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a

commodity
called
misery
Joe
bageant
ColdType
The Author
Joe Bageant is the author of the best selling Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from
America’s class war (Random House, 2007) and a frequent contributor to the BBC and other
international media. A selection of his writings and commentary from working class Americans
may be found at Joe Bageant.com
© Joe Bageant, 2009

ColdType
Writing Worth Reading From Around the World

www.coldtype.net

2 ColdType | March 2009


a
commodity
called
Our authorized sanities are so many
Nembutals. “Normal” citizens with
store-dummy smiles stand apart from
each other like cotton-packed capsules in
a bottle. Perpetual mental out-patients.

misery
Maddeningly sterile jobs for strait-jackets,
love scrubbed into an insipid “functional
personal relationship” and Art as a fantasy
pacifier ... And we all know this ...
Slowly, very slowly we are led nowhere.
– San Francisco Digger Papers, 1965

H ❝
OPKINS VILLAGE, BELIZE – Sit- spirit doctor also treats such things as
ting down here in Central America sexual dysfunction, though I sure as hell
happily abusing my health, occa- The wizened old cannot detect much evidence of dysfunc-
sionally, between the hangovers spirit mojo man tion, judging from the noises in the vil-
and the bouts with sand fleas and mos- cured Eljay with lage cabanas and under beachside palms
quitoes comes an insight or two, or at a single at night.
least what passes for insight in my low- utterance: “Quit In any case, it causes me to wonder
brow take on life. One of these is just how smokin’ da ganja why is there enough pain and alienation
damned lucky the Third World is that for one month.” to sustain America’s umpteen billion dol-
it cannot afford a sophisticated mental It worked. Total lar mental health business and its 400-
health system. By that I mean the kind in cost: About $2.50 plus specialties, not to mention the inner
the “developed countries,” where murder and a pound of self-help industry and Deepak Chopra’s
and suicide rates are quintuple what they red beans royal court. Why is it that during the
are here in this village. Not that we are months I spend in America I meet so
without own village resources. My Gari- many obviously sick fuckers, some suc-
funa buddy Eljay, was in what we would cessfully practicing law or politics, others
call a depressed state a few months ago, homeless and schizophrenic?
and went to a local “spirit doctor.” The You need not be Marcuse or R. D. Lang
wizened old spirit mojo man cured Eljay to feel the stress, depression, boredom
with a single utterance: “Quit smokin’ da and loneliness permeating everyday life
ganja for one month.” up there in Gringolia. But to get an over-
It worked. Total cost: About $2.50 and view it does help to be a couple thousand
a pound of red beans. They say the old miles outside the place. Kind of like be-

