“Not the enemy in front but the friends behind are the men who spread despondency and alarm”
Sir Ian Hamilton, Gallipoli Diary (1920)
The word neurosis denotes what a less pretentious age called a nervous disorder, or a case of bad nerves. That was in the day when psychiatrists were called nerve doctors. Neurosis is compounded of the Greek word neuron, which means a nerve cell, and the suffix osis, which means a disorder, disease or complaint. This is why a man whose breath is cause for complaint is said to have halitosis.
A neurotic man is, therefore, overly nervous. He is fretful, excitable or disabled by a paralyzing melancholy. It is not absolutely clear how nervous a man must be in order to be classified as overly nervous, but it is generally said that a man is overly nervous when his fretting, excitement or melancholy gets in the way of his everyday life.
It should be obvious that everyone has neurotic episodes, and that most of us cure this intermittent neurosis with the home remedies of calming down, taking a deep breath, or going for a long walk. Many of us have personalities that are permanently colored by a striking excess of fear, mania or depression. In ancient and medieval psychology, these dispositions were attributed to an imbalance in a man’s “humors,” and society dealt with these foibles by accepting these maniacs with “a sense of humor.”
When a society is subjected to the extraordinary mental strain of a general calamity, such as a war, famine, or pestilence, it will often exhibit a sharp uptick in the prevalence of these neurotic foibles and maniacs. This is called “mass neurosis” or “mass hysteria” and it means that an unusually large number of people in that society are suffering some degree of “nervous breakdown.” If there is a difference between neurosis and a nervous breakdown, I am unable to see it.
Mass neurosis becomes a problem for the same reason that individual neurosis becomes a problem. Not much work gets done when much of the multitude is fretting, raving, or mired in the slough of despondency. Things begin to fall apart when the percentage of maniacs in a population rises above a certain level, and the sense that things have begun to fall apart increases the mental strain and the production of these maniacs.
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The extreme mental strain of total war may be the most powerful means to spread mass neurosis through a population, but an early expert on psychological warfare tells us that “all measures which increase tension and spread a feeling of insecurity and discontent are valuable tools for the diffusion of mass hysteria.”* He calls insecurity and discontent “valuable tools” because modern warfare always seeks to cripple the economic and military strength of the enemy by inducing nervous breakdowns and mass neurosis in the enemy population, thereby raising its percentage of maniacs to an insupportable level.
Totalitarian regimes also view controlled mass neurosis as a valuable tool with which to control their own people. Neuroticism impairs the industry of workers, and the courage of soldiers, but stultifying the “spirit” of a people makes those people tractable and easier to rule. The effect of mass neurosis on a population is, indeed, analogous to the effect of the drug Ritalin on “spirited” boy.
It takes a deft hand to spread “nervous exhaustion” in one’s own population, since an excess of mass neurosis will cripple the economic and military strength of the totalitarian regime. But if mass neurosis is kept at the right level, the neuroticized people can perform their assigned tasks, but will be at the same time docile, suggestible and politically disorganized.
This level of mass neurosis is induced by regular alarms in a sensationalistic media that magnifies threats such as terrorism, nuclear war, violent crime, domestic revolution, or epidemic disease. The aim is to maintain a politically useful malaise of fretting, excitement and despondency, and to thereby stultify public spirit and cause the people to “lose their nerve.”
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Spreading mass neurosis among one’s own people is sometimes described as “brainwashing,” although deliberate inducement of nervous exhaustion is better understood as spirit-washing. The aim is to break the public spirit of mental resistance to outrageous policies, propaganda and demands. If your aim is to swindle a man, you want to play the trick when he is exhausted and a “nervous wreck.”. Two experts on the Communists’ use of mass neurosis explain
“Brainwashing is not primarily a technique to make prisoners of war confess to imaginary crimes and betray their country’s secrets. It is primarily a means of transforming the character structure of an entire population and of keeping that population in a permanent condition of mental subordination to the Communist state, of unhesitating belief in all that it asserts, in chronic anxiety, neurotic tension and disintegrated personality state.”*
These same writers go on to explain that imputations of collective guilt help to spread neurosis and mental subordination. We see this at the personal level when a domineering husband controls his wife by harping on her real and imagined failures. We see it at the social level when the personalities of one segment of the population are deliberately disintegrated by public harping on their real and imagined crimes. The authors just quoted say,
“The mind is broken down by . . . the practice of requiring self-criticism and the denunciation of others, indoctrination and reindoctrination. The processes used involve arousal of guilt feelings and maintenance of a continuous atmosphere of tension and fear. Guilt is collective in the sense that the individual is made to feel responsible for his class, his community, his nation, for the class origin of his family, for the “crimes” of his nation, defining crime as anything which departs from the Communist line.”
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It is hard to deny that the Covid panic has made America into a neurotic nation, and that the simultaneous amplification of racial scapegoating is aggravating the nervous breakdown in a large subset of the population. This comes directly on the heels of the Islamic terrorist panic, and in the midst of “nerve shattering” changes in technology and the national economy.
I am not saying that Covid is fictional, or that Islamic terrorism was fictional, but that both crises appear to have been deliberately magnified in order to spread neurosis and nervous exhaustion, and to thereby break the public spirit of mental resistance to outrageous policies, propaganda and demands. And this mental strain has been deliberately enhanced for a subset of the population by “requiring self-criticism and the denunciation of others,” by “indoctrination and reindoctrination,” and by repeated “arousal of guilt feelings.”
The goal is to break our spirit and, so far as I can see, it is succeeding.
*) Béla Szunyogh, Psychological Warfare: An Introduction to Ideological Propaganda and the Techniques of Psychological Warfare (New York: William-Frederick Press, 1955), p. 77.
**) Nathaniel Weyl and Stefan Thomas Possony, The Geography of Intellect (Chicago: H. Regnery Co., 1963), pp. 231, 232.