Monday, October 19, 2020

The symbiosis of mob and mobster

 The media’s sarcastic ridicule of trump’s “herd mentality” as a substitute to “herd immunity” while reasonable and somewhat responsible, on the surface, nevertheless warrants a much closer look.

A radiologist who focuses almost exclusively on brain scans, Dr. Atlas (how paradoxical can this ‘thing’ get?), as the presidential adviser on COVID-19 is not merely a joke, it is an outright devilish and deliberate work of evil. Dr. Birx is today reported to have requested his removal from the COVID Task Force, or at least whatever is left of that body. However, on the political front, trump’s culture, mind-set and personal unconscious lexicon is both rooted in, and still erupting in phrases and words that, far from expressing a slipped-tongue, disclose a much more deep and insidious truth. The current occupant of the Oval Office is a self-designed, self-tutored, and imitative, degenerative plagiarist “mob” figure, dependent on feeding the insatiable appetite of a clearly despised and disdained mass of cultists, over whose surging tide of fearful, and hateful vengeance for their perceived ‘villains’ (Clinton, Obama, Biden, et al). And the more he feeds this venomous bile into those open vacuums of adulatory sycophancy, the more raucous and hollow are the crowd-sourced cries “Lock her/him up!”

There is a highly politically incestuous relationship between this American president and his pubescent press of political/personal vassals. Both are hollow and empty vessels, attempting to satiate an appetite for attention deeply enmeshed in each other’s lives. And the parallel does not end there. Both will use whatever trick it takes to cling to the other: a MAGA hat here, a racist, sexist slur there, a fake promise of a wall here, a rush of thousands without masks or social distance in order to fawn over their ‘hero’..(Yesterday a clip from a trump rally with evangelicals showed a woman who actually uttered these words from her microphone: “The lord told me he was going to give the president a second term.”) A far better health care plan, promised for four years, without the slightest  intention to deliver, linked nefariously to a white supremacist/terror-inspired, conspiracy ‘mob’ itself claiming trump as hero to save the children threatened by the “deep state” of elites around the world, known as Q-Anon…while trump himself deflects by yelling almost screaming against something he calls antifah.

The false equivalencies, however, neither start nor stop with that deranged assessment. False equivalencies in Charlottesville, followed by another over Putin/Ukraine influence in the 2016 (and likely the 2020) elections, another in  Black Lives Matter and white supremacists with AR15 rifles in Kenosha WI, another in the fraud of mail-in ballots and absentee ballots, the false equivalency between the Mueller investigation and the Barr/Durham report, as well as another in the ‘Biden emails and the false claims of Hillary’s emails. And then there is the glaring cadre of mobsters that have been magnetized, like moths around a flickering light bulb, anxiously shivering in anticipation of a presidential ‘clap’ of one hand on a tweet, signifying empty, hollow and yet indelible and scarring endorsement on their reputation.

Borrowing from a respected text on Social Psychology,

Emory S. Bogardus, Fundamentals of Social Psychology, Chapter 22, Crowds and Mobs, accessed through Project*/1924_22 html at the Mead Project, Monday October 19, 2020)    

The masses that comprise the president’s crowds exhibit almost a complete list of what are known as traits and conditions of mobs. A loss of self-awareness, a loss of responsibility, almost complete anonymity, a pack mentality imbued with the impression of universality, pseudonomity (through hats and scarves but not masks in this case) are just some of the traits of crowds.

Bogardus calls crowds, “whirlpools of life” and “effervescent centres olf a common affective and social nature”. In trump’s case, the mob is highly homogenous: determined to secure his re-election. Bogardus also attests that in crowds, “feelings submerge reason,” rendering them “reversionary, with a natural tendency to revert to primitive methods.” He says they can be referred to as a ‘herd of cattle, a covey of birds, a shoal of fish, all with a shared response to danger signals. He asserts that a homogenous crowds must have a leader, demonstrate a “heightened suggestibility” where freedom of speech is ‘ill-tolerated, and both an incapacity to understand abstractions, an a high degree of egotism abound. (QAnon’s We Go One, We Go All)

What trump himself may not wish to hear is that, as Napolean knew, crowds are especially fickle. “Napoleon appreciated this point. ‘Your majesty,’ exclaimed an aid-de-camp on one occasion, ‘hear the crowds cheering for you.’ Without smiling, Napoleon replied, ‘They would cheer just as loudly if I were going to the guillotine.’ As would be expected, there is little to no stability to the feeling elements of a crowd, offering only a low-dependability grade. Bogardus writes:

‘(But) the charlatan and mountebank** are prone to manipulate people through crowd influence, whereas the cultured man confines himself to addressing assemblies.’ More of the co-dependent enmeshment is evident between the crowd and its ‘mountebank’ in that, as Bogardus tells us, ‘the crowd considers themselves ‘ingrates’ if they refuse to respond to a request from the leader.’

And then, devolving from ‘crowd’ to ‘gang’ (a word clearly applicable to the current series of masses gathering at the altar of Air Force One, almost in a kind of revival sanctuary under the sky, Bogardus tells his readers a ‘gang is a relatively permanent group, but one of such elemental and primitive traits that it resembles a temporary crowd. It’s subservience to a leader, its feeling bases, its use of ‘might’ as the means of determining right, its fickleness, its inconsistencies—all these are crowd characteristics. In addition, it is slippery because it is a primitive group trying to survive under the changed conditions of modern civilization. It must fight for its life, since it is a survival in part of outworn behaviour principles….When hard pressed the gang resorts to mob behavior. It becomes a brute with its back against a wall, gnashing its teeth, and resorting to any means whatsoever in its defense. It recognizes no moral or social standards or responsibility.

There is still more from Bogardus:

‘The mob is a participator crowd. It is not necessarily a group of ignorant or essentially wicked persons, but often is composed of ordinarily intelligent persons who for the time being have resigned their personal standards. The mob is a monster, possessing gigantic power which causes it to throb throughout its being. IT is a tornado, using its pent-up forces irresponsibly and ruthlessly. Mobs are groups that frantically rush toward or attempt to escape from an object or person. They are motivated by hate or fear. In the first case, the group rushes toward somebody; in the second, away from something.’

Could it be that the current mob of trump sycophants has tendencies in both directions: toward the man considered to be their hero, and away from those figures of hate, contempt and revenge: Clintons, Obama and Biden.

These insights of what are considered theory, however, have relevance and application not only to the events currently dominating our headlines. They have also found resonance in lives ostensibly destroyed, by, for example, right-wing religious groups who targeting a ‘sinner’ based on the biblical exhortations to ‘stone’ a long list of miscreants: socerers, Sabbath workers, rebellious children, gluttons and drunkards, kidnappers, blasphemers, idolators, adulterers, murderers.

And in the New Testament, there is the story of Stephen. Chosen with others to steward the gifts of the people for the poor, the story goes that he chastised those people calling them “people with hard hearts and stiff necks, who will not obey the words of God and his Spirit. As your fathers did, so you do, also. Your fathers killed the prophets whom God sent to them; and you have slain Jesus, the Righteous One! As they heard these things,, they became so angry against Stephen, that they gnashed on him with their teeth, like Wild beasts. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up toward heaven with his shining face; and he saw the glory of God and Jesus standing on God’s right hand, and he said, ‘I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God!’ But they cried out with angry voices, and rushed upon him and dragged him out of the council-room, and outside the wall of the city. And there they threw stones upon him to kill him, while Stephen was kneeling down among the falling stones and praying: Lord Jesus, receive my spirit! Lord, lay not this sin up against them!’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep in death, the first to be slain for the gospel of Christ. (Book of Acts)

There is not even a hint here rendering trump analogous to Stephen! Rather, the analogy of the mob currently rushing to trump rallies to the mob who stoned Stephen is in the frenetic energy, the overpowering and almost inebriating influence of the mob sensing its own “inferiority, insecurity, impurity, and especially guilt. Such intense, magnified and unleashed feelings, characteristic of the hundreds if not thousands of lynchings in the U.S. lies in the bowels of the furnace of anger/adulation currently simmering on the tarmacs of American airports….and whether or not the fury that felled Stephen will find another one or more targets in contemporary America remains an open question.

