It is not much of an exaggeration to say that my Flatland model of how humans work was born of an ongoing sense of learned helplessness as my life progressed. What is learned helplessness?
It is the existential experience that nothing good can or will happen. It is utter hopelessness, the very real experience that your choices don't matter much, or a recognition that you're not even making choices at all—you're locked in.
I was taken aback when J.D. Vance used the definition above in his excellent Ted Talk America's forgotten working class (video below). But before I get into that, let me illustrate learned helplessness as I experience it. No doubt most (if not all) of you have had similar experiences.
Recently I opened a renewal notice from my health care provider UPMC, which is located here in Pittsburgh. I am "locked in" to UPMC because their doctors are my doctors, I get my prescriptions from them, I have high blood pressure, I am a 63-year-old smoker who drinks more than he should. I live alone, and that's not good, so I go out for a few hours every day to the bar where I can see some people.
Clearly I am at risk but I'm also clinging to life. My health care package has a fairly low co-pay, a very high deductible and doesn't pay for increasingly expensive drugs at all. Basically, it is a catastrophic care package if something really bad should happen.
UPMC, in line with every health care provider in the country, had raised my monthly premium by 27% ($105/month). That's outrageous. It is based on nothing I did or any pre-existing conditions. UPMC, like every other provider in the nation, did this because they could. There's absolutely nothing I can do about it. Shopping around won't help. There's very limited competition in Pittsburgh, and what competition there is (Highmark) sucks. The monthly cost there would be approximately the same.
I contacted my local newspaper and got into talks with a reporter there. I wanted the increase that I and some of my local friends experienced to be made public. (We are not for various reasons eligible for an Obamacare tax credit/subsidy.) In my back & forth with the reporter, who talked to UPMC, l learned that the bullshit rationalizations behind the huge increase did not hold water. As I said, they did this because they could get away with it.
My choices? Keep the insurance and suck it up, or take the risk of going without. Those are not really choices at all, are they? Sucks either way. That's learned helplessness in a nutshell.
The direct connection to Flatland is that I am at the mercy of powerful predatory humans who don't give a fuck about me. And so are all of you to one extent or another. Now, there is far more to the Flatland model than this kind of predatory behavior, but it was my direct, existential experience of the world for over 30 years now that gave birth to that model. I wanted to understand how humans worked. Why was the human condition so fucked up?
So I learned in a very real sense that there was nothing I could do about it. What I could do, and what I did do, was create a model (story) which explained it. And then I attempted to explain it to all of you.
There is a Flatland theory called positive psychology (and here) which says that humans can be taught to get over or avoid learned helplessness. It is bullshit of course because all of its techniques or prescriptions take place within the human condition, within Flatland, which itself is utterly hopeless. Much of the time helplessness is simply what reality dictates, despite the characteristic human need to believe otherwise.
Of course all of you have learned helplessness to one degree or another, although some changes might work. For example, you can switch jobs and perhaps that will make a positive difference, or you can get divorced and find somebody new, or ... a thousand things.
On the other hand, for example, the Flatland model tells you that human destruction of the biosphere is not something you can do anything about. That's going to happen whether you like it or not. That's going to happen regardless of the "choices" you make. And really, at least for me, living here in the United States, getting screwed by my health care provider is just like climate change in these respects. And so is the rise of Donald Trump.
Which takes me back to J.D. Vance. If you want to understand why Donald Trump will officially become the president-elect today, you will want to watch the video below and read this interview with Vance, which was published in The American Conservative on July 22, 2016.
About Donald Trump specifically, the Flatland model has nothing to say. About the possibility of there being some low-life Trump-like authoritarian, divisive and corrupt figure who will arise historically if the right pre-conditions are in place, the Flatland model has everything to say.
The inevitable corruption and malfeasance of America's predatory elites fostered the neglect and structural economic problems which gave rise to learned helplessness (utter hopelessness) in the people of all those red states that went for Trump because they believed he was, for once, a positive choice they could make. When Trump spoke to their concerns, despite the fact that his leadership is already the biggest bait-and-switch in human history, that was enough to induce hopeless people to vote for him. Bait and switch? Well, that's just one of the things unconscious self-interested humans do, isn't it?
From a Flatland point of view, despite Vance's perspective, based on his own fortune, that people can sometimes change their fate in a positive way, most of those misguided Trump voters are about to learn what existential helplessness is really all about.
Here's J.D. Vance.