SYNDICATED COLUMN: Learned Helplessness

In 1967 animal researchers conducted an interesting experiment. Two sets of dogs were strapped into harnesses and subjected to a series of shocks. The dogs were placed in the same room.

The first set of dogs was allowed to perform a task—pushing a panel with their snouts—in order to avoid the shocks. As soon as one dog mastered the shock-avoidance technique, his comrades followed suit.

The second group, on the other hand, was placed out of reach from the panel. They couldn’t stop the pain. But they watched the actions of the first set.

Then both groups of dogs were subjected to a second experiment. If they jumped over a barrier, the dogs quickly learned, the shocks would stop. The dogs belonging to the first set all did it.

But the second-set dogs were too psychologically scarred to help themselves. “When shocked, many of them ran around in great distress but then lay on the floor and whimpered,” wrote Russell A. Powell, Diane G. Symbaluk and P. Lynne Honey in Introduction to Learning and Behavior. “They made no effort to escape the shock. Even stranger, the few dogs that did by chance jump over the barrier, successfully escaping the shock, seemed unable to learn from this experience and failed to repeat it on the next trial. In summary, the prior exposure to inescapable shock seemed to impair the dogs’ ability to learn to escape shock when escape became possible.”

The decrease in learning ability caused by unavoidable punishment leads to a condition called “learned helplessness.”

Which brings us to the midterm elections.

Battered and bruised, with no apparent way out, the American electorate has plunged into a political state of learned helplessness. They’ve voted Democratic to punish rapacious Republicans. They’ve voted Republican to get rid of do-nothing Democrats. They’ve tried staying home on Election Day. Nothing they do helps their condition. They’re flailing.

The great mass of Americans works longer hours for less pay. Until, inevitably, they get “laid off.” Is there a working- or middle-class American who hasn’t lost his job or been close to someone who got fired during the last few years? Even in 2009, when global capitalism entered its final crisis and millions of Americans were losing their homes to the same banks their taxes were paying to bail out, the world’s richest people—those with disposable wealth over $30 million—saw their assets soar by 21.5 percent.

Go ahead, little leftie: smash the windows at Starbucks in Seattle. It won’t stop transnational corporations from raping the planet and exploiting you. Enjoy your Tea Party, little rightie. It sure is cute, listening to you talk about the wee Constitution. “Your” government and the companies that own “your” leaders have your number. And they’re listening to your phone calls.

The public is now in full-fledged flailing mode. Just two years ago, you will recall, Obama and the Democrats swept into power on a platform of hope and change: hope that things might improve, by changing away from the Bushian Republicanism of the previous eight years.

Now, depending who you listen to, people have either turned against the hope and the change, or against the failure of ObamaCo to deliver it. “The voters, I think, are just looking for change, and that means bad news for incumbents and in particular for the Democrats,” says Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster.

Change from change we can’t believe in. Again.

According to the latest NBC News/Washington Post poll, this is the same electorate that “shows grave and growing concerns about the Gulf oil spill, with overwhelming majorities of adults favoring stronger regulation of the oil industry and believing that the spill will affect the nation’s economy and environment.” Because you know the Republicans are all about more regulation of Big Oil. And care so much about the environment.

Does your head hurt yet?

There is some good news: Three major polls find that most Americans don’t believe Obama has a plan to fix the economy. Yes, this is good news; it proves that the public isn’t totally crazy.

Like the poor Set B dogs in that 1967 experiment, Americans are running around aimlessly, veering between two parties that differ only in their degree of harm. Republicans are evil; Democrats enable it.

Next: lying on the ground and whimpering.

The way out is obvious. If a two-party corpocracy beholden to gangster capitalism is ruining your life, get rid of it.

Don’t whimper. Bite.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto,” to be published in September by Seven Stories Press. His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2010 TED RALL

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About the Author

Ted Rall
Ted Rall
Setting himself apart from the herd with a unique drawing style and a take-no-prisoners approach, Ted Rall began editorial cartooning in the 1980s with a handful of alternative weekly newspapers whose editors saw his photocopied work hanging from lampposts in New York City. In 1991 San Francisco Chronicle Features began syndicating Rall’s three-times-a-week editorial cartoons syndication with newspapers including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Des Moines Register and Philadelphia Daily News.

Universal Press Syndicate picked up Rall’s cartoons in 1996. Today the man often called “the most controversial cartoonist in America” appears in more than 100 newspapers throughout the United States, ranging from the Washington Post to the Village Voice.

His trademark “Generalissimo El Busho” is an iconic caricature of President Bush. It has drawn criticism from conservatives. He was called “treasonous” by the right-wing Weekly Standard and “anti-American” by the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page. The Right Wing News website named him 2003’s “Most Annoying Liberal” and was named number 15 in Bernard Goldberg’s book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. He has received numerous death threats.

Rall has also won awards, including the 1995 and 2000 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards for Outstanding Coverage of the Problems of the Disadvantaged. In 1996 he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Rall also draws non-political strips for MAD magazine and cartoon journalism for EurasiaNet, a news website about the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

"Editorial cartooning is an intrinsically negative medium,” Rall says, “but I’m an optimistic person. My hope is that, by calling attention to hypocrisy in our government and the inward focus of American culture in an amusing way, things will change for the better.”

Four collections of Rall’s cartoons have been published: Waking Up In America, All The Rules Have Changed, Search and Destroy, and America Gone Wild, as well as three award-winning graphic novels, My War With Brian, Real Americans Admit: The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done! and 2024, a parody of Orwell’s 1984. He edited an influential three-volume anthology of edgy alternative weekly political cartoons, Attitude. He wrote the bestselling 1998 “generational manifesto” Revenge of the Latchkey Kids.

Rall covered the war in Afghanistan in cartoon form, where his harrowing experience—3 of the 44 journalists with whom he traveled were killed—led to the critically acclaimed book To Afghanistan and Back. He released two books of prose during 2004, Wake Up, You’re Liberal: How We Can Take America Back From the Right and Generalissimo El Busho.

Rall’s most recent book is Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, a detailed analysis of the region in prose and cartoons.

See his books from NBM!

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