The Learned Helplessness Theory of History

Freedom and the Zek's Ant
By Dr. Jack Wheeler

Dr. Jack Wheeler
n his masterwork, The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn tells a story about a Zek, a prisoner in the Gulag, who finds an ant in the bottom of his teacup. The Zek notices that the ant is trying to crawl out, so the Zek gently pushes the ant back down to the bottom. The ant tries to crawl out again, and again the Zek pushes him down. After the third try, the Zek begins to count. One hundred eighty-two times the ant tries to crawl out. One hundred eighty-two times the Zek carefully pushes him back down. There is no Try #183. The ant simply huddles at the bottom, occasionally wandering around, but never again does it try to escape. The Zek can go away for a while and come back to find the ant still there. It has given up any attempt to be free. 

Solzhenitsyn saw the ant as a metaphor for the Russian people. They had tried and tried and tried to liberate themselves from Communist tyranny, only to find themselves pushed down into Gulags and mass slaughters so many times that they, like the ant, had given up. The Soviet Union was like a giant teacup, where its inhabitants huddled at the bottom and passively accepted the rule of their Marxist overlords. 

I mentioned this story once to Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw. It was back in the 80s, when I was spending much of my time developing the "Reagan Doctrine" of US support for anti-Soviet freedom fighters. This entailed my periodically venturing forth into Afghanistan with the Mujahaddin, Nicaragua with the Contras, and other Soviet colonies. Whenever I returned home to California, I would go visit two of my dearest friends, Durk & Sandy, who loved to be regaled by my adventures with the freedom fighters, but would also invariably provide a number of astounding insights on what I had experienced and how it fit into the overall geopolitical picture. 

It was 1988, the last year of Ronald Reagan's presidency. The Reagan Doctrine strategy was going well. The Soviets were on the run in Afghanistan, and Eastern Europe was starting to burst open. The goal, however, wasn't simply to divest the Soviet Union of its external or "outer" colonies. The ultimate goal of the Reagan Doctrine was to break apart the Soviet Union itself. We looked upon the USSR as a colonial empire within its own borders. Only when these "inner" colonies like the Baltics, Ukraine, Georgia, and others were independent would the Soviet Union cease to exist and the Cold War be won. "The big question in our minds right now," I told Durk & Sandy, "is Russia. The Soviet Union is really a Russian colonial empire with Marxism-Leninism as its ideological justification. Most of the Soviet elite are ethnic Russian. Yet the average Russian has been butchered and oppressed the same as the Ukrainian or Lithuanian. So figuring out the Cold War end game for Russia itself is difficult." 

That's when I told Durk & Sandy the story of Solzhenitsyn's ant. They both smiled and looked knowingly at one another. "That's no metaphor, Jack," Sandy observed. "Right," Durk followed. "Solzhenitsyn is more accurate than he knows. His Zek's ant and his Russian people are suffering from the same neurochemical disaster in their brains." 

"Very early on, hundreds of millions of years ago," they explained, "evolution selected for a basic set of chemicals to transmit messages from neuron to neuron in the central nervous system. Everything any animal with a central nervous system does - every movement, every reaction to a perception, is performed with these 'neurochemicals.' Without them, messages don't get sent from one brain cell to another and things don't work right. This applies to an ant, an elephant, up the evolutionary ladder to a human being. 

"One of these neurochemicals is noradrenaline, the brain's version of adrenaline. It's any animal's 'go-juice,' enabling it to be alert for danger, have the drive to hunt for food, fight to defend itself - or in the case of human beings - work up the ladder to success in the workplace. If, for some reason, an animal's brain lacks noradrenaline, it can't adequately do these survival activities. An interesting example of this is the phenomenon of 'learned helplessness.' 

"Experiments have been done with lab rats, placing them in a cage with an electric grid on the bottom. At random intervals, the rat's feet get a mild shock, similar to a shock of static electricity we get from touching a door handle after walking over a plush carpet. The rat freaks out over this and tries to escape, but it is trapped in the cage. After repeated attempts, the rat gives up. No matter how much the experimenter continues to shock it, the rat will just lie there and take it - and here is the important point - even if the door to the cage is opened and the rat can clearly see it can now escape, it will stay and be shocked. It has learned to be helpless and will no longer try to be free, even when it can easily and obviously do so. When the experimenter then kills the rat and does a chemical analysis of its brain, he discovers the dramatic depletion of noradrenaline. The animal's brain has 'learned' not to produce more noradrenaline, and thus has 'learned' to be helpless. 

"The phenomenon of learned helplessness occurs in human beings just as it does in animals, and has the same neurochemical cause: inadequate noradrenaline production. So what is actually going on in the brain of the Zek's ant and in the brains of Russians who have given up their desire to be free is neurochemically identical. Solzhenitsyn is right." 

Trying to avoid mind-pictures of rat brains ground up into paste for analysis, I asked, "But surely they didn't kill all the rats. Didn't the lab guys try to figure out some way to re-ignite noradrenaline production in learned helpless rats and then see what happened?" 

Durk & Sandy exploded in laughter. "They sure did! And that's when it starts to get interesting! It turns out," they explained, "that if you give a learned helpless animal the right combination of nutrients and administer them in the right way, the animal's brain will be able to use them to synthesize additional noradrenaline. The 'lab guys,' as you call them, did just this, and sure enough, once those rats had plenty of noradrenaline surging through their synapses again they all jumped out of that open cage door real fast!" 

