I am often asked my opinion about the causes of America’s current geopolitical ills. Why do we face so many serious problems at the same time? The previous note in this series describes how we have changed, perhaps in ways so that the Constitution no long fits.
Another possible reason is our alienation from each other, a failure to see ourselves as fellows in a great joint venture. Just as unit cohesion makes possible survival on the battlefield, strong social cohesion allows — makes possible if not certain — a society to survive what would otherwise be overwhelming threats. Solon’s reforms gave Athens such social cohesion to achieve such greatness that they remain a beacon for us millennia later. Alienation of individuals from the group disrupts cohesion, and can prove fatal to the group in times of great stress.
This might explain the splintering of the American polity, our inability — as we have done so well in the past — to respond collectively to serious threats.
What is alienation?
Here is the Wikipedia entry on alienation (lightly edited, all links removed):
In sociology and critical social theory, alienation refers to an individual’s estrangement from traditional community and others in general. … the atomism of modern society means that individuals have shallower relations with other people than they would normally. This, it is argued, leads to difficulties in understanding and adapting to each other’s uniqueness (see normlessness).
… Many sociologists of the late 19th and early 20th century were concerned about alienating effects of modernization.
- German sociologists Georg Simmel and Ferdinand Tönnies have written rather critical works on individualization and urbanization.
- Simmel’s “Philosophy of Money” describes how relationships become more and more mediated through money.
- Tönnies’ “Community and Society” is about the loss of primary relationships such as family bonds in favour of goal oriented secondary relationships.
- The American sociologist C. Wright Mills conducted a major study of alienation in modern society with “White Collar” (1951) describing how modern consumption-capitalism have shaped a society where you have to sell your personality in addition to your work.
For a more poetic description of alienation:
The Marivaudian being is, according to Poulet, a pastless futureless man, born anew at every instant. The instants are points which organize themselves into a line, but what is important is the instant, not the line. The Marivaudian being has in a sense no history. Nothing follows from what has gone before. He is constantly surprised. He cannot predict his own reaction to events. He is constantly being overtaken by events. A condition of breathlessness and dazzlement surrounds him.
This is a summary of Georges Poulet‘s analysis in The Interior Distance (1959) of the French playwright Marivaux, written by one of the first and best writers of postmodern fiction, Donald Barthelme, from his short story “Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning” (1968).
For a deep understanding of our situation I suggest reading Allan Bloom (see chapter III) and Christopher Lasch. Lasch discusses alienation in a clear and understandable way in his book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1991). Men of action will find this uninteresting. Unfortunately this analysis, like that of Bloom is diagnostic but not prescriptive. We will have to find our own solution to these maladies of our collective psyche; analysis probably helps little in such matters.
Here is an excerpt that give the flavor of his analysis…
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In general, we seem to combine a sense of decadence in society — as evidenced by the concept of alienation, which, supported by a new interest in the early Marx, has never enjoyed more esteem — with a technological utopianism. In our ways of thinking about the future there are contradictions which, if we were willing to consider them openly, might call for some effort toward complementarity. But they lie, as a rule, too deep.”
The Therapeutic Sensibility
The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security. Even the radicalism of the sixties served, for many of those who embraced it for personal rather than political reasons, not as a substitute religion but as a form of therapy. Radical politics filled empty lives, provided a sense of meaning and purpose.
In her memoir of the Weathermen, Susan Stern described their attraction in language that owes more to psychiatry and medicine than to religion. When she tried to evoke her state of mind during the 1968 demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, she wrote instead about the state of her health. “I felt good. I could feel my body supple and strong and slim, and ready to run miles, and my legs moving sure and swift under me.” A few pages later, she says: “I felt real.” Repeatedly she explains that association with important people made her feel important. “I felt I was part of a vast network of intense, exciting and brilliant people.” When the leaders she idealized disappointed her, as they always did, she looked for new heroes to take their place, hoping to warm herself in their “brilliance” and to overcome her feeling of insignificance.
