Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Reflections on "Cracker barrel truths" from Phil Donahue

It was Phil Donahue former television talk show host, appearing on Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources on CNN Sunday, who spoke truth to power, shaking those of us calmly listening without expecting anything demanding our focused attention.
“We are so hypocritical in this country”… puffing ourselves up with our exceptionalism and how wonderful we are when we all know that we have not been able to excite our young people into participating in our country’s election. It was only 17% of those between 18 and 24 who voted in November 2016, so really those who DID NOT VOTE really elected trump. That was the core of what he said.

Two things jump out of the Donahue blurt:
·      the first is the laser light he shines on American hypocrisy
·      the second is the laser light he shines on the “negative evidence” that plays an important role in all realities.

Neither of these diagnoses, however, garner space, time, coverage or legitimacy from the American media. The first is so obvious that reporters and editors most likely consider it not worth pointing out. The second is an inversion of how an empirically-fixated culture sees itself, a completely different mirror and lamp into the truth-telling it needs.

Hypocrisy, a trait possessed by every living and deceased and unborn human being, is very difficult for most of us to name, for the simple reason that no one who utters the criticism is blameless. “People in glass houses should not throw stones” is an aphorism that constricts public debate, especially among political operatives.
It was Dr. Ben Carson, then a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, who, when asked to confirm that then candidate trump was lying, responded, “Well all politicians lie, don’t they?” Truth telling is not high on the value “totem pole” for politicians anywhere, and certainly not in the current political climate in the U.S. On a broad canvas, our history is filled with ironic examples of “carpenters whose houses lack adequate cupboards” or “clergy whose teen daughters became pregnant,” or “judges whose offspring veered off into criminality.” “Nurses who take the lives of their patients” is another of the many lurid and tragic dramas to which the human race is subject.

So when Donahue names the trait on an international television program dedicated to how the media works, he is both risking and “prophetting” in the Old Testament sense of that word.  The risk is obvious: he will be dismissed by those reporters, pundits, editors, and especially the public as “self-righteous” and “holier-than-thou” and “dated” and “out of touch” as a voice from the past not to be taken seriously. The prophet, however, the angry and singular, the detached and courageous, the insightful and balloon-pricking voice is less concerned with either his timing or his reputation.

And Donahue’s voice, at least on these two points, is well worth reflecting upon.
 We all have to look in the mirror and acknowledge our own hypocrisy and then    take deliberate and determined steps to come to terms with our own incarnations of the failing, as well as our responsibility to trim its expression in our own lives whenever it rears its head.  Donahue, no doubt, is more than prepared to accept such responsibility.

Hypocrisy, at the core of that old adage, “do as I SAY not as I do,” is primary evidence of the “divided self” spoken of by Paul in Romans. (I do those things I would not do, and fail to do those things I would do.) Our ideal life falls short in our actions. We are all, sadly, fraught with a psyche that is imperfect, that makes promises we cannot or will not keep, criticizes in others what we often do ourselves, shows contempt for those attributes in others we cannot tolerate in ourselves. Hope, potentially, lies in the kind of frank acknowledgement that Donahue utters. At least his putting it on the table of the national consciousness brings the hope that it pierces the balloon of any hubristic perception or belief in superiority. And if ever there were a time when such piercing is needed in the American political climate, it is now!

Donahue’s prophetic voice, the one that ‘sees’ beyond and behind the obvious “positive” evidence on the canvas, is also taking a considerable risk. Many will not notice what he sees, or even if they notice it, they refuse to acknowledge it, preferring a different cause-effect relationship, for example, for the reasons behind the election of trump.

Social scientists depend on empirical evidence, while the poets and the prophets among us have more licence to “intuit” and to observe and to criticize, without all the data having been collected, collated, analysed and theorized upon. Legal systems and medical diagnoses, accounting balances, and even political reputations depend on the empirical evidence adduced by those making judgements and only on such evidence. We all live in  world in which one’s opinion has no weight without the corroboration of specific empirical evidence.*

The missing numbers of young voters, along with the missing complement of black voters, especially in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin could tell a much larger story, when the longer term analyses of the presidential election of 2016 are complete than all of the other punditry, the Comey interventions, the Russian incursions, the wikileaks dumps, and the trump braggadocio. And that “emptiness” or vacuum, one on which Obama rode to victory twice, needs more reflection from those talking heads who have been trained in the search for “empirical evidence”.

Hypocrisy and a cultural perception that rests exclusively on the “obvious” without digging for the hidden, for the missing, for the “negative spaces” on every canvas…together comprise a toxic cocktail of self-sabotage. Taken together, they also paint a picture of a culture that is willing, even anxious, to turn every human in its orbit into a mere function, a grab-bag of skills, without an over-arching wholeness. Those hidden spaces in our psyche have no impact on the judgements we make of others, so fixated are we on what is empirically obvious.

However, what I do, even the  chosen keys I touch on this keypad, while an attempt to express both thoughts and feelings, do not begin to approximate “WHO” I am. Nor can the glib listing of my strengths and weaknesses begin to capture my “essence” nor my identity. Neither does my ideology, nor my belief system, nor my potential for or against any potential to change. And my mistakes especially do not define me or demonstrate my potential for care, compassion, empathy or ethical predisposition. In fact, my pain could be argued to contribute significantly to my, and all others’ capacity for those qualities.

And yet, such balkanization of every worker by his employer into  skill-set and then applied to a specific task (based even more reductionistically and derisively on whether s/he is a “cost” or a “revenue” source) is at the heart of, if not all, certainly the vast majority of management theory and practice. It is also at the centre of our assessments of athletes, bosses, neighbours, and even teachers and clergy. We have, collectively and willingly, submitted to a process in which we are all merely a measureable, observable finite digit on another’s computer screen, analyzed, compared and valued in relation to a zillion other digits.

And we will continue to pay an exorbitant price, not only in our personal lives, but also in our shared cultural, political, and economic lives for such compulsive reductionism. In our personal lives, we will continue to “feel” unknown, un-listened to, untrusted, and easily dismissable. Existentialists might call this “alienation” or “loneliness” or “isolation”. While English psychiatrist Bowlby studied young Brits under adverse conditions and theorized that each sought a return to “connection” and through connection, meaning, purpose and relevance, as a primary driving force of individual lives, conditions today, although different, are still fraught with conditions that drive millions to illicit drugs, and various “medications” for the shared psychic pain we all feel.

And there is no remediation, or even a glimpse of hope, perhaps not even a basic comprehension of how “digitizing” humans is counter-intuitive to a full, healthy and purposeful life among our political or our thought leaders.

Donahue is a welcome voice of truth, human wholeness, and full identity even if he speaks as another septaginarian.


*Just this week, medical researchers at the University of Aberdeen have found physical evidence of the age-old expression of poets, of a “broken heart” following a deep and profound emotional loss. Scar tissue is now believed to last perhaps forever on the heart muscle itself. Here is another ‘discovery’ in scientific research of the kind of previously understood “truth” that our ancestors “knew” without question.

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