Friday, July 29, 2016

Reckoning the Moment

Last night we were treated to history because after 240 years of occasionally great, barely tolerable, and too often mediocre men, a major party nominated a serious, steadfastly committed, and exceptionally accomplished woman.  It should seem unfathomable that gender has been such a barrier in an America that professes equality but it is hardly mysterious. 

The origin documents made clear that all men [sic] are created equal and few need reminding that a woman’s right to vote came after slavery was abolished.  Even if we choose to ignore, revise, or abide by the mere conventions of grammatical gender, the issues are too important to dismiss as past errors rectified, as justice somehow finally done.  There is something to see and to be seen here that demands our attention.  The onslaught of events will surely demand yet another refocusing, but we need to pause for a moment of reckoning.

Certainly a ceiling has broken, the old structure shudders, the system is at last somehow reorganized but the reckoning has not yet reached its crisis.  I mean more than election day.  I mean instead the test of our American character.  Are we “the good” who profess to greatness?  Secretary Clinton said last night, “America is great because it is good.”  And what does that mean?

It has taken 330 million little avalanches and however many unnoticeable tremors before the American sand pile has moved enough to create something new out of something possible.  Change doesn’t guarantee betterment even if we admit that atrophy insures decline.  The world moves and the pace is not wholly ours to determine.  We’re each a part of something far greater than our individual powers to determine.  Whether we can claim goodness is our most genuine challenge.

“I alone can fix it” provides us with delusion of the first order not merely for its dangerous demagoguery but because all things, even the single cell organism, exists within systems in which no one element is sufficient to define the whole nor will comprise the true meaning of an identity.  Even if we think we’re one thing, that one exists in relationship.  (Much to the chagrin of monists, oneness is meaningless without its comparison to manyness.) Metaphorically speaking, it’s that whole blind person touching the elephant thing.  We not only need more information than any one feature can provide, we need a plurality of factors and relationships to fathom our experience.  Donne was right, of course, “No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.”  Pronouns notwithstanding.  Again.  We dare not choose to ignore the language for its influences, no matter how we address the sentiment.  Words too are moments of reckoning because we humans need them if we mean to become great and to be good.

And therein lies the point I mean to make today, we are always contending with systems of meaning, whatever more comes forth in complexities of language.  I will leave it to others more qualified to take up the many specific issues that should challenge our thinking and further awaken the feelings of this historic moment.  Let’s think for a moment what it means to be built-into systems, that we are part of structures, forms made of history, uncountable numbers of events remembered and forgotten, facts that cannot stand alone because facts are not isolates but relationships.  “It takes a village” is yet another way to say as much.

There are no islands without seas and continents; there is no meaning unless we look for things inside other things and the parts of parts of greater things.  However obvious this fact may be, our key to understanding is not to mistake the powers of adaptation and survival as necessarily improvement.  To improve, we must deal directly with features of the system that will not change until we recognize our advantage demands rearranging, rethinking, and reworking the system itself.  If we want to be good, we will need to find more meanings for “greatness.”  We can’t pretend we are immune to the systems that have created us and in which we exist but we can also create greater value if we acknowledge the relationship of the parts.

Last night the Democrats nominee for President Hillary Clinton said this: “I refuse to believe we can't find common ground here. We have to heal the divides in our country. Not just on guns.  But on race.  Immigration.  And more.  That starts with listening to each other. Hearing each other.  Trying, as best we can, to walk in each other's shoes.  So let's put ourselves in the shoes of young black and Latino men and women who face the effects of systemic racism, and are made to feel like their lives are disposable.”

I was astonished because Secretary Clinton actually said “systemic racism” and as wonky as she claims to be, the more prose than poetry candidate, she used the term as if we might understand it by context.  She was smart enough not to digress to explain the “systemic” part.  So allow me some of that digression, for which I am justifiably well known, sometimes accused and mocked, and nearly always unrepentant.

In more specific terms, the Wiki definition makes it clear enough that we are talking about values, feelings, and behaviors that exist within institutions and structures and distinct from that of individuals or informal social groups (here:  Such a definition will do for heuristic purposes.  I think we might want to think more about what it means that racism exists as part of our American system, just as sexism and misogyny do within structures that can be revised and rebuilt only on the armatures of history. 

