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

News & Politics

A few weeks ago Bruce Levine wrote a provocative article titled "Are Americans a Broken People? Why We've Stopped Fighting Back Against the Forces of Oppression." Levine suggested that many progressives and much of the general population may be so broken by the system that they've given up hope and become passive. He uses the metaphor of an abusive relationship, in which lack of hope and the sense that nothing matters make people passive instead of angry.

Levine, a radical psychotherapist practicing in Cincinnati, Ohio, has carved out a popular niche with readers, writing about psychological issues related to politics and change. Two of his most-read articles are "The Case for Giving Eli Lilly the Corporate Death Penalty" and " Has American Society Gone Insane?"

Longtime labor organizer and economic thinker Les Leopold, whose recent book The Looting of America was excerpted on AlterNet, took offense to Levine's article and wrote a response. While calling Levine's argument an eyeopener, Leopold wrote that he has not experienced the passivity Levine describes in labor unions and among progressives. Leopold insists that progress will come from the hard work of organizing: building infrastructure, connecting issues and thinking big. We can't count on people like Al Gore, who was passive after the 2000 election, and Barack Obama.

Levine crafted a counterresponse to Leopold. In his rejoinder, Levine made a case that there are two classes of progressives. One group is highly educated and relatively well off. They are often older, like Levine and Leopold, and do not have alienating jobs. They tend to enjoy certain privileges and have fairly good access to health care, etc. In another group are those who are truly hurting from the breakdown of the economic system.

Levine suggests that the more privileged progressives may be in denial about the difficulties that working-class people experience; young people who can't find jobs and are burdened by heavy debt from college loans; older people who saw a lot of their savings evaporate when the stock market fell or their companies ended their pensions.

Needless to say, some fundamental questions are being asked here. Are progressives collectively depressed and incapable of action, depleted by the relentless corporate machine? How much of progressive inaction is a consequence of how comfortable the progressive elite is, and the gap between affluent progressives and younger, less prosperous progressives; especially those who do not work in the nonprofit sector? How effective are the cherished, fundamental principles of organizing and social change against the power of the banks, health care corporations and tens of thousands of lobbyists? Is the basic organizing model no longer applicable? Does it need revision, or is it simply a matter of applying it more effectively and trying harder?

Like most important debates, there is no one truth, and Leopold and Levine both make important and provocative arguments. On the one hand, resources are not going to be more fairly distributed and corporations are not going to be held accountable unless there is more effective mobilizing with both grassroots pressure and in the electoral arena. But at this point what is the path to change? Especially when disenchantment with Obama seems to breed cynicism and withdrawal, rather than anger and action?

Is traditional organizing for social change feasible in the current environment? And how might it happen, especially given Levine's suggestion that elite progressives are too comfortable to be in the streets fighting for poor people or against wars with a voluntary army, which provide employment to many young people at a time when jobs are scarce.

While I admire Les Leopold's principles, I wish they were more effective at this point in history. And I do think progressives have minimized the class question. As a consequence, some of us have a hard time imagining, or perhaps don't want to think about, how hard it is for tens of millions of people in this country to just get by.

After all, most of us who have jobs in the nonprofit sector, in progressive media and philanthropy are well paid, or at least decently paid. Almost all of us have health care, and very likely dental and vision, and even extra goodies. With some notable exceptions there has not been widespread job loss in the nonprofit sector. People with college degrees in general are doing much better than the population at large.

AlterNet writer Adele Stan tackled this class disparity in "Shocking: High School Grads Twice As Likely To Be Jobless Than College Grads – and Right-Wingers are Profiting From Their Pain," underscoring the fact that college graduates in general fare much better in economic downturns and are therefore often unaware of the pain suffered by those without degrees.

It could be argued that many of us in the idea, media and funding industries live, operate and succeed in a bubble. We mostly interact with peers who are also well educated -- many at the best colleges -- and often have graduate degrees. Many of us boomers are incredibly privileged, even in comparison to our younger, well-educated brethren, because the cost of being educated and credentialed was so much cheaper 30 years ago. And of course many in our sector come from upper-middle-class families to begin with.

I know this scenario doesn't apply across the board, not even close. There are many people working in the trenches, battling tough issues, working with the poor, who are not privileged by any stretch of the imagination. But there is a major class gap in the nonprofit, media, philanthropic sector, and it may be having a significant impact when we wonder why change is so difficult. What is the solution to this possible dilemma? There is no easy answer. But thinking about it and reflecting on our lifestyles, our privilege, and how we spend and redistribute our hard-earned cash is certainly a place to start.

The three pieces by Levine and Leopold follow in order of the most recent -- Levine's response to Leopold's critique of Levine's original article. If this is a new discussion for you, and you want to start from the beginning, scroll down until you get to Levine's original piece. Assuming this back and forth provokes comments and varying opinions, we will produce a followup article with the thoughts and ideas from readers.

