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American Political Passivity, Anti-Authoritarianism, and Building a Base
By Bruce E. Levine
Remarks delivered at http://MIC50.org conference.
I want to begin by explaining how a clinical psychologist ends up giving the final talk at a conference on the military-industrial complex.
Actually, for many years now, I’ve been writing and speaking about—and fighting against—another industrial complex, the pharmaceutical-industrial complex, specifically the psycho-pharmaceutical-industrial complex.
All these industrial complexes are painful similar in their revolving doors of employment. So, for example, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is the leading government agency on mental health and funds research. People at the NIMH who have has been friendly to drug companies have been rewarded by drug companies with a high-paying job after they leave NIMH. And just about every influential mental health institution takes money from drug companies. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, a consumer group, takes millions of dollars from drug companies, and so does the American Psychiatric Association, which is the professional organization of America’s psychiatrists.
The American Psychiatric Association publishes the official diagnostic manual for the mental health profession. It’s called the DSM. They’re up to the DSM-4 revision, and they’re working on the DSM-5. Each revision gets larger and larger. When I was watching Eugene Jarecki’s documentary about the military-industrial complex, Why We Fight, I remember Chalmers Johnson saying, “I guarantee you when war becomes that profitable, you are going to see more of it.” Same is true in my profession. The more profitable mental illness has become, the more you are seeing of it.
So, lots of my activism really starts with embarrassment with my own profession. One of the things that I became initially embarrassed by was its patholologizing and medicating normal human behavior in order to make a buck. They turned shyness into “avoidant personality disorder,” and turned temper tantrums of three-year olds into “pediatric bipolar disorder” and now give them heavy-duty antipsychotic drugs. What especially troubled me has been the increasing pathologizing of stubbornness, resistance, rebellion, and anti-authoritarianism, especially in children and teenagers.
There are several subtle examples of this kind of pathologizing of rebellion, but the most obvious one is something called “oppositional defiant disorder” (ODD), which when it first appeared in the DSM-3, I told my colleagues that this must be a joke. Symptom of ODD include “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules” and “often argues with adults.” I have spent a great deal of time with these previously labeled ODD kids. While some of them may be a “handful” for their parents, many are the hope of the nation. I tell my colleagues, “Don’t you realize that damn near every well-known activist in American history—from Tom Paine, to Emma Goldman, to Malcolm X, to Saul Alinsky—would have been diagnosed with ODD. And sadly, increasing numbers of these kids are being medicated, often on heavily tranquilizing antipsychotic drugs, and this is especially true for more impoverished kids on Medicaid. That’s one reason why the antipsychotic industry is now the largest grossing class of all drugs in the United States.
So, I became very much concerned that my profession had become one more spoke in the wheel that is politically pacifying Americans. There are other spokes that I will also talk about. When I talk about these pacifying forces, it’s not to depress us but so that we recognize that there are multiple “democracy battlefields” —not just national elections and demonstrations—to fight each day and to get back our strength.
Another step in getting me to this conference was my working on individual depression, which was once called melancholia. Depression results from our attempt to shut down overwhelming pain, which causes us to shut ourselves down, often to a point of immobilization. So, why is it that there has been a tenfold increase in depression in the United States in the last 50 years? Why is it that 10 percent of Americans are now on antidepressants? Why is it that the World Health Organization is predicting that depression will become the world’s second leading illness by 2020. It seems obvious that there are major cultural, societal, economic, and political transformations that are making us more depressed. This epidemic of depression is not exactly being caused by Al Qaeda sucking the serotonin out of us.
It doesn’t take that much in America to get labeled a “dissident psychologist.” You just heard what it takes.
The major step in getting me closer to this conference, however, came at the end of 2009. For the previous decade, I had been watching increasing American politically passivity that paralleled increasing American individual depression and immobilization. I found it remarkable that in the face of senseless wars and a loss of liberties and economic and social injustice that—compared to other periods of American history and compared to many other nations today—there was so little political resistance in the United States.