We Americans like to think of ourselves as individuals and that responsibility, for better and worse, redounds to singles, or sometimes smaller teams but not to all of us.  Trumpism is tribalism and that tribe wants the right to define and dominate all the rest of us.  Anything other than that would be deemed socialism or worse, which will take far more than Bernie’s-redef to become decisively positive in meaning for Americans. “Socialism,” like Trump’s explicit appeal to tribalism, is too is part of a system of meanings, of usages and memes that are perpetuated within a culture of implicit, often unexamined ideas and feelings.  Do remember “common sense” isn’t the common we all sense but rather the sense we each believe is common.  It’s hard to see into our selves, much less into systems that shape our beliefs.

Systems are like the armatures of the painting canvas.  The painting is not only itself in process but is also changed by all the previous paintings painted on that canvas, painted over again and again. And so is the canvas itself being challenged: is the structure sound enough to continue the process? And how do we “move on”?  How can we effect change that improves, that answers to the claim we are good, rather than merely adapt to survive?

First thing to notice, these aims are complementary.  We’ll not survive without change.  The question rather is, will we be good?  We can choose to improve because destroying the system is only one among our options.  Sometimes we’ll need to peal off so much paint that we’ll get all the way to the canvas again.  Is that the revolution being discussed?  But this is not the only important process.

We need to find boundaries and forms that make up the armature, that give us access to the structure’s format.  To discover what the system what can offer we must look for the reality it has established as the beginning of possibilities.  We cannot create what is beyond the possible.

An America that began in structures claiming freedom, life, liberty, and opportunity is also an America built on slavery, sexism, and myriad other forms of exploitation.  To improve upon that system is not to deny the reality of any of its parts but first to acknowledge their roles and relationships.  We don’t progress without that deeper awareness of what lies within and then beneath the surfaces.  America must decide not only upon the future of its system but the depth of its character.  To revise the meaning of freedom and to create opportunity we will have to do more than merely admit that the deeply problematic is part of our history.  We will have to bring that shadow into the light and create something greater from all of our histories and all of our parts.

This is, as Secretary Clinton said, a moment of reckoning.  The system that stakes its claims on opportunity and possibility is being tested not only for its content and expression ---complex and volatile as that is.  The system is being tested for its character, its mettle: for the greatness it seeks must become as well the pursuit of the goodness it professes to claim as the deepest foundation of our character.  To be good we will have to create goodness by reaching further into the greater charter of our origins.  We’ve already said that all men are created equal.  Now we know something more.  We also know that in this moment of reckoning there is far more to greatness than assuming the good will somehow magically appear without all of us recognized, seen within that America.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Plagiarism, Nostalgia, the Ritual of Nomination, the Power of Myth: RNC 2016

Tuesday Morning, July 19th, 2016

With all of last night's horrifying Republican antics it easy to point to the rage and the singular contrast offered by Melania Trump who, despite having been party to fraud and plagiarism, struck the only contrary note of decency. We must be mindful not to shame her for an error that warrants very serious criticism since it cuts to the core of the issues of fraud and hypocrisy. But what truly troubles me is this larger issue: the utterly shameless, consistent identification of the President, Mrs. Clinton, and Democratic liberalism as conspiratorial participants in terrorism. WE are the enemy and Democratic policies are not the mere opposition, they aid and abet our avowed enemies. This is the story we must take seriously because it is more than what is just _said_, it's what is _felt_.

The President cares more for "illegals" than he does for Americans (Ernst), he and Secretary Clinton won't protect America because he is protecting others (Giuliani); they are covering up terrorism not merely to protect their power but because they too seek to protect terrorists. These ideas are not merely implied or suggested, they are made with every intention of being said in their own good faith, they _believe_ these claims: Democrats are traitors, terrorist collaborators, and willful participants in the destruction of the nation. (Last week Speaker Ryan said that Secretary Clinton _must_ be "disqualified" from seeing any confidential information. Really. He said that.) Just how do we counter those memes, endlessly repeated by the right wing entertainment industry and _not_ treated with seriousness by the media?

This is sad, appalling, perhaps even beyond the pale, but it is an everyday recursion; it is built-in to the current Republican identity. So what are they going to do after they suffer a crushing defeat in November? That too might be worth thinking about. How long before they claim President Clinton must be impeached? First, let's defeat them crushingly. All the way down the ballot. Marginalizing these views out of power must be our first action even as we denounce them.

