As Long As Something’s Ruined, We’re Okay: The Obsessive-Compulsive Style in American Politics

by Matt B. on January 28, 2014

The contemporary Tibetan meditation teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche frequently described how we depend on our anxieties, fixations, and worries. However painful they may be, he suggested, they also serve as occupations – ways to stay busy, to keep moving, to avoid acknowledging some of the deeper existential truths about our lives.

I’d been studying CTR’s teachings for about 18 months when this line of thinking stopped making sense to me. Up ’til that point, I’d bought in fully to Buddhist notions of emptiness and groundless (at least insofar as one can understand and assent to these things intellectually). I no longer believed that “I” was a coherent entity, and I wanted to see underneath the hood – to perceive more of the roiling energies and contradictory impulses sloshing around my mind.

In other words, my obsessions and compulsions no longer felt like they were masking anything else. It all just felt like pain, and pain of a particularly useless sort. I would have happily given it up, even if it meant more existentially unsettling confrontations with whatever lay beneath – but I couldn’t figure out how.

I asked my meditation teacher about this. She didn’t say much, but I got the sense that she thought I was approaching the problem superficially. Sure, I would happily trade away my obsessions and fixations at any given moment – who wouldn’t? But underneath, she suggested, I rely on my obsessive-compulsive patterns. It’s my basic orientation, my way of understanding myself and the world around me. Living with OCD means inhabiting a shittily pessimistic perspective, true – but it’s still a perspective, a point of view, a place to stand. Something is always wrong (or about to be). It’s the perfect interpretive alloy, adaptable to any situation but fundamentally solid.

* * *

Our politics depends on the same psychology: a profound desire for certainty, and an equally profound pessimism.

You can see our addiction to certainty in the frenzy with which we cut the world into simple pieces. There are (basically) two political parties, and these parties tussle over a relatively small number of ‘issues.’ Every player in the game receives a label – “progressive,” “conservative,” “radical” – that is meant to define his or her relationship to these ‘issues.’ Players rely on ‘positions’ (however recently and expediently chosen) and oppositions (however false) in order to convey a sense that they are in possession of the good and the true. The game itself is fundamentally adversarial and winner-take-all. There is almost no room for nuance or complexity. We need so badly to be right – about something, about anything – that we argue over the most trivial bullshit on Sunday morning talk shows.

And it’s this need for certainty that gives birth to our pessimism. We have to be right; our guys have to get elected. If they don’t, the world will fall apart. Our drive for certainty becomes existentially self-confirming. We’re right, because we can’t countenance the possibility of being wrong, nor the prospect of living in a world where truth is elusive. Watch the faces of the TV talking heads; behind their anger, you’ll see terror.

In The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter writes, “We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”

Hofstadter is right, but he doesn’t go far enough. In our drive for certainty, we are all paranoids, we are all fantasists. To say it differently, we are all obsessive-compulsives, driven by intrusive fears to build (and hide inside) elaborate philosophical fairylands.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter how badly we need certainty, because the world doesn’t respond to our tantrums or pleas. However tightly we wrap ourselves in the mantle of ideology, however fervently we devote ourselves to this or that leader, however passionately we seek to demonstrate the logical consistency of our ideas, something in us knows that we’re fooling ourselves. And it’s this something – call it intelligence, call it intuition – that is the only thing really worth listening to.

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