Saturday, November 11, 2017

Reflections on boundaries: 'givers must set them, takers never do.'

George Orwell tells us that all literature is political.

Well, today, it seems that every act by an individual human is also political. We are documented, photographed, scrutinized, dissected, analysed, interpreted, re-interpreted and effectively atomized by others, each with a view to “using” the evidence to support or refute some point of view. We have, effectively, become a digit in the global war of ideas, ideologies, dogmas, biases and conflicts. And how and if we set boundaries has a great deal to do with the cumulative impact of the shifting balance of power in our towns and cities, and also our nations and in the geopolitical seas.

And there is little dispute that individual boundaries have taken on an importance that no previous generation has even contemplated. Do we permit our signatures to appear on line? Do we permit our photos, whether we were aware they were even being taken, to be uploaded onto social media? Do we permit others, passersby, to take pictures of us wherever and whenever they choose? Do we even have a choice in some of these options, given than everyone has a camera, everyone has become a ‘shutterbug’ and the level of discernment and judgement about how to treat others has fallen off the charts of what only a decade ago was considered decency, respect and privacy.

Decades ago, as Margaret Atwood was rising in public awareness and exposure, as a phenom writer, she declared that she was becoming a ‘thing’. Today, we are all, on a much lower level, become a thing in the world of public perception and judgement. A single act, recorded with or without our awareness or permission, can and often does become another bullet in the “assault rifle” of whoever has a grudge and seeks to act it out. Some bullets are “paintballs” destroying reputations; others are “rubber” bullets, that inflict pain without serious injury; others, in the deployment of the unscrupulous, (and who is not free from being unscrupulous when seriously offended?) quite literally condemn. And all of these “shots” are fired with impunity, sometimes anonymously and certainly without recourse to appeal.

New digital technology, for example, has unleashed the most venal and base human venom, seemingly without a “training” period, without a modelling exposure, and certainly without adequate and rapidly evolving legal protection for the victims. In some ways the internet has become a sewer of human hate, violence without responsibility and shifts in the rising and falling tides of human attitudes, manipulated by the most unscrupulous, the most self-serving, and the most opportunistic among us. It has also become a willing, if somewhat unthinking participant, criminal activity that, heretofore, had to be inflicted directly, person to person. Now that activity is committed on the unknowing and the unaware by those with the least to lose, the most to gain and those with the secrecy and impunity that criminals have dreamed of for centuries.
Coarse language in the political arena has become the norm, not the exception. Personal attacks, including wanton disregard for the privacy and the safety of others, have risen exponentially. “Locker room” or “bar room” talk has been exposed and normalized (by the negligents like trump), and we are fed a daily diet of secrets dug from the closets of too many celebrities. At the same time, only 72-point accusatory headlines are actually heard, eliminating all need for specific details, nuances, subtleties and corroboration from public discourse, unless and until the matter goes before a court of justice. The ‘court of public opinion’ tolerates no subtleties, nuances and contexts. We have neither the time nor the patience.

Parallel to this rise in both extremes, judgement and revenge, is the drop in the kind of literacy that depends on the creative imagination, both to generate and more importantly to interpret and to assimilate the fullness of meaning. We have, collectively and collaborative, as well as tragically, succumbed to the reductionism of a bi-polar culture, declared by George W. Bush, “Either you are with us or you are against us!” That simplistic dichotomy (“I do not do nuance!”) is itself a form of self-and public deception. No reality can be reduced to an “either-or” positing everyone as “friend” or “enemy” depending on the issue. We have drained all the ‘gas’ from the shock-absorbers of our persons, our families, our towns and cities, and woefully our geopolitical discourse.

It is as if we have declared a new kind of “war” without having to deploy the lethal weapons so treasured in the last century. And the subtleties of the truth, the complicated evidence, both empirical and motivational, and the patience required to absorb and comprehend the fullness of our own reality, and that of others have been left behind in the ditch, as we rush to our next thrilling headline and political orgasm.

