THE REGRESSION OF THE AMERICAN MIND
Or, The Dis-ease of Our Time
And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what
you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America
will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. Finally,
whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the
same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good
conscious our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us
go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessings and His help, but knowing
that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.
Noble words! A clear and sane call to a world order for the benefit of all in very troubled times! But if you Google this inauguration speech and look at the comments that follow, you will be sickened by the cynicism, the shallowness, the stupidity and/or insanity of the people who deride Kennedy's call to the highest of our human nature.
We have traded in the good angels offering of a vision for a better world, and bargained for the cunning apocalypse of the devil, offered with a grand bravado that fuels our lowest nature. What has happened to us? How have we regressed so demonstrably and dramatically that we now:
-- cheer the rattling of our militaristic sabres;
-- applaud the building of a wall that will isolate us from others;
-- tolerate the misogynistic belittling of women as sexual objects inferior to the
-- allow a prospective leader of the free world to get away with the idea that a woman
who has an abortion should be punished;
-- support the labeling of an entire ethnic and national group as inferior people;
-- permit the roughhousing of individuals at a political rally as a justifiable act
supposedly to protect "free speech," a diatribe that in itself tears at the fabric of our
-- accept as a viable candidate for the highest office of our government the very
person who callously votes to shut down that government;
-- consider as a viable candidate an individual obsessed with a Messianic complex who
feels ordained to save our country;
-- offer for national election either a person who is clearly suffering from a
narcissistic personality disorder, or another who fancies himself to be the inflated
anointed of God with a special mandate to save the nation by a rule of law not much
different from the extremes of the most fanatical religious groups.
How has this happened to us? How have we regressed? What rabbit hole did we fall into that we find ourselves now in a crazy world in which idealism and sacrifice for the common good are ridiculed, while so-called strength of bullying tactics and profit-by-all-means are cheered?
The most common explanations refer to our difficulty recovering from the 2008 recession, our continuing high unemployment, our trade deals, the technological dislocation of people from their work places, and the threat of terror attacks hanging over our heads as the "new normal." All of these explanations no doubt impact American consciousness and account for what I am calling a regression, a "dis-ease of our time," but I want to consider a little further that last offering in my list of explanations.
It is not just the threat of terrorism that holds us in a steely grip of fear and prompts a regression of the American mind. Rather, it is the experience of trauma that jarred the American soul and opened the gates for torrents of old barbaric forces to ascend upon our head and heart.
Consider this. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 seared our minds with unforgettable, unthinkable trauma. American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 destroyed Manhattan's twin towers, while American Airlines Flight 77 dove into the Pentagon and United Airlines Flight 93 crossed into a rural countryside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, diverted from its intended target of the White House by a heroic band of passengers who attacked the hijackers of the plane. These events are remembered annually on the now-named Patriot Day when memorial services are held at the sites and names of the victims are read aloud.
The rerun of these scenes on national television, the unforgettable images of people diving to their deaths from the tower, and the devastation of lives, families, and property that followed -- all of these linger in our personal and collective memory as scenes from a nightmarish trauma. When we consider that a trauma is "... a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury" (Merrian-Webster), we may consider how we have all suffered the trauma of 9/11, because we have experienced the disorganized thoughts and emotions that have not been able to make sense of that event. It is beyond our head and our heart to deal with the utter insanity of the event, and so the insanity of the trauma is internalized. Few of us have been fortunate enough to release the emotions of the 9/11 trauma therapeutically, or to work through the meaning of these meaningless events.
So what happens to our psyches when they respond to the absurdity of such a terror as 9/11? To put it most simply, in the words of W.B.Yeats' poem "The Second Coming," "the center cannot hold." Here is the stanza where we find that line:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Although Yeats (1865-1939), as far as I know, did not have in mind the impact of trauma upon the individual psyche, he may well have been musing about the end of an era (Europe before the two world wars) and its traumatic impact upon persons of a spiritual sensibility who witnessed the destructions of their world and culture at the hands of the materialistic/militaristic masses. In any case, I think the image of the center not holding well describes the mind of traumatized persons in their disorganized state as they experience the insane attacks upon a world, its values, and the symbols that are important for a sense of safety and well-being.
And here is the danger that leads to regression. As Yeats puts the matter, when the center does not hold, the best may "lack all conviction," and the worst may emerge with "passionate intensity." In other words, the traumatized mind does not think clearly, and the traumatized heart does not modulate, or regulate, its emotions; and the traumatized will of an individual may become vulnerable to the most demonic of leaders.
There are psychic infections just as there are biological ones. There are contagions of mass movements. There are fanaticisms of mass-mindedness. And each of us is susceptible, vulnerable. And Jung never ceased to warn us that the eruptions from our deep unconscious in times of great stress have a beguiling power to possess us.
Indeed it is becoming ever more obvious that it is not famine, not
earthquakes, not microbes, not cancer but man himself who is
man's greatest danger to man, for the simple reason that
there is no adequate protection against psychic epidemics, which are
infinitely more devastating than the worst of natural catastrophes.
The supreme danger which threatens individuals as well as whole
nations is a psychic danger. Reason has proved itself completely
powerless, precisely because its arguments have an effect only on the
conscious mind and not on the unconscious. The greatest danger of all
comes from the masses, in whom the effects of the unconscious pile up
cumulatively and the reasonableness of the conscious mind is stifled.
Every mass organization is a latent danger just as much as a heap of
dynamite is. It lets loose effects which no man wants and no man can
stop. It is therefore in the highest degree desirable that a knowledge
of psychology should spread so that man can understand the source of
the supreme dangers that threaten them. Not by arming to the teeth, each
for itself, can the nations defend themselves in the long run from the
frightful catastrophes of modern war. The heaping up of arms is itself a
call to war. Rather must they recognize those psychic conditions under
which the unconscious bursts the dykes of consciousness and overwhelms it.
(Collected Works, Vol. 18, para. 1358)