It would be pleasing to one’s sense of enlightened amour propre to know that the storytelling done by America’s political progressives has no sins of its own to account for, no egregious lying machines smelling of propaganda, false consciousness, and the exploitation of the terminally foolish. We progressives would like to think that all of our as-if-ing is done through the innocence of the arts, through our utopian aspirations, and not inflicted on other people for our own benefit. That, unfortunately, is not the case.
Let me try to take account (with a sort of counter-contrarian flourish) of at least one of those leftish narrative strands. It is this: we left-leaners narrate poor, white, rural, conservative, Southern culture as if it were the world of the People of the Id. These People are, of course, not shy about labeling us, so-called liberals, as sinners of one kind or another (humanists, relativists, heathens, homosexuals, baby killers, communists, in order of increasing flammability), but we’re not much conscious of how we return the favor.
We return the favor by treating them as if they were primitive, violent, stupid, animalistic, and destructive. We treat them as if they were children of Freud’s secular Satan, the dark Id. They are not, in our view, “evil” as such because their faults seem so natural to them—so “native.” But they do seem immoral. That is, they seem to us to need an agency outside of themselves to impose a little moral order, a little Law, on them—by the scruff of the neck, if needed—just as we see on the television show "COPS."
We think of the People of the Id as a part of us, a part of our own community that we must be vigilant against. They are a part of us, but a part we must master. We think that they need a little justice imposed on them. When the detective heroes of HBO’s 2014 "True Detective" impose the law on the pedophilic monsters of rural Louisiana, they are clearly imposing the law on people who are only a very small degree removed from themselves: poor, white, violent, drug- and alcohol-abusing people who managed somehow to find a place on the “force.” "True Detective" is an allegory of morality understood as self-mastery.
But are the People of the Id aware that their unjust acts are unjust? Sometimes, I suppose. From all appearances, there are sociopaths out there happily acting out of “motiveless malignity.” Our newspapers seem to be full of their wicked exploits, staggering to contemplate. Take, for example, this one from October 2014:
Four Fresno County teenagers were arrested Wednesday evening in connection with the golf-club slaughter of more than 900 chickens at a Foster Farms ranch south of Fresno, authorities said.
Hats off to the youth of Fresno on this one. I can’t think of a motive for it, it doesn’t fit into any notion of deviant culture that I can think of—even Voodoo takes it one chicken at a time—and it’s clearly a malign thing that they did, although what Foster Farms had in mind for the chickens can’t have been a lot better.
(Actually, according to investigations done by the Humane Society and others, getting whacked by a golf club might qualify as mercy in comparison with what industrial farming puts chickens through. Sure, the teens employed “unsound methods,” but they just need the guidance of more experienced hands. Or perhaps Foster Farms should look on the boys as innovators and set them up with internships when they are paroled.)
But this sort of thing is not the behavior of the People of the Id, and neither is the sexual/religious derangement of Southern whites depicted on True Detective. Unlike the youth of Fresno, the People of the Id think that when they act they’re doing their duty—they’re doing what “anyone would do in my shoes.” They think this even when very few people outside their community would do anything of the sort, never mind the shoes. In any case, the People of the Id feel quite innocent about their acts. “Nothin’ special. Just standin’ up for my rights,” they say.
Or perhaps it is all a misunderstanding: the boys were merely seeking to understand the poet Frank Stanford’s immortal line “I have inhaled the fumes of the chicken feathers of death myself.”
In other words, the People of the Id do what they’re told they shouldn’t do largely because they are under the impression that they are heroic, the defenders of all that is good, and certainly not people filled with motiveless malignity, a phrase that sounds to them like something that an overeducated elitist from San Francisco would say.
Should the People of the Id be called on their bad behavior, should their leaders be put in shackles, they are surprised, then outraged. Their friends and family members, their civic and religious leaders, turn and howl at the cameras. The very first thing they claim is that they, the valiant People of the Id, are the ones who have been treated unjustly, beginning with the fact that they have been treated like People of the Id, like a “common criminal,” as they put it. They say, “We are not People of the Id, and we don’t know where you got that idea. We are patriots. We are the real Americans. We are protecting the American Revolution from tyranny! You should be thanking us!”
