Thursday, January 20, 2005

"...and the wisdom to distinguish...

It was one of Jean-Paul Sartre's insights, that the world you posit, is the world you live in. It is perhaps a sign that we are all existentialists now, that we see this insight borne out in the Presidential inauguration today. The New York Times noted yesterday the unusually high level of security surrounding today's second inauguration of George Bush, even as "...U.S. officials say they have no indications that al-Qaida or any other terrorist group intends to attack Bush's inauguration." NPR reports that 100 blocks of Washington D.C. are shut down, the tightest security for any Presidential inauguration in history. So why the "rooftop snipers, missile batteries, bomb-sniffing dogs, high-tech monitors and miles of metal barricades, a striking array even in a city accustomed to heightened security since Sept. 11"? Because "paranoia," as the Buffalo Springfield said, "strikes deep," and "starts when you're always afraid"?

But what is this Administration afraid of?

When Bush visited Buckinham Palace, there were numerous reports of the extraordinary security measures the White House insisted on. The Palace reported drew the line at installing a special steel lined room for the President inside the Palace itself. Did the Queen ever insist on such security measures during the "Troubles" with Ireland? During World War II? Churchill had a bunker in London during the Blitz, and the Royal Family may have left the Palace for obvious safety reasons, but did they ever betray as stark a fear as that request indicates?

Bush swaggers like a movie cowboy, or at least struts as if strutting and posturing were indications of power and confidence. But is the swagger hollow, the confidence a pose? Actions speak louder than words, and some actions louder than others. Why this extraordinary security? What extraordinary sense of fear lies behind it? And what does it tell us, the loyal opposition?

We tend to define ourselves by what we oppose. That, too, is an insight of existentialism, but one little remarked upon. The existentialist starts by defining herself against the universe: the line of demarcation is the boundary of the self, and that boundary must be set early, before it is set by the universe against you. All the effort, then, goes into claiming as much "ground" as possible, casting as wide a net as possible, and holding that spiritual or psychic territory against all invasion. The boundaries shrink as the self matures, but the initial effort is to reach out, to establish the frontier, and to slowly realize how much of the world and the cosmos are "not you."

That, at least, is the insight of child psychology and development. And it is an insight borne out by reports of Bush's inaugural speech, in which he will reportedly tell the nation that liberty at home depends on liberty abroad. Which means the national self of the United States is boundless, is global. It means that collectively we are infants, unable to distinguish between our psychic selves and the rest of the world. It means that we have no center, and that the President has cast our lot with eternal conflict.

"God give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other." That is the Serenity Prayer" of Reinhold Niebuhr. It is a prayer that accepts, at its premise, that the world is larger than the self, and that the self is not dependent upon the world for definition. The President, however, proposes that the world define us, and that liberty abroad determine how much liberty can be had at home. Liberty, of course, is the American definition of nationhood, of the collective "we" of the United States, so this is as central to national selfhood as America gets. And Bush has defined it, and will define it, as an infant defines their world. Small wonder he is so insecure, and requires so much security.

But what about the rest of us? How should we define our struggles, our lives, our selves? By politics, by the efforts of political parties and our own convictions? By the boundaries, in other words, and what we can establish through our efforts? Ironically, Reinhold Niebuhr did; and his daughter records that he ended his days saddened and disheartened despite all he had done. "You poor girl," he told her once, after Eisenhower took office," you've never lived under a Republican Administration. You don't know how terrible this is going to be." But that doesn't mean he struggled in vain, or wasted his efforts. "It is implicit in everything Pa wrote on the subject," his daughter writes, "that there's little point in having a foreign policy, or an arms policy, unless, as a nation, you know who you are, what sort of nation you are or imagine yourself to be." He was right, of course; and that is the heart of the struggle. Who are we, really? What sort of nation do we imagine ourselves to be?

Right now, according to our President, a scared one; a frightened, childish, bullying one, beset by terrors on all sides, with no hope for survival except through our force of arms. But is force of arms the final power in the world? or the final weakness? Are we defined by our enemies? Or by our ideals? By our boundaries? Or by our center? Existentialism says that we define the world, but it starts by defining the world against us. But it also teaches that the world does not limit us; it is our own fear, our own despair, that does that. We can't even define the nation. We can only define ourselves. And we can do that either by constantly protecting the boundaries of who we are, and thereby letting what is "not us" define what is "us." Or we can do that by finding our center, where ever and whatever it may be, and resting there. St. Teresa of Avila called it the "interior castle," because it is both the place of safety, and the place that needs no other protection. Perhaps while the world flails about trying to establish security on the frontiers, we should seek the peace of our center. It is the only true hope for peace in the world.

[Quotes are from Elisabeth Sifton, The Serenity Prayer, New York: W.W. Norton, 2003, pp. 328-329]

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