Never have boundaries, both personal and civic, been more essential.
And in that light, I refuse to upload a Facebook page.
I reject all the invitations to join twitter.
I have never even searched snapchat.
The menu of other more esoteric digital options remain outside my purview
While, years ago, I did upload a linkedIN page, I have not referenced it in years.
I refuse to purchase a local daily newspaper, infused as it is with stories of personal criminal activity, in the accusatory phase, rarely in the adjudication phase.
I refuse to watch Fox ANYTHING.
I refuse to watch entertainment that depicts violence for its own sake, or criminal activity that elevates the criminal “element” to the heroic.
And it is not only about internet access that boundaries are needed.
I had to reject invitations and urgings to join a bureaucratic hierarchy, sensing some potential smothering of responsibilities and duties that demanded a level of sycophancy (political correctness) that seemed incompatible with who I am.
I also turned down job offers based on hollow promises and seductive sales pitches that were blatantly self-serving on the part of the person offering.
Surprisingly, I also turned my back on attractive pitches for relationship based on travel ‘baubles’ and personal ambition that could not and did not mask a need for a degree of personal control that would hobble the strongest and most disciplined character.

On the other hand, I have failed to perceive the dangers and the threats of relationships based on bottomless needs, a seriously injured sense of self, both mine and another’s, and the dangers of rationalized and frightened judgements and decisions made for personal career “ethics” that were really a dismissal, without adequate evidence, for political convenience and career advancement.

I have also failed to perceive the difference between “withdrawal” without options and remaining in difficult situations while seeking and finding new options and supporting agents. My father’s dubbing me “the loon” of the family is engraved in memory, as the one who dives for extended periods of time beneath the surface (from association with others into deep privacy) and returns unpredictably for short periods.

Those who offer criticism, without understanding the fullness of any situation, I find less tolerable (I am less tolerant of) than those who listen to authentic contexts, legitimate depiction of the whole situation and demonstrate an awareness of the complexities of the situation about which they are disturbed. People who shake hands with their “elbows” in an act of aggression and a signal shouting “beware” offend, by their physical presentation, putting their verbal and smiling greeting in jeopardy. Those whose pasted-on smile and insincere expressions, almost involuntarily, I find I have nudged into a category of “detachment” and disinterest. Unfortunately, the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ aphorism often gives way to an intuitive interpretation of previous experiences that include a hint of danger, a scent of insincerity and inauthenticity. Showing up, in a manner that requires no scepticism or doubt, is a sign of incipient trust and a desire to follow up with that person. Conversely, not showing up, after accounting for a natural shyness, is evocative of withdrawal as if there might be reason for only mild interest.

Perhaps these ‘colorations’ of a perceptive lens of others emerge from decades of living in a family of origin in which uncertainty and unpredictability were the norm, supplemented unpredictably with short periods of unctuous generosity and warmth. What to trust and consider normative, in my experience, as opposed to what to be wary about, is “baked into the cake” of my identity. I did not ask for this imprint; I did not even know it was happening. No one specifically targeted me with these markings; they merely accumulated through multiple associations developing patterns of authenticity/insincerity, and calmness/violence and penuriousness/altruism. And much of these patterns became clear, almost like a turning of the kaleidoscope into a new consciousness, when a supervisor/trainer in pastoral counselling said these words: “The world can be divided into two groups: givers and takers.” As if a new drum had been struck, a new light turned on, and an arresting singing voice had intoned the words, I had what is commonly referred to as an “aha” moment.

Having been adjudged as “generous to a fault” and “dishing out soul food” and “too close to the students” by professional colleagues, whose observations were taken at the time as less than kind, I had an intuitive sense that I belonged to the “giver” category, more than to the “taker” category.

It was the next step, discovered considerably later than this “aha” moment that has freight here. The question of boundaries has a special application to the giver/taker comparison. Personal boundaries, especially for the ‘giver’s among us, contains an important truth. As one cliché has it, ‘givers need to set boundaries; takers never do’! And when ‘takers’ become leaders (as is too often the case) it is the body politic who must ‘set boundaries’….and that “must” takes on greater significance and meaning when takers attempt to govern.

If, for example, one lives a life during which one merely “purchases” obedience, compliance and sycophancy, one is unschooled in the existence and the importance of boundaries, whether those boundaries are the “fences that make good neighbours”, or the school ‘rules’ that govern classroom behaviour (no gum, no vulgarity, no cheating, no truancy), or the rules of the road (red lights, speed signs, stop signs, turn signals). Crossing minor boundaries, of course, is a sign of a need for control, a fear of losing that control, and an indication that “others” as represented by the respect for the common rules that re designed for the protection of all just don’t matter.