Don Hazen

BRUCE E. LEVINE: 'A Response to Les Leopold: Comforting the Afflicted, Afflicting the Comfortable'

A friend in the clergy once told me, “I see my job as comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” It is my experience that among progressives, there are both the afflicted and the comfortable. At different times in my life, I have been in each group and have found that my level of affliction and comfort affects my exhortations.

The afflicted know they are being screwed but feel that they have no voice, no platform, and that they are powerless to change their powerlessness. They may work at alienating, mindless jobs in order to hold on to their health insurance for the sake of a sick spouse or kid; or they may be hustling three poorly paying jobs to pay college loans, rent and a car payment, and have no time for activism; or they may be unable to find even a poorly paying, mindless, alienating job, and are helplessly watching the tsunamis of foreclosure and bankruptcy close in on them. Afflicted progressives include young people, older people, good people and smart people -- all feeling voiceless and helpless to end their helplessness.

While I have been in that afflicted group for part of my 53 years on the planet, in my last couple of decades, I have gradually been inching into the comfortable group. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in New York City (Arverne in Rockaway) which both Democrat and Republican politicians fucked up into a jobless, impoverished, third-world wasteland, as powerless parents watched helplessly. Throughout my junior high school and high school years, I had that scared, helpless, powerless feeling that comes from worrying about my draft lottery number, and knowing that the bastards -- especially Kissinger and Nixon -- couldn’t care less if I was maimed or killed in Vietnam. Then in my 20s in clinical psychology graduate school, I felt like I had exchanged a wasteland neighborhood for a wasteland profession that was increasingly about manipulating, modifying and medicating alienated people to fit into an automaton society.

I no longer feel so powerless. I get to write articles for CounterPunch, AlterNet, Z Magazine, Huffington Post and other publications that give me a platform and a voice. If I actually got paid for these articles, I would be disgustingly comfortable. However, in order to make a living, I still must partake in shit-eating financial dealings with the health care-industrial-complex. But what I actually do in my practice itself is not alienating. So while I have burned too many professional bridges to allow for a comfortable prof job, I am far more comfortable than I once was -- and far less afflicted and demoralized than many other people. Comfortable enough to be helpfully afflicted by certain truths.

Years ago, I read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and its most powerfully afflicting truth for me was not anything about distant U.S. history but something relevant to the present:

In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going: the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers....They become the guards of the system....If they stop obeying, the system falls.

Zinn is absolutely right. Most of my clinical psychologist training was pretty much about socializing me to be a "guard of the system." So thank you, Howard, for that great affliction.

I don’t know how financially comfortable Les Leopold is, but I know that he has a platform, as I do. He writes for some of the same 'zines I do, and we have both published books with the same publisher. He also has what appears to be a non-alienating job as director of two nonprofit educational organizations (the Labor Institute and the Public Health Institute). So by my standards, Les is comfortable and should be able to handle some affliction.

Les begins his critique of my article with this: “I feel compelled to respectfully disagree with his basic analysis." Les then explains that "political action doesn’t fall from the sky; it requires deliberate political infrastructure." Who can disagree with that? Not me. The question is, why is powerful action not happening?

Les sees the answer in our "political infrastructures – our activists and leaders, our political parties – and not by analyzing "U.S. citizens’ at large." If Les is simply pissed off at the failure of activists, leaders and political parties, I have no quarrel with him. However, shouldn’t all of us -- including U.S. citizens at large – be part of the "political infrastructure"?

I am glad Les does not shame U.S. citizens at large, but I have trouble understanding why he doesn’t want to recognize the demoralization of many of them, understand its root causes, and then confront the institutional sources that break people’s spirit of resistance.

Les also makes the point that there are many Americans who don’t feel broken. He offers up the Tea Party folks whom he wishes were broken and passive, as well as progressive activists whom he celebrates. Again, of course there are some Americans who don’t feel broken and demoralized. The point of my article was that there are many, many Americans who do feel broken, and that comfortable progressives are doing a disservice by not taking this seriously.

Comfortable progressives often seem afraid to acknowledge the experience of helplessness and demoralization, as if acknowledging the existence of that state actually creates defeatism and sanctions inaction. Not true. People’s pain needs to be validated before they are receptive to any kind of suggestion. The good, smart people I know who are caught up in this state of helplessness are not moved to action by lectures about the history of successful movements and advice to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I wish they were so moved (that would be an easy fix), but more often those kinds of lectures are a turnoff.

Comfortable progressives must realize that while we've been in tough times before, there are certain forces in today’s society that may be making people – especially young people -- feel more broken and weaker.

