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.