Having watched various forms of re-enactments of the stoning of Stephen, especially among religious fanatics, and witnessing the current wave of religious fervour that clings to trump’s coat-tails, fully endorsed and succored by trump himself, most of us have to be asking ourselves, legitimately and reasonably, if the United States is not sliding into what some would call a theocracy.

Bill Barr, in his HBO monologue last night, poignantly skewered the dominance of 7 of 9 Supreme Court Justices, all of the Roman Catholic, (including the prospect of Barrett’s confirmation) while bemoaning the absence of Muslim justices, Jewish justices and justices espousing atheism and/or agnosticism. If, dear reader, you might pardon the pun, the “lynchpin” holding the forces of the mob together with the forces currently packing the Supreme Court is none other than the president of the United States.

He has engineered a political cabal of sycophantic cabinet secretaries, most of them acting and not therefore requiring Senate confirmation, and also thereby subject to instant replacement should they cross the loyalty oath to the president, while enflaming the media as fake news, decrying honourable and trusted institutions of government along with many current and former individuals, and spewing chaos and melodrama as if these were instruments of the Roman gladiators in the Colesseum. So rapid and overwhelming is the wave of crises, personal, pandemic, political and economic, not to mention geo-political that trump boils in his radioactive cauldron of witches brew that the public is simply unable to remember even back a single week. Hence, loss of public memory has become a valuable intrinsic instrument in trump’s quiver.

In another recent piece in this space, the question of the somatizing  of personal emotions was the subject; today, the danger of unleashed, mob-fueled frenetic emotions willingly and somewhat innocently manipulated by a master-manipulator in the service of his personal narcissistic and uncontrollable insecurities sounds a fire alarm of epic proportions.

The proportions are not of this scribe’s doing; they are the work of a single two-headed monster, one a mob, the other a mobster.

And many of us are still wondering who/what will “bell this radioactive cat”?

*The Mead Project, c/o Dr. Lloyd Gordon Ward, 44 Charles Street West, Apt. 4501, Toronto Ontario, M4Y1R8

**Mountebank: a person who deceives others, especially in order to trick them out of their money, a charlatan

Friday, October 16, 2020

Reflections on somatizing our emotions...

Editor's Note: N.B.

(The writer does not write as a doctor, and is without medical training. My formal training is exclusively in chaplaincy, pastoral counselling and teaching of Literature. This piece comes from personal experience, professional experience, private research and reflection.) 

Much of this space has attempted to point out how we deny, avoid, dissemble, or merely withdraw from tension within and/or with others. Another, highly impactful attitude that millions, it seems, suffer from, is described in ‘street language’  as 'hiding our feelings’ …..None of us want to show weakness, or what we think and believe others will consider weakness; none of us wishes to get hurt, a notion based on previous experiences in which our emotions were manipulated by other; all of us have something described as a ‘lack of confidence’ at least in certain areas of our lives.

While this dynamic is often discussed at the water-cooler, sometimes in a counsellor’s office, infrequently in a clergy’s office, and increasingly in a family doctor’s office. We might find a rash, or a protracted head or stomach ache, or some other physical symptom which seems to have no direct and observable ‘cause’ like a fall, or an accidental cut, or a specific incident that impacted our body.

Some four decades-plus ago, I experienced a dramatic loss of weight, (24 pounds in 2 weeks) and experienced considerable fatigue. Our family physician quickly referred me to an Internal Medicine specialist, who, upon diagnosing a hyper-active thyroid, admitted me to the ICU. After treatment for three months by propylthiouracil, a treatment but not a cure, I was then referred to a radiologist  who administered 9 millicuries of I 131, Radioactive iodine. While in hospital, I was ushered into medical rounds, and asked a question that has echoed in my memory ever since: “Did you experience a trauma approximately six months ago ,that might have triggered this onset?”

Immediately, I responded in the affirmative, recalling an especially dramatic phone call from a troubled mother, some of whose in-laws were levelling ‘mental illness’ judgements on her. “You think I am crazy just like the rest of them think, don’t you?” She bellowed into my ear, late in a spring afternoon, as I listened in my study, some one hundred miles distant. “No, I do not!” I repeated several times, each time growing louder, over her protests, “but I do think you need help!”

Even as recently as the seventies, anything smacking of mental illness was like a social, political, ethical and moral sentence of alienation, ostracisim, abandonment by family and friends and potential endangerment of continuous employment. Now nearly a half-century on, anything smacking of psychosomatic illness is considered in the dismissive and contemptuous phrase even medical doctors deployed, “it’s all in your head,” given that medical school had taught them that a considerable proportion of their patients would make office appointments based on a psychosomatic ‘illness’.

Nevertheless, adhering to the pace of the observable formation of glaciers (prior to global warming and climate change), medical research has conducted considerable research into what is now being termed the ‘somatizing of emotions’ an involuntary process whereby the experiencing of strong emotions, that cannot or must not be displayed for any of a variety of reasons, beliefs, perceptions and attitudes, are “expressed” or displayed by some perceivable rash, pain, muscle contraction, in the body. Note the word, “involuntary” as a highly significant, yet too often ignored or denied component of the process commonly known as “hiding our feelings”.

Was my onset of hyperthyroidism a somatizing of a blocked emotion of frustration, anger, hopelessness, and concrete resistance to my protests that my mother was not “crazy” but needed help? “Crazy” had been a word bandied about on the street, and in casual conversation, as part of the innocent and ignorant character assessment of a local person who could more legitimately have been dubbed eccentric. In Canada, for sure, and also in other countries, we do not take kindly to eccentricity, and we tend to take a wide berth around people who dressed, spoke and/or acted in ways we did not understand, appreciate or seek to discover. Such a culture was and still is obviously and tragically reinforced by religious institutions and religious ‘passivity’ as well as the silence of religious retreats linked to a denial of especially desired tastes like chocolate, (withheld during Lent, for example). Emotional disclosure has been rendered antithetical to religious discipline, silent prayer, sanctuarial decorum, and sacristy-enforced propriety, only to be underlined by the frigid, detached expression of especially highly intellectual interpretations of scripture from the pulpit. This equation may have melted a little, yet much more slowly than the melting of the glaciers in the Arctic and Antarctic.

As western “Christian” culture has been and continues to be dominated, perhaps slightly less overtly in the last decade, by men and the male psyche, the gates that can unlock emotions within western men are welded shut, through centuries of disavowal, denial and relegating those human emotions to the “file” entitled, “woman”. As part of their legitimate initiatives to enter the workplace, at all levels, women have, understandably adopted what they perceive as attitudes, expressions  and behaviours that imitate those in power, the men. In domestic situations, too, women, wives, and mothers, have repeatedly found that any attempt to peel some of the hoar frost from their husbands’ and fathers’ and especially grandfathers’ emotional vaults has only irritated that ‘beast’ and too often provoked ever further withdrawal.

While my mother displayed unimpeded release of her emotions, her husband withdrew into passive aggressive patterns. His sisters, like most females in the mid-twentieth century, withheld their emotions, except those of care and compassion, especially of their brothers. It is plausible to infer that, had my mother been prepared to smother her emotions, thereby denying her identity and her needs, she would have been characterized by more “repressed” family members as ‘normal’ and therefore much more tolerable, predictable, and less volcanic.

