‘The Cost of Sanity, in this Society, Is a Certain Level of Alienation’

We close ourselves off from a full sense of participation when we depart from the consensus worldview, writes Caitlin Johnstone. But in closing that door we open so many more.

By Caitlin Johnstone

The late psychonaut/philosopher Terence McKenna once said “The cost of sanity, in this society, is a certain level of alienation,” and I think my regular readers will immediately and experientially understand exactly what he was talking about.

It’s not always easy to be on the outside of consensus reality. Our entire society, after all, has been built upon consensus — upon a shared agreement about what specific mouth sounds mean, on what money is and how it works, on how we should all behave toward each other in public spaces, and on what normal human behavior in general looks like.

We all share a learned agreement that we picked up from our culture in early childhood that it’s normal and acceptable to stand around with your hands in your pockets and babble about the weather to anyone who gets too close to you, for example, whereas it would be considered weird and disruptive to stand around slathered in Cheese Whiz shrieking the word “Poop!” But we could just as easily reverse that consensus on behavioral norms tomorrow, and as long as we all agreed, we could do that without missing a beat.

In exactly the same way, there exists a general consensus about what’s going on in our world at the moment. There’s a general consensus that we live in the kind of society we were taught about in school: a free and democratic nation which maybe did some not so great things in the past, but is now a supremely virtuous beacon of light on this earth that kicked Hitler’s ass and then surfed into the present day on a wave of truth and sensible fiscal policy. There’s a general consensus that the news reporters on our screens paint us a more or less accurate picture of world affairs, that there are a lot of Bad Guys in our world with whom the Good Guys in our government are fighting, and that most of our nation’s problems are caused by the people in the other political party.

This consensus is grounded in delusion. It is insanity.

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In reality, of course, we live in a world where our understanding of the world is constantly being deceitfully manipulated by oligarchic media propaganda and the utterances of oligarch-owned politicians. Where elections are mostly just a live-action role-playing game that allows the rabble to pretend that they have some degree of influence over the things that their government does. Where our government routinely forms alliances with the worst Bad Guys on the planet while manufacturing consent to topple governments whose downfall would be utterly disastrous. Where our nation’s problems have almost nothing to do with half its population disagreeing with our personal ideology, and practically everything to do with the loose international alliance of plutocrats and government agencies who actually run things behind the facade of the comings and goings of official elected governments.

Friendships Can End 

Sanity means seeing this as it is, rather than subscribing to the mass delusion of the consensus worldview. Which, as you probably already know, can make it difficult to relate to others in some ways. Conversations about politics often either get heated very rapidly when you challenge a tightly-held orthodoxy or dead-end in awkwardness. Friendships can end. Family relationships can be ruined. Collective narratives about you can be woven and circulated within your social circle which have nothing to do with how you actually see things.

And that’s just if you talk about your worldview. If you keep your views to yourself, as many do, that’s just another kind of alienation. It’s to stand outside of public political discourse completely, unable to participate out of fear of the backlash you’d receive from your friends, loved ones and acquaintances if you started talking about President Donald Trump as a symptom rather than the disease, or said that the U.K.’s Jeremy Corbyn is being targeted by a transparently bogus smear campaign, or said that Russia’s interventions in world affairs are clearly dwarfed by America’s by orders of magnitude. The specific heresies will vary depending upon the social circle, but the inability to voice them necessarily comes with the same sense of alienation.

But the alternative to that sense of alienation is to live a lie. It’s to climb back inside the distorted funhouse-mirror reality tunnel of the establishment narrative control matrix and plug yourself back into the same delusions that everyone else is living. Most of us couldn’t even do that if we wanted to. Even if we could, the intense mental gymnastics we’d have to perform just to avoid the discomfort of cognitive dissonance would make it not worth the effort.

We close ourselves off from a full sense of participation in our society when we depart from the consensus worldview, but in closing that door we open so many more. Because, as it turns out, all that effort that people pour into staying on the same wavelength as everyone else closes them off to a vast spectrum of potential human experience. The allure of the mass delusion is that you need to devote yourself to being plugged into it in order to achieve what the mass delusion defines as “success”, but in so doing you lose the ability to leap down psychological and experiential rabbit holes of consciousness that those still jacked into the matrix can’t even imagine. And in so doing you open up the possibility for an immensely more fulfilling and enjoyable life that has really deeply explored the more intimate questions about what it means to be a human being on this planet.

Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” And a profoundly sick society is indeed what we have here. The alienation which we experience is an alienation from something that isn’t worth belonging to anyway.

