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August 29
Partial Transcript, Abrams Report, April 5, 2005

These five essays were written and published in December, 2003, for Open Source Politics. In these essays I attempted to get to the bottom of the reason for George W. Bush's alleged popularity and what must be done to save America from itself.

Electability and the Masculine Mystique

Electability is a word on every Democratic lip these days, although no one can say exactly what it is. Harold Bloom proclaimed in the Wall Street Journal that “Gen. Clark is highly electable for 2004; the other Democratic candidates are not.” Supporters of other Dem candidates take issue, but they worry. Is Howard Dean too angry to be electable? Is John Edwards too boyish? Is John Kerry too aloof? Just what is “electability,” anyway?

No doubt all manner of instruments exist to measure electability, factoring in height, weight, comb of hair, and color of tie. But I say it all boils down to the Masculine Mystique. Put another way, “It’s the cojones, stupid.”

Just consider most of the past several presidential elections in terms of a John Wayne factor. War hero Dwight Eisenhower beat out egghead Adlai Stevenson, twice. In the Kennedy-Nixon debates, the televised image of the handsome, confident, robust JFK won over sweaty, shifty-eyed Tricky Dick, although those listening to the debates on radio thought Nixon did the better job. Later, Commie-fighter, tough-on-crime Nixon beat the progressive Hubert Humphrey and the pacifist George McGovern. In spite of his age, tall-in-the-saddle Ronald Reagan was the personification of testosterone itself next to opponents Jimmy Carter and Fritz Mondale. Poppy Bush beat out Michael Dukakis on manliness, particularly after the unfortunate tank video, but the rakish Bill Clinton clearly out-manned Poppy.

And in the 50-50 election of 2000, Al Gore got points for kissing his wife but lost points by being prissy in the debates. Bush's only asset was his faux cowboy act, but that kept the election close enough to steal.

Please note that I'm not saying this is a good thing. I'm just saying this is how it is. The John Wayne mythos is alive and well and must be appeased if the Dems are to win back the White House in 2004.

Pubescent politics? A few years ago, following the publication of Robert Bly's visionary book Iron John (Addison-Wesley, 1990), there was a men's movement. The men's movement started out with progressive intentions but was soon taken over by various troglodytes and misogynists and flamed out. I want to go back to early men's movement lit for a minute, though, because what it originally tried to do was a very worthwhile thing that still needs doing. It is also essential to seeing what lies beneath our current political landscape.

In Iron John, Robert Bly tried to reconnect manhood with nature and civilization -- with building and creation and husbandry instead of destruction, war, and waste. Bly used fairy-tale metaphors to describe a way for males to grow into a mature manhood rather than remain stuck in the perpetual adolescence that passes for "manhood" in our culture, currently represented by "The Man Show" on cable television.

Bly's premise (picked up from
Joseph Campbell) is that in our culture boys grow up lacking contact with men. Therefore, they are uninitiated into true manhood, and beneath their bravado -- often subconsciously -- they are fearful and insecure. This in turn causes men to be prone to violence and fearful of intimacy. (Iron John was a revelation because a man was saying this; however, nearly any woman over the age of 40 will tell you the same thing.)

The faux masculinity celebrated by our culture equates violence with strength and power with potency. It is a rogue thing that does not honor the principles of civilization or the processes of governance. Like most John Wayne characters, or Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry, following the rules is for girls and sissies. Why bother with a justice system when you've got a gun?

But this is looking at manhood from a child's perspective. Adults realize why there are rules, and honor them. A child just understands power -- you have to be fair only because adults say so. And if you're strong enough and it's your ball, you can make up the rules -- pretty much the GOP attitude these days. From the Texas redistricting to the California recall to the recent shenanigans that got the Medicare bill passed in the House, it's clear that the adults are not in charge. The adults, in fact, are cowering in fear of what the children might do next.

The adolescents are so much in charge that they've taken over the media. Compare the mature media voices of yesteryear -- e.g., Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite -- with the pubescent trash-talkers and potty-mouths who hog national conversation today: Limbaugh, the MSNBC weeknight lineup, Fox News all the time.

George W. Bush is an adolescent's fantasy of what a president should be, just as John Wayne was an adolescent's fantasy cowboy/lawman, and Dirty Harry an adolescent's fantasy detective -- easily bored with rules and talk, but quick on the trigger. Who needs diplomacy when you've got the biggest, baddest military in the world? And need I mention -- the flight suit? And the Bulge? (Never mind that George W. Bush's entire presidency is little more than an acting-out of his own unresolved Oedipal conflicts.)