It is not only among the ecclesial community that raw emotion is frowned on, there is a long tradition of what has been variously termed “professional” and “objective” performance in the medical and legal professions. How practitioners in both fields “feel” about their clients and their respective circumstance, including obvious causes of readily preventable illnesses, or criminal or civil behaviour that is difficult to explain and/or justify, matters as little as those practitioners can manage to “detach”. And certainly, it is a rare legal appointment or a medical consult that witnesses a disclosure of the emotions of the professional practitioner.

In the academic field, too, how teachers “feel” about the respective traits, attitudes, wardrobe, and even language (inside conventional boundaries) of their students is expected to be deleted from their performance in class, in the gym and on the playing field. So too are they expected to both monitor and sanction the “unwarranted” display of emotions, particularly those that might endanger, or more recently, emotionally hurt another student. Humour, if appropriate, is naturally tolerated and appreciated; anger, intense frustration, however, are regarded as signals to be watched, and open weeping is often considered as cause for pastoral comforting intervention.

In recent years the DSM-5 has come to regard what previously was considered ‘normal’ and natural grief as a condition needing professional treatment. Whether that treatment involves pharmaceuticals, or ‘talk therapy’ depends on the practitioner and the respective needs and wishes of the client/patient.

Nevertheless, given the long history of medical assessment, diagnosis, and treatment at the physical level of humans’ lives, and the lagging interest and research attention to the vagaries of the emotional, spiritual aspects of being human, there continues in North America to be a primary focus by medical practitioners on the physical symptoms, measuring them, comparing, photographing them, and naming their nuanced and often highly complex characteristics with other similar but different symptoms.

One example of this tradition appears in the evolution of the treatment of Parkinson’s in which research between neurologists and psychiatry have shown evidence of enhanced living among patients who are offered both pharmaceuticals and cognitive behavioural therapy. As one patient recently commented, “I am much more than Parkinson’s!” in a legitimate push-back to being categorized as a specimen of the disease, in the eyes of the doctors.

Given the highly intimate and complex relationship between our minds and our bodies, and the flow of highly nuanced information of chemical, biological, neurological and thereby emotional content into the various organs, including the skin, and according to considerable evolving research, into and through the auto-immune system, we (all of us, including our medical practitioners and researchers) are faced with growing evidence of what is termed somatization of our emotions, or under a previously popular rubric, psycho-somatic illness.

Hiding our feelings, whatever our conscious and unconscious motivation for the concealment, can have a serious impact on our relationships, as well as on our personal health, including a rise in the risk of death. Communication that needs the free, and yet respectful, flow of authentic emotions can be disrupted and dissipated if emotions are kept under wraps. Those emotions can build up, often without are even being aware of the mounting pressure. Naturally, strains will show up within relationships in which honest and authentic emotions are withheld and research indicates that the potential for heart attack, stroke and even death rises under such pressure.

There are also multiple other implications from the somatization of our emotions, including skin irritations of various kinds, lupus, fibromyalgia, depression, alcohol dependency, sleep disorders, and potentially even thoughts of suicide. Given the complexity of this field of both study and experience, our genetic identity can also play a significant role, as can our experiences in our family of origin, as well as the culture in which we were raised.

For example, how a culture considers, and participates in (or refuses) in any kind of conflict, (fight-flight-freeze reflex) is another of the relative aspects of any individual’s potential for somaticizing of his or her emotions.

Studies have been conducted that disclose the relative numerical incidence as well as the severity of somatic illness among men and women. And depending on the circle in which we all circulate, there can be a wide range of options as to how individuals ‘inside the circle’ do or do not express their authentic emotions first to themselves and to the others.

Having witnesses literally dozens of women undergoing what were clearly agreed to be emotional blocking, and the impacts on their health, and also having walked near or immediately after male suicides, I have to guess that some of the individual pain all of these men and women were experiencing overlapped some kind of emotional obstruction.

Having spent a quarter century in English classrooms, where I observed generally that young women were both more open and more willing to share their “feelings” about the literature under consideration, and young men were resistant, shy and even indifferent to such self-disclosure, I nevertheless, along with a battalion of other English instructors, persisted in pursuit of dialogue, as well as reflective review in assignments like movie and book reviews, as well as attempts to foster a disciplined critique of the various qualities of a memorable poem, play, novel or short story.

While we can all recognize the fallacy that loqaciousness is not always indicative of integrity (think trump) and in fact can be deployed as a means to manipulate others, thereby eroding any potential respect for self-critical reflection and disclosure (especially among men), there is nevertheless a deep and predictably long-lasting pool of people whose lives are currently being impinged by their/our willing/unconscious engagement in a process of self-effacement.

That is not a medical term; nor is it a theological or ethical term. In fact, self-effacement as a method of political correctness (and personal concealment) is often considered a sign of modesty, maturity, respectability and trustworthiness. There are times when it is clearly appropriate to withhold deep and poignant emotions, especially in a public venue. And there are other times when such “public” repression carried over into family and intimate situations is a risk not only to the health of the “repressor” but also to the health of the relationship(s).

A question looms for each of us, especially during a period of extreme turbulence, danger, risk and unpredictability…Can we each begin the process of identifying if and when we are repressing how we feel, (even from ourselves in our self-talk) and then tentatively walk into the beach of beginning to trust that someone will be open to actively and sensitively and confidentially listening and actually hearing our deepest fears, hopes, dreams, and anxieties. We might just be surprised to discover that our “friend” has had, or is having, similar emotional experiences, and welcomes the opportunity to release his/her own pent-up feelings.

This experience/exercise/journey has no ideology, no specific faith or religion, no ethnic boundary and no class fences. Nevertheless, our courage to begin to explore this vast and intricate and intimate complexity of our whole human identity, beyond the empirical, the physical, holds an authentic promise and reward that is memorable, personal and life-giving. It also holds the promise of a shift in our we take care of ourselves, enhancing our perception of our own courage, our capacity for risk and our creative imagination to see ourselves as normal, natural and even more worthy of self-respect and dignity, from within.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

We can't prevent what we refuse to predict..and obsessively deny

 I recall a pungent response from Graeme Gibson, in a Q/A with senior high school students when asked if he endorsed “dissecting” a poem, as was/is? the custom in English classes: “You have to murder in order to dissect,” he calmly answered.

I was reminded of Gibson’s pithy retort when I read this quote from                       K. M. Mac Aulay (author of Black Anna):

“You can’t prevent what you can’t predict.”

Reconnoitering in a world seemingly at a tipping point on so many issues, however, tends to bring their collective impact into a kind of gestalt. We spend billions on trying to ameliorate, calm and even minimize our fears, while we also spend billions on something we call “carpe diem” (“pluck the flower of this day) in an oscillation of tension without formal sound, a vacillation without formal acknowledgement, a pin-ball bouncing without the flashing lights and razzle-dazzle percussions.

In one ear we hear words of warning of impeding disaster on the COVID-19 file, as numbers of cases and deaths climb, of other disasters like global warming and climate change, business disruptions and closings, unemployment and hunger rising exponentially, of cyber attacks on both public and private servers by amateur and criminally professional hackers, of nuclear capability enhancement in North Korea and Iran, (not to mention the U.S. Russia and China), of more predictable pandemics coming,  and of permanently damaged young minds and spirits from having to go through this wind tunnel of a year, and even the ‘score’ of years in this century.

Simultaneously, in our other ear we hear the drum beat of opportunity, promise, challenge and ‘pots of gold’ at the end of many rainbows. Never before have so many been educated to this level; never before have so many people been lifted out of poverty; never before have so many global diseases been curtailed or even eliminated; never before have so many philanthropics operated in developing countries; fewer open conflicts have happened in the last decade that previously; never have so many agents co-operated in the pursuit and production of safe and effective treatments and vaccines for the pandemic.

