can control to some extent.
That being said, I still think we don’t have free will in the traditional sense but we act like we do because it is the best shortcut for thinking through complex scenarios. It’s the same reason that people personify animals and natural phenomena: it’s just a model in our heads that works most of the time. One theory I read is that we became self-conscious in order to be able to predict what other people will be doing (“If someone steals my food, I get angry so I better steal this guy’s food without him seeing me”).
What I cannot figure out is if there is really something more beyond this complex model in our minds.
Re: Trans – and this isn’t limited to them of course…we can find this sort of flippery on the ‘right’ too:
To say “Gender is a construct, etc” makes one a nominalist (Abelard, etc)
To say “I’m a real man/woman, etc” makes one a realist/idealist (Plato, Socrates, Pythagoras, etc)
To be clear: I’m talking about the increasing number of young people who say that physical genders (not just cultural gender roles) are a construct. They deny sexual dimorphism, and regard it as hate speech (naziism). Great example, and God help us if this is the future:
Another: “Race is a construct, gender is a construct”. Next breath: “All white men are…”
Ignoring the irony that elementalism and essentialism used to be defining characteristics of racists…
…Nominalism and Realism are incompatible as far as I can see (if there’s some moderate synthesis I suspect it will be unpalatable to the kids in any case). Going from N to R is like flipping from atheism to theism and back again. It’s a huge leap to move from one to the other – and many people can do so in the same breath, doing so as the will o the wisp leads them, often it seems to me as to whether it’s convenient for them or not, and whether it allows them to assume power over others and wag their puritan fingers.
People should pick one or the other and take the hit…but consistency involves thought / effort, and not just hashtags.
There certainly is a tendency to lampoon “the beer-swilling, pot-bellied, NASCAR-watching buffoons” (the “deplorables”, as Hillary once called them) among left-leaning intellectuals, but I’ve also noticed a tendency to romanticize them as well. Conservative pundits, for example, like to call the “heartland” the”real” America, where hard working, church going, country music loving, football watching types who stand for the national anthem live (but the pundits themselves wouldn’t dream of living.) On the other hand when Obama was elected president there seemed to be a great sigh of relief among the liberals, after eight years of Bush, who saw him as their champion: a Harvard educated man who, unlike Bush, could talk in complete sentences about hope and change and would undoubtedly set things right. Even Europeans put a load of expectations on him by awarding him the Nobel Peace prize before he had even done anything to earn it! As it turned out, he continued many of the same policies as his predecessors, such as endless wars, bailing out the banks, etc.
“The one thing you experience that can’t be described that way, Sartre points out, is yourself.”
I wonder if there’s a way around this. I see your Sartre, and raise a Lovecraft.
“If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing.”
Lovecraft is sort of obliquely describing a statue of Cthulhu here whilst not actually describing it at all. If he simply wrote “It was a hybrid of an octopus, a dragon and a human caricature” the effect wouldn’t be the same – something else is being described here, almost by not being described at all. Could you potentially describe capital-Y Yourself in a similar way? Not as a tentacle-headed elder god, of course, but in a similarly oblique way?
I’ve done some ruminating on the “free will” question recently, and one of the conlusions I came to in my meditations is that the whole discussion is plagued by the ambiguities and implications of the phrase “free will”, to the point where I think it’s necessary to reframe the question entirely before it becomes productive.
Part of the issue is that the phrase “free will” doesn’t indicate what type of freedom it’s talking about (freedom to or from what, exactly?) so different people can have different understandings of what is meant by “free will”. At the same time, the phrase has the implication that there’s only one freedom of the will that actually matters, so that if people come to the conclusion that the will is not free in the exact sense which they associate with the phrase “free will”, they will often conclude that the will is not free at all.
Instead of asking “do we have free will?”, then, I believe we should be asking “in what ways is the will free or unfree?”
Now, broadly speaking, in these discussions you’re likely to run into two types of “free will”: the compatibilist and incompatibilist types. Compatibilist free will generally includes the freedom from coercion or the freedom to act, whereas incompatibilists define free will as freedom from determinism (this is the freedom of the will implicit in your post). If you listen closely to the incompatibilists, however, you’ll find that this isn’t the type of freedom that they really care about.
From my experience discussing the topic with incompatibilists, I’ve come to the conclusion that what incompatibilists care about is the freedom from having our actions decided for us by some outside force (atoms, neurons, the laws of physics, etc); they focus on freedom from determinism only because they believe this type of freedom is only possible if we have freedom from determinism. In fact, many of them seem to not even realize that these are altogether different types of freedom.
It is this equivocation, coupled with the conceptualization of our atoms, neurons, and the laws of physics as something separate from ourselves, which prevents the realization that our choices are ours and ours alone; that, if our actions are determined, they are determined BY us, not FOR us.
Have you by any chance read “The Fear of Freedom”, by Erich Fromm? It deals with precisely these issues, and is well worth reading if you haven’t already. (I think it may have been issued under a different title in the US.)
And yes, I’m afraid Donald Trump is the perfect avatar for America, right down to the ill-fitting suit and clip-on bow tie…
JMG and Jen,
With regards to the transgender movement, as a male who has some feminine traits, it is rather disturbing how quick they are to try to put people in boxes. I’m not happy with some of the norms that govern male behavior in our society, although I’m also unhappy with the ones for females. However, despite not wanting to be female, there are some transgender activists who are convinced that I’m actually transgender, and feel the need to “help” me realize it. (I’ve actually lost a friendship over this. I said explicitly that I was happy as a male, and any further attempts to persuade me to switch genders would end our friendship, and the message was ignored).
No amount of explaining that I’m happy as a guy seems to convince them that this is the case. They can’t seem to grasp that a male could possibly be comfortable with who he is, despite being feminine in some ways and not liking the gender norms he’s expected to follow. This is despite the fact I’d make for a terrible woman, since I’m also definitely masculine in plenty of ways. It’s a really disturbing, and annoying, case of the one drop fallacy.
I sometimes wonder what could’ve happened if I was a little more insecure on that front. I know a few people who’ve transitioned and regretted it later, and I know another person who should not have transitioned but refuses to accept that, so I’m glad I dodged a bullet there.
I wonder if this is partially a sign of Greer’s Law of Evangelicalism at work: since very few of the people I know who’ve transitioned are genuinely happy with it, they feel the need to try to convince others to switch genders as well. It doesn’t really solve things for a lot of people, since switching from one set of toxic gender norms to another isn’t a solution.
JMG, the end of your essay reminds me of the psychological principle of projection–ie., projecting one’s faults onto someone else. An example would be the man singing a country western tune about his lover’s ‘lying cheating heart.’ You suspect he’s really talking about himself. 🙂 Here’s a link about projection;
You could also describe this issue in existentialism in terms of the ‘Hardware vs. Software’ concept in computing. My laptop is what it is, but I choose what software to load and run (even what operating system!), and I further choose how to use the software I have loaded. I can use my C++ compiler to create a program that allows me to design passive solar buildings, or I can use it to create more damaging viruses. Or both…
@Nastarana – Some of the differences in the US vs. Canada might be traced to the end of the US Revolutionary War; After the war, a lot of colonists evacuated North to Canada, something ignored in the US but taught about in Canadian History classes. Google ‘Loyalist Migration’ for more information.
It could be argued that the folks who liked being under authority, the well-behaved rule-followers went North, while the loud-mouthed pushy republic-an rebel types stayed South. So even today, in the words of Jordan Peterson, the difference between the USA and Canada is one of ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’ vs. ‘Peace, Order, and Good Government.’
Finally, Comparative Existentialism in a Nutshell:
Sartre: My self-concept is a fragile temporary structure consisting of my past choices, which could change at any time.”
YHWH: “I was/am/will be that I was/am/will be”
Popeye the Sailor Man: “I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam, I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.”
I got as far as “you have no essence, only existence,” which I have long believed is one of the drawbacks to the idealist temperament. As — I forget the name of the author – said some 20 years ago, “Idealists searching for their true core Self are like children peeling an onion to get to the heart of the onion.” Alas, too true!
The author was of the opinion that the more pragmatic, practical, and rational types didn’t normally bother their heads with that sort of question but just lived their lives according to what was in front of them. Even those given to strategic thinking for its own sake – they know who they are, they are problem-solvers. Any comment on that?
“I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam”
It seems that one of the 20th century’s most profound philosophers, Popeye, has work to do. Spinach is cheap these days.
It isn’t just the affluent end of the American Democrats who detest Trump. It is also seen abroad. My Dad called him ‘low-life scum’ a few weeks back, in a conversation about social class, and he doesn’t do that lightly. He’s English, lived in Canada for several decades, then moved back to England a few years ago. He doesn’t really like the USA much, but he hates Trump.
It seems to me that what Sartre describes as ‘bad faith’ is closely related to what Jung was describing when he spoke of projecting the shadow. Bad faith results in shadow projection, which can lead to very ugly results when taken to extremes.
Canada has a very complicated emotional relationship with the USA that is tangled up in this sort of thinking. We tend to define ourselves as ‘not-American’, which can kind of limit our choices of models for what to be, since we’re busy declaring what we’re not. Yes, our healthcare system is fairer, cheaper, and produces better outcomes than the USA. But there are other countries that are doing better than we do, for example certain scandinavian countries. Why don’t we look more at what they’re doing, so we can figure out what we can do better, rather than looking at the USA and thinking that since we’re doing better than they are, everything is wonderful? Given how awful the healthcare system is in the USA in terms of outcomes, and in terms of affordability, we’d have to be actively trying to be terrible to do as badly as the US healthcare system.
As for Canada, the colonial issue you bring up for the USA is just as relevant here, and more recent into the bargain, so I’ll be reading that with interest. As the child of English immigrants to Canada, I am a lot closer than most here to the Mother Country. I’ve decided to be Canadian rather than English, but there are some ways that my upbringing will always make me stick out. Every time I open my mouth, my accent announces I’m not from around here despite the fact I was born here. Maybe I could change that if I put a lot of effort in, but that has never seemed worth it. People are more likely to react positively to it than negatively. Many/most of the songs I know are from somewhere in the UK, and while I don’t watch TV much now, it was heavily slanted towards the UK growing up. And when I watch documentaries on Youtube now, they are as often as not, BBC.
Entertainingly, the first thing I thought of when you asked us to fill in the ‘I am…’ was ‘a human being’, which I’d assume all of us are in the way a cup is a cup.
Ray – living here in Albuquerque, 50 years less one month, I can vouch for the fact that the ambient culture is pure Norteno. With a country-western overlay among the Anglos – and at least the Dine. Walk into some of the up-from-Mexico restaurants opening in the past decade or so, and you think “That’s not Mexican food!” meaning it’s not Norteno food. Ir’s coastal or southern Mexican food.
My father-in-law from New Jersey wanted to know on his first visit “How many Mexicans are there here?” I scratched my head and said “Gee I don’t know, Hume. How many Irish are there in Boston?” The answer, oddly enough, did not satisfy him.
VERY OT but I had no other place to post this – Any Green Wizards who would like an old-fashioned food mill – hand-cranked, fastens to a tabletop and counter – like my mother used to use, let me know and I will mail it to you. I can’t think of any other list or website that would get any other reception except “Duh?!?!?”
Because I have never used it! All I for chopping is an ordinary knife, and I don’t grind meat, I dice it finely.
Sorry …. let me return you to the discussion of Bad Faith and Bad Haircuts.
That sounds a lot like Jung’s projecting the shadow (or am I missing a nuance here?)
As for certainty, I figured out what seems right to myself a while ago:
I am a spark of god and child of creation. Everything else is just something I do. I do Druidry, I do magic, and I try to do good.
What that means about the permanence and ephemerality of my current personality, well… I changed a lot since I was five, too, and I think I’m quite at peace with that. The truth of my concious being lies beyond that, in a deeper place.
Thanks for another thought provoking essay, JMG. I was an exchange student in France in 1980 and each time the family I was staying with introduced me they would conclude the introduction with a sad and somewhat apologetic pronouncement (as if to say, ‘what can you do?’) that I was an American.
As an individual it’s difficult to accept how people from other countries see Americans. But I know that you are correct. I am reminded of Canadian author, Brian Fawcett’s book of essays, Cambodia: A Book For People Who Find Television Too Slow. Particularly the essay, The Fat Family Goes to the Worlds Fair, where the author meets a rather obese American family each with a Cabbage Patch doll named after themselves. The book was published more than 30 years ago, in 1986 before the obesity crisis hit. As a population we seem to have, quite literally, expanded to fit the world’s perception of us. And now, I suppose, there’s our inner Trumpness to face as well.
Sartre’s ideas have been exciting to me, and I’m glad to get your take on them. Though I suppose it should be pointed out, since you used Hitler and Germany as an example, that Sartre was a communist and staunch supporter of Stalin. The more information about genocide and the gulags that came out of the USSR the more fierce his editorial defense became. In his defense I think he had placed his hopes to defeat the evils of capitalism in the experiment of communism being a success. But his inability to choose to change his course in light of growing and then overwhelming evidence perhaps highlights how difficult it is to see ourselves and the world we inhabit clearly enough to choose, and is something that has bothered me about him.
Hi John Michael,
Yes, I heard someone once declare that we are the good people, although I’m not quite sure what they meant by that word!
There’s a very similar thing going through Australian society – the higher up the tree you go, the more we want to be English. Even the speech patterns are more ‘English’ the more ‘educated’ you get. (Of course, the Englishest of Australian accents is called ‘standard’ pronunciation, and good Aussie drawl is officially referred to as a ‘broad’ accent – not as a compliment.) And of course we still celebrate Christmas in midsummer, though there’s a growing crowd who do ‘Yule’ in July when it’s actually cold and dark down here.
Our national capital is a model of Englishness, but the effect is spoiled by the gum trees, giant moths and parrots that insist on being part of the local ecosystem. There’s a groundswell of movement to get natural landmarks back to their Aboriginal names, rather than being called after the European who tripped over them 100 years ago, and a good thing too.
Question, especially for our readers from Down Under — from all I’ve heard, and this IS 3rd-hand, Australians are proud of who they are. Of course, their land wasn’t settled nor their founding documents written by either Tidewater aristocrats or God’s Chosen People.
Is my perception of their attitude true? And might that be the reason?
Yours in curiosity, another damyankee by partial heritage.
Ouch… I would love to pretend that was not spot-on in describing my thinking… I do have a couple of questions… I had just finished reading Christine Hartley’s ‘The Western Mystery Tradition’ before coming here. A major point in the book is ‘in my own opinion that the cobbler should stick to his last; the Westerner, born into this civilization, should study its mysteries and it lore, since that is his birthright’. Of course she was speaking of Britain, not the United States, but if ‘ if you go looking for some essence you can call your own… you won’t find one, other than the bare fact of your existence’, do you think there is any relevance to the idea of ‘birthright’ in this sense? American folk culture [Appalachian, as an example] is as foreign to me as any other. Mine was pretty much defined by the retail trade [the impact on religion-how many people remember the 12 days of Christmas start at Christmas, and aren’t traditionally a sale…] and television. I can still remember the day I realized that the start of the new TV season was roughly equivalent to Advent…
Yeah, but it makes us take another look at ourselves, doesn’t it?
JMG, fascinating piece. Thx. Reminded me of this quote. “Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect, he ceases to love.”
—- Fodor Dostoyevsky
Obama was their dream, Trump’s their nightmare. No wonder TDS is all over. If I were the proprietor of some of the liberal sites I’ve seen, I’d be concerned about hearing from the Secret Service.
Many thanks for this excellent post! It has given me much to think about.
I wonder how what we call the personality fits into Sartre’s model. As far as I can tell, it is different from the examples you have provided in that, IF one does in fact have the freedom to change it, it isn’t nearly as easy as other aspects of one’s identity.
Here in Australia, this species of bad faith is so pronounced it has a name: “cultural cringe”. In 2007, the then-Foreign Minister Alexander Downer mocked an aspiring Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd for being unqualified. Rudd’s crime was to be fluent in Mandarin rather than Downer’s preferred French which was of course much more useful for a half-desert island on the edge of South-East Asia. (Also, he was named Kevin, which in Australia is much less upper-class than Alexander.) It all ended happily, though: Rudd went on to be PM for a while and when the Conservatives got back in, Downer was sent to London as Australia’s ambassador where he could be a Very Important Colonial, indeed.
“We’re loud, brash, coarse, rude, vulgar, ”
I don’t buy it. Plenty of Americans are none of those things. Meanwhile, a friend who has gone extensively to China and will do so for 4 months of each year, and yes he likes them well enough and speaks Chinese, is disheartened living among them because he says they are unbelievably pushy and rude.
Do most people indeed latch onto a set of self-descriptors as a way of banishing freedom? I tend to think that people’s self definition by means of identification with family, tribe, region, band of brethren, sports team, etc. are like the shells a hermit crab uses for protection from being eaten by predators. I imagine that what most people feel when their shells are challenged by outsiders, events, or reflection is “I am safe here inside my shell; I am alone and unsafe without it.” Not fear of freedom, but fear of pain, harm, and ego death.
Don’t most people sooner or later come to some degree of realization that they both are and are not what they have always been thinking they are? Especially the ones who become parents.
Can one not say with simple truth, “I am a human being. (noun),” or “I am a human, being. (verb).” Is that not the same as knowing that one is oneself and not a dog or cat? Or at another knowledge level, “I am a spirit clothed in flesh, conditioned by a variety of circumstances, including: life experiences, social and physical environment (especially in childhood), learning, culture, perceptual limits, brain structure, biochemistry (especially hormones), and habitual responses to external stimuli.”
Why should the realization of the emptiness of the self cause nausea? Why is that any different from the realization of the emptiness of the cup?
If we as human beings are molded and shaped like clay, then hardened, glazed, and fixed by the fires of fear, love, or burning desire, so what? That is our shape. What we shall choose to hold within our formed selves, is the more interesting question. Even the most twisted and malformed mass can be used to support a candle, be a paperweight, or build a drywall. Vessels ugly and inelegant can still serve up the finest wine.
I’m interested in seeing where you wind up with this. I have spent a lot of my life overseas, and have had that stereotype thrown at me no matter where I go. On one trip to NZ, I wore cowboy boots and a straw stetson. I had kiwi females buying me drinks at the bar just to hear me speak. And a thousand questions, all revolving around the stereotypical American persona, were raining down on me.
I Malaysia, I ate with the locals in full finger mode. I was gawped at by everyone in the restaurant just because I was obviously no Malay and yet eating with my hands. In short order, the locals that spoke English descended on me with questions based on the American stereotype.
I am not that stereotype, but I am all American. Further, I am Texan, so that is a whole other sub-group, if not a different group in the minds of the rest of the planet.
But these are stereotypes, sets of expectations based mostly on TV today, and formerly on written fiction. In reality, the differences between humans is much smaller if we let those stereotypes go.
Some cultures are open, some are closed – this is perhaps one of the biggest divides I have seen. China, Japan, Saudi Arabia come to mind as closed – you cannot work your way in very deep, even knowing the language – you remain, as one I am familiar with, gaijin. In China, freedom is not what we view it here in America. The reason is likely that the Chinese have learned to survive and thrive under despots and within massive bureaucracy over thousands of years. Many of them have a smaller expectation of freedom than Americans do. And again, laowai is twin with gaijin – no way to avoid it.
There are so many ways of viewing the world, so many differing expectations, different meanings of words across the world. I think that Americans need to travel so they can gain understanding of these things, because it is not just Americans that have the stereotypes (some well deserved) to deal with across cultures.
Traveling lets you see if your mirror is actually correct or not, and lets others do the same. It’s not for everyone, but it is required for peaceful coexistence.
So, where are you taking this??
@ Jen, well, as a trans person I agree with you. The trans movement has embraced ideas and behaviors that I think are pretty clearly utterly insane and reprehensible. It saddens me that it has gone to such an intense extreme; for awhile it was fun and affirming to be in queer spaces and then things really went off the deep end.
@ JMG, I’ve played with identity a lot in my life, starting with an early involvement in theater. It seems clear to me that identities in and of themselves are simply not very emotionally satisfying for very long, but the process of becoming can be very much so. That is something I admire about Druidry, that it is defined as a practice rather than a belief system.
