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The Code of Crisis and Disaster

To respond to a week of triple catastrophe – a UN climate change report, the Ryan budget, the McCutcheon decision – it is crucial to confront and decode our own “reptilian” desires.

“Instead of raising the bar in pursuit of objectivity, the current working group doubled down on its 2007 summary: It unfurls a series of distortions designed to magnify the threats, ignore the benefits, and downplay the possibility of adapting to climate change.”
Rupert Darwall, “Why the IPCC Report Neglects the Benefits of Global Warming,” National Review, April 1, 2014

“Leveling the playing field is not an acceptable interest for the government, Chief Justice Roberts said. Nor is ‘the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner influence over or access to elected officials or political parties,'” he added, quoting Citizens United.”
Adam Liptak, “Justices, 5-4, Kill Spending Cap in Political Races,” The New York Times, April 3, 2014.

“The unveiling Tuesday of Representative Paul D. Ryan’s newest Republican budget may have redrawn the battle lines for the 2014 election, detailing what his party could do with complete control of Congress ….”
Jonathan Weisman, “Ryan’s Budget Would Cut $5 Trillion in Spending Over a Decade,” The New York Times, April 2, 2014.

Like Clotaire Rapaille, a child psychologist turned marketing strategist, I, in former times, observed a kind of protective and conciliatory façade – claimed as rational – in what people said which needed to be penetrated in order to get to what they “really” felt. “I don’t care what you’re going to tell me intellectually,” Rapaille tells us. “I don’t care. Give me the reptilian. Why? Because the reptilian always wins.” In Rapaille’s view, once you understand the code, you understand why people do what they do, and that code involves emotional attachments that are pre-rational and pre-reflective, but shape our behavior.

If you extend this approach to the idea that these bedrock emotions are wired to what we, as socially adapted conscionable individuals, need to conceal, that we must be somewhere else than these low places in our minds, you enter a world of alibis and defenses you need to get around, that you need to see through. If you find the concealed code, you break through, but this is no easy task when events are always political and the political discourse divide is unaccommodating.

In a Millennial clime of a self-designed cognitive will to success, it is difficult to accept the view that our ideologies are no more than fronts for instinctive attachments. We now feel that we empower our own cognition and laugh at the notion that anything could trump our own self-empowerment and our rational choice directives. This itself is a defending alibi.
If it were the cortex and not the reptilian brain shaping our behavior, we would not now be facing the crisis and disaster reported in the first week in April’s news.

Consider the revelations of just one week in April: a Paris climate conference (of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) gave yet another frightening report, pithily expressed in a Slate article: “New U.N. Report: Climate Change Risks Destabilizing Human Society.” A Supreme Court decision further entrenched the 1976 decision to treat money as speech by abolishing a cap on total contributions any individual can make in a two-year election cycle. Paul D. Ryan, a likely Republican Party presidential candidate in 2016, proposed a budget that “lowers the top tax rate to 25 percent for the wealthiest taxpayers … while raising taxes on middle-class families with children by an average of $2,000.” (The New York Times, April 2, 2014). The bottom 40 per cent of the population is not overlooked by Mr. Ryan as he asserts that his proposed budget “empowers recipients to get off the aid rolls and back on the payrolls.”

None of these occurrences is inconsequential. Our own survival and the survival of other species on this planet, the integrity of democratic elections, and the planned immiseration of many – all amount to crises moments, disasters looming. On a Saturn moon where water was found the same week, we can postulate possible life, and that life observing us. Saturn headlines: “Dire Climate Change, Bought Elections and Budget Armageddon on Goldilocks Planet!”

To find the code of crisis and disaster that operates in US culture, we need to begin with what we say intellectually, our rational presentations, or our “cortex” discourse. I begin with my own.

There is a ranking order to our crises and disaster, call it a “Disaster Order of Things.” Radical climate change, whether caused by a meteorite or humans, could go way beyond “destabilizing human society.” Think of the “lower orders.” Read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History to see the effects here on those with whom we share the planet. If you are looking for a disaster limited to we humans and specifically to democracy in the US, consider the connection between wealth and power and the effect both, unrestricted, may have on our elections. If you assume that a serious wealth divide does not have dire consequences for a democratic society, you need to read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. What oligarchs do is preserve the order of oligarchy. They can do so when wealth purchases the best brainwashing techniques marketers and advertisers have to offer. And lastly, covering the week’s news, Paul Ryan’s proposed Republican budget gives us a few clues as to what would happen if Republicans win the Senate and hold on to the House in 2014. We can expect a feudal order of things.