I speak here of the Tea Party and the NRA. I speak of Hobby Lobby and Cracker Barrel. And at the extreme I speak of the White Aryan Resistance and the Creativity Movement.
The problem is not that the People of the Id are bad; the problem is that there is another group of people called the People of the Law who call them bad. But the People of the Law are mistaken. Their mistake is in thinking that there is a difference between the Id and the Law, a difference between the Id’s putative destructiveness and the benign enforcement of the Law. But they are in fact the same thing, mutatis mutandis. What the People of the Id believe and too often act on, sometimes horribly, are the things that everyone around them—father, mother, neighbor—has believed for decades if not centuries, and in this they are no different from the People of the Law. The people to whom love is owed have put them under a heavy obligation to believe certain stories, for the stories are nothing other than their community’s virtues. These virtues seem obvious to them: “You can’t tax me without my consent, you can’t tell me what kind of gun I can own, you can’t tell me my daughter can get an abortion, and you can’t tell me two men can get married, not in Mississippi they can’t.” No wonder they think that federal appeal courts are the instruments of the Antichrist.
When, as often happens, the People of the Id are told by “outsiders” (those who bring the Law to them) that their truths are lies and their virtues false, they become confused and indignant. And should federal agents and troops come around to enforce foreign virtues, it will seem as if they are being forced to become members of a perverse community of evildoers, and they don’t wish to be perverse (they don’t wish to be “preverts,” as Colonel “Bat” Guano [Keenan Wynn] put it in Dr. Strangelove). They become angry because they can no longer experience the pleasure of feeling at one with their world, and at one with that world’s unique sense of joy in living (even if this joy is predicated on, for example, a tolerance for beating up gays on Saturday night—that’s just boys letting off steam and if the queers don’t like it they should move to San Francisco—where they belong!). It is for these reasons and more that we have in recent years experienced rancher-racist-patriot-hero-deadbeat Cliven Bundy and his armed and Stetson-hatted posse of seditionists. It is for these reasons that we have endured ugly-white-man-millionaire-NBA-franchise-owning-racist-with-diminished-mental-capacities Donald Sterling. And it is for these reasons that we have had no choice but to look into the eyes of oops-I-thought-y’all-was-Jews murderer Frazier Glenn Miller and wonder what dark mystery thrives therein. We ask this man to pray for our forgiveness, but that makes no sense to him. “Forgive me my virtues!”—that is how he should pray!
When the People of the Id argue that they are merely living in a way that is consistent with the most ancient American traditions, traditions that have made them who they are, they are not wrong. As you may recall from high school history class, the Republican movement in this country was led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison against the Federalists—in particular John Adams, with his fondness for courtly ritual, and the imperial Alexander Hamilton. The Republicans accused the Federalists of being aristocrats, elitists, and monarchists intent on establishing a strong central government, an exploitative system of excise taxes, a corrupt system of finance based on a permanent federal debt, and a standing military to enforce the government’s autocratic whims. For Republicans, that sounded like being asked to pay for their own oppression.
But just as the Republican Party of the present has issues with Tea Party extremism, the Jeffersonians had their own problems with immoderation that came to a head in what was known as the Whiskey Rebellion. In brief, an excise tax to support the federal budget was placed on whiskey, which at that time was used by many farmers not only for local consumption but also as a kind of currency. Where were they going to get money to pay the taxes on the whiskey that they were using as money? (Perhaps they should have offered to give a few barrels to Hamilton and tell him to sell them if he wanted money.) Opposition to the tax in the West was so strong that a rebellion erupted in western Pennsylvania in which thousands of armed rebels organized, terrorized tax collectors, flew their own flag, and considered marching on the federal garrison in Pittsburgh. As our Tea Partiers of today would say, pennant in hand, “Don’t tread on me!” But these activities only served to provoke exactly what they most feared: a federal military response brought down on their heads by Hamilton (gleefully) and Washington (resolutely).
