The Normalization of Sociopathology in America   (October 16, 2010)

The moral rot at the center of American life results from a normalization of pathologies--sociopathic and psychopathic states and behaviors are now "normal" or incentivized. Moral behavior is institutionally punished.

My entry on the moral rot which has taken hold in all socio-economic levels of America drew a number of insightful responses: Runaway Feedback Loops, Wealth Concentration and Gaming-The-System (October 13, 2010).

While the American/Western worldview holds that we are autonomous individuals exercising free will at every moment, in reality we are all heavily programmed by our socio-economic class conditions. What is so striking about present-day America is the way in which the narcissistic, no-moral-compass social pathologies of entitlement, denial and fabrication of "truth"/reality has been "normalized" (accepted as normal behavior and thinking) in all social classes.

Before we analyze that further, let's get some direct experiences from three observant readers.

First up in Freeacre, one of the proprietors of the excellent Trout Clan Campfire blog:

Here are my examples (of the feedback loops you described):

Thirty-one years ago, when I was pregnant with my son, a friend in San Francisco explained to me that I should go down and apply for welfare. He told me the the social workers basically tell you the right answers to give when applying. They ask the question and you just say agree with whatever it is. That's the game. (I didn't do it, choosing to marry the father of our child and live a life of penury instead...)

2) We finally were able to buy a house in Portland. Our next door neighbor lived in one exactly like ours. But, she was divorced and had two kids. Her kids went to church school for free, got free clothing and medical care, her mom collected her rent from the state, she got food stamps, and on and on. Her ex even got a penile implant due to an unfortunate motorcycle accident! We ended up losing our home and car and having to declare bankruptcy due to our son's medical bills for cancer.

3) Years later, when my husband got cancer and I had to pay his COBRA payments up front, I had hardly any money for food or the house payment from my job at the Tahoe Daily Tribune. When I inquired what we could do to qualify for some assistance, the social worker said, "get a divorce." We did not.

4) Time and again, I find myself donating food, clothing, toys, etc. to "single moms" who live in more attractive homes than I do, with children who have more than my grandchildren, and who live with men who make more money than mine.

5) I recently attended a Food Summit - all about supporting sustainable locally produced food. At the end of the conference, a blanket announcement went out for any of us eligible for food stamps to not hesitate to sign up. "It's good for Oregon!" they announced. It brings in more money from the federal government!

And you know what? I'm considering it. If I don't have to lie to get it, I just might do it. With social security getting no increase again this year and the banksters getting more billions in bonuses and congress getting their increases, well, I think I am having a "'f*** 'em" moment as well.

Reader Don describes conditions which show the incentives to game the system and the disincentives to be honest and hard-working are not new dynamics in the culture:

Enjoyed today's post on the abuse of the welfare system. This is old hat to the "underclass". I managed Section 8 buildings in the '80s and most of the tenants, although without assets, lived better than my working poor, non Section 8 tenants. The tenant's share of Section 8 rent was usually in the double digits (I recall one tenant who couldnt manage to pay her $19 rent more than once every 4 or 5 months...), all of them got food stamps, medical care, the kids got school lunches etc. And in the 1980s, before friends of mine had color TVs, some of these apartments had one in every room of the five room apartments.

Perhaps most frustrating to me was that in the vast majority of households, the single mother had a working man in the house, but the welfare folks werent allowed to ask about it.

From your post, it looks like the working poor and the middle class have figured out the scam as well.

Anonymous Physician provides the context to understand both the ubiquity of Corporate Welfare/entitlement/cheating and the standard-issue welfare entitlement and gaming:

I have a great deal of experience with the poor, the very poor, the rich, and a few of the ultra-rich. Some accident of fate also gave me direct clinical contact with a least 6 serial killers (in custody) for extended periods. It is certain (i.e.; self-evident to the prepared consciousness as per Aristotle's definition of truth) that our current crisis of culture, political economy and political life is fundamentally related to the long-emerging filters on the roads to power and influence that now assure that cluster B personality types (sociopathic/ pyschopathic, narcissistic and to lesser degrees borderline and histrionic) dominate, in number as well as influence, all major institutions in this "country" as well as most of the rest of the world. (emphasis added) This state of affairs, in its extent, is historically unprecedented.

