Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Psychodynamics of Star Wars

A long time ago in a galaxy far away…” So begins the opening “crawl” of
Star war movies. These movies invite us to consider them as evocations of an ancient legend that explain the origins and foundation of the world we have inherited and as we know it today. In this blog post I would like to take this conceit seriously, namely to examine Star Wars as a modern myth or origin story that sheds light on our current experiences. The risk in doing this is to take what is after all an entertainment vehicle and commercial undertaking far too seriously. On the other side, the franchise’s persistence over thirty years in films and books, its world wide popularity, and its trafficking in the fundamental themes of good and evil should give us pause enough to consider it seriously, as we might the legends of the Greek gods, the Norse heroes of the Wagner Ring Cycle, or even the portraits of the patriarchs in the Bible.

C.J. Jung suggested that myths could be seen as social dreams through which our shared arc of life, from birth to death, is expressed through universal archetypes, for example, mother, father, child, devil, trickster, wise old man or hero. If we accept this idea, we could say that Star Wars might be such a myth in which such universal archetypes, for example, Yoda as the wise man, Darth Vader as the devil, the droid as the trickster, and Luke Skywalker as the hero, are joined to our collective preoccupations as we experience them today. The newest film’s casting, The Force Awakens, underlines this feature.  Actors who were young some thirty years ago, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill, reprise their roles, but as older and aging characters. As aging actors they too will recede in importance, as younger actors take up central roles in succeeding films of the Star Wars franchise. Older filmgoers, watching this latest movie, can come into touch with their own aging. Let’s for the sake of argument assume that this mythical and archetypical frame of reference is relevant, and see what insights this point of departure affords us.

The Disordered family and cosmos

A striking feature of the most recent Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, is that the cosmos is disturbed because family relationships are disordered.  Failed family relationships are evident throughout the movie. For example, the new female heroine, Rey, whom the film suggests will succeed Luke Skywalker as the next great Jedi warrior, has been orphaned early in life, separated from her parents as the result of some traumatic and perhaps political event. When we encounter her early in the movie she methodologically records every day she has been separated from her parents by markings on a wall, as if she were in prison. In addition, Kylo Ren, the grandson of Darth Vader and the son of Hans Solos and Princess Leia (now a general in the Republic), is estranged from his parents. In addition, Solo and the Princess are estranged from each other, most likely because they have lost their son, Kylo Ren, to the dark side. Also, Luke Skywalker has vanished from the face of the galaxy and is thus estranged from his sister Princess Leia and all of those who have depended on him as the Jedi representative of his generation.  Finally, as the Fore Awakens informs us, Luke Skywalker once trained Kylo Ren to become a Jedi, thus acting as both his guru and as father figure. When Ren went over the dark side, precipitating Skywalker’s withdrawal, the two became estranged permanently.

Now in the life of a small child, a disturbed family life is indeed a cosmic disturbance. In this sense Star Wars evokes a child’s feeling that parental conflict can literally unravel his or her world. But the bridge from the cosmos to the family has adult meaning as well, insofar as we believe that the foundation stone for civilization is the orderly family. In psychoanalysis the figure of the father, or more broadly, the paternal function, personifies this linkage. The father introduces his children to the demand that they control their impulses in order to take up their roles first in school and then in society. We know that children who grow up without fathers, are more likely to drop out of school, abuse drug and alcohol, have more problems with aggression, are twice as likely to commit suicide, and for boys, are more likely to commit crimes. In short, children in such families are more likely to feel overwhelmed. As they mature, their powerlessness may lead to feelings of despair, one reason why they are more likely to commit suicide or crimes.

There is a pivotal emotional moment in the film, when Kylo Ren kills his father, Hans Solo on the Starkiller base. Solo spots Ren from behind walking across a narrow footbridge on the base and calls to him by his original name “Ben” (named after Ben Kenobi). They see each other for the first time after years of estrangement. Solo shows emotional strength in reaching out to Ren. Yet on the other side, he is foolishly risking his life in trying to make contact with his son. After all, at that moment they are antagonists. Kylo is looking for Rey and her droid, while Solo is protecting them. Should Kylo find the droid he could locate Luke Skywalker’s hiding place in the galaxy and destroy him, eliminating the latter’s potential role as a tutor to the next generation of Jedi warriors.

Responding to his father’s pleas that he rejoin his family and the light side, Kylo says, “I'm being torn apart. I want to be free of this pain.” One question is what is the source of his pain and why has it led him to such a point of despair that he is being torn apart. One conception is that Ren suffers from the burden imposed by weak fathers and father figures. The weak father is an attenuated version of the absent father. Hans Solo was once a vagabond, a trader who lived at the margin of society making money by dealing with shady characters, borrowing money and not repaying his debts. He attained moral stature by joining the rebels’ fight against the Empire, (Star Wars IV, A new Hope). But in the Force Awakens, (Star Wars VII), he has apparently reverted to his original dubious profession as a merchant and trader on the galaxy’s fringes, partly because Kylo, originally named Ben, has turned to the dark side. When Rey the heroine first meets Hans Solo and asks him if he is in fact the famous Hans Solo, he replies, “I used to be.” On the bridge, when Hans asks Kylo to remove his mask and reveal the face of his son, Kylo replies, “Your son is gone. He was weak and foolish like his father, so I destroyed him.”

One psychoanalytic conception is that a weak father burdens the psychological development of his son. In this conception, every son needs a “strong enough” father to help him gain control over his own impulses. The son identifies with and internalizes his father’s competence and independence. He trades his wish to gratify his impulses for his father’s love and respect. His father and later other figures of authority, whom he both loves and fears, become the precipitates of what Freud called the son’s “superego.” But when the father is weak, the son must become his own internalized policeman. Unmodified by love and respect, his superego becomes unduly harsh charging him to excess with being inadequate, ineffectual and guilty, for this is the only way he can control his impulses. When this experience becomes intolerable, it leads to despair. Under these conditions the son may seek relief by turning over his harsh superego to an overly strong father figure, such as Snoke the leader of the Dark side, who relieves him of his guilt, and assures him of his potency.

One conception is, that at that moment on the bridge, Kylo is caught between two experiences of his father, as loving or weak, as the forgiving father or the fool. This is too painful a tension for him bear. This is why he tells his father that he wants to be “free of this pain.” Then, though first hesitating, he kills his father thus underlining his transition to the dark side. The psychoanalytically tuned viewer may link this scene on the footbridge to the scene in Oedipus Rex in which Oedipus, meeting his father on a narrow road, kills him in a dispute over whose carriage has the right of way.

The dark side and the devil

This link between despair and murder also has religious and mythological roots. Goethe’s story of the Faust legend is the exemplar story here. Faust, despairing of ever reaching a complete understanding of the universe, considers killing himself. He is saved by a pact with the devil, Mephistopheles, who promises to do his bidding in this world if Faust will in turn serve the devil in Hell. When Faust agrees, the devil soon after helps him seduce Gretchen, a woman he finds attractive. Gretchen in turn poisons her own mother so that she and Faust can meet in private. As this drama suggests, the devil permits what is normally forbidden for example, killing for sexual pleasure, an impulse we may at some point entertain in our fantasy but that we would never express in reality.

