Learned Helplessness

In his column today, Bob Herbert writes,

When exactly was it that the U.S. became a can’t-do society? It wasn’t at the very beginning when 13 ragamuffin colonies went to war against the world’s mightiest empire. It wasn’t during World War II when Japan and Nazi Germany had to be fought simultaneously. It wasn’t in the postwar period that gave us the Marshall Plan and a robust G.I. Bill and the interstate highway system and the space program and the civil rights movement and the women’s movement and the greatest society the world had ever known.

When was it?

Now we can’t even lift New Orleans off its knees.

Welcome to the 28th year since the Reagan Revolution.

I don’t blame Reagan entirely for our state of learned helplessness, mind you. And Bob Herbert wasn’t writing exclusively about government. But by persuading people that “government is the problem” I think the Reaganites caused a shift in how Americans understood government. And this put the nation on the road to learned helplessness.

Even as late as the 1960s, most working- and middle-class white Americans (I realize African Americans had a different experience of things) felt that the government was theirs. Certainly people complained that Washington did plenty of boneheaded things, but still there was a belief that We, the People could accomplish great things by means of government. This may in part have been a legacy of FDR, who had a gift for evoking a “we’re all in this together” sentiment among America’s ordinary citizens.

But today, people treat and speak of “the government” as if Washington DC were occupied by space aliens taking orders from Mars, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Government can’t, or won’t, respond to the needs and concerns of ordinary Americans, and ordinary Americans no longer expect anything from government.

Thanks loads, Ronnie.

I’ve given this speech before, but I still think it’s critical that ordinary citizens be reconnected to the idea that government is “of the people, by the people, for the people.” It’s ours. It’s us. There’s nothing wrong with using government to solve problems that are not being solved by other means.

There’s a lot government cannot do. But, dammit, there’s a lot it can do, if people have the will and the leadership to see it done.

On a sorta kinda related note … yesterday David Brooks wrote one of his most bone-headed columns ever. I wanted to respond to it yesterday but was busy fighting off Shugden culties.

In “The Coming Activist Age,” Brooks said “periods of great governmental change have often been periods of conservative rule.” Really? Change? Conservative rule? Um, Coolidge? Hoover? Nope, can’t be. But lo, Brooks’s main example was Theodore Roosevelt.

You might disagree with TR’s ideas about foreign policy, but in the context of his times TR’s domestic policies made him one of the purest progressives who ever sat in the Oval Office. And after he left the White House he went further Left. His “New Nationalism” speech is the foundation of modern American liberalism.

Apparently John McCain is going around saying he wants to be the new Theodore Roosevelt. A Times letter writer responded,

Is John McCain aware that Theodore Roosevelt was not a conservative? On virtually every domestic issue — race relations, the environment, the role of government in the economy — T.R. was what today would be labeled a robust liberal, and the leading conservatives of his day, like Mark Hanna, hated and feared him.

There’s nothing of TR in McCain, I say.

One more interesting read — Sasha Abramsky, “Putting ignorance on a pedestal.

12 thoughts on “Learned Helplessness

  1. Teddy was a sickly child who grew up to love taking on the powerful and to pursue adventure. And in his political career, he kept challenging, including his own party.

    McCain challenged the North Vietnamese as their captive. After some major missteps in office (the Keating scandal esp), he began a brief run challenging his party, followed by appeasement then complete capitulation.

    You’re right; there is no comparison between them. But lately that’s been McCain’s modus oerandi: making shit up that never was. In that, he’s replicating Reagan perfectly: faking it and unable to rein in his underlings while showing signs of a mental decline.

  2. …it appears that there is an intentional effort to push the meme of the “Great Conservative Republican Teddy Roosevelt” in order to capture his status as a fondly remembered Republican President while hoping that people don’t know about or don’t bother looking up his actual history as a prominent leader of the Progressive Movement in the early 20th Century. If Teddy was alive today, he would be at Netroots Nation…

  3. It’s been fascinating to me to see that the parts of WWII that the GOP has fixated on in talking about Iraq have been a)the Hitler/Saddam comparison, and b)the leaving forces garrisoned in Germany and Japan ever since.

