Are Americans Too Broken by Corporate Power to Resist?
Editor's Note: The following is the transcript of a recent interview with Bruce E. Levine by OpEd News' Joan Brunwasser. Levine is a clinical psychologist and author of Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007).
Joan Brunwasser: Back in December, you wrote 'Are Americans a Broken People? Why We've Stopped Fighting Back Against the Forces of Oppression.' Could you tell our readers about your theory?
Bruce E. Levine: There are times when human beings can become so broken that truths of how they are being victimized do not set them free. This is certainly the case for many victims of parental and spousal abuse. They are not helped by people explaining to them that they are being battered, exploited, uncared about and disrespected. They know it already and somebody pointing it out is not helpful.
So, it seems to me that it is also possible that human beings can become so broken by the abuse of the corporate elite that they also are no longer set free by truth.
While certainly the corporate-controlled mainstream media does not report many important truths, the majority of the American people do know enough to oppose the war in Afghanistan, but they do almost nothing in response to recent troop surges.
Polls show that the majority of Americans actually support single-payer, Medicare-for all plan and even a larger majority support a public option, yet there are relatively few people on the streets protesting the Democratic party betrayal of them.
And look at the 2000 U.S. "banana-republic" presidential election, in which Gore beat Bush by 500,000 votes and the Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount, and 51 million Gore voters were disenfranchised. Yes, there were small protest demonstrations against this election farce, but the numbers of protesters were so small that they empowered rather than concerned the future Bush administration, which went on to almost vaunt its regime of anti-democracy and piss on basic human rights. How humiliating for an entire nation. The shame many Americans feel, at some level, for allowing torture and other abuses is similar to the shame that spousal abuse victims feel -- and this routinely makes people feel even weaker. So, while not all Americans are broken, demoralized and feeling powerless, many are.
I wish the answer to restoring democracy was simply one of people getting more journalistic truths through a non-corporate media --and certainly I am all for that -- but I think that much more is required. We need to take a look at what forces in American society are breaking the American people from the ability to resist tyranny and dehumanization, and we must start considering what are the antidotes to this. At least that's what any psychologist or social scientist who gives a damn about genuine democracy should be doing.
JB: So, our feelings of powerlessness are rooted in modern life, exacerbated by present political realities. I'd like to point out another factor, which is what Paul Rogat Loeb refers to as our 'historic amnesia.' Historian and social activist Howard Zinn spent decades trying to offset that amnesia by providing an alternate history of our country, emphasizing various movements that have spanned decades (or generations) and eventually brought about change. He told stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things and his book, A People's History of the United States has sold two million copies. So, it's obviously struck a chord. What do you think about the power of stories as an antidote to the ennui you describe?
BL: Stories of resistance to tyranny are great for the morale, so Howard Zinn did a great service by popularizing historical examples. These can be inspirational. A broken person and a broken people need morale. Inspirational models whom people can identify with can be energizing, and energy is exactly what demoralized people need.
It is important for people to know that, yes, there are historical examples of people rebelling against the elite. It is important, for example, for us to know that there once was something called the People's Party in the U.S. and a huge populist revolt that scared the hell out of the elite in the 1880s and 1890s.
But historical truths are not enough because sometimes people say, "That's just history, now is different, rebellion isn't possible." That's why not only historians need to report rebellions but journalists must report current resistance to the ruling elite corporations and their political lackeys, current resistance to this "corpocracy."
Bill Moyers has done a good job reporting on current resisters. I have seen a couple of examples on his recent shows. One is Steve Meachum and his group City Life, which has successfully kept people from being thrown out of their homes in foreclosure. Another example is pediatrician Margaret Flowers, a member of Physicians for a National Health Program, jailed for the cause of single-payer/Medicare for all.
JB: Good examples. I interviewed Dr. Flowers last May, shortly after she was released from jail.
BL: Historical examples and current examples of resistance against the corporacy can be inspiring, energizing and morale-boosting.
The elite know that to win the class war, just like winning any war, the goal is to crush the spirit of resistance of your opponent. So if you want to win the class war, you must care about the morale of your class.
Remember the "Tank Man" in China? While it is important for the people in China to know all the ways that they are being victimized, the problem is if they are completely terrified of their authoritarian government and too broken to resist, what's the good of knowing more and more about how they are being victimized? So, that one image of the guy getting out in front of the tank -- "the Tank Man" -- is hugely important.
I can tell you for sure that what I need is more models and fewer lectures. My sense is that is what many of us need.
JB: Your comment points to one of the big problems we Americans face. The corporate media is often part of the problem, rather than performing its historic 'watchdog' function. That's difficult to overcome, especially when so many exclusively read and listen to that right-wing echo chamber. Wasn't it Hitler's propaganda minister who said that all you have to do is repeat a lie 1,000 times and it becomes true? Those of us trying to practice responsible journalism online are fighting an uphill battle. Any recommendations?
BL: It's only going to make genuine journalists feel more powerless and broken if they focus on the ability of the corporate media to pound the airwaves with bullshit. The good news is that with all the money and power behind them, not all that many people take the corporate media seriously.
Of course, people don't get how impotent the corporate media is if they just watch the corporate media. But the polls show that, despite all their propaganda, the American people know that big business, the Democrats, the Republicans and the corporate media are all special-interest groups that work together for their own interest and not for the people.
I'm not going to worry about people like NBC's Brian Williams who spends a good part of his life appearing on every program possible to get his face and name out there. Williams makes it as clear as possible to anybody with half of a brain that what he's desperate for is publicity -- not truth.
