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The inner life of a society bears a strong resemblance to that of an individual person, and many historians have been moved to describe the rise and fall of whole civilizations in language usually reserved for psychoanalysts. Reflecting on the culture wars that we in the United States have been caught up in over the past forty years, it is hard to resist seeing the political extremities that have convulsed our national life in any terms but these.
The morning after Donald Trump won the presidential election, I took a book off my shelves that had sat unread for some twenty-five years. As I believe we read the books we read when we need to read them, I felt as though this one had been waiting for me all these years. Finally its moment had come.
The name of the book was The Honey and the Hemlock: Democracy and Paranoia in Ancient Athens and Modern America (1991), and it was written by cultural anthropologist Eli Sagan. In this book, Sagan argues that while ancient Athens is remarkable for having enjoyed two centuries of thriving democracy, it also provides a naked example of the various corruptions the system could sustain, including slavery, poverty, endless warfare, and the ever-threatening “fickleness, arbitrariness, and irrationality” of the demos itself. In short, democracy was no safeguard against the pain humanity remained capable of inflicted on itself.
An old-time revivalist movement seemed to sweep through the land, the kind that arises when a society being forced to face its own deepest conflicts cries out against the potential loss of familiar dysfunction, so great is its fear of coming to consciousness.
In light of this reality, Sagan posits the analytic likeness between the various stages of the psychic development of an individual and that of a society. In an individual, he points out, the first stage includes an anxiety about the world that amounts to paranoia; in the second, the growing person moves into a paranoid position (that is, one suspects one is being plotted against, but does not feel compelled to act on the suspicion); and in the third, the paranoid position is overcome, whereupon, hopefully, one achieves a psyche relatively free of pathology. By the same token, “Every society is paranoid, and succeeds to a greater or lesser degree into moving into the paranoid position” (that is, refrains from actual aggression against other nation states), where it hopefully remains. When The Honey and the Hemlock was published, Sagan thought America, under the first George Bush, was coming close to moving from the paranoid position to outright paranoia. What on earth would he have thought the day after Donald Trump was elected president?
The golden age of Athens was remarkable for the degree to which the Athenian government, time after time, resisted its own predilection for paranoia—“[We] are not going to call out the army, [we] are not going to declare the election invalid, [we] are not going to have [our] opponent assassinated”—until the time came when it no longer did. Democracy, Sagan concludes, is a miracle, considering the depth—as individuals or as societies—of the psychological disabilities under which we, as a species, labor.
In every century since the Revolution, American reformers and their opponents have revealed a split in the culture between those driven to demand that the Republic keep its promise of full egalitarianism, and those who quail before the specter of unlimited secular democracy. This split goes so deep and remains so persistently unhealed that it parallels, to an uncanny degree, the self-dividedness of an individual person struggling at one and the same time to both resolve and avoid resolving the internal conflicts that hobble each and every one of us.
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The liberationist movements of the 1960s and ’70s induced a gathering alarm that culminated, in the ’80s, in a major retreat into the near mystic belief in the healing powers of religion. Suddenly, there were evangelicals everywhere, prayer breakfasts were held in the White House, and Americans in unheard-of numbers were announcing their belief in angels. It was as though, having been forced into a soul-searching it could not sustain, the United States decided instead to have a nervous breakdown. As an emerging feminist of the 1970s, I had a front-row seat at the horrifying spectacle of the republic eating itself alive in the face of the psychological fears that the liberationist movements aroused.
For Phyllis Schlafly, feminism was the anti-Christ. She would rather have seen America come apart at the seams than submit to our godless demands.
Convinced that the United States was a mature democracy, we feminists were certain that the gross inequality under which American women lived, now identified by hundreds of us, would tomorrow surely be acknowledged by thousands and the day after that by millions. How could it be otherwise? Only people of serious ill will or intellectual deficiency or downright political greed would oppose the obvious. And, after all, how many of them could there be?
