I recently read a remarkable article that answered one of my burning questions:
I want to discuss it here but it’s tricky—these are not my original ideas and the author, Harriet Fraad, deserves full credit. It made me think and it made me realize how my own life experiences validate her theory. I couldn’t help but to try to summarize it and share it with you.
In her cover article in Tikkun Magazine, Harriet Fraad states that an economic and psychological disaster has struck America. “Five contributors, each interacting with and shaping the others, have devastated the American moral, economic, psychological, and social landscape. Each is fed by related streams, but each contributes its own force to the disaster. The American dream in which each generation surpassed the previous generation in real wages has all but disappeared, along with dreams of an intact family, a steady job, a home, and an honest supportive community,” she writes.
We on PlanetPOV and at other blogs have discussed the fact that Americans seem so apathetic, so docile. I know I have for a long time been lamenting the Left’s lack of a leader who could mobilize us. We have discussed the contrast between the American public and our European counterparts, who we see taking to the streets in protest, carrying out national strikes that temporarily paralyze their countries and getting serious attention. There are historical and social circumstances which explain the differences between us and the Europeans, but still—why are we so passive?
“What happened is a result of at least five major, interrelated forces. One is a transformation of American morality, and with it the loss of belief that the social and political realms could be shaped by morality, ethics, and secular spirituality. Another is an economic depression. A third is a transformation of the family, which has been the foundation of American emotional life. A fourth is the decimation of Americans’ social participation in all areas, from bridge clubs and PTAs to political parties. A fifth is the tranquilizing and numbing of the American population with psychotropic medications.”
I will do my best to summarize her, to my mind, brilliant ideas.
1. The Crisis in Morality and Social Ethics
In the 1960s it was common to believe that morality and spirituality included a concern for all human beings, rich and poor alike. The Age of Aquarius. Last Friday night here on the Planet, we played the music from those halcyon (and hallucinogenic) 60’s. I remember that time through a daze of youth and exuberance, and I remember that despite all the innocence was a realization that the world was cruel and that the government wasn’t listening to us; that it was “the Man.” And man, did we protest: Civil Rights, Viet Nam, the sit-ins, the teach-ins, the Marches on Washington!
By the 70’s we settled down to careers and work and starting families, and we quieted down too. Then came Reagan’s presidency in 1981, and with that the conservative push- back against those social ethics we thought we had re-energized. It got worse in Reagan’s second term and was reinforced by each president until the nadir presidency of George W. Bush.
Reagan’s ideology was that people are poor because they lack incentives. He claimed that poor people’s noble drive to get rich is eroded by social programs that permit them to survive or, in his term, “freeload.” Black welfare queens—and the government which created them –were the problem. The problem wasn’t poverty in America, it was the Americans who were poor! Just, WOW. In Reagan’s venal mind, income tax cuts increased the incentive to work and get rich, so we would all benefit from them. In 1980 the highest incomes were taxed at 73 percent; in 2009 those same high incomes were taxed at half that rate, 35 percent.
Reagan cut social programs while increasing military spending and claiming that government was too big. That pattern has been repeated ever since, which is how, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States went from being the most egalitarian western industrialized society in 1970 to the least egalitarian in 2009. We regressed into an Old World class-based society. Remember Nancy, with her expensive new White House china, her socialite friends like Alfred and Betsy Bloomingdale, her Oscar de le Renta gowns? Ah, the opulence! “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” became a popular TV show too.
In addition, the Soviet model of socialism failed. It did not provide the kind and ethical societies that are part of a socialist vision, and in fact, was not authentic communism. This only made capitalism seem like it was decidedly superior. And the more unbridled, the better.
While the Moral Majority rose, our county’s morality and ethics declined. We were, in reality, never the moral beacon we said we were, but at least we aspired to be that. Where our morality once required the United States to embody our ethics in the world and empower all citizens, it shifted so that our morality now consists of requiring conservative personal and sexual behavior. Fraad says, “Within that morality Clinton committed an impeachable crime by lying about having sex with an intern, while Bush and Cheney did not commit impeachable crimes by lying about the threat from Iraq and thus causing the deaths of over four thousand U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, or by torturing prisoners.” It is not considered immoral to spend between six billion and twelve billion dollars a week on the war in Iraq while cutting school and social programs for needy families because “there is not enough money.” The secular morality that made America a proudly democratic and egalitarian nation has deteriorated. I agree the author when she avers that we are experiencing a national moral, ethical, and spiritual crisis.