Wednesday Morning, July 20th, 2016

"Nostalgia." I've been trying to find a word that captures something more than just the dyspeptic choler that has characterized two nights of the RNC. We know the party of Trump rejects globalism, trade deals, and every form of immigration reform much to the chagrin of the Ryan-Kasich establishment, and it would appear that their only common ground is the vilification of Secretary Clinton and averment that all things big-D Democrat amount to treason, perfidy, and failure. But is there anything else?

I'm accused ---fairly enough---of being an archivist (aka "hoarder") and given to dewy-eyed reminiscence. So I know a thing or two about lingering with the idylls of the past and the potential to drown in waters already under the bridge. (N.B., I could drown in nearly any waters.) I also think words can help too in understanding feelings.

We Americans give up too easily on words because we think doing is never thinking and nearly always less feeling. Too much Ayn Rand and John Wayne and not enough William James and Mark Twain, if you ask me. We need more words, not just more Twitter. And perhaps a deeper plunge into the ocean of meanings. I want so much not to dismiss this American anger but to understand it a bit better.

Could anything as obscure as an etymology possibly help with something this complex and combustible? Pedantry while America burns? But the etymology of "nostalgia" helps us fathom an important feature of this current Republican zeal for the incendiary. I've been reading the Odyssey for a class in the fall I'm teaching. That's helped too. "Nostos" has the sense of "returning home" and "algos" means "pain." In short, among other things, Republicans are homesick, homesick for a world that has passed them by, likely one that never existed like their current imaginings (a feature of the nostalgia illness). So we need to "Make America Great _Again_ " (b/c there's no italics on FB). Do note, only white men could think the American past was actually _better_. That explains much of the demographics. Trump has blamed immigrants for lost jobs, largely well-paying union jobs that Republican voters ironically have rejected by voting for union-busting. They do indeed "cling to religion and guns" because those things of the past were elemental to protecting one's home. And they are honestly sick with indignation, witnessing others advance when they can't go "home" again.

The racist, nationalist, nativist, and sexist features of this nostalgia, this "homesickness" are issues of history too complex to consider: the _feeling_ is that you can't find your way home because that home is _gone_ or it's "sick." Some move on, that too is the American way, but the homesickness for that "shining castle on the hill" is no less real---and now more easily alchemized into projections of blame and imaginary responsibilities. One Republican speaker blamed Secretary Clinton _personally_ for the death of her son in Benghazi. Grief too means never being able to go home again without some real feeling of sickness, of incurable pain.

We are _all_ nostalgic because there is no going home without going on. It's part of life's mordant ironies that we can't go back no matter how much we look back. It is poignant, painful, often wistful. Our human task is not to allow it to become censorious, spiteful, or bitter. If we're to have something better, we have to move on ---like it or not. And we'll need more than "hopeful" as an antidote to "nostalgia", to our "homesickness." We'll need creativity and inclusion, we'll need to take the shadow of this "sickness" home to a place where it too can find room and inclusion in a more complex rendering of life and our choices.

Thursday Morning, July 21st, 2016
Opining The Morning After, Three of a Perfect Pair.

In certain Christian traditions the key to marriage is the third element, that the couple loves God and God consecrates the relationship. So God is the third piece of a perfect pair. (Apologies to the incomparable King Crimson for their instigation, I have it turned up to 11 right now--- but my point here will perhaps make my blasphemy worth the theft. It's only plagiarism when you don't acknowledge your sources.) To think of this in another way, there is always a space between what we expect and what appears, between what we hope for and how things turn out. That incongruity, that irresolvable anomaly invites our contemplation, at once providing an openness for meaning-making (what "really" happened?) and discomfort with the obvious dichotomy. We take the wine and we call it "blood": we somehow "know" better but that is the point, the one thing both is and is not what we _say_ it is. We make a deal, usually with ritual involved to enact the story and the story that helps us make more meaning. Now, enter Ted Cruz. Yup, I just said that. If you're still with me, hang on for a bit more.

The ritual was supposed to go a certain way, as smooth as a wedding planner’s plan. But Ted was destined to be Ted. Not since Ty Cobb has a player been so despised by his own team and relished being despised by everyone who doesn’t love him. Like Cobb, Cruz bats with his hands apart so while you know what he’s going to do, he does it just the way he wants to. For his part, Trump wins no matter what. If Cruz had followed the wedding planners from the NY delegation then he has capitulated, touched the Donald’s lotus feet, accepted all of the humiliations, insults, and drama just like Christie, Rubio, Ryan, and the rest of the sycophants. If Ted is Ted then Donald gets the disruption he so relishes when things are chaotic and incoherent (much like himself). Ted did not disappoint even as the TV anchors pondered the drama of “what will he say”, “will he or won’t he endorse,” blahblahblah. They got “good television,” which is to say a foregone conclusion with drama in every moment. Do remember: the boat sinks at the end of every single Titanic movie.

