Angst Over Extinction

Most newly published authors spend a lot of time Googling themselves and I’m no exception. The other day Google directed me to a blog called Watering Good Seeds, where I found a mention of The New Hate appended to an article by Robert Parry on the origins of the right wing smear machine. “Actually, when you get a chance, try reading Arthur Goldwag’s book The New Hate,” the note read. “It traces back the same themes to colonial times — since then the same accusations have been made against freemasonry, Jews, Catholics, immigrants from Southern Europe… A lot of it sounds amazingly familiar, no matter what group is imagined to be on the verge of destroying the Republic.”

Scrolling up, I saw a snippet from Haaretz about Holocaust awareness and the fear of extinction among Canadian Jews aged 17-81.

Interviewees asked to write a composition on the Holocaust displayed greater angst and more collective solidarity than those who were not asked to write anything. The researchers estimate that one of the effects of increased collective angst over extinction is the justification of violent acts against a rival groups….In other words, the researchers concluded, in order to protect itself from extinction, the group legitimizes harming others.

A little light went on over my head.

It’s almost like a mathematical formula, where x = an insecure identity group, y = an opposed insecure identity group, and z = the perception of an existential threat. You can plug in different groups and different dangers (nuclear, genetic, cultural, linguistic, religious annihilation), but the equation always turns out the same. If it’s too hard to talk about Zionists and Palestinians, then let’s look at whites and blacks. If both groups define themselves as each other’s immutable opposite, then either has the power to destroy the other—and not just by war or murder but by marriage. If only one group is wedded to its identity, the threat loses much of its force. If both groups have a more flexible sense of self, then the idea of an existential threat ceases to have any meaning at all.

If the American Republic is presumed to be a white majority Christian state, then the mere existence of immigrants, Jews, indigenous people, and even the descendents of African slaves pose intolerable threats to its integrity. Throw some patriarchal assumptions into the mix and you are potentially at odds with half of your neighbors–including many of your potential breeding partners.

On the level of nations, lately the John Birch Society and other right wing groups have been stirring up fears of Agenda 21, the non-binding plan for sustainable development that was adopted by 178 countries in 1992. House Joint Resolution 587, which the Tennessee state legislature will vote on next week, explicitly repudiates Agenda 21 as “a comprehensive plan of extreme environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control” that promotes both the elimination of national sovereignty and the “socialist/communist redistribution of wealth,” language that is copied verbatim from JBS publications. Sovereignty in this view amounts to a kind of suicidal tribalism; it counts any loss of status–even a voluntary one, in the context of a formal agreement about environmental preservation–as a clearer and more present danger than environmental degradation and global climate change. In fact it chooses to discount the very existence of anthropogenic climate change, just as extreme Zionists (and Republicans) deny the existence of a Palestinian people.

“I occasionally think,” Ronald Reagan mused back in 1987, “how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.” Many of us cringed at his Hollywood-inspired sentimentality at the time. Listening to Santorum, Gingrich, and Romney today, he sounds almost like Eleanor Roosevelt—and they, more and more, like an alien threat.

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4 thoughts on “Angst Over Extinction

  1. Just a few days ago I read a passage in Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live that noted that Henry IV helped facilitate the end of Protestant/Catholic war that had been waging for decades in 16th century France by declaring war on Spain.

    Of course, I prefer the unifying appeal of Einstein and Russell better:

    “We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”

  2. ‘”I occasionally think,” Ronald Reagan mused back in 1987, “how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.”’

    Ever read Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen (or see the phenomenal big screen adaptation of it)?

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