Another way the GOP reveals its adolescent mentality is with its absolutist, black-and-white thinking -- there is no gray, just good and evil. There are good guys and bad guys; others are either with us or against us; an act is either right or wrong. Conservatives speak of the "moral clarity" in this type of thinking.

Well, yes, it's very clear, because it's very childish. It's the world presented in a coloring book, with black, unchanging lines that mustn't be crossed. In the real world, even the best people have flaws, and even the worst people have some redeeming qualities. Acts have both good and bad consequences. Most other nations agree with us sometimes and disagree with us at other times. Lines shift place, disappear, reappear. Sometimes, but not always, lines should be crossed. It may not be clear, but it’s real. Adults can see this; children cannot.

Make Room for Daddy? What does this mean for Democrats choosing a presidential candidate? It means that a big chunk of the electorate has the emotional development of children, and the Dems have to win at least some of the child votes if they're going to take the White House. Like it or not, the Dems have to nominate a man (sorry, Ambassador Moseley Braun) who can be imagined in a ten-gallon hat and spurs; whose testosterone credentials are unquestioned; and who can fulfill a child's yearning for a big, strong, manly Daddy.

My hope is not only that Democrats take back the White House in 2004. My hope is that the next President of the United States will be someone who can personify real, grown-up, mature manhood. I want an Iron John kinda guy who is a true protector of both civilization and the natural world. And maybe with a real, mature male role model in the White House, people will catch on to the difference between real men and males stuck in adolescence posing as men.

And then, will a woman president be far behind?

Oedipus President

Somewhere in Shrink Heaven, Sigmund Freud is looking down at the White House and saying, "I told you so."

In Part I of Dysfunction Nation I wrote, "George W. Bush's entire presidency is little more than an acting-out of his own unresolved Oedipal conflicts." Even if his desires to defeat his father and win his mother are subconscious to him, they are painfully obvious to many others.

First red flag -- Bush's administration consists of people who used to work for his Old Man. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, Colin Powell, etc., etc. -- all came out of the Bush I Administration. Isn't it remarkable that the son, eight years and a generation apart, had developed so few working relationships with competent, capable people on his own, but had to borrow his Dad's old staff?

Second red flag -- Bush I's biggest mistake as president, according to conservatives, was to raise taxes (after the "read my lips" pledge not to). And the son is monomaniacally bent on cutting taxes.

Third red flag -- the Iraq War, for several reasons. The neocons were obsessed with Bush I's "mistake" of not taking out Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War. "Armchair Freudians believe that in going to Baghdad and toppling Saddam, George II was playing Oedipal tennis with George I," wrote
Michael Kinsley. "If so, junior has lost. The elder Bush's most notorious decision as president looks better every day."

But at the same time, the build-up to the Gulf War, when President Bush I pulled together a real international coalition to oppose Saddam Hussein, is praised as a major diplomatic accomplishment to this day. The Bush II Administration's contemptuousness toward diplomacy points to a son wanting to show up his father (and failing).

The Oedipal struggle of the Bushes -- a father who was an ambassador to the U.N. and an envoy to China, a globe-trotting vice president and an internationalist president, and a son who was a Texas governor with little knowledge of the world -- was bound to be aggravated by an invasion of Iraq not sanctioned by the U.N.

Here was a son acting to correct his father's "mistakes" in the first Gulf War, when his father did not think he had made a mistake but rather a great contribution to history. [Maureen Dowd, "An Oedipal Struggle in the House of Bush," New York Times/ Times Union, April 2, 2003]

Armchair Analysis. According to the Joseph Campbell/Robert Bly hypotheses (see Part I), in our culture boys grow up lacking contact with men, even their own fathers. Therefore, they are uninitiated into true manhood and tend to remain stuck in a prolonged adolescence. Clinical psychologist Alvin Walker speculates that, at a critical point in his emotional development, young George was cut off from both mother and father.

