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Are Americans too broken for the truth to set us free?
by Bruce E. Levine
Can people become so broken that truths of how they are being screwed do
not "set them free" but instead further demoralize them? Has such a
demoralization happened in the United States? Do some totalitarians
actually want us to hear how we have been screwed because they know that
humiliating passivity in the face of obvious oppression will demoralize us
even further? What forces have created a demoralized, passive, disCouraged
U.S. population? Can anything be done to turn this around?
Can people become so broken that truths of how they are being screwed do
not "set them free" but instead further demoralize them?
YES. It is called the "abuse syndrome". How do abusive pimps, spouses,
bosses, corporations, and governments stay in control? They shove lies,
emotional and physical abuses, and injustices in their victims. faces, and
when victims are afraid to exit from these relationships, they get weaker;
and so the abuser then makes their victims eat even more lies, abuses, and
injustices, resulting in victims even weaker as they remain in these
Does the truth of their abuse set people free when they are deep in these
abuse syndromes? NO. For victims of the abuse syndrome, the truth of their
passive submission to humiliating oppression is more than embarrassing --
it can feel shameful; and there is nothing more painful than shame. And
when one already feels beaten down and demoralized, the likely response to
the pain of shame is not constructive action but more attempts to shut
down or divert oneself from this pain. It is not likely that the truth of
one's humiliating oppression is going to energize one to constructive
Has such a demoralization happened in the U.S.?
In the United States, 47 million people are without health insurance and
many millions more are underinsured or a job layoff away from losing their
coverage. But despite the current sellout by their elected officials to
the insurance industry, there is no outpouring of millions of U.S.
citizens on the streets of Washington D.C. protesting this betrayal.
Polls show that the majority of Americans oppose U.S. wars in Afghanistan
and Iraq as well as the taxpayer bailout of the financial industry, yet
only a handful of U.S. citizens have protested any of this.
Remember the 2000 U.S. presidential election? That's the one in which Al
Gore received 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush. That's also the one
that the Florida Supreme Court's order for a recount of the disputed
Florida vote was over-ruled by the U.S. Supreme Court in a politicized 5-4
decision, of which dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens remarked:
" Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the
winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is
perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an
impartial guardian of the rule of law". Yet, even all this provoked few
When people become broken, they cannot act on truths of injustice.
Furthermore, when people have become broken, more truths about how they
have been victimized can lead to shame about how they have allowed it. And
shame, like fear, is one more psychological way we become even more
U.S. citizens do not actively protest obvious injustices for the same
reasons that people cannot leave their abusive spouses. They feel helpless
to effect change. The more we don't act, the weaker we get. And ultimately
to deal with the painful humiliation over inaction in the face of an
oppressor, we move to shutdown and escape strategies such as depression,
substance abuse, and other diversions, which further keep us from acting.
This is the vicious cycle of all abuse syndromes.
Do some totalitarians actually want us to hear how we have been screwed
because they know that humiliating passivity in the face of obvious
oppression will demoralize us even further?
Shortly before the 2000 U.S. presidential election, millions of Americans
saw a clip of George W. Bush joking to a wealthy group of people, "What a
crowd tonight: the haves and the haves more. Some people call you the
elite; I call you my base". Yet, even with these kind of inflammatory
remarks, the tens of millions of U.S. citizens who had come to despise
Bush and his arrogance remained passive in the face of the 2000
non-democratic presidential elections.
Perhaps the "political genius" of the Bush-Cheney regime was fully
realizing that Americans were so broken that they could get away with damn
near anything. And the more people did nothing about the boot slamming on
their faces, the weaker people became.
What forces have created a demoralized, passive, disCouraged U.S.
The U.S. government-corporate partnership has used its share of guns and
terror to break Native Americans, labor union organizers, and other
dissidents and activists. But today, most U.S. citizens are broken by
financial fears. There is potential legal debt if we speak out against a
powerful authority, and all kinds of other debt if we do not comply on the
job. Young people are broken by college-loan debts and fear of having no
The U.S. population is increasingly broken by the social isolation created
by corporate-governmental policies. A 2006 American Sociological Review
study ("Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks
over Two Decades") reported that 25 percent of Americans did not have a
single confidant in 2004 (10 percent of Americans lacked a single
confidant in 1985).
Sociologist Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone (2000)
describes how social connectedness is disappearing in virtually every
aspect of U.S. life. For example, there has been a significant decrease in
face-to-face contact with neighbors and friends due to suburbanization,
commuting, electronic entertainment, time and money pressures and other
variables created by governmental-corporate policies. And union activities
and other formal or informal ways that people give each other the support
necessary to resist oppression have also decreased.
We are also broken by a corporate-government partnership that has rendered
most of us out of control when it comes to the basic necessities of life,
including our food supply. And we, like many other people in the world,
are broken by socializing institutions that alienate us from our basic
humanity. A few examples:
Schools and Universities: Do most schools teach young people to be
action-oriented - or to be passive? Do most schools teach young people
that they can affect their surroundingsor - not to bother? Do schools
provide examples of democratic institutions - or examples of authoritarian
A long list of school critics from Henry David Thoreau to John Dewey, John
Holt, Paul Goodman, Jonathan Kozol, Alfie Kohn, Ivan Illich, and John
Taylor Gatto have pointed out that a school is nothing less than a
miniature society: what young people experience in schools is the chief
means of creating our future society. Schools are routinely places where
kids -- through fear -- learn to comply to authorities for whom they often
have no respect, and to regurgitate material they often find meaningless.
These are great ways of breaking someone.