The area of “disputed presidential elections” got me thinking in 2009. In 2009 in Iran, in response to their disputed presidential election, despite hearing that they would be shot at—and some were killed—two to three million Iranians hit the streets of Tehran. Same thing in Mexico when their more progressive guy lost in their disputed presidential election of 2006—millions hit the streets of Mexico City, some surrounding foreign-owned banks. And in the Ukraine in 2004, when their more progressive guy lost in a disputed presidential election, not only did millions demonstrate, there were general strikes that basically closed down the county; their “Orange Revolution” forced the Ukraine’s Supreme Court to call for new elections, and ultimately this Orange Revolution succeeded in righting an election wrong.
But then take a look at the response to U.S. disputed presidential elections. There was relatively little resistance to the 2004 disputed election, but the one that I really thought about was our response to the disputed 2000 presidential election, the one where Al Gore, indisputedly, received a half million more votes than George W. Bush. Now, I’m not this big fan of Al Gore, but more than 50 million people voted for him. You probably remember that there was a major dispute over the Florida vote, and so a recount was ordered, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Florida Supreme Court and basically handed the election over to Bush in December. One of the dissenting U.S. Supreme Court Justices, John Paul Stevens, by no means a radical—he was appointed by Gerald Ford—was so disgusted with his fellow Supreme Court Justices that he said, “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.” This was widely reported. So what was the American response? Well, a handful demonstrated outside the Supreme Court, and month later at Bush’s inauguration there were maybe 50,000 people angry with Bush, but there was never any real public battle to dispute this election. And I remember thinking that if I were Bush or Cheney, the lesson that I would have learned was, “We can get away with just about anything,” and that seems to be the lesson that they learned.
Americans’ response to these ongoing wars is also remarkable. What’s remarkable to me is that as these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have become more unpopular in the polls, there has been less resistance than when these wars were more popular.
So, in late September 2001, when over 80 percent of Americans favored going into Afghanistan—as they believed that this was just about getting Bin Laden and those responsible for the World Trade Center and other attacks—20,000 Americans in Washington DC still protested against our imminent invasion.
And I’m sure many of you remember the major protests in February 2003 against the then imminent invasion of Iraq. Even though a slight majority of American favored the war in the polls—believing the government propaganda about WMDs and other lies—500,000 showed up in New York City to protest. And there were other major demonstrations all over the United States. I should say that there were even larger protests in Europe, with the largest protest of any kind in London’s history, and millions more protested in Spain, Italy and other parts of Europe.
But the remarkable thing is that as these wars have gotten more unpopular in the polls—with now, depending on the poll question, at least 60 to 65 percent of Americans opposing these wars—there has been diminished resistance.
And there are several other areas—from the Wall Street bailout, to other corporate welfare, to health care—where the majority of Americans clearly oppose the policy of the corporate-controlled government, but there has been relatively little resistance.
So, in late 2009, I decided to write some articles about this issue of American political passivity in places that would publish me—certainly not the New York Times. I get published in AlterNet, Z Magazine, CounterPunch, Truthout, sort of anti-authoritarian left places. I wanted to see if other Americans also thought that this passivity was remarkable. In these articles, I talked about some of the psychological reasons. For example, the idea of learned helplessness in our presidential elections, in which no matter which party wins, we still get senseless wars and corporate control. And I also talked about the abuse syndrome. I’ve been working with abused people for over 25 years, and when you eat too much crap— physical, emotional abuse—for too long, you can grow weak. I talked about some of the societal and cultural reasons for this passivity, and began to talk about some of the solutions.
I received an overwhelming response to those pieces, more than I had ever received before in terms of comments, emails, response articles, and media requests from people across the political spectrum.
David Swanson wrote an excellent response piece that was helpful, and I incorporated some of his ideas in Get Up, Stand Up.
