Learned Helplessness

by Donna Schoenkopf

It is a bright Sunday morning a few weeks ago. I am having hotcakes and bacon at my brother’s house. The house is full of the smell of “home.” The bacon is flat and straight and perfectly fried and in layers between paper towels on a large platter on the kitchen table. A true work of art. The hotcakes come out of the frying pan and land freshly on your plate.

I’ve brought papayas to add to the breakfast. They are regarded with suspicion, as I knew they would be, but what the hell, why not?

Coffee perks.

My brother’s sons, my handsome and brilliant nephews, are there. They are all in various stages of their education—astrophysics and chemistry at Oklahoma University for two of my scientist nephews and probably a major artist for the third.

We are all having a lovely time eating hotcakes and bacon and are jocular and happy until my dear brother says from the kitchen, “Nothing ever changes. It doesn’t make any difference who is elected.”

I am in the other room talking to the boys and their girlfriends when I hear those words come out of his mouth.

In a split second my mind races through what has happened to my brother.

I think back to when the boys and their dad had been Libertarians for years until the Unpleasantness happened. (My brother, a very successful, brilliant, funny attorney, after years of struggle with drug addiction, ended up in jail.)

Before his downfall he had had a fine home in the tony estate woods of Edmond—modern architecture, lots of decks and large windows . Fancy cars and clothes and lots of stuff. Now it is all gone. After three years in the pen he has nothing left, not even his career. He has been struggling to give his boys and himself a home and food on the table.

Then I think back to a conversation we had when he was released from prison and I visited him at the Halfway House he was in as a requirement of his parole. He told me how he had to take a couple of buses daily to his low wage job across town and then again another couple of buses across town to be drug-tested three times a week.

He, in all seriousness and with vehemence, was telling me about how unfair it was for the public transportation system to charge him an extra 50 cents to change buses.

Fifty cents means a lot to a person who is poor. It’s the difference between keeping or losing your job or staying out of jail because you’ve missed your drug test.

Fifty cents.

(Boy. Did I know what he meant. But that’s another story.)

I’m thinking about how the experience changed him from a Libertarian to a Lefty.

And I’m thinking about how maddening it is that he thinks President Obama has not done enough for The People and is just part of a corrupt and unchangeable system.

Power to the People

Sometimes ... words fail me. But not for long.

“Thanks a lot!” I yell out to him from the living room.

And then I give him a list of things that have changed because the Democratic Party, the Left, and activists (like me) have made happen.

No more nuclear testing above or below ground. (I got arrested three times for that in Nevada.)

The end of the Vietnam War.

President Johnson’s War on Poverty, fulfilling Kennedy’s dream, left undone when he was assassinated. He wasn’t able to do it in his lifetime because a Republican congress had done the same thing to him that they are now doing to Obama. Social Security!


Civil rights!

Women getting the right to vote!

The environmental movement, slowly and surely, changing the profligate ways of the American people regarding waste and toxins and pollution and resulting in air and water quality legislation that continues to this day.

A health care system for the people (flawed, though it is, thanks to Republican opposition) that Obama managed to get passed by a nervous and recalcitrant Congress. No President had managed to do that since Theodore Roosevelt first proposed it back at the turn of the twentieth century.

The minimum wage. The raising of which is still blocked by Republicans every time it comes up in Congress.

The public transportation bus he was riding because he didn’t have a car!

And now the progressive Occupy movement. Did you know “occupy” comes from early Union actions when they took over factories back in the day? Did you know that it is the term used when Lefty students took over Administration offices on university campuses in the 1960s when they were pushing for peace and free speech? And now it is the official Word of the Year, according to linguist, Geoff Nunberg. I could go on and on and on. You know I could.

It burns me up. All these years of working for a better world disregarded by my brother who is more than smart, pretty much aware of what’s happening in politics, and is a really good person. If my brother is cynical . . .Oh, my God!


It’s Sunday, a couple of weeks later. I am watching a political talk show and listening to some guy from The National Review. He is saying that there is a psychological term, “learned helplessness,” that describes people who opt out of the political process. These are people who don’t want to be bothered by the hard work required to make a difference in the world.

Words of truth from a right-winger, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Little do the cynics know how rewarding, uplifting, and FUN it is to be a part of change. It feels great when the nightly news reports some kind of change in governmental policy or change in mood or conventional wisdom out there in the land that we progressive activists have managed to accomplish.


Last night my daughter called me. She was excited and thrilled with the fact that her foster brother, my foster son, Brad, is one of the leaders at Occupy L.A. and had been part of the negotiating committee between Occupy and The Powers That Be in the City of Los Angeles.

