Traditionally, young people have energized democratic movements. So it is a major coup for the ruling elite to have created societal institutions that have subdued young Americans and broken their spirit of resistance to domination.
Young Americans—even more so than older Americans—appear to have acquiesced to the idea that the corporatocracy can completely screw them and that they are helpless to do anything about it. A 2010 Gallup poll asked Americans “Do you think the Social Security system will be able to pay you a benefit when you retire?” Among 18- to 34-years-olds, 76 percent of them said “No.” Yet despite their lack of confidence in the availability of Social Security for them, few have demanded it be shored up by more fairly payroll-taxing the wealthy; most appear resigned to having more money deducted from their paychecks for Social Security, even though they don’t believe it will be around to benefit them.
How exactly has American society subdued young Americans?
1. Student-Loan Debt: Large debt—and the fear it creates—is a pacifying force. There was no tuition at the City University of New York when I attended one of its colleges in the 1970s, a time when tuition at many U.S. public universities was so affordable that it was easy to get a B.A. and even a graduate degree without accruing any student-loan debt. While those days are gone in the United States, public universities continue to be free in the Arab world and are either free or with very low fees in many countries throughout the world. The millions of young Iranians who risked getting shot to protest their disputed 2009 presidential election, the millions of young Egyptians who risked their lives earlier this year to eliminate Mubarak, and the millions of young Americans who demonstrated against the Vietnam War all had in common the absence of pacifying huge student-loan debt. Today in the United States, two-thirds of graduating seniors at four-year colleges have student-loan debt, including over 62 percent of public university graduates. While average undergraduate debt is close to $25,000, I increasingly talk to college graduates with closer to $100,000 in student-loan debt. During the time in one’s life when it should be easiest to resist authority because one does not yet have family responsibilities, many young people worry about the cost of bucking authority, losing their job, and being unable to pay an ever-increasing debt. In a vicious cycle, student debt has a subduing effect on activism, and political passivity makes it more likely that students will accept such debt as a natural part of life.
2. Psychopathologizing and Medicating Noncompliance. In 1955, Erich Fromm, the then widely respected anti-authoritarian leftist psychoanalyst, wrote, “Today the function of psychiatry, psychology and psychoanalysis threatens to become the tool in the manipulation of man.” Fromm died in 1980, the same year that an increasingly authoritarian America elected Ronald Reagan president, and an increasingly authoritarian American Psychiatric Association added to their diagnostic bible (then the DSM-III) disruptive mental disorders for children and teenagers such as the increasingly popular “oppositional defiant disorder” (ODD). The official symptoms of ODD include “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules,” “often argues with adults,” and “often deliberately does things to annoy other people.” Many of America’s greatest activists including Saul Alinsky (1909–1972), the legendary organizer and author of Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals, would today certainly be diagnosed with ODD and other disruptive disorders. Recalling his childhood, Alinsky said, “I never thought of walking on the grass until I saw a sign saying ‘Keep off the grass.’ Then I would stomp all over it.” Heavily tranquilizing antipsychotic drugs (e.g. Zyprexa and Risperdal) are now the highest grossing class of medication in the United States ($16 billion in 2010); a major reason for this, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2010, is that many children receiving antipsychotic drugs have nonpsychotic diagnoses such as ODD or some other disruptive disorder (this especially true of Medicaid-covered pediatric patients).
3. Schools That Educate for Compliance and Not for Democracy: Upon accepting the New York City Teacher of the Year Award on January 31, 1990, John Taylor Gatto upset many in attendance by stating: “The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators, but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions.” A generation ago, the problem of compulsory schooling as a vehicle for an authoritarian society was widely discussed, but as this problem has gotten worse, it is seldom discussed. The nature of most classrooms, regardless of the subject matter, socializes students to be passive and directed by others, to follow orders, to take seriously the rewards and punishments of authorities, to pretend to care about things they don’t care about, and that they are impotent to affect their situation. A teacher can lecture about democracy, but schools are essentially undemocratic places, and so democracy is not what is instilled in students. Jonathan Kozol in The Night Is Dark and I Am Far from Home focused on how school breaks us from courageous actions. Kozol explains how our schools teach us a kind of “inert concern” in which “caring”—in and of itself and without risking the consequences of actual action—is considered “ethical.” School teaches us that we are “moral and mature” if we politely assert our concerns, but the essence of school—its demand for compliance—teaches us not to act in a friction-causing manner.