… They imagined, according to Tocqueville, that “their whole destiny is in their own hands.” Social conditions in the United States, Tocqueville wrote, severed the tie that formerly united one generation to another. ” The woof of time is every instant broken and the track of generations effaced. Those who went before are soon forgotten; of those who will come after, no one has any idea: the interest of man is confined to those in close propinquity to himself.” …
Culture and Personality
Narcissism, as I had come to understand it, was not just another name for selfishness. Nor was The Culture of Narcissism conceived of as a book about the “me decade” or the retreat from the political activism of the sixties. It grew out of an earlier study of the American family, Haven in a Heartless World, which had led me to the conclusion that the family’s importance in our society had been steadily declining over a period of more than a hundred years. Schools, peer groups, mass media, and the “helping professions” had challenged parental authority and taken over many of the family’s child-rearing functions. I reasoned that changes of this magnitude, in an institution of such fundamental importance, were likely to have far-reaching psychological repercussions. The Culture of Narcissism was an attempt to analyze those repercussions — to explore the psychological dimension of long-term shifts in the structure of cultural authority.
My underlying assumptions were drawn from a tradition of studies, carried out for the most part by cultural anthropologists, sociologists, and psychoanalysts, that concerned themselves with the effect of culture on personality. Scholars in this tradition argued that every culture works out distinctive patterns of child-rearing and socialization, which have the effect of producing a distinctive personality type suited to the requirements of that culture.
Observers of American culture, having learned to apply analytical techniques derived from the study of simpler societies to more complex social organisms, believed that an “inner-directed” personality type was gradually giving way to a peer-oriented “other‐directed” type, in the terms made familiar by David Riesman. Riesman ‘s influential book The Lonely Crowd (1950) served as one of the models for the kind of investigation I was trying to conduct.
A number of other observers had come to similar conclusions about the direction of personality change. They spoke of a collapse of “impulse controls,” the “decline of the superego,” and the growing influence of peer groups. Psychiatrists, moreover, described a shift in the pattern of the symptoms displayed by their patients. The classic neuroses treated by Freud, they said, were giving way to narcissistic personality disorders. “You used to see people coming in with hand-washing compulsions, phobias, and familiar neuroses,” Sheldon Bach reported in 1976. “Now you see mostly narcissists.”
If these observations were to be taken seriously, the upshot, it seemed to me, was not that American society was “sick” or that Americans were all candidates for a mental asylum but that normal people now displayed many of the same personality traits that appeared, in more extreme form, in pathological narcissism.
Freud always stressed the continuity between the normal and the abnormal, and it therefore seemed reasonable, to a Freudian, to expect that clinical descriptions of narcissistic disorders would tell us something about the typical personality structure in a society dominated by large bureaucratic organizations and mass media, in which families no longer played an important role in the transmission of culture and people accordingly had little sense of connection to the past.
I was struck by evidence, presented in several studies of business corporations, to the effect that professional advancement had come to depend less on craftsmanship or loyalty to the firm than on “visibility,” “momentum,” personal charm, and impression management. The dense interpersonal environment of modern bureaucracy appeared to elicit and reward a narcissistic response — an anxious concern with the impression one made on others, a tendency to treat others as a mirror of the self.
The proliferation of visual and auditory images in a “society of the spectacle,” as it has been described, encouraged a similar kind of preoccupation with the self. People responded to others as if their actions were being recorded and simultaneously transmitted to an unseen audience or stored up for close scrutiny at some later time. The prevailing social conditions thus brought out narcissistic personality traits that were present, in varying degrees, in everyone a certain protective shallowness, a fear of binding commitments, a willingness to pull up roots whenever the need arose, a desire to keep one’s options open, a dislike of depending on anyone, an incapacity for loyalty or gratitude.
Narcissists may have paid more attention to their own needs than to those of others, but self-love and self-aggrandizement did not impress me as their most important characteristics. These qualities implied a strong, stable sense of selfhood, whereas narcissists suffered from a feeling of inauthenticity and inner emptiness. They found it difficult to make connection with the world. At its most extreme, their condition approximated that of Kaspar Hauser, the nineteenth-century German foundling raised in solitary confinement, whose “impoverished relations with his cultural environment,” according to the psychoanalyst Alexander Mitscherlich, left him with a feeling of being utterly at life’s mercy. …
Twentieth-century Gnosticism and the New Age Movement
Even our deeply rooted, misplaced faith in technology does not fully describe modern culture. What remains to be explained is how an exaggerated respect for technology can coexist with a revival of ancient superstitions, a belief in reincarnation, a growing fascination with the occult, and the bizarre forms of spirituality associated with the New Age movement. A widespread revolt against reason is as much a feature of our world as our faith in science and technology.
