I stumbled into the phalanx of news and talk show channels among the upper numbers on my cable box the other night. Normally this is territory I stay away from—too loud and too caffeinated—but it was late, the ball game was just over, and I was channel surfing without paying much attention to where I was going. Then suddenly I felt like the proverbial 1980 tourist who took the wrong freeway exit and ended up the south Bronx in the middle of the night. It’s scary up in the high cable digits:
A dozen talking heads exclaimed or interrupted each other at the top of their voices, insisting that Barack Obama was part of a Kenyan revolutionary Mau Mau strategy to undermine America, conceived and propagated by his Kenyan Muslim father; that the fate of the Union depends on making sure a Muslim house of worship and social hall is not built fifteen minutes’ walk from the site of Manhattan’s former World Trade Center; that global warming is potentially beneficial and its current bad press is part of a hoax by academics looking to make names for themselves, motivated by an overweening hatred of the energy industry; that Barack Obama was born in Borneo and smuggled into the United States, which is why, of course, he has no birth certificate and the one he produced is a cheap forgery, probably by Muslims; that real Americans could only be pushed so far before exercising their second Amendment rights with both barrels pointed right at Washington, D.C. and when that happened the liberals would have only themselves to blame; that the secularists mean to strip the country of its Christian heritage and bankrupt us with taxes, if they don’t first give us over to the illegal immigrants or the bureaucrats or the Muslims or all three.
Ten minutes of that was enough for me.
I woke up the next morning fixated on what a fundamental cultural currency Hysteria has become among us.
Consider the symptoms: We swarm on anything in the spotlight, like sharks on wounded tuna, convinced that whatever is happening at any given moment is the most important thing that ever happened. We circulate and re-circulate and re-re-circulate traumatic images, amplifying their intensity and their collective impact. We obsess. We take things personally. We inflate. We villainize, are quick to anger and full of public hostility. We reduce our communal vocabulary to just a few words which we recite incessantly. Galvanic response passes for judgment. We wind ourselves tight, amp the pace of events, and are having increasing difficulty differentiating between the different and the threatening.
These are all things hysterical people do while in the grip of emotions far beyond their containment skills or even their understanding.
And the frenzy this hysteria generates is having an enormous impact on the processes of American political life. Three such reconfigurations are already obvious:
We oversimplify each other, the issues we face, and just about everything else. The first elements destroyed by hysteria are complexity, subtlety, and nuance. Every picture is reduced to black and white or at least boiled down to primary colors. The object of intercourse becomes the enforcement of a lowest denominator, even if it requires distortion to do so.
We waste our limited attention enforcing a preset template. Hysteria exerts relentless pressure to replicate its own driven presumptions. The effect is to reduce the process of knowing to a closed loop, driven not by the spirit of inquiry but by the emotional condition of the hysteric. We see what we are driven to see and little else. Epistemology becomes spin.
We make confrontation the default position in engagement. Hysteria effectively locks all disagreements in place. Differences are left unexplored except in pursuit of tactical advantage. Since replication and self justification always come first to the hysterical, the possibility of mutuality or common ground is ruled out before the conversation begins.
The rise of those traits seems a dire sign to me, so I called Professor Sue, who was in my class at Stanford, and asked her just what exactly was generating these hysterics. Sue teaches American History and is also a family therapist. I figured her double specialty might be particularly useful for this subject.
“I don’t know,” she answered.
“Come on,” I insisted. “You must have a theory.”
“OK,” Sue gave in. “Here’s my theory: I think everyone in America shares an unconscious, often hidden, and largely unarticulated conclusion that we fucked up, the glory days are over, the country is in deep shit, and there’s no way out. We know in our bones that we’re falling apart and the rest of the world is moving ahead. Forget about being #1, we’ll be lucky to level off at #17. I think that panic is shared across the political board. Although ideology plays a strong role in who is blamed, the hysteria comes from a common root. This isn’t just about now or the unemployment rate. It’s deeper and more primal. It taps into our inner terror of losing our grip and never getting it back. Hysteria is just the vibration in our national fuselage as the American empire noses over and loses altitude. People sense they have lost something and are frantic over it.
“As a historian, I am convinced we’ve reached an extraordinary national moment. We’re never going to be the America of legend anymore. The hysterics you run into up on the high end of the cable channels are just the byproduct of our incipient comeuppance.”
“And as a therapist?,” I asked. “What’s your diagnosis?”
“As a therapist,” she answered, “the hysteria I’m witnessing looks a lot like what you see in the collapse of a romantic relationship: Acrimony, Resentment, Fixation. The next step in the intrapersonal version is stalking, so when I hear of this kind of behavior in my practice, I often suggest judicial restraining orders, the sooner the better. But, of course, politics is a lot more complicated than that,” Sue shrugged over the phone. “What can we do?”
“Perhaps,” I suggested, “Calm Down will have to become the next New Deal.”