Barry’s Blog # 291: Zero Dark Thirty is a CIA Recruitment Film, Part Two of Two

Hollywood is the only way that the public learns about the Agency. – Paul Barry, CIA Entertainment Industry Liaison Officer

All of these films and TV series superficially mask the old theme of the American Hero. But, as I write in Chapter Seven of my book, they are completely consistent DEVGRU26with stories of him and his evil opponent – the Other – who have been stock characters in the stories we’ve been telling each other about ourselves since the early 1700s. For nearly four centuries “they” have attacked “us” for no reason other than their hatred of our democratic way of life, and “our” sacred responsibility has always been to “terminate them with extreme prejudice,” even if it means breaking the law to do so, in the quest to save the innocent community from the clutches of pure evil. Nicholas Schou continues:

…while Homeland’s CIA protagonists are portrayed as flawed, and often tormented, heroes, the bottom line is they are heroes. Their Islamic militant antagonists, on the other hand, are generally filmed in conspiratorial shadows, and are portrayed as fanatics whose souls have become twisted by years of struggle against the West.

The American Hero, of course, has always been extremely masculine. Women first broke this particular glass ceiling as comic book superheroines such as Wonder Woman and later in films, but usually in the same, familiar tongue-in-cheek, comedy/action/kickass mode that most male spy and superhero movies have offered.  The new twist is that some of these protagonists are women, even (see below) if still drop-dead gorgeous.

Regardless of gender, Schou concludes:

With few exceptions, Hollywood has long functioned as a propaganda factory, churning out jingoistic revenge-fantasy films in which American audiences are allowed to exorcise their post-9/11 demons by watching the satisfying slaughter of countless onscreen jihadis. This never-ending parade of square-jawed secret agents and bearded, pumped-up commandos pitted against swarthy Muslim madmen straight out of central casting has been aided and abetted by a newly emboldened CIA all too happy to offer its “services” to Hollywood.

Oh, come on, aren’t we more sophisticated than that? In 2014, Clint Eastwood, producer/director of the film version of American Sniper th-2 (destined to be listed on many “Top Ten” lists), obviously couldn’t give Chris Kyle’s primary Muslim adversary the traditional black cowboy hat. So he did the next best thing (in American mythic terms): he dressed the bad guy entirely in black.

In 2016, Tom Hayden reviewed Tricia Jenkins’ book The CIA in Hollywood: How the Agency Shapes Film and Television, which detailed the very long collaboration between these two purveyors of “deception,” or in the mythic terminology readers of this blog may be familiar with: stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to renew our sense of American innocence:

Jenkins documents how the CIA has been influencing Hollywood for years, formally accelerating the effort in the 1990s when the Cold War ended, shocking spy scandals were unfolding, the mission was uncertain, and recruitment was down. In Jenkins’s account, the CIA needed a remake, and only Hollywood could supply it…it’s not that Hollywood is in bed with the CIA in some repugnant way, but that the Agency is looking to plant positive images about itself (in other words, propaganda) through our most popular forms of entertainment.

Movies and TV are only two types of electronic media that normalize war and line the pockets of military contractors. Now, drones and computer-controlled weapons have blurred the line between war and video games. Scott Beauchamp writes that as early as 1980,

…the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) set about appropriating the Atari game game Battlezone and Battlezone_Coverart repurposing it as a revolutionary new training system called Bradley Trainer…Tim Lenoir and Luke Caldwell’s The Military-Entertainment Complex is required reading for anyone curious about just how insidious the Pentagon’s raids on our collective imagination have become…the real work of sanitizing Pentagon operations for public view resides in making the work of war seem mundane and familiar: “Routinizing war is important for a globalized capitalist empire,” they write, “and…implicit in this process is the understanding of war as a project with not only military but also ideological and political dimensions.” In particular, they observe, video games and television are indispensable to the challenge of “habituating civilians to perpetual war.”

This is a complex and expensive process, part of which includes valorizing its actual (if virtual) practitioners. As I write here,

The banality of madness: In February of 2013 outgoing Defense Secretary Panetta announced a new medal for these desk-bound warriors. The Distinguished Warfare Medal Distinguished-Warefare-Medal-ROH will recognize drone “pilots” for their “extraordinary achievements that directly impact on combat operations, but do not involve acts of valor or physical risks that combat entails.” The drone medal will rank above the Bronze Medal and Purple Heart, meaning computer screen heroes will receive awards more prestigious than troops who get shot in battle.

We usually have to look outside of the United States for filmmakers grounded in older cultures that understand tragedy and loss, from nations that have witnessed two world wars on the ground, people who have been able to counter the seductive pull of the image and create masterpieces such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Behind the Lines (1999) or the elegiac Testament of Youth (2015). Paths of Glory (1957) is the one American film I’d include in this list. All four of these films depict World War One. Perhaps filmmakers need that kind of time bridge to get some distance from their own unconscious fascinations.

I’m not aware of any films about later wars that can do this, with the exception of the 1985 Soviet film Come and See. But they remain quite rare among the thousands of war movies (not counting Holocaust films) made in the past century. And even the best of them must dance around the inevitable clash between noble intentions and the seduction of images.

In other words, depiction almost always is endorsement, and no one should understand that concept more clearly than a highly intelligent director such as Bigelow.

And there certainly are other issues that Bigelow glossed over – or deliberately framed. Every single CIA agent in ZDT is presented as idealistic rather than cynical, reluctantly violent rather than sadistic. th Most of the actual violence is left to their Third-World accomplices. The film also portrays both the spooks and the Navy SEALs as young, hip (lots of beards), diverse (several black and women agents) – and, true to the tradition, drop-dead gorgeous, such as the main protagonist, played by Jessica Chastain. They encounter breathtaking adventures as often as tedious deskwork.

In other words, ZDT makes a career in the CIA look very attractive – especially for women. CNN approved, pronouncing the film a “reworking of the war on terror as a feminist epic.” Indeed, writes Cora Currier, Donald Trump’s 2018 nomination of Gina Haspel as CIA chief

…points to a long and fraught history of the CIA trying to burnish its image by highlighting women’s advancements in the agency…the agency’s Twitter feed celebrated Women’s History Month in March with a series of threads on Haspel’s female forebears at the CIA…

The mythmakers and deception experts have far more in common with each other than any of them have with the rest of us. But at some point we may find ourselves asking, “Who writes this stuff – Hollywood or Langely, Virginia? Are they one and the same?

In 2014, at the height of media attention on drone strikes, an article appeared in Real Clear Politics about “the CIA’s drone queens,” borrowing its title from a “Homeland” episode and stating that “the next time Obama authorizes a strike in Pakistan, the odds are that it will be a woman who gives the green light moments before death is delivered from a drone”…it described a “sisterhood” of women involved in the targeted killing campaign who drank iced lattes and baked birthday cakes for one another (spies — they’re just like us!). The top expert on Pakistan was said to be “strikingly attractive in her stiletto heels” – so attractive, the article asserts, that Barack Obama grinned and said, “You don’t look like a Pakistan expert.”

You can’t make this shit up. Or can you?

In this story that we tell ourselves about ourselves, the old-boy, Ivy League network of the CIA has become a leading institutional factor in the inclusion of the Other – those minorities so long denied their opportunity to compete for the American dream and bequeath it to our long-suffering allies in the Third World. 1280-james-bond-girls If all these photogenic women and people of color are doing the spook work, then so much the better; abu_ghraib_harman21 we can all relax and trust that we are in good (and good-looking) hands, even as the soft-core porn of the James Bond girls merges with Abu Ghraib’s pornography of violence. 

As Facebook posts swoon over women achieving battlefield command positions and Tulsi Gabbard softens her criticism of the American empire with proud pictures of herself in combat gear, we could also keep these quotes in mind:

Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” – James Baldwin

You cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. – Audre Lorde

Hayden writes:

The star of The Sum of All Fears, Ben Affleck, whose hero as a young man was Howard Zinn, eventually married Jennifer Garner


Jennifer Garner

and brought Argo to the screen. As venerated representatives of the New Hollywood, Affleck and Garner may unwittingly have done more to save the CIA’s image than the entire Republican Party. True, their plots include duplicitous and destructive agents at times, but their credibility depends on a certain balance. The overall effect has been to usher a new brand of hip and sexy spooks into the post-9/11 world.


From the perspective of image, it is hard not to conclude that ZDT is essentially a CIA recruitment film. And because these spooks are perfectly willing to break the law (at least as most of the world outside of Washington and Hollywood interpret it), firstly by torturing suspected terrorists and secondly by invading the airspace of a sovereign ally (Pakistan – as the military would soon do in Syria), they embody our mythic American hero’s disdain for “normal channels.” Here is a big, open secret: this hero has as much contempt for democracy and the rule of law as does his opponent. Can you imagine Rambo – or Barack Obama – waiting for congressional approval? I know, I know: Trump is soooooo much worse, and Joe Biden would revive our pride in America, blah, blah…

Matt Taibbi gets to the core:

The real problem is what this movie says about us. When those Abu Ghraib pictures came out years ago, at least half of America was horrified. The national consensus (albeit by a frighteningly slim margin) was that this wasn’t who we, as a people, wanted to be. But now, four years later, Zero Dark Thirty comes out, and it seems that that we’ve become so blunted to the horror of what we did and/or are doing at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and Bagram and other places that we can accept it, provided we get a boffo movie out of it.