2. The Dying of the Economic Dream
A second contributor to American passivity is the economic crisis we are suffering. For 150 years, from 1820-1970, U.S. salaries rose as did worker productivity. For 150 years, each generation was able to afford a better standard of living than the generation that preceded it. That was the American dream. It was a phenomenon and it became expected, as a given.
American labor fought for an increasing amount of income that would permit workers to consume more goods and services, a system in which each generation could climb the corporate ladder. Blue-collar workers’ children could become white-collar, and white-collar children could become professionals in the next generation. U.S. growth permitted ever-increasing real wages and possibilities for consumption. Even in the Great Depression from 1929-1939, real wages, the amount that one could buy with one’s wages, were able to rise because prices fell even faster than wages.
That all stopped in 1970. Computers, better telecommunications and other efficiencies enabled jobs to be outsourced to lower-paid workers overseas. Competing factories in Europe and Japan, which had been decimated by World War II, were now vying for U.S. markets. When I was a kid in the 1950’s, products from Japan were considered inferior. The label “Made in Japan” was hidden; some Japanese manufacturers went so far as to invent a fictional city called Usa, so that they could honestly label their products as “MADE IN USA.” That all changed fairly quickly and Japanese products became prestigious. Our first really good stereo system had the now-proud name AIWA. Then China emerged as a manufacturing giant.
The outsourcing of American jobs to cheaper labor markets was not stopped by the weakened unions. Unlike our European counterparts, we did not enjoy working-class solidarity with other workers. Europeans organized their working unions along political lines. They fought for better conditions as part of the ideology of long-term communist and socialist struggles for ownership and control of their workplaces. Americans have been taught to reject—indeed, to fear—those ideologies. And St. Ronnie– “Daddy”– was the President that busted the unions. Our closest friend in those days was in the PATCO union and overnight went from being an air traffic controller to operating a forklift in a factory. At the time, Reagan told the media that the air traffic controllers were greedy and were striking for higher salaries, when their true bottom line issue was air traffic safety. How hypocritical is that—that the spokesman for Greed-is-Good busted a “greedy” union?
Fraad states, “Americans’ sense of self worth was in large part dependent on their net worth. They became increasingly depressed. Their sense of personal value was cut with their salaries. This happened as the advertising industry burgeoned. Advertising continuously and relentlessly sells consumption as the path to happiness. Consumption was undermined and with it stability, prosperity, and a sense of personal success.”
3. The Crisis in Personal and Family Life
Before the 1970s, most white American women worked only when they were single, divorced or needed to work for a variety of reasons. In 1970, 40 percent of U.S. women were in the labor force, mostly part time. By the year 2008, 75 percent of U.S. women were in the labor force, mostly full time. Many women (myself included) enjoyed the greater autonomy, variation, and creativity that jobs could provide, but there was little governmental assistence for day care, after-school programs, or elder care. Nor any corporate supports. Americans love to claim their devotion to “family values” while doing very little to actually help families.
Women’s work outside of the home helped to improve the standard of living for most families, but it did not compensate families for lost white male wages. Women’s wage work (which is still unequal) imposes not only the obvious expenses of additional clothing and transportation, but also the costs of purchasing some of the goods and services that women previously produced at home, such as cooking, mending, cleaning, shopping, and child care. When I was married in 1974, it was taken for granted that I would work, even though my husband was a decently paid white-collar worker. I cannot imagine being a stay-at-home mom, but during that period I often felt I was working just to pay for child care and the occasional cleaning service. Working is expensive. The latest figures from Salary.com indicate that if a stay-at-home mother in the United States were replaced by paid domestic products and services, the cost would be $122,732 a year. Even with women flooding into the labor force, families are still financially hurting. More money has been accumulating at the top while the mass of Americans suffer from frozen wages.
