Have Americans Given Up?

By Peter Bergel

In an enormously provocative article entitled “Are Americans a Broken People? Why We’ve Stopped Fighting Back Against the Forces of Oppression” psychologist Bruce E. Levine divines what ails the American body politic.

I mean, consider:
•    An election, maybe two, are stolen right before our eyes.
•    One president lies to us so often we come to expect it, while another breaks one promise after another to us.
•    Our government allows its citizens to suffer lack of health care, double-digit unemployment, a wave of foreclosures and record hunger while it shovels away their money to shore up the rash businesses of those already enormously wealthy.
•    Our courts suffer the steady erosion of the human rights they exist to protect, finally committing the ultimate treason of handing to imaginary paper creations called corporations rights not available to actual human citizens. They do this in the name of freedom of speech.
•    Our justice system jails a record number of us for various crimes, while allowing much more destructive criminals not only to get away with their crimes of war, theft, waste and graft, but even rewards them.

And on it goes with little expression of outrage from the public.

What can account for our failure to revolt as our forebears did against the tyranny of King George of England?

Abuse Syndrome

Levine asks, “Can people become so broken that truths of how they are being screwed do not ‘set them free’ but instead further demoralize them? Has such a demoralization happened in the United States? He concludes that it is not only possible (a pattern he calls the “abuse syndrome”), but is, in fact, happening.

We have all shaken our heads in disbelief as an abused spouse remains with — and even defends — an abuser, or as a mistreated employee tolerates disrespect and danger from a bullying employer. This is the familiar pattern Levine suggests has taken a deep hold on the psyches of many U.S. citizens. It is more than humiliating, it shames them and the pain of that shame shuts them down. Says Levine, “shame, like fear, is one more way we become even more psychologically broken.”


The implications of this state of affairs for activists, progressive and conservative alike are far-reaching.

As we saw during Barack Obama’s campaign, the promise of hope was both exciting and motivating. Hope, we saw, was a powerful antidote to the helplessness of feeling broken. People who had not been active for a long time, or ever, suddenly became big-time Obama boosters, willing to work, donate and evangelize for a man they knew little about.

Activists discuss the brilliant use of technology Obama’s team employed, but are we drawing the most important lesson of this phenomenon? Are we appreciating the hope he engendered in his supporters and are we asking ourselves how we can pick up that mantle of hope, which he seems to have largely discarded? Can we use hope to transform ourselves and our fellow Americans? Can inspire ourselves and each other with a new hope, one rooted more deeply in reality?

I believe there are good reasons to hope – not a vague Pollyanna hope that depends on a savior who is not ourselves – but hope that we can come once again to believe in ourselves and the promise of collective action on behalf of the greater good.

The focus topic in this March issue of The PeaceWorker explores how we can turn that hope into real policy by taking stock of hopeful trends, developing a comprehensive peace vision and deriving from that vision a series of powerful and effective strategies.

These possibilities excite me more than anything the peace movement has done in some time. I hope it excites you too. Φ

Peter Bergel, Executive Director of Oregon PeaceWorks, has been a peace activist for decades. He believes most of the tactics of the past are no longer effective and need a significant overhaul.

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