Archaic myths and superstitions have reappeared in the very heart of the most modern, scientifically enlightened, and progressive nations in the world. The coexistence of advanced technology and primitive spirituality suggests that both are rooted in social conditions that make it increasingly difficult for people to accept the reality of sorrow, loss, aging, and death-to live with limits, in short. The anxieties peculiar to the modern world seem to have intensified old mechanisms of denial.
New Age spirituality, no less than technological utopianism, is rooted in primary narcissism. If the technological fantasy seeks to restore the infantile illusion of self-sufficiency, the New Age movement seeks to restore the illusion of symbiosis, a feeling of absolute oneness with the world. Instead of dreaming of the imposition of human will on the intractable world of matter, the New Age movement, which revives themes found in ancient Gnosticism, simply denies the reality of the material world. By treating matter essentially as an illusion, it removes every obstacle to the re-creation of a primary sense of wholeness and equilibrium — the return to Nirvana.
… The New Age movement is to Gnosticism what fundamentalism is to Christianity — a literal restatement of ideas whose original value lay in their imaginative understanding of human life and the psychology of religious experience.
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Other posts in this series about America
How we lost it and how we can recover it:
- Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
- Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter III – reclaiming the Constitution, 3 January 2008
- A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
- Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment), 20 July 2008
- de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
- A soft despotism for America?, 22 July 2008
- The American spirit speaks: “Baa, Baa, Baa”, 5 August 2008
- We’re Americans, hear us yell: “baa, baa, baa”, 6 August 2008
- Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008
- Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
- Fixing America: elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008
- Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
- Fixing America: solutions — elections, revolt, passivity, 18 August 2008
- The intelligentsia takes easy steps to abandoning America, 19 August 2008
For all posts on this subject see America – how can we reform it?.
18 thoughts on “Diagnosing the Eagle: Alienation”
“Archaic myths and superstitions have reappeared in the very heart of the most modern, scientifically enlightened, and progressive nations in the world. The coexistence of advanced technology and primitive spirituality suggests that both are rooted in social conditions that make it increasingly difficult for people to accept the reality of sorrow, loss, aging, and death-to live with limits, in short. The anxieties peculiar to the modern world seem to have intensified old mechanisms of denial.”
Did archaic myths ever leave? Bah, humbug. This is selling myths short, if you ask me. Myths are not about denying reality, they are about identity. The Sun Goddess’ grandson becomes the first Japanese emperors, Asena the wolf, gives birth to the Turkish race, Washington chops down the cherry tree, etc. The ultimate biological reality is that we are like a herd of crazy housecats, interested in only ourselves. It’s the myth that binds the group of humans together to create the nation, and the nation becomes a real thing in the world, with armies and bombs and things.
Gnosticism was a very subtle religious and philosophical movement. New Age had something in common with it, obviously, but so had Heidegger. In fact, both Heidegger and postmodernists are best understood as modern exemplars of Gnosis. See Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (wikipedia entry)
The most important idea or symbol in Gnosis is the Other. The real world is a mirage or a prison. We are a strangers in a strange land; our original home is wholly Other. In fact, we are particles of Divine spirit, which is wholly Alien to this world, held in thrall of ignorance by Demiurg (the God of Old Testament), a satanic spirit which created the world. Only a knowledge, but not an empty book knowledge, but a personal experience, of the truth can set us free, but allowing us to understood that the rules of the world are caused by Oppression. Similarly, postmodernism wants to deconstruct the language and therefore the world – because according to their slogal “Everything is text”. The consensual reality is constructed by oppression by means of language. By deconstructing language, we destroy it and free us from its power.
A good expostion of that religion in a form of novel can be found in The Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay.
see also: my site.