If I may riff on your & Sartre’s ideas further, it appears to me that inside the immense freedom, there lives our Individuality. And we may be free but that doesn’t negate meaningful impulses to do things that feel right. These impulses can’t be thought out they have to be felt, and it is pretty clearly more demanding a process of discernment than simply doing what feels good in the moment! The capacity for freedom may be directionless, but there are also actions which feel relatively more or less meaningful. What I’m getting at is that there isn’t only freedom to serve as an inner guide, which has important implications. If there were only freedom and nothing else that would be one thing, but there is also the will, of course, to make choices, and perhaps more importantly there is faith, which isn’t only of the bad variety.
Patricia M: I would like to own your food mill, but I fear shipping to the East Coast would be too costly…? Maybe split the difference?
Q – What do you call a polite American?
A – Canadian.
I was reminded of some senior lady friends who like to travel abroad together. Not rich, but ‘comfortable’, have prudently planned for their retirements. Each one always polite, courteous, considerate, soft-spoken, independent (I’ve never seen or heard otherwise). They go out of their way to avoid the stink of white American privilege. On their latest trip to Mexico, officials and staff were surprised to hear they were Americans, that, as polite as they were they were obviously Canadians, there must be some mistake!
JMG – great post – thank you! I especially liked the way you segued from the philosophical & abstract to the here & now. Great food for thought on free will – had never thought of it quite that way; need to re-read more closely so as better to ‘digest’ the message…
If my boyhood memories are anything to go by there was a time when many people, even among the left-intelligentsia, sought an identity as “American”. It was, as much as anything, a desire to leave behing the hyphenated identity of their parents or grandparents and take their place as Americans. Older generations once needed to live in the Italian section of a city, or the Irish section, etc., for help navigating in their new country. The Polish hall, or the Scottish hall were places to find jobs and mabye spouses. Churches that catered to specific ethnic groups were also important. There is enough individual variation and enough inertia that traces of these tradtiions can still be found here and there, but for the most part the need had disappeared. (though new waves of immigrants may still need such institutions)
When I was a boy it was considered bad form to ask about someone’s ethnicity – the implication being that you were implying that they weren’t quite fully American. The question of ethnicity came up of course, but it had to be broached carefully. When it was discussed it wasn’t so much one’s own identity as it was a story of one’s grandparents or great gradparents identity and very much a story of becoming American and leaving the old identity behind..
The modern day “obsession” (as I see it) with hyphenated identity really seems to have blossomed about the time the movie Roots came out. Everyone is concerned about their roots now. I suspect it has much to do with the crude, yet accurate, charachature of “Americans” that you have sketched out. It’s an unflattering identity so it’s no suprise that pains are taken not to accept it. I wonder if people feel their hyphenated identity somehow mitigates the ugliness of being “American”.
While the characature you’ve skectched has a lot of truth, there is also a lot of good in us too. This good side is also recognized by people from different cultures. In my childhood being American was still more a thing to take pride in than a thing to hide from.
As for myself, I’ve alway rejected my hyphenated identity as inauthentic. I’m aware that “shoggathing” my fellow Americans is at the same time holding up a mirror to myself.
The impression I am getting, alas, is that Europeans are perhaps even a bit more propagandized by their news media than we are by ours. Since those who run the show hate Trump, so do Europeans.
A related problem is that what Europeans see is a limited coverage because they are given a smallish spectrum of who is here and what they think. All they know is what their media present to them, an ocean away.
But I am now thinking that this is no doubt also a problem that I have with understanding Europeans’ opinions. I get what the equivalent of the Hillary voters think, but do I get the full spectrum of Europe? Probably not. That would be their deplorables, I suppose. The voters for Brexit.
I did have a conversation in Sweden with a guy who was quite amazed when I explained to him what might cause people to vote for Trump. He was very appreciative and said he had never heard things from that perspective.
Dan, an excellent point, and one that we’ll be exploring in more detail in upcoming posts.
Bonnie, good! Yes, exactly — and there are a lot of people in the New Age scene looking for their “soul purpose,” as though that was something they didn’t have to choose…
Just Me, thank you.
NemoNascitur, well, what do you mean by free will? And have you explored the possibility that the will may be partly free and partly conditioned, or that it may be unfree but capable of achieving some degree of freedom?
Also, if free will doesn’t exist, then people who believe in free will have no choice but to believe in it. Why, then, do people who oppose free will argue with them to try to convince them that they’re wrong?
Dermot, good. I wonder whether a frontal challenge to the inconsistency might help.
Kurt, of course! That’s also very common in colonial societies — the backlash to the failed assimilation of the intelligentsia is a nativism that embraces a fictional vision of the national culture. They’re the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of colonial pseudomorphosis.
Spicehammer, good. There are in fact three ways to attempt to describe the self: you can try to use specific descriptive terms, defining it by what it is; you can try to reject descriptive terms, defining it by what it is not; or you can use metaphor, defining it by what it is like. Lovecraft is doing, as he often does, a fascinating fusion of the latter two, offering self-canceling metaphors — “like that, but not really.”
Dunc, it’s been a while, but yes, I read a lot of Fromm back in the day. He, and a lot of other psychologists of his era, learned a huge amount from the existentialists.
Will, agreed. I don’t talk about my feminine traits — which I have, and which most men have — around people who can’t handle those, and that includes people who’ve bought into the hardcore gender essentialist end of the trans scene, just as much as it does among those who’ve bought into the hardcore gender essentialist end of, say, fundamentalist Christianity.
Emmanuel, yep! I decided to talk about it in philosophical terms rather than in psychological ones, but the mechanism is the same.
Patricia, Sartre agreed with you. Most people most of the time are unreflectively engaged with life, and never notice (and never have to notice) the existential void that surrounds them. Bad faith is thus primarily a vice of the educated and the thoughtful.
Bird, that reminds me of a bathroom graffito that was fairly common in my insufficiently misspent youth:
“To Be is to Do.” — Sartre
“To Do is to Be.” — Socrates
“Do be do be do.” — Sinatra
Pygmycory, I’d gathered from reading some Canadian literature that the colonial factor there is huge, in some ways even more so than here — and then you’ve got the bad faith of being “the un-US” playing a role as well. Thank you for the data points!
Brigyn, no, you’re not missing a nuance; Jung talked in psychological language about the same thing Sartre discussed in philosophical language.
Daergi, of course. I guarantee you that if you look into the biography of every thinker who ever had a thought, you can find something disreputable to point to. The European Left was embarrassingly uncritical in its defense of Stalinism — Bertrand Russell was another apologist for Stalin’s regime, for example — and Sartre was very much un homme de gauche as well as a man of his time and place. That fact doesn’t erase the value of a reflective consideration of his ideas.
I’m amused to note, by the way, that I fielded and deleted a flurry of attempted comments insisting in shrill tones that Sartre was a stooge manipulated by Russian agents — presumably the grandfathers of the Russian agents who supposedly manipulated Donald Trump. Same witch hunt, different day…
Chris, they meant “we are the bad people,” of course. 😉
Kfish, glad to hear you’re putting Yule back in the right place! Do you celebrate Easter on the Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, and thus in late September, October, or early November? If not, you probably should…
KMB, good. Where and when you were born are external circumstances, part of the world that is what it is the way a rock is a rock, and you can’t change them any more than you can make a rock stop being made of rock by calling it something else! Those circumstances don’t determine, though, how you personally choose to respond to them. There are many different ways you can respond to the circumstances that surround you, ranging from enthusiastically accepting them, to setting out to change them, to rebelling against them; those don’t make the circumstances stop being what they are, but they do have an impact on you, of course, and potentially on other people as well.
Jill, as it should. The door to the mysteries has over it the commandment “Know yourself.”
Richard, no surprises there; Dostoyevsky is considered to be one of the important literary forebears of existentialism.
Pogonip, Trump doesn’t need to worry about being assassinated. The people who are shrieking insults at him need him, because he gives them permission to hate, and after all those years of submission to the tyranny of mandatory niceness, the ecstasy of being able to hate right out there in public has got to be intoxicating. I’m convinced the Democrats will throw the 2018 and 2020 elections, because having Trump in the White House means that they can wallow in guilt-free hate for six more blissful years.
Paulo, to Sartre, the personality is the sum total of your past actions and choices. It’s basically a set of habits accumulated over time. Yes, you can change it — try sometime! It’s very educational — but as with every other habit, it takes work to change.
Kfish, funny. Many thanks for the data points!
Nice article, I thoroughly enjoyed your lengthy and insightful commentary. I remember trying to digest that particular book from Sartre when I was a young freshman in college; looking back on it, I probably lacked the experience necessary to fully wrap my mind around all of Sartre’s arguments. Attempting to read Sartre and Heidegger always felt like such a serious undertaking (e.g. a free climb without safety ropes) but the plain speech and approachable narratives of Camus were pure pleasure by comparison. As existentialist writers go, he was always my favorite. I was firmly in the existentialist camp for most of my early life but have gradually drifted towards something resembling pragmatism. Such are the infirmities of age, ha… 😉
Oh, projection is found on both the left and right sides of things. For example, internalized homophobia in closeted fundamentalist men…which often erupts into vitriol and sometimes even violence against gay men who don’t try to hide their sexuality.
It’s almost as if the land under our feet is trying to get rid of us… 😉
Kfish, there’s a similar movement towards using First Nations names in Canada. For example, the Queen Charlottes are once more Haida Gwaii, and there’s a movement afoot in Victoria to have Mount Douglas go back to being Mount Pkols.
My daughter was a foreign exchange student in high school in Russia, then did a year in Ukraine although it was Crimea so rather Russian, the after she got married her husband did a two year stint as a post doc in Cambridge. Her complaint about all those places, including the English perhaps most of all was how unbelievably rude they were, especially in matters of customer service, but also on the street.
I have not been to Russia but visited both of those other places and saw no such thing. I thought everyone was wonderful. I was especially impressed by how well vendors in Crimea treated me.
Now she lives in Yankee country and is also having trouble liking the people, including how aggressively they drive. She grew up in North Carolina and much prefers the calmness and politeness of the south.
Your post sheds some light on an experience that’s always confused me. When I was 22, I attended a study abroad program affiliated with the University of London. My fellow students and I received some easily digestible cultural experiences, and the University pocketed badly needed cash. Before an evening at the pub, some of our fellow English students tried to guess where we were from. They were genuinely stumped when they came round to me, and were convinced that I wasn’t from the U.S. Australia maybe or Canada, but not the U.S. They seemed to think they were paying me a compliment. I was very definitely from the States–several of them. My family had lived in Kansas City, St. Louis, the D.C. metro area, Anchorage, Phoenix, and Tucson. Maybe I had absorbed too much from each of the places that we had lived to be quickly comprehensible?
Will J, lots of people circumcise their children because they or their male relatives are circumcised, and of course, they typically love the people who circumcised them or their brothers and can’t accept that they may have done something wrong. Interestingly, the definition of circumcision in many dictionaries has changed with the various editions over the course of the last 150 years from describing it as primarily a religious rite, possibly with health benefits, to describing it as a medical procedure which presumably has health benefits, possibly with religious overtones. Given that gender reassignment surgery (or even a course of hormone treatment in adolescence with no surgical intervention) is a much more serious procedure than circumcision…
I’ve always been afraid to bring this up, at least in other forums, but I am pretty much certain my mother would have been labeled trans as a child if that sort of thing had existed back in the 1950’s. She was a tomboy, she hated girly things, she wanted to be a cowboy, and for a while she wanted to be called ‘John’. But she had no attraction to women, didn’t think she was born in the wrong body, and she didn’t identify as a male at all. (She also had an active dislike of men in general from her 40’s onward.) But who knows what might have happened if she’d been born in our current time? Would school psychologists have said she had gender dysmorphia, when all she probably had was annoyance with the gender roles that had been assigned to her because she was female? I feel like I am breaking a taboo or something even bringing this up…but sometimes it seems like the people who are pushing for kids to identify as trans can’t see beyond the stale, tired gender roles that have plagued us for centuries.
Your response to Pogonip was funny and even delicious, worth the entire price of the essay.
“Thus I’ve come to think that what infuriates a great many of Trump’s most frantic opponents more than anything else is simply that he takes a thing about themselves that they find intolerable—their own cultural identity as Americans—and wallows in it.” — Actually, what many of us are infuriated by is that Trump seems dead-set on taking away the rights of women, immigrants, Black people, and the LGBT community. Most of us couldn’t give a **** that he projects a bad image of Americans; we’re too worried about what will happen to our gay/ethnic minority/religious minority/female friends or selves to care about what he’s doing to our cultural identity.
Mr. Greer, do you believe that the intense dislike thrown Mrs. Clinton’s way by the political right during and after the 2016 election stems from the same habit of thinking that sends the political left into paroxysms about President Trump? I’m genuinely curious by the way, not trying to start a fight.
Onething, the inhabitants of imperial nations inevitably become pushy and rude, The English in the 18th and 19th centuries were famous worldwide for their over-the-top arrogance. The US is in that position now, and China? The next great imperial power, and some of its people are already acting like it. Over the next century I expect Americans to tone down their act and become a lot less loud.
Gkb, good. Of course Sartre is offering his own perspective on the phenomenon, and no one account of the world covers all its features.
Oilman2, funny! I wonder how many of the New Zealanders got all their conceptions of Texas from TV shows such as Dynasty…
Violet, good. And there you start moving beyond what Sartre was talking about. The sense I get at this point in my gnawing is that existentialism is great for clearing the ground, not so useful at going beyond that — but we’ll see.
PatriciaT, you’re welcome and thank you!
Christopher, I remember the last dim echoes of that era as well, so I think you’re quite correct. One comforting reflection is that ethnic identities go in and out of fashion in American public life, so in some sense this is just a phase.
I’ve probably posted a link to this article before but I feel its worth repeating the powerful message. Call Trump what you like; loud obnoxious, boorish etc but at least he’s completely open and honest about what he is and who he is.
The beautiful poetic justice of Trump becoming president of the US still makes me quiver with laughter (even 18 months later)…
I have been asking myself for a decade, “What am I? Who am I?” A writer? A builder? A gardener? A lover? A wild man? All of these things, and many more. A son. A brother. An uncle…
Therein lies too, ego inflation, resonating a bit too close to archetypes, and nihilist all at once and and nothing at all…
Ever contemplating the neoliberal, corporate, banking, billionaire debt-based eco-death cult America has become.
Meanwhile I write and organize a plan to build an urban food forest, learning farm and restaurant, because the times call for rebuilding America(ns).
WIlliam Hunter Duncan
Oilman2, Yep, being Texan abroad is often a trip in more ways than one! I’ve enjoyed/endured being solicited continuously for more speech in my “exotic” accent, which seems rather mild to me! I’ve also had visitors from abroad say that they thought everyone rode horses everywhere in Texas, or ask where all the Indians were, although not for over a decade.
When I was traveling in the UK and Europe last year, people would ask where I was from and what I did, and when I said I was Texan and a cattle rancher, they would laugh, thinking I was joking. It was amusing but perplexing–cattle ranchers are people, too!
I try never to be rude, but I have it on good authority that I am rather loud, at least by non-American standards. I think I have a perfectly normal, if occasionally enthusiastic, speaking voice, but I’ve started making an effort to be more soft-spoken when I go abroad so as not to annoy the locals. I myself would usually prefer that people speak up, and find the alternative kind of mousy, but I suppose we all have our own little foibles. When in Rome, etc.
On the positive side, I’ve often heard Americans stereotyped (not only to our faces, or in English, and often with some surprise) as friendly and hospitable, especially to people visiting America, rather than when we ourselves are abroad.
Off topic, but two things seem to be happening that threaten us with much, much higher oil:
It seems that you have really hit the nail on the head. This whole ‘bad faith’ idea seems to really explain the Trump hatred thing. However I have a question. The heart of this essay about bad faith is that a person can change who you are by changing what you do. The idea that humans have the capacity to choose who they are. Most people do not choose to change and then can get caught up in ‘bad faith’. That is all well and good. However later in the essay you talk about how Americans are a certain way. How when we interact with foreigners we are american and we can’t be anything else. Have I found a contradiction?
My wife is from central Mexico. I am as American as you can get, 5th generation minnesotan. I know that i can change what i do. Both my wife and I have changed many things about ourselves for each other. However I can not choose to be Mexican. I can choose to eat rice and beans. I can choose to attend Mass. I can try and speak Spanish but there is a great gulf. I am american and can’t be mexican. I can not choose that.
What do you make of that?
Thanks as always.
The description of Americans is most fitting. Last night, in talking with my wife, who happens to be Russian, she reminded me of how brash and blustering I am by simply commenting on my lack of wanting to discuss poetry in preference for something I felt was more of a priority, saying something to the effect of “that’s the problem with Americans. They won’t take the time for poetry.” It embarrassed me but I received the criticism gratefully. I acknowledge I have much to learn from others, including those so called beer guzzling redneck Americans. A good many of them that I know are so open-minded and generous, often willing to depart from hours of their day in order to have a good conversation or teach someone a thing or two about being more connected with the land. That is far in contrast with especially (but not only) the urbanites who haven’t the time to even slow down so that you can avoid crashing into each other, and then have the gall to blame you for all of what happened.
Thank you once again for such a thought provoking essay.
I have no skin in the game, except for the LGBT issue (I’m bisexual), and I personally don’t find Trump to be that dangerous. Personally, I’m more annoyed with the liberals who insist that LGBT people do not support Trump, going so far as to insist that I’m lying about being bisexual if I say something positive about him. The various experiences here, as well as paying attention to what Trump says/does (not what other people say about him) leaves me far from convinced he’s nearly as bad as many of the liberals seem to think.
I have plenty of issues with Trump, but they tend not to include LGBT/race issues.
A marvellous essay. Thanks so much.
One exploration of predestination was made by the Scottish writer, James Hogg
dealing with a young man convinced that he had a (stage cough) manifest destiny. Perhaps worth a read by NemoNascitur as an indication of the kind of mindset not unusual among hardcore Calvinists. As noted previously, the mother of Donald Trump grew up in a fundamentalist Presbyterian area and I think it more than possible that the concept of an Elect is familiar to him since his childhood Sundays likely involved a good deal of spiritual improvement, Isle of Lewis style, with texts to study.
Your response to KMB about circumstances is very similar to the remarks made by the Spanish writer Ortega y Gasset in his La rebelión de las masas about the importance of character in reacting to the world we live in.
India also has it’s colonized elite, who do everything possible to imitate the Euro-American culture. The current PM, Modi, is part of a cadre of native elite that have chipped away at the colonized elite over the years. In fact, no state in India currently has a member of the colonized elite governing. The last such party is the scion of Nehru and leads up the congress party, which is struggling to raise funds.
One of the main characteristics of being part of the colonized elite is the ability to speak English, which Modi does when it suits his needs. He mainly communities in Hindi, which infuriates the English educated classes. English has been THE standard for economic success since independence, but I expect that to start breaking down in the next few decades. I also really look forward to the day the colonized elite suddenly look around and see their masters in crisis.
By the way. I got my copy of the Cosmic doctrine, but I think I might have gotten the wrong version. This one was published by red wheel/weiser…is this the wrong copy?
Bravo! You’re an international (just us a U.S) treasure, John Michael!
Fascinating, I noticed a similar situation of bad faith in a good friend who is very enthusiastic about the works of David Icky; the reptiles have all these psychological traits that a good person couldn’t possibly choose to have.
The colonial aspect of American culture makes perfect sense to me. I would go so far as to suggest there is colonial autophagia in our culture in the form of gentrification. There is constant risk of being colonized again for all the at all functional communities in the hinterlands; this is followed by the Herod/ Zealot choice. Most of the Colorado front range has become a coast with out an ocean, thickly colonized.