So the corporate media now even recognizes how bored people are by their boring bullshit. However, instead of trying to excite people with truths, they are now trying to ape Jon Stewart. But their apes are not witty or funny and not reporting any truths, even the obvious ones that Stewart points out. ... So what are my recommendations to real journalists who actually give a damn about getting the truth out there and about having an impact?
Two things come immediately to mind. First, when you are preaching to the choir, when you are writing for a publication that is read by an audience that already has been radicalized one must think, "Is my piece going to simply depress them with one more truth of oppression and injustice? Or, is my piece going to stimulate some action in at least one reader, and hopefully more?"
I have written for publications such as Z Magazine, AlterNet, CounterPunch, Adbusters and The Ecologist, for readers who are already radicalized. I used to feel satisfied with informing readers about yet another industrial complex that I knew well, specifically, the psycho-pharmaceutical industrial complex. But now I think that's not enough. When one has an opportunity to write to people who are already aware of how they are being screwed by an oligarchy of industrial complexes, I believe it is one's responsibility to write in a way that galvanizes them to get off their asses and do something constructive.
Much of schooling teaches people that it is good enough to simply know the truth and care about injustices. But it's not enough to know and care if that concern is passive. Jonathan Kozol, the school critic, used the phrase "inert concern" to characterize what he was taught in his elitist schooling at a fancy prep school and later at Harvard. Kozol mocks "inert concern," and so do I.
Good journalism is going to energize people to take action. One way is, as we've already talked about, giving people inspiring models.
A second thing that journalists must do is to get creative in figuring out ways of expanding their audience rather than simply preaching to the choir. People who feel defeated, demoralized and broken want to be energized. This means it is not enough to report the truth -- one needs to write in a way that is fun to read. Molly Ivins got it. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert get it. Gore Vidal has always gotten it.
Michael Pollan is an interesting example of somebody who has been able to expand the audience of people who get it about the food industry. I remember reading Pollan when he was a relative unknown writing for Harper's about drug hypocrisy issues -- he was right on the money and damn near anarchistic. But Pollan is an entertaining guy who is fun to read and doesn't sound like some ideologue pushing counterpropaganda.
He's now going after the food-industrial complex. Pollan has been effective in making it quite mainstream to talk about some pretty radical stuff. I hear he is responsible for influencing Michelle Obama to have a vegetable garden. Now, having a vegetable garden and cooking your own food does not sound radical to people who get turned off by radicals, but there is no more radicalizing stuff than learning to become more self-reliant and independent of the food-industrial complex.
So, two solutions to your question involve expanding your audience and energizing people who already get it. If all journalists started to think about this and get creative, there would be a bunch more specific answers.
The real question for me is what can each of us do, at least each of us who gives a damn about genuine democracy and getting rid of the plutocracy we now have. What can journalists do? Psychologists? Teachers? Parents? Students? We need to try to think about this question strategically. Think about it creatively. We need to think about what can be energizing and fun and is thus sustainable.
JB: You're talking about advocacy journalism, aren't you?
BL: Let's take a look at this phrase "advocacy journalism." In reality, Brian Williams is advocating for the career of Brian Williams, and the New York Times is advocating for the New York Times. Neither is advocating all that much for the truth.
The Times would like to us to believe that it is not advocating any political ideology, but in reality, it's advocating for readers to take the entire institutional establishment seriously. Times writer Judith Miller took establishment sources seriously about WMD in Iraq, and this greased the wheels of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Times would have us believe that Miller and WMD were an anomaly. Not true.
When the Times reports that the Food and Drug Administration has approved a new drug, the Times almost never reports that the FDA did not do independent tests but trusted drug company data -- this is normal procedure. And the Times does not report in any drug approval story that there is a revolving door of employment between the FDA and drug companies -- this is the reality.
Advocating for the truth would mean reporting facts that question the credibility of institutions, especially ones such as the FDA with its history of getting it wrong so much of the time. The FDA example is only one of many. The New York Times is a major institution that benefits from the status quo being taken seriously. The Times keeps itself from being attacked by other major institutions by what the Times omits about these other major institutions.
Pretend neutrality and lies of omission insult the public. Genuine democracy needs people, including journalists, mixing it up honestly. So, journalists need to report the facts because they will not be taken seriously if they get the facts wrong. And journalists need to report facts that may be troubling for their position because that will gain a journalist even more credibility and power. But readers know that journalists are people who have a point of view, so journalists shouldn't pretend that they don't have one and then slant a story.
When New York Times apologists accuse Amy Goodman and "Democracy Now!" of advocacy journalism, I have to laugh. The Times is advocating taking the status quo and major institutions seriously, and "Democracy Now!" is advocating against that. The Times puts a lot of effort into not being transparent about its kind of advocacy, while "Democracy Now!" doesn't waste its time on such pretend efforts.
JB: Before we close, let's shift gears for a moment. Have you found that your clinical practice has changed over the last number of years, with patients feeling more overwhelmed and powerless than before?
BL: I see more powerlessness with teenagers and young adults now than I saw 20 years ago. Many extremely smart but nonacademic high school students who hate school have been told that they must go to college or they will never be able to make a living, and at the same time they know that increases in college tuition result in outrageous debt, and with increasingly crappy jobs out there, this debt will be difficult to pay off. And of course debt breaks people.
There remain young people who have not had their spirit of resistance against the corpocracy crushed out of them, and I ask them, "How many of your peers are aware of and rebelling against the reality that they are being turned into indentured servants and slaves?" They tell me practically none of their peers are resisting, at least constructively, as they feel too powerless to do anything but lots of alcohol, illegal and psychiatric prescription drugs to kill the pain of their hopelessness. I don't see a hell of lot of kids protesting about how they are getting screwed, and that tells me something.