Reflections on a Dying Society by Bernie Sanders


Francis Vazquez

      We Fear Death from the beginning of consciousness to its end. So much writing and reflection serves as an innoculation or distraction from that fear. Caught up in our moment, the present and our issues always appear all-consuming. In 2015, society and the earth seem sick, beyond any possibility for recovery. 1968 felt much the same, with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, Martin Luther King’s assassination, Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination and the DNC police riots. America was on the brink, or so it seemed. The country stabilized, people moved on and grew older. Bernie Sanders, in 1968 a young political activist, is now running under the idea of systemic and egalitarian change. In the never ending news cycle, America’s changes are difficult to discern from so many data points. Sometimes a stark contrast is helpful, either to see how drastically society has changed or how it has stayed much the same.

"The stress of living in the modern world, and in America, is great, and it is taking its toll."

Reflections on a Dying Society

By Bernie Sanders

One scans the daily newspapers. (Reading them is a bit too overpowering). Cuts in welfare, Medicaid, education, and hospital care throughout the country. The “liberal” governor of New York, who has millions of dollars in personal wealth, represents the current political viewpoint when he says that there just isn't enough money to balance the budget if the cuts aren't made. Billions are spent on the continued destruction of the Vietnamese people, and billions more are contemplated for S.S.T. planes and ABM systems. Taxes are up (although we read that the wealthiest people in the nation seem to be tax exempt) while government bureaucracy swells, in some places, to almost unmanageable inefficiency.

In the cities of the nation the process of gradual deterioration continues. The air is poisonous, the noise deafening, and the streets are dangerous to walk. The people are nervous. In the famous Midtown Study, conducted under the direction of psychiatrist Dr. Thomas A. C. Roanie, 23 percent of a randomly selected population in mid-town Manhattan were judged to be “impaired psychologically” – ranging from “marked symptom formation to outright incapacitation.”

The food that the population eats is generally unnutricious if not positively dangers. For example, at least ten chemicals listed as recently as 1956 by the National Academy of Science in The Use of Chemical Additives in Food Processing are currently suspected of being cancer causing agents. These include a cheese preservative (8‒Hydroxyquinilone), a flavoring agent for root beer (safrole), a cheese stabilizer (carboxymenthyl cellulose), and several coaltar dyes.

Ecologically, the people of the United States and the planet Earth are wreaking havoc on their home terrain. Without planning or foresight millions of acres of productive soil and watershed are being converted into urban use every year. Streams and rivers in America are polluted to such a degree that in many places water life is unable to be supported. In New York City, with a population of eight million people, it is almost impossible to find a clean swimming area and people regularly ignore the “danger‒polluted water” signs. In Barre, Vermont, the people are told to  boil their water before drinking it. Children were becoming sick last summer. A local doctor investigated, and it was found that the water was unclean.

The threat of nuclear annihilation or death by poison gas hovers close to every heart. (Some thousands of sheep die mysteriously in Utah and the U.S. government is finally forced to admit, after attempting to lie its way out of it, that “the wind was blowing the wrong way” and perhaps a little of its fantastically lethal nerve gas did escape the laboratory.

But, no fear. There already exists on earth enough nuclear bombs to destroy mankind many times over, so the fear  of poison gas diminishes. This year, the President of the United States thinks nuclear war is a bad thing, but a few years ago he wasn't so cautious and next year.‒?

"Year after year the population receives more and more education, and year after year the people have less control over their own destinies."

In any case, China, according to Mao, is “capable” of absorbing a loss of tens of millions in nuclear war “for socialism,” while Herman Kahn, a “brain trust” advisor to the U.S. military, informs us that nuclear war is not unthinkable and that the United States, like China can also “survive” nuclear war even if most of the population is destroyed.

The stress of living in the modern world, and in America, is great, and it is taking its toll. Although the statistics show that our life span is longer than it has ever been, they also show that in many ways the population is sicker than it has ever been.

While modern medicines have made great advances in medical technology, it has made virtually no progress in coming to terms with the “soul sickness” of modern man. The hope that psychoanalysis might provide a cure for man's emotional sickness has gradually petered out. We can surgically put together people whose organs have been severed in accidents or war, but “post-natal depression” is so common in American that people almost think that it is natural. Heart and kidney transplants provide life for those who would otherwise be dead, but “mental illness” in the nation (a term which in the context of this society means next to nothing) is rampant, and half of the hospital beds in America are filled by those emotionally unable to cope with life on the outside.

While such diseases as smallpox, influenza, tuberculosis, malaria, and polio have been greatly reduced by modern science, the so-called psychosomatic diseases such as heart ailments, common colds, ulcers, asthma, arthritis, alcoholism, and many others have resisted the attempts at prevention by modern medicine and are on the rise. Research by such investigators as Drs. Reich, List, Kissen, Gingerdale, Kirkner and many others suggest that even cancer must be looke upon as a disease of emotional origin (which would not exclude there being contributing factors such as smoking, etc).

