Why do so many countries in the rest of the world hate America? It’s everything that motivates pundits and professors, except it’s on steroids. America is thriving, wealthy and successful, so by comparison, it’s a threat to the identity of countries that are becoming irrelevant. To the extent that America is weakened, there’s more power, prestige, and a securer identity for them. Both individuals and nations, if they are insecure in their identity, choose Snickers bars over ears of corn.
By Sally Anne Jackson l February 20, 2017
Why does Hollywood make a virtue of every vice and a vice of every virtue? Why do people in the press relish bringing someone down but shrink from celebrating someone good? Why is America, which tries to be good, hated and Che, who preached death and destruction, celebrated?
The answer involves one’s sense of identity, but to understand why, we first need a little background on what we as human beings require to have a firm hold on our sense of identity.
What can cause a person to lose their sense of identity?
An extreme cause is the sensory deprivation that’s used for torture. If you want a prisoner to talk, you first drug him, and then you allow him to wake up in a huge tank of water in a specially designed wetsuit that enables him to breath, but he experiences no sound, light, weight, touch, or gravity. Without input from the real world, the victim’s personality tends not to hold together. If you read accounts of sensory deprivation or to a lesser extent, solitary confinement, you realize how much we crave interaction. We need interaction in order to keep our personalities together. We don’t know who we are unless we experience ourselves as we react to something outside ourselves. People who’ve been through involuntary sensory deprivation describe losing their sense of self as the most horrifying and terrifying experience they ever had.
People crave interaction, and for most of mankind’s experience on this planet, there was no lack of interaction. Running from a saber-tooth tiger wonderfully concentrates the mind. Or planting a crop and struggling to bring it to harvest means the farmer from long ago knew exactly what he was about and what he was there for.
Now fast-forward to today’s world
A person whose livelihood is highly constrained by reality will also have a strong sense of identity. Slamming against the constraints of, say, having a crop fail, meeting a payroll, being shot at, or having a product fail in the market place can give you a very clear sense of who you are and what your purpose is. If you’re wrong about the world, you’ll pay. It’s the opposite of sensory deprivation.
But what about the case of a university professor, particularly one in the humanities, as opposed to the sciences or engineering? In this case, the constraints are much more abstract. Basically, whether a professor in the humanities advances in his career or not depends on how well he manipulates abstractions, such as, for example, words found in papers, lectures, speeches or the impressions he makes at faculty meetings. What counts for him is, does he win the approval of his peers. In the end, his constraints are verbal. It is, as has often been said, an ivory tower existence.
So how does the university professor or for that matter, the pundit or the Hollywood actor get a sense of identity, given that they live in a world of abstractions? I propose that the less a person’s profession is constrained by the sharp edges of reality, and the more it’s bounded by the sagging wall of abstractions and appearances, the more he or she will seek an identity by being in opposition to something.
And what about the selection of what to oppose? If you have a very strong need for identity, you are likely to join a group that is very strongly in opposition to something. And what about the choice of the group? Why do professors, pundits, and Hollywood actors so often lean left?
To answer this, let’s travel down the road of a digression into—food
We know that we’re genetically wired to crave food that, at least in our modern environment, is bad for us. Fat and sugar stimulate the same receptors in our brains that opiates do, and the more we eat, the more we crave. The problem is, the foods that contain fat and sugar have been refined and concentrated beyond anything our ancestors ever would have known. A Snickers bar has almost no relation to the corn that the sugar in it comes from; a Snickers bar is a delivery system for salt, sugar, and fat with none of the vitamins and fiber or other valuable nutrients of the original corn. We know that food manufacturers have studied what stimulates our pleasure receptors, and they’ve refined and purified these ingredients and incorporated them in doughnuts, candy bars, potato chips and other fatty, sugary, and or salty foods. Delicious as these foods may be, over consumption of them ranks right up there with cigarettes in causing disease and death.
What’s wrong with these foods is that the parts that we crave have been concentrated to the point that we want more of them at the expense of healthier foods. After all, what percentage of Americans would, without being coached, prefer an ear of corn (no butter, no salt) to a Snickers Bar?
And now, let’s transition back from food to ideologies and identities
Like candy bars, ideologies are purified to the point where they’re concentrated delivery systems for something we crave, except in the case of ideologies, they deliver identity. If you’re a Communist or a Jihadist or a Trump hater, you know who you are and what you’re here for. And besides, the ingredients in the identity that is conferred on you are within themselves close to irresistible. Along with your new identity, you also get other irresistible delights such as feelings of: importance, self-righteousness, and power. When we are true believers in National Socialism or Communism or Islamism, or Trump-hating, we know we are important, right, and powerful. We are getting the ideological equivalent of fat, sugar, and salt; that is we get our pleasure receptors treated, in concentrated form, to something almost irresistible. Plus, when it comes to identity, ideologies answer the questions of who we are and why we are here.
To deliver importance, self-righteousness and power most potently, the ideology must be so purified that it escapes contact with reality; that is, it can’t be disproved, at least not in the short run. But to be so purified that it’s not vulnerable to being disproved, it needs to simplify, simplify, simplify.
Reality, however, is complex. It’s easy to express the idea of Communism or National Socialism (Nazism). It’s complicated to express the benefits of, for example, free enterprise.
As an example of simplicity versus complication, take the example of rent control. It sounds good. Keep the greedy landlords from exploiting the tenants. But how it has always played out in practice is the powerful and connected end up with the low rent apartments, and meanwhile new rent controlled apartments aren’t constructed and the poor end up having to commute from outside the city. But this isn’t easily explained.
