The United States of Abuse

07/07/2010 11:05 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Bob Jacobson Innovation consultant & public policy activist

In Our Nation of Abused Grown Children, Candor and Caring Hold the Key to Power

Like many Huffington Post readers, I've wondered why so many Americans put up with the growing number of wrongs they experience and the declining living standards forced on them.

These fellow citizens are aware that successive Administrations have lied to them -- about the wars, about the economy, even about for whom the tax giveaways were extended and cash bailouts rewarded. They know also in their heart of hearts, whatever they may say to the contrary, that things aren't getting better and may in fact get a whole lot worse, climate change deniers notwithstanding. Yet they stand for patriotism in the form of slogans and empty symbols of rebellion long past. They spit upon their elected leaders. But they elect them just the same.

These malcontents seem to be growing in numbers, even assuming a dominant position in our political discourse. Yet their remedies seem to play into the hands of their oppressors, like "throwing out the bums" and scapegoating immigrants and gays or inventing new classes of villains, like environmental scientists and invisible "socialists." In Tea Party regalia, they defend BP and wasteful overseas spending on wars while ignoring the ecological disaster often occurring on their own front steps and eviscerating our local governments and schools. Their entertainment seems to be playing with guns -- often with fatal consequences -- abusing prescription drugs, and listening to demagogues like Limbaugh, Palin, and Beck who play to the worst devils of our nature.

It made little sense to me. If it makes little sense to you, it may be because your experience as a child, like mine, was been different from most Americans.

For ours is a nation of abused children, now grown up. Conservative statistics state that one of four female children, and one of six male children, will have been sexually or physically abused by the age of 18. Abuse counselors and psychologists in the field will tell you that even higher proportions -- 40 to 45 percent of all female children and at least 25 percent of male children -- are victims of abuse.

When pressed further, the professionals confess that a majority of both sexes may very well be abused when psychological abuse, neglect, and the mediated horrors we endure each day are taken into account.

Those of us fortunate to have avoided the terrors of childhood abuse and neglect cannot conceive of the damage they do to the child and to the adult that the child becomes. An abuse victim learns early that the world is an unsafe place; that manipulation and deceit are essential ingredients of family life; that the administration of pain is an expression of love; and that no one will ever come to help. It truly is a case of love it or leave it -- and the one route of escape is into fantasy, turning the world on its head, making evil the supreme human experience.

From the frying pan into the fire, young victims of the most severe abuse -- before they are maimed or killed outright -- may enter an equally abusive child-welfare factory. It may assume the form of endless foster homes or membership in an authoritarian religion or cult. Though many child welfare agencies, social workers, and foster parents labor hard to save these kids, many are lost to the wasteland. The record stands on the side of abuse. Subject to the whims of a faceless bureaucracy, these children remain victims. And so, to their earlier slights is added helplessness. Obeying the dictates of the state is key to survival.

The victims of less overt abuse, however, suffer only slightly less pain. They introject the sorrow and despair, making it their own. While many courageous individuals manage to throw off the bonds of co-dependency and hurt, many more do not. As adults, their suffering remains unabated.

Children and young people coming of age today face another type of abuse: social commodification. Advocates for the child like the late Neil Postman warned against converting America's children via the media into premature consumers and involuntary witnesses to violence and wrong-doing. But the commercialization of children's experience has gained "traction," to use a marketing term right out of mechanical engineering, and now it's irresistible. It's even interactive. Children may be unaware that they have been turned into eyeballs for the sake of ratings, but their psyches pay the price.

These accumulated hurts breed anger as well as submission. That is the strange dichotomy that fuels and rules across the political spectrum.

Large segments of the American electorate, contrary to democratic ideals, embody an unhealthy and dangerous anger, helplessness, and self-loathing. The French, who take the study of society seriously, have a word for it: ressentment. "Resentment" is its weak English-language equivalent. The French term is more telling, a hundred times stronger, alloyed with xenophobia, mistrust, and generalized hate. Liberal writers assume that ressentment is associated with the lower classes, but as a product of class struggle, it is equally abundant among the wealthy -- which explains the contempt and fear with which our "betters" manifest for those of us who pay their bills and endure their rule, why they hide out behind gates and in country clubs, and why their children even though similarly abused go to the best schools.

Our culture turns the knife: in America, the individual is held responsible for his or her impotence. The jingoist culture of "rugged individualism," while trumpeting personal strength, paradoxically emphasizes individuals' helplessness and dependency. Talk show hosts and religious fundamentalists fan the flames of ressentment, like therapists working in reverse, serving up scapegoats for dreams unfulfilled and of course, abuses that have gone unreckoned. The right-wing talk show hosts produce today's equivalents of B-film horror stories in which the angry dead consume the bewildered living. This is the final straw that leads to incipient fascism.