I began this essay with a quote from one of the celebrated thought leaders of the psychedelic movement, and I think the question of what we can do to cope with the alienation McKenna spoke of is best answered by ending with a quote from another such leader, Timothy Leary:

“Admit it. You aren’t like them. You’re not even close. You may occasionally dress yourself up as one of them, watch the same mindless television shows as they do, maybe even eat the same fast food sometimes. But it seems that the more you try to fit in, the more you feel like an outsider, watching the ‘normal people’ as they go about their automatic existences. For every time you say club passwords like ‘Have a nice day’ and ‘Weather’s awful today, eh?’, you yearn inside to say forbidden things like ‘Tell me something that makes you cry’ or ‘What do you think deja vu is for?’ Face it, you even want to talk to that girl in the elevator. But what if that girl in the elevator (and the balding man who walks past your cubicle at work) are thinking the same thing? Who knows what you might learn from taking a chance on conversation with a stranger? Everyone carries a piece of the puzzle. Nobody comes into your life by mere coincidence. Trust your instincts. Do the unexpected. Find the others.”

Caitlin Johnstone is a rogue journalist, poet, and utopia prepper who publishes regularly at Medium. Follow her work on Facebook, Twitter, or her website. She has a podcast and is the author of Woke: A Field Guide for Utopia Preppers.” 

This article was re-published with permission.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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31 comments for “‘The Cost of Sanity, in this Society, Is a Certain Level of Alienation’

  1. robert e williamson jr
    December 14, 2019 at 21:53

    A return to sanity in American politics will require millions of non-partisan moderates become more active and even thought it is against their nature they need to become more belligerent . True moderates ,not the self claimed democratic partisan type or the totally off the wall republicans claiming to be moderates of today.

    The spectrum of comparison has slide continuously more to the right. No moderate republicans exist now days they all seem to lean extremely to the right. Today’s self claimed moderate democrats are no longer either and resemble more closely the moderate republicans of the Reagan era. We all know where the led us.

    I strongly suggest many of you might feel much better after watching and listening to Beau of the Fifth Column “Lets talk about the dangers of being moderate . . .! Simply search Beau of the Fifth Column “Lets talk about the dangers of being a moderate, it’s pretty good stuff. He describes some serious facts about what has happened to the “moderate”. The extreme “right wing “or republicans have at the expense of an increasingly lost democratic party, a party that seems just not to get it, have been chipping away at democratic identity by misapplying the term moderate for themselves and erroneously ” titling anything they are against as being liberal.

    A democratic party politically compromised to the extent they seem powerless to stop the charge to right by fear mongering right wing extremists. Why because they fear being called “Boat Rockers” and losing the Corporate money.

    No actual difference exists between democrats and repurblicans these days and there hasn’t been any difference officially since well before the non-debated, unread Patriot Act was passed. Remember what the village idiot from Crawford Texas said “You are either with us or against us.”

    I was against him then and I’m against him now. Him, Trump, Nancy, Hillary, Barr, the entire “D.C. Gang” for they have lost their way and WE, us moderate, non-partisan Constitutional Patriots need to kick these fools out of their seats in government.

    Democrats wanting to prove me wrong simply need to vote no for the $22 billion the Pentagon is wanting. I will not be holding my breath.

    Just call me a alien student of free thought. Hell yes we feel alienated these people have lost the minds and no matter what they claim to justify themselves we can be certain it will self serving bull shit they espouse. THEIR GOD, THEIR SECURITY, THEIR FINANCIAL STABILITY, THEM THEM THEM. Cut food stamps for the needy and ask for another $22 billion to kill people I personally see absolutely no reason to kill.

    Nope. No sir no way. I am not on that team. You want to support the troops bring them HOME!!!

  2. T
    December 14, 2019 at 12:28

    Hello, Floyd Gardner: Hah — “schizoid”, indeed … That was the standard out when the system of conscription had switched informally from thinking “the drill sergeant will straighten these creeps out” to a just-as-informal rule, which only those in the know were aware of: “Under no circumstances are you to draft one of them — we have enough problems already without another one of those bad-ass troublemakers!”

    Because I knew that, my “psychological” interview was great fun. It consisted of two questions:
    “Do you get along well with other people?”
    — “Well, it depends on what those other people are like.”
    “Do you want to join the Army?”
    — “No, not really.”

    The real communication was non-verbal: my big shit-eating grin, that said: “I know what the scene is, and you know what the scene is, and I know that you know that I know, and you know that I know that you know that I know…” He couldn’t look me in the eye, but just scribbled the note that I had a “schizoid personality”.