That’s why the theater managers showed all those action previews when I went to see ZDT. They knew very well what kind of people were coming to see it. They weren’t going to be intellectuals or students of politics and history, but members of that high-rolling, and much larger, demographic of young, uninitiated males. Maybe not CIA material (such people would likely be seeing the film at university showings), but certainly cannon fodder for the next war. And how could Kathryn Bigelow not know that? Hayden concludes:

Does it matter whether Zero Dark Thirty endorses or rejects torture, or ultimately applauds it for leading stalwart CIA heroes to our greatest enemy? Not really. In the end, perhaps the debate around the film is really just a distraction from what actually does matter: Zero Dark Thirty — by being such an entertaining, edge-of-your-seat thriller about the CIA that it would compel us to have a debate about it at all — is the greatest public relations gift a secret agency could possibly wish for. There we are, a captive audience, twisting our popcorn bags and Juicy Fruit boxes with nervous, sweaty palms while watching an obsessed, passionate, dedicated female CIA analyst named Maya, played by the beautiful and talented Jessica Chastain, dodge bullets, bombs, and boyfriends on her way to exacting bloodthirsty revenge. Is her revenge our own? By rooting for her, which we doubtlessly do, are we not rooting for the Agency she signifies? When she wins in the end, doesn’t America win too? If that’s not great public relations, I don’t know what is.

As I wrote in The Hero Must Die, a lengthy review of American hero mythology:

…the American hero (exceptions include James Bond parodies and Woody Allen-type antiheroes) doesn’t get or often, even want the girl. Even Bond, in his hyper-sexuality, remains a bachelor. More often, the hero must choose between an attractive sexual partner and his sense of duty to his mission; he cannot have both. Some, such as Batman and the Lone Ranger, prefer a comical male “sidekick.” How common is this unattached hero? Here are some others:

Hawkeye, the Virginian, Josey Wales, Paladin, Sam Spade, Nick Danger, Mike Hammer, Phillip Marlowe, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Dirty Harry, John Shaft, Indiana Jones, Robert Langdon, Mr. Spock, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, the Man With No Name, the Hobbits, Gandalf, Mad Max, Superman, Green Lantern, Green Hornet, Spiderman, the Hulk, Iron Man, Human Torch, The Flash, Dr. Strange, Hellboy, Nick Fury, Swamp Thing, Aquaman, Daredevil, Lone Wolf McQuade, Sargent Rock, Braveheart, Conan the Barbarian, Jack Sparrow, Captains Kirk, Picard, Atom, Nemo, Phillips, Marvel and America and the heroes of Death Wish, The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, Pale Rider, Unforgiven, Under Siege, Lethal Weapon, Blade, Casablanca, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, No Country for Old Men, Gran Torino, Walking Tall, Delta Force, Missing In Action, Avenger, Extreme Justice, The Equalizer, Terminator, The Exterminator, Rawhide, The Rifleman, Million Dollar Baby, Open Range and The Exorcist.

For 350 years our preferred hero has been Jehovah-like in his vengeance and Christ-like in his refusal to remain grounded in relationship and his longing to return to his Father. Now he has been joined by Maya, she of brilliant intellect, the idealism, the mysteriousness and the drop-dead gorgeousness; she whose first name means “illusion” in Sanskrit; she who is so unattached that we never even learn if she has a last name. Now that’s progress.

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Barry’s Blog # 290: Why Are Americans So Freaking Crazy? Part Nine of Nine

Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” – James Baldwin

You cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. – Audre Lorde

If our religion is based on salvation, our chief emotions will be fear and trembling. If our religion is based on wonder, our chief emotion will be gratitude. – C.G. Jung

Die before you die. – Rumi

En-lakesh (You are the other me) – Mayan Indian chant

There are no others. – Ramana Maharshi

We are now in a space where we can reframe a critical aspect of the American myth (Anything is possible), where anything – such as a sustainable world – really is possible. And this is one of those rare moments in world history when our values are in a wild state of transition that actually mirrors the initiatory liminality experienced – or longed for – by adolescents everywhere.

And what about our day-to-day emotional rollercoaster? Unfortunately for many, to wake up from our dream of innocence and separation is to fall back upon the other side of the simple polarity of “reality/unreality,” to fall into despair and hopelessness (“despair” is literally the opposite of the French word for “hope,” espoir).

The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth. ― Niels Bohr

Optimistic denial or pessimistic realism? Such opposites live in a world of twos. Myths live in a world of threes, where clashing truths may propel us into a new awareness. Only the creative imagination allows us to both acknowledge the truth and also to picture what we want to regain. Perhaps, as Theodore Roethke wrote, it is only “in a dark time” that the eye begins to see with a new kind of innocence. Or Marc Nepo:

Everything is beautiful and I am so sad.
This is how the heart makes a duet of wonder and grief.

The light spraying through the lace of the fern

is as delicate as the fibers of memory forming their web
around the knot in my throat.

The breeze makes the birds move from branch to branch
as this ache makes me look for those I’ve lost in the next room,

in the next song, in the laugh of the next stranger.

In the very center, under it all,

what we have that no one can take away

and all that we’ve lost face each other.
It is there that I’m adrift,

feeling punctured by a holiness that exists inside everything.
I am so sad and everything is beautiful.

– Adrift

This post-modern world constantly throws us into double binds. But we can also imagine positive double binds, such as the koan in Zen Buddhism. 1104265_orig Koans are deliberately crazy-making questions (What is the sound of one hand clapping?) designed to pull us out of our rational minds. They throw us into paradox, into liminal, transitional space – which is exactly where we need to be, aware that the old stories are dead, yet with no consensus about new ones.

Myths grab us for a reason. It’s not simply that they are untrue, that we have bought a lie. They describe us, in both our shadowy reality and in our potential. They are, for better and for worse, deep in our bones.

Joseph Campbell spoke of participating joyfully in the joys and sorrows of the world. To look more deeply into joys and sorrows, we need to see them as narratives that are being played out in the world, to realize that there are only a few basic narrative themes, and they are all quite old. And to do that, we need to step back and learn to think mythologically (See Chapter One of my book). This is how indigenous people used to consider stories, and how mythopoetic men’s groups, learning from them, have been doing for the past forty years. But now, in addition to working with fairy tales and Greek myths, we need to consider world events in the same way.

Looking at Trump, or any celebrity or public figure, we need to interrogate ourselves, to ask, for example, how does this person doing these things enact or embody a story about me that I still identify with? tumblr_or1agh9xrB1tr7vtjo1_1280 How does my emotional reaction or judgement, positive or negative, reveal my own place in this myth, this story we tell about him? How does my participation in this story affect my ability to act as a citizen? And in our American story, the ultimate questions are about our own innocence.

As far as definitions, we can now dump the DSM manual entirely and take a common sense, moral view of madness. Doing so, we can ask simple diagnostic questions such as these: Is what this person is saying or doing hurting themselves only, or are they impacting the community? Does their need for power and control affect us all? Do they act with the greater good in mind or make corporate profits their first priority? Would they advocate for non-violence except in self-defense?

What is madness? What is normalcy? In a sense, we’re back to square one, with Freud (“Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness”). Sydney J. Harris adds, “Freud’s prescription for personal happiness as consisting of work and love must be taken with the proviso that the work has to be loved, and the love has to be worked at.” We’re back to Malidoma Some´, who would ask, Is this person in touch with their purpose in life? Is he/she part of a loving community that can remind them of why they came here?

The way out is not to simply dis-believe (even if we could), to replace one superficial level of identity with another. The way out is to go deeper in, to dwell at length in the possibilities of a new imagination that recasts our national and personal stories, to re-tell them in terms of both the real and the possible. Sophocles admitted that he portrayed people as they ought to be, while Euripides showed them as they actually were. We need them both, the imaginative and the tragic, with equal weight.

Affairs are now soul-size; the enterprise is exploration into God. – Christopher Frey, Sleep of Prisoners

Where some send their “thoughts and prayers,” I suppose we could hope and pray for a world of peace and oneness. But wouldn’t such a world be simply the opposite of what we have now, equally one-dimensional and unreflective of our complex archetypal realities? Wouldn’t that be simply another way of casting our darkness down into the otherworld, where it would fester and demand that we find yet another Other/scapegoat to hold it for us?

Campbell wrote, “The life of mythology springs from the metaphoric vigor of its symbols, which bring together and reconcile two contraries into a greater whole.”  The challenge is to live with those contraries, to hold the tension of the opposites, to invite the mystery to reveal itself, to remember the beauty of the world not in spite of its daily horrors, but equally together, because together they describe its – and our – fullness.

Good and bad are in my heart,

But I cannot tell to you

— For they never are apart —

Which is better of the two.

I am this! I am the other!

And the devil is my brother!

But my father He is God!

And my mother is the Sod!

I am safe enough, you see,

Owing to my pedigree.

So I shelter love and hate

Like twin brothers in a nest;

Lest I find, when it’s too late,

That the other was the best.

– James Stevens, The Twins

What if psychology were focused on finding a way to welcome and incorporate the Shadow and invite a third thing in? To acknowledge rather than deny our violent potentials – and then re-imagine cultural forms that could hold and eventually transform them, especially in our young men as they come of age? Of course, I’m talking about initiation, and I recommend that you read Chapter Five of my book, especially on the East African notion of litima:

Litima is the violent emotion peculiar to the masculine…source of quarrels, ruthless competition, possessiveness…and brutality, and that is also the source of independence, courage…and meaningful ideals…the willful emotional force that fuels the process of becoming an individual…source of the…aggression necessary to undergo radical change. But Litima is ambiguous…both the capacity to erupt in violence and the capacity to defend others, both the aggression that breaks things and the force that builds and protects.

Indigenous cultures with intact ritual traditions still understand the critical importance of welcoming the dark realities of the psyche and then channeling them into values and behaviors that can serve the greater good, rather than tear down society itself.

Again: Can broken people heal others in this broken world? Can uninitiated adults initiate their own youth? In a culture of madness and death, can anyone be truly healed unless everyone is? All I can tell you is that there are plenty of people and groups working to do just that, in countless ways, and this is the sole source of any optimism I can muster.

For me, the work is to welcome back the indigenous imagination with more of two things: poetry and ritual. The old knowledge has never completely left us, but, as Caroline Casey says, the spirits need to know that we are interested.  Ritual clarifies our intentions. It conjures (“with the law”), invoking aid from the other world, and invites us into unpredictable, chaotic, creative space, into communitas. Here is where new images, insights and metaphors are born, just as adults are born in initiation. Liminality, wrote Victor Turner, is “pure potency, where anything can happen.”

