The Denial of Death
Two major influences shaped our country: 1) Settlers forced indigenous people off their land and
2) Africans and other people of color were forced into slavery.
A subconscious mental trick is always necessary to justify the sins of conquerors. Those dispossessed have to be seen as worthless. Using labels such as apes, rats and cockroaches encourages people to see others as less than human and justification for “solutions” such as confinement, enslavement and extermination. Our nation was founded on white supremacy. Even a civil war and one hundred fifty years have not quelled the greed for dominance.
We are living in an era when systemic racism and inequality have become intolerable for the majority of Americans, while white supremacists see equality as a threat to their way of life. There are many irrational drivers of white supremacy, such as the belief in scarcity, but one driver never gets discussed. In various ways in our culture, we unknowingly express our fear of death. Existential concerns are part of white supremacy. The mental trick of which we are unaware goes something like this: If I win and you lose, I am powerful, too powerful to die.
Examples of existential fear are everywhere. (Sports) We experience huge emotional swings between our favorite team winning and losing. We can be miserable when a team loses. We can feel joy of being powerful when our team wins. (The risk taking, for which Americans are famous) If I take this risk and survive, I have escaped death. I’m invincible. (The militia) With my bullet-proof vest and a thousand rounds for my weapon, I’m safe. I will survive. (Refusal to wear a mask during COVID-19) The behavior is a symptom of the denial of death and/or risk taking. (Trumpism) “Men worship and fear power and so give their loyalty to those who dispense it.” Ernest Becker 1973. (Scapegoating.) We project our guilt, fear and self-hatred onto others. In doing so, we create evil.
The ballot box, and the sincere enforcement of new laws passed, will at least subdue the current level of white supremacy, but two tasks remain for us to do, both as individuals and a nation.
1) We must confront racism/white supremacy, even as individuals, when we see it. I love the incident told by Studs Terkel. It’s the 1960s, in the South, and black youth are sitting at a lunch counter as a peaceful civil rights protest (blacks were forbidden to sit at lunch counters). White hoodlums were burning the necks of the protesters with their cigarettes. An older white woman steps into the store to buy a spatula. She defends the young blacks by shaming the hoodlums. The violence stops. She creates a moment of equality.
2) We must practice dying. That’s Socrates talking, among countless others. We have to accept our impotence and vulnerability against death in order to throw off the “chains of uncritical, self-defeating dependency [on leaders] and discover new forms of courage and endurance.” Sam Keen 1973. There is much evidence that many Americans have not done the inner work necessary to reach maturity. We must address this deficit.
White supremacy and inequality are evil. We have to make the connection between the denial of death and that evil. Nowhere can we find a rational reason for the dispossession of others.