The protests centered upon the death of George Floyd are fed by a deeper stream of discontent. The discontent is not specific to any one issue, but by multiple inconsistencies with democracy and touted American values. Fundamental premises that underlie the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights”, and the Constitution, “of, by, and for the people”, have been eroded or betrayed. Pretense has substituted for substance.
Just as individuals possess awareness and an unconscious that organizes and prioritizes information and experience, so also a collective possesses an agreed representation of what it is to be and act as a member of that collective. The identity “I am an American” signifies a membership with a shared set of beliefs, values, attitudes, tastes, and social behaviors. The identity allows a great deal of variation since American identity is based upon “individual choice and responsibility”. This contrasts, for example, with identity in collective cultures where “the sins of the father are visited onto the children”. In such cultures, all Christians, Jews, or Moslems, for example, are persecuted and bear responsibility for acts of previous or current generations. Historically, collective guilt, whether based on income status, religion, or race, is a justification for tyranny and associated with dictatorship.
A great gulf exists between America’s self-image and what is excluded from it. What is excluded is what does not fit its self-image. Central to American identity is liberty and equality of persons without regard to background, relation, or race epitomized in America’s iconic texts, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
When the US government transgresses or violates liberty, equality, and respect for persons, the government is Unamerican. If Americans identify with their government, Americans become Unamerican. This inconsistency to be UnAmerican and American at the same time is cognitively dissonant and emotionally contradictory. This is particularly reprehensible, like a bone stuck in the throat, to young Americans who are not accustomed to moral ambiguity as a condition of life. For citizens inured to political rationalizations, American unease long occupied a mental backburner, “out of sight, out of mind,” The burden of Guilt and bad conscience was blocked by distraction, busywork, and the pursuit of money and position.
With the recording of George Floyd’s death made tangible, illusion failed. George Floyd was victimized by brute weight upon his neck by an impassive and unresponsive operative who revealed no emotion or humanity. He was granted no dignity. Rage ignited against the Police, the representatives of State presence and control, over the unbridled and thoughtless use of power on a person in a position of helplessness.
Floyd’s Death a Symbol of Institutional Inhumanity
George Floyd is more than George Floyd. He stands for black victims of police mistreatment, and he stands for humanity under the knee of unfeeling tyranny and doublespeak. The weight of the knee pressed on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. His suffocation, conducted as a mechanical act, almost business as usual, lacking passion or human feeling, calls forth the image of the anonymous power of the state that cares nothing for human dignity or suffering. George Floyd’s helplessness and pain resonates with the unacknowledged, but felt experience of many Americans. The memes that galvanized group protests across the Nation were:
- “Black lives matter”: The denotation is African American are entitled to rights, freedom, and treatment. The connotation is that people left out of the light of conscious consideration, people left in the dark, people who are not white, deserve full awareness and recognition of their humanity.
- “I can’t breathe”: The denotation is George Floyd held immobile in slow strangulation by Derek Chauvin. The connotation is people who do not conform to US policies at home or abroad are threatened and held captive by a system that dictates US will.
- “Silence is violence”: The denotation is not to express outrage over the manner of George Floyd’s death permits or approves police abuse. The connotation is that Americans have failed to acknowledge or discuss how US policies and actions oppress and destroy lives.
How many Americans have been crushed by government policies that promote anomie, hopelessness, and debt? How many people have been displaced, maimed, or killed by America’s foreign wars and “interventions”? How many straws break the camel’s back?
The citizen experience of the US government is everyday regulation by prohibitions and taxes; absence or distortion of information about military actions; underwriting of mass surveillance without consent; the sale of natural resources and abandonment of the environment; absence of forward-planning, reactive rather than proactive economics; educational indoctrination, not education; symptom-oriented medical care that enrich corporations; regulations that favor big business and monied elites; and a pastiche of headlines and images that communicate a destructive role in the world order.
Fake news from government couples with fake news from corporate media. Objective journalism is endangered. Yet, as in the former Soviet Union, “official government position statements” and corporate media “spin” unintentionally reveal the actual state of US democracy, its agenda, and its playbook. The real world still seeps through alternative media, observation, conversation, and firsthand experience with bureaucratic regulations and enforcement, higher education, the medical establishment, and everyday life.
The Unfree Press
Government persecution of journalists and truth-tellers deemed “whistle blowers” reveal the state prefers an ignorant public. The scurrilous indictment, isolation, and inhuman treatment of Julian Assange for the past decade followed WikiLeaks’ publication of the infamous Baghdad airstrike video, the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs, and diplomatic cables. WikiLeak’s documents revealed endemic political and military falsification, blunders, and arrogance.
The Spy State
Edward Snowden revealed the extent of illegal US global surveillance of its citizens and foreign nationals. The State copies its citizens’ financial, medical, and travel records, emails, web searches, telephone calls, and social media posts. Snowden fled the US in 2013 to Hong Kong and eventually found refuge in Russia. Government does not want its citizens to know that it treats its citizens as potential traitors and that it engages in illegal violations of privacy. What does government conduct reveal when it imprisons or exiles its citizens who reveal the truth of government conduct toward fellow citizens?