The United States is the “best educated” nation on the earth. State after state requires children to stay in school until a minimum age, and more of our young people attend college than in any other country on earth. Nonetheless, people have little confidence in themselves and are fearful of freedom. Mothers with twenty years of education are fearful of holding their children without “consulting their physician” and “experts” are assuming control everywhere. (It is clear that the people are not “expert” enough to control their own lives). Year after year the population receives more and more education, and year after year the people have less control over their own destinies.

"...and the circle is complete when a worker, who spends his life in a factory making products designed to break down, feels guilty when he can't afford to buy his child a junky toy advertised on TV's Captain Kangaroo."

In one study after another it is shown that Americans (who will die for “freedom”) think that documents such as our Constitution are far too radical, and when confronted with the writings and ideas of Jefferson think that he is an out and out anarchist. A study done in Sacramento, California, for example, (and discussed in the Vermont Freeman of April 5, 1969), showed that more than 5,000 people out of 7,500 contacted refused to sign a petition which asked for support of shortened versions of Articles 1, 5, 6, 7, and 8 of the Bill of Rights, as well as a paragraph of the 14th Amendment. Some people refused to sign for “patriotic” reasons.

Many forms of coercion, subtle or otherwise, are becoming commonplace. Respect for individual freedom in America is certainly not on the increase. If it is one thing to see on the screen of your television set Chicago policemen brutally beating on peaceful demonstrators, it is not a totally different thing for people to become accustomed to the fact that they can be stopped at anytime by the police who conduct “routine car checks.”

It is obvious that in the name of “public safety” the State is usurping the rights of free choice in many domains of life. To get a FHA loan one must build with specified lumber and materials; to drive an automobile one must have insurance and a car which has no rust going through; to run a farm and sell milkbone one must have a bulk tank; to drive a motorcycle one must have a helmet‒ to cite just a few examples. The idea that all children must attend school until 16 years of age, even if some would rather do other things, is now treated as given a fact of life as the sun rising. The fluoridaton of water and the giving of medicants to children ins schools are portents, perhaps, of many worse things to come.

Obviously, the point of all of this is not that on specific issues the state position may not be the correct one, e.g., good brakes do prevent auto accidents, and helmets do prevent head injuries‒ that if democracy and a respect for individual choice is to prevail, coercion must not be the means by which “correct” policy is pursued.

In general, the American economy is, to a large degree, based on the production of goods which are useless, designed to breakdown, or used for the slaughter of people. Our military budget is currently 80 billion dollars a year, and due to go up. While millions of workers sweat their lives away in factories producing the cars, appliances, and machinery of the nation, the engineers and manufacturers have designed them so that they break down in a few years or go “out of style.”

The function of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent in the advertising industry is to encourage people to buy what they don't need, and the circle is complete when a worker, who spends his life in a factory making products designed to break down, feels guilty when he can't afford to buy his child a junky toy advertised on TV's Captain Kangaroo.

The general social situation, to say the least, does not look good. Wherever we look the merchants of death hold power, and our very existence is dependent upon people whom we have little trust in.

The depth of our plight is hard to ascertain. Fifty years ago Freud introduced the phrase “death instinct” into modern psychiatry, and the term still rubs hard on the mind. Although few now believe, as Freud did, that the impulse toward death and destruction in man is of biological causation (and, hence, not subject to amelioration by improvement of the human condition), there can be little doubt that the human spirit has been so crushed by the society in which it exists that the general will toward life is not very strong. If we begin to interpret such death and pain producing phenomena as wars, psychosomatic disease, “accidents” (automobile and other), not to mention open suicide, as more or less intentionally willed (unconscious or otherwise) occurrences, the conclusions are frightening. We are forced to ask such questions as ‒ How much do human beings really want to live? How much pain can the human organism absorb, and continue to prevail?

The circle is a vicious one. Society breeds misery, and the sons and daughters of misery give forth the new society.

In recent years we have seen exceptionally clear instances of the strong social impulse toward death ‒ and the lack of concern for life. Seven years ago, the “Cuban missile crisis” brought the world to the brink of disaster. A whole planet stood on the edge of annihilation, with the nuclear war being averted only by a hair's breadth. And today, seven years later, there are more nuclear bombs, in more countries, than ever before.

And the majority of people throughout the world seem not to care very much. (In America, those who do not care are isolated and given the name “peaceniks”‒ a strange group of fellows who actually care whether they live or die. Odd bunch!). People seem not to be interested in the fact that if yesterday's “Cuban crisis” is over with, that tomorrow a “Chinese crisis,” or a “Russian crisis,” or a this “crisis” or a that “crisis” will surely arise, and that one of these days the bombs will go off, and they and their children will be dead.

- Bernie Sanders (1969)

Featured in Nº3.