Cut loose from the earth’s soul, they insisted on purchase of its soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable. It was their destiny to chew up the world and spit out a horribleness that would destroy all primary peoples. – Toni Morrison
I have lived on the lip of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens. I’ve been knocking from the inside. – Rumi
Warning: I’ll be roaming shamelessly between psychology, history, sociology, religion, ritual and poetry to try and grasp this enormous and critical issue, which I address in much greater depth in my book, Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence. To me, the only framework that can encompass it all is mythology, and our guide must be the mad god himself, Dionysus, whose presence outside the walls serves to mirror the madness inside. And I’ll make some broad, generalized statements. If they provoke you, then I’m doing my job.
We exist within a broad framework of stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. It encompasses the entirety of modern culture, indeed, all of Western history. Despite much evidence to the contrary, we still choose to think of ourselves as proactive citizens, making rational choices to further our ability to achieve happiness. Seen, however, from the perspectives of the Earth’s remaining tribal cultures, almost all modern people are so alienated from the natural world, from our ancestral roots, from our bodies and emotions, from our “indigenous souls,” from what makes us essentially human, as to be helpless against, indeed complicit in the imminent destruction of that same natural world. The situation is crazy-making, and all of us who are part of it are mad as hatters.
From those perspectives, such as the African Dagara people (in the writings of Malidoma Some´), or the Guatemalan Tzutzil Maya people, (in the writings of Martín Prechtel), we all come into the world with great expectations. We expect to be welcomed by a loving community that lives within a mythically alive universe, that will recognize our uniqueness and the gifts we bring it and will later encourage the expression of those gifts in initiation rituals. We expect to learn to know who we are and why we are here. In the absence of such full welcoming and the lack of a mythic container, we – all modern people – stagger through life with the constant anxiety of not being comfortable in our bodies or in the thin identities we have constructed. We simply don’t know who we are.
I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections. And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self
and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance
long, difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.
– D.H. Lawrence, “Healing”
So we fill the holes in our souls with grand meta-narratives, stories of who we think we are, stories that society, rather than recognizing something in us, determines for us. These “isms” are what Caroline Casey calls the “toxic mimics” of authentic identity: fundamentalism, nationalism, alcoholism, racism, consumerism, narcissism, workaholism, conspiracism, celebrity worship and the envy that merges into the hatred of others who appear to be comfortable in their own bodies.
As the environmentalist Paul Shepard wrote,
The grief and sense of loss that we often attribute to a failure in our personality is actually an emptiness where a beautiful and strange otherness should have been encountered.
It was clear to him in 1992 – long before Trump – that the American national psyche has been uniquely unstable, uniquely anxious about identity and uniquely willing to use violence to re-affirm that identity. The life-long, unconscious, daily struggle to convince ourselves that we are essentially good, well-intentioned, heroic, original, active, deserving, achieving, forward-thinking, inclusive, helpful and compassionate – while simultaneously enduring work and schools that we hate amid the rat race of competitive lifestyles, demonizing people of color, poisoning our bodies, passively supporting an empire of death, and, yes, sacrificing our own children – all this, so as to hold to a state of innocence, has been making us crazy for a very long time.
Shepard also wrote that we all experience an “epidemic of the psychopathic mutilation of ontogeny.” In simple terms, we don’t grow up the way nature intended anymore. Lacking initiation into true adulthood, we are, by indigenous standards, children.
Within those same daily and hourly time spans, we have been regularly consuming, and teaching, expectations of progress, of infinite growth in both self-awareness and financial success, despite Edward Abbey’s 1991 insight, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
Our three-hundred-year mythology of the “self-made man” has always contained a dark shadow. Doing research for my book prior to 2010, I learned that six out of seven of us, regardless of our financial status, believe that people fail because of their own shortcomings, not because of social conditions. This is more than a commentary on capitalism; it’s as concise a statement of the myth of American innocence as any other I could find or invent, and a necessary way of understanding madness.
In this story, we are subjected to three relentless and simultaneous messages:
1 – As Americans, we are free, capable, willing – and expected – to act as individuals to achieve our highest dreams, and in the process, to at least look cheerful.
2 – Because so few of us can even identify those dreams, let alone achieve them, we learn that failure is no one’s fault but our own, that unhappiness is an indication of our own deeply flawed natures, not of social conditions.
3 – Paradoxically, other people with little money, privilege or opportunity cause our problems. And, always, “the threat has never been greater than right now.”
