My friend Peter Russell posted a note on Facebook re: Wisconsin and the rest of the world (or the rest of the world leading to Wisconsin, I’m not sure which). In his post, he talked about “The ‘R” word” and I, at first, had to think about it. It’s been so long since anybody used the “R” word, I’d forgotten what it was. The word, in case you’ve forgotten, is “revolution”. Around the world for the last two weeks, people have been doing it. And suddenly, in the middle of … (gasp!)… America! people are starting to talk like it, too.
I don’t know the whole story, but what I’ve been able to piece together is that in Wisconsin, the new governor was elected as a fiscal-conservative-union buster. People knew that when they voted for him, and his rhetoric turned to reality and suddenly people went, “Hey! That hurts!” Now, why people voted for a union-buster in the first place makes no sense — especially if that’s not what they wanted. What’s more surprising to me is that people didn’t remember they could get angry before this. I have been speaking about economic problems and the discrepancy between rich and poor for a long time, and thought about it angrily long before that. My own denomination, which is against injustice everywhere, has never really come to terms with economic injustice — racism, sexism, homophobia, yes, international poverty — but not American poverty. Maybe it’s because we have rich White guys in our pews. Maybe because it’s unpopular to be a liberal and pastors don’t need to stir up more trouble. Or maybe it’s because we just don’t know what to say. If somebody in the UCC wants to argue with me and tell me about a program out there that addresses American poverty and class differences, please do. I’d love to be wrong on this one, but I don’t think I am. If I am, I’d be happy to post a link to it on this blog.
OK, so here’s the answer from the world of psychology: Most of America’s poor people have been in a depressed state of “learned helplessness”.
“Learned helplessness” is a term best described with an experiment, though I don’t remember who did it. In the experiment, dogs were put into an open box and shocked. To no one’s surprise, the dog jumped out of the box. Then the experimenter closed the box and the dog tried and failed to get out. Then the experimenter took the lid off again and gave the dog a shock. Now the dog didn’t even jump. They just sort of whimpered and got depressed and gave up. Humans go through this sort of thing frequently — not with electric shock but with situations and people. They mostly go through it when they come up against the irrational — people won’t give them a job because they’re a woman, or black, or Hispanic or won’t serve them in a restaurant because they’re gay or are mad at them because they’re men …. usually, though, this irrationality isn’t seen as irrational. It’s this sort of nebulous, systemic thing that everybody assumes is just normal but the person being hurt. They just feel nuts.
The person who told me yesterday of being charged $5.00 per day for 3 weeks because of bank policies that make no sense to them is suffering from learned helplessness. Banks can do whatever they want, right? Isn’t that how it is? Well, yes, it is. But it’s not how it’s supposed to be. That’s why she’s dizzy and feels crazy. She forgot that it’s not supposed to be that way. She forgot she could be angry about injustice. It’s been so long since anybody thought it was injustice that she just got depressed.
That’s how it’s been. Then somebody in a place we’d never thought about — Tunisia, of all places — got angry and threw out the person that set up the rules that oppressed them. They, in essence, jumped out of the box. After that, it was all over. Egypt was next, then Iran, then Libya, then…. who knows, then… Wisconsin?! Dogs with learned helplessness need to be shown they can avoid the shock. People need to know they can do something about their situation. And once they do, suddenly they get angry. After awhile, if the situation gets straightened out, they calm down and the cycle starts all over again as people try to take advantage of others. As there’s a lot of injustice all around the world — and in this country — don’t expect people to calm down for a while.
What kept American people in their mental cages? Among other things, being called “whiners”. Remember when “liberal” became a bad word? and people started talking about “the ‘L’ word? That was in 1980. So, for 31 years in this country, people in this country didn’t really fight against this type of systemic injustice. Greed was good. Not being greedy was “weird”. Being poor was your fault if you were poor because you didn’t think to get in on the Stock Market and/or didn’t have the money for it. Poor people were just whiners because they hadn’t thought of the greed first. Worrying about others who were poor made you (gasp!) a liberal, and you’d better darn well shut up if you were going to talk like that!
But, you know what? People’s love for greed in themselves runs out after awhile. Only the true sociopaths (Hi, Mr. Madoff!) can be that evil. And the more people that couldn’t keep up with the greed game, the more people got put “under the bus”. After awhile, nearly everybody’s under the bus — seniors can’t retire, young people can’t go to school, people in the middle can’t afford a car or a house — that’s the events of two years ago — the so-called Great Recession — The system got sooooooooooo out of whack that it couldn’t work anymore. About 15 years ago, the poor started getting depressed. Then they got soooooooo depressed they couldn’t remember why they were depressed or that things could be any other way. That was under Clinton who said “If folks just work harder for the system, we can be great again”. Then came Bush, and Clinton’s lie became Bush’s Really Big Lie: “If we give all of our money to the rich, we’ll all be rich”. It doesn’t work that way. Saying that, “They’re just investing the money” doesn’t describe how it feels because they weren’t investing it in us. They were investing it in themselves. It wasn’t coming back.
But, I suspect, while we peons were down here arguing about the money that was left, nobody paid any attention to those people who took most of it and left them with the scraps. I suspect that, as there was less and less money to be fighting about, our rhetoric got toxic. Sure, unions were greedy and to blame for some of the problems, but they weren’t the only ones and they weren’t the cause of everything collapsing. It took Robber Baron CEOs and ponzi schemes in Real Estate to do that. Sure, fiscal conservatives were right, you have to trim the fat from the budget. But once you’re down to the skeleton, there is no fat. And no matter how many times Rush Limbaugh yells about the “liberal whiners” who “want more than they have the right to”, when the “right” they want is to simply live, or eat and have a job, people don’t care any more. It takes a phony war, rich mercenaries and a company like Halliburton to get us this broke. To quote Bruce Springsteen, America’s “got debts no honest man could pay” and now we’re “standin’ wavin’ a gun around”.
98% of America’s “got tough choices to make” while 2% of America works up a sweat and claims\thinks\acts like it’s broke. That brings us way past the L word or even the C word (conservative) to the “R” word. But maybe the “R” word isn’t revolution, maybe it’s “remember”. Remember that greed is not good. Remember that people are not to be taken advantage of. Remember that at some point, it gets absurd and people catch on. Remember that it really can get that bad out there. Remember that you have the right to be angry but don’t yell at the wrong people. Remember where the money went. Oops that’s revolution again.