This Is Your Brain on Trump
OPEN SOURCE WITH CHRISTOPHER LYDON 8.3.17
I’m Christopher Lydon. This is Open Source. If you can believe your eyes, and ears, your screens, your Twitter feed, this is your mind, your country, our inner mumbling, our very public American life, “on Trump.” Sounds like this:
Donald Trump: With the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office. That I can tell you.
Commentator: The president’s mental health is in doubt here and around the world for the most inexplicable statements any president has ever made.
Donald Trump: President Trump spoke before a small crowd of Boy Scouts today. That’s some, that is some crowd.
Commentator: That tweet is enough to impeach the President of the United States.
Commentator 2: That means Michael Pence becomes president and that is better.
Commentator 3: Everyone on their feet. [Applause]
DJT: We will find you. We will arrest you. We will jail you. And we will deport you.
I turn on the TV, open the newspapers and I see chaos. Chaos. Yet it is the exact opposite.
Anthony Scaramucci: One thing I can’t stand about this town is the backstabbing that goes on here, ok? Where I grow up and the neighborhood I’m from, we’re frontstabbers.
DJT: This administration is running like a fine tuned machine.
There is no following this story, this confounding condition, this inescapable event called Trump. So this hour, in a sort of 6-months checkup, we’re just taking impressions from near and far: what does it mean for a country, a culture, for our sleep cycles, our sanity, to be “on Trump,” for so long now? And what is it doing to us, alone or together. Emmett Rensin gets us started: he’s a young counter-commentator, still in his 20s. His vision of the new culture war jumped off the page of the Los Angeles Review of Books. It’s a fight in our collective soul between the raging Id — the fantasy desires — of the new power center; and the Blathering Super Ego — the No impulse in the technocratic center that was.
Emmett Rensin: it’s shocking and it’s shocking on a number of levels. There’s just a sort of an immediate level which is, “Oh my god! How is this guy president?” You know, I have these like horrifying visions where God forbid like India and Pakistan get into a shooting war and Trump’s White House is called upon to resolve that crisis and we all die in a nuclear apocalypse. But, sort of beyond that immediate scariness of it I think a couple of things happened: like the liberal technocrats really didn’t believe it could happen and they didn’t believe it could happen for the same reasons a lot of people did, you know, with polling suggested it was inconceivable it sort of felt inconceivable. But, also for deeper reasons. The Clinton campaign I think basically believed it was going to win because it predicted that it was going to win and the whole thing the Clinton campaign was selling and in a larger sense the whole thing the Democratic Party is selling is competence and expertise before anything else, before the ACA, before kinder social policy. The whole idea is that they are the responsible ones, the competent ones. They’re the managers.
And if that’s what you’re selling and you say we’re definitely going to win this election because we have the best models and the best charts and we got Robbie Mook in there with the best computers we could buy running all the numbers and, you know, who cares what those union guys in Michigan say about what’s happening on the ground. They’re just wrong. It’s really shocking when the whole basis of your self-identity is sort of like blasted away by history. And the reactions that have been you know variously like unhelpful and troubling like from the sort of singular focus on Russian interference to a sort of weird, spiteful condescension you see sometimes like I think it was Marcus the Daily Kos founder who was basically gloating about the fact that like poor Trump voters were going to lose their health insurance. You know, obviously gleeful class spite is really the sign of a good and enlightened liberal.
Or stuff like, you know, you go on Twitter or something and every time the president tweets, I mean, people will just be appalled that he uses Twitter to communicate things to the public, but every time he tweets these same sort of respectable technocrats who are appalled by the fact that he does it just reply hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times and it’s just like one very cynical ploy for followers. But also, you know, it’s like they all imagine themselves sitting there in the chambers at the height of McCarthyism you know demanding if the president has no shame and no dignity.
I swear to god this is true. I took a nap the other day and I had a dream in which every time the president tweeted the top reply was Aaron Sorkin just doing a long thread that was a new script for a new episode of The Newsroom he hadn’t written yet. I mean the word I like is it’s like radical Sorkinism.
You can imagine it like you know it’s it’s that all the guys from the West Wing just melting down because they can’t believe that this is undignified guys in the office and if only President Bartlet could give like a really good talking to to him everyone would sort of come back to their senses. And it’s not like their sense that like Trump is a vulgar maniac is wrong. Like of course Trump is a vulgar maniac and a lunatic but the corrective impulse, that the impulse is corrective not combative. The idea is you can just chide everyone back into place. I mean that’s the super ego stuff.