The corporate class then vigorously “promoted the credit card to lend to Americans the money that they formerly would have earned in growing wages. Families became dependent on credit card debt. Since the interest rate on credit cards ranges from 15 percent to 25 percent, Americans descended into debt at record-breaking levels,” writes Fraad.
The living standard of Americans deteriorated psychologically as well. Say what you will, but when I was a young wife and mother in the 80’s, women were usually the ones who arranged the kids’ social lives and activities, from play dates to dental appointments. Women were (and still are?) usually the directors of adult social life as well. In American culture, women provide most of the emotional effort to make home a warm and comfortable place for men and children. Maybe this is a generational attitude on my part, but I believe it to be mostly true. Says Fraad, “The more women work outside of the home without social support in the form of child care programs and domestic help, the more stressed, overworked, and emotionally unavailable they become. Overwhelmed women have less energy for the roles of social director and organizer, as well as emotional and physical caregiver.” Households are hurting emotionally. When Bush took office in 2000, he cut many of the already hobbled social programs that allowed families to survive. Families are in trouble.
Women are really not able—or willing– to work outside of the home, do the lion’s share of the domestic work, and simultaneously take care of their children’s and husbands’ physical and emotional needs largely unaided either by their husbands or by social programs. For the first time in American history, the majority of women are abandoning marriage. Women now initiate two-thirds of divorces. Half of first marriages and 60 percent of second marriages end in legal separation or divorce.
These changes in households and family life are a third tributary to America’s deluge of disaster. Americans have lost both the dream of ever-increasing prosperity and the dream of a stable and connected family life. I would add to that the pressures of the sandwich generation, where not only most people work and raise children, but must often care for elderly parents as well. People are stretched to breaking—or to shutting down.
4. Americans’ Increasing Isolation from One Another
A fourth disaster is closely related. “Beginning once again in the 1970s,” writes Fraad, “ nearly all social connections between Americans declined. The decay in U.S. social life was an almost total phenomenon. It extended from inviting friends to dinner, to joining bridge clubs or bowling leagues, to volunteering for noncontroversial activities such as the PTA or Red Cross blood drives, to participating in more controversial activities such as working for a cause or a political candidate.”
There are a few theories as to why Americans have dropped out of U.S. social life and civic life.The most obvious reason would seem that we are just too busy, but seriously, hasn’t every generation been just as busy in their own ways? Again, when I was in my twenties and thirties, working and married and raising our son, I was busy. Yet I was active in my community, joined professional associations and we had an active social life.
Plus, the average American watches four hours of television a day, which would be difficult to manage with an intensely busy schedule. Extensive television viewing may be a culprit since more people relate to their television sets than to each other, and the heaviest viewing correlates to the least social participation. Television is intensely PASSIVE though. This feels more like a symptom than a cause of the problems that isolate Americans. People say it as an addiction that compels without satisfying. Like any addiction, people use television for the purpose of distraction or entertainment, as an escape.
Perhaps the greatest reason we are isolated is that Americans are psychologically and physically exhausted. We have fewer vacations and longer workweeks than any of our Western European counterparts. Activity in society, including political activism, has become a luxury good for those fortunate few who have extra time and energy. “The Left’s natural constituency, the mass of Americans, is exhausted, disillusioned, and in despair. To add to their despair, the tremendous wealth at the top of society has been used to fund right-wing media outlets like Fox News, to name just one example. At the same time, the skewed distribution of wealth allows vast sums to be given to politicians who advance the fortunes of those who pay their way. Immense wealth is invested in weakening the regulations against enormous giving at the top. These developments increase the conviction that ordinary people make no difference in politics. They have no voice. The force of the Left is further weakened.” I can’t argue with that.
There is, however, a surprising (to me) growth in four social groups: Evangelical religious groups; GLBT groups; internet groups; and self-help groups. More about that in a minute.