I tried to make a triad out of the divide between the European looking intelligent, and the landrace Americas, but the first attempt ended up with a four fold. I tried to add hippies to the mix, as neither Europe gazing, nor quite ‘heartland’ American; instead being a branch that follows the Utopian dreams that caught many an early colonial eye, as young people in the harsh and as yet ill adapted European refugee camps on the coast (famously near Plymouth) look longingly at the peoples already adjusted to this continents rough character. Generations later Ben Franklin would even remark in his autobiography at the telling fact that Natives brought among colonials would long preserve their fire and will to escape to their home, while conversely many a young colonial brought to live among the Native peoples would quickly take to their new life and resist strenuously all attempts to re-patriot them. Perhaps Ben couldn’t resist over stating things for the sake of a good quip, but I think this marks a thread that continued to have a life of it’s own through the transcendentalists (Utopians from which were instrumental in the creation of the state of Colorado I feel like mentioning). That third strand I tried to pull from the cord I found however to have the same dual character as the cord from which it was plucked. Split between those whose Utopian visions are distinctively informed by cosmopolitan Postmillennial progressive visions, and those visions of utopia that long for the last shards of the frontier like a shattered grail. The types can be recognized easy enough the crusty garden longing hedge-hippies and the crystalline-astral new age sacred-hippie. The four fold would be the hippie and square divided into the European and North American influenced.
In sum, America is a colony that is marbled with thin but savory fats of Europe and of the Native people to the continent, at the time of our cultural genesis. The experience of Black and Hispanic culture deserve parallel meditations, but those go far into the realms of my ignorance at present.
Thank you very much for this glimpse into Sartre, it is good to hear that there is such value in his work, and I won’t make the mistake of further disregarding him at reflex.
Finally I loved the out growth gkb concerning shells. Perhaps freedom is a deep fundimental, and shells, or limits if you like, are like shells in that ocean. The point for a shell wearing being, a finite, limited being, is that to grow one must on occassion out grow a particular shell, and that there is a profound a real vunerability at that time. Though some beings choose to have the most subtle and yielding shells in order to gain greater access to the expanse of freedom, sensitive souls or free spirits if you will. There is an ecology at work in all of this.
I was wondering, since so many commenters here brought up the Canadian “at least we’re not American” ritual to shut down all critique of the Mother Country – what would the Canadian Trump – our Jungian shadow look like?
If “sunny ways” I’m just a schoolteacher, because it’s 2018 boy faced nice guy Trudeau is most like the Obama in the thought experiment – who Canada likes to loudly , no SORRY, apologetically insist we are…
Could a certain public intellectual who is famous for merely reflectively barfing up the worst extremes of American culture that “we’re not like here” be making a surprise run for PM next year?
I also think though, that there is an element of the extraordinary hatred on the right for Hillary that follows this same analysis. My father in law would just about froth at the mouth hurling misogynistic invectives about her – but also frequently would admonish my husband about being a better “gentleman”. The same thing people like him who considered themselves good hardworking Americans (and veterans) couldn’t bear to see about what their Great America was – she IS a brutal hawk, and the wars are not just. She IS a Wall Street puppet. She did she dismiss the real human concerns of the people who suffer for her privileges – just like Americans generally sneer at climate refugees and the citizens of countries destroyed to bring democracy for wanting to escape their hell, and white Americans sneer at Black or indigenous people for noticing systemic racism.
And the irony of the so called liberal class this defending her? I feel this – speaking from my own realisation of what I hadn’t noticed about my own thinking, so I may be projecting – this is from the white feminist movement, which seeks of course not to “overthrow the patriarchy”, but just to be able to pull up a chair. (Then hand the kids over to the phillipina nanny, yeah?). Black and other intersectional feminists had pointed this out, but I’d been like, oh… A few… But that’s bad eggs (insert right wing mirror opposite apologia example here). The reason a white feminist driven liberal wing freaks out at a Hillary loss is that she. Did. Everything. Right. Just like all the corrupt, warmongering men before her, right down to the email system Colin Powell told her to use. And she got called out for it! Before completing the ascension! Being a lady sack of crap is still being a sack of crap. Simply putting women (or any other minority) in charge won’t remedy a broken ethical underpinning, if they get there *using the same broken ethics*.
I watched a lot of white ladies literally cry in bed for weeks as they had to digest this – they weren’t radical, they weren’t liberal, they were the same gross conservatives of a repressive system, maaaan, who racistly and sexistly ignored what their supposed sisters of color had been saying all along. Just the same.
JMG, this week’s post kicked me right in the rear. I have been guilty of bad faith ever since I first became aware of you, which was about halfway through your Green Wizardry series of posts on the ADR blog.
And what is the Thing I “discovered” I am?
A peak oiler.
That’s right. I’m an enlightened, gnosticated, professor of The Limits to Growth and the imminent Decline Of The West. And once I “discovered” that’s what I “am”, I proceeded to haughtily denigrate all of my family, co-workers, and fellow citizens who are too stupid to be able to look around them and see that driving to Wal-Mart is unsustainable. These morons just sit on their couches choking down distribution-center pizza and fizzy sugar water while rotting in front of the television surrounded by all the cheap plastic crap from China they bought from money they made at their soon-to-be rust-belted industrial jobs. Sheep.
And of course, all that vitriol was to help me ignore the fact that I’m just as fat, indolent,and unremarkable as they are. I eat just as much pre-packaged junk and fast food as they do, I rot in front of a screen just as much as they do (and they fact that I’m scrolling JMG and JHK blogs rather than Faceplant does not signify), I drive just as often as they do, i own just as much Chinese junk as they do, bought from the selfsame big box stores where they shop and paid for with the same blue-collar money earned from the same place kind of place where they earn theirs.
But you see, I don’t want to face the fact that I’ll be 42 this year and have not done one single solitary significant thing with my life, so I project it all onto them and sniff disgustedly at them because I read Where The Wasteland Ends on my lunchbreak instead of staring at my phone.
You said, “That is to say, what people in other countries see when they look at Americans is precisely what you see when you look at Donald Trump.” When they do this, are people in other countries doing the same sort of thing with this move that you say Americans are doing with Trump? It might make the rest of the world feel better to point to America as the real bad guy, but is this to resist being lumped in with America while they often take the same actions or at least ones in the same spirit?
I notice this in Canada, where we seem to define our self selves strongly as not American, especially when there’s not really much reason to take a superior stance (certainly many of our motivations and impulses seem identical). I think at some level we bristle at the inclusion in larger umbrellas of criticism, like “the West”. Is Europe different than this?
I suppose at a broader level, what I’m asking is how do we distinguish misplaced and projected hate (something that in fact reflects our own hidden self judgments) from a genuine disapproval of another or their actions? Is it just by the intensity of the feelings?
Should we as a rule just try to apply the judgments we make of others onto ourselves to see how well they fit?
An excellent essay JMG, one that comes at a serendipitous time for me.
I’ve long suspected that many Americans have hostile feelings toward the Chinese simply because they have too much in common to like one another. Indeed, the historical parallels are unavoidable and anxiety-inducing: a brash upstart nation with a relaxed attitude to intellectual property rights rebelling against an established, brutally amoral empire is a well-worn narrative. I remember you saying something similar once in Twilight’s Last Gleaming. I also cannot help but note that many of the same stereotypes the Americans like to tar the Chinese with (lack of refinement and civility, a penchant for greed) were stereotypes which had been previously applied to Americans by the snooty European powers. That the Chinese attract such opprobrium from the imperial citizenry is just one of the many funny little ways history repeats itself. 😉
“Her complaint about all those places, including the English perhaps most of all was how unbelievably rude they were, especially in matters of customer service, but also on the street.
“I have not been to Russia but visited both of those other places and saw no such thing. I thought everyone was wonderful. I was especially impressed by how well vendors in Crimea treated me.”
Funny, I’m reminded of a poem I read just the other day.
Gone is the city, gone the day,
Yet still the story and the meaning stay:
Once where a prophet in the palm shade basked
A traveler chanced at noon to rest his miles.
“What sort of people may they be,” he asked,
“In this proud city on the plains o’erspread?”
“Well, friend, what sort of people whence you came?”
“What sort?” the packman scowled;
“Why, knaves and fools.”
“You’ll find the people here the same,” the wise man said.
Another stranger in the dusk drew near,
And pausing, cried, “What sort of people here
In your bright city where yon towers arise?”
“Well, friend, what sort of people whence you came?”
“What sort?” The pilgrim smiled,
“Good, true, and wise.”
“You’ll find the people here the same,” the wise man said.
@GKB – email me privately about the foodl mill. mathews55 – at – msn – dot – com
The relationship that American and European culture share is similar to that of Roman and Greek culture in the ancient world. The sophisticated & learned upper-classes were using Greek culture as their reference point — it was extremely fashionable for governors and generals to use educated Greeks as a significant portion of the administrative staff. And many of these Romans abroad were classified by epithets very similar to those applied nowadays to Americans.
I really liked this post!
One thing I kept thinking about is modern “geek culture” which is tied in many ways to the “alt right.”
Gamergate, in which folks who define themselves primarily in terms of the video games they play was the first well-known example where people realized that there’s a toxic undercurrent to geek culture. More recently there’s “comicsgate” in which some comic book readers protest the abundance of minority and female superheroes. Online groups for “incels” who spew some unhealthy attitudes towards gender roles (eg “redistribution of sex”) are another geek-type making the news lately.
I feel like this is stemming from people being sold an image that their hobbies define them and being well-versed in topics like video games or superhero comics means that you are a deeply intelligent person. That their level of fandom gives them the authority to harass people who don’t share their opinions. Part of this stems from the geek image most of these folks grew up with is someone who is picked on by crass bullies, who society doesn’t understand, but who are smarter than other people, who may not behave normally but is polite and respectful, and make all of their decisions from well-reasoned logic. They assign people who aren’t in their nerd-group to the crass bully category and fail to recognize how often that nowadays the nerds ARE the crass bullies.
There’s another layer of this: for many of these subcultures a person can basically *buy* their geek authority. Someone who lives in a large house and has a basement dedicated to their video game collection has more geek-points than someone who has to borrow most of their games or maybe only has a few titles in their collection. Or someone who goes to the comic shop every week and buys their comics as single-issues vs someone who goes to the library and checks out collected editions.
IDK, I know this comment is a little rough and isn’t exactly well-formulated. It’s just some things I’m thinking about because I *am* someone who likes video games and comic books but am regularly baffled by the harsh vitriol that exists within sizable pockets of these fandoms. And I think the heart of it seems to be people in bad faith attempting to define their existence by their hobbies. Now that entertainment dominates our culture and things like Star Wars and superheroes dominate our entertainment, geek culture and American culture are pretty intertwined.
Magnus, it’s been a long time since I last read Camus. I’ll have to revisit him sometime. Many thanks for the reminder!
Thesseli, good heavens, of course there’s just as much bad faith on the right as on the left. All those gay-bashing preachers with boyfriends on the side are just the obvious tip of the iceberg.
Onething, interesting. It may be your daughter, of course. The adage “the one common factor in all of your problems is you” is always worth keeping in mind…
Stacy, or you simply weren’t conforming to their stereotype of how Americans act.
Thesseli, bingo. Human genitalia come (more or less) in two kinds. Human relationships to gender roles come in a vast and convoluted landscape of options, and the insistence that the one has to equate to the other is far from helpful.
Onething, thank you. I’m increasingly convinced that our current prudery about hate is just as toxic as Victorian prudery toward sex. Hate is a normal, natural emotion; of course, like any other emotion, it can run to extremes and lead to dumb decisions, but again, that’s true of every emotion. Trying to suppress it has the same result as trying to suppress sexual desire — the lure of the forbidden just gets stronger and stronger.
Thesseli, then why is he getting so much more venom thrown at him than previous GOP administrations that did much more to harm the populations you’ve just named? I don’t buy it — and it’s not about what he’s doing to your cultural identity, by the way, that I’m talking about. It’s the fact that he’s acting out in public, without embarrassment, everything you most dislike about yourself.
Stacy, excellent! Yes, very much so. Again, there were plenty of valid reasons for Americans to vote against Clinton, and there are doubtless some valid reasons to dislike her as a person. Neither of those facts explains the extraordinary degree of venom that was flung against her. What makes the Right’s response to Clinton so fascinating and, in a wry sense, so funny is that she’s a neoconservative in every sense that matters, embarrassingly fond of military solutions to political problems — her boasting about the death of Muammar Qaddafi was typical of the person. If she’d been a Republican they would have adored her — but because she was a Democrat, and was acting out their fantasies on the wrong side of the aisle, they went into convulsions over her.
Tom, and that’s also one of the things that galls a significant fraction of the left, who think that they’re the only ones who have the right to be postmodern!
William, and what Sartre challenges you to do is to set aside the labels and embrace the empty space of pure possibility. It’s a challenge worth taking up from time to time…
Will J, yep. The breathing space we bought by fracking and tar sands extraction is running out, and once again, nothing constructive has been done with the time.
Will O, excellent! It’s not a contradiction, but it’s one of the places that the account of the world Sartre gives needs to be expanded. On the one hand, we always have the choice to do something else; on the other, the range of something elses we can choose to do is constrained by our history and environment. Sartre’s own discussion of time, which is what I’m reading right now, offers a framework for that, but it’s a framework that needs more development than he himself gave it. The very short form is that we can’t choose what we are, because “what we are” is the sum total of our past, and that doesn’t change; we can choose what we do, and over time, as new choices add themselves to the sum total of our past, “what we do” shapes “what we are.” More on this as we proceed!
Prizm, an excellent point. I trust you took the time to have a talk with your wife about poetry!
Cortes, thanks for the reminder! It’s been too long since I last read Ortega y Gasset — a very fine writer with a lot to say.
Varun, thanks for the data points! The edition of the Cos. Doc. you got is the old unrevised edition, and that’s fine — as I’ve said repeatedly, though I prefer the revised edition, either one will do, and I’ll be referencing the text in both editions as we proceed.
Michael, nah, I just like to mess with people’s heads.
Ray, that’s good. The process by which a colonized country gradually absorbs and transforms the influence from abroad is complex, and all four of the groups you’ve mentioned — and others as well — play important parts in it. More on this as we proceed!
SaraDee, I ain’t arguing. I noted back before the election that it would have made a lot more sense if the Democrats had nominated Trump and the Republicans had nominated Clinton…
Jason, fair enough. As Sartre points out, though, you stand in the midst of an empty space of possibilities. What you’ve done up to this point is the past, and it’s done with. What will you do now?
Johnny, good question. I’ve never lived outside the US, so am not in a position to guess. Anyone else care to comment? As for your broader question, I don’t know that there’s an easy answer, but your suggestion strikes me as a workable starting point.
Well Actually, got it in one. Every empire cultivates a dlslike for the empire that replaces it.
Charles, thanks for this! I have basically no contact with the gamer/comics scene — my last serious involvement with comics was as a reader of Green Arrow and Batman in the very early 1970s, and I’ve never played a video game and don’t intend to — so it’s intriguing to hear about what’s going on from someone who has direct contact with the scene. I had heard of the “InCels” (we had a ruder name for them back when I was in high school) and some of the rest of it, and certainly the way that people who build their identity around being victimized by crass bullies so often turn into crass bullies is nothing new…
Excellent and incisive piece, Mr. Greer. What you invoked brought to mind an old Portuguese proverb:
“Up until the age of 30, you have the face God gave you. After that, you have the face you deserve.”
This might serve as a good antidote for some “bad faithers” out there, but I suppose the age factor cited makes for a somewhat limited application. In other words, we’d have to wait long enough for some of that Dorian Gray effect to start showing up… 😉
Thank you. When the same thing can be approached via different angles, it speaks well of the reality of the phenomenon, as opposed to it being an artifact of a specific system of thought!
On that note;
“What Sartre challenges you to do is to set aside the labels and embrace the empty space of pure possibility.”
This empty space of pure possibility sounds to me a lot like the Akasha, or Wu Wei… But I’ll be careful not to conflate things.
Yours in Druidry,
@ Dermot – ref Nominalism vs Realism – you say “People should pick one or the other and take the hit…but consistency involves thought / effort, and not just hashtags.”
Perhaps a different way out of this binary is to consider the many, many ways in which we are able to socially construct social identities and unearned statuses out of slim nominal pickings, and then bash each other over the head with them in ways that cause real pain and harm.
Would ‘you’ define precisely what this ‘I’ is that makes a choice??
Vintage post this week, John. Great respect! Contains at least two LOLs, for me anyway. I don’t comment much, but I never miss your posts.
JMG: I think it will be very difficult to tell if the Dems throw the next couple of elections or not, since (as far as I can see from over here in Scotland) they mostly have absolutely no idea why they lost the last one, and remain convinced that they just need to keep doing what they’ve been doing, only harder.
Re anti-Americanism: to adapt Lenin’s “Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools” I’d say “Anti-Americanism is the cultural sophistication of fools”.
Re “projection”, the argument has value so long as it isn’t used on autopilot. Otherwise it becomes ridiculous, e.g. “Mrs Thatcher was really a closet Socialist”, “Ronal Reagan was a closet Marxist”, “Martin Luther King Jr must have been a closet white supremacist”, “John Greer is a closet [fill in here with whatever you say you are not]”.
What an excellent article John, I think you really are getting to the meat of it. Sitting as I do, on the other side of Atlantic, watching the haggis walk round the midge infested hills as I wear my tartan kilt, and tea stained hairy shirt, I can fully agree with your description of how people from other countries see Americans. I would have added loud, arrogant, insular and dim witted if I was to be bold. I do ponder from a Druid’s perspective, and as a member of OBOD, what freedom do I really have? In this incarnation, I believe I am experiencing the things I need to experience in order to try and achieve Gwynfydd. I have some element of freedom to choose. But how much choice do I have really? And in choosing to be a druid, I am doing this to avoid recognising myself for who I am? mmmmmmm
gkb might be interested to know that the origin of “person” was as a mask used in ancient drama. And I’d guess that more people than not adjust the face they present to the world depending on the circumstances. It’s going to be a very tough gig being “authentic” at all times, even without taking into account the very American warning that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Matthias said: “Political identities have crystallized very fast and hard over the last few years in Brazil, as apparently in the USA: you are what you post on Facebook.”
Since I’ve never made even one single post on Facebook, I’m concerned that this means that I don’t exist at all! Man, this philosophy stuff is heavy…😝
The craving to become a solid object seems to be an ancient one
“The portrait statue in the tomb was no mere memorial, but was designed
to be the person himself. Nor was it intended originally to be an object
of visual delight for visitors. For in the early Dynastic tombs these
portrait statues were hidden away in the serdab, a sealed statue
chamber. Funerary statues were made “not to be admired but to be
immured.” They expressed a feeling stronger than agoraphobia, a
“claustrophilia,” revealed in the pyramid itself, in the swaddled corpse
in a nest of coffins inside an ornate sarcophagus, and also in the
curious “block” sculptures. In these figures, legs and arms were kept
confined in a solid stone cube, with only the head, the side of the arms
and the toes protruding. The shape itself expressed secure confinement
-Daniel J. Boorstin, _The Creators_
@ Ray, your taxonomy is interesting to me especially given the enormous regional, cultural and historical variations in which we reside. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, New England is much more heavily marked by Pseudomorphis than any point west I’ve experienced, but still there are recognizable patterns that extend even here.
A major problem here is the lack of shared canon that JMG discussed a few weeks ago. Even amongst people who garden everyone has read different books and so it is hard to discuss matters in depth without the same foundational texts to act as referee.
That being said, what I see here in New England paints a very dark picture, That is, the little subcultures are almost cult like. For instance, I went to an environmental meetup at a “Spiritual Center” to gift some native, perennial nectary plants from my garden, and I got distinctly bad vibes, with some love bombing and group meditation practices that seemed close to intentional brainwashing. Not for me. There were there the last few diehards of the Green/New Age scene. More generally, I’ve noticed that the what is left of the New Age post Mayan fool’s day is deep into troubling conspiracy theories. This saddens me greatly, since I once found a congenial spiritual home there.
The same could be said about the hardcore leftists I’ve known. At least though, with the Marxist Leftists I’ve been close to, as absurd as they may have been, they had a canon so could at least have interesting if totally deluded conversations. With the more race focused radicals it appears the same way; read a few books by bell hooks and you’re good to go for hours!
Then nearly everyone else I know is pretty much just glued to their cell-phone and receives ‘culture’ and ‘community’ through that medium. No one I know of here besides the diehard New Agers and Leftists gets together outside of work to share beers, spark a joint and discuss anything interesting. And to become a member of this New New Age of Conspiracy theories or this New New Left of Racial and Gender agitating one needs to adopt the same bad faith of the group. The few religious institutions here that I’ve entered here have frankly given me the same vibe.
