The circumstances of my life are such that I regularly meet with members of a twelve step program who are in recovery from substance abuse and are generally aware when something in their lives is triggering addictive behavior. I know that I am probably quicker to realize when something, not necessarily a substance, is setting up a feedback loop of increased consumption, increasingly poor judgement, and craving. Alcohol was my personal downfall. Dealing with alcohol addiction has given me powerful tools for recognizing addictive behavior in my own life and curtailing it before it reaches the point of no return.
Unfortunately we live in an addicted society. The surest way to market something, be it a substance, behavior pattern, or ideology, is to induce addiction in your customer base. Once the consumers are addicted, they will continue to consume your product in increasing quantities, be less sensitive to evidence that the point of diminishing returns is long past, and deprive themselves of the necessities of life, or mortgage their futures, in order to support an exponential trajectory.
Last weekend a friend of mine asked me if I was attending a protest rally downtown. Marching in the streets, carrying a sign and chanting for some cause seems to have become a species of recreational activity locally. This particular rally had as its ostensible aim keeping immigrant families together. A glance at the local news confirmed my impression that there have been many mass demonstrations, sometimes involving thousands of people, in the past few months, and that the frequency is increasing. We have had general immigrant’s rights demonstrations, women’s rights rallies, women’s reproductive rights rallies, anti-gun violence demonstrations involving recruiting young children, a demonstration demanding Donald Trump reveal his tax returns, a general tax justice rally, and rallies against sexual violence. A common theme seems to be that these are all “liberal” causes and target something over which the marchers have no direct influence. I have seen little or no evidence from the past two decades at least that this sort of activity results in meaningful change – from the ”Occupy” movement, to the Bernie Sanders Campaign, to Black Lives Matter rallies, to various movements against global warming, the problems these rallies purport to address continue unabated, or, to the extent that there has been some amelioration, the demands of the protestors had no part in it.
Why does this look like an addictive process? More people are consuming this “product” and are doing so with increasing frequency despite lack of concrete results or financial incentive, which suggests to me that participation addresses some basic human psychological need, but does not satisfy it. That it is being marketed is evident; these rallies are being organized by “Indivisible Eugene,” which purports to be a grassroots organization but is part of a national network and is being underwritten by someone – but by whom, or what, and what is the ultimate product?
I can hazard a guess, at least, concerning the basic human psychological need. All of us have a fundamental need to feel that we are of use to, and are valued by, our community and our kin. That’s a function of being highly social animals; no doubt jackals and fruit bats share the trait to some degree. Many of us either have no children or grandchildren or feel impotent when it comes to providing them with a good future. We want to believe, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that our participation in the American political process strengthens community and will lead to amelioration of social ills. The amount of energy and vituperation that went into the 2016 election, and the disappointing results at all levels, left us with a collective feeling of malaise.
Perhaps what Indivisible Eugene and their invisible backers are selling is confidence in the American political process itself. Elections are a huge industry in their own right, and belief that the election process is capable of installing effective reformers in office is essential to keeping that machine going. Most of the rallies in Eugene in the last few months seem designed to reinforce the impression that the present ills, which are very real, are entirely the fault of Donald Trump and would have disappeared if the outcome of the 2016 election had been otherwise.
Significantly, these rallies tend to focus on issues in other people’s back yards. Here in Oregon our legislature and elected officials are overwhelmingly Democratic; a more local focus would highlight the poor job they are doing at furthering the interests of the average inhabitant of the state. The only people I know who are as motivated about this problem: (“On any given night in Eugene/Springfield about 400 homeless high school students struggle to find a place to sleep. Many end up on the streets, where they are vulnerable to violence, drugs and a thriving human-trafficking trade along the I-5 corridor.”) as they are about detention centers for youth on the Mexican border are people who have personal contact with local homeless youth.
As marketed, political activism is but a transitory and shaky prop for personal self-worth, especially if the time lag between the decision to participate and disillusionment as it becomes evident that efforts are ineffective at addressing the underlying problem becomes shorter and shorter. As with any addictive process, there comes a time when no amount of effort and consumption will feed the need, and a rebound effect occurs. I fear the consequences when a large population which is also to no small degree addicted to prescription psychoactive drugs comes to the realization that the Emperor has no clothes.