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. 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.” 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:
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.