Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Diary Entry, 6.30.20/20 On Puppy Duty This Morning

I read Carl Bernstein's Repeat What We Know But With Details story on the CNN news site. Did you? It's a line by line, written in ersatz-numbered sentences on legal documents take down of Trump selling out the country for nothing more than more incompetent narcissism.  Another news cycle?  Until the next tweet.  It's been that bad for awhile, maybe three plus years now?

Nothing surprising. But I do rather enjoy the matter of fact late 70s style newsworthy banality of Bernstein's sentences. If you're going to repeat the obvious, do it in style. (<---can that be a t-shirt?) This article has a direct parallel to what you see in professional journals about religion, anthropology, and psych. The boredom is so pedestrian and benumbing because it _means_ to restate the obvious. If it's not obvious enough please don't stop me from making more so. An old Tantric once wrote that when you get this buzzed by the truth you can't not walk like a drunken sailor, and he was not all wrong. Not all in a good way. Don't yawn just yet because I just did the same thing complaining about them all.

Two further comments. Why can't I stop?

First, Bernstein writes about a source, "One person familiar with almost all the conversations with the leaders of Russia, Turkey, Canada, Australia and western Europe described the calls cumulatively as 'abominations' so grievous to US national security interests that if members of Congress heard from witnesses to the actual conversations or read the texts and contemporaneous notes, even many senior Republican members would no longer be able to retain confidence in the President." I think this source is dead wrong. Republicans will do nothing but support Trump because they follow Fox Nation's simple directions. That 85% support for Fearless Leader is not going anywhere, as deplorable as that is.

Next, when we hear more details about Trump's vile sexism, the kind passed over as more incompetence and puerile imbecility we also learn nothing new about the German Chancellor: "Merkel remained calm and outwardly unruffled in the face of Trump's attacks —"like water off a duck's back," in the words of one source -- and she regularly countered his bluster with recitations of fact. The German official quoted above said that during Merkel's visit to the White House two years ago, Trump displayed "very questionable behavior" that "was quite aggressive ... [T]he Chancellor indeed stayed calm, and that's what she does on the phone."

Angela Merkel can apparently maintain leadership in the face of...well, that. We're grateful for her decency and decorum, her maturity and for as far as possible saving the western world from...well, that.

But at the heart of all this, as far as I can tell, there is no more incredulity or disbelief, no shock or awe, nothing but more the same strange brew I feel inside almost every day out here at the end of the driveway. There's an alchemy of feelings all too easy to identify but impossible to describe in just one word. Shall we try two?

Ambient dread? Professional anger? I leave that to the gods though I'm willing to cover it like a bar band. Best not to leave things to any gods. They are only another you that you have to deal with.

There are always going to be more possibilities because there are never fewer regrets. That's not only a bad thing. Regrets make for a far better soul cocktail. What's an Old Fashioned without a bit of bitters? Sometimes I can reduce it to: Would that help? And let that be enough to make a choice, if there is one.

Just what _do_ you call this malaise cocktail of frustration, anger, outrage, (not) disbelief, embarrassment, and genuine pain and depression? There is a tincture of hope in something like the diversity of young people and the yellow paint on the streets. But how much does it matter that you know the majority shares your views and you also know that he _still_ has a chance? Just one nano-moment of his "re-election" brings on me a despair like none to which I can compare, as if it would be losing something so precious I would have to grieve every moment.

Something about the possibility of America would be worth that grief. I have never "believed in" that possibility. That is not a confession or much of a belief. I am sure it disqualifies me from public office or speaking on TV. Like Hitch, I countenance no virtue in belief. Shall we call that America we've all gone to search for a dream? That's a speech for a far more important thinker.

I might prefer to call America a myth because myths are neither true nor false. That myths can hold deeper truths in the form of self-conscious lies is something very few people learn to consider, much less learn how to make happen. Even the most useful efforts have their golden ring on a merry-go-round quality. We must be careful too when it comes to magic rings (thank you, Frodo), even when we know that going into the fire is the only best choice. Can we also remember that good folks are often confused and always imperfect? I take consolation from being made of mistakes and trying to learn something from them. It's how we might make a difference.

That we have never been the America we say we are, much less who we aspire to be, that isn't all just bad news---I mean there is a tincture of waking that might be happening even right now from the majority. Maybe. We could fuck it up. But it's not _all_ bleak (if only because all-anything is as unlikely). And you want to say that this being ruled by imbecilic anarchy will end too? Will it? Can it possibly happen soon enough? I have learned to inhabit questions as an alternative to answers that would be nothing more than my most unconstructive lies, more like answers but without mythologies because they would lack any more value than the facts presented.

Only in the clear evidence of his defeat and departure will we breathe as if there is any chance at all. He might not. Either way, bring a mask and do mind the fact too that the world is burning. It's been burning while we have been dealing with deadly disease, social upheaval, economic nightmares, and...umm, that. That indignity we experience by being party to this craven, disheartening depravity. If we can't deal with the truth, there's no future.

In my own versions of America I still think a lot about the future no matter how much or how little there may be left. You have to want a world that you won't live to see to sustain your own humanity. That is reason enough to keep it real and to keep trying. There's no deal to be made but to send those who would burn us down to the margins and hope there is time to recover.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

A House Divided? Say Yes. Now What?

“I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free...I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.” ---Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln spoke these lines in acceptance of the nomination for the U.S. Senate some 162 years ago this month. This was no call for unity. This was not about making peace or seeking reconciliation. This was a rare moment of moral clarity when Lincoln understood the matter before him. It is the matter still before us.  At present Lincoln's "Republican Principles" are at best an oxymoron.  At worst, right before our eyes.

We continue living, some 162 years later, with the consequences of our national failure to practice equality and equal justice under the law. Actions and policies must follow but the reckoning is as much a matter of hearts and minds. Lincoln describes more than our sin of national origin and the vile principles of human degradation on which it was based. He tells us that it must be rooted out, brought plainly into the light of day for all to see, admitted, addressed, and acted upon.

Lincoln deserves no apologetics for his own failures but what he understood here was that one does not compromise over matters that can only be deemed human iniquity, barbarity, plain wrong. We are either a nation of equality for all or we are a house divided that must not stand. There are times when we must decide for decency and face the deeply discomforting truths we have likely not realized implicate us too in the injustices.

White America has to accept more than its collective historical responsibilities for complicities. It has to decide with whom we stand and what we really stand for. Or we will carry on investing in ethical bankruptcy and we will at last ruin this great experiment.

Trump provides at the very least, just such an example of what happens when our moral deficits and malignancies of character are so plainly revealed. Those who comply, agree, or race to the elevator to avoid the reporters' questions, those who take his side are on the other side of our argument. I can offer them no more solace than to say, you can change, you can evolve and you can come to realize that as you continue to support his leadership your own actions are morally corrupt and your character is deficient.

If you are a Trump supporting Republican, you are an essential part of the problem now. There is no other room to occupy in this divided house. Our house can divide over the particulars of policies but the actions that will must be taken to survive as a nation demand a reckoning.

I do not mean to suggest that as individuals we are all as feckless in our malignancies as Trump. But America elected Trump and he told us who he was. He is the president for all Americans; our disavowals and denials are trivial. What we now see hopefully are these two Americas.

The one America I dream permits dissent, even vile speech, and it tolerates more than is right. But it does not tolerate inequality and it will act to root it out and create a more just society, despite those who would abuse our freedoms. That is our public responsibility: to tear down the house built on inequality and rebuild with the rubble that we will need as a reminder, so that we never forget or even forgive our past. We progress and include the whole story to become better for it. We tell ourselves the truth because we can only stand together if we can stand the truth. 

The America that remains for Trump is not one that must be allowed to endure. It must be defeated and it must be changed. We are a house divided and while no one can be glad for that, we can be determined that our division does not endure. We are no longer allowed another bypass, another bit of fakery for the sake of profit, stolen labor, and human degradation. I do not seek another reconciliation built on the foundations of hypocrisy. 

