What we can’t think about: when the forces that control us are invisible, we feel helpless.
Anxiety, says the doc, is fear whose cause can’t be identified. To be suddenly frightened for no reason is itself frightening, so anxiety naturally tends to feed on itself, leading to panic attacks and group hysteria. For the most part we live in a magic circle of conventional beliefs and rules shared with family and “us.” But we’re half-aware that there are things beyond the circle such as DNA, Swiss bank accounts, Timbuctu, black holes, the future, and death. Come to think of it, what we can’t see can seem overwhelmingly vast compared to the earthly and mental landscape we see every day.
The comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes” used to show his brash young Calvin talking back to imagined monsters under his bed to calm himself for sleep. The logic is straightforward: like death, sleep requires letting go of consciousness – of self, really. By inventing monsters, Calvin is paradoxically reinforcing fears yet diminishing them by making them particular enemies. You can fight monsters. You can debate them. At the same time the comic strip is objectifying and mocking anxieties so that the audience – us – can master them.
Religions work the same way. The cosmos is terrifyingly violent and hostile to life as we know it. Death is arbitrary and unwelcome, no matter how brilliantly we rationalize it. And you can’t get much more invisible than death: it’s nothingness and lasts forever – so long that the idea of it is unthinkable. No wonder it hurts your feelings. The world’s religions fill up that terrible void with stories, rites, and rules: “God.” Science, too, works on the invisible, excited by the unknown but also ambivalently devoted to discovering natural laws. Even scientists are of two minds about what’s under the bed. It’s how we’re built.
One reason fundamentalist Christians become hysterical about science, and especially evolution, is that science represents a tolerance for anxiety and the unknown that is very recent in human development. In effect, science is propelled by a faith that we can know more than we now do, whether or not the whole enchilada is discoverable. You’d think anxious religious imaginations would sympathize.
But what about invisibility closer to home? Think of the way in which society uses invisibility to manage morale and control populations.
Here are two seemingly trivial examples – apologies for any political warp. I’m thinking of the conflict over candidate Mitt Romney’s refusal to reveal his tax returns and the complementary outraged suspicion that his rival Barack Obama is not an American citizen.
Both of these conflicts demonstrate anxiety about invisibility. The suspicions about Obama’s birth crystallize a cluster of anxieties that alien forces govern our lives. In this view the real power behind “big government” is invisible. This is the premise of films such as “The Matrix” and “The Manchurian Candidate.” The visible world cannot be trusted beyond your back fence. Hence the epidemic disregard for science and rules of evidence in public life these days. “Global warming” is a conspiracy of sinister scientists. Alternatively, climate change denial is a conspiracy of “big energy” companies. Obama is a spectral being, not who he seems to be: very like the witches and demons who impersonated your familiar neighbors during the witch panics, or the Communists or Islamic terrorists hiding under beds in postwar America.
The scale of life and the need for abstractions are intimidating. When institutions deliberately obscure or oversimplify their operations to maintain control, their size and remoteness from hands-on experience are unsettling. If that invisibility masks actual harmful motives, the effect can be panic.
What about Romney? In effect, he’s keeping his millionaire business career invisible, and polls show the public of two minds about it. One group denies his invisibility matters, perhaps out of fear that their own privacy could one day be exposed to “the mob.” The other group fears that the candidate’s invisibility will confirm his known background of outsourced jobs, foreign tax shelters, and the like.
In themselves, these can seem like small, particular concerns. But they’re symptomatic. Recall Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me,” which reported on the devastation of Flint Michigan after GM began outsourcing production to foreign shores. The film chronicles the filmmaker’s effort to reach “Roger” – Roger Smith, CEO of GM – to establish some sort of accountability for the suffering the corporation was causing. And the nightmare joke is that the corporation and American culture conspire to keep that life-or-death power over people hidden. Crime, squalor, and mental illness beset the city. Ronald Reagan appears in town and advises residents to move – in effect, to flee.
Something comparable is afoot today as the global economy rebalances, the postwar American standard of living declines, and the hidden policy-makers look for ways to triage surplus people. Hostility toward immigrants and labor unions accompanies attacks on medical and social insurance. It may be, as recent psychological research has shown, that wealth tends to make people callous. Researchers such as XYZ have argued that CEO’s and “too big to fail” bankers show characteristics of psychopaths. But the bottom line, so to speak, is the opacity of the aggression and suffering. Invisibility allows survival greed at the top to dominate society.
Keep in mind that power can be blatantly visible and yet hidden. The news routinely shows photos of the Capitol. But even the stereotyped “big man” African dictator relies on invisibility. His capricious and vicious decrees come from an unseen, unaccountable “place” inside him. The force that descends on ordinary lives from that invisible beyond has the nerve-wracking ability to undermine everyday reality and sense of self. Without exaggeration, you can say it has the smell of death about it.
This is why we depend on the rule of law and the courage of criticism.
Otherwise who knows what’s lurking under the bed?