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A nation depressed 

The sad state of affairs in America

A cliché of psychotherapy is that depression is anger turned inward. So, one way of liberating the psyche from the frozen state of melancholy is to de-repress one's anger. This is a terrifying prospect to the average depressed person who, having the usual ethical restraints, fears his anger will annihilate its object.

And of course that happens. But it's usually not the case when self-awareness is brought to the process. When people do not bring consciousness to their depression and its relationship to anger, violence against someone else becomes -- as Dostoyevsky, writing well before Freud, theorized -- a defense to avoid that ultimate act of the depressive: suicide. We kill in order not to kill ourselves.

Depression, we are reminded daily by advice columnists, is epidemic in America. Thus it's no surprise that we read regularly now of depressed rural housewives who turn into Medea, murdering their own children. Or of children, bullied by their peers, turning into mass murderers. How could a nation so deeply depressed seriously entertain gun control? The skull-shattering wound to the self or the other, the permanent annihilation of persecutory pain, remains too compelling to dismiss, even when its champions, like Charlton Heston, turn into conspicuous lunatics. If you outlaw guns only outlaws will be able to kill themselves efficiently.

What happens when an entire society sinks into depression -- the depression of a diminishing economy, the depression of grief in the face of loss of prestige and the sense of security, the depression of lost power? Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq under Hussein, New York, Sept. 11. But there's something else too. Julia Kristeva, in Black Sun, the best book ever written on depression in my opinion, writes about the emergence of a "monstrous nothing" in the face of such apocalyptic scenes. We are struck dumb, go silent. (Only the image can express the monstrosity that words cannot articulate, she says, but that's another subject.)

President Bush's State of the Union address put me in mind of this. The compassionate president's speech oscillated weirdly between the prescription of feel-good antidepressants and saber rattling. History will almost certainly record the Bush |administration's success in deflecting America's attention from al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein as brilliant political strategy. We can't kill al-Qaeda, of course, since it has no center, no base, but we can kill Hussein, along with thousands of Iraqis, and, maybe, make ourselves feel a lot better. At the least, it's one way of avoiding killing ourselves with this depression that's haunting the national psyche.

I'm not arguing that Hussein's not a monster, though perhaps no more so than many other dictators that America has supported in the past. Nor do I have any idea whether he's concealing "weapons of mass destruction." What does seem obvious is that the U.N. disarmament policy of the '90s, though Hussein may have imperfectly followed it, seems to have contained him. It's foolish not to think that the sudden re-focusing of attention on him, the nearly unbearable lust King George has for Hussein's death, isn't a defense against the fear that we will be overwhelmed by paranoia and actual terror inflicted by an enemy with no home to attack.

And, like a primal therapy patient lying in a small room screaming angrily year after year, Americans have otherwise entered a monstrous silence. It's disturbing that more of us don't stop to question the urgency of our thirst to revenge Sept. 11 and make ourselves feel safer from one enemy by attacking another. Even the supposedly liberal media have adopted this defense. CNN would not permit the airing of ads by a peace group before and after the State of the Union address. CNN argued that the ads made unsubstantiated claims about the war, as if Bush did not.

Meanwhile we bob our heads agreeably as Bush offers us a tax package that for all practical purposes does nothing but enrich the wealthy while draining the treasury even as he plans to go to war. Like guests at a Catholic wedding, people stood up and sat down, applauding, as the president dispensed his usual dishonest anodynes -- that you can effectively privatize Social Security (it will cost $1 trillion), for example. Didn't Enron teach us a lesson about that? He says he wants every American to have a health insurance policy. Kewl! How? He wants hydrogen-powered cars to help clean up the environment while his administration has done more to set back the environmental movement in this country than any since its inception. Just in case you get the idea he's too plutocratic, he wants to help drug addicts, at-risk kids and people with AIDS in Africa. Excellent. Then again, how are we going to pay for that? I guess it's only fair if we're going to create a budget deficit for the wealthy, we might as well create one for poor Africans.

America has sunk into melancholy and deferred its power to an adolescent who tells us nice lies at one moment and threatens to kick ass the next. Of course, the adolescent is, at depth, us.

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