As thousands of animal and plant species cease to exist annually, as weather change ravages crops and livelihoods, as pollutants multiply, and plastic chokes the oceans, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plays fiddle. A kind appraisal of the current EPA would be one step forward and two steps backward. The Agency ignores legislative directives and dismantles programs. The politicization of institutions answerable for America’s individual and social well-being is a scandal.
Silence is surely violence when the US government has so little to say about the future, except perhaps as applied to military hardware and drug development. The legislative system beholden to corporate campaign contributions displays a singular lack of imagination about the future course of American culture and society. America might well ponder development of efficient energy and transportation. What are pathways to a sustainable and healthy future for America and its citizens? The lack of political imagination in this arena is stultifying. Like generals who prepare for a future war by reference to the last war, the political establishment and corporate elites address America’s future by resurfacing old roads and patching old bridges.
Higher education is characterized by proliferation of marginal institutions and marginal “majors” with little or no value added to the society. Ideology is frequently taught as the-stock-in-trade of “action oriented” programs aimed at social change, providing simplistic solutions to complex problems to gullible youth. From high school through college, institutions, except Junior Colleges, fail to provide skill training or real-world experience. Ideologically driven higher education is responsible for a distortion of labor and failure to attend to the country’s real needs. Victimized youth inculcated by ideology find themselves alienated and often unable to find meaningful or remunerative work in society. The educational ride is over when debts come due and bankruptcy is not an option.
American health care was brokered to support monopolistic middlemen with a resulting cast system of health care. The US spends twice what other advanced nations spend who have universal health care. US health care scores poorly on multiple metrics of population health. The US health care system is a disgrace.
Government laws and regulation favor Big. The US government specializes in complex laws and regulations that only well-connected and deep pockets can navigate. The ordinary citizen is left in the bleachers. Opportunity is construed as access to corporate jobs and, for the entrepreneur, capital to purchase a corporate franchise.
Zero-Sum Game Foreign Policy
How many people have been put under knee of American foreign policy through military intervention or covert means? Koreans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Afghans, Iraqis, Libyans, Syrians, Palestinians, Yemenites, South Americans, and now Chinese promise a new target for cold war, animosity, and conflict. Wars without end, intrigues without conscience.
The United States Military is engaged in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and through proxies in Libya and Yemen. The US assists and supports gorilla operations, financial strangulation and intimidation against Russia, Iran, Argentina, Venezuela, and Palestine, among others.
In a “model intervention” that provided a template for Vietnam, nearly 5, 000, 000 Koreans, or one in ten people, died during the Korean civil war with 40 thousand American deaths. The phony “Bay of Tonkin” resolution and war against Vietnam cost the lives of an estimated 3, 000, 000 Vietnamese and 55 thousand American soldiers. The destruction of Iraq resulted in the deaths of a half million Iraq men, women, and children. The war in Afghanistan produced more than 100, 000 casualties.
In its US proxy wars, the US funds mercenaries and hardware. The conflict in Syria has cost the lives of 400, 000 people and impelled more than a million immigrants. The death toll in the Yemen civil war has surpassed 100, 000. Nearly ten years after Hillary Clinton announced “We came, we saw, he died” about Libya’s president, Muammar Qaddafi, the formally wealthiest country in Africa is now riven with destruction and lawlessness. Nearly one million inhabitants are homeless or destitute.
Americans are not Ignorant
The reader may object that Americans do not know. They do not watch the news, or they think differently because the news does not report or spins events. But Americans do know. They may not know they know, but unless they live under a rock, they have heard of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, loss of biodiversity, economic uncertainty, student debt, medical bills and personal bankruptcy, challenges to small businesses, and America’s endless wars and military “interventions”. And if they have not heard about these events and issues, they perhaps have wondered about the doubling of obesity, anxiety disorders, depression, suicides, addictions, and incarcerations. They may not know all, but they know some. The some they know is enough to make them uncomfortable, doubting, ill at ease in their hearts. The Law of Talion proclaims an “eye for any eye, a tooth for a tooth.” In tribal cultures, this principle of undergirds morality. Persons may claim they do not know, but not knowing is no excuse before the law and nature.
Ain’t Over until it’s Over
So now the chicken have come home to roost, and they are roosting in small and large cities in jeering and disrespect for the police, destruction of property, and vilification of white people. But underlying the rage is disillusionment with the disconnect between American ideals and a government that has veered far from the principles embodied in its establishment. The discontent triggered by witnessing George Floyd’s death resonates with doubts, misgivings, guilt, and anger over chronic governmental dissimulation and gaslighting unlikely to be assuaged by addressing injustices to blacks. Buckle-up.
*Leland van den Daele, PhD, ABPP is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA. He trained at the American Institute for Psychoanalysis (AIP) in New York City and has taught at University of Illinois, Rutgers University, Columbia University, and California School of Professional Psychology. Leland is a clinical psychologist with interests in culture, character, and social cohesion.