Our indigenous souls enter the world expecting to be held in a container of myth, ritual and community. Instead, we encounter the alienating nature of capitalism. It is our unquestioned assumptions about this quite unnatural way of living that give it its own mythic quality. George Monbiot describes neo-liberalism (another way of saying “capitalism”):
Imagine if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism. The ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, no name…Its anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power. It has played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises…But we respond to these crises as if they emerge in isolation, apparently unaware that they have all been either catalyzed or exacerbated by the same coherent philosophy; a philosophy that has – or had – a name. What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly? So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognize it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law…
This ideology (I call it a mythic narrative), writes Rod Tweedy, is
…rooted in a fundamentally flawed, naive, and old-fashioned seventeenth-century model of who we are – it tries to make us think that we’re isolated, autonomous, disengaged, competitive, decontextualized – an ultimately rather ruthless and dissociated entity. The harm that this view of the self has done to us, and our children, is incalculable.
It really is more than enough to drive you crazy, and very, very angry. For background context, here are some other essays of mine that deal with these issues:
Before we venture into deeper analysis, let’s begin with some statistics, almost all of which come from studies done before Trump, some of them even before the economic crash of 2008:
– There are 20,000 homicides and 50,000 suicides (28,000 by guns) annually.
– Police kill 1,100 Americans per year, mostly people of color.
– For the past several years there have been mass shootings (defined as four or more people shot in one incident) nine out of every 10 days.
– American adults own 260 million legal and 25 million illegal firearms.
– A quarter of Americans believe that “it is acceptable to use violence to get what we want,” while a third would support nuclear war on North Korea, even if we killed a million people.
– By age eighteen, an American will have seen 18,000 virtual murders on electronic devices.
– One in five adults experiences some form of mental illness each year; 7% have at least one major depressive episode; 18% experience anxiety disorders; and 20 million experience substance use disorders.
– At some point in their lives, 46% of Americans meet the criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association for at least one mental illness.
– A third of college students seek treatment for mental health problems.
– In 2010, one in six U.S. armed service members were taking at least one psychiatric drug.
– Over 8 million American children up to age 17 take psychiatric drugs, including over a million under six years old and 275,000 toddlers under one year. Eleven percent of them have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and are drugged accordingly, as opposed to 0.5% in France.
– Sales of psychiatric drugs in the U.S. exceeded $70 billion in 2010.
– American doctors are five times more likely than British doctors to prescribe antidepressants to minors.
– 88,000 Americans suffer alcohol-related deaths each year.
– In 2018, reflecting this epidemic, U.S. Life expectancy dropped for the third year in a row.
– A year after Trump took office, 40% of Americans claimed to feel more anxious than they had a year before.
– 69% of the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) task force members admit having ties to the pharmaceutical industry.
In our factory, we make lipstick. In our advertising, we sell hope. – Peter Zarlenga
It is our job to make women unhappy with what they have. – B. E. Puckett, Allied Stores Corp.
…the debasement of the human mind caused by a constant flow of fraudulent advertising is no trivial thing. There is more than one way to conquer a country. – Raymond Chandler
Granted, the mental health figures I listed in Part One are inevitably somewhat subjective, and much of them are driven (see below) by a profoundly corrupt pharmaceutical industry, or “Mental Health Industrial Complex.” And, despite right-wing attempts to distract us from the necessary gun control conversation, most of the mentally ill are not violent. But it’s pretty clear: we’re unhappy, we’re angry, and, as these figures indicate, we’re lonely:
Those are some of the numbers. But we mythologists have a responsibility to look beyond them, to the great mythic narratives that produce them. Perhaps the most important of them underlies both our craziness and our anger: fear, or more precisely, anxiety.
On its surface, the myth of American Innocence sings of a people who are the children of Manifest Destiny – divinely inspired to spread freedom and opportunity across the world. As such, we have always celebrated ourselves for our optimism, our practical, positive, “can-do” approach, our willingness to take risks and our sunny dispositions as we pursue happiness and model our success for all others. The Blues Brothers spoke for all of us:We’re on a mission from God. That’s our story, and despite mounting evidence to the contrary over the past forty years, we’re sticking to it. We do this because we are increasingly desperate to ignore its shadow side: how we have always defined ourselves in terms of the Other; more specifically, fear of the Other.
Fear of what I have called the black “Inner Other” has driven our racism for three hundred years. The Native American was the originally red “Outer Other” who transformed into the red communist and whose most recent incarnation is the Islamic terrorist of our imaginations. Our hatred of immigrants expresses the fear that the Outer Other will cross the boundaries of the self, become the Inner Other, and obliterate that identity which we have struggled so hard to maintain. In a mythology and a politics that places so much emphasis on such an unstable sense of identity, the notion that we ourselves, at the core, are other (what Dionysus tells us), or that there is nothing at that core (as Buddhism tells us) is a threat and a recipe for breakdown. Is it any wonder that we are so obsessed with “walls”?