Perhaps only what the Greeks called “ritual madness” can keep us from being so freaking crazy. Do you recall the two groups of women in The Bacchae? The first group followed Dionysus wherever he went, choosing to enact his wild, cathartic rituals. Others who opposed him were struck with – possessed – by the return of the repressed. The first group engaged in ritual madness to avoid literal madness, losing their minds to become sane. Nor Hall writes of the second group: “Had they joined the Dionysian company willingly, they would have enacted this state of wild abandon within a protective circle.”

Poet Dianne Di Prima writes, “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.” Another poet, Frances Ponge, says that genuine hope lies in “…a poetry through which the world so invades the spirit of man that he becomes almost speechless and later reinvents a language.” We are required to collapse so deeply into the mournful realization of how much we have lost that we become speechless. Only from that position can new forms of speech arise to break the spell of our crazy amnesia.

Then, says Martin Prechtel, grief becomes a form of praise. This year (2019) our annual Day of the Dead grief ritual will be on Saturday, November 2nd.

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.

My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,

So I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up,

And so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion.

– Tich Nhat Hanh, Call Me by My True Names

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Barry’s Blog # 289: Why Are Americans So Freaking Crazy? Part Eight of Nine

We have no tradition of shamanism…of journeying into these mental worlds. We are terrified of madness. We fear it because the Western mind is a house of cards, and the people who built that house of cards know that, and they are terrified of madness. – Terrence McKenna

Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through. – Ronald Laing

What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance? – Theodore Roethke

Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness. – Blaise Pascal

They say in the village that an unruly youth is asking in his own way for someone to guide him. – Malidoma Somé

I’m hoping to reframe this business of fear and denial, but I need to mention two themes first:

1 – Soon we will begin the transition to the Dark time of the year, and this will propel us directly into the absolute core of the issue: Boo! Don’t be scared! The roots of Halloween are in the profound depths of Old Europe – Samhain and All Soul’s Day. But for most Americans, it is a festival of innocent consumption, with annual spending of $5 billion. Happy-Halloween-Widescreen-

Or perhaps we should speak of consuming innocence. Every year, millions of children confront the schizogenic double bind that utterly discounts their emotional intelligence. Boo! Scared you! Well, don’t cry, it’s only make believe! Death is everywhere but no one needs to grieve! Perhaps adults enjoy the emotional release of horror films, and yes, I’m a curmudgeon, but this is child abuse on a massive scale. Boo!

2 – As I wrote previously, in the midst of massive denial about a collapsing environment and the real sources of terrorism, Americans are allowed and “encouraged” to fret about issues that the media choose to present.

You want real fear? As my mother used to say, I’ll give you something to cry about! Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the doctrine of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) implied that neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union could instigate nuclear strikes without being destroyed itself. What mad genius invented that acronym! As I wrote in Chapter Eight,

…consider this 1960 statement by General Thomas Power, commander of the Strategic Air Command: “At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win.” Was it the joke of a psychopath or cynical hyperbole deliberately intended to maximize anxiety? Or would only the former do the latter?

Apparently, the U.S. “National Security Community” is no longer afraid of nuclear war, because now they seem to believe – not just Republicans, but Democrats as well – that they can win one. Are we mad to not label these people as mad?

Renewed NATO Military Deployments on Russia’s Doorstep

How US nuclear force Modernization is Undermining Strategic Stability

U.S. Keeps First-Strike Strategy

US confirms first strike policy with nukes

Or is it simply easier to manage our anxiety with Islamophobia than to ponder our own male suicidal fantasies that could destroy us all?

We are all stressed out, to be sure. Vast numbers of us are – or should be – dealing with PTSD. And thousands of the mentally ill really have been saddled with abnormal brain chemistry even before they were born. That leaves many others: the rebels, the inattentive, the under-achievers, the gang members, the white nationalists, the forty-somethings still living with their parents.

“Mad,” after all, has other meanings: angry, rabid. What if we were to think of mental illness as an unconscious attempt by a socially powerless person to unite body and feeling (or if we were to substitute “uninitiated” for “psychotic”)? Then we might see madness as an unconscious, natural (if painful and usually unsuccessful) attempt to heal oneself, to restore balance. And this, according to Malidoma Somé, is precisely the intention of ritual.

As Jung taught, the society that emphasizes extreme Apollonian, rational values and represses the Dionysian sets up a dynamic in which the god can only return in the symptoms. The return of Dionysus can appear as emotional dismemberment. For centuries of modernity, however, such experiences have typically occurred outside of any ritual containers. Schizophrenics enter liminal space alone, without guides, and receive only drugs or incarceration.

John Weir Perry saw schizophrenia as a natural renewal process. Many of his patients described visions consistent with the ancient symbolism of kingship and initiation. Joseph Campbell wrote that such fantasy “perfectly matches that of the mythological hero journey.” From this perspective, madness becomes an inward and backward process, under the dubious guidance of the mad god himself. unnamed

But we absolutely need to think mythologically, not literally. James Hillman mentioned that in historical accounts of persons who went mad but also had religious experiences, most took their revelations literally. They experienced death, apocalypse, crucifixion, sexual inversion, fertility and rebirth. A mythologist would identify all these visions as images of initiation. Those who did recover saw past the literal to the metaphoric.

But so many get stuck in what Robert Moore called “chronic liminality,” as illustrated by the myth of Ariadne. Many heroes entered the underground labyrinth, only to be killed by the Minotaur. Theseus defeated it because he had kept in contact with the world above by means of Ariadne’s thread, which enabled him to return to the light (normal consciousness). Those who have no thread of connection to community remain below in that “labyrinth of transformative space,” but only partially transformed. Later, Ariadne herself was rescued by Dionysus and became his wife.

Moore insisted that many pathological states are nothing other than failed initiations in which people could not think metaphorically. One of his clients was lucid enough to admit, “I need to die, before I kill myself.” This man knew intuitively that the most tragic of failed initiations is suicide, the heroic ego’s literal response to the symbolic challenge of transformation, and the inability to move madness into art.

“A shaman,” wrote Terrance McKenna, is someone who swims in the same ocean as the schizophrenic, but the shaman has thousands…of years of sanctioned technique and tradition to draw upon.”

Traditional Africans still perceive mental distress as a call for help. Indeed, madness is a sign that the community (who know nothing of “family systems therapy”) is sick. They perceive crazy people as undergoing crises resulting from the activity of spirit and protect them, hoping that their healing will benefit the community. To them, the spirits of a sick world speak through the most sensitive of us, those with the most fluid boundaries.

Malidoma Somé, an initiated elder of the Dagara people, writes that his people perceive mental disorders as spiritual crises that can potentially signal “the birth of a healer.” So this is “good news from the other world.” Beings from the other side of the veil are drawn to people whose senses have not been anesthetized, whereas modernity

…has consistently ignored the birth of the healer…Consequently, there will be a tendency from the other world to keep trying as many people as possible in an attempt to get somebody’s attention. They have to try harder…The sensitivity is pretty much read as an invitation to come in…(In the West)…it is the overload of the culture they’re in that is just wrecking them.

Through ritual, Dagara communities attempt to help such persons reconcile the energies of both worlds – “the world of the spirit that he or she is merged with, and the village…” Ideally, such persons eventually become able to serve as bridges between the worlds and assist the living as healers.

Somé utilizes spiritual terminology that we might feel a bit uncomfortable with. But in fact, many western psychologists have understood this wisdom for decades, beginning with Jung and later with Hillman’s Archetypal Psychology and Laing and the Anti-Psychiatry movement.

More recently groups such as Mad in America, the Critical Mental Health Nurses’ Network, Mad Pride, Mind Freedom International, and the Network Against Psychiatric Assault emphasize social justice, patient’s rights and political action. This includes questioning the idea of “normalcy” with an alternative: “neurodiversity.

Yes, it is possible (and necessary) for an enlightened community to enfold troubled individuals, keep them from hurting themselves, identify the sources of their distress as their innate purposes struggling to emerge, and ritually guide and welcome them as initiated members, as in the deepest sense of the word, citizens.

But this evokes deeper questions: Are there any such communities anymore? Can broken people heal others in a broken world? Can uninitiated adults initiate their youth? In a culture of madness and death, can anyone be truly healed unless everyone is? When myths change as gradually as they do, how much time do we have left? What do we do about it? How do we rise above it?

Stop. Go back.

Notice what you took from that last question. Consider that “rising above it” is often a euphemism for denying that problems even exist, or that they really affect me, and that our characteristic American practicality often propels us far too quickly from realization of the truth – and the difficult process of grieving fully – into thoughtless “action,” as I write here.

I am not suggesting that joining with likeminded people to engage in political action is wrong or ineffective. And we certainly need to invite the Other – all Others – back within the pale, both literally and metaphorically, for their good and ours. But it’s worth asking whether the Other would even want to be part of what Greg Palast has called an “armed madhouse.”

What I am suggesting is that we need to consider John Zerzan’s observation: “To assert that we can be whole/ enlightened/healed within the present madness amounts to endorsing the madness.” Or as Hillman put it:

…waking up to the insanity of the way we have structured ourselves rather than doing something in the world to make a change. That’s the old-style American way: Let’s fix it! I’m not talking about fixing it. I’m talking about making a change in the mind that realizes, My God, I’m crazy!

Rather, he says, we have to develop (or re-develop what our ancestors had) an aesthetic response to the world:

Once we waken our aesthetic sense and are not an-aestheticized, as we are, by all the distractions…we would be able to see and appreciate the beauty in the world. Now the moment there’s beauty, you fall in love with beauty…and if you fall in love with something, love the world, not through Christian moralism, about “You must love the world,” or an economic one that says, “Sustainability for our own benefit, therefore we’ll live longer.” That is not it. It’s got to be something much more profound that touches the heart…if you realize that our job on the Earth is to love it, to fall in love with it…and you only fall in love with it if you’re aesthetically alive to it.

Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” May it be so. Bertolt Brecht, however, began a poem with, “He who laughs has not yet heard the terrible tidings.” He insisted that we break through the walls of denial, to comprehend how dreadful our plight actually is, to feel how much we have lost. Yet pessimism can create its own reality. Expecting the worst, we are very likely to find it; then hope can turn into despair. Or we can fall into a polarizing anger that replicates conventional demonization of the Other. Brecht knew this, too. In the same poem, he wrote:

Even the hatred of squalor

Makes the brow grow stern.

Even anger against injustice

Makes the voice grow harsh.

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Barry’s Blog # 288: Why Are Americans So Freaking Crazy? Part Seven of Nine

It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. – Jiddu Krishnamurti

 …divide us those in darkness from the ones who walk in light… – Kurt Weill

The price of hating other human beings is loving oneself less. – Eldridge Cleaver

Denial and fear; fear and denial, all electronically mediated. Do you remember the anthrax scare of 2001 – how it targeted only Democratic Senators who opposed the Patriot Act, t1larg-terror-alerts-gi and how it disappeared as a news item once Congress passed the legislation? Do you remember how the government took this lunacy to its logical extreme with its color-coded alert system, how we all awakened daily to a degree of anxiety that shifted according to government “findings?” Who determined the nature of these “findings?” How – and why? terror_alert

Recall how this anxiety also diminished once the invasion of Iraq commenced, and how, as in any addiction, the reduction in stress was only temporary, until the next “threat” arose? Do you remember when all three TV networks introduced series about alien invasions? Do you remember the “immanent” Muslim terror attacks that never happened, that six in ten people expected a terrorist attack in 2007, how fifty percent of us were not opposed to torturing suspected terrorists? Be very afraid.

And yet – and this is where Americans really are exceptional – studies showed that most people had the existential experience of nothing being particularly wrong in their personal lives, at least until the economic crash of 2008. It’s falling apart all around us, but we’re OK. It’s all good.

This is critical to understanding our American state of mind, so let’s explore the implications further. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz summarized Google search rates for anxiety since 2008, noting that they have more than doubled since they were first tracked in 2004, and were the highest in 2016, the last year he surveyed. Surprisingly, “terrorism” and “Trump” are not major indicators of anxiety. And the places (Google can do that) where anxiety is highest are overwhelmingly concentrated in less educated, poorer and more religious parts of the country, particularly Appalachia and the South.

He sees two relevant factors. The first is the economy. Areas that were more deeply affected by the recession saw bigger increases in anxiety. The second:

I put “panic attack” in Google Correlate, and one of the highest correlated search queries was “opiate withdrawal.” Panic attacks are a known symptom of opiate withdrawal…The places with high opiate prescription rates — and high search rates for opiate withdrawal — are among the places with the highest search rates for panic attacks…(these) searches…have continued to rise over the past few years, even as opiate prescription rates have finally fallen.

These areas include, once again, the South, precisely the area where Trump’s support is the strongest, where white male identity is most under threat and where Republicans have been mining fear for fifty years (the places, incidentally, that view the most gay porn).

Fear and denial. Psychologists speak of intermittent reinforcement, a conditioning schedule in which a reward doesn’t always follow the desired response. Typically, the behavior lasts longer than with normal, predictable, continuous reinforcement. An example is gambling, when one doesn’t win every time. The intermittent reinforcement of winning causes a euphoric response that can lead to gambling addiction. Another example is how people remain in abusive relationships with narcissistic lovers whose unpredictable behavior encourages them to hope for an unattainable ideal.

The double bind is a dilemma in which someone in authority gives conflicting messages. When a successful response to one message results in a failed response to the other, we are wrong either way. The double bind occurs when we cannot confront or resolve the dilemma. Gregory Bateson proposed that growing up amidst perpetual double binds produces anxiety and confused thinking. In extreme situations (Bateson called them “schizogenetic”), the child experiences it continually and habitually within the family context from infancy on. By the time he is old enough to have identified the situation, it has already been internalized, and she may only be able to confront it by withdrawing into delusion and schizophrenia.

Or consider Marx’s idea of mystification: By representing forms of exploitation as forms of benevolence, the exploiters bemuse the exploited into feeling at one with their exploiters or into feeling evil or mad even to consider rebellion. R. D.Laing extrapolated this idea from politics to the schizogenetic family.

The mystified person is confused but may or may not feel confused. What child hasn’t heard this: “It’s just your imagination,” or “you must have dreamt it.” A deeper form of mystification happens when the authority figure disconfirms the content of the other’s experience and narcissistically replaces it with their own projection. A child is playing noisily in the evening; his exhausted mother needs some rest. A clear and honest statement might be: “I am tired, and I want you to go to bed.” Or, “Go to bed, because it’s your bedtime.” Or even, “Go to bed, because I say so.” But a mystifying statement would be: “I’m sure you feel tired, sweetie, and you want to go to bed now, don’t you?” Perhaps you heard this message from your own parents: “But you can’t be unhappy! Haven’t we given you everything you want? How can you complain after all our sacrifices?”

Are these just silly Jewish mother jokes? I don’t think so. What if you heard them regularly, every single day, throughout your childhood? They are wounds – ungrieved wounds – of the soul, the stuff D.H. Lawrence wrote of. I’m suggesting that most of us did experience those messages, that our loved ones conditioned us, if unconsciously, to become adults who would not perceive the nature of our own willing participation in the simultaneous denial and distrust that I’ve been describing. And those messages landed so deeply in our psyches precisely because of the loving – and mystifying – tones in which they were delivered.

And again, we are talking about the relatively privileged among us. Those born or fallen into poverty, racism, war, misogyny, sickness and/or abuse experience these conditions at much greater extremes.

But all of us spend hours – several hours, every day, even when we are out of the house – gazing at screens, writes Johnstone, that are “full of voices that are always lying to us, and experts wonder why we’re so crazy and miserable all the time.”

The screens tell us, “This is a perfectly normal and sane way of doing things. It is perfectly normal and sane to strip the earth bare and poison the air and the water in an economic system which requires infinite growth on a finite planet…Trust that it is good and proper for the citizens of Nation X to be killed with bombs and bullets,” and then they wonder why people keep snapping and committing mass shootings…The screens tell us, “Of course this is the way things are; it’s the only way things could ever be. Anyone who would try to change any part of this is either mentally ill or a Russian propagandist,” and they wonder why people shut down and numb themselves with opiates…The screens tell us, “Everything is great. Everyone is doing fine. Everyone is happy. Look how happy everyone is on this sitcom. If you aren’t happy like that, it’s not because of the machine, it’s because of you.

The pathology of this condition is that the modern soul is subject to persistent messages that its emotional intelligence – its intuitive knowing of the sheer craziness of modern life – has been completely discounted. This happens every day to almost every one of us, for our entire lives. And it carries an underlying, irresistible lesson: My ways of evaluating reality are failures.

But this is America, and we all carry the legacy of Puritanism, which tells us, if my ways of evaluation are failures, then so am I. And – since failure in America is always moral failure, then I am also bad – I am a sinner. This, I suspect, is the major source of our massive epidemics of depression and substance abuse and our retreat from political involvement – or the need to bypass politics entirely, through violent actions against the Other.

The scapegoat: what is the deeper meaning of police violence against unarmed people of color? When societies begin to collapse, they turn to human sacrifice. I covered this issue in depth in a previous blog series:

To deny something is to declare it taboo. And “taboo” (“kapu” in Hawaiian) means “too sacred to mention.” The sacred is a secret, and this is the secret: Americans regularly unite in our fear of the evil Other, and enough of us will regularly declare allegiance to a culture whose primary religious ritual is the sacrifice of this Other. He is sacred because for a while he takes our sins away.

But this mode of sacrifice – the “shock” of localized violence – cannot fully re-invigorate the “awe” of denial, because this scapegoat suffers only within the polis. Horrifying to contemplate, the function of racist violence may well be to divert our attention from the deeper madness, the regular sacrifice of the best of our young men to our god of nationalism. As Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle write: 

The doctrine that provides the central experience of Christian faith is the sacrifice of an irreplaceable son by an all-powerful father whose will it was that the son should die violently…Sacrifice restores totem authority and reconsolidates the group. This is why we die for the flag and commit our children to do so. img002 2 To resolve totem crisis, the totem must re-create its exclusive killing authority out of the very flesh of its members. Blood is the group bond. Blood sacrifice at the border, or war, is the holiest ritual of the nation-state…Our deepest secret, the collective group taboo, is the knowledge that society depends on the death of this sacrificial group at the hands of the group itself…But what keeps the group together and makes us feel unified is not the sacrifice of the enemy but the sacrifice of our own.

As more flaws appear in the fabric of our mythic narratives and as the crazy-making conditions of our lives make it more obvious that the old story is dying but no new story has yet arisen to replace it, watch for the next sacrificial ritual.

Watch how your fear of Trump motivates you to vote for the despicable Joe Biden — even in California and the other 40 states that are safely Democratic. Watch, thirty years after the fall of communism, how we fall back on the tired, old red-baiting, even without any reds! Watch how the Democrats can’t stop flogging the latest threat – Russians hacking our elections! Read the Time cover: Faith in the U.S. Election! This is religious language, and the gatekeepers would not be united in their sermons if they weren’t aware of how many of us need to be reminded.

It’s all about the anxiety. And the situation really does demand of us that we stay woke and step back from our need to reflexively parrot the liberal – yes, the liberal – media. Watch your willingness to see them as saviors. Watch their willingness to blame “the Russians” when Trump is re-elected. Watch your need to remain innocent, to be reassured that it’s all good. Watch how much money you’ll be willing to spend to be ceaselessly told that it is. Christmas is coming.

