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, 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?
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. 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.