As the first-born child, he spent much of his early childhood in an essentially single parent home since his father was frequently away on extended business trips. To exacerbate matters even more, he had a younger sister who died of leukemia just two months shy of her fourth birthday when "Shrub" was just seven years old. The sister's illness probably took up much of the mother's time, energy, and emotional focus making her less available to her other children. I also suspect that his mother may have been reactively depressed during this arduous and traumatic period making her even less emotionally available during a crucially important, developmental period of "Shrub" Bush's life. [Alvin Wyman Walker, Ph.D., " 'Shrub' Bush's Pathological Focus on Saddam Hussein," The Black Commentator, February 6, 2003]

Walker goes on to explain why this is significant:

Lack of parental availability typically leads to lack of parent-child attunement. And lack of parent-child attunement often makes for deficient empathic ability and a relative inability to identify with others. Frequently, such youngsters become rule busters or rule breakers as adults in the psychopathic sense. Clinicians who have studied attachment have noted the similarities between the behavioral manifestations of insecure attachment and disruptive behavior disorders. Antisocial behavior is seen, in part, as a covert communication to an unresponsive, emotionally distant parental figure. Perhaps this perspective illuminates, in part, the dynamic of "Shrub" Bush's unilateralism, his disavowal of treaties, and his seeming proclivity to violate international law with impunity. It is as if he thinks rules do not apply to him. [Ibid.]

So, little George got a double-whammy of mis-parenting. He's not only an emotionally immature weenie; he's a cold-hearted emotionally immature weenie. Myriam Miedzian saw a streak of cruelty in George Bush, linking his childhood game of blowing up frogs with firecrackers to his callousness toward executions (including making fun of the condemned Karla Faye Tucker.) "Mr. Bush's much-vaunted religious conversion seems to have done little to encourage Christian mercy," Miedzian wrote.

I shall never forget former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who played a major role in one of our greatest foreign policy mistakes -- the Vietnam War -- speaking regretfully of errors he and others made during the Cold War. In a 1988 interview, he told me that "the necessity of looking at your actions through the eyes of your opponent -- that is absolutely fundamental, and we don't do that." [Myriam Miedzian, "Growing Up Is Hard to Do," The Baltimore Sun, September 12, 2000]

Miedzian wrote this in 2000, back when going to war was unthinkable except on Saturday Night Live skits. But it amounts to a prophecy of how the Bushies would misjudge an invasion of Iraq -- they are incapable of seeing their actions through the eyes of others. (They saw themselves as glorious liberators; therefore, the Iraqis would see them as glorious liberators. Wouldn't they?)

Voice of God? Bush says that God wanted him to be President.

Bush said to James Robinson[sic]: 'I feel like God wants me to run for President. I can't explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me. Something is going to happen... I know it won't be easy on me or my family, but God wants me to do it.' [Paul Harris, "Bush Says God Chose Him to Lead His Nation," The Observer, November 2, 2003]

As anyone who's dabbled in mysticism knows, such "heavenly" messages are usually from one's own subconscious. Only the very wise and the brutally introspective can tell the difference, and Bush is neither. And given that Bush is remarkably insensitive to the needs of citizens, as well as unconcerned about protecting America and its resources for the future, one wonders why he wanted to be president. He doesn't want to serve the country or the people. Clearly, he became President for the glory of the thing, and to show up his Old Man. And we're stuck with him for at least another year.

From time to time, the Old Man sends out signals that he is displeased with his son. Most recently, the 2003 George Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service went to Iraq War and Dubya opponent Senator Edward Kennedy. But if the son has noticed these slights, it has not registered publicly. According to the Boston Globe, Bush the younger has

embarked upon a policy designed to counter, or even to wipe out, his father's entire political legacy. The father lived his life in the service of moderate and intelligent internationalism. His manners were always meticulously courteous, as he wooed even critics overseas to see the American position. He was even-handed in the Middle East and thus brought the area to the verge of peace for the first time in history; he was capable of using force but preferred to do it supported by coalitions of friendly states, thus cementing international cooperation.

The son seems to have made posturing against his father's accomplishments and beliefs his life's work. [Link]

The greatest test of Bush's Oedipal urges will come with the 2004 election. Many have said he was deeply angry about his father's loss to Bill Clinton in 1992. If he wins re-election, he finally will have utterly defeated his father. And you know he will stop at nothing to do that.

Channeling Andy Jackson

Andrew Jackson — president, military hero, and champion of the “common man” — left a powerful mark on the collective American Id as well as American history. And this remains true, even though today many so marked don’t know the difference between Andy and Stonewall. After all these years there is no easier way to become “electable” than to channel the ghost of Andy Jackson.