Do we mean it now? At last? We are not unified nor will we achieve some meaningful compromise. We will become a nation imperfectly in pursuit of freedom and justice for _all_ or we will continue the failures that Lincoln understood are at the core of our moral corruption. We must have a free and fair election and we must use the corrupt institutions we have to try to survive this decisive moment. I welcome the opportunity to see what America stands for because only then can we begin the process of a more perfect union.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Follow the Need to Feel Powerful, It Not only Explains the Sociopath but his Supporters

It's interesting when the point of the lies is to dare those around him to question them, to disavow or question him. If you do, you will be insulted, dismissed, rejected as inferior. It's not about whether what he says is true or false, it's about power. Now it's a test of loyalty to him personally.

He doesn't even care if people believe the lie because all he wants them to feel is that, like him, they can be feared. Like him, he can say whatever he wants, paint it however he wants, and there is nothing that can stop him or challenge him. Like his followers so desperate to have their "opinions" be their own, there's no need to care if anything that's said is true.

To be feared is a key component of his insatiable need for respect, which can't be had any other way. That is crucial too. He knows he is not respected for any honest reasons and doesn't care because fear will suffice. When he feels others' fear, he gets his pleasure, he feels good about himself. He must repeat this endlessly because there can never be enough personal satisfaction.

So as the lies, often pointless even trivial lies, like the size of the inauguration crowd, have accumulated and experiences of fear have been repeated, those who fear what he will do to them personally or professionally are now merely numb to the truth. The truth doesn't matter to them because everything he says is really a dare, an I told you so, the bully's threat. The lies are no longer a disdain for the truth. They are merely disdain.

General Mattis telling (at last) the truth misses the point that the lies are virtually irrelevant. The lies are expressions of personal power, much like the insults, like everything he says. Their point is to say, you can't touch me and I will get away with anything I want. So far, Trump's right about that.

So thelies say nothing more than I can say anything I want and if you dare to question me then I will hurt you. _This_ is what the base loves most because it is the power that the want. They are longing for an identity that is incontrovertible, "I did it my way." My way. And that means anyway I want. That is power. If it involves an expression of disdain, then the disdain suffices to express the certainty of self.

Americans pride themselves on doing or saying or being anyway they want, no matter the cost because that is apparently an unalienable right, it's what that makes them free, that secures their desire to be "authentic". Every time someone says, "I don't give a fuck" they take up the cause of securing an identity leading with disdain.

As Bret Stephens wrote in The NYTimes, "He doesn’t lead his base, as most politicians do. He personifies it. He speaks to his followers as if he were them. He cultivates their resentments, demonizes their opponents, validates their hatreds. He glorifies himself so they may bask in the reflection." That reflection is white identity terrified of their non-majoritarian status, deeply resentful that America is not a "European" nation or a "Judeo-Christian" nation but rather a multiracial pluralistic nation. They will do anything they can to deny that reality and in the most cowardly ways. It is their nation, that is their sincere belief. It is being "taken" from them. They mean to make that nation "great again" and that means claiming their rightful superiority over all others.

Murkowski this week provided a particularly pathetic example. She just couldn't say what she knows to be true: that there is no choice, that Trump is a virulent sociopath. Her tepid, morally bankrupt declaration was merely to agree with General Mattis. But she couldn't say the words. Trump of course promptly promised to campaign in 2022 for a Republican ready to primary her.

But why does the base like this fear mongering, knowing quite well the lies are lies, that the whole thing is a bully show? Because they identify with the dare, they like the bully because the bully represents their own feelings of "I will say or do anything the fuck I want and don't care what you think or how you feel." It sets them free.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Confronting the Endemic Cultures of Violence: Honest Expectations Ahead

The firing of cops, military leaders like Mattis, Mullen, and Allen speaking out, police chiefs hired for their ability to say the right things, even a serious effort at changing the rules of engagement (with body cams, etc.) and creating mechanisms of accountability, none of these collected points of inflection will be sufficient to change America. In fact, we may be looking at an America where brutality and violence divide along partisan lines that are unlikely to change much at all. Not in the short term. Not for perhaps a generation, if at all.

I am not resigning to cynicism but rather responding to facts. More remarkable than the Admirals and Generals speaking up against Trump and military overreach is the Senator from Arkansas who we have good reason to believe represents more than his constituents but the majority of the military and police. (I present the evidence for that claim below.)

I strongly recommend a look at Senator Tom Cotton's dangerously and despicable call for the use of violence against protestors that was published this week in The New York Times. It is must reading because it reflects cultural and political views that may not be those of majority but are deep and significant. Barry Goldwater lives but without even a shard of decency. In truth, "conservatism" is more dangerous and ideologically Trumpist than it has been since Goldwater. The restraints are off. Their positions are explicit.

Cotton's views are right before our eyes in the continued, self-evident police brutalities we are seeing reported daily (e.g., the reports this morning out of Buffalo and in NYC). However these are mitigated by anecdotes of take a knee kumbaya moments between cops and protestors, what we are seeing is part of an entrenched culture that is driven by worldviews and ethos. Those worldviews are fascist and that ethos is violence. The military guarding Federally controlled sites in D.C. have all the appearances of the secret police. But it is their conscience that troubles me as much as their behaviors.

What we have are problems so deeply rooted, so structural and systemic, we must take a sober breath and serious look at what our American future portends. Yes, we are looking at endemic racism that saturates all of white America. But it is not all the same across American culture or even among whites.

The majority and "liberal" white America surely needs to listen and learn and to be educated. But this strikes me as possible. What I am referring to is a significant segment of America that is unteachable and unreachable because their commitments to violence are ideological and visionary, not merely circumstantial.

America's "conservative" culture, it's Fox Nation is not an exception. It is a worldview shared by millions. It is the dominant voice of police and military culture and we have the unfortunate evidence to prove that. Those with the power to brutalize hold deeply held convictions that are not likely to change.

We know that too and have only begun to come to terms with the relationship between explicit forms of violence and the authority to use it. That discussion faces a cultural wall that may be higher and less climbable than all the brutalizing fakery that supports Trumpism. America's "conservative" and "Christian" white culture

I would hope that bad cops know that they can no longer count on the current culture of policing to condone and support their outrageous behavior. But I am not at all optimistic. The current situation is more likely to reflect another partisan divide that is so deep and so pervasive as to present a nearly-intractable problem.

To wit, a United States Senator's op-ed piece in the NYTimes advocated violence against protestors and not only police but military force. Further, some 42% of voters apparently still strongly support Trump and Trump supporters are far more adamant and committed to their fascist predilections. We can expect Trump's support not to change much in the coming months before the election. Why? It hasn't budged one bit really. Senator Cotton's despicable views were a resume and a job application for the Secretary of Defense job so that Trump can fire Esper. Does anyone think that McConnell would not confirm Cotton in that job?

And given the way "acting" appointments are used, what is to stop Trump? The fascist regime has deep support if not majority support---and those same fascists are racists, homophobes, and willing to do anything to advance their agendas. All in the name of Christianity too. This is not some fringe element of America.

According to a July 2019 Pew poll in a survey of nearly 1,300 veterans conducted in May and June, 57 percent of respondents said they approve of how Trump is leading the armed forces. In contrast, about 41 percent said they disapprove of how he has handled running the military.

The numbers are the mirror image of the overall American public. In a separate, non-veterans poll from Pew Research (a nonpartisan polling and analysis group) conducted over the same time frame, 57 percent of those surveyed said they disapprove of Trump’s work as commander in chief, and 41 percent said they approve. The culture of the military, like the culture of police, is decidedly against the majority of Americans. And the truth is, we know this and are scared for our lives in the streets because we should be.