4. “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top”: The corporatocracy has figured out a way to make our already authoritarian schools even more authoritarian. Democrat-Republican bipartisanship has resulted in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, NAFTA, the PATRIOT Act, the War on Drugs, the Wall Street bailout, and educational policies such as “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top.” These policies are essentially standardized-testing tyranny that creates fear, which is antithetical to education for a democratic society. Fear forces students and teachers to constantly focus on the demands of test creators; it crushes curiosity, critical thinking, questioning authority, and challenging and resisting illegitimate authority. In a more democratic and less authoritarian society, one would evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher not by corporatocracy-sanctioned standardized tests but by asking students, parents, and a community if a teacher is inspiring students to be more curious, to read more, to learn independently, to enjoy thinking critically, to question authorities, and to challenge illegitimate authorities.
5. Shaming Young People Who Take Education—But Not Their Schooling—Seriously. In a 2006 survey in the United States, it was found that 40 percent of children between first and third grade read every day, but by fourth grade, that rate declined to 29 percent. Despite the anti-educational impact of standard schools, children and their parents are increasingly propagandized to believe that disliking school means disliking learning. That was not always the case in the United States. Mark Twain famously said, “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education.” Toward the end of Twain’s life in 1900, only 6 percent of Americans graduated high school. Today, approximately 85 percent of Americans graduate high school, but this is good enough for Barack Obama who told us in 2009, “And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country.” However, the more schooling Americans get, the more politically ignorant they are of America’s ongoing class war, and the more incapable they are of challenging the ruling class. In the 1880s and 1890s, American farmers with little or no schooling created a Populist movement that organized America’s largest-scale working people’s cooperative, formed a People’s Party that received 8 percent of the vote in 1892 presidential election, designed a “subtreasury” plan (that had it been implemented would have allowed easier credit for farmers and broke the power of large banks) and sent 40,000 lecturers across America to articulate it, and evidenced all kinds of sophisticated political ideas, strategies and tactics absent today from America’s well-schooled population. Today, Americans who lack college degrees are increasingly shamed as “losers”; however, Gore Vidal and George Carlin, two of America’s most astute and articulate critics of the corporatocracy, never went to college, and Carlin dropped out of school in the ninth grade.
6. The Normalization of Surveillance: The fear of being surveilled makes a population easier to control. While the National Security Agency (NSA) has received publicity for monitoring American citizen’s e-mail and phone conversations, and while employer surveillance has become increasingly common in the United States, young Americans have become increasingly acquiescent to corporatocracy surveillance because, beginning at a young age, surveillance is routine in their lives. Parents routinely check Web sites for their kid’s latest test grades and completed assignments, and just like employers, are monitoring their children’s computers and Facebook pages. Some parents use the GPS in their children’s cell phones to track their whereabouts, and other parents have video cameras in their homes. Increasingly, I talk with young people who lack the confidence that they can even pull off a party when their parents are out of town, and so how much confidence are they going to have about pulling off a democratic movement below the radar of authorities?
7. Television: In 2009, the Nielsen Company reported that TV viewing in the United States is at an all-time high if one includes the following “three screens”: a television set, a laptop/personal computer, and a cell phone. American children average eight hours a day on TV, video games, movies, the Internet, cell phones, iPods, and other technologies (not including school-related use). Many progressives are concerned about the concentrated control of content by the corporate media, but the mere act of watching TV—regardless of the programming—is the primary pacifying agent (private-enterprise prisons have recognized that providing inmates with cable television can be a more economical method to keep them quiet and subdued than it would be to hire more guards). Television is a “dream come true” for an authoritarian society: those with the most money own most of what people see; fear-based television programming makes people more afraid and distrustful of one another, which is good for the ruling elite who depend on a “divide and conquer” strategy; TV isolates people so they are not joining together to create resistance to authorities; and regardless of the programming, TV viewers’ brainwaves slow down, transforming them closer to a hypnotic state that makes it difficult to think critically. While playing a video games is not as zombifying as passively viewing TV, such games have become for many boys and young men their only experience of potency, and this “virtual potency” is certainly no threat to the ruling elite.