And who were these rebels? The Federalists called them “busy and restless sons of anarchy,” the anarchy consisting essentially in contempt for centralized lawmaking. These rebels were the first scofflaws, but they were also typical of rural America at the time. As Gordon S. Wood describes our rustic forebearers in his book Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815:
[N]early all Americans—men, women, children, and sometimes even babies—drank whiskey all day long. Some workers began drinking before breakfast and then took dram breaks instead of coffee breaks. “Treating” with drink by militia officers and politicians was considered essential to election. During court trials a bottle of liquor might be passed among the attorneys, spectators, clients, and the judge and jury . . . Whiskey accompanied every communal activity, including women’s quilting bees.
And in the southern states, the men enjoyed chasing their whiskey with mortal combat:
Men on the frontier often fought with “no holds barred,” using their hands, feet, and teeth to disfigure or dismember each other until one or the other surrendered or was incapacitated. “Scratching, pulling hair, choking, gouging out each other’s eyes, and biting off each other’s noses” were all tried, recalled Daniel Drake, growing up in late eighteenth-century Kentucky. “But what is worse than all,” observed the English traveller Isaac Weld, “these wretches in their combat endeavor to their utmost to tear out each other’s testicles.”
Hatred of the federal government, taxes, banks, and debt. A trust in the manly virtues of gun toting and whiskey. The embrace of extreme violence. Are the Tea Party, the NRA, and the avid fans of Xtreme Fighting mixed martial arts wrong to think that what they represent is not criminal but deeply, psychically American? Are they not part of—even if a boundary-pushing part—Jefferson’s belief that the American experiment had “the duty of proving what is the degree of freedom and self-government in which a society may venture to leave its individual members”? Jefferson’s assumption was that democracy would cure itself; it did not need central regulation.
It’s this simple: Our modern People of the Id do not believe that the degree to which they have taken freedom goes beyond that place where a democratic society may venture. It is for this reason that they become so irate when a bureaucrat tells them that they must wear a helmet when they ride a motorcycle, or that they can’t use a phone when they drive. Needless to say, the list of things forbidden by federal and state law is not a short one, as the prohibitions posted at our state and national parks demonstrate, which is why it is rare to see one that has not been improved with buckshot. Do the People of the Law want to regulate head injuries in professional football? Do they want to ban the NFL? To which the clever redneck ought to respond: “Would you prefer going back to a time when the local sports hero was an eye gouger and testicle tearer? What we are now is a great refinement on what we were. We have established our own limits without the intrusion of someone else’s law. Yes, there may be brain trauma involved, but that’s our worry, and we’ve got our nuts . . . as well as Peyton Manning!”
Oddly, this point of view has recently gained plenty of sympathetic admirers in more sophisticated circles: witness the rise of “cracker chic” on cable TV food programs for southern cuisine and craft bourbons, or television’s glorifying of hunting, American “pickers,” and the ancient way of life depicted on the History Channel’s Swamp People or the Learning Channel’s Trailer Park: Welcome to Myrtle Manor. Or perhaps you prefer Glamour Belles, Lizard Lick Towing, Sweet Home Alabama, or Animal Planet’s Hillbilly Handfishin’. And everyone should prefer the elemental charm of Dog the Bounty Hunter!
Of course, all this is dependent on typecasting rural people, especially in the South, and chortling at a safe distance as its representatives perform a sordid white minstrelsy (minus the talent for tap dancing). More to the point, this programming dictates a Federalist understanding of the rural: the people of the countryside are unlike us. They are crude and violent, if sometimes good for a laugh. If they are poor, it is because that’s how they like it. (As far as their poverty is concerned, the People of the Law are perfectly happy to say, “It’s their culture and who are we to judge?”) For us, their culture provides the benefit of an occasional shot of Elijah Craig twenty-one-year-old single barrel or a plate of blackened redfish and cheesy grits but not much more (except for the occasional night out slumming with the line dancers). This sort of media representation reinforces the old Federalist idea that rural culture requires policing. Surprisingly, even the protagonists of the above programs seem to accept the idea that their undertakings benefit from the supervision of governmental grown-ups. At the end of the day, they confess, “I’ve made some bad choices in my life.”