This is no counsel of despair. Goodness, the ethical will, as a potentiality, is proportionally much more frequent than the evil will in humanity but it must be cultivated and it demands truthfulness and willingness to sacrifice for its actualization.

Thank you, readers, for your insightful commentaries.

Here is my analysis, which as always is drawn from the foundation established in the Survival+ critique.

The depth of our own pathology can be measured by our resistance to admitting the systemic fraud, lying, entitlement and narcissistic pathologies in whatever slice of American society we value. For example, Liberals experience an overwhelming urge to excuse or deny welfare fraud and indeed, all the pathologies of the "underclass."

That is a direct measure of their own internal normalization of social pathologies.

Conservatives experience an overwhelming urge to excuse or deny Corporate Welfare and the partnership/collusion of the Central State (which they fear) and Crony Capitalism (which they revere, even though it is only a simulacrum of classic free-market capitalism).

To the degree that an individual dismisses cheating on tests in school, fabricated resumes, bogus balance sheets and dishonest mortgage applications and tax returns because "everybody does it," the sociopathologies have been fully absorbed as not just normal but as beneficial and acceptable.

Though we like to favor ourselves as autonomous entities brimming with individuality, most of our worldview and behaviors are programmed by our social-economic status and conditioning.

Consider how easily the behaviors and values of most Americans fall into three basic classes in American culture which are remarkable predictors of worldviews and largely unconscious "values" and behaviors.

This reality is part of what I term the politics of experience: we can't experience the "water" we swim in until we consciously occupy another more objective perch which is informed by history and the awareness of who benefits from the normalization of various beliefs and behaviors.

The "working class" is programmed to rely on television for most of its "information" about life, and thus they are programmed to:

1. Consume copious quantities of fast foods and convenience foods, and consider indolence a luxury. As a result, they are programmed to become obese/diabetic.

2. The boys are programmed to favor football and basketball in sports, service in the Armed Forces as the only viable choice to low-skill, fitful employment, to drop out of four-year college if pressured to enter, and vocational training, often paid for by the G.I. Bill after military service.

3. Males are programmed to place identity value on their vehicles and real-world "manly" skills (working on vehicles, farm equipment, woodworking, etc.), but their programmed aspirations are aimed at impossibly narrow fields: professional sports, hip-hop and other entertainment, etc. As a result, their real-world skills are generally undeveloped or modest.

In essence, they are programmed to fail in the "knowledge economy" and in real-world practical jobs which are not glorified by the broadcast media. They accept low-level work and are dissatisfied, often turning to drugs to relieve their ennui.

4. Their interests are channeled by the media into extreme sports, mixed martial arts, auto racing, football, etc., but they are programmed to express these interests through passive video games rather than by real-world experience. Programmed to low confidence, they generally give up quickly when faced with arduous training, except when forced by institutions such as the Military.

5. Working class families have few resources to draw upon, and the mobility favored by Corporate America has shredded the social networks which once offered support (church membership, social clubs, neighborhoods, etc.) Family "help" is a sofa to sleep on at a relatives' house.

6. The girls are programmed to have sex and children early, as motherhood has positive identity value, even if they are woefully unprepared for parenting. Career choices tend to be "pink collar" type labor in Corporate America's sickcare system or government jobs; females are programmed to support their children and demand little of the fathers. Dependency on the State /Welfare in one form or another is the norm.

7. Politics holds little interest and most of the working class are programmed not to vote as it "never does any good anyway."

8. There are few books or other reading materials around the house, little to no original decorative art, few musical instruments that can actually be played with any joy or expertise; the lived environment is a cultural desert. The TV and a computer offer distraction and entertainment and little else. If they pursue social media, they are members of My Space and Facebook. They are deeply attached to their cellphones, which are perceived as markers of accessible status. Passports are unknown; foreign travel is experienced through military service only.

