News & Politics

Bruce Levine Says Americans Are Broken: Is He Right?

The disillusioned masses don't just need more morale, as Levine claims. We also need more truth and more intelligence.

Can people become so broken that truths of how they are being screwed do not "set them free" but instead further demoralize them? Has such a demoralization happened in the United States?

Bruce Levine’s thoughtful piece about why we’re not fighting back has hit a responsive cord among readers. I thank him for initiating this critical discourse about activism. In the spirit of open dialogue, I feel compelled to respectfully disagree with his basic analysis.

Political Action Doesn’t Fall From the Sky; It Requires Deliberate Political Infrastructure

Levine reminds us of how passive we seem to have been in the face of obvious injustices hurled our way. As he points out there was little to protest against the theft of the 2000 election by the Bush forces. He further points out that we are again missing the moment concerning health care -- that "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." (I recently asked similar questions about the lack of protest against the current Wall Street rip-offs. See, "Have We Forgotten How to March?")

Why aren’t we in motion? His deeply disturbing analysis deserves a closer look:

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. And ultimately to deal with the painful humiliation over inaction in the face of an oppressor, we move to shut-down mode and use escape strategies such as depression, substance abuse, and other diversions, which further keep us from acting. This is the vicious cycle of all abuse syndromes.

While this may describe individuals Levine has encountered, I can’t buy it as a political justification. I believe we can find more compelling reasons by looking at our own political infrastructures – our activists and leaders, our political parties – and not by analyzing “U.S. citizens" at large. These "abuse" brush strokes are too broad and cover up the detail we need to examine.

Mass demonstrations are almost always the product of hardcore organizing. (The major exceptions were the spontaneous riots that ripped through our country in the 1960s like the ones triggered by the assassination of Martin Luther King.)

Those who have been involved in organizing mass demonstrations know how much effort it takes. If the infrastructure to do all of this hard work is not in place, it’s an impossible task. Or if those who control the infrastructures (churches, unions, environmental groups, political parties, etc.) decide to sit it out, you won’t succeed very often. (Clearly, some moments are riper than others. In 1965, for example, the Students for a Democratic Society shocked themselves and everyone else when 50,000 turned out in Washington for their first anti-war demonstration. But it still took considerable resources that came from organized groups including the labor movement.)

Take the 2000 election that Levine uses as an example. The response from the Democrats and the Republicans was quite different. The Republicans flooded Florida with their top dogs who participated actively in the recounts. I can still recall Bob Dole glowering as he challenged every Democratic hanging chad. The Republicans also concocted faux demonstrations by flying in staff.

Meanwhile the Democrats relied on the legal process even though they could have organized massive demonstrations all over Florida. What did Al Gore, the leader of the entire party, do after the Supreme Court decision against him? Nothing. He meekly accepted the results and moved on. He refused to call us to join him for mass protests at the steps of the Supreme Court because he believed in the judicial process, however flawed. He refused to rock the system because he was so much a part of it.

You weren’t there and neither was I because of choices made by Gore and the Democratic Party, including its major constituent organizations. But I find it difficult to blame us or the American public for Gore’s lack of will. You know full well the Republicans would have fought to the bitter end. (Why don’t they suffer more from abuse syndrome?)

So rather than looking for the problem in the "American People" we should examine our failure to create and mobilize progressive infrastructures that have the wherewithal to organize large-scale protests (like the French seem to do with great regularity and success).

Do the Totalitarians Want Us to Know the Truth?

Bruce Levine offers an intriguing conjecture that totalitarians might be using the truth to beat us into submission, to further humiliate us into inaction: "Do some totalitarians actually want us to hear how we have been screwed because they know that humiliating passivity in the face of obvious oppression will demoralize us even further?"

To back up this point, he cites comments given by George W. Bush just before the 2000 election: "What a crowd tonight: the haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite; I call you my base."

This remark, Levine believes, should have angered us to the point of mass upheaval. And because we did not rise up, he cites this as a sign of our abuse syndrome. Further, he believes this suggests that Bush and company may have understood that the truth could be used to "demoralize us even further."