CL: Explain how the superego works.
ER: The concepts are pretty straightforward right. I mean the basic original schema you have your ego which is your conscious mind your decision making mind. You have your Id which is you know the nebulous sea of your desires and wants and repressed impulses and you know things that sort of floated up into the surface and make you you know act in ways that you didn’t expect or even necessarily want to have.
Your super ego develops as you age because it’s the part of your brain that has internalized all outside instruction. You know, when you’re really young, it’s your parents shaking the finger, the priest or whoever you know sort of doles out reward and punishment in response to you behaving either the way they want you to or the way they don’t.
But what the super ego thinks is good or bad is it doesn’t come from some magic access to the moral you know vision of God or something that comes from what it’s absorbed is sort of conventional wisdom and proper you know civility and and behavioral ethics.
So you see that with the sort of blathering superego, the liberal superego that is its inability to sort of believe that the world is really changing in a way that it can’t go back.
CL: Right. Who do you picture playing the role of the superego in this world? Put a name on it, or an institution, a person.
ER: Oh I don’t think there’s any particular institution or person in it. It’s the giant complex that runs from like you know the Democratic Party to Democratic Party affiliated think tanks to you know the respectable members of the Republican Party so, you know, your like David Frum’s and your Bill Kristols. These sort of “never trump” guys who I think aren’t really so like offended by Trump. It’s a collective of human beings who have absorbed and internalized very deeply this whole notion of like what is politics what are adult politics like what are the standards of behavior what can win what can’t win when how to behave? And they’re watching that just get blown up. And I think that’s horrifying. And you know and so it starts to break down.
CL: Emmett go back to the beginning. What do you take to be the effect of six months of Trumpism. You’re calling it sort of runaway id in power. What’s the effect?
ER: Frankly most people live in all of the time anyway. It’s just that if you’ve lived most of your life not having to deal with that it’s sort of a shock when it happens. It’s not you know it’s not that well that’s how the world is. It just sucks. It’s oh my God this sucks all of a sudden And that’s that’s really shocking it’s one of the crack ups of the super ego is this it is breaking people’s brains.
CL: Breaking people’s brains. Explain though what is it that hurts the most? That we’ve been reduced to children, that we’ve been pushed off the field, or what we’re not know that our righteousness isn’t taken seriously anymore?
ER: Well I would imagine that that hurts for people who are very invested in their sort of technocratic righteousness. You know it’s only been less than a year even since the election and yeah I think a lot of people are really just still horribly shocked by it. And the big question to bring this back to the super ego thing is eventually that shock and pain and fear and terror has to transform into something and either it can transform into people saying you know what the only way we’re going to beat the far right is by really committing to the left, to really committing to a vision of society where everyone is taken care of where we really commit to fighting fire with fire. But you know really standing for something good — admit this is a moral battle and fight that moral battle. That’s the great outcome.
But the alternative is to retreat back into the super ego, just you know stick your fingers in your ears and say no you’re wrong you’re wrong no you’re wrong. Look at the chart. Look at these charts, forever. and I see some of that happening already and that frightens me that the sort of pain and the hurt of it becomes a retreat back into the safe space of “No, we know best.” This isn’t news. “This isn’t normal” and it will all go back to normal at a certain point. Truth is it’s not going back to normal and even if it did normal was a bad deal for most people so, we can’t go back to normal. We have to accept that this is normal now and we want something better. We need something better than this.
Emmett Rensin, based now in Iowa City, is a sometime philosophy student and playwright at the University of Chicago. He’ll be in Chicago this weekend, politicking and writing at the Democratic Socialists’ convention.
Coming Up: The Bitch Doctrine, with Laurie Penny, and an introduction to the Alt Right Online, with Angela Nagle. This is Open Source.
The subject is the unavoidable You Know Who, and what a two-year fixation on a single tragi-comic anti-hero is doing to the mind and spirit of the Great Republic. Laurie Penny is a young English writer who emerged — as Christopher Hitchens did many years ago — as a columnist with the New Statesman in London. She calls herself a feminist and “social justice bard.” Her new book is titled: The Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults. We reached her in New York:
Laurie Penny: Well, this is the problem of patriarchy, a problem of patriarchy gone horribly horribly wrong. Patriarchy on nightmare mode. It didn’t start with Trump of course, but I think it’s difficult for a lot of men to understand quite how distressing and disturbing it is to have a guy in a position of power who says things like that, a guy who says, “Grab them by the pussy.”
