Personal Health

How Much Damage Has Eight Years of Conservative Rule Done to Americans' Psyches?

The Bush administration used a politics of fear to diminish our ability to think critically and to erode our capacity to love.
When I was a teen growing up in Schenectady, N.Y., during the early '70s, I had an alcoholic neighbor whose favorite saying was, "The trouble with people is that they are no damn good." I was friends with his son, and whenever I'd go over to hang out at his house, his father would sidle up to me as though we were in a cocktail lounge, put his hand on my shoulder, and mutter his cranky credo.

I didn't immediately make the connection between his soft-spoken, liquor-laced presentation and my own father's hard, locked-in mistrust of people and the world. But I realize now that if drink could have loosened my father's tongue, he probably would have said the same thing.

As a child, my father experienced the anti-Semitism of the Poles and then barely escaped the Holocaust, fleeing Warsaw with his family just one week before Hitler invaded. Still, that doesn't explain everything. Anne Frank, born five years after my father, got trapped in the same genocide he escaped. And yet, holed up in her hiding place with Nazis prowling the streets below, she wrote in her diary, "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart."

I don't think she was naive. On the same page, she writes of feeling "the suffering of millions," of being able to hear the "ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too." Yet she held onto her belief in the goodness of humanity.

Over the years I've come to realize how much our basic opinion about humanity has vast repercussions -- not only on our personal lives, but also on our politics. If you assume people are "no damn good," you will probably favor more police officers and prisons, and you may not see anything wrong with capital punishment. You will also favor fences, walls and barriers of all kinds, and believe that it is prudent and perhaps necessary to own a gun. It's likely you will have supported George W. Bush in his pre-emptive war against Iraq, maybe even after you learned that he depended on lies and deceptions to carry it out. After all, life is about choosing the lesser of two evils.

And what if you think that people are "really good at heart"? Though you may be a dove, you will not necessarily be a starry-eyed dreamer. Many of those making the most basic contributions to society fall into this category: nurses, teachers, social workers, counselors. These individuals typically believe that it's better to rehabilitate people than to lock them up, and that negotiation and diplomacy are better than the use of tactics of domination and the last resort of war. They see true peace and security arising from goodwill and generosity, and probably keep a good book rather than a gun by their pillow.

I don't mean to suggest that everyone falls solidly into one category or the other. We have all internalized both attitudes to some degree, and they vie for ascendancy, depending on what is happening in our lives, and in the larger world. In times of peace and harmony we find more people agreeing with Anne Frank. In times of suspicion and mistrust, such as we find ourselves facing now, my alcoholic neighbor's rant has the world's ear.

It's not because of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Yes, 9/11 was a defining moment, but there were many ways we could have defined it. The way the Bush administration chose has made us more afraid and has given us more to fear. All the wonderful promise of a new millennium has been subsumed by alerts of yellow, orange and red.

There are many ways to make our country a safer and more secure place. As Samantha Collier, chief medical officer of HealthGrades, points out, far more people die each year from hospital errors than died when the Twin Towers fell. According to Collier, "The equivalent of 390 jumbo jets full of people are dying each year due to preventable, in-hospital medical errors, making this one of the leading killers in the United States."

But hospital errors, infant mortality, AIDS and a host of other threats have not been a priority for Bush. Nor does it seem they will be for McCain if he gets elected.

We are fighting the "War on Terror." Fixated on the "War on Terror." Spending our money on the "War on Terror." Not questioning what it actually means to fight a "War on Terror." Not noticing that the very expression "War on Terror" is an absurd Orwellian oxymoron.

Granted, 9/11 triggered a big "fight or flight" reaction, and when we are swept up in fear, our immediate and only concern is with security. Aggression is processed in the same part of the brain as fear, and it kicks in during the "fight" response, as was evident in the aftermath of 9/11. When an entire population feels threatened, group psychology comes into play, increasing the possibility that a strong leader will be able to exert undue influence upon the masses.

The Bush administration took advantage of all these psychological vulnerabilities. Knowing that much of our capacity for critical thinking would get washed away in the adrenaline, they methodically exploited our fears in order to push forward their radical corporatist agenda. But beyond the body count in Iraq and other physical casualties lies the deeper, invisible erosion of our capacity to love.

I don't think I need to make a case that love is as compelling a psychological factor as fear and aggression. Many others have already done this, including the man Bush places his faith in, the one who exhorted his followers to love their enemies.