Those high-octane headlines find similar warnings and rainbows in more local and regionalized public discourse: never has political rhetoric been so mean-spirited, divisive and contemptuous; never has there been so much collaboration among various jurisdictions ( in Canada) to confront COVID-19; never have food banks been so besieged by new hungry and hopeless families; never have there been more millionaires and billionaires; there must be a financial assistance package for displaced workers and shuttered businesses and for struggling municipalities and public services; “let them go bankrupt” comes from those on the other side.

Advocacy groups, including even those seemingly dedicated to social and political upheaval, metaphorically represent the tip of the spear on the left and the right. And, daily and even sometimes hourly outbursts of tweets jar those longer-term perceptions and the developed (and evolving) attitudes towards each person, tweet, headline or even cyber attack.

The flowing now has issues and processes that together comprise a weather pattern of a political culture and ethos. And increasing attention paid to the “weeds” of the “process” currently under consideration by the media, by CNN, by social media vacuums millions of eyes and thumbs into the cataract of public ‘opinion’. Swimming in this white water of public consciousness are political and media talking heads, some of whom have some of our respect while others lag far behind for each of us.

Falling headlong into the melee, however, by both those elected and those charged with reporting and analysing and interpreting, offers opportunity for ordinary people to latch onto whichever headline, opinion, stupidity, or calamitous “event” and whether consciously or not, package that stimulus (insult, outrage, affirmation) into the cognitive archive of our personal storage vault. Currently, the Democratic Senators are swimming (underwater on their prospects for derailing Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court) against the current in a valiant effort to solicit phone calls and emails to Republican Senators to withdraw/recuse/vote “No” on the nomination. And for many, both in the political class as well as in the media, the process has become the primary issue.

“How” something is done, or being done, or proposed to be accomplished has replaced a former concentration on what is being done/proposed. Relying on the majority of Republican Senators to confirm the nomination, McConnell knows that his legacy is intimately and eternally linked to his boast of ‘filling the judicial system’ with ‘right wing’ conservative justices at all levels. For his part, trump too is relying on a similar “accomplishment” both for re-election and for a triumphal legacy.

The voting process, itself, has become another of the many issues being weaponized, just like the rhetoric, the sycophancy, the push-back from centre-left Democrats. Removing ballot boxes from twelve to one, in each county, as the Governor of Texas has done (with now court support), along with emboldened restrictions of voting hours, timing of ballot reception, identification of voters, and even the question of whether mail-in ballots are legitimate are all like those tin roofs and neon signs that blow through towns and villages during recent hurricanes, flying through the political ether and ethos, in what has become a recurring, repeating, throbbing heart-beat of crises, much of it engineered, like those Wonky chocolate bars, by the trump’s fantasy and whim.

Unlike Wonka, however, trump is injecting his own venomous and toxic, unproven and untested, yet gullibly showered with glib adulation by his cult, “cure” for what he perceives as the American threat, if Joe Biden is elected.

Sugar-coated as his venom surely is, there are still some 40% of the American people who rush each time he holds a public, non-masked, non-socially-distanced super-spreader, to fill the tarmac, where Airforce One too often (and in complete disrespect for both tradition and respectfully practice) serves as backdrop to his Reifenstahl-inspired and Fuehrer-like narcissisistic hollow promises and self-congratulatory hymns.

Embodying the “entertainment” dictum and dogma of Barnum and Bailey, The Smithsonian magazine trumpets:

 “We are enraptured by scoundrels. They showcase our passion for ingenuity and resourcefulness. Rules don’t matter in a culture that constantly reinvents itself. In the world of flimflam, con artists are American prototypes who exemplify the land of opportunity, . Aren’t we all searching for the trickster Wizard at the end of the yellow brick road?...In an interview with The New York Times, costume designer Michael Wilkinson said, ‘We wanted the actors to use their  costumes as part of their hustle. They dress as the person they aspire to be.’…In the mid-19th century, the con artist was featured in Herman Melville’s last published book,  The Confidence Man: His Masquerade. Set in a riverboat travelling  down the Mississippi River, the 1857n novel tells the tale of what happens when the Devil, dressed in disguise, boards the vessel to conduct the business of evil. Melville wrote this book because he was outrages at the way America was allowing capitalism to nurture a culture of greed. The Confidence-Man is a complicated diatribe, but New York Times critic Peter G. Davis phrased it succinctly in a 1982 magazine article stating that the book was a ‘microcosm of America’s melting pot…a loosely knot collection of fables’ in which the title character uses his guile to dupe each passenger on the riverboat. In each instance, the Confidence Man/Devil works a con against the nineteenth century American Dream of optimism, truth, altruism and trust.’…Mark Twain, too, took up the art of the con. Like Melville, he used Mississippi riverboats to stage the antics of his flimflam men…One of the greatest (con men), P. T. Barnum was the real deal. According to a 1973 biography, Barnum was the pioneering impresario of ‘humbug’ who helped invent mass entertainment; his mantra was to exploit the public’s desire to be flimflammed. From the 1840’s to the 1870’s, he organized popular New York museums that showcased ‘industrious fleas, automatons,, jugglers, ventriloquists, living statuary tableaux, gypsies, albinos, fat boys, giants, dwarfs, rope dancers…He wrote that the art of the ‘humbug’ was to put on ‘glittering appearances…novel expedients, by which to suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public eye and ear.’ Novelty and ingenuity were essential to his commercial success, his biography said, and if his ‘puffing was more persistent, (his0flags more patriotic’ It wasn’t because of fewer scruples, but more ingenuity. The glitter and noise created outside his museum drew crowds. Once inside they could be entertained fort hours by his displays, but they had to pay to get in—no one got something for nothing.

Fitzgeralds’ The Great Gatsby, the Broadway sensation, Show Boat, and Gone with the Wind, all enhanced the ‘confidence man’ archetype, as was the 1973 Robert Redford’s The Sting, set in the Depression of 1936. Of course, Madisson Avenue’s over-riding industry, advertising and message-management, have adopted and refined many of the confidence-man, flim-flam. So, while statistical research, data collection and opinion polls flood our press-release-saturated media, roiling underneath the public discourse is the heart-beat, and the obsessive-compulsive neurosis/psychosis of a culture always on the edge of its own self-doubt, anxiety and fear that it will never be OK.

Dressing the cover-up, confidence-man, flim-flam heroic imitator of Barnum in an Oval Office suit, with ‘patriotic’ red-flag tie riding below his belt, and then sending him out to ‘perform as the chief executive of the American political, economic, military, and human welfare history and constitutional system, however, is like my kindergarten daughter dressing herself and her friends in their fantasy costumes, with stage props, on a Saturday afternoon, for their (and their parents’) entertainment, except that we could laugh and applaud at their imaginative creativity.

In this current political pandemic, we are left to social-distance, masked and sanitized, for our own and for the health of our neighbours, and then to ponder how it is/was/will be that the flim-flam actually holds the power and influence of the previously and historically most significant public office on the globe…and more importantly how all those forces that consider this situation intolerable and unsustainable, not to mention unethical, amoral, and (racist, misogynistic, homophobic, bigoted and despotic) might be brought into a voting majority that cannot and will not be overturned by either the Electoral College or the Supreme Court. And finally, the United States, and by extension, the rest of the world can bury the tolerance and adulation of the flim-flam, confidence man, from holding public office in Washington and in the several other national capitals where this toxic venomous archetype has spread.