Call the man dim, call him corrupt, but call him president until 2008. George W. Bush certainly has vulnerabilities, but he's been smart enough to model himself on a man who pioneered the fine art of political image-making: Andrew Jackson. Democrats, as a result, are doomed. …

Hacking away at mesquite grub on his Crawford, Texas, ranchette, he convincingly puts forth the image of a rugged individualist, a doer, a true frontiersman, a man who's never quoted a law in his life but has made laws to suit his base urges, a plowman rather than a professor. … [James McWilliams, President Has a Plain Old Cowboy's Winning Ways, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 24, 2003]

I postulate that what separates Bush lovers from Bush haters has less to do with ideology than with susceptibility to Shrub's phony Andy Jackson act. Where some people see a "rugged individualist, a doer, a true frontiersman," other see a spoiled brat who never worked a day in his life, who had privilege and power handed to him on a plate, and who drags five personal chefs to Buckingham Palace. (And is it true that Bush is afraid of horses?)

Many, if not most, of those ordinary people who slavishly support Bush would turn against him in a minute if they could see him for what he is. Unfortunately, that's not likely to happen. True love may or may not be blind, but hero-worship sure is.

The Jacksonian Myth. The original Jacksonians saw themselves engaged in a struggle against a greedy minority of wealthy and privileged elitists that cruelly exploited the majority of “common” people. Andrew Jackson’s policies were aimed at eliminating class bias in government and dismantling the credit-driven market economy of his day that tended to keep wealth concentrated in few hands.

The people's best weapons were equal rights and limited government—ensuring that the already wealthy and favored classes would not enrich themselves further by commandeering, enlarging, and then plundering public institutions. ... Beyond position-taking, the Jacksonians propounded a social vision in which any white man would have the chance to secure his economic independence, would be free to live as he saw fit, under a system of laws and representative government utterly cleansed of privilege. [Sean Wilentz, "Jacksonian Democracy," The Reader's Companion to American History, J. Garraty and E. Foner, eds. (Houghton Mifflin, 1991), pp. 582-583]

It must be acknowledged there was a dark side to Jacksonian Democracy. Although Jacksonian Democracy was a genuine egalitarian movement, it was “egalitarian” for white men only. Today Andy Jackson is associated more with the Trail of Tears and the bloody Seminole Wars than with liberty. Jacksonian “egalitarianism” did not extend to African-Americans and women. Still, the ideal of the autonomous American, free to live as he sees fit, free to secure his economic independence, is a powerful one that still resonates with many Americans today, including women and people of color.

Bush: The Un-Andy. Do not doubt that the ideals of Jacksonian Democracy are alive and well. And the Powers that Be in the Right Wing have masterfully twisted those ideals around to their advantage.

The new myth is that some shadowy but powerful "liberal elite" threatens to sell America out to socialism or atheism or some other shadowy, unnatural -ism. This myth says that George Bush and other Republicans are the champions who will keep America safe from both socialist/liberals and terrorists. Add the wedge issues such as school prayer and abortion that Republicans have exploited so well, and you have an electorate of lemmings.

The cruel fact is, of course, that Bush and his cronies are selling out working Americans to big corporations, while at the same time badly mismanaging national security. The Bushies plunder America’s resources to enrich the powerful corporate elites who support Bush. Even a war in which American soldiers are losing their lives seems to exist mostly to make money for Bush cronies.

One of the reasons liberals can't make a dent in the Jacksonian myth is that they don't understand it. Liberals get all wound up about the good things government might do for people, and neo-Jacksonians don't want to hear about this, believing that "Big Gubmint" programs will somehow enslave them. They don’t see the way Republican “Big Gubmint” is turning us all into serfs of corporate lords.

These days Democrats like John Podesta are setting up shiny new “think tanks” to come up with killer ideas and policies to win back the electorate. Well, screw that. The Republicans didn’t win voters with their great ideas. They won voters by co-opting mythos — the pattern of basic values and attitudes of a people, characteristically transmitted through myths and the arts. Thus the cowardly George W. Bush personifies heroism, and his rapacious administration is seen as the salvation of America.

The challenge for liberals is to frame political debate in ways that honor our mythos, such as the better ideals of Jacksonian Democracy (making it inclusive of women and people of color, of course).

We don’t need no stinking think tanks. We need shamans.