The people who keep there heads down and avoid the craziness are, in my experience, the easiest to get a long with. The vibe here is grim; to take from Spengler, there is, more or less, no longer here any sense of “we” instead there are only amorphous masses without any cohering force but convenience.
@ Oilman, Jen re: Americans abroad; if I may, your experiences as Texans abroad are interestingly very different than mine as a New Englander. While traveling in South America I was usually assumed to be of either French or Brazilian provenance. This is largely to the fact that my accent in Spanish is developed so that I avoid the English “R” sound. To those interested in learning Spanish or other language, one of the Keys to having a decent accent is to avoid the “baying hound dog” R of English!
When I came out as American, people would very frequently ask me in sensational, journalistic tones about Donald Trump, and then we’d have an interesting and nuanced discussion concerning. Often the conversations then veered into the more interesting territory US Hegemony, colonial history, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and culture. A lot of people didn’t know what to make of all of this, but I never felt that people were loading stereotypes on to me. But then again, I’m little and olive skinned, tend towards being quiet and observant, and refused to speak in anything but Spanish! People treated me as foreign and other, for sure but never laid the whole “hey, you’re from America!” trip on me. In fact, I was a little too quiet, circumspect, and reserved for blending into the local culture! Then again, I choose to travel to Argentina to live in Spanish for a time precisely because I knew I’d be able to “pass” as more or less a local.
Interestingly, people in Latin America who travelled to the United States usually went on and on about how much they loved it there! Portland Oregon drew especially favorable reviews. I’m curious Oilman hearing of your experiences in Latin America if you wish to share. Latin America strikes me as more open then perhaps China or Japan. Did you receive the same sort of treatment there as in NZ or Malaysia?
Just want to say thank you for providing an oasis of quiet sanity in a desert of senseless noise. Your posts are conversational opportunities for growth and enlightenment.
Re Transgenderism and bad faith, this topic is coming up a lot in general on this forum and so I unearthed an old 1,300 word essay I wrote on the subject in which I compare radiacal trans ideology to Born Again Christianity using the tools of Cognitive Dissonance Theory, which is quite related to Sartre’s ideas concerning bad faith.
Of course I mean no offense to sincere Christians or trans people who may read it. I have the utmost respect for Christianity and am myself at peace with being transgender and am fine with other people having whatever gender identity makes the most internal sense. That being said, interesting parallels can be drawn from these diametrically oppossed ideologies, and these parallels are directly relevant to this week’s post.
My essay can be found here: https://violetcabra.dreamwidth.org/270.html
I also was a tomboy, wore boys clothing after school and was consciously and deeply disappointed to find myself a girl. Yet I liked boys and wanted to have children some day.
You might say I felt I was in the wrong body. I felt I was meant to be a boy and what I wanted to excel at were masculine things.
It certainly never occurred to me to try to buck reality though, and I did indeed resolve it as I went through puberty, and I am about as heterosexual as one can be; I like and appreciate men very much, and motherhood is certainly my most meaningful accomplishment.
I’m very glad no one paved their road to hell on the “good intentions” of messing with my mind or body. I shudder to think.
On another note, where is the evidence that Trump is even interested in taking away the rights of women or LGBT? I hear this – but suspect it is mostly hype. I admit to not staying current on most mainstream news.
It may be that there are people within the Republican mileau that he has to placate who are indeed interested in removing reproductive rights.
Interesting conversation recently that pertains to your point re shadow-projection and other avoidance tactics. I’ve been told (on a number of occasions) by an individual that I “voted against my own goals” b/c a failed to vote for Clinton back in 2016. I’ve been trying to explain how her economic and (geo)political platform was in fundamental opposition to my particular goals and priorities, so voting for her would have made no sense and would not have progressed my aims in the least.
The response was: “Well, you agree with her goals, just not her means.” And when I pointed out that our goals were in opposition, he replied that the goal was to “make the world better.” I pointed out that different people with different values have different perspectives at to what “better” might entail, so that saying that Clinton and I agree on “making the world better” has no real meaning.
I was told that “better” has a meaning and there were those who wanted to make the world better and those who were — in your phraseology — evilly evil for the sake of being evil, like Trump.
Eric Hoffer has quite a lot to say about the problem of freedom in his book True Believers. Those trying to escape the problem of freedom create many “bad faith” mistakes (couldn’t think of a stronger word) that the rest of society deplores. On a personal level I found his discussion explained a lot about my own “bad faith” behavior which has encouraged me to change it. Freedom is such a scary thing that many of us long for an identity in a group, tribe, social class, what ever. It is definitely an ongoing challenge to deal with your freedom day to day and try not to make “bad faith” mistakes.
I have had the Police song “Spirits in the Material World” as an earworm lately. I believe in the concept that we are renewed in body in cycles of 7 years, down to the very cells in our bones. You are literally not the same person you were 7 years ago. Are you an “improved” person? Or just different?
I had Americans described to me in very similar terms by a Canadian commenter years back on JHK’s famous blog. Since then, I’ve gone out of my red, white, and blue way to make sure he was right!!
Hehehe. Kidding, but I guess that’s a disturbingly accurate description of us. And I know I’ve been brash at times even in these hallowed halls.
“Bow to the gods of permaculture!! Now, scum, on your knees! And pray that ol’ Mollison, in his food forestly mercy, will bestow his grace and fecundity upon thee and thy contour swales!”
And I do. I pray for it every day. And still squash plants get mysteriously broken off at the stump just before they start blooming, and fracking Grazon sneaks its evilly evil way back into my tomato patch.
(Loudly, very loudly) “Why, Bill?! Why hast thou forsaken me??”
[OK, role-playing off, back to my quiet contemplation in the forest]
Thank you for an awesome piece this week.
Dear JMG, what would you recommend to read on the subject of dreams, especially on the dynamics of boundary between self and others in dreams and on different forms self can take in the dreams?
I play various computer solitaire games when my brain is too fried to read on my long commute. Also a couple of holiday games at appropriate times of the year. I was surprised at how few varieties of computer games there are.
Another thing that baffles me is the way people identify with their infirmities.
I am a diabetic.
I have R.A.
Fight like a girl (against breast cancer).
Deepak Chopra has some instructive advice about separating one’s self from the malady in question, in part given that our entire body is made up of completely new cells in 7 years time, and most of them are replaced much more rapidly (every 5 minutes for the cells that line the intestines!).
What then is the root of chronic injury and illness, he asks?
BTW, I love Valenzuela’s poem above, and think it has something to offer as an answer to this last question.
Dear John Michael Greer,
Thank you for another thought-provoking read.
P.S. I am one for velvet turbans, but in Europe, I feel a peculiarly strange, strong urge to wear my gimme cap that says Texas A & M MEAT SCIENCE. With a frisson of garden-variety wickedness I catch the microexpression that tells me they’ve read it.
Existentialism, bicoastal intelligentsia, cups, hairstyles, Toynbee, nazis, Trump, Hogan’s heroes, Twinkle twinkle little star, and NASCAR. By golly Greer, are you trying to break the internet?
Concerning the formulation “existence precedes essence,” it can be very fruitful to seriously consider the possibility that classical “essentialist” thinkers like Plato or Aristotle agree. One practical implication of that consideration would reveal existentialism itself as an act of “bad faith,” though of course from that perspective the concept “bad faith” has lost its footing. Great essay JMG!
Also, I don’t know if this is projection of the same sort or not, but I do have a small voice in the back of my mind that acknowledges that the form of argument I make to others in the political sphere (about not being able to control other nations, needing to take care of our own affairs, letting others take their own path regardless of whether or not we agree with their choices) are often echoed back at me by my wife when she points out the effects of my engaging in the political sphere…
Many thoughts here; as I have limited time my logic may not be fully fleshed out.
I appreciate your summarizing Sartre and saving me 800+ pages; the philosophical concept that humans have a fundamental desire to be a thing the way a rock is a rock is new to me and makes a great deal of sense. I’ve always found that a bit baffling about humanity in general, as I’ve never been able to make any of those identities “stick” to myself and so find myself always observing from the sidelines.
It occurs to me that the primary force driving America toward craziness is more or less the same as in 1930s Germany, i.e. crippling debt and growing financial insecurity in a society that identifies with greatness and superiority.
It also seems to me that your analysis of Nazi psychology applies quite well to the “Make America Great Again” coalition that is Trump’s political base. Millions of struggling, mostly white, working class Americans have latched on to the idea that by joining Trump’s movement they can become something beyond their unsatisfactory lives – true Americans in some sense who identify with the gold and prestige of team Trump. At the same time, much of the vitriol that Trump and co. throw at immigrants, disabled people, those on welfare/Medicaid, etc. is also projecting hated aspects of the self. By many moral standards Trump is himself a “bad hombre.”
While I agree that some of the Trump-hate stems from the same phenomenon, this seems to be a smaller proportion of those opposed to his policies. Many of those opposed are those who have been cast as outgroups by the “America First” coalition: Latino immigrants, people of color, non-Christians and especially Muslims. For these groups, hatred of Trump stems less from seeing unsavory aspects of themselves held to a mirror and more from a real (and sometimes justified) fear for their safety and basic human rights.
Two more thoughts:
1. Humans can attempt to self-identify as a thing, but equally they can be thing-ified by other humans. When this is accompanied by a power differential, the result is a true impediment to freedom and in many cases a threat to existence, with the Jews in WWII a case in point. These freedom discrepancies still exist in the US on the basis of race, religion, and gender, but most severely (and largely without acknowledgement) on the basis of wealth. Quite simply, possession of more money imparts of a degree of freedom to pursue choices in accordance with will that is not available to those who are focused on the bare necessities of survival.
2. The Republicans seem to be reigniting old distinctions (race, religion, immigrants vs. citizens) while transparently embracing crony capitalism (just witness Trump’s cabinet). This would appear to be based on the psychology of joining the “winning team” but without real financial gains and security offered to those in need this is destined to fail sooner rather than later. The Democrats, on the other hand, are all about demographic inclusivity while supporting the same policies that contribute to wealth inequality (though sometimes pretending otherwise). This is hypocritical and also destined to fail. Being currently out of power I would expect the leftward end to change first, though with all of the establishment candidates winning primaries probably not in time for 2018. I’m still hopeful for 2020, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes a second Trump victory to really shake things up on the left – and also to give folks on team Trump time to realize that their psychological victories are not accompanied by real improvements in day to day living conditions.
This was a low blow, I’m one of the evangelist peak oiler ilk, and I’m also turning 42 this year, adding insult to the injury.
I keep trying to save people from doing things I do not like, combined with a side portion of projection, an old staple of my fundamentalist and hypocritical Christian upbringing (I’m not saying all Christians are like this). Old habits die hard.
@John Michael Greer:
Hillary is a DINO, Democrat In Name Only.
Reading all the comments on closeted priests brought Richard Dawkins to my mind.
To this day my practice of ritual magic is going slowly, out of a deep fear of the inevitable point where I will get a personally convincing anecdote that this stuff is for real, and then I will be the joke.
Like any loud priest, it is quite possible that Mr. Dawkins is projecting out denial of his own deep supernatural experiences. I have been there, and while this may be intensely fun for the observers, it is not for the victims.
It is a hell we entered by our own will, but some understanding would be appreciated. Not moderating on how this is hilarious kind of makes you sound like the bullies from your past that you often mention.
Being easy targets of course does not help, yes we should tough up.
But sometimes your tirades on how the moving colors on the screen do nothing for you taste like sour grapes. Do you have a reason to think books will not be used to dumb down people after the Long Descent? They may be less effective without the glamour effect you’ve been discussing on Dreamwidth, but a way to corrupt them will be found.
I’ve avoided some of the pitfalls of identifying as “Argentinian” as soon as I spend time reflecting on what it meant to be born in one country and not the other. Since then I’ve called myself, by my own choice, an Earthling. As a citizen of the World I learn as much as I can with the time I have about other cultures and then accept what I like and leave behind whan I don’t like about other cultures with the same degree I’ve done with the one I was born. That has been my way of dealing with the subject of this post before I even knew someone else had thought about it. While it makes it harder to relate to most people I don’t mind at all, it has proven to be an excellent way of identifying people who add to my life from people who substract.
On the subject of Trump, from an outsider perspective, I’m going to give my opinion as someone who has lived twelve years under a populist government. Avoid them at all costs, don’t let them have the power to do what they want if you can’t avoid having them. After their party is over they don’t clean and you’re left with the bill and the thankless job of putting everything together again.
Thank you for another great essay. One thought that came up from what you’ve outlined is that other people and the world I experience are in many ways a mirror for all the things about me that I don’t like and have repressed. That does sound problematic for those who are not interested in letting go of their bad faith, and I can see how that would only lead to digging heels in deeper. However, for those of us who are interested in self reflection and moving away from a life lived in bad faith, that fact can be used to our advantage. To me what it means is that if there is something about my life or my world that I don’t like, the cosmos is trying to tell me something – it’s a message that I have some unresolved psychological issues which I am unconsciously projecting out upon my world. It might seem like a problem, but in another light it is an opportunity for growth and change. A sign that things about my life could be better, or more honest, than they currently are, if I’m willing to try to find out what they are and face up to them. In permaculture, there’s a great saying, which is ‘the problem is the solution,’ which to me means if something is going wrong, it’s really just indicative of an opportunity to make some changes. I tend to think that the project of clearing out our bad faith can make room for something larger to flow through us, which is much more than the little identities we try to assume in the course of our lives. After all, not only are we not all the good things we like to think about ourselves, we’re not all the bad things we like to think we are either. That may be more the project of the mystic or the occultist than the philosopher, though.
If that thought is correct, then it would also reveal that to a certain extent I have the power to create the world I experience, which works whether I am conscious of it or not.
Thank you for the link to your essay! It was a valuable read for me.
Regarding travel in Latin America, I have only been to Mexico, and found it welcoming–the only “teehee say ‘y’all’ again” type stuff I got was from other people visiting from abroad, not from Mexicans. My Spanish at the time was not fluent, but I had some things (like the “r”) down well, and I tried hard and could communicate, if brokenly. I could tell that occasionally I would exasperate a store owner, as rapid-fire numbers in an unfamiliar currency were hard for me to process, but I mostly just tried to paper over it by being very apologetic and learning as fast as possible. Overall people seemed very enthused about welcoming me into experiencing their culture, but not interested in making me a cultural curiosity in my own right. Also, Texans are not remotely exotic to Mexicans, so there is that! Texas is kind of its own country mythologically, so one usually gets a bit of a different response abroad than someone from Kansas or Vermont or wherever, I find. One man in Mexico did tell me I was too loud, but he kind of wanted to be European himself–had studied on the Continent, had strong opinions about various cheeses, etc. and was pretty much the only snooty person I met in all of Mexico, so I didn’t take it too much to heart (although as I mentioned I do try to keep my voice down when out of the country–I am naturally pretty reclusive, but when I interact socially I fear that the level of gregariousness that is necessary to seem friendly and hospitable in my home environment is a bit excessive for other parts of the world–I remember at university I noticed an extremely confused and overwhelmed group of newly-arrived Japanese exchange students looking for the study abroad office, and I swept them up in what I believed was a friendly manner and escorted them there, chattering brightly so as not to leave them feeling awkward–when we arrived they were profusely thankful and clearly incredibly relieved to escape. Oops! Weirdly, and for what reason I don’t know, but the only foreigners who seem to withstand and even thrive under the full glare of my would-be-hospitable loquaciousness are hitchhikers. Perhaps they are so glad to get a ride that they don’t care, or have been deprived of human contact (mostly I give rides to long-distance hikers, many of whom are in the US specifically to hike our long trails).
To Tripp- We seem to be thinking along parallel lines! It makes me sad when I talk to older people like myself who are still suffering from emotional injuries inflicted in childhood, picking at them like an old scab. I want to say “GROW UP – LET IT GO!” But that would be rude. I’ve done a lot of work on myself, in the emotional & mental sphere and I can tell you it is tough, and humbling.
It works like this. A tree lives to ultimately produce a seed. The rest of the tree dies, and this seed becomes a new tree repeating the process.
The goal of the tree is the seed. After you die, the tree that was your past life produces a “soulseed” that is expressed, among other things, as character traits you will carry into your next life.
Now an example. One beautiful day you are anonymously lurking in certain dark corners of the Interwebz, and then a thread of wisdom appears:
“Sticking the contacts of nine volts batteries into your tongue is a bad idea. Do not try this at home, Anons.”
Knowing that OP is always a… liar, you decide to make an experiment to help in your inner growth. Having a large sheet of pasteboard leftover at home, you draw a 100×100 grid with ten thousand positions. You decide to use a brand new 9V battery to check if OP is a liar or not. Every time you agree you fill a square with number one, otherwise with a zero.
After the conclusion, you add up the numbers and to your amazement the total sum is 10,000 and then you reply to the thread with an inage of a suitable villain with a caption stating that “Today OP was a pretty cool guy” using the Impact typeface.
After your death, this experiment will go into your soulseed character. In fact, in your future lives you might have nightmares of a guy screaming “Here comes Johnny!” through a hole in a door, while holding a truck battery in his hands.
But this is not a restraint. You will always be free to repeat the experiment over and over. And there your liberty lies.
From Denmark, Here we view americans as wacky inventors that always challenge the conventional truth and we value that. My grandfather was a farmer and he could not say America without mentioning Massey Ferguson the greatest invention in his life.
Petrus, true enough. The universe has a mordant sense of humor, and the way it lets us shape our own faces is a good example of that.
Brigyn, and conflation is another thing you can play with in that same empty space!
David, any definition, by definition, belongs to the world of things that are themselves the way a rock is a rock — what Sartre calls the “in-itself” — and the self we’re discussing, the “for-itself” in Sartre’s terminology, cannot be so characterized. If you’d like a more elaborate discussion of the matter, I recommend picking up a copy of Being and Nothingness and reading it for yourself.
Rhisiart, glad to hear it.
Dunc, my take is that that’s exactly how they’re going to throw the next two elections. They know that the approach Clinton took in 2016 succeeded in losing an election that any even vaguely competent campaign would have won; what better way to lose the next two in the grand style than to double down on her magnificently incompetent strategy?
Robert, I like that! As for projection, of course it can be overgeneralized. The thing to look for is seething hatred that’s disproportionate to its object. I think the Tories under Thatcher did a lot of projection, but in a subtler way than you’ve suggested; the terms in which they denounced the beneficiaries of the British welfare state could much more reasonably be applied to the beneficiaries of the British class system, i.e., them…
Averagejoe, funny. As for freedom, from a Druid perspective, each life presents you with the experiences you need, but it doesn’t predefine your response to those experiences; that’s where your freedom opens up — if, that is, you choose to act freely, and not simply respond in a mechanical way to those experiences.
Allen, yep. If Sartre’s right, it’s inherent in the structure of human consciousness.
Greg, you’re welcome and thank you.
Violet, many thanks for this!
David, well, of course! If someone’s built their identity around being one of the “good people,” and projects all their own unwelcome characteristics onto the “bad people,” trying to explain to them that they’re acting in bad faith isn’t going to get a welcoming response…
Kay, an excellent point. Hoffer was a member of the same broad intellectual generation as the existentialists, and his work has important points of comparison and contact with theirs.
Danae, good; that’s a physical expression of the point Sartre was making, which is that everything we think we are is a reflection of our past, and at every moment we have the power to choose to do something different. Right at this moment you can do with your attitudes, opinions, and choices what your cells do every seven years anyway. You do not have to keep on being the person you think you are: that’s Sartre’s great message.
Tripp, I’d love to see that as a comedy routine. I hope the permaculturists will find it as funny as I do… 😉
Oleg, it’s not a subject I’ve studied, so I can’t help you there.
Pogonip, I certainly wasn’t trying to criticize people who play computer games; I simply don’t. I also loathe peanut butter — I used to call it shoggoth snot, but these days I think better of shoggoths than that — but I have no objection to other people eating it. (Well, except when my wife eats some I ask her to brush her teeth before I kiss her again…)
Tripp, you’ve touched on something very important. Why do people identify themselves with their illnesses? Partly, in a society like the US where the social default is to assume that everyone is healthy and fit, proclaiming that you’re not is a useful defensive maneuver; I use my Aspergers syndrome that way sometimes, to slap down limits in the way of people who want to push me into doing something my nervous system won’t do. (Do you remember when I discussed dance on my Dreamwidth account, and all those well-meaning people popped up to insist that if I only followed this or that or the other piece of well-meaning advice I’ve gotten three hundred times before, I’d enjoy dance just like everyone else? That’s the sort of thing I mean.) So there’s a useful side to it.