Wrong example. The speech was given at the bi-partisan $800-a-plate Al Smith dinner in New York on October 20, 2000, a few short weeks before an election that everyone knew would be close. This was no ordinary dinner and these were not your typical stump speeches. The Al Smith dinner tradition requires the major candidates from both parties to lampoon themselves. (See CBS News.)

In this speech Bush certainly was not a totalitarian banging us over the head with the truth. He was banging his own head for a laugh, which he got. Had he been serious, you can be sure that he and his advisers would not want that line to get out to the public in swing states just before an incredibly tight election. That kind of truth would have cost him the election.

But more to the point, I don’t think that Levine or anyone else can identify one totalitarian who uses the truth to humiliate and subjugate those they rule. Think for a moment of two infamous American leaders who leaned toward the totalitarian -- Dick Cheney and Dick Nixon. Their passion for secrecy and flat-out lying were legendary -- from Watergate to weapons of mass destruction to outing Valerie Plame. Lying to the public was their weapon of choice.

The record of totalitarian régimes in Italy, Spain, Germany and the Soviet Union shows a consistent and willful disregard and hatred for the truth. In fact, those who dominated those regimes constantly undermined the truth and destroyed those who put it forth. Victims of abusive relationships may become further debilitated by the truth, but victims of totalitarianism hunger for the truth, and are willing to die for it.

Who Are These Abused Americans?

We should be cautious whenever creating and using a massive category like "broken Americans." When you push on it, it can shatter.

The broken Americans group certainly doesn’t include those in the Tea Party (whom I wish would be more passive). The abused also don’t seem to include the extremely vociferous followers of Rush and Beck. Those folks are opinionated and confident in their points of view. If anything, many of them come across more like abusers than abused.

Clearly, the beaten-down passive group does not include the tens of thousands who are active in their unions each day, fighting against incredibly long odds. It doesn’t describe those who have spent the past several years fighting for health care reform. It doesn’t describe MoveOn.org and the thousands of people who registered voters and got out the vote for Obama. Nor does it describe the gay and lesbian activists fighting right now for same-sex marriage. It doesn’t describe the tens of thousands who are struggling to protect a woman’s right to choose, especially in battleground states like Nebraska and South Dakota. Also the category of abused, passive Americans doesn’t describe the millions of environmental activists who are extremely effective on a range of issues from global warming to toxic waste. And it doesn’t describe the many who have made difficult life choices to build the new world of organic farming and other sustainable products.

The list of activist groups goes on and on (and my apologies for the many who are not mentioned).

More to the point, I don’t believe "abuse syndrome" describes you -- the person who is reading this piece right now.

Then who does it describe? Levine points to those subjugated by financial debt, those without health insurance, those living in social isolation in the suburbs and those who have been turned from citizens into consumers. This is an amorphous grouping that covers just about everyone, except for all the counter-examples we could easily provide.

Yet Levine is tapping into a strong current that runs through our political discourse. We sense a growing fatalism -- a feeling that significant change is not possible even when our most basic institutions are failing. We are frustrated that Obama seems less of a change agent than hoped for. We wish more of us would be willing to fight back. So the image of the "broken American" seems like a reasonable explanation and I’m sure many of us have run into people who fit this description. But I urge us to take care in extrapolating from those anecdotal accounts to a general political account of "the American people." We are far too diverse, and I hope, far too resilient.

Does the Truth Set Us Free or Subjugate Us?

Perhaps Levine's most eye-popping claim, at least for me, is that the American people may be so broken that the truth will not set us free.

You can understand why this would get to me. Going after the truth, however murky, is what I try to do. I write because I’m trying to share an analysis, a sense of reality that I hope is as truthful as possible, as well as empowering. I work closely with editors and fact-checkers by choice because I want them to keep me honest. It’s very easy to twist the truth, to write propaganda, to get lost in ideology, to subjectively slant the analysis. So it will take one hell of an argument for me to stop trying, and I will have a great deal of internal resistance to thinking that it’s not a good idea to share the truth with the public, even with that segment who might be in the "abused" category.

Levine's discussion puts us into a kind of Catch 22 because he quite obviously is sharing a truth with us. But if the truth doesn’t set us free, why is he bothering to write to us? Aren’t we also suffering from too much truth? (You have debts? You live in the suburbs? You're a consumer?) If we’re not the abused, then who are "we" and who are "they"?