What happens next is nothing less than a fight for the soul of America. But even if Trumpists are all soundly defeated in November---somehow there is an election that defeats the chaos that Republicans know they need to "win"---these forces and cultures of violence are not going away. They are entrenched it would appear in the rank and file of the police and military---not necessarily their leadership or at least all of it. The majority culture of those within these ranks appears ideologically committed to the deeper racism and bigotry that infects our nation.

Can this powerful minority culture that advocates violence and secures its bigotries be changed? It will take changing their children and their children's children. This is in part already happening with what we are seeing now in the streets. It is a multiracial coalition of predominantly young people risking their lives in a pandemic to fight for democracy without violence and bigotry.

My hope is that this will continue unrelentingly until November at which point we vote the worst to the margins. Senator Cotton will still be in office. Those majority numbers of police and military are likely to still support these views. But if we commit to keeping this accountability our principle objective then we are not powerless and there is a future. I hope to teach their children well for at least another decade.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

The Good Olde Days are Here Again (Because They Never Left)

Nothing seems to warm white America quite like the idea that things were better back when. Nixon knew it was a lie but could use it for his benefit. How Nixonian. Reagan ran on it. And worse, he believed it. "It's morning in America..."

Trump is the culmination of this dangerous banality, the sick souled nostalgia that thinly veils (or not at all) the "back when" white America had everything under control, particularly people of color and anyone else deemed other. This is Olde Order that never seems to get old to those who can't imagine any other future.

The "good" Olde Days are very much still with us despite the protestations to claim victimhood. "Persecuted Christians" means white people losing power or at least fearing as much. The underlying threats of violence directed at those who would defy the Olde Order manifest every day but go largely unreported, denied, or justified. Keeping things the way they used to be is the way Republicans like it. While those who seek change and advance notions of progress have risen to positions of power and authority in certain cities---like the mayors of Minneapolis, New York, and Atlanta---the disparities between their vision and the forces of the Olde Order could not be clearer than they are right now.

Police Departments too might have progressive leaders and cops, chiefs and some in the rank and file who see the issues with seriousness and sympathy, but what of the Olde Order rank and file? They seem very much in charge. And let's be honest, that rank and file is pretty much white cops. Even I'm scared of them and I'm a white male. I'm just a liberal, how pathetic. I can't imagine what it would be like to be a person of color. That strikes me as simply life-threatening, all the time.

It doesn't take a statistics class to understand the rank and file white male voter and their overwhelming commitment to the Olde Order. You need 538 for that?That steady 42.3% that comes up pure Trumpian never moves much from its marks. What we have seen with our own eyes is that we can expect their signs and symbols to be followed with actions. Threatening and deadly actions. I live in a Trump district where the Olde Order has the perceived threat to itself projected into its living rooms in the bright, reliable florescence of red, white, and blue Fox News. They can also turn to the Fox Blonde who currently plays the role of WH Press Secretary. She looks like that morning host, what's her name?

In the meantime there is the "other" who is stealing, cheating, and taking their way of life, none of whom actually live here or really anywhere near by. You have to go some 40 miles north into "the city." But my neighbors will tell you that they "never go there" and "never want to go there." In this rural neigbhorhood there are plenty of displays of solidarity for the Olde Order, particularly lawn signs and flags. Most common are American flags, which were never apolitical emblems of patriotism but now part of an Olde Order collage. Repeal The Safe Act, once merely a lawn sign, is now boxed in wood and a permanent fixture. (The Safe Act is about guns and "Cuomo is not my governor" in NY State.)

The odd-Democrat out here clearly understands that Old Glory means the Olde Glory because their American flag never stands apart from its meanings. You see, Olde Order collections put Old Glory on top but just underneath the Trump banner or that blue-line in the middle of black and white version of the Stars and Stripes. The lawn signs are more about gun rights and, naturally, about police solidarity. Police solidarity means keeping those people in their place. You don't need to know the meaning of the word "semiotics" to get the message.

The Olde Order wants you to know that they are armed and ready to enforce the present as the past in order to insure its future. And according to a Pew poll, 78 percent of voters who supported Trump in 2016 felt crime had gotten worse since 2008. That is, of course, patently false. The real crime was the black man in the White House. But the truth won't matter.

It's not about crime but about how people, that is, white people feel about crime. And it's not about that either. It's about how white people feel about themselves and their projections, resentments, and inadequacies. They are not without hope but it's the hope for the Olde Order. Make coal great again. So it is about how white people feel not only about themselves but as much about those they see as criminal, unworthy of rights, those "takers" who aren't makers and don't know their place. What makes me so sure?

We are rarely threatened by things we cannot anticipate or for which there are no precedents. Not pandemics. Not racism. Not inequalities in the work place or the absence of resources and opportunities. We have histories and every reason to believe that ignoring the real issues will be the most reliable response.

Who wants to address in advance the problems that appear for the present not to present themselves? When the issues erupt into criticality, we shocked, shocked, deny the negligence, and wait, wait for it pass over, as if it were just another thunderstorm. Trump’s law and order framework is his reliable way of talking about the Olde Order. It both riles up his white base and soothes them by blaming others.

He doesn't need to a strategy or a plan or even an idea of what he is doing because his racism and Olde Order views fit the "tell it like it is" and "speak like I do" Fox Nation memes.
I know we can intellectualize it to feel better understanding how it turns on its own sickening nostalgia for a certain mid century America. Back then you see these white people lived in an America that made things, that had robust domestic manufacturing, and a clearly-defined racist, social order. Just the way they liked it. The reasons their lives have changed for the worse---and they have---is because of "them" and nothing is better in Olde Order worlds than the simplest explanation. 

None of it has to be true, just simple because complex is a liberal thing. Trump has no ability to comprehend much less contemplate these movements and I have no more left to say about Goldwater's John Birch Society worlds, Nixon's southern strategy, Saint Ronnie's States's rights, or Trump's "good people." But what we know Trump and my neighbors and the suburb voters aka white people, will talk about are those "good old days."

Making America Great Again has always been Keeping America Great. "Great" is easy enough to understand and that should trouble us greatly. How they want those good Olde days back is evidenced by the violence they are willing to use to insure the Olde Order. Everything else aka change, including a non-white majoritarian America, is failure and must be stopped at any cost.

Ask Mitch because there are plenty of new Eric Cantors waiting in the wings. One is running and likely to win the seat vacated by Trump's first endorser, my former Congressman, convicted felon Chris Collins. What the Olde Order are invoking is more than their tribal or corporate status quo. Theirs is a deeper call to anger, fear, and violence to stop the those others and their liberal supporters before the Olde Days are finally ended.

Or maybe the dystopia can't happen soon enough? After all, Jesus is coming? Will we make it to November, I ask? We will soon find out if America has a future or if the Olde Days are still all we want.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Subjective and Objective Nihilism: The Difference Between the Illness of the Mad King and Self-Inflicted Violence

One more thought this morning about the anger in the streets and the failure of the government to act with clarity and decency---where are the arrests? Where is the law? And we can be sure that the President will make the worst possible remarks and decisions. This led me to think a bit more about nihilism.

In the Hindu mythos nihilism is the trait of demons. Arguably it is what makes demons demons. Demons narrow their interests well-past any ordinary and expected levels of self-interest and selfishness. In truth, we need self interest and skills in managing selfishness to be healthy, even to flourish. Altruism is not the opposite of selfishness, "selflessness" is another way in which we take the measure of self-interest. In a conditional world everything we deem unconditional presents itself as another kind of condition. There's nothing "wrong" with self-interest but to make it something "right" or better, we must begin with its value and acknowledge its perils. 

