May 18, 2022

Are You in Denial?

You know the story. An irreversible extinction event is about to drop – literally. A meteorite is on a collision course for earth, and earthlings can’t get their shit together to deal with it or even acknowledge it in any productive way. (The plan of a few people to get rich from its rare minerals doesn’t count because it’ll be a lavish, short-lived party.)

Don’t Look Up!, the movie that caught the zeitgeist over the long Omicron winter, is all about denial. More than that, it’s about what cognitive sociologist Evia Zerubavel calls “meta-denial”: denial hiding even from itself. As in: No one is talking about the fact that no one is talking about this. But now they are, thanks to this film. That’s a good thing. There are still some elements of the movie that rankle, and I’ll get to them in a sec.

The smartest thing about the film is that it involves a meteor and not some climate-related storm. So you can choose to see it as a metaphor for global warming at 100x speed. But the meteor can also stand in for everything from Trump’s Big Lie to the effectiveness of vaccinations. One denial fits all.

Denial is the brain’s bombproof defense mechanism. It kicks in when a truth is too big and scary to face. Often it’s a frog-in-a-pot situation: we can tell ourselves that everything is just fine, even as the alarm bells grow loud enough to make our eardrums bleed.

So we have grotesqueries like a Federal Reserve that can’t put the brakes on trillions of dollars of quantitative easing because Wall Street throws a tantrum every time it tries. We have surveillance capitalism galloping out of control because it came under cover of darkness (and by dawn we were in too deep). We have corporations running amuck, getting away with murder and even crimes against humanity, while We the People acquiesce. Meanwhile, the Pentagon and CIA keep killing innocent people in botched drone attacks without much pushback.

It takes enormous energy and alertness to monitor how much we have drifted from baseline, and almost nobody is up to this kind of vigilance. No matter how insane things get, we accept it all as the new normal as long as everybody else does.

Freud explained denial as simply repressing the unseemly stuff in order to sail blithely over the surface of our daily lives.

But the shit’s on the table now. So what to do? The denialist move is to say: I don’t accept it. I am free to not accept it. I don’t trust the experts you trot out to tell me I’m wrong.

I refuse to accept the outcome of the most secure democratic election in American history.

A third of Americans can’t face the fact that their guy lost: that is the most blatant example of mass denial I’ve ever encountered. I was sure the fog would roll back out and America would come to its senses. But no. The madness just keeps escalating.

The pushback — just like the resistance against social-justice movements — is also a kind of strategic denial. To acknowledge the truth would cost you too much in the wallet, or in power, or in the spoils your privilege has allowed you to pile up. So it’s fingers-in-the-ears la-la-la … If the truth can’t get in, I don’t have to change the way I live or think. It’s all good. And it’ll be even better after we trounce the socialists in the midterms!

For bonus chutzpah points, you can put your denial on display. In the US Supreme court, all nine justices wear masks but one. That would be Neil Gorsuch. He proudly sits naked-faced in the chamber, forcing Sonia Sotomayer, who is immunocompromised, to work from home.

You could say that most of us are in denial about most things most of the time — and that’s simply nature’s way of getting us through the day. What we perceive is the tiny tip of the iceberg of what is actually going on. The full firehose spectrum of incoming information gets run through the tiny funnel of what we can usefully process. We’re not perceiving “reality” at all. If we could, it would be far more absurd and incomprehensible than anything Dali or Gogol ever dreamed up.

If we fully tuned into the suffering we know is happening in the world, we’d be overwhelmed and paralyzed. So we quite willingly turn away.

In his book States of Denial, the Johannesburg-born sociologist Stanley Cohen picked apart the massive denial around the apartheid system he grew up in. White South Africans practically twisted into contortions not to see the atrocities and suffering right before their eyes. They simply could not acknowledge it — because that would mean having to revise the story of who they thought they were. “What do we do with our knowledge of the suffering of others?” Cohen asks. “And what does this knowledge do to us?”

