A midlife crisis did indeed ensue after 9/11. In truth it had been brewing for some time. It wasn't my midlife crisis, however, but that of Western culture at large. No matter what other aims may have motivated this singular act of terrorism, it was beyond question that it was planned as a symbolic, as well as a lethal, attack on 'the West', whether the target was militarism (the Pentagon), capitalism (the WTC), or cosmopolitanism (the heterogeneity of the victims). The problem was many in the West were not sure that it was worthy of defence. For some time in the post-Soviet era, as America established its position as the sole superpower, a West-based movement had been growing that rejected the spread of free-market capitalism and the Western values that underpinned the global market. Known as anti-globalisation, it drew attention to the poverty and deprivation that was such a common feature of life in the Third World. But it also posed some stark existential questions about the Western way of life. 'What was the point?' the anti-globalisers seemed to be asking, all we do is buy stuff, turn everywhere into a market, and force McDonald's and Starbucks down other people's throats. Our culture is nothing but consumption. As the anti-globalist writer Naomi Klein argued a few weeks after 11 September: 'Part of the disorientation many Americans now face has to do with the inflated and oversimplified place consumerism plays in the American narrative. To buy is to be. To buy is to love. To buy is to vote.'
Drinking in the devastation, numbed and intoxicated by the scale of what had taken place, I struggled, like everyone else, to make sense of it all. And in my case, as with many people from the liberal-left side of the political spectrum, that job was made more difficult by the fact that the United States was the victim. From where I came from, the United States was always the culprit. There was Vietnam, Chile and the dreadful support for repressive and often debauched regimes right across Latin America, Africa and Asia. I was a veteran of CND anti-cruise missile marches in the 1980s. I had gone to Nicaragua to defend the Sandinista cause against American imperialism. America was the bad guy, right? America was always the bad guy.
Clearly some basic moral calculations needed to be performed. Which vision of the world represented more closely my own liberal outlook? The cosmopolitan city of New York, a multi-racial city of opportunity, a town where anyone on earth could arrive and thrive, exuberant, cultured, diverse, a place I had visited and loved for its liberty and energy and excitement? Or the people who attacked it, those arid minds who wanted to remove women from sight, kill homosexuals, banish music, destroy art, the demolishers of the Bamiyan Buddhas who aimed to terrorise everyone they could into submission to the will of their vengeful God? It was, as they say, a no-brainer, or should have been.
But was there not also an obligation to ask if this heinous crime was more complex than it first appeared? That was the progressive instinct: don't be fooled by the mass media, which we all knew was a propaganda industry, look behind the scenes, examine the bigger picture, think about the context, study history. And so if you wanted to consider yourself a member of the thinking classes, it was not enough to recoil in horror, you also had to take into account America's own score sheet in matters of cold blood. 'It's terrible,' was the often heard formulation, 'but....' Did I think there was a but? And if there was a but, could it be any kind of justification for what had taken place? And if it wasn't a justification, what was the point of the but? Was it there to show one's even-handedness and sense of fair play? Or purely for decoration? I knew right from the first second where my emotional sympathies were located but what was my intellectual position?
What helped guide me to the answer was the alternative analysis, the 'It's terrible, but' in which the 'It's terrible' was the decorative part of the equation. A number of commentaries that articulated this response quickly began to appear in different newspapers. Perhaps the most indignant came, with impressive alacrity, on 13 September in my daily newspaper, the voice of liberal Britain, the Guardian. 'Nearly two days after the horrific suicide attacks on civilian workers in New York and Washington,' wrote Seumas Milne, 'it has become painfully clear that most Americans simply don't get it... Shock, rage and grief there has been aplenty. But any glimmer of recognition of why people might have been driven to carry out such atrocities, sacrificing their own lives in the process - or why the United States is hated with such bitterness, not only in Arab and Muslim countries, but across the developing world - seems almost entirely absent.'
Insight can often be a painful process. Unlike the use of the immature or primitive psychological defenses, which are all highly contagious socially--the development of psychological insight is necessarirly an individual journey that is at best uncomfortable and, at worse, painful or even devastating.
If that is so, you might ask, why would anyone want to undertake the journey?
The short answer is that optimum psychological and physical health, as well as one's ability to function effectively in the world, require a person to be in touch with reality. All sorts of temporary compromises can be made with reali ty, but in the end, the piper will have to be paid. And, in the long-term, the cost of ignoring or distorting reality could very well be prohibitive.
