A nation in denial


Asheville Citizen-Times, May 19, 2006

In psychology, it's called denial. A need to believe overpowers a wealth of contrary facts. Denial is what Rod Stewart was singing about in the Tim Hardin song, "Reason To Believe." We've all witnessed examples of this seemingly intentional not-knowing. When domestic abuse and problems of addiction are discussed, you can bet denial will figure in the conversation.

People put on blinders for all sorts of reasons; not all of them bad. But when we do it to the detriment of others or ourselves and lose the ability to take the danged things off, we have a problem. So do those who care about a person in denial. Facts and rationality have, by definition, a hard time penetrating the wall.

Psychotherapists say that a person in denial shuts out contrary evidence because he is more frightened of what might happen if he stops believing than he is by the familiar misery his illusions enable. A wife may prefer to endure threats and beatings rather than risk losing her marriage. The tragedy is two-fold. While denial persists, more damage is inflicted and absorbed. With increased damage comes an increased likelihood of the feared worst-case scenario.

We haven't heard much about denial as a cultural affliction. But what else should we call "my country right or wrong" allegiance to leaders who consistently line their own pockets and devil takes the hindmost? After twenty-five years of trickle-down and trickled on economics, who is better off in the United States? Not the tens of millions without health coverage or those who had it but are bankrupted anyway by medical bills. Not the working stiffs who have to buy gasoline and heat their homes at prices dictated by corporate near-monopolies. Not the greeters at Wal-Mart who welcome shoppers to a store stocked with Chinese versions of the goods they used to make. Not a public denied access to information about what our government is doing and to whom. When did Jesus become a spokesman for these family values?

The desperation of belief besieged by evidence is nowhere more heartrending than in the trustful defenses of US national security operations by parents with sons or daughters in Iraq. The evidence that corporate and neoconservative interests led us into that quagmire—rather than a desire to improve the security of common Americans—grows more overwhelming by the month. Wouldn't a government that respected its combat veterans do a decent job of providing for them when they try to return from the war? If we allowed ourselves to see our current crop of leaders as the self-serving wheeler-dealers the facts indicate, what is the meaning of the dead, the wounded, the broken homes? It's a hard thing to think about.

But the longer our collective wishful thinking persists, the more damaged and resentful we, our country, and those abused elsewhere by US military and corporate policies are likely to become. Evidence suggests that resentment is reaching a boil.

More people are in the streets protesting about more things than we've seen since the 1960s. We no longer agree on what constitutes our basic cultural information. We squabble amongst ourselves about the legitimacy of undocumented labor in the meatpacking industry while the new CEO at Exxon-Mobil seeks to outperform the splendor of his predecessor Lee Raymond's jowls. Armored convoys of SUVs with darkened windows speed through our streets shielding the powerful from the crumbling reality their machinations have wrought. We're even losing a shared commitment to the primacy of reason in national debate.

All will not be better if we waken voluntarily. We have a lot of reconciliation and repair work to do. It will be painful. But today we can still exert some control over the process. That may no longer be possible after a stray spark lands in the wrong pile of tinder. Nor can we expect to call our own shots (except the nuclear one) if foreign business or political interests stop enabling our behavior. They'll do so when the hassle factor outweighs the benefits of US bucks and/or military brawn.

Memorial Day will soon be upon us. When we see those ranks of white crosses on the green Arlington lawn, don't we owe it to the dead to recommit ourselves to the values they prayed they were dying for?

—Michael Hopping
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