    Noticeably absent have been the whole ‘mobilize and transform the economy’ bit, the ‘rapidly turn farm boys and ghetto kids into a tremendously complex and effective globe-spanning fighting force’ bit, the ‘develop new science and technology at a breakneck pace’ thing and the ‘set the stage for a half-century of economic dominance by educating those returning vets and having competent thinkers on the job ahead of time to set the rules in our favor’ bit.

    Oh, and of course, the ‘do it all in less time than we’ve been in Iraq’ bit.

    It’s not all Reagan and the GOP, of course, though I’ll never forgive them for making virtues of greed and ignorance, nor for their ‘being anti-government is patriotism’ crap. I’m afraid that once our corporate elite figured out that is should be training us to be consumers, not citizens, it’s been downhill. That’s why W had us go shopping after 9/11, instead of acting like the world’s most powerful democracy.

    And I do believe TV has an effect, encouraging passive acceptance and discouraging a questioning frame of mind.But that’s a long conversation to get into.

    As for The Cabbage, McCain and the TR revisionism, well… I’ve come to the conclusion that it will be significant when a day passes that John McCain DOESN’T make something up, deny facts in evidence, change a previously stated position. Until then, I save time by not paying too much attention to what he’s doing.

  4. You all forget that he’s a “Maverick.”
    According to the MSM, he’s the most mavericky maverick who ever mavericked the… the… mavericked the… the whatever… He’s a maverick – and don’t you ever forget it!!!
    The fact that he votes with the Preznit 95% to 100% of the time, doesn’t seen to bother any blowhard puntwit.
    Since when did Meverick – LEMMING?!?

  5. Make the “Maverick.” Sorry. Thought I do like the sound of “meverick…”

  6. Hey Maha…Remember the terrific lawyer from my home town? The one who stayed drunk for weeks on end and then sobered up in a flash when a lucrative gig showed up?

    Well his first name was Theodore (Ted) and he came from one of the wealthiest and most influential families evr in Butler county…He was named after T.R. and when Teddy broke away and formed the “Bull Moose” party, little Ted’s father (a judge) and his grandfather/patriarch tried to have his name changed…

    Ted’s mother put a stop to that shit…

  7. The classic, in this sense tried and true, justifiable need for ‘government’ is a body to protect us from each other and to protect us from ourselves. Tribal chiefs and their counsels to presidents and Secretaries and congresses, a leaderless society results in anarchy (and from that inevitably arises a brutal, ruthless, self-serving despot.) Is that why and how we ended up with the Bush Administration? Just a thought.

    There’s an article in the Aug. ’08 Harper’s “The Wrecking Crew and how a gang of right-wing con men destroyed Washington and made a killing.” Young, college in-their-20’s Republicans picked up on Reagan’s rhetoric, ran with it and we’re living with what they accomplished. The article lays bare a very ugly picture.

  8. It is seen so much in local government as well (Southern Virginia). They seem to do nothing, and people complain about not wanting to pay taxes. I am in the social work through the arts. Everything is traded off to coporate sponsors and social work is expected to offered religious groups. It have become accepted, just look at the change in Public TV and radio.

  9. >>But by persuading people that “government is the problem” I think the Reaganites caused a shift in how Americans understood government. And this put the nation on the road to learned helplessness.

  10. Molly Ivins wrote a wonderful piece in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She said that, (paraphrased) “this is politics. When someone decided how to build the levies, that was politics. When someone developed an emergency response plan, that was politics. When someone decided how to staff FEMA, that was politics. Almost every decision that affected almost every aspect of this disaster was a political decision. When someone tells you “I’m not interested in politics”, then this is what they are saying they aren’t interested in.”

    Wise words, and they ring true, and I agree with both of you in this respect.

    But I have to say, I’m starting to understand the feeling of helplessness. After the rampant ass-covering by both the Bushies and the Democrats over the past four years, I don’t have much faith in the system at this point. I have faith in what the system could be, and should be, but not in the system as it stands.

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