Archive for May, 2009

Prozac Revolution

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

As many as one in five adult Americans may now be taking antidepressant drugs. The most popular of these medications alter brain chemistry in a way that makes life seem generally more pleasant. Prozac and a half-dozen related formulations, called SSRI’s, are so effective in the relief of psychological misery that their introduction in the 1990’s was heralded as a revolution. Today, these drugs, nearly as addictive as narcotics, remove some or all of the pain of every day living for a huge proportion of the medically insured population, but the revolution that comes with mass medication may extend beyond mental hygiene.

We’ve all wondered how a nation of seemingly well-functioning citizens could have gotten itself into such a mess in so short a time. During the years of the Prozac revolution, we’ve lived out a delusion that we could grow without limit, pollute without interruption, and win any war, and we’ve injured the nation and made the rich much richer and ourselves much poorer in the process. Could it be that the apathy and laziness of thought that allowed us to get sheared and plucked in this way are simply the natural political consequence of drug-induced contentment?

Those who still depend on non-wonderdrugs for mood enhancement have been surprised by the complacency of the vast majority of our neighbors. Faced with military disaster, national humiliation, the constant threat of unemployment, and the collapse of culture, they don’t seem to be upset. How did “I’m not going to take it anymore!” get transformed into “What, me worry?” Maybe it was the Prozac revolution.

There are several rare conditions that leave people unable to experience pain. They are very destructive conditions. If you ever bit your cheek after a dental procedure, you know how much damage you can inflict under anesthetic, without even knowing it. Pain keeps you from harming yourself, and people with chronic loss of feeling typically break bones, sustain wounds, and die young. That might be what’s happening to us.

We may have dulled our collective capacity to feel psychological pain. That would be lethal for self-government, which depends on the acute sensitivity of citizens to the social and political climate that surrounds them. When we become unable to make the critical decisions that determine our fate, others will make them for us, and, exploiting our stupor, they’ll loot our belongings while they’re at it.

We may have made ourselves numb to the pain that ought to accompany the stranding of soldiers in dangerous places, the incessant blare of advertising, the bombing of children, the failure of the world economy, the imprisonment and torture of innocents, and the desperation of so many families near and far, not to mention the high probability of an environmental catastrophe not long after most of us are due to expire.

Antidepressants make it possible for us to continue as if things were fine. Ensuring that things will get worse. But that’s OK.

The Worst Generation

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

Democrats in the US Senate have announced that there will be no closure of the extralegal torture center at Guantanamo until the President finds a place to put the inmates. The senators are emphatic that the prisoners are welcome in none of the 50 states represented by their august body.

It’s not that the prisoners are guilty of anything. On the contrary, it is because they are innocent that the government is obliged to release them. The problem is not anything the prisoners did–most were taken by Afghan bounty-hunters on trumped-up evidence–but what we as a nation did to them. A couple of hundred men wandering among us after years of illegal confinement and torture at the hands our government is a situation our leaders would rather not confront. Until we can ship these guys someplace where they won’t be a constant reminder of the moral bankruptcy of Americans, we’ll just have to keep them locked up.

The men themselves–whose stories remain untold by the mass media–were mostly kids when they were captured. For the first several years of the their imprisonment, they had no names at all, and the media and the people were content with that. Eventually, judges forced the government to provide them with lawyers, and it is through their lawyers that a few of us have come to learn that nearly all of them are innocent of wrongdoing. The rest of us still believe they are terrorists, mainly because our media refuse to tell us the truth about them.

Suppressing the truth about them is meant to help us all deny the truth about us. The plight of our captives exposes us as a people without principle, without moral strength, without ethics, without common decency, without a sense of justice, without values. If the fathers of George Bush, Dick Cheney, Doug Feith, Chris Dodd, Nancy Pelosi, Alberto Gonzalez, Bill Clinton and the rest of my age-mates were members of the best generation, we ourselves are part of the worst generation. As the brave men and women who fought and won a world war die off, and as their misbegotten issue squander whatever legacy their elders left behind, the nation descends into a pit of corruption, violence, and poverty. It’s as if we had set about to prove that we deserved 9/11. Now we seem to be headed for much worse, and terrorism is the least of our worries.

The prisoners (”detainees,” as we like to call them in the degraded language we receive from our embedded mass media) are living, walking witnesses to our misconduct. If we could kill them, we would. If we could cut out their tongues and eyes, we’d do that. Our courts say we can’t keep them imprisoned, but a lawless senate disagrees, and so the men continue to rot by the hundreds in darkness and isolation. There is no asylum for them. Years of injustice and brutality have made them men without a country.