I was able to get a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. from public institutions between 1973 and 1985 without any parental financial support and without accruing any debt. Today, because of the dramatic rise of tuition, I would likely have a mountain of debt. I know for sure that if I had walked out into the job world with that mountain of debt, it would have been far less likely that I would have had the balls to "un-network" myself by calling out my colleagues on their diseasing-of-rebellion bullshit.

Les seems especially upset by the idea that truths don’t always set people free. Truths do sometimes set people free, especially when people are not broken. Certainly Tom Paine's truths in Common Sense energized many people. However, does Les think that African-American slaves on a plantation or Jews in a concentration camp could have freed themselves if only they had heard all the truths of their oppression? Les is too smart of a guy to actually feel that way. Encouraging liberation sometimes means offering compassion to people who, for the time being, have almost no chance to successfully resist.

“I will fight no more forever,” said Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce after the failure of his valiant effort to resist invading U.S. government troops. Certainly, Les can have compassion for Chief Joseph’s feeling of brokenness. This famous line in Chief Joseph’s surrender speech has become, ironically, an energizing rallying cry for many Native Americans. Chief Joseph’s statement is a powerful weapon that inflicts the pain of shame on the U.S. government for its attempts at genocide and subjugation of Native Americans.

Maybe some of America’s young people who feel broken do have just enough energy to march in front of the Capitol and the White House with signs and T-shirts saying, "You corporate whores win. You have fucked with our lives so much that we too will fight no more forever." Perhaps, for a couple of the corporate whores who have not yet become completely soulless (that leaves out soulless scumbags like Joseph Lieberman), this kind of shaming pain of a million kids would have some impact. Maybe not. Who knows? It would be an interesting experiment.

I am surprised that Les minimizes the value of small victories: “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."

While Les, thankfully, sees some value in small victories, he feels we have more important needs. He says, “We need more information, more truth, and I intend to do all I can to share what I can with you."

I get energized by small victories. I would be energized, for example, if the Nez Perce grabbed back, via cash or lawsuits, a few thousand acres of their stolen land. Could Les be even a little encouraged and energized -- and a little bit encouraging -- to a group of teenagers who successfully “collectively bargained" with their McDonald’s supervisor for 15 more minutes each day for a break?

Like Les, I too love truth. One of a writer's great motivations is discovering and telling the truth. Besides the egotistical motive of being perceived as insightful, the altruistic motive is that something good will surely come out of people knowing it. I wish my declaring the truth of people's personal abusive relationships or systemic corporate-governmental oppression was enough to set them free. However, the deeper truth is that these kinds of truths are often impotent and sometimes even shaming -- not exactly a great recruiting tactic. My point -- which many of the afflicted seemed to get and many who are comfortable did not -- is that many activists have become lazy, pursuing only easy truths.

What if the fact that we are getting screwed by the various governmental-industrial complexes is not a revelatory truth but one that, as singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen says, "Everybody knows”? What if the more important question is one that focuses on the forces in our society that are demoralizing us and what we can do about this so as to regain morale and energy?

Maybe it’s not only the job of my clergy buddy but the job of all of us to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Hopefully, each year we gain greater wisdom in making that afflicted-comfortable distinction.

Bruce E. Levine

LES LEOPOLD: 'Bruce Levine Says Americans Are Broken: Is He Right?'

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 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


BRUCE E. LEVINE: 'Are Americans a Broken People? Why We've Stopped Fighting Back Against the Forces of Oppression'

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?

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?

What forces have created a demoralized, passive, dis-couraged U.S. population?

Can anything be done to turn this around?

Can people become so broken that truths of how they are being screwed do not "set them free" but instead further demoralize them?

Yes. It is called the "abuse syndrome." How do abusive pimps, spouses, bosses, corporations and governments stay in control? They shove lies, emotional and physical abuses, and injustices in their victims' faces, and when victims are afraid to exit from these relationships, they get weaker. So the abuser then makes their victims eat even more lies, abuses, and injustices, resulting in victims even weaker as they remain in these relationships.

Does knowing the truth of their abuse set people free when they are deep in these abuse syndromes?

No. For victims of the abuse syndrome, the truth of their passive submission to humiliating oppression is more than embarrassing; it can feel shameful -- and there is nothing more painful than shame. 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.

Has such a demoralization happened in the U.S.?

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.

Polls show that the majority of Americans oppose U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the taxpayer bailout of the financial industry, yet only a handful of U.S. citizens have protested these circumstances.

Remember the 2000 U.S. presidential election? That's the one in which Al Gore received 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush. That's also the one that the Florida Supreme Court's order for a recount of the disputed Florida vote was overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court in a politicized 5-4 decision, of which dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens remarked: "Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law." Yet, even this provoked few demonstrators.

When people become broken, they cannot act on truths of injustice. Furthermore, when people have become broken, more truths about how they have been victimized can lead to shame about how they have allowed it. And shame, like fear, is one more way we become even more psychologically broken.

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.

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?


