Sick Cultures: When Belief Systems Turn Pathological

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

It might come as a surprise but the answer to this question derives from influences many of which are beyond our control. For instance, most of us experience attitudinal changes along a spectrum from day to day or maybe even hour to hour. This has to do with our individualized reaction to all manner of hormonal and other secretions in your body. These, in turn, are influenced by epigenetic factors triggered by both internal and external environmental conditions.

A lot of these factors are inherited. You did not choose your genetic makeup or the parents who gave it to you and they did not choose their parents, and so on. This unchosen heritage sets your body up for all sorts of possibilities. Some might turn out to be good for you: nicely working immune system, relatively stable and positive mental disposition and acuity, etc. But it doesn’t have to go like that, and a propensity for illness and instability might be your inherited lot. 

Nor did you choose the sort of environment in which you were born. I might tell you to avoid being born into poverty, but you can’t do that. Nonetheless, statistically, the chance for a “prosperous and productive” life is low if early poverty is your fate. I might suggest that you avoid parents who are neglectful or physically/emotionally abusive. Do not grow up next to a “super fund” contaminated site. Just so, you should avoid being born in the middle of a raging war. Despite the fact that all of these outcomes would certainly affect your behavior, none involve choices you can make. It is amazing how much of our history and condition is beyond our control. 

What Do We Believe?

Just as we are arbitrarily centered in a body we did not choose, we are arbitrarily centered locally in time and space. That is, in a culture. And, here too, much is beyond our control. 

It has been one of the frequent themes of these blog essays that there is something called “natural localism.”* That is, most people tend to settle down in a local community. It is within this locale that they work or go to school, live within a family and friendship network, and come to feel a community identity. That does not mean that people don’t travel (mostly to visit friends and family) or relocate within that same cultural realm for work or school. However, the natural inclination of most is find a place to settle down. There is even an evolutionary aspect to this. Natural localism provides a time and space that maximizes familiarity and predictability. That is why it usually provides a sense of security. 

There is, of course, a downside. Natural localism ties one to a community worldview that mitigates against independent questioning and fact-checking. Over time established communities and groups socialize members into views supported by traditions, the interests of whatever passes for a ruling class, and often an ideology that idealizes the community’s raison d’être. Most who live within the range of such an aggregation will, almost habitually, see the world through the community’s lens. 

That means, for most of us, our belief system encompassing our notion of what is right and wrong and who is friendly and who is unfriendly, is not something we have independently chosen. There are endless examples of this. Take the Cold War between the U.S. and its allies on one side and the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact countries and China on the other. If you are old enough to remember this time (roughly 1945 to 1991) you should recall that the majority of adults in the U.S. and Western Europe had a hostile outlook toward the USSR and its allies. Most had no direct contact or experience that would provoke this hostility. They got it in an osmotic way. The culturally negative messages in one’s external environment shaped their perceptions so that they conformed to a community-wide point of view. 

Of course, just like bodies react differently to hormones and other secretions, individuals have varying reactions to the inherited belief systems of their cultures. A bell curve results—most people will be within an average range of cultural compliance. They will readily accept what they are taught at at home and in school, and hear from their teachers, leaders and media. There may be differences of opinion on the details, but most will buy into the overall message. At the edges of the curve will be found those who, for whatever experiential reasons, ignore or reject the message. The majority will see this minority as weird. At the extreme, they will be seen as a threat to social stability.

The Pathological Potential of Belief Systems

The negative feelings generated during the Cold War were felt by populations that were, for the most part, geographically separated. What happens when this inherited fear and negativity runs between populations sharing the same immediate landscape? What can your community point of view make you feel and do then?

Here are two examples: 

The United States prior to the 1960s:

U.S. culture prior to the 1960s was characterized by an institutionally and legally sanctioned racial divide between White and Black Americans. Racism relegated Black Americans to an inferior status enforced by legal segregation and discrimination. This resulted in an impoverished economic and social environment. From the point of view of many Whites, Black disadvantage was an historically ratified “normal” situation. That is, it felt natural and orderly to the White population based on tradition and long practice.

Thus, White Americans had been acculturated to a system that periodically pushed Black Americans to rebellion—“race riots.” These uprisings frightened White citizens who then supported strong police action against Blacks in order to maintain social stability and security. Such a posture only made future uprisings more likely. 

This situation did not begin to change until the 1954 Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v Board of Education, followed by a Black political movement led by Martin Luther King Jr.  The goal of this movement was to outlaw segregation and other egregious acts of discrimination in the public sphere. This effort was supported by a liberal sector of the White population who recognized the need for change based on a culturally idealized view of American socio-economic potential. King and his allies were successful in bringing change to the public sphere— essentially creating a new definition of normal based on a more egalitarian United States. However, changing individual laws is relatively easy compared to changing culture. Since the 1980s the country has experienced what is known as “culture wars.” That is, a political pushback by a sizable number of “conservatives” against progressive legislation.