So it is that a large number, perhaps a majority of Americans, are prone to accept loving abuse from their a political leaders, for which they exchange hateful but dutiful allegiance. A hundred million beaten and bruised Americans are voting with broken hearts. A bond has formed between their elected oppressors -- themselves victims of abuse -- and the damaged electorate. The politicians are obviously abuse victims themselves: their bizarre behaviors -- illicit (as they term it) sex, drug taking, "born again" religions, and supporting obviously untenable, suicidal national policies suggest a cruel chain of causation.

The Greek's have a word for it: pathos. Pathos is a form of persuasion based on emotion -- in the American case, negative emotions that are overwhelmingly powerful. Our leaders are masters of negative emotions and the grown abused children eat it up.

Linguist George Lakoff believes that many abused grown children are looking for a "strong father" figure who is unflinching in his pursuit of the things that matter to him, who can manifest "tough love." Lakoff's thesis makes sense. I agree with his analysis, but disagree with his conclusion. I contend that these victims are looking for a weak and abusive man disguised in strong rhetoric, a verbal slap down. Barack Obama is not that man. Rush Limbaugh is.

Faced with such unabashed loyalty, what's a progressive American, one who is undamaged, to do? Appeals to truth, logic, or principles won't carry water with people who are determined to admire leaders more who treat them worse. It doesn't work to point out to Americans that they are abused. The sane Democrats try, but it's a losing strategy as the polls show. People who who swim in a sea of violence and self-loathing -- and what are the main themes in America these days except violence and self-loathing? -- cannot conceive of alternative realities. Errol Morris, in a superb series of essays in the New York Times, describes the psychological syndrome anosognosia, being so incompetent that one is unaware of one's incompetence. Or as Donald Rumsfeld put it, "Not knowing what it is that we do not know." That is America's plight today. So many of us are abused (and in turn, abusing others) that we do not know what it means not to be abused and abusive.

So what can we do, those who still manifest hope, goodwill, and a desire for equitable, edifying community? Just like the good guys in prescient sci-fi B-movies, we are in danger of becoming a minority in an asylum nation where the inmates hold the keys. Where the leaders are themselves abused children, their policies producing endless clones of their damaged selves.

There are only two social remedies historically proven to work, that can salve the abused and open them to new realities and a healthier worldview.

The first, most immediate remedy is to reduce and eliminate the sense of helplessness that afflicts abuse victims, replacing it with a sense of power. This means giving adults abused as children -- a lot or even most Americans -- real skin in the game, a share of the action, a chance to reflect, to choose leaders and drive policies about which they've been educated and consulted.

An active progressive grassroots, like that cultivated by FDR but unrealized in today's professionalized Democratic Party led by the likes of personally abusive Rahm Emanuel, famous for his contempt of "idealists," and the sadly fatherless president -- would provide relief from the constant battering that keeps the alienated individual in line and simultaneously on edge. A social oasis that offered a refuge and respite would go a long way in this election.

The second remedy is longer-term. It's for progressives and the Democratic Party -- for no other party exists with the means or desire -- to recruit as its spokespersons "Caring Parents." Not faux men and women like Republicans Limbaugh, Palin, Jindal, and Arizona's governor Brewer, or their equally abundant Democratic counterparts -- but women and men who can and do express and share honest compassion, whose policies are restorative and pro-humanity. It's easy enough to identify them: they're the ones shouting on the perimeter to the crazy people in government. They're the reformers who challenge private power gone terribly amok.

FDR had Francis Perkins as his "conscience," to keep him from straying from his progressive agenda. Who is Barack Obama's conscience? Wasn't it Van Jones? Do we have to wait for yet another Democratic President to restore the FDR tradition?

We should elevate them to supreme leadership roles. It can happen: it's a situation that now pertains in many progressive countries. In these roles, they could confront the "Strong Father" stereotypes in government and among its dissenters who cynically produce and manipulate ressentment.

The Caring Mothers could compel the embedded abusers in government and private society to recant before their victims ... Few politicians or candidates in any party have the temerity to criticize at root the perverted nature of our nation's policies at home or abroad. Few would don a feminine persona. Too few prominent leaders use the word "caring" in a meaningful way. At best they mean it in the sense of equal access to declining governmental benefits.

Our Nation of Abused Children needs relief from our collective pain. Instead, it only gets worse, with both parties supporting perpetual war overseas and terror at home, with their inevitable outcomes, global economic uncertainty and division into nobility and serfs. Three hundred years of this sadness is enough. Making "Caring with candor" our national idea is a better -- and necessary -- alternative. In fact, at this precarious moment in American and world history, it is the only way.