“Keeping US Safe”...From the Task of Engaging and Managing our Own Anxieties

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CommonDreams.org

“Keeping US Safe”...From the Task of Engaging and Managing our Own Anxieties

A few weeks back, we had an untimely snowstorm here in Connecticut. When snow falls on trees that still have their leaves, a lot of branches break. And when lots of branches break, power lines get knocked down in extraordinarily large numbers.

As I surveyed the wreckage around me after the storm, I was very glad to know that I lived in the world’s emblematic “can do” country. If I lived, for example, in one of those awful banana republics where “public” spaces and services have long since become the hollowed-out playthings of well-connected speculators, or where the National Guard was used to fight wars of aggression rather than serve, as it was explicitly designed to serve, as the bulwark of domestic civil defense, I’d be out of luck.

Yes, I was very glad that I lived here in the heimat and not somewhere else.

However, after a week of providing hot baths and dinners to friends (my house miraculously escaped the power loss experienced by some 90% of the area’s other inhabitants) and watching my children experience an unscheduled eight-day vacation from school, I was not so sure.

One of the things that helped me ward off the encroaching gloom were the recorded telephone updates I received each evening from the mayor, and towards the end of the period, the superintendent of schools of the municipality. After going through the statistics on the rate of power restoration in the town and reminding people of the existence local “warming centers”, they always took time at the end to remind us that the most important thing of all is that we realize they were doing everything they could to “KEEP US SAFE”.

In highlighting the overarching importance of “keeping us safe”, these officials were doing what all ambitious local public figures do almost without thinking: they were seamlessly mimicking figures of speech employed by those further up the political food chain.

Conservatives have long understood that the key to generating large scale social mobilization in today’s world hinges on the ability to circulate tropes, or as George Lakoff likes to call them, frames, which imbue the life of the average citizen--living more often than not in a state of teleological disjointedness or drift—with a sense of narrative coherence.

They have also long-since realized that forging a relationship between these narratives and empirically verifiable truth and/or the historical trajectory of the collective, is wholly unimportant.

Rather, what is key is the ability to make the ordinarily alienated and often desensitized citizen a) feel strong and preferably unsettling emotions and b) believe that the candidate or elected official is working to eliminate, or at least mitigate, those very same disturbing thoughts.

It precisely through these tactics that the Bush Administration reinvented the American presidency, turning it from the political position of executive management that it was designed to be, to an office largely defined by martial trappings and martial prerogatives.

The central enabling trope of this transformation was the idea that the president’s foremost responsibility is to “Keep the American People Safe”.

In an emblematic precursor to what has become his simultaneously pathetic and criminal presidency, Obama parroted those words--and therefore the central thrust of the Bushian transformation of the presidency--in his much-ballyhooed speech on Guantánamo at the National Archives in the spring of 2009. “…My single most important responsibility as President is to keep the American people safe. That is the first thing that I think about when I wake up in the morning. It is the last thing that I think about when I go to sleep at night.”

It is a tribute to the country’s profound historical and civic amnesia that he could make this claim about the core function of the presidency while standing right next to the encased and illuminated original version of our constitution and not have anyone raise the slightest objection!

You can look all you want in that document and not find a single reference regarding the inherent primacy of citizen safety among our social values, never mind the idea that the president’s prime responsibility is to provide this ever-elusive state-of-being for the people.

There is a good reason for this. The people who produced that document were effectively writing against one of the longest running “security for liberty” scams in western history: feudalism. And they wanted no part of it….at least for white men like themselves.

They knew all too well that the proverbial strong man’s ability to allay citizen fears was at best temporary and very contingent on external factors. Perhaps more importantly, they understood from the experience of their fairly immediate ancestors that once the lord gained a large enough parcel of power he would inevitably unleash it upon the very serfs he was solemnly sworn to protect and feed.

When future historians cast their eyes upon of the last decade or so of American history they will no doubt be vexed by the precipitous collapse among Americans of their long-running tradition of skepticism towards concentrations of military and elite power.

Though I cannot claim the role of seer, my guess is that the more accomplished of these analysts will zero in on the role of the mass media, and more specifically, the outsized role of product marketing, in fomenting this moral implosion among us.

As anyone who has had the good fortune of reading Unamuno or Kierkegaard will know, the problem of anxiety--rooted more than anything else in the unsettling knowledge that one is condemned to decline and die—was once seen as an integral element of the human condition. In this context, learning to mindfully manage, and yes, perhaps even learn from, one’s existential fears was seen as a laudable goal, a hallmark of true maturity.

But that was before the sellers and their marketers realized just how profitable pretending to allay basically unresolvable fears could be. The key to this process was convincing people that having existential anxiety, that is, recurrent fears about one’s destiny in this world and perhaps the next, is fundamentally abnormal.

Once a person is convinced of this, the goal of his or her life turns from that of being a thoughtful custodian of what they are and what they have been given to frenetically (and usually serially) seeking “solutions” for “the problem” of being alive in a world where decline and death are the unbreakable rule. And here is where the companies come in, offering one simulacrum of a solution after another.

Naturally none of these “products” actually arrests the large processes that so trouble the consumer. Those things tend to have a dynamic all their own. But what their purchases do definitely accomplish is to fill the pockets of the manufacturers. They then use a portion of the earnings to generate new ways of making the consumer feel nervous and inadequate, and thus in need of still more simulacra designed (but of course unable) to palliate the often frightful condition of being alive.

And so it goes.

This country is the object of a wholly predictable wave of anger from various societies around the world. That is what happens when you manipulate, terrorize and kill people in order to gain control of the resources that lie beneath the places they call home.

In a mature society, where the goal of attaining some measure of the self and its limits was still a laudable social pursuit, this hostility from abroad would be seen, above all, as an urgent call to reflection.

But consumer culture, with its endless cycle of faux anxiety and empty promises has all but extinguished that cast of mind among us.

And so, like a classroom of kindergartners sitting cross-legged on the floor before their teacher, we listen to leaders who claim they will protect us from the inevitable consequences of their (and by extension “our own”) heedless ways of acting.

We, of course, have doubts about the terms of the protection racket they offer us. But apparently, those doubts are dwarfed the dimensions of the anxieties that still run amok inside our heads, many, if not most of which were artfully placed there by the pros on Madison Ave.

Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington is a professor of Iberian Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of the recently published book, Livin' la Vida Barroca: American Culture in a Time of
Imperial Orthodoxies.

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