Implementing Economic Transactionalism in Foreign Policy
Bob Woodward (2018) Fear: Trump and the White House, New York: Simon & Schuster
I received an interesting response to my blog on falcons. It read:
Hope you are having fun with the kids and stuffing your face with gourmet food. I assume the Vancouver earthquake was far enough for your family to feel it, and so you are safe and sound and not even a hair got ruffled on your head.
I was thinking about your fascinating Raptor story: Currently I am dealing with some German mothers whose mothers-in-law, like many other people from that generation, torment the 30-something mothers with being Rabenmutter (Raven mother – a typical slur against mothers around here – never against fathers…) for daring to bring their little children into a nursery or a daycare, instead of being with the kids 24/7. So, we were talking about early and gradual exposure to society outside the home with the unconditionally loving parents, so the kids can get slowly used to strange other people who do not always love them the way their parents do: the predator kids (and adults), bullies, self-centered monsters, who take away their toys, call them names, and make fun of them, etc. A child who lived in total isolation from birth to age 5/6 and then is thrown cold turkey into the real society of kindergarten or grade 1, might have some problems accepting that he is not the apple of the eye of everyone, so maybe it is better to let them experience the real human society and some of its predatory actions bit by bit.
From there we moved to your Raptor story and were asking ourselves, why it is that traditional children’s stories contain only cute, furry, adorable animals that tend to act in a saintly manner, better than any normal human ever would. This is children’s first encounter with fake news, I’d say. In reality, there are a lot of scary, ugly, angry ‘big birds’ that feast on dead bodies…as you told us. So why cannot we have some balance and tell stories to children both about bad and good people so they are prepared (age-appropriately) to deal with both…? From the saintly unicorns we then abruptly switch to violent computer games…How can a child remain sane with that arrangement of tales? How can he be prepared to take on society with its trumps and MBS’s and other jerks? What do your grandchildren’s parents think about all this? Maybe on a farm it is easier when they deal with actual animals, not just anthropomorphic creatures…And how does one explain god’s incredible unfairness prone to devastating revenge to a 4-year-old in the shul? You cannot put a candy on god to make him sweeter for learning.
Perhaps I can make a stab at answering the question by dealing with the relationship of fear and anger. Small animals fear larger predators. That is natural. When those predator birds flew rights over us, I crouched in fear, considerably modified because I trusted that the experts on birds of prey would never intentionally put us in harm’s way. An emotion like fear generally originates from observing a threatening external stimulus, as when we see a predator approach, a reaction linked deep down in the brain to the limbic system. But why do we fear some objects and events when virtually all the cognitive information indicates we have no need to be fearful? Why is there such a cognitive dissonance between the evidence and the emotion aroused?
Let me begin by discussing anger rather than fear. Of the three paired emotions evidently in all of us, including many animals, fear and anger, rather than disgust and surprise or happiness and sadness, is arguably the most basic duality. My claim is that mean politics, Trumpian politics, works like an Oreo cookie. Anger is not red hot, but serves as the white cream in the middle that allows fear of false sources to be linked to our inner fears. And the greatest inner fear is not of biological death, of existential death, but of death of one’s identity, of phenomenological death.
This, I believe, may explain why resourcefulness yields to helplessness and optimism yields to pessimism instead of fight or flight in response to a real objective fear. For these responses are indicators of phenomenological rather than existential fears. The relationship of the stimulus and the response is not given but constructed. Neither we, nor animals, behave simply as Pavlovian dogs. If an objective source is used to stimulate fear, it only can do so if it connects with an inner wiring. Though it is alleged that an external situation arouses fear, it can only work if there is a connection between an outer and an inner state. When the outer state is in actuality a fiction, I suggest the inner fear is one of identity loss rather than the loss of one’s life or fear of harm to oneself.
Cognitive dissonance results when the objective situation is totally out of synch with how it is perceived. It is unclear whether a cognitive bias should be regarded as the product of such a discrepancy or its cause. I believe it is the latter. Situations are depicted in an illogical fashion when individuals and groups create a subjective social reality from the perception of the external world. But it is not the external world that leads to the distortion, but the inner wiring and a bad connection.
A person whom I know very well, but shall remain unmentioned, resorts to verbal road rage if another driver behaves dangerously, such as cutting off another driver. There is the apprehension of fear and real fear. The latter easily leads to intense rage. The former leads to a performance – such as cursing the other driver who cannot even hear what is said. If the rage is justified by externalities, the trepidation is connected to the fear as if the wiring was rooted in a solid-state system rather than a hard drive – it takes place almost immediately. However, when the external danger is not very great and when it has already passed, the anger is a performance. It is not instantaneous. It is cultivated and practiced. The anger is a cover-up to an even more serious threat to one’s ego or sense of identity and not just one’s existence. It is not just our personal safety that is at stake, but who we are rather than that we are.
This secondary rather than primary anger masks or disguises what we really fear. As a cover-up, there is no unconscious let alone conscious evaluation of the event or situation to ascertain whether the response accords with the stimulus. Further, against the very self-interest of the individual, that constructed emotion, which will glue together the alleged object stimulating the rage and the inner fear of identity loss, is given a higher urgency than any real threat; it competes with and even interrupts and suppresses the perception of a real threat. The facial expressions, the verbal articulations and the behavioural responses imitate real ones produced in the face of real frightening situations, but they are produced by acting, by a performance art rather than as an authentic expression of who we are and what we experience. The behaviour is cultivated.