We might even be able and willing to discern that process, as a political weapon, agenda, purpose and legacy is, like those flim-flam costumes and seductions of the confidence-man huckster, little more than mascara that will not only never disguise a pig, but can tragically divert attention and concentration from the urgent public needs and divide a people so deeply and potentially permanently that crisis management becomes not the “abnormal” but the norm.

What will the media do then, when they wake up to the contributions they have so monumentally contributed to engendering, in rendering not only honest, intellectual, and even ideational and dispassionate, yet trust-worthy debate and political discussion to the trash-heap of North American political record? Will they fall even further into the gutter they have helped to engineer, thereby overtaking the prophetic and visionary role of the poets, prophets, film-makers and both utopian and dystopian writers?

Questions like the imposition of what is so clearly and unabashedly self-serving, agenda-based, ACA-demolishing, Roe-v Wade removal, gun-rights upholding, and civil and voting rights dismantling an appointment by this occupant of the Oval office are effectively rendered mute, emasculated and irrelevant. And who are the agents of this deafening silence? The wannabe flim-flam, ironically confidence-men, Republican Senators, a choir engaged in adulation of their Barnum-replica,  now not operating museums of freakish specimens in New York, himself having become a freakish specimen in the White House.

Who says history is not stuffed with ironic (and too often pathetic and tragic) imitation?

Monday, October 12, 2020

Thanksgiving...a time for gratitude and deep self-reflection

 Historians bring together multiple factors in their analysis of events. Themes, however ranked in their world view, tend to find their way into the popular culture, as conventional mems, archetypes, or even cultural and foundational cornerstones.

Events themselves, like the recipes for specific food preparations, serve in the first instance, as teasers, headlines, stimuli for responses, relying on the basic principle, at least in a traditional democracy, that whatever does happen will evoke both voices of support and other voices of dispute.

Hegel posited a basic construct of history that has come to be known as “thesis, antithesis, synthesis” as a way of organizing how humans could come to wrap our minds around patterns of the larger/longer/perhaps even more predictable river of the narrative of the human story. A postulated idea, theory, proposal, vision serves, in this model as a cognitive starting point in any field of human endeavour which they evokes, from within and without the source of the original concept, reasons why the concept is flawed, worthy of rejection or at least needing modification. As the original concept undergoes the inevitable massage, reformation, and potential transformation, a new “synthesis, incorporating aspects of both the original thesis and its warranted and tested antithesis, generating a synthesis of both.

A similar ‘methodology’ operates in the science laboratory, somewhat more granular and over perhaps a protracted time frame.

The specific time frame itself offers comparative lenses, over a calendar year, a decade, a generation, a half-century, a century, or from an epic perspective, the whole landscape of periods of history and meta-history. Similarly, thought clusters that take shape as ideologies, offer another type of lens through which to view the relationships between clusters of influences that might include the flow of money and trade, the flow of where power congregates, how organizations are organized, how thought leaders grasp and apply various theologies/ethics/morals and social expectations. Some of the more popular perspectives about the relationship between human agency and human events focus on some common ‘street’ motions like “history makes the man” or the inverse, ‘man makes history happen.’

The cornerstone of the perception/belief in the ‘status or importance’ of human agency, both individual and in groups, as the primary driver of events, and the flow of patterns of events seems to have risen to a very high position in the conventional, North American, and especially American, concept of news. Personalizing history, by naming the individual perceived to be primarily responsible for an identified pattern, based on the collection, curation and comparison of gestalts of newly unearthed data, continues to attract both scholars and amateurs to the pursuit of ‘how we got here’. In the vortex of these ‘cognitive’ and ‘water cooler’ conversations, including formal research in academia, news and editorial opinion, and bar-room, and barbeque conversations, individuals participate in what comes to be known as public opinion.

Pollsters have generated a relatively new, and to many suspect, lens through which to anticipate how public decisions will unfold. Attentive to moment-by-moment vacillations in public perceptions, buttressed against formulaic propositions that filter the likelihood of how often and to what degree interviewed subjects tell their truth to pollsters, these opinion polls echo the daily stock exchange numbers of how various indices rise and fall by the moment, only based on a weekly average of data collection, massaged through statistical calculations for verifiability and reliability. (Lies told by ordinary people, on a daily basis, between and among colleagues, seem to pass as normal, tolerated and privacy motivated, while lies perpetrated by political leaders evoke outrage among political opponents.)

When the confluence of what seem like tidal waves of unsettling information threatens the accepted public tolerable level of ‘stress’ (itself a measure of what the political class can ‘get away with, without having to take action) and the pain breaks out in a display of anger, or disappointment, or rebellion or even revolution, then both political leadership and those documenting the ‘first record of history’ (the fourth estate) take note. And for their part, how when and to what degree each of these groups put their ‘hand’ on the scale of public opinion, they might inflame or mediate public action.

If and when a sizeable and perhaps even potentially unmanageable public protest threatens public safety and security, and whether that threat comes in the form of a health or a public security issue, we have traditional ‘buckets’ of legal and/or medical buckets of response. Public discourse that borrows from the legal lexicon or the medical lexicon, (each of these based on the historic traditions of the academic, philosophic, and perceptual as well as the ethical frameworks of their academic ancestors) tends to dominate the ‘coverage’ of such moments. Ordinary conversation, itself, tends to echo basic human  emotions like hope and fear, depending on and also disclosing both the anxiety running through the culture, as well as forming an index for decision-makers to discern the level of threat, and the concomitant need for a response.

Weather forecasts, like opinion polls, or perhaps the inverse, have become part of the public diet of information that both reflects and guides human behaviour. Political “weather forecasts” or “body politic’s medical diagnosis” flow from the key-pads and the microphones of those ‘in public life’ including politicians, pundits, reporters and occasionally academics. Among the latter group are men and women who have spent their working lives reading, studying, reflecting, experimenting, theorizing and postulating various theses, sometimes as doctoral theses, and later as post-doctoral research papers, submitting to and dependent on what scholars call “peer review”. Occasionally, one of these theses emerge in the public media, helping people in various demographics and occupations, holding various philosophic perceptions and beliefs to inform and potentially even to shape their own world view.

Attempting to “make sense” of what to a citizenry seems incomprehensible, or even unsettling is a ‘business’ that cannot and will not be assigned to any one individual or any one academic department. And one of the impacts of the digital capacity to dig, to collect and to curate and to reflect upon not only contemporary headlines but also the archives of both thought and events is that these pursuits are now open to people of all persuasions, in all quarters, in all cultures and faith communities.

When the record, for example, of how the ‘white’ western culture has treated those of a different skin colour, or how the industrial-military complex has “treated” the environment, becomes public knowledge, to a degree never before either available or consumed, the public consciousness becomes a new participant in the public square. The private lives of public figures, once preserved in the “off the record” files of reporters, are not the only ‘new information’ to which the public now has to react and to respond. Granular information about the hourly behaviour of hurricanes, and granular information about the decisions of the political class, including the gravitas, or its total absence, of the arguments are now available to everyone. For some, all of this information is considered overload; for others, it is a challenge; and for others this cataract is confusing. Voting percentages of 50% or less of the eligible electorate are only one measure of interest and participation, and the general concept of citizenship.

 Seeking patterns that might help curate, and clear much of the confusion of a collision of threatening factors, we have media outlets that, rather than detailing the headlines of the day, tend to take a step back and bring together a fresh compilation of both academic theories and broad strokes of events spanning a century or longer. Feeding both the public appetite for organizing principles or concepts that tend to shift the kaleidoscope’s fragments into a new pattern, The Atlantic, leans on both interviews and academic sources for the perspectives of their various essayists.

