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No, We're Not a Broken People

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By David Swanson

In 2004 I began speaking at rallies and forums around the country on issues of peace and justice, something I've done off-and-on ever since. Up through 2008, it was extremely unusual for questions from the audience to consist of pure defeatism. In 2009, it was rare to get through a Q&A session without being asked what the point was of trying.

And the defeatism is so contagious that it will be hard for me to make it through 2010 if people don't shut up about how doomed we are. If current trends continue, by 2011 the only people showing up at forums on peace and justice will all be old enough to tell my grandparents they're too young to understand how pointless it is to try. And my grandparents are dead.

Most of the defeatist questions I get asked are more statements than questions, mostly informing those in the room of ways in which our nation is corrupted that we are all painfully aware of, but stated as much out of frustration and despair as out of any hope of hearing a miraculous solution articulated.

Aren't politicians all bought and paid for? Haven't we tried being activists for years with no success? Can't the corporate media just destroy us if it wants to? Won't the secret permanent bureaucracy just kill any politicians who stray from the plan? Isn't anything good doomed to fail under our two-party system? Et cetera and so forth.

Some of these questions / statements / cries of anguish build into them an analysis of what's wrong and, therefore, of what needs to be fixed, at least in the view of the questioner. And I tend to agree with much of the analysis I hear, and to want to add to it. (For example, I want to get people to see the danger of leaving all power in the hands of presidents, even though returning it to Congress wouldn't do a bit of good until we fix Congress.) But I have no sympathy for what I consider the unintellectual and immoral offense of coughing discouragement on people.

So, I ask participants in events I'm speaking at not to do it.

And they do it anyway.

What to do?

One of the most insightful and useful articles I've read this year is Bruce Levine's "Are Americans a Broken People?" published by Alternet. Levine diagnoses us as abused citizens and points out that the more we learn about how badly we're being abused by our government, the less able we are to push back. We're ashamed of our subservience, and every new report of it increases it.

Levine finds causes of our disempowerment in financial stress, social isolation, institutions of higher education that train submissiveness, the treating of rebelliousness with pharmaceuticals, the damaging effects of television, and the replacement of citizenship with consumerism.

Levine finds solutions in "encouragement, small victories, models of courageous behaviors." We don't need to be told what's wrong, he says. We need the morale boost of seeing people succeed in doing what's right.

I don't disagree, and I'm glad someone is talking about this. If from now on everyone who comes to an event on my book tour would substitute for their moans of hopelessness a report on something courageous they did or a small victory they helped win, it would add 20 years to my life and benefit, rather than harm, everyone else in the room -- including the would-be prophets of despair.

But Levine's discussion needs to be expanded. Levine offers no explanation for why activists, at least on the left, and I think across the political spectrum, have been hit with despair in 2009 so severely. He pulls out examples from 10 years ago as if nothing has changed in the interim.

Levine offers no analysis of why we are lacking in encouragement, small victories, or models of courageous behaviors. I believe the answer has more to do with our communications system than anything else, which means that the solution cannot simply be for you or I as isolated individuals to act courageously -- which is not to say that we shouldn't.

Levine also proposes no particular solutions for the causes he diagnoses, but would presumably support efforts to address them.

And, finally, I think a word of caution is needed about dependency on small victories, and on the wisdom of supposing that larger victories will come more easily than we believe -- something Levine suggests by quoting Noam Chomsky on his having overestimated how difficult it would be to end the Vietnam War.

Let me take these points in order.

The 2009 Breakage:

In my experience, activism diminishes with age. The older Americans are, up to the point of incapacitation, the more engaged they are as citizens. It helps to be retired and have time. It helps to have resources. It helps to have education. It helps to have lived in earlier times when more people were active. It helps to have lived in other countries where more people are active.

