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    Bradley Cooper in 'American Sniper' | Photo: Reuters

Published 30 January 2015
We aren't a "sick" society. It is too tame an adjective.

Have you heard the expression "sick society"? I have. Often. In fact most I have heard it often in reference to my own society, the U.S. And increasingly so, of late.

However, the expression is misapplied to the U.S. I only wish we had a sick society. If you are sick you take some aspirin and you sleep it off. Maybe you need a round of antibiotics. Hell, maybe you need chemo, and it works or – worst case – it doesn't. But the concept "sick" is at least reasonably tractable, and, most often, being sick is not so a big deal – as long as one acts in response, one can get better by a pretty clear path.

We aren't a "sick" society. It is too tame an adjective. I am sorry, but I fear "psychotic" is a more apt descriptor.

I want to offer some modest evidence, but we should clarify one thing first. When someone says "sick society," or "psychotic society," the word society denotes the population. The claim is not just about the rich, the powerful, the criminal, the vulgar being sick or psychotic. To call a society sick or psychotic is to comment on the whole thing. As a result even a mountain of evidence about bombing, jailing, starving, robbing, hypocrisy, corruption – at the top – isn't germane. Such evidence could justify saying our country is ruled by thugs or saying we have a rogue state, and so on. But such evidence could not reveal whether a society's population, in its average attributes, is sick or psychotic.

So where would you look to evidence such a claim? I would say, you would look at culture. You would look at the broad behaviors and attitudes of people. What does the population think? What does it do, believe, abide, on average, taken as a whole?

I should also say, I have long hated this kind of article. I unhesitatingly know that the attitudes and leanings of any societal population do not arise solely or in current cases even mostly from the deepest recesses of each of our beings. Rather, and especially when attitudes and behaviors are widely shared, these typically reflect the pressures of conditions in which we find ourselves. Widespread attitudes and behaviors are at least largely produced socially, institutionally, and not born and bred personally, privately. So I don't like pointing at people, even collectively, when institutions are pulling our strings.

Still, I also know that given enough time and repetition, howsoever we act, we become. That is, we become what we do, even if what we do is not an outgrowth of some deep desire we had, but is instead reaction to external pressures, constraints, lies, or lacunae.

Whatever sets off a slip slide to hellish thought and habit – again, we are, in time, what we do, so the roots of it begin to run deep in us. And so, as much as I hate doing so, I have to admit that if what we do is psychotic, and if we do it over and over, then however much of it has been initially imposed by our situations, we will ourselves tend to become psychotic, and then the psychosis within us will operate at least for a time even if institutions are pulled back, or altered – until new settings and personal wherewithal manages to remove the internally nesting roots.

Okay, all that said, is what we in the U.S. do just warped by our circumstances or has it slipped all the way to being psychotic? You judge.

Our scientists discover and unequivocally demonstrate that certain policies will exacerbate global warming and other ecological nightmares of the air and seas and that left unchecked this could even annihilate life on our planet – and, at the very least – will horribly undercut human comfort and capacities in the decades to come to such an extent that only an asteroid collision or an alien invasion or nuclear war could do comparable damage. And yet, we guzzle on.

Okay, you might justifiably say that that is policy. It is the evidence I said wouldn't count – the evidence of choices by elites. But what about the population? Well, while policy threatens our families and futures pretty much like, oh, say, Hitler threatened Poland, or a flying saucer with death rays that was broadcasting its intention to spend the next few years frying humanity for an extended lunch would threaten humanity, what do we the population do as our elites sign up to enlarge the disasters? Do we storm the White House? Do we march on corporations? Well, no. Some of the most demented among us – they are further down the road of becoming what they do – actually attack those they claim are whining about false problems. Most others among us just don't want to hear about the threats at all, since to hear such things may generate indigestion, and, well, that is a real cost borne now. Psychotic?

Or take a smaller, less dramatic, and yet perhaps similarly revealing phenomenon - "American Sniper." A lunatic thug murdered, albeit manipulated by social pressure, writes a memoir describing his vile life choices. It is material, for sure, for shrinks to consider. But Clint Eastwood, a national treasure, has his own more profitable idea. He turns the memoir, or parts of it, anyhow, plus fictional filler, all "suitably edited," into a movie and then tells us it is an apolitical work, so don't get all agitated. A cursory look at this film, however, shows that it is actually a propaganda hit that Goebbels would have been proud to sponsor but luckily never had the artistry or subtlety to create. Yes, there is plenty to write about in the film's interstices, in the mindsets of its creators, in the book, and yes, of course, in the institutional and social pressures producing Navy Seals, not to mention the war, and war at all - and so on. But what about the public response?

Record revenues!