Show Me a Hero

The previous episode of Dysfunction Nation focused on how the Administration uses the mythos of Andy Jackson to portray George W. Bush as a hero. This episode is about a darker side of mythos.

From the beginning, and particularly after September 11, the Bush Administration has made masterful use of symbols and images to portray George W. Bush as a strong military leader. Those not susceptible to the GOP Mind Meld can only watch in horror while such a pitiful excuse for a leader is worshipped as a Great Man by so many.

I've been thinking about a great little book by the British military historian John Keegan -- The Mask of Command. Keegan explores the way leadership roles change with the times by looking at four distinctly different "heroes." Alexander the Great is the prototypical "heroic" leader. The Duke of Wellington is the "anti-hero," a man prepared to fight but without Alexander's theatrics. Ulysses S. Grant is the "un-hero," because he considered himself no better than his men. And Adolf Hitler is the "false hero," relying on simulated heroism and remaining at a safe distance while his soldiers fought in his name.

He [Hitler] — for all the half-educated rhetoric of his writings and speeches, his psychological tophamper of rancours, insecurities and imagined injustices, and the muddled hatreds of what he called his philosophy — was a man in touch with a mainstream of life. He knew the power of the appeal to manhood, comradeship and warriordom, knew how to articulate it and knew how to bend it to his political purpose. [John Keegan, The Mask of Command (Viking Penguin, 1987), p. 258]

The "appeal to manhood" thing looks at bit different in America today than it did in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. While Hitler played off Germany’s still-smoldering resentments left over from the First World War, Bush uses his phony Andy Jackson act to appeal to white working-class men who feel entitled to a bigger (or should I say, higher?) piece of the pie than they are getting these days. This is true in spite of the fact that it's GOP policies, not terrorists or liberals, making sure only rich people get the pie.

Now that there’s a war, Bush faces a PR problem similar to one faced by Hitler in the 1940s. That is, how does one project the image of a strong military leader while remaining at a safe distance from the war? By use of imagery, of course.

Keegan writes that Hitler’s propaganda machine had relentlessly “burdened the German public consciousness” with images of Hitler as Germany’s mentor and protector. At the outset of World War II, a new image was added: “the picture of a Hitler unwillingly re-outfitted in the battle gear of a frontfighter, marching to victory as if — not wholly present in body but totally in spirit — at the head of troops.” [Ibid., pp. 305-306]

The infamous “flight suit” episode and more recent visit to Baghdad, when the president wore a “U.S. Army” jacket while brandishing a plastic turkey, are only the more flamboyant uses of soldiers as props. He also makes frequent appearances at military posts around the country, such as his recent visit to Fort Carson, Colorado, where he can be photographed surrounded by cheering soldiers.

The cameras went … to Bush, who gave his speech standing in front of a huge American flag (think George C. Scott in the opening scene of Patton) while dressed in an olive-green Army jacket bearing a Fort Carson 7th Infantry Division insignia. [Mike Littwin, “Gag Order Leaves Troops, Reporters Speechless,” Rocky Mountain News, November 25, 2003]

These visits are billed as morale boosters; one wonders whose morale is being boosted. (Note: The press was not permitted to interview soldiers at Fort Carson.)

Presidents do visit troops, especially during wartime, but surely the wheelchair-bound FDR managed to be a strong wartime leader without prancing around in a flight suit. Lyndon Johnson never tried to pass himself off as a military hero — wouldn’t have worked, anyway. Other war presidents — Woodrow Wilson, Abraham Lincoln — never resorted to using soldiers as backdrops to their photo ops (not that the art of the photo op had been perfected in the 19th century).

To those people paying attention to details, Bush’s “leadership” in the Iraq War is a sham. But to those not paying attention, or who mostly get their news from Fox, the imagery tells the story — Bush is a hero.

Notice in particular Bush’s practice of wearing quasi-military garb for his photo ops, such as the flight suit or the U.S. Army jackets in Baghdad and Fort Carson. It really is very unusual for a sitting President to wear a military uniform of any sort. Even though presidents are the commanders in chief, they are not part of the military but represent civilian authority. Even presidents who had long careers in the military wore suits and ties as POTUS.

(The only exception I can find goes back to George Washington’s first term. Washington put on a uniform and rode with the columns of militia to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794.)

