Sunday, March 28, 2010

Why are so many Americans so crazy?

If Obama’s first legislative priority had been immigration or financial reform or climate change, we would have seen the same trajectory. The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman — would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play. It’s not happenstance that Frank, Lewis and Cleaver — none of them major Democratic players in the health care push — received a major share of last weekend’s abuse. When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan “Take our country back!,” these are the people they want to take the country back from. Frank Rich - NYT

Over half of surveyed Republicans said they believe that the president is a socialist Muslim who wants to take away gun rights and turn over U.S. sovereignty to the U.N. What’s deeper, though, is the vitriol of those beliefs, with a substantial number of Republicans believing that Obama resents America's heritage (47 percent), is the "domestic enemy that the U.S. Constitution speaks of" (45 percent), wants to use an economic or terrorist event as an excuse to take dictatorial powers (41 percent), is doing some of the same stuff that Hitler did (38 percent), and may, in fact, be the Anti-Christ (24 percent). Daily Beast    
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Just to begin by giving a quick answer to the question posed by the title of this post, "Why are so many Americans so crazy?". The answer is that living in a cloud of misinformation, they are being driven insane.

There is always the temptation to see certain people as reasonable when they aren't. "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. Isaiah 1:18", was the favorite bible passage of Lyndon Baines Johnson and it describes the basic attitude of all successful negotiators. The lesson learned from the epic battle to pass a more than tame and mediocre health bill is that it is impossible to negotiate with whipped up insanity.

All of this insanity, from tea party to Antichrist is about using racism to distract people from seeing clearly what is right in front of their faces.

Essentially what we have is Rupert Murdoch in the role of Joseph Goebbels,  with Beck and company playing post-modern George Wallace, nightly on Fox.

The idea is very simple, classic really. The system is in crisis, social inequality is widening and hardening, so stimulating paranoia and racism is a simple and effective way of keeping people from thinking about things like taxing the rich in order to get good public schools, affordable health care and other such Bolshevik twaddle.

To understand this craziness we have to turn it inside out. The first thing about it that catches my attention in the Harris and similar polls is that a significant portion of the American population is totally paranoid and extremely suggestible. If we discount genetics and/or some hallucinogen that has been added to the water, we would have to look at objective factors to account for this vulnerability.

To begin with America's cult of competition, of dividing people from childhood into "winners" and "losers", has created an entire nation within the nation of losers: an enormous mass of people who feel terrible about themselves.

The American Dream is based on social mobility, but a great many Americans have not "moved" up since they arrived, even many who arrived during colonial times. At this moment many are on an express elevator moving down.

Since colonial times the subjugation and humiliation of African-Americans has provided a valuable tool in defusing social tensions in the rest of the population.

It all goes back that far.

Probably the most valuable service to domestic peace that slaves provided even, or especially, for those who didn't own them, was the role of being someone even the most miserable white person could feel superior to.

The real problem in America is not racism in itself, the problem is a society or a culture that divides human beings into "winners" and "losers" and punishes the losers so mercilessly. These unfortunates simply cannot survive psychologically without their "whipping boy". Racism is a tool of social control. The classic "divide and rule".

That is the dirty little family secret of American capitalism: keeping the races at each others throats prevents the social democracy that exists in practically every other country of similar economic development.

God knows that America is full of desperately miserable white people. Not all of them are poor, not by long shot.

For losing and feeling miserable in America is not just economic, a study of marketing messages will give you an idea of the infinite ways that an American can be a "loser".

The entire American consumer economy, which is 70% of the total, is based on making people feel bad about themselves, making them feel poor, ugly, sick, helpless, stupid, inadequate and then offering to sell them something to relieve the pain of rejection and failure. A person of color might blame all the frustrations of life on race prejudice and he or she would be right in most cases. The white loser, and they are legion, hasn't ever had that safety valve.

Those whites who fear they might be "losers" themselves, and if we look at the economic and psychological facts of life in today's American, that might include most American whites, desperately need someone to look down upon as a psychological safety valve and of course, since time immemorial African-Americans, even the lightest skinned among them, have served that purpose. Their status as loser was even pleasing to the abolitionists that wanted to "uplift" them.

For literally hundreds of years, besides this role as the official ultimate-loser, no other role beyond entertaining or lifting heavy loads was permitted them.

In 1952 an African-American author, Ralph Ellison published a ground breaking novel, “The Invisible Man”, whose title many critics feel defined the experience of people of African descent in America: that of being invisible and voiceless. In the years that followed, the people of color in the United States raised their voices and became visible, to the great and continuing discomfort of many whites. The white people of the US south who once voted solidly Democratic have punished that party’s leadership of the civil rights movement by voting solidly Republican ever since… the key to the victories of Nixon, Reagan and Bush. The “Conservative Revolution”, that only favors the rich, is based on the resentment of poor whites and gives the wealthy the necessary numbers to win elections.

With Barack Obama this resentment is coming to head.

Up till now, American "identity" politics was always played with surrogates: WASP or "waspable" white men wearing masks.

Thus Bill Clinton was "America's first black president". The whatever WASP whose turn it was to woo Latinos, would eat tacos and say "juntos podemos" with an atrocious accent etc, etc. Candidates would attempt to show that they were "sensitive" to the feminist agenda and so on. Absolutely de rigueur for all white, male and protestant presidentiables was a photo at Yad Vashem sporting a yomulka. This all came with the turf like kissing babies. It was all a game.

The problems start when the Democrats decided to use "originals" instead of the traditional, "ballo in maschera". The whole charade begins to fall apart without the WASP surrogates.