So the incongruity was planned, bound to happen, an easily predicted moment of well-known unknowing. Ted was going to have it his way because never has a more pathological hatred of authority taken the form of one so invested in authoritarian ideas and because Heidi. He was going to make sure that this night was about him, not Pence, not Donald, and, of course, not Hillary. Him. The perfect third here is what happens when two narcissists must have their way. Ted refuses the endorsement to set himself up for the “I told you so” crushing defeat of Trump in November and Donald gets the win, either way because, after all, chaos is the Iron Chef here, chaos reigns supreme, and Donald is chaos. What else can he be when there is no prospect for meaning?

Drumpf has sold chaos _as _ the state of America, the way of the world, the lives of his followers and their perception of, well, everything. Things are so bad, in fact, that as the Next Trump Kid told us, Dad had to run for President. The chaos of the world and those to blame for it cause the need for Dad. For his part Ted offered order, God’s order, the third piece of the perfect pair. Poor ol’Pence with that plait of grey slab that impresses all men of a certain age for its mere stalwart existence, he was the dupe in the show, the bride left at the altar of chaos. He was supposed to be the bride but Trump didn’t care to come to the wedding, sat out the speech, and appeared on stage to offer the “air kiss.” (I kid you not, watch the video if you missed this scene. Not since Hamlet…well, never mind.) Anything Pence said was pointless from the start. Ted made sure that he was the third of this perfect pair and Donald was going to be happy no matter what Ted said or did. All that matters is the chaos. Trump believes that America will buy him to bring a new order, one like you’ve never seen before, a great order, a beautiful beautiful new order where everything like walls and peace and prosperity will happen because he wills it so. Ted is selling old-fashioned church with him in the role of the Almighty. His father already thinks he’s the Second Coming.

But Ted did tell us the truth, maybe even The Truth: vote your conscience. It took Secretary Clinton’s campaign about five minutes to tweet that line. Expect to hear it again and again. If you find that incongruous, if you are conflicted over the choice because you find Secretary Clinton just not progressive (substitute whatever your gripe is here) enough, remember that incongruity is the ritual space, the heart of mythology. The world isn’t the way you wish it were; it’s the way it is. How you decide what to do about that, as discomforting as it may be, reminds you that principle and pragmatism never actually resolve, that the third piece is you.

Friday Morning, July 22nd
Here is the last of four ruminations about the last four days, the debacle, spectacle, very real world event of the RNC. I'll put them all in one place today, but here's the last. I'm nominating myth as a feature of understanding that needs some richer understanding.

Read on, as always, at your peril with the real risk of boredom.

In contemporary English we’ve taken to using the word “myth” pejoratively. “That’s a myth” means not only “that’s false” but “that needs to be debunked.” There’s likely no meaning-project we can undertake that is going to change our now common usage and history will be of little help. There’s no going back to somehow find meaning, we can only interpret and create more meanings.

My favorite myth-in-the-pejorative-sense during these past few days is “the Party of Lincoln,” used by Republicans to suggest their origins in virtue and continued efforts to foster inclusion and opportunity and by every one else to ask, “What just happened?” For the Rs-in-Cleveland “the Party of Lincoln” is no pejorative-myth and it is more than merely historical. It is a reminder that contains a salvific hope for our current Zeitgeist; and it is now understood to refer now to the one person who can “fix” our troubled world. He, Trump, The One declared himself precisely that last night ---“I am your voice.” “I am the only one who can fix this.” Much to the deep consternation of the rest of us for whom this reality is no longer ironic or comic, much less mythic, it is a situation filled with all too familiar comparisons to real despotism. The republic itself seems in jeopardy and that’s when we, the alarmed, are trying to avoid sounding alarmist. Of course, the R’s-of-Cleveland feel the same way but different ---something we’d say in my native New Jersey, same-but-different, which would be sorta’ funny if it all weren’t so real. We are a house divided against itself, as Mr. Lincoln once put it. The realities of myth seem all too apparent. So how do we come together?