A guy who talks about women’s menstruation to put them down on national television. A guy who insults and puts down women based on their appearance. Part of their problem of course is that he makes the guy standing right next to him or below him who’s maybe not quite that bad, seem ok. He brings the entire discourse back.
And of course it’s not just him it’s also Pence. They’re the two faces of modern, white, American racist patriarchy. There’s the kind of boorish atheist, grabby sexual predator on one hand and the hateful religious conservative who views all women as devils on the other hand. They’re not at odds with each other. One of the few things that unite them in terms of moral stance is how they believe that women should behave and be which is subservient, quiet, beautiful silent. And I know other people who are just as worried at the prospect of President Trump as they are of President Trump. Pence is clearly an ideologue which Trump is not. Trump will do anything to hang onto power. He doesn’t believe in anything, he believes in himself, that’s it. You have the manifestation of the id. Pence actually has an agenda and it’s a terrifying agenda.
CL: Trump is also a bully and loves it. Impulsive, whimsical. I’ve changed my mind. You’re in, you’re out. You’re fired. How does that go and where does it go from here?
LP: Well look, there’s a culture of bullying that runs right through politics in the global north and you see it in the UK as well. Trump does it on a much bigger scale and a much more childish way, but our entire electoral system in this winner-takes-all, beat the other guy system. It’s set up as a vicious competition, and it’s set up to ensure that bullies win the day if they’re charismatic enough. This is one of the reasons why we need deep and fundamental structural change in politics, because what does Trump say when he’s challenged on anything? Of course his answer to everything is, “Well I won. I won, so everything else doesn’t matter because I won.” That’s not how politics works, that’s not how politics should work.
Politics isn’t something that happens once every four or five years at the ballot box, it’s a continuous process. A process of compromise and change. And work at a community level. And this is a person who clearly doesn’t understand that in any way. All that matters to him is winning and being seen to win.
CL: Laurie, I wonder do you know the George Carlin guide to American culture? A little speech about baseball and football? The difference is…
LP: I’ve heard a little bit about it, but go ahead.
CL: Well I was just going to say, I mean, he is an extreme case of the football personality. It’s all about a very violent game, predictable, severe injuries, cheating when necessary, total domination of the atmosphere, before the game, during the game, after the game. Of course it’s the rise of football is the story of our culture in the last 40 years. Spell out again some of the extreme guy manifestations in the culture that you see.
LP: Well, it’s interesting that you mention that sporting metaphor because of course Donald Trump own sport, the one he’s obsessed with is not football, it’s not baseball. It’s wrestling, televised wrestling, which is awful — it’s brutal, it’s one on one competition, but it’s all staged. It’s all staged. It’s all about showmanship. It’s bloody violence and huge stakes and pitch. That’s what Trump is. Trump is not a football guy or a baseball guy; he’s a wrestling guy.
Of course, you know, I’m a nerd, I’m British, I don’t know about sports apart from what I see on Netflix shows like Glow, so take it with a grain of salt here. But it seems like a completely different understanding of what the contest is, and maybe that’s the key if we want to extend this metaphor. We might think we’re living in a football world, but actually we’re living in a TV wrestling world, where the key takeaway from TV wrestling is the game is rigged from the start. It’s the appearance of a competition, but it’s not actually a competition because the fix is always in. And Trump doesn’t want to play in any competition where he’s unsure of winning.
CL: Imagine the future of culture wars going from here.
LP: Well look the culture wars are being fought on new terrain right now. The culture wars at the moment are fought between people who believe that women and people of color are people who matter in culture and people who don’t. People who think that “identity politics” are already gone too far and culture needs to be reclaimed. A lot of the momentum behind the Trump campaign among millennials started with blabbergate, it started with the backlash against women and people of color in nerd world, which is obviously a big part of my life, I write about it a lot in my book. And that cultural aspect can’t be separated from what’s gone on in politics here. But I don’t think they’re gonna win this culture way, and I think the thing that’s gonna stifle them in the end is the stories that they demand we see more of again are old and boring stories. They’re stories that we’ve all heard so many times. “White Guy Saves the World”, “White Guy Saves the World and the Moon”, “White Guy Saves the World in Ancient Egypt”. You know, it’s the same thing, again and again the hero’s the kind of rugged individualist, just on a pure narrative level that’s a story we’ve heard before, whether it’s in the movies, fiction. The reason why when other people get to be heros they do so well is because they seem so new, we haven’t heard them for so many years. And I think narratives and good storytelling is one of the things that’s gonna win the day here.