And while there is a thrill in rebellion, known by most adolescents, whose rebellion is “without a cause”, when that adolescence and that presumed arrogance and insouciance of the adolescent characterizes a leader (and by extension) a nation, the nation has effectively stalled in an undeveloped state. Maturity, whether of a person or a nation is in part attained when the need for boundaries trumps the impulse to rebel.

And the discernment of that moral, intellectual, social, psychological, political and even spiritual dominant/recessive value is one of the most significant signs of maturity in any potential leader. By extension also, it is a sign of the maturity of the people who comprise the nation’s electorate.

Never mind the subtleties of policy difference about who should pay more/less tax, or whether coal or renewable energy is ascendant, or even compatible, or whether the nuclear arsenal needs embellishment or reduction….the question of a leader and a nation’s “moral compass” as manifest through the values and the attitudes of its leadership and the people who bow to that leadership is trust-worthy, honourable, trained on the pursuit of justice, fairness, equality and dignity of every human being over-rides those policy differences and divisions.

And right now the United States is in the darkest hours of a narcisstic self-indulgence, as epitomized by its leader, so dark in fact that it risks falling into the proverbial river of its own Shadow, just as the narrative of the Greek myth reminds us.

Boundaries, for example, between the intelligence and national security arms of the federal government and the political leadership have simply dissipated. The Director of the F.B.I. has been fired. The Director of the C.I.A. has been ordered to meet with a conspiracy theorist who debunks the “Russia-collusion” case. The Attorney General has lied under oath about his ‘knowledge’ of the Russian connection to the presidential campaign of his president. The fourth-ranking member of the Department of Justice  Dana Bente, has been fired, nearly co-incident with the filing of indictments against Manafort and his acolyte. The president complains bitterly and publicly that he does not have complete control of the Justice Department. Some sycophants in Congress are publicly pursuing legislation that would impale Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller in limbo, if not on the political ash heap.

The charade at the heart of the American constitution is the “separation of Church and State” as a consequence of the original settlers in the new America dramatically throwing off their previous experience in England where church and state are “siamesed” in both ideology and methodology. However, as we all know, there is really no truly effective method to extricate matters of the spirit/faith from matters of the state when it comes to writing and passing laws that impact individual lives. Whatever a legislator’s church’s “position” on many issues, especially those around sexuality and family planning, will likely be the position taken by the legislator. And, that is precisely how that legislator is going to vote. So at the heart of the American experience is a flagrant enmeshment of church and state. However, in most other matters, the American penchant for writing everything into law has resulted in specific rules and practices of separation of certain state functions from the political realm and the actors therein.

A notable example is the primacy of the public, though elected representatives, over the Pentagon and those who serve. The irony and historic paradox of three or four military generals at the centre of the presidential administration is, for some, a ballast of reason and moderation, and for others a historic shift of some considerable proportion. Some have even speculated and written that “three generals may be keeping us out of military conflict, given the bellicose rhetoric and the world view that seeks and finds enemies under every rock and board room table, on every newscast, and in every other capital across the planet.

And then there is the matter of whether the current occupant of the Oval Office is or ever has been, or even will be a formal member of any political party. His “playing the game” by throwing cash at which ever politician and political party that he deemed would meet his highly narcissistic needs, ambitions and dictates.

The evidence suggests that long before his presidential ‘run’ he was blurring lines between truth and libelous fiction, the birthing debacle for example, the question of discrimination against blacks in his buildings, skating on thin ice around and through what would have been bankruptcy proceedings for any other mortal (watch for evidence that his Labour Secretary Wilbur Ross was his guardian angel on this front….and now have those roles been reversed?) Ross’ vice-presidency of the bank favoured by Russian oligarchs as a safe haven for their excess cash is just another instance of lines of integrity, full disclosure, separation of personal ambition from political office, and acquiescing to the traditional and normative practice of segregation one’s estate from one’s personal eyes, hands and executive influence have all been obliterated. It is not exaggerated to ask if this gang really care about the separation of their massive wealth from the public office they currently occupy.

