[words] existential threats, or not

“an existential threat” ≠ “a threat to all existence”

2015_11 park slope high rise fire

Simple semantics often slip up speakers. The phrase “existential threat” is used too often to imply that something described as such portents the apocalypse, in the way “communist threat” was used throughout the Cold War to as a casual substitute for nuclear annihilation. But “existential” is not a synonym for “apocalyptic” any more than “communist” was. Rhetoric and doubletriplepolitispeak are funny that way, though.

Semantic checkpoint: “Existential threat” implies the threatening thing threatens because it’s existential. To be afraid of something practicing Existentialism, then, for real, connotes a fear of what Sartre termed the “doctrine of self-making” where human reality is an individual, lived experience. Not very scary at all, really, unless making choices for yourself terrifies you.

If you value an “authentic existence” as a series of choices made and a modicum of free will in your personal philosophy, you can thank a god (or no god) for Sartre, who loosed Heidegger’s Existentialism from Marxism via his belief in a “real freedom.” Observing that an orthodox Marxist can choose only to be Marxist, Sartre broke with the Marxist church of dogmatic “apriorism” and flipped them the free-bird, reasoning that an Existentialist can choose to be anything – or nothing.

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Marxist? Fine. Capitalist? Whatever you want to be. Racist? At your own risk. Just keep living. For Sartre’s contemporary Camus, the only true philosophical problem (and by extension, threat to society) was suicide. Everything else was worked out through a dialectic and temporal narrative that led to an understanding of historical place. “You live, you learn, you love, you die. But you always choose. And the choices are yours alone,” I imagine Sartre saying. “Now get the foutre out of my bedroom.”

To Sartre and his brood, Existentialism’s individual mandate was a paradox inside Marxism, since an undiluted self is a specific threat to orthodox Marxism, and a general threat to any system of “lifeless abstraction.” As a result, he wrestled with the tension between what is and what ought in most of his work, fiction and non. While there’s little chance Sartre would have endorsed any 2016 political candidate (maybe Bernie, but who knows), he may have appreciated Trump’s fomenting of controlled anarchy (Trump made people lose their minds – on purpose, but that’s another essay). Dialectics and their chaotic fallout were where Sartre earned his bread and butter. So “existential threat” is an accurate description of Donald Trump, but for the polar opposite reason most people use it.

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For the undialectic left who equate free markets with unfettered free will, “existential” (i.e., free morality) is a convenient substitute for “capitalism.” If statists simply called Trump a “capitalist threat,” however, they’d excite their limited throb mob, but an “existential threat”? Well, doesn’t that just sound so smart and apocalyptic — way bigger than mere Capitalism? And since existentialism traces its roots (or at least owes its proliferation) to early Marxism, “existential threat” is an insult that feels true and authentic to the throughly modern mugwump, despite its laughable misuse. Existentialism is where Marxism and Capitalism actually see eye-to-eye.

The bushmaster right doesn’t get off easy here, either. A conservative will use the phrase “existential threat” (Iran, ISIS and North Korea are recent examples) when he/she/xe is in need of a deflective way to communicate “apocalyptic” without revealing a militaristic endgame of equal “mutually assured destruction.”

And all of a sudden every neo-comic-con/lefty/righty/pol.php on every side of center sees Russia as another “existential threat.” Every click-thru reveals strange bedfellows lining up in defense of defending against some post-red menace. There’s no “enemy” like one that threatens current geo-political power arrangements. 

Existentialism, however, tends towards the godless, stateless and non-partisan side of (dis)order. Existentialists are social, sure, but hate “the crowd,” regardless of which “side” the crowd takes. Existentialism isn’t binary. The opposite of an existential threat is not a best friend forever.

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Once the false rhetorical frames above are set up, however, both sides feel free to misuse “existential” as a call to fear. Calling Trump or Russia or Iran an “existential threat” in either Marxist or militaristic contexts conjures them as vanguards of dark armies out to set the world on fire and laugh as it burns. An existentialist might choose to disrupt the whole system just for kicks, of course, but would probably choose to stop before the caffeine industrial complex was brought down – especially if other people joined in the chicanery. Crowds are anathema to existentialists. Kierkegaard, great granddaddy deluxe of Existentialism, called the crowd an ultimate “untruth, by reason of the fact that it renders the individual completely impenitent and irresponsible, or at least weakens [a person’s] sense of responsibility by reducing it to a fraction.” As Mickey Goldmill said to Rocky Balboa, “Women weaken the legs, Rock,” and so it is with Existentialism that crowds weaken the self.

So when you hear “existential threat,” watch out for the tidal wave of Existentialists sweeping over the nearest hill like the Union at Gettysburg or Wells’s martians, coming with their free minds and muskets full of questions ready to defeat you by out-choosing you to death. I’d rather be amused to death by a “satirical threat,” but death by existentialism wouldn’t be the worst thing. In the end, it would be my choice. Free will to the bitter end.

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