CL: Repurpose the hero’s journey out of Greek literature, out of our own, out of David Copperfield, out of every novel that we grew up on. Give us the successor narrative.
LP: Well look, the hero’s journey relies on some guy who wrote the book The Hero’s Journey on what’s supposed to be the backing behind every good story and yo ucan see it from everything from Star Wars, to the Matrix, to a lot of Greek legends, to Dickens, you get the striving young man often pursuing a great destiny. And what Joseph Campbell was asked once where women fit in in the hero’s journey and what he said was, “Women don’t need the hero’s journey. Women don’t need to be heros. They just need to realize that they are the place that the hero is trying to get to.” I mean that’s so ridiculous, the idea that women don’t need to be heros of their own stories, they just need to be a big part of somebody else’s story. And the idea that the only story that ever needs to be told is this striving, singular hero narrative is just, apart from anything else, it’s so boring.
CL: Laurie, serious question, what is the chance that this incredible display, unending, of masculine success is going to change us? And maybe some day, dialectically, for the better?
LP: I’d say a lot of men right now are looking for the logical conclusion of the stories of masculine power and pride they grew up hearing and identifying with. And a lot of those people are asking themselves if this is who they really want to be and if this is really who they want to follow. So this is really an issue of identity in the end, because all politics are identity politics, because it’s about the politics of white masculinity and what it really means. I think there absolutely need to be new models of modern masculinity, desperately so. But writing and inventing those models is much more difficult than you’d imagine.
That was the trans-Atlantic feminist writer Laurie Penny.
Angela Nagle was born American in Houston of Irish parents, then grew up in Dublin, where she writes for the Irish Times and a host of hot online sites. She is known as an astute tracker of the big trends and hidden nooks in the borderless online culture. Her new book is Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right:
Angela Nagle: In the strict sense, the alt-right is a movement which is essentially a white supremacist movement or certainly a white separatist movement. They’re identitarians, they really believe in racial identity as the basis of politics, so in ways it’s pretty standard far right stuff because of course the far right have always been separate from sort of mainstream conservatives and often warring with those nearest to them. But what made it different I guess was that there was this huge online kind of army of anonymous young people who were kind of funny and good at creating memess and had their own language and they were very good at sort of like bamboozling mainstream journalists. Some of them would come from a place like 4chan which is like an image posting board that has created lots memes and you know has been very influential in online culture.
4chan has changed over the years. Anonymous, the kind of hacker collective, came from 4chan and it was that moment around sort of you know the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street when everyone was talking about hacker politics and networked Internet based politics as this bright new future of activism. It actually ended up being that the very style and and networked formation or whatever of the far right, actually.
CL: What does Donald Trump owe to 4chan? And what encouragement do they get from him and his election?
AN: They love trolling. I mean that is the central kind of culture of the whole thing. And he is kind of like an internet troll right? I mean they love the fact that he was unapologetic, that he was kind of rude. That he hated political correctness. So all of that stuff they love. And of course build a wall, they love that too because of their anti-immigration politics. So they really felt basically that liberals have taken everything over and they’re destroying everything when what you need is somebody unapologetic like Trump to come in and sort of break all the taboos and destroy kind of liberal hegemony.
But the significance of them is that for a very long time the right has not been able to shake off the kind of uncoolness of being on the right. You know what I mean? It was always an older age cohort and the conservative politics the right kind of Christian conservative politics didn’t really have kind of mass appeal, especially for younger people, and it was always kind of fusty and boring and so on. It made being on the right cool again or possibly for the first time.
The formal kind of politically serious hard core of the old right maybe small but the numbers of teenagers and now particularly guys and their 20s who’ve gone into you know college and are having these big wars over free speech and stuff like that on campus, they have been hugely influenced by by things like 4chan. And certainly for younger people, it has influence.
The very stark division on the question of political correctness. So what you have online is simultaneously a culture on one side which has become ultra sensitive to events and at the same time a rival culture which is coming from the sort Trumpy and kind of youthful for 4channy right who relish being offensive. It’s like that to kind of are becoming more entrenched in response to each other.