Examined from a mytho-theological perspective, the Faust story suggests that despair challenges faith, raising the prospect that God, like failed fathers, is weak in this world. If this is true, it suggests that an anti-god or anti-Christ is strong, and in the theology of the western world this is none other than the devil. The devil offers us a road out of despair by promising us potency, if we make good on our crisis of faith and abandon God. If God in turn represents the moral function of the superego, the set of, the “thou shall nots” and “thou shalls” of the Ten Commandments, then as David Bakan argues, the devil suspends the superego, permitting what the superego forbids. This is the religious meaning of the dark side. Snoke as the leader of the dark side is the devil. He frees up his followers, to act out fantasies they would ordinarily keep out of awareness and certainly keep in check for example murdering innocents at will. He relieves them of guilt. This is why his followers feel grateful to him and seek his approval. Broadly speaking, this is the basis for what historians call the “totalitarian seduction.” It is a deal with the devil. This is why Hux, the military leader of the dark side’s storm troopers, sounds like Hitler when he addresses them in a mass rally as they prepare to destroy the resistance’s base. Hitler personifies the devil in modern times.

The emotionally vulnerable man

In some currents of popular culture, when a man or father is moved by his emotions, it is a sign of weakness, an indication that he cannot control his impulses. The Force Awakens initially traffics in this conception. Luke Skywalker upon facing the devastating loss of Kylo Ren and the murder of his Jedi students, is depressed and withdrawn. When we see him --only at the very end of the movie-- we encounter a man all alone and seemingly in despair. Solo, as we have seen, is victimized by his love for his son. Indeed, one of the movie’s conceits is that Kylo Ren is an “incomplete devil,” who becomes inappropriately enraged upon meeting obstacles.

But then the film goes on to offer a more nuanced perspective on the emotionally vulnerable man. The question posed is, can a man’s emotional vulnerability trigger his growth in stature?  In the first Star Wars movie (IV, A New Hope,) the male paragon is the virtuous warrior, the Jedi, a man disciplined enough to risk his life to preserve the Republican and democratic way of life and to do so with equanimity and deliberation.  Obi Wan or Ben Kenobi is the exemplar. In the first Star Wars film, A New Hope he confronts Darth Vader in order to give Skywalker a chance to escape and fulfill his mission of ultimately destroying the Death Star.  Obi Wan understands that Vader, both younger and stronger can kill him. In the middle of their light-sabre battle, knowing he has helped Skywalker escape, he simply accedes to his defeat, saying to Vader, "You can't win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."

At one level he is predicting his reappearance as a spirit or ghost. Indeed in The Force Awakens, Rey, upon discovering Luke Skywalker’s light sabre in a dungeon-like setting, hears Kenobi’s voice. But in naturalistic terms we can interpret his statement to mean that he will become an ideal, much as Moses or Jesus are, and will inspire other warriors to take up the battle of the dark side with the same courage, equanimity and poise that he has done. The other warrior/pilots of the republic, as befit ordinary heroes, demonstrate a similar grace under fire.

Kenobi has achieved what Freud called sublimation. He has learned to regulate his emotional or instinctual life, which can overpower the rational faculties, by linking them to the work of achieving higher ideals and thereby forgoing immediate gratification in the service of a wider love, what Freud called “Eros.” His control is so complete that he can sacrifice his life for the welfare of a next generation. In a sense, the mantra, “May the force be with you,” may be translated as, “May you appropriate those instincts or drives which animate you, for a greater good.” In this sense Kenobi becomes for the next generation, what Freud called an “ego ideal.” While the superego is the seat of injunctions and the source of guilt, the ego ideal is the seat of aspirations and a source of the capacity to love at a level that goes beyond immediate gratification. 

The newly introduced main character Finn, presents a different picture. Unlike the fighter pilots of the resistance, he initially lacks grace and courage. When we first encounter him as a storm trooper he is overwhelmed by the sight of blood as his fellow troopers kill villagers on the planet Jakku. Fearing that he will get caught for failing to fire his weapon, he deserts his troop, then pretends that he is a Jedi so that Rey will help him in his flight, and finally abandons her -- despite her pleas that he join the resistance- when he can arrange for a flight off the planet. In other words, he is at first a coward and a liar. Finn ultimately grows into a warrior when, upon learning that Kylo Ren has captured Rey, he comes into touch with his love for her, and masters the weapons he must use in an attempt to rescue her. In a sense, Finn is at a lower level of  “warrior development” than a Jedi, because his courage derives from his passion for a person, a woman, rather than from his commitment to an ideal.

A culture of narcissism?

The difference between Obi Wan Kenobi and the men of The Force Awakens highlights the psychoanalytic distinction between the ego and the self. The former describes an executive function of the mind that is aware of its own divisions and ambivalences. It is the way a person observes and controls his own emotional responses to internal as well as external stimuli; for example, by distancing himself from feelings of self-imposed guilt, or taking an ironic stance toward his own passions. Eli Zaretsky, in his wonderful book Political Freud, calls this type of person an exemplar of psychoanalysis’ “maturity ethic”. But in a post-modern age, Zaretsky suggests, we privilege our emotions and put greater value on responding in the moment to them, whether they are noble or not.  

One popular and scholarly conversation suggests that this shift from ego to self highlights a new culture of narcissism where we use our feelings to make peremptory demands on others for recognition and affirmation. For example, students in college classes who demand that they not be exposed to literature that creates discomfort.  Conservative critics worry that such a culture of narcissism with its focus on self-esteem, means that people lack courage and the will to take risks. To them it represents a decline in the masculine elements of the culture as well as a cultural attack on “white males,” and on what they represent and have achieved. This may be why today, Donald Trump, in all his primitivism, is nonetheless appealing.  

The movie presents a different possibility. It suggests that as men take on more “feminine” characteristics, women can take on more masculine ones. The paternal and maternal functions are preserved in our culture but are expressed differently and in new ways by both men and women. This parallelism evokes experiences in every day family life. Fathers are increasingly involved in infant and baby care- changing diapers, feeding, bathing and story telling -- just as mothers are more engaged in the world of work, making good on their ambitions. The hopeful aspect of this vision is that as men mature into their adult character, they will feel less taxed psychologically by the demand that they repress their feminine side, for example by being passive, and for women, the demand that they repress their masculine side, for example by being active. People would feel more psychological freedom and less guilt in taking up their adult roles more fully.  

Rey, the movie’s central character, exemplifies this new role for women.  She represents the next generation of Jedi, the Force flows through her naturally, and as an orphan has learned to defend herself against predators who occupy the frontier settings on her home planet of Jakku. She has mechanical skills, is a self-taught aircraft pilot, and is inspired by the history of the resistance. But she is not a one-dimensional superwoman. She longs for her parents and is drawn to Hans Solo as a potential father figure, a yearning that Kylo Ren, who battles her in a penultimate scene, senses. In the movie’s final moment she finds Luke Skywalker in his mountain hideaway and in a gesture of love returns to him his light saber that, once he had abandoned it, had been stored for some thirty years in a dudgeon/castle on the planet Takodana.