Of course, it might backfire. "While the troops cheered the moment, it is too soon to know whether the image of Bush in his Army jacket yesterday will become a symbol of strong leadership or a symbol of unwarranted bravado,"
Dana Milbank wrote in the Washington Post. And John Keegan writes that the “hero” scam is difficult to pull off if the “hero” is nowhere near the fighting.

[Hitler’s] acute understanding of the popular mind let him to perceive, however, that the reality of isolation from danger conferred by the remoteness of all Führer headquarters, must be offset by the illusion of shared risk….

Hence, as Shrub’s approval numbers sagged, it was time for a Thanksgiving Turkey Run to Baghdad.

Propaganda — though no such crude encapsulation was ever applied to the means of his public representation — was the solution. Hitler had had an acute grasp of the importance of propaganda from an early age; had applauded the superiority of Allied over German propaganda in the First World War in Mein Kampf and had there singled out its didactic essentials: The selection of a few simple messages for endless repetition. “The receptivity of the masses is very limited,” he wrote, “their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous; in consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogans.” [Keegan, pp. 305-306]

One wonders if Mein Kampf is required reading for GOP insiders these days. The real question, however, is why are We, the People, so easily fooled?

American Psyche

Throughout this series I’ve harped on the connections between the Great American Psyche and politics. Part I discusses our common masculinity memes and electability. Part II argues that George Bush’s unresolved Oedipal conflicts are driving his policies. Part III and Part IV explore the way Republicans make use of mythos and imagery to personify the unheroic Bush as a hero (so far, successfully).

We liberals can talk about policy and present data to support our ideas until we turn purple. Conservatives wave a flag, or a Bible, and win elections. Right-wingers make a mockery of democracy and pass laws that weaken, not strengthen, our nation, yet voters cannot see it. What is it in our collective unconscious that makes We, the People so screwed up?

Daddy Dearest. George Lakoff writes that conservative and progressive worldviews can be compared to “strict father” families and “nurturing parent” families. While the “nurturing parent” state values empathy, responsibility, and freedom, the conservative “strict father” state thinks citizens must be protected and controlled. The “strict father” state sees the world as a hard and dangerous place. It values success, and believes those who are not successful are not properly disciplined (or moral, or hard-working) and must not be coddled. Pursuit of self-interest is moral, and worldly success is an indicator of moral strength.

This means (among other things) favoring those who control corporate wealth and power (those seen as the best people) over those who are victims (those seen as morally weak). It means removing government regulations, which get in the way of those who are disciplined. Nature is seen as a resource to be exploited. One-way communication translates into government secrecy. The highest moral value is to preserve and extend the domain of strict morality itself, which translates into bringing the values of strict father morality into every aspect of life, both public and private, domestic and foreign. [George Lakoff, "Framing the Dems," The American Prospect vol. 14 no. 8, September 1, 2003 ]

It seems to me that conservative “values” are a throwback to feudalism. The feudal nobility believed they had a God-given entitlement to wealth and privilege and a right to exploit common people. Today’s corporate lords see themselves as entitled to wealth and the protection of government without the obligation of paying taxes, and they think government exists to provide them with cheap labor.

It's important to understand that the corporate lords don’t think they are doing anything wrong. Most of them are not so much hypocrites as unconscious. In the neo-feudalistic view, wealth confers grace, and the blessed few are entitled by grace to more wealth any way they can get it. People who are poor, people who face long-term unemployment because their jobs moved to India, must not be as virtuous and as deserving as those who are rich. If the “serfs” suffer, it’s God’s will.

Disturbing, yes, but what’s even more frightening is the extent to which the “serfs” have bought into this rubbish. Working-class Americans continue to vote for politicians who are on the side of the feudal lords, not the workers. We saw this in last month’s elections, particularly in the South. White working-class people in particular deliver themselves into the hands of Republican leaders who are closely allied with giant corporations.

Fathers of Fear. This is not new. I’ve observed my whole life how Americans can be frightened into stampeding off cliffs. Fear of Communism gave birth to McCarthyism, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the War in Vietnam. Today the Republicans are using fears of terrorism, foreigners, ethnic minorities, and various aspects of sexuality to keep the serfs in line.

Consider also the Religious Right. In her magnificent book The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism, Karen Armstrong demonstrates that fundamentalism arose in response to modernity, especially to scientific rationalism. "Fear is at the heart of fundamentalism,” she writes. “The fear of losing yourself." This is true of Islamic fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden as well as our homegrown types. Liberals cherish tolerance, democracy, pluralism, and civil liberties; fundamentalists fear these values as weapons of (their) annihilation.