And on the whole we left-leaners couldn’t agree more. It’s their own fault! They need to take a good hard look inside!
Taken together, these characteristics create our founding national psychopathology. All the social issues that will lead debate in the next federal election cycle will be a reflection of this psychopathology, the “neurotic personality of our time,” as Freud’s student Karen Horney expressed it.
And a long time it has been.
THE ENDLESS BABBLE OF SELF-CREATION
Do the People of the Id do anything other than what everyone does? Don’t we all turn the endless babble of self-creation, of loyalty to a particular world of ideas and things and narratives (the constellation of personality), into our own communal Categorical Imperative, our own sense of duty?
It doesn’t help that liberals are always banging away in that annoying, self-righteous way of theirs: “Don’t drive trucks, they’re destroying the climate; in fact, don’t even drive a car (never mind that I’ve got a BMW minivan—the kids!); mass transit is the way to go; don’t fly off to Mexico for a vacation; in fact, don’t fly, not even to see your mother stuck away in Tiny Town, Texas; you can Skype her; and if you must ride a motorcycle, wear a helmet; don’t drink Coke or anything with corn syrup in it—you’re killing your own children with that stuff!; speaking of killing your children, don’t let the boys play football—what kind of parent are you?; what in the world do you need an Uzi for anyway?; you don’t see me with a gun, do you?; don’t water your lawn; own only one house, a small one with net-zero energy (you rent? a trailer?); recycle your Budweiser beer cans; how can you drink that piss water?; buy craft beers, it aids the local economy; buy local, buy local!; buy your broccolini at the farmer’s market on Saturday (you don’t eat broccolini? you’re missing a real treat!); ride a bicycle; hire a life coach and a personal trainer; you’re fat, God are you fat, are you paying any attention at all?; learn to meditate; let’s see, you already stopped smoking, somehow, good for you; for God’s sake, stop eating meat; no to factory farming!; no to meat-packing plants! no to Iowa!; we will allow you to eat bacon on occasion because everybody eats bacon, especially bacon dipped in maple syrup; even vegans eat bacon when no one is watching; do you really need to hunt? it’s that important to you?; join PETA; no to fracking!; no hard drugs like heroin or meth, but a marijuana gummy bear is okay should you travel to Colorado. But just one, that shit is strong, not like the old days. Finally, read a book. Have you ever read a book?”
To all of which the People of the Id reply, “This is not America!” and sometimes they say a good deal more. In November 2014, the Westminster, Massachusetts, Board of Health proposed a ban on the sale of tobacco products in the town, provoking a response so vitriolic that a public meeting of the Board was closed after twenty minutes and the Board members escorted from the building under police protection. As neighbors come and go at Vincent’s Country Store, they feed on one another’s rage. Nate Johnson, an egg farmer, told The New York Times: “They’re just taking away everyday freedoms, little by little.” Deborah Hancock added that she was afraid to wear her cross: “I’m thinking, ‘Am I going to be beheaded?’” “It’s un-American,” added Rick Sparrow, a house painter.
They’re wrong about “un-American,” not that that’s a good thing. It’s American, all too American. What they’re thinking of as un-American is paternalism and inequality, also perfectly traditional American qualities. The owners of these qualities are urban, economically privileged, literate in hideously subtle ways, and well practiced in expressions of disdain. These qualities constitute, for the most part, my own point of view (loosely expressed). But it is also the point of view of what Max Weber called a “status group.”