The psychoanalytically tuned viewer may see this as a moment in which a woman returns a phallic object to a man - his weapon -- as the first step in helping to revive his potency. But this is too narrow a “reading” of this moment. I suggest that it is instead a moment of tender reconciliation between the sexes and the generations. It suggests that the daughter cannot be wholly herself without her father and that a man cannot be wholly himself without a woman. In this sense, the very last scene answers the opening chords of the first scenes by offering the prospect that the family unit can be restored so that civilization may once against thrive. It is in this way a romantic ending but not necessarily an unrealistic one.

The Force Awakens leaves me with the question about the meaning of the “warrior” archetype in a post-modern culture. Emerging from the devastation of the twentieth century, a century of two world wars, nationalisms and ideologies, we may be wary of ideals and feel more secure in strengthening our attachments to specific people whom we love and wish to protect. But Star Wars suggests that the dark side is ever present, that the totalitarian seduction, with its political implications, is always just around the corner. This is the warning that Freud offers us in his magisterial, Civilization and its Discontents. Do we take this seriously? If we do, are we prepared?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Isis and the socioemotional roots of terrorism.


The terrorist murders in Paris and San Bernardino, California draw our attention once again to the psychological and emotional underpinnings of terrorism. There are two points of departure in considering this issue. One is to query the psychology of the individual terrorist. We ask what motivates him or her to kill strangers and innocents in the service of a political or religious cause. There are undoubtedly many motives at play for example, a terrorist is frustrated by his social circumstances, he believes that that murdering is righteous, he is attracted to terror because it is exciting and dangerous, or because it affords him money, power and access to women. The second point of departure is to explore the socio-emotional dimensions of terrorism, that is the feelings associated with groups and their collective experience and history. Here we would ask what social experiences predispose people of a particular culture to see terrorism as a legitimate a form of expression. My colleagues call this the “socio-analytic” dimension, distinguishing it from a psychoanalytic one. 

In this spirit, one common trope is that the people in the Arab world feel humiliated by their lack of power. In, The geopolitics of emotion: How cultures of fear, humiliation and hope are changing the world. Dominique Moisi writes that, “The dominance of humiliation in the Arab-Islamic world has many causes, but the first and most important is a sense of historical decline.” This reference to “humiliation” and its relationship to “decline” can help provide a psychological account of why individuals may feel little compunction in killing innocent people. The psychoanalyst Carlos E. Sluzki suggests that people are ashamed when they agree with the judgment of those who shame them. By contrast, when humiliated, people feel unjustly attacked by those who humiliate them. This attack is persecutory so that a would be terrorist is already, in his own mind, a victim. The terrorist lacks compunction because his own victimhood is morally outrageous.

Now as I write this, I can feel my reader tugging at my sleeve. Doesnt such an explanation psychologize what is often quite purposeful and rational behavior? As the saying goes; “one person's 'terrorist' is another's freedom fighter.” Moreover, explanations such as Moisi's run the risk of what the Literary scholar Edward Said, called “Orientalism,” the presumption, first advanced in the age of imperialism, that people and their cultures in the East were uncivilized and irrational.  Orientalism, according to Said, presented the East, particularly the Islamic East, as an “other,” unconnected to the history and development of the West and thus not part of a shared human history. This is reflected in Rudyard Kiplings famous poetic line,  “Oh east is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet.” In this sense, asserting that the Arab world feels humiliated could itself be degrading and humiliating. It estranges those of us in the modern West from the Arab East, as if we could not possibly share their experiences.

I think it is best therefore to draw on Arab sources for insight. I am drawn here to Samir Kassirs brilliant book, Being Arab. He was a Palestinian Lebanese intellectual and journalist, assassinated by Syrian intelligence in 2005. The book is an exposition of the experience, meaning and roots of what he calls “the Arab malaise.” He writes movingly of what he calls the “gaze.” “The Arab malaise is inextricably bound up with the gaze of the Western Other – a gaze that prevents everything, even escape. Suspicious and condescending by turns, the Others gaze constantly confronts you with your apparently insurmountable condition, ridicules your powerlessness, foredooms all your hopes, and stops you in your tracks time and again at one or other of the worlds border-crossings. You have to have been the bearer of a passport of a pariah state to know how categorical such a gaze can be. You have to have measured your anxieties against the Other’s certainties – his or her certainties about you – to understand the paralysis it can inflict.”

I think Kassir is describing the experience of feeling inferior in the presence of the “western other.” Now it is certainly part of our shared humanity to imagine how any of one of us would respond to such an experience. If I then put myself in the situation he conjures up, I can imagine feeling despair, and from that emotional place responding with either resignation or rage. But rage is a feeling closely connected to humiliation. It activates humiliation, or to put it another way, humiliation is the tinder for fires rage. The terrorist lights the fire. I propose therefore, that Dominique Moisi’s proposition, that humiliation is a dominant emotion in the Arab-Islamic world, is at least consistent with Kassirs social psychology.

Stalled Modernization

But Kassirs argument is more complex. Moisis conception that humiliation is triggered by the Arab worlds sense of its decline is incomplete. It leads too readily to the idea that people in the Arab world are attached to their ancient history and almost mythical memories, for example of Islams golden age. From the eighth to thirteenth century, Muslim rule extended as far west as Spain, the caliphate governed a pluralistic empire, and Islamic scholars made great advances in philosophy, medicine and mathematics. In this conception, the Arabs are hopeless romantics fixated on the past. Indeed, the idea that the East is romantic is another one of Orientalisms trope.

Kassir, by contrast argues that the decline of the Arab world is an entirely modern story. I want to explore this particular idea further. Kassir notes that the Arab world experienced its own period of enlightenment and modernization in the 19th century, triggered first by Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman governor of Egypt, and later by the Ottoman elite in Istanbul. “The old empire changed totally in three decades- dress included-so much that it became (even if just for two years) a constitutional state. All the advantages of technological civilization- railway, electrification, steam navigation – were adopted east of the Mediterranean pretty much at the same time as they were in the north. Daily life was transformed in Istanbul and the large Arab provinces alike, and a parallel cultural revolution put the Ottoman elites in sync with Europe.”

With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, this particular period of modernization, called the “nahda” in Arabic, came to an end within the Arab world proper, though not in Turkey. Yet after World War II, the tempo of modernization picked up yet again, particularly in Egypt, under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser. He removed the king, suppressed the Muslim brotherhood, built the Helwan steel works and the Aswan dam, nationalized the Suez Canal, and instituted land reform. By 1960, as Kassir notes, “the veil had become sufficiently rare to make its appearance noteworthy.”

Moreover, Nasser was one of the most important leaders world-wide in the third worlds struggle against colonialism. This gave him great standing in the Arab world, and was one reason why, in 1958, Syria united with Egypt to form the short lived “United Arab Republic.” However one evaluates the politics of the struggle against colonialism, there is little doubt that it was part and parcel of a modernizing movement within third world countries. The struggle was not over whether to modernize, but rather over who would control the process. This is why such countries as Egypt, Cuba, Mexico, Iraq, and Malaysia, nationalized banks, railroads and oil fields, all often owned by foreign companies. This is also one reason why third world leaders such as Nasser found socialism, as a model of modernization, attractive. As an economic doctrine it provided a rationale for the public sector owning what Lenin once called the “commanding heights” of the economy.