I’ve spent my professional life explaining how myth doesn’t need to mean fictive, false, dissimulating, or deceptive. In truth, myth is a way to break into the world when facts cannot penetrate, when the story we need to take us further and deeper requires more prism than mirror. We lie to tell truths but we need to know we are lying so we can become more than one character, so we can do the serious work of play inside the myth. To become everything in a myth is more than to become every character, it is to look more deeply at one’s self, to become a pivot, a point of reference through which to imagine others and gain a richer sense of personal identity.

There’s no avoiding our shadows or darkness: the more brightly we burn to see, the more shadow we will certainly cast. There is no light without the heat, not in real or mythic worlds. This truism is enough to remind us too that myth is not merely child’s play but rather the sort of play that delves deeply into all the places we have been, as children and as adults. Myth often tells us who we wish we were and who we hope we are not, or at least who we mean not to become. It is the serious game of heroes and villains because it involves an unusual twist: we can no more become wholly heroic than we evade some fragment of our own villainy. Myth threatens to make us whole because every whole is surely more than a sum of parts and yet is only its parts. Irony and some remnant of paradox must too come with the story, every single time.

So there is a natural disparity, an unavoidable asymmetry between who we wish we were and who we want to be. Myths have a special role in helping us with that very human experience.

We’ve been treated now to months of the man who “tells it like it is,” who won’t be cowed by “political correctness,” and who “says what people are really thinking.” All of this embodied in a persona that fits nearly perfectly the pejorative meaning of myth: a person whose words and actions are in perpetual conflict with the facts, is often incoherent, and almost entirely driven by some post-factual, imaginary claim that has no bearing on the evidence of a waking world. Trump is not so much given to contradiction as he is to a kind of bifurcation of personality that undermines any chance of reclaiming the power of myth. There is too much and too little understanding that the story being told is anything other than an immediate appearance without context or complexity. His most saleable item is now. Context, history, or fact is irrelevant; what is important is the sale. What Trump feels (“knows” would require something more) is that Barnum’s adage undersells the fool who needs to believe the myth merely to survive.

Our aggrieved American hearts, so troubled by the complexities of a reality that will not be “fixed” by any one or any time soon, perhaps not actually “fixed” at all, wants the sell. The myth of “Great Again” is now the noise at the end of the world (thanks for that one, Sting), the anger and the projection that consoles and then conceals the fantasies that would demand more from life than fear and resentment.

For those of us appalled by Trump there is a kind of incredulity towards those enthralled. Is it principally a projection of hatred for the other who has taken their stuff, their lives and jobs? Is it all summed up in “the Clintons,” those conniving purveyors of the liberal mythology? What exactly will allow us to understand what the Republican Party just did in nominating this person? We are all called to self-reflection as much as we are to further comprehension of a life we are not living and wish not to live.

We are going to have to find more of ourselves if there is any hope of finding out more about our fellow Americans buying the Trump oil. What is nectar to them is noxious poison to us.

I think there’s no way around that conflict of interests; we have radically different assessments of Trump and his proposals, such as they are. So what can we do when conflict is not only unavoidable, when it is a reality rooted in two different mythologies? For the anti-Trump the R-myth is rooted in their rejection that myth must be both untrue and useful and so requires more nuance, more complexity, and more interpretation. The Rs here want it simpler than that: myths are false and our man tells The Truth Unadulterated. So how do we penetrate that kind of “tell it like it is”?

We all know myths work ---nearly everyone loves stories, people go to the movies, play Pokéman, spend hours in their own fantasies quite aware these are all fictions. (Well, maybe not the Pokéman players.) What we will require, I think, is a commitment to stay in the story, to keep telling the stories that will cause people to think, to contemplate, and to learn more about themselves. We need more myths, not fewer but we need ways to keep people listening so that they might see more. We need to hold their attentions by more than just fear or anger. We may need those too because they too are part of the story. But we will surely need a richer commitment to telling our stories in ways that reach into hearts and change minds.

Perhaps most of all, we must invite ourselves to renew the power of myth that points out all the more the difference between what is and what we wish for. “Telling it like it is” we know requires more than the facts but without the facts is soon reduced, diminished to delusion. What we need are ways to tell truths that can only appear when both facts and myths come together in that strange alchemy that creates deeper understanding. We will defeat Trumpism, I am confident of that, but what lies ahead is the far more difficult task of understanding each other.