Tom Engelhardt has published an interesting analysis of America today and its leadership in this article. Read this article, it’s well worth it. However, Engelhardt is missing a crucial dimension in his analysis. He argues that Americans are lead by people who create ‘enemies’ at every turn, not real ones, but made up ones all over the world, enemies incapable of doing the US much harm at all, if any. He argues that external enemies can be useful and so they are. They provide a way of maintaining domestic solidarity and compliance in the face of perceived external ‘enemies.’ Without these ‘enemies’ Americans may have the time and inclination to really think about what the real problems are with their country. Engelhardt refers to the number of people who die every year in the US by suicide by gun (19,000), homicide (11,000) and automobile crashes (32,000 and rising again) as evidence that Americans have selective outrage when it comes to how people die. More people die on American highways every year than are killed in all of its ‘wars.’ All of this is fine analysis but it leaves out one important issue. What is the real reason for the need for enemies? That’s where Ernest Becker comes in.
Some social scientists may dispute the lack of empirical evidence in his work, but I fail to see their point. No, Becker’s analysis of the role of ‘the enemy’ in his book Escape From Evil was not arrived at following lab experiments. It was arrived at after careful historical and anthropological analysis of how and why we make war, why we kill and take joy in it, why we are so quick to follow a ‘leader’ who promises us prosperity. Becker aims to show how our fear of death and yearning for immortality lead us to all kinds of very distasteful behaviour towards our fellow women and men. According to Becker we perpetrate evil in our attempt to eliminate evil.
So, reading Engelhardt should be followed by a reading of Escape From Evil which will help to put his work into a more fundamental context.