But Egypt, the bellwether of the Arab world, experienced political and economic obstacles to development, never fully embracing a planned or a market based economy. From 1961 to 1973, as Egypt took on the shape of a socialist society, the state dominated the economy, the share of the private sector in GDP was low, and the government pursued import substitution policies. As Farrukh and Dobronogov write, “Egypt invested heavily in public infrastructure and social services (such as health and education) but could not sustain high economic growth. Business efficiency and labor productivity stagnated, as the countrys development plans aimed at physical output targets, (a method of socialist planning-LH) and its industrial exports were oriented mostly towards communist countries with low quality requirements.”
After 1973 the economy grew faster due to increasing revenue from oil sales, more remittances from abroad, and an “open door policy”, which allowed a greater role for the private sector. But the resulting market development was unbalanced as well. While commercial activities grew, the trade deficit rose to 1/5th of GDP, inflation increased, industrial employment fell, the state bureaucracy grew and the number of poor families grew significantly.
There were food riots in 1977, and the Muslim brotherhood, once suppressed by Nasser, responded by providing social services to the poor. This set up a conflict between the Brotherhood and the regime. When Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel in 1979, the Brotherhood, empowered by their political base among the poor, “resorted to open confrontation with the regime.” As Nadia Ramsis Farah, the political economist notes, “The regime tried to placate the Muslim brothers by passing a constitutional amendment in May 1980 which…made Sharia the principal source of legislation.” At the same time, Sadat, “Made widespread arrests of Islamist activists,” after which a Brotherhood offshoot assassinated Sadat. Mubarak assumed power, and the conflict between the Brotherhood and the regime intensified. Between 1992 and 1997 radical Islamist groups assassinated prominent people and tourists, and took control of an area of one million people in Cairo (Imbaba) by enforcing sharia law, collecting taxes and terrifying residents. “All this happened under the auspices of a government that claimed to be protecting its population.”
These political and power struggles stymied Egypt's modernization. While in 1960 Egypt and South Korea were at comparable levels of development, by 2010, per capita income in the latter was five times the former. Indeed, one trigger for the rebellion in Tahrir square in Cairo, the epicenter of the Arab Spring, was the feeling, shared by millions of Egyptians, that their society was stagnant.
There are three ways to code this very brief story; 1) It is a tale of a people resisting modernization, 2) A tale of a people responding to a failed or flawed modernization process (Kassirs argument), or 3) The intersection of the two. I favor the third, that is, a stalled modernization process legitimates the fundamentalist resistance to modernity. The modernizing elites are not "delivering the goods," reducing their political legitimacy.
I find this third option plausible because we know that the Great Depression triggered anti-modern currents in the very heart of Europe only eighty-five years ago. The Nazi celebration of the “folk,” the evocation of the symbols of “blood and soil,” their contempt for democracy, and their proclamations of superiority, have many social-psychological features in common with Islamic fundamentalism. For example, reporting on his experience as a young political Islamist, Ed Husain notes that he saw, “Everyone along religious lines and all non-Muslims as inferior.”
But fascism is a very modern phenomenon. Indeed Hannah Arendt, the great theorist of totalitarianism, argued that the loneliness induced by mass society, and peoples experience of their resultant superfluity, prepared them for totalitarian domination. In Arendts conception, under certain conditions crises of modernity can trigger contempt for human life. In this sense modernity is more fragile, more vulnerable, than our enlightenment tradition once presumed. Indeed, the very concept of “post-modernity” contains within it a critique of the enlightenment tradition and a skepticism about the claim that rationality is a reliable guidepost for human affairs. This critique provides a fertile ground for the rise of different versions of fundamentalism and primitivism in many settings around the world, not just Arab ones. In this sense, to once again underline Kassirs argument, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is a very modern phenomenon. It is as much a part of the Wests as it is of the Arabshistory and experience.
This account of stalled modernization helps account for the role that the image of Israel plays in the Arabs' narrative of their past and future. Consider the impact of Israels victory over the combined Arab armies in the six-day war of 1967. Said Aburish writes in his 2004 book, Nasser: The Last Arab, “The six day war.. was so unexpected in its totality, stunning in its proportion, and soul destroying in its impact that it will be remembered as the greatest defeat of the Arabs in the twentieth century….The Arabs are still undergoing a slow process of political, psychological and sociological recovery…Even comparison to the “lost generation of post-World War I is apt. The Arab generation which was lost as a result of the 1967 war didnt die in the trenches or rebel against an already disintegrating Ottoman empire.. They had become a lost generation because they lost their honor and because they were as much to blame as their leaders and the governments their leaders ran. The setback was enormous and all-inclusive…It was the Arab people and the most popular Arab leader in at least five hundred years, Nasser, who lost the 1967 war.”
The objective observer can be forgiven for wondering how the tiny sliver of Israel, with six million Jews can undermine a generation of leaders in an Arab world of 367 million people. One simple answer is that Israel is more than itself. Instead, it has become the Arab worlds symbol of its own underdevelopment. They see in Israel the upside down reflection of their own image. This is why people in parts of the Arab world believe that only Israels defeat can restore their honor and set the stage for Arab renewal. Anwar Sadat, Nasser's successor, of course understood this and could make peace with Israel only after he restored Arab honor by crossing over the Suez in the Yom Kippur war. This is also why the Palestinians, like Israel, are a symbol. They surely have suffered mightily, but in parts of the Arab world their material suffering is less motivating than their victimhood. This is why for example they have been treated so shabbily in parts of the Arab world, for example in Lebanon.
Sadik Al-Azm shows in his passionately rendered book, Self-criticism after the defeat, that the Arab world had difficulty drawing pragmatic lessons from Israels victory in the six-day war. This makes sense if Israel is a symbol in the Arab worlds confrontation with its own seemingly intractable stagnation. The underlying question is overcoming stagnation, not Israel. As he writes, “Our use of the term “nakbah” [disaster] to indicate the June (six-day) War and its aftermath contains much of the logic of exoneration and the evasion of responsibility and accountability, since whomever is struck by a disaster is not considered responsible for it, or its occurrence, and even if we were to consider him so, in some sense, his responsibility remains minimal in comparison with the terror and enormity of the disaster. This is why we ascribe disasters to fate, destiny, and nature, that is, to factors outside our control and for which we cannot be held accountable.” He suggests for example, that Arab leaders overestimated the U.S. role in shaping Israels victory, and underestimated the Arab soldiers lack of technical education and sophistication.
Overcoming humiliation and cultural renewal
Al-Azm raises a very fundamental question. How can a nation transcend defeat so that its citizens have a vision of a future that stimulates their personal and collective ambitions and hopes? Moreover, when defeat is chronic, as represented by stagnation, what are the levers of political and cultural renewal? The history of nations coping with defeat is not encouraging. Germany, in the aftermath of World War One, succumbed to the idea that it had been “stabbed in the back” by communists and Jews. This set the stage for Hitlers rise. Post World-War Two West-Germany found a future in a peaceful Europe united with France, Japan, in a resolute pacifism combined with a disciplined focus on building its export industries. But both of these countries were defeated totally, while their victors occupied them for many years.
I suggest that we consider religious culture as resource for renewal. In launching the Iraq War the Bush administration in the U.S. posited that individuals throughout the Arab world had democratic aspirations. This must be true, witness the Arab Spring. But aspirations are like topsoil readily washed away unless protected by the sturdy roots of plants and underbrush. Saddam Husseins terrifying domination of the Iraqi population undermined any institutional and cultural supports that could sustain democratic practices after he was overthrown. 
I am drawn here instead to the Sufi tradition in Islam with its links to Islamic mysticism as an alternative to the resurgence and revival of Salafism and Wahhabism, both extreme versions of Islam. These Islamic traditions rely on the literal interpretation of the Quran. Israels victory in 1967 strengthened these extreme currents in Islam, reinforcing the regions turning away from, rather than toward, modernism.
Literalism imposes great burdens on the social and psychological development of a culture. Of course, one danger of literalism is familiar. There are passages in the Quran, which if taken literally, condone the killing of non-Muslims, for example;
[005:033]  “The punishment of those who wage war against God and His Apostle, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter,” or

[004:089] “They but wish that ye should reject Faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing (as they): But take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of God (From what is forbidden). But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them; and (in any case) take no friends or helpers from their ranks.

