Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Where’s that heartbeat of America now?


I've been reading R.D. Laing again, mostly when I wake up at 4 a.m. and worry about the economy. One of the specifics I worry about is that financial pundits are talking about the capitulation level for the Dow. That's when people like me give up, pull their remaining 401(k) money out of stocks, use it to buy an assault rifle and a cookbook, and start researching how to field dress their neighbor's bichon frise.

I also worry that the largest employer in the country will be Amway Corp., which might not be all bad. Amway can't really fire you once they've sent you a pallet of household detergent and cosmetics. The unsold Amway products in your garage will form the nucleus of a new barter economy, which is how goods and services will be distributed in this country after laissez-faire capitalism finishes eating itself. One of the things you will get from your regional Amway dealer will be a semi full of unsold Chevy Silverados for your friends one tier down the pyramid.

It's thinking like this that wakes me up when it's dark outside and going to stay dark for another three hours.

So I turn on a reading lamp, and pick up R.D. Laing. Laing isn't a financial pundit. He's a British psychiatrist, a dead one, except at 4 a.m. on dark November mornings, when he comes back to life, sheeted and gibbering. One of his ideas is that we humans usually deal with the contradictions of civilization by creating false selves. A false self, and the story we tell about it, is how most of us face the world.

Laing says psychosis begins when we start to think our false self is our real self, and that the story we make up about it is true. We starve our authentic selves to feed the false ones. We seldom glimpse this process in ourselves, but we can see it happen to other people. For example, Ernest Hemingway spent his life constructing a writer's persona and a story about a wounded guy who never complained. When persona and story broke down, there was nothing left to sustain his real self, and no real self left to sustain. His shotgun merely provided punctuation for a sentence already complete.


Laing was concerned with the false selves of individuals, but the current economic and political crisis has made me realize that the concept of a false self and a false story to go with it apply well to the United States of America. For 30 years now, we've been telling ourselves that we're richer than we are, that we can borrow from unborn great-grandchildren, that we stand for the noble cause of human freedom, that our economic system is based on the laws of physics, and that we use our inexhaustible resources according to their highest and best use. For 30 years, we've maintained that this fiction is the story of our real self.

Our real real self is different. Our real real self spends more than it makes. It approves the torture of detainees. It investigates the geology of countries before it invades them, because it has wasted most of its oil. It tolerates the manipulation of markets and tax codes that result in the working poor, who aren't free, and the idle rich, who lack the kind of purpose in their lives that would allow them to do something constructive with their freedom.

R.D. Laing would say we're in the process of realizing that we're nuts. Hard facts are beginning to destroy the myths we've lived by. Our president has called our constitution just a piece of paper, and our Supreme Court has proven him right. Our military has done the same thing to the Geneva Conventions. A communist auto company is hoping to buy our capitalist icon, General Motors. We've recognized wealth as debt, and debt as wealth. We're talking about more tax cuts and higher spending, which is to say that we don't believe in our currency at all.

We've reached the capitulation level with our national story. We've stopped believing in things we cannot touch or see, and a kind of bleak, pragmatic survivalism has taken hold. R.D. Laing says this is a good thing, because it's the end of psychosis and the start of sanity. But sanity is an inhospitable environment for our new President Obama, with his narrative of hope and reconciliation, and his faith in an American future.

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