Bloggers, without direct access to many of these sources, then lean on essayists and their work, in our modest attempt to bring some of these influences to bear on our “take”. From this scribe’s perspective, the convergence of the personal and the public discourse is only a fledgling blade of grass in a field dominated by conventional discourse based on political science, and stereotypes with which the public has become familiar. Anything that smacks of personal or familial, educational or theological, that does not comport and conform with/to the conventional public discourse, unless deployed as comparative metaphor, too often is relegated to the “family pages,” or the lifestyle sections. It is our contention that the personal/familial/religious/psychological/emotional/theological/spiritual are not only impactful on our public discourse, they warrant a more respectable, if amorphous and less empirically measurable, attention and reflection not heretofore permitted.

It is a primarily masculine, intellectual, academic and cognitive vocabulary, and perspective that not only informs but actually foundationally constructs too much of the language and the temper of public debate. Relationships between and among individuals of different races. cultures, faiths, however, continue not only to depend on a collective blindness and denial of our unconscious biases, but actually continue to foster perpetuation from generation to generation. Breaking out of family ‘myopia’ (too often wrapped in hymns of tradition and even faith) is one of the most difficult thresholds for each of us to cross. Stirring questions that probe our families’ cultural beliefs, vernacular, ethical and moral positions, that bring such ‘hard’ positions into view, at first, and then into and through deep introspection is the only way we can and will shed those constricting attitudes that continue to bind us to our own failures, both individually and collectively.

Policy statements, even political campaign speech inevitably reflects attitudes originating in a personal belief structure. A belief system that, for example, values military might, and a ‘war’ to erase political and social trouble, has a high value on hard, top-down deployment of power. A belief system that considers compromise as weak, that the public interest and need must give way to the personal agenda of those in power relies on a psychological and spiritual insecurity the depth of which is rarely discussed as a significant factor in public life. We love personal indiscretions that feed our insatiable appetite for gossip. However, we categorically refuse to acknowledge our individual and shared habit to dissemble, to deny, to avoid and to cancel, while projecting all of our least admirable traits onto those in public life. Similarly, we also inflate our own impression of our value and worth, and then project our highest ideals on our public figures. Neither of those projections, whether they evoke hope or fear, are acknowledged as integral to our public discourse.

While it is true that we come to know “who” we are by recognizing what we oppose, and this is an essential discernment for each of us, it is also important to know those things we each have to shift in order to come together to co-operate, within our nations and provinces, as well as among and between all nations. The records of our shared history of treating minorities with overt or covert contempt demand our individual critical self-examination of how our families, our churches, our teachers, our clergy and our friends impacted our attitudes. Having been impacted, however inconspicuously and unconsciously, by our parents, our teachers, our clergy, our doctors and colleagues, we each have an opportunity to dig into our formative memories, encounters, experiences that have shaped our least desirable and potentially most dangerous attitudes and perceptions.

The public discourse about pandemics, about presidential lies, about bigoted police officers, and about a widening chasm of wealth disparity, as well as the clearly indisputable evidence of fire, winds, floods and environmental depletion, cannot be permitted to remove our individual and our shared obligation to examine critically, privately and with diligent and vigorous persistence, the sources of our unconscious biases, our hatreds, our dismissals.

High sounding political rhetoric, slogans, and even policies and laws must never be divorced from the narrow and bigoted and frightened personal perspectives of those in public life. And our own denial of our narrow and bigoted attitudes only assures that similar if even more toxic, bigotry and biases will have access to positions of power and influence.

The Lincoln Project, currently engaged in a public and courageous and creative disavowal of the current Republican candidate for president, as former life-long members and devotees of that Republican Party, offer an example of critical self-reflection that brings into light the collision of the personal and the political. The Republican Senators who have genuflected to the president’s power, on the other hand, offer what has become a more conventional example of public attitudes, perceptions and dangers. To go along to get along is an insidious phrase that risks not only personal autonomy but erosion of the public interest.

Failed attempts to reconcile racial, gender and ethnic as well as economic disparities plague the history of western culture. Any effective and lasting changes to this pattern will depend on the critical examination of the personal biases, including the failure to participate and to examine critically our own biases that make it possible for opportunists to seize power.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Reflections on the cancel, more-perfect culture

It will surprise no reader to read that the phrase, so effusively tossed about in American political rhetoric “a more perfect union” is nothing less than a tautology.*

Leaders whose public adulation seems to be boundless, like Barack Obama in retirement, will often be heard uttering this inflated, even bloated phrase, as if it were a call to inspire the American people to even greater effort, in pursuit of this “even more perfect union”. No one would desire, or even expect, political rhetoric, in an age of digital explosion, existential climate threats, economic turbulence and now, a global pandemic, to have a tautology like “a more perfect union” expunged from the podium or the interview set. However, some of the more subtle and too often concealed implications of pursuing perfection as an organizational, and especially a national goal, can be judged offensive, if not somewhat dangerous.

One of the more recent rhetorical and political and thereby cultural memes, is another equally distasteful phrase, “cancel culture,” the attempt to scrub out every last molecule of whatever might be considered dirt, morphed from anything that might hurt another, out of existence. Whether the form of “cancelation” involves:

*    definition (speaking privately to an individual about perceived harmful, problematic actions or opinions, or calling in),

*    calling out (criticizing an individual or organization publicly, usually on social media),

*    boycotting (withholding financial support from a company in order to force a change in policies or practices)

the action involves a deliberate corrective, presumably in the spirit and tutelage of the late John Lewis’s honouring of “good trouble”….

Doubtless, each of us does not go through an hour in a weekday in which someone cuts us off on the road, smokes a cigarette in our breathing range, flips off another for some usually trivial insult. And as the anxiety over the pandemic and the concomitant precautions, restrictions, ever-shifting regulations and directives, mounts, the tendency to ‘chirp’ (like the linemen in a football game, trying to get under the skin of an opponent) whenever the “opportunity” presents itself. Retail workers currently wear shirts emblazoned with the words, “be patient and kind” or some version of that injunction. Hospital corridors shout an intolerance of offensive behaviour, and in one case, a supervising psychiatrist was hired because of his record of “law and order” control in his previous hospital.

Cancel culture, naturally and predictably runs directly into the concrete abutment of whatever the culture of the situation, organization, authority deems intolerable. Several years ago, I encountered a news story out of Colorado detailing the expulsion of a straight A grade ten student because there was a paring knife in the glove box of her vehicle in the school parking lot. (It was there to assist her in peeling fruit and vegetables for her lunch!) Back in the 1990’s a three-strike-you’re-out policy came out of the Clinton White House as a measure to address  the proliferation of illicit drugs. Not only was the practice not effective, it piled on power and authority into the already bloated briefcase of “the authorities” in their failed attempt to stamp out illicit drug consumption.

Just this week, in a visionary, creative and highly effective measure to address the problem of homelessness in Vancouver.

“The New Leaf project is a joint study started in 2018 b y Foundations for Social Change, a Vancouver-based charitable organization, and the University of British Columbia. After giving homeless Lower Mainland residents cash payments of $7500, researchers checked on them over a year to see how they were faring….Not only did those who received the money spend fewer days homeless than those in the control group (not given the $7500), they had also moved into stable housing after on average of three months, compared to those in the co9ntrol group, who took an average of five months…. Those who received the money also managed it well over the course of a year….Almost 70% of people who received payments were food secure after one month. In comparison, spending on alcohol, cigarettes and drugs went down, on average, by 39 per cent.” (Bridgette Watson, CBC News, October 7, 2020)

It may seem unfair to juxtapose a 3-strike practice in the 90’s with a stereotype-shattering experiment in 2020 given that times have changed, along with expectations, and also with the infusion of new minds, hearts, imaginations and the long series of failed experiments based on very different expectations about how the underclass will act if actually shown empathy, compassion and real help. Perhaps, it is fair to say that the many failures, incarcerations, illnesses and deaths resulting from the application of a far more punitive approach, paved the way for experiments like that in Vancouver.

