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American Political Passivity, Anti-Authoritarianism, and Building a Base

This month the Military Industrial Complex’s 50th birthday was celebrated with a meeting of minds. Bruce E. Levine, author of Get Up, Stand Up, gave a speech at MIC50. Here is a partial transcript and video.

I want to begin by explaining how a clinical psychologist ends up giving the final talk at a conference on the military-industrial complex.

Actually, for many years now, I’ve been writing and speaking about—and fighting against—another industrial complex, the pharmaceutical-industrial complex, specifically the psycho-pharmaceutical-industrial complex.

All these industrial complexes are painful similar in their revolving doors of employment. So, for example, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is the leading government agency on mental health and funds research. People at the NIMH who have has been friendly to drug companies have been rewarded by drug companies with a high-paying job after they leave NIMH. And just about every influential mental health institution takes money from drug companies. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, a consumer group, takes millions of dollars from drug companies, and so does the American Psychiatric Association, which is the professional organization of America’s psychiatrists.

The American Psychiatric Association publishes the official diagnostic manual for the mental health profession. It’s called the DSM. They’re up to the DSM-4 revision, and they’re working on the DSM-5. Each revision gets larger and larger. When I was watching Eugene Jarecki’s documentary about the military-industrial complex, Why We Fight, I remember Chalmers Johnson saying, “I guarantee you when war becomes that profitable, you are going to see more of it.” Same is true in my profession. The more profitable mental illness has become, the more you are seeing of it.

So, lots of my activism really starts with embarrassment with my own profession. One of the things that I became initially embarrassed by was its patholologizing and medicating normal human behavior in order to make a buck. They turned shyness into “avoidant personality disorder,” and turned temper tantrums of three-year olds into “pediatric bipolar disorder” and now give them heavy-duty antipsychotic drugs. What especially troubled me has been the increasing pathologizing of stubbornness, resistance, rebellion, and anti-authoritarianism, especially in children and teenagers.

There are several subtle examples of this kind of pathologizing of rebellion, but the most obvious one is something called “oppositional defiant disorder” (ODD), which when it first appeared in the DSM-3, I told my colleagues that this must be a joke. Symptom of ODD include “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules” and “often argues with adults.” I have spent a great deal of time with these previously labeled ODD kids. While some of them may be a “handful” for their parents, many are the hope of the nation. I tell my colleagues, “Don’t you realize that damn near every well-known activist in American history—from Tom Paine, to Emma Goldman, to Malcolm X, to Saul Alinsky—would have been diagnosed with ODD. And sadly, increasing numbers of these kids are being medicated, often on heavily tranquilizing antipsychotic drugs, and this is especially true for more impoverished kids on Medicaid. That’s one reason why the antipsychotic industry is now the largest grossing class of all drugs in the United States.

So, I became very much concerned that my profession had become one more spoke in the wheel that is politically pacifying Americans. There are other spokes that I will also talk about. When I talk about these pacifying forces, it’s not to depress us but so that we recognize that there are multiple “democracy battlefields” —not just national elections and demonstrations—to fight each day and to get back our strength.

The major step in getting me closer to this conference, however, came at the end of 2009. For the previous decade, I had been watching increasing American politically passivity that paralleled increasing American individual depression and immobilization. I found it remarkable that in the face of senseless wars and a loss of liberties and economic and social injustice that—compared to other periods of American history and compared to many other nations today—there was so little political resistance in the United States.

The area of “disputed presidential elections” got me thinking in 2009. In 2009 in Iran, in response to their disputed presidential election, despite hearing that they would be shot at—and some were killed—two to three million Iranians hit the streets of Tehran. Same thing in Mexico when their more progressive guy lost in their disputed presidential election of 2006—millions hit the streets of Mexico City, some surrounding foreign-owned banks. And in the Ukraine in 2004, when their more progressive guy lost in a disputed presidential election, not only did millions demonstrate, there were general strikes that basically closed down the county; their “Orange Revolution” forced the Ukraine’s Supreme Court to call for new elections, and ultimately this Orange Revolution succeeded in righting an election wrong.

But then take a look at the response to U.S. disputed presidential elections. There was relatively little resistance to the 2004 disputed election, but the one that I really thought about was our response to the disputed 2000 presidential election, the one where Al Gore, indisputedly, received a half million more votes than George W. Bush. Now, I’m not this big fan of Al Gore, but more than 50 million people voted for him. You probably remember that there was a major dispute over the Florida vote, and so a recount was ordered, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Florida Supreme Court and basically handed the election over to Bush in December. One of the dissenting U.S. Supreme Court Justices, John Paul Stevens, by no means a radical—he was appointed by Gerald Ford—was so disgusted with his fellow Supreme Court Justices that he said, “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.” This was widely reported. So what was the American response? Well, a handful demonstrated outside the Supreme Court, and month later at Bush’s inauguration there were maybe 50,000 people angry with Bush, but there was never any real public battle to dispute this election. And I remember thinking that if I were Bush or Cheney, the lesson that I would have learned was, “We can get away with just about anything,” and that seems to be the lesson that they learned.

And there are several other areas—from the Wall Street bailout, to other corporate welfare, to health care—where the majority of Americans clearly oppose the policy of the corporate-controlled government, but there has been relatively little resistance.

So, in late 2009, I decided to write some articles about this issue of American political passivity in places that would publish me—certainly not the New York Times. I get published in AlterNet, Z Magazine, CounterPunch, Truthout, sort of anti-authoritarian left places. I wanted to see if other Americans also thought that this passivity was remarkable. In these articles, I talked about some of the psychological reasons. For example, the idea of learned helplessness in our presidential elections, in which no matter which party wins, we still get senseless wars and corporate control. And I also talked about the abuse syndrome. I’ve been working with abused people for over 25 years, and when you eat too much crap— physical, emotional abuse—for too long, you can grow weak. I talked about some of the societal and cultural reasons for this passivity, and began to talk about some of the solutions.

I received an overwhelming response to those pieces, more than I had ever received before in terms of comments, emails, response articles, and media requests from people across the political spectrum.

David Swanson wrote an excellent response piece that was helpful, and I incorporated some of his ideas in Get Up, Stand Up.

I also received several media requests from the libertarian anti-war world. Now, there is a big difference between these people and those bigoted-militarist Tea Partiers. Many of these libertarian anti-war folks like me. I’m not exactly sure why. I think it’s because they are happy that somebody writing in these left publications is comfortable with anger and is talking about this issue of passivity. And so, I am able to have enough glue with them so that we can actually have a dialogue and discuss issues that we disagree on, such as healthcare.

Because of this huge response, and because I really felt that I only had touched on some of the reasons for this political passivity, and mostly because I wanted to talk about solutions, I decided to write a book. So I spent a good deal of 2010 researching and writing it.

Read the rest of the speech.

Watch the video below!

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