But literalism also has an insidious and more sustained consequence. Joseph E.B. Lumbard, a convert to Islam and an Islamic scholar argues that puritanical reformists, “favor an opaque literalism which denies the efficacy of our speculative, intuitive, and imaginal faculties.” In other words, literalism blocks thinking and suppresses a persons subjective response to his or her own experience in confronting a text. This is why as he argues, “the rise of violence, punctuated by the events of September 11, 2001, are the latest symptoms of an underlying illness, a cancer which has been eating at the collective moral and intellectual body of the international Islamic community.” 
Literalism contrasts with esotericism, a tradition associated with mystical currents in all religions. It presumes that a text has hidden as well as surface meanings. My readers may be familiar with the Jewish Kabbalah as a text dedicated to uncovering the hidden meaning of texts as by implication the world of spirit. The Muslim text, Spiritual Gems, preserved and transmitted by Sufis, is similar in character. 
One strand of modernization theory, often neglected by scholars who confuse modernism with secularism, connects mysticism to modernization. David McClelland the scholar of “the achievement motive” in modernizing settings, called this “positive mysticism.” Strikingly, one mediating force between mysticism and modernization turns out to be science. As David Bakan points out, science just like mysticism, presupposes that there is a difference between the manifest appearance of the physical world and its hidden structure. Today in physics the hidden structure is mathematical, and some physicists propose, that it is entirely so. The mathematicians among the ancient Greeks, Pythagoras and his students, were also mystics. 
To interpret a text or a physical appearance, the reader or scientist has to bring his or her “intuitive or imaginal faculties” to bear. In this sense rationality as a model of how thinking takes place, does not fully describe the actual scientific method, since scientific discovery, like text interpretation, is a creative process, engaging the imagination and intuition. Isaac Newton, the great physicist and mathematician of the enlightenment was also an occultist and alchemist and wrote a chapter in his The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, on the mathematics of Solomon’s Temple.
The act of interpreting a text also mediates between mysticism and modernity.  As the history of the protestant reformation suggests, once people have direct access to sacred texts, for example, the Bible, and are free to bring their own interpretative powers to their understanding of it, they learn to exercise their individual initiative as readers and thinkers. The idea that a text has esoteric meanings opens the door to the thinking subject. This openness was one source of the rise of individualism in early modern Europe, an essential building block of a modernist culture. This suggests that mystical currents in any religious tradition are one vehicle for sustaining a dialogue with modernism without necessarily succumbing to all of the Wests versions of it.
What I am suggesting is that the Sufi tradition, which has strong roots in Morocco, in Sunni and Shia communities throughout the Arab world, in the West, and in Iran, might provide a cultural counterpoint to Salafism. In a study of Sufism in Indonesia, Julia D. Howell writes, “Sufism once associated with the strongly rural sector of Indonesian society, clearly has not died out.. .in the period of Indonesias most rapid economic development under the New Order government, Sufism has inspired new enthusiasm even in the sectors of Indonesian society most intensely engaged in modernization and globalization: the urban middle and upper class.”
In addition, in contrast to Salafism, Sufism is a more pluralistic tradition, depends on the decentralized relationships between individual teachers and their students-- the Sufi order-- and highlights the role of the subject in gaining access to both God and knowledge of the divine. This suggests to me that as an indigenous religious tradition, it establishes a basis for engaging with modernism without subordinating Islamic culture entirely to Western traditions. Indonesia is a Muslim society that has in fact made a transition to democratic forms of government. No one can predict how this engagement would unfold, but it is an avenue worth exploring and advancing.
The potential role of Sufism returns us helpfully to the issue we broached in this posts beginning; the link between humiliation and shame.  Recall that the psychoanalyst, Carlos Sluzki, argued that in experiencing humiliation a person rejects the appraisal of those who judge his performance or character to be wanting. But in experiencing shame a person internalizes this appraisal, and the standards they represent, by holding himself accountable for his failed performance. Humiliation externalizes, shame internalizes. This suggests that shame in turn sets the stage for learning and development. If this is a useful model of psychological growth, it suggests that people, stung by humiliating experiences, can develop themselves by transforming humiliation into shame.
But to do this, a person must also have some internalized ideal, a belief, to harness shame to learning. Shame is the vehicle for the journey to the ideal. Without such an ideal, a person will simply feel despair. This process of using shame is one conception of what Freud call the “Oedipal” struggle. In Freuds conception, a young boy at some point is ashamed of his finitude when compared to his powerful father. Freuds metaphor of the “castration complex”—the boy's penis is small -- describes just this experience. But the boy develops as a person when he transforms his shame into a wish to become like his father. The father becomes the boys ego-ideal. But of course it his father.
Perhaps this model of development can be applied more broadly, or in a socio-analytic way. As Lumbard writes, “When, however, one intellectual tradition is abandoned outright, there is no basis for the evaluation of another intellectual tradition and none of the fertile ground that is necessary for effective assimilation. Recovering the Islamic intellectual tradition is thus an essential, if not the essential, step to ameliorating the malaise which Muslims and non-­Muslims alike have long bemoaned and decried. When this has occurred, Muslim peoples will be better prepared to engage Western civilization without surrendering to it altogether or opposing it outwardly while capitulating inwardly.”
I take this to mean that the Arab world, can develop socio-culturally if its people and leaders can build on a tradition they already own and whose ideals provide them with a productive way to engage with modernism. In this way they can tolerate their shame long enough to unleash their creativity.