    What made it even sweeter was that the whole farce was the result of a Federal prosecutor thinking he was being clever…

  3. Stephen M
    December 14, 2019 at 11:07

    Yes, sometimes it seems like maybe the Gnostics were on to something (or at least there are a lot of parallels here). Power rules this world. “Truth” only exists to the extent that it acts in furtherance of Power. The ultimate expression of raw unrestrained power in the world in its current configuration is the one “exceptional nation” which deems itself to be its own law. Anyone who threatens to expose Power, or poses significant opposition to it, is to be demonized — persecuted, tortured and/or killed if need be. Those in power who carry out horrific crimes are lionized — and great hagiographies produced upon their passing. The world is turned on its head. Those of us who “eat of the fruit of knowledge” and are made aware of this inverted reality are necessarily outcasts, and similar to Gnostic beliefs, it is this “esoteric knowledge” that enables the redemption of the human spirit.

  4. peon d. rich
    December 14, 2019 at 02:11

    free your mind and your funky ass will follow.Metaphysics of alienation – it’s more likely to bring radical change than #resistance wishful thinking. From ‘lights on a satellite’ to ‘new potato caboose’ this train headed to desitnations unknown. Thank you Caitlin for your spirit.

    • maggie harrison
      December 14, 2019 at 05:23

      This is exactly what I needed to read, after this fake election, orchestrated by our sad media and BBC! The hatred and vitriol, demonstrated by all TV Channels on election night, against Jeremy Corbyn, was unbelievable and their carefully, chosen guests repeated the same mantra. I feel lost, in a group of Daily Mail reading friends and not sure, where to meet curious people like me! However, after reading your article, I know I must look further for new friends, or remain forever sad. My first task is to cancel my tv licence and that is easy to achieve!
      Thank you for giving us the truth.

    • leveymg
      December 14, 2019 at 09:57

      Alienation is the existential cost of independent thought. I embrace the solitude, yet seek out others similarly afflicted. We are never truly alone in our independent thoughts. A community of individuals is a paradox, but not necessarily a dilemma.

  5. Jan
    December 13, 2019 at 21:50

    Johnstone?s essay prompted me to remember some good friends I lost in 2016 by being critical of Hillary or Obama by mentioning Libya or Honduras. And not even in aggressive or offensive ways. I became someone who subscribed to ” dark conspiracy theories” by forwarding a handful of essays by authors like Johnstone or Hedges or Street. The rogue nuclear engineer Arnie Gunderson at Fairwinds Associates uses the term ” echo chamber” to describe the way nuclear scientists delude themselves with group consensus into thinking that nuclear energy is safe. That is a good metaphor for the entire country these days. We live in a vast corporate echo chamber.

  6. Mark Stanley
    December 13, 2019 at 19:21

    General consensus
    I have been thinking about this lately, and wanting to express it it but not sure how to succinctly. It will require first the removal of my titanium alloy foil hat from it’s Faraday cage and don it (tin is outdated and over-rated)
    Do you remember what it felt like when a popular song you liked was on the radio?
    Have you ever got sucked into something that was popular and later wondered why? Old photos..what were you wearing?
    How can all of those people—sheeple–lemmings be so stupid? Whatever the latest Russiagate-like propaganda theme is they suck it up like candy. It would be humbling to compile a long list—say, beginning with McCarthyism. But it’s not just politics. No matter how many times they buy a pet rock they continue to do so. It’s as if this years’ fad has been the style for all of eternity.
    When worshipers are praying in a church they feel good. I do not believe some god or goddess is sprinkling fairy dust on them. I think they are creating the feeling themselves—as a group. The bigger the group, the more powerful it is. Maybe it’s a good thing. But there’s a little problem: there are something like 150,000 different Christian sects, and each one—every corner preacher thinks he is right and every one else is wrong.
    So we live in a world dominated by thought forms competing for space, even though space is unlimited. Whenever a group of people believe in something a tangible energy field is created that makes it into a reality. In Quantum mechanics that kool aid, that “group think” is called a morphogenic field. It may or may not be measurable now, but mark my words—someday it will be.
    One thing is certain: I can feel it. Can’t you?

  7. nwwoods
    December 13, 2019 at 18:46

    Excellent commentary, C. Your work just keeps getting better and better.

  8. rosemerry
    December 13, 2019 at 16:55

    Thanks to Caitlin and the comments too.
    Right now we can see the problems she outlines. The Horowitz report has hundreds of pages well explaining the terrible lies of the “intelligence agencies”, yet the one comment about it being non-political is the only statement accepted by the Democratic Party leaders. Moon of Alabama, Matt Taibbi and others dissect the main findings; which are ignored by the NYT, WaPo etc as usual. Bob Parry’s article today (from 2 years ago) showed how CN, as in many other issues, was well ahead of the pack, but even now the pack is still left behind and stuck in its confirmed errors.