The people who are part of this status group are likely to be members of the upper and upper-middle classes and propertied in modest or immodest ways. They are likely to possess technical, managerial, and intellectual skills; these skills are a form of property—not physical property, but nonetheless property that the People of the Id do not have. They are likely to have secure employment, bright career prospects, and privileged benefits like health insurance and pensions. To share the viewpoint of this liberal status group—as, say, Rachel Maddow and her viewers do—is to belong to a group with a specific style of life that the group believes reflects honor on its members. Most troublesome, this status group fancies that it is superior to the hidebound rural illiterate, and as far as I can tell it is superior.
But that is little consolation when the illiterates band together against the haughtiness of this status group and take over the U.S. Senate in the midterm elections of 2014 because, count ’em, there are a lot of rural states.
And as more and more of Tyler Cowen’s machine economy drifts to concentrated population centers on the coasts, we learn that average is not over; it’s simply been left behind in the thirty-six or so flyover states full of ill-educated, average folk living in something close to poverty and feeling really, really resentful. Why do white males in left-out areas of the country vote for Republicans? Bigotry is involved, for sure. But it’s also true that at present some thirty million workers in their prime working years are “non-employed.” They’ve fallen outside the labor market. (This does not include the workingman’s last resort, disability, for which there is a large and largely fraudulent industry of lawyers and doctors, especially in Appalachia.) And the share of prime age men who are nonemployed has tripled since the 1960s from 5 percent to 16 percent. Whether it’s fair or not, much of this gets blamed on Democrats.
The unintended consequence of what Cowen describes may be that the Senate will be dominated by these left-out states for decades to come. The population may be on the coasts, but North Dakota gets just as many senators as California (at long last the Federalists get bitten in the ass by their own aristocratic invention—the U.S. Senate). On the other hand, defeats like 2014 may baffle and infuriate the members of our liberal status group, the People of the Law, but at the end of the day they are still urban, literate, prosperous, and proudly liberal. So they click on the five-dollar donation for MoveOn.org’s crise-du-jour and proceed with their interesting lives.
The People of the Id, on the other hand, are stuck. It doesn’t matter that the election of Ted Cruz or Rand Paul feels to them like vengeance; Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are not going to help them. It doesn’t matter if conservative governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin strip public employee unions of their pensions and the right to organize; misery may love company, but that does not help the fact that there is nothing about the future of the American economy that includes the People of the Id. Tyler Cowen and Thomas Piketty are in agreement on that point. Their fate is still isolation, poverty, ignorance, and more than their proportionate share of self-destruction (crime, alcoholism, drugs, and domestic violence). That is certainly a sad thing for them, and it should be a bad thing for everyone.
Nevertheless, gun in hand, the People of the Id will stand up for themselves. They’ll think they look like Charlton Heston holding a flintlock over his head, but they’ll look like crazy, violent People of the Id to the rest of us. They will live in a teary-eyed wash of homemade virtues. But, then, whether liberal or conservative, everyone’s virtues are homemade. They are forms of civic narcissism. One thing is for certain, this mortal impasse we suffer under, and have suffered under for over two hundred years, will not yield to a simple moral division of good from bad, or liberal from conservative, because, as Nietzsche understood, it is more than anything else an expression of social Will to Power.
When a collective is willing to die for its narcissism—for its stories—the result is inevitably fascistic (the Nazis were storytellers before they were a war machine) because stories “worth dying for” are intolerant of other stories: they believe that their story should be the last story. As Mussolini understood fascism, it is the supremacy of the state and its nationalist legends. If you do not agree with these legends and the power they confer on the state, you cannot be allowed to taint the minds of the rest of the good citizens. You must be killed or made invisible. The People of the Id are acutely intolerant of stories other than their own, and so is American capitalism.
The only story worth dying for is the story that says there are no last stories. Unfortunately, those who are willing to die for the idea that there are no last stories are usually spared the trouble—they are eliminated, removed from consideration through violence, gulags, or market invisibility. As a blogger in Saudi Arabia learned to his horror this year, “opening the conversation” regarding the meaning of Islam gets you exactly one thousand lashes delivered over ten years in prison. We’re more subtle here, of course. We need only find that certain ways of thinking (whether political or artistic) lack “commercial viability.”