However, in order to harness the power of love in a civic context, we have to be able to see the good in others: to recognize that those whom we perceive as a threat, i.e. "the terrorists," are human beings too and might even have their good sides.

Take the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. Though their members have been implicated in suicide attacks and their charter calls for jihad, much of the everyday work they perform involves helping their people. No doubt some of the aid they provide allows them an opportunity to indoctrinate recipients into their ideology. But does that totally cancel out its value?

An official document by the Israel Foreign Ministry indicates that Hamas' non-terrorist activities include "an extensive education network, massive activity in institutions of higher learning, distribution of basic foodstuffs 'for the holidays,' youth camps, sports, care for the elderly, scholarships, sponsorship of light industry and religious services under Hamas' sponsorship."

Although I condemn Hamas' terrorist actions and abhor the kind of fundamentalist thinking that calls for the destruction of Israel, I'm also aware they are doing good work among their own people, and thus have some human decency. Is this such a terrible thing to acknowledge -- or are we no longer willing or able to handle such complexities?

When we read about gang members, whether in nonfiction such as Freakonomics or in the creative work of, say, Richard Price, they are presented as human beings, albeit human beings who often do terrible things. Yet the criminals Bush is obsessed with are people from another culture who speak another language. There's a lot we don't understand about them, and he and his staff have been able to fill that vacuum with pure fear. Thus it has been very easy for them to demonize certain people and organizations, and thereby create a vastly more polarized world.

I acknowledge that there have been individuals who are almost entirely evil. But a Hitler is as rare as a Mother Teresa. To snap everyone onto either side of the moral grid -- as if most of them don't belong somewhere in the middle -- is the modus operandi of fanatics, propagandists and warmongers.

People with some degree of wisdom understand that nearly everyone is an alloy of good and evil. They recognize, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that "the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts." They also recognize that most people do not want to live in a world where "people are no damn good" and where fear, anger, hatred and war prevail.

Perhaps the hardest truth for progressives to face is how the profound political and moral disappointments of the last eight years have eroded our own sense of hope and our own belief that the electorate can become more informed and less divided. We, too, hate "the Other," but it is the guy in the grocery store with a hunting jacket and six-pack, or the woman behind us at the gas pump with a "Rush is Right" sticker on her Suburban. We, too, have swallowed the banefully binary worldview of the present administration that reduces everything to "us" and "them."

This touches on a confounding problem, one that helps to explain how things have gotten so tangled up: Those of us who have the gumption to push for social or political change encounter formidable obstacles that sometimes discourage us to the point of burnout.

On a personal and neighborly level, in seeking to love, or at least to have friendly relations, we inevitably encounter disappointment, hurt and pain. We want to trust, but we're afraid to trust. We want to lay down our arms, but we want the feared and despised other to lay down their arms first. We want to create a beautiful world, but we think that there are too many people who are going to mess it up, and we hate them for that, thereby marring our idealistic vision before we've even lifted a finger to materialize it.

This leads to a lot of disillusioned idealists. Many people who set out to change the world are changed by the world into cynics or worse. Yet it doesn't have to be that way. The most effective social reformers have been able to transform their idealism into something resilient and enduring.

I believe that an important prerequisite for this is to have, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, "a deep and abiding faith in humanity." Indeed, the entire American experiment in democracy would have been unthinkable had the framers of our Constitution simply believed that "people are no damn good."

And yet it is difficult in these times to feel our own goodness. The validity of torture as a political tool is debated on the front pages of our newspapers, as our president smilingly strips away huge swaths of our constitutional rights. When our highest elected officials act shamefully and irresponsibly in our name, it has to take a toll on our psyches. And, indeed, in some ways our reputation with ourselves has fallen as low as our reputation with the rest of the world. This is what happens when one has a government in which corrupt people are on top while persons of integrity are subservient or shunted aside.

The fact remains, however, that there are some truly great people in the United States, and a multitude of people with high ideals and a willingness to sacrifice for the good of all. Our leadership simply doesn't reflect us.

When Bush got in, all the neocons came out of the closet, but if Barack Obama wins, their divisive strategies will be challenged. The White House will no longer welcome or be a home to born-again bigots, torture apologists, habeas corpus revokers and the rest of the industriofascist entourage. I also expect that censored truth commissions, muzzled scientists, harassed librarians, bought appointees and coerced generals will cease to be an issue under Obama's leadership. As he extricates us from Iraq, perhaps he could deliver us and the Iraqis from the Shock and Awe strategists, Blackwater barbarians and Halliburton robber barons.