I also received several media requests from the libertarian anti-war world. Now, there is a big difference between these people and those bigoted-militarist Tea Partiers. Many of these libertarian anti-war folks like me. I’m not exactly sure why. I think it’s because they are happy that somebody writing in these left publications is comfortable with anger and is talking about this issue of passivity. And so, I am able to have enough glue with them so that we can actually have a dialogue and discuss issues that we disagree on, such as healthcare.
Because of this huge response, and because I really felt that I only had touched on some of the reasons for this political passivity, and mostly because I wanted to talk about solutions, I decided to write a book. So I spent a good deal of 2010 researching and writing it.
One area I wanted to research was the history of democratic movements, especially American democratic movements, not just to examine their strategies and tactics but to take a look at the psyche of these movements. In that kind of research, it doesn’t take long to come across the work of Lawrence Goodwyn, a journalist who became a historian and one of the foremost scholars on democratic movements. Goodwyn wrote a book about Solidarity in Poland, but he is most famous for his work on America’s Populist Movement, which was the agrarian revolt in the 1880s and 1890s against the crop lien system and the moneyed elite of that era—the railroads, the banks, the exploitative merchants, and so on—in which the farmer’s were losing their farms because they owed more than they could make farming. In Get Up, Stand Up, I talk about the great lessons to be leaned from these Populists in terms of strategies and tactics. But for now, I just want to stick to something else that Goodywn talked about.
Goodwyn observed from his study of democratic movements that successful or near successful ones had two important psychological and cultural building blocks— “individual self-respect” and “collective self-confidence”
Individual self-respect means that one believes that one is worthy of power and one does not accept a role of being a subject of power. One does not accept “one’s place in the bequeathed social hierarchy.” Those farmers in the Populist movement rejected the idea that because they didn’t have much more money or much schooling that they were not entitled to their fair share of power.
Collective self-confidence simply means that a group believes that it can win, that it can succeed in overcoming oppression and exploitation.
It was clear to me that these are two important building blocks that had been lost in America, and that we had to recover them in order to create democratic movements.
There are other important cultural and psychological building blocks important that are unquantifiable but vital for every democratic movement. These include courage, guts, determination, and solidarity.
Another important element of democratic movements that I want to spend a little time on is anti-authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is simply the unquestioning obedience to authority. Anti-authoritarians assess whether authorities are legitimate or illegitimate. Does that authority know what they are talking about or not? Does the authority lie or tell the truth? Does that authority actually care about those who are taking their authority seriously, or is that authority on some financial or ego trip? If one judges that authority to be illegitimate, then anti-authoritarians challenge and resist it.
Anti-authoritarianism is not only intellectually vital for democracy, it is emotionally vital for democratic movements as it creates enormous energy. That is why an authoritarian society tries to crush it.
A person I think about here is Tome Paine. Paine, a working-class guy, was different from many of the elitist aristocratic founding fathers. When Paine came to America in 1774 he was intoxicated by the colonials’ anti-authoritarianism. Paine assessed correctly that many of these colonials were actually way ahead in terms of their anti-authoritarianism than many of these future “founding fathers” who were mostly just speaking out against the British Parliament’s “taxation without representation.” George Washington was still toasting King George in 1775. But Paine viewed the entire British authority—Parliament, the monarchy, the British East India Company—as illegitimate, and he voiced the then taboo word of independence. His pamphlet Common Sense, which was published in January of 1776, was ultimately read by an estimated 500,000 out of 3 million colonials, which is the equivalent of over 50 million Americans today. And so Jefferson knew he had pretty big market share for the Declaration of Independence, which came out about 6 months later.
Beyond emotionally energizing us, anti-authoritarianism also does something else. It helps create those strong bonds of solidarity. Specifically, when one actively, in the flesh, supports others who are challenging and resisting illegitimate authority, that’s how we get those strong bonds of solidarity, which are hugely necessary when authorities strike back, which they always do.
