Cultural Psychology

America’s Malaise: What is the Real Problem?

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In her Huffington Post blog, Middle-East expert and columnist Judith Kipper recently added an article titled “America’s Malaise“. She made some good points. At least it’s good to see someone explicitly addressing the problem. America does suffer from something – you can call it malaise, severe uncertainty, a crisis of confidence, fear, or many other terms, all of which are correct to some extent. But these are just the symptoms. There are deeper problems, ultimately spiritual in nature, but nobody in a mainstream media outlet is likely to talk seriously about them.

Just consider: what would people think if a national columnist had the temerity to suggest that the real solution is, say, for Americans to pray more! Yet the great irony is that, deep down inside, that’s what a lot of Americans know to be true – that is, this is completely consistent with their personal, though often unspoken religious views. When the chips are down, even an atheist turns to prayer. Yet somehow publicly and collectively we act like such a thing doesn’t exist. We’ve constructed a social myth that you can’t be intellectual and be religious. Intellectuals never talk about prayer seriously. And, at least since C. S. Lewis left, the people who do talk about it seldom strike one as being very intellectual.

This is not a good thing. Even apart from the religious dimension, it’s psychologically unhealthy to dissociate personal religiosity and public affairs. It divides the personality. If one puts on an agnostic face to discuss politics, eventually one forgets that one has just been putting up a front. If you spend more time living a facade than as your true self, the facade becomes you.

But back to the malaise. Kipper sees the symptoms. We all do. There evident everywhere, at least to anyone old enough to compare the quality of American life now with 10, 20, 30, or 40 years ago. But she sees them from a status-quo perspective, paying too much attention to things like interest rates, debt, and credit. Yes, these are problems. But they’re symptoms. Fix the real problems, which are social, psychological, and spiritual, and these other things will also get solved. On the other hand, if we focus attention too exclusively on economics, we remove attention from and fail to address the substantial issues, and so insure that these other symptoms continue.

Worse, Kipper sees the solution as being had in electing a strong leader as president:

“Only a leader who will genuinely tell the American people the truth about their situation at home and abroad will be able to introduce meaningful reform and change in the way Americans live.”

I could scarcely disagree more. In fact, it seems to me that this is exactly the kind of thinking that put Hitler in charge of Germany in the 1930s. It’s part of a predictable historical cycle: (1) things get really bad socially and economically, until (2) people are so desperate that they turn to a charismatic leader to fix everything. Not only does history show that looking to a charismatic father figure for answers is a recipe for disaster, we also have to confront the larger dynamic: a cycle that repeats itself, and will continue until we step up and decide ourselves to take control of collective destiny.

As described in my article, “Nobody for president,” we need to stop participating in the cult of the leader. Having a media president carries inherent and irremediable problems. For one thing, such a figure must appeal to the lowest common denominator of society — so you can forget about an intellectual approach to politics. Further, experience shows that the truly lowest common denominators are things like fear and anger. Hence, mass-media politics inevitably revolve around fear, war, and conflict in foreign affairs, and name-calling in domestic ones.

I can’t blame Judith Kipper for not describing the situation completely accurately. She’s not a psychologist. I am. And it’s my job, not hers, to try to understand and communicate this dimension of the problem. If you want to see what I’ve come up with so far, see, for example, this article.

My articles – which say audacious things like that Plato is relevant to the renewal of American society – may sound strange, hopelessly quaint, or eccentric to some. But I’m right. And the very fact that such ideas seem unusual is evidence of that. These are viewpoints that were common among educated, progressive people before the positivist-materialist worldview took control of the intellectual arena.

Again, I have to give credit to Judith Kipper for at least talking about America’s malaise. She’s closer to the truth than a lot of others. But on the other hand, we need to make the right diagnosis and prescribe the right medicine for America; the wrong ones only delay recovery.

And while we’re on the subject, let me say that I don’t think you can expect to find many real issues addressed somewhere like the Huffington Post, where, despite the publishers’ good intentions, half the webpage is crawling with animated ads. It’s just ridiculous, and ought to convince you that the articles there exist to sell merchandise, not edify you. This kind of thing is the American malaise.


Written by John Uebersax

February 13, 2008 at 6:04 pm

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