Our American craziness has persisted for centuries. And any answers we might contribute have also been around for a long time. James Hillman offered this one after a well-known shooting:

The shadow is in full view, and we cannot get rid of evil by blaming the Radical Right or the Black Muslims or…communists, or…call evil “psychopathic.” With such sadness and reality, destructive evil strikes. Assassinations, murder – and war, too – begin this way. This revolution is not just outside us in the streets and jails and detention homes and clinics, or in Texas, but is the Shadow in each of us that is trying to come out.

The date? November 1963, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

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Barry’s Blog # 287: Why Are Americans So Freaking Crazy? Part Six of Nine

As long as we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord. – Increase Mather

Don’t blame Wall Street; don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job, and you’re not rich, blame yourself. – Herman Caine

In a mad world, only the mad are sane. – Akira Kurosawa

God against man. Man against God. Man against nature. Nature against man. Nature against God. God against nature. Very funny religion! – D.T. Suzuki

So, the statistics that appear throughout this essay may well be inflated. Or maybe not. Robert Whitaker argues that the adverse effects of psychiatric medications are the primary cause of the epidemic. He reports that these drugs can cause moderate emotional and behavioral problems to become severe, chronic and disabling ones:

Once psychiatrists started putting ‘hyperactive’ children on Ritalin, they started to see prepubertal children with manic symptoms. Same thing happened when psychiatrists started prescribing antidepressants to children and teenagers. A significant percentage had manic or hypomanic reactions to the antidepressants.

These children and teenagers are then put on heavier duty drugs, including drug cocktails, and often do not respond favorably to treatment and deteriorate. BabyPills1 And that, for Whitaker, is a major reason for the 35-fold increase between 1987 and 2007 of children classified as being disabled by mental disorders. He acknowledges that the psychiatric community is coming around to sharing his opinions, especially on the pseudo-science behind the “chemical imbalance” theories of mental illness. However,

Psychiatry, all along, knew that the evidence wasn’t really there to support the chemical imbalance notion…and yet psychiatry failed to inform the public of that crucial fact…Researchers haven’t identified a characteristic pathology for the major mental disorders; no specific genes for the disorders have been found; and there isn’t evidence that neatly separates one disorder from the next. The “disease model,” as a basis for making psychiatric diagnoses, has failed…the entire edifice that modern psychiatry is built upon is flawed, and unsupported by science…Even as the intellectual foundation for our drug-based paradigm of care is collapsing, starting with the diagnostics, our society’s use of these medications is increasing; the percentage of children and youth being medicated is increasing; and states are expanding their authority to forcibly treat people in outpatient settings with antipsychotics drugs…I think we have to appreciate this fact: any medical specialty has guild interests, meaning that it needs to protect the market value of its treatments…Diagnosis and the prescribing of drugs constitute the main function of psychiatrists today in our society.

Cui Bono? So clearly, the industry survives and replicates itself in each generation by over-diagnosing countless people, especially children, many of whom exhibit only slightly more extreme behavior than normal people, and then pushing drugs on them. It follows, then, that the statistics at the top of this essay are probably inflated, and that there aren’t as many mentally ill among us as they would indicate. Wrong.

Because very large numbers of those suffering from legitimate mental conditions never appear in the surveys. How can you diagnose a homeless person who won’t enter a shelter; or a “functioning, productive alcoholic”; or a sexual predator priest;


The “Pharma-Bro”

or a Big Pharma executive who jacks up the prices of critical drugs; or an openly racist member of Congress? Between 30% and 80% of the homeless receive little or no “treatment”, including 50% of those with severe psychiatric disorders,  meaning medication rather than psychotherapy.

Who is crazy? Trump responds to every mass shooting with the standard argument that the problem is not guns but the “mentally ill” people who perpetrate these massacres, which have added immeasurably (actually, very measurably) to the level of fear in society. Many on the left have taken his bait and risen to the defense of the mentally ill with statistics that refute his accusations.

They are right, but this is unfortunate, since their argument normalizes violence and implies that mass shooters are not crazy. This can only be true in a world where the DSM-5, for all its hundreds of categories, has not (yet) officially declared it so. Perhaps it hasn’t because if the actual shooters were nuts, then the dozens of others who publicly threaten to perpetrate shootings and the thousands of white nationalists who support them online must be nuts. And if those people are crazy, then the millions of right-wing and evangelical activists and climate-deniers from whom they arise must be as well. It would never stop – until we all agree that the culture, its politics, its economy, its educational institutions and its mythology are mad, and that a corrupt pharma/psychiatric industry is merely a symptom of that madness.

Beyond and below the manipulated numbers stands this base craziness. Phil Rockstroh suggests the impact of growing up in such a world on adolescents:

Inundate a teenager with the soul-defying criteria of the corporate/consumer state, with its overbearing, pre-careerist pressures, its paucity of communal eros, its demands, overt and implicit, to conform to a shallow, manic, nebulously defined yet oppressive societal order, and insist that those who cannot adapt, much less excel, are “losers” who are fated to become “basement dwellers” in their parents’ homes or, for those who lack the privilege, be cast into homelessness, then the minds of the young or old alike are apt to be inundated with feelings of angst and dread…Worse, if teenagers are culturally conditioned to believe said feelings and responses are exclusively experienced by weaklings, parasites, and losers then their suffering might fester to the point of emotional paralysis and suicidal inclinations.

Over twenty years ago, Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, acknowledged a depression epidemic:

We discovered two astonishing things about the rate of depression across the century. The first was there is now between ten and twenty times as much of it as there was fifty years ago. And the second is that it has become a young person’s problem. When I first started working in depression thirty years ago…the average age of which the first onset of depression occurred was 29.5…Now the average age is between 14 and 15.

Antidepressants are the most frequently used class of medications by Americans ages 18-44 years. Even if we assume that many of these diagnoses are bogus (see above), that still leaves an awful lot of unhappy young people.

In Chapter Five of my book, I quote former teacher John Taylor Gatto as I distinguish between authentic tribal initiation (“education”: to lead out) and American schooling (“instruction”: to stuff in), the primary purpose of which is to create compliant consumers. Not wanting to veer too far off topic, I encourage you to read that chapter, or look at his website. But for our purposes, this is another crazy-making American institution. So we shouldn’t be surprised to learn, as Bruce Levine writes, that only 40% of high school students report being “engaged with school.” And, seen from this perspective, much teenage behavior that the psychiatric profession has pathologized and medicated really is rebellion against a dehumanizing society.

…those labeled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) do worst in environments that are boring, repetitive, and externally controlled…(and) are indistinguishable from “normals” when they have chosen their learning activities and are interested in them. Thus, the standard classroom could not be more imperfectly designed to meet the learning needs of young people who are labeled with ADHD…there is a fundamental bias in mental health professionals for interpreting inattention and noncompliance as a mental disorder. Those with extended schooling have lived for many years in a world where all pay attention to much that is unstimulating. In this world, one routinely complies with the demands of authorities…When we have hope, energy and friends, we can choose to rebel against societal oppression with, for example, a wildcat strike or a back-to-the-land commune. But when we lack hope, energy and friends, we routinely rebel without consciousness of rebellion and in a manner in which we today commonly call mental illness.

But mostly, in talking about adolescents, we are expressing and enacting what I consider to be the most fundamental myth of Western culture (which I discuss in Chapter Six): the sacrifice of the children. It’s a world in which too many parents are too willing to allow too many profit-driven experts to diagnose, pathologize, medicate and institutionalize their children.

Centuries ago, American Puritans pointed to the “bad seeds” who, simply by their presence within the community, showed who was fated and who was not fated to join the heavenly choir – and who were the sources of pollution. Today, we use the terminology of “abnormality,” “development disorder,” “neurologically defective” or “brain chemistry disfunction.”

We can’t deny that large numbers of children do suffer from genetic and in-utero problems – one in forty (up from one in 68 just two years ago) are now on the Autism spectrum – and perhaps the effects of untested vaccines created and hawked by that same Big Pharma, or that electronic devices are harming them.

Clearly, however, madness predates capitalism, and the economics of corrupt institutions doesn’t explain all of it. Nor does Protestantism, which first demonized the mentally ill as “immoral” and institutionalized them in the 17th century. 

Enter Dionysus, who tells us that madness is a fundamental, archetypal aspect of the psyche. Plato spoke of the “divine madness” that comes as gifts from the gods: poetic madness was inspired by the Muses; Apollo and the Muses were the patron deities of prophetic madness; Aphrodite and Eros inspired erotic madness; and Dionysus was the patron of ritual madness. We recall Walter Otto: “A god who is mad! … There can be a god who is mad only if there is a mad world which reveals itself through him.” James Hillman, who saw pathology as existentially human, summarized the old thinking: “…insanity is following the wrong god.” And most religious traditions, especially Sufism and Buddhism, have long honored the carriers of “crazy wisdom.”

But we have to keep coming back to American innocence.

When our personal or national self-image has no shadow, we imagine that our motivations have the purity of white sugar on white bread, washed down with milk. We have dreamed up a world – the American Dream – in which we are so good, so generous, so caring, so pure, so willing to bring enlightenment to others, that no one – except for the incarnation of pure evil, Satan himself – or his dark, ethnic surrogates – could ever doubt us. And the fear? Doesn’t much of it spring not also from the media but also from our own subliminal guilt and our unwillingness to confront our grief? Is this not the stance of an inexperienced, uninitiated, naïve youth unconsciously daring the world to smack him with a wakeup call?

So when we really are attacked, the release of disillusioned energy results in our astonishingly violent extremes. Our lost innocence (We have done so much good! Why do they hate us so?) and denial of death justify the revenge fantasies that support or ignore reactionary and genocidal behavior or treat it as if it were a football game. U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

Certainly since 9/11/2001, and arguably since the beginning of World War Two – three to four generations – Americans have endured (or more often ignored) the fact that their government and their young men have been waging wars and covert interventions – and dying in them – almost continually. I really don’t think that we can imagine healing our internal epidemic of mass shootings (including police murders), or the rage that motivates the shooters, or the helplessness and lost dreams below that, without addressing these external realities. Few politicians are willing to do so. The only presidential candidate to try has been Tulsi Gabbard, and the media have slammed her for the effort.