While the use of immature or psychotic defenses (e.g., denial, projection, paranoia) or the neurotic psychological defenses (e.g. displacement) represent a somewhat creative attempt to compromise with an unpleasant or unpalatable reality, they are only able to grant a temporary reprieve from the consequences of reality. The use of these defenses almost never serve the individual's interests in the long run, as they can seriously disrupt interpersonal relationships and the ability to work productively. Since such immature psychological defenses are "contagious" (in the sense that they can be conveniently used by entire groups and societies to distort, manipulate, and avoid reality) , they can also wreak havoc on a grand scale.
Under stress, and threatened with psychological trauma or the disruption of cherished beliefs, even basically healthy adults may retreat to dysfunctional and immature defenses to cope. For the most part, such a retreat is an automatic and unconscious process.
As long as it remains unconscious, the individual is not able to get beyond it and effectively deal with the threatening reality. The defense stands between him and the real world, protecting the psyche from any awareness. While stress and crisis can induce regression to more primitive psychological functioning, it also may also provide a stimulus for intellectual and emotional growth, and offer a person the opportunity to make new connections, question old beliefs, or understand the the hidden motivations and dynamics within that explain why the individual cannot face the truth.
Specifically, unconscious processes can be made conscious through the development of insight; and thus alter the self-destructive path that an individual or a group may be on.
In a comment about a comment [posted at Protein Wisdom] we catch a glimpse of how powerful the forces of self-delusion are; and how, when a true-believer is faced with having to question some dearly-held assumptions by a compellingly written piece like the one linked to at the beginning of this post, they will retreat even further into denial, delusion, and paranoia:
Comment by happyfeet on 8/19 @ 10:01 am #
I’m stealing this from Jules Crittendon’s comments here:
# tinknorati Says:
August 18th, 2007 at 1:07 pmI think this new meme — “Democrats are trying to find a way to get in on the smashing success of the war in Iraq” — may be my favorite crazy Bush-cultist meme ever. To believe this, you have to forget that we’ve been hearing these same claims of “progress” for years, and the people who claim that there is no such thing as “progress” in Iraq are always right. (Yes, I’m linking to The Evil Sock Puppet. Therefore all the direct quotes in that article are like totally inaccurate.)
I know why the Bush administration goes for this stuff; if Bush admitted that Al-Qaeda is a minor factor in Iraq, that conditions on the ground are no better than they’ve ever been, and that the only way for Iraq to get better is if we leave (and that the longer we wait to leave, the worse the bloodbath will be when we do leave), he’d have to admit that he failed. Bush would rather see America defeated — since the only real “defeat” is remaining in Iraq — than admit he was wrong; I understand that.
And I understand Crittenden’s enthusiasm for American defeat and American death; if we leave Iraq, we’ll be safer and more secure, but fewer Muslims will be shot on a daily basis, and anyone who’s read Jules on a regular basis knows that he would rather see America defeated than see one more Muslim survive than necessary.
But most importantly, the right has always been at war with liberals and Democrats. So the idea of keeping troops in Iraq, forcing Democrats to spend most of their time trying to find a way to stop the war (since this is in America’s national security interest, and the Democrats are the national security party) is OK with them; it’s a defeat for America to keep all these troops in Iraq, but that’s the point: defeating America — or the half of America that doesn’t agree with Bush — is the goal of the right. So while Crittenden and Bush know we can’t “win” in Iraq, staying in Iraq is a way to “win” against the evil Dhimmicrats. The fact that it’s in America’s national security interest to leave is irrelevant when you have declared war on America, which is what Bush and his cultists have done.
Remember, more dead Americans are totally worth it if it bums out Democrats.
It’s striking how crafted that comment is, but what I want to highlight is the bit about how “the right has always been at war with liberals and Democrats.” It’s a formulation that completely elides Al Qaeda and September 11 and the idea that there are forces actively working to thwart the establishment of a non-totalitarian Iraq, and I think Anthony’s piece suffers a bit in not better illustrating the contortions the left endorses in its desperation to protect the pre-9/11 narrative. Anthony’s relatively benign sketch of the liberal pathology, limited here to a look at Guardian columnist’s Seumas Milne’s initial reaction to 9/11, may help explain how the Guardian found his narrative appealing. I wonder but that the Guardian doesn’t see Anthony as an object lesson that illustrates how September 11 did indeed have the power to break liberals whose commitment to the narrative was… insufficient. Don’t let this happen to you. Gird thyself!