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The social psychology of technological stagnation

I want to use this blog post to explore the following issue: what meaning can we make of western culture’s current skepticism about science and technology. Certainly from 1870-1940, science and engineering were held in high repute. In the progressive period in the United States, roughly 1880-1920, the concept of engineering took on the character of a worldview. Progressive activists and intellectuals saw engineering as the method for achieving efficiency in all dimensions of social life, whether applied to industry, natural resource conservation, municipal government or city planning. Thorstein Veblen, the skeptical economist who gave us the term “conspicuous consumption,” argued in his classic, The Engineers and the Price system, 
“That engineers must be free to do their work without interference from political and business people. In point of material welfare all the civilized people have been drawn together by the state of the industrial arts into a single going concern. And for the due working of this inclusive going concern, it is essential that the corps of technological specialists who by training, insight and interests make up the general staff of industry, must have a free hand in the disposal of available resources, in materials, equipment, and manpower, regardless of any national pretensions or any vested interests” (p 54).
We have to see Fredrick Winslow Taylor, the first industrial engineer, and  much maligned today for his efficiency studies of the factory floor, in this light. He saw the science of efficiency as a method for reducing the conflict between workers and foremen. By describing the work to be done with objectivity and precision, workers and owners could agree on what the work required and what pay-rate was fair. Taylor embodied Veblen’s hope for a rational world where "national pretensions" and "vested interests" no longer impaired judgment. 
This exaltation of engineering was also the basis for the many great Worlds’ Fairs, in London (1851), Philadelphia (1876), Chicago (1893), Paris (1900), New York City, (1939) and elsewhere. Worlds’ Fairs offered a roadmap to the future and expressed utopian strivings for the culture as a whole. Moreover, the 1893 exposition in Chicago was not simply a venue for showing tradeable goods and technical achievements but, as a man-made landscape, it was also emblematic of what could be accomplished by large scale urban engineering and planning. As Daniel Burnham, the architect who coordinated the works of the exposition wrote, “The World’s Fair came, and disclosed what all were unconsciously waiting to receive, a lesson in landscape architecture. What the matter was with our public improvements, the Columbian Exposition made forever plain. Here, studied on the spot by millions, and by millions more through the activities of the Bureau of Publicity and Promotion, a great truth, set forth by great artists, was taught to all our people. This truth is the supreme one of the need of design and plan for whole cities.
Similarly, the “Futurist movement,” a group of European artists at the turn of the twentieth century, envisioned their art as tied to the exaltation of machines and the modern. They wrote in their founding manifesto,
“We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervor of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; adventurous steamers that sniff the horizon; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd.”

Yet consider the following:  
·        On May 29, 2011, the government of Angela Merkel, the prime minister of Germany, announced that it would close all of its nuclear power plants by 2022. On March of 2012, fifty-thousand German demonstrators, responding to the first anniversary of the Fukshima nuclear disaster in Japan took part in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Once envisioned as the source of cheap and limitless power, western countries are foreswearing its use. Italians voted overwhelmingly to keep their country non-nuclear. Switzerland and Spain have banned the construction of new reactors. As of 2013, countries such as Australia, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Israel, Malaysia, New Zealand and Norway remain opposed to nuclear power.
·        People are also increasingly skeptical of large-scale urban engineering. On October 11, 2008, four-thousand citizens of Stuttgart Germany protested the demolition of an old railroad station, one step in an ambitious project for creating a high speed rail network between Paris and Bratislava. On September 30, 2010, hundreds of demonstrators were injured when the police used water cannon, pepper spray and batons. On the following day, more than 50,000 people took part in the largest demonstration against the project to date. On October 1, 2010, 100,000 people took part in a demonstration against the project and the proposed demolition. Demonstrators argued that the construction would cut off access to the city's cherished park areas for ten years, and that the integrity of the exceptional railroad-station building should be maintained. ·                 
·        In 1974 Robert Caro published his classic, The Power Broker, the story of the extraordinary achievements as well as the destructive impact of Robert Moses, the great builder of parks, highways and tunnels in New York City and its region from the 1930s to the 1950s. Over the course of his career, ensconced in the independent Port Authority of New York, he built 13 bridges, two tunnels, 637 miles of highways, 658 playgrounds, ten giant public swimming pools, 17 state parks, and dozens of new or renovated city parks.” In one reading of his achievements he was a populist, bulldozing through private gulf clubs and country estates to provide working and middle class families access to great beaches and preserves. Yet starting with Caro’s book, historians saw Moses as a destroyer who ousted “more than half a million people from their homes in the Bronx, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in Sunset Park in Brooklyn and on Long Island farms for the sake of new highways.” Some characterized these projects as “slum clearance,” arguing that Moses could have limited the number of evictions by using alternate routes.
Moreover, the resulting dislocation often created new slums. Marshall Berman, the Marxist humanist and philosopher, wrote a passionate and poignant essay on how Robert Moses destroyed the Bronx, a borough in New York City, by ramming the Cross-Bronx-Expressway through its heart. Describing the expressway in dark terms he notes, that it is, “Jammed with heavy traffic day and night, deadly at the graded entrance and exit ramps, cars weaving wildly in and out among the trucks.” It is bordered by large walls that protect the driver from seeing “hundreds of boarded up buildings,” and “dozens of blocks covered with nothing at all but shattered bricks and waste. Children of the Bronx who drive along this expressway, “Are not merely spectators, but active participants in the process of destruction that tears out at hearts.” Watching a lovely building being destroyed by a wrecking ball, Berman reflects that, “So often the price of ongoing and expanding modernity is the destruction not merely of traditional and pre-modern institutions and environments but- and here is the real tragedy-of everything most beautiful and vital in the modern world itself.” This moral vision of an expressway is dystopian to its core. To Berman, Robert Moses, was in fact “the Moloch.”
My question is what accounts for this reversal of perspective? Why would progressive activists such as Jane Addams, Florence Kelly, Daniel Burnham, President Theodore Roosevelt, a great believer in conservation, and yes Robert Moses himself, appear to be on the side of the devil today. One simple answer of course is that technologies, the engineering of everything, and indeed the entire technological apparatus are simply more hazardous, for example, with their impact on the earth’s climate.  A second and equally self-evident answer is that in a post-modern or post-industrial society we are that much more sensitized to the injuries, deaths and dislocations imposed by the very same implements and infrastructure that sustain our living standards.  Just as Marshall Berman argued that modernity destroys itself, our technology, once the vehicle for increasing our standard of living, actually reduces it. 
For example, in 1975 U.S. residents tolerated some 50,000-highway deaths per year. Ralph Nader, the consumer activist, published his indictment of car manufacturers Unsafe at Any Speed, in 1965. It “prompted the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, seat-belt laws in 49 states (all but New Hampshire) and a number of other road-safety initiatives.”  By 2009, the number highway deaths fell to 31,000, a 40% reduction, (though still ½ the number of U.S. military personnel who were killed in action throughout the entire Vietnam war!). We are less willing to “pay the piper” in terms of blood and lives, for the goods delivered. 
Indeed, the sociologist Ulrich Beck writes, that we live in what he calls “the risk society” in which social conflicts are focused less on the distribution of income and wealth and more on how different groups are exposed to the risks and burdens imposed by technology and its development, whether in the form of rising ocean levels, pollution, radiation poisoning, storms and hazardous waste. As one author notes, “Beck's theory describes contemporary societies as so profoundly affected by technologically-induced risk, that risk is their defining feature. Paradoxically, the importance of risk in Beck's sociological description of contemporary societies corresponds to the inability of experts to adequately determine or assess dangers posed by technological change as a defining feature of modernity. The 'risk society' is modernity in a state of excess. It is modernity at risk, ultimately, to itself. And it is not just risk, but rather indeterminate risk that Beck identifies as its central problem.” In other words technologies, and the engineers who create, build and operate them, are the ultimate sources of hazard.
One argument in favor of the idea that we live in a culture increasingly sensitized to risk is that our political culture appears to be developing an alternative conception of development, one that links the idea of progress and change to the idea of care, to transformation without destruction. Jane Jacobs, the famous naturalistic observer of city neighborhoods and an urban activist, set the stage for this way of thinking in her classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that though published in 1961 remains compelling even today. As an activist, she led the opposition to Robert Moses’ plan “ to drive an expressway across Lower Manhattan  through Tribeca (it wasn't called that then), Chinatown, Little Italy, SoHo, and the Lower East Side and another major road through Washington Square, the symbolic heart of Greenwich Village”. Characterizing the spontaneous order of the city she wrote,
“Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.”
Her description of the city’s miraculous order, what she felicitously called the “ballet” of neighborhoods, poses the question of whether or not we could transform our urban settings as our needs change, without being destructive at the same time. For example, in my own city of Philadelphia, urban development often takes place through a process called “in-fill,” through which developers build single homes on vacant plots while renovating rather than destroying old factory and commercial buildings. This stands in contrast to the landscape altering plans implemented 50 years ago. For example, in 1959, Philadelphia was physically transformed when the city destroyed many homes, stores and commercial buildings to build an expressway on its north side to speed cars east and west through the city. By the mid sixties, protestors stopped the building of a similar expressway on the city’s south side. Had it been built, center-city residents would have been cut off from the working class and minority populations on both sides. 