March 2009 | ColdType | 3


Joe Bageant

ing high in the stands at the racetrack


with binoculars rather than down at the ❝ surance and “medical industry,” but
through insignificantly different meth-
rail next to the paddock. Matters seem Might not ods. Interestingly, despite our pursuit of
especially acute of late, with the entire America’s constant medical attention and the con-
American anthill in turmoil as its com- psychological struction of the planet’s largest, and most
mon god, the almighty economy, waves malaise be the profitable health machinery, treatment
bye-bye while being noisily sucked down result of knowing factories for every real and imagined or
the global gurgler. Hell, twenty years ago deep inside that industry manufactured ailment, surveys
mental health problems were already life can hold show, Americans do not trust doctors.
being described as “epidemic,” despite more meaning They feel physicians are primarily busi-
the joys of Facebook, iPod, and the con- -- be more joyful? nessmen and businesswomen who hap-
sumption of some 25 million pounds of More emotionally pen to practice medicine because that’s
hot wings on Superbowl Sunday. A place rewarding and where the real grease, the big bucks are.
where “normal” life includes Viagra, all fulfilling? In a This may or may not be true, but we see
the fried chicken you can stuff, round the word, healthier? little evidence to counter the suspicions.
clock televised crotch shots and HDTV Even the closest physician friend I have
as national mandate. in the States insists on a $125 office visit
I used to think it was just some melan- -- cash at the front desk on the way out,
cholic germ of my own that made me see please -- before he will refill a blood pres-
a slowly increasing American alienation, sure prescription I’ve been taking for 15
anxiety and inner sadness over the span years. He knows I do not have health in-
of my 62 years. Now however, I’m pretty surance, but hey, what’s a bill and a quar-
convinced there is a national pathology ter between friends? Well, it’s a month’s
at work, one which author Arthur Barsky grub for some of us, or dinner and drinks
called the “pathology of American nor- for two at the country club for others.
malcy.” Sounds accurate to me. In fact, By comparison, my doctor in Jalisco,
this psychic poverty has been around so Mexico, Jim Jaramillo, who practiced in
long it has become something of a norm. Albuquerque for 30 years, invites me to
Despite that we have not resorted to ride into the surrounding ranch country
cannibalism, single payer health care, or and have a dawn drink with the Mexican
god forbid, socialism, we long ago passed cowboys, simply because he regards all
into the realm of what we like to call an his patients as friends. And “Nurse Judy,”
“unhealthy society.” Might not America’s who runs the main clinic here in Hopkins,
psychological malaise be the result of whoops it up with the rest of her pa-
knowing deep inside that life can hold tients on Friday oldies night down by the
more meaning -- be more joyful? More beach. The village’s Dr. Anya, a Mayan-
emotionally rewarding and fulfilling? In mestizo lady trained in Mister Castro’s
a word, healthier? famous Cuban institution, dropped by
Americans who can afford to be, are my cabana to examine the local kids on
obsessed with health of any kind. The my front porch. For free. Then we played
rest of us chain smoke in despair. All of guitar together. I asked her if she could
which tosses fresh red meat to the poli- teach me any local folk songs. “No,” she
ticians, who offer “plans,” all of which said, “I’m into Iris Dementh.” Go figure.
come down to the same thing -- we pay Anyway, none of these doctors require
for corporate expansion of both the in- appointments.

4 ColdType | March 2009


a commodity called misery

But we started out talking about the


psychic pathology of Americaness, didn’t ❝ But who’d have guessed it would be-
come a massive and officially sanctioned
we? So without going too far over ground Back in the ideological control arm of the state? A
well enough covered by better and more Sixties, along form of social control and containment
authoritative writers than I, the pathol- with LSD, nature of the citizenry through a governmen-
ogy of Americaness is entirely about hu- and Buddhism, tal and corporately sponsored “mental
man consciousness, a taboo subject in I looked to heath system?” And the way it does so
our declining industrial super state. The psychology for is this: It refuses to acknowledge that our
subject has been officially smothered, or answers . . . aggregate society holds any responsibility
even demonized by authority since it was But who’d have for the conditions it produces in our fel-
first openly broached in the Sixties. How- guessed it would low individual members. Now collective
ever, those running the industrial govern- become a massive societal responsibility is common sense
ment complex learned a few things too and officially for, say, a Dane or a Frenchman. Most of
in the process. Particularly about the ef- sanctioned them anyway.
ficacy of dope. Being authoritarian and ideological For Americans though, it’s an explo-
capitalist, they of course preferred down- control arm of sive issue. Because if we acknowledged
ers over the mind expanding drugs. And the state? collective responsibilities to the indi-
ever since then corporately produced vidual members of our society, then we
biochemicals, tranqs, mind numbing would have to deal with the issue of
anti-depressants and the like, have been class in this country. Some gestures are
successfully used privately on individuals now being made in that direction, thanks
to squelch the psychic anguish produced to Obama, but it’s still America’s longest
in the Darwinian workhouse America standing hot ‘tater I doubt even he will
has become. Not that I’m entirely op- hold very long. Every successful, well-off
posed. As I’ve said before, if this officially American, or even so called middle class
sanctioned dope were a bit more ecstatic Americans -- we seem to be unable to
and colorful, I’d be right there in line for truly define them; even uninsured house-
my share. Hell, I’m an American -- in- holds earning under $25,000 most often
stant gratification works for me too. But define themselves as middle class, thanks
an anesthetic to workhouse burnout just to our national denial of our class system
ain’t enough incentive. Beyond that, the --- succeeds at the expense of some oth-
street drugs are crap these days. So to er American. Or more accurately at the
our King Kong pharmaceutical industry, expense of an entire unacknowledged
I say: “Work with me here, guys!” underclass of them. Consequently, we get
Seriously though, back in the Sixties, the “self-determination” and “individual
along with LSD, nature and Buddhism, I initiative” stuff as an excuse and cover-
looked to psychology for answers. Sure, up. An attractive one too, given that it
psychology was very much a bourgeois implies some sort of superiority of effort
affectation and fad at the time. But it or talent. And there’s no denying that life
looked damned promising to many of us, requires some of both from everyone. But
including a redneck hippie with tons of that does not reconcile our larger than
cultural and family baggage to unload ever class discrepancies, much less the
and an allergy to mindless toil -- espe- alienation one feels when he or she can-
cially those aspects of psychology that not trust that his or her society is operat-
dealt with social realization. ing on their behalf.