Shortly before the 2000 U.S. presidential election, millions of Americans saw a clip of George W. Bush joking to a wealthy group of people, "What a crowd tonight: the haves and the haves-more. Some people call you the elite; I call you my base." Yet, even with these kind of inflammatory remarks, the tens of millions of U.S. citizens who had come to despise Bush and his arrogance remained passive in the face of the 2000 non-democratic presidential elections.

Perhaps the "political genius" of the Bush-Cheney regime was in their full realization that Americans were so broken that the regime could get away with damn near anything. And the more people did nothing about the boot slamming on their faces, the weaker people became.

What forces have created a demoralized, passive, discouraged U.S. population?

The U.S. government-corporate partnership has used its share of guns and terror to break Native Americans, labor union organizers, and other dissidents and activists. But today, most U.S. citizens are broken by financial fears. There is potential legal debt if we speak out against a powerful authority, and all kinds of other debt if we do not comply on the job. Young people are broken by college-loan debts and fear of having no health insurance.

The U.S. population is increasingly broken by the social isolation created by corporate-governmental policies. A 2006 American Sociological Review study ("Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades") 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.) Sociologist Robert Putnam, in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone, describes how social connectedness is disappearing in virtually every aspect of U.S. life. For example, there has been a significant decrease in face-to-face contact with neighbors and friends due to suburbanization, commuting, electronic entertainment, time and money pressures and other variables created by governmental-corporate policies. And union activities and other formal or informal ways that people give each other the support necessary to resist oppression have also decreased.

We are also broken by a corporate-government partnership that has rendered most of us out of control when it comes to the basic necessities of life, including our food supply. And we, like many other people in the world, are broken by socializing institutions that alienate us from our basic humanity. A few examples:

Schools and Universities: Do most schools teach young people to be action-oriented -- or to be passive? Do most schools teach young people that they can affect their surroundings -- or not to bother? Do schools provide examples of democratic institutions -- or examples of authoritarian ones?

A long list of school critics from Henry David Thoreau to John Dewey, John Holt, Paul Goodman, Jonathan Kozol, Alfie Kohn, Ivan Illich, and John Taylor Gatto have pointed out that a school is nothing less than a miniature society: what young people experience in schools is the chief means of creating our future society. Schools are routinely places where kids -- through fear -- learn to comply to authorities for whom they often have no respect, and to regurgitate material they often find meaningless. These are great ways of breaking someone.

Today, U.S. colleges and universities have increasingly become places where young people are merely acquiring degree credentials -- badges of compliance for corporate employers -- in exchange for learning to accept bureaucratic domination and enslaving debt.

Mental Health Institutions: Aldous Huxley predicted today's pharmaceutical societyl "[I]t seems to me perfectly in the cards," he said, "that there will be within the next generation or so a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude."

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.

Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is an increasingly popular diagnosis for children and teenagers. The official symptoms of ODD include, "often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules," and "often argues with adults." An even more common reaction to oppressive authorities than the overt defiance of ODD is some type of passive defiance -- for example, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Studies show that virtually all children diagnosed with ADHD will pay attention to activities that they actually enjoy or that they have chosen. In other words, when ADHD-labeled kids are having a good time and in control, the "disease" goes away.

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.

Television: In his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1978), Jerry Mander (after reviewing totalitarian critics such as George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Jacques Ellul, and Ivan Illich) compiled a list of the "Eight Ideal Conditions for the Flowering of Autocracy."

Mander claimed that television helps create all eight conditions for breaking a population. Television, he explained, (1) occupies people so that they don't know themselves -- and what a human being is; (2) separates people from one another; (3) creates sensory deprivation; (4) occupies the mind and fills the brain with prearranged experience and thought; (5) encourages drug use to dampen dissatisfaction (while TV itself produces a drug-like effect, this was compounded in 1997 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration relaxing the rules of prescription-drug advertising); (6) centralizes knowledge and information; (7) eliminates or "museumize" other cultures to eliminate comparisons; and (8) redefines happiness and the meaning of life.

Commercialism of Damn Near Everything: While spirituality, music, and cinema can be revolutionary forces, the gross commercialization of all of these has deadened their capacity to energize rebellion. So now, damn near everything – not just organized religion -- has become "opiates of the masses."

The primary societal role of U.S. citizens is no longer that of "citizen" but that of "consumer." While citizens know that buying and selling within community strengthens that community and that this strengthens democracy, consumers care only about the best deal. While citizens understand that dependency on an impersonal creditor is a kind of slavery, consumers get excited with credit cards that offer a temporarily low APR.

Consumerism breaks people by devaluing human connectedness, socializing self-absorption, obliterating self-reliance, alienating people from normal human emotional reactions, and by selling the idea that purchased products -- not themselves and their community -- are their salvation.

Can anything be done to turn this around?

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.

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 meimpossible 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

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