Indeed. Gird thyself. More contortions and further compromise with reality will be necessary!
Many paths can be taken to reach self-delusion, i.e., a denial of reality. Each individual will embrace the psychological denial--through projection, paranoia, displacement or any one of a number of strategies-- for their own personal reasons; even when the delusion or distortion of reality is a shared one (e.g., the striking phenomenon called "Bush Derangement Syndrome"; or any number of bizarre conspiracy theories about 9/11).
But there is only one path that leads to insight and self-awareness and it is through the individual's distortions and lies; straight to the heart of his or her most cherished beliefs about himself and the world. If he can look at those beliefs and face himself and his own motivations squarely and honestly; and then reconcile them to the painful reality and truth he observes in the outside world; he is surely on that one path that leads to personal growth and self-discovery.
OTOH, if he never is willing to look in the mirror or question his beliefs; if he believes himself to be both intellectually and morally superior and that it is unnecessary to question his own motivations; then he is on one of the many paths that will take him to the wonderful world of denial.
Insight is an amazing thing. The power or act of seeing into a situation and apprehending the inner nature or motivation of one's self--especially the why--can be extremely liberating; or, it can be extremely painful--sometimes both. But, only when a person becomes aware of the his own hidden agenda and his inner motivations can he begin to gain control over them and correct any dysfunctional behavior that they generate.
Insight for the person quoted in "happyfeet's" comment is likely to be somewhat devastating. Someday (one can only hope anyway) he is going to look in that mirror and see a repulsive, angry, hypocrite staring back; someone who has betrayed almost every "liberal" principle he claims he stands for.
Typically, the insight gained from self-analysis is able to free a person from a life of bitterness, unhappiness and unearned guilt (see here, for example).
But there are situations where achieving insight and understanding the motives behind one's behavior (as well as what one can and cannot control) can generate deserved guilt and shame. Experiencing such unpleasant emotions can be productive and initiate a change in behavior for the good. While it is painful to acknowledge horrible truths about one's self--but truths nonetheless-- such understanding essential for personal growth and normal personality development.
In the link above regarding "The Mirror of Insight", I wrote:
There is an inner courage required to look at one's self in the mirror of insight and truly know the person looking back. All of us are capable of the most horrible behavior; just as we are capable of finding ways to rationalize it and cover it up or blame others for it. Psychological health requires that we look into that mirror frequently and understand our own motivations and behaviors and not flinch in recognizing the truth about ourselves.
That is the only way we can begin the process of change that leads to solving problems and personal growth. Recognizing the problem by looking at ourselves in the mirror is the first hurdle that must be overcome. Admittedly, it is not the only hurdle; but without it individuals and societies go off careening off in all the wrong directions--directions that will never lead to the recognition or acceptance of reality, and so can never lead to effective solutions. In psychiatry we refer to this abiiity to look in the mirror and see what and who is reflected back at us truly as "insight". Ultimately, the development of self-awareness and psychological insight are the keys to solving most human dilemmas that lead to our own unhappiness and misery--both in individuals and societies.
It is likely that true evil never looks into that mirror; never questions their own motivations and always sinks to using the most immature and infantile coping mechanisms. That inability to acknowledge any degree of responsibility for their behavior; or to see clearly into their own souls--particularly on a societal level is responsible for much of the human misery, genocide, and brutal behavior we witness all around the world.
By making the unconscious conscious, we gain control over our lives and are able to make choices and attack problems based on a clear view of reality. Yes, we may make the wrong choice, or screw up in dealing with the problem even so; we may even discover some unpleasant truths about ourself. But when our psychological defenses are distorting or obscuring reality to begin with, we are far more likely to ignore a problem or pretend that it doesn't exist and then suffer even more serious consequences.
Read the piece from The Guardian; then read the comments quoted by "happyfeet" again. You will easily be able to determine which writer is in touch with reality; which writer examines his own feelings and motivations thoughfully and seriously; versus simply spewing out talking points--without real thought or cognition--in a narrative the individual has never bothered to question. See if you can tell whose writing is genuine; whose struggle to come to terms with reality is compelling; and whose is a smug, self-righteous rant by someone who clearly thinks he possesses both a superior intellect and superior moral virtue.
One writer is on the path to insight and self-awareness; the other is running very fast in the opposite direction-- toward the transient comfort of denial and delusion.