So, I am very much interested in those institutional, societal, and cultural forces that are reducing our anti-authoritarianism, individual self-respect, collective self-confidence, courage, determination and solidarity, and increasing our fear. There are many spokes in this problematic wheel. I talk about them not so as to depress us, but for us to gain awareness that there are many “democracy battlefields” going on each and every day.
(Audience member shouts out, “TSA”). Yes, okay, you want to start with surveillance. That’s important. Surveillance, or more specifically the fear of surveillance, has pacified many of us. You might guess that lots of the libertarian anti-war world rails a great deal about surveillance, but they usually only talk about government surveillance. While government surveillance is a reality for many of the activists at this conference, a more pervasive kind of surveillance for more Americans that also creates fear is workplace surveillance, with cameras in warehouses and managers checking out people’s company computers. Libertarians are not exactly pro-labor union folks, but when I talk to them about the decimation of labor unions—another spoke in the American political passivity wheel—in the context that unions are the only protection against workplace surveillance, some working-people libertarians are more open to the idea that union decimation is problematic for the cause of freedom and democracy. And so this becomes another way to open up a dialogue to create solidarity.
Another area that weakens democratic movements is social isolation, caused by our suburbanized-television-car-consumer culture that sociologist Robert Putnam talks about in Bowling Alone. 25 percent of Americans do not have a single confidant in their lives, and this is up from 10 percent just 25 years ago. And so of course this isolation creates more fear and reduces our chances for solidarity.
There are several other spokes in the wheel that break our spirit of resistance that I talk about in Get Up, Stand Up. There are many aspects of our society and our institutions that create fear, as fear breaks people’s spirit of resistance. So, there are democracy battlefields in many areas of our lives.
A special area of concern of mine are those spokes that affect young people. So, while many older activists lament the lack of young people in the anti-war and other democracy movements, I am impressed that there are any young people involved at all, because our society has thrown a great deal of impediments against young people resisting. It is so much harder for young people today to resist than it was in my generation.
One big thing is the student-loan debt issue. Debt creates enormous fear which kills resistance. If I had the kind of debt that most young people have today, it would have dampened my desire to speak our and fight against injustices and lies. When I was going to college, if you were working class like I was, there were great public universities and colleges in which you could get a B.A. and even graduate degrees either free or for very low cost. I went to Queens College at the City University of New York for free, and later for free at the University of Cincinnati to get my Ph.D. It was easy to graduate with all kinds of degrees without debt. This is still the case in a much of the rest of the world. And in the recent Arab spring, while there was huge unemployment in Egypt, those young people didn’t have student debt, as universities are free throughout the Arab world. And higher education is either free or very lost in much of the rest of the world. And so I talk a lot about in my book about the political actions as well as the individual and family ways of reducing and eliminating this debt. This is important to reduce fear, and to create strength and build a larger base.
Also, standard schooling has always been a problematic spoke in the wheel. Despite well-meaning teachers, institutions often care more about obedience than creating an education for democracy—the kind of education which inspires curiosity, a love of independent learning and reading, critical thinking and questioning authority.
However, the problems authoritarian schooling has gotten much worse, thanks to another Democratic-Republican bipartisanship. Watch out when those guys get together, as you get senseless wars, Wall Street bailouts and other corporate welfare. You also get bipartisanship education policies such as “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top,” which are essentially about standardized testing tyranny. Administrators, teachers, parents, and students live in fear of these corporate-created standardized tests. And of course fear kills curiosity, love of learning, critical thinking, and fear kills the kind of education you need for democracy.
The good news is that as a society and its institutions become more authoritarian, many ordinary nonpolitical folks get radicalized. An example of that in American history is the Fugitive Slave Act, which made lots of regular abolitionist folk into lawbreakers, and then made them question and challenge many other things. So, I see this kind of thing with many teachers I talk with. Before, they never really seriously challenged the authoritarian aspects of standardized schools, but when this standardized-testing tyranny made their classrooms so miserable, some of those 3 million teachers have started becoming more politicized, speaking out publicly against this stuff. Some teachers are even going into their classroom and telling their students that they aren’t getting educated for democracy, that what they are receiving by incessant test preparation is only making these test-producing corporations richer.
