New American Essentialism and American Cynical Realism: A Psychodynamic View of Ideology

Robert Frank, Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey. 1955

The traditional labels of “liberal” and “conservative” apply only haphazardly to the actual beliefs and ideological systems held by most Americans today. I propose a new explanatory dichotomy based on mass individual emotional responses converging on two identifiable and well-formed collective ideological trends.

Americans today lives in an age when history is occurring much faster and more densely than it is being written. Historical events that would have taken weeks or months now take hours or days. At the same time that history is accelerating it is becoming denser. Our perceptions of core cultural figures fluctuates constantly. An endless stream of “breaking news” defines the news cycle. Fundamentally, the problem is that our ontology is outpacing our epistemology.

The simultaneous acceleration and increasing densification of history has produced a pervasive condition of philosophical naivete. During earlier periods of Western history discourse as to the nature of the world and our place within it was the province of religion up until a period roughly spanning the Reformation, then philosophy until the mid 1920s, then increasingly psychology. The accelerating pace of novel and secular ontological facts, often at odds with the avowedly religious epistemology and eschatology that most religious Americans profess, creates a condition where we’re forced to account for the existence of ontologically novel phenomena which tradition and ideology ill-prepare us to understand. What’s the Kosovo Precedent to the Americans who still remember pledging allegiance to “one nation under God”? How can we understand the “bombing-for-72-virgins” eschatology of the suicide bomber without at least somewhat questioning our own native versions of heaven and how we’re supposed to get there? Where do our national values of personal freedom and liberty stand in comparison to the new practices of extraordinary rendition and profile-based drone strikes? Recent history asks questions of our individual philosophies that are structurally made difficult or impossible to answer due to the slower tempo of our belief systems.

Within the American intelligentsia the discourse of deconstructionism and the ideology of diversity have increasingly given way to a native, pragmatically oriented essentialist mindset. The notion that things could be decomposed to show that they emerged from purely societal factors (deconstruction), as well as the inclusive rhetoric of racial diversity that informed the 1990s became replaced by a kind of native, uncodified philosophy of essentialism — the idea that the features of people and social concepts like ideas, nations, behaviors, institutions are determined by their essences. Consider the terrorist: To the people of the 1990s, a terrorist was a politically motivated stage actor, occasionally tragic, always impersonally villainous. Terrorism was an act before 9/11. To the people of the 2000s, a terrorist was a terrorist was a terrorist – it wasn’t a personal status that lead to anything, it was simply a fact that justified arresting or killing someone. 9/11 made it so that terrorism was no longer an act but rather an inarguable personal status — an essence — defining a class of people whom we then, as a country, had to kill.

Simultaneously, a democratization of “low-brow” culture driven by a new modern form of cynical realism has occurred, rejecting the very notion of essences and meanings; this is American Cynical Realism. Consider the Simpsons; hipsters; rap culture; the fall of American painting; the rise of Internet “meme” art and social media; consider the rise of reality television. At the same time that a portion of the population has adopted the essentialist paradigm, another larger portion has immersed itself in a nihilistic rejection of essential meanings, embracing the details and superficial aspects of the material and banal. Foodies, wine connoiseurs, vinyl record hipsters, Escalade-driving rappers and misspelled cat memes all have in common a turn away from the realities of a country at war. The individual embrace of the banal is the central defining trait of cynical realism.

New American Essentialism is a natural outgrowth of the traumatization of 9/11 and the subsequent development of a complex American cultural reaction to war. In the 1990s, essentialism hid in the guise of religious fundamentalism, a highly unfashionable concept in an age teeming with a multitude of novel particulars and very few hard and fast core truths like the technological boom and bust of late 1990s. 9/11 marked a forceful national return to awareness of the realities of aggression and war and required people to come up with new ways of integrating the facts of violence and death into their worldviews. NAE was the result of a convergent evolution in ideological response — if you believed at all in the concept of America, you had to reconcile that with the reality of America at war, and a lot of people arrived at nearly the same reconciliation in the same way.

Modern American war culture is the result of a collective American cognitive dissonance requiring balance between an unconscious natural abhorrence of violence and a conscious patriotic recognition of its necessity. Two essential moral facts defined civilian post-9/11 war culture: one, that America was unquestionably under attack; and second, that American lives, including potentially yours, were at stake. This has resulted in a kind of national state of cognitive dissonance: Although as Americans we abhor violence as any civilized people do, we also pay, equip, arm, train and deploy a powerful national military in which some of us volunteer as citizen soldiers, in order to enact violence. This national state of cognitive dissonance drives similarly-scaled national dissonance-reduction responses: this is the human, psychological impetus for cynicism and essentialism.