This most certainly did not begin after Trump or even after 9-11. As I describe the national emotions in those days in Chapter 8 of my book:
Hadn’t Americans feared Indian attacks for three centuries? Hadn’t they been terrorized for seventy years by red hordes from the east? Hadn’t every President since Truman managed a war economy that perpetuated itself on fear of the Other? Hadn’t politicians played the “race card” for two centuries? Hadn’t gun sales continued to rise even as crime rates had plummeted? Weren’t Americans already armed to the teeth?…Had they forgotten the missile gap, the domino theory, the window of vulnerability and the Evil Empire? Hadn’t AIDS ended the sexual revolution? Hadn’t they been stuffing themselves with anti-depressants, hormone replacements and potency drugs? Hadn’t fear of losing property, status, security, virility, youth, freedom – and innocence – always been at the core of the American experience? Hadn’t we bounced between denial and terror for our entire history?
Writing in August of 2019, I recall events of a hundred years ago. It’s been an entire century of fear since the U.S. and other Allied powers intervened – invaded – in the Russian Civil War; since the “Red Scare,” when the government arrested 3,000 suspected communists and deported hundreds; since “Red Summer,” when white mobs attacked blacks in over thirty separate race riots; since the Spanish Flu pandemic killed 50-100 million people, including over half a million Americans.
This is who we are and have been: swaying for generations between the two extremes of childish, privileged optimism and abject terror. Have a nice day! And keep moving…
But even in the best of times our baseline condition is of being sold by media to their advertisers, who in turn target us. Unless we are in the woods with no cell phone reception and no ear buds, this experience pours into our psyches all day long, and it also offers two conflicting messages. The first is the creation of demand. Freud argued that culture obtains much of its mental energy “by subtracting it from sexuality” and making potential consumers feel deprived. Artificial scarcity of gratification assures surplus energy to drive the fevers of production and conquest. To generate this scarcity, it attaches sexual interest to inaccessible, nonexistent, or irrelevant objects, wrote Phillip Slater in The Pursuit of Loneliness. And by “…making his most plentiful resource scarce, (man) managed…to make most of his scarce ones plentiful.”
Kali Holloway explains the second type of message:
There’s an art to convincing an increasingly ad-weary and debt-saddled American public that it should spend money on products it neither needs nor can afford, and as it turns out, that art is mostly built on fear…Studies confirm that the “interest [in] and persuasiveness of” ads is increased by fear, which explains why “fear appeals are one of the most frequently used motivators” for getting people to respond to marketing of every sort. From snake oil salesmen to digital marketers, advertisers have long preyed on our insecurities to sell us products that don’t so much solve our problems as they do allay our darkest fears…Humiliation, science now tells us, is a soul-crushing feeling we’d do anything to avoid. With so many subconscious fears plaguing us, it’s unsurprising that studies find people “better remember and more frequently recall ads that portray fear than they do warm or upbeat ads or ads with no emotional content.” We are the products of a culture that teaches us to fear an endless list of things that advertisers can, and absolutely do, use against us. The oft-repeated phrase that sex sells turns out to be wrong…Sex just gets your attention. Fear actually moves units.
Indeed, as early as the 1920s, the advertising industry created its own poetic terminology – Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) – to influence perception by disseminating negative, dubious or false information that will constellate our fears.
Is this just about selling products? Hardly, when we consider that most liberal politicians are law school graduates, while large numbers of Republicans attended business schools,where all the latest brain science and motivation research is taught. Democrats, stuck apparently with Enlightenment ideals of rationality and self-interest, continue to attempt to appeal to our heads with talk of our “best interests,” while Republicans, well-versed in American mythology, aim for the gut.
Sociologist Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear, observes, “Most Americans are living in the safest place at the safest time in human history.” Crime is down, the air is cleaner and the odds of being injured in a terrorist attack are absurdly low. So why, asks Neil Strauss, are so many of us so worried all the time? he summarizes the brain research and social science that explains the state of constant anxiety that so many privileged, white, middle-class Americans experience:
What we’re talking about is anxiety, not fear…Where fear is a response to a present threat, anxiety is a more complex and highly manipulable response to something one anticipates might be a threat in the future…It is a worry about something that hasn’t happened and may never happen.