How can we tell? What is the clue that allows us to differentiate between this cultivated emotion used to cover-up a deep-seated fear and genuine anger aimed at countering a real threat? The absence of empathy, that emotion that links humans and whales, elephants and great apes, and ravens such as magpies. In that absence, it is not the pain or death of the other, but the anticipated pain and death of the self that is the focus. Often, as in a verbal performance of road rage, the acting is innocent and without effect on another or oneself. It is simply an acting out. However, in the political arena, the absence of empathy and acting out in anger can be the greatest danger to a humane society, especially when it plays off an alleged danger to self.
Anger in response to a danger to oneself and those close to you is natural when much empathy is expressed towards those familiar to us rather than those who are more distant and even unfamiliar. It is not natural to express complete indifference or even disdain for the suffering of others; that has to be cultivated. On the other hand, if someone has really made you angry, those with greater empathy will remember the source for a considerable period. Real and justified anger is deeply felt, especially in those with a great range of empathy. As the attendant at the Raptor show told me, and ravens are very empathetic birds, if you annoy the raven, it will remember your face and exact revenge even years later. Not only that, the bird can communicate and inform other birds in his flock about the culprit. Other crows can then identify the dangerous one. In other words, don’t mess with crows. Retribution may be meted out years later. More immediately, ravens may constitute a mob and dive down at you in successive flights that miss you only be a few feet.
However, when humans form a mob and act out in performative anger, they do not produce the degree of serotonin and testosterone produced by anger stimulated by a genuine external cause. Further, the spindle neurons in the anterior cingulate cortex, the frontoinsular cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex are not activated nearly to the same degree as when stimulated in situations in which genuine fear is the appropriate response.
Ishaan Tharoor, who writes on foreign policy for The Washington Post, in an op-ed this past Friday wrote that, “Jair Bolsonaro is the clear favorite to become Brazil’s next president. Polls place the far-right candidate comfortably in front of his challenger, Fernando Haddad, ahead of their Oct. 28 run-off vote. Stirred by a government corruption scandal and rising crime rates, voters are so angry (my italics) that most of them are willing to look past Bolsonaro’s record of homophobia, misogyny, racism and apologia for dictatorship — those voters, at least, who weren’t already enticed by Bolsonaro’s ultranationalist agenda.”
Anger in such situations is just the vanilla cream paste between the head of a two-sided coin of performative fear, but where the underlying face, the tail, so to speak, is fear, but fear of subjective dislocation and an identity threat rather than an existential threat. When you feel impotent, that use of anger lets you feel in control. Anger may be the acting-out of fear when society is experiencing an intolerable level of anxiety. Anger protects the individual from feeling his or her fear. Anger, then, is not primary, but secondary to fear, but usually of manufactured fear. Anger is a reactive expression of fear, but in this case of cognitive dissonance, a fear in which there is an enormous discrepancy between the supposed stimulus of the fear and the response. When that anger becomes a far more potent rage at a threat to one’s self worth or a society’s status in the international arena, the world is at great risk.
Thus, there is a connection between a domestic political regime dependent on anger and an international regime where fear becomes predominant. Further, there is even a more intimate connection when a domestic politics of fear is enhanced because of the threat of losing one’s economic and social status and when an international regime emerges based primarily on economic threats and fears. The brilliance of Bob Woodward’s book is that he connects the two scenarios. He connects the dots.
In other words, a feeling of helplessness or impotence becomes anger and then even rage which is transformed into the energy of resistance. But at the base is fear, fear of the implications of that impotence, fear at the loss of sense of who we are and of ourselves as in control. In that profound sense, Bob Woodward, not overtly, but in the very succession of the dramatic replays of situations he depicts in his docudrama in the form of a work of political analysis, gets at the heart of what connects the mistreatment of women and the anger behind it, the fear behind that of a loss of economic and social security and status, into projecting that anger onto the international stage to arouse the economic fears of other states and other nations.
Trump funneled popular anger to both construct and disarm, denigrate and intimidate real and imagined enemies, for, in the end, everyone but family was a potential enemy – including friends and allies. For if not tied by blood, those friends can turn on you – and they did. Hence the deep need and the result – imagining omnipotence, invulnerability and invincibility. Hence the connection between emotional detachment in intimate relations and the huge weight placed on the attachment to blood relations, to relations acquired through marriage as I depicted in portraits of gang culture.
Anger is then used to disengage, to deny interdependence and reassert an imaginary and solitary independence, independence as power, independence in being great, independence in being great again. The latter is merely an unself-conscious confessional form of expressing the myth, the all-powerful myth, that you are made in the image of a god and that you must act to regain that lost self-confidence of this mythical self, a mythical self that disguises and re-channels the fear and loathing into anger and even rage. The question is not only about the fear, but about how anger is used both to disguise and enable that fear to define international politics primarily in terms of self-protection. Trump is a hot-head, Trump is irascible, Trump is unpredictable, but it is always to cover his fear that he will be caught out as an interloper, as a fraud. The anger is a cover for that fear that needs to be projected outwards by stirring up fears in others.
About forty years ago, I read an article in Foreign Affairs (then I was a regular subscriber so I can date my memory approximately), that described the corruption of foreign policy when it was energized by domestic anger promoted by underlying feelings of reduced social status and fears of decline. In that analysis, this was the main trope that ran through American foreign relations. Trump is merely the most acute, the most astute agent, who has risen to the political pinnacle and expression of this fear of impotence, expressed in the politics of anger and resentment in foreign policy.
To be continued.