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Paranoia, depression, or a world of hope:

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Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson hit the nail on the head recently with his column Nation of Fear. A bare majority may oppose the NSA database on all of us, but it's pretty terrifying that the same polls indicate that 40% of Americans are willing to have the government record their every call in its enormous database. As Robinson points out, such attitudes are astounding in a country which has long rejected a national identity card and which would launch a revolution sooner than accept modest controls on gun ownership.

The explanation, Robinson claims, is the climate of fear that pervades the country, a climate that President Bush and his administration have manipulated, but which they did not create:

If a psychiatrist were to put the nation on the couch, the shrink's notes would read something like this: "Patient feels vulnerable to attack; cannot remember having experienced similar feeling before. Patient accustomed to being in control; now feels buffeted by outside forces beyond grasp. Patient believes livelihood and prosperity being usurped by others (repeatedly mentions China). Patient seeks scapegoats for personal failings (immigrants, Muslims, civil libertarians). Patient is by far most powerful nation in world, yet feels powerless. Patient is full of unfocused anger."

Robinson is correct about the fear, of course, but he does not do much to explain its origins. 9-11 was just the precipitating incident. But fear stems from insecurity and from guilt. Insecurity pervades the country as job security disappears along with the unions that fought for it and families experience large swings in income as members lurch from jobs to unemployment to new jobs, often at lower wages. Workers without professional training have little but WalMart wages and conditions to look forward to. Insecurity increases as the wages of the majority have almost stagnated for several decades, and as the country goes through a wave of downward mobility for many.

As job and wage security have eroed, the social safety net has been weakened. Over the last 25 years, our cities have become full of the homeless, whom most of us try hard to not notice. Americans are aware that decent medical care depends on remaining among the fortunately employed and insured, a status that can change as easily as one can receive a layoff notice. So-called welfare reform, passed under Presi dent Clinton, was a clear statement that Americans are ultimately on their own. A little help may come the way of the unfortunate, but, should circumstances not improve, the homeless shelter and soup kitchen are the only help of last resort. That this could become the fate of many of us was made clear after Hurricane Katrina, where the government proved profoundly uninterested and unable to help hundreds of thousands of its citizens.

In the America of today, government and society increasingly disdain responsibility to help, though, if individuals feel magnanimous, they can give to the private charity of their choice. As Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out several years ago, the dismantling of what this country had of a welfare state has been followed by the development of massive social service delivery by the religious right for those with allegiance to their positions and organizations. Aid is not a right, but a grace to be bestowed upon those found worthy. Insecurity is thus an increasing part of daily life.

Then we have 9-11 and the "war on terror." Americans, singularly uninterested in other peoples, became aware that some of those others perceived Americans as the enemy. The country that viewed itself as the strongest and richest country on earth was the target of others whose motives we had no knowledge of and no interest in understanding. In situations like this, those others are ascribed motives. The ascribed motives are derived, not from an understanding of the other people, but from the depths within us. We give them those of our motives we are dimly aware of yet disown.

Thus, the country that spends more of its resources on war than any other is afraid of the terrifying killers in pitifully weak countries, the evil empire. The nation that possesses more nuclear weapons than all others and that rains hi-tech death from the sky upon numerous countries too weak to defend themselves (think Panama, Sudan, Serbia, Iraq for starters) is afraid of the mad terrorists out to bomb with weapons of mass destruction. And the country that flees headlong from the uncertainties of freedom worries that others "envy our freedoms" as our President once claimed, back in those days when he was the wise, all-knowing leader for so many.

Of course, fears often have a glimmer of truth to them. Thus, the country that proportionally consumes more of the world's resources than any other is concerned that others want to steal from us, to take away the resources we stole fair and square. And every once in a while our defenses weaken and we glimpse the environmental destruction that awaits us if we do not change the path we are on.

Psychoanalysts have learned that, when faced with his or her destructive potential, an individual is faced with three major coping strategies. With the paranoid strategy, that person can massively deny the destructiveness within while simultaneously projecting it onto others, as many in this country have been doing the last several years. With the depressive approach, the person can take the blame upon his or her self, engaging in depressive self-attack accompanied by hopelessness and passivity, as has been the case among so many of those unhappy with the direction they see the country taking. Finally, one can refuse to be paralyzed by fear or by despair, face up to reality, acknowledge one's one destructiveness and act to contain its effects along with the fear and destructiveness of the formerly feared and hated others. Only then can one start the difficult process of transforming that destructive energy into a constructive force that builds ties to others and together with them creates an alternative. In perilous times like these, that last possibility is the only one that can lead to a sustainable world capable of surviving and truly worth living in. It remains to be seen if we American people are willing to cast aside our fears and live in a world of reality, of uncertainty and occasional chaos, but also a world of hope.
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Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He was a psychological consultant on two of (more...)
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