5. The Drugging of America
The fifth tributary that helped to create our deluge of disaster is another cause and effect of America’s social breakdown. This is the numbing of Americans with psychotropic drugs. In 2006, Americans consumed 66 percent of the world’s supply of antidepressants. In 2002, more than 13 percent of Americans were taking Prozac alone. Prozac is one of thirty available antidepressants. Anti-anxiety drugs, such as Zoloft, are so widely prescribed that in the year 2005, the $3.1 billion sales of Zoloft exceeded the sales for Tide detergent. Brain-washing exceeds clothes washing!
Many of these drugs are diagnosed for loneliness, sadness, life transitions, or to help us concentrate. Antidepressants have become acceptable through extensive direct-to-consumer advertising and marketing to doctors. The United States is the only Western nation that permits direct-to-consumer drug advertising. We are also the only nation without price controls on drugs. Psychiatric drugs have helped make the pharmaceutical industry the most profitable industry in America, and antidepressants are their most profitable products. Soma of “Brave New World” anyone?
What Can We Do?
The current disaster did not just happen with the recent burst of the stock market and housing bubbles. Even before the economic collapse, we have known on some level that we could not pay our credit card bills or our mortgages. We responded with denial, withdrawal, depression, and dissociation accomplished with the aid of extensive “reality” television viewing and preoccupation with scandals and celebrities.
Each of the five tributaries flowed together to drown the mass of Americans in debt, family dissolution, isolation, and drug-induced apathy. Americans – or at least 57% or more of us—are now be looking for change. We elected a president who promised change. That change has not yet happened, and it might not happen. Where else can we look?
Capitalism needs and breeds consumerism. We are surrounded by advertisements for products. And it has a toxic side effect. Capitalist consumerism coveys the message that relationships happen through products. Scenes of connection with a group of friends include Budweiser beer. The devoted mother uses Swiffer (an ecological nightmare, BTW) and kills every last germ along with any healthy microbe with anti-bacterial solutions. The sexy woman, whom men want and women want to be, seems to come with new cars. Ads appear whenever we turn on our computers, read newspapers or magazines, watch TV and see a movie. Our streets and transit and stadiums and even out national parks are littered with advertising directed to all ages. Go to Europe and while there is advertising, it is nowhere near as ubiquitous, and Europeans neither have nor seem to need as much stuff. Harriet Fraad writes, “We need more images of people who enjoy their connection and work through the difficult times involved in creating close, mutual, nurturing relationships. How do we manage to effect change within this environment? Where are the contradictions that create openings?”
A Time When Noncommercial Values Are Attractive
“One opportunity for change has emerged due to the recent capitalist collapse, which has intensified American suffering. People can no longer afford the brand-name products seen on TV. Their economic woes reveal the relentless hustling of now unaffordable consumer products. They try generics, unknown brands, and less consumption, and often find them just as good. This presents us with an opening to question. New, noncommercial values can form,” claims the author.
Since Americans are hooked on the mass media, and the media loves anything new, the Left can create media-attracting new actions. The anarchist group that formed around a book called The Coming Insurrection got the media’s attention when a well-publicized group jumped on stage at Barnes & Noble in New York for a spontaneous reading that began, “Everyone agrees it’s about to explode.” The action was widely covered for its novelty. As we here on PlanetPOV have discussed, Javaz’s political action proposal could provide us with the opportunity to create something like this.
The largest self-help groups are Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Alcohol and drugs have proved to be a personal and social disaster for millions of Americans. In the face of that disaster, millions join together in small groups where they share their pain and suffering within a supportive, nonjudgmental collective that operates without salaries, advertisements, or financial charges. “These twelve-step groups give the Left a window of possibility,” Fraad says. “We can add a thirteenth step to their twelve-step programs. We can add a step to organize against big pharmaceutical and liquor advertising, which profits on false promises. The Left desperately needs to address people’s despair and give them support. We can learn to incorporate nonjudgmental personal and political support, as well as psychological and political dimensions, to Left groups where both nonjudgmental attitudes and psychological support have been sadly lacking. The Left has tried too hard to focus on being correct and not enough effort on reaching people where they are hurting. We need to listen to people without judgment as they do in twelve-step programs.”
