Monday, June 28, 2010

Recommended Reading

James Carroll has an intriguing column up in the Boston Globe, one that had me scratching my head for quite some time. His thesis is that because of a decade of being at war, we, as a society, are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. It is clear from his essay that he is not speaking metaphorically, that he believes that we are all manifesting symptoms of this psychological disorder.

In describing what he calls “PTSD and the ruins of character,’’ psychiatrist Jonathan Shay cites an official definition of the disorder as it affects individuals. The characteristics include “a hostile or mistrustful attitude toward the world; social withdrawal; feelings of emptiness or hopelessness; a chronic feeling of being ‘on the edge,’ as if constantly threatened; estrangement.’’ The catastrophic experience of war, to put it most simply, can completely change the personality.

But it is impossible to read that catalogue of symptoms belonging to traumatized persons and not recognize notes of the contemporary public scene in the United States. Political discourse — “hostility, mistrust’’ — suffers from the same ruins of character. A general “social withdrawal’’ into the solipsism of, say, Twitter is matched in the blogosphere by infinite self-expression for its own sake. “Hopelessness’’ attached to economic dislocation goes even deeper than worries about mid-life job loss or the vocation stymied at graduation. There is no “emptiness’’ to compare with the loss of a feel for the purposefulness of work. ...

But looming over all unease is the shadow of American wars that are, at best, hard to justify, difficult to understand, and steadily going, by every measurement, from bad to worse. The generals buckle. The president mystifies. Troops come home in bags or wheelchairs. Individual PTSD is back. An ever-growing population of far-off strangers equates America with Satan. The killers among them are empowered. And how could our quietly traumatized nation not be screaming, even if, at this point, the nation is still only screaming inside?

My first inclination was to dismiss Mr. Carroll's column as interesting, but overblown, with rhetoric a bit too purple for my tastes. Yes, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have had an impact on the nation in many complicated ways. The drain on our treasury is the most obvious one: if we hadn't spent billions upon billions on wars we didn't need to engage in, and shouldn't have by any measure, our economic collapse might not have been quite as severe. If we hadn't authorized the use of military force after 9/11, there wouldn't have been the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay with all the shameful horror that involves. Still, the profound uneasiness of the American populace is not simply the result of two misbegotten wars running at the same time on parallel tracks.

That said, I also decided that Mr. Carroll is on to something if one shifts his assertions a bit. The wars themselves then became symptoms of the psychological malady we seem to be suffering. Yes, the 8 years of the Bush administration did unspeakable damage to our democracy, but the wars were only part of that White House's agenda: the de facto suspension of our Constitution played a large role, as did the hastening of the transfer of power from the electorate to the monied interests, a transfer that has been going on far longer than the Bush era, also played a significant if often ignored (deliberately forgotten) role.

It is as if our own government has declared war on us, its citizens, the ones who allegedly are the real source of power. That we are not the source, and perhaps never were, and that we are subject to the whims and desires of those who own everything in the country including us is deeply unsettling.

The mark of a good essayist is that he/she challenges the reader to consider matters in ways that the reader would never have otherwise. In this respect, James Carroll has succeeded brilliantly. I urge you to click on over and read the column in its entirety.

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Blogger Jonathan Versen said...

Hi Diane of Cab Drollery. Have you ever read "The Dream of Deliverance in American Politics" by Mona Harrington? It came out in the mid 80s, and as far as I know is out of print. Harrington discussed the theme of a dysfunctional national psyche. Possibly you'd find it interesting. (No, I'm not her agent. just anudder blogger...:^)

3:28 PM  

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