But there’s a reason why anxiety gets converted into actual fear. Blame the media of course, especially Fox News and its ilk, which constantly reinforce this pattern that trumps our rational thought processes.
…political conservatism, right-wing authoritarianism and conservative shift were generally associated with the following: chronically elevated levels of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, desire for revenge and militarism, cynicism and decreased use of humor…(and) the number-one way in which Americans respond to their anxieties: voting.
And it’s never been this bad! Glenn Greenwald quotes some of these breathless, apocalyptic warnings:
We have never seen more threats against our nation and its citizens than we do today. – Lindsey Graham, 2015
I have never seen a time of greater potential danger than right now. – Dianne Feinstein, 2015
Something will detonate…I’ve never seen a greater threat in my lifetime. – Fox News, 2014
The threat of attacks has never been greater — not at the time of 9/11, not after the war in Iraq — never. – CNN, 2014
You get the picture. If you need more examples, Greenwald’s article has dozens of them. It’s horrifying! In another excellent article, M.M. Owen descries the attraction of horror films:
Our present era is one in which the heart of culture is blowing hard upon a coal of fear, and the fascination is everywhere. By popular consent, horror has been experiencing…a ‘golden age’. In terms of ticket sales, 2017 was the biggest year in the history of horror cinema…The imagination’s conversion of fear into art offers a dark and piercing mirror… We have always told horror stories, and we always will. Because horror is an artistic expression of an ontological truth: we are creatures formed in no small part by the things to which we are averse…It is no coincidence that the Gothic – horror’s regal antecedent – emerged precisely at the moment when lots of people began to believe that God really might be dead. Modern horror is in part the story of what happens when our threatened minds shed a theology. Once holy texts can no longer entirely encode the terrors of being, horror enters fully the arena of art.
When mythologies collapse, gender and racial identity are called into question, especially when those identities are founded upon such an unstable base. These fears are the source of the anger that drives right-wing populism. And let’s be clear about this: if, as many pundits still insist, Trump’s popularity is driven only by economic insecurity, then ten million African-Americans would have voted for him. Yes, white Americans are worried about their jobs; but they’re far more concerned about the blacks, Latinos, Muslims and gays moving into the neighborhood.
The rage that always threatens to break through into mass violence, and the fear behind it, are nothing new. We can trace the self-loathing and hatred of the Other exhibited by uninitiated men living in a demythologized world all the way back to Biblical times, as I do in my book. But below the rage is the anxiety. And that’s what mainstream media news and the internet exploit. Deborah Serani writes:
Fear-based news programming has two aims. The first is to grab the viewer’s attention…this is called the teaser. The second aim is to persuade the viewer that the solution for reducing the identified fear will be in the news story…consultants who offer fear-based topics that are pre-scripted, outlined with point-of-view shots, and have experts at-the-ready. This practice is known as stunting or just-add-water reporting. Often, these practices present misleading information and promote anxiety in the viewer… An additional practice that heightens anxiety and depression is the news station’s use of the crawl, the scrolling headline ticker that appears at the bottom of the television, communicating “breaking news.” Individuals who watch news-based programming are likely to see one, two, or even three crawls scroll across the screen…crawls are not relegated to just news channels…(They) are now more prominent during entertainment programs and often serve as commercials for nightly newscasts or the upcoming weekly news magazine show. The crawls frequently contain fear-driven material, broad-siding an unsuspecting viewer.
Most of us have heard the phrase “if it bleeds, it leads,” but it’s worth asking when we simply started to take it for granted. In fact, the phrase was originally a reference to local TV news – a tacit criticism of the way local news programs used hype and sensationalism to attract viewers since they lacked the serious reporting of network news. In the early 1980s, just as media critics began noting that local news was turning toward even greater fear-based reporting, CNN was founded. The advent of the 24/7 news channel radically altered the kind of information offered to television news audiences…Put simply, there wasn’t enough “real” news to sustain a 24-hour cycle. So cable news relied on two things to fill the hours: time spent hyping future stories and pundit reviews of news items. Both of these changes depended more on fear than facts to keep viewers tuned in. Anchors babbled on about worrying news stories, then pundits hyped them up with hysteria.
