Friday, October 12, 2007

Depression is not just Economic

Over the last two days my RSS feeds have provided me with the sort of insight about public mood that the mainstream media sources tend to be afraid to touch, and what particularly interested me is that the insight came from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

The first source was a Huffington Post blog post by Naomi Wolf under the title "American Tears." The lead provides a good summary of the overall content:

I wish people would stop breaking into tears when they talk to me these days.

I am traveling across the country at the moment -- Colorado to California -- speaking to groups of Americans from all walks of life about the assault on liberty and the 10 steps now underway in America to a violently closed society.

The good news is that Americans are already awake: I thought there would be resistance to or disbelief at this message of gathering darkness -- but I am finding crowds of people who don't need me to tell them to worry; they are already scared, already alert to the danger and entirely prepared to hear what the big picture might look like. To my great relief, Americans are smart and brave and they are unflinching in their readiness to hear the worst and take action. And they love their country.

But I can't stand the stories I am hearing. I can't stand to open my email these days. And wherever I go, it seems, at least once a day, someone very strong starts to cry while they are speaking.

Wolf's text was, for me at least, a blessed antidote (without being overly optimistic) to the far more virulent first sentence that Bill Maher cooked up for his blog post to Huffington Post yesterday:

Have too many Americans become gullible, ill-informed idiots who have elevated feelings over facts and replaced critical thinking with a blind sense of trust for authority?

Beyond the rhetorical ineptitude of trying to get your message across to a constituency by calling them "gullible, ill-informed idiots," Maher's rant misses out on the heart of Wolf's matter. It is not a matter of either intelligence or cowardice that provokes the crying jags that Wolf encountered. Rather it is fear and, what is worse, a feeling of total helplessness in the face of that fear.

It is times like these that we need to remember that Norman Rockwell was not the naive and sentimental dabbler than intellectuals made him out to be on the basis of his Saturday Evening Post covers. We should remember that one of his "Four Freedoms" paintings was entitled "Freedom From Fear." (In that context we might also want to remember that, when Gulf Oil appropriated those "freedoms" in the advertising space at the "Meet Mister Lincoln" exhibit at Disneyland, they took it upon themselves to add a "fifth freedom," which was "free enterprise!" Back in those days few would have thought that their "freedom" could lie at the heart of a pervasive national fear; but that was a time when we were just beginning to shed innocent blood in the name of bigger oil profits.) Rockwell saw us through the Second World War and the Korean War with the conviction that ours was a government that would protect us from fear. Now it is a government that gets its way by instilling fear and then pretending that it will free us from that fear when, in fact, they are only immersing us all deeper in it. Gone are the days when we had nothing to fear but fear itself. They have been replaced by the days of fear as an instrument of manipulation; and, beyond the fear itself and the recognition of our own manipulation, is it any wonder that so many of us should be reduced to helpless blubbering?

This brings us to today's Guardian report from the other side of the pond:

National tests for seven and 11-year-olds are putting children under stress and feeding into a "pervasive anxiety" about their lives and the world they are growing up in, according to an intimate portrait of primary school life published today.

Primary-aged children worry daily about global warming and terrorism as well as their friendships and passing the next exam, according to a report based on 700 in-depth interviews with children, their teachers and parents, which will feed into the biggest independent review of primary education in 40 years.

The findings echo a report from Unicef which this year placed Britain at the bottom of a league table charting the well-being of children across the developed world. This week a survey by the Howard League for Penal Reform revealed that 95% of 10 to 15-year-olds in the country have experienced crime at least once.

Today's Cambridge University report, Community Soundings, says national tests leave most children stressed and some middle class parents paying for a "parallel" education system employing tutors to get children through their exams even before the age of 11.

Some pupils said the tests were "scary" and made them nervous.

So in the United Kingdom it is not only the conditions of the world that instill fear and helplessness but also the primary education system. This is not to single out one country, since many of us are familiar with similar accounts of anxiety from other countries, particularly Japan. My point is that, while the powers-that-be continue to focus their attention on the global perspective of economic well-being, psychological well-being, even on the broad scale of the national level, is on the rocks, whether we are looking at the "developing" or "industrialized" cultures (scare quotes added to indicate the absurd bias of the language we use). Could this be the vision of T. S. Eliot's "Hollow Men" finally come home to roost? Is this the "global whimper" that will usher in "the way the world ends?"

By way of an afterthought, I should note that Alan Greenspan has suggested that there is actually a tight coupling between economic and psychological well-being. The Book TV program concerned with his new book was actually a Politics and Prose event at which Greenspan was interviewed by Daniel Yeargin. In the course of this interview, Greenspan asserted that one of the better ways an economist can understand "what is going on" it by assessing the level of euphoria or anxiety. In other words the self-perception of psychological well-being can serve as a measure of the general perception of economic well-being. Thus, the question of whether or not we are currently in an economic depression may have less to do with what the numbers tell us and more to do with all those tearful subjects that Wolf has encountered!

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