And as I mentioned before, my mental health profession is also a major spoke in the wheel, especially for young people. There are about one million of us mental health professionals—psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, counselors, paraprofessionals—who see over 20 percent of American kids. And I can tell you, from over 25 years of private practice, that those kids are not being dragged into shrinks’ offices for being excessively compliant and conformist. No, most of those kids are disrupting something, sometimes selfishly, but often these kids have a passion for justice and feel that there is some family or school or other injustice going on, and they are reacting in the only ways they know how.
In 1950s, the left-humanist psychoanalyst Erich Fromm was already speaking about his concern that the mental health profession was going to be used to help people adapt and adjust to society, regardless of how dehumanizing, anti-democratic, and authoritarian that society had become. And this is now clearly the case. This is especially obvious today as mental health professionals are used to help soldiers adapt and adjust to senseless wars, including giving them drugs to numb them, nowadays even in battle zones.
So, in response to what mainstream mental health has become, I have been talking to my colleagues and to the general public about another kind of psychology, what I call a “liberation psychology.” I thought I had invented this term, but I quickly realized that somebody else years before me had popularized it, and he certainly deserves all the credit. That person was the El Salvadoran social psychologist and priest Ignacio Martin-Baró. Martin-Baró should certainly be given credit for popularizing the term liberation psychology, as he lost his life because of his liberation psychology, liberation theology, and activism for the people of El Salvador. In 1989, Martin-Baró, together with several others, was assassinated by a U.S.-trained El Salvadoran death squad.
Along with Martin-Baró, many other social scientists in Central America, South America, Africa, and the Caribbean have understood that when people become subjugated and externally depressed for too long, they develop an internal oppression, a defeatism, a fatalism, a helplessness, a demoralization, and a hopelessness. Bob Marley—the poet laureate of oppressed people around the world—called it “mental slavery,” and he sang about emancipating yourself from mental slavery.
This phenomenon of subjugation resulting in demoralization and defeatism has also now happened in the United States, but it is more difficult for many Americans to see it, as our oppressors are not obvious tyrants such as a Pinochet or a Mubarak but instead are the more impersonal corporate state, the corporatocracy, or what George Carlin called, “the owners of this country.” We must first acknowledge the reality that for millions of Americans, subjugation has in fact resulted in demoralization and fatalism. Then, we can begin to liberate ourselves from what I call “corporatocracy abuse” and “battered people’s syndrome.”
There are actually parallels to other abuse syndromes in terms of how one helps oneself and each other recover from corporatocracy abuse and battered people’s syndrome. It’s about getting people to let go of their fear and getting their strength back. It is certainly about coming out of denial that one is being abused. That means letting go of the shame that comes from being a victim, and this means forgiving oneself, especially for believing the lies of the abuser. We also need to forgive one another for continuing to buy into crap. We need to remember that all abusers—whether it is a spouse abuser or Dick Cheney—are liars. Even if the liar is not brilliant, if they are practicing lying all the time, which is what abusers do, they become very proficient at it. And so there is no great shame in having bought into some of their lies.
Another aspect of liberation psychology that I think about a great deal is how we can create greater solidarity among people. The polls show that the vast majority of Americans oppose these senseless wars and corporate welfare, but most are not battling against it. So, I want to talk about some ways that we can go back to our community and help expand the base.
What tyrants and dictators have always done is use the “divide-and-conquer” strategy on the rest of us. Historically in the United States, they have tried to divide us racially, ethnically, and they have used religion as well. The tactic that they are using a great deal lately is to try to divide us among union workers versus nonunion workers. So, it’s always important to be aware of this and confront this.