But none of this can happen without our making a renewed commitment to once again throw ourselves into the struggle and subject our hearts to the dizzying roller-coaster whereby our dreams are brought within our grasp, but might just as suddenly be snatched away.

A crucial part of our work will be to resurrect our essential vision of human goodness, and specifically our own goodness as a nation. This is something Obama alluded to repeatedly in his speech at the Democratic National Convention, reminding us that "we are better than these last eight years. We are a better country than this."

But what if McCain wins, and we have, to quote Hillary Clinton, "four more years ... of the last eight years"? We will then have to ask ourselves if it is possible to continue to hold out hope for humanity -- for ourselves, our country and the world -- after our hopes have been dashed again and again and again.

The answer is yes; in fact, this was the attitude of the Holocaust rescuers whom I interviewed, including two who had been arrested by the Gestapo and ended up in concentration camps. They felt that the Nazis may have occupied their country and perhaps even captured their bodies, but couldn't break their spirits. By continuing to believe in the goodness of humanity, they implicitly rejected the Nazis' ghastly worldview and inhumane conception of what it is to be human.

Bush's reign of error has not been nearly as horrific -- for those living on U.S. soil, at least -- but he has done more harm than any U.S. president in my lifetime, and possibly in the history of our nation. It appears that McCain would continue Bush's policies, as well as the underlying attitudes behind them. For instance, at a recent religious forum, Obama and McCain were each asked how they would deal with "evil." Obama stated that evil must be confronted, while noting that a lot of evil has been done in the name of good, and that good intentions are not sufficient to ensure a good outcome. McCain gave a purely militaristic response, identifying evil specifically with "radical Islamic extremism" and vowing to "totally" defeat it. Included was his well-worn line to pursue Osama bin Laden "to the gates of hell."

Even in the event of a McCain victory, however, we must not sink to the level of our leadership. And if the outcome of this election causes us to adopt a cynical attitude toward humanity and succumb to the belief that our fellow citizens are hopelessly misguided, ignorant or "no damn good," or that our political process is hopelessly corrupt, we eliminate the possibility that things will ever change for the better. On a personal level, we sentence ourselves to never really trusting other human beings. Ultimately, we forfeit everything that makes life worth living.

My father never did find the key to unlock his heart. His body wracked with cancer and more emaciated than I'd ever imagined possible, he looked in death uncannily like the concentration camp victim he always feared he might become. My high school friend found me after more than 30 years (the Internet is good that way) and told me, among other things, that his father had died 20 years before. We are both fathers now ourselves: His children are about the same age as he and I were back in Schenectady, while I, having remarried in my mid-40s, am only just now for the first time raising a family.

I'm curious to find out what my old friend thinks about people, having grown up with a father whose mantra was that they are no damn good. As for me, I'm grateful that, unlike my father, I do not have any deeply rooted fears born of trauma, and that the life-affirming worldview I struggled to establish in my youth has stood the test of time. I recognize, though, that the challenge of calibrating my faith in humanity is more formidable than I'd once imagined. I wonder whether I'll be able to impart to my own children an attitude toward human nature that brings out the best in them and everyone whose lives they touch, while preparing them for their inevitable encounters with various forms of evil.

When I look into my baby girl's trusting eyes, or see the ecstatic smile of my 3-year-old son playing with his friends, I can't help but believe that people are really good at heart. When I read the history of civilization, I am reminded that they often are not, especially when they act en masse. And when I watch the news, I have to question what business I have inflicting a world like this onto my children.

I suppose I could cycle back and forth between these positions until my children are on their way to college and I'm on my way to the grave, but instead I'm going to recommit myself to what I think is the spiritual bottom line: that it is up to each of us to infuse life with meaning -- to choose life. Anne Frank, young as she was, understood this. The sentence that follows her quote about people really being good at heart reads, "I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery, and death." And neither can I, or you, or anyone.
Mark Klempner is a social commentator, historian and author of The Heart Has Reasons: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage. He would like to thank James McConkey and others who commented on an early version of this piece: Amy Denham, Paul Glover, Gerry McCarthy, Alice McDowell, Nicole Sault and Richard Silverstein.
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