If we are not contesting self-interest we are insulting its dangers and that takes us in at least two unhealthy directions. The first direction is towards the nihilism of the demons. This originates in the pathology of self-interest that is narcissism. The narcissist is immune to sympathy and has no capacity, no concept, no connection to empathy. Whatever is said or done is nothing more than immediate gratification, scheming, scamming, and manipulating for gratification. In fact, the evolution to nihilism is not only born of the malignancies of self-interest that can never be wholly gratified, it is the pleasure, the sickness of enjoying others sufferings. No matter is too small not to blame, claim grievance, scapegoat, and whenever possible inflict harm on someone or something that fails to gratify the malignant narcissist.

That such a demon is currently President of the United States means that the platform and the extent of projected nihilism is indeed vast, influential, and catastrophic to the health of the nation. We are for now in the grasp of what I want to call Subjective Nihilism. This originates in personal mental illness and extends its depravity as far as possible into the world for personal gain and gratification. The Subjective Nihilist is a narcissist who will burn down the world because he can, because he wants to, because he doesn't care for anything but himself. And this kind of self-aggrandizement is in truth yet another manifestation of fear, anger, hatred, and delusion---it is a steady diet of demonic poison that nourishes the pathology.

But there is another kind of nihilism that I want to distinguish here. Let's call that Objective Nihilism. I want to maintain that this kind of behavior originates not in malignant narcissism but begins with authentic needs for self-care and self-interest. It cannot be reduced to individuals seeking gain or gratification but rather it extends into communities because there is in fact care for the community. Nonetheless, when Objective Nihilism takes hold people will burn down their own neighborhoods, they will pick up rocks, they will hurt more and hurt each other and hurt themselves too.

Objective Nihilism is born not from craven selfishness but from the recognition that a vulnerable self is now besieged, under constant threat, under threat of annihiliation from those who would use their power to destroy all that is dear---person, community, possibilities. When there is so much frustration born of the terror, the failure of power to acknowledge its injustice, its moral lassitudes and historical shortcomings, when there is simply less chance to _build_ any life, then Objective Nihilism leads you to burn down your life, your community, the world that rejects you.

No one but the Subjective Nihilist can condone or commend violence. But Objective Nihilism applies itself with violence because every other voice of reason, every other emotional plea to be recognized for our shared humanity has been stifled, lost, or rejected. People will indeed burn down a society that refuses the responsibilities of liberty and the imperatives of moral decency. But I don't people with rocks in their hands are anything like the Subjective Nihilist whose "work" is born of grave, likely irreparably damaged personal failures.

I think the Objective Nihilist is at wits end, longing for an alternative, desperate and determined to be seen and heard in world that not only wants silence and compliance but in fact wants their annihilation, personally and collectively. What we are seeing the streets of Minneapolis is nothing like the Subjective Nihilist in the White House, his cronies, stooges, dupes, and supporters. What they all share is an indulgence in his depravity that gives them license and self-permission to conjure their own Subjective Nihilism.

What the protesters---and I mean those given to violence in the streets---are expressing is the well-founded Objective Nihilism that understands that burning down the world isn't just some ill-conceived personal failure or gratification---but that it is born of a world that means to annihilate them, personally, collectively, forever. Where there is no future, there is nihilism, one way or the other. The remedies are complex, difficult, and demanding. We may never reach those who lavish their indulgence on the Subjective Nihilist as their emblem of personal identity and tribe. But we can offer to those for whom Objective Nihilism looks like their best option a far better future if we are willing to make the efforts it would take to change the world for the better.

The Moral Imperative to Grieve

There is a moral imperative to grieve in these difficult times. We must grieve for lives lost to disease and political incompetence, for a society sick with hate, fear, and racism; we must grieve for the exploitation of earth and the violence that everywhere threatens life itself. If we can grieve together we can also become more awake and aware to love with greater energy, care, and focus.

Without the pain we experience in one, we shall not find the empowerment we need from the other. We are fundamentally dependent, connected, and vulnerable, no matter what other claims we make regarding personal liberty or responsibility. If the former is true---or at least admitted to be true---then we also share moral responsibility.

I think what we are seeing as much in America is that we do not as a society in fact share these same values or claims. We have a political party that has used the tropes of individual freedom and personal liberty to argue we should be freed from any great societal responsibilities and free to do as we please, so long as "we" means their own selfish ends. The other political party struggles to make good on any of its ideals because the forces of capitalism, exploitation, and the structural failures destroy the seeds of decency before they can truly take root.

Let us not resort to any false equivalencies. This is not now nor has it been for many years a problem merely of "both sides." Since deeper values contradict stated religious claims---love thy neighbor, blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, blahblahblah---they have had in the past had to fashion an artifice of dissimulated respectability. The party of "individual liberty" no longer even maintains the facades of decency.

But now what is their excuse? The curtains have all been pulled away. They feel no shame, no lament, they seem incapable of grieving even for themselves but instead foment anger, displays and enactments of violence. Not even the ethical indifference of a virus that attacks any and all is apparently enough to conjure a notion of connection or empathy. What nature has done is plain; what culture is failing to do may bring generations of despair.

Not to grieve the victims of pandemic, not to acknowledge the pain and the grief of communities subject to violence and systemic inequity, is more than a failure of politics. It is a failure to love. For those who cannot grieve for more than their own do not love even their own. We expect a President to represent more than policies and the administration of the law. We expect, at the very least, moral competency and the displays of conscience.

Moral grieving is yet another kind of requisite for leadership because it speaks to the love of justice and its losses, inadequacies, and hypocrisy. One must actually come to some kind of identification with the suffering; one must step into the impossible place where empathy invites us into another's experiences and into the histories of human experience. And that first requires recognizing another's humanity even if that recognition must first be filtered through the myopic lens of one's own personal experiences.

"What if that were me" suggests no great ethical achievement; it is but the narrowest path to emotional connection. And yet what happens when leadership is incapable of even this level of association? What happens when someone is apparently bereft of these elemental human qualities? Can that even be? Can someone be so morally bankrupt and emotionally arrested that there is no such feeling or responsibility? We are witnessing this right before our eyes.

There are alternatives and people of character and decency. They are all flawed. No one gets through life, much less a political life, without deep and serious mistakes in judgment and compromises of character. To admit that is to grieve and invites us into the heart where we might yet find ways to love one another enough to rise to the moral imperative of this troubled age.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Acquisitions and Inquisitions

To be human is to acquire and inquire.

Being acquisitive and, dare I say, not merely inquisitive but critically so doesn’t get a lot of good press in “yoga worlds.” I was thinking this morning about words that really irk or somehow demand that we ignore them out of concern for the trouble they cause. Acquisition and inquisition are a lot like shame inasmuch as the more you think about what’s at stake, the more you realize that you don’t like living with them but that it would be so much worse living without them.  Do you really want to be a person without shame?  Really?  I doubt that.  Now, enter the yoga or “spiritual” solution, which never fails to fail appreciating the irony proposed.

Somehow we’re supposed to be without, beyond, or better than any of those "negative" things. And furthermore---and this is the important part---there are real solutions, ones that smack of real fulfillment.  There are lots of fancy Sanskrit words (isn't all Sanskrit fancy?) for fulfilled, perfected, attained.  Purna, siddha, even buddha.  There's always sum'thin' even better than things. We’re further shamed, chastised, encouraged, told all sorts of stories about how addressing our issues means we can arrive at resolution, evolution, progress, or even fulfillment.

We can try to push past the finality nomenclature and say we're in a "process," that we are moving forward, that we are growing.  Sure but are we not also telling ourselves again what we want to acquire and we inquire about how to do that.  What if none of what we acquire in the telling ourselves is at last fulfilling or that what final is true, or at least what if it's not for you.  Are you a mere creature of failure doomed to more samsara?  If rebirth is real then any story will do.  And almost any story will do, which is why we tell them.