If the prisoners are men without a country, we are men without a nation. We, the worst generation, have trashed the last tattered remnants of the republic bequeathed us by the best generation. To distinguish ourselves from the reluctant warriors that spawned and nurtured us, we made war for profit and political advantage, and now we’re reaping a harvest of shame and degradation. The nation turned out not to be a “homeland” but a set of principles and values that we’ve long since abandoned. If we let the victims of our crimes loose among us, their silent rebuke will only augment our shame.


Thursday, May 21st, 2009

“Capitulation” is a term used on Wall Street (but not much heard these days) to describe panic selling in the stock market. In military parlance, it means surrender, and, by either definition, it’s a fit metaphor to illustrate the condition that seems to be afflicting so many of us as we try to cope with failed social institutions.

Capitulation is not so much an abandonment of hope as an abandonment of effort. Once it becomes clear that your best efforts can’t bring peace, justice, prosperity or security, you start to wonder whether you ought to expend any more energy struggling for these things. It seems such a waste of effort, when you could be making jelly or watching your grandchildren play sandbox. Obviously, the forces of decency are too weak ever to prevail, and the public interest can never be more than mere words, and any contribution one person might make will be more than offset by the apathy, complacency and abject fear that govern the great majority of us.

All forces seem arrayed to bring us to capitulation. The future of people who work for a paycheck is bleak, and the outlook for small business is just as bad. Even with the recent devaluation of real estate, home ownership remains out of reach for most wage-earners, and there’s no prospect of upward mobility on the horizon. Public opinion polls say people want these conditions to change, but government seems determined to bail out financiers and not workers. With so much upset, you would think the movement for economic justice would be growing, but it isn’t. In fact, it limps forward with fewer and fewer people every day, as labor and progressive pressure groups contract and disappear.

If you get sick, you could be forced to capitulate, because you could quickly find yourself on the road to bankruptcy. And there’s not much chance that that will change. Ever. Health care is something we all require, and this makes it very profitable for those who know how to extract profit from it. The public can demand government health insurance till the end of time, but we’ll never get it. Our leaders would quickly find themselves ousted from office if they could no longer purchase elections with money from health care profiteers. There’s a lot to be said for giving up that struggle, a string of thrashings stretching back 15 years.

And the republic doesn’t seem to be in any better shape than the citizenry. Here’s a nation that lost two wars to sixth-rate powers and has a quarter of a million men stranded in distant parts. Nobody’s about to bring them home, and it makes no difference what I might do or think. Torturers, murderers and kidnapers walk our streets, and that’s not going to change either, no matter what I might do or think. Citibank’s too big to fail, but social security, Medicare, and the rule of law, not so much. In so many ways, we take the capitulation of the republic for granted. Capitulation is definitely going around, and nobody wants to be the last holdout.

What the holdouts keep looking for is some sign of life in the populace. Some trace of conviction. Some residue of the values that got us all here. Backs seem to be turned all the way around. Generations can’t talk to each other. There seems to be no logic or rationality in public policy or in the new value system it reflects. Most of us seem now to accept that our kids will not do as well as we did, that violence will always be with us, that ignorance will proliferate, that government is irredeemably corrupt, and that justice is unattainable. That’s capitulation.

The Price of Dishonor

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

There’s something Americans should know about bombing civilians. If you can’t count them, they don’t count. That’s the rule being applied this week by the U.S. media, working in tandem with the Marine Corps, and it ’s the reason you may not have heard that Marine pilots bombed houses in Afghanistan a couple of days ago. International Red Cross observers say U.S. aircraft operating in the western province of Farah killed dozens of civilians, including many women an d children. Eyewitness accounts tell of truckloads of bodies carted away for burial. Nobody counted them, and they’re all in the ground now.

The U. S. media, suppressing most of the story, seem to be reluctant to report on the massacre because they’re not sure there are enough dead babies to make it worthwhile. Lately they’ve been spewing the Pentagon line (on no evidence whatsoever) that the hapless Afghan women and children were killed by something other than the bombs that fell on them or that they were herded into harm’s way by America’s enemies. The truth that the media can’t report is that America is the enemy. You and I are the enemy. Rich and poor. Black, white and brown. Mother and brother. We are aggressive enemies of peace, unattainable in the presence of an occupying army of tens of thousands of heavily armed American soldiers. We are enthusiastic enemies of self-determination, impossible in a country under foreign occupation. We are unabashed enemies of the rule of law, which forbids armed incursions of all kinds, except in self-defense. We are unrepentant enemies of life itself, so little concern do we show for the children of farmers and herdsmen, blown to bits by our soldiers.