It’s a lot easier to feed a sense of self-righteousness, importance, and power while marching under the banner, “Preserve rent control, stop greedy landlords!” than it is to get those same feelings from demonstrating for “Stop rent control! Let landlords make a profit!” The first is the Snickers Bar of ideology; the second is the sugar cane.
I said before people in professions that are insulated from reality will gravitate to groups that are strongly in opposition to something. It helps them define themselves. A corollary of this is that they will pick an ideology that is itself purified and simplified to the point where it, itself, is insulated from reality. The ideology will be one that sounds good and feels good, and makes them feel important and elite; but it’s less likely to be one that will be endlessly fine-tuned and adjusted by interaction with the real world. Someone who craves an identity, wants (and needs) something solid and stable and reliable; in short, something that is not beholden to the messy realities of what works and what doesn’t.
People in need of identity will choose the Snickers Bar of certainty, self-importance, and self-righteousness over the ear of corn of the endlessly messy, constantly-being-readjusted fuzziness of “what works is what counts,” that is the free market. The free market sucks at giving people an identity. It just can’t compete with moral certitude and self-righteousness.
It is, however, based on reality in the same way that science is based on reality. It is constantly responding to and adjusting to the real world, and it is hour-by-hour being proved right or wrong. Because it is reality-based, in the long run, like science, free enterprise delivers the goods. (In fact, when you couple science and free enterprise, you get wealth, comfort, security and ease on a scale that most of mankind could never have imagined…but that’s another story.)
The ideologies that are purified and refined delivery systems for self-righteousness and self-importance and that confer identity on their members, do not adjust as nimbly to reality. That puts them at a disadvantage in a competition with free market capitalism (at least it did before asymmetrical warfare). Their inherent weakness makes them threatened by a more reality-based approach to life. “What men fear, they hate, and what they hate, they wish dead,” as D. H. Lawrence said.
Another digression, this time on the subject of art
We digressed on the subject of food a moment ago, but we still haven’t answered the question of why people celebrate the bad. We’re getting to it. It’s to illustrate a point about belonging to an ideology that confers self-importance and self-righteousness.
If you’re on the inside of the elite art world, the branch of it that celebrates an exhibition of Christ in a vat of urine, or elephant dung on the Madonna, or an exhibition of halved horse carcasses in formaldehyde, you know that you’re superior to the great unwashed that doesn’t have your knowledge and sensitivities. Those who say these works shouldn’t be exhibited are Philistines who don’t get it. You are there to guard against the Philistines. (If you’re an outsider looking in on this elite world, you may conclude that the people who inhabit it are nuts, but then most extreme ideologies look whacko to an outsider.)
The point is, the art world is an example of an ideology that confers the delights of superiority and self-righteousness. The same process is at work in any of the ideologies. You don’t get the frissons of self-delight from being main stream or middle of the road. To really have an identity, you have to pick a position that separates you from the great unwashed.
You probably don’t want to have pictures of the halved horse carcass or Christ in a vat of urine in your home, but you love having them on public display, scandalizing people. (And you probably wouldn’t like it if someone pointed out that you are getting the same psychic thrills that a toddler gets by yelling dirty words and scandalizing the adults. Or that a flasher gets from exposing himself.)
However, if scandalizing people is the goal, you’re involved in a race to the bottom. Yesterday’s scandal is today’s yawn. So the art that’s built on scandalizing the bourgeoisie will necessarily become more and more degraded and irrelevant.
Well, enough of art–let’s look at journalists and pundits
Like the artists, a journalist or pundit is not likely to be celebrated in the media for being middle of the road. Yawn. No, if you really want to make a name for yourself, if you really want power, fame, wealth, and identity, then here’s what you need to do: take an extreme position. And—this is really important—being at least a little against your own country is a good thing. It’s a great passport to fun and attention. It’s sort of like celebrating the Madonna with elephant dung on her breasts. Or being a teenager with a tongue ring.
Of course, for the media and for the professoriate, there’s an additional reason to lean left. When government is smaller, then free enterprise flourishes and decisions are made by countless individuals in the market. When government is larger, then more decisions are made by lawmakers and bureaucrats; and lawmakers and bureaucrats listen to the media and the academy. It’s two buckets in a well. As the bucket of individual freedom goes down, the bucket of government power (and with it pundit and professor power) goes up.
For both pundits and professors, big government means more power. For pundits and professors, being for big government means identity, power, prestige, and self-righteousness. Oh, and big, lucrative speaking fees.
Now, after more than 2000 words, back to the original question: why do people gravitate to celebrating the bad, including the things that harm people? The answer is that people who are starved for identity are going to go for the most shocking, the most ugly, and the thing that separates them most from “the bourgeoisie.” It’s a race for the bottom, but they get what they want. The pussyhat wearers are a collective version of the flasher exposing himself; they get the psychic jolt of attention, and with it, identity. It’s not the domination, manipulation and control that motivates a mass murderer, but it’s a second cousin.
What about the rest of the world, hating America?
Why do so many countries in the rest of the world hate America? It’s everything that motivates pundits and professors, except it’s on steroids. America is thriving, wealthy and successful, so by comparison, it’s a threat to the identity of countries that are becoming irrelevant. To the extent that America is weakened, there’s more power, prestige, and a securer identity for them.
Both individuals and nations, if they are insecure in their identity, choose Snickers bars over ears of corn.
Sally Anne Jackson, a writer and public speaker, is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the online-conservative-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.