I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the phrase "America is an idea." It does not sit well with me. People who say these things tend to wipe away the actual, real people and places who live in this country in pursuit of grand ideological ambitions. "America is an idea," says the aspiring societal terraformer.
Politicians calling for "freedom" or "equality." Individuals dreaming about a world in which they're a billionaire. Social planners cherry-picking their favored statistics to support their mission. Baristas in small town America raising money for impoverished people in Africa.
Each of these individuals suffer from the same delusion: a worldview in which the abstract takes precedence over the concrete.
From another perspective, it is interesting that the people who propose these kinds of ideas always seem to be the worst kinds of people. Why is it that the loudest voices for "tolerance" and "empathy" invariably seem to be the most devoid of them? The signaler wields emotionally potent rhetoric as a weapon to convince others of their own goodness: "I fight for freedom!" But they also use it as a shield against any criticism: "I am tolerant! You are the intolerant one!" Who wants to claim to be intolerant? Who wishes to say "I stand against freedom," or "I do not believe in equality?"
The social terraformer and the signaler both come from the same underlying idea. The mindset or philosophy that leads to someone believing America is an idea is the same mindset/philosophy that leads to a kind of insecure narcissism in which signaling supersedes substance. In both cases, alienation leads to an embrace of an abstraction of the world rather the world itself. And the consequences are disastrous.
There are ways out of this, though. All hope is not lost. It is true, there are significant issues. But we must not pretend we are the first generation in history to be faced with such hostile conditions. The soil is not fully salted...and even if it was, that simply extends the timeline for our project. It does not end our quest. So now, the engine of the problem, and how to disable it.
The Engine of Abstraction: Alienation
Perhaps you have met the Alienated Man. This Man has no communion with nature. He has no connection with his fellow men. He lives in a Digital world. His connection with nature is mediated via aggregates and spreadsheets. He has no respect for history. History is but a weight upon his back for him to throw off. These unchosen responsibilities imposed on him cannot be justified! He is his own man! He will choose his own obligations for himself! There are no more *places*.
The Alienated Man lives in a world devoid of any depth. Everything is dissolved into one great mass of nowhere, noplace. Every city filled with glass and steel, whether in a desert or a floodplain. Every suburban development filled with cookie cutter homes. The sprawl of civilization obliterating any distinction between town and country. The engines of modernity demanding everything must be dissolved into sameness. "Diversity" ironically demanding everywhere must look the same, both in terms of the buildings and the people inhabiting them.
And in the face of all of this, our institutions are broken (or hostile when they do "work") and we seem profoundly powerless in the face of all of this destruction. It shouldn't be surprising that Man retreats into the Virtual world. That a comforting simulation is superior to the harsh reality of a crumbling society.
The Perils of Abstraction: Subtraction, Shadows, and Superiority
In my piece, Recovering Empathy, I discussed the concept of "painful subtraction" that Elaine Scarry came up with:
Elaine Scarry wrote an essay titled "The Difficulty of Imagining Other Persons," and while I disagree with parts of the essay and much of Scarry's Liberal principles, much of the essay remains fascinating. The central topic is the problem of the Other: How does one relate to this Other?
Scarry sees this problem as so important because it sits at the core of the injustices of our society:
The difficulty of imagining others is both the cause of, and the problem displayed by, the action of injuring.
She illustrates this through reference to the work of British novelist Thomas Hardy:
He places before our eyes the dense interior of a man or woman. He then juxtaposes this ontological robustness with the inevitable subtractions, the flattenings, the emptyings out that occur in other people's vision of the person.
Hardy maximizes the imaginary density of a person, then lets us watch the painful subtraction each undergoes as she or he comes to be perceived by others.
It is this painful subtraction that characterizes our engagement with the world around us. In other words, we cannot escape the fact that society only ever sees a miniscule set of facets of our being (if society is even perceiving those facets correctly in the first place). Those close to us engage in what one might call a restorative addition over time as they "come to know us" more fully.
In that piece, I was focused on attempting to lay out the mechanisms by which a society becomes a "subtraction society": a society in which people's inner depths are almost never recognized. In which the painful subtraction process is intensifying and spreading.
But in this piece, I want to better connect this painful subtraction with the rise of "Shadows" and then narcissism.
When the painful subtraction we each go through, and commit upon others, runs amok, when we forget that others have dense interiors we are not perceiving, when we see them as truly nothing more than a set of surface-level properties, we have reduced others (or been reduced ourselves) to nothing more than a "shadow." A mere caricature of a human being. They are no longer individuals, but something entirely less. Perhaps "dehumanization" is not the correct term for this, but this painful subtraction seems eerily similar to it.
The most alarming delusion of all: that other people don’t matter
This is the delusion of the narcissist. Who believes that they alone are real. Their feelings are the only feelings that matter, because other people are just shadows. And shadows don’t feel, because they’re not real.
We are a society devoid of empathy, driven towards a north star that promises us empowerment and provides us emptiness.
The endpoint of our obsession with the Self, our focus on Autonomy, is ironically the abolition of the Self in a meaningful way. We engineer a society of shadows, a culture that has forgotten the wonder of uncovering the inner depths of another (or even the powerful allure of keeping those inner depths a mystery).
And it is that obsession, that drive towards a society of shadows, that fuels the narcissism of today.
The Road to Recovery
I understand the appeal of apathy and irony. I understand the desire to give in. But these processes are not one-way. History has always been cyclical. It is time to force the pendulum back the other way. It is true, massive, entrenched interests stand against us. The pursuit of efficiency in the name of profit tends to destroy the institutions and relationships that helped ground communities. The rulers of this country appear entirely beholden to an anti-social ideology. Many of our fellow citizens appear to have embraced convenience and comfort at the expense of their own humanity, and the humanity of those around us. Politics seems like nothing more than a sports game, with spectators pissed at the refs when they rule against their team and pleased with the refs when they rule in their team's favor.
But in the face of all of this, there are signs of hope. Local school boards are, at least in some places, meaningfully resisting insane racial hatred being taught to their children. Some states have refused to fall prey to insanity with regards to Covid (and plenty of towns and counties within otherwise insane states have retained normalcy). The various events in Canada have demonstrated a people willing to unite, and have provided proof-of-concept for more effective protesting tactics.
The cure to abstraction is embeddedness. A focus on the concrete rather than the abstract. I grow more convinced by the day that large numbers of people would be open to policies that resolve concrete problems (poverty, unhealthy food, access to quality healthcare, air pollution, desertification, etc) as opposed to whining about abstract "problems" (what the fuck is "whiteness" and how do you "solve" it???). I do not care about "freedom" or "empowerment" or "equality." I care about what percentage of Americans can afford a $1000 emergency expense. I care about what percentage of Americans are eating healthy food. I care about what percentage of Americans can quit their job without fear of starvation. I care about how many hours of work a week it takes to raise a family. I care about how many Americans feel that their work is fulfilling. And I believe most Americans care about those more than abstract ideals as well.
Understand something: dragon-slayers are not born, they are made. It is only be throwing off the blanket of comfort and convenience that anything will be accomplished. The risks will be great, and many may fall in any real resistance. But if your "resistance" does not materially impact your life in any negative way, you probably aren't much of a dissident. It is true, the lizards that run the world have endeavored to build a society devoid of dragon-slayers. But nothing lasts forever. There are dragons that must be slain. Godspeed to us all.