Depression -- And Its Activism Antidote --
Will Lead to Bush's Downfall
by Bernard Weiner
April 10, 2003
Let's talk about a subject that remains mostly hidden in American social discourse: depression. And, in particular, where personal depression meets economic and political depression -- and, even more specifically right now, when all these states meet at the nexus of the U.S. war on Iraq.
Depression is a sane, normal way of dealing with overwhelming grief, loss, confusion, shame -- in this instance cluster-bombs, depleted uranium weapons, children being slaughtered as "collateral damage," and all in our name. Because depression shakes us up, it provides opportunities, once we regain our energy and focus, for effective political action.
All three depressions can be agents of powerful change. The economic depression that likely will follow our current economic doldrums; the society-wide depressive anxiety that keeps the citizenry from turning on the rulers responsible for the current economic/political mess we're in; the personal depression affecting so many, resulting from heightened fear and uncertainty.
Add all those together and you get a populace that is in a condition of numbed stasis -- a state that suits Bush & Co. just fine. In fact, in many ways they helped engineer such a state, and are planning on its continued operation in order to run their agenda without too much opposition.
Even if there were no growing international boycott of American goods and services, even if foreign holders of American bonds choose to hang onto those financial instruments, even if the dollar were not to be replaced by the Euro as the world's common currency -- even if all those things didn't happen, the U.S. economy is still due for a disastrous fall.
It's not just that the Bush Administration is determined to spend on both guns and butter at the same time -- you'd think American politicians would have learned the lesson by now that austerities and sacrifices are called for in wartime -- but it seems determined to further weaken an economy already in tatters.
For no good reason that I can see -- other than the crass political one of paying off their major supporters -- it is pushing yet another huge tax cut through the pliant Congress. This tax cut, as was true for the one before it, will benefit mainly the wealthiest sectors -- they'll get the prime cuts, so to speak -- with a tiny crust handed out to middle-class taxpayers to make them feel they're not being neglected.
It's the old trickle-down economic theory, which promises that money given to the wealthy will work its way down the ladder, resulting in more jobs, more production, more cash in circulation. The problem with this theory is that, on the whole -- as was embarrassingly obvious during and after the Reagan presidency -- it doesn't work.
The well-to-do sock away their wealth, or move it offshore, and little or nothing drips down to the working and middle-class, who often then find themselves worse off than before as services are cut, the economic machine stagnates, and the cost of living rises. (The "percolate-up" theory – that the economy gets a huge boost when poor and middle-class folks have more cash to spend, and that social investing by the government means more prosperity for everyone, including the already-wealthy -- is quickly dismissed by conservatives.)
The end result of trickle-down economics often is a bad recession, where a relative handful -- buoyed by the tax breaks they received -- are able to ride out the bad times with ease, while the rest of us have to struggle even more just to stay afloat. Add the international boycott/bond- calling/Euro factors into the mix -- the non-violent revenge of foreigners against Bush's imperial adventurism -- and you can just about smell the huge economic depression that is heading our way, and that will take a good share of the world down with it.
And don't count on the old "safety net" to save us, or at least to ameliorate the pain. There isn't going to be much of a safety net. Welfare is but a temporary salve these days, and you're expected to get a job quickly -- but what if there aren't any in a depressed economy? Medicare? Social Security? Head Start? Education? Pollution-control? Other social programs?
Not bloody likely. One aim of Bush & Co. Hard-Rightists is to slice away at these programs, and/or privatize them, until they barely exist. And, best of all from the Hard-Right perspective, they won't have to attack these popular programs frontally; they simply blame the permanent war, which, in order to guarantee "national security," will have to absorb more and more of the budget, leaving little left over for funding anything else.
So, what can be done about this coming economic depression? We can take a lesson from the Great Depression of the 1930s. When the situation got bad enough, the citizenry woke up and finally put the blame where it belonged -- on the "leaders" and their rotten policies. They focused their anger, elected progressive candidates, threw out the old crowd, and began climbing their way back to a "new deal" for the American people.
Translated to 2003Organize, organize, organize. Talk to your friends, colleagues, neighbors, religious fellows; write letters to the editor of your local paper; besiege your elected officials with reasoned, passionate letters about what needs to be done (and don't put up with their weasling non-answers); get yourself or other good candidates elected at the local level; take over the local, district, state party structures.
Work for electoral and corporate and accounting reform -- not the kind incumbent politicians and CEOs like, but genuine, hard-hitting reform. Don't let up. Hold their feet to the fire. Demand democracy, and make it work. As the momentum builds, impeachment of our highest officials will become more practical, even inevitable.
I don't think I have to describe what I mean here. You and your friends and associates and colleagues -- all of us -- are affected by the general anxiety associated with a world seemingly spinning out of our control, with little we can do (so we're led to believe) to alter the situation for the better.
Terrorists are coming to get us, the rest of the world is unbelievably angry at America, the economy is in sad shape, there's no money for education or anything else, you may not have a job next week, your kids' after-school programs have been eliminated. Not even the election system is in your control; you cast your ballot for candidates and, even though they may have received the highest vote total, someone else assumes office, either appointed by a political faction on a court or through some hanky-panky in the software-programming for those computer-voting screens.
The whole system seems corrupt, from the top on down from corporate gougers and their crooked accounting firms, to Administration officials with huge conflicts-of-interest, to legislative politicians beholden to the highest bidders, to priests in the church and their superiors who protect them, to policemen on the take, to mass-media who seem to make it their policy not to inform us, etc. etc. More and more, making your way through this slimy maze -- survival, in other words -- is enough of a daily chore. Not much is left over for positive thought and action.