Then there’s the other side. On the one hand, in our toxically overmedicalized society, people are encouraged to define themselves as nothing but their illness, as that makes life easy and prosperous for the medical industry. On the other, people are discouraged so systematically from developing the kind of rich inner life that provides resources for building a conscious, reflective identity, that they end up scrambling for identity wherever they can find it, and your illness is at least yours, not some mass-produced image into which you’re supposed to fit yourself…
Millicently, funny! I’m American enough — that is to say, brash, loud, opinionated, and occasionally crass — that I’ve never needed the hat; that said, if I ever run out of loud opinions, I’ll keep that option in mind. 😉
Thecrowandsheep, good heavens, this one’s mild compared to some of my previous posts. As for breaking the internet, I’d love to!
Redoak, more broadly, placing existentialism in the context of the “great conversation” in which Plato and Aristotle are two of the leading voices is essential if Sartre’s contribution itself is to be understood.
David, have you noticed that how you respond to your wife generally determines how other people respond to the same arguments when you make them?
Mark, most of the hatred I’ve seen directed at Trump hasn’t come out of the various minorities his followers like to criticize. The vast majority of it comes from privileged middle-class and upper middle-class white people, and for reasons that precisely parallel your analysis of Trump’s supporters. As we move deeper into the twilight of American empire, and standards of living for the middle and upper middle classes slip, more and more people from those classes are looking for scapegoats for their troubles, and messianic figures who can be counted on to lead them back to the world they think they deserve. Trump and his supporters are their preferred scapegoats these days, and Hillary Clinton was their messiah.
One other thing — the Democrats are no more inclusive than the Republicans, they just favor different lines of exclusion. Where the Republicans tend to favor divisions by ethnicity, gender, and national origin, the Democrats favor divisions by social class — that’s why Democratic hate speech focuses relentlessly on class markers. Both wallow in crony capitalism, though they tend to favor different economic sectors — watch the way that the Dems cozy up to the robber barons of the tech industry sometime for a great example of fawning subservience to unearned wealth.
Packshaud, the reason I grumble about jerky little colored pictures on glass screens is that so many people so often try to push them at me, and it doesn’t matter how many times I point out that I find them boring. As for the other thing, I’m a little startled by your notion that you somehow become a joke by having a spiritual experience. Maybe I’m just missing the point you’re trying to make here…
Nicolas, that seems reasonable enough. As for the populists, though, the difficulty here is that the neoliberals have had their party for almost forty years now in the US, and they haven’t cleaned up the mess, either. People are turning to populism because it’s the only way they can get the government to pay any attention at all to the catastrophic consequences of economic globalization and neoliberal economics. For almost four decades, all the benefits of the “global economy” have gone to the upper twenty per cent by income of Americans, and all the costs have been carried by the other 80%; the result has been an appalling degree of impoverishment and immiseration — and nobody from the bipartisan neoliberal establishment has been willing to lift a finger to do anything about that. That was what Trump tapped into, and it took him straight to the White House. If the Democrats want to get him out, they’re going to have to address the downside of their neoliberal policies — and that’s something they’ve shown precisely no willingness to do.
Stefania, excellent! Yes, exactly — and the power you have to shape the world you experience, when it becomes conscious, is the power used by the operative mage.
“being an Aryan” was more than a mistaken identification with a piece of outdated philology borrowed by a crowd of insecure bigots”
This isn’t exactly on topic but awkwardly for almost everyone it turns out that their ideas about Aryan ancestry weren’t entirely mistaken. The genetic evidence is now fairly conclusive that a people from the steppe did invade Europe between 5000 and 4000 BC. They replaced about 70% of the existing population in central Europe and more like 90% in Britain and Ireland. The same people invaded northern India at around the same time. The replacement is male biased which means most of the existing farmer and hunter gatherer men disappeared while some of the local women survived.
They think it’s possible that plague was endemic in the steppe so the people who lived there had evolved defences to it while western Europeans had none. Similar to what happened to native Americans when Europeans showed up with diseases the former had evolved no immune resistance to. Massive genocide is also a reasonable explanation though, or a combination.
After World War II there was a reaction against anything the Nazis believed about race and migrations which threw the baby out with the bathwater. The group are now being named the Yamnaya, previously they were called Indo-Europeans but they are in practice both roughly the same group once called the Aryans. It’s just that no one wants to use the word any more understandably enough. But whatever you call them, they are now by a very long shot the most likely source of the spread of Indo-European languages into both Europe and northern India.
Of course Germans were in no way more ‘pure’ Yamnaya than anyone else unlucky enough to have been in their (our?!) path. And there’s no reason for anyone to be particularly proud of being descended from them any more than any other ancestral group. But it turns out that pre-Nazi archaeologists, anthropologists, philologists and prehistorians were sometimes more correct on this issue than their successors since 1945 and that’s for political and ideological reasons.
I’m no expert on population genetics or any of these subjects. I’m getting my information from this book:
David Reich seems to be a pretty well respected researcher in genetics. These articles cover some of the ground in the book:
There’s a paragraph in the book where he says: “The correct theory that the Corded Ware culture spread through a migration from the east had already been proposed in the 1920’s by Kossinna’s contemporary, the archaeologist V. Gordon Childe, although this idea too fell out of favour in the wake of the Second World War and the reaction to the abuse of archaeology by the Nazis, a reaction that took the form of extreme scepticism about any claims of migration.”
The funny thing is you’d have to check the footnotes to notice that the title of the book in which Childe made that proposal is “The Aryans: A Study of Indo-European Origins”. To add a little more cognitive dissonance for many 21st century people, Childe was a Marxist.
Back on topic, Ireland had a bad case of that colonial problem for a long time. Most Irish people I suspect believe we’re beyond all that now and they’re at least not ashamed of Irish traditional music, language etc. In reality we’ve simply switched to being a US colony complete with our own “citizens of the world” whose only real goal is to prove to the big kids that not only have they caught up, but they can do the progressive thing better than anyone. I suppose if you’re going to be a lemming you might as well be enthusiastic about it.
Thank you for clarifying about your experiences in Latin America. That make a lot of sense and what you describe seems similar to many of my experiences. Maybe it’s just easier for outsiders to fit in to colonial cultures since everything is still so new and relatively rootless? Definitely this seems to be a major theme of Magical Realist writings.
Cultural expectations regarding levels of gregariousness show a great level of fluctuation across cultures, even just in the United States. In many parts of New England being gregarious is frowned upon. Given this background, unless I really know someone, I can find it very challenging to open up even when the situation requires it. For that reason I very much appreciate noisy, talkative and loud people since they help me interact socially, even with my somewhat cold, dry and emotionally distant temperament. Maybe this is part of the reason I’ve never found Donald Trump to seem personally offensive. If he were my boss or coworker I imagine him doing almost all the talking, me playing the rapt audience with an occasional observant comment, and both of us laughing.
Ahem… this article, the top trending piece on the NYTimes website right now, seems rather relevant: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/06/opinion/trump-central-park-five.html
JMG: I agree, but my point was that’s it’s more-or-less impossible to tell whether it’s deliberate on their part (either consciously or unconsciously), or they really just are that stupid. How many people have you seen determinedly pushing a door clearly labeled “pull”?
“David, have you noticed that how you respond to your wife generally determines how other people respond to the same arguments when you make them?”
The two do certainly parallel. I had not thought of them (much) in terms of causality. (Plausible deniability? Slinking away from the harsh light of truth? Trying to side-step an uncomfortable reality?) But, to be sure, between my reaction to my wife’s argument and other people’s reactions to my arguments, there is only one over which which I have any control — and it ain’t the other people…
As an example of bad faith in action in Canada, Trudeau the ostensibly environmentally-friendly just bought the Trans-mountain pipeline from Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion CAN. That is the 65 year old current pipeline, plus a tanker farm and some odds and ends, and is a lot more than it’s worth. Kinder Morgan the texan oil company has made off like bandits at the expense of Canada’s taxpayers and BC’s environment and human population.
The proposed new pipeline would be all on the Canadian government now, and yes, he’s intending to push it through. Facepalm. How the expletive can he claim to be green or intend to cut carbon when he does stuff like this? The man has turned into a shill for big oil.
I’m aware of the reasons Trump won, and they are the same that gave us Peron nearly a century ago. Populist leaders are a very visible example of the phrase “be careful of what you wish for”.
@JMG In a reply you said “Sartre’s own discussion of time, which is what I’m reading right now, offers a framework for that, but it’s a framework that needs more development than he himself gave it. The very short form is that we can’t choose what we are, because “what we are” is the sum total of our past, and that doesn’t change; we can choose what we do, and over time, as new choices add themselves to the sum total of our past, “what we do” shapes “what we are.” More on this as we proceed!”
I think there is a hint in this (and possibly the discussion of time could be opened up) of the difficulty I conceived very young at the (to me, horrific) prospect of “eternal life”… which was the promise my childhood faith set great store upon.
I saw it thusly: Life, to me, was obviously change, each day new things, new experiences, new relationships, new interests, a new person, subtly altered by all these new experiences. So, I wondered *which* of all these “me’s” was the one that was destined to be pinned, like a butterfly on a board, into the timeless eternity that Christianity promised me was also “life” – but not as we know it. And if it was, say, the “me” that I was at 10, then would I have to do without the age and experience of later ages? Whereas if it was the me at 60 (which seemed then to be terribly old) would I have to do without my former youth and vigour? Was there any possible way that “eternal life” could actually bear a resemblance to life as I knew it to be and as I loved it to be?
Now that I am nearly 60 (which isn’t really all that terribly old). I think what’s interesting is to consider the present as the moment in time where choice – and freedom – live. Every choice exercised becomes a fixture of the past, and the future, full of possibilities, as yet unchosen, lies ahead. In this moment, here, now, I choose. And thus, I live. And cannot be pinned on a board, like a butterfly… in a timeless, essence of me trapped forever in eternity.
Of course I do think that my daughter’s impressions are in part due to her own personality. But she is also a very polite and considerate person, and takes it hard when people are openly rude and shout in public. Also, she spent far more time in those places than I did, so she probably got a lot more exposure. I am also less easily offended than the average bear.
But I really only meant the customer service was bad in the east European countries, not England. I think what she encountered was the leftover Soviet employees who didn’t care, rather like employees at the DMV, whereas I shopped in the new startup businesses most of the time where it makes sense to treat your customers right.
My point was more that I do not think Americans are loud and rude, although in some venues like maybe foot ball games they are. I rather think we are polite and considerate in public most of the time.
Re: ‘what would the Canadian shadow look like?’
About 20 years ago, I met someone who is at least a candidate–
I met her during a visit to The Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria BC. It is a fascinating place with different floors devoted to First Nations Peoples, Natural History, and the European Settlers’ History.
On one of the lower floors, there was a hall of beautiful wood carvings. One of them was a 3-D carving in Cedar of the Great Seal of the United Kingdom–The one with the lion and unicorn. It was about 12 feet tall and wide, exquisitely detailed and painted. I have never seen anything like it before or since.
Noticing my interest, a little old grey-haired lady came over and asked if we had any questions, and what we thought of the museum. She was dressed in Scottish tartan wool from head to foot, including plaid wool stockings. She was smiling sweetly.
Anxious to give a compliment, I told her how impressed I was with the museum, and particularly with the Great Seal, as it was an ‘example of the fusion of the great cultures of Europe with those of the indigenous peoples.’
“How do you mean?” she asked tersely.
“Someone has carved this beautiful Great Seal in 3-D, in Cedar, in a manner very like the Totem Poles of the First Nations. Both are emblems of the families they represent…”
At this point, my wife dragged me away and hustled me out of the building. I had not noticed it, but the little old lady’s face was flushed red with rage. My wife had probably prevented me from being assaulted by that Scottish Granny.
My wife’s Canadian Grandparents explained that she was angered because I had put the cultures of England and the First Nations on equal footing, and suggested that the First Nations culture had benefited and improved that of the English. The Scottish Granny could not hear that.
Now that my wife and I have moved to Western BC, I keep the Scottish Granny in mind as a cautionary tale. Not everyone is like that out here, but there are a fair number of folks who think that way. I am learning to be a lot more circumspect.
I would like to add, that one of the concepts that has helped me improve my mental state over the last several decades is the realization that you have to deal with reality. By that I mean real world every day reality as it is, as well as your senses can grasp it. When I was younger, when I got stressed out I used to retreat into books, or fantasy daydreaming. This kind of passive retreat from your troubles is not helpful. Some people use alcohol or drugs or TV or gaming. The modern world is well supplied with escapes, which end up just being another trap.
Very good post John
There are a some of the reasoning in your post I do not share with you (and also of Sartre’s view) but anyhow a very interesting discussion
About USA as a “cultural colony” of Europe, that could be true for the cultural elite, but not for the “mass culture”, where the rest of the world is a “cultural colony” of the american brands, for example in the film business (Hollywood) and mass music
As another comenter pointed-out America vs Europe is like Rome vs Greece. In the case of the Faustian Civilization you cannot have again another Descartes, Kant, Schopenhauer, Spengler, Toynbee, Jung, Freud, Leibnitz, Goethe, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Boticelli, Leonardo, Miguel Angel and Co. ; using the terms of Spengler therey were born in tha phase of “Culture” and now the US is in the phase of “Civilization”, and as in Rome, there is no place for arts or philosophy, but for engineers and generals who are the men (and women) of this time of history. This is the pragmatic phase, before the collapse (as in the case of Rome)
In fact, following Toynbee’s theory, the US is in the phase of the Universal State with his Universal Church of democratic-liberalism (after the Fukuyama declaration), so well in the phase of collapse, with the four heresies taking-off as a societal “response” to the “incitation” of the decadence = Futurism, Archaism, Detachment and Transcendence
Now the Faustian Civilization is closing the “Walls” (Limes) against the “barbarians”; and attacking the warbands of “outside” without any success, more symptons of a decaying civilization
Some time I’d like to see you expand on this statement:. “Where the Republicans tend to favor divisions by ethnicity, gender, and national origin, the Democrats favor divisions by social class — that’s why Democratic hate speech focuses relentlessly on class markers.”
My father’s side of the family are all rural Democrats who started out on a farm and have had varying degrees of economic success. My mother’s side, except my mother, are all wealthy suburban Republicans who typify the American stereotype.
At first I assumed “social class” to be an economic indicator, yet I suspect that median income for registered Democrats remains lower than for registered Republicans. Correct me if you have data showing otherwise. Certainly Democrats have tried harder to expand and protect programs for the poorest of the poor, while Republicans have tried to cut them and cast beneficiaries as lazy.
But maybe by “social class” you’re not referring to economic status. There is certainly a growing tendency on the left to identify with a sort of modern urban culture that sees rural America as backwards and unintelligent. To be honest I’m not sure where that arose from.
To me, it feels like the left places more stock in the concept of basic human rights and dignity, and is more collectivist in its approach, while the right is more individualist: family first, America first, us versus them, winner take all.
But the neoliberals have corrupted both sides, and to me it looks worse on the left because it creates doublespeak and outright lies to pretend to uphold values while acting against them. Obamacare would appear to be a case in point. On the right the neoliberal agenda seems to conflict less with party ideals.
How many Americans have you met, where were they and what were they doing?
I am … surprised … that you say republicans are reigniting old distinctions of race, religion, etc. They are doing no such thing. This is coming entirely and catastrophically from the left, and the media and some of the adults in charge at universities are in on it.
George Bush II had more women in his cabinet and campaign than Clinton did, for one.
Bam! Wow, I was not expecting you to bring that around to Trump. I didn’t see that coming at all.
I look forward to seeing what your non-American readers have to say about that characterization of Americans.
Your mention of Existentialism reminds me of one of the more bizarre class schedules I had in college.
During the first semester of my sophomore year in 1987, I had my Army ROTC map reading class immediately followed by, and on the other side of campus from, my Existentialism class (trying to fill out those general ed requirements, you know). So I started the day with Sergeant Major Pickett with his southern drawl and battle dress uniform, exhorting us to use our PRO-tractors (our best friend, he assured us) to find the enemy at a particular grid coordinate so we could attack him, or shell him, or whatever. Then, immediately after that, I had to dash to my philosophy class taught by a newly minted Phd, the bespectacled, sweater-vest wearing Dr. Singer, and plough through Nietzsche, or Sartre, or whomever and discover that existence was not quite what we thought it was. Talk about cognitive dissonance! I might well have asked: what was our perception of the enemy at the grid coordinate? How did he perceive us? Was there even an enemy there?
I quickly discovered that I was not a philosopher, but it took me a bit longer to discover that I was not a warrior, either. Some years later I ran into Dr. Singer and he was back in school….reading law!
I did take the time to talk with her about poetry. It was quite fascinating actually. She’s in her first year of a doctorates degree in Chinese Literature, studying in China. They’ve been focusing on contemporary writers. The current focus had been Xi Chuan who has apparently achieved a high amount of acclaim. My wife was fascinated by his use of a mosquito to illustrate a great many points about humans. She convinced me it was worth finding an English translation so that I could further discuss it with her. The natural world is a great commonplace for people to meet and find some mutual understanding. This perhaps is an excellent example of how other cultures have learned and continued to value certain tools of communication to make their points so that discourse can continue despite seemingly opposing ideas and values, which as you have alluded to many times, is something we need to learn again, and value again, here in America.
I think ‘bad faith’ might be a good way to explain, to those who seemingly aren’t aware of the slow collapse of the world around us, why I want to break away from my carbon-intensive consumer lifestyle and return to something a little more grubby and primitive.
I have the choice to stay where I’m at. After all, one guy running off to live in a hut in the mountains (or whatever I end up working out) is not going to save the polar bears or the polar ice sheets or the Great Barrier Reef.
But to stay where I’m at and pretend that the environmental cost of my lifestyle can be ignored, and foisted onto future generations without guilt – that would rot me from the inside out.
I already had my turn at pretending everything is fine and all the fallout is far away. That sums up my twenties, and when I turned 30 Saturn swung by and took a wrecking bar to that cluster of delusions.
Martin, fascinating. Many thanks for the data point!
Dot, why, yes, but it’s still a very long ways from saying “some of my male ancestors umpty thousand years ago belonged to that first wave of chariot warriors who surged out of the steppes” and “I am an Aryan” — especially when the Germanic language family, last I heard, shows all the signs of having been a pidgin patched together from chunks of an Indo-European language and chunks of some unrelated substrate…
Monk, it does indeed!
Dunc, I suppose that’s true!
David, ah, but that’s where things get sneaky. Try changing the way you respond to your wife’s arguments, and see if there’s a corresponding change in the way other people respond to yours…
Pygmycory, I’d wondered if Trudeau was going to turn out to be Canada’s Barack Obama. Apparently that’s the case.
Nicolas, sure, but telling people “don’t vote for populists” when the other choices are going to make their lives even worse isn’t going to get far…
Scotlyn, most interesting. I admit to feeling a similar horror toward the mainstream Christian notion of the afterlife, though I was well past ten when that sank in!
Onething, fair enough.
Danae, true enough. What Sartre called authenticity, which was the center of his ethical vision, starts from dealing with the world as it is, and not trying to flee from it into some form of bad faith or other.
DFC, of course I was discussing the high culture, not the manufactured mass culture.
Mark, median income doesn’t effectively describe social class when there are complex associations of classes affiliated with each political party. The GOP includes some of the upper end of the middle class (and up), and a very large part of the working classes; the Democrats include the rest of the middle class, together with much of the nonwhite end of the working class and most of the nonworking class, the very poor who are dependent on government programs. If A stands very loosely for “the rich,” B for the middle classes, C for the white (and some nonwhite) working classes, and D for the rest of the nonwhite working classes and the poverty class, then the Republicans are AC and the Democrats BD — which makes it easy for Democrats to evade the very large role played by policies that benefit B in impoverishing C. As for the relative roles of ideals in the two parties, the GOP sold out its historic ideals in the Reagan years, while the Democrats have continued to pay its ideals lip service while doing effectively nothing to further them; that’s certainly a difference, but an important one? I suppose that depends on your perspective.