8. Fundamentalist Religion and Fundamentalist Consumerism: American culture offers young Americans the “choices” of fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist consumerism. All varieties of fundamentalism narrow one’s focus and inhibit critical thinking. While some progressives are fond of calling fundamentalist religion the “opiate of the masses,” they too often neglect the pacifying nature of America’s other major fundamentalism. Fundamentalist consumerism pacifies young Americans in a variety of ways. Fundamentalist consumerism destroys self-reliance, creating people who feel completely dependent on others and who are thus more likely to turn over decision-making power to authorities, the precise mind-set that the ruling elite loves to see. A fundamentalist consumer culture legitimizes advertising, propaganda, and all kinds of manipulations, including lies; and when a society gives legitimacy to lies and manipulativeness, it destroys the capacity of people to trust one another and form democratic movements. Fundamentalist consumerism also promotes self-absorption, which makes it difficult for the solidarity necessary for democratic movements.
These are not the only aspects of our culture that are subduing young Americans and crushing their resistance to domination. The food-industrial complex has helped create an epidemic of childhood obesity, depression, and passivity. The prison-industrial complex keeps young anti-authoritarians “in line” (now by the fear that they may come before judges such as the two Pennsylvania ones who took $2.6 million from private-industry prisons to ensure that juveniles were incarcerated). As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed: “All our things are right and wrong together. The wave of evil washes all our institutions alike.”
I really liked this article on Alternet today. I am writing a book entitled Spirituality: A User’s Guide, which attempts to suggest guidelines for a psychologically healthy spirituality (without endorsing any, but observing that Christianity is an unhealthy one). I have an MA in Theology, as well as Counselling Psychology, and work as a psychotherapist in Ireland, though originally I am from the US/Phila/Boston. I was a missionary in West Africa for a number of years, and the people there helped me to see reality from a whole different angle. So I would function from a ‘liberation psychology’ standpoint as well. I find doing inner child work with folks (using Bradshaw’s Homecoming) works really well.
Please keep up the good work!
Reading this article, especially reason #5, brought up a question in my mind: could it be that much of the anti-intellectualism on the Right is continued resistance to worthy ideas presented like doctrine or dogma? If so, how can we reach out to and maybe de-rigidify it? Any ideas? And, yes, I know closed minds are not a monopoly of one side or t’other: I never liked the far Left back in high school or college AND I detest the ‘religious’ Right today as desecrators of G-d’s house. Anyhow, please let me know what you think.
the most socially important personality disorder left out of the DSM is what i call the Avaricious Personality because it is the only one that spreads like an infectious disease.
Before you give up on Christianity, explore a group that has historically pushed for social, economic, environmental justice. This is United Church of Christ http://www.ucc.org. This denomination ordained the first woman, first African American, first openly gay person, active in civil rights, pushing for LGBT inclusion in US society. There are other ‘progressive Christians’ finding one another. A background on progressive Christianity is in study materials produced by Living the Questions. http://www.livingthequestions.com
My little slice of your work is to explore the loss of and need for renewed ‘spiritual capital’ in business organizations in terms of worthy purpose and dedication to core values, along with social capital that is human motivation and competence.
Television crime shows reinforce the idea of an all-powerful criminal justice system that has unlimited time and resources to solve crimes, violates constitutional rights with impunity, and conducts full adversarial trials that validate police misconduct. How many times have Americans seen, on television, police or prosecutors “solve” a crime by verbally or physically abusing the suspect into confessing while their lawyer sits there doing nothing? Or seen an attractive young female detective conduct an illegal, warrant-less search gather the evidence needed to convict a (physically and mentally) less appealing defendant? And Americans wonder why the young see the Constitution as quaint and/or an obstruction to solving crimes.