What has our awareness of what we do, regardless of why we do it, done to our souls? Caitlin Johnstone comments:

The most significant and consequential aspect of establishment propaganda is the simple, everyday practice of manufacturing normality.  Every time something horrible happens without news reporters treating it like something horrible…Every time something unimportant happens that is treated as newsworthy, normality is being manufactured…In an even marginally sane world, the fact that a nation’s armed forces are engaged in daily military violence would be cause for shock and alarm…A hypothetical space alien observing our civilization for the first time would conclude that we are insane…It is absolutely bat shit crazy that we feel normal about the most powerful military force in the history of civilization running around the world invading and occupying and bombing and killing…

Dionysus asks us, what is madness in the only nation to have used atomic weapons, and following that war has bombed nearly fifty nations, whose people, every single time (with one exception, Serbia) were people of color? A nation that dropped seven million tons of bombs on Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia? A nation that utilized free-fire zones and defoliation and made the body count its primary metric to judge military progress? Phillip Slater asked at the time,

This transfer of killing from a means to an end in itself constitutes a practical definition of genocide…Do Americans hate life? Has there ever been a people who have destroyed so many living things?

Well, that was then. And now? Dionysus might wonder what we should make of a nation in which a third of the population favors a nuclear strike on North Korea even if it killed a million people.  Twenty-four hundred years ago, Euripides (in The Bacchae) instructed the Athenians that their failure to listen to the mad god, and their own normalization of warfare, would drive their own children mad. William Hawes, (“Growing Up Insane”) writes,

…we must at least question whether collectively, we the citizenry, are as susceptible to mass delusions as our psychopathic leaders are. Our society can be effectively generalized as forming what Paulo Freire calls a culture of silence, many of whom see no problems with exploiting and despoiling other countries, looting wealth, and killing millions; and many more that are simply afraid to speak out against the indignity of the U.S. empire, in fear of socio-cultural reprisals. This culture of silence, which we are taught at a young age, indoctrinates and effectively eliminates the ability of people to form critiques of our rotten political and economic systems. This is who Richard Nixon was really referring to, when he spoke of the “Silent Majority”: citizens too naïve, dumb, childlike, and afraid to confront the injustices inherent to our system…

The mention of Nixon (“When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal”) reminds us that in this demythologized world, every single one of our major institutions has been corrupted by capitalism, democrats-are-zeroing-in-on-top-trump-aide-stephen-miller-in-the-house-russia-probe and that we have to address all political, social and cultural issues by asking Cui Bono? Who profits?

We’ve established that the mental health industrial complex drugs millions unnecessarily and ineffectively. Looking, however, through the lens of American myth, we also discover that, in true Protestant fashion, it frames mental health problems as purely individual issues and conditions everyone to overlook structural issues such as racism and systemic violence. Eric Greene argues

…this reduction serves a specific political function…it keeps those who are oppressed inward looking and forecloses knowledge of the dominant class as they exert enough force to contribute to extensive suffering and mental illness in the oppressed…This specific kind of colonization of consciousness (i.e., ideology or false consciousness), by the mental health industrial complex contributes to…the current ‘culture of incapacity’ and elicits mantras of self-blame while exploiting humans as patients for the bottom-line dollar. In short, the definition and diagnosing of mental illness is political…The clinic and the therapies provided therein act as a tool of systemic oppression. Unless clinicians actively work against dominant racial inequalities and institutional forms of oppression, our tools work to perpetuate and exacerbate them.

Bad dreams constantly interrupt our 400-year sleep of denial. Waking exhausted, we reach for our devices. Denial and fear; fear and denial, all electronically mediated. In 1968 Muriel Rukheyser saw this:

I lived in the first century of world wars.

Most mornings I would be more or less insane,

The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,

The news would pour out of various devices

Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.

I would call my friends on other devices;

They would be more or less mad for similar reasons…

– “Poem”

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Barry’s Blog # 286: Why Are Americans So Freaking Crazy? Part Five of Nine

A trait no other nation seems to possess in quite the same degree that we do—namely, a feeling of almost childish injury and resentment unless the world as a whole recognizes how innocent we are of anything but the most generous and harmless intentions. – Eleanor Roosevelt

…that omnipresent American narcotic, optimism, the unending flow of which poured through the American mind continuously, whitewashing the graffiti of despair, rage, hatred, and nihilism scrawled there nightly by the black hoodlums of the unconscious. – Viet Than Nguyen, “The Sympathizer”

The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem. – bell hooks

So, Dionysus insists on asking, who defines sanity? And who profits from these definitions? For decades, Benjamin Rush’s definition prevailed: “…an aptitude to judge of things like other men, and regular habits, etc.” Freud added the abilities to love and work.

Thomas Szasz, however, insisted that most mental illness is composed only of behaviors that psychiatrists (overwhelmingly white, middle-class men) disapprove of. In his libertarian view, the “therapeutic state” uses psychiatric justifications to strip individuals of their rights. It creates two classes: those who are stigmatized as mentally ill and subject to coercive intervention, and the majority, whose conventional behavior indicates their innocence. “Only in psychiatry are there ‘patients’ who don’t want to be patients,” he says. No one else, neither priest nor judge, has the psychiatrist’s power to have someone committed, even if he came of his own free will. “If you’re in a building that you can’t get out of, that’s not a hospital; it’s a prison.”

Behaviors such as masturbation and homosexuality no longer fit, but others are continually added. But when psychotherapy (not to mention advertising) merely attempts to recover or maintain a sense of “productive normalcy,” that condition which is itself one of the causes of our unhappiness, it becomes yet another effort to recover lost innocence, as well as a condemnation of an archetypal experience ruled by Dionysus. Banishing him, we welcome ourselves to the madhouse, even if we don’t notice where we are.

So we are forced to confront yet another paradox: on the one hand, ours is an utterly mad culture, and vast numbers of Americans suffer from a deep sickness of the soul. On the other hand, a profoundly corrupt and extremely profitable, mostly private pharmaceutical-mental health-prison-industrial complex serves our elite classes by diagnosing millions as biologically and chemically imperfect, drugging them, institutionalizing them and identifying them as scapegoats for us all to pity and then forget about — until the next mass shooting. Indeed, as Ethan Watters writes, this medical model is spreading to most other nations.

We are the net products of a process that has taken some two hundred generations to unfold, reaching its peak with our current political and corporate leaders, most of whom are sociopaths or outright psychopaths, men who are driven to enact the shadow aspects of our national mythology for the rest of us.

Every American — at least every white American — suffers from suppressed grief, which returns as anxiety, addiction, narcissism and depression. The mad culture, led by madmen, regularly requires scapegoats whom we sacrifice to restore our innocence. Three million Viet Nam War veterans carry the burden of delayed stress for us all. Movies that portray them as ticking time bombs allow Middle America to consider memory’s immense power without confronting its universal application. But, says Dionysus, we are all ticking…They and all depressed people carry the shadow of our manic celebration of progress, extraversion, cheerfulness and grandiosity.

The more politicians and celebrities emphasize these American characteristics, the more depression will spread. We who can channel the madness into consumerism feel welcomed into the community of the elect, while those who cannot do so prove our righteous standing – and our innocence.

We’ve never been innocent, or “normal.” Three thousand years ago, the Greeks conjured up the figure of Dionysus to express their understanding that a large region of the psyche and of the world is so irrational, so driven by dark emotions that, by nature, it threatens to destroy the walls of the ego, all the more so because it is generally so repressed by the spirits of consciousness. They knew very well the costs of not honoring this god. They knew, as the classicist Walter Otto wrote, “A mad god exists only if there is a mad world which reveals itself through him.”

From this perspective, a major function of the myth of innocence is to suppress our grief and allow us to continue on as normal neurotics and normal consumers. Many men are well aware of this condition. Over my thirty years of participating in and leading mythopoetic men’s retreats, one of the most common statements I’ve heard is: I haven’t cried in thirty years, and I won’t allow myself to start. If I did, I know that it would never stop.

This is the indigenous soul leaking out, speaking in a language that normal ego consciousness cannot perceive, acknowledging that the sacred work of going down into grief requires a strong container of ritual and community and cannot be done alone. It acknowledges that part of the grief just below the surface of heroic, American male identity is the awareness that those containers have not existed for a very long time. The inability to grieve – or the perceived lack of permission to grieve – makes us crazy.

This is the baseline of stress and anxiety that most Americans endured right after the massive pains of World War Two and before that, the Depression. Since then, new factors have appeared. GettyImages-530193749 The awkward combination of fear, denial and electronic stimulation has ruled our consciousness during the 70 years of television, which was born amid both McCarthyism and the new consumerism. Lucille Ball diverted us while Richard Nixon admitted, “People react to fear, not love.” I have argued, however, that the roots of this madness go back to the original confrontation of Puritans and Indians. Ever since, we have held the contradictory notions of chosen people and eternal vigilance.

In America, curiously, the plural phrase “chosen people” also evokes the radical individualist, the lone hero who chooses his own destiny and then goes out and achieves it. And he embodies one of our most fundamental values: social mobility, or the opportunity to get ahead. The likelihood of advancing in social class has decreased significantly since the 1980s. But 56% of those blue-collar men who correctly perceived G.W. Bush’s 2003 tax cuts as favoring the rich still supported them, apparently assuming (against all evidence) that they would someday be admitted to that exalted realm. Decades before, John Steinbeck wrote: “I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”

One story we tell ourselves about ourselves is that purpose can be divorced from community. The desire to be seen as special contributes to the quest for expensive symbols – a quest that is ultimately futile, wrote Phillip Slater, “…since it is individualism itself that produces uniformity.” Paradoxically, our American obsession with individualism produces persons who “cannot recognize the nature of their distress.” the-comfort-in-conformity-3-1600x900 This results in a desire to relinquish responsibility for control and decision-making to the images provided by the media. Here lies a great paradox of American life: our emphasis on the needs of the individual has contributed toward cultural and political conformism.