Major currents of thought, like Gnosticism, never go away. They just reappear in different forms. Gnosticism is well-suited to become a major religon, perhaps building on the evironmental movenments. It answers many difficult questions, such as “Why is the world so screwed-ed up, with so much evil and pain?” It is esoteric, having “inner knowledge” open only to the elect — helpful when recruiting leaders (who, unless they have wealth & power, find democracy unsatisfactory in this respect.
Something to watch for future developments.
I have been in the process of writing a paper on the 3 great American character flaws:
3. Instant Gratification
It would appear that someone else has beaten me to the punch. My hat is off to Mr. Lasch, may he rest in peace
Which is the real illusion that’s leading to America’s geopolitical decline? The infantile illusion of self-sufficiency through technology or the New Age movement illusion of symbiosis, through Gnosticism? lol
My simplistic explaination for America’s decline is culture. I read all the articles at dni net on manuevre warfare and it wasn’t until I read about the Toyota Production System and Toyota’s organizational culture, when I had the “a ha” moment: “I get it. It’s the organizational culture”. A 3rd generation army’s organization culture has all the ingredients from Boyd’s Pattern of Conflict, “Theme for Vitality and Growth”: insight, initiative, adaptabiity and harmony.
If you switch the context from organizational culture to America’s national culture, does America have an effective culture that people learn and live within?
My sneaking suspicion is if, John Boyd proclaimed Sun Tzu’s Art of War to be flawless and timeless, and since the Art of War is essentially the applied philosophy of Taoism to warfare, then there’s probably something flawless and timeless about effective culture, in Taoism and ancient chinese culture.
The Future Evolution of Man by Sri Aurobindo: Chapter 8 – The Gnostic Being
Remember the scene in Annie Hall where Woody is walking down the street blithering on about his love life, and then a cynical old lady says “Love Fades.” Well, love fades. The reason for the decline is that the American nation is just like everything in the world, and everything dies — some things more rapidly than others. If you are perceptive, then the decline is plain to the eye.
The national dream fading slowly is nothing to be ashamed of, every nation faces the same problem. Mao even saw this in his own lifetime with the PRC. The younger generations weren’t as committed as the old guys who went through the long march. He thought he could fix this by having a continuous revolution to regenerate the revolutionary enthusiasm. That didn’t go so well. Oops.
The ‘narcissistic’ and other alternate belief systems aren’t the cause of the problem, but rather what happens is that people search for meaning other places as life and work loses purpose. If the USA someday in desperation pulls a Falun Gong on every other group that is not mainstream, it’s not going to make any difference. This is treating the symptom and not the disease.
If you want the easiest fix for all this, I’ll tell you how, but I don’t like the idea myself — the solution is military victory. Build up some big armies or whatever. Find some enemy country, I’m not sure who exactly but there must be another 10 or 20 mini-Hitlers out there, and kick some ass. Don’t occupy, but just ride home for the triumphant parade and have the TV news shut out any negative aftermath. It’ll be rah rah for the home team, everyone is happy. Problem solved for the next 10 years or so.
Err, maybe I should post a non-Fascist option, another maybe less destructive way to regain national pride would be going to Mars. Make sure to avoid any of this International cooperation crap. Do it USA alone and plant a giant Stars and Stripes on Mars. Nations are built by rallying around a heroic story demonstrating the bravery of men. A Charles Lindberg, err, wait, that has problems. Maybe Burt Rattan is the best candidate right now?
As to benefits of Daoism – Mao was an embodiment of Daoism. His policy was the fulfillment of radical Daoist postulates formulated before Christ. He also conducted typical Daoist immortality sexual exercises. (Moderate Daoism is libertarian. They invented the phrase wu-wei “lasse-faire”. Their translated works gave rise to first French liberal economic theories).
Art of War has no special links to Daoism. It was written mostly by Machiavellian generals such as Cao Cao.
Sri Aurobindo seems to be a kind of Buddhist. The real Gnosticism and Manicheanism is different. It cannot really became a ruling religion or philosophy because it is suicidal – quite literally. They want to free divine spirit imprisoned in humans, and this involves the extinction of humanity. They were specifially opposed to having children, as this helps to keep particles of the spirit imprisoned.
