Notes from a lousy time

Sam Smith
2009

This is a lousy time. We’re in the worst economic collapse since the 1930s depression. We can’t get out of one war we were never able to justify. We are escalating another war we can’t even explain, let alone justify. The environment is deteriorating. Nobody around the globe seems to respect America any more, including many of our own politicians. Our manufacturing economy caved, and so did the hedge fund economy that replaced it. Our Constitution is gaining the feel of a long out of print book. Our politics have never been more corrupt. And the president who was meant to be our messiah has turned out to be only the first syllable of that dream.

We’ve been in a lousy time for some time. What’s happening is not new, only worse. We’re finally reaping the full harvest of thirty years of greed, corruption, intellectual dissembling, political intrigue, environmental contempt, and journalistic adultery in which the media deserts its readers and viewers to have endless affairs with its sources.

Basically, America as a nation is in a state of collapse. The First American Republic is over. We don’t talk about it that way because it’s too shocking and embarrassing, but our politics, economy social values, and culture seem to be in free fall and there doesn’t seem anyone who is both interested and powerful enough to do anything about it.This does not, however, mean our communities or even our states are in a similar state of distress.

This is a crisis shared by conservatives, liberals, the middle and the indifferent. The conservatives react with anger, the liberals with delusion or depression, the middle by remaining muddled, and the indifferent by clinging to their detachment.

This happens to cultures. Which is why we use Timex watches instead of Mayan calendars to tell what day it is. And while it is happening, other strange and gratuitously disruptive things happen as well.

For example, widespread myths arise that attempt to explain it all. Here are several examples:

The Indian ghost dance

A ceremonial religious dance connected with the messiah doctrine, which originated among the Paviotso in Nevada about 1888, and spread rapidly among other tribes until it numbered among its adherents nearly all the Indians . . . from Missouri river to or beyond the Rockies. The prophet of the religion was a young Paiute Indian, at that time not yet 35 years of age, known among his own people as Wovoka, and ‘commonly called by the whites Jack Wilson, from having worked in the family of a ranchman named Wilson.

About the close of 1888, he was attacked by a dangerous fever. While he was ill an eclipse spread excitement among the Indians, with the result that Wovoka became delirious and imagined that he had been taken into the spirit world, and there received a direct revelation from the God of the Indians. Briefly stated, the revelation was to the effect that a new dispensation was close at hand by which the Indians would be restored to their inheritance and reunited with their departed friends, and that they must prepare for the event by practicing the songs and dance ceremonies which the prophet gave them.

Within a very short time the dance spread to the tribes east of the mountains, where it became known commonly only as the Spirit or Ghost dance. . . – Access Geneology

Cargo Cults

The most widely known period of cargo cult activity occurred amongst Pacific islanders in the years during and after World War II. First, the Japanese arrived with a great deal of unknown equipment, and later, Allied forces also used the islands in the same way. The vast amounts of war materiel that was airdropped (or airlifted to airstrips) onto these islands during the Pacific campaign between the Allies and the Empire of Japan necessarily meant drastic changes to the lifestyle of the islanders, many of whom had never seen Westerners or Easterners before.

Manufactured clothing, medicine, canned food, tents, weapons, and other useful goods arrived in vast quantities to equip soldiers. Some of it was shared with the islanders who were their guides and hosts. . .

With the end of the war, the airbases were abandoned, and cargo was no longer dropped. In response, cults developed within remote Melanesian populations that promised to bestow the followers with deliveries of food, arms, jeeps, etc., from their own ancestors, or other sources, as had happened to the outsider armies. In attempts to get cargo to fall by parachute or land in planes or ships again, islanders imitated the same practices they had seen the soldiers, sailors, and airmen use.

Cult behaviors usually involved mimicking the day to day activities and dress styles of US soldiers, such as performing parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles. They carved headphones from wood and wore them while sitting in fabricated control towers. They waved the landing signals while standing on the runways. They lit signal fires and torches to light up runways and lighthouses. In a form of sympathetic magic, many built life-size replicas of airplanes out of straw and created new military-style landing strips, hoping to attract more airplanes. The cult members thought that the foreigners had some special connection to the deities and ancestors of the natives, who were the only beings powerful enough to produce such riches. – Wikipedia

The Sarah Palin Cult

As in the aforementioned examples, the Sarah Palin Cult has arisen during a time in which traditional culture and values were breaking down. The Indians were reacting to the invasion of the whites and the Melanesians to the aerial invasions by U.S. and Japanese forces. The Palin Cult can perhaps best be seen as a reaction not to Democrats or to a black president, but to modernity itself. Life has moved on and left it behind.