What if there are no such finalities, no ultimacy, and no one or any thing, not even enlightenment that really finishes things off, you know, in a good way. Wanting this kind of finality may be a problem or it may be just another thing we want. Thinking we need to be this way or that is another ideological assertion that, if harbored, usually becomes another dogma.  Then we have at last acquired another way to tell us what is true apriori.  Experience may show otherwise but denial may have its way too, When a dictum of finality or fulfillment appears in sources of provenance lavished with authority of some kind or another, we cower to challenge or aver confrontation because we might offend (or be offended). What we want to believe or believe we want usually deflects the important questions enough to avoid more inquisition.

In privileged worlds it is at best unseemly to talk about being acquisitive and impolite to distinguish real inquisition from entertainment or gossip.  We would rather pass over or pass the time than do the work.  No one really likes to do the work.  That's why it's work.  Resources can be abundant, scarce, difficult even to recognize as resources but no matter how access (or don't), we mean to acquire and inquire.  When we feel like we’re not allowed to be something deemed unacceptable or at least problematic, we aver the conflicts that otherwise might invite a more serious endeavor. Humans are just as likely to avoid seriousness as anything else that taxes emotions or thinking.  Even a pandemic can fail to seize people's attentions sufficiently enough that they consider the relationship between autonomy and responsibility.

Why do something hard when you can instead do something easy? Who wants to hear that the better things in life are not easy? Worse, if you need some?  Who wants to do more than mention the hard stuff so we can once again ignore what that means? We acquire and inquire but not always very well if by that we mean with some sense of what happens when we deny or claim we don’t.  It's more acquisitions, no matter the quality of our inquiry.

I’m not trying to be reductive or incurious here. We do lots of other things in addition to acquire and inquire that make us human in ways that distinguish our nature. And obviously we aren’t the only creatures who do both. We might be the only creatures who like to deny we do either and find it difficult. Last I looked our new pup has no qualms about wanting or acquiring stuff she wants and as for inquiry, that seems utterly insatiable about, well, most everything including much that can cause trouble.  We're a lot less like puppies and a lot more determined to invent what doesn't exist just to get by.

So it seems reasonable to say that even humans determined not to acquire and to delimit the scope or purpose of query are nonetheless collecting, promoting, claiming, analyzing, and inspecting. To wit, there’s no way past or beyond the matter: we acquire even before we can articulate our wants and we are inquiring shortly after leaving the womb about our needs. Allowing for only slightly more adult perspectives and we soon realize that wanting things means that without things we are naked, alone, and deeply in denial. Without inquiry we find out that all that’s left is “acceptance” or “answers” unless we make some self-superior claim that somehow being “beyond thought” is more than trance, indifference, or insensibility. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that both acquisition and inquiry can’t be fulfilling; it's not just that they won't be.  This happens not only because the things we want, need, or get won’t fulfill but because they can’t fulfill. Not things, not god, not heaven, nuthin' really works to finish the unfinishable.  We want to believe in fulfillment and so we do.

We can seemingly quell or attenuate desires; we can even claim to extinguish them and that might be possible. If you arrive at the fulfillment of being wholly disinterested, unmoved, accepting, and reconciled with your new-found indifference to acquisition or inquiry then you’re likely also bereft of any irony that you also just procured. There ain’t no cure, just different procurements.

I’m not proposing indifference to our unfulfillment but rather the contrary. Our unfulfillment is not only our interest, it is the solution that offers none. That there is no solution doesn’t go down well so we tell ourselves it’s all fine or is gonna be or, worse, we resign to suffer or ignore it. Suffering is not optional to being human but if you don’t want that humanity, there are religious alternatives and you may get them. You can tell yourself your reward will be great in heaven or that you have woken up to that wisdom of unwanting. Want that all you like and you can tell yourself those stories rather convincingly. I’ll see ya’ at lunch because, you know, you’re gonna want to acquire some of that or at least ask when it’s gonna happen next. You see, there’s no way around or out of acquisition and inquiry and getting through means getting and asking for more.

Let’s try to make this clearer even if it's hammering a merely proverbial nail. We don’t fulfill our needs, we meet them. And when we meet them we do everything we can to acquire and inquire, even deny that we are or that we need to. We want so desperately to find fulfillment or some end game of reconciliation or acceptance that we will tell ourselves we can reach those goals. But goals, like ambitions, too often substitute for meaning and a more honest receptivity. No matter what we acquire or how well we inquire, we come face to face with the reality of, at best, temporary fulfillments, that is, fulfillments that aren’t fulfilling. Suddenly we’re all Buddhists?

Nah. There is even for Buddhists supposed to be an awakening that relieves, extinguishes, solves the problem fulfillment-seeking. We can be hip to the irony and so can they but no one likes admitting it.  When we meet our needs we come to know that we can’t reach fulfillment and that meeting them is a way of living in that crisis, that irresolvable set of unresolved terms. The desires aren’t met, rather they are put into conversation, negotiation, compromise, unfinished processes that much remain unfinished.  Finalities can also be denied, like "there is no enlightenment" but such claims are also telling you that there is no real problem.  Good luck with that.  The problems, however constructed or imaginary, are real enough.  Just skip enough meals.  You'll find out.

You make a bargain with living with what you can so that you can live better than what otherwise is easier to do, indulge or reject or deny or worse yet achieve. For example, zazen will give you the realization of no need, no want, but is that really the healthy solution? Or for you? Your call. You will acquire, or at least do your level best to acquire, whatever you need to deal with acquisition.

But if you haven’t guessed it yet, I’m proposing that there are no solutions to acquisition anymore than there is fulfillment. And that means there are no healthy solutions because there are no solutions. This doesn’t leave us only unhealthy anymore than helpless, victimized, resigned, cynical, or lost. It leaves us with plenty of choices, including those but why choose those? There is no achievement that solves but once you know that acquisition, like inquiry, remains contested, you can decide what to do with that.

For my part, I try not to be so conflicted about acquisitions that I make myself the worse off. It’s easy to be depressed, resigned, and unhappy that you aren’t getting what you want, especially if it is a right or at least a human need. It’s probably not a bad idea to be angry about that kind of conflict or crisis, particularly when the odds, like systemic racism, sexism, or poverty or some other preventable disadvantage is being inflicted.

When we work for change, we inquire into better acquisitions and ask what makes them better. Better at the very least is better than the alternatives or at least not worse.  Better may just have to be not just better for me but doing as little damage as possible to others and to the world.  When you know that “at least not worse” is all the betta’ya’ got, you’d better not make it worse than that. So our actions, non-actions, and misactions all matter and what matters most about them is inquiring about the differences.  Acquire such a difference will let you make a difference.  That can be a good, so try it.

What we can do is learn how to address the wounds and shadows, the gifts and opportunities, the prejudices, structures, and powers that shape us. We don’t reach fulfillment because we are never in complete control of, well, anything. Learning from mistakes, being made of our mistakes is not easy nor is it fulfilling. Umm, see above if there’s still much doubt.

When we stop looking for fulfillment we aren’t compromising to mediocrity or failure, we’re not merely resigned or stuck in some beleaguered surrender to the facts. Not need to surrender to the facts, but figure out if you can receive them with any measure of grace, dignity, and humility. We gain integrity, which might be almost as satisfying as empathy is important, when we figure out how to live with all of the ways needs and wants invite more acquisition and inquiry.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Biden VP, How to Choose

Governance not politics is the key. Sure, Joe is old even too old but if you surround yourself with the right people then you stave off the exhaustion that let's you deal with the ordinary pressures. Delegation and competence are the keys to this kind of leadership. He's gonna need help. So far, so good.

Since he has already decided that a woman will be the Vice-President that hardly delimits choice. The list of people with extensive experience in governance and executive decision-making will make the choice that much more difficult---there are so many who could or should be President tomorrow. This shifts the matter from who to choose----an impossible task for the good fortune that comes with having these choices---to _how_ to choose.

Putting on my political pundit topee I think there are two strategies.