And so a society-wide depressive anxiety sets in. Not much energy or desire to act, just enough to try to get through the month as best as one can, always waiting for the other shoe to drop, the social or economic or terrorist or personal disaster that lies just around the corner. For so many, it's better to join a fundamentalist church that has all the simple answers, or turn on the telly and watch sitcoms or survival-metaphor shows. Hunker down, keep your patriotic nose clean (lest John Ashcroft's thought police come and ask you questions), survive another month.
This generalized depression ensures a passive society, one easily rolled by the ruling party faction -- the same faction that, surprise!, controls the mass-media. Permanent war means permanent anxiety means permanent passivity means control from the top.
But this situation doesn't have to continue that way. The great thing about dealing with depression is that once we work your way through the grief and sadness and release the anger and frustration, a grand, energized opportunity exists to make sweeping changes in both our immediate personal situation and in our social situation as well.
When the populace agrees that enough is enough, the energy for action will be enormous, with devastating consequences for those who have engineered our state of anxiety and manipulated our fears. Watch out! A citizenry with blinders removed and revenge in their hearts is a fearsome thing. Bush & Co. will fall swiftly, nastily.
A number of therapist friends report that their clients in the past several months -- not just liberals but conservatives and middle-of-the-roaders as well -- are experiencing virtually identical symptomatology as folks attempt to deal with heightened fear and depressive anxiety.
What you and I and a lot of others are feeling these days may not be full-bore clinical depression, but there are some troubling similarities.
When in the grips of clinical depression, experts tell us, you have very little energy. Picking up the phone to call a friend for help is virtually impossible; you sit or lie there, unable to do much of anything but the bare basics. You think strange thoughts, including, at times, suicidal ones. The things that used to lift you, energize you, please you, no longer have that power. The world is gray, lifeless, unenjoyable.
In our current political depression, the forces arrayed against us seem, at first glance, to be insurmountable a Bush regime, acting out of greed and lust for power, that is rolling over everything in its path – other regimes, the United Nations, the European Union, the Constitution, whatever. There seems to be no countervailing power capable of stopping it. The world tends toward grayness. Already here at The Crisis Papers, we've received suicidal letters from readers totally bummed out by the world and domestic political scene, uncertain whether they have the strength or will to continue the struggle.
What bums me out the most is that I went through "The Sixties" battling another war, the one in Vietnam -- and, under Nixon, fighting another lawless, arrogant, mean-spirited administration -- and I got scarred badly by the experience. Life was chaotic, desperate, heavy. (The flip side of those hippie-dippie days was that it was also fun and energizing and rich in comradeship.)
I don't want to have to return to that turmoil-time again, and yet I have no choice the war is back (this one in Iraq, and the upcoming ones beyond), a corrupt and arrogant administration is in power -- I'm back, like it or not, once again working the alternative-press circuit. Then, it was the "underground" press, now it's the progressive internet.
There are a lot of us ex-activists from the '60s and the '70s once again participating in the current anti-war/pro-democracy movement -- and, just judging from the friends I know in such circumstances, we're all personally depressed, irritable, bummed out. We thought the U.S. never would get itself into a Vietnam-type situation again, and yet here we are the past is ever present.
Actually, it's even worse. In Vietnam, the aim was to control just a relatively tiny part of Asia; the far-right ideologues of the Bush Administration have the entire globe in mind, with the U.S. as a kind of Roman Empire, controlling and policing the situation everywhere.
For the sake of our children, our grandchildren, America, the world, we older activists are cranking it up once again, both because the situation requires it, but also because our soul requires it, our love of country requires it, our desire to leave the world a better place requires it.
And, lo and behold, being active once again becomes, in addition to an effective way of moving towards desirable social goals, an antidote to despair. Organizing, agitating, analyzing, marching, lobbying, using our released anger and energy for good causes -- all this is therapeutic, desirable, useful.
The most helpful part of this renewed activism is that a whole new generation or two has joined in the battle for a better world. More than ten million citizens from a wide variety of nations have marched in the streets to oppose a war that hadn't even started at that point -- a true melting-pot of humanity, of generations, most of whom met each other as a result of internet education and activism. In short, already in place is an internationalist Movement for peace and justice. Amazing!
The first thing therapists recommend to their clinically-depressed clients is to get into an aerobic exercise program -- get to the gym and work up those endorphins, change your frame of reference. Similarly in our current predicament, activism becomes therapeutic activity. Doing nothing just encourages the forces of greed and oppression; but organizing with others similarly inclined, all focused on the light ahead rather than letting the shadow forces set the total agenda -- this is a powerful alternative to hopelessness, and an unstoppable force for change.
Deep down, we know as we beat our heads against the wall of indifference and repression that, in the foreseeable future, all our pain and suffering and hard work will pay off. This group of illegitimate U.S. "leaders" is so filled with itself, so cocky in its arrogant bullyboy approach to the world, so over-reaching in its haste to grab what it can get, so confident that its lies won't matter and that its outrageous behavior will not be opposed, that it is walking on the red carpet of hubris. Its downfall is inevitable, its days are numbered, regime change is in the air.
Months ago, I wrote: "Don't despair, things will get worse before they get worse, then they will get even worse, and then they'll start to get better." I think we're approaching the end of the beginning, and thus are closer to the beginning of the end. So keep the momentum building, don't let up the slack, never give in. Organize, organize, organize. See that light on the horizon? It's glowing brighter, don'tcha think?
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., is co-editor of The Crisis Papers, where this essay first appeared (www.crisispapers.org). He has taught at various universities, and was a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle for nearly 20 years. He is author of Boy Into Man: A Fathers’ Guide to Initiation of Teenage Sons (Transformation Press, 1992).