Clearly, by refusing to divest his properties and to create a full and unreserved blind trust for his holdings, their boss, the president, has cleared the way for their own defiance, and their flagrant blind eye to the morality and the ethics the world has come to expect from American leaders in the last century.

There is trump’s musing about pardoning anyone and everyone, including himself, should Mueller’s Russian collusion probe uncover facts that incriminate more than a handful of sycophants. Once again, there simply are no boundaries, not even  vestige of a single boundary, around financial disclosure, around respect for women, around respect for the legislative and judicial branches of government.

And then, there is the massive blurring of lines in the diplomatic arena: Russia, a longstanding enemy, has suddenly (a la 1984) become a “friend” of the president. And just today, that same American president in a speech in Beijing, declared that the trade surplus that exists between the U.S. and China is not “China’s fault” but rather the fault of all of his predecessors who made deals that did not place the interests of the United States “ahead” of China….all of which begs some questions from American history.

The Manifest Destiny foresaw ever-expanding boundaries until the country finally reached the Pacific Coast, enabling negotiations for purchases of land, in a spirit of national pride and expansion. Conversely, the Monroe Doctrine,* set boundaries around American tolerance. However, there is a national impulse that seeks to engage, if not control, places not currently or formerly under the specific “aegis” and boundaries of the continental U.S. Whether colonies, the most glaring example today is Puerto Rico, are able to access equal or commensurate support from the ‘mainland’ however, remains seriously in doubt. Is this territorial ambition to expand matched by an equally energetic and muscular follow-through on commitments made in the name of the nation? The answer seems to point to a “no”. The American argument between military removal of a dictator and the re-establishment of a functioning societies (nation building) remains unresolved, as political voices shout their support for each side. 

Boundaries, of the kind that would demonstrate a kind of national self-confidence seem to be missing from the history of the United States’ pursuit of military weapons, given the compulsive acquisition of a larger arsenal that all other “armed” and developed nations. Boundaries that would keep town and city police comfortable as law enforcement agencies, and not another arm of the Pentagon, seem to have been disregarded following 2001, with the dramatic shift of “hard power” from the Pentagon to local police agencies. Is this another “American deferral to a default position that appears on the surface as strength, when, looked at from a more detached position, is really another sign of limitless anxiety, fear and powerlessness.

Really strong and self-confident people, communities and nations know without doubt that their positions have merit, their people are strong, and their military can be a supplemental and complementary adjunct to civic power, not the first “line of defence”.

The porous swiss-cheese-like labyrinth in which the health insurance companies operate inside the American health care system, too, indicate that there really are no heathy boundaries between the Congress and the insurance lobby, another sign that co-dependence is the dominant trait of the American system of governance. Politicians, as mere puppets of the insurance and the pharmaceutical industries, as well as of the military supply chain, the intelligence system leave the system so unprotected that no farmer would or could entertain a similar open-field if he wanted to keep and protect his herd of cattle.

When the current president shouts about “closing the border” and “keeping out the infidels” (read Muslims) he may have a glib and clenched-fist rabble of worshippers whose fear is in charge of their heads, without pausing for a second to recognize the irony of their position: loud and angry voices taking the lid off the cauldron of their fears. And that fear has been and will continue to be manipulated, whether by trump or bannon or any of their fickle cheer-leaders.

And of course, the leaders in Congress, especially the Republicans, have gone awol on their boundary with the White House. Just yesterday, Paul Ryan uttered the fatal decision: We are with trump!” as he effectively (if unconsciously) crossed his Rubicon. There is no going back after such a declaration, meant one guesses, to be a disciplined statement of leadership by a party leader vainly attempting to get his ‘troops’ in line. He might think to call John Boehner, to find out how a master political leader made out with the Tea Party, before making such a vacuous announcement.

Boundaries, dear reader, help us to get a picture of who one is, what one will tolerate or not, what kind of principle and foundation undergird the approach, whether it is a single person, or an organization or a government. And without verifiable boundaries that can be trusted, one is little more than a fallen leaf on a stormy lake, about to be blown wherever the wind decides.

*the policy, as stated by President Monroe in 1823, that the U.S.opposed further European colonization of and interference with independent nations in the Western Hemisphere. 

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