What is needed in order to confront “last stories” is exactly what seems not to be possible. Cultures need to be able to recognize how destructive and self-destructive those convictions can be, and then they need to find the imaginative capacity and the generosity for new ideas, new forms of self-perception, by which they can live less narcissistically and less destructively. We live within the bastion of a community Ego. When that Ego is challenged, we can react in two ways. We can defend it in all the unending and destructive ways we know too well, or we can abandon the bastion of the Ego and dance. Again, Robert Aitken:
[The dance] is the great joke of Zen. It is the great joke of the universe. There is no absolute at all, and that is the absolute. Enlightenment is practice . . . And what is practice? Getting on with it. When you defend, you are blocking the practice. When you dance, you are getting on with it.
Unfortunately, while the human capacity for self-reinvention—for the dance—is accomplished only over centuries of messy struggle, the technological advances brought upon all cultures in recent decades have moved at warp speed. Our machines accelerate into a future that is humanly and environmentally bleak. I am not optimistic about the idea that we will be able to dispose of our old, comfortable, vicious, and infinitely varied “inherited stupidities,” in large part because politics—the means through which stories become social— doesn’t work at high velocity. As a consequence, what we have now is not “politics” but “logistics.” It is increasingly difficult to imagine a place outside the administered space of techno-capitalism and its self-congratulatory legends of intellectual and commercial triumph. The Occupy Wall Street movement occupied a literal place—Zuccotti Park—as well as a conceptual/narrative place, and for a moment much of our culture paused, mesmerized by this odd spectacle, to wonder if there were alternative ways of thinking about who we are and where we’re heading. The moment passed, but the gesture was important because, however briefly, it opened a space to the dance, to play, and to possibility. The moment may have been ephemeral, but it also showed us what is essential for the future. It revealed a permanent need. It showed us the way to what Nietzsche called, simply, “health.”
In his bestselling The Making of a Counter Culture, from 1970, Theodore Roszak makes a similar point:
But from my own point of view, the counter culture, far more than merely “meriting” attention, desperately requires it, since I am at a loss to know where, besides among these dissenting young people and their heirs of the next few generations, the radical discontent and innovation can be found that might transform this disoriented civilization of ours into something a human being can identify as home . . . The capacity of our emerging technocratic paradise to denature the imagination by appropriating to itself the whole meaning of Reason, Reality, Progress, and Knowledge will render it impossible for men to give any name to their bothersomely unfulfilled potentialities but that of madness.
This was written almost thirty years before the founding of Google and the “technocratic paradise” that we live in today.
Work like Roszak’s is now almost universally scorned and made to parade before the townsfolk with a large paisley H-for-Hippie sewn onto its jacket. But Roszak was only one of many intellectuals of the moment—including Herbert Marcuse, Paul Goodman, Alan Watt, Norman O. Brown, Marshall McLuhan, and a little later, George W. S. Trow—who together helped to lead a living opposition to technocracy. Through them, philosophy engaged social criticism, which engaged social activism and led to the invention of alternative ideas about how we should live. It was the last time that, in Paul Ricoeur’s terms, we had both consonance and dissonance, both ideology and utopia as active principles in our culture. It was the last time our culture had some degree of health.
The worst thing we can do now is what we’re doing: we forbid new stories. We forbid stories that run counter to our failing convictions, and we forbid stories that seek counter-worlds. And yet pursuing those stories may be the most radical, the most compassionate, and the most life-giving thing we can do in the present moment. Let’s see from what Western traditions those stories derive their strength and what they might look like now and in the future. They might not be so strange. In fact, they may be no more difficult to adopt than a new set of clothes.
As Thomas Carlyle expressed it, perhaps all we need is a new tailor.
Excerpted from "We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data" by Curtis White with permission from Melville House. Copyright © Curtis White. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.