The 2020 candidates say everything is an existential threat
Political discourse has taken on a certain tinge from Camus. The term existential threat has been fertile lately, especially among Democratic presidential candidates. It has become a fixed term in reference to climate change, as used by Governor Jay Inslee and Senator Elizabeth Warren, both on Twitter and in speecheswhile Mayor Pete Buttigieg used the variation existential security challenge. Former Vice President Joe Biden calls President Donald Trump an existential threat to the nation, and Senator Cory Booker broadens the lens, applying the term to the opiate crisis, suicide rates, and even our general lack of civic unity. It’s not just left-of-center folks who love the term: According to a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, Sen. Kamala Harris is an “existential threat” to the Second Amendment.
Of course, it makes perfect sense to view climate change, the current president, and perhaps other issues as existential threats. However, the nation has surely encountered quite a few dire circumstances in the past, and yet it is only recently that the specific term existential threat has been on the tip of so many languages.
Winston Churchill’s famous speech to the House of Commons in 1940, best known for his passage “We will fight them on the beaches”, referred to the “threat of tyranny”, but not an existential threat, despite the very real threat facing Britain at the time. at Hitler’s. The term existential firmly rooted in English discourse after the Second World War, when Martin Heidegger’s speech being and timeand in particular that of Jean-Paul Sartre Being and Nothingness and the works of Albert Camus such as the strangerwere widely read.
But above all, existential threat was not regularly used in American public discourse in the late 20th century, despite the fact that existentialism itself was widely discussed among the educated. In his Bay of Pigs speech, President John F. Kennedy referred to what we recognize as an existential threat, but did not call it a threat. Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union a threat, but not an “existential” threat.
The “existential” extension has surged in this particular century, first adopted in reference to terrorism after 9/11 and then again after the election of you-know-who in 2016. Google generated approximately one million visits for existential threat in 2015, and 1,700,000 the following year, and 2,300,000 in 2017.
Existentialism is now one of the key tenets of being, or seeming, educated, invoking memories of how hard it is to be cold and strange – but clearly fundamental to human nature –the stranger seemed when we were assigned it in college or in an advanced level class. Related to this is the term’s pure drama, with its flavor of darkness. But precisely because the threats of the past were not too often characterized as “existential”, the term existential threat not only feels brainy and stupendous, but novel.
In this way, the popularity of the term follows a general trend in how any language changes over time. We seek to move, stimulate and hold the attention of those to whom we speak (or write), and this requires the constant renewal of words intended to capture setbacks and register our sincerity and passion. A modern example is the business habit of turning verbs into nouns, as in “a big ask” and “find a solution”. The words demand and Solution have been around for a while and feel flat, a little vanilla. A “request” seems more lively than a “request” or an “offer”, even though they refer to the same thing, which is a big part of why this type of usage has jumped the rails to more general language. .
New developments like this often start in a subgroup and then spread, and today’s Democratic candidates can be analyzed as such a community, sharing not just a political aspiration, but even a certain awkwardness that would encourage the adopting a term like existential.
But overall, there’s an element of chance to these things, in which social history, powerful personalities, and sheer serendipity are endlessly intertwined. It seems like just 10 minutes ago we were talking about “tricks”, “pointers” and what is “handy” – as opposed to the now viral use of To hacka sin life hack, kitchen stuff, etc Why do we use this word so much today? Due to the coinage of tech journalist Danny O’Brien in 2005, but there are countless other terms people in his profession use that most of us will never hear. One can no more know why most new terms emerge than one can know why bell bottoms came into fashion when they did or why men now wear their hemmed pants a little more. higher above the ankle than they were a few years ago. Newness is the constant; its direction and form are up for grabs.
After all, in 1988, many Democratic “Seven Dwarfs” candidates were pretty comfortable with their noses in the books, like Michael Dukakis, Paul Simon, and especially Al Gore, who was later memorably belittled by George W. Bush for his penchant for none other than the existentialist tome Phenomenology of perception. And yet no tendency to use existential threat appeared among them.
Some might object that existential threat is redundant and that Reagan was right with his preference for just saying “threat”. Threatens embodies the possibility of harm, which could be seen as potentially embodying outright negation, that is, existence. One might well perceive damage or disempowerment as, in essence, elimination. Is not it existential threat really just a fancy way of saying threatens?
To some extent, yes, and that reflects, again, a quest to freshen up the word a bit, to keep it fresh. English is full of examples of what we have done in the past, producing what are now fixed sentences involving the same kind of lily gilding. We often call something a “damn shame”, which isn’t really “damned” – besides, isn’t something that is a shame already “damned”, technically? Instead, we say “a fucking shame” as a way of saying something was a shame with some air of devotion, of commitment. What, precisely, is the “raw” nude, as if, completely naked, one wore a bow tie or socks? Yes overwhelm means what he does, so what did he do upset ever say? The answer: It meant “overwhelm.”
People added the more than for the same reason it now seems so fair to add existential for threatens– it adds a sense of urgency and color to a message that might otherwise be less noticed. Namely, speaking is never a mere recitation of things, actions, and qualities decorated with a few greeting conventions and a sprinkle of slang. Language is about keeping people’s attention, making it worth giving you their sustained attention. A language where terms like existential threat has not steadily spread to supersede earlier ways of saying the same would be under its own kind of existential threat, as it would no longer meet the real needs of human exchange.