NAE is a collective dissonance-reduction response, a defense mechanism of rationalization, for moderate and conservative Americans who have to come to grips with the basic fact of collective American cognitive dissonance. Rather than condemn America and ourselves for the violence we have to enact, NAE opts instead to enforce a kind of Manichean essentialism on ourselves and the people we have to kill out of psychological necessity. American soldiers are unquestionably essentially “good”, terrorists are unquestionably essentially “bad”, and the reasons why they are good and bad have to do with their innate personal traits rather than their states of being.

Although NAE closely resembles traditional notions of “conservative” it differs in the key aspect of placing paramount importance upon individual liberty. Thus, although a significant portion of Americans today claim to be “libertarian”, they claim so without knowing who Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises or for that matter Ayn Rand are; these Americans are not libertarian for straightforwardly ideological reasons, but rather as the result of a kind of convergent emotionally-driven evolution in individual opinions. Acceptance of NAE for most people means that they end up believing certain things in common despite having reached these conclusions individually and independently; these beliefs may resemble in some part conservative and libertarian beliefs of the 20th century, but they are in actuality collective, convergent emotional responses that should be treated as historically distinct. NAE believes:

  • that modern Islam is essentially a revanchist 7th century religion with which America is at war;
  • that individual freedom is in the essence of all people and its abrogation justifies national military intervention, even when no American lives are at stake;
  • that America is “the city on the hill” – the exemplar of the values of liberty and freedom for the rest of the world and indeed history – American exceptionalism, in other words;
  • that despite American’s exceptional status its government should be distrusted, since distrust of even American government is essentially American;
  • that individual self-defense is an innate right, and therefore that gun ownership and individual self-defense are encoded in the language of the constitution and the rhetoric of the Founding Fathers;

ACR is a kind of individualist liberalism justifying a retreat into individual self-actualization. Despite the fact that America has been directly or indirectly under attack by Islamic extremists for the better part of a decade, during this period American culture has also come up with a dizzyingly wide array of new institutions and objects that seem more like the products of a decadent materialist country at peace than a heavily armed and historically violent country at war. In the same hour of news in which that Americans would be informed of fellow Americans being torn apart by roadside bombs or beheaded by Islamist extremists, television would also show us reality TV excerpts, pet videos, finance news about the latest crises on Wall Street and gossip about the reproductive organs and lives of people whose sole job it was to be famous. The people who obsessed over the bad news and worried for the fate of their country gradually came around to a native version of NAE. The people who withdrew from the violence into thinking about pleasant banal distracting reality TV and fashion and food and the things they were going to do tomorrow for their hobbies or works or avocations ended up with some version of ACR. Exponents of ACR hold:

  • that America is essentially a Mafia state with no exceptional moral claim to its existence or preservation other than the fact that you and the people you love live within it;
  • that some fraction of Islam is responsible for extremist violence and that the vast majority of Islam and Islamic people simply want software programming jobs and Starbucks much like they do themselves;
  • that most of their fellow Americans are either too stupid or ill-intentioned to own guns and therefore should not own or carry them;
  • that living a good life is a matter of individual self-actualization rather than service to a higher external cause, resulting in a rise of self-actualization-as-improvement technologies and fashions: foodies, extreme sports, mixed martial arts fighting, fashionable yoga, “democratic art” like Internet memes and forum argument, “social media experts” with the sole job of posting Facebook updates — all of these are outgrowths of a fundamentally cynical mindset rejecting the traditionally held essentialist bedrock beliefs that people’s essential value lie in creating value for society and being useful to other people.

“Liberal” and “conservative” are no longer meaningful ideological categories. At its most basic, liberal vs. conservative is supposed to boil down to wanting to change things for the better vs. wanting to preserve things. Since today change in the basic facts of existence is constant and accelerating, these are no longer meaningful. Further, the presence of liberal institutions which liberals want to conserve and conservatives want to change puts these terms further into flux; is an activist supporting Social Security privatization truly a conservative when they are arguing against a well-entrenched law with such considerable inertia of history and legislation behind it? Is a community organizer truly ‘liberal’ when they argue for enforcement and expansion of rent-control laws that impose onerous, illiberal restrictions on middle-class landlords’ abilities to profit from their properties? The most prominent schisms in American discourse today are not defined by liberal versus conservative, Democrat versus Republican, but rather by essentialism versus cynical realism.

(Image: Robert Frank, Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey, from the series The Americans, 1955)

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