The first would be more traditionalist insofar as it is a calculation that weighs votes. Do you choose the person who might help you carry a State? Has this in fact happened since, say, LBJ? A region? So a midwesterner? To keep the Senate and not turn it over by "risking" a Blue Senator? This would be the only political calculation I would recommend. Biden is going to need every single vote he can get if McConnell retains his seat and Joe needs 60 votes.

But the wiser strategy is to invite someone who not only has all the requisite gifts and experiences but one who will push back, one willing to be an alternative, a contrarian. If you are looking for someone who will think _with_ you and be _for_ you then you need someone who has the courage, the emotional maturity, and the intellectual audacity to come at you. You need someone who understands how to make an argument and reach into worlds of ideas and experiences that are _not yours_.

Everything about Trump is a nightmare but one of the worst features of his malignant narcissism is that he has no capacity to feel for others, sympathy, or to attempt to feel as others, empathy. Empathy is the most complex experience we can imagine because it is the unreachable state.

We really never have another's experience; that is not possible. But we must try, we must imagine, we must do all we can to rally the resources of feeling and thought to attempt to feel as another. This is audacious and it is humbling. It requires that paradox: to say "I feel you" _and_ to admit "I cannot say I know how that feels." Both are imperatives of empathy.

This paradox is another reason Biden needs someone capable of pushing back, questioning, cajoling, and maneuvering to see other points of view. I think if this is the focus then Joe will choose Kamala Harris. She was the one who forcefully declared first her emotional hurt and her disagreements with Biden over the past. Senator Warren offers many of the same markers.

So this pundit says it will be one of these great women and I would bet on Senator Harris. She has all he needs to make sure governance, competence, compassion, and seriousness are once again American ideals.

The Simple Fox Formula

None of Trump or Republican disinformation can happen without their propaganda machine. Fox plays their dupes like a violin. While the company is telling their employees to shelter in place as far as possible and follow reasonable instructions for personal health, they have rolled the virus into their most familiar narrative.

Let Jeanine Pirro make it clear for you. She said this on Hannity: "They want to keep us away from churches and synagogues. They want to make sure we don't go back to work. They don't get it. The American spirit is too strong, and Americans are not gonna take it."

Watch Fox News just for one day, well, 20 minutes and you'll get the brand that makes for Trump and the "appeal" of the Republican Party. It has three pillars: government is the enemy, education is an elitist conspiracy of falsehoods that undermines faith and the "real" truth, and the media are liberals out to take away "your" life---except Fox and your familiar "conservative" friends. The paranoia, racism, anti-science anti-intellectualism, the fear and anger, blame and identity is baked in to every story.

You are the "they" of Pirro's comment but what black and brown people and other minorities know is that they are the particular object of this otherness. The racism is now utterly shameless with the dogwhistles made the clarion clear.

Why does Fox do this? That is, urge their employees to reduce their exposure to the virus while they tout the current Liberate protests and all the rest of their sham? For money. Fox's audience is enormous because that particular segment of America watches little else. They get rich because the 36% or so think this is the news. Culture war profits. It's as much the money as it is the frightening ideology that propels this dangerous madness.

So too Covid-19 is another media biased conspiracy to take away your freedoms, driven by a pin-head intellectual class that despises you, all of it meant to change "your" way of life and give it to "them." The usual doses of misinformation, fear, anger, and bigotry provide the cocktail now mixed as the Covid tale. There's big money to be made with this captive audience. And as we know, Republicans would rather make money on this disease and, well, anything, than they care about decency, truth, or your health.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

That's the Way They Do It, The Price of an Opinion

"Some people say..." "Many people are saying..." This is how they do it, Trump and Fox. It's a simple formula: reduce all to opinion and then to controversy and then to an us versus them. Voila. You can then sell anything, including reversal, contradiction, or conspiracy. It really matters not what. Just follow the formula.

The stupid that follows is not only inevitable, it is incorrigible because they cannot be turned from whatever the next opinion of theirs might be. To maintain that there are facts in the form of a contrary opinion makes you a traitor. To withhold an opinion or state that the facts are ambivalent---as is often the case in real science---is to be a fool, in their opinion. Thus, there can be no serious thinking or honest conversation because the facts might get in the way of a preference or an opinion.

How many times does a conversation you have end with, "That's my opinion." And if facts are involved, especially unpleasant facts, how many times is it, "I just don't want to talk about it." Or---how about this one---"Can we just get a good work out, why do you have to talk about philosophy or deal with _that_?" The powers of bypass cut deeply because life presents all sorts of discomfort we'd rather not face. Why learn when we can just be entertained?

"That's my opinion" or "some people say:" is not only a way of stopping the conversation; it's a way of reducing all evidence to personal meanings. This fails any standard of think critically. Just how it connects to the follies of solipsism and neurosis are another matter. But it's a pretty simple formula: take the best we do know, reduce it to "mere" opinion and then everyone and no one can be "right."

We can walk away from this kind of folly, tell ourselves we won't participate, but Trump and Fox prove such a strategy of manipulation is, in truth, deadly. If we walk away more people get sick and die. Jig's up.

We have to remember that most Americans can't comprehend much more than opinion. That means their own. They were never taught to think and prefer to be told what to think. Religion does this in a particularly effective way. But it's not merely the (mis)information that corrupts, it's the strategy itself. Make everything into a sellable controversy and watch the dupes duke it out because facts, some stalwart, others more fragile, just don't matter.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Religion Again Makes Things Worse, Any Chance We Might Learn from That?

This weekend I can guarantee you that thousands of Americans will go to church on Sunday. That they will defy government mandates and pay the consequences. It's unlikely that they will pay any legal consequences because they are "free" to be religious and government will not prosecute them, I promise you. What will happen is that they will get sick, make others sick, and make matters worse.

Religious "thinking" doesn't have to make things worse if by that "thinking" we mean our human capacities to use symbol and metaphor to instigate a deeper investigation of culture and conscience. Religion having once been the only game in town in most towns creates art and ritual, invests in social and personal identity formation, and otherwise allows us to create investments in coping, in joy, in grief, and meaning. This happens often at the expense of fact but it need not if by religious "thinking" we keep a steady hand on reminding ourselves that we are humans merely inventing ourselves.

As an explanation of the natural world, religions are always wrong. Religions best metaphors aren't in truth talking about the natural world even when they think they are. They are again talking about how humans experience their experiences---again as query, as questions about how we formulate thinking and feeling.

Science succeeds here where religions fails because it begins with the claim that we can create shared methodologies that allow us to experiment, learn, admit and correct mistakes, and so establish provisional truth. If "establishing" "provisional truth" makes for some paradox, even contradiction, that's part of the deal. Truth is always incomplete, provisional, and limited because it is always conjured by humans for human purposes. Science is less capable of meaning because the facts as we understand them don't have any meaning but the next empirical outcome.

To revert to mystery to explain anything is merely to admit that there are matters too complex for our methodologies, that our limitations are real, that our understandings are incomplete. To attribute purpose or agency to such mystery is to revert, once again, to some of the most invidious bypass that religions use to "explain" the world. Humans may be desperate for explanations and need meaning but how we provide it makes all the difference. When we resort to the supernatural we dehumanize the value of meaning. Religions can be humanizing when meaning becomes a resource for living in more humane ways.

Sometimes the meaning lies in the fact that we don't know, even that we can't know. Sometimes the best meaning is that there is no reason, no purpose, no goal, no why---things can happen in a world that self-organizes information because we are forms made of the same complex information. The evolution from simple to complex can be denied but it won't care because there isn't any reason to think it ever has. Darwin made that observation despite the consequences religion would have on his life and his theory. His is, by the way, the only human theory that explains seriously how we became human. It does not explain how to live humanely. For that we need art and symbol, love and grief interpreted. We don't know why we are here but we can appreciate that being alive invites us to understand how we might want to live.

