The Moment of Truth — September 18, 2004

Stockholm Syndrome In 2004

Welcome to the Moment of Truth, the spiritual song of a captive nation.

Patty Hearst had it. So did Elizabeth Smart, the fourteen-year-old girl who was abducted from her bedroom. Patty Hearst joined her kidnappers robbing banks. Elizabeth didn’t betray her kidnappers even when police were present. It’s Stockholm syndrome, the psychological mechanism that causes hostages to identify with and even come to adore their captors. It’s a survival mechanism. It’s not brainwashing, or programming. The captors don’t have to get in there and fiddle around with your neurons—the hostage programs herself by repeatedly enacting the survival strategy of trying to placate or please her kidnapper in order not to be hurt or killed by him.

Stockholm syndrome is employed rhetorically to peddle a variety of political positions. The anti-Arab Israelis use it, unpersuasively, to explain why some Israelis DON’T hate Arabs. (More on that in another essay, likely.) Anarchists attribute to it the incapacity of the masses to imagine life without government. Crisis workers and psychologists use it to discuss why it is so many women, men, and children stay with and even lie to protect their abusive spouses, lovers or guardians.

Some are born immune to Stockholm syndrome. They are the unfortunate few who cannot be led by the nose anywhere, not even to something that smells good. We call these people “perverse” and “trouble-makers.” Then there are those who develop immunity through undergoing repeated episodes of captivity, such as abductions by each of the three main types of space alien, or, more typically, through serial monogamy. In fact, it can be argued that only by achieving immunity to Stockholm syndrome can one find true love. Then again, it could also be argued that true love is the purest expression of the syndrome, in which each participant is both captor and hostage.

Religious cults thrive on the syndrome, of course. But even the everyday bears its spoor. Why does the worker defend his horrible boss? Why does the Marine come to love his drill sergeant, or the Zen novice his capriciously violent master? Why do we not protest the myriad indignities that confront and affront us as we merely negotiate a single day of civilization?

But in the murk of such philosophizing, our terms threaten to dissolve into a vague, over-shrouding gestalt. And then I will not be able to use them to peddle MY political position, which, I assure, is most, oh yes, persuasive. So let me cut and paste the textbook conditions under which Stockholm syndrome arises:

  • Perceived threat to survival and the belief that one’s captor is willing to act on that threat
  • The captive’s perception of small kindnesses from the captor within a context of terror
  • Isolation from perspectives other than those of the captor
  • Perceived inability to escape.

That last one seems superfluous. Doesn’t the very nature of being a hostage imply a perceived inability to escape? And I’m not even sure that’s necessary. What if you perceive some kind of contingent route of escape? You can’t get Stockholm syndrome then? I don’t know, I’m no expert, but I’d bet you could find a few ex-hostages who might say, Well, at first I thought I could escape if he just sneezed five good sneezes in a row, but before that even had a chance to happen, I was won over by his charisma and the tale of hardships that had led him to take the desperate measure of imprisoning me in an energy sphere.

Be that as it may, when we begin to speak of captive populations in the USA, it’s what the psychologists call a “non-cerebral” or “non-brainer.” There are certainly conservatives who might pooh-pooh this, but I think a population who got here by being kidnapped and held hostage on ships, and were then sold to be kept as captive laborers, qualifies as an obvious candidate for societal Stockholm syndrome. And I mean something beyond the examples of black people fighting on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War, or any instances of slaves internalizing the racial reasoning of their owners. During the actual Captivity, black people were able to maintain and communicate amongst themselves a strong undercurrent of antagonism toward their condition. Overt resistance by black people to the political advent of their freedom was rare in comparison to the overwhelming sense of having a desire fulfilled. I can only support these last two assertions by pointing to a vast body of history, songs, literature, and social action. So, who’s to say, really? Maybe someone at Fox News knows of some Spirituals that go: “I love my Master, Yes indeedy, I deserve the whip cuz I left the fields weedy.”

The clearest evidence of mass Stockholm syndrome in the black population was, in my opinion, the O.J. Simpson trial. Leaving aside the evident Stockholm syndrome of the jury itself, I think it’s a real question, “Why did black people en masse side with O.J. when the entire rest of the world did not?” (Not to say I haven’t heard plenty of black people disdain the idea that O.J. was innocent—and even express embarrassment at the majority black voice proclaiming it.) O.J. was no underdog. And it’s absurd to think there was that much conscious denial of the evidence. The majority of the black population, culturally isolated, still in effect segregated, had internalized the oppressor’s notion that it was normal for rich people to get away with murder. And here was their own rich person. If he could get away with murder, that would be a tacit admission by the power structure that black rich people were just like any other rich people. The O.J. verdict was a victory for black people in the sense that it normalized their relationship to the unequal economic structure. Their poor people were only as screwed over as white poor people. It validated their struggle. Or as a white friend of mine put it sardonically, “Yeah, look how far they’ve come.”

The “personal responsibility” backlash from the O.J. trial could not, of course, be directed at any rich person, especially not at O.J. This backlash reached its apogee when Bill Cosby came out a month or so ago for personal responsibility among the “parents and youth of today.” Cosby, a rich guy, wouldn’t have considered for a moment saying, “And the example of O.J. getting acquitted ain’t helping.” No. His tacit message was, if you’d just get your values straight, you too could one day enjoy the ability we rich people have to rhetorically beat up on poor people and even get away with murder. And Cosby’s a liberal. If you haven’t read the words of black conservative critics like Stanley Crouch or Shelby Steele, knowing that they come down to the right of Cosby’s wealth/privilege apologism ought to give you an indication of how mutilated are their psyches.

