Tuesday, September 29, 2015
Why the West wants to lose (?)
Sociologist John Carroll writes below from Australia but his perspective is an international one. He considers at the outset that the negativity he discusses is Leftist but dismisses that. He argues that it is simply human. He justifies that by saying that the Nazis were a bad lot and they were "Right-wing". But they were not. They were socialists and Carroll should know that. And antisemitism is once again very Leftist, though usually under the shallow pretence of "anti-Zionism". Even Karl Marx despised Jews so claiming that antisemitism is "Rightist" is a joke.
I think Carroll's claims are a crazy overgeneralization. Conservatives are the people who are happily getting on with their lives and just want the government off their backs. It is the Left who are congenital miseries, who hate just about everything about them. So I read Carroll's interesting analysis below as an analysis of the Left. They truly are a dismal bunch. It is the Western Left who want their countries and societies to lose and lose big -- JR
George Orwell wrote in England in 1944, in an essay for Partisan Review, that he had come to judge the entire Left intelligentsia as hating their country, to the extreme of being dismayed whenever Britain won a victory in the war against Hitler.
Orwell still identified himself as a socialist when he wrote this. Orwell was, without doubt, exaggerating, in his blanket condemnation of the entire Left intelligentsia. And his observation needs the further qualification: he was writing at the close of a period in which the extreme Right in Europe, via messianic fascist nationalism, had been cataclysmically destructive.
I have been puzzled myself by the phenomenon Orwell observed, very common in humanities faculties at the universities at which I have worked. It might be termed cultural masochism, and has manifested in many forms. Whenever before in human history have significant groups within a nation — often privileged, elite groups — wanted their own to fail or to be defeated?
THE ORDEAL OF UNBELIEF
The broad cultural condition of unbelief established the preconditions. They arose in the wake of the death of God: the near total collapse of institutional religion, and, in generalised accompaniment, confident belief in a higher power that directs the human world. In relation to the possibility of a metaphysical beyond, most people today, at best, believe there is “something there”. That something is vague.
The prototype of the paralysing anxiety aroused in someone sensitive to the fact he believes in nothing was Dostoevsky’s character Stavrogin, from The Possessed (1872). Stavrogin is a handsome, brilliant and confident young aristocrat whom almost everyone of his generation — male and female — falls in love with. He has studied widely, travelled, visited the holy sites, fought duels and engaged in many love affairs. He fears no one. A few years earlier he was the charismatic teacher to a circle of young men, engaging them in questions of ultimate meaning. His name derives from the Greek word for cross; Dostoevsky is experimenting with him as the messiah for a secular age.
Stavrogin has taken on life and lived it to the full. If anyone has discovered the answer of how to live in a secular time, and make sense of one’s own life, it is he. When we meet him, however, he is listless and nihilistic, indifferent to the offer to lead a revolutionary group. Stavrogin’s passions are so flat the most he can manage is a few adolescent pranks. His face looks like a beautiful mask, a death mask. He admits to past times of wild debauchery — not for pleasure but to try to find a limit, something to believe in that would stop him. He finds no limits; for him, everything is permitted.
A feature of the cultural turbulence of the early 20th century was the number of commanding philosophical and literary figures who were driven by despair at cultural decadence. The conclusion they had reached — that my culture has no authority, and provides me with no convincing explanations to justify my existence — left them in an intolerable position. To choose two of the exemplars: Georg Lukacs and TS Eliot both took a deliberate leap of faith out of their respective wastelands. When Lukacs joined the Communist Party in 1918, arguably the most sophisticated and well-read intellectual of his generation had turned into an apologist for Stalin. From soon after Eliot became a “little England” Anglican Christian in 1927, the pungency of his earlier poetry evaporated into fey abstraction.