It should also be remembered that television advertising can implant false memories. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/05/ads-implant-false-memories/
Well written article, it pulls together many of my concerns in a way I hadn’t thought of before. My father, an educator who recently died at the age of 98, had repeatedly raised these thoughts to me asking, “what is going on, all these young people as so conservative today? People tend to become more conservative as they grow older so this is a big concern, where’s the rebellion?” I couldn’t explain it to him. But now I could.
I hadn’t even thought of the loan problem, always just looked at it in financial terms. But you’re right, it really holds people back. I believe that if one declares bankruptcy the student loans don’t go away, are merely defered. What a yoke! How do you make slaves? Perpetual debt so the person is always worried about their ability to get a job. What might wipe that out is when so many are so broke that it doesn’t matter anymore.
TV has long been condemned for it’s passivity making and I agree it’s getting worse. The population is bored, so they watch others have exciting lives. I’ve often thought the best way to control a population is to get them all fearful of one another, threaten to arrest them if they go to places to congregate such as taverns and bars (i.e. drunk driving laws with the threshold so low your mouthwash might put you over the line), and then get them to watch a little box in their house on which you control all the information. It’s even ok to have some “dissenting” opinions if they are basically milktoast like PBS. Wonderful! They’ve got us where they can sell to us. Perfect world.
Schooling children instead of educating them. Perfect. I must re-read Ivan Illich’s ‘Deschooling Society’ in which he argued that point 40 years ago.
Drug the kids if they are noncompliant. Video games to keep the boys aggressions in check. Nothing worse than a bunch of bored young men with nothing to do. Cultivate a sense of defeatism in the population and Voila! what we have today.
I want to move somewhere else, but I think it’s a global thing.
thanks for your work, now we need a plan to overcome all this.
as a UCC minister, I would also like to say that not all Christian interpretations of the Bible are bad or unhealthy, in fact many of the social programs we enjoy today (though they are endangered) were established by the Social Gospel movement, a movement that put caring for people ahead of creed and doctrine. The UCC led the equality of marriage and does not require a creed or doctrine. there are other denominations moving in this direction as well, but we are not as fun for the media to cover.
Hold up! The “ruling elite” has created horrible schools (#3 and #4), and surveillance (#6) ??? … well, actually … those are things that the Government does. How is the “corporatocracy” responsible for horrible schools, government surveillance, excessive television watching, fundamentalist religion and psychiatric diagnoses? You’ve identified some problems but you’re really confused about the causes.
I have my bookmarks in a folder on my desktop… this allows me to make small reminders beside the bookmark – reminders being a neccessity for me these days! the note beside this webpage is ‘ an honest voice in a wilderness of deception’ … having worked as a frontline child counsellor for 15 years (to the point of burnout/breakdown) in Canada, I can attest to pretty well all of your observations and conclusions… going through raising 5 kids (now 5 grandkids in the pack…) I also have the experience of parenting to refer to. It is indeed difficult to deal with the insidious nature of the incessant brainwashing that kids receive on a daily basis. A modern manual for effective ‘guerrila parenting’ is a very needed ‘bit of kit’ that I just don’t see out there… what do I mean? I mean… one of the aspects of control that you didn’t mention directly is the insidious breeding of cynicism… witness the reply from ‘Matt’ above as an example… he knows better than you because he ‘sees through’ your myopic ‘acceptance of the party line’ … because some cynical payed lacky of the very same corporatocracy made him laugh at ‘those types’ on some late night TV program/internet site where it’s OK to use vulgar language… perhaps that fat guy/little guy team? can’t remember the name… the fat guy co-opts ‘hipness’ by wearing a pony tail… he is reasonbly intelligent so can come off as ‘smarter than THEM’ … whoever ‘them’ might be on that particular show… (I rarely watch TV, so mostly see these things on the internet) In trying to point such things out to my children, I realized that it was imperative to control my knee-jerk reactions as much as possible… presenting as a reactionary simply plays straight into the hands of the extremely well designed Bernaysian systems that are now ubiquitous in daily life. I was successful, I think, with most of my kids…. though the youngest, at 20 years, is at a bit of a crucial junction, hopefully the sober attitude of his elder brothers/sisters will now be of benefit ‘in the mix’. It is ‘cool’ to ‘hate hippies’ these days… the pendulum never does stop swinging! … so if your parenting smells of ‘hippy’ then you can indeed be facing a tricky wicket. Thoroughly educating my kids in the history of Freud/Bernays certainly helped me… Another very strong factor that I am noticing these days is the ‘reality uncertainty’ that a lot of 30ish young adults have online… it’s like a pissing contest… ‘YOU are being hoodwinked’… ‘no YOU are being hoodwinked!’ …Matt’s post above is a perfect example of this – ”you’ve identified the problems but YOU’RE REALLY CONFUSED… ” (my emphasis, of course) … this is a dominant social theme that I see repeated online constantly.. ‘YOU are really confused’ . This perhaps serves as ‘salve’ on the sense of impotence that you outline in your article… ANYWAY… my apologies for the long post… and sorry Matt! … don’t mean to dump on you… however, you might consider the laugable arrogance of your comment.
Therese, your book sounds fascinating. I look forward to reading it someday! I have appreciated the work of Leron Shults and Steven Sandage in this area.
Thank you for this post, it smacks of reality in a way few seem open minded enough to grasp. There are many books published recently outlining the damage being done by psychopharmacological interventions and the absence of evidence supporting the “chemical imbalance” hypothesis as the cause of mental problems. “Anatomy of an Epidemic”, by Robert Whitaker is a very good place to start reading up on the subject.
Drugs which do not function any better than placebo, but can have serious side effects (including inducing passive behavior), have been finessed through evaluation procedures and approved. Billions in profit are realized through their widespread sales. People using them are often so passive that turning the TV off is too much work. Who benefits from a passive, drugged population?
This is profound, and reiterates so many of the points that I use for talking points whenever discussions center around what you have posited **nods head pensively**
Only three points here I disagree with.
7. Treating the “three screens” as one phenomenon is highly dubious. While Internet can be dissipate attention and anesthetize in its own ways, it’s also an interactive and publishing medium and potential source of knowledge in a way that television just isn’t.
3 and 5. Schools are not now any more “authoritarian” as places than they were in the days when the alliance of labor and politics produced things like the New Deal or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. They are not more “authoritarian” or more “vehicles for authoritarianism” than they were in the heady days of the Sixties counterculture in the West. Or than the mission schools that produced two generations of crusaders against apartheid in South Africa. Or than the schools integral to the literacy levels that have made possible pro-democracy movements in the Arab world. The analysis of education’s role here is just missing too many steps, ignoring too many factors and counter-examples. (How important *was* lack of schooling to the democratic spirit of the labour movement in the Gilded Age? Were other fundamental institutions of the time — like the family — more authoritarian, or less? And how did that work out, exactly, anyway?) As a result it comes out in favor of exactly the wrong conclusion.
Standardized schooling and post-secondary education have been undermined and distorted in specific ways in America, but those aren’t addressed here.
The other points seem solid, especially the first one, about the crushing and politically de-motivating effects of debt.
Thank you for the post, and for others I have recently read. I agree very much with what you write, having been an academic advisor for several years at the University of South Florida. But just days ago my own daughter was forced to make a devastating choice that illustrates what you describe. Accepted on her merits for Florida State University, we were all terribly proud and excited when she got in, graduated high school with honors, expecting her Florida Bright Futures qualification to help her with tuition costs. Alas, at the eleventh hour, the percentage wasn’t enough to prevent her from a nearly $70,000.00 tuition bill. In order to avoid racking up significant debt before even beginning her adult life, she withdrew from the university. She now plans to earn her certificate as an EMT/firefighter, and then go on to college later with state assistance, if any is offered to such workers by the time she applies. She’s very angry, and her anger is righteous. She was taught that if you work hard and do a good job, there are rewards for this. This experience has shattered that belief for her. And for me. I approve of her solution, but it doesn’t make me any less angry. In her graduating class there were several high achievers who simply haven’t the means to continue their education. This is tragic, not just for these young intelligent people with great potential, it spells real tragedy for our society if we continue letting the gulf between the wealthy and the less priviledged widen by undereducating the next generation.
