Learned Helplessness

“Let us clarify, at the start, that the title of this is not ‘learn-ned helplessness’, that deeply reasoned, well-informed, intellectually robust helplessness that comes at the end of a long course of diligent study of the methods and materials of helplessness, complete with the philosophical underpinnings,” said the skeleton, unaccountably wearing what looked like a dented motarboard.  

“We are talking about the natural, seamlessly transmitted lack of hope passed like a genetic predisposition from one helpless generation to the next and endlessly reinforced on the tilted playing field we are all frolicking on.   Your mother and I passed on our learned helplessness to you and your sister, after receiving it from our parents.  Today, more than half of this deeply divided country woke up experiencing the all-too-familiar horror of this feeling of bottomless despair.”

You know, now that I’ve had time to get over some of the initial horror, I realize I was unfair the other day, having you rail against the white haters who voted the bullying president-elect into office.  Many of the people who voted for him, it is only fair to admit, were not motivated by hatred at all, only strong dislike and fear, at worst, and in some cases these voters were the nicest people in the world, they were just protecting their wealth, trying to pay as little tax as possible by having a billionaire president.  

“You can spin it however you like, I’m just making the point about that infantile terror that strikes when you are forced to confront your own helplessness, against death, against those, armed to the teeth and seething with ill will, who come to kill your loved ones, against those who threaten the air you breathe and the water you drink.  It’s a dark day in America and millions woke up with a dry mouth and that feeling in the pit of the stomach that signals you are irremediably fucked.”  The skeleton sent his odd, flat-topped hat frisbeeing down the hill, almost reaching Eli’s grave sixty yards below.

“Take Yetta, your grandmother, for example.  She was bright, talented, entrepreneurial, idealistic, ambitious– and a vodka drinker with a hollow leg.  When she was a teenager she had a dress-making business in Vishnevitz– she employed several adult women to sew the dresses she designed, dresses that were in great demand in that small town.  

“This would have been around the time, right after the Russian Revolution, that the Communist youth movement was flourishing in Kremenetz, in that whole area of the Ukraine.  Young Yetta and her friends were thrilled to believe that the world was changing for the better, towards a world of universal decency for the poor, the end of exploitation of the many by the few, a new era of international worker solidarity.  Or so it seemed.

“She made her way to America, the land of opportunity, while the forces of counter-revolution battered away at the forces of worldwide worker justice.  She joined the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, made a decent living all through the Depression and then learned that all the women she’d employed in her dress-making business, and all her former customers, and all six of her brothers and sisters, and all of her nieces and nephews, and her parents, and every other Jew in the town had been murdered.   Imagine what she must have felt to get that news, at the age of forty-three, with a teen-aged daughter of her own.”  

You pick up the vodka bottle, try to feel happy or optimistic somehow.  Even if you have to be drunk, it’s better than the alternative, I suppose.  

“Well, there is no way to process the end of all your dreams, the death of everyone back home you loved, the end of the dream of international peace and cooperation — the end of everything good in your life.  

“Except for your life itself, an infinite good in itself.  You recall how fiercely grandma clung to life at the end?” the skeleton stared at me intently, with empty eye sockets.  

You’re really cheering me up, dad.  

“I’m not meant to cheer you up, Elie.  I’m meant to wake you up.   Whatever despair you are feeling right now, forget about it.   There is hard work to be done, and nobody else to do it.  You need to marshal your talents and put them in the service of convincing people of the need to organize, educate themselves…. ah, who am I fucking kidding?   You can marshal all the talent in the world…without funding… who am I fucking trying to convince?

“When I was in my thirties, around the time you were born, I went to speak to parents and teachers at schools that would one day be effected by the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, schools that had to be racially integrated with ‘all deliberate speed’.   I spoke well, and passionately, and what I got for my troubles was a police escort because the parents and teachers were hostile to someone, in New York City, delivering the self-evident American message I had: Negro kids have the same right to opportunity in America as everyone else.  

“That was sixty years ago, Elie.   The only big change in that time, outside of a small very rich black upper class that has emerged and a much wider range of black celebrities in the media, is the banning of the word that those audiences who threatened me used to refute my talk about equality.  They pelted me with ‘nigger’ every time I spoke about freedom and equality and our Constitution, and the right of all Americans to a good public education, to become knowledgeable citizens, assemble, express themselves, and participate in our democratic system.

“I can see some of those faces I spoke to, talk about ‘twisted and contorted with hate’.  Sixty years ago, Elie, and the schools in New York City are as racially segregated as they were before the Supreme Court found segregated education unconstitutional.  Most citizens have no idea how crucial the Supreme Court is in setting the law they will live by for a hundred years or more. 

“You’ve got to tell them, Elie, about the string of Supreme Court cases in the decade after the Civil War that reduced the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to meaningless footnotes for a century. All that is required for an evil status quo to continue is a Supreme Court that champions that evil status quo.  You’re about to have that for the rest of your lifetime, believe it.”  

Dude, you really have to shut up now.  This is all bad enough without the historical perspective.  

“The cancerous, zombie chickens coming home to roost, Elie, that’s all this is,” said the skeleton, with unaccountable cheerfulness.  

Well, as an old country boy, I have to say, the cancerous, zombie chickens coming home to roost is something I welcome– to paraphrase Brother Malcolm, before he was executed by a small team of hired n-words in the Audubon Ballroom.  

“Elie, you’d better get outside and go for a walk,” said the skeleton with what appeared to be genuine concern.


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