At present, the humanities and social sciences at nearly all universities are under control of postmodernists or Heideggerians – and so, ultimately gnostics. Not that anyone would say this outright – the absurdity of Gnosis requires higher learning to be accepted. But the major texts, as Heidegger or Adorno, although deliberately obscure, are in the end gnostic. Similarly, the resulting practical propositions are compatible with gnosis, and only with gnosis. For the uninitiated there is propaganda of sexual freedom and hedonism. For the lower ranks of mandarins – the prescribed phrases to be memorized and regurgitated. Only the high priests get to actually read and think about the basic ideas of the movement.
“The aim of a liberal education, is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people.”
Final Report of the Task Force on General Education, Harvard
As to the source of spritual problems of both Mao and modern America – read Voegelin. His point is simple – when you promise Paradise on earth, (he called it “immanentizing eschaton”) no matter whether communist or capitalism, you are writing check without backing. Your checks will bounce, and there will be no paradise, only disappointment and anger.
For anyone looking for an easy introduction to Gnostic and Manichean thought, placing them in context with the development of western thought, I strongly recommend reading The History of Hell by Alice Turner. Very clear and entertaining.
Her approach implicitly follows that utilitarian thread of western thinking, from Plato through Machiavelli that sees myths as a necessary foundation for a stable society. Most people find the reality of death, the lack of meaning in the cosmos, too harsh — so a comforting veil is needed.
This ties with Cathryn’s comment. Over time people come to see through the veil. Disillusionment and self-knowledge are poison to the myths that tie together a people and allow them to function as if daily life is meaningful. Hence Hegel’s observation that “”the owl of Minerva flies only at night.”
What we need is an optimistic school of philosophy. Something simple, cheerful, and well-founded. Any ideas?
“What we need is an optimistic school of philosophy. Something simple, cheerful, and well-founded. Any ideas?”
Surely it is obvious. It is Islam.
There is another relevant insight of Voegelin. People use their ideas of the transcendent and Divine as the basis on which to organize society and state. Unfortunately, modern state and society are rather complicated, and something simple and cheerful will tend to be inadequate. The Muslim world, the former seat of the most ancient civilisations of the world is the best proof that the wrong religion and philosophy are a terrible danger.
FM, may your shadow never grow less, a philosophy that is simple and cheerful could not be well grounded, it’s physically impossible. But professionals talk logistics… I can solve all of our problems in a trice with prior text. All that is required is that tomorrow, starting at 9 AM, every person in the world who claims to be a Christian of any denomination would begin to unfailingly do the following:
1. Honor the Lord God above all, and love their neighbor as themselves.
2. Render unto Ceasar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.
Voila! All disputes with and among such people instantly disappear. The real question is, why is this not already happening, more importantly, how could it…
gpanfile… While I am neither the Pope nor Christian theologian, I believe that you have not grasped a key aspect of Christianity. It is for sinners. The Saints and Angels are in heaven, not on Earth.
“2. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”
This I have a real problem with. What’s mine is mine and the politicians should keep their hands off of it and mind their own business, or when the revolution finally comes……
I do not believe that this saying is intended as a comment on the appropriate rate of marginal taxation.
“What we need is an optimistic school of philosophy. Something simple, cheerful, and well-founded. Any ideas?”
Not really cheerful, but I’d suggest we adopt Alcoholics Anonymous as the state religion, except those meetings, ugh. This thing does hit some of the right points though. It’s home grown. It’s relatively non-threatening to existing religious beliefs. People come together say some words and then the ‘heap big magic’ takes place. People stop drinking, for real. We can call it the ’12-fold path’, heh.
But that’s all kind of a drag. And philosophy? As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think it has to make sense. If you want to bind the nation together, much better to tell the rousing tales of danger, heroism and bravery. Remember Apollo, what did Americans feel like during Apollo 11? That was one massive jolt of testosterone in the nation there. Find the strongest and smartest Americans you can find, and have them do something dangerous, new and amazing, that requires discipline and technology and taking big risks.