Amidst all the mirth, I couldn't help asking, "Wait a minute - are you saying that a bunch of vitamins and stuff can cure the psychological condition of learned helplessness?" 

"You're darned right they can," Durk replied. "Sandy and I have been studying these experiments and others like them for a long time. How do you think an animal's brain makes the chemicals it needs in the first place? It takes what we call "precursors" - in the case of noradrenaline, the amino acids [basic constituents of proteins] L-phenylalanine or tyrosine - and certain other co-factor nutrients to convert them into neurotransmitters. The metabolic pathways the brain uses to do this are quite well known now, and are the same whether you are an ant, a rat, or a man. So you can feed a learned helpless animal these precursors and it will stop feeling helpless - or you can feed them to an animal before the experiment and it becomes far more resistant to helplessness, and won't give up trying to escape." 

"How could we do that for Russians?" I asked them. 

Durk and Sandy shrugged. "Well, Russians can take care of themselves," Sandy responded. "Frankly, Durk and I are more interested in helping Americans first. They're the ones we have to live among. The fewer helpless Americans there are, the freer will be the country where we live." 

"How are you going to help them?" I asked. 

"By creating certain formulas specifically designed to improve noradrenaline production in a person's brain, and having them commercially available through our licensees."

And that's why we sell phenylalanine supplements. Sad to say, Americans need these formulas more than ever. The Berlin Wall has fallen, the Soviet Union has vanished, and the Cold War has been won, yet America is steadily losing freedom rather than gaining more. The cancer of politically correct rules (for, among others, the nutritional supplements market) and criminal penalties for violating them continues to metastasize through American life. The carcinogens are a malignant array of fascist federal bureaucracies, like the IRS, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), the FDA, and the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), designed and rationalized by politicians whose purpose is to make people dependent upon them. People who are dependent on you are people who vote for you and look the other way, no matter what crimes you commit. 

America is indeed a democracy. However, democracy does not equal freedom, but is merely one of the preconditions for it. It is quite conceivable to have a democratic form of tyranny, imposed upon a citizenry, not by a dictator who seized power by force, but by freely elected leaders. Remember that Adolf Hitler was voted into power with over 80% of the vote. In fact, this is the direction towards which America has been moving for some time. And the particular type of tyranny is not socialist or communist - it is fascist. 

A socialist or communist government is one which outright owns all major business systems - the airlines, banks, phone companies, et al. A fascist government does not nationalize ownership (and accept resultant responsibility) but instead controls private business completely, through extreme bureaucratic regulation. Just as a socialist government can be an unelected dictatorship (like Cuba) or a freely elected democracy (like Sweden), so can a fascist government. Democratic fascism, or a fascist democracy is no more of an oxymoron than democratic socialism or a socialist democracy. Instead, democratic fascism is the most accurate description of what America's political system has become. The freedoms guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have not been taken away by dictatorial force, but are being voluntarily surrendered. 

Reflecting on this the other day, I gave Durk and Sandy a call. "Do you guys think that learned helplessness can be self-induced?" was my question. "Sure," came Durk's response. "It explains a lot about how bureaucrats are taking over Americans' lives. Learned helplessness is not having the confidence you can do something on your own to make things better. So many Americans have their hand out in some way and demand a guarantee of the outcome they want, rather than accept responsibility for how their life turns out. This democratic fascism that you're talking about, Jack, is the political consequence of self-induced learned helplessness." 

Sandy continued, "I think that as a whole, women in general tend to vote for people who promise to take care of them. They seem to have an assumption of helplessness that may lie in a genetic tendency to produce less or be less sensitive to noradrenaline. For example, look at the Republicans' problems with the so-called 'soccer moms' who are upset that government programs may be taken away. They are unwilling to say, 'I can handle my situation and don't need some government handout.' Just look around - how many women do you see fighting the system and being truly politically incorrect? We need a lot more women like Margaret Thatcher or Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth [R-ID], but unfortunately they are rare." 

"How do we get them?" I inquired. "Actually, we need a lot more men like Margaret Thatcher too." 

"Well," came Sandy's reply, "we're happy to embark on a concentrated retail effort to make our noradrenaline-precursor formulas more widely available. The biochemical route is much quicker and easier to implement than the behavioral route. You can induce a behavioral change (like overcoming or being more resistant to learned helplessness) biochemically (like giving the brain the nutrient precursors to make noradrenaline). But getting or persuading people to alter their behavior - that is, to behave less helplessly - which will in time result in increased noradrenaline production is much tougher. As more and more people use these supplements, we think the more resistant to authority and "learned helplessness" they will become. The more assertive and self-confident they'll be, and more persevering in pursuit of a goal." 

"So the American ant can stop pushing himself, or herself, down to the bottom of the teacup?" I asked. 

"Exactly," Durk answered. "Too many Americans are trapped behind a Berlin Wall of their own making. With our formulas, they can break down their personal Berlin Wall and liberate themselves from nutritional imbalances and deficiencies that cause helplessness." 

"Going from self-induced learned helplessness to self-liberation ... it's what we want for America," Sandy concluded. 

It's what I want too.

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