Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Is Mortality Rational?

John B. Judis has a very interesting article at The New Republic with the hardly sophisticated title "How Political Psychology Explains Bush's Ghastly Successes". In spite of the title, it's a worthwhile read.

The thesis is that when people are reminded of their inevitable death, they tend to turn to ideas or behaviours that are larger and more enduring than themselves. The academic underpinning of the thesis comes from a book I've never heard of but probably ought to read: Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death. (5,800 at Amazon, 33 years after the author's untimely death). Becker's ideas have been tested and demonstrated empirically since the 1980s by three psychology professors; now they are using their expertize to explain why so many Americans behaved irrationally and supported Bush since 9/11: because he, unlike his opponents, managed to tap into the need people had for reassurance through patriotism, religiosity, animosity towards life-threatening enemies and a powerful and protective leader.

I'm not going to debate George Bush's policies here. As an historian, I am quite aware of how the contemporary perception of a politician and posterity's perception can differ - think John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson then and now, or Levi Eshkol. I don't say this to claim that history will necessarily judge Bush one way or the other - by definition, I don't know how he'll be seen 15 years from now, or 30.

My argument with this otherwise worthy article is with the underlying assumption: when people are confronted by the awareness of death, they become irrational and turn in dubious directions such as religion, patriotism and GWB. Only once they calm down do they return to their rational senses.

But perhaps it's the other way around? Faced with mortality, people create immortal ideas; when they manage to shield themselves from their mortality, that's when they become frivolous, shallow, hedonistic - unserious? Not to mention the thought that when faced with deadly enemies, people rise to defend themselves, as they then don't do when the enemies are gone.

PS. If memory serves (or the online archives of TNR), The New Republic was mighty patriotic and even militaristic back in, say, 2002 or 2003. How irrational of them.


Lydia McGrew said...

I really think one of these days you'll have to admit that you're much too logical to be a liberal anymore. :-)

Yaacov said...

Sigh. What would my grandmother say? Such a staunch Rooseveltian Democrat for much of her 102 years.

Lydia McGrew said...

I'm glad you weren't offended, anyway.

Leah said...

Your grandmother did fine with one staunch Republican granddaughter, hasn't killed her yet. You'll have to find another excuse.

Anonymous said...

You absolutely should read Becker's Denial of Death or his last book, Escape From Evil. I agree with you when you say that reminders of death cause people to create immortal ideas and become defensive - and this is also what Ernest Becker wanted people to think about.

Becker was hoping to end wars by finding an explanation for why people fight them. He used an interdisciplinary approach to his study, combineing scholarship from several social sciences. I hope that someday everyone will know about his social theory and there will be an end to all wars as we know them today.