Nevertheless, the “zero tolerance” “more perfect” attitude continues to operate at all levels of North America culture. Cancel culture seems to be a refinement of the cancel culture, and, while this next statement will likely offend some, it is also reasonable to link the dots between the historic political stance on the death penalty, the wave of minimum sentences imposed by the Harper (and other) governments on judges, and the explosion of prison populations south of the 49th parallel. Cancel culture advocates, are at best, making instant and unappealable judgements of others whom they declare to be hurtful to them personally or to their ‘group’ (gender, demographic, victim).

Joe Biden has been severely criticized for his resistance to defunding the law enforcement departments in American cities. His more moderate (and less tolerable to justice protesters and advocates) approach seeks to bring law enforcement and civil rights leaders together, in an optimistic initiative of political leadership, to design a more fair, accountable, transparent and thereby sustainable relationship between those wearing “blue” and those in communities needing help and support from a variety of injustices.

It cannot be overlooked that, in some cases, institutional leadership has either  turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to legitimate complaints of injustice, even assault, among the people in those organizations. And in other institutions, because of the potential political damage that could and often does occur, if legitimate complaints are ignored and their authors silenced, other executives have tended to bend over backward, in complicity with what has become as “zero tolerance” objective. Squeezing out of the application of such policies and practices, however, is the messy, costly and even more difficult to execute process of a full, complete, fair and legitimate “due process” based on the ideal, fought and died for, of “habeus corpus”, innocent until proven guilty.

Given that our public discourse has been riddled with stories of public complaints of serious offences having destroyed both reputations and careers of hundreds if not thousands, without the benefit of even a private, objective and comprehensive investigation of the details of many of those complaints, it seems reasonable to wonder if and when the balance will be permitted to swing back to something like the process advocated by Biden for law enforcement.

Clearly, the racial injustice that blacks, native Americans, immigrants and refugees have suffered for centuries cannot and will not be eliminated in whatever processes, rules, changes and laws emerge from the Biden effort (if he is elected). Nevertheless, the model of bringing opposing sides, effectively the sides of the abuser and the abused, into the same room, at the same table, in what will have to be a protracted and complex process of reconciliation can serve as a model of hope, promise and example on other issues.

While there are examples of both forgiveness and tolerance among what are considered heroic individuals on both sides of  deep and profound hurt (emotional, physical, psychological, spiritual and also legal and ethical), the natural penchant to “tribal protests,” although they garner public attention, they serve really to bring about initial expressions of “the unfinished man” as Biden called himself, in a phone call to Senator Cory Booker, following an especially passionate debate about race, in the Democratic presidential primary.  As Booker told his host on MSNBC, Biden was willing to acknowledge that, as a white man, he needed to listen, really actively listen, to the pain of the black community, in order to be better equipped even to attempt to address its many complications.

And the spirit and the motive of Biden’s “vulnerability” as an honoured indication of authentic courage, is a model, too of the need for a similar moment of “aha” from the millions of those who consider it enough to blurt out their savage attacks, under an emotional and hyper-injured ejection of contempt (and pain, injustice and offense), without even considering their balancing responsibility to seek to find the whole truth.

In a culture so weaponized,

Ø in which even a mask to prevent the spread of a lethal pandemic is used against those who responsibly and patriotically choose to wear one, and

Ø in which those who have held power for decades, cling to its perks and its opportunities for self-aggrandizement, and for legacy-building at the expense of performing those duties to which they swore an oath, and

Ø in which millions have lost their jobs, their homes, and their families, and for some even their lives,


the leaven of counting far past “10” before vomiting the kind of instant, toxic and too often character-assassinating judgements into that anonymous phone or tablet, needs to be modelled at the highest levels of political and leadership perches. Parents, on the verge of administering some kind of abusive punishment on a disobedient child, have for decades been cautioned to “count to ten” as a way of deflecting and dissipating their intense frustration, anger, impatience and offense.

Words, when deployed as weapons, attacking the character, the dignity and the respect of another human being, for the simple reason of paying a debt to the offended ego of an insecure and neurotic spokesperson, slip like mercury smoothly, glibly and effortlessly from the larynx, over the tongue, through the lips and into the atmosphere. There is no “record” of such abuse, except in the heart/mind/spirit of the victim of that abuse. And while we have all colluded in forming an voluntary mass army of accusers, we have not, simultaneously, generated a similar battalion of those willing to put a hand on the arm, a raise of the eyebrows, a nod of the head, or even a phone call or text, if and when we know that someone in our circle is about to “flail” at another, with or without cause.

This space is not the place to advocate for, or even to make judgements of the many offences and their perpetrators whose stories have made headlines. Nor is it the place to judge that all of those headlines were based on untruths. It is however, a legitimate space in which to note the dangers of a cultural convention that has the potential to infect every single person on the planet, even potentially to destroy each individual, without that potential even being moderated, and certainly not eliminated, through the removal of impunity.

If each person who slings a potentially lethal arrow, or bends a potentially lethal knee on a neck, or observes such an act, were to count to ten, and to ask another for counsel, and to take him or herself out of the moment of the “enflamement”, it is conceivable that together we might cut the incidences of hate, racial, gender and domestic abuse and even parental abuse of relatively innocent children. That kid may be in fact “guilty” of a specific act, considered in that family as offensive; however, it is important for every parent to take note of the fact that that specific act is not, and must not be permitted to define that kid’s version of himself. Neither should a homeless person, or a person completely and utterly dependent on even a hard drug like heroine, be judged by another individual, and especially by the collective judgement of a society, as “worthless” and “undependable,” and “unworthy” of help, support and care.

None of us is without our own “bentness” and none of us should be categorized as “worthless” or hopeless. If and when we enter into such judgements, we are declaring our own refusal to acknowledge our own vulnerability. And if and when we can safely own our vulnerability, we will no longer need those ‘zero tolerance” and “cancel” culture steps which do not protect us from ourselves, anyway. 


*Tautology: in logic, tautology is a formula or assertion that is true in every possible interpretation; a repetitive statement..(Wikipedia)

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Reflections on faith as an election factor

 There is a collision long in the making about to smash into the public consciousness on November 3, 2020, (and in the days and weeks following) that pits some irresistible forces against some other immoveable objects. Which side is which, however, is a moving wind-tunnel of the toxic gases that thunder through the political vortex in Washington on that day.

In the age of identity politics, when identities are as diverse as the number of people in any population, each person seems to be determined to affix him or herself to one or other of a dominant group with the specific cause of that group serving as the magnet for those committed. The complexity of the convergence of the many energies that are infused into the individuals and their respective groups, while seemingly discernible and divisive, also discloses some serious overlaps, subterfuges, unpredictabilities and seemingly unresolvable conflicts.

For example, those for whom the overturning of Roe v Wade, and for many of these also the Affordable Care Act, is a paramount moral decision for the American society, in what they believe is a return to the Godly position as outlined by the Roman Catholic church, have signed up for trump/pence. Also, among American Catholics, who have strongly opted for Biden/Harris, there is less emphasis on the need to overturn Roe v Wade (“established law”) and a need to reinforce and enhance the Affordable Care Act, especially in the middle of a pandemic. African Americans also break into different demographics, with those demanding social justice under a reformed law enforcement system flowing to Biden/Harris, with those who champion the slogan “law and order” seeing civil protest as a threat to the peace and security of neighbourhoods, towns and cities siding with trump/pence. Mixed deeply and deliberately into this “issue” in the public mind is the injection of words like ‘antifah’ and Proud Boys, representing the far left and the white supremacists respectively. Even the degree of importance placed on one or other of these forces by prospective voters, signals their tilting toward or away from trump/pence, and toward or away from Biden/Harris.

