Existential Terror

H/T Joe L, I think I’ve got opposition defiant disorder.

A 2009 Psychiatric Times article titled “ADHD & ODD: Confronting the Challenges of Disruptive Behavior” reports that “disruptive disorders,” which include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and opposition defiant disorder (ODD), are the most common mental health problem of children and teenagers.

Only trouble is: I’m not a child or a teenager any more. I’m an old man aged nearly 70. When I was a child and a teenager I wasn’t particularly defiant: I did my homework and passed the exams. Instead I slowly got more and more defiant as I got older. And the reason for that was that I began to see the authorities in more or less every discipline as being in one degree or other ignorant or incompetent, or both. And so these days I’m more or less in revolt against everything. It’s a compulsive opposition defiant disorder.

Albert Einstein, as a youth, would have likely received an ADHD diagnosis, and maybe an ODD one as well. Albert didn’t pay attention to his teachers, failed his college entrance examinations twice, and had difficulty holding jobs. However, Einstein biographer Ronald Clark (Einstein: The Life and Times) asserts that Albert’s problems did not stem from attention deficits but rather from his hatred of authoritarian, Prussian discipline in his schools. Einstein said, “The teachers in the elementary school appeared to me like sergeants and in the Gymnasium the teachers were like lieutenants.” At age 13, Einstein read Kant’s difficult Critique of Pure Reason—because Albert was interested in it. Clark also tells us Einstein refused to prepare himself for his college admissions as a rebellion against his father’s “unbearable” path of a “practical profession.” After he did enter college, one professor told Einstein, “You have one fault; one can’t tell you anything.” The very characteristics of Einstein that upset authorities so much were exactly the ones that allowed him to excel.

By today’s standards, Saul Alinsky, the legendary organizer and author of Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals, would have certainly been diagnosed with one or more disruptive disorders. Recalling his childhood, Alinsky said, “I never thought of walking on the grass until I saw a sign saying ‘Keep off the grass.’ Then I would stomp all over it.”

Well, of course Einstein had to be in revolt against the authorities if he was going to come up with any new way of thinking about anything. I keep some words of Richard Feynman in my right margin: “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” You’re only going to start to find out anything new if you start out assuming the experts haven’t a clue what they’re talking about.

In an earlier dark age, authoritarian monarchies partnered with authoritarian religious institutions. When the world exited from this dark age and entered the Enlightenment, there was a burst of energy. Much of this revitalization had to do with risking skepticism about authoritarian and corrupt institutions and regaining confidence in one’s own mind. We are now in another dark age, only the institutions have changed. Americans desperately need anti-authoritarians to question, challenge, and resist new illegitimate authorities and regain confidence in their own common sense.

In every generation there will be authoritarians and anti-authoritarians. While it is unusual in American history for anti-authoritarians to take the kind of effective action that inspires others to successfully revolt, every once in a while a Tom Paine, Crazy Horse, or Malcolm X come along. So authoritarians financially marginalize those who buck the system, they criminalize anti-authoritarianism, they psychopathologize anti-authoritarians, and they market drugs for their “cure.”

I can perfectly well understand all the Einsteins and the Feynmans and the Alinskys. The people I don’t understand are the authoritarians – for example the controllers at the top of Tobacco Control. It seems to me that they’re the ones with some sort of disorder. They seem to have Compulsive Control Disorder. They want to have everything “under control”. They’re terrified of “losing control”. Very often they’re people who take great pride in having “self-control”. One of the charges they often hurl at smokers is that they “lack self-control”. Why is self-control so important to them? Why is control so important to them? Why are they such controlling people?

Yesterday I was writing about my orbital simulation model. That’s another example of my opposition defiant disorder. Because I was only motivated to get it working well when NASA declared that the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor and asteroid 2012 DA14 were completely unrelated to each other, even though they arrived on the same day. NASA are the authorities in space science, but I didn’t believe them. And so I spent a defiant two years showing that they were very likely companion bodies, flying along the same orbit, a long way apart.

