Friday, November 11, 2011


Stockholm syndrome – n. (psychiatry)

“An emotional attachment to a captor formed by a hostage as a result of continuous stress, dependence, and a need to cooperate for survival.”

A shockingly large number of Americans are suffering from a kind of nationalist Stockholm syndrome. Unsurprisingly, they don't even know it. With income disparity at an all-time high in the United States, why are so few people reluctant to admit their discontentment, frustration, and fear, even to themselves? The convoluted answer lies in our history as a country, the philosophical underpinnings of our economic system, and the inherent problems of the American Dream. Luckily, people are starting to wake up.

When I think about the Occupy movement in the context of its place in the American psyche, the image that comes to mind is that of a very large locomotive laboriously starting to move. Right now, we're at the slow beginning stages where it doesn't even seem possible that we, the weighty 99%, could be careening down the track of social change in the very near future. But as more and more people realize their discontentment with the status quo, and with their health and safety being traded for profit, moving the large machine becomes easier.

There are plenty of Americans who have been on the train for years already. Like one African-American man said at the Occupy Oakland General Assembly on Monday night, “A lot of people have been realizing in the last 5 years that the system is fucked. That it keeps them down. And it's great that they realize that, but my people have known that for the last 500 years.” Some members of minorities, immigrants, union workers, and politically minded people have been speaking up for themselves and their communities for years. However, many more are willfully ignorant, afraid of losing what they still do have, or just don't want to rock the boat.

One major problem lies in the foundation of the American Dream, which pervades every corner of our society through schools, workplaces, government programs, and popular media. This philosophy tells us that if we work hard and apply ourselves to our careers, we will be prosperous, and deserving and entitled to that prosperity. This notion negates the powerful effects of institutional oppression, luck, and blatant discrimination that are at work against many people in the country.

The flipside of the American dream is that it implicates those who are not prosperous in their own undoing: if someone is poor, jobless, homeless, ignorant, unpopular, or otherwise unsuccessful, then it is solely their fault. Had they merely tried harder or applied themselves, according to this logic, they would be successful as well. A paradigm like this allows those who have achieved success to imagine themselves as more entitled to respect, privilege, and further success than those who have failed. And who wants to be a failure? So plenty of people are reluctant and too proud to admit even to themselves that they are struggling, because they believe it to be their own fault and something to be ashamed of.

Furthermore, despite our founding fathers' intentions to the contrary, we live in a country in which it is considered unpatriotic to be dissatisfied with the establishment and the government, let alone speak against them. Clearly, there are plenty of people who do speak up. But not enough.

So how do we spread the call to social change?

It has to start with compassion, education, and outreach to those who are not yet on board. We have to open up safe and welcoming spaces that have room enough for everyone. We have to provide the information that will awaken Americans to acknowledging the injustice and inequality that they already know exists. (More on this in the next post)

In Latin, 'evigilor' means 'to awaken,' but it also means 'to be alert' and 'to be watchful.' We are coming into a new period of American history in which citizens need to awaken to the call of their neighbors, and learn to watch out not only for themselves, but for each other. Our linguistically related concept of holding 'vigil' means to occupy a space together, for a common purpose, and often throughout the night. In as much as the hundreds of Occupy encampments across the globe are evocative of perpetual vigil for our errant economic milieu, they are also calls to every passerby to allow themselves to awaken.

The alarm is going off. Time to wake up.

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