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. 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 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.
Actually, 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 so things don’t get too boring. With Fox news “commentators” such as these, 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. 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? 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.