But conformism and rebellious individualism are not our only choices. For tribal people, true community exists in order to identify and nurture the individuality of every one of its members, who are, in turn, necessary for the community to thrive and reimagine its values. Malidoma Somé writes that in West Africa, “Individuality is synonymous with uniqueness. This means that a person and his or her unique gifts are irreplaceable… A healthy community not only supports diversity, it requires diversity.”

The myth of individualism, of the self-made man is as deeply engrained as our wild, naïve optimism; in 2000, 19% believed they would “soon” be in the top one percent income bracket, and another 19% thought they already were. Two-thirds of us expect to have to pay the estate tax one day (only two percent will). Here is where the older myth intersects with New Age thinking, which preaches that right thinking will produce desired results. However, as I wrote above, most of us still accept the religiously-based corollary of those statements, that poverty is our own fault.

We expect, unlike any people in history, to successfully pursue happiness. Despite the secular terminology, it’s an essentially Protestant perspective, rooted in apocalyptic, end-times thinking. Yet our expectations of worldly happiness continually break up against that same Puritan heritage. Yes, we learned from Jerry Falwell, we should equate poverty with low moral status, and wealth does indicate our status among the elect. It does, doesn’t it? Please tell me it’s true. As I write in Chapter Seven,

Americans, like no people before them, strive for self-improvement. But within the word “improve” lies the anxiety of those who can never know if they’ve attained the otherworldly goal. Thus we must continually “prove” our status in this one.

Our characteristic American expectation of positive emotions and life-experiences makes feelings of sadness and despair more pathological in this culture than elsewhere. Christina Kotchemidova writes, “Since ‘cheerfulness’ and ‘depression’ are bound by opposition, the more one is normalized, the more negative the other will appear.”

When, in the great majority of cases, one realizes that his sacred assumptions of social mobility are unrealistic, the hero may encounter his shadow opposite – the victim – within himself, and we become what we really are (except for the thirteen years of Nazi Germany), the most violent people in history.

American crime is a natural by-product of our values, an alternative means of social mobility in a society where “anything goes” in the pursuit of success. “America,” says mythologist Glen Slater, “has little imagination for loss and failure. It only knows how to move forward.” When we can only imagine relentless progress and that movement is blocked — and communal grief is not an option — we may see no alternative but to go ballistic. Then guns become the purest expression of controlling one’s fate. As such, they are “the dark epitome of the self-made way of life.” 

We as a people may well dream bigger dreams than other peoples. With great possibilities, however, come great risks. Gaps between aspiration and reality – the lost dream – are also far higher here than anywhere else. Cultural historian Greil Marcus writes,

To be an American is to feel the promise as a birthright, and to feel alone and haunted when the promise fails. No failure in America, whether of love or money, is ever simple; it is always a kind of betrayal.

When we don’t meet our expectations of success, when that gap gets too wide, violence often becomes the only option, the expression of a fantasy of ultimate individualism and control. In this sense, the Mafia is more American then Sicilian, and the lone, mass killer (almost all of whom have been white, middle class men with no criminal background) is an expression, writes Slater, of social mobility gone bad.

Myths are composed of unquestioned narratives, stories that we so consistently assume to be true that it never occurs to us to question them. But when we take an outsider’s perspective, we may quickly realize that one of these assumptions, the myth of the free market, is a prescription for craziness. Tweedy reminds us,

The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the…consequences it might cause to others. By its own legal definition, therefore, the corporation is ‘a pathological institution’…Capitalism is, it seems, rooted in a fundamentally flawed, naïve…model of who we are – it tries to make us think that we’re isolated, autonomous, disengaged, competitive, decontextualized – an ultimately rather ruthless and dissociated entity. The harm that this view of the self has done to us, and our children, is incalculable.

This notion of “ruthless and dissociated” is so much an unquestioned aspect of the story we tell ourselves about ourselves that it slides very easily into the common view of Trump and his supporters: gratuitous cruelty, or cruelty perpetrated simply because one has been encouraged to do so without any consequences. To me, this explains both the government’s astonishingly brutal immigration policies and the increase in mass shootings since his election. And, I must add, the degree to which we are still shocked by these policies is a measure of our own innocence, because Trump is us.

It may also explain why the opioid epidemic has hit Trump country most strongly. It turns out that taking antidepressants impairs empathy, while the experience of actual depression itself does not.

For two hundred years this American cycle of expectation and disillusionment has been playing out within the capitalistic narrative. Pankaj Mishra writes:

The ideals of modern democracy – the equality of social conditions and individual empowerment – have never been more popular. But they have become more and more difficult, if not impossible, to actually realize in the grotesquely unequal societies created by our brand of globalized capitalism.

As the myth of innocence collapses, more and more of us can perceive gashes in its fabric. Now there is a nearly universal consensus (obvious to all but the politicians and media hacks) that the capitalist perspective has corrupted every institution in society. We see this most especially in the pharmaceutical industry, with its gigantic lobbying budget. This has resulted (Cui bono?) in the medicalization of psychiatry and the over-diagnosing of mental disorders. I don’t want to veer too far off topic here, so I’ll just list some interesting links:

Are Psychiatrists Inventing Mental Illnesses to Feed Americans More Pills?

Majority of Youth Prescribed Antipsychotics Have No Psychiatric Diagnosis

Drug Companies & Doctors: A Story of Corruption 

Manufacturing Depression: The Secret History of a Modern Disease 

30 years after Prozac arrived, we still buy the lie that chemical imbalances cause depression

There Is No Definition of a Mental Disorder

How Big Pharma got Americans hooked on anti-psychotic drugs 

The “Institutional Corruption” of Psychiatry: A Conversation With Authors of “Psychiatry Under the Influence”

Are America’s High Rates of Mental Illness Actually Based on Sham Science? 

Renowned Harvard Psychologist Says ADHD is Largely a Fraud 

How Drug Companies Helped Shape A Shifting, Biological View Of Mental Illness 

Why Psychiatry Holds Enormous Power in Society Despite Losing Scientific Credibility 

The History and Tyranny of the DSM

Are Prozac and Other Psychiatric Drugs Causing the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America? 

Psychiatry Now Admits It’s Been Wrong in Big Ways – But Can It Change? 

And in pathologizing much natural human behavior, it has given a “scientific” reinforcement to our characteristic American refusal to grieve. I argue throughout my book, especially in Chapter Twelve, that our inability to confront our national shadows of genocide and slavery and our willing toleration of a brutal foreign policy are fundamentals aspect of American innocence. Few people can recover from trauma in an atmosphere that labels an appropriately lengthy mourning process as “major depressive disorder,” as Peter Kinderman writes:

Standard psychiatric diagnoses are notoriously invalid – they do not correspond to meaningful clusters of symptoms in the real world…Diagnoses fail to predict the effectiveness of particular treatments and they do not map neatly onto biological processes…it also sets the scene for the misuse and overuse of medical interventions such as anti-psychotic and anti-depressant drugs…diagnosis and the language of biological illness obscure the causal role of factors such as abuse, poverty and social deprivation. The result is often further stigma, discrimination and social exclusion.

So, the statistics that appear throughout this essay may well be inflated. Or maybe not.

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Barry’s Blog # 285: Why Are Americans So Freaking Crazy? Part Four of Nine

Every person you meet should be regarded as one of the walking wounded. We have never seen a man or woman not slightly deranged by either anxiety or grief. We have never seen a totally sane human being. – Robert Anton Wilson

Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq (1996): We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it? Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it.

White children, in the main, and whether they are rich or poor, grow up with a grasp of reality so feeble that they can very accurately be described as deluded. – James Baldwin

I didn’t just screw Ho Chi Minh. I cut his pecker off. – Lyndon Johnson

 The U.S. military coined the phrase “Shock and Awe” in the late 1990s and applied it to the invasion of Iraq a few years later. It accurately describes the American psyche. The “shock” side is composed of fear-mongering and electronic stimulation. This alone is more than enough to maintain our constant state of anxiety. But our optimistic character simultaneously pulls us in the opposite direction, and together they make us crazy in our uniquely American way.

The “awe” side, our third factor, is represented by our old tradition of advertisers, real estate salesmen, stock brokers, hucksters, con-men and “public relations” specialists, as well as clergymen and politicians, who collude to reinforce our denial. Characteristic themes include: the market is always rising, “doom-and-gloomers” overrate our problems; global warming is a lie; unemployment is down; racism is history; history itself is a feel-good story of constant progress; the Iraqis and Afghans (and soon, the Iranians, Syrians and Venezuelans) welcome us – all translatable into “the system is working.” An essential part of this message is visual images: idealized pictures of the America that Trump promises to make great (and white) again. 718b1038be9c6031750af1ec9a1dfca3 You know what I’m talking about: pristine coastlines, carefree drivers on uncrowded country roads, slim athletes and dancers, the family dinner, Sunday church picnics, reunions at Grandma’s house and small-town July Fourth celebrations.

The speed and frivolity of the media charms us all and conveys our values primarily through two film and TV styles. In one – action and disaster films – the redemption hero intercedes to save the community from evil, traditionally in the last reel or just before the final commercial break. Since 1990, when Islam replaced communism as the external Other, a new generation has grown up watching literally dozens of movies and TV shows depicting this threat, but with a series of (usually white) American heroes eliminating the threat. Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper are merely the more well-produced and honored of this genre.

Disaster films work both sides of the fear/denial dichotomy by heightening anxiety (and perhaps anticipation) of apocalyptic punishment and then cleanly resolving the threat through the intercession of selfless heroes. It’s a world of crimson red, dark brown and black, with very little grey area (or grey matter). Guy stuff.

