Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg
We now know the date when our fragile economy recovery will die unless Congress votes to raise the debt ceiling. That date, according to Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew, is October 17, 2013.
This is the third time Republicans have held raising the debt ceiling “hostage” and threatened economic destruction if they don’t get concessions from the administration. This was a gambit used this past spring, and also in 2011.
Is this just “brinksmanship,” a power ploy to simply delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare, or is it something deeper this time, a “Death Wish” for the American and even world economy?
Disturbingly, the “death wish” scenario seems more plausible this time. Republican voters seem to be cheering on their representatives to not negotiate, but in fact urging them toward default. According to a recent WashingtonPost/ABC poll, “66 percentof Republicans Want Their Representatives to Cause an Economic Catastrophe.”
Democrats and progressive thinkers see this as Republicans having “gone crazy.” Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winning economist, opines, the “inmates have taken over the asylum” as he contemplates this latest in this series of hostage-taking maneuvers.
I don’t think the problem is as simple as labeling this behavior “crazy” and then dismissing it.
If 66 percentof Republicans long for their representatives to actually cause “an economic catastrophe,” something more is going on. This is, in fact, a very human impulse that Sigmund Freud wrote about in his complicated essay
Beyond the Pleasure Principle
. Human beings can manifest a “death wish,” or “thanatos.” This is the self-destructive behavior that is an expression of the energy caused by death instincts. Human beings are driven by competing impulses, some to creativity, harmony, connection, and self-preservation, and also to destruction, aggression and even self-destruction.
Freud’s work in this period suggests to me that he was wrestling with issues from Europe’s war trauma from World War I (1920), as well as the economic upheaval and depression that resulted. Americans have been living through what is called “the War on Terror,” and our second longest war (Afghanistan), as well as the war in Iraq and a “Great Recession” for years now.
All of what Americans have been enduring has produced such anxiety that it gets manifested in this impulse: ‘just crash the whole thing.’
Bring down the house. Just end it.
This desire to crash the whole thing is also the driver behind religiously driven extremism. It is the longing to destroy everything with the idea this will actually “save” us. After the destruction, we can start over, either with a new political leadership in charge, or in a heavenly “Rapture” in Christian terms.
The key to dealing with the current drive by 66 percent of Republicans and their representatives to just crash the economy is to realize this impulse is not “crazy,” but actually within all of us. Haven’t you also felt the impulse to just “tear it all down and start over” when you are frustrated with our politics or our economy or the global threats that seem to loom larger every day?
It is only when we don’t push away this impulse as just “craziness” in others, but recognize it as profoundly human that we can see a way out through cultivating other impulses that exist in us as well.
Robert Jay Lifton, an American psychiatrist who studies the psychological effects of war and violence, has considered the impulse toward
Destroying the World to Save It
. Lifton argues that once we can see the collective social and psychological roots of this impulse to destroy in order to “save,” “we are likely to see more of ourselves in it and to begin to think of such groups as something of a dark ‘cultural underground’ of our own society.”
What Lifton is saying is don’t move away from what you see as this destructive impulse, move toward it, see yourself in it, in order to understand what is lurking there in our own society, in ourselves in fact.
But what is best about Lifton’s work, and why I find it so deeply theological, is that Lifton shows there is a way out. In my view, this is the way of Jesus, the way of loving the neighbor as the self. (Mark 12:30-31)
Lifton argues that when we look at our own “cultural underground We are also likely to discover that whatever renders our society more decent and more inclusive in its benefits is likely to undermine the totalistic impulse to destroy everything.”
Oddly enough, then, “Obamacare” itself, as a way for our society to be “more decent and more inclusive in its benefits” is a path out of the impulse to destroy that is wracking our country.
I have wondered, in exploring this idea, if that is why resistance to the Affordable Care Act is so extreme. People desire their anger, they want it, they hoard it and they are reluctant to let it go.
Obamacare’s promise then may be the healing not only of the bodies of many in our nation, but of our soul as well.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a Professor of Theology and immediate past President at Chicago Theological Seminary. She is the author of many books, including the most recent, #OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power.