Today, the youth that takes with idealistic enthusiasm to the Green political movement may be located in this same mental domain, although without the self-consciousness or the intensity of anguish. The content seems almost arbitrary, with the attachment rather to the enthusiasm itself — Stavrogin was as desperate to find a passion in himself, irrespective of its end, as to find a limit. Naive Green idealism is possible only in an affluent world under no threat of war; and little threat of hardship, for the young Greens, by and large, live in the prosperous inner cities.
Freud’s pregnant concept of negation is useful. What appears in surface behaviour is the opposite of its unconscious motivation, the act deliberately inverting its true nature. In Freud’s own examples, negation is provoked by feelings of guilt — as with the forced smile in someone whose ideal of themselves is that they are a nice person, who smiles on the surface to cover up unconscious aggression, “to smile and smile and be a villain”.
More interestingly in the context of this essay, negation may also be triggered by a longing for authority. Marlow, the narrator in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, reaches the conclusion, at the end of his adventures, that humans need something outside themselves to bow down before. Otherwise they go mad.
In the narrow political sphere, power, if it is to gain legitimacy, needs the authority of an established order: say, the ensemble of a hereditary monarch, age-old institutions, a venerable legal tradition, and a people’s cherished customs. Every dynamic community — from the nuclear family, to the sporting club, school, trade union, or church — lives off a powerful collective conscience, giving it authority over the actions of its members. Today, nostalgia for cosy, close-knit community, which it is feared is disappearing, pervades television soap opera. It reflects a longing for one type of lost authority.
Failing belief may trigger hatred of the dying god. Lapsing Catholics turn against the Pope. The residue of some love or need generates the hatred. The longing for authority, in negation, leads to hostility to the weakness of existing authorities — for university students in the 1960s it was parents, political leaders, and university lecturers and vice-chancellors. This was understandable, and more than pure negation: the curiosity of a youth generation eager to take on the adult world seeks leadership, not an ineffectual older generation limp in its own lack of direction. Stavrogin was brought up by weak father figures and an hysterical mother.
More pathological in the 1960s was the lurch into idealising mega-powerful, brutal dictators like Mao Zedong. Here was a vivid symbol of the hurt felt by the loss of the old gods — the old authorities. More simple negation was exhibited when self-proclaimed peace-loving, flower-waving students demonstrated violently against the Vietnam war.
The ordeal of unbelief provides the modern context for the eruption of drives universal to the human condition, notably power envy and moral paranoia. They have provided the energy source for a new form of social pathology, one peculiar to the modern West — cultural masochism. The sado-masochistic pleasure gained by some individuals in suffering pain at the hands of another is projected outwards on to the person’s own culture and society. Damaging it, attacking it, seeing it suffer and being diminished, brings pleasure. This is extraordinary.
These same drives may be projected in any political direction, depending on the historical moment. In Germany in the 1930s, students were, in the main, inclined to the Nazi Right, and to a messianic nationalism with sadistic rather than masochistic tropes. Hitler cleverly exploited, in his writings and speeches, the need for something to believe in, which he offered to provide. Since the 1940s, it happens that political pathology in the West has been predominantly of the Left. This may, of course, change — for instance, xenophobic right-wing parties may rise again in Europe to be of more than marginal significance. And the emergence of Muslim youth in Western countries attracted by Islamic State fanaticism illustrates the broad effect of the ordeal of unbelief.
Three great psychologists have cast their powerful interpretative gaze across the modern world — Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Freud. Of them, the master interpreter of culture and its contemporary travails was Nietzsche. Nietzsche argued that a will-to-power is at the core of human motivation. It leads inevitably to the weak envying the strong, and individual behaviour manifesting sublimations of this envy across all fronts. Nietzsche was following 17th-century French moralist the Duc de La Rochefoucauld, who identified self-esteem (and with it vanity and insecurity) as the key to all human motivation. Humans are insecure egotists, which explains the pride and the fear that governs almost all of what they do. Nietzsche extends the analysis to those discontented with their lives, ill at ease in themselves, which means, sick of themselves. Such individuals are inwardly driven to seek a cause for their suffering: someone or something must be to blame. The hurt becomes externalised.