The GLBT Movement
We can also study the contradictions that helped to produce GLBT organizations. Advertising creates images of happiness achieved though products that make us sexually attractive. The sexy woman rides in the man’s sleek new car. The virile man drives a big truck and drinks Absolut. Multibillion-dollar industries such as the diet, cosmetic, and fashion industries promote products to enhance sexual attractiveness. Popular culture celebrates heterosexual coupling and family as ultimate happiness while avoiding mention of collective joys or homosexuality.
“The GLBT movement works to include those in their identity group who are excluded from the grand celebration of personal couple happiness built around sexual pairing. The very pressure to channel complex desires into heterosexual coupling helped lead GLBT people to, as a group, articulate collective visions of resistance and envision new possibilities.”
Since most families and relationships are breaking down, people desperately need connection. Organizing creates connection. Collective dreams have a chance to replace the individualistic desires cultivated in capitalist America.
What We Can Learn From Evangelicals’ Failures … and Successes
Conservative evangelical groups create a collective vision and connection while celebrating capitalist success as God’s blessing. They provide some of what people desperately need and the Left ignores, such as communal support for important work in the home. Conservative evangelicals manage to accomplish this while sex- role stereotyping, as well as opposing every form of non-church-based support that actually allows families to stay afloat. They oppose single-payer health plans, Head Start for all, sex education (unless abstinence-based), family planning, maternity and paternity benefits, minimum wage hikes, etc. In the end they cannot deliver the support that families need. The savior they pray to has not saved them from financial and personal desperation and divorce.
The evangelical groups can, however show us part of what we are missing. There is now an opportunity for the wider community, with Left-leaning evangelicals connected to Sojourners, who see political activity as an expression of morality taken into the world. The failure of evangelical morality, which excludes social, economic, and political morality, may create an opening for a much-needed Left-wing program of social, political, economic, and personal ethics for which many hunger. I have to say, although it has been several years since I was involved, my greatest sense of connectedness was found when I was a member of a religious-based community. While I know this is not for everybody, I feel so strongly that belonging to some group or other is vital to our well-being. We are really, truly all connected, and we can’t see that when we are on a mountaintop or in our homes. Our personal work, as well as our societal work, is most effectively done in community. We are social beings.
There are explicitly political possibilities made possible by the net. MoveOn.org and other political groups organize and mobilize through the Web. In Iran, members of the opposition evaded censors, communicated with each other, and aroused national and international support through Twitter and Facebook. The Facebook account of Neda Soltani’s murder focused Iran and the world on the violent repression of Mousavi’s supporters. That possibility exists here—and I mean HERE, on the Planet.
The four social growth groups springing up in America’s desert of political opposition point out possible avenues for a Left that desperately needs direction. Let’s return to the original question:
Why are Americans passive as millions lose their homes, their jobs, their families, and the American dream?
Why do Americans remain at home, disorganized, while their European counterparts flood into the streets in militant, organized protests? How did this happen? What forces are responsible? We can see that the cycles of capitalism with its relentless need for consumer spending and capital accumulation at the top have devastated America. We can also see that unbridled capitalism has created mass suffering and then turned the rage of those who suffer against all who need governmental assistance and against additional scapegoats such as homosexuals, feminists, liberals, socialists, minorities and immigrants. Asks Fraad, “We can create new roads to reclaim this nation by organizing and activating the mass of Americans who know that the ostensible “recovery” will never return what they have lost. We dared to elect a president who championed change verbally, who campaigned on unity and respect for all, and who preserves the structures that destroyed our lives. En masse, we have turned to self-help groups, evangelists, psycho-pharmaceutical drugs, and sexual identity politics, which do not solve the multifaceted crisis in which we are drowning. America needs another way. Perhaps we can provide it?”
And I say: Yes we can! And you know what? We have begun to do that right here, on PlanetPOV. While the internet can isolate us, it can also bring us together. We have created a small virtual community here and I think it will grow. We care about each other here; we get involved in political and social action here; we support each other and learn from each other here. And we do all that on a non-commercial site. If we are going to overcome the passivity and depression that America has enabled, we need to use whatever tools we have to shake ourselves out of our torpor. “Walk it off,” as my dad used to tell us, and we can virtually do that.