In this time of world-changing disease I have little hope that our paradigms or investments in human collectivity will change somehow for the better. The temptations of the usual kinds of religious thinking run too deeply. Humans want things to be easy, meaningful, and explainable without all that much effort. We want someone or something, like God, to know. But these religious beliefs and practices will once again largely make matters worse.

Until we decide that religion's proper purview is to decide for an honest appreciation of our wholly human nature the path of folly leads it forward. If religious "thinking" invites us to more compassion and candor about what we can and cannot do and know, if it leads us more honestly into the power of metaphor to feel and think more humanely, we will gather its better angels to our tasks.

These comments were prompted by reading a thoughtful piece from Michael Gerson, a Never Trumper, who regards himself to be both "conservative" and an "evangelical Christian." That piece in the Washington Post is cited in the first comment below. Gerson is not wrong: conservatives are at the heart of the problem of addressing this pandemic because they deny expertise and facts. But he misses the heart of the matter. "Conservatives" don't want a humanism where facts actually matter more than their ideologies because underneath their packages of respectability are religious delusions.

"Faith" just won't allow our souls to be simply human---that is human with all of the meaninglessness that invites us to remember that meaning is only another kind of important human invention. Meaning isn't there to be had, it doesn't exist but for the ways we conjure it to tell us the stories that suggest we can flourish, we can live lives from within our boundaries and limitations. Human achievements are remarkable, worthy of our admirations. Human folly is likely unavoidable. But when it is perhaps it is the wiser achievement to do what we can to do better.
***


Here is the link to the Gerson piece that prompted these comments and below that my glib reply in the comments section of the Washington Post:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-dangerous-conservative-campaign-against-expertise/2020/04/09/604d10e6-7a95-11ea-a130-df573469f094_story.html#comments-wrapper

My reply:
Isn't God supposed to save you? Doesn't your God have some mysterious Plan that we should trust gives meaning and reason for this human suffering? You see, the core of this problem isn't just that conservatives can't wrap their heads around science. Much less the scientists who understand that empirical learning might be provisional but is, in fact, based on fact. It's that conservatives have deeper delusions that lead them to astonishing feats of folly, misinterpretation, and poor judgment. Let me help you out here with your own words, Gerson: "Sometimes the interpretation of a crisis is so dramatically mistaken, so ludicrous and imprudent, that it can worsen the crisis itself." Crisis: a putative Savior is crucified for sedition in conspiracy with his detractors. He might be innocent but wasn't the first guy to get on the wrong side of his local politics and get killed for it. Dramatically mistaken interpretation: you think it's God's mysterious plan to redeem humanity. He rose from the dead. Ludicrous. You think you should tell people this nonsense. Not only imprudent but worsening the crisis itself: the dupes you tell this nonsense to create a ridiculous religion that ends up informing 40% of America, elects a failed con man----no less a con man then any of your apostles----and science doesn't get off the ground for centuries. I appreciate your assessment, Mr Gerson. But like all Republicans and "evangelicals" it's impossible to deny that you are part of the problem and that your soulmates are the cause of more unnecessary death.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Judge Because You Must, When Facts Ask Us More of Us

I never quite imagined I would find myself citing George W. Bush in any pursuit of wisdom. His vacuous intellect and dangerous judgments seemed at the time to express fully America's own incapacities to choose wisely. But at least he could read and chose to delegate the bullying to Cheney. At least we could anticipate the failure of the guiding ideology and foresee the poor quality of judgements. Some of us really did know what would happen if we went along with such tragic failures.

When we elected Obama he encouraged our complaisance because the majority felt safe with his abilities to judge, even when we deeply disagreed with policies. We could have at least sufficient confidence in his genuine Intelligence. The majority, that is. What the minority of Americans were thinking we need not discuss further at the moment. Bigotry is too banal and too All-American to warrant digression. Disease has its own politics since it invariably comes hardest to those most systemically oppressed.

The need for informed judgment has never been more evident no matter how choices look in retrospect. We are, of course, always making judgments because there is no way to choose without them. But it is possible to understand how poor judgments are made when facts demand only to be acknowledged rather than derived. If we need only acknowledge what is fact then foreseeable consequences invite further judgment about the quality of judgments made.

To say that we could have foreseen a pandemic is too much. To say that we could have done more to stave off the consequences of pandemic needs to be said again again. That we were bound to meet with real crisis during the Trump era requires no degree in history. Trump did not cause the disease but Trump and his supporters endanger us further.

In a comparison worth considering, we should have seen 9/11 coming because many did and raised the specter before that fateful day. I remember vividly saying to myself that the only thing worse will be the judgments made by our government, particularly Bush's government. Tragic stupidity notwithstanding, we did indeed see pandemic coming, raised alarms, and knew we'd elected a government in which all facts were going to be dismissed or ignored. We knew he wasn't up to it, not just that he would make calamitous errors of judgment. He is not capable of judgment.

W. said he was going to insure the 9/11 terrorists would end up in “history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies,” beside “fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism.” Now we must again discard lies in favor of facts because without a factual baseline we will only become more sick and many more will die. But we must also not forget the consequences of judgments, those not even attempted and the eventual judgments so inept and dangerous we must consider further perils.

The very source of the next judgment is as much the danger as the disease.

Trump has lived a life of bluff and bullying, which we have to admit has served him well. People are as gullible as they are culpable for willing complicities and indulgences. Some will say they took a gamble, that they were bluffing too. Now we see how pathetic and fateful such a standard of judgment can be.

Assessing terrorists we can conjure motives and be wrong. We can reduce them to caricatures and feel better about ourselves. But the pandemic's facts refuse any bluff and cannot be bullied, which means that Trump simply has nothing left. He will only hold the next rally using the pretext of information. He will bluff again figuring it has always worked to his advantage. Will it?

When we bluff we mean to deceive for benefit---our own or another's. When we bully we mean to use coercion to induce change and invariably fail the future for perceived short term gain. When these are the criteria for choosing what comes next we forsake not only the facts but even the semblance of decency. This failure falls as much on his Fox Nation as it does on him.

We must endure the bluff and the bully for now because we have no other choice. Be assured that his sycophants and stooges, those who would profit on our pain and take advantage without any conscience, want there to be no other choice ahead. But this we must not permit.

We may not have gotten the alternative we might have preferred to thwart the imbecilic anarchy that is before us. But the greater danger is to fail to rise to the occasion in which judgment demands we consider again how judgments are made. The value of the bluff has at last shown its truest limitations. The depravity of the bully has never been clearer. The bluffing and the bullying cannot be allowed to continue. We will have one more chance to save ourselves from our own fakery and complacencies. What will we do with the facts?

Monday, March 23, 2020

What Will We the People Do? Understanding the Spring Break Pandemic Party

It's always problematic to take on a sweeping generalization and emerge with anything like facts or the truth. The scenes of Florida and California beaches, Mardi Gras, and other Spring Break revelry are pretty darn disturbing.

The pressure on politicians to keep business going has apparently outweighed public health concerns in the midst of a deadly global pandemic. Profit before people is capitalism without conscience or care. We have had advisories or abdication, not government directives. And where too is individual responsibility?

We like to think that we all make personal and individual choices but this explanation also allows us to dismiss or abdicate. People are moved by leadership and by social directives, implicit or otherwise. We move not only as individuals but in groups and tribes and communities. We have survived and flourished because we are socialized and it's simply too reductive (and oh so American) to suggest that individual liberty and choice directs our actions.

To put this in the modern meme, "influencers" influence. And the most powerful influence is one's peers, that inchoate but real force that forms our proximate social identity. We feel that ethos, we share worldviews or, at the very least, we contend within that kind of group as we formulate our individuality. I think there are plenty of reasons why in the "OK Boomer" world wonder why college age students, those under 30 are acting so...let's put it plainly: recklessly. May I remind my fellow Boomers that we came to distrust our elders too, coming as we did on the heels or even from within the era of Vietnam and the civil rights movement. We pushed back too. We distrusted and estranged ourselves. Our parents thought us reckless too.