One thing I taught my children that seems to have taken hold: Question authority. Think critically about your leaders and what they say, and just because someone says a thing, doesn’t necessarily make it true. I’m glad they both made the choice not to knuckle under to the current devastating trend and take huge loans out to pay for college and instead go piecemeal as they get the money – I see my own friends still struggling to pay their loans (I earned my degree over 10 years, paying-as-I-went from 89-99, during my thirties).
I once was told by my son’s elementary school teacher that she thought he had ADD and needed to be medicated. I ignored her and got him involved in scouting. He graduated with honors. I am not a psychologist or a psychiatrist but it seems like this is a seriously overdiagnosed condition that appears designed more to keep order in the classroom than anything else.
I had a similarly questioning response to the “three screens” idea… as you point out, people do use the internet in different ways. Internet and cell phones (unlike TV) are interactive and can be used to bring people together, and that may be their primary use for many. But my guess is that the majority of internet and cell phone traffic is in service of individual entertainment and anesthetization.
[…] 8 Ways Young Americans’ Resistance to Domination Has Been Subdued […]
Thanks God for someone with ability to see, think through, and call things their real name!
Since I came to the US, ten years ago, I’ve been pointing at this (and several other things :), and God know how many times was called and labeled as an anti -American!!! Plus, as an MD, I was really shocked with terrifying ease with which my colleagues (and nurse practitioners ?!) here push psychopharmacs into kids!!!??? My European way trained brain CANNOT get that!
OMG, let’s not list all those (so many) things to get stunned with!
Unfortunately, I also see a trend of “Americanization of Europe,” in fact corporatization (why don’t we use the real name for that : Nazification or feudalization!!!)… Fortunately, people over there still have some unwashed and not-completely-scared and defeated brains to protest and fight! Hope for the world is there…
I think that you don’t see a simple fact that corporations OWN goverments!!!
Would love to hear more about the book.I work with authors and am on my own spiritual journey (often my political friends think I am nuts)
I live outside Philadelphia 🙂
I just found you via Alternet. Great article; enough for me to order the book 🙂 My own daughter is 21 and an activist. And she’s lucky as not only does she go to a college that has a long tradition of activism, but it’s loan free. So with an Aunt that pays for the family contribution she will come out of college debt free.
People are pissed here. And they know that things are stacked against them. But the blame is so misplaced it’s so sad. Matt Taibbi was covering a Tea Party rally somewhere in the south where everyone was ralling against Big Government taking over our Health Care System.Taibbi noticed that every single person at this rally was in a motorized cart paid for by Medi-Care.
Do you read What Happened to Obama? By DREW WESTEN?
Fantastic. All of these points are instinctual for all Americans – we live these realities – we just rarely dare articulate them – even to ourselves.
This question has been on my mind for quite some time now. I always suspected this was a cultural thing. While in Europe, and now in the Middle East people know they can change their world by going out to the streets, it is as if this concept is completely foreign here. Your article explains just why.
I am for once proud to say — check out what is happening in Israel! Right now and for the past month a real social revolution– an inspiring up rising of the working and middle classes, which gets virtually no cover in American TV. Hmmm…
My problem with this group (and religious groups as a whole), is they can’t just do good things for the sake of doing them. They’re using it as a soap box to preach their religious views.
“Hey, look at how good we Christians are, we love the gays!”
Why can’t you just do good things because it’s something a good person would do?
You know, Bruce, I agree with your sentiment in this article, but it’s hard to see the piece as anything more than a grab-bag of decontextualized facts and quotations arranged along a rigid ideological framework, a hurly-burly of answers that occlude more interesting questions.
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