  9. Jimbobla
    December 13, 2019 at 15:31

    Another time Billy heard Rosewater say to a psychiatrist, “I think you guys are going to have to come up with lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren’t going to want to go on living.

  10. December 13, 2019 at 15:13

    I’ve experienced alienation in my family. My sister and I totally disagree on US foreign policy. I once said to her that the US govt was a state sponsor of terrorism which didn’t go over very well with her. I do believe the US uses terrorists as proxes for political ends.
    Just recently at Thanksgiving dinner an in-law of mine wanted the US to bomb China. Instead of replying I got up and left the table.
    Caitlin’s good at illuminating the psychological price people pay for living in this society.
    Thanks Caitlin!

  11. Patrick
    December 13, 2019 at 11:56


  12. vinnieoh
    December 13, 2019 at 11:38

    This piece, from the concise Caitlin is very timely for me. I spent Thanksgiving afternoon with my brother and his wife, and even though I perfectly knew how far apart we were on so many things, allowed myself to stray into politics. Last Friday I received an angry letter from him, accusing me of basically being a useful idiot to Russian propaganda, and that he was absolutely convinced that I get all of my information from RT. I do not visit that site; I had, about a half-dozen times several years ago, and during one brief period. I quickly decided why trade one flavor of propaganda for another? And, I didn’t care for the commercialization and sleazy, salacious nature of their corporate advertising (not so different from Vox, a perfect example of Caitlin’s rightful notions of narrative maintenance.)

    Rather than creating an “immensely more fulfilling and enjoyable life” it may be that I’ve completely lost any relationship with my brother. Nothing uplifting or inspiring about that, but I guess it was inevitable. I’m not going to ignore what I’ve come to believe is the truth, just because it makes him unhappy.

    Anyhow, another excellent installment from Caitlin.

    • Jan
      December 13, 2019 at 22:27

      I subscribe to the RT, Telesur and Al Jazeera news feeds, which are decent alternative sources. RT mixes commentary into its news, which can be irritating, and of course has a bias. Given all that, I still find them far less offensive than the MSM, especially the NYT and WaPo.

      Sorry to her about your brother. Mine sends me idiotic one-line pieces of what I guess is right-wing humor. The scary thing is that those one-liners are the extent of his political analysis. I reply with pieces by Johnstone and Hedges but I doubt that he reads them. Too much trouble, too many words.

    • Cassandra
      December 14, 2019 at 00:54

      You should resume visiting RT for the excellent reason that it covers a lot of topics that are censored in what you are probably reading by not being covered at all. It is where journalists go when they have gotten themselves blacklisted by MSM.

      Meet up on RT with people you sort of subliminally assumed must have died.

  13. Lily
    December 13, 2019 at 11:23

    Thank you, Caitlin Johnstone, your essay makes me feel less lonely.

  14. Andrew Thomas
    December 13, 2019 at 10:53

    Once again, beautiful work, Caitlin. The cheez-whiz paragraph made me laugh out loud twice- the first time for the image, and the second time upon the realization that your point is 100% correct.

  15. December 13, 2019 at 09:06

    Dear Caitlin –

    This is a profoundly important piece you’ve written here. I so applaud your striking this chord at this particular moment as we approach the Winter Solstice. Thank you . . .

  16. Robert Svorinich
    December 13, 2019 at 07:13

    Thanks , your articles are informative and uplifting. All the best.

  17. AnneR
    December 13, 2019 at 07:01

    Thank you again, Ms Johnstone.

    Yup, alienation all the way. As it so happens, I have managed to alienate virtually *all* of my late husband’s friends, who became, I had thought, mine, but as these past three years have made only too apparent: I was mistaken. But then, he was far better at managing disagreements, especially over politics, political points-of-view, than moi who tends to be more, “this is how I view the world.”

    And what really alienates comes down to: you are either fully on board with whatever corporate-capitalist-imperialist shill/carpetbagger the DNC ratifies in order to rid ourselves of the Strumpet excrescence, who is “misrepresenting” what the US is really all about, or you are a Strumpet supporter/enabler (either being as bad as the other). Meanwhile, none of these friends (almost all, if not all, of whom are definitely within the bourgeoisie, most comfortably so) care one whit, apparently, about what we are doing abroad to other peoples, their homes, lives, livelihoods, economies. Nope. Happening over there to them. The fact that the trillions spent on destroying, devastating other peoples elsewhere have been and are being thrown around the various facets of the MIC, even as the US military is the largest single planetary polluter, monies that could have been and be invested here at home in medical care, infrastructure, genuine work creation, free or low cost education, decent housing for everyone, doesn’t seem to bother these friends. Even as they get angry about climate change…. But then, they’re okay.