The other mode is the ubiquitous, cloying, Disney-style alice-alice-in-wonderland-cute-disney-ilustration-tea-favim-com-72133 cartoons and children’s programming, in which, writes Todd Gitlin, “…characters are incarnations of an innocence that can never be dispelled,” where everyone talks out their problems, resolves them, hugs and remains friends. It’s a pastel world of pinks and lavender that still portrays most positive characters as white and heterosexual. Gal stuff.

TV news (FOX News aside) offers a parallel experience. Reassuringly calm, unemotional, authoritative newscasters place even bad news in the wider context of progress: It’s all good. Michael Ventura, however, measures how deeply “…people know that ‘it’ is not all right…by how much money they are willing to pay to be ceaselessly told it is.” Think positive or don’t watch at all.

thActually, even the calm Walter Cronkite father figures are mostly long gone. What we have had instead for many years are actors such as Matt Lauer  who portray journalists or debate moderators, mixing in cornball humor and soft-core porn megyn-kelly so things don’t get too boring. With Fox news “commentators” such as these, avyrz6u no wonder the Trumpistas get their opinions there. Again, Fox is only the most extreme, as this list of the “25 Most Gorgeous News Anchors” attests. MSNBC balances it on the “left,” the two of them defining the narrowly acceptable range of political discourse for the diminishing numbers of Americans who consume news outside of social media.

Indeed, it has been clear since well before 9-11 that both politics (best seen in our embarrassingly silly Presidential debates) and news journalism have been so “dumbed-down” that we now perceive them as merely alternative forms of entertainment. This is laughable, as it was surely meant to be. But it also means that for many of us “reality” simply isn’t real any more, that it’s indistinguishable from anything else that appears on the screen – or that it’s all good.

Thus, in the midst of massive denial about a collapsing environment and the real economic and spiritual sources of terrorism, Americans fret about issues that the media choose to present. The most common source of our anxiety becomes either dark-skinned others or, in the case of mass killings, the disturbed individual, the bad seed, rather than systemic inequities and corruption. In this fantasy, immigrants and home-grown thugs, rather than discriminatory housing patterns and long-term unemployment, cause domestic violence. And Islamic fundamentalism, rather than American military intervention, causes most international violence.

Periodically, episodes of real terror evoke the old frontier paranoia (at the risk of being slimed as a conspiracy theorist, I insist that we have mountains of evidence that many of these events have been contrived).Then, as Ben Franklin lamented long ago, we quickly exchange our freedoms for a dubious sense of security.

The gated community has become yet another potent symbol. gated-community Four centuries after defining themselves in contrast to the demonic forces of the wilderness, whites are once more circling the wagons. Forty percent of new California homes are in gated communities. Nationally, 8 million people live in them. Madness at the gates: as we enclose ourselves in racially homogeneous, suburban ghettoes or high-security high-rises, we simultaneously imprison more people than any nation in history and warehouse millions of others in nursing homes. Out of sight; out of mind.

Here we are, at the core of who we are: the condition of simultaneous denial and anxiety leads to paradoxical connections. For years polls have commonly reflected our belief that things were better in the old days, that things are going downhill – even if our personal outlook is rosy. But it’s more serious than that. Joy DeGruy’s 2005 book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing described the multi-generational trauma experienced by African Americans. We can easily understand how the victims of over three centuries of violence and discrimination can pass their suffering on to their children. In the simplest of terms, racism causes PTSD, and it lives on its victims. 

Traumatic events can happen to anyone, not just minorities. The government estimates that 10% of women and 4% of men will have PTSD at some point in their lives, about 8 million adults during a given year. That number is ridiculously low, given 36 million African-Americans, seven million Native Americans, 60 million Latino-Americans, several million LBGT people, the massive opioid epidemic and a thousand suicides per week, including 140 veterans and six active-duty service members. Given also, that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old.

Given also, that over half of the population doesn’t have enough money to cover a $1,000 emergency.  Given also, that, officially, 20% of children live in poverty, some 16 million. That number, again, is ridiculously low, since that the federal poverty threshold for a family of three (one adult + two kids under age 17) is about $22,000. So a family reporting one dollar more than that is not considered impoverished by the government. Rod Tweedy writes:

Capitalism is as much an inequality-generating system as it is a mental illness producing system. As a Royal College of Psychiatrists report noted: ‘Inequality is a major determinant of mental illness: the greater the level of inequality, the worse the health outcomes. Children from the poorest households have a three-fold greater risk of mental ill health than children from the richest households. Mental illness is consistently associated with deprivation, low income, unemployment, poor education, poorer physical health and increased health-risk behavior.

Those with steady employment hardly escape. Jeffrey Pfeffer, in Dying for a Paycheck,  reports that 61 % of employees say that workplace stress had made them ill, with 7% requiring hospitalization. The stress of overwork, he writes, may cause 120,000 deaths annually in the United States.

Even those who see through the fear mongering and perceive neither immigrants nor “the Russians” as threats are subject to quite legitimate fear about the future. Sixty-two percent of us are “somewhat worried” about climate change and 23% are “very worried.” Counselors report seeing patients with anxiety, depression or a sense of helplessness. Although it is not an official clinical diagnosis (yet), terms for the phenomenon are already in use: “climate distress,” “climate grief,” “climate anxiety” or “eco-anxiety,” and Hollywood has responded with films and series such as The Dead Don’t Die, First Reformed, and Euphoria. 

So we should acknowledge that trauma – caused by war, generational racism, underemployment, overwork, homophobia, poverty and realistic thinking, and expressed in suicide, mass violence, addiction and physical and mental illness – certainly affects many tens of millions of Americans. Dionysus might ask, who can separate legitimate stress from illegitimate stress? How long does a person or group suffer from stress before it becomes anxiety, before anxiety (real or not) becomes mental illness, or before they pass it on to their children?

But I am suggesting that the perpetrators of violence, as well as those (the majority) who have been indirectly privileged by that system have also been so dehumanized over those same centuries that most Americans have experienced some version of this epigenetic condition – transgenerational trauma –  their entire lives. Psychologist Bryant Welch comments on the implications:

80% of the American public has experienced some form of significant traumatic experience, which we can reasonably anticipate will disrupt our effective psychological functioning…All the things that once supported the mind’s ability to construct its reality have been under assault, and the price we’re paying is terrible. People are becoming…so shaky in their trust in their own reality that when we see someone with a different reality, it’s too threatening to us and so we hate them…We all think of paranoia as irrational suspicion…but it’s a lot more. Paranoia takes place right at the boundary between what’s inside our mind and what is outside our mind, and that’s a pretty thin membrane and we can easily get confused on it.

Crazy or content, perpetrators, victims or detached observers, and despite our myths of equal opportunity, we all share the capitalist nightmare: one of the most unequal societies in history. And studies clearly show that, compared to more equal ones like Japan, we all suffer for it, writes Robert R. Raymond:

…in more unequal American states or European countries…only 15 or 20 percent of the population feel they can trust others. But in the more equal ones, it rises to 60 or 65 percent…The relationship between inequality and depression has been well documented… people in less equal states experienced higher rates of depression…

If we add the legacy of racism to the mix:

…we see higher rates of physical illness and chronic diseases like hypertension in Black Americans…Black adults are up to two times more likely to develop high blood pressure by age 55 than white adults.

Perhaps much of this is speculation; but tell me, reader, can you honestly say that modern life – and well before Trump – has not traumatized you? Mad-as-hell Or if I could pose the question as Dionysus himself, or news anchor Howard Beale in the 1975 film Network: Why aren’t we all running through the streets screaming, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”?

Mythologically speaking, the gods are returning from exile. In historical terms, many Americans experience the traumas of racism, poverty, childhood abuse, misogyny or delayed stress. But we all suffer from the long-term, collective emotional effects of massive and rapid historical shifts: from paganism to monotheism, from rural to urban lives, from religious conformism and predictability to secular consumerism and nationalism.

We all suffer from dissociation, from the belief that we are separate beings, that maturity entails escaping the demands of the community, that we can and should detach our consciousness and our feelings from the terrible crimes of our government and the homeless misery that surround us. What does it mean to be reminded that babies are being torn from their parents or that all the large fish in the Pacific are contaminated from Fukushima – and then simply change the channel? How do our bodies interpret such bizarre behavior?

We all came into the world with another expectation, to exist within a container that provides us with divine figures – the gods and goddesses of mythology – who will convey images of our human potential. This is why, over thousands of years, most human societies evolved the mythology (granted, under patriarchy) of Kingship, and why, even now, in a democratic myth, we remain fascinated with its toxic mimic, the British Royal Family. We need images of nobility (related etymologically to knowledge) as well as human elders.

So what does it do to our indigenous souls to live our entire lives listening to celebrities and elected leaders – many of whom really are psychopaths – who lie to us continually, and, despite our rationalizations, to know very well at some level that they are lying? Or for the 35% of us who know but don’t care? What kind of insult to our archetypal expectations of being presented with the best of who we might be is this? Or to be told that our own perceptions are wrong (see below)?

Again, Trump is only the latest and grossest of examples. Noam Chomsky has long pointed out, without hyperbole, that “…if the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged.” Can anyone deny that our political process has been so degraded, for so many decades, that no one could possibly be vetted to the level of serious presidential consideration who is not already crazed by the drive for power? One study proposes that “Nearly half of American presidents from 1789 to 1974 — and this includes two of the four U.S. leaders featured on the iconic Mount Rushmore — met the criteria for a psychiatric disorder.”

We recall that apocalypse means “to lift the veil.” Facing the truth is a grand opportunity to be dis-illusioned. To begin to extricate ourselves from this sticky, mythic mess, we have to acknowledge that this culture of death really does raise the very worst of us, those who embody the most extreme expressions of toxic masculinity, to the highest levels of praise and influence. When we hear of Trump’s latest outrage – or if we were to objectively consider the policies of his recent predecessors  – any of them – we need to get past both the dark humor and the denials and accept that they are us. And for ourselves as Americans, the veil to be lifted – the clearer view of reality – is always, always about our perpetual attempts to remain innocent.

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