On the other hand, and with millions of exceptions needless to say, it hurts to have grown up without activism around you. It hurts to have grown up with your brain marinated in television. Yes, many young people are active, and many of those who are have better ideas than do their elders. But too many of them do not add activism to their ideas. It hurts to have grown up in a society more heavily damaged by all the causes Levine has diagnosed, which have been worsening. It hurts to be growing up with diminished and diminishing governmental representation and responsiveness to the public will. The corruptions of money, media, party, militarism, election rigging, etc., have worsened and are rapidly worsening. So it would make sense that at some point our population would either break and give up or be radicalized and push back.

But why in 2009 in particular? Why such a dramatic increase in defeatism from 2008?

Well, another trend that has advanced to an extreme maturity is the equation of civic involvement with participation in presidential elections. The president is a character in a television drama, and our job is to vote the lesser of the two presidential contenders off the fictional island. And then our job is complete, and the good president will fix everything for us. So many people seem to believe.

We are obliged to spend our time registering each other to vote, because we are not simply registered upon turning 18, and we think of this work as activism. We think of activism as happening before, rather than after, elections. And we think of it as something national, rather than as something done at the levels of the congressional, state, and local districts through which we are supposed to be represented.

The year 2009 was different for those who have misplaced importance on elections, and in particular on presidential elections, and for those who have misplaced their loyalty on a political party -- that is to say, for nearly everybody. Those loyal to the Republican Party believed everything to have worsened dramatically at the start of 2009. Those loyal to the Democratic Party expected someone to fix their problems for them, but by the end of the year had ended up in about the same position of despair as the Republicans, or perhaps in a worse position. They believed they'd done everything a people could do, and that it hadn't worked.

We are now, entering 2010, in the position of having given the slightly better of the two parties dominant control of the White House and both houses of Congress (and don't talk to me about the filibuster, which the Democrats could throw out if they wanted to), and we've seen things continue to worsen rather than improve. Whether we take a different approach and correct for our mistakes, or dive into deep despair, cannot be divorced from the political situation and treated purely in terms of morale boosting. And if it could be treated purely with morale boosting, the problem would be back again soon enough if we did not direct our new-found morale into more effective strategies based on better analysis.

We've been told for years that we shouldn't impeach criminal officials, but wait and replace them in an election. Now we're told that we shouldn't prosecute their crimes, but elect people who might not commit all of them as severely. And we're told to support our congress members in dumping all of our resources into Wall Street, wars, and health insurance corporations in order to support the president, as if our duty is to him, rather then his duty being to the laws written by our representatives. There are more people refusing to do their civic duty right now out of loyalty to the president than out of discouragement in efforts to pressure congress. But those two groups combined dominate the handful of us belonging to neither of them. We need to recruit converts away from both despair and presidentialism with morale boosts, better analysis, or both.

No Encouragement to Be Found?

Above all, humans are imitators. It's how we learn when we are children. It's how we learn when we are adults. We do not, as Levine points out, need to be told to get active. Rather, we need to be shown others being active, enjoying it, succeeding at it, and being rewarded for it. When was the last time you saw that on television?

Recent studies of how children's' shows on television function are illustrative. Many of these shows depict children or cartoon characters disagreeing with each other and mistreating each other, after which a resolution is reached and a moral taught. Except that it isn't taught. Children don't view the story as a whole with a single moral, so much as they view each separate bit. And they learn more from the numerous examples of how to mistreat people than they do from the closing minutes explaining why such behavior is undesirable. Children who learn how to behave from television, for this and other reasons, behave less amicably than those who don't.

If we see activities that we think of as appropriate public activism fail 20 times and are then told to get out there and be active, the actions speak more loudly than the words. But if we see courageous and inspiring and successful activism, and enough of it, not much explicit encouragement to join in is required.

Some parts of the country I visited in late 2009, Maine for example, were much less defeatist than most. I think these may have been places where people were more aware of local and state victories and powers. But even in the heart of the defeatist heartland, people told me about local and state successes. I draw a couple of lessons from this. One is that we should be working more at the local and state levels, and working to shift more power to those levels. We should be testing out reforms for the national stage and pressuring our federal government through state-level successes. But we should also be doing a much, much better job of making each other aware of state- and local-level victories achieved in other states.