Face facts. People are not attending "The Sniper" to boo. Whether audiences think applauding behavior which, if it was carried out by folks not on the America's allies list, they would deem horrific makes them Patriots, or makes them artistic, or makes anything else admirable, they are, in fact, objectively supporting vile carnage undertaken on behalf of the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and weak, mostly abroad, but also, to be sure, at home – and thus literally the audience itself.

Okay, audiences applauding mayhem in World Wars 1 and 2 were also in the dark and happy to remain there to be part of the crowd. Agreed. Audiences of the Korean war and Indochina did this too – albeit in the latter case, in reduced numbers. So what is different now? Well, one thing is that all that has gone before. And that matters. If you look for your lost keys in the same place, over and over, well, it starts to be nuts. Another thing different is, it now takes about ten minutes to find the truth about the events behind the film. At this point a person can only avoid the facts, in fact, if he or she wants to do so. Yes, the lies are everywhere, flashing into minds endlessly, but the truth is no longer nowhere.

The media is powerful, but really, the slightest effort annihilates the lies – so the ubiquity of falsehood matters, but not only the ubiquity of falsehood matters. What is also undeniable is that the behavior of the bulk of our population makes ostriches seem curious. Overall, the population prioritizes defending self conceptions people have adopted in the past – remember: what one has done, one keeps doing – and one becomes that. Psychotic?

Or take what may be the only larger public cultural phenomenon than "The Sniper" occurring at the moment in the U.S., which is not, of course worry about our goading confrontational approach to Russia, or outrage at continued economic fiasco, but is, instead, suitably for my point but not for humanity's prospects, the Super Bowl.

Consider this. The country is wrapped up in a frenzy about whether one team's owner, coach, and quarterback were involved in messing with the pressure per inch of game balls a couple of weeks ago. This would, indeed, technically be cheating, albeit, everyone agrees, with virtually zero impact on the outcome of the game. Lets ignore details, though, as per everything above, because the issue in this essay isn't did something occur or not. The issue is the public response. So, we have the public incredibly infatuated and enmeshed, angered, and aroused about this football story. Meanwhile football is a sport, in some ways beautiful, in many ways exciting, in which, however, one third of the players – and I am not making that up, really – are going to suffer very serious brain damage, such as early onset dementia, no memory, death by suicide, etc. etc. And, of the other two thirds, most of them will after retirement, barely be able to move without pain – certainly not able to run, not even to play with their children, for much of their lives.

More, the definition of the sport, though it includes fascinating features that make for rich and varied strategy, utilizes almost all training and skill abilities associated with athletics, etc., also, truth be told, has at its very core the injunction – trample the other guy into mush whenever possible. So we have a kind of modern Roman Amphitheater, with gargantuan profits shared at the top, and our public gives it unwavering and almost unlimited, support while its practitioners unsurprisingly, indeed inevitably, bulk up with drugs, get back on the field with drugs, come down to reality afterwards with drugs and alcohol, routinely beat their spouses, for all this earn fortunes, and during all this become physically and mentally crippled. And yet because it has become a meme, serviceable to media and elites because essentially vacuous – at least in the way they can spin it – we are all caught up in pounds per square inch in footballs.

Even past professional coaches, when caught by cameras, now often admit they would not allow their own kids to play in high school, or earlier – even though the game has been at the very center of their own lives from preteens to the present. But the public hears this and yet nonetheless goes out and buys some pads and suits up their kids. And understandably so – it is fun, after all, and if you don't do it, you aren't in with the only crowd you can find to relate to.

And here is the thing – saying that society is psychotic is a claim about not just some individuals, means it is hard, very hard, for any individual to step outside the strictures of it all. The problem is that the road to even minimal fulfillment, minimal status, minimal sociality, minimal connection in a psychotic society requires not bucking the psychosis. To buck, much less disdain is to be a pariah. So the pressure is to manifest the psychosis, abet it, and in time become it, so as to have friends, etc. And so we become what we do.

And please, don't take too much heart if you aren't a rapid football fan, or even vocally critique it. Not riding shotgun for one lunacy doesn't mean you aren't doing it for others.

There are ways out of social psychosis, but they are collective, political, social, and not merely personal even if part of the process is, indeed, personal. My choosing, say, to not watch the super bowl won't matter a whit, nor will your similar choice. The only thing that can matter is collective action, and everyone knows it. Any personal choice, perhaps momentarily worthy, will be suffocated without being sustained by collectivity. And not watching, or cheering, or ignoring, or whatever various forms of psychosis we have been party too, typically means being isolated, and not enjoying social exchange – and that is a price to pay – and without larger gains to show, in time we feel, for what?

Viva Syriza. If that project spreads, and becomes nourished by informed awareness and not herd appeal, perhaps we can all together start to do something positive, and thereby start to become something positive, and very different than what we are.

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