It is not unusual in these situations for the mythology to be driven by a relatively few manipulators and con artists.

This does not mean, however, that the believers are con artists. The believers are trying to maintain their traditional values and culture and have been given little help in moving into a new time. Liberals excoriate them, the media doesn’t explain things well, and the politicians take advantage of them.

In a recent interview with Wired, Whitman College sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard, discussed the problem as it relates to climate change:

“Climate change is disturbing. It’s something we don’t want to think about. So what we do in our everyday lives is create a world where it’s not there, and keep it distant. For relatively privileged people like myself, we don’t have to see the impact in everyday life. I can read about different flood regimes in Bangladesh, or people in the Maldives losing their islands to sea level rise, or highways in Alaska that are altered as permafrost changes. But that’s not my life. We have a vast capacity for this. . .

“In order to have a positive sense of self-identity and get through the day, we’re constantly being selective of what we think about and pay attention to. To create a sense of a good, safe world for ourselves, we screen out all kinds of information, from where food comes from to how our clothes our made. When we talk with our friends, we talk about something pleasant. . .

“Stanford University psychologist Jon Krosnick has studied this, and showed that people stop paying attention to climate change when they realize there’s no easy solution. People judge as serious only those problems for which actions can be taken.

“Another factor is that we no longer have a sense of permanence. Another psychologist, Robert Lifton, wrote about what the existence of atomic bombs did to our psyche. There was a sense that the world could end at any moment.

“Global warming is the same in that it threatens the survival of our species. Psychologists tell us that it’s very important to have a sense of the continuity of life. That’s why we invest in big monuments and want our work to stand after we die and have our family name go on.

“That sense of continuity is being ruptured. But climate change has an added aspect that is very important. The scientists who built nuclear bombs felt guilt about what they did. Now the guilt is real for the broader public.”

And there is another aspect that psychologist Bruce E. Levine noted:

“When one already feels beaten down and demoralized, the likely response to the pain of shame is not constructive action, but more attempts to shut down or divert oneself from this pain. It is not likely that the truth of one’s humiliating oppression is going to energize one to constructive actions.

“In the United States, 47 million people are without health insurance, and many millions more are underinsured or a job layoff away from losing their coverage. But despite the current sellout by their elected officials to the insurance industry, there is no outpouring of millions of U.S. citizens on the streets of Washington, D.C., protesting this betrayal. . .

“U.S. citizens do not actively protest obvious injustices for the same reasons that people cannot leave their abusive spouses: They feel helpless to effect change. The more we don’t act, the weaker we get. . .

“The U.S. population is increasingly broken by the social isolation created by corporate-governmental policies. A 2006 American Sociological Review reported that, in 2004, 25 percent of Americans did not have a single confidant. (In 1985, 10 percent of Americans reported not having a single confidant.) . . .

“Today, increasing numbers of people in the U.S. who do not comply with authority are being diagnosed with mental illnesses and medicated with psychiatric drugs that make them less pained about their boredom, resentments, and other negative emotions, thus rendering them more compliant and manageable.. . .

“When human beings feel too terrified and broken to actively protest, they may stage a ‘passive-aggressive revolution’ by simply getting depressed, staying drunk, and not doing anything — this is one reason why the Soviet empire crumbled. However, the diseasing/medicalizing of rebellion and drug ‘treatments’ have weakened the power of even this passive-aggressive revolution.”

A good politics would recognize the problems and help people do something about them. For example, recycling has moved into our culture with little fuss; natural foods are prominently featured in supermarkets and buying locally makes both liberals and conservatives happy. But our politicians and media, from Obama on down, are tone deaf when it comes to climate change. They don’t know how to sing the song. And so they talk endlessly about cap and trade when most Americans don’t know what the hell it’s about. And so the right has a field day.

