Barry’s Blog # 283: Why Are Americans So Freaking Crazy? Part Two of Nine

In our factory, we make lipstick. In our advertising, we sell hope. – Peter Zarlenga

It is our job to make women unhappy with what they have. – B. E. Puckett, Allied Stores Corp.

…the debasement of the human mind caused by a constant flow of fraudulent advertising is no trivial thing. There is more than one way to conquer a country. – Raymond Chandler

Granted, the mental health figures I listed in Part One are inevitably somewhat subjective, and much of them are driven (see below) by a profoundly corrupt pharmaceutical industry, or “Mental Health Industrial Complex.”  And, despite right-wing attempts to distract us from the necessary gun control conversation, most of the mentally ill are not violent. But it’s pretty clear: we’re unhappy, we’re angry, and, as these figures indicate, we’re lonely: 

– Americans work nine weeks longer per year than Europeans.

– Thirty million Americans live alone. 

– In 2004, 25% of Americans said that they had zero confidants in their lives, and over 20% of millennials claim to have no friends at all.

Those are some of the numbers. But we mythologists have a responsibility to look beyond them, to the great mythic narratives that produce them. Perhaps the most important of them underlies both our craziness and our anger: fear, or more precisely, anxiety.

On its surface, the myth of American Innocence sings of a people who are the children of Manifest Destiny – divinely inspired to spread freedom and opportunity across the world. As such, we have always celebrated ourselves for our optimism, our practical, positive, “can-do” approach, our willingness to take risks and our sunny dispositions as we pursue happiness and model our success for all others. The Blues Brothers spoke for all of us: We’re on a mission from God. That’s our story, and despite mounting evidence to the contrary over the past forty years, we’re sticking to it. We do this because we are increasingly desperate to ignore its shadow side: how we have always defined ourselves in terms of the Other; more specifically, fear of the Other.

Fear of what I have called the black “Inner Other” has driven our racism for three hundred years. Jq6DCzI7uEyAhJsRclaGIg The Native American was the originally red “Outer Other” who transformed into the red communist and whose most recent incarnation is the Islamic terrorist of our imaginations. Our hatred of immigrants expresses the fear that the Outer Other will cross the boundaries of the self, become the Inner Other, and obliterate that identity which we have struggled so hard to maintain. In a mythology and a politics that places so much emphasis on such an unstable sense of identity, the notion that we ourselves, at the core, are other (what Dionysus tells us), or that there is nothing at that core (as Buddhism tells us) is a threat and a recipe for breakdown. Is it any wonder that we are so obsessed with “walls”?

This most certainly did not begin after Trump or even after 9-11. As I describe the national emotions in those days in Chapter 8 of my book:

Hadn’t Americans feared Indian attacks for three centuries? Hadn’t they been terrorized for seventy years by red hordes from the east? Hadn’t every President since Truman managed a war economy that perpetuated itself on fear of the Other? Hadn’t politicians played the “race card” for two centuries? Hadn’t gun sales continued to rise even as crime rates had plummeted? Weren’t Americans already armed to the teeth?…Had they forgotten the missile gap, the domino theory, the window of vulnerability and the Evil Empire? Hadn’t AIDS ended the sexual revolution? Hadn’t they been stuffing themselves with anti-depressants, hormone replacements and potency drugs?  Hadn’t fear of losing property, status, security, virility, youth, freedom – and innocence – always been at the core of the American experience? Hadn’t we bounced between denial and terror for our entire history?

Writing in August of 2019, I recall events of a hundred years ago. It’s been an entire century of fear since the U.S. and other Allied powers intervened – invaded – in the Russian Civil War; since the “Red Scare,” when the government arrested 3,000 suspected communists and deported hundreds; since “Red Summer,” when white mobs attacked blacks in over thirty separate race riots; since the Spanish Flu pandemic killed 50-100 million people, including over half a million Americans.

This is who we are and have been: swaying for generations between the two extremes of childish, privileged optimism and abject terror. Have a nice day! And keep moving…

But even in the best of times our baseline condition is of being sold by media to their advertisers, who in turn target us. Unless we are in the woods with no cell phone reception and no ear buds, this experience pours into our psyches all day long, and it also offers two conflicting messages. The first is the creation of demand. Freud argued that culture obtains much of its mental energy “by subtracting it from sexuality” and making potential consumers feel deprived. Artificial scarcity of gratification assures surplus energy to drive the fevers of production and conquest. To generate this scarcity, it attaches sexual interest to inaccessible, nonexistent, or irrelevant objects, wrote Phillip Slater in The Pursuit of Loneliness. And by “…making his most plentiful resource scarce, (man) managed…to make most of his scarce ones plentiful.”

Kali Holloway explains the second type of message:

There’s an art to convincing an increasingly ad-weary and debt-saddled American public that it should spend money on products it neither needs nor can afford, and as it turns out, that art is mostly built on fear…Studies confirm that the “interest [in] and persuasiveness of” ads is increased by fear, which explains why “fear appeals are one of the most frequently used motivators” for getting people to respond to marketing of every sort. From snake oil salesmen to digital marketers, advertisers have long preyed on our insecurities to sell us products that don’t so much solve our problems as they do allay our darkest fears…Humiliation, science now tells us, is a soul-crushing feeling we’d do anything to avoid. With so many subconscious fears plaguing us, it’s unsurprising that studies find people “better remember and more frequently recall ads that portray fear than they do warm or upbeat ads or ads with no emotional content.” We are the products of a culture that teaches us to fear an endless list of things that advertisers can, and absolutely do, use against us. The oft-repeated phrase that sex sells turns out to be wrong…Sex just gets your attention. Fear actually moves units.