All of this resentful white anger has been directed heretofore against surrogates: the Jimmy Carters, the Ted Kennedys, the Walter Mondales, the Dukakises, the Gores and the Kerrys; and all the racism was disguised in euphemisms like "state's rights" or "liberal" or "elitist" or "un-American".

Now for the first time the American white ultra-right have got the chance to actually organize and march against a real black man who incarnates all the euphemisms, instead of a surrogate.

Even a "JFK meets Sydney Poitier" figure like president Barack Obama, or especially like Obama, is an unbearable provocation -- a lifetime membership card in the "loser" club -- for millions of American white people.

What is to be done? How to proceed.

Take a look at the two quotes below. I think that between them they hold the germs of program for the American left... if such an animal really exists.
"Reagan’s view of government as the problem is increasingly at odds with a nation whose system of health care relies on large for-profit entities designed to make money rather than improve health; whose economy is dependent on global capital and on global corporations and financial institutions with no particular loyalty to America; and much of whose fuel comes from unstable and dangerous areas of the world. Under these conditions, government is the only entity that can look out for our interests." Robert Reich
The deeper point--the ones the tea partiers haven’t courage nor the brains to see--is that our technological age has laid bare a core fact of American life: that our corporatist state uses white men and women just like it uses black, brown and yellow ones--as cannon fodder. There is little “upward mobility.” Your children probably won’t live as well as you, much less better. Your 2nd and 3rd mortgages made them billions and then they bankrupted you. They stole your future itself. Leonce Gaiter
The ideas expressed here are not very complicated, they would be practically self-evident if so much time and media effort plus financial fiction had not been expended in clouding all these realities.

When Robert Reich speaks of health care saying that America's "economy is dependent on global capital and on global corporations and financial institutions with no particular loyalty to America", he is underlining one of the principal facts of our world today, i.e. non-state actors, like multinational corporations, effectively controlled by a small percentage of the share holders and/or a management elite, are often more powerful than elected governments. This means, as Reich points out, that empowering government, which we elect, is the only defense we have against these unelected, non-state actors, who are indifferent to our welfare, whose only motive is profit.

Leonce Gaiter makes clear that this relationship with the non-state actors is an oppressive one and that with the bursting of the credit bubble and the destruction of the "wealth effect" created by endless credit, many people are finding themselves to be much less "middle class" then their advertising created fantasies led them to believe. Their treasured self-image is well tarnished and they are discovering that, as Gaiter says, "our corporatist state uses white men and women just like it uses black, brown and yellow ones--as cannon fodder." So in this crisis any person who lives from his salary and whose only patrimony is/was the house he lives/lived in, is, in the words of Marx and Engels, "at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind".

Alas, few are equipped either by temperament or by training to face with "sober senses" either the "real conditions" of their lives or the "relations with their kind". This lack makes them easy prey for movements like the Tea Party that fill the paths to truth with the traditional red herrings of American racism disguised as libertarianism.

This nauseating and supremely effective tactic is being trotted out once again.

At this moment the fundamental role of progressive Americans is to expose and root out racism.

The day when Americans in similar economic straits cease to see skin color and see clearly and soberly what they all have in common, in the same way  that the wealthy and powerful minority always have: on that day will the battle for social justice in the United States be more than half won. DS


Forensic economist said...

Thanks for the link, I have bookmarked Leonce Gaiter's blog.

It is all true. The only positive thing I can foresee is that after another generation the racial attitudes will fade and Americans can face the fact that it isn't race but class that divides us. It has taken 50 years to get this far from first Civil Rights acts; if I and my generation don't pass on the attitudes we were raised with, our children will not see everything in racial terms.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the excellent article. I am a Canadian and like most of us north of the border, we are constantly amazed at the apparent lack of access to information other than Fox by the average American. The fear of "other" is startling and the use of that fear is quite clear from a distance.

I'm certain that I am thankful to be Canadian, despite our own problems.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article, cuts through the crazy mess that is rampant throughout so much of today's political commentary.

I couldn't figure out why people vote against their own best interests until one day I realized that my parents did exactly that. Perhaps because they had lived through the Depression, or for whatever reason, they both had a deep-seated fear of poverty.

My father made a decent income, but had he ever fallen upon hard times, he would rather have starved than to have accepted charity. His mother had been a social climber who drove her husband to an early death by her insatiable need to appear prosperous.

My own mother was so embarrassed by relatives who took government assistance that she avoided them at all costs. She even refused to shop at discount stores, in fear someone she knew might see her there and think of her as "needy."

Both my parents voted republican because they believed "only poor people vote for democrats." As silly as it sounds, and for similar reasons, they would never choose to live in a trailer park, nor did they ever buy a used car or use generic products, as doing so implied one was of a "lower class."

I strongly believe that many people may share a similar aversion to impoverishment and that they align with those who are prosperous in a superficial attempt to disassociate from the condition of neediness that they consider so unacceptable.

Thanks again for a great article.

Anonymous said...

The pursuit of material goods and easy credit has made my fellow countrymen nuts.
In the 1970's, people were earthy and the country was mostly a middle class.
The 1980's bought Ronald Reagan, the most destructive modern president or the American worker. The kids all went to college and the economy was booming with great jobs. The people became arrogant, and said that we were " too good for this job and that job"...they gave the jobs for the non- academic Americans to China to break the unions and become richer.
I am 100 percent certain that easy credit has made people crazy by allowing them to buy expensive things they shouldn't have, thus creating the schizoid, self- centered ass with bad manners and little empathy called The American.
The only positive to this is tht some of us hippies still exist and vote Democratic.