It’s the same way with healthcare. The healthcare bills have good parts but they are buried in payoffs to insurance companies, policies that raise unnecessary issues such as mandated purchase of insurance, and a massive indifference to the individual costs of some of the programs. So, again, the right has a field day. An earlier generation of Democratic politicians would have come up with something simpler and much more weighted toward what real people wanted. This crowd could never have gotten Social Security, a minimum wage or Medicare passed. They are too technocratic and autocratic. And they don’t know how to listen.

Many liberals think everyone opposed to them is just another Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly. But Noam Chomsky described it much better:

“If you look at those people and listen to them on talk radio, these are people with real grievances. I listen to talk radio a lot and it’s kind of interesting. If you can sort of suspend your knowledge of the world and just enter into the world of the people who are calling in, you can understand them. I’ve never seen a study, but my sense is that these are people who feel really aggrieved. These people think, ‘I’ve done everything right all my life, I’m a god-fearing Christian, I’m white, I’m male, I’ve worked hard, and I carry a gun. I do everything I’m supposed to do. And I’m getting shafted.’

“And in fact they are getting shafted. For 30 years their wages have stagnated or declined, the social conditions have worsened, the children are going crazy, there are no schools, there’s nothing, so somebody must be doing something to them, and they want to know who it is. Well – Rush Limbaugh has answered – it’s the rich liberals who own the banks and run the government, and of course run the media, and they don’t care about you-they just want to give everything away to illegal immigrants and gays and communists and so on.

“The reaction we should be having to them is not ridicule, but rather self-criticism. Why aren’t we organizing them? I mean, we are the ones that ought to be organizing them, not Rush Limbaugh. There are historical analogs, which are not exact, of course, but are close enough to be worrisome. This is a whiff of early Nazi Germany. Hitler was appealing to groups with similar grievances, and giving them crazy answers, but at least they were answers; these groups weren’t getting them anywhere else.

“The liberal Democrats aren’t going to tell the average American, ‘Yeah, you’re being shafted because of the policies that we’ve established over the years that we’re maintaining now.’ That’s not going to be an answer. And they’re not getting answers from the left. So, there’s an internal coherence and logic to what they get from Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the rest of these guys. And they sound very convincing, they’re very self-confident, and they have an answer to everything-a crazy answer, but it’s an answer. And it’s our fault if that goes on. So one thing to be done is don’t ridicule these people, join them, and talk about their real grievances and give them a sensible answer. . . ”

And Levine notes:

“When people get caught up in humiliating abuse syndromes, more truths about their oppressive humiliations don’t set them free. What sets them free is morale.

“What gives people morale? Encouragement. Small victories. Models of courageous behaviors. And anything that helps them break out of the vicious cycle of pain, shut down, immobilization, shame over immobilization, more pain, and more shut down.

“An elitist assumption is that people don’t change because they are either ignorant of their problems or ignorant of solutions. . . An elitist who has never been broken by his or her circumstances does not know that people who have become demoralized do not need analyses and pontifications. Rather the immobilized need a shot of morale.”

Where is the morale for these people coming from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party? It’s a rare commodity. Just consider how little attention liberals have paid of late to foreclosures, job loss, credit card interest rates and so forth? It’s so much easier just to dump on Glenn Beck and his viewers and feel superior about it.

So if the liberals won’t help the way they did in the New Deal and the Great Society, where is the help going to come from?

When politics fail, you need movements, movements formed around issues, not a political institution. Movements that deal with things people really care about – like where they are going to find a job or how they are going to keep their house – not things that are, at best, 23rd on their list like that “transparency” the Obamites never stop talking about.

It’s happened before. The abolition movement, union organizing, the civil rights movement, the 1960s. . . All you need is a big enough space – like the one the two parties have created – for someone else to fill.

And it doesn’t initially have to happen on a national level. In fact, it seldom does. The sit-ins of the civil rights movement and the anti-apartheid movement are examples of local action transforming a whole county. We are not limited by either Sarah Palin or Obama. We can create oases of environmental, economic and political decency wherever we live and with the aid of the Internet share what we’ve learned and learn what others have discovered. Along the way we may find allies we never expected, even ones who own guns and don’t like abortion.

If Obama can’t save you, as appears to be the case, maybe you’re part of a real answer. Why not give it a try?

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