Some of the local victories I've heard about, such as victories in counter-recruitment (keeping military testing out of schools, closing recruiting stations, barring recruiters from school grounds, etc.) amount to progress on the national level when they are added together. But nobody adds them together.

Our independent media is too much a follower of the corporate media, spinning its stories in a different way, not covering the stories that no one else has covered. When we hear of successes, they are often disguised as something else. When a policy decision follows public pressure, the pressure is left out of the story. Politicians give other reasons for their actions, and stenographic reporters report them. And, of course, when a policy decision has not been made yet, the media instruct everyone not to imagine they can have any effective input.

When President Obama announced that there would not be a new U.S. military base in the Czech Republic, the media described this as appeasing Russia, an explanation they preferred to the more decisive actual cause, namely the work of a handful of activists in the Czech Republic to compel their nation to refuse to host the base.

Sure, it's not a complete victory. Sure, Obama will press ahead with other bases and missiles on ships. "Missile Defense" is not dead, but it's wounded, and it would be far more deeply wounded if we told the story accurately.

The U.S. Army recently opened a murderous video arcade recruitment center in a shopping mall near Philadelphia, where 13-year-olds learn how much fun it can be to pretend to be in the Army. Picketing and civil disobedience generated such bad press that the Army began talking about closing the place down. Only the Army didn't credit the protesters with that possible success. The Army claimed it didn't need the "Army Experience Center" any more, given the boost in recruitment from the lousy economy. This was transparent nonsense, given the Army's continued investment in all sorts of other recruitment tools, and yet some of the very activists responsible for the AEC's poor performance quoted the Army's bogus explanation.

When we forced U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign, he was replaced with someone just as bad, and yet we had done something very interesting in a very interesting way, with the pressure of hearings, independent media, and a legislative push for impeachment. We should be studying such successes for both morale and strategy. The same goes for keeping Social Security alive thus far. The same goes for keeping the United States (or Israel) from bombing Iran yet. The same goes for having made the United Nations refuse legal cover for the invasion of Iraq, a step that may yet make possible the criminal prosecution of that war's architects.

No one will ever announce the successful prevention of a war on Iran. It has been prevented for years now and, if we continue to successfully draw the parallels to the lies about Iraq, it will be prevented for years to come. But we must announce and claim such victories every day, rather than waiting for an official declaration.

In short, we are lacking for encouragement and examples of success in large part because of our communications system. Did you know 1,400 people, many of them Americans, are taking great risks right now to try to visit and deliver aid to Gaza? Did you know that many thousands of people have gone to jail in nonviolent protest of wrongs in our country in recent years? Did you know that they have sometimes succeeded in winning all of their demands? What would the story of ACORN look like to you if you were aware of the incredible successes that organization had been having in winning rights and jobs and wealth for the poorest among us?

We have to be the media. We have to report on our successes. (I will post any good stories you send me at ) We have to use the media. We have to actively search out the sorts of stories we want to learn about. We have to reform the media, bust the monopolies, provide equal access, support community and public and independent outlets. We have to build organizations that create good media and press independently and democratically for good media reforms. We have to stop supporting bad media in any way. Don't buy it. Don't buy ads in it. Don't participate in it. Put everything into enlarging good outlets that report the news.

A larger conception of media, of course, includes history books and structures of education. Lessons from history can be less powerful than direct contact with courageous role models today, but they can be very powerful nonetheless. And they can teach a lesson beyond the immediate pavlovian morale boosting as well, because we can learn through history of people who struggled happily on without apparent signs of success, for many years, and even many lifetimes, and in the end succeeded.

Uncausing the Causes of Gloom

Some of the causes of despair that Levine points out may be more easily addressed than some of the causes of congressional misrepresentation (money, media, parties, election rigging, etc.). The primary causes of financial stress are not things an individual can simply wish away. Millions of Americans are simply under severe financial stress, the only solution for which is getting more money into their hands, and the blame for this situation lies entirely with the predatory plutocrats pigging out on the fruits of other people's labor.