It’s tempting to use Stockholm syndrome to mock black conservatives. I say, give in to temptation. Use it to mock ALL minority conservatives. Ann Coulter has got to be the most upsetting case of Stockholm syndrome the rightwing has on display. Hearing her speak, there can be little doubt that, whatever trauma she went through in the past, it was the equivalent of her castrated father raping her with a strap-on several times a day for eighteen years. And no need to stop at minority conservatives. Bill O’Reilly came from “the working class.” Let’s be Dr. Drew and Adam on “Love Line”: okay, I’m gonna say, father was drunk, beat mom and the kids, and there was a sexually abusive uncle, probably in a law-enforcement or security occupation.

The obvious extension of the argument is that Stockholm syndrome is the missing piece of the puzzle of why the working class consistently votes against its own interests. It certainly explains the strong support for Bush. Remember,

  • Perceived threat to survival and the belief that one’s captor is willing to act on that threat

That’s Bush’s economic agenda in a nutshell, and pretty much describes his administration’s entire domestic and foreign policy style.

  • The captive’s perception of small kindnesses from the captor within a context of terror

When you ask if they aren’t worried that we let bin Laden escape while we’re getting into a new Vietnam in Iraq, Bush supporters love to bring up that measly few hundred bucks they got back in tax rebate. “Yeah, I’m so pissed off I’m gonna send my tax refund check right back,” they say sarcastically. Stockholm syndrome? Or just random, unexplainable stupidity? You decide.

  • Isolation from perspectives other than those of the captor

Guess what radio show these hostages listen to. I’ll give you a hint: his initials are S A C K O F C R A P. And what TV News network do they watch? Stockholm syndrome, for those who are hostage to the American Rightwing Spectacle, is a sickening spiral into self-hating irrationality.

And that last, controversial one: perceived inability to escape? The more one has traveled, the less likely one is to be nationalistic. Maybe that’s because the well-traveled know that life in other parts of the world is not so unlivable as Rush Limbaugh would have us believe. They’ve even got McDonald’s in India, if you really must.

First they beat up on the gays, but I wasn’t gay, so I didn’t say anything. Then they beat up on the women, but I wasn’t a woman, so I didn’t say anything. Then they beat up on the children, but I wasn’t a child, so I didn’t say anything. Then they beat up on the teachers, but I wasn’t a teacher, so I didn’t say anything. Then they beat up on the Democrats, but I wasn’t a Democrat, so I didn’t say anything. Then they beat up on CBS. But I didn’t work for or watch CBS, so I didn’t say anything. Then they beat up on ABC Nightly News, but I didn’t work for or watch ABC Nightly News, so I didn’t say anything. Then they beat up on the New York Times, but I didn’t work for or read the New York Times, so I didn’t say anything. Then they beat up on the earth, the water, the air, the animals, the trees, and the pornographers, but I didn’t want anyone to know how much I liked pornography, so I didn’t say anything. Then they came to beat me up, and there was no one left to say anything—so I cut them down at the knees with the Uzi submachine they’d stupidly allowed me to own. It was actually Johnny Cash’s submachine, but he left it to me.

Let me promise you this: four more years of Bush and we will be in a world war. Six more years of control of the government by the Project for a New American Century, and there will be civil war right here in the USA. These people are not your friends, America. They aren’t even YOUR friends, Joe Fascist with your six-pack of cobalt-preserved Miller Low-life, sitting in front of your TV watching Nascar and hating everyone who hasn’t jumped on your stupid Nascar bandwagon. Up yours! Nascar SUCKS! You eat nothing but CHICKEN-FRIED LARD and you are a hypnotized lemming.

You like Bush cuz he’s a regular guy just like you? Well: Who the hell wants YOU to be president? You’re an ignorant drunk superstitious tool of big oil. Come on, think about it, Bush voters: He’s just like your neighbor, Joe Fat Ass Fascist.

At least the Romans didn’t ELECT Nero. At least the Russians didn’t ELECT Stalin. At least we didn’t ELECT Bush the first time around. But a whole bunch of you schmucks out there sure seem to want him to be your Stalin.

Before you can say, “One nation under God,” Federal tanks will be rolling over your local Old Country Buffet in the mall. The sprawl will be in flames. When the smoke clears, the barren earth will give no quarter to the ape that walks like a chicken.

And Stockholm syndrome? Try feeding your sniveling tribe of post-apocalypse troglodytes Stockholm syndrome to quell their hunger pangs.

I don’t know how we can deprogram you, America. We beg and plead and explain and protest and draw cartoons and play music, and still you insist on perching yourselves atop the point of a giant machine screw and rotating. Sorry, our side just can’t behave like Carl Rove. It’s not going to happen. The division between those with Stockholm syndrome and those without it is exactly there: a line between those who accept Carl Rove as a legitimate political strategist, and those who recognize that his very strategies delegitimize him and any politician whose course is guided by him.

The sad part is, you want us to be taken hostage with you. You want the whole world to be a hostage, you love your captors so much. Thus beginneth the war.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!