I stumbled into the phalanx of news and talk show channels among the upper numbers on my cable box the other night.  Normally this is territory I stay away from—too loud and too caffeinated—but it was late, the ball game was just over, and I was channel surfing without paying much attention to where I was going.  Then suddenly I felt like the proverbial 1980 tourist who took the wrong freeway exit and ended up the south Bronx in the middle of the night.  It’s scary up in the high cable digits:

A dozen talking heads exclaimed or interrupted each other at the top of their voices, insisting that Barack Obama was part of a Kenyan revolutionary Mau Mau strategy to undermine America, conceived and propagated by his Kenyan Muslim father; that the fate of the Union depends on making sure a Muslim house of worship and social hall is not built fifteen minutes’ walk from the site of Manhattan’s former World Trade Center; that global warming is potentially beneficial and its current bad press is part of a hoax by academics looking to make names for themselves, motivated by an overweening hatred of the energy industry; that Barack Obama was born in Borneo and smuggled into the United States, which is why, of course, he has no birth certificate  and the one he produced is a cheap forgery, probably by Muslims; that real Americans could only be pushed so far before exercising their second Amendment rights with both barrels pointed right at Washington, D.C. and when that happened the liberals would have only themselves to blame; that the secularists mean to strip the country of its Christian heritage and bankrupt us with taxes, if they don’t first give us over to the illegal immigrants or the bureaucrats or the Muslims or all three.

Ten minutes of that was enough for me.

I woke up the next morning fixated on what a fundamental cultural currency Hysteria has become among us.

Consider the symptoms: We swarm on anything in the spotlight, like sharks on wounded tuna, convinced that whatever is happening at any given moment is the most important thing that ever happened.  We circulate and re-circulate and re-re-circulate traumatic images, amplifying their intensity and their collective impact.  We obsess.  We take things personally.  We inflate.  We villainize, are quick to anger and full of public hostility.  We reduce our communal vocabulary to just a few words which we recite incessantly.  Galvanic response passes for judgment.  We wind ourselves tight, amp the pace of events, and are having increasing difficulty differentiating between the different and the threatening.

These are all things hysterical people do while in the grip of emotions far beyond their containment skills or even their understanding.

And the frenzy this hysteria generates is having an enormous impact on the processes of American political life.  Three such reconfigurations are already obvious:

We oversimplify each other, the issues we face, and just about everything else.  The first elements destroyed by hysteria are complexity, subtlety, and nuance.  Every picture is reduced to black and white or at least boiled down to primary colors.  The object of intercourse becomes the enforcement of a lowest denominator, even if it requires distortion to do so.

We waste our limited attention enforcing a preset template.  Hysteria exerts relentless pressure to replicate its own driven presumptions. The effect is to reduce the process of knowing to a closed loop, driven not by the spirit of inquiry but by the emotional condition of the hysteric. We see what we are driven to see and little else. Epistemology becomes spin.

We make confrontation the default position in engagement. Hysteria effectively locks all disagreements in place. Differences are left unexplored except in pursuit of tactical advantage.  Since replication and self justification always come first to the hysterical, the possibility of mutuality or common ground is ruled out before the conversation begins.

The rise of those traits seems a dire sign to me, so I called Professor Sue, who was in my class at Stanford, and asked her just what exactly was generating these hysterics.  Sue teaches American History and is also a family therapist.  I figured her double specialty might be particularly useful for this subject.

“I don’t know,” she answered.

“Come on,” I insisted.  “You must have a theory.”

“OK,” Sue gave in. “Here’s my theory:  I think everyone in America shares an unconscious, often hidden, and largely unarticulated conclusion that we fucked up, the glory days are over, the country is in deep shit, and there’s no way out.  We know in our bones that we’re falling apart and the rest of the world is moving ahead.  Forget about being #1, we’ll be lucky to level off at #17.  I think that panic is shared across the political board.  Although ideology plays a strong role in who is blamed, the hysteria comes from a common root.  This isn’t just about now or the unemployment rate.  It’s deeper and more primal.  It taps into our inner terror of losing our grip and never getting it back.  Hysteria is just the vibration in our national fuselage as the American empire noses over and loses altitude. People sense they have lost something and are frantic over it.