The drumbeat becomes: I can live with this. Even if, on some level, you know you can’t.

In a time of crisis, we count on our A-team of artists to rise up and meet the moment . . . and my first reaction was, Is this really the best we can do?

“It’s a comedy!” my Gen Z friend insisted when I admitted it was unsettling me. “It’s entertainment. Don’t overthink it.”

But I wish we could muster a feistier cultural response than cheap laughs. “It’s like Dr. Strangelove!” everyone said. But actually: no. That film had another register. It made you laugh, but it also summoned a primordial rage. That hot state is apparently above the paygrade of most of Westerners in the year 2022: we just won’t go there. And that too is a kind of denial — a “soft denial,” as the writer Jenny Offil put it recently. It’s the cop-out of, as she puts it, “thinking it but not feeling it.”

That is the coward’s response to crisis.

But it’s been America’s reflex since it started getting outcompeted in just about every area it thought was its jam. “Americans will wake up one day and realize that China has done to the US what the US did to the UK in the 20th century,” the novelist Tim O’Brien said recently. America countered its loss of supremacy by puffing out its chest and screaming MAGA, convincing no one.

The idea that America could simply be done — as top dog, or even a functioning democracy — will strike many as such an impossibility that they simply cannot take it in. Just as in the old canard, when Magellan’s ships supposedly sailed past Patagonia and the Indigenous people simply could not comprehend what they were seeing. These objects were so large and strange and foreboding that, fictitiously, they simply did not register, except as the shadow of gods, and the people apparently folded them into their mythology, to cloud their dreams and steer their fate.

This is how great nations die.

Sure, there are still bursts of individual genius, but the way America as a whole is responding to crisis is pretty much the opposite of genius. Witness the total inability to show the way forward, the lack of courage, the lack of effectiveness, the cultlike denial of truth. And the appalling lack of compassion for the million people who died of an all-too-real virus.

The elephant in the room is that the American story is simply not working. Not any more. A once-daring experiment has gone astray. Now the only script left is a redemption script.

So we wait for one of two things to happen: Either an FDR-like super-Obama rises up and galvanizes people into a life-saving pivot. Or else something new starts brewing in the heartland. An impulse to tinker with the fundamentals, to burrow down into the guts of what’s wrong with America.

Why don’t we face the toxic stuff head-on: The unbearable arrogance of corporate CEOs. The boneheaded stubbornness of logic-freak economists. The insufferable decadence of the 1%. The insanity of a marketplace that tells a lie with every purchase. The psychic fallout of a communications system that commodifies every thought and feeling. The madness of a “defense” strategy that depends on wars without end.

And then you let the existential weight of all that madness sink into your bones, until the soft denial falls away and you go, Holy shit, we’ve got to do something, I’ve got to do something, whatever it takes. Even if it means revising the story of who I think I am.

There’s a moment in Don’t Look Up! when the president challenges the physicist’s assertion that the extinction event is a dead-to-nuts certainty. “Please don’t say a hundred percent.” “Well,” he says, “it’s 99.78 percent.” “Great!” she says, “so it’s not 100 percent.” In a way, the most conniving character in the movie just made the one hopeful dodge. We still have a scrapper’s chance here. It’s going to take looking squarely at all the things we’ve allowed to curdle so badly, and then committing to do whatever it takes to fix things.

If that happens a counter-narrative will take hold — one strong enough to mow down the established idiocies if enough folks buy in. And this counter-narrative says there is a way to walk back these mistakes. There are solutions to these things we don’t want – and they involve concrete (if challenging) mass actions, like revoking the charters of criminal corporations, and getting a party elected that will push for true-cost markets, and pressing for new rules requiring a raw majority’s approval before any war can begin.

The way out of our denial is a metameme insurrection. I know in my guts this can work. When the alternatives are doing nothing and going under, or accepting the totalitarian future that China is offering, what have we got to lose?

- Kalle Lasn

The Third Force

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