No, We’re Not a Broken People

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 even trying to push for more humane systems.

Most of the defeatist questions I get asked are more statements than questions, mostly pointing out ways in which our nation is corrupted, but stated as much out of frustration and despair as out of any hope of having 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? And so forth.

Some of these questions, statements, and cries of anguish refer to all that’s wrong and needs to be fixed, at least in the view of the questioner. I tend to agree with much of the analysis I hear, and want to add to it. I want to get people to see the danger of leaving all power in the hands of presidents, for example, 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 intellectual and moral offense of coughing discouragement on people.

So I ask participants at my speaking events not to do it. And they do it anyway.

One of the most insightful and useful articles I’ve read in the past year is Bruce Levine’s “Are Americans a Broken People?” on Levine, a clinical psychologist, diagnoses us as abused citizens and believes the more we learn about how badly we’re abused by our government, the less able we are to push back. We’re ashamed of our subservience, and every new report of it only increases that shame.

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. He finds solutions in “encouragement, small victories, and models of courageous behaviors.” We don’t need to be told what’s wrong, claims Levine. 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 I’m speaking at would substitute their moans of hopelessness with a report on something courageous they did or a small victory they helped win, it would add twenty 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 because it offers no explanation for why activists (at least on the left, and I think across the political spectrum) were hit with despair so severely in 2009. Nor does it specifically address why we’re lacking in encouragement, why we’re missing small victories or courageous behavior. I believe the answer has more to do with our communications system than anything else, so the solution isn’t simply for you or I as isolated individuals to act courageously. 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.


The 2009 Breakage

In my experience, activism increases with age. The older Americans are 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, it hurts to have grown up with your brain marinated in television. Many young people have great ideas but too many don’t add the activism. It hurts to have grown up in a society increasingly damaged by all the causes Levine has diagnosed. It hurts to be growing up with diminishing governmental representation and responsiveness to the public will. Corruption is increasingly apparent in the financial market, the media, partisan politics, the military, and our elections. 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 2009 in particular? Why such a dramatic increase in defeatism from 2008?

Another evolving trend 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. Our job is then complete, and the good president will fix everything for us. So many seem to believe.

We’re obliged to spend our time registering each other to vote because we aren’t automatically registered upon turning eighteen, and we think of this work as activism. We think activism happens before, rather than after, elections. And we think of it on a national level rather than as something done at the congressional, state, and local district levels at which we are supposed to be represented.

The year 2009 was different for those who misplace importance on elections, particularly presidential ones, and for those who misplace loyalty for a political party—that is to say, for nearly everybody. Those loyal to the Republican Party believed everything worsened dramatically at the start of 2009. Those loyal to the Democratic Party expected someone to fix their problems for them, but by year’s end were in about the same position of despair as the Republicans, some perhaps even worse. They believed they’d done everything a people could do, and that it hadn’t worked.

We’re now in the position of having given the slightly better of the two parties control of the White House and a majority in both houses of Congress (don’t talk to me about the filibuster, which the Democrats could throw out if they wanted to), and we’ve seen the nation falter, not improveFor example, we’ve been told for years that we shouldn’t impeach criminal officials, but should rather 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 members of Congress in dumping our resources into Wall Street, wars, and health insurance corporations in order to support the president, as if our duty is to this one person (rather then his duty being to the laws written by our representatives).


No Encouragement to Be Found?

Above all, humans are imitators. It’s how we learn as children and how we learn as 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 TV shows function are illustrative. Many 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 primarily learn how to behave from television, for this and other reasons, behave less amicably than their counterparts.

If we see public activism fail twenty times and are then told to get out there and be active, the actions speak louder than the words. But if we see courageous, inspiring, successful activism—and enough of it—we don’t need as much explicit encouragement to join in.

Some parts of the country I visited in late 2009, Maine for example, were much less defeatist than most. I think these may be places where people are 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 work more at the local and state levels, and make an effort to shift more power there. We should test out reforms for the national stage and pressure our federal government through state-level successes. But we should also do a 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, like those in counter-recruitment (keeping military testing out of schools, closing recruiting stations, and barring recruiters from school grounds) amount to progress on the national level when they are added together. But nobody adds them together.

Our independent media follows corporate media too closely, spinning its stories in a different way, while missing the stories that no one else has covered. When we hear of successes, they’re 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 hasn’t been made yet, the media instructs 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. One can be sure that 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.

As I previously reported in this magazine, the U.S. Army opened a murderous video arcade recruitment center in a shopping mall near Philadelphia, where thirteen-year-olds could learn how much fun the Army can be. Picketing and civil disobedience generated such bad press that the Army began talking about closing the place down, only they didn’t acknowledge the protesters. Instead the Army claimed it didn’t need the Army Experience Center anymore given the boost in recruitment from the lousy economy (a nonsense excuse considering the Army’s continued investment in all sorts of other recruitment tools).

When U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was forced to resign in 2007, he was replaced with someone just as bad, and yet something has been accomplished in a very interesting way with the pressure of hearings, independent media, and a legislative push for impeachment. We should study such successes for both morale and strategy. The same goes for keeping Social Security alive thus far. 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. The same goes for keeping the United States (or Israel) from bombing Iran. 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 wait for an official declaration.

In short, we lack encouragement and examples of success in large part because of our communications system. The coverage of the January earthquake in Haiti and the subsequent relief effort was appropriately attentive (while completely ignoring U.S. crimes against the country throughout its existence) but did you know that 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, and support community, public, and independent outlets. We have to build organizations that create good media and press for 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, 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 from those who struggled happily on with no apparent sign of success for years—even lifetimes—and succeeded in the end.


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, and so on). The primary causes of financial stress are not things an individual can simply wish away. Millions of Americans are under severe financial stress, the only solution for which is getting more money into their hands. 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 we may be able to do to become more citizenlike and less consumerized, and 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. We can join non-profit advocacy groups that will keep us informed of their efforts, progress, and victories large and small. Announcing your despair is almost the equivalent of announcing that you don’t belong to such a group.

We can turn off and throw away our televisions and unsubscribe from cable and satellite, 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 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 bigger ones. In one way this makes logical sense: we ought to work where we think we might succeed, and use the strategies that work. In another sense, this is sheer lunacy. We’re 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 within reach than they seem, 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 far more enjoyable than sitting on the sidelines and complaining. I don’t have much use for the expectation of immediate victory. I’m 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 I said at the beginning, people’s defeatism does eventually drag me down.)

So I’m reluctant to endorse small victories, and even more so the expectation of early ones, 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.

My advice is 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 dependent upon them. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint.

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