CL: Angela, size up the power of something like this outside the Internet in terms of their numbers, their ambitions, their money, their coherence. What are we talking about?
AN: Just putting together the numbers isn’t quite the right way to look at it because small numbers of people have changed the world many times. The point is that they have come along at a moment in which is that liberalism is in crisis and it’s finding it very difficult to sort of defend itself. It’s not doing very well at defending itself at the moment. The far right has been there, you know, for a long time. But why now?I think it is because of that weakness of liberalism.
CL: Angela, outline the new culture war as you see it including the place of identity politics.
AN: To me the original culture wars happened in the 60s. Identity politics then was about what became mass movements around feminism, around gay liberation, and you know the civil rights movement and so on. Then there was a kind of re-emergence of the culture wars again in the 90s. Susan Faludi called it a backlash for example against feminism and you had Camille Paglia and you had Bill Maher, his show Politically Incorrect and stuff like that. There was a moment of kind of a revived culture wars where there was a lot of kind of like dissident voices more than necessarily voices on the right.
But you also then had like Pat Buchanan and you also had at you know a kind of more confident right that wanted to roll back some of the cultural changes that had happened since the 60s. I think now what you have is a re-emergence once again of the culture wars and it’s all the same stuff. It’s race, it’s gender, it’s feminism, political correctness, immigration, and so on. But it has definitely come back to the center of politics in a massive way. And I think the online world has definitely helped that along.
CL: Angela, how is the online version going to be different?
AN: On the right you are allowed to say anything. That’s what makes them kind of horrible because if you look at their forums it’s just filled with really kind of stomach churning dehumanizing, disgusting stuff. But because they have a culture in which everyone is anonymous and everyone is allowed to say the most awful thing they could possibly think of, they have been allowed to, I suppose, bash out ideas in a certain way. They’re used to the kind of heat of argument. On the left particularly around cultural and identity issues, it’s so impossible to have an open conversation that it has really dulled everyone. And this is why we’re not able to defend our ideas because we’re not in the in the practice having any kind of conversation in which you are allowed to say sort of anything that might conceivably be repackaged as or misinterpreted intentionally as an offensive thing.
CL: The other way this is observed is that the right wing, Republican Party in general, don’t necessarily embrace their loonies but they have speaking relations with them. The left is embarrassed by their unconventional voices.
AN: We’re going to have to find some way to have a culture on the left of open debate and open discussion. If you go back and look at say somebody like Gore Vidal. You know if Gore but it was around now he would have already been witch-hunted out of the left because he would have said something offensive, because he was offensive.
CL: Walk us into a new landscape. The culture wars of the new century. Your culture on Trump so to speak.
AN: I think the real fault line is going to be in the coming years between materialists and anti-materialist essentially. I think it’s going to be a war between political movements that see the material factors of life, class, and economics, and so on as being you know of enormous importance and influence and also basing your political ideas around those things. I mean for example the alt-right describe themselves as an identitarian movement. I have heard Richard Spencer say that they are anti-materialists. Their idea is people should be grouped into identity categories and they should fight it out for their patch in those identity categories.
The historical moment I suppose for the emergence of identity politics in the 60s it was hugely important and they achieved amazing things, but today I think the problem is that the left won the cultural war and lost the economic war, and I think the emergence of Sanders and Corbyn is an attempt to actually address that.
That was the speed reader online, Angela Nagle, in Dublin.
Coming up: David Bosworth, our seer in Seattle, writes of the Trump moment that we’re looking at the birth of something as big and complex as the birth of modernity in the time of Shakespeare and Cervantes. The future is unforseeable, he says, but it was made in our time in America.
And then a few words from the advice columnist Liza Featherstone. This is Open Source.
We asked David Bosworth for the long view of the Trump moment in the history of our culture, our tech, our economy. He’s a critic who writes novels, too, and a celebrated teacher at the University of Washington. As it happened we found him on an island off the the western shore of the country.
David Bosworth: There’s a joke by Lily Tomlin I use it goes: we’re all in this together by ourselves. The history of human cultures, there’s a kind of pivoting between what culture will emphasize which or those two halves whether we’re together or whether we’re by ourselves.