Let me switch back to the contemporary world. Patriotism feeds off, and generates, an undercurrent of confidence, wanting the nation to be successful, which means powerful. It is the same with football fans supporting their team. Where the identification fails, or the authority of the parent society is too weak, resentment may surface in that hatred of nation Orwell found abhorrent. In Western countries, power envy is often expressed in reflex anti-Americanism, the target chosen simply because it is the leading power in the West — the leader on our side, so to speak. The morning after the destruction of the twin towers in New York in 2001, Monash University students were celebrating in public.
David Hicks became a hero for a broad section of those who are left-oriented, on the surface grounds that he might have been tortured by the Americans while he was imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. The subtext was that he had trained with al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan before and after September 11, 2001, including direct contact with Osama bin Laden; and he had fought against Coalition forces that included the Australian Army. The actions of this “hero” bordered on treason. The Hicks example suggests the subject was not chosen simply as a device for thinking evil of America — although that was the case. Negation was at work, the candidate chosen because he had been actively engaged, siding with the enemy.
The ideological Left has generally had an irrationally wrought hostility to strong and intelligent leaders on the Right, such as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Malcolm Fraser (while prime minister), Jeff Kennett and John Howard. Some were mocked as boof-headed (Kennett) or senile (Reagan). Strong leaders of the Left — for example, Franklin Roosevelt and Bob Hawke — have not attracted similar antipathy.
Nietzsche argued that the clerisy — which includes the clergy and the intelligentsia — is of its nature impotent, compared with people who live active lives, who direct and make things, who are decisive, and who enjoy themselves. The clerisy, in its tortured inwardness, becomes rancorous — and above all moralistic. Out of disgust at itself, and irritation with its life, it launches into bad-tempered projections. While Nietzsche oversimplified — given that we humans are often composed of diverse personae blended into one complex form — strains of his central theme may be noted today. The clergy in mainstream churches hardly ever talk of faith, redemption or God. They seem embarrassed by their core mission, which is to provide convincing answers to the big-meaning questions of why we are here and what happens when we die. They rather don the ethical robes of empathy for the disadvantaged and rail against government callousness, appearing more like politicised social workers than apostles of the faith. Religion and politics do not belong together — as Jesus himself taught.
Much of the intelligentsia has turned against the long Western high-cultural tradition that since Homer and Plato has sought the true, the beautiful, and the good. It has rather set to criticising its society: customs, traditions and institutions. The current lead manifestation is refugee studies, whereby a dozen areas in the humanities have taken up the politically fashionable “oppressed” of the moment, victims of a cruel, hard-hearted Australian government — there must be hundreds of PhD theses being written around the country on this blight on the national character. Now I don’t question that the practical politics of how to deal with a flow of people voyaging on barely seaworthy boats to try to land in Australia raises difficult human challenges with no morally clear-cut solutions. What I do question is the exploitation of the issue to attack the civic order.
The paranoid disposition splits the world into good and evil (no grey). It does so in just the same way that fundamentalist religions do. Indeed, all fundamentalism exhibits the same psycho-pathology.
Paranoid extremism is manifest in grandiose delusions of self-importance, or in delusions of persecution. The cosmos is riven by the warring forces of good and evil. Evil is satanic, and therefore potent enough to spread superhuman contagion. Modern secular crusades are driven by ideological fundamentalism, imputing quasi-religious metaphysical forces that justify the venom against what is hated. These crusades have been predominantly but not exclusively of the Left — on the Right, the free-market camp has included some zealotry.
Let two examples suffice. In the 1970s, Australian and American soldiers returning from fighting for their country in Vietnam were confronted by screaming contempt by tens of thousands of their fellow citizens. It was as if they had been fighting for the devil. Second, the nation and its people are spat on today as racist, with particular examples (which can be found in any country) blown up and generalised. This is singularly unconvincing in the case of Australia, which has successfully welcomed and settled millions of immigrants.