One thing that my orbital simulation model has brought home vividly to me is that we’re living in a solar system that is totally out of control. We humans are bottom-dwelling barnacles sitting on a spinning rock in an eddy of other rocks around a burning, exploding star, and there’s nothing we can do about it. We can’t stop the world and get off. We’re stuck on it all our lives, as it hurtles around the Sun. And we’re also stuck with the seasons and tides and storms and earthquakes that afflict our little planet.

And that’s perhaps where the urge to take control originates. Everything that’s going on around us is so totally out of control that we’re always trying to gain control, like a passenger trying to grab the wheel upon which a bus driver lies slumped dead. We may not be able to stop the earth, or quiet the winds or the seas, but we can at least ban smoking.

The more threatened we feel by the crazy, unhinged world around us, the more we feel the urge to take control over it. It’s a profound, existential terror. And the most terrifying things of all in our crazy world are the deranged, knife-wielding humans rampaging around in it. Above all, we want to control them. We want to constrain and imprison and drug them into quiescence, where they no longer pose a threat.

Perhaps that’s where the authoritarian mindset originates. It grows out of the anxieties of the age. And these anxieties are always changing. These days we’re worried about different things than people worried about a century ago. We worry about nuclear war, and cancer, and global warming. The modern environmentalist movement is very much one that, thanks to a single iconic photo, sees our world as a fragile blue droplet of water suspended in the empty vastness of space, just waiting for some Great Intergalactic White Shark to swim out of the darkness and consume it with a single bite.

These days we’re frightened of everything. And demanding that Something Be Done to stop it, whatever it is. And that brings the authoritarians out of the woods, as they set out to Take Control.

The sane people, in my view, are those who aren’t frightened of anything. They don’t worry about nuclear war or cancer or global warming. And they don’t worry for the simple reason that there’s nothing they can do about any of them. Which is also the reason they don’t worry about the sun or the planets or the asteroids: there’s nothing they can do about those either. They only worry about things they can do something about: like whether they’ll be able to find those blue socks that went missing last week.


About Frank Davis

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7 Responses to Existential Terror

  1. buckothemoose says:

    I recently watched a documentary about Einstein and how he came about his theory of general relativity.
    I can only conclude that the man was completely wrong and a bit of a moron
    Unless I missed something…

  2. jaxthefirst says:

    Ah, but Frank – sometimes you never find those blue socks (or, more likely, one of them). It’s a scary old world when even one’s sock drawer can spiral out of control so terrifyingly ….. :)

  3. Mark Jarratt, Canberra, Australia says:

    Agree totally about neurotic controllers. The authorities are not only ignorant and incompetent, continued theft of money from those who choose to be tobacco consumers under government monopoly is clearly corrupt, compounded with the relentless hypocrisy of anti smoker propaganda.

    I just calculated I paid over $3100AUD tobacco import taxes in the 2016-17 fiscal year. That excludes the cost of my preferred Camel Blue. 82c in the dollar goes straight to the Bully State. A disgraceful impost, yet only one element of the multi pronged state sanctioned campaign of hatred against a significant minority of the citizenry. 🐪

  4. waltc says:

    Fear –whether of something real or fictive– has always been a trigger that makes people reflexively surrender to Authority. When the bombs are flying, it’s probably a good idea to unquestioningly do what the air raid warden tells you. Not always but just usually. But governments or other groups with power and an agenda can manifacture boogiemen as a tool to get compliance. And so they often do. Cuidado, amigos.

    As for the controllers, I’ve always thought there was an element of fear of themselves, a fear that they themselves might get out of control and commit who knows what carnal or other sins if they didn’t eradicate temptation from the planet.

  5. Joe L. says:

    It’s disgusting that the thoughts and behaviors associated with being anti-authoritarian in modern society have been classified as “mental illnesses.” They are literally telling you that you are crazy if you’re not willing to be controlled (and the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries are also making a nice profit off of it, to boot).

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