We are the United States of Amnesia, which is encouraged by a media that has no desire to tell us the truth about anything, serving their corporate masters who have other plans to dominate us. – Gore Vidal
We’ll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the U.S. public believes is false – William J. Casey
If you’re submitting budget proposals for a law enforcement agency, for an intelligence agency, you’re not going to submit…‘We won the war on terror and everything’s great,’ because…your budget’s gonna be cut in half. You know, it’s my opposite of Jesse Jackson’s ‘Keep Hope Alive’—it’s ‘Keep Fear Alive.’ Keep it alive. – Former FBI assistant director Thomas Fuentes
We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term. – Lindsey Graham
All this hysteria began long before the advent of the internet or Fox News, on the major networks, and it highlighted an old pattern in American myth and politics. To a very great extent, this has always characterized democracy in America: voting against welfare-coddlers, bootstep liberals, east-coast intellectuals, “feminazis,” miscegenation, polluters of racial purity and (let’s get real) “nigger-lovers.” And for hyper-masculine, authoritarian, reactionary, Indian-hating, pseudo-Christian, immigrant-bashing, reality-denying demagogues. Trump is only the latest in a long line stretching back centuries. Indeed, as Democrats continually marvel, large numbers of us regularly vote against our own (narrowly-defined economic) best interests, and in favor of the emotional satisfactions provided by those who promise to marginalize, demonize and/or sacrifice The Other.
The man who claims to be loved because he says “exactly what he means” – says exactly what the entire Republican Party has been saying for 40 years, but sugar-coated with euphemisms – and before that, much of the Democratic Party. Be afraid, be very afraid. They are coming for your hard-earned taxes, your safe neighborhoods – and your daughters.
Getting together with people who think as we do to talk about our worries may not help:
(This) is what social psychologists call the “law of group polarization,” which states that if like-minded people are concerned about an issue, their views will become more extreme after discussing it together.
I recommend Strauss’s article as an excellent explanation of what drives many of Trump supporters to ignore his obvious deficiencies in favor of his “strong man” (read: fascist) approach to dealing with the nation’s current Others: Muslims, Mexicans, feminists and Black activists.
But ultimately Strauss lacks the broader perspective that we really need to understand the whole picture. Given, the fast pace of internet-based media and its impact on our emotional lives is something relatively new. But fear of the Other has always driven Americans to circle the wagons. And not just Americans: the origins of World War Two in Germany remind us that propaganda has always rested on creating anxiety about appropriate scapegoats. As Joseph Goebbels said, “If you tell a lie long enough, it becomes the truth.”
So far, we are in the realm of universal explanations. But what Strauss misses, and what I’m more interested in, is what makes Americans so exceptional in this regard. In other words, what makes us so freaking crazy? He has only part of the picture. And for the rest, I refer to an earlier blog series of mine, Shock and Awe: Re-invigorating the Myth of American Innocence.
Re-invigorating our myth occurs in three major ways, and Strauss gets two of them. The first is obvious: the constant fear-mongering of the media and the political class – bothmajor parties – that we can trace all the way back through American history. In fact, it is so much a part of our history as we learn it that it is nearly indistinguishable from our mythology. It is the primary story we tell ourselves about ourselves: our fear of the Other that is solved only with the intercession by some hero figure – with Biblical violence – so that we can get on with the business of pursuing happiness, making money and congratulating ourselves on our self-made, good fortune.
As such, this primary story is quite literally how we define our American identity. We periodically renew that identity by experiencing the fear that the Other will somehow erase it – and then encouraging our warrior classes to sacrifice themselves so as to prevent disaster. And it shouldn’t require a degree in psychology to understand the addictive nature of this experience, which, like any drug, only satisfies us briefly, until we need it again. This is the “shock” side of our “shock and awe” American experience.
Strauss gets the second factor as well, the pace of modern life and the instant nature of electronic news that reinforces our sense that bad things are happening constantly, regardless of our political leanings. I would add (in Chapter Eight):
…the mania produced by our technologically enhanced environment. In most large, indoor public spaces (stores, shopping malls and sports arenas) we have gotten used to enduring the unrelenting onslaught of loud music, blinking lights and high-definition visual images. This is most certainly not accidental. Take restaurant design for example: open kitchens, hard floors and high walls that reflect and increase sound, forcing patrons to shout just to be heard (thereby increasing the noise)…In many places, especially those catering to adolescents, the atmosphere approaches that of gambling casinos, which are deliberately designed to create “altered states” of consciousness. The object is to heighten anxiety and encourage the sense that it can be reduced through consumerism. However, because the anxiety never fully dissipates, we continually acclimate to greater levels of it. Could we find a better clinical definition of addiction?
But what really makes us exceptional – exceptionally crazy – is a third factor that combines with the first two as it has done with no other people in world history. And I must stress again and again that I’m not describing Trump supporters only. Indeed, each time liberals identify them or him as loony – or “the Russians” as the sole source of his election and their discomfort – they reinforce their own sense of innocence. I’m talking about Americans, at least white Americans.