Left-wing journalist Bill Moyers made a truly ludicrous attempt on Monday to twist the meaning of a particular two-word phrase. It happened while he was appearing on PBS’s Charlie Rose show to promote an upcoming documentary in which he tells the stories of two struggling families in Milwaukee. Looking the host in the eye, Moyers warned, “Never underestimate the power of learned helplessness.”
Rose appeared confused, so Moyers clarified what he meant: “Learned helplessness. That if you hear propaganda over and again, if you hear ideology over and again, you learn to be helpless because you think there's nothing you can do about it.” That sounds like a good description of what journalists on PBS, MSNBC and other outlets are responsible for.
Several media liberals push the idea that hard work no longer leads to success because a few greedy business interests control all the wealth and have conspired to keep everyone else down. That mentality is what drives people into the arms of the welfare state.
Bill Moyers is one of the people who has spouted this point of view in the past. In fact, he voiced it earlier in that very same interview. Commenting on the theme of his documentary, he explained: “The theme is that once upon a time there was nothing more American than the belief that if you work hard and try, and play by the rules, you will get ahead, you can make a decent living and make a better future for your children and yourself. That’s not true anymore.”
It sounds like Moyers ignored his own warning and was trying to teach helplessness. But there was more. Rose asked his fellow septuagenarian who was to blame for the death of the American dream, and Moyers responded: “Charlie, I think this is the result in large part of engineered inequality. I think there were a series of political decisions made over the last 30 years, the chief one being... corporations and businesses deciding they were going to drive wages down.”
If those nasty corporations and businesses have conspired to create inequality by driving wages down, there is nothing the average American can do about it, right? Poor and middle-class Americans must be helpless. Moyers must surely be aware that he is encouraging learned helplessness.
But then again, maybe he is not. The most mind-numbing part of the interview came when Moyers attempted to explain “learned helplessness” even further. Addressing online criticism of the hard-luck families in the documentary, Moyers commented:
“[P]eople would write on the Web angry letters and say, ‘They're responsible for this. It's not the system.’ I mean, that's learned helplessness. When you have bought into the argument that you are responsible, you and you alone are responsible for your success.”
Come again? Learned helplessness is when people believe they alone are responsible for their success? That’s a bizarre way to twist those words.
Learned helplessness would be when people have bought into the argument that they have no control over their success because the playing field is tilted toward those who are already rich and powerful. In other words, people can learn helplessness by listening to Bill Moyers, including this comment that he made near the end of the Charlie Rose interview:
“The fundamental conclusion I've reached after 79 years and a lot of work is that life is a lottery. I don't buy this argument that people are self-made. Our opportunities are presented to us.”
Never underestimate the power of learned helplessness, Bill.
Below is a transcript of the relevant parts of the interview:
PBS Charlie Rose
CHARLIE ROSE: I can't believe that anybody that I know, or most of the people I know, who would, if they would look at that, the four couples -- the two couples and the four people and their children -- that you show them wouldn't, if you had asked them, is this the America you want to live in?
BILL MOYERS: Well, you get a –
ROSE: And they would not say no, it's not. I may differ from you or you or you how we can change America, but we have to say that this kind of thing is unacceptable. People who believed, who were good people, falling from a place of security and falling from a place in which dreams and aspirations are not real.
MOYERS: Never underestimate the power of learned helplessness.
ROSE: Earned – ?
MOYERS: Learned helplessness. That if you hear propaganda over and again, if you hear ideology over and again, you learn to be helpless because you think there's nothing you can do about it. And the argument that's being made from so many people is – I mean, I've seen it, there have been previews of this film played out. And you’ll see the comments on the web site: ‘Well, these people are irresponsible. I mean, why can't they hold a job or why can't they – why did they have children, why did they buy this house?’ I mean, the mortgage for the Newmans was $850 a month, not a lot when you were, you know, compared to what most of us, the percentage most of us put of our income into our shelter. But people would write on the web angry letters and say, ‘They're responsible for this. It's not the system.’ I mean, that's learned helplessness. When you have bought into the argument that you are responsible, you and you alone are responsible for your success.
MOYERS: The theme is that once upon a time there was nothing more American than the belief that if you work hard and try, and play by the rules, you will get ahead, you can make a decent living and make a better future for your children and yourself. That’s not true anymore. These stories that you will see in the Frontline documentary are being told across the country by millions of people in their daily experiences. They are struggling to keep out of poverty.
ROSE: Who's at fault here? Is it the government? Is it globalization? Is it the system? Is it what?
MOYERS: Well, of course the conventional experts will tell you it was globalization, the mobility of financial capital. Others will say technology brought about the real changes. Charlie, I think this is the result in large part of engineered inequality. I think there were a series of political decisions made over the last 30 years, the chief one being the part of the owners of capital – corporations and businesses deciding they were going to drive wages down. They were going to cut the percentage of-- they were going to cut the labor cost. And that there's been this almost crusade for the last 30 to 35 years to do that. It came about through factions in Congress through the NLRB. In the efforts of the right wing, and the corporations to eliminate collective bargaining. Now they're going after public employees. So there has been a 30-year campaign to diminish the cost of labor. And that's hurt the people who are laborers, who work for hourly wages.
MOYERS: The fundamental conclusion I've reached after 79 years and a lot of work is that life is a lottery. I don't buy this argument that people are self-made. Our opportunities are presented to us. How we resolve them, how we exploit them, how we respond to them are the result of education and circumstance and reading and DNA. But I do think life is a lottery. And it seems to me a just society takes that into consideration and says that for people who didn't win the lottery, they should not be cast off on a desert island and resigned to hell. I believe that, because life is a lottery and we don't choose our success or our failure, we have an obligation to each other as members of the same species to try to create a life, create a society where lottery is determinate but it is not decisive in the quality of that life. And that every – you know, what I’ve discovered, Charlie, is I haven’t met a parent who doesn’t want -- I haven't met a wealthy parent -- I haven’t met a poor parent who doesn't want for their children, his or her child, the very same things that the wealthiest parents want. And it's been lottery more important than anything else that's determined who gets what in this society. And that a society that wants justice and fairness has to work to balance the unintended consequences of the lottery.