However, even more empowering is seeing how we divide ourselves, which we can change. I want to talk about a couple ways we do this, so that when we leave this conference and go back into our communities, we can use unite rather than divide and build a larger base. There are several areas in which we divide ourselves, but I want to talk about two important ones.
One divide among us is what I call the divided between the “comfortable anti-authoritarians” and the “afflicted anti-authoritarians.
I don’t use the term comfortable anti-authoritarians pejoratively. The reality is that some of us who are critically thinking anti-authoritarians are in a lot less pain than others. Some of us may be lucky enough to have a few bucks in the bank or have a decent paying job, maybe a prof job or we may have a decent pension. And pain is reduced by other things, such as work that feels meaningful. Pain is also reduced by having social support. And pain is also reduced by having a public platform in which one feels through one’s books, articles, talks and so on that one is having an impact.
The vast majority of anti-authoritarians in America are in the afflicted zone. They oppose these senseless wars and corporate welfare. They are on our side, but they are often politically passive. They are overwhelmed by the pain of their lives. The pain of severe money problem. The pain of unemployment, watching foreclosure and bankruptcy closing in on them. The pain of holding on to a meaningless job just for health insurance. The pain of alienation and isolation. The pain of nobody giving a damn about what they have to say.
In my life, like many of you, I’ve traveled across this afflicted-comfortable continuum, though not at the extremes of either. There is a very different psychology that people have depending on where they are on this continuum. So, if you are in the afflicted zone, much of what you are trying to do each day is to keep the pain of your life from overwhelming you. That might mean drinking a few more beers than you should or watching too much stupid television. You are often looking for anything to take the edge off of your pain so that you can function at all.
When you are in that afflicted zone, and people come at you with all the truths of how they are getting victimized and what they have to do, that can feel like just more pain. It can feel like a painful lecture of a scolding. It can even feel shaming. So, what do the afflicted do? They walk away. It is a turnoff. People say, “I don’t need that.” These lectures can also create resentment, as it feels like an assumption that one’s political passivity has to do with ignorance and laziness, and not overwhelming pain. And so these kind of lectures can be divisive. So, if we want to expand the base, we have to realize that we have to try to reduce the afflicted’s pain. If we don’t do it, some demagogue will come along and exploit their pain.
One of the great examples of a non-demagogic way of reducing the afflicted’s pain—a way that helped create a huge democratic movement—was what the Populists did. They created the first large-scale working people’s cooperatives that helped farmers get a better price for their crops and so reduced their financial pains. GI coffeehouses that Jonathan spoke about are another great way to reduce people’s people, as free coffee and some fun socializing can be a great pain reducer. At the very least, we need to offer respect and empathy, as that helps reduce the pain. And by respecting and not exploiting people’s pain, we draw people to democratic movements and build a base
Another divide that is close to my heart is around hope. Now this divide is not only among us, but it is also internal, within many of us. That’s the case with myself, as I sometimes move into hopelessness.
I personally don’t know any Pollyannaish critically-thinking antiauthoritarians. The divide around hope is more between those who are completely hopeless and believe that there is no chance in hell we can eliminate something as huge and powerful as the military-industrial complex versus those who do have some hope and think that there is at least one chance in hell that we can succeed.
So, as we go back into our community, we might want to think about how we can approach the hopelessness of critically-thinking anti-authoritarians in a way that doesn’t insult theirs—or our own—intelligence.
One thing that is helpful for me is my work with depressed people. Research tells us that people who are more critically thinking are more susceptible to depression. In the late 1970s, there were a bunch of studies where people were given rigged games in which they had no power over winning. Those who were more astute in assessing the truth of their powerlessness—the more critically thinking subjects—were those who were more likely to be depressed. And so like every trait, critically-thinking is a double-edged sword. I think this is relevant to political passivity, in that many people who see the enormity of the military-industrial complex and other industrial-complex’s power over us can move into defeatism. And so they become part of a self-fulfilling prophesy.
