Angst Over Extinction

03/15/2012 11:58 am ET | Updated May 15, 2012

Most newly published authors spend a lot of time Googling themselves and I'm no exception. The other day Google directed me to a blog called Watering Good Seeds, where I found a mention of The New Hate. Scrolling up, I saw a snippet from Haaretz about Holocaust awareness and the fear of extinction among Canadian Jews aged 17-81:

Interviewees asked to write a composition on the Holocaust displayed greater angst and more collective solidarity than those who were not asked to write anything. The researchers estimate that one of the effects of increased collective angst over extinction is the justification of violent acts against a rival groups... In other words, the researchers concluded, in order to protect itself from extinction, the group legitimizes harming others.

A little light went on over my head. Totalizing, programmatic hatreds of the kind that I write about are what Freud would have called thanatopsic obssessions -- they are driven by a fear of one's own extinction.

It's almost like a mathematical formula, where x = an insecure identity group, y = an opposed insecure identity group, and z = the perception of an existential threat. You can plug in different groups and different dangers (nuclear, genetic, cultural, linguistic, religious annihilation), but the equation always comes out the same. If it's too hard to talk about Zionists and Palestinians in this context, then consider whites and blacks. If both groups define themselves as each others immutable opposites, then either group has the power to destroy the other -- and not just by violence but by marriage. If the American Republic is presumed to be a white majority Christian state, then the mere existence of immigrants, Jews, indigenous people, and even the descendents of African slaves pose intolerable threats to its integrity.

Politicians have never gone wrong extolling motherhood, but when they place child-bearing in permanent and irreconcilable opposition to contraception and/or abortion, as so many Republicans have done in recent weeks, they potentially put themselves at odds with half their voters.

On the level of nations, a too-jealous regard for national sovereignty can become a kamikaze ethos. Lately the John Birch Society and other right-wing groups have been stirring up fears of Agenda 21, the non-binding plan for sustainable development that was adopted by 178 countries in 1992. House Joint Resolution 587, which the Tennessee state legislature will vote on next week, explicitly repudiates Agenda 21 as "a comprehensive plan of extreme environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control" that promotes the "socialist/communist redistribution of wealth," language that it copied verbatim from JBS publications. From this perspective, any loss of status -- even a voluntary one, in the context of a formal agreement about environmental preservation -- is regarded as a clearer and more present danger than environmental degradation and global climate change. In order not to appear suicidal, it is necessary to deny the very existence of anthropogenic climate change, just as extreme Zionists (and Republicans) elide the ultimate logic of their politics by denying the existence of a Palestinian people.

"I occasionally think," Ronald Reagan mused back in 1987, "how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world." At the time, many of us cringed at his Hollywood-inspired sentimentality. Listening to Santorum, Gingrich, and Romney today on the Middle East, women's issues, and the environment, Reagan sounds like Eleanor Roosevelt -- and they, more and more, like the alien threat that he hoped would bring us all together.

One can only hope that they will.