Our frightened response to a frightening world

frightened_sWe live in a complicated world.  The fact that Michael Burry, a man with Asperger’s, was one of the literally handful of people to foresee the housing collapse should tell us just how complicated our world truly is.  Or, as Michael himself put it, “Only someone who has Asperger’s would read a subprime-mortgage-bond prospectus,” and analyze it for its investment potential.  But we don’t want to accept the fact that our world is hugely complicated.  And, if you think about it, you can see why.

If we accept the complexity of our world, we will also accept that half our jobs will be done by machines in 50 years, that over 20 percent of our bodies are actually owned by one or more genetics companies, and that, despite that, the financial markets are governed not by rational beings but by people who are all too much like you and me.  In short, accepting the very real complexity of our world is scary.  So we try not to.

You can see this denial of our world’s complexity in the fact that half of all Americans believe in some sort of a conspiracy theory.  And it’s not hard to see why.  A conspiracy theory is, at bottom, an attempt to hold someone, some human, responsible for the good or bad things that happen to us.  If I lost my home then maybe a speculator made money on my misfortune (i.e., intended for me to lose my home); if the federal healthcare website doesn’t work then someone surely benefits from that (in other words, someone intended for the website to crash); if there is a terrorist attack then surely someone (the government or a minority) planned it all.  In short, the belief in a conspiracy theory is a kind of cry for a personalized world in which everyone has a place and in which everyone is taken care of.

You can see the same thing playing out in our politics.  A few years back, the BBC ran a story called “Who Said It Wall Street Occupier or Tea Partier.”  The story was just a list of quotes and you could determine who said what only if you knew the “code words” of American politics because the sentiments the Tea Partiers and the Occupiers expressed were strikingly similar.  Both want us to return to a personalized world in which we all have a place and in which we are all taken care of by our betters.  The fundamental difference between the two is who our “betters” are to each group.  To the Occupiers, it is a benevolent government’s job to take care of us all; according to the Tea Partiers, that’s the family patriarch’s job.  The rest they pretty much agree on.

Both sentiments are, of course, deeply anti-democratic.  So it should surprise no-one when a kind of Occupier, Jeremy Corbyn, becomes Leader of the Labor Party in the UK, it quickly emerges that he is affiliated with the IRA, Hamas, Hezbullah and all sorts of profoundly anti-democratic forces.  Not surprisingly, shortly after assuming Leadership, Corbyn called for a united Ireland—whether the peoples in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic wanted one or not.  That’s a profoundly anti-democratic position.  It is also the kind of position you would expect someone who believes in a benevolent government controlling the minutiae of people’s lives would take.

And the idea of such a government—or if you prefer, such a patriarch—is very seductive.  It means that we don’t have to take responsibility (much less notice) the morally complicated and, let’s face it, messed up world we all had a hand in creating.  Someone else can deal with it—and we, the benevolent if helpless we—will be free to grumble if “they” get it wrong.  You can see why so many people like the idea.  But we shouldn’t forget what we would be giving up if we succumb to it.

The fundamental difference between democracy and monarchy is that in the former everyone has a voice; in the latter everyone has their place.  It is therefore not at all certain that in a benevolent patriarchy or under a benevolent dictatorship, we would still be free to grumble.

For if we choose that benevolent someone—because the world we made is just too complicated and too scary to deal with—we would be choosing to give up our own voice.

Is that what we want?

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