Thursday, July 28, 2016

Modern nationalism increases mental illness, mass violence

The following essay was published in the Concord Monitor 7/27/16

Reflections in a Dover Store window: 7/17/16
CC Jean Stimmell

Reflections from back in time

Reflecting back on my youthful days as a card-carrying member of the 1960s counterculture, I remember being taken aback by a provocative statement by one of my professors: he declared that looking back through European history, people were happiest during the Middle Ages.

 He was referring to the ideas of Eric Fromm, psychoanalyst and social critic, who wrote that while people in that era lacked individual freedom, they had ultimate security as to who they were, what their place in society was, and what their purpose in life was, both while alive and in the hereafter. Out of that security came contentment.

Despite – or more likely because of  – the crazy era I came to age in, this idea stuck with me. While I certainly didn’t want to trade places with a peasant or stone mason from the Middle Ages, I was acutely aware of the immense weight of anxiety and stress bearing down on my frail shoulders, attempting to survive in ultra-individualistic America.

It fell upon me, and me alone, to design my own life, determine the purpose of my existence, and then endeavor to follow through on my goals in the effervescent flux of an ever-changing world.  There were no immutable standards to measure myself against: Any doubts I harbored over whether I was succeeding or happy could only be an indication of a personal failing. There was no fallback position: As a modern American, I could not blame fate or God or anybody else. I was the one solely responsible for my fate.

Fromm thought that such ultra-individualistic freedom lead not only to stress and anxiety but to alienation and serious mental illness. He did not think this was a private problem where individuals had become “unadjusted;” he thought it was a public issue, a “pathology of contemporary Western society.”1

I was reminded of these ideas recently while perusing a new book by Liah Greenfield, Mind, Modernity, Madness.  Like Fromm, Greenfeld claims that increasing mental illness is the price paid by the developed world for replacing communities knitted together by traditions with nation-states organized by the liberal values of equality, liberty, and declining religious authority.

If this is so, I wondered, what relevance does this have to the recent upsurge of unstable individuals committing mass violence. The pertinent question becomes: If democratic nationalism breeds mental illness, is there a causal connection between this rising psychopathology and the recent increase in mass violence?

The NYT recently made such a connection, in a piece entitled “In the Age of ISIS, Who’s a Terrorist, and Who’s Simply Deranged?” Terrorism experts agree that the Islamic State has “a broad appeal to the mentally unbalanced, the displaced and others on the fringes of society.”

One can certainly make the case that the causal factor in much of our recent violence is mental illness, not terrorism.  In many recent cases of mass killing, the deranged perpetrator converted to a terrorist ideology only in the last weeks of his life, or last days, or in one instance, the last minutes before he was killed.

From a mental health professional viewpoint, the sequence of events leading to violence likely is as follows: an unstable individual sits and stews, isolating  himself from others, ruminating about his perceived failings, churning with inchoate rage she don’t understand and can’t verbalize. Over time–if left untreated– his rumination can turn to delusions. Losing touch with reality, he projects his repressed rage and unacceptable feelings of aggression onto some outside entity–a person, group, or country, who he comes to identify as the devil incarnate.  Finally, after dehumanizing this “enemy,” he takes action, believing no type of brutality against such evil could be too extreme.

To Liah Greenfield, this does not bode well for our future. She believes that madness bred of nationalism will become a mobilizing force, “creating a politics of sheer ideology and shaping a destructive form of political action”,3 more tribal than productive.

So far, her dismal prediction appears to be coming true with the rise of increasingly aggressive and xenophobic strains of nationalism around the world – including, unfortunately, right here in the United States, as personalized by the rise of Donald Trump.

What can be done?

One thing is clear: It is counterproductive to arm every citizen to the teeth or mount military campaigns against other countries or whole religions as a response to such deranged, lone-wolf attacks. While less dramatic, and thus unappealing to politicians, it would be far more cost efficient and effective to provide quality and affordable mental health services to all our citizens, as well as to people around the world.

While that would be a significant improvement, it would still only be a band-aid treating the symptoms.

When it comes to treating the cause, it is Fromm, not Greenfield, who prescribes real medicine to treat this spreading “pathology” of contemporary life. His diagnosis extends beyond a critique of nationalism to blame unbridled capitalism for uprooting community, putting profits over people, and corrupting politicians, resulting in increasing disparity between rich and poor –all of which accelerate economic insecurity and psychological suffering.

Fromm knew we could never turn back the hands of time: Modern democratic nationalism is here to stay, but he believed the correct treatment could do much to ameliorate the human suffering it causes.

Eric Fromm’s medicine of choice was democratic socialism. Maybe it’s time to give it a try. Bernie Sanders certainly thinks so.
1 The Sane Society by Eric Fromm, page 6
2 New York Times, 7/18/16
3 American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 119, No. 5 (March 2014), pp. 1527-1528

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