Saturday, May 18, 2019

Feckless Representation


House Democrats need to impeach Trump.  Otherwise, they saddle themselves with the onus of stunning cowardice.  Not just in the eyes of our descendants, but in terms of current electability.  As it stands, Democrats are defending the Constitution by choosing not to defend it.  Trump's dictatorial bent assails our tricameral system with the dark charisma of an insurgent white nationalism.  This is what they believe.  Ominous warnings infuse their oratory.  Some, like Elizabeth Warren, have taken the plunge and now stand for impeachment.  Why does the leadership waffle?

The strategy, sadly, is to be political but unethical:  to avoid doing what's right--where right is based on the principle of challenging a burgeoning tyrant--until enough American citizens agree that it's right.  Even in terms of practical expediency, it is a pitiable bungle.  It means Democrats look passive.  False leaders.  Trump, on the other hand, comes across as seizing the helm, assertive, instead of letting the ship drift in the currents.  Importantly, although his mendacity is well-known, Trump presents as serving key constituent beliefs, whereas Democrats project timorous apprehension.

Strength versus weakness.  Principled offense versus compromised defense.  Which will 2020 prefer?

From a calculating perspective, some high-power Dems think they can win next year by not rocking the boat.  Polls show that a formidable number of voters refuse to cast a ballot for Trump.  Encouraging, also, is the momentum that flipped control of the House.  However, the zeitgeist of each political season is a fickle thing, and the mindset of voters is often misread, sometimes egregiously.  Witness, for instance, the much predicted Clinton victory that never came to pass.  Quantitative crunching cannot encapsulate qualitative irreducibles.

Democrats still aren't facing the framing factors that toppled both party machines in 2016.  It's fair to say that all voters want leaders who say and do what they believe.  High on the list of odious traits is mealymouthism, a rhetorical cloak of vacillation that often hides shady politics.  The extensive corruption, decades old, that erected a golden ladder for Trump is well-known across the demographic spectrum.  Any politician that wants a leg up this political season should use the wealth-gap distribution curve as their logo.

Right now, when it comes to protecting the Constitution, it is the Democrats who own mealymouthism.  Trump can legitimately say he is pushing to build the wall and punish China.  Can the Pelosians say they are defending the Constitution by holding Trump accountable?   House leadership says they are aware of the imminent, extreme danger that Trump presents, and yet they refuse to employ the powers assigned to them, for the very purpose of protecting the United States from people like our current President.  

Some say that impeachment proceedings will insure that Trump gets to 'run against the House'.  Guess what?  He's going to run against the House no matter what.  Spineless fence-sitting will make it even easier.   It's easy to imagine how it will go:  "Look at 'em.  They don't even have the guts to try and impeach me, folks.  Why?  Because they know I'm clean.  It's all a witch-hunt, folks."

Another objection is that, after the House votes for impeachment, the Senate won't vote to convict.  This argument gets things backwards.  Senate complicity in tyranny is all the more reason to stand up to tyranny.  Let's, please, avoid the metaphor of a nuclear power plant meltdown.  A situation in which none of the fail-safes meant to prevent a catastrophe actually tripped. 

Failsafe devices don't have a conscience.  Presumably our Democratic leadership does.  And if they don't act, their utter debacle will engrave itself not just on the history of the United States, but also world civilization.


Monday, March 18, 2019

The Imperative To Impeach

When Nancy Pelosi said, "He's just not worth it," referring to a Trump impeachment, we all know she meant something else, namely, that it's not politically viable.   This obvious sidestep is strike one for what seems the majority Democratic trend.  Unfortunately there are many more strikes, maybe enough to lose the game.   Let's look at various arguments that take into account how the American public might frame the current state of the nation.

The bat hisses through the air, missing again, when we acknowledge a simple premise:  the Trump threat is unique, and yet the Pelosi response is conventional.   One thing voters didn't like about Clinton was that her talking points seemed evasive and mealy-mouthed, the rhetorical embodiment of statistical calculations.  Clinton wasn't a leader, she was a follower.  A follower of the numbers.   Trump did the opposite.  He led the numbers.  He worked to change people's minds and it paid off in ways we are still not willing to face, and therefore cannot effectively counteract. 