Polling having become so prevalent by so many different organizations, universities, corporations and media outlets, cataracts of data flood morning television screens, shouting, for example, dramatic shifts in popularity among seniors toward Biden, or tight races in states like Florida and Texas. Each talking head pays attention to a selected range of polls, while ordinary political amateurs are left pondering the philosophic and ideological underpinning of those polling agencies, including the development of their specific questions, the size of their sample and the statistical reliability and validity of their calculations.

Thundering phrases, like “a change election” or “I am a transitional candidate” or “stop this clown” or “shades of Mussolini on the balcony” or “a fight for the soul of this nation,” while evoking intense emotions on all sides, may or may not have a direct and measurable impact on the result.

For some time, the question of the health of the economy had a rather significant role in voter preferences, now seeming to be replaced by the health of the president, the White House and Pentagon officials, and the spread of the lethal and ubiquitous COVID-19. And of course, the personalities and character of the competing candidates for the Oval Office, as well as their respective ages, factors into the intimate, and often unconscious motives of the voters.

Compassion v narcissism, stability v unpredictability, thoughtful v impetuosity, moderate v extreme, dependable v unreliable….these are just a few of the bandied-about comparative emotional and somewhat thoughtful measurements used by voters to align with or refute their choice of president and vice-president.

Having watched much of the coverage, this scribe’s concerns are drawn to the question of the importance, subtlety and seduction of “religion” on the voters in a nation that champions itself as a ‘christian nation’.

Claiming that God is on “my side” is a traditional and even pervasive cliché among military generals, dictators, revolutionaries, and even democratic candidates for election. Endlessly attempting, in a flowing white-water of polls, events, speeches, tweets, and mis-steps, each political candidate flays away in hope that s/he will not flounder on the rocks, or drown in the eddies. Each candidate also brings his/her own religious experience, teachings, values and perceived identity to that “flaying”.

We all recall Obama’s igniting a storm of political backlash when he mused that many people who are frightened turn to the Bibles and their guns. While his headline was guaranteed to ignite intense, reactive and even defensive emotions among many Americans, it is my personal experience that millions of Americans, sadly and ironically, deny their fears, their insecurities, the anxieties and protest far too much in bravado to convince an “alien” clergy of their sense of wellbeing, confidence and hope. Invariably, those things we are especially committed to ignore, deny and cover up, nevertheless, exert an even more inordinate impact on our lives and on our culture. That is not ‘my rule’ but rather an inescapable truth in which we are all embedded. Truth is that those willing to unpack those previously denied, ignored and covered-up traits, including those willing to talk openly about how such ‘demons’ have reared their heads spontaneously in our private lives, are demonstrating and modelling a courage and a confidence that so far escapes those in denial.

Integral to the development of a mature confidence among adults who have and continue to face the hard truths of pain, loss, failure and desperation is a notion of the nature of “God” in that journey. If, for example, the deity is attributed to be a punitive, wrathful, unloving God but also one who is not usually involved in human affairs and is seen as impersonal and distant, and religion may be seen as a means to other goals (like eternal life), according to the research of Spilka and others, many of those who share this view seek money, prestige and power. (The Psychology of Religion, Eds. Spilka, Hood, Gorsuch, Prentice Hall, 1985, p. 28)

Over against this perspective, is an orientation based on “interpretations (attributions) of self, God and the world as nonthreatening and positive. Personal capability parallels a sense of trust in others and the deity.” (op. cit.)

Perceptions of how “God-fearing” a candidate is, projected onto that candidate, and by comparison, withheld from his/her opponent, is a phrase that emerged from the recent “evangelical” rally on the Washington Mall, headed by vice-president pence, the man adjudged to be a ‘man of God” by interviewed supporters. Some present even went so far as to claim that “trump was sent by God” and therefore he must have qualities approved by and congruent with what God wants. Biden’s comment, in reference to anyone who next questions his faith, (as a presumed comparison to pence or trump), “The next person who questions my faith, I am going to stuff my rosary down his throat!” rings like a deeply personal plea for fairness, even among Roman Catholics. Biden’s faith, according to his own account, has sustained him through several deep and painful tragedies in his life, as it continues to do.

In America, in this time period, when crass brutish, seemingly immoral and highly unethical and destructive attitudes and behaviours are on display, at the highest levels of the government (read the White House), the question of how human beings are to be treated, considered and supported has risen to the top of the agenda totem pole for millions of voters.

“No theme expresses the spirit of religion better than the identification of faith with humanity and community. Whether the term describing this relationship is love, justice, compassion, helping, responsibility, mercy, grace charity, or a host of other similar sentiments and actions, the message is one of positive feeling and support for others. Niebuhr tells us that ‘Love is, in short, a religious attitude.’ It is the essence of interpersonal morality—a free giving of aid, of sympathy, of the self to realize the highest ethical ideals of religion. In a similar vein, Pope John XXIII wrote in his noted encyclical Pacem in Terris, that ‘the social order must be a moral one.’ Judaism also speaks of the ‘right of our neighbor and his claim upon us.’ The Western spiritual tradition continually stresses obligations and duties to others as fundamental moral imperatives. These are ideals. (op. cit. p. 274)

The target, subject, object of the compassion, responsibility, mercy, grace and justice, as perceived by each voter, will, whether consciously or not, play a significant role in the choice each voter makes on November 3 (or before). Similarly, the target, subject, object of “anxiety, contempt, fear and loathing, or even disdain and disrespect will also play a role in the decision. For those who argue for hope over fear, they have to rest their own vote in the possibility and potential that hope will overcome the national fear and angst. On the other hand, for those who believe that the current upheaval, unrest and disarray is a sign that things are so bad only the act of God can rescue the nation, their choice will likely favour the trump/pence ticket.

Projection of ideals as well as fears is only one of the less reported ways by which voters express their attitudes and their beliefs. I have been struck by my own consistent contempt of the attitudes, words, actions and obsessive needs of the current president, likely unaware of what in myself that I cannot tolerate is to be found in him. Similarly, I have found the moderate, temperate and measured attitudes, words, actions and lesser need for attention and acclaim in the Democratic candidate to be reassuring, confirming what I consider to be those traits I like to consider part of my own temperament. Nevertheless, I am less conscious of how much calculating ambition, creative strategy and demonic tactics it truly takes to win the office of the president of the United States.

And, my deepest anxiety is that a pastiche of respectability, responsibility, moderation and gentility will drown in what could become a tidal wave of hate, anger, white supremacy, sexism, racism and a flood of undetected cash from sources too illicit to reach public scrutiny. The Mueller Report, ostensibly generated to rein in the president’s obvious culpability on more than one front, failed both in its execution (seemingly based on a fair and limited assessment of the role of the special prosecutor) and in its public release, under a Barr-cloud of disparagement. The again respectable and responsible pursuit of a “COVID-Relief bill, by the House Democrats, has been blocked by both the president and the Senate Republicans, (and just yesterday scuppered by the president, to be reclaimed as his personal prize today). And the infamy of bribing millions of literally hungry and hopeless Americans with a personally signed cheque of $1200, over trump’s signature is the most blatantly hucksterish, mobish, scurrilous and reprehensible campaign tactic.

However, is it just possible that the Americans who have already been seduced into the trumpcult will convince too many others of their quiet desperation to provide a skin-of-his-teeth victory, or worse, a hotly contested legal process that ultimately results in a Supreme Court ‘win’ which can only be seen from history as a profound and damaging tragedy to the nation?