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No, We're Not a Broken People

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In 2004 I began speaking at rallies and forums around the country on issues of peace and justice, something I've done off-and-on ever since. Up through 2008, it was extremely unusual for questions from the audience to consist of pure defeatism. In 2009, it was rare to get through a Q&A session without being asked what the point was of trying.

And the defeatism is so contagious that it will be hard for me to make it through 2010 if people don't shut up about how doomed we are. If current trends continue, by 2011 the only people showing up at forums on peace and justice will all be old enough to tell my grandparents they're too young to understand how pointless it is to try. And my grandparents are dead.

Most of the defeatist questions I get asked are more statements than questions, mostly informing those in the room of ways in which our nation is corrupted that we are all painfully aware of, but stated as much out of frustration and despair as out of any hope of hearing a miraculous solution articulated.

Aren't politicians all bought and paid for? Haven't we tried being activists for years with no success? Can't the corporate media just destroy us if it wants to? Won't the secret permanent bureaucracy just kill any politicians who stray from the plan? Isn't anything good doomed to fail under our two-party system? Et cetera and so forth.

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Some of these questions / statements / cries of anguish build into them an analysis of what's wrong and, therefore, of what needs to be fixed, at least in the view of the questioner. And I tend to agree with much of the analysis I hear, and to want to add to it. (For example, I want to get people to see the danger of leaving all power in the hands of presidents, even though returning it to Congress wouldn't do a bit of good until we fix Congress.) But I have no sympathy for what I consider the unintellectual and immoral offense of coughing discouragement on people.

So, I ask participants in events I'm speaking at not to do it.

And they do it anyway.

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What to do?

One of the most insightful and useful articles I've read this year is
Bruce Levine's "Are Americans a Broken People?" published by Alternet.
Levine diagnoses us as abused citizens and points out that the more we
learn about how badly we're being abused by our government, the less
able we are to push back. We're ashamed of our subservience, and every
new report of it increases it.

Levine finds causes of our disempowerment in financial stress, social isolation, institutions of higher education that train submissiveness, the treating of rebelliousness with pharmaceuticals, the damaging effects of television, and the replacement of citizenship with consumerism.

Levine finds solutions in "encouragement, small victories, models of courageous behaviors." We don't need to be told what's wrong, he says. We need the morale boost of seeing people succeed in doing what's right.

I don't disagree, and I'm glad someone is talking about this. If from now on everyone who comes to an event on my book tour would substitute for their moans of hopelessness a report on something courageous they did or a small victory they helped win, it would add 20 years to my life and benefit, rather than harm, everyone else in the room -- including the would-be prophets of despair.

But Levine's discussion needs to be expanded. Levine offers no explanation for why activists, at least on the left, and I think across the political spectrum, have been hit with despair in 2009 so severely. He pulls out examples from 10 years ago as if nothing has changed in the interim.

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Levine offers no analysis of why we are lacking in encouragement, small victories, or models of courageous behaviors. I believe the answer has more to do with our communications system than anything else, which means that the solution cannot simply be for you or I as isolated individuals to act courageously -- which is not to say that we shouldn't.

Levine also proposes no particular solutions for the causes he diagnoses, but would presumably support efforts to address them.

And, finally, I think a word of caution is needed about dependency on small victories, and on the wisdom of supposing that larger victories will come more easily than we believe -- something Levine suggests by quoting Noam Chomsky on his having overestimated how difficult it would be to end the Vietnam War.

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at http://davidswanson.org and http://warisacrime.org and works for the online (more...)

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