America is probably the most extreme example of a culture this is built on the notion of being by ourselves of being individuals of being entrepreneurs in the economic field of being heroically individual in the moral field and the set of cultural circumstances and economic circumstances and technological circumstances that made that seem logical and right and appropriate is now ending and has been ending really for 100 years since the electronic revolution and we’re caught in the midst of this incredibly stressful and confusing period when we are still believing the old myths and moral understandings that we had about the past and who we should be and how we should behave are being undermined by the very economy and technologies we use every day.
CL: You know in the chaos of this Trump White House, I don’t know. It seems like an orgy almost of white guys in contention but exposing themselves in many sorts of ways. You write about a long transition centuries from the locked diary of the medieval journal to self-exposure on Facebook. Billions of people, each one with average of hundreds of friends talking about themselves all the time. Does that set the context of Trumpismo in some way?
DB: Well he’s coming out of that culture of course, where you only exist if you’re in the public sphere. It’s a kind of anxiety. There was an internal anxiety of when you were in the locked individual, any adaptation to the human condition at it’s particular kinds of stresses so there’d be the guilt of the individual or the worry about how one might be perceived or the fear of your privacy being invaded. The astonishing fact to me is how quickly that sense of privacy that’s absolutely necessary for a coherent individualism has been completely decimated by the electronic revolution.
Middle school age kids, you know, they’re always on their phones are always in contact with other people for healthy and unhealthy reasons whatever. But they’re no longer going to have imagine themselves in my room. Wasn’t that a Beach Boys song or whatever? You know that sort of sense of being by yourself. They’re not going to be by themselves at least in the digital sense ever. And there needs to be seems to be a psychological need for ratification. You know the whole idea of likes online and that’s just a different understanding of who a human being is it’s a radical change from the American tradition.
CL: In the last essay of yours that I’ve read it involves what you write about the fundamental reality of togetherness in this society as human beings may be but as Americans now connected but in a society that still calls itself self-reliant and individualistic. What is that all about?
DB: Right. Well if it’s the original self understand the history of that of course is the economic circumstances of the American project’s invention. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries the circumstances were such that people were more independent. You’ve made your living as an individual farmer or as an artisan or as a craftsman of course there were egregious exceptions that being slavery but most people were really independent and it was also a frontier society where there’s a constant open frontier for perhaps a hundred and fifty years. And the idea people were settling and making new townships and new social arrangements and new economic achievements on their own.
That was a reality as was the reality of print literacy and reading privately to yourself. So the whole sense of that private self was grounded in actual economic circumstance. So the American Revolution came out of the recognition of what had already been going on which was like the development of the individualism in America, America was the most literate society in the world probably at that time and it was also the most economically independent. And then it recognized and sort of woke up to the realization that they really weren’t kingly subjects they were more like independent citizens and then struggled through the notion that all the work cultural and personal work of creating a society that was very different.
So the circumstances that were underlying the creation of that society including the mythology of the lonesome hero are now gone. But the fact of the matter is and this is the tragic fact of the human story to some extent. Rapid technological progress almost always creates moral and psychological regress.
CL: Spell it out. Progress creates regress in our heads and hearts.
DB: Right because wealth, culture is a slow building process. Good conservative thinking is right about that. You don’t create a healthy society or a healthy community or a healthy family situation overnight. And what happens with new technologies with the idea of disruption. Often disruption is destruction it destroys that intricate web of social relations and understandings and covenants, if you will. They’re being undermined by new technologies new economic circumstances. And it’s not easy to get that back together again.
The term used in the American Revolution was checks and balances. The ideal society is this is checks and balances. But when technology starts developing as rapidly as it has been developing culture doesn’t catch up it’s harder for a culture to catch up and adapt.
CL: We grew up on the author Christopher Lasch and among other things is warnings that we live in a culture of narcissism isolated cells, overconsuming, overtherapized. Bring us up to date on narcissism. Today in public places you know at home in our heads.
DB: Yeah I want to stress mean I’m a fan of Christopher Lasch’s. But the problem when we start talking about narcissism that tends to be this blame game where the psychological analysis of the individual whereas Laschs really talking about cultural circumstances that were undermining individualism and particularly economic disenfranchisement of the individual by large corporations and that sort of nanny state or therapeutic state that was undermining our moral and psychological authorities.
CL: Would you call it a pathology, David?