Pelosi is making the same mistake as Clinton.  She's following the numbers, instead of being a truly great leader.  Trump's base frames him as a virtual god.  The reason is that his power to topple what we are as a country is real.  Polls show that the majority of Americans see him differently, as a villain.  To challenge him we need a champion.  Even after all we've seen in the last three years, the seismic upheaval and threat, the Democrats still waffle, sounding old- school status quo.

But constituents on both the right and left are fed up with congressional complacency.  Americans do agree on quite a bit when it comes to the obvious and entrenched corruption.  Here's some advice for any politician who wants to get a leg up this election season.  Make the graph of the income distribution curve your campaign logo.  It would look like a thin mutant boomerang, skewed on one side where the meek asymptote suddenly shoots upward, almost vertical, when you reach the rich.  The mathematics of the wealth in itself is telling.  It indicates a neofeudal system, not capitalism.  It exposes gross unfairness in hideously dysfunctional markets. 

Our entire medical health system is a glaring example (special props to Big Pharma for making insulin unaffordable for diabetics).  The ridiculous cost of a college education is another.  The American people, one and all, know that we are being fleeced.  The fleecing started long before Trump.  And when we see politicians that do the same old thing-- hedging, hemming and hawing--there's a nationwide  visceral reaction.  A big swing and a miss, then, for Democrats who shy away from heroism and instead hew to the mannerisms of kleptocracy.

The answer is simple.  Lead the numbers.  Call a crime a crime and act accordingly.  The absence of such a simple candor from the left has greased the anger rails for a xenophobic demagogue, one who now has gone far toward imposing his MAGA-version of monarchy.   

"He's just not worth it" effectively sends a message like, "Well, Trump has committed impeachable offenses, but it isn't practical to do anything about it, so let's just insult him a little instead."  This message puts politics above ethics.  Trump has attained great power because he has convinced people he is doing the opposite. 

What we need from our politicians is a rallying cry.  There's another reason to take a bold, courageous stand, maybe the most important of all.  None of us wants to think about the unthinkable, but if another major terrorist attack occurs, Trump will become impregnable.  His message of fear and hate will gain invincible traction.   It might very well be too late to do anything then except suffer and mumble out a furtive, "We should've been the voice of freedom when we had the chance."


Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Ultimate Test

The Ultimate Test

Little is more infuriating than someone who denies the obvious, while accusing those who point out the error of being blind.  It is more infuriating, still, when said person holds considerable power, from the obtuse office boss to the political demagogue, even a president who seduces millions of voters, turning them complicit, and thereby advancing an ego-fueled trajectory toward the center of everything,  until a land of freedom threatens to devolve into a soil for tyranny.

Catastrophically, this is the situation we face in the US. The obvious is denied, and yet those who object are vociferously labeled liars.  Climate-change denialists rant that those who believe the science are, not only ignorant, but also in fact malicious.  Racists and xenophobes,  gender bigots and sexists, angrily label others as prejudice, while adducing their own record as just and pristine.

As a coup de grace, these gaslighters, in effect, challenge a constitutional premise--that humanity can embrace equal and inalienable rights--with the bald example of their own behavior.  They do this, of course, while denying that they are doing any such thing, and casting hateful aspersions.

For those who wish to protect a government centered on rationalism, in the spirit of our Founders, this psychological warfare, this "no, it's you" mindset, is the ultimate test.  Patience, virtue, dignity, all can slide into petty invective in the face of such hair-pulling intransigence.  Any resort to insult or anger, however slight, only validates the stance of the gaslighters in their own mind.  If all you can do is mock them, clearly you have nothing better, no solid argument.

Maddeningly seamless aggression that accepts no blame, while thriving off double-standards and division. This is what those who wish to defend bipartisanship are up against.  Perhaps most frustrating of all, this tactic could work.  From ancient times to the present, kingdoms glued together by fanatic loyalty are not uncommon.  The last presidential election showed that a core constituency could be yoked to 'big lie' fear more easily than anyone thought.  Victory could be had by demonizing the 'other.'   