Several things are to be noted here: (1) U.S. culture, since its beginning, has had a racist character that dehumanized its minority populations. It is in this sense that it was and, in some regards, still is pathological. (2) For most of its history this toxic environment was, and for some continue to be, invisible because most Whites were raised in family and/or local community surroundings that registered the toxicity as normal. Despite the change that eventually came in the 1950s and 60s, today some are so addicted to the older worldview that they are waging a political battle to return to a “sick normal.”

Contemporary Israel:

Israel’s story overlaps with that of the United States: (1) A sense of racially/religiously based superiority. While it is White Christians in the U.S., it is Jewish Zionists in Israel. (2) A claim that the country’s land is divinely deeded or blessed. (3) The existence of a largely segregated and disadvantaged class of “others.” In Israel, the “others” are the Palestinians. 

Israeli and other Jews, and many who support them (i.e. Joe Biden), have learned about Israel through a biased narrative. The result is an attitude sustained by a customized pro-Zionist history. To maintain the narrative within Israel itself, education has been turned into a process of indoctrination. What is taught in this process? (1) God gave the land of Palestine to the Hebrew ancestors of contemporary Jews. (2) Jews need the State of Israel to be safe in a world where antisemitism is widespread. (3) The world owes it to the Jews to secure this Jewish state. (4) Palestinians are dangerous interlopers who hate Jews and seek to destroy the Jewish state. For Zionists, the Palestinians have replaced the Nazis as perpetrators of another potential Holocaust. The result has been the maintenance of Israel as a fortress nation—roughly resembling ancient Sparta where an elite population lived in fear of the serfs (helots) they had oppressed and driven by that fear, these elites trained constantly for war.

The national and local environment inherited by Israeli Jews is infused with this mindset. Defense against Palestinian and Arab “terrorists” is an important psychological theme of their culture. It is reinforced in the average family setting. It is detailed out for them in school. It provides a sense of camaraderie among friends and within the workplace. It is capped off by a program of near-universal conscription of Jewish Israelis. It is extraordinarily difficult to escape the pressures of such an overbearing cultural climate. Here too, the toxic nature of this environment is invisible to many of Israel’s Jewish citizens because of having been raised in local surroundings that registered their perceptions as normal. The predominant rationalization for the resulting Israeli aggressiveness has always been “national defense.” What can be more normal than that? Hence, the fact that “Israelis overwhelmingly are confident in the justice of the present Gaza war.” And this support of the wholesale destruction of Gaza** is the final confirming factor demonstrating the pathological nature of Israeli/Zionist culture. 


The United States and Israel are not the only sick cultures on the planet. However, as noted, they stand together due to a historical symmetry. This connection allowed the Zionists in the U.S. to build a powerful special interest organization and easily convince most of the American population to accept the Israeli narrative that, among other things, claimed the two countries held similar values. This despite the fact that Israel does not even have the framework for an idealized just society. It lacks a constitution and, insisting on a culture of Jewish supremacy, guarantees the absence of equal justice for all.

The connection also sees both nations attempting to deny similar sins while claiming similar virtues: Israeli claim that it is “the only democracy in the Middle East” covers up the reality that it is an apartheid state and, in the case of the U.S., the claim of exceptionalism due to the practice of high ethical standards covers up a continuing national struggle against racism and a foreign policy that contradicts U.S. claims of spreading democracy.

On the other hand, over time the United States did create legislative and judicial ideals for itself based on a self-glorifying narrative—that the U.S. was a nation of superior moral-ethical potential. Thus, when the government fails the citizenry you can get civil rights movements and anti-war protests of historic importance.

Significantly, it is this lurking moral uneasiness with their nation’s hypocrisy, felt particularly by the youth, that is now eroding the American alliance with Israel. The ethnic cleansing and genocide, so acceptable to Israeli Jews, is a behavior that a number of Americans see as indefensible—particularly from an “ally” claiming to hold values similar to their own. 

Thus is change possible even in an environment over which we have but nominal control. And, in this case, for the U.S. to get past its own hypocrisy—the sick elements of its own culture—it must finally leave Israel behind. 


*See Lawrence Davidson, Foreign Policy Inc. (University Press of Kentucky, 2009), chapter 1. 

**The proper historical analogy to the destruction of Gaza is the Nazi destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto.  

Lawrence Davidson is a retired professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.