The first step to reforming America (the final version)

Much of the discussion on the FM website concerns how to reform America, putting ourselves back on track — not just for survival, but also prosperity.  The fiercest debate concerns the most important step.  The first step.  This post gives what is the definitive answer.


  1. Recognition that we have a problem is the first step
  2. Recognition that we are the problem is the first step
  3. Implications of this insight
  4. Prior use of this analogy
  5. A note about insanity from Psychology Today
  6. For more information from the FM site, and an Afterword

(1)  The first step is recognition that we have a problem

My proposals all concern some form of recognition.  Looking in the mirror to see what we have become.  Diagnosis of our problems.  Taking responsibility for ourselves, our problems.

I was wrong.  We’re beyond the point where such mild remedies are even relevant.

(2)  The first step is recognition that we are the problem

In finance, in war, in politics — in so many vital areas we have a pattern of repeated behavior — despite repeated failure.  The diagnosis is obvious to those who treat such behavioral disorders.

Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.

The source of this brutal insight is not an ancient Chinese proverb, Benjamin Franklin, or Albert Einstein.  Those fake sources serve to conceal the nature of this problem.


It comes from the people of Alcoholics Anonymous, its origin lost in the past.  I have traced it back to Step 2:  A Promise of Hope by James Jensen, a pamphlet published by the Hazelden Foundation (1980).  Available here at Google Books.

Jensen expands upon this in the chapter The twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (1993).  The resemblance to our America should appear obvious to us all.  From Google Books:

The dictionary defines insanity as “inability to manage one’s own affairs and perform one’s social duties … without recognition of one’s own illness.” The first part of the definition certainly applies to those of us who have just admitted that our lives had become unmanageable. Assuming this is our first walk through the Steps, we have not as yet proceeded to the searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves suggested in Step Four; thus, we probably do not recognize the full dimension of our illness. It is very likely that we’re not looking beyond our drinking or drug abuse at this point and are still denying or minimizing the seriousness of the problem. We still be blaming circumstances or other people for our drinking or using rather than accepting the responsibility for our own behavior.

It is also likely that we do not recognize the scope of our dependence. For example, many of us learned to depend on a variety of behaviors to help us cope with or run from the unpleasant realities of life long before we learned to depend on alcohol or other drugs for the same purpose. it is even possible that we have some very common and typical characteristics or personality traits relating to our dependency.

The late Dr. Harry Tiebout, who worked with alcoholics and was a strong supporter of AA for 30 years, defined us as “defiant individualists.”  The Big Book {of AA} identifies us as selfish and self-centered, driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity. So our illness is much more serious than we recognize it to be and, if not arrested, can be deadly. But it does not have to mean that we are candidates for psychiatric care.

Another aspect of our insanity is our distorted self-image. Somehow, each of us has come to think of our problem as being so unique that what will work for others will not work for us. …

Driven by fear and self-delusion — almost my exact words in America’s Most Dangerous Enemy (1 March 2006).

The basic text of Narcotics Anonymous (PDF here) gives another perspective:

Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results. Many of us realize when we get to the program that we have gone back time and again to using, even though we knew that we were destroying our lives. Insanity is using drugs day after day knowing that only physical and mental destruction comes when we use.

Compulsive foreign borrowing.  incessant wars.  Electing obviously unqualified candidates to office (e.g., Carter, Obama, Sonny Bono, Fred Thompson, Arnold The Terminator).   One needs no advanced degrees to see these are self-destructive behaviors.

(3)  Implications of this insight

(1)  The most serious problem we face is not an external shockwave.  Attack by Islamo-whatevers, global warming, peak oil, etc.

(2)  As Pogo said “We have met the enemy and he is us.” (from a 1970 poster made for the first Earth Day by Walt Kelly).  Our behavior puts at us risk, a danger worse than any other enemy.  That makes sense.  Given our wealth and power, no external enemy has the capacity to destroy us.

(3)  Self-destructive behavior continues until one either has a change of spirit — or hits bottom.  Which path will we choose?