We did, however, have our generational leaders: JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm and McCarthy. All flawed but standing for something else and against the worst of it. In contrast, and let's be frank, Senator Sanders could not muster that youth, could not get them to the polls. That is plain for everyone to see. That Democrats are terrified that young people will not vote in November is a well-founded fear. Any equivalence with Trumpism I will simply reject outright. This emergency could not be more of an emergency. We are told that leaders are not providing what they want or offer a world in which they aspire to participate. Then we see them on the beaches and in the bars during a pandemic. The mistrust is mutual.

As loathe as I am to say this, nothing is going to change the behavior of the beach going Spring Break generation but rules enforced by grown ups. The problem is that leadership at the top, at the Federal level, has proven so desperately incompetent. We all knew Donald Trump was unfit and that the worst was yet to come. And what's really scary is that the worst has NOT yet come. Governors have stepped in, like Cuomo and Newsom but not all. Wait until Florida really starts getting sick. Does anyone think that isn't going to happen?

I write this morning because I need some perspective. We knew about war and political corruption but then let the planet burn for profit. We protested for peace and a Great Society and then let jobs and poverty and opportunity fail the majority. These kids (<---yeah, I just said that...) may not consider our failures because they, in truth, don't remember and were never taught those lessons. The things they don't know are legion. Trust me on that, I teach college. But what they have that is all their own is a toxic blend: their own certainties and a frightening kind of nihilism.

Some push back, like the Parkland kids. But they all see a burning planet, a gig economy that promises the majority less than their parents prosperities, debt, and, for most, politics as nothing but failure. They have reasons to take nihilism seriously. Their certainty may be a very different vaguery of youth but mix it into a cocktail of "well, I'm just going to do what I want because there's really no future anyway...", that is the danger we must consider.

We who protested war and poverty in the 60s and 70s may have sold out to profit and bourgeois prosperities but that may be because we imagined that there would be a future. I fear that what we are seeing in the Spring Break Pandemic Party is a generation that believes there is no future but to party, and party together. Who do they trust but each other? Not us. And that portends a very dangerous immediate future.

This virus won't care how old you are once enough people are sick. The misinformation train, especially from the right wing media, will only further divide as McConnell and his lot see another chance to line the pockets of their corporate donors. We're going to need leadership and sanity. They are in short supply but not completely absent. Let us hope more people, especially young people who are the future, are willing to listen to more than each other.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Semiotics of Identity & Working at Home

Most of you know I have a thing about pink scarves from India, heavy duty blue jeans from Japan, and rock'n'roll boots. I can get away with that now that I'm an old professor and they just laugh at me. I was joking with my University colleagues that now we are going to be teaching at home, we'll never have to get out of our pajamas. But lemme say, this is a terrible idea.

When we are in India we go as pilgrims and we dress the part. To the nines. This makes all the difference and the local people are deeply appreciative. Even as a college professor I come looking like, well, something of the same. It makes a difference because we don't dress merely because of the weather.

I'm not merely suggesting a fashion update. I am saying that locked up at home as we are all going to be, it will become important to nurture your identity. How you are on the outside really does affect how you feel on the inside.  (Be as elegantly yourself as the dog in this picture---and as comfortable.)

When we put on our "work uniform" we step into an essential asepct of professional identity. We have multiple selves---personal, professional, creative---and all of them play a part in holding together the world. 

When Krsna in the Gita is asked why he does what he does, he says loka-samgraha, which means "holding the world together." But literally this phrase means something like "grasping light." What Krsna is pointing towards is the fact that our identities are formed both inside and out; how we present ourselves informs our inner state. We are the light we offer, we are the shadow we create. To become whole we must care for the whole of our human self and that means our social self even when we are being asocial.

India taught me to care about these things because everything about learning depended on finding a way to hold myself together and immerse in a different world. The same thing happened when at only 28 years old I was a college professor not much older than my students but closer to their age than I was to my colleagues. The way we look really does root in how we relate to others, how we situate ourselves in social complexities. Tribe is recognized, a narrative is being put forward, and if we put those stories on mute---if we never get out of our pajamas---we will be dismissing, even losing important features of identity.

When I thought about what I'd said to my colleagues the other day about not getting out of our pj's, I almost immediately realized how wrong I was. So everyday since events turned me into the college-professor-now-teaching-from-home I've gotten myself together every morning.

Now all this may just be me but I doubt that. I think that we're in a time when it will be too easy to become unmoored, afloat in a world in which few things are familiar. When that happens we must re-root and find ways to tell our inner story. It's important to remember that our story entails all aspects of self, inside out and outside in. Putting yourself together, just a little bit, everyday can make an important difference.

You might at first feel liberated by days that require nothing more than jammies. But think Ganesha here: these routines and changes, these habits of personal and professional identity create meaningful boundaries. With boundaries we know who we are and what we need to remember, who we are and who want to be. So enjoy your personal revolution for awhile, 'cause why not? But then even if you are home all day, put yourself through your changes, step into your conditionality and stay a player in creating your boundaries.

I think in the long run you will find yourself more emotionally grounded, with a clearer sense of self. You are communicating with yourself when you step into those forms that help you tell your story. You will feel more connected to yourself and when the time comes again, you will re-connect because you never forgot who you are.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Immune to Our Shared Humanity, The Self-Quarantined President

There is a phrase in Japanese---isn't there always? Kuuki ga yomenai means "cannot read the air." Nowadays it is often reduced in text messaging simply to KY.

The implication is plain enough: it is when someone is seemingly impervious to the current need, the social and cultural feeling that is expected. It's when someone "doesn't get it" where "it" means the invisible, unspoken sensibility that brings solidarity and implicit understanding. It's when someone is more than a little awkward about the _we_ when "we" creates an "us. Few cultures value the implicit more than the Japanese but there is much the same in Tamil---and I suppose we all have this. Every culture values emotional intelligence finding its way into practice and situational need.

The phrase aun no kokyu, which means something like “in perfect unison" or anmokuchi, “tacit knowledge, are much more positive in comparison to "cannot read the air." That is reserved for a greater incapacity, almost as if it is something someone cannot do rather than a momentary awkwardness.

What's important about the idea, I think, is not the criticism it levels but rather the sense that we share the air and the air has _its own_ qualities that are neither individual nor merely invented. The "air" has a "just there" quality and it takes a redolent sensibility to share an experience that's implied. When someone can't read the air then the emotional illiteracy has consequences for all.

The downside of such a collective imperative should be likewise obvious: we can feel pressured, stagnant, repressed because there is an expectation to "get it" or get along with what is expected. We also need to allow others less familiar with situations or culture to feel included, welcomed, and respected.

The shadow, however, is here at the forefront: the "not reading the air" is what we all feel and the hidden light of that shadow is that we can want people to feel more accepted and more fluent in the social circumstance. We can be rooting for the implicit without being coercive or reproving. That level of nuance too requires an emotional empathy that we hope for and can learn to evolve in ourselves.

We here all know that Trump is a malignant narcissist. You don't need to have a clinical professional degree to see that his is no ordinary selfishness. It isn't merely that he is immune to others' needs or feelings or that he calculates them solely for his own benefit; it is that his sociopathy demands that others are to blame, that others must be punished for whatever does not suit his self-aggrandizement. Those around Trump read his air and become the toadies and swamp creatures that cause us to wretch.

But never has the air seemed so toxic as it does around this man even as his media machine and sycophants breathe it all in.

And this time the air cares not who is reading it. It's what's in the air that we must read as our shared need to take care of each other when our leadership is so grievously impaired.