(Yes, we know. There are no leaders at Occupy; but Brad points out that means the movement isn’t leader-less but leader-ful. And he was there for all the negotiations.)

But before Brad had gotten involved in Occupy L.A. he had written to me about being turned off by all political parties. He said they were all the same and nothing would change.

Sound familiar?

Yes, I was angry. As angry as I had been at my brother. If he thought that all political parties were the same, he hadn’t been paying attention. He didn’t know what Obama had been going through. And it wasn’t because Obama was inept or weak or any of the other epithets that had been thrown at him from the Right and—I might angrily add—the Left. It was not the first time a person of courage and intelligence and charisma and goodness had been blocked by folks who had vested interests in things staying the same. I wrote him back and scolded and carried on, to no effect. He wouldn’t budge.

But perhaps he’s gotten a taste of what I’m talking about because last night he told my daughter how he had been on the negotiating committee of Occupy L.A. and had been the driving influence in getting The Powers That Be in Los Angeles to offer the Occupiers a huge plot of land for a garden, 10,000 square feet of office space for $1.00 year, and housing for the homeless on Skid Row. Quite a feat! I was so PROUD of Brad!!

But, guess what? His proposal was voted down by the Occupiers themselves, and then withdrawn by The Powers That Be. The Occupiers would not be satisfied and The Powers That Be couldn’t see any good coming out of a rebuffed offer or, worse, the media saying they were weak.

So, Brad, not so easy, huh? I know that now that you have tasted the excitement and fulfillment of activism, you will not let it go. Just because things didn’t go your way, even though you have been camped out for a long, long time,under their noses and intheir faces, strong and true. . .you lost.

Do not get cynical. Get back on the horse and try again. You will succeed, but not always, every time, on everything.

And when it doesn’t work out and you don’t get what you’re working for, or you do but it’s not quite what the ideal would be, some horse’s ass will say that you are incompetent, or sold out, or some such piece of nonsense.

Keep on truckin’, Brad.

Power to the People!

Donna Schoenkopf recently retired from teaching at 61st Street School in South Central Los Angeles, and has moved back to Oklahoma, where she spent her teens.


You tell ‘em, Donna!  Some good reminders here of what HAS been accomplished.

2011-12-12 by Rosalyn

Reminds me that if we pursued things we believe in with the same decication and will as we use in learning to ride a bicycle, we could change the world much faster and effectively.

2011-12-12 by Doyal

There’s lazy, there’s learned helplessness, there’s exhaustion (people get tired; bureaucrats never do.  It’s their paid job to show up and block or co-opt whatever they want to blocked or co-opted 24/7), and people finally figure out when to hold and when to fold.  Having watching a 25-year Sewer War in my little town, having watched a fierce and funny journalist track the venality, lies, cover-ups, botched work, more coverups, official denial and indifference and more coverups, all in the face of public apathy and finally exhaustion, the very public that will pay a terrible price for all this incompetence, there are ineeed times when you have to realize that the horse you’re supposed to get back up on is dead.  Then you have to walk away and hope for better next time.  But it is dishartening to see how often the bad guys win.  And why shouldn’t they?  Most citizens have other lives; bad guys have only one and are paid to work on that one thing for years.  Few citizens can match that kind of relentless power.

2011-12-12 by Ann Calhoun

I’ve been working to organize a neighborhood association for about a year and a half.  We got started around the issue of the possibility of a neighborhood grade school closing.  We won the first round, but it’s come up again (budget woes).  This grassroots organizing demands a lot of attention and is s l o w .  But you have to be willing to accept the defeats as well as the victories.  Sometimes something good comes out of defeat if you have smart people who can work a spin.  And you’re right, Donna, it’s FUN.  I’ve met some really nice people and it’s beginning to feel like an old-fashioned neighborhood, where folks know one another and help out occasionally.

2011-12-12 by Betsy

I could actually hear your voice speaking these words when I read them.  Really, I could….hear you!

2011-12-12 by Vicki

Excellent column with a passionate Progressive case, Hermana!  But papayas for breakfast?  In Oklahoma?  Must be one of those left-coast radical things.

2011-12-12 by Clark Shackelford

Donna, loved your article about Learned Helplessness. I think that idea of “learned…” whatever can be extended to a lot of human traits. Very nicely written. I agree with Vicki about being able to actually hear your voice in your writing. Great job. Great story. You are in-spiring!

2011-12-12 by annemarie

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