One of the things I often need to tell myself and which I talk about with critically-thinking anti-authoritarians who move into hopelessness is, “While you may in fact be better able than many other people to see ugly truths, you cannot, if you are human, see everything.” In other words, critical thinkers must learn to have critical thinking about their own critical thinking, and have some humility.
One example that is interesting for me is Abraham Lincoln, who many historians consider our most critically-thinking presidents, certainly one of the best writers. What most Americans don’t know is that Lincoln was a major depressive. When he was a young man, he became so depressed that his friends twice had to form suicide watches over him. In the 1850s in the United States, the major battle was not so much over abolishing slavery as stopping the spread of slavery. In 1856, Lincoln, who fought politically to stop the spread of slavery, wrote this pessimistic economic analysis of how the South has far more to gain by spreading slavery than the North has to gain by stopping the spread of slavery. As critically thinking as Lincoln was, he could not possible have seen that he— with his checkered political career in which he lost more than he won—would become the presidential nominee of this upstart third party called the Republican Party; and that in a three-way race and with less than the majority of votes that he would win the Presidency; and that this would so piss off the South that—even though Lincoln did not campaign on abolishing slavery—most of the southern states would secede; and that a bunch of boys in South Carolina would get so incensed that they world fire on a Federal fort, Fort Sumter; and other events would follow, so that ultimately within less than decade of his pessimistic analysis of how it would be difficult to stop the spread of slavery, slavery would be abolished. So, critical thinkers need to keep in mind that while they may see more than others, they don’t see everything.
There are lots of other examples of this kind of thing in history, even in recent times. One recent example is of course is the Arab spring, as lots of critical thinker who I’ve talked with from that part of the world are amazed at what happened in Egypt.
I saw evidence of this kind of thing when I was younger. Even up until shortly before it occurred, the collapse of the Soviet empire seemed an impossibility to most Americans, who saw only mass resignation within the Soviet Union and its sphere of control. But the shipyard workers in Gdansk, Poland, did not see their Soviet and Communist Party rulers as the all-powerful forces that Americans did. And so Polish workers’ Solidarity, by simply refusing to go away, provided a strong dose of morale across Eastern Europe at the same time other historical events weakened the Soviet empire—such as their own stupid Afghanistan war—and then the Soviet Union just collapsed.
So, there are lots of examples from history that challenge the hopelessness and fatalism of critically thinking people and compel them to rethink whether they are actually seeing all the possibilities. One lesson from history is that tyrannical and dehumanizing institutions are often more fragile than they appear, and with time, luck, morale, and the people’s ability to seize the moment, damn near anything is possible.
Going back to our communities, it is important to emotionally validate people’s feelings of hopelessness—that feeling is a legitimate one, and you will simply turn people off by invalidating their feelings. But it is possible to validate that feeling while at the same time challenging the wisdom of inactions based on hopelessness, and to challenge it in a way that doesn’t insult the intelligence of critical thinkers.
History tells us that empires ultimately fall, and I think it is pretty safe to say that the U.S. military-industrial complex will also one day fall. It may be transformed by our own efforts or, perhaps more likely, it will fall under the weight of its own stupidity.
However, in order to either transform undemocratic institutions or to have what it takes to create and maintain a democratic society after that undemocratic institution falls under the weight of its own stupidity, we must be working each day on all those democracy battlefields to regain our anti-authoritarianism, individual self-respect, collective self-confidence, courage, determination, and solidarity.
Bruce E. Levine’s most recent book is Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011). He is a practicing clinical psychologist often at odds with the mainstream of his profession, and he writes and speaks widely on how society, culture, politics, and psychology intersect. His other books include Surviving America's Depression Epidemic and Commonsense Rebellion. Levine is a regular contributor to Truthout, CounterPunch, AlterNet, and Z Magazine, and his articles and interviews have been published in numerous other magazines. His Web site is www.brucelevine.net