The Tortured Masks of the Intermediaries

Christopher Hayes had a discussion of a  story gone viral on the internet about a Halloween party at a “foreclosure mill” law firm with clients including all the giant mortgage lenders:   Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.  Hayes had Glenn Greenwald as a guest and after some of his elaboration about the alternate cognitive reality of the 1%, Hayes defty introduced a segment on the Halloween story (see last 15 minutes).  Thinking carefully about the meaning of this, the material can take on a surreal dimension.

There is something about people putting on masks that allows them to be dropped. Something about loosening the constraints of identity, where the categories we have for ourselves are relaxed, and the contradictions are on parade. Greenwald spoke of the distance between the elite and the reality of what is really going on. That function is everywhere- and the elite use intermediaries such as those at the law firm of Steven J. Baum. In “Margin Call”, the technocrat who understands the risk models is aware of the dissonance, but no one in a position of authority has a clue what the numbers mean (youtube @3:20). It dawns on us that maybe the leaders don’t want to know. It is easiest for those in power that are deluded, who are incurious, unaware of the dissonance, or who aggressively maintain their ignorance. These people are mistaken for leaders because the clash of a multiplicity of modern categories- the gay soldiers, the billionaires who are progressives, the televangelists who are revealed as corrupt- not of it appears to be confusing to them. They appear confident in their identity and project certainty.

For those within the bubble of power, the dissonance is hardly perceived. The dissonance is heaviest at the peripheries, where the functionaries are called on to carry out their duties: The cops at the protests that are asked “who are you protecting”. The soldiers in Afghanistan who know what the locals think of them. The legal aides that serve foreclosure notices and know what is happening to families losing their homes. The financiers inside Goldman who joke about the “sh*tty deals” they were selling to their customers (Levin hearings).  The dissonance of facing two opposed accounts of the world, speaking to two separate sets of people holding the opposed viewpoints results in a split between one face they put on themselves versus another.  It’s no coincidence that two opposing faces is the symbol of Janus, god of boundaries and portals.

Sometimes this extreme dissonance comes home. The leader that everyone wanted to have a drink with, a businessman from Yale, who championed use of American force-the appearances suggested to the American public that he was a man of character that the US needed.  Instead of harmonizing, extreme dissonance was the result- the character instead sounded the notes of a destroyed economy, 8 million out of work, retirement funds annihilated, peoples homes being foreclosed on, two pointless and horrendously expensive wars based on lies.

When the dissonance becomes this intense, we mull questions of Identity, and issues like Voter ID become a proxy for doubts about who the others around us are, and even who we ourselves are.   We are a schizophrenic nation of individuals able to live with completely irreconcilable sets of values- where the categories of adultery and drug escapism are active on Saturday, and the categories of fidelity, duty and honesty are active on Sunday. Issues are reduced to questions of morals and character, but we are of two minds on them.  We decry the loss of American industrial strength while we load up on Chinese goods at Walmart. We want the best educations for our children but want lower taxes resulting in teachers being laid off. Conservatives want a candidate who is electable but are riveted to a soul searching quest for authenticity as they rejects the candidates whose positions are not drawn along the starkest categorical lines.   Progressives want more US jobs and union rights to be a high priority, but not if it means Wall Street profits, higher consumer prices or increases in global warming.  Both conservatives and progressives wonder why politicians they backed cannot deliver on their oftentimes completely contradictory expectations.  The fact is that we are of two minds on most everything.  We cannot make rational our inconsistencies let alone face them, so we project our conflicted expectations on a conveyor-belt of leaders we prefer to blame for our cognitive disharmony.  Ultimately cognition itself has multiples faces at it attempts to re- present our sense feelings from the world and ourselves into some coherent model of reality.  Neuroscientists tell us that we are unaware of 98% of our cognitive activity.  And yet we behave as if achieving a categorical cleanliness to the 2% we know about is the key to solving the worlds problems.  It is a Fairy story from the 18th Century Enlightenment, and its dark side haunts us.

This Halloween, the ghoulish nature of who we are as a nation comes out. Since ancient times, such festivals have provided ritual cathartic release of stresses caused by such social and cultural cognitive dissonance§.  The release can be a safety valve to maintain corrupt systems. Alternatively, perhaps we can bring something more durable from the carnival- from the modern bacchanalia of masks in full display such as on the Sunday talk shows.

Perhaps stumbling out of that kaleidoscope of artifices, our heart and intuition will lead us to the character we “already know what we truly want to become.” Jobs made a speech challenging us to not delay this quest. “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

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About John JMesserly

Mostly harmless

Posted on 2011-10-31, in Chris Hayes, cognitive science, economics, identity. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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