(4)  Prior use of this analogy

This is hardly a unique or new insights.  For example, see this from The coming generational storm: what you need to know about America’s by Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Scott Burns — Excerpt:

Fiscal and generationally, our government is driving blind. Sound insane? Sure sounds that way to us, but the check we went to Google and typed in “the definition of insanity …

Unfortunately, the political junkies running the country are in denial and see no need to attend recovery meetings. Each session of Congress and each election leads to the same thing: talk and more talk about reforming Social Security and Medicare, but ends with no action, a concerted effort to make maters worse, or half-baked reforms that do nothing to fix the true scale of the problem.

(5)  A note about insanity from Psychology Today

Let’s not get carried away by this terminology.  A nation is not a person and cannot go insane (although NAZI Germany might be a counter-example).  This is a metaphor.

For the overly literal among you, all your objections appear in this article:  “The Definition of Insanity is…“, Ryan Howes, blog of Psychology Today, 27 July 2009 — “Perseverance vs. Perseveration.”

(6a)  For more information

To read other articles about these things, see the following:

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.  Here are some recent posts about solutions:

  1. Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter III – reclaiming the Constitution, 3 January 2008
  2. Obama might be the shaman that America needs, 17 July 2008
  3. Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008
  4. Fixing America: shall we choose elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008
  5. Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
  6. Fixing America: the choices are elections, revolt, or passivity, 18 August 2008
  7. What happens next? Advice for the new President, part one., 17 October 2008
  8. What to do? Advice for the new President, part two., 18 October 2008
  9. Are the new “tea party” protests a grass roots rebellion or agitprop?, 1 March 2009
  10. How to stage effective protests in the 21st century, 21 April 2009
  11. The first step on the road to America’s reform, 29 May 2009
  12. Correction to my previous posts – not all citizen activism is good…, 16 October 2009


12 thoughts on “The first step to reforming America (the final version)”

  1. Oddly enough, I believe this quote encapsulates part of our problem —
    Sylvester, J.J. (1814 – 1897):

    “So long as a man remains a gregarious and sociable being, he cannot cut himself off from the gratification of the instinct of imparting what he is learning, of propagating through others the ideas and impressions seething in his own brain, without stunting and atrophying his moral nature and drying up the surest sources of his future intellectual replenishment.”

    We have become a nation of TV watchers, of cogitative sheep, of: “Let the experts figure it out.” nincompoops. We are not insane, we have abrogated the fundamental act of thinking to those we foolishly perceived to be our social and intellectual betters. My great hope for the internet is that it will reignite a vigorous public discourse. It will recreate the “Public Sphere” of the enlightenment, times a hundred. Actually I’m very encouraged. I see the internet discourse increasing in quantity geometrically right now. How can greater quality be far behind?

  2. The type of insanity you speak of, Mr. Blodanovich, is not the psychiatric type; please read this from FM’S POSTING:

    “….defined us as “defiant individualists.” The Big Book {of AA} identifies us as selfish and self-centered, driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity. So our illness is much more serious than we recognize it to be and, if not arrested, can be deadly. But it does not have to mean that we are candidates for psychiatric care.”

    I agree w/FM and the analysis above as correlating directly to our current state and as a reasonable and helpful description of not only many normal and adjusted Americans but also (and more significantly) as a snapshot-like description of the entire weltanschaung of “America”

    …right on the money, I think

    Conjures up images and related events of a country of over-stimulated children. Defiantly asserting THEIR needs and ideals; their RIGHT to be exactly who and what they are!

    I picture a carnival-like assembly of teenagers demanding to be heard and noticed and left alone with their diversions and illusions of important happenings. Whining incessantly if it appears someone else may be gaining an advantage we ourselves feel entitiled to….do not bother me with sane analysis that I may then decide to support or not or offer another view. Just get back to ME and how I can benefit. Never bother me with too many details as I lose interest when the subject leaves ME or what I can directly relate with and to — so what if a group of Bankers got some extra Money — WHAT ABOUT ME!

    So what if a War is being escalated, as long as it does not impact my individual daily life—SO WHAT?

    Examples can be conjured up almost w/out limit.
    America, the land of rugged Individauls.
    How quaint
    How childish and oh so destructive (self anf others)

    Requires we live long enough in our sickness to even have a chance to TAKE that STEP1


  3. The cynic in me thinks that what you ask is beyond humanity at our current state of evolutionarily development. Nations act the way they do, because they can. For America, one day will realise that due to circumstance they won’t be able to engadge in wars of choice, fiscal deficits ad infinatum ect. This is a realization that the British and French also came to, the were comparable democracies to the US. They did’nt scale back there commitments because of choice, because they looked in the mirror, they were forced to by there circumstance, and they did so grudgingly.