We can call this new model of development, “bricolage” in the sense that developers, home owners and commercial enterprises create a new landscape from the means and materials at hand, for example by renovating vacant buildings and or creating building designs to fit the idiosyncratic lot lines associated with the earlier built environment. The term “bricolage” has the merit of resonating with descriptions of a post-modern artistic and cultural sensibility, for example Andy Warhol’s collage of images of himself, his iconic pastiche of Marilyn Monroe’s face, or quite recently, using pastiche to create radio podcasts. The pleasing result of bricolage at the neighborhood scale is based on the visual surprise produced by the jumble of styles and building types that “in-fill” creates. Broadly, bricolage suggests that order is both created and maintained spontaneously through changes that take place at a small scale but with cumulative impact.  There is transformation without, or with much less destruction. This is why, despite his remarkable achievements Robert Moses, the master builder of New York City, appears now more like the devil than the magician.
If we stay with this line of thinking, we can ask what impacts does this new model of development have on the economy? Does bricolage have any costs?  Because it values experience at a small scale, one unhappy thought, if indeed this makes us unhappy,  is that it it may result in a technological slowdown if not stagnation. For example, one irony is that we have stopped building nuclear power plants when in fact we now have proven designs for building small or modular ones that function without control rods, don’t use weapons grade materials, minimize nuclear waste and of course don’t produce carbon dioxide as an after-product. Indeed, the most surefire way of improving any technology is by using it a lot. This is known as Wright’s Law, or is termed “the experience curve,” in which the unit cost of producing anything falls, or its quality rises, as the scale of production increases. This is why, for example, hospitals that specialize in heart surgery have fewer surgical errors. There are actually only 437 operating civilian power plants in the world. In the United States, from 1990 to 2013, nuclear power plants increased megawatt production by 37% or about 2.5% per year. Compare this to the experience curve effects of Henry Ford’s famous Model T, where volume increased 100 times from 1909 to 1916, reducing unit costs from roughly $8,000 per car to under $1,000. It is no wonder that nuclear power is costly and not as safe as it could be. One hypothesis is that in the risk society we paradoxically stop learning how to reduce risks. 
Indeed, several economists, particularly Robert Gordon in a widely cited paper, "The Demise of U.S. Economic Growth," and Tyler Cowen in his book The Great Stagnation,  argue that we are entering a period of relatively slow growth in productivity, one measure of technological stagnation. Gordon suggests that living standards increased significantly in the early part of the 20th century as households got access to the social and urban “grid,” such as indoor plumbing, electricity, the telephone, the radio, trolleys and automobiles. As he notes in an interview, “Something can’t be more than 100 percent of itself. You could only have the transition from a rural to an urban society once. You could only have the transition from 20 per cent infant mortality to near zero once. All of that was happening in those 50 years. And then in the early part of the post war years we completed the subsidiary inventions from the late 19th century, with commercial air transport, air conditioning and the inter- state highway system.”
Gordon presents estimates of what economists call “total factor productivity,” the portion of productivity growth that is not due to increases in scale, for example more hours worked, or more machinery, but to improvements in the quality of these resources, such as a more educated worker or a better machine. As he shows, total factor productivity has been in decline since 2005, before the financial crisis hit. In addition, Cowen argues that, “The United States produced more patents in 1966 (54,600) than in 1993 (53,200) while, ‘patents per researcher” have been falling for most of the twentieth century.”
Of course, the Internet has change the lived experience for millions of people, but it is unclear how it has changed the material conditions of life. As Tyler Cowen writes, “The revenue component of the internet is comparatively small. A lot of the internet is a free space for intellectual and emotional invention, a kind of open-ended canvas for enriching our interior lives.” We are building culture -- the expressive elements of our lives -- without building civilization, or its material elements.  As Gordon notes, if we follow the rules of economics, when the marginal cost of adding one more opinion to a website is zero, then its marginal benefit, in material terms should be zero as well. PayPal founder Peter Theil, reflecting on the failure of our accomplishments to match our earlier fantasies of the future, famously said,“We expected jet packs, but we got 140 characters” (on twitter). 
One other discomfiting development fits with this vision of stagnation. People in the United States are withdrawing from the world of work. In 1960 close to 95% of men between the ages of 25-54 were working, by 2012, the percent stood at about 83%. This decline took place over periods of enormous economic growth and several cycles of employment booms. This decline in workforce participation also accounts in part for the slow growth in median family income over the last thirty years. As Cowen writes, “In 1947, median family income was $21,771. By 1973, a mere twenty-six years later, it was more than twice higher, at $44,381. Now move from 1973 to 2004, thirty-one years later. Calculating in terms of 2004 dollars, median family income had gone up to $54,061, which is less than a 22 percent increase.” 
One hypothesis is that this decline in participation accounts in part for what George Packer, calls the “unwinding” of the “inner life” of the working class, and what Charles Murray characterizes as a “coming apart” of the white working class, as reflected in marriage and divorce rates, educational attainment, single parenthood and joblessness. Sandor Ferenczi, the famous Hungarian psychoanalyst, once noted that his patients suffered from “Sunday neurosis,” that is, on their day-off they became emotionally distressed. Work in this sense is a psychological container and in its absence we become prey to internal demons. 
Murray in his, Coming Apart: the State of white America, 1960-2010, ascribes this trend to a decline in ‘industriousness.” Some white men are simply unwilling to take available jobs, such as carpenter helper, building cleaner, truck delivery man, that while low-paying nonetheless provide a living standard above the poverty line for two adults. This development he suggests is linked to the decline in the sense of community – what Robert Putnam felicitously called the syndrome of “bowling alone.” People feel marginalized. 
But perhaps our framework provides an additional hypothesis. Absent a cultural narrative of development that links people psychologically to creating economic value, work as a venue for securing a sense of purpose is less salient. It has less meaning. This may also be why so many men with mathematical abilities who once saw engineering as a noble undertaking are now attracted to careers in finance. It represents a kind of social regression from creating value to redistributing it.
Consider a counterexample. Factory work was once at the heart of the technological apparatus of an industrializing and urbanizing America.  This is also why industrial unions were once powerful. Men with limited education, but with the capacity to master the requisite cognitive and manual skills, demonstrated tremendous discipline in subordinating their minds and bodies to often difficult and exhausting physical work. They demonstrated physical and mental courage in forming and defending unions and for the most part sustaining their democratic character. This experience of worthiness undergirded the strong community life and stable marriages they were able to sustain. 
Of course, we could argue that automation itself makes people redundant without regard to whether work is worthy or not.  From 1977 to 2012 manufacturing output rose two and half times, while manufacturing employment fell by about 40%.   