"They" seem to be "elitist helpers" who use the truth recklessly. For example, he writes:

Elitist helpers think they have done something useful by informing overweight people that they are obese and that they must reduce their caloric intake and increase exercise. 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.

But are Levine's readers and commentators the elitists or the broken? Do we need a heavy dose of Levine's "truth" or a "shot of morale"?

I vote for the truth, even Bruce Levine's provocative version. Because the alternative more often than not is not "a shot of morale" -- it is falsehood. If we are confused and immobilized, I’m willing to wager that the suffering is enhanced by being lied to again and again. We’ve been lied to about the economy. We’ve been lied to about Vietnam and Iraq. Lying is our public way of life. In fact lying and giving us a boost in morale often come packaged together -- I'm thinking of Reagan’s "Morning in America" and Contra-gate. I don’t think we know whether the truth will set more Americans free, because there has been so little of it coming from public officials.

But let me pose a more basic question to you: Do you find the truth empowering or debilitating? If you think the truth is extremely valuable, then what makes you so different from the rest of America? To me the very definition of elitist is someone who withholds the truth because he or she doesn’t think the other person can handle it. Democracy means that we have to handle the truth, painful or not, syndrome or not.

So What Do We Do?

Levine's analysis offers a way forward that involves building "morale" through "small victories." That's not good enough. The pursuit of the little ball right now, I believe, is a colossal organizing mistake.

Much of organizing for the past generation has focused on "small victories." Following the teachings of Saul Alinsky, community organizers were trained to produce small concrete results to keep those we organized from becoming discouraged. As the small victories mounted, some organizations like ACORN, the Industrial Areas Foundation and others would build up the victories to influence higher and higher levels of policy -- from the local schools to city minimum wage campaigns to state programs to provide health care for kids.

Many community organizers did not feel that they or their constituents needed any education about the shape of the entire economy or the role of Wall Street since their organizations were not poised to influence that level of policy. It seemed like a waste of time since the American economy was unlikely to collapse. The 1930s were long gone. (The WTO protests in Seattle seem like a major exception but that massive effort had considerable support from the labor movement, especially the Steelworkers.)

Our organizing strategy needs to be enlarged. We need both small victories and we need big picture agendas and struggles. When the economic system nearly collapsed, we didn't know how to respond, in part because we had ignored those questions for too long. The banking elites certainly knew how to respond; they engineered the largest transfer of wealth since slavery. To focus on small victories right now, I believe, will give bigger and bigger victories to the financial elites.

The Tea Party folks got it together in a hurry, but progressives seem at a loss. But that doesn’t have to be a permanent condition and it has nothing to do with abuse syndrome. Rather we have to relearn how to develop broad agendas and campaigns like progressives did to usher in the New Deal. Building an economic agenda with popular resonance won't come easy. But if we don’t challenge the very fundamentals of Wall Street finance, we will enter what I'm calling the "billionaire bailout society," where the wealthy get to amass vast riches, gamble to gain even more, and then use the rest of us as a piggy bank to bail them out when they lose. To me, that’s fundamentally abusive.

Here’s the rub. I suspect one of the reasons we’re not in motion is that we feel intimidated by the financial elite and their complex financial casinos. We don’t just need more morale. We need more information, more truth, and I intend to do all I can to share what I can with you. We need to build up our economic literacy so that we can duke it out with the big boys.

If I’m contributing to your abuse syndrome, I apologize. But I doubt that I am. I have the confidence that as we educate each other we will develop new modes of activism to challenge the beast. In fact, that may be our biggest problem. The old ways of protest don’t seem to fit our new realities, but we don’t yet know how to combine our many new communication tools to make our defiant voices heard. It may take a generation or two, but we’ll find a way, because ultimately we have no choice.

The truth may not set us free right away, but it drives us forward. And what else do we really have besides each other and the truth?

Let’s drink to that and to Bruce Levine for prodding us forward. Happy New Year!

Les Leopold is the executive director of the Labor Institute and Public Health Institute in New York, and author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity—and What We Can Do About It (Chelsea Green, 2009).

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