Blue Sun, just one of the services I offer. 😉
Tad, hah! Yes, that would have been a trip and a half.
Prizm, true enough. Poetry might be a workable starting place.
Cliff, yep. Sometimes you have to do what’s right whether or not it will have any obvious impact on the situation at all.
Sartre’s insights are important, but it’s more of a puzzle palace than that. I have known for a very long time that I am a soul with my own unique characteristics, loves, dislikes, etc. I continue to learn and develop, but my essential nature doesn’t change…Thus it has been through many lives…But if I try to describe who I am, which is almost impossible in the first place, I can hardly ever overcome another person’s completely natural tendency to categorize me. Often this is the result of projection, or limited imagination, but it may simply be that their perception of the world is different…..The only way I have seen this process largely avoided is through deep love, or great wisdom, both of which allow acceptance without judgment.
JMG, that Dynasty comment is hilarious. My Father is Texan but I grew up in New Zealand and am residing there now. To set the record straight, it is Dallas and JR that most Kiwis remember!
Thanks for this new take on something you have discussed in the past. I read Sartre’s “Existentialism as Humanism” and found that to be very accessible, but “Being and Nothingness” was so dense that I gave up on it too soon. It also made me think of Sartre as amongst those existential philosophers who use complicated language to state things that ought to be simple and matters of common sense. But that was probably a mistake that I need to rectify by going back. So this essay of yours will hopefully make it easier to approach him again.
One question that comes to mind regarding choice, is that it is often clear that concrete observable actions taken by a person are the result of choice, but what about things such as emotions and thoughts. What role does choice play in those? I am not sure our emotions and thoughts are always those that we choose to have but you also can’t approach them as a cup which if it is there you drink coffee from.
JMG & Mark: This discussion of class is interesting from a British perspective… Over here we often think that America has no “proper” class system, and so has to substitute wealth instead, but I believe that is changing… Here, class is almost entirely orthogonal to wealth, and it’s very important that you can’t just buy your way into a different class (well, not in a single generation, anyway). We have working class billionaires and poverty-stricken aristocrats, the latter will always have more social cachet than the former, and no-one would ever mistake one for the other. The upper middle classes in particular have a whole range of subtle signifiers which serve to make then almost completely impermeable from below.
This is exactly how we (German in this case) see Americans: loud, brash and all the rest of it. I don’t think anybody mentioned it: we also used to see Americans as compassionate, friendly, funny, honest, tolerant, resourceful and generous. We are not too surprised about Mr Trumps “bad behavior”, we are disappointed about his lack of the good american qualities we always valued. It feels like loosing a good, if a bit goofy, friend who all of a sudden turns on you, betrays you, lies to you and only cares for himself. You can blame the media for a lot of misinformation but Mr. Trump makes sure we know exactly what he wants with his tweets.
As a German I used to apologize for my nationality quite a bit during my travels until an Irishman told me to stop it and to accept my ancestry with the good and bad. That simple sentence helped me a lot.
So instead of feeling sorry for yourself and beating yourself up for your national character wouldn’t it be better to embrace it and focus on your good qualities again? We don’t mind your loudness as long as you are compassionate and tolerant as well.
When people do make use of that freedom and make radical changes in their lives, how often does it work out well? Some of the people who make the most of identity fluidity, although under very specific circumstances, are con artists and undercover police. They often describe positive effects like becoming more confident, socially flexible and more empathic, but they also have problems. Con artists can become con-poisoned and start to think everyone is lying to them. If undercover police stay in the same role for years that character starts spilling over into their main personality. However those who spend years playing a different person every few days can completely lose track of any central identity. When I read about the trouble undercover police have reintegrating I wondered why instead of trying tyo go back to who they were, they don’t imagine becoming the best police officer and the best person they can conceive of being, and commit to that role. Could that work?
Hi John Michael,
Probably! ;-)! You know, for some weird reason, most likely due to economics, my wife and I have only visited third world nations whenever we travelled abroad. I’ve never visited another first world industrial country and have no idea what they’re like, although I’ve travelled a fair bit of the land Down Under. Most people I know do their travel the other way around. It quickly became abundantly clear to me during that travel in third world countries just how we are viewed overseas, and I’m cool with that because the stereotypes actually happen. Mind you, I’ve always played it low key when travelling usually because it is unwise not to. We don’t look good, and that is how it is. Having said that, even though we don’t look good, plenty of folks from those places would like to travel or move here for sure. And what does that say?
Incidentally, I used to enjoy visiting museums in Laos and Vietnam because you lot were described (in English so that it could not be misunderstood by us tourists) as Imperialist pigs, whilst we were the running dogs! True story.
As a wild guess, I reckon humility is one way out of the trap of the mode of thinking about oneself that you wrote about this week. What do you reckon about that?
There is another option, and of course it’s the hard one, involve yourself in politics. Democracies at least give you the choice of doing it yourself if the other options are not satisfactory to you. Unfortunately I also think that the USA need experience with a populist to see the damage it causes when you just wait for things to come to you and depend on an authority figure to feel safe.
I will preface my comments by saying that I did not have the intellectual horsepower to get through the first few pages of Being and Nothingness or Time and Being so relied on cliff notes and summaries to pass existential philosophy class decades ago. I always found Sartre to be artificial and not reflective of the common organic existence we face. Nazism can be explained by good old fashioned tribalism and racism which, in my opinion, lurks just beneath the veneer of our civilized exterior. It just waits for a demagogue to activate and justify it, giving the masses a sense of power and the demagogue real power. It seems to be a case of predisposition and resonance rather than an inauthentic choice in the midst of absolute freedom. What I found truly fascinating was that Heidegger and Sartre, almost certainly the two greatest philosophical geniuses of the 20th century, fully endorsed the two most awful, murderous ideologies in history. It shows that even the most intelligence people among us get it completely wrong. I always liked Camus, who described the human condition as one of limitation and of absurdity. He recommended moderation and being decent to each other in the face of a seemingly uncaring universe. Granted, that globalism and neoliberalism is not working, but I hope and pray that we do not have to relearn the lessons of dangers of authoratarianism and xenophobia of the 20th century and subject high school students of the future to The Plague as required reading.
@ JMG, you are so welcome!
“Existence precedes essence: that’s the core formula of existentialism, and it neatly sums up the challenge we all face as human beings.”
Thanks for that nugget! I was beginning to feel that 812 pages were going to be needed as a prelude for the forthcoming discussion of Dion Fortune’s ideas in addition to her book! Smile
And I find your later comment useful to chew on; “Bad faith is thus primarily a vice of the educated and the thoughtful”. Hmm… the ‘well-stocked mind’?
Here for what they might contribute are a couple of my experiences working both in continental Europe and in North America.
Having just about learned I was a ‘post-imperial Brit’, I ‘discovered’ that I was more ‘European’ than ‘anglophone’ when working in Canada and USA in the early 70s. Footnote: coming straight from Scotland it was weird to see streets in backwoods Canada with Hanoverian names the same as Edinburgh and girls with red hair and freckles just like home, but this time among white wood board houses as well as in the new out-of-town shopping mall which at the time was yet to exist in Scotland. I guess it was all about how one might ‘read’ the surroundings and communications. An Iranian post-doc talked to me astutely about how ‘having a history’ made for a different point of view.
And I recall many years later, a senior EU guy working in an ex-communist country, (he happened to be an Italian) among the polyglot temporary colleagues, who started to tell me who it was my name reminded him of. He was referring to Air Marshall ‘Bomber’ Harris. Luckily I was able to finish his sentence before he got there and mention the charge of ‘war criminal’ against ‘Harris’ common in thoughtful continental Europe.
So it goes. Just now ‘I’ as best I know am engaging with thoughts and memory pictures and communication. And hovering a little with Dion Fortune and further thoughts of Annie Besant and Krishnamurti all mixed up with colonial connections. I seem these days to be what I read. Rueful grin.
Part of your response do Danae, JMG (… You do not have to keep on being the person you think you are: that’s Sartre’s great message.) reminds me of my first conscious decision to be my own person and take my first step into adult hood. It was liberating and life defining and it was actually a very small thing that provided the opportunity. I can’t say that I always remained “liberated” as my life progressed, many corrections have had to be made, but it has always been worth it in the long run.
I have also noticed it isn’t hard to spot those who have failed to to accept their freedom as they constantly blame someone or something else for their problems and refuse their freedom to choose. Sometimes this is very sad, sometimes it is very aggravating.
Also thanks for the post and your time in responding to mine and everyone else’s posts.
Re “Try changing the way you respond to your wife’s arguments, and see if there’s a corresponding change in the way other people respond to yours…”
An interesting experience this morning as I read your response. My thoughts immediately went to: “Of course, if I accept my wife’s point [really, the same point I’m trying to make, but applied to me], then I would stop making my argument to others, and no change would occur. I’d be giving up.”
Even as I thought this, an image pressed itself into my mind.
It was a stick-figure cartoon drawing of two figures. The one on the left stood on a small (soap)box, megaphone in hand, with small “noise lines” issuing forth. The one on the right was a single stick figure by itself. Under the first figure was the caption: “Speaks to thousands. Convinces no one.” Under the second: “Speaks to one person. Convinces one person.” Underneath both of these captions was the question: “Who is more successful?”
It goes without saying that the point was made.
Thanks for the ABCD explanation of politics. Makes sense to me!
The following piece showed up in my newsfeed this morning from the Washington Post, and I couldn’t help but chuckle at the title considering this week’s Ecosophia post:
“Soccer is the perfect cosmopolitan antidote to Donald Trump“
OT but re shark-jumping and collective insanity
Regarding Trump, it’s appropriate to mention Canada’s own miniature version: Doug Ford, who won a majority government in Ontario last night. Although Ford’s platform is somewhat different than Trump’s, the reaction to his election is much the same. The two men have a lot in common – they are both old, overweight, slightly boorish, white men who bill themselves as (and in some ways even are) anti-establishment leaders.
A fairly common thread amongst Canadian media, in the runup to the election and in the fallout after Ford’s election was that he was a hate-monger who ran on a platform of bigotry and that his election was a “white supremacist” win – despite the fact that Ford’s supporters are only about 10-15% more likely to be white than the population of Ontario.
To tie this in with the commentary on Sartre, am I correct to say that the intelligentsia who despises Ford and everything he stands for is projecting everything they know to be true about themselves onto him and his supporters. Even here in my local media in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Ford supporters are described as stupid, uneducated, greedy bigots consumed by hatred of the other who are too feckless to trust (and therefore obey) the dictates of the media. As if greed, hatred of the other (in this case the other is domestic) and uncritical acceptance of the media weren’t features of the upper middle class.
I think there’s an element of fear too, among the upper middle class: At some level every member of that class knows that their physical security, food, infrastructure, cheap goods, etc all is provided by the exploitation or labour of the lower classes, and seeing that large elements of their own societies aren’t ‘with the program’ must really upset some of them.
I don’t know to what extent this applies directly to the discussion of “bad faith” or shadow-projection, but it does (I think) have to do with self-image (or at least preconceptions?), so here goes:
One of the points I’ve attempted to make in those political conversations to which I’ve made reference previously is the idea of the US conducting a “strategic withdrawal” from our over-extended imperial position and using the remaining time & resources we have available to us to construct the more (sustainably) self-reliant economy we’ll be needing in the decades ahead. One key aspect of this strategy, of course, is a certain degree of economic and military disengagement.
Enter Donald Trump. Chaotic. Haphazard. A loose cannon careening wildly about the deck. And, seeming by accident, taking half-steps in the direction I think we should go — erecting tariffs, (talking about) pulling out of Middle East conflicts, potentially reducing troop deployments abroad.
A post from today about the G7: https://politicalwire.com/2018/06/08/trump-is-fulfilling-russias-dream/
I’m meandering a bit here, but I’ll get to my point. Since the election, I’ve said that I’d have preferred a leader who methodically and systematically carried out that strategy of withdrawal in a deliberate, orchestrated fashion. While at times I wonder if Trump’s policy decisions are governed by a Magic 8-Ball he keeps on his desk in the Oval Office, he is accomplishing this disengagement. Stumbling backwards, spouting gibberish the whole time, but nevertheless getting it done. I am beginning to wonder — not that he has some unfathomable master plan — but rather that this is the only way it could be done; that the methodical, rational approach would have been successfully blocked, but a chaotic and seemingly irrational implementation can get past opponents of the move.
Given my inherent respect for order and method (although unlike Poirot, I don’t lament the asymmetry of eggs), I find myself both perplexed and somewhat humbled by the thought. It does bring into question certain assumptions I have about myself and my interaction with the world about me.
Fascinating piece, JMG – as I was reading through Jung’s “projecting the shadow” came to my mind, as it did to Will J and some of the other commentators. Unfortunately, much of Canada’s “shadow” closely resembles America’s, with the election last night of a Trump Clone (Doug Ford) to guide the country’s most populous province for a few years… the centre (Liberal Party) has collapsed and what is left is extremists on the Left and Right (the latter won a majority government). Polarized politics seems to be catching everywhere.
@Greg – the moment you made reference to Scarface, I was reminded of a brilliant essay written about Trump shortly after he became President (Donald Trump is the First President to Turn Postmodernism Against Itself, by David Ernst, published in The Federalist, Jan 23, 2017), which dissected his performance at the Al Smith Dinner just a few days prior to the election. He spoke like a true anti-hero.
Trump’s opening remarks were:
And a special hello to all of you in this room who have known and loved me for many, many years. It’s true. The politicians. They’ve had me to their homes. They’ve introduced me to their children. I’ve become their best friends in many instances. They’ve asked for my endorsement and they’ve always wanted my money. And even called me really a dear, dear friend. But then suddenly, decided when I ran for president as a Republican, that I’ve always been a no‐good, rotten, disgusting scoundrel. And they totally forgot about me.
We are condemned to be free, because we are condemned to choose at every moment our being, to be a project of our life. In every human group there are identities that work to yolk the social fabric and, to a certain extent, are an invitation to bad faith. The decline of civilization and the rise of abstractions that substitute the previous identities are stronger sources of bad faith than the previous?
I have another thought I would like to share. While for myself I am an always evolving, never determined being, for others I am determined, that is why hell is other people, because they limit us, they determine us, as you said, completely free of our perspective. They make us a rock, we all make the other a limited, deterministic being, unless We can establish a relationship with the other without limits or definitions, an I-You relationship in the Buber sense. Only then I can be for myself with others, and find no need for bad faith
Masterfully written. When I read the one-sentence paragraph introducing Trump to the essay, I actually stopped, took off my glasses, and began rubbing my face. A very keen insight, expertly delivered.
This post reinforces an insight I had a couple days ago, that the only thing any of us “has,” ultimately, are our choices. They are the only things which truly and entirely belong to us.
Lastly, reading this post provoked a desire to familiarize my self with American folk culture, to immerse myself in it as a way to recognize myself in it and it in me. To come to terms with my own “American-ness.” Does anyone have any suggestions?
Like Jason Holfield above this blog caused a major shift in my thinking and actions but I think my take on my experience is less cynical. When I discovered John Michael Greer’s blog I was profoundly depressed about the way I thought humanity was headed. It wasn’t because I thought the world was headed for collapse- actually sort of the opposite. I’ve always identified as a “bit of a Luddite.”I’ve never gone off-the-grid or anything, but I have always admired older ways of life and been skeptical of the ability of new technology to make us happier. So as I saw technology becoming a greater and greater force in people’s lives, and saw speculation about the outrageous possibilities of future technologies, I started to feel increasingly anxious and depressed. It didn’t help that technology was playing an increasingly dominant role in my own life.
Discovering the blog didn’t give me a completely new way of thinking all that profoundly but it did change my thinking in two ways. First it gave me a rather selfish satisfaction in thinking that my beliefs were correct and would be vindicated. And it convinced me that I needed to start bringing my actions into line with my self-image. I increasingly made an effort to “unplug” which resulted in my spending more time reading and less time on the computer, spending more time outdoors, developing life skills and putting more effort into human relationships. I’m still far from prepared for the collapse of civilization but even I’m not ready for the I think this has made me a lot happier in the present.There are two caveats though.
First off, now whenever I find myself interested in a TV show or movie I feel guilty, as if watching it would be a betrayal of my own self-image. Secondly I have grown more and more skeptical of the idea of a collapse brought about by peak oil, and while this should be a relief-not having to worry about collapse- I find that any apparent hole in the peak oil theory actually makes me nervous. I suppose it is because I now see it as a threat to my self-image and the way I want to live my life. Maybe the confluence of these pressures will eventually push me to shed the “Luddite-ish” identity altogether and embrace a new identity- one more in line with modern technophilia.
I’d like to hear people’s thoughts on something: Is bad faith more common during periods of religious crisis? I ask because I note that quite a few of the people who believe in the myth of progress seem to be diving deeper and deeper into it as their worldview is proven wrong.
I find a lot of the rhetoric around Ford and Trump interesting, since the opponents are engaged in a lot of projection, but more than that, the behavior they display makes perfect sense if you assume that they want them to win.
I think the need to find a socially acceptable outlet for hate, even if it’s utterly absurd, is a very, very strong need in both countries these days.
I think Trump is intentional here. I don’t think he has a plan since there are way too many variables, and I think a large part of the nonsense is intended to keep his opponents off balance. It seems to be working really well.
IT – re the latest PasswordNightmareWeaver post – as a woman who works Anglo-Saxon, I moved Frige down to Water, then decided on Erda instead. And Thunor for Fire; symbol, the hammer. If anyone who’s able to get into Dreamweaver wants to add that as a comment with attribution, I’d be overjoyed.
Pat. So – Tiw, Woden, Thunor, Erda or Frige, Eostre.
In response to Kay Robinson. I am a Pisces, My mate of 35 + years is an egomaniacal, dominating Scorpio. If you can survive a Scorpio without losing your own personality, you have to learn to be hard- nosed, and evasive! I got to be tough as hell over the years. I’m going to evolve into a whale next & drown the eagle! Not really, just kidding, but I did order a copy of Dion Fortune’s “Psychic Self Defense” to help me deal with him better!
I haven’t read the comment thread yet, but I do want to share a personal anecdote. In 1988 I spent a semester (two terms) on exchange at an English university. The young woman who lived across the hall from me in the dorm commented to me… “I don’t like Americans. Except for any of them I’ve ever met.”
I have carried that with me for the past thirty years, as a reminder of what others think “we” are.
This particular essay has been ruminating around in my head more than usual, I suspect for good reason. No doubt because I am an American. No doubt because I also am wallowing in the opportunity to say I am the way I am because of something else rather than take the responsibility of saying I am who I am because I chose to be. That honestly is a hard thing to admit, and I will have to continue chewing on it for a long, long time.
There was quite a bit of eeriness in reading how the Nazi’s would identify themselves (and props to the appropriately named Hans Schultz). I feel many Americans identify America as being God’s gift to the world, implying a superior being. The rashness, and directness with which we approach other members of this globe belies their inferiority, from our perspective. The way we have delegated ourselves as policemen of the world, another characteristic which you hadn’t mentioned but others do often say this about Americans, again shows the pompousness with which we carry ourselves.
Identities are useful tools. One reason in particular people like to identify as one thing or another is because it gives themselves meaning, and purpose. Coincidentally, I read a report this morning talking about suicide rates haven risen more than 30% in the past two decades. Is the sign of a people proud of their identity? It is a sign that more and more people are unable to come to terms with the realities around them. To be an American does not mean to be a member of the most superior country on this planet. Unfortunately, a good amount of our population can’t deal with this.
It is frightening to think of the consequences of this being unable to accept our identities. To a large extent we are tearing ourselves apart.
Is the election of Trump a sign that we are accepting the truths of our identity as Americans? Definitely not collectively. And I fear, as you alluded, if we continue with our identities brought with us from Europe, that America will end up fragmented in many, small countries warring with each other about … identity and superiority.
Pyrrhus, of course it is. I simply find Sartre’s insights useful for clarifying this specific issue.
KiwiJon, fair enough — I never watched either one so tend to get them confused.
