"Something Dark and Undeniable Shifing in Our Cultural Mood…"

Today Salon.com ran an article by Dr. Charles Barber entitled “Are We Really That Miserable?” which cites that a staggering ten percent of Americans now take antidepressants. It meanders around the ideas that people are afraid to feel real feelings and that drug advertising is involved and that “there is something dark and undeniable shifting in our cultural mood,” without being particularly specific, I thought — though I found it to be a step in the right direction. The article has the tag line: “Antidepressant use has doubled, and anxiety is at a troubling high. Blame TV, Big Pharma — and possibly yourself,” which prompted the following response from me:

Wait, blame who?

I think the American way of life itself, in its broad strokes, is unsustainable. Not the “golden era” way of life that is touted and defended by reactionaries and conservatives (and no longer really exists), but the one that actually exists today.

I agree with those who say that Americans lead lonely lives, and that the social network is breaking down. I see it in my own life, and just as dramatically when I am with my fellow citizens in public places. I see people that are agitated, unnecessarily defensive, or pushy, or oblivious. Normal behavior of average people seems to fall on several diagnostic spectra these days: paranoid, oppositional, autistic, narcissistic, catatonic.

The quality of our food, and the equity of our labor are both in trouble. Corn-fed beef (which, in America, just means “beef”) is sixty percent fat, and is a staple in the diet of many. Seventy percent of the antibiotics in the US are consumed BY THE LIVESTOCK WE EAT.

The average CEO now makes 344 times as much as the average worker when, between 1960 and 1990 that ratio was more like 30 or 40 to one. Between 1955 and the 2000s, the corporate income tax rate has dropped from 33% to less than 8%. (These and other statistics are well-presented in the article “Wealth Inequality Destroys US Ideals,” by Don Monkerud, available online through The Baltimore Chronicle & Sentinel.) The rich, the powerful, and the COMPANIES AS ENTITIES THEMSELVES all win out more than ever over the average individual.

We are lonely; the food we eat is unhealthy; the income we earn goes disproportionately to the chosen few, and increasingly so.

And more: It was myopic AMERICAN financiers crashed the global financial system. William Black, who was among the appointees to investigate the S&L scandal, spoke of this with Bill Moyers NOT as a failure of regulation, but as a failure of MORALS, pointing out that it has been, up until now, a combination of regulation and personal ethical limits which had prevented crashes such as the current crisis, not regulation alone. To repeat: one of the key failures (in addition to deregulation, and in addition to a failure to support the FBI’s attempts at oversight), was that of personal moral codes of the greedy few. The world entire paid the price, and the culprits go unconsequenced. Some reaped tremendous rewards within a year of the disaster.

In this jacked-up, unjust, amoral, wealth-chasing, shallow-thinking environment, America has become, at best, a place that elevates those who are SOMEWHAT smart, SOMEWHAT globally and politically aware, SOMEWHAT ethical, somewhat INsensitive, and VERY driven. At worst, of course, it also rewards the greedy, the ruthlessly ambitious and the corrupt. But even in the best case, these quasi-virtues, plus an increasingly aggressive drive, cannot alone uphold civil society; yet these are what is rewarded, and we see the result. Bill O’Reilly rises to the top and Bill Moyers is marginalized. Sarah Palin becomes a serious contender for the Republican Presidential nomination and Nobel-Prize winning Al Gore goes practically unheard in the mainstream. In fact, when we need clear, practical leadership the most, cadres of elected officials are developing a tradition of relying on the most egregious demagoguery to accomplish their goals.

Americans seem to aspire to be little more than what they already are — except sexier — when, held against the moral, social and intellectual templates of past eras, what they are really isn’t particularly marvelous. But still, they seem to carry themselves with a radiant ostensible pride that is either accompanied by a host of hidden shames, or an utter tone-deafness to their own shortcomings. Consequently, we are awash in one another’s strident, arrogant shabbiness with less compulsion to be upright, decent human beings than perhaps ever before in our history.

Meanwhile, ten percent of the country goes on anti-depressants. Which is perhaps the most serious part, insofar as it is emblematic of the poor half-measures we apply to address our problems.

Our ways of life are, from all corners, plainly unsustainable; the consequence of their pursuit is our slow creep toward a new barbarism, but we are not yet galvanized to preventive action truly commensurate with the scale of the difficulties. I think Dr. Barber is right that people are not feeling the natural pain that is appropriate to the circumstances, but I also think the depressed people are the canaries in our coal mine; we’re all suffocating.

What can we do?