Today, U.S. colleges and universities have increasingly become places
where young people are merely acquiring degree credentials -- badges of
compliance for corporate employers -- in exchange for learning to accept
bureaucratic domination and enslaving debt.
Mental Health Institutions: Aldous Huxley predicted, "And it seems to me
perfectly in the cards that there will be within the next generation or so
a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude". Today,
increasing numbers of people in the U.S. who do not comply with authority
are being diagnosed with mental illnesses and medicated with psychiatric
drugs that make them less pained about their boredom, resentments, and
other negative emotions, thus rendering them more compliant and
Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is an increasingly popular diagnosis
for children and teenagers. The official symptoms of ODD include, "often
actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules," and
" often argues with adults". An even more common reaction to oppressive
authorities than the overt defiance of ODD is some type of passive
defiance -- for example, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Studies show that virtually all children diagnosed with ADHD will pay
attention to activities that they actually enjoy or that they have chosen.
In other words, when ADHD-labeled kids are having a good time and in
control, the "disease" goes away.
When human beings feel too terrified and broken to actively protest, they
may stage a "passive-aggressive revolution" by simply getting depressed,
staying drunk, and not doing anything - this is one reason why the Soviet
Empire crumbled. However, the diseasing/medicalizing of rebellion and drug
" treatments" have weakened the power of even this passive-aggressive
Television: In his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television
(1978), Jerry Mander (after reviewing totalitarian critics such as George
Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Jacques Ellul, and Ivan Illich) compiled a list of
the "Eight Ideal Conditions for the Flowering of Autocracy".
Television, Mander claimed, helps create all eight conditions for breaking
a population. Television: (1) occupies people so that they don't know
themselves - and what a human being is; (2) separates people from one
another; (3) creates sensory deprivation; (4) occupies the mind and fills
the brain with prearranged experience and thought; (5) encourages drug use
to dampen dissatisfaction (while TV itself produces a drug-like effect,
this was compounded in 1997 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration relaxing
the rules of prescription-drug advertising); (6) centralizes knowledge and
information; (7) eliminates or "museumize" other cultures to eliminate
comparisons; and (8) redefines happiness and the meaning of life.
Commericalism of Damn Near Everything: While spirituality, music, and
cinema can be revolutionary forces, the gross commercialization of all of
these has deadened their capacity to energize rebellion. So now, damn near
everything - not just organized religion -- has become "opiates of the
The primary societal role of U.S. citizens is no longer that of "citizen"
but that of "consumer." While citizens know that buying and selling within
community strengthens that community and that this strengthens democracy,
consumers care only about the best deal. While citizens understand that
dependency on an impersonal creditor is a kind of slavery, consumers get
excited with credit cards that offer a temporarily low APR.
Consumerism breaks people by devaluing human connectedness, socializing
self-absorption, obliterating self-reliance, alienating people from normal
human emotional reactions, and by selling the idea that purchased products
-- not themselves and their community -- are their salvation.
Can anything be done to turn this around?
When people get caught up in humiliating abuse syndromes, more truths
about their oppressive humiliations don't set them free. What sets them
free is morale.
What gives people morale? Encouragement. Small victories. Models of
courageous behaviors. And anything that helps them break out of the
vicious cycle of pain, shut down, immobilization, shame over
immobilization, more pain, and more shut down.
The last people I would turn to for help in remobilizing a demoralized
population are mental health professionals - at least those who have not
rebelled against their professional socialization. Much of the craft of
relighting the pilot light requires talents that mental health
professionals simply are not selected for nor are they trained in.
Specifically, the talents required are a fearlessness around image,
spontaneity, and definitely anti-authoritarianism. But these are not the
traits that medical schools or graduate schools select for or encourage.
Mental health professionals focus on symptoms and feelings often create
patients who take themselves and their moods far too seriously. In
contrast, people talented in the craft of maintaining morale resist this
kind of self-absorption. For example, in the Question & Answer session
that followed a Noam Chomsky talk (reported in Understanding Power: The
Indispensable Chomsky, 2002), a somewhat demoralized man in the audience
asked Chomsky if he too ever went through a phase of hopelessness. Chomsky
responded, ".Yeah, every evening . . ".
" If you want to feel hopeless, there are a lot of things you could feel
hopeless about. If you want to sort of work out objectively what's the
chance that the human species will survive for another century, probably
not very high. But I mean, what's the point? . . . First of all, those
predictions don't mean anything - they're more just a reflection of your
mood or your personality than anything else. And if you act on that
assumption, then you're guaranteeing that'll happen. If you act on the
assumption that things can change, well, maybe they will. Okay, the only
rational choice, given those alternatives, is to forget pessimism".
A major component of the craft of maintaining morale is not taking the
advertised reality too seriously. In the early 1960s, when the
overwhelming majority in the U.S. supported military intervention in
Vietnam, Chomsky was one of the few U.S. citizens actively opposing it.
Looking back at this era, Chomsky reflected, "When I got involved in the
anti-Vietnam War movement, it seemed to me impossible that we would ever
have any effect. . . . So looking back, I think my evaluation of the
'hope" was much too pessimistic: it was based on a complete
misunderstanding. I was sort of believing what I read".
An elitist assumption is that people don't change because they are either
ignorant of their problems or ignorant of solutions. Elitist "helpers"
think they have done something useful by informing overweight people that
they are obese and that they must reduce their caloric intake and increase
exercise. An elitist who has never been broken by his or her circumstances
does not know that people who have become demoralized do not need analyses
and pontifications. Rather the immobilized need a shot of morale.
Bruce E. Levine is a clinical psychologist and his latest book is
Surviving America's Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and
Community in a World Gone Crazy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007). His Web
site is www.brucelevine.net. This article was published in CounterPunch.