Shrama, Being and Nothingness was written quite early in Sartre’s career, when he was still under the influence of Heidegger and Husserl, and you’re quite right that he learned from them how to say simple things in very opaque language! What he’s saying seems important enough to me that it’s worth the slog of decipherment, but it’s not easy; my understanding is that his later work is a lot more clearly written. As for emotions and thoughts, like other experiences, they can be changed through reflection — you’ve doubtless had the experience of thinking through a familiar thought, seeing the error in it, and having it unravel in front of you, or the experience of paying close attention to an emotion and discovering the half-hidden attitudes and intentions behind it.
Dunc, here in America we have a highly improper class system!
Niclai, don’t be too sure that Trump’s tweets are a simple picture of what he’s thinking. I’m increasingly convinced that he’s using them in a very cold and clever way to distract his political enemies — whenever he goes off on a tweetstorm, for example, you’ll find out a day or two later that his administration’s pushed through some significant policy change on some other topic, and nobody noticed because they were too busy yelling about his tweets. As for being American, I agree with you — we’re not going to stop being what we’ve made ourselves to be, and our best bet is to embody the best parts of the American experience as well as the embarrassing parts.
Yorkshire, good question. What seems to work best from an existentialist perspective is to make changes that affirm the values that you decide matter to you — not at all the same thing as changing your persona to blend in with a criminal crowd!
Chris, funny. I didn’t realize that there was a formal distinction between pigs and running dogs in Asian Communist rhetoric! As for humility, well, I suspect it depends on what you mean by that somewhat complicated word. Humility can be a barrier to surpass as well as a useful tool…
Nicolas, that’s why I’ve taken a public role advocating for a very unpopular political stance — moderate Burkean conservatism — here and elsewhere online. I’d make a lousy political candidate, but some of the things I’ve been discussing seem to be getting a bit of traction in the US political sphere.
Ace, if what Sartre has to offer doesn’t suit your taste, then by all means approach these things from a different perspective. Obviously I find him useful.
Phil, good. Do you recall my discussion of the barbarism of reflection in the old blog? We’re going to cycle back around to that in due time…
Kay, you’re welcome! I also recall vividly my first uncertain steps toward being an individual and not just a composite of heredity and environment — frightening, but also profoundly liberating.
David, glad to hear it.
Mark, also glad to hear it!
Steve, oh my. I wonder what they’d think if someone retitled it “Soccer is the perfect class marker to distinguish you from the rabble who like NASCAR” — which is of course what’s being said here…
David, yep. I see it’s time to get out my well-thumbed copy of Galbraith’s The Great Crash 1929 and pop some popcorn…
Justin, thanks for the heads up! I’m not surprised that the populist wave is building in Canada as well; the same blinkered privileged classes, with the same attitudes and policies, are generating the same backlash.
David, yes, I’ve noticed that as well! I suspect that part of the ragged shape of Trump’s withdrawal from empire is that he’s bucking the entire executive branch — and of course another part is that he’s not exactly a chess master. 😉 But he does seem to be getting some traction at this point, however unsteady the motion turns out to be.
Ron, thanks for this. The question is whether the collapse of the Canadian center will be followed, as here, by a populist wave that puts Ford or some similar person into the prime minister’s office.
Alex, good. Sartre talks about both of those points in his later work, so you’ve definitely grasped what he’s saying.
Alexander, excellent! I’ll be talking about ways to engage with American identity in upcoming posts.
Warren, while I can’t help you with your feelings of guilt — other than to point out that they’re unproductive — I can help you with the issue around collapse. For a dozen years now I’ve been saying over and over again, and backing this up with ample evidence, that we’re not facing collapse at all. We’re facing decline. There’s a world of difference between those two, but the most important difference is that decline is happening visibly right now. You don’t have to wait for it; you can look out the window and watch it happen.
Will, I think bad faith becomes more blatant and more visible in periods of religious crisis. It’s always there; it just becomes harder to miss when the religious basis of society becomes problematic.
Patricia, good heavens — sorry to hear that you’re having trouble with Dreamwidth.
Michelle, thanks for this! Funny, but also thought-provoking.
Prizm, got it in one. And yes, the soaring suicide rate in the US is a telling symptom of a society in terminal crisis.
I am not a US citizen so don’t comment too much on its presidents. It seems as if many of Mr Trump’s detractors are waiting for their parents to step out and make it all right. Not going to happen. We are all adults and have to steer our own course.
Prizm- you said “The way we have delegated ourselves as policemen of the world, another characteristic which you hadn’t mentioned but others do often say this about Americans, again shows the pompousness with which we carry ourselves.”
I don’t know how old I was when I found myself nervous of the way Holywood movies and American sitcoms had adopted the narrative that when the cop kills the bad guy, that is a happy ending. Or at least, a profoundly satisfying ending. No drama ever told the “after” story – what do the dead bad guy’s family think? or, is anyone worried about the erosion of due process? and etc.
But if you combine the “cop kills bad guy, and everyone lives happily ever after” narrative, with the view of America as world’s policeman, you have a humdinger of a narrative to stomp on anyone you like.
*Disclaimer – I am an American who has lived in countries other than the USA for all but 8 of my 58 years..
“Apotheosis of the United States” is how I like to describe Donald Trump.
That about sums up the average Canadian’s feelings on Americans…
Talking about values reminded me of something I’ve been chewing over for a long time. A lot of schools of therapy and counselling are structured around the values and goals of the client, often as stated in the first session. But someone going to therapy is tacitly admitting there is something substantially wrong with how they think, process emotions, see the world and react to it. Wouldn’t their values and goals also be distorted by the problems that brought them to therapy in the first place? I don’t understand why they seem to be given some kind of privileged immunity over other aspects of the personality. Are there ways to be more certain what you think of as your values are based on something real and not false beliefs? Especially before you base life-changing decisions on them.
What I find interesting about the South is how superpatriotic it became after Reconstruction. Southerners drape themselves in the flag, and mutter things like “America, love it or leave it.”, etc., yet the Confederacy was the only part of the US that seceded and fought a war to free itself from the United States. I wonder if on some level, Southerners/Confederates realize that they’re not really American, and that they’re under occupation by the US, and the patriotism is compensation for that realization. I don’t know how many times a Yankee from some other part of the US has said that they “feel like they’re in another country” when they’re in the South (Confederacy)
JMG, you mention that some of your ideas, it seems, are gaining traction beyond this frayed fringe of the public discourse. I have noticed as much as well, the article posted above on Jacksonian vs. Progressive Protestants for instance I think is darn nearly a rewrite of an ADR post on pre and post millennial Christianity. Several ideas I have picked up from your writing, with modest adjustments for my own purposes, I try to promote with folks who are interested in making sense of our collective mess.
I want to know, which ideas of yours (or convergent evolved with yours) do you think are reaching furthest into the collective conversation. And of those gaining some ground, which do you think have a shot at resulting in the most helpful adjustment in our societies adaptation to decline?
have you been kidnapped and replaced by an imposter? Because that is an impression I get from this post.
A few points:
1) A world is full of things that simply are what they are? A cup is a cup, full stop, end of sentence?? Yes, a cup is a cup, as stated by Aristotle’s law of identity (a=a), but that only says that cup is identical to itself, without saying anything about what that cup really is, about it’s essence. As Kant said, we can never know things as they really are, because our knowledge of them is always colored and limited by our perception and cognition. Also, the law of identity holds for us as well as for things that surround us: we are what we are, I am what I am. But what is that really, that’s a mystery for all things, and not just for ourselves.
2) Please review the first post in The Well of Galabes archive, called Explaining the World. Because what you said there was opposite (and much more convincing) then what you are saying in this post.
3) As Archdruid and an erudite who respects science and believes in evolution of life on Earth, you were always arguing that humans are a natural part of the whole of life on Earth, and that it’s a grave cultural mistake to view ourselves as outside and above this living whole. Suddenly, in this post, humans are very special mysteries defined by their freedom? While, a tree is simply a tree?
4) Existance precedes essence? Please, astonish me by pointing one thing, one being without essence. There is no existance without essence, they are inseparable like two sides of a coin.
5) Can a prisoner freely choose not to be a prisoner? No, because of walls and armed guards. He might as well choose to fly away, but he doesn’t have wings. Can a man without a leg choose to run? No such freedom. Can a heroin or nicotine addict choose to stop taking his drug? He can try but most of them will fail. It takes will to change, and some changes require tremendous amount of will which most people lack. There’s some people who can lift a hundred kg, but most people can’t. Same with will. So great majority of people is not burdened by their freedom but by lack of it. I suspect only those living comfortably on the top of Maslow’s pyramid of needs could ever see a problem in their freedom. Sartre probably was and you probably are there, which is why he wrote that book and you got enchanted by it.
6) And also. If you sit down and talk to someone, and during or after that talk all that you think about that other person is that she’s “American”… then you are hopelessly prejudiced and you were just spending time with your projection and completely missed the real person.
So, if you are under a spell, I hope you break away from it soon. Good luck.
John – if I recall my Cold War rhetoric correctly, “pigs” were the main actors and “running dogs” were their sidekicks/henchmen.
I registered for Dreamwidth via my Google account and thought I had the password memorized. I didn’t. If you type in the ill-remembered variations thereof, you get bounced. So I called up my well-remembered username and did the “I forgot my password” routine. They asked a series of questions to prove you were not a robot, but not the usual sort. Word puzzles, rather. Answer the obvious answer and got “Oops Sorry! No entry!” Think of all the angles, and being verbally inclined, I’m rather good at that, and “Sorry! Wrong again!” I finally decided either they were too subtle for me, or I going into mental decline; but that, at any rate, life was too short to play “Gotcha!” with their security bots. And I’m the one with the context-dependent-as-filtered-thru-an-oddball-mind passwords nobody would ever guess in a million years!
Life is too short to play “Now I gotcha, you idiot!” with security bots.
P.S. – good quote on bad faith, courtesy of Steve Stirling via one of his characters, an old Buddhist abbot…
“Self-righteousness is the fumes of decomposing vanity.”
(In Tears of the Sun)
JMG: ‘”I’ve taken a public role advocating for a very unpopular political stance — moderate Burkean conservatism — here and elsewhere online.
Could you please explain a bit about why you think this stance is so unpopular?
To Alexander’s query about coming to terms with one’s American-ness, and embracing folk culture, I recommend spending some time with a book: James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is a meditation on the lives of the rural people of the American South during the Great Depression–a work of deep love, and love hurts. Try to find a copy that includes a selection of of Walker Evans’ eloquent photographs. If you allow this book to have its way with you, you will receive the initiation into American folk culture, among other things.
Kindly inform the colonial intelligentsia that in Europe soccer is NASCAR.
Jill, that’s as good a summary as I’ve seen anywhere.
Allan, that’s also a very good summary!
Yorkshire, excellent! That’s a crucial point, of course. One of the major problems with therapy and counseling these days is that they’re geared to making people well-adjusted in a society that’s seriously dysfunctional; helping people to question their own values and goals, while it would help them resolve their own problems, would very often put them at odds with the society that promotes those values and goals…
Shane, I always figured it was a survival strategy, adopted at a time when Southerners were considered potentially disloyal. Remember that the South was widely, and rightly, suspected, of trying to get England (the national enemy of the US in those days) to come into the war on its side — the modern equivalent would be if the California secession movement were to seek Chinese aid against the US government! But the South is a different nation, one of many under the US flag these days.
Ray, that’s a good question. The first of my ideas to get traction was the distinction between a problem and a predicament, which is all over the place these days. The idea I’d most like to see widespread — the recognition that we’re facing decline rather than collapse — is the one that seems slowest to catch on. More recently, my analysis of the Trump phenomenon in terms of class issues, and especially as the blowback from the destruction of the US working class, seems to be getting a fair amount of traction — but somehow the Democrats, who have the most to gain from recognizing how badly they’ve maltreated what used to be the core of their electorate, seem to be utterly unwilling to think about that.
Goran, that is to say, you don’t find Sartre’s approach useful, and it irritates you so much that you’ve read things into my post that aren’t there. I nowhere said in that post, for example, that human beings are separate from nature. From a phenomenological point of view, yourself is the one thing you experience that partakes of what Sartre called the for-itself, that which can’t be itself the way a rock is a rock; from the rock’s point of view — and nothing in Sartre forbids the rock from having a point of view — its experience of itself is that it can’t just be itself the way a human is a human. In the same way, in your first argument, you’re garbling up the pre-reflective phenomenology of what we experience with the ontology of what we experience. Granted, I didn’t get into ontology — this is a blog post, not an 812-page book — but a little openmindedness and perhaps a few questions, rather than a furious denunciation, might have clarified that.
I should also point out that I don’t consider Sartre’s account of things complete, or flawless; I consider it useful. That’s also true of Schopenhauer, whose ideas I explored in the post of mine you cited. The difference between them isn’t a contradiction; it’s a willingness to think new thoughts, and look at the world from different perspectives, even when some of those perspectives conflict with one another here and there. It’s a useful thing to do; you might try it sometime.
Patricia, I’m sorry to hear that. I’ve enjoyed your comments on my Dreamwidth journal; I’ll see if there’s something I can do to make the security settings a little less onerous. The quote is great, too.
Jacques, are you asking what evidence I have that my viewpoint is unpopular, or are you asking for my speculations as to the reasons for its unpopularity?
Sven, good point — and very funny. Can you imagine a bunch of American liberals trying to hang out with European soccer yobs?
JMG, re: your comment on Trump’s twitter strategy, it appears you are correct about that. He also seems to intentionally mimic the misspellings, grammar mistakes, and odd syntax you’d see in the tweets of his working class supporters so that when the elite bash him for a spelling error, it only serves to galvanize his support base behind him. A lot of the apparently uneducated tweeting is done by his staffers, who go to great lengths to reproduce his style: https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/nation/2018/05/21/trump-tweets-include-grammatical-errors-and-some-them-are-purpose/JeL7AtKLPevJDIIOMG7TrN/story.html
To bring this back to the discussion of the week, he is going to pains to have others identify him as an oaf who doesn’t know or care about the rules of the elite. In this case, it’s a conscious choice that he makes to help him achieve a goal, as opposed to a bad faith identification, “I’m just a poor yokel who never got no education in all that fancy grammar so I cain’t even learn if I tried,” which might be how some of his supporters see themselves. Thus allowing them to identify with their president.
JMG: “Jacques, are you asking what evidence I have that my viewpoint is unpopular, or are you asking for my speculations as to the reasons for its unpopularity?”
The latter. I’m interested in your speculations as to the reasons for its unpopularity.
I, too, found it nearly impossible to set up a dreamwidth account at first, I had the same problems with my passwords–which I had indeed remembered and typed correctly–that you did, and I, too, failed all the security questions even when the answers were clearly correct. Eventually I got inside, after several weeks[!] of failed attempts, by setting up an entirely new account with a new password.
Could it be a subtle obstacle course set up by dreamwidth itself to keep out all those who are not sufficiently persistent or sufficiently geekish? In short, a feature, not a bug?
I’ve had similar experiences. These days I don’t bother: if a site asks me to prove I’m human I don’t use it. It’s too much work.
I’ve also heard from a couple people I know who are involved in tech that it’s considered more important to keep the robots out than to make sure people can use the software, so an awful lot of people are finding they can’t prove they’re human these days….
David, by the lake-
It’s occurred to me as well that Trump’s governing strategy has some uncanny similarities to “Drunken Monkey” style kung fu.
Kyle, yep. The people who think Trump is stupid are demonstrating their own cluelessness; he’s extremely clever, and one sign of his cleverness is just how easily he gets his opponents to fall for the same tricks over and over again.
Jacques, that’s a question I’ll have to brood over for a while. I’m by no means sure that it has a simple answer.
Re Drunken Monkey
I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but I think that’s an excellent analogy given what we’ve witnessed to date.
Thanks, JMG, for the reply! Of course, a populist Prime Minister of Canada is not outside the realm of possibility (though I dread the thought). If such populism were to emulate America’s, one of my country’s current problems – the flood of refugee claimants crossing New England’s borders into Quebec and overwhelming our big cities’ homeless shelters – would be solved. Seems like a pretty high price to pay, though… ☹
“The beautiful poetic justice of Trump becoming president of the US still makes me quiver with laughter (even 18 months later)…”
Me too. I could barely contain the laughter when I darkened the bubble beside his name at the polls. He’s doing a good job yanking us off the top of the global order, which is a good thing.
Ron, all the political mainstream has to do, to prevent that, is to stop acting as though the concerns of the upper 20% by income are the only concerns that matter. I don’t know if it’ll do any good, but you might try telling them that; the thought of Doug Ford as prime minister of Canada might be unwelcome enough to shock them out of their neoliberal stupor…
where would you place temperament as William James described it?
That was an interesting little bit of synchronicity, wasn’t it?! Really, what are the chances??
Great minds and all that…😜
Re: the permaculture maxim “the problem is the solution”
I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that one too. Always a good adage to reflect on when you run into a hurdle.
Another is David Holmgren’s question “do we really need to do this at all?” When faced with supposedly evilly evil option A versus supposedly righteous option B, this question has broken me out of many a false binary.
And cost more than one entrenched American industry a fair chunk of my money too, I’d wager!
JMG, thank you for the considered response re: the widespread adoption of one’s infirmity as one’s identity. Great points.
I’d like to add one more to your list though, in an attempt to bring it full circle in light of this week’s post. Could it be that identifying with one’s infirmity also plays a role in shrinking the terrifying expanse of choice facing said person?
E.G. I have Type I diabetes, therefore I can’t (fill in the blank).
(As an aside, the choice of the word “infirmity” feels somewhat like the choice of the term “creedal association!” So I hope you’ll forgive the crudity thereof…)
A bit more directly related to the post this time, I was perusing the comment-thread of another post re the G7 summit (but saying notthing myself — I’m learning):
In addition to the usual name-calling, lamenting of “moronic voters,” and begging Mueller to “get on with it already,” (as well as stated hopes that retributive tariffs enacted by other nations hit Midwest farmers particularly hard), I noticed what I perceived at least to be an escalation of rhetoric.
Specifically, I saw comments advocating “real Americans” (or phraseology eerily similar) to embrace their sovereignty as free persons, harsh condemnation of “corporate media,” and calls for secession and/or annexation of certain states by Canada. I have to say, having lived in the South a good bit growing up and knowing the persistent under-current of that region, that as I read these comments on a (very) liberal political news site it truly felt as though I had stepped through the looking-glass…
I feel late to this particular party, and descending the commmet stack is probably more challenging than gnawing this particular bone, already stretching my intellectual cheeks. But this bit caught my eye –
Nastarana said: “The first is that, while the classically educated Virginians and Bostonians might have written the founding documents, our country was settled and built by European peasantry. I think we never have been elegant, refined, polite.”
When I read this I immediately flashed on Bill Murray’s defiant declaration in “Stripes.” In one celebrated scene, he loudly exclaims to his fellow Recruits, “We’re Americans! Our ancestors were thrown out of every decent country in the world!”
Even growing up in a multi-racial, multi cultural household. I was always aware of a class distinction and tension between wealthy American bluebloods with their European identifications and the peasant descended masses of the American Working and later, Middles Classes. Not that the peasantry did not cling to and identify with many cultural traditons of their various versions of “the Old County” that they brought to the New World. The struggles between them have largely defined much of American History – part of why slavery and racism have been so distruptive and destructive, not to mention Native American genocide.
One of the unqualified victories of the Plutocrats, or the Investment Class as JMG once described them, has been the utter co-opting of the Salary Class into adopting the attitudes of the elites versus the Wage Class. We are encouraged to aspire to be like them, think like them, desire their STUFF, and emulate their consumptive lifestyles, but never ever but rarely through pluck and/or luck join their ranks. The Madison Avenue perversion of the American Dream. But by any measure of wealth, the middle class has far more in common with their working class fellow citizens than the plutocrats which hoover up the proceeds of their collective labours.
But as Sartre would have one self-assess, we are massively encouraged to define our “selves” by those superficial benchmarks. But this evolution of the American Dream, as criticized by the late sage and true cultural journalist, George Carlin, “ya gotta be asleep to believe it.”
ArtGuy: you may be interested in searching ” “last psychiatrist” “aspirational 14%” “.