It is important to recognize that these theologies and ideologies are rooted in fear. The desire to define doctrines, erect barriers, establish borders, and segregate the faithful in a sacred enclave where the law is stringently observed springs from that terror of extinction which has made all fundamentalists, at once time or another, believe that the secularists were about to wipe them out. The modern world, which seems so exciting to a liberal, seems Godless, drained of meaning and even satanic to a fundamentalist. [Armstrong, The Battle for God (Ballantine, 2000), p. 368]

I postulate that existential fear is at the heart of most “isms.” And although there’s no objective measure of angst that I know of, the world may seem scarier to We, the People, than it used to, and not just because of terrorism. Collectively, our props are falling away. Compared to fifty years ago (as far back as I can remember), communities are fragmented, families are scattered, jobs are ephemeral. Across rural and small-town America, communities that were once homogenous are becoming multiracial and multiethnic. “Givens” about God and Man and Sex and other big issues are being openly challenged.

Bad Dreams. Although the world must seem to be shifting beneath their feet, many people are so out of touch with themselves that they may not be fully aware of their fear or capable of understanding what they are afraid of. We in America have grown a culture that discourages introspection. As Sam Keen wrote in Fire in the Belly (which is right up there with Iron John as an excellent piece of early male movement lit),

Men, in our culture, have carried a special burden of unconsciousness, of ignorance of the self. The unexamined life has been worth quite a lot in economic terms. It has enabled us to increase the gross national product yearly. It may not be necessary to be a compulsive extrovert to be financially successful, but it helps. Especially for men, ours is an outer-directed culture that rewards us for remaining strangers to ourselves, unacquainted with feeling, intuition, or the subtleties of sensation and dreams. [Sam Keen, Fire in the Belly (Bantam, 1991), p. 65]

My quarrel with this passage is that it leaves out women. But Keen corrects this mistake in a later paragraph:

The difference between the sexes is being eroded as both sexes become defined by work. … Economic man, the creature who defines itself within the horizons of work and consumption, is not man in any full sense of the word, but a being who has been neutralized, degendered, rendered subservient to the laws of the market. The danger of economics is not that it turns women into men but that it destroys the fullness of both manhood and womanhood. [Keen, ibid.]

In America today, the Economy defines us. It tells us who we are and gives us a place in society. We work and consume, therefore we Are. But such an identity gives us no context to understand or even acknowledge the unease gnawing inside us. So, we look outside ourselves for solace. We work harder and buy more stuff. We medicate ourselves with alcohol and other diversions. Even American-style religion is outer-directed, fixated on a God who is Out There instead of the Buddha who is In Here. And we allow propagandists to tell us that what we really fear are terrorists, or atheists, or liberals, or some other shadowy thing Out There, and our salvation lies in God and guns and George W. Bush.

And, in our fear, we cede more and more power to the corporate monsters eating our souls.

Taking back America. The challenge for liberals is to break through the fear and denial and communicate our vision of America to all American citizens. And that won’t be easy, since the corporations own the media. Most of the “pundits” of the news media are just as lost and unconscious as the rest of America, and some are out-and-out corporate whores. I can offer only a few suggestions.

First, we need to understand what "our vision" is. And I'm not talking about policy. What is America? Where do we want to go as a nation? How do we see our place in the world? What is the proper relationship between government and citizens?

Second, defeat George W. Bush and as many Neocons as possible in the 2004 election. The Bush Administration is like an open, bleeding wound. America won’t begin to heal until the wound is closed and bandaged.

Third, the new Democratic administration must continue to investigate and make public the corruption of the Bush Administration. At least the Bushies must be brought to public disgrace, as Nixon was.

Fourth, please don’t come to New York City during the Republican National Convention next year hoping to start a riot. We won’t win hearts and minds by being obnoxious and alarming.

Fifth, although policy details are important, Democratic leaders need to speak in ways that touch our hearts and quiet our fears. Franklin Delano Roosevelt comes to mind.

And it never hurts to get to know yourself and whatever is lurking in your own subconscious. Meditation, introspection, psychotherapy — whatever it takes. We can’t wake up others if we’re not awake ourselves.

Copyright 2003, 2004 by Barbara O'Brien

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