    I don’t see anything they makes me think that the US will be any different.
    FM reply: I disagree on all counts. Bizarrrely oversimplistic.

    “Nations act the way they do, because they can”

    * That’s why we see slavery in all developed nations, because the technological dominance of western nations after 1800 allowed them to act as the Roman’s did. Led, of coruse, by the British Empire.
    * That’s why the US established a nuclear Empire after 1945. Grounding all non-US aircraft, stopping all atomic research, forbiding development of missiles.
    And so forth.

    ” For America, one day will realise that due to circumstance they won’t be able to engadge in wars of choice, fiscal deficits ad infinatum ect.”

    Disagree on all counts — except for that. Here we agree.

  4. Hmmm, about slavery you could argue the toss in certain colonist societies. But that wasn’t my point, no nation has voluntarily given up there empire until forced to do so. Once your in its almost impossible to get out unless forced out. That could be military action, political pressure, economic realities ect.
    But thinking that one day a nation will wake up take a look in the mirror and make a change is wishful thinking. Perhaps when there frog marched up to the mirror and forced to take a long hard look you might get the change your looking for.
    I’m sure the US will be able to row back from domestic commitments, its the international one they will have great difficulty in doing so.
    I’m not arguing for the fun of it, I love this blog and am a daily visitor, its one of the most clear sighted blogs out.
    FM reply: I agree 100%, unfortunately.

  5. Regarding the notion of “Defiant Individualists,” I think it highly unlikely that America as a society will look in the mirror without some signficant input from outside the nation. As epagbreton noted above, defiant individualists as a term implies a general desire to fulfill one’s self-interest first and everyone else’s or society’s interest come a distant second.

    It is not the normal condition of humans to be concerned with people, society or humanity outside of one’s family or small circle of friends. So unless there is some outside influence sufficiently important enough to overcome a person’s inherent self-interest, i.e. something that directly impacts a person’s self-interest, I don’t think it is possible get recognition of the problem.

    I wish I were not so cynical about this, but too often we have seen self-interest overcome logic and necessity.

  6. “It is not the normal condition of humans to be concerned with people, society or humanity outside of one’s family or small circle of friends.”
    …from Matt Johnston
    Do not mean to single-out Mr. Johnston personally but this sentence and the idea included is to me symptomatic of the current mind set we find all too frequently here in the USA. And correlates with FM’s idea of defiant individualists.

    I doubt there is anything “normal” about human ethical behavior — even language arises in a social circumtsance. That being said, “enlightened self-interest” with its correspondent long term and short term delay of immediate gtratification was the hallmark of most social interactions and ideals in the USA not but perhaps two generations ago.

    Now like many other social mores (like WORK as a value in and of itself) you rarely hear discussions and/or promotion of such guiding principles. In fact what we see and hear is the opposite: Rational Selfishness as the higher ideal.

    We can see what such an orientation has wrought in our lives and world on a daily basis.
    FM note: Great comment; sobering observations.

  7. As an alcoholic in recovery for several years now, the applicability of the diagnosis of addiction to Congress is quite plain to me vis-a-vis spending and the lust for power. I think most of it boils down to a widespread desire to get something for nothing, ie., get lots of benefits but make somebody else pay for them and the willingness of Congresscritters to oblige them as long as they get voted back into office (so that they steal money to buy votes to stay in power….repeat ad infinitum-don’t underestimate the desireability of subsidized jet travel, hobnobbing with the rich and famous and, of course, becoming rich yourself). Unless and until the American people realize that there is no free lunch and that tyranny is intolerable , we will probably be stuck with these thieves and incompetents. Of course, we’ll be bankrupt before too much longer and it’ll then be a moot point.
    FM reply: I don’t believe you have understood this post, or the relationship of our situation to addiction sickness. Remember the key lesson about taking responsibility? I don’t think that means blaming the people we elect for doing what we want.

    Our desire to get something for nothing dominates most campaigns. How often have you heard audiences laugh or jeer candidates’ promising to cut taxes and increase local spending? Candidates who fail to get with our program lose elections.

    If we prefer to elect “thieves”, then what does that make us? Why do you call “incompetent” candidates who do what we tell them to do? I call that democracy.

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