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Are Progressives Depressed or Too Privileged to Produce Social Change? Or Are We Just Failing to Organize Effectively?

Real change seems almost impossible. What are we doing wrong?

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The last people I would turn to for help in remobilizing a demoralized population are mental health professionals -- at least those who have not rebelled against their professional socialization. Much of the craft of relighting the pilot light requires talents that mental health professionals simply are not selected for nor are they trained in. Specifically, the talents required are a fearlessness around image, spontaneity, and definitely anti-authoritarianism. But these are not the traits that medical schools or graduate schools select for or encourage.

Mental health professionals' focus on symptoms and feelings often create patients who take themselves and their moods far too seriously. In contrast, people talented in the craft of maintaining morale resist this kind of self-absorption. For example, in the question-and-answer session that followed a Noam Chomsky talk (reported in  Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, 2002), a somewhat demoralized man in the audience asked Chomsky if he too ever went through a phase of hopelessness. Chomsky responded, "Yeah, every evening . . ."

If you want to feel hopeless, there are a lot of things you could feel hopeless about. If you want to sort of work out objectively what's the chance that the human species will survive for another century, probably not very high. But I mean, what's the point? . . . First of all, those predictions don't mean anything -- they're more just a reflection of your mood or your personality than anything else. And if you act on that assumption, then you're guaranteeing that'll happen. If you act on the assumption that things can change, well, maybe they will. Okay, the only rational choice, given those alternatives, is to forget pessimism."

A major component of the craft of maintaining morale is not taking the advertised reality too seriously. In the early 1960s, when the overwhelming majority in the U.S. supported military intervention in Vietnam, Chomsky was one of a minority of U.S. citizens actively opposing it. Looking back at this era, Chomsky reflected, "When I got involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement, it seemed to me impossible that we would ever have any effect. . . So looking back, I think my evaluation of the 'hope' was much too pessimistic: it was based on a complete misunderstanding. I was sort of believing what I read."

An elitist assumption is that people don't change because they are either ignorant of their problems or ignorant of solutions. 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.

Bruce E. Levine

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

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).

Bruce E. Levine is a clinical psychologist whose latest book is Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007). His Web site is www.brucelevine.net

 
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