But I wonder if this trend is dispositive. Consider for example, the problem of global warming. As the Scientific American magazine reports, “While we may not yet have reached the “point of no return”—when no amount of cutbacks on greenhouse gas emissions will save us from potentially catastrophic global warming—climate scientists warn we may be getting awfully close. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution a century ago, the average global temperature has risen some 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Most climatologists agree that, while the warming to date is already causing environmental problems, another 0.4 degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature.. could set in motion unprecedented changes in global climate and a significant increase in the severity of natural disasters—and as such could represent the dreaded point of no return.”
If we take this scenario seriously, and we should, there is little doubt that large-scale engineering and technology development must play a vital role in helping communities adapt to the impact of climate change. For example, soil shrinkage due to drought affects oil and gas pipelines, drought can affect cooling systems for power stations, sea level rises can affect electricity substations in coastal regions, stormy conditions can lead to windmill shut down, power failures will cripple information and communication systems controls, change in rain density can weaken cell phone signals, high winds can knock down telephone polls, and rare earth metals will become harder to mine. It seems almost certain that we will need the appetite, talent, and the resources for large-scale engineering projects, perhaps on a vaster scale than we have ever seen, if we are to respond adaptively to climate change. The question, is will our culture help us prepare?
Stirrings on the right and on the left suggest that it might not. The right wing often opposes large-scale public infrastructure projects, for example, the modernization of the intercity rail network, because it presumes that government spending crowds out private investment. This argument is not entirely reasonable at a time when corporate savings are high—and are used primarily to buy back shares-- and interests rates are low.  But perhaps the wider cultural process I have been describing shapes the right’s skepticism. There is no shared vision of how public resources might be used and why. In contrast to the progressive era, when engineering and urbanization created a public narrative of how modern society should unfold, no narrative exerts a similar force today. One result is that sectional interests, biases and ideologies can hold sway. Indeed, theorists of post-modernism maintain that one of the most salient features of a post-modern society is that it lacks a narrative about its own development. This may be one reason that some people reject the findings of climate science on global warming. It imposes an unwanted narrative on societal development.
The left wing, which often represents the claim that technology is destructive is not always reasonable either. In the risk society, people apply the “precautionary principle,”-- a principle similar to the warning that doctors should “first do no harm,”-- when planning to implement a new and untested technology. This may be reasonable, but it must rest ultimately on a rational assessment of the harm itself. It is striking in this regard that no one has died from genetically modified food over the last 15 years, and indeed, a genetically modified organism (GMO) saved the papaya industry in Hawaii. As many scientists point out, genetic modification takes place in nature through mutation and farmers have been genetically modifying plants through breeding for centuries.
Yet as a piece of investigative reporting in Slate, the online magazine, notes, “In the past five years, companies have submitted more than 27,000 products to the Non-GMO Project which certifies goods that are free of genetically modified organisms. Last year, sales of such products nearly tripled. Whole Foods will soon require labels on all GMOs in its stores. Abbott, the company that makes Similac baby formula, has created a non-GMO version to give parents, “peace of mind.” Trader Joe’s has sworn off GMOs. So has Chipotle.” Yet as the reporter notes, “The World Health Organization the American Medical Association, the National Academy, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have all declared that there’s no good evidence that GMOs are unsafe. Hundreds of studies back up that conclusion.”
The Slate reporter continues quite mercilessly. He goes on, “The central argument of the anti-GMO movement—that prudence and caution are reasons to avoid genetically engineered, or GE, food—is a sham. Activists who tell you to play it safe around GMOs take no such care in evaluating the alternatives. They denounce proteins in GE crops as toxic, even as they defend drugs, pesticides, and non-GMO crops that are loaded with the same proteins. They portray genetic engineering as chaotic and unpredictable, even when studies indicate that other crop improvement methods, including those favored by the same activists, are more disruptive to plant genomes. The deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs.”’
The journalist is describing a paranoid stance, not different from people who once believed that fluoridated water was poisonous, or parents today who believe that childhood vaccines cause autism. Freud argued that paranoia resulted from the projection of internal feelings of hostility. Since the hostility is projected, it cannot be addressed through appeals to objective facts.  Moreover, any failure to identify the actual threatening person or institution only proves that the conspirators have been clever to erase their footsteps. 
The question of course is what is the source of this hostility? I am inclined to think that it represents a tremendous disappointment and anger at the authorities that have failed to bequeath us a safe and beneficent world. Global warming, the war or terror, the breakup of our mediating institutions such as the family, the circulation of nuclear weapons, these pose what some may experience as existential risks. It is the apocalypse coming. In earlier times a younger generation might have seen this as a challenge to be surmounted, as setting the stage for the project of their lives, to be addressed by marshaling all of our scientific resources as well as our engineering and political capabilities. But this will-to-action may be missing. 
This may also be why people are increasingly sensitized to personal risk. Howard Schwartz, in his extensive body of work on “political correctness” has identified a cultural character type, which he calls the “pristine self.” This is the self that takes offense easily and readily without any apparent or objective manifestation of threat.  As he show, its curious impact as a cultural meme can be seen when assessing school bullying. Certainly, if one peruses the press and the Internet one might believe that school bullying is an increasing problem. But the statistics show otherwise. “For all students in grades 6-12, hate related graffiti in classrooms, bathrooms hallways, etc. dropped from 36% in 1999 to about 28% in 2011. The rate of students who reported fearing an attack or harm at school at all has dropped dramatically, from nearly 12% in 1995 to less than 4% in 2011. For black and Hispanic students it is an even more encouraging shift from more than 20% of both groups worried about being attacked in schools to less than 5% in 2011. The decline in actual physical violence is even more dramatic. It was down 74% between 1992 and 2010, according to the latest Department of Justice data, which was cited by David Finkelhor director of The Crimes Against Children Center at the University of new Hampshire, in a paper he published in last January.” 
Why this discrepancy? One hypothesis is that in a society where we fear risks that are ineffable and indeterminate, at least as they appear to us, we turn on others, in this case the imagined bullies walking school corridors, as stand-ins for the threat.  We turn ghosts of the future into present people of flesh and blood. Like the television-show, “The Walking Dead,” we become zombies to each other. In addition, to protect ourselves we seek out victims whom we morally elevate, so that we can project our own sense of vulnerability into them. We don’t consider them in their actual privation, or in their potential, both of which would be to their benefit, but as symbols of ours privation which paradoxically victimizes them more.  By attacking the powers that we believe exploit these victims, we try in our fantasy to protect ourselves. Of course this does not make us feel safe, which only intensifies our need for protection.
Perhaps we are paralyzed by the seemingly impossible dilemmas of re-engineering while exhibiting care, risking without harming, or transforming without destroying. This just may be the challenge worth confronting.