Monday, May 15, 2017

Stepping Out of Our Selves

The insights of George Lakoff may well be vitally important for taking responsible populist measures to hold the idiot elite (0.1%) accountable and, perhaps, to realize more of the possibilities of democracy.  Responsible populism is here defined as any collective movement well seeped in an appreciation of the necessity of preserving, curating, and periodically reforming fragile but essential democratic institutions.

Certain words and images may activate "moral frames", but these frames are tightly integrated with "identities" and affiliations whose primal urgencies reach so much deeper than morality, perhaps much deeper than any notion of either culture or individuality.  Some words, symbols, and incantations may simply bypass all instincts even remotely associated with what we might recognize as morality.  Potent cultural symbols trigger reactions that can emerge directly from the id, experienced viscerally and in animating fantasies that "hold" us in (or at least seductively promise) much desired enchantment states: trances that can climax in powerful releases of stress and energy.

Of course, this sounds (and is) both loopy and crazy. Hypnotic trances are founded in repetitive patterns that undermine the rational.  But as much as rationality provides humanity with tools and controls now absolutely necessary for civilized survival, rationality is clearly an adaptive overlay to more basic cognitive and limbic structures.  It should not be forgotten that democracy also is an overlay of adaptive institutions for regulating more primitive systems of command and control.

Our need for enchantment, however it may develop in the course of a lifetime, does not diminish as our childhood seems to fade. Human language may have some formative roots in song (chanter). Religion may be complex elaborations on dramatic and ecstatic dance.  All of us seek trance everywhere including in the most repetitive labor so often made more bearable by music and daydream.  We need common songs to coordinate our activities.  We need shared fantasies to harmonize our sentiments.  We need these even more when time and space may physically isolate us

In school, we learn about the early 19th century "Romantic Reaction" to the "Enlightenment Rationalism" of the late 18th century. But “rationalism" just like reactionary atavism may be nothing more than just another set of ways to reorient our focus and imagination.

The reactionary by definition is associated with older ways or at least mythologized versions of the past.  It tends to have its causes articulated by older intellects well seeped in the use and misuse of cultural symbols.  With its ties to traditional religious imagery and the resources of established power, the reactionary often has a significant advantage when it comes to manipulating seminal triggers. The prime example may still be German Nazism. The Nazis used pre Christian mythological imagery (offered to them on a platter by the likes of Wagner and the Grimms) to invoke nationalist and racist atavism. The Swastika is a symbol much more ancient and primal than any Germanic “folk” identity.  We may never escape a basic human longing for thrilling enchantment, but we can try mightily to enchant ourselves and each other in ways that transcend the gratifications of resentment, revenge, humiliation, violence, and domination.

American Movement Conservatism is relentless in invoking fantasies of freedom and individuality.  It knows just how to trigger the terror of being stripped of both and then absorbed into collectivist annihilation.  But, at the same time, it also conjures affirming sensations of belonging and unity within a folk well able to protect necessary resources from enemies and even take such resources by force if survival may seem to require this.  History easily provides many examples (convincing enough to satisfy some rational demands) that this type of mind frame is important for collective survival. But because it has been malignly possessed by irresponsible guardians of private wealth, American Conservatism is unable to appeal to urges for the types of freedom and unity that can only be sustained by vigorous institutions of democracy.

We all, at least at times, strive to experience being "free" and “self" determined.  Such "experiences" are not necessarily bad things to strive for . . . whatever they might mean.  But freedom and self-determination will always mean different things to different people because both are chimeras.  Regardless of our imaginings, we cannot survive as isolated individuals just as we could never totally lose ourselves in some collective, no matter how fearsome, or comforting, or exclusive, or enveloping it might be.

Whether or not we long for isolation or belonging, we are all vulnerable to urgent needs to "appear" to be one thing or another whether it's "strong and independent" or "loyal and compliant".    Under pressures imposed by the imagined judgments of others, we can sometimes reassure ourselves of an ability to "fake it until we make it".  We may also be constantly tortured by unnerving possibilities of being unmasked. 

But these are challenges we are probably condemned to "play" about as we navigate and develop within cultural contexts.

We can never "touch" reality (whatever it is), but we can try to create or conjure ideas and structures others will invest their attention and imaginations into in ways that bring benefits that seem shareable - and which minimize consequences that could curdle our dreams for our “selves” and our children.

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