Methadone for the masses: Or your brain on politics

Can we talk about mass psychoses? With our long history of victimization at the hands of enraged mobs, we Jews tend to be experts on the subject of widespread delusion. And lest we forget, we have Yom Ha Shoah to remind us that unfettered hysteria, once it hits a certain critical mass, is as likely to listen to reason as a hurricane is.

Once the isms are unleashed, God help anyone trying to hold them back. Alcoholism devastates individuals and families. But nationalism, patriotism, racism, loyalism, extremism, sectarianism, and ethnocentrism can devastate wholesale. Oops — there goes Europe up in flames!  And as for Syria, is there no end to the brutality? Religious isms, including Judaism, are not immune from going haywire, too. See under: religious wars.

As we in America are glued to our TV sets and laptops to watch endless loops of the mob descending on the Capitol carrying Confederate flags and chanting “Hang Mike Pence” it’s all but impossible to ignore the fact that what we are witnessing is no less than God knows how many people — including some of the same seventy million or so who voted to keep Trump in office — who are as hooked and high on hatred and lies as a junkie is on crack cocaine.

And that’s because, love him or hate him, it’s been a while since a politician with his multifarious psychopathy, riveting rallying cries, and self-centered mendacity has appeared on the world stage.

That topic has given his admirers and supporters an endless source of intoxication — the intoxication that occurs during rallies, riots, and displays of patriotic excess when adrenaline kicks in and the amygdala goes into ecstasies of rage. And I do mean ecstasies — the same blissed-out high that drug users experience as dopamine floods the brain’s reward center is the exact same high that mobs feel as their brains are flooded with a combination of dopamine, adrenaline, and serotonin.

Be honest: how many of you have taken a break from your jobs in favor of watching the Impeachment trial and endlessly replaying footage of the storming of the U.S. Capitol? Because if you’re me and my center and center-left circle of family and friends, the answer is: everyone. I know I have to walk the dog, but I just couldn’t stop watching! And that, my friends, is the essence of addictiveness.

I say addictiveness rather than addiction because addiction is a serious and ruinous disease that can end in death. My own understanding of addiction processes comes largely from being within reach of but escaping its tentacles. Here then is a brief and extremely oversimplified summary of what I now know: there are basically two sources of addiction: substance abuse (alcohol and drugs, as well as nicotine and caffeine), and what is sometimes called “the inner pharmacy,” those naturally-occurring neuro-chemicals that can be activated and go into overdrive as a result of certain behaviors such as gambling, running, sex, working, and even arguing. Thus there are self-help and 12-step groups not only for alcoholics, but for self-professed workaholics, sex-addicts, exercise addicts, those addicted to the track, and “rageaholics” (people who get off on fighting, typically with loved ones.) As far as I know, there are no 12-step groups for members of mass movements pushing hatred, falsehoods, racism, and xenophobia.

I would argue that after four years of — whatever you want to call it — most of us here in the second Holy Land (America is home to more than 7 million Jews) have become, if not addicted, then at the very least riveted. On the left our attentions have been high jacked: we’re on high alert, in high alarm, suffering high anxiety, or experiencing something like the weird and smug pleasure of seeing our fellow citizens slide into insanity: because yes, there most certainly is an entertainment value in it, not to mention that the brain loves being right. So much so that those who claim the smug high ground of “I told you so” aren’t just experiencing the pleasure of having their predictions unfold as predicted, but in fact enjoying floods of dopamine and adrenaline.

And on the right, and for those whose attentions and hopes have been captured by the rapturous rallying cry of America First, MAGA, or, in Israel, the insane dehumanizing of (fill in the blank) — the giant us-versus-them, with us being the good guys and them being forces of evil — the chemical boosts experienced by being part of an enraged and righteous multitude are bliss.

 Versus Joe Biden with his hokey and calming persona, his crew of experienced government officials and policy wonks, his reliance on expertise, his slow, measured speech. What a snooze.

On the other hand, I’ve always loved a good long nap.

About the Author
Jennifer Anne Moses is the author of seven books of fiction and non fiction, including The Man Who Loved His Wife, short stories in the Yiddish tradition, to be published on March 1. Her journalistic and opinion pieces have been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, The Newark Star Ledger, USA Today, Salon, The Jerusalem Report, Commentary, Moment, and many other publications. She is also a painter.
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