Learn to be at peace with the ultimate pointlessness of it, and simply marvel at what they have done. This will show everyone how it’s done. How not to cut corners, how not to steal, how not to be sneaky and track-covering, how to be the best. That’s how you do it.
This is all very interesting, the post and the comments.
From the quoted example, Lasch’s book sounds like it has identified a lot of real problems this society has. The ultra-individualistic narcissism, the new-fangled/recycled superstitions/religions being created in “the New Age Movement”, the lack of common purpose. I guess I differ from the other commenters a bit in that I see these developments as being somewhat pathological adaptations, by the populace, to an economic system which doesn’t offer psychological sustenance to the objective observer.
I spend my days keeping computer systems running for a financial company. I enjoy the work, and like my co-workers, but can’t help but notice that my work ultimately just goes toward making some wealthy traders more wealthy, and even destabilizing certain industries, not toward solving the actual issues that this society has. Thus, there is an inescapable alienation, arising from my economic situation. And for others the situation is much worse.
So I think any answer to these problems is not going to come from creating a new ‘myth’ for the stupid public, though that may be necessary, and not even from a new grand adventure as Cathryn Mataga suggests though that would be cool. I think it has to come from changing the system so that people have an actual, objective reason to feel connected to each other and to their work. The public can be stupid, but not that stupid.
Post #16 hits an interesting point, that increasingly people do not feel a tangiable connnection to something larger than themselves, either through their work or elsewhere. Contemporary societies not only in America but in Europe, Japan and elsewhere seem to be suffering a sort of ennui, a world-weariness and pessimism. Children are in essence a vote about the future, and that many people in the developed world opt not to have them says something profound about how we view life. Looking at my parents and my wife’s parents, they derived a powerful sense of purpose in life just by staying alive through the 1930s and WWII, and finally achieving some economic and personnal security in the post-war years. Today, many of us live in relative security, with all of the comforts we desire (for how long is another matter…), and thus have lost the powerful spur that prodded our parents and gardnparents forward.
We also pay for the efficiency and technological advancement of our society, because so few of us do physical labor anymore. Perhaps it is basic to note, but it is hard to be depressed, anxious, or otherwise preoccupied by such concerns when the harvest is due, that old tractor needs a new fuel pump, and so on. Rural people IMO still know a truth that many of us have forgotten, that having a connnection to the land, and working on and near it bring a sense of peace, and tangiable accomplishment. Moreover, it is tougher to be alienated in a small town, because everyone knows everyone else, and there’s no “getting away” from your neighbors except by going to the big city. Having working in R&D myself, it is a difficulty with such employment that one often does not see tangible, physical results from one’s labors in the way that, for example, a bricklayer or a farmer might.
Another factor in the increasing sense of alienation felt by modern people is that they often substitute technology for the company of human beings. The internet is a wonderful technology, but it won’t go bowling with you, or come over for dinner. Americans used to be a nation of joiners, people who did things in groups – everything from the Elks Club to patronizing nightclubs for jazz or maybe some bortsch-belt comedy. Nowadays, people stay home and surf the internet, watch movies, or otherwise hole up. As a kid, it would have been unthinkable in my neighborhood not to know your neighbors, to go over and introduce yourself and try to be socialable. And the kids played with the other kids, in pick-up baseball or what-have-you. Now, we see little of that in our community. Do you know your neighbors?
A powerful reason for alienation is the sense that our political, business and cultural institutions are increasingly unresponsive to us as individuals. Remember life before answering machines and computers, when businesses and other organzations had to employ a real, live person to answer the phone? Or when someone wanted your vote they had to call to ask for it? Now, machine does it. There was once a time in America when a concerned citizen could request and actually get an appointment with a high elected official, and be taken seriously therein. Now, when one calls a congressman to voice a concern or ask for assistance, one is lucky to have his call returned, and is not likely to get “facetime” unless one is a well-heeled donor, politically-connected, or has some sort of clout. Direct mail fills our mailboxes, addressed to a generic occupant, or “to whom it concerns.” We are now regarded as consummers, not citizens. Is it any wonder we are alientated? Frankly, it is a wonder we are not more so!