DB: Yeah. This gets to some of my fundamental thinking and I you know in all honesty I don’t have the answers to this but I feel like even like all of our conceptions in every profession including psychiatry are based on the modern liberal modern model of the individual. So when you say there’s a pathology we’re usually talking about individual pathologies. I really think we need to start moving our minds a cultural context, pathological ,cultural environments or milieus or whatever you want to call them. So yes the narcissism that Lasch is mentioning has persisted and is damaging but I don’t it often ends up at the blame game pointing at this individual as narcissistic what this generation is narcissistic whether that talking about the cultural conditions which make the illusion of growing up and behaving as responsible self-reliant individuals more and more impossible
CL: Fit consumerism, good old American consumerism, but now in the Age of Amazon you know you’re one stroke away from that purchase. Consumerism is a trap that we love and hate.
DB: Yeah I mean the reality is that we all need obviously a certain amount of serial possessions to survive and the reality is that the majority were has been extraordinary productive in the gross sense of producing material goods far more efficiently than they once were. But the question is what human beings actually need and what makes human beings as it were, “happy”, and consumption along this does not do it. If you asked yourself in 2000 or a thoughtful individual what do we need most in the American economy? Someone would have answered we need to be able to get our wishes come true within two hours which is I think the delivery time Amazon promises for some of its packages. I would have fallen off my chair of course that’s not what we need but that’s how the economy is geared.
That’s the moral compass that’s built into our current capitalist system the consumer capitalism and the idea is to make people buy more and more. The idea is to keep you addicted to your cell phone. The idea is there’s no larger sense of human goodness in those conceptions. There’s a very narrow focus and if you take the critique of individualism, and apply it to the idea of dimensions of human well-being that’s the same thing a corporation has one value i is supposed to make profit. That one value dominates everything else.
CL: David Bosworth you’re storyteller, as well as a wonderful observer. Can you frame the outward chaos of Trump’s America as a sort of chapter in a long line of the American project you call it?
DB: Yeah I think Trump is I guess I want to call him. He’s sort of our id monster. He’s the result of probably 40 or 50 years of decadence. I keep on going back about the late 1980s and 90s and remembering the sort of end zone dancing that was going on in the West as the Soviet Union fell apart. You remember Francis Fukuyama’s neoconservative pronunciation of the end of history, history had ended.
The good guys had won, the good guys namely being us and our way of running the world was going to be predominant essentially for ever. Other problems would arise but the basic way of running the world was like our economists at the same time in the early 90s had solved forever. The markets boom bust cycle. And then of course was the promise of the digital age would soon educate the masses, you know streaming knowledge and prosperity etc.. Everyone it was a kind of giddy boasting. I was, it made me very nervous at any time you have people who have a kind of utopian belief system that they pursue inevitably ends up with dystopian results and then we got 9/11 two failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Great Recession, and the Internet that’s ripe for the cowardly trolls and fake news and cyber thievery and all the ads ads ads. And so Trump is emerging out of that culture. He’s very much ours. You know, I’m embarrassed to say lotterymania, casino construction, and celebrity stalking, reality television of course which which really created them, and then the fantastic policies of economic and military dominion that Americans — intellectuals were holding and pop culture was promulgating. So he’s really kind of the final expression of that and it’s a horrifying thing to see but it’s not as if he came out of nowhere.
CL: So history is alive again. I mean, how does the chapter end?
DB: Well I don’t you know I don’t obviously I don’t know my whole intellectual project or work of late that is trying to make people aware of it aware of the fact that we’re in this we have the benefit of thinking back and seeing the birth of modernity. That’s on historical records the late 60s and early 17th century. So we see a period when individualism is being born and all the cultural strife that went through then. So this is a dangerous transitional period, but we can get through it. You know if you call the mind the difference between the medieval mind and the modern mind you had the original performance of the morality play was the primary sort of theatrical performance or artistic performance or literary performance and now that turned into the privately read realistic novel.
The foundational story of Genesis was the prevailing notion of where we came from and then we have Darwin’s theory of evolution that replaced it or certainly supplanted it with the strict priorities and paternalistic duties of feudal economy versus all the contractual licensing and laissez faire morality of the market, et cetera et cetera. No one in 1600 including Shakespeare was the most prolific mind I know could have imagined the moral order that was coming. So we can make a new order it will be a new order. My question is will that new order be made the best version of it and will it be made in America because as modernity dies we’re the most modern culture that’s ever existed.