Up till a few months ago, we could chalk it all up to rogue government in Washington. That rationalization evaporated in November, when we had a chance to oust the crooks in charge. We didn’t do it. In fact, our esteemed current president promised explicitly to keep the mayhem going, and we seem to have voted for that. He’s delivering. It’s dead babies by the truckload, and he claims to be proud of the boys and girls we send over there to keep the blood flowing.

The soldiers know that they are not heroic, not brave, but cowardly, with their body armor, their pilotless bombers, and their shoot-first rules of engagement. They know that they are not so much soldiers as terrorists, roaring through town and village with guns at the ready. They know that they are dishonored by what the rest of us so foolishly refer to as service. And they know that the civilians at home neither understand nor care about their shame and sadness.

Military commanders feign surprise at the number of soldiers killing themselves. They should acknowledge that this is the price of cowardice. Of brutality. Of lawlessness. Of dishonor. These are the hallmarks of 21st Century warfare, American-style, and there’s no cure for dishonor except self-destruction. Some drink themselves to death. Some end up on the street. Some buy a dozen roses for Mom and then put a gun to their heads.

Activist’s Dilemma

Friday, May 1st, 2009

Some of us are joiners. We believe that a group of people working together toward a common goal is more likely to achieve it than the same people working individually. And since we’re social creatures anyway and like to be around one another, we might as well make good use of our affiliations and cooperate to produce big things. I’ve always found this logic compelling, and my parents encouraged me to join others in group efforts. School band, scouts, sandlot sports, and as an adult, Air Force, choir, politics, and parent groups. I’ve always been a joiner.

Some of us are skeptics. We believe that plans, policies, ideas and other bits of wisdom need to be tested regularly, even beliefs of long standing, held by great numbers of people. Skeptics raise objections. Skeptics dissent from the majority view and habitually take positions against accepted ideas. Some skeptics have doubts about the existence of God. Some see no future in democratic government or free enterprise. Some even question the intrinsic value of human life. Skeptics are like snowflakes. No two have the same doubts. But most of them share serious doubts about the effectiveness of groups and the motives of the people that join them. And so skeptics tend not to be joiners. When they do join, they question everything. I’ve always considered myself a skeptic.

Skeptics who join are activists. Activists turn out for picket lines and public meetings and protest demonstrations. Activists think of themselves as representing others. When an activist turns out to protest the closing of a public library, he’s out there for the multitudes at home who share his convictions but couldn’t show up for one reason or another. The skeptic that lives in every activist has doubts about the constituency at home. Bitter experience has taught activists that a demonstration consisting only of activists is an event the news media and the general public can easily ignore. I am an activist, and I can attest to this.

Meetings of activists are to be dreaded. Turnout is always disappointing. Arguments on trivial matters can take hours to resolve. Skeptics are there to point out deficiencies of every kind. See how much progress is made in a group of people who are quick to notice deficiencies. Often, dissent leads to conflict, and constant conflict can scare new recruits and hinder organizing. Turnouts at meetings tend to get sparser and sparser. Big groups break up into smaller, more insular ones with a narrower focus. The major objectives everyone rallied around become elusive. And so policies with broad support among the general public–tax-funded universal health care, for example–make no headway whatsoever because activists are splintered and disorganized.

It may be that activists are on a fool’s errand. Consider the situation of war protesters in America. They question the generally accepted idea that the U.S. is privileged to use armed force to advance national interests. They find considerable support among people on the street for their opposition to war but little or no appetite for public protest. And so they try to organize, and if they’re lucky, they overcome some of the internal divisions that alienate activists from one another, and they announce a public event. And when they turn out for the demonstration or conference, their numbers are embarrassingly small. Instead of making their point–that most Americans don’t like war–the pathetic turnout seems to confirm the opposite: that a tiny minority don’t like war, and everybody else is OK with it. The activists who show up, especially the younger, less experienced ones, feel foolish and ineffectual and are less likely to turn out next time.

This seems to be the story of the peace movement, the environmental movement, and all the other movements. Nobody has yet come up with a way out of this frustrating cycle, which can discourage and finally disable the individuals caught up in it. Activists are said to “burn out.” They don’t. They just quit fighting, defeated. They never stop burning, and they can flare up at any time.