The "middle class" aspires to the "upper class" life they see on television and other media, but their aspirations are for the trappings of wealth rather than for the engines of wealth.

1. Though the middle class person clings mightily to various totems of "membership" in the middle class, and experiences tremendous loss of identity and self-esteem when these totems are lost, in reality their wealth is modest and they have few family resources.

2. Though they watch a lot of TV, they also consume massive quantities of other low-value media through the electronic devices they see as emblematic of the "middle class" lifestyle: laptop computers, iPods, etc. Their cellphones and other electronics are key identity markers: the higher the status of the brand, the more valuable the device. Apple products are de riguer "high status."

3. Books and reading materials around the house tend to be best sellers or materials assigned in class; few households receive newspapers or magazines other than National Geographic. If books are read, they are genre books such as mysteries. Dog-eared copies of the Harry Potter series abound. Those households which aspire to "upper class" education may subcribe to a few magazines which are viewed as totems of high-class lifestyles: The New Yorker, Saveur, etc.

4. "Education" is valued but mastery is not; the goal is to obtain the certificate or paper required by gatekeepers in the government or Corporate America, not the actual skillsets. Though education is "valued," few households (regardless of income, which is often high) save religiously enough to fund university educations; borrowing vast sums of student loans is the norm. Adult education is pursued to obtain the same gatekeeper certificates in whatever field the adults toil in. Learning for the pleasure of learning is unknown or deemed a waste of time when "we could be having fun."

"Enrichment" classes are provided to the children, but the purpose is to gain a veneer of respectability as an aspirant to upper-class membership; piano lessons are dutifully offered but nobody plays music in the house for enjoyment, so the lessons are soon dropped. Live performances are also attended occasionally as "enrichment." Foreign travel is experienced via college programs or packaged tours fit into 2-week vacations allowed by Corporate America.

5. Favored sports include soccer and volleyball for the girls, and skateboarding and baseball for the boys. Team sports are favored over individual competition, and adults spend significant time ferrying kids to various after-school sports, which are deemed "character-building."

6. Ownership of status brands is highly important; brand consciousness is acute. Target is favored over Wal-Mart, and designer-luxury brand purses, shoes, autos, etc. are highly desirable "markers" of success and identity. Most of the family income goes to paying for these "markers" of membership.

7. A four-year college degree is the goal, with an MBA or master's degree considered a higher-level enabler of a better career. The cherished goal is acceptance to an elite university which is viewed as a magical ticket to "fast track" advancement in the government or Corporate America. Meritocracy is accepted as the norm. Military service is shunned in favor of attending college right out of high school. Favored social media are related to career/corporate advancement: LinkedIn, etc. Foreign films and chic dining are valued as "markers" of high-class status.

The upper class has the confidence born of the knowledge that the family resources can always bail one out. High-paying jobs will be provided via networks; art-aspirant careers are highly valued, and family resources enable dilletante dabbling in acting, film-making, visual arts, etc.

Entrance to prep schools and family money/connections enable entrance to institutions the middle class must gain entrance to via meritocracy.

Favored careers include venture capital, high-status government positions, management of family businesses, plum slots in NGOs, etc. Noblesse Oblige is served via membership on boards of charities, the local symphony and museum, etc. These networks provide connections to business opportunities unavailable to the middle class.

Children already get passports and foreign travel to exotic locales is standard. Middle-class aspirants are viewed paternalistically or with scorn; they are worker-bees for the Corporate America/State owned or managed by the upper class. The working class is avoided except as servants, who are often immigrants.

My point is that to varying degrees, the normalization of narcissism and social pathologies is now embedded in the programming of all social classes. The rot in America is not limited to "deviance" in any one class; it is present in various manifestations in all social classes.

Tweaking policies and gaming the gaming will not "cure" what ails America. Moral will "must be cultivated and it demands truthfulness and willingness to sacrifice for its actualization." Until we are prepared to make those sacrifices, then the rot will only deepen.

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