The genie is out of the bottle.  It is possible that in 2020 campaigns, some Republicans contenders will go much farther, moving past even the most threadbare insinuation to outright endorsement of white nationalism.  It will earn them the fanatic praise of millions, if they have the twisted charisma to wield the dark ideology.  In a way, Trump's corruption and  incompetence are a gift.  They give us a chance to prepare.  To address and redress, to heal and inoculate.

The death-swell of 20th century fascism, its dethroning of empires in an orgy of all-out slaughter, including the fire-bombing runs and the apocalyptic use of fission; how it bred the horrors of the genocidal concentration camps; has not stopped the grim specter from rising again.   

Those who wish to push upwards, against our current state of descent, need to remember two things.  This is the ultimate test of patience, and everything you believe in is at stake.


Monday, December 31, 2018

Poem: Fugitives

I'll be posting an op-ed piece here soon.  But for now, here is a poem from my collection, Gordian Butterflies.  Best to all!




hurt are we,
our guilt like dirty steak knives
that slew sacred cows.

unseen are we,
a battle on Andromeda,
mischievous in nooks
of faint mausoleums.

no preacher freed us,
no Sappho or Sartre,
no Buddha-rung gong
rippling our revival--

no crucifix,
no lysergic diethylamide,
no death or exodus
or creed--

we just saw.
exhumed ourselves,
swept off the webs
of skyscrapers
and cell phones,

washed off the dirt
of What-Must.
we looked at a world
beyond stress-chewed faces

and saw it was good.


Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Ethics Versus Fear

I was unable to get this published in the State newspapers, but that means I get to put it here.  Thank you for your time!


Ethics Or Fear

An ethic is a belief system founded in right and wrong, whether concerning conduct or mindset.  Colloquially it is based in the heart, a nurturing soil of sentiment, reason, and spirit.  Morality can be willfully broken or blind, in which case it ceases to be ethical.  On the other hand, critical thinking can merge with passion and, importantly, honesty, to comprehend life with agape and awe.  Einstein spoke to this confluence of intrapsychic forces when he wrote, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.  It is the source of all true art and science."

In the 2016 election, two million more voters chose Clinton than Trump.   In effect, they were voting for equality, a concept rationally argued by the Founders.  Equality has had a recent surge, rippling the world consciousness.  The #MeToo Movement exemplifies this incipient transformation.  So does the quest for LGBT rights.  In the second most populous country in the world, India, gay sex was recently decriminalized.  All this is huge.  Massive social protests based on benevolent philosophies are major players today.  After several millennia of relative stagnation, civilization has been rocked by Enlightenment ideals, a keystone being women's suffrage, achieved in the US in 1920.

Central to this ethical ferment is a profound and widespread sense of empathy.  Indeed, caring and cooperation are common across the animal kingdom, having a strong basis in natural selection.  In humans, empathy often combines with a spiritual element, accessed through religion, meditation, or a primal awakening to the majesty of nature.  Such feelings and attitudes exist across all cultures.  Combined with principled government, they establish norms of reason, based on dignity, respect, and hale stewardship of the planet Earth.

Another way to govern is through fear.  When President Trump spoke in his inaugural speech of ending "American carnage," he framed reality as a brutal competition.  An arena, one where you must win at all costs.  In some cases, the end does justify the means.  Whether this is an ethical argument or not, however, depends on clear-headed appraisal, not reckless and unthinking panic. 

For Trump, to win is not to do something ethical.  It is to seize material success.  This has been channeled, in part, into the rhetoric of jobs.  To have a job is to win.  However, no distinction is made between a fulfilling job and a soul-numbing one.  No thought is given to environmental consequences.  Or to health benefits.  Or to the increasing deficit.  No quarter is yielded to the fate of future generations.  In sum, no vigilance is maintained over the moral compass of the country.