March 2009 | ColdType | 5


Joe Bageant

Whatever else can be said of capital-


ism, it is miraculous stuff, pure alche-
my. It can privatize and corporatize any

In the big picture,
This somehow reminds me of the old
Soviet Union’s psychiatric handling of
dissidents. If you did not display state
damned thing under the sun, turn a prof- much of the U.S. defined norms, then you were deemed
it on it, and then make it a bulwark of mental health nuts, and needed medication, behavior
corporate state control to boot. Even hu- industry, and modification or institutionalization. It
man misery and oppression of soul and its associated was deemed impossible that those very
mind. Psychological practice and its insti- systems, norms may have been driving your con-
tutions benefit greatly from this. After all, perpetuate and dition. The similarities are there, par-
they are in the alienation business. It is even propagate ticularly when you consider the massive
entirely in the profession’s best interests mental sickness growth of the U.S. prison industry and its
that it treat us as if our lives are lived in perhaps as much reliance on pharmaceutical and behavior
a vacuum, our loneliness and despair are as it alleviates modification control. The entire machin-
entirely our own, as if there were no such ery of education, social work, psychology,
thing as context, much less American so- and medicine are meshed (though the
ciety’s corrosive and toxic environment in practitioners would stoutly deny it) and
which so many of us live out our lives. help hold firm the class line in this coun-
Put another way, it acknowledges our try. Many of them do so unknowingly,
misery, then privatizes it, then adminis- of course, and are dedicated to helping
ters lonely alienated “treatment” for our fellow beings through the methods they
emptiness in a private void, one among have been taught -- and are accredited
tens of millions of like emptinesses in through state sanctioned institutions of
similar voids that are in no way supposed course. But the overwhelming majority
to be societal. No matter that there are seem to draw their paychecks and health
enough sufferers to constitute an entire insurance happily enough. Ever spend
society in themselves. The result, wheth- much time with the average mid-Amer-
er or not by design, is to perpetuate ican social services psychologist? The
the most venerable of American myths, kind who make recommendations in our
that of the completely autonomous self. juvenile courts? On the whole they’re a
Which denies us the power and beauty, sorry assed bunch if ever there was one,
not to mention the healing and efficacy, bureaucrats wrapped in the smug pi-
of human unity. In the big picture, much ety of social work. Others are far more
of the U.S. mental health industry, and aware, but fearful of calling bullshit on
its associated systems, perpetuate and the system that pays the mortgage and
even propagate mental sickness perhaps sends the kids to college.
as much as it alleviates, through its par- Given the economic and societal
adigms. In any case, for the most part, breakdown now underway and acceler-
psychology as an institution has hard- ating toward completion, Obama or no
ened into part of the national ideology, Obama (What is this thing of ours, this
thanks to the catalyst of gobs of dough national obsession with saviors, elected
from the state. The American Psycho- or otherwise?), it’s bound to be interest-
logical Association’s initial refusal to con- ing to see if they can indoctrinate, dope,
demn member participation in the Bush counsel, and lock up or medicate the dis-
regime’s torture told me all I needed to sidence, and perhaps outright resistance
know about U.S. psych-officialdom. that will occur. Whether the final Ameri-