Moral paranoia may be a sub-category of power envy. The powerful, or the imagined powerful (Jewish bankers or more recently Israel, capitalists, the CIA, right-wing media moguls), are inflated to embody monolithic evil. Examples from the Right include Pauline Hanson’s fears that Asians were taking over Australia. Rupert Murdoch has made the perfect bogeyman with his global media empire, given that the rampaging paranoid imagination is inclined to see the invisible tentacles of media influence reaching into every home and controlling the minds of the simple souls who live there. These contemporary Big Brothers flood the world in a fog of pollution — with the very use of contamination imagery illustrating the high moralist cast of mind, and the quasi-religious associations with sin and damnation.
Free-floating resentment may be projected on to the political stage without any personal repercussions, or face-to-face confrontations, where irresponsible opinions do not need to be defended or tested.
The ultimate challenge of Nietzsche is to prove that he is exaggerating. If we humans are no more than monomaniacal egotists, simply motivated by power, and the anxieties that flow from fear of powerlessness, this reality is a more severe blow to our self-esteem than Darwin’s linking our parentage to the monkey.
What is the evidence in support of Nietzsche? Who has any friends whom they don’t suspect will gain some pleasure if they come to harm? Gore Vidal quipped that whenever one of his friends had a success, a part of him died. Strip away the civilised veneer and raw competitiveness rules. Children are unabashedly transparent in their me-me-me self-promotions. Are they not simply more open and honest than adults?
Competitiveness rules as much in the defences against fear of failure as in open battles for power and influence. The compulsion to do better than others, have more influence, and more power to attract may be direct, as in elaborate female rituals of make-up and dressing. It may be indirect, as in sublimated identification with a celebrity or a football team. Fear of failure generates a plethora of rationalisations, from the openly hypocritical “I am a caring person”, and “competition is selfish”; to the self-deception of “I am a better person for the experience”; and to the more subtle putdowns of “he is too good to be true” and “she is just a pretty bird-brain”.
On the other side of the ledger, contra Nietzsche, there is some genuine compassion, a spontaneous and sympathetic warmth to another’s suffering. Nietzsche was right to judge pity as a mask for superiority, usually — its condescension an aspect of the will-to-power. But it is not always so. Orwell was an example.
Summing up, the obvious conclusion to draw is that the psychological reality of the human condition is mainly dispiriting. Writ large is Macbeth’s “poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage”. Which takes us back to the threat of unbelief in a secular age. With the axis of belief/unbelief tipping towards the latter, it becomes more difficult to find metaphysical inspiration. In other words, when unbelief doesn’t slide into cultural pathology it may be interpreted as a rational and honest response to a disenchanted reality. But that is Stavrogin.
Nietzsche’s will-to-power is the theory for a disenchanted age. When the world is disenchanted, power stands alone and rules. It is in service of the last limit, the No of No’s: death. Stavrogin is cursed by his failure to find anything with the authority to check him, to shame him, and any passion strong enough to engage him, so the one thing left to stop him is death, which he chooses. Australian politics today is jammed with wretched illustration, in the phalanxes of diminutives who choose to enter its halls without the slightest commitment to any cause except their own careers.
But no era is disenchanted in any absolute sense. That is not the nature of the human condition. Today, as always, the sense of a transcendent is what lifts the individual above the rapaciously selfish psychological plane. Those who find deep fulfilment in their work are likely to give it selfless devotion, and with it whomever they serve. Many find in family life a rich fulfilment that is inextricably tied to them giving themselves to something bigger than their individual selves. The sportsman or woman who finds scintillating form may be humbled by the experience. Then there is the awesome power of nature. And genuine compassion depends on some kind of faith in the human essence, which is another vein of the transcendent.
Here are intimations of “something there”, ones to which Stavrogin remained deaf.
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Posted by JR at 1:34 AM