“As a historian, I am convinced we’ve reached an extraordinary national moment.  We’re never going to be the America of legend anymore.  The hysterics you run into up on the high end of the cable channels are just the byproduct of our incipient comeuppance.”

“And as a therapist?,” I asked.  “What’s your diagnosis?”

“As a therapist,” she answered, “the hysteria I’m witnessing looks a lot like what you see in the collapse of a romantic relationship:  Acrimony, Resentment, Fixation.  The next step in the intrapersonal version is stalking, so when I hear of this kind of behavior in my practice, I often suggest judicial restraining orders, the sooner the better.  But, of course, politics is a lot more complicated than that,” Sue shrugged over the phone.  “What can we do?”

“Perhaps,” I suggested, “Calm Down will have to become the next New Deal.”

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  1. Calm down, but…. So this weekend, coming back from a few family days at Tahoe, we were in the long line heading west up to the Donner summit. The snow was coming down from the sky and coming up on the road. We, along with thousands, passed the chain-check and on we drove. At about 5 mph. Suddenly the car behind whose wheel I was — my wife’s car– starts slipping. A cold knot grips my stomach. “Is this rear wheel, or front wheel drive?” I ask. “I don’t know,” is the answer. Suddenly we are off the side of highway 80 in powder snow up to the axles and I know the answer. It’s front wheel drive and the chains are on the back wheels. I get out and begin to take the chains off, but snow and haste and knotted knuckles gets them wrapped around the axles and I can’t get them off. So here’s my point. I have to calm down, yes. But I have to do something; something besides the calming that is. I have to act, fast — it is cold. I am wet. I am breathing hard from being under the car 4 times already. But to do anything I have to calm down. Unfortunately calming down does not mean sitting in the car and waiting for help. I, and I alone must do something. No one is stopping, or even looking our way. It’s 2010, not 1950. This is our dilemma, it seems to me. How to we stay calm and act at the same time? How do we calm our opponents, as Barbara Deming used to say, while at the same time, taking imperative, forceful actions ourselves, not adding to the hysteria? The problem is, when we first confronted the problem as youngsters it was merely a war in which 2 million died. Now the problems look a lot bigger: bigger jaws, bigger teeth, more potential misery and death. No wonder we sometimes get hysterical. Maybe the only way to calm down is to keep our actions up. In action is calmness.

    And yes, I got the chains off the rear wheels, and on the front. Twenty minutes of jacking in the snow was the trick. We got out of the snow bank and back into the line of gray, bug-eyed cars in the descending dark until 3,400 feet where snow changed to rain and the chains came off again. We drove calmly home, more or less.

  2. Pingback: America The Hysterical | The Ruth Group

  3. Reader9000 says:


    It feels to me like the hysteria you reference is confined to a very small group of people.

    Approximately half of eligible voters are registered and about half of them vote. Of voters about half vote for Republicans and half for Democrats. The hardcore blowhards you write about appeal to some percentage of voters, so the hysteria is really confined to 10-20% of the population. The demographics of this group are pretty specific. (mostly suburban white men over 35)

    Because these people are voters and economically powerful their concerns are over represented. The general population does not share their outlook, desires, or approach. When they die these issues will fade. To me the real issue is that whatever political will we have in this country is spent on all this crazy while the issues of the day are ignored. We will be in real trouble if something serious happens while the media is navel gazing and pandering to these nutcases.

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  5. Bob Hunter says:

    Can we really, in good conscience, continue to support the Democratic Party and candidates, who have never figured out how to harness the hysteria into progressive governance?

  6. Susan Smith says:

    The hysteria is being created to cover up the fact that the two party system is no longer Republicans and Democrats, but Rich vs the other 98% of us.

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