All of this is, at best, arguably rational, if you accept certain premises which are themselves grounded in certain ways of perceiving. In other words, there are other and different ways of being arguably rational about this chosen week’s events. So we need to argue in this rational way on the other side. I admit that my purpose here is to weaken the rational domain and expose the ways we are “arguably rational” as working both sides of the street, referring here to Nietzsche’s reason as a strumpet easily bought. Following this pursuit of the other side of the street, the opposing rational façade, I probe the underbelly, searching for what inclines us toward our truth stories. In short, once the “cortex discourse” is out of the way, I follow the code to the reptilian brain.

And so the counter-reasoning, the cortex working the other side of the street:

Radical climate change, first, may not be that radical. There is nothing more variable and uncertain than the weather. The science, as they say, “isn’t all in.” It is premature to sink our economy intentionally when there is only a questionable justification for doing so. And, as we do not have a very deep historical record of weather change, it is very possible that what we see now has occurred before in cycles of which we are not aware. Whether humans are the single cause here or one of many variables or not a significant variable at all is unknown. What some perceive as disaster, others see as opportunity. A new configuration of the planet’s land and water represents a new marketing frontier, an opportunity to grow the economy, put people to work and maximize profit to shareholders. Whatever Mother Nature throws at us, we have the technological genius to withstand. We have a history of dominating Nature, not succumbing to it. Our adaptations will not be humble concessions but engineered in our own best interests.

Money plays an obviously vital role in a capitalist society, as do those who possess the skill set to amass fortunes within a competitive capitalist arena. You can call them oligarchs, but these Captains of Industry and Finance grow the economy, create jobs and enable the US to be competitive in the global arena. Money is the instrument employed in this crafting of a vibrant economy. And just as a writer’s words, the expressive medium of his or her profession, are protected by the First Amendment, so too is money, the expressive medium of every US citizen. You cannot limit either speech or money by arguing that within this democratic free-for-all some are more adept than others are in making use of money or speech. There exists no reason to level by governmental interference either form of expression so that every citizen possesses an equal share of money and an equal facility with speech. The question of undue influence of money in politics is like questioning the undue influence of words on thought.

Many clear-thinking Americans will welcome Paul Ryan’s budget proposal because it acknowledges that our economic growth is retarded by our welfare and entitlement governmental expenditures. These only serve to coddle an uncompetitive, unproductive and dependent class. The US is not a country wherein we will all equally queue up on a bread line, a country in which we will all be poor together. We are a country of opportunities for all to be rich, a country in which those opportunities will not be restricted. The psychology that drives Winners to win is as forceful as the psychology that drives the dependent toward greater and greater dependency.

Whatever impeccable logic and moral purpose we propose becomes a front concealing our desire to have the world the way we want it.

What we have in these point/counterpoint stories, from both Left and Right, are alibis defending us and shielding us like a brick wall from any probing into what lies behind the wall. We must always be, as the Latin word alibi describes, “somewhere else, in or at another place,” never where we actually are. Whatever impeccable logic and moral purpose we propose becomes a front concealing our desire to have the world the way we want it.

Americans have become less and less inclined to a mutuality-of-life view that offends our zero-sum economics game in which others lose so you can win.

There is clearly something about the inevitability of the climate change threat that challenges our own supremacy and presumes to override our own will. Earth First! advocates assume we would oblige and bend to a pantheist notion that we share with rocks, trees and brooks the same underlying spirit, as if our individual human nature had no claim to superiority. Our technological innovativeness has not inclined us to respect interconnectedness with inanimate and animate but insentient Nature. Americans have become less and less inclined to a mutuality-of-life view that offends our zero-sum economics game in which others lose so you can win. No outside force stands long against our own ambitions, our own awareness and consciousness. What we have continually dominated will not stand against us. There is thus, within us, inside the walls of our alibis, no place for accommodation to Nature, either in the recuperating way Wordsworth imagines it or the destructive ways we are coming to know more repeatedly and tragically in the last quarter-century.

There is an intolerable presumptuousness to Nature’s challenge to our narcissism.

There is an intolerable presumptuousness to Nature’s challenge to our narcissism. Dig deeper and we unearth solipsism, a sense that if anything outside our own will exists, it does so because we empower it personally to exist. What encourages such solipsism is our uncontested rule in cyberspace, a space, unlike Nature’s, which awaits our design, which is given shape by our choices. We transfer our easy control of cyberspace to an equally easy control of Nature. More directly, cyberspace has replaced in our order of attachments “The Great Outdoors” of the real space of Nature, itself now a pre-digital kind of archaism. What no longer has a place on the level of real desire and will cannot be allowed a recognizable force.

Affront and outrage become then our reptilian brain’s response to the disasters resulting from human-caused climate change. We are thusly not inclined to either change our behavior or believe we cannot put Nature in her place.

The oligarch is always here the person who has complete freedom and that person is always you.