Indeed, as early as the 1920s, the advertising industry created its own poetic terminology – Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) – to influence perception by disseminating negative, dubious or false information that will constellate our fears.

Is this just about selling products? Hardly, when we consider that most liberal politicians are law school graduates, while large numbers of Republicans attended business schools, where all the latest brain science and motivation research is taught. Democrats, stuck apparently with Enlightenment ideals of rationality and self-interest, continue to attempt to appeal to our heads with talk of our “best interests,” while Republicans, well-versed in American mythology, aim for the gut.

Sociologist Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear,  observes, “Most Americans are living in the safest place at the safest time in human history.” Crime is down, the air is cleaner and the odds of being injured in a terrorist attack are absurdly low. So why, asks Neil Strauss, are so many of us so worried all the time? he summarizes the brain research and social science that explains the state of constant anxiety that so many privileged, white, middle-class Americans experience:

What we’re talking about is anxiety, not fear…Where fear is a response to a present threat, anxiety is a more complex and highly manipulable response to something one anticipates might be a threat in the future…It is a worry about something that hasn’t happened and may never happen.

But there’s a reason why anxiety gets converted into actual fear. Blame the media of course, especially Fox News and its ilk, which constantly reinforce this pattern that trumps our rational thought processes.

…political conservatism, right-wing authoritarianism and conservative shift were generally associated with the following: chronically elevated levels of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, desire for revenge and militarism, cynicism and decreased use of humor…(and) the number-one way in which Americans respond to their anxieties: voting.

And it’s never been this bad! Glenn Greenwald quotes some of these breathless, apocalyptic warnings:

We have never seen more threats against our nation and its citizens than we do today. – Lindsey Graham, 2015

 I have never seen a time of greater potential danger than right now. – Dianne Feinstein, 2015

 Something will detonate…I’ve never seen a greater threat in my lifetime. – Fox News, 2014

The threat of attacks has never been greater — not at the time of 9/11, not after the war in Iraq — never. – CNN, 2014

You get the picture. If you need more examples, Greenwald’s article has dozens of them. It’s horrifying! In another excellent article, M.M. Owen descries the attraction of horror films:

Our present era is one in which the heart of culture is blowing hard upon a coal of fear, and the fascination is everywhere. By popular consent, horror has been experiencing…a ‘golden age’. In terms of ticket sales, 2017 was the biggest year in the history of horror cinema…The imagination’s conversion of fear into art offers a dark and piercing mirror… fear-3 We have always told horror stories, and we always will. Because horror is an artistic expression of an ontological truth: we are creatures formed in no small part by the things to which we are averse…It is no coincidence that the Gothic – horror’s regal antecedent – emerged precisely at the moment when lots of people began to believe that God really might be dead. Modern horror is in part the story of what happens when our threatened minds shed a theology. Once holy texts can no longer entirely encode the terrors of being, horror enters fully the arena of art.

When mythologies collapse, gender and racial identity are called into question, especially when those identities are founded upon such an unstable base. These fears are the source of the anger that drives right-wing populism. And let’s be clear about this: if, as many pundits still insist, Trump’s popularity is driven only by economic insecurity, then ten million African-Americans would have voted for him. Yes, white Americans are worried about their jobs; but they’re far more concerned about the blacks, Latinos, Muslims and gays moving into the neighborhood.

The rage that always threatens to break through into mass violence, and the fear behind it, are nothing new. We can trace the self-loathing and hatred of the Other exhibited by uninitiated men living in a demythologized world all the way back to Biblical times, as I do in my book. But below the rage is the anxiety. And that’s what mainstream media news and the internet exploit. Deborah Serani writes:

Fear-based news programming has two aims. The first is to grab the viewer’s attention…this is called the teaser. The second aim is to persuade the viewer that the solution for reducing the identified fear will be in the news story…consultants who offer fear-based topics that are pre-scripted, outlined with point-of-view shots, and have experts at-the-ready. This practice is known as stunting or just-add-water reporting. Often, these practices present misleading information and promote anxiety in the viewer… Boston thing An additional practice that heightens anxiety and depression is the news station’s use of the crawl, the scrolling headline ticker that appears at the bottom of the television, communicating “breaking news.” Individuals who watch news-based programming are likely to see one, two, or even three crawls scroll across the screen…crawls are not relegated to just news channels…(They) are now more prominent during entertainment programs and often serve as commercials for nightly newscasts or the upcoming weekly news magazine show. The crawls frequently contain fear-driven material, broad-siding an unsuspecting viewer.

Sophia McClennen adds:

Most of us have heard the phrase “if it bleeds, it leads,” but it’s worth asking when we simply started to take it for granted. In fact, the phrase was originally a reference to local TV news – a tacit criticism of the way local news programs used hype and sensationalism to attract viewers since they lacked the serious reporting of network news. In the early 1980s, just as media critics began noting that local news was turning toward even greater fear-based reporting, CNN was founded. The advent of the 24/7 news channel radically altered the kind of information offered to television news audiences…Put simply, there wasn’t enough “real” news to sustain a 24-hour cycle. So cable news relied on two things to fill the hours: time spent hyping future stories and pundit reviews of news items. Both of these changes depended more on fear than facts to keep viewers tuned in. Anchors babbled on about worrying news stories, then pundits hyped them up with hysteria.

All day long, every day. In Part Three I’ll talk about re-invigorating the Myth of American Innocence.

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