Thursday, March 17, 2011

No Self-Consciousness

Nations have no self-consciousness, obviously. They never look into the mirror. They’re never genuinely shocked, ashamed, or startled by their own behavior. They never “catch” themselves. Similarly animals. Animals never blush. Winston, our Lab, sometimes cowered and slunk away in fright; I might have interpreted that as shame, but it was simply knowledge that a certain behavior would cause me to berate him. He felt no guilt as such. We project ourselves into the animal.

Several days of catching glimpses of the news brought this to mind again. Japan and earthquake, Japan and a potential meltdown. In the flurry of coverage, our reporters are saying things spontaneously. On the one hand they’re struck by Japanese formality, sang froid, discipline. On the other they project the notion that Japanese are in some way inferior, that they somehow don’t understand nuclear power like we do. One CNN correspondent assured us (yesterday, the day before, it blurs) that we’ve no cause for concern. American experts are present, advising, and U.S. troops are there too. It didn’t therefore surprise me at all that the NYT lead with a story today telling me that our Nuclear Regulatory Commission sees things in much darker light than the Japanese government evidently does. Or, perhaps, chooses. But never mind that. It’s the same in every context. Other nations can’t even police their streets if we don’t dispatch our experts to train them.

This way of seeing isn’t new. It is a tribal projection. It is biological, low, chthonic. It led to pogroms in the past. It is the fear of strangers. The Yellow Peril. The White Man’s burden. Etc. It can be positive or negative. A positive form of it was the view of America by the rest of the world after World War II. Superior. For those of us who came here as naïve immigrants, it was a bit of a shock to discover that Americans were just human, like everybody else.

The peculiarly modern form of it, due to the enormous spread of the media, it seems, is the strange feeling on the part of often very sophisticated and sensitive people that something like a group mind (and therefore self-consciousness of the many) may actually exist—or may be in the process of evolving. I’ve recently encountered this in Doris Lessing’s science fiction novels, collectively Canopus in Argos: Archives. There she projects both a very benign collective consciousness, that of Canopus, and a very dark one, Shammat. But it does not actually exist, not in high forms, nor in low, the low suggested by rhetorical forms proclaiming that the American people have spoken—for this or against that.

Self-consciousness requires a genuine agent. There must be a there there. The blended voices of several hundred thousands of people, our communications elites, do not a person make. But they do reflect a tribal reflex.
The Uncle Sam teddy bear may be purchased for $69 here. I found the little Samurai here; if sold at all, it will probably run a lot more.

1 comment:

  1. I was also struck by that TV news need to project the US as the true source of wisdom here. So I was glad to see that when one of their talking-head experts was asked why Japan hadn't called in our experts to fix the problem of what to do with a reactor that was struck by earthquake and tsunami he replied, "Honestly, the Japanese really are the experts here."

    However, I'm also getting the distinct sense that an overly cozy relationship between the nuclear power energy and the government is biting them right now and really hurting their credibility. Sadly, that's an area in which we truly might be the top global experts.