We soon had our answer in the form of the formidable Phyllis Schlafly, the rock-ribbed Republican whose violent denunciation of the feminist movement we found both frightening and incomprehensible. Talk about paranoia replacing the paranoid position. Phyllis Schlafly was a Midwestern constitutional lawyer and a tireless activist on behalf of conservative causes, one of which was the preservation, at all costs, of the family as she had always known it. For Schlafly, feminism was the Antichrist, and she would rather have seen America come apart at the seams than submit to our godless demands. In ranting against the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, she sounded like the nineteenth-century churchmen who reviled the suffragists in exactly the same terms: unnatural, unholy, barbarism at the gate. Schlafly wanted America to remain—as God would have wanted it to remain—safe for Mom and apple pie. She wanted the protective laws that ensured inequality for women to stay in place. She wanted Roe v. Wade overturned. She said there was no such thing as rape in marriage and that labor-saving devices such as indoor clothes dryers had provided all the necessary improvements in life that a woman needed.
What feminism both promised and threatened was a level of self-knowledge that would make it almost impossible to go on living with the old social agreements.
What was sobering—and what sent us reeling—was the incredible response she received from a few million ordinary women who now seemed to be living in terror of any sort of social change. An old-time revivalist movement seemed to sweep through the land, the kind that arises when a society, like an individual, being forced to face its own deepest conflicts, cries out against the potential loss of familiar dysfunction, so great is its fear of coming to consciousness. After all, what feminism both promised and threatened was a level of self-knowledge that would make it almost impossible to go on living with the old social agreements; that surely meant a rupture with God and country that millions found unbearable to even imagine.
When Thomas Frank wrote his 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, about the Midwest turning Republican, he wondered aloud about why hardworking farmers and blue collar workers were voting against their own interests, which he took to be economic. But they were in fact voting for what was now their real interest: to save the country from the toads and snakes that the liberationists had released when they overturned the rock of stabilizing inequality. The rallying cries of “abortion” and “gay marriage” said it all.
What none of us on my side of the divide understood was how primitive these issues actually were, and how far-reaching was both the fear—and, yes, the despair—they induced, even in the most unlikely of people. I myself had an abortion during these years and was shocked to see that in the days following the procedure I walked around feeling haunted by a sense of dread I could not account for, as though I had done that for which I would be punished. I realized then that if I, secular to the bone, could find myself in spiritual turmoil after an abortion, the true believer must undergo great terror at the mere thought of it. The experience did not temper my own activism on behalf of legal abortion, but it did temper my outrage. I could even feel in the right-to-lifers the anxiety, the panic, the oppressive sense of a world turned upside down—all that makes one blind to sweet reason—and then I felt the dismay of sorrow more than the energizing blaze of anger. I knew that the gulf between us was going to grow ever wider as the years progressed, and that as it did, the so-called fabric of American life would begin seriously to fray. Countless societies had been here times without number, and the outcome has always been up for grabs.
If I, secular to the bone, could find myself in spiritual turmoil after an abortion, the true believer must undergo great terror at the mere thought of it.
Throughout the years that Athens did function successfully as a democracy, it was because the ruling powers were able and willing to act on that which reason dictates: understanding the varied needs of the multitude. As Sagan sees it, “Something remarkably human existed in that culture, a sense of the reality of the existence of others.” When that sense began to fail big time, the fall of democratic Athens was ensured. The question Eli Sagan asks is “not why did the fair city of Athens produce a group of voracious [anti-democrats] but rather why were there so many of them and how could they so easily seize power.” But he knows the answer. The oligarchs moved in, not only with no real objection from the populace at large, but rather the welcome every despotic regime receives when marching into a country divided against itself.
The struggle of any society—but especially that of a society that calls itself a democracy—is to honor the existence of the one not like ourselves. Now, much like in ancient Athens, our own democracy is teetering: a moment when so many of us have become unreal to one another.
Vivian Gornick’s books include The Odd Woman and the City, Fierce Attachments, The End of the Novel of Love, The Men In My Life, and Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life. She teaches writing at The New School.
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