Thank you, SamuraiArtGuy, for your Bill Murray quote. (I haven’t seen the movie, so I hadn’t heard it before today.)
“We’re Americans! Our ancestors were thrown out of every decent country in the world!”
Yes, yes, this in spades! All of my own ancestors came here not because they hated and feared everything that Europe stood for in their time–in the early 1600s from England, in the early 1700s from Germany, and in the middle 1800s from Denmark.
I can’t count how many times I have made Bill Murray’s point during all the long years I taught the children of Anglophilic and Europhilic bluebloods at my elite university, and how alien it was to their own experience and their own sense of what it means to be an American. This seems to me to be the deepest and oldest fissure of them all dividing our country into many separate nations: not rural versus urban, not poor versus rich, not wage versus salary, not one race or ethnicity versus the others, but historically Europhobic versus historically Europhilic. (In the present day, this translates into whether one denigrates or esteems the heritage of what academics call “Western Civilization.”)
I did not vote for Trump because I was sure that his leadership would take the country in a direction that would eventually prove disastrous for my own personal future and my family’s.
But on a purely human level the man Trump himself — the grandson of a brothel-keeper who despised and feared the Europe that he had left for the lawless wilds of Alaska during the gold rush there, the son of a ruthless, rapacious, war-profiteering, (semi-?)criminal father, the man himself a rather skilled con-artist — was the sort of American I grew up with and could easily understand, in ways that I never in ten thousand years could understand or feel comfortable with–or even like!–any of the Kennedys or Bushes or Clintons, Barak Obama or Bernie Sanders, or really, any president we have had since Harry Truman (with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter). All these other, elite presidents might as well have belonged to an alien humanoid species for all that I could actually “grok” them on a gut level as my fellows.
Praxis, I’d have to go back and read James to be sure.
Tripp, that makes a good deal of sense.
David, yep. What you contemplate you imitate — and the caricatured image of the white redneck Southern Trump supporter is getting a lot of contemplation from the privileged end of the left these days…
Samurai, you’re right that the middle class has more in common, objectively speaking, with the working class than it does with the wealthy. Almost universally, though, middle classes ally with the rich against the masses, as a way to defend their own status and their own privileged position vis-a-vis the working class. It’s not unique to today’s US by any means; middle classes always aspire to the bottom end of the wealthy class, and do as much as they possibly can to distance themselves from the upper end of the working class.
Re a detail: you say Sartre was “a veteran of the French Resistance”. Paul Johnson in his book “Intellectuals” has this to say about Sartre during the Occupation: “He was Resistance minded in theory, mind and spirit, but not in fact. He helped to form a clandestine group, Socialism and Freedom, which held meetings and debated… Sartre, then, did nothing of consequence for the Resistance. He did not lift a finger, or write a word, to save the Jews. He concentrated relentlessly on promoting his own career…” This of course isn’t a refutation of his philosophy.
Re the vertigo of the abyss of choice: it brings to my mind C S Lewis’ wonderful allegory “The Pilgrim’s Regress”, from which I quote (p.144):
Evening darkened on the tableland and they sat for a long time, immovable.
“I believe that I am mad,” said Vertue presently. “The world cannot be as it seems to me. If there is something to go to, it is a bribe, and I cannot go to it: if I can go, then there is nothing to go to.”
“Vertue,” said John, “give in. For once yield to desire. Have done with your choosing. Want something.”
“I cannot,” said Vertue. “I must choose because I choose because I choose: and it goes on for ever, and in the whole world I cannot find a reason for rising from this stone.”
“Is it not reason enough that the cold will presently kill us here?”
It had grown quite dark, and Vertue made no reply…
“What you contemplate, you imitate.”
I probably ought to stop contemplating the stubborn refusal of our current political discourse to shift towards more effective means of managing our predicament, in that case. (A point with which my wife would whole-heatedly agree!)
I know that I should focus on “growing my potatoes,” and I’ve been told that I should focus on growing my potatoes (by beings of this realm and by beings not of this realm), but it is difficult to watch as we collectively reject options which would make our future far less harsh than it is going to be. This is a hard lesson, emotionally and intellectually.
My wife made a point this morning as we were discussing this very topic that my identity/ego is very much tied up in this notion of finding the better path and arguing for the better decisions. How much better do you feel when you are tending your beds at the community garden, she asks, than when you are all wrapped up in political issues over which you have no control? I know she is right in this, but old patterns can be difficult to change. Perhaps this is very much in tune with Sartre’s point re our reluctance to face our freedom, because who am I without this struggle? Can I be in some other way and still be me?
your reply to Samurai, quote: “middle classes ally with the rich against the masses” rings reasonably true also for Britain, although there has been an ongoing unsuccessful attempt to form two middle class parties here. The original alternative was the Liberal Party which post-war was made up of a few locally surviving remnants of a previous alternative governing party. (I guess essentially this was the 19thC party from before universal suffrage which took half a century to decline to low level.) In the early 80s the Social Democratic Party hived off from the Labour Party during the Thatcher/Reagan shocks to later merge with the Liberals, and is now called ‘Lib Dem’. Otherwise, teachers and other licensed professional (‘educated’) and ‘managerial’ class and the rest of the aspirant house-owning class, were supposed to vote Tory and mostly continue to do so. It is worth noting however there has been always a sizable ‘Working Class Tory’ vote.
Despite a parliamentary system we end up then with a statistically precarious balance in a two-party system of alternative governments not all that unlike your own, with in our case the balance of power altered by the vote within Scotland, which has gone recently from dominant Labour to Scottish Nationalist. As in your country,the loss of traditional working class employment pattern has had dire effects in many old industrial areas, although attitudes north of the Border are now very different across a range of issues compared with those in England. Scotland is significantly pro-EU for example.
Not sure if it hasn’t already been mentioned here, so just in case…
Nowadays in France ‘bad Faith’ just means purposefully lying in order to serve one’s interests or to get the last word in a conversation.
It has lost its philosophical meaning as intended by JCS, probably because of its social implications:
it would cast an unfavorable light on a lot of the intellectual dialogue of our times.
For instance, the shocking nihilism of certain radical ideologies pretending to emanate from a certain monotheistic religion is on everybody’s minds in the France of 2018. Which is indeed something to denounce. But then we have to stand for our way of life and freedom of thinking… However it is rarely evoked how we might make our own culture less nihilist itself, or how our current culture is so tainted by consumerism that it has also become a culture of death, albeit to a much much lesser degree than radical Islam.
And our freedom of thinking is implicitly correlated to the consumer society, which itself is no longer materialized by a greater freedom of relationship. I say this because we commemorate the 50 years of May 68… the Charlie Hebdo killings did kill monuments from that era, and it is taken quite seriously anyway. everybody was wondering about what equivalent it could have today, but it is almost never mentioned that the aberrant complexity we have piled up on everything might be the new big issue to liberate from, just like the rigid social mores of that time was liberated from.
I guess being confronted with such a deadly evil has just provided us with ample opportunities to project our shadow on a particular group, while longing for an identity that we no longer truly incarnate. But the confrontation does not shed light on the secrets we hide in that shadow…
right now, some small-c conservatism, in the Burkean sense of caution when making change and deference to the existing order, of the kind your article attributes to Canada, seems well needed when the US seems headed right now for a repeat of early 20th century Europe.
I have annoyed any number of Democrat friends by opining that, in fact, tariffs against countries, such as the PRC, with poor environmental laws or enforcement are the very best thing that America could do for the environment globally, and that given our rather convoluted politics, only a Republican president could possibly get away with installing tariffs against environmental offenders. At this point they usually protest that poor Americans will have to pay more for things they need, I say I hardly care if happy meals no longer have cheap plastic junk toys, they realize that they’ve been railing against Americans consuming too much cheap plastic junk from overseas for years . . . and then they stop, irritated, and change the subject.
I tried to find a quote I remembered that seemed relevant, I think it was a de Toqueville, but I couldn’t find it. Something about all Americans act like they believe they are kings. I’m sure I’ll turn it up later; my recollection was that it summed up rather well up the entitled impression Americans apparently give abroad. Since every genealogist I know has traced his or her ancestry back to include some king, somewhere (usually through an illegitimate child), it seems perhaps a relevant bit of the puzzle, perhaps Americans behave the way they do because their ancestors knew they were superior by birth and passed the entitlement along, generation after generation. (My family’s genealogist is no exception to this–she managed to find a particularly infamous king, though!) Calvinism would reinforce that superiority complex, of course.
I don’t have much to say about Sartre. But it occurred to me that the problem of choosing for oneself an identity in the context of a frightening amount of freedom to define oneself and the dysfunctionalities spreading from this seem to be, as far as I know, mostly a thing of complex civilizations. Examples are the modern identities centering around this or that kind of sexuality, or the identification with a certain chariot-racing team in Roman civilization. These identity problems don’t seem to exist at all oder in a m uch reduced degree in tribal societies because the customs and cultures of such societies provide an relatively detailed and relatively uncontested template of possible identities and social functions to its members.
JMG, you are right in your answer to Samurai in regards to the middle class attempting to ally with the higher classes. That was recently pointed out in The Atlantic, in an article that claims the 9.9% just under the much hated 0.1% are also part of the problem. I suppose this would be what’s called “upper middle class”, though I don’t even know where the class boundaries are now although I do think that there is much more than money that defines which class you are a part of. I think the wealthy classes have always known this, thus the slightly demeaning designation “new money” that the wealthy used to (and still?) aim at any of the 9.9 who aspired to their level. I read on another blog, which I failed to bookmark, that referred to this article which calls on the 9.9% to join with the working class for better laws, favorable aid, etc. for the working class. (I believe it was written by someone in the 9.9%.) But how can they when so many of that category strive to climb higher? Perhaps they should remember that, if the working class really does get their pitchforks out, it’s the low hanging fruit that will get picked off first.
“The 9.9% is the New American Aristocracy” https://tinyurl.com/yd68zqdf
Patricia Mathews, your offer of the food mill would be accepted with excitement were it not that I live in the Antipodes. Postage of such a thing from Alberquerque to me would be quirky but impractically costly.
One of the salient aspects of living physically Down Under while globetrotting on the www is this recurring collision with realities of transport. To send my aunt in London some muesli she had liked while visiting, a $10 bag, would have cost $20 in postage.
It affects the purchase of books in particular, as virtually all the online second-hand merchants are in Europe or North America. So the price of a book is regularly more than doubled by the shipping.
Happily, I have just found a local bookstore with many of our gracious host’s titles in stock, at competitive prices; and best of all there is a flat $6.95 postage charge to Australasia for any size order! JMG, I hope you don’t mind my spruiking for them on your space? but my discovery is making a significant and immediate difference to my personal library and ownership of your books, and the other readers in my part of the world may be glad to know about it. The seller is called booktopia.
@Booklover: There are other possibilities for relative lack of identity issues vis-a-vis the void of freedom or abyss of choices Sartre defines. In some Native American cultures, the elders of the society spent a lot of time observing the children at play with the purpose of steering them into the role they could best fill when grown, and helping them to get the training best suited to their characters as displayed by their behavior and early interests. For another thing, there are ceremonial initiations at puberty that coincide with surges of hormonal changes and which help to ‘fix’ the emotional bonds of a child with his or her age cohort, tribal traditions, clan, and ancestral lineages. This lack is sorely felt in modern ritual-poor cultures. Third, each child is likely to have a spirit guide or animal familiar whose traits they ‘borrow’ or develop during life. This is chosen by meditation or inwardly felt affinity. For a fourth thing, when ‘deviant’ behaviors do emerge, the society is flexible enough to make exceptions for exceptional people, such as the Kachina-type warrior woman or a male choosing to dress and live as a female, doing women’s work. Apparently, Hawaiian native cultures routinely recognize an intersexed identity. For a last resort, there is the choice to simply go away and live as you please if you do not like what your homefolks expect of you. Maybe living alone is hard but if an inner drive dictates it, what matters if such a life is brief? If recent research showing that many groups living within a day’s walk of one another had very different customs and habitual ways, maybe someone disaffected could be accepted in another group or clan which had more soul resonance with their ways of thinking and feeling.
One effect of Trump’s erratic foreign policy is that it is annoying and sometimes outright alienating the USA’s traditional allies. I’m not sure how that will play out down the line, but it is going to have consequences.
I know that for its own sake the USA has got to stop trying to be the world’s policeman. For the sake of the rest of the world too, for that matter…
Ah, interesting times.
I’ve noticed another phenomenon that may be bad faith: the frankly neurotic way that so many people feel about other people smoking. I’m not a fan, but whatever.
I wonder if it’s a reflection of the knowledge that they, with their cars and cheap plastic junk, are poisoning our air….
Re: do we really need to do this at all?
That is another good one to keep in mind. There is definitely some exorbitance going on in our society! These days I try to do less and less.
At some point in the spring, when the weeds are doing way better than anything I’ve planted, I usually look around grimly and realize that most of them are probably edible…
That is quite an eerie narrative to contemplate. I first got the idea of the USA acting as police of the world from my grandfather about 20 years ago. He was fed up with the first Iraq war, then Bosnia.. fed up with all the talk of possibly intervening to help other countries and other people. The thought really stuck with me so that during the past 7 years which I’d spent in China, I was easily able to understand the feelings of many of my students as we discussed politics and the US role in the world. There have been a great many instances where the US government has abused their power, named a local leader a tyrant and had them removed only to institute a leader more to their liking. Honestly, it was quite astute of you to notice that parallel between TV shows and US involvement in the world in your childhood.
On a similar note, I do think that our host discussed this game that is common in the US sometime after the Ferguson incident. The Cop-Victim-Judge triangle? I forget what it was called!
Two Bad Haircuts just got together.
Well Trump just got North Korea to agree to denuclearization and in exchange, the US will stop conducting military exercises with South Korea. “It was save us a ton of money,” According to Trump. Sounds like stepping back from empire to me. And my gut tells me that by making peace with North Korea, there isn’t as much of a reason for North Korea to be in the bottom of China’s pocket anymore. I wonder how that’ll figure into China’s twenty year game of go.
Barely on topic, but the actor who played Sergeant Schulz was actually a Viennese Jew who escaped to the US and served in the US military in WW2, fighting against his own homeland. He lost many family members in the Holocaust.
The actor who played Colonel Klink was born in Germany, but served in the US military in WW2, also fighting against his own homeland. He only accepted the role of a Nazi officer on the condition that the officer be a bumbling loser.
Some Hans Schultz’s weren’t Hans Schultz’s.
By the way, the actor who portrayed Corporal Louis LeBeau on the show was a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Hi John Michael,
Haha! Had to laugh. But yeah, they really did describe us that way. And to be honest, pigs are smarter than dogs, so this may be a good thing! Hehe!
Phew. I’m tired. Just set up the new blog website using WordPress. It’s a journey that, but I learned that the interweb is not a safe and happy, free for all space because as I noticed about a week ago that a specific robot turned up to my old website and it was not there for my benefit I can tell you. Well Sun Tzu advises to take the initiative and do the unexpected – and who can argue with such wisdom?
Now as to humility, well I reckon it is the halfway point between total arrogance and being a doormat. I’ve noticed that both doormats and the meek have the absolute stuffing kicked out of them, and some may call that humility, but not I. What do you reckon about that? It is my view on the world after all.
Hmmm, I can see the great value of the decline / collapse distinction; very different responses suggest themselves.
Could be a tough row to hoe, for such a distinction to take root. Taking seriously some of the discussions here on the deep religious roots of the progress apocalypse divide suggests that learning to integrate the option of decline into the discussion take a higher level learning process (Bateson) than learning the predicament / problem distinction. I think that awareness the narratives of progress and collapse, in their religious depth, is particularly useful to see decline as a truly distinct form. For years I was progressive, then apocalyptic, even after reading TADR on the regular for several year I was still an apocalyptic essentially. Gradually I believed in a slower collapse, but a slower collapse isn’t quite the same as a decline. Similar to how dying slowly of an injury isn’t the same as dying of aging; even if the time lines can be brought to similar length its still different. I don’t think I started to really grok the differences until I had really chewed on the Myth of Progress material.
The Apocalyptic allows for stupendous Bad Faith, as one can in a weird way pray to collapse for salvation from the trouble of this world. I did that a lot. Still do in moments of vivid frustration. Similar to the ‘victim identity’ discussed up thread perhaps.
Teaching all but the sharpest students the decline / collapse distinction with words as the primary tool may prove especially difficult, though reality is offering such vivid demonstrations of the principle that I think folks will become more and more receptive, as the decline narrative accounts for ever larger fraction of living memory. The rise from the Great Depression to the era of happy motoring is still over represented in cultural memory; but today most people never lived through any of that; it isn’t real anymore in a certain sense.
Gkb, these are all interesting points about identity in tribal societies. But the possibilities for identities were prsumably not the same in different tribal societies. And, besides that, it just came to my mind that it might be the case that there exists a certain phase in the rise and fall of civilizations where finding an appropriate identity is more difficult than at other times.
Re: Decline or Collapse
I have a question about Decline vs Collapse: what do you think is the right of both terms for the scenario you described in your superb essay “Twilight’s Last Gleaming”?, what happens to the US empire in this case is a Collapse or a Decline?
Because in my point of view, the scenario you described would be even more extreme that the Soviet Union’s collapse, cause in the Soviet Union case it still remain an very powerful, extense & polulated country (Russia) that was also not so dependent of the Wealth Pump from the rest of the world and did not have all this suburban hiper-consumist life style and maintained community bonds (extense familiy and others); what do you think will happens in few years to the former US society after such kind of events?
So, JMG, can people from the once and future Confederacy avoid forced American identity altogether in the future?
Dear JMG, excuse moi for my rhyme. “I thought I was smart, then I tried to read Sartre…”
Jessica: there’s no “Hans Schultz”, or surprise, in your examples – all 3 actors are Jews.
Danae: I heard “I thought I was smart, then I tried to read Sartre…” in a wicked strong Boston accent.
Shane W: will their identity be more Ashley Wilkes or Gerald O’Hara?
1. Mental health variations including some measure of awareness or engagement among people may limit the applicability of Sartrean bad faith. There is an element of conscious versus subconscious mind that influences faith manifestations of whatever nature. How much agency does a person have in that regard?
2. People may not be very aware of how they appear to others. One way to increase that awareness is to be filmed, especially from different angles and distances, both stationary and in motion. Looking in a mirror is an inferior substitute. A variation involves recording of speech, to hear somewhat how others hear one.
You posted this the day I left for Europe, and I only returned yesterday. There is no need to publish my comment, which is for that reason late, but when I went to look “moderate Burkean conservatism” up I came across this: https://worldnewstrust.com/a-few-notes-on-burkean-conservatism-john-michael-greer . It was first published in The Archdruid Report, but obviously is no longer available there. I hope that you will either republish it here, or else make a permanent (or “sticky”) link to a version of it from here. I think it capably explains, through a number of examples, what you mean when you talk about abstraction, and why it is problematic. The point you’re making seems fundamental. The other thing to note is that it is incredibly prescient with respect to a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court: “It would be a reasonable accommodation for conservative Christian businesses that cater to weddings to be able to post signage noting that they only provide services to the kinds of weddings authorized by their own religious laws. That would let same-sex couples take their business elsewhere; it would also let people who support the right of same-sex marriage know which businesses to boycott, just as it would let conservative Christians support their co-religionists.” The Supreme Court decision would then be an example of moderate Burkean conservatism.
I think that is not posible to separate the culture of the people of USA from the culture of western european people ( for me culture means cultural enviroment). The situación is diferent for Hispano America, because there remains vestiges of the precolombian cultures.
But USA is culturaly populated for europeans, with some peculiarities that were remarkable since the times of Tockeville. And, according with Spengler And Toynbee, is dying because is western.
I’m only just catching up on your recent posts, but from an Australian viewpoint, this is so true. Trump is like the funhouse mirror which one stands in front of and everything is reflected as grossly huge and ugly and exaggerated, but it’s still reflecting the person doing the looking.
Not that we Australians should be too busy pointing fingers at America’s reflection that we conveniently stop looking into our own mirrors, of course. If there’s one thing we shouldn’t be proud of, especially right now, it’s being an inspiration to Trump on immigration policy.
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