6 ColdType | March 2009


a commodity called misery

can collapse takes four years or forty


years is anybody’s guess. But it’s gonna
take a passel of behavioral management

If when we look
nor does society see itself in us, we even-
tually come to feel the sustained, unutter-
able pain of aloneness. This would seem
experts, whether in psychological insti- around us in the the appropriate response for a member
tutions, university research centers, or on world, we do not of our highly social species of flesh, and
Madison Avenue, to keep the lid on this see ourselves does not necessarily deem us ill, but of-
puppy when she blows. However, I’m in society, nor ten rather more human.
not ruling out the possibility that they does society Unfortunately, Americans get laughed
just might help do that -- keep the lid on see itself in us, off the map for being overly human these
-- because they are state authorized and we eventually days, dubbed emotional pussies, part
accredited to do so. The infrastructure come to feel of the Kumbaya crowd, unrealistic uto-
of industrial strength administration of the sustained, pians -- and if you are sincerely human
psychology is there. And has been ever unutterable pain enough, get your ass kicked by the sys-
since sheepskins were issued to “indus- of aloneness tem. To be so makes us the bane of the
trial psychologists.” super rational, technological production
Nobody in the Western World seems driven society we have come to be. We
to see the irony and conflict in that got there partly through our weakness,
term. But the fact is that even if 50 mil- shallow greed and mindless consent, but
lion Americans exploded tomorrow, they more so by the orchestrated world ma-
would have “snapped” alone, particu- chinery benefiting powerful elites, both
lated and atomized in a very large and corporate, governmental and financial (is
spread out country, and ultimately be there a difference?) which have always
administered treatment or institutional- been among us, though never in such
ized as “individuals.” Of course, if they strength.
were more concentrated, which would Many years ago as a much younger
put them in a situation to act in unison, man, I went through a couple of major
then god help ‘em because they would depressions, the second of which brought
then be a national security problem, the me to the brink of suicide. In the first in-
last thing you want to be in a security stance I was somewhat helped, through
state. medication and “talk therapy,” by a psy-
Obviously, I’m no psychiatrist, and am chologist who eventually killed himself.
sure to get plenty of email offering certain They found him in a tree in his back yard
proof of that, plus proof that I am a para- with his beeper going off. This is not to
noid nutcase with authority problems disparage the man in any way. Dr. John
(I’ll gladly admit to the latter), though in Farley was a man of good will, good in-
more polite professional jargon. To which tent and great compassion.
I say less politely, “Fuck ‘em all!” I see The second time though, I walked
what I see. out of the abyss by myself. And along
And what I see, based upon my own the way I encountered, sought out re-
experience and watching that of others, ally, others on the same path. And I saw
is that alienation and the pain of utter that together, in open sharing of our per-
aloneness, is in the rootstock of nearly all sonal truths, most of not all of us were
psychic malady, excepting the clearly or- nowhere near mentally ill. Just sick. Sick
ganic. If when we look around us in the even to the point of death in some cases,
world, we do not see ourselves in society, of our spiritual imprisonment within the

March 2009 | ColdType | 7


Joe Bageant

Great Machine, but strong enough to re-


fuse under any circumstances to dwell
under its spiritual humiliation.

I would be
the hardening privatization and institu-
tional control of the human spirit. I won’t
be around to see it.
Contrary to what one might think, damned pleased But I would be damned pleased to see
in the many years since I’ve not much to see such such a once noble attempt at elimination
thought about those experiences. Just a once noble of suffering as the American psychologi-
moved on. But in this new and strange attempt at cal profession rise to the choices before
era in which we find ourselves, they’ve elimination of us -- liberation from our collective soci-
returned as subjects of contemplation. suffering as etal darkness, and psychic death within
And -- judge me as you will -- like many the American the machine.
others these days, I smell the breath of psychological Meanwhile, here in Hopkins Village,
Thanos in that machinery of the system profession rise darkness has come and brought with it
unto which we supplicate in our fear, de- to the choices good old Eljay, ready to split a bottle of
nial or intentional obliviousness. before us the local bitters on my porch. The night
Still, it is only a system. Systems can winds are rising and with them comfort-
be changed. In any case they inevitably ing assurance that The Machine is not
crash entirely of their own entropies. everything -- indeed, not anything by the
Doubtlessly, ours will take down with it light of these indifferent stars.

8 ColdType | March 2009


Writing worth
reading from
around the world

ColdType
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