And yet there are things that many of us may be able to do to become more citizenlike and less consumerized, as well as to alleviate some of our financial stress. We can cease buying unnecessary crap. We can grow and make more things for ourselves. We can trade and barter and participate in local economies. We can save money in local institutions, avoid borrowing, and avoid the mega-banks.

We can also address social isolation whether or not we're under financial stress. An ideal approach might be to start small political clubs or book clubs -- groups of a handful of people who can be friends as well as allies. Announcing that you are despairing is almost the equivalent of announcing that you do not belong to such a group.

We can turn off and throw away our televisions and unsubscribe from cable and satellite, thereby easing a bit more financial stress while enriching our lives. We can get books from the library and contribute books to the library. We can refuse to treat healthy emotions in ourselves or our children with drugs. And we can work to reform individual institutions of higher learning.

We can even create small-scale institutions of learning at every level. If you don't want or can't seem to form a political or book club, how about a tutoring club? How about a group that teaches toddlers or grad students? While we need immediate activism, and this will give you the morale to be a part of it, we also need the understanding that only future generations will win all that we can envision. So, we'd better teach them how to do it.

Victory Dependency

It has certainly been my experience that people are most willing to engage in activism when they have been winning smaller victories and when they foresee the likelihood of another bigger victory. In one way this makes logical sense: we ought to work where we think we might succeed, and use the strategies that seem most likely to work. In another sense, this is sheer lunacy. We are choosing to add our bit to the struggles that least need them and to withhold our assistance where it is most desperately demanded.

Now, it's certainly true, as Levine (and Chomsky) suggest, that sometimes victories are more nearly within reach than it appears, and there are those who work very hard to make popular victories appear impossible. But some struggles really are difficult, really do require long-term commitments and extreme sacrifices, and must include education and persuasion as well as mobilization.

It has been my personal experience, and that of some others I know, that engaging in activism strategically directed at the most useful possible success is enjoyable, far more enjoyable than sitting on the sidelines and complaining. I don't find that I have much use for or need of hope or the expectation of immediate victory. I find myself motivated primarily by the moral need to press for change, regardless of whether the wisest spectators predict success next week or next decade. (On the other hand, as noted at the top of this article, people's defeatism does eventually drag me down.)

So, I'm reluctant to endorse small victories, and even more so the expectation of early victories, as a necessary ingredient in civic engagement. As I understand it, people struggled to end slavery for generations with very little to show for it. Yet they were willing and able to keep struggling, and they were the same species of being that we are.

So, get your morale boost where you can find it, in examples new or old, near or far. Improve the strategy of your activism as well, supporting independent organizations not corrupted by parties or funders. But try to be inspired by victories without becoming any more dependent upon them. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

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nihil obstet's picture
Submitted by nihil obstet on

Along with the late Molly Ivins' reminders to have fun.

There's another feature of American culture that I think plays into this -- it's the magical thinking. We can defeat diseases through "awareness". We can win wars by putting magnets on our cars. Thinking the right thoughts takes the place of action. And I think that mindset adds to the easy discouragement when the outcome is bad -- "I didn't want it bad enough" and "I'm at fault for not working hard enough." That will burn you out pretty quickly.

Another victim of the mindset is the kind of simplistic loyalties and enmities we're seeing. We have to support the politicians who can elicit our loyalties, because our enthusiasm is action. That's one of the underpinnings of the tribalism we're suffering from.

BDBlue's picture
Submitted by BDBlue on

Where I always get stuck (a child of the Reagan years) is in how to get small victories or how to organize locally, even a thing like a political club. Or for that matter finding an already organized local action group to join. I'm not particularly social, which doesn't help, but even so, I have trouble turning intent into action not just because of laziness, but also just complete confusion at how to go about it, particularly as a middle-aged adult (instead of a college student).