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February 14, 2007

Learned Helplessness

Today’s Downsizer-Dispatch . . .

Please bring this item to the attention of concerned friends . . .

You hear it all the time: no good outcome is possible in Iraq.

By saying this over-and-over again we are fostering a state of mind that psychologist Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness.” Here’s what Wikipedia says about learned helplessness . . .

“Learned helplessness is a psychological condition in which a human or animal has learned to believe that it is helpless. It thinks that it has no control over its situation and that whatever it does is futile. As a result it will stay passive when the situation is unpleasant or harmful and damaging.”

This describes Congress and the American public almost perfectly.

Congress is debating how to remain passive about the problem in Iraq. One side says “let’s continue exactly as we are with few changes,” while the other side says “let’s continue exactly as we are with just a small surge of troops used in a slightly different way.”

Neither side seems to recognize that a massive problem that is massively resistant to current attempts at a solution requires a massively different approach.

We have shown in a previous message that we lack the troops to attempt a massively different approach to continued occupation. This is obvious to anyone who can count, but we have learned to be helpless about Iraq, and so we are passive in the face of a “harmful and damaging” reality.

Congress isn’t alone in this passivity. The American public has also learned to be helpless and passive. We can see this in the contradictory state of significant segments of public opinion . . .

Public disapproval of the war has risen to the high 60s, but public support for increasing the number of troops in Iraq has risen even faster, from 16% to 26%! This inevitably means that a significant number of people both oppose the war, and want to escalate it!

When a large number of people hold mutually contradictory opinions we take is as a sign of “learned helplessness.” People are saying . . .

I can see no hope, but somebody please do something!

We would humbly submit that continuing to pursue the same failed policy is not “doing something.” We would also humbly assert that a good outcome in Iraq is possible, despite the litany to the contrary.

Here’s the good outcome that is possible . . .

The warring Iraqi factions could reach a settlement to stop the fighting.

It has happened before in other conflicts, and it could happen in this one too. This should be the objective.

Toward this end there are two points on which we should all focus our minds . . .

1. Using force to stop the fighting without resolving the underlying conflict would merely leave the conflict to explode on another day, once the force is removed.

2. It cannot be said often enough, we don’t have enough troops to force the Iraqis to stop fighting.

In future messages we will examine steps we could take that would increase the likelihood of a settlement. All of them require ending the U.S. occupation as a pre-condition. But it is important to recognize that even if this were not so, it is still vital to end the occupation. Here’s why . . .

We need to behave like adults. Children play pretend. Adults should not. Wishing that we had the strength to force the Iraqis to stop fighting, cannot make it so. Passivity in the face of harsh reality is just a form of “playing pretend.” We need to shake off our learned helplessness and conform our actions to reality.

This adult behavior needs to start with us.

Please take note of how closely the passivity of Congress tracks the passivity of American public opinion. Congress may do many things behind closed doors that are contrary to the public’s will, but when an issue is highly visible politicians fear to tread beyond the bounds of public desire. So . . .

If we want to change Congress, we must first change ourselves.

There is a parallel here, between the passive, helpless, “let’s play pretend” policy in Iraq, and the number one objection we hear about Downsize DC. People tell us all the time that they love the way Downsize DC approaches things, but it’s too bad Congress won’t listen. Notice the similarities . . .

* The current policy in Iraq won’t work, but let’s keep doing it anyway.
* Fighting partisan electoral contests has never really changed anything, but let’s keep doing it anyway.
* Congress does follow public opinion, but public pressure on Congress won’t work.

Physician, heal thyself. The only thing that doesn’t work about exerting pressure on Congress is the people who fail to apply that pressure. End the passivity. Tell Congress to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and tell your friends to do the same by forwarding this message.

Thank you for being a DC Downsizer.

Perry Willis
Communications Director
DownsizeDC.org, Inc.

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