In this post-modern era, can America reinvent itself as is a conscientious post-modern society? And I don’t have the answer to that but I know we have to strive to do it because the change is coming. Change is coming. The technologies we use and it’s not ISIL. It’s not China. It’s not Russia. It’s certainly not Mexican immigrants who are a threat. It’s our own technologies have been transforming our lives in our cultural and economic institutions are changing our lives in ways that require domestication better.
CL: Better a good question that a presumptuous answer are you saying can we adapt to the postmodernity that we’ve created?
DB: Right exactly and recognize admit that we’re creating it rather than doing the scapegoating that Trump exploited so egregiously to become elected. I mean that’s a dark side of human nature. But we need an explanation of why things are going bad for us. And sometimes there are villains in our world and there are cutthroats in the world that sometimes are just scapegoats. We need to blame someone. So what’s gone on is this blame game. That’s not the real source of our issues and problems and we need to see that clearly and respond to it thoughtfully.
The book that sold us on David Bosworth is called The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America. His new title is: Conscientious Thinking: Making Sense in an Age of Idiot Savants.
And finally the advice columnist. People write their headaches to Liza Featherstone at the Nation Magazine under the heading: “Asking for a Friend.” She was a feminist for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic party fight for president last year. This is how she sounds, in the time of Trump:
Liza Featherstone: You know, a few months ago I said to a friend, I’m really worried, everyone around me is drinking too much, taking too many drugs, all their mental illnesses are coming out. And it is also reflected in my mail. People are really distressed, people are not sleeping. And my friend said, “It’s Trump, we’re all falling apart.” and he ordered a third Bloody Mary before lunch That’s how it is right now.
I think it’s important for us to understand that for most people, thinking about politics all the time is a really new source of stress. Most people’s lives aren’t about politics. Most people are taking their kids to school and getting themselves to work and trying to pay their bills and Trump has forced people to pay attention and they’re finding it quite distressing. I mean, The American Psychological Association reports in a study that more Americans are experiencing stress on every level. Calls to suicide hotlines are up.
I interviewed for my advice column a number of bartenders who said, “Everyone is drinking too much.” Much more cutting people off, much more asking people to leave, much more asking people to take their friends home, you know. People are really not handling this very well.
CL: Liza, let me ask: depression, alienation, even sleeplessness, these are old problems. What does it mean in this day and age, this year, nobody can talk about them without Donald Trump in the picture somewhere. There’s this one unifying figure. It’s like a war going on or a plague, but a figure.
LF: Well, I think part of it is, for some people, Trump is actually kind of a retraumatizing figure. I mean, because let’s face it, bullying males with sort of authoritarian personalities aren’t a really unusual feature of life. So for a lot of people Trump reminds them of a hectoring, humiliating father, or boss, or ex-husband. Somebody in their lives who caused them a lot of traumas. To take that a little bit deeper, the feeling that such person is in charge of your life is also quite of retraumatizing, especially for people who have had fathers or bosses like that. OK, this person is charge of our relationship with North Korea, or the planet’s fate. It’s like people’s own personal trauma on a global experience, on a global scale.
CL: If I were to write a letter to you, one of them would be “I worry that I’m cheapening myself even by looking at the news anymore. Is this worthy of my time?”
LF: This is something that I think about myself a lot. I don’t think you have a responsibility as a citizen to follow all the ridiculous palace drama in the White House. I think that’s not a useful use of our energy and I think that, in fact, even following it and discussing it too much is bad for us not only in our mental health, but also intellectually. I’ve noticed lately that I’ve stopped going on the internet in the evening at all and it’s better to read a really well written novel and you just feel your brain coming back to life.
Thank you, Liza Featherstone… Speaking of escaping into the arms of a great novel, we are reading and re-rereading Herman Melville’s giant American epic, Moby-Dick, and loving it all anew. Before the summer is out, we’re going to open it up on air. So call me Ishmael, please, keep reading and tell us what you make of the obsessive hunt for the white whale in 2017.
Thanks you Emmett Rensin, Laurie Penny, Angela Nagle and David Bosworth. Thanks also to Elizabeth Lasch Quinn.
Our show this week was produced by Conor Gillies, Zach Goldhammer, Frank Horton, Becca DeGregorio and Kevin Doherty. Susan Coyne does our amazing illustrations. Mary McGrath is our executive producer. I’m Christopher Lydon. Join us next time for Open Source.