America is in trouble — not only from external threats, economic failing, or natural disasters, but also from a rising level of denial that plagues our culture, a fog of sorts that distorts reality and hides real threats. Think of all the unrealities that we are presently living with:
- We will win the Middle East wars. We have been at war since 2001, with no end in sight. The longest international war in US history has cost thousands of lives, drains valuable resources, and syphons off trillions of dollars that could be put to use for our citizens’ education and healthcare. The new administration that once talked about ending the wars, is now talking about increasing troop deployment and “winning.” The US occupations in the Middle East are not “winnable.” They line the pockets of a wealthy elite, provide fantasies of heroism for patriotic victims of war propaganda, but do nothing to benefit the majority of Americans. We have no good reason to be there.
- Global climate change is a myth. The media has been browbeaten into never mentioning the obvious connection between global warming and the increasingly severe hurricanes, wild fires, and other natural disasters. Climate change does not cause hurricanes, but rising sea levels, warmer, moister air and warmer ocean water, all add to hurricane strength and destructiveness. Climate change is real, and scientific consensus is that it is caused by human activity. This is a disaster of our own making.
- The economy is booming. Major economic downturns occur every decade or so. The last one, the subprime mortgage crisis, began eleven years ago. Congress is considering tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, deregulation, and more federal debt, a formula that has failed and led to economic havoc in the eighties, nineties, and 2000’s. A new housing bubble has been reported by various media outlets, and ignored by the government and mass media analysts. The next economic meltdown is a certainty; the only issue is when.
- Economic inequality is not a real issue, and may be a positive aspect of our freedom. Economic inequality threatens our economy, form of government, and middle class way of life. Inequality is undermining all of America’s most treasured cultural icons: democracy is sliding into plutocracy; the American Dream is slipping away; numerous social ills plague us as inequality leaves Americans with less and less hope. The gap between the “haves” and “have nots” is widening, according to the latest data, and no solution has been proposed by anyone in government, or media, with the lone exception of Bernie Sanders who is dismissed as a socialist and a gadfly.
There are other examples, but you get the point. Our nation is turning a blind eye to the real, existential threats that face us, and focusing instead on Trump tweets, the pronouncements of Steve Bannon, talk radio rants, and other distractions. We are living in what has been described as a “post-truth world” and writers are now attempting to explain America’s embrace of make-believe.
Here is one explanation:
America has a faltering death denial system, what I have called a “toxic culture.” Death denial and reality denial go hand in hand. The dread of death that haunts our nightmares, stories, and unguarded moments, is repressed by most humans and controlled in a more manageable form of death anxiety, the lingering disquiet that remains after death awareness has been repressed. The most effective defense against death anxiety, supported in over a thousand social psychological experiments, is self-esteem. Culture is an ancient means of providing self-esteem through opportunities for immortality, heroism, purpose, and meaning, all powerful death anxiety defenses. Culture consists of fantasies and illusions presented in myths, beliefs, and rules for behavior that help us control our fears.
The ancient cultural creation called religion is historically the most effective antidote to death anxiety. Religion assures us that death is not real, that immortality awaits our crossing into a spirit realm, an alternate reality of eternal bliss. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your point of view, America’s commitment to the religion defense has been waning for several generations. We have replaced less and less believable religion with symbolic immortality, a defense consisting of materialism centered on wealth, fame, power, beauty, and control.
The problem arises in the inability of most Americans to be wealthy, famous, powerful, beautiful, or in control of much of the world. Falling short of these culturally prescribed materialist defenses, Americans now populate a society that is anxious and driven. Our culture falls back on the simplest death anxiety buffers, denial and distraction. We have produced a staggering array of distractions from drugs and alcohol, to shopping, TV, social media, gambling, sexual obsession, and other forms of mind numbing activity. Political discourse that could be used to address real national concerns has instead been turned into a form of entertainment. Donald Trump, former gameshow star, has been elevated to entertainer in chief.
Other culturally provided forms of anxiety defense include transference, the childhood reliance on our parents that we bring into adulthood. Imbuing individuals and groups with power and drawing on that power to boost our self-esteem is a form of transference. Nationalism — belief in one’s nation’s superiority and justified world domination, white supremacy — belief in one’s genetic superiority, and demagoguery — belief in a leader’s ability to carry his/her followers to greater power and control of the world, all are forms of culturally constructed symbolic defenses against death anxiety, and are essentially illusions.
All cultures are composed of fantasy and illusion. Problems arise when, over time, the fantasies and illusions grow farther and farther away from reality. Distractions are brief and leave us exposed to dread. Symbolic immortality in the forms of materialistic ideals and opportunities for transference, fail when they bump up against the cold reality of death. The stories, myths, and legends that we tell ourselves about America’s manifest destiny, the American dream, progress, and exceptionalism, all begin to unravel as we fail to confront our very real threats.
There are no easy fixes for the underlying problems of war, climate change, economic instability, and inequality in our culture, but the threats that we have created for ourselves can be fixed by ourselves if we have the will to do it. We need to confront the American fog of illusions and begin real discourse aimed at truth telling and honest exploration of solutions.
* * *
Stephen James is a member of The Writers Collective. He is the award winning author of American Stew: Hope in a Toxic Culture, is the president of Contemporary Heroism Initiative, Executive Director of the Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York, and is a member of the Ernest Becker Foundation and the New York Society for Ethical Culture. He is a producer of communications media in the New York area.