Monday, January 10, 2011

Violent Depravity as a National Pastime

At the time of the Tucson atrocities Jan. 8, I was busy reading Evan Thomas's fascinating book on Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and William Randolph Hearst, and their manufacturing of the Spanish-American War, The War Lovers. What surprised me was the degree to which Roosevelt really came across as a profoundly disturbed individual. I'm not talking about pedestrian-level machismo like the formation of The Rough Riders for the charge up San Juan Hill. That level of nonsense is commonplace in U.S. history. I'm talking about Roosevelt's belief that all diplomats were "hermaphrodites", because it was evil and homosexual to aim for peaceful negotiations to solve problems, when the only "virile" way to build a nation was to go to war whenever possible. I'm talking about his belief that it was necessary to instill both hunting and fighting in a child at a young age, because the more gore one encountered, the better. Sure, he tried to shmooze up to the Progressives by 1904, but TR could never escape his Neanderthal, violent, and proto-fascist beliefs he expressed as a member of Congress and Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

It's fair to point out that in the late Victorian Era in which Roosevelt came of age, virtually everyone in the developed industrial world was pretty messed up. Colonialism had gone into hyperdrive in Africa, obsessive adherence to Social Darwinism and eugenics was considered cool, and Sigmund Freud could develop some rather odd theories about dream interpretation, female "hysterics", etc. etc., because everyone in the era Freud lived in was pretty wacked out in their day-to-day lives. Hmm, sound familiar?

When I posted a brief observation about TR on Facebook last weekend, a lot of people were wondering about the definition of 'mentally disturbed.' How could TR be so popular if he was so different? I explained that I don't define psychological abnormality by majority vote. If a person believes in theories that would be self-destructive or lead inevitably to large numbers of deaths, that individual is disturbed. If the nation/tribe/society/race/culture buys into that belief, then the group itself is collectively mentally disturbed. Germans certainly fit that description in the era between Bismarck and Hitler, Southerners in the antebellum era all the way up to mid-20th century, Islamic cultures in which a Wahhabist tendency is in the majority, etc. Yes, a society itself can be mentally disturbed.

Which is why pointing the finger at Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck for the crimes of Jared Lee Loughner is only partially correct. The strident and vocal standard bearers in the various Tea Party movements, exemplified in Arizona by the likes of Russell Pearce and Jack Harper, could not develop such a big fan base were they not enablers for a much larger group of people who take the Roosevelt way of looking at the world to heart. Using crosshairs in a gun sight to identify political opponents would not seem that strange to them, because they see politics as a zero-sum game in which one's opponent should be stuffed and hung on the wall next to the deer heads Sarah shows off on her Alaska show. Many progressives want to say that the lumpen proletariat would not be so wacko without a Fox News or Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin to stir them up. I say we can assign a certain amount of blame to the chefs in the kitchen, but we also have to identify the problem at its source.

The Western industrial world and its former Soviet counterpart have lived through conquest and a Sparta-like culture since the Victorian era morphed into World War I, the Russian Revolution, and all that came after. The Asian and Islamic cultures that soon will be assuming planetary dominance from the Westerners are just as dependent on bloodlust. Yes, modern media reinforce these messages of killing and dominance, but those messages are also reinforced by the totality of myths and cultural determinants in all these societies. The peace-loving members of the Enlightenment movement (always a minority, even within the Enlightenment) never stood a chance.

In fact, that definition I gave for mental pathology earlier on, depended on rather unique circumstances - a rationalist, cortex-driven view of culture had to pass judgment on a mind that used its emotional limbic-cerebellar roots ahead of its cortex, maybe without even applying reason to the problem. But cortical rationalism has only been consciously favored since the beginning of the Enlightenment and the formalizing of the scientific method. For millenia before that time, the limbic system won, hands down. So violent depravity is bound to win out, it's got a long and proven history behind it.

You no doubt have seen the sci-fi films and books that talk about the creation of a rationalist clerical order that hides, like the monks in Lindisfarne, to preserve intellectual pursuit from the ravaging of the dogs of war. We're near that point in the preservation of rationalism and the scientific method, let alone the preservation of peaceful discourse. Now, in order to pretend that our society still protects diversity and multiculturalism, "proper" Republicans and Democrats may agree to criminalize a large part of the violent crazy movement. At first, rationalists may applaud, until the efforts turn into a generalized Palmer Raid, and we're living in a hyper-controlled state of the pseudo-rationalists, seeking to suppress our instinctual violence. The problem is, all such states live with violence at their cores, so their efforts to contain crazies are bound to fail. If the contradictions don't come to the surface in Afghanistan or Somalia or Cote d'Ivoire, they'll come to the surface in running gun battles between Tea Party cells and the forces of order.

Yeah, the vast majority of people in the Victorian Era were mentally disturbed. Majorities in many 21st-century cultures are mentally disturbed. And it's hard to envision an easy way to keep the crazies from winning.


libertyvini said...

Yes, things seem pretty rough. But honestly, I think we are in the early death-throes of the Empire that TR helped birth. I don't think we quite appreciate the profound effect this has on all of us, but the decline and fall of Uncle Sugar is profoundly destabilizing to society, whether we perceive it or not. Worse, the people at the top will fight to the death to stay there. Not their death, of course.

Loring Wirbel said...

A fun time will be had by all. And all shall have prizes.

surfer1969 said...

A Interesting way of looking at things.