The further extension of our First Amendment rights in Citizens United and in our chosen week’s McCutheon v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court case translates as a further extension of our individual freedom to choose to do what we want without restraint. The joy felt in this liberation is a childhood joy, the joy that you feel when your free play is not restrained. Once again, in a realm where total autonomy is the order of the day, you remain impervious to all influences. The rich man who buys political influence is never buying influence that will affect you personally, therefore there is no influence. And, further, you are at any moment about to king yourself and in that role, you abhor any infringement upon the uses you make of your wealth. The oligarch is always here the person who has complete freedom and that person is always you. All politics is evil and all politicians are corrupt not because an oligarchic arrangement of economic interests has no need of politics or any need of anyone “doing politics,” but because you personally have no need of politics. Politics is not social because there is no society. Politics is personal, and what you personally choose trumps in every instance what is reported as politics. You do your politics on Facebook within your own designed society.

Conceit and the “Monarchal pride” of Milton’s Satan render whatever dire relationship between money and politics a small, undignified matter, or more tragically, totally absent.

Those who already have what we seek and represent the fulfillment of our American Dream remain untarnished in this liminal space because we do not blame for our woes that to which we aspire.

Paul Ryan’s budget proposal touches the most atavistic impulses, but here our alibis or cortex thinking lies very close to what is imprinted much deeper. Our alibis do not really say we are “someplace else” than where we really are. We occupy both spaces at once, or are liminal, at the threshold of each. We do not begrudge the Winners their winnings or question their lavish excesses or their Machiavellian ways, but rather denounce the Losers for their own misfortunes, their sly deceit and thievery, and their parasitism of YOU. If not for these parasites, your own design of success would not be impeded. Those who already have what we seek and represent the fulfillment of our American Dream remain untarnished in this liminal space because we do not blame for our woes that to which we aspire. What pulls us downward is what we can identify as the occupants of the downward place. Ryan proposes to kill that bottom life and so destroy a middle class’s fear that this is where they are heading. They cannot wind up in a place that no longer exists. Ryan becomes their champion, a champion who, with ironic fatality, is engaged in preparing oblivion for their eventual arrival.

A suicidal imprint is etched strongly here, an end to a Kierkegaard – like “fear and trembling, sickness unto death.” This is a coding that the US middle class responds to in all its compliances with the war for extinction waged against the “Losers,” a so-called “creative destruction.”

At the beginning, I stated that, in former times, some deep digging was needed to disclose what Rapaille called the “code” behind our behavior, a code not disclosed by what we consciously might say. In the present US cultural climate, much that formerly needed to be hidden no longer needs to be hidden. There was need, say a quarter of a century ago, to never say where we actually were in our minds. “Political correctness” emerged as a kind of gatekeeper between cortex and reptilian thinking, a Miss Manners of the reptilian brain. It did not expunge the code and it did not stand as an alibi. What it did do was expose the psychic dynamic. It admitted what we did not want to admit. Therefore, we indicted PC as an infringement on our individual freedom to choose, the most telling alibi in the US cultural imaginary. To possess total individual freedom of choice now involved no suppressive gatekeepers. You did not have to dig for the code because it was openly expressed in public discourse.

In short, the demons of our dark side no longer needed to hide. They had become part of a social, political and economic discourse, part of a political party platform. Self-interest no longer has to pretend to be altruistic because our expression of an “enlightened” self-interest overwrites that conflict and does so in our own interest. There is no need of an alibi for our disinterest in a social moral sense because now our “social networking” fulfills all societal demands upon us. We can fall into as deep a pit of narcissism as we wish and feel no need to say we are elsewhere. An entire discourse opened a dark pit of human emotions and made them a part of a political platform. Think tanks were erected to produce alibis that would bring the reptilian brain into the rational discourse of the cortex. And the alibis that would work were the ones that lay closest to the underlying codes, which like keys, unlock all barriers between.

A politics that aligns itself quite closely to where we are in subterranean depths of mind has more appeal than one that pretends that we are really someplace else.

A politics that aligns itself quite closely to where we are in subterranean depths of mind has more appeal than one that pretends that we are really someplace else, that insists that our alibis are true and real. Emotions that we denied ever visiting can now be openly acknowledged. A politics that asks you to confirm in the voting booth what is already magnetically attractive because that politics has cracked the code to your subliminal emotional attachments is a winning politics. This attraction has proven to be more powerful than the crises it feeds and the looming disasters it ignores.

Nevertheless, neither history nor politics confirms the stability or perseverance of any cultural coding. However, a prolonged period of Congressional gridlock, like a prolonged period of drought in Texas, seems to indicate that the reptilian brain is being tapped with enough success to keep a bottom 80 percent of Americans from recognizing the difference between their own interests and that of the oligarchs. What seems clear is that the apparent easy victory of a coalition of obliging rationality and unbridled instinct has been forestalled in different ways at different times and in different cultures. Recognition of what and where the battle lines are – not in what we say, but what we feel – is always, in every age, a necessary means to resolve crises, itself a necessary step in the avoidance of looming disaster.

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