    And if one suggests that one most definitely does not admire anything re the CIA or FBI (or the rest of the alphabet soup) and one cannot understand how any educated person could conceivably have forgotten what these grotesque agencies have done (and continue to do) over the decades, well, end of conversation. More monies thrown away on criminal – literally – immoral and unethical behavior, actions.

  18. Fran Macadam
    December 13, 2019 at 03:26

    Tune out, turn off, drop in.

  19. Bill Pilgrim
    December 12, 2019 at 23:56

    In the same vein, J. Krishnamurti once said: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

    • Jimbobla
      December 13, 2019 at 15:21

      And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.

  20. December 12, 2019 at 20:55

    “There’s a general consensus that we live in the kind of society we were taught about in school: a free and democratic nation.” In the U.S. lots of people now realize that is ridiculous. We don’t always know whether someone we chat with feels the same way, but the reality is apparent to many — after the Suprme Court decided the Gore-Bush election, after the farce of the Trump presidency. “The disintegration of bourgeois democracy” (title of a 2016 article in Marxism Today) is well under way.

  21. Antonio Costa
    December 12, 2019 at 19:40

    I’m reminded of Eric Fromm’s 1955 “The Sane Society is a continuation and extension of the brilliant psychiatric concepts Erich Fromm first formulated in Escape from Freedom; it is also, in many ways, an answer to Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. Fromm examines man’s escape into overconformity and the danger of robotism in contemporary industrial society: modern humanity has, he maintains, been alienated from the world of their own creation. Here Fromm offers a complete and systematic exploration of his ‘humanistic psychoanalysis.’ In so doing, he counters the profound pessimism for our future that Freud expressed and sets forth the goals of a society in which the emphasis is on each person and on the social measures designed to further function as a responsible individual.”

    • Paora
      December 13, 2019 at 02:41

      Wonderful book, thanks for the reminder! The Frankfurt School (of which Fromm was a member, along with Adorno, Horkheimer Marcuse, Benjamin etc) has taken a lot of crap from all sides, from more orthodox Marxists and apolitical Freudians to the contemporary alt-Right who trace the origins of their dreaded ‘Cultural Marxism’ to the School. Although as Ben Norton & Max Blumenthal point out in their recent article on far-Right intel vets subverting Corbyn there is a straight line between the alt-Right’s bogeyman and the old (Fascist) Right’s designation of the School as a den of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’.

      From Adorno & Horkheimer’s critique of the ‘Culture Industry’ (the emerging Mass Media and Entertainment complex) in their book “Dialectic of Enlightenment’ , and Marcuse’s diagnosis of the emergence of ‘One Dimensional Man’ and Fromm’s of an authoritarian ‘Fear of Freedom’, we are given some of the essential tools required to understand the appeal of Fascism and it’s transmutation into the psychic wasteland of Late Capitalist culture (of which social media is an exemplar).

      Thanks to Caitlin Johnstone for bringing back the Frankfurt School’s focus on the psychological/psychic underpinnings the system of oppression we struggle against, and being part of the effort to expose and undermine them. This important task is too often neglected in my view. Cheers to the Psychonauts!

  22. ML
    December 12, 2019 at 18:15

    I am sure many Consortium News readers can relate to this essay. (Drew Hunkins, I am thinking of you and so many others here). Thank you, Caitlin Johnstone, for writing an essay that helps confirm to so many of us, that we are not alone in this feeling of alienation- especially since the 2016 election when so much dissension and heated discourse ended friendly relations with some of our fellow beings- friends, neighbors, family members. Keep shining the light on truth all you good, steady, level-headed non-partisans out there. And maybe, just maybe, some day there will be a critical mass of awakening that can lead to more policies and structural changes that will nourish the common good. Cheers, Caitlin. You are a precious person and I value your voice so very deeply. Thank you, Consortium News!

    • Drew Hunkins
      December 13, 2019 at 14:42

      Ha! Thanks for the acknowledgement ML. And you’re indeed spot-on in your comment.

    • December 13, 2019 at 15:00

      and thank you, ML, for your apt expression. In the mid-60’s, I was diagnosed schizoid for refusing to go to S.E. Asia and “kill and-or be killed.” Since then, we have seen the 1000’s of those “sane” ones who did as told and “served” – and what their “sanity”hath wrought.

  23. Michael
    December 12, 2019 at 16:38

    Wow, thank you Caitlin that was surprisingly uplifting.

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