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The Drumbeat of Trauma-Inducing Events in Our Lives


Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
‘Til you spend half your life just to cover it up, now

~Bruce Springsteen 

On September 19th, 1984 Ronald Reagan capped off a campaign rally in Hammonton, New Jersey with the following words: “America’s future rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many young Americans admire, New Jersey’s Bruce Springsteen,” which was, of course, a naked pander to the Boss’s then wildly popular song, “Born in the USA.” 

And thus began what is arguably the most widely deployed and persistent misinterpretation of a song in the history of popular music. 

“Born in the USA” was many things. But one that it definitely wasn’t was a paean to the endless possibilities of American life. In fact, it was quite the opposite: a searing indictment of its increasing brutality and the disappearance of hope and upward mobility in her small towns. 

Today, there is a lot of talk of trauma in our culture. And a lot of it, such as the type that issues from the mouths of 20-somethings when they hear or read an opinion they don’t like, is self-evidently frivolous. 

But that does not necessarily mean that widespread trauma does not exist in our culture, or that these young people are not suffering greatly from it. 

Rather, it is just that they have internalized all too well one of the clearest, if largely unstated, messages issued to all of us in our ever more authoritarian culture: that talking about the deep traumas unleashed upon the citizenry by the real centers of economic and social power is strictly taboo, and that doing so can only lead to retribution. 

Knowing this, and cued by the social worker ethos that now predominates in our educational system, they instead channel their often quite legitimate sense of rage toward the self-evidently impossible task of controlling the word and thought choices of others, and trying to slay things like “hate” that obviously cannot be slain. 

All of which, of course, immensely pleases the very few, but very powerful people who, if you haven’t yet figured it out, are working very assiduously at establishing a new system of electronic feudalism for the rest of us. 

For them, fomenting rage within the citizenry about the small things insures their minds stay off bigger more important issues. They know, moreover, that by maintaining a strong but inchoate sense of grievance in our society’s most tech-savvy cohort about things that ultimately cannot be resolved in any clean, neat, or satisfactory fashion, they have the makings of an off-the-shelf militia of cyber brownshirts. 

All they need to do is activate the algorithmic nudges designed to foment the sullying of anyone or anything the big boys see as impeding their dream of total social control, stand back, and watch the descendants of Byzantium’s 8th and 9th century iconoclasts do their destructive thing. 

But what if, instead of this, we were to open a serious discussion in our culture about the many real and serious traumas visited upon us by largely faceless state and economic actors and the long-lasting effects they have on our bodies and our cognitive patterns, and how if left to fester in both places it can lead to the sense of numb hopelessness so perfectly described in the above verse from Springsteen’s famously misunderstood song? 

What if instead of hyping the grave importance of using the “correct” pronouns ,our educators and media figures were to direct people toward the books and lectures of Dr. Gabor Mate, who speaks eloquently about the very real and debilitating effects of trauma in his own life, and how by confronting them with courage and honesty, he was able to heal and regenerate his ability to empathize with others? 

Or perhaps those of Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, who shows us how trauma can literally lodge itself in our bodies and can attenuate many of the cognitive and emotive reflexes required for achieving anything close to a sense of calm, fulfillment, and consistent ethical reasoning in our lives. 

If we were to take trauma seriously we would be having broad social discussions about the purposely harmful and disorienting blows administered to the body politic from state forces working in conjunction with Big Industry over the past 22 years, and with even more shamelessness and intensity still, during the last three and a half years of that same period. 

We’d be talking about what it means to make fear, intimidation, condescension, and coercion the pre-eminent languages of the government-citizen interfaces, and would be asking what this constant messaging does to our children’s faith in the possibility of ever feeling at ease in the world, or in their own skins. 

We’d be talking about what it does to the psyche of our children to live in a world where authorities—and indeed many ordinary adults caught up in a game of survival that they perceive, rightly or wrongly, has the ability to dissemble at its core—lie so banally and so regularly that the young no longer see truth-seeking as a possibility, or even a laudable ideal. 

We’d be talking about what traumatic imprints are left on the psyche of the millions of people who were effectively robbed of their ability to control what is put into their bodies by sinisterly designed damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t workplace “choices.” 

Or the nodes of trauma now lodged inside the bodies of parents who, having believed the constant and massive lies about the danger of the virus, and the capacities of the untested “vaccines” to fight it, rushed to give them to their children, only to find out later that the only real thing that the injections could realistically do for the people they love more than anything in the world, and have a sacred duty to protect, was to increase their chances of suffering from a serious illness in the future. 

How about the shame and trauma that accrues to those who were unable to make good, on one of the most solemn responsibilities we all have, one whose psychic importance Sophocles spoke of 2,500 years ago in his Antigone: to see our elders to the grave with comfort, honor and dignity? 

And what about the trauma being lived by the doctors who now realize that owing to either their laziness or greed they failed to live up to their most basic ethical responsibilities as healers, and that as a result of their drone-like repetition of the self-evidently false “safe and effective” mantra, they have brought sickness and real misery to a number of the families whose health it was their solemn responsibility to safeguard? 

Or the trauma of people who saw everything they worked for in life, in a society they always assumed was more or less rooted in orderly processes, taken away from them on the basis of decrees of dubious legality enabled by intentional lies issued by captured public health authorities? On what basis can such people rebuild the faith they need to once again take on challenging long-term projects? As no one has been minimally brought to justice for the enormous damage done to them by these lawless and capricious decrees, how do they know the same dystopia power grab won’t be visited on them again? 

And what about people like the New York City teacher I know who applied, as was his legal right, for a religious exemption to the vaccine mandate only to find out from the mouth of the EEOC representative assigned to his case, his supposed advocate in the struggle against employer abuse, that the organization had, like his own union, cut a deal with the management of the Department of Education to expend absolutely no energy or effort defending the rights of the vaccine dissidents? 

And finally what about the trauma experienced by those believed that their key long-term relationships were based an I-implicitly-trust-you embrace of their uniqueness and decision-making abilities only to find out they were actually rooted in I-will-only-accept-you-if-you-do-what-I-want-you-to-do conditionalities? 

If left unaddressed, the top-down trauma our “leadership” class seems bent on serially inflicting upon us leads to widespread psychic numbing and a nation of people who learn to comport themselves in the fearful and overly circumspect ways of that “dog that’s been beat too much.”

Are we resigned to living like that? 

If we aren’t then perhaps it is time we begin speaking openly, while encouraging others to speak openly, about the very deep hurts many of us have experienced over these last years, not in the narcissistic pursuit of fleeting sympathy, but rather in the interest of regaining the ability to open our eyes to beauty, and to trust others enough to extend to them the empathy that each of us, from childhood, have always secretly hoped would be generously extended to ourselves. 

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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  • Thomas Harrington

    Thomas Harrington, Senior Brownstone Scholar and Brownstone Fellow, is Professor Emeritus of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, where he taught for 24 years. His research is on Iberian movements of national identity and contemporary Catalan culture. His essays are published at Words in The Pursuit of Light.

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