HOT AIR RISES
by James Strauss
In the late Seventeen Hundreds, a couple of Frenchmen got off the ground for the first time in a balloon filled with smoke. It has been known for thousands of years that hot air rises, and somehow that finally got translated into using rising smoke for a purpose. Human flight was born, although any practical manifestation of that would not become evident until the Wright Brothers launched their rickety little air vehicle. At Kitty Hawk. Metaphorically, to use the phrase in social circumstance, there is as much doubt and wonder about hot air rising now, as there was back in the Seventeen Hundreds. Boyle’s law that describes why hot air rises is of little help in trying to understand why heated emotions rise, expand, or do and cause whatever it is they might do and cause.
There was an election. An election that already stands out as the most extraordinary that anyone alive has ever experienced, and the election that is likely to have more significant impact on everyone’s lives than any previous in history. The most powerful population on the planet, by some considerable margin, voted in an emotional direction that will cause countries around the world to rise and fall like hot air balloons, some venting to land gently, some pulling their tops out and falling to crash badly, and others to encounter ‘power lines’ and go up in smoke. This article is not about whether any of that is good or bad. Anthropology is a discipline of science and its analytic results, and the study of them, is not to be taken emotionally. Donald Trump being president is neither a good nor a bad thing to an anthropologist. It is just a thing to be studied, a process to be analyzed, and conclusions to be formed based on the results of examining those things.
The emotional center of the human mind is seven or eight times more massive than that part of the brain that makes analytical, or ‘rational’ decisions. Humans, in general, do not credit emotion as being the prime motivator for most of the actions they take. Study the application of rules, mores and laws across the planet. Obedience to those things is all about the supposed power of human beings to over-rule emotions, and make sound analytic decisions in spite of, or in support of, them. In a court of law in the U.S., for example, a defense of pure emotional intensity will not fly. However, what happened, and is happening in the United States during and after the last presidential election, is something much more of emotion than it is of reason. Presidents, over the years, have simply not been as influential as the appearance of being president would suggest, but prior to every election that role is assigned dictatorial powers. Following an election, the reality of the power split that runs pretty evenly between three different bodies, takes over.
Following the election of Donald Trump, society has had a profound emotional response to what it perceived as an analytical situation. The election was perceived as being about the empowerment of humans who felt they somehow had been denied, or lost power, over their own affairs and the affairs of others around them. Because of advanced communications technology in the form of cell phones, the Internet and television, the decision to put Donald Trump into office was quite possibly the most emotional election of all time. And, as opposed to the aftermath of even the most contentious of elections up till now, the emotions that ran so high to elect this candidate are not diminishing. Hot air rises, and using hot air as a metaphor for the emotions currently being experienced en masse by so many Americans is a sound one, and as it rises it takes along the balloon (country) and the basket with it (the population in the basket). Like any hot air balloon, this rising emotion is totally unpredictable, and it is unknown where it will take the country or the population. Approximations as to course may be made with valid information about the altitude, wind speed and direction, but unfortunately in our society the very information used to form those approximations does not have to be valid. This was well demonstrated by the supposed information that flowed through and from the mass media during this last election process. Almost all of it, on both sides, was bogus. The fact that the data was so unreliable, either by accident or deliberation, has less meaning in an election than it does in gauging the direction the country may be going. Indeed, the actions of Donald Trump may be totally marginalized, if not made moot, by sweeping emotional responses to his being placed into a position of such great power.
From an anthropologist’s view, what is going to happen? First and foremost, the loss of public confidence in the validity of the information given to them by these electronic sources will have a destabilizing effect across all of society. When truth is lost then mistakes are made based on untruthful data, but when the trustworthiness of the sources of truth is lost, then almost everything is lost with it. There can be no scientific advancement without the ability to theorize, and there can be no theory if experimentation and the results of testing cannot be validated. Second, when emotion rules, it is always at the expense of analytical thought and conclusion. Humans on alcohol prove this rule every night in and outside of bars across the land. Third, the fracturing of belief systems, in so many aspects of American life, will lead to broken groups, and individuals, wandering in search of meaning. Finally, this loss will lead many to feel betrayed, and a sense a betrayal can lead to feelings of rage. These feelings of loss, rage and betrayal seethe just below the surface of so many lost souls, waiting for a flash point or stressor to cause it to violently erupt forth.
Will America find its neo cortex and follow the rational process that built all of civilization as we know it? Or will it now descend again, as it has so many times before, to a selfish, reactionary, and more openly brutal competitive era? Hot air rises, but eventually, no matter how seemingly long, or painfully abrupt, it comes back down to rest in its most dense state. How dense will our culture have to grow?