When Freedom Industries let spill 10,000 gallons of licorice-smelling goo into the Elk River, many were the diagnoses that sought to explain why West Virginians would put up with such an ecological travesty. Indeed, a protest march on the state Capitol drew about 50 people — a far cry from the 300,000 already seeking out overpriced bottled water. Some diagnosticians surmised that West Virginia has all the trappings of a cult, while others agreed with a newspaper columnist who suggested the state’s residents never really shed the mindset of colonists.
Cult or colony, West Virginians sure weren’t living up to the illustrious past of their forebears — striking Blair Mountain coal miners, Mother Jones rabble-rousers and feuding clan members Hatfield and McCoy — in their largely collective inactivity to what resulted in a 50-day state of emergency (some folks still aren’t drinking the water).
It might not be just West Virginians who’ve rolled belly up. Anywhere you look, you might be likely to find the Not Quite Mad as Heck, And Still Willing to Take It a Good While More set. See any overturned cars and Molotov cocktails over the minimum wage? Crushing student loan debt? Revelations about NSA surveillance of Americans? Drone strikes? Rising inequality? The foreclosure crisis that swept the country from 2009 to just last year? Sure there might have been a peaceful protest here and there; the Tea party formed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and Wall Street bailout, as did the Occupy Wall Street movement, but the latter petered out, leaving no discernible trace but plenty of scorn from right-wing commentators too willing to critique the uncleanliness of protesters and their fondness for iPhones, and the former is still vying for control with Republican Party’s political mainstream, its influence on the wane after last year’s budget showdown with President Obama went awry.
Psychologist Bruce E. Levine thinks he’s excavated the answer, at least in part, for Americans’ antipathy for protest. In “Eight Reasons Young Americans Don’t Fight Back: How the U.S. Crushed Youth Resistance,” Levine lays out a series of propositions he believes have taken the fight out of us. Some of them are the usual suspects — television, the psychopathologizing of noncompliance, institutional education and religious fundamentalism — tacked onto a list of new maladies, namely our willingness to accept crippling student loan debt, government monitoring of our activities and our adherence to consumerism.
Levine has certainly identified some symptoms of the willingness of Americans to shrug in the face of adversity. But, I’m not sure he’s quite gotten to the meat of the problem. After all, we Americans seem to enjoy a good fight — we just don’t fight the right people about the things that should matter most to us.
Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama stumbled into this phenomenon, when in 2008 and speaking at a fundraiser in San Francisco, he sought to explain what causes small-town folks from places like Pennsylvania and the Midwest to cling to guns and God and their alleged low-down xenophobic ways even as the economic foundations of their lives crumble beneath them.
For doing so he was drawn and quartered by the conservative press as well as by his opponents Hilary Clinton and John McCain, but the larger point Obama was making — that these behaviors in their unhealthy manifestations are the byproducts of economic insecurity — were correct then and they’re correct now. As Obama noted, fretting about the Second Amendment or one’s right to carry a concealed weapon into a recreation area, about gay marriage, immigration, or whether someone wishing you a Happy Holiday is offending your religion, even as your house is being foreclosed on, your job is being shipped overseas, you’re overwhelmed with debt, the roads you’re driving on are unsafe at any speed and your local government can’t pay its bills, is not productive behavior.
But what it does give us is something we can control. The forces that sweep across the political and economic landscape may be too large to lasso, or too abstract to fully realize how they’re reorganizing our world, but a gun is always a gun, by God.
But maybe the core malady at the heart of America is that which we’re most proud of assigning to ourselves — our rugged individualism. It’s this which lets us blame the guy down the street for being irresponsible for losing his job to outsourcing and his house to foreclosure, even as we hold tenuously to our own. It’s this which suggests that perhaps we shouldn’t be paying school taxes if we don’t have kids in the system or we’re sending them to private school, or that the cost of a higher education should be paid for by individual student loans, not subsidized by tax dollars. And it’s this which stirs up the blood at the prospect of rising health care premiums to help prop up our fellow Americans who don’t have health insurance of their own (even though all the evidence points to their not having insurance as a factor in rising costs). When President George W. Bush pushed through three successive tax cuts, given, ostensibly, to put our own money back into our own pockets, we middle classers all ponied up for our $600 refund checks and spent it before the month was over, but collectively the question seemed to get by us about whether that surplus money was better spent on roads and bridges, public transportation projects, or research, or higher education, or to shore up the Treasury. When Obama and a Democratic Congress only two years later authorized a stimulus package for those very things paid for with money borrowed (at historically low interest rates) to keep the country working, America retched and was born the Tea party, constitutional worshipers at the altar of societal atomization but proselytizing to beat the band as if they somehow believe in the social compact after all.
One thing is for sure, notes former Labor Secretary Robert Reich in “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future,” an America that is astoundingly inert in the face of uncertainty — whether it be economic or the kind resulting from toxins contaminating our water supply — is not a country manifesting a stable society. It’s, instead, a country groaning with the weight of creation to relearn again the lesson of its founding. United we stand, and all that.
— Robert Snyder is the editor of the Spirit of Jefferson