Ethical governance opens the mind.  Fear-chained governance closes it.  The cost of wearing such stress-sewn blinders is not only psychological, not only impairs reason; it has also the practical effect of undercutting our ability to adapt in a complex, changing world.  As ice sheets melt, as mass extinction proceeds, as Texas-sized garbage patches gyre in the oceans, as catastrophic fire and storm punish our failure to admit the insights of science, our mendacious President fixates on an irrational threat to a mythologized white culture.  Nothing good will come of it.


Friday, August 17, 2018

The Beauty


Why does the world have to be so beautiful?  It makes all the cruelty so hard to take.

                                             --Andreas Reddington.


Monday, July 23, 2018

A Dangerous 'What If'

Some pundits in the national liberal media are getting a bit closer to the view I have espoused for a long time:  that Trump's followers subconsciously crave a dictator who pushes white nationalism (hence their impervious loyalty).  See, for instance, Richard Cohen's latest op-ed:

However, the national pundits are still missing some crucial psychological dynamics.  Below is an op-ed I wrote.  It was rejected by the largest newspaper in my state because, in the words of the Editor:

I generally avoid pieces that attempt make psychological diagnoses or analysis of people. That's something I feel only a person's personal counselor can do.

I think this is wrongheaded.  It mistakes a psychological theory for a diagnosis.  Theory is subject to both reinforcing and negating evidence.

Anyway, here is my op-ed.  Thanks for your time.


A Dangerous 'What If'

In mainstream media, political leaders and followers are usually viewed as at least somewhat privy to their own motivations.  The voyage of democracy hangs its sail on the competency of voters, those who steer their own fate and, together, the course of the country.  It is a noble ethos, grounded in the autonomy of humanism.  In regard to enlightened liberty, reflective decision-making is vital.

However, there is another side.  Enter the field of psychology.  We humans can be subconsciously driven.  Marketers rely on this, knowing that what people say, or even think they believe, is often different than the truth.  In the mental health professions, it is taken for granted that the mind can fool itself.  Denial.  Compartmentalization.  Projection.  We don't like to admit it, but the icon of a deliberate thinker  is only part of a much larger picture, one in which our reason often bows to murky or intangible forces.  

I want to consider what some would consider an outrageous if.  Namely, what if both Donald Trump and his followers are driven by motives they can't see?  We live in pivotal and perilous times, ones that are also mystifying to many, and there is a lot a stake.  It seems prudent to take at least a moment to ponder the full potential of human frailty, and its grave cost.

Although many have called Trump inconsistent, he has pushed a steady theme of white nationalism.  It hardly seems necessary to justify this anymore.  It is evident in his rhetoric, which is laced with dog whistles, many of them not so insinuative.   The MAGA motto is brilliant in this context as a subliminal ploy.  What if Trump is fueled by a powerful desire to become a dictator, a cynosure of infinite adulation, and white nationalism is his ticket?  And what if his hardcore followers have a corresponding wish, to dwell in a police state that revives and secures a nostalgic white patriarchy?

It would follow then that Trump--who has been described as a narcissist in an anthology co-authored by over two dozen experts--would push a racist agenda to increase his gratification.  Many commentators have noted that Trump fishes about for ways to push the edge, testing to see what coaxes his base.  A feedback loop emerges between orator and constituency.  Trump titillates a deep-seated need and vice versa.  It is a loop in which neither player knows (and so can not admit) what drives them, even as they are pulled into a closer orbit, step by step.  If this is what is happening, the taboo against openly racist views is itself under assault in our country, and subject to grievous and constant decline. 

It would be wonderful, frankly, if all this wrong; if Trump has no implacable desire to be a dictator; if his millions of fans are not anchored by psychic chains to white nationalism.  Hopefully there is no mutual seduction going on.  However, Trump has already declared that he can shoot someone in the street and not lose loyalty.  I won't enumerate the abundance of rude and vicious things he has said, attacking a wide range of previously untouchable targets.  He lies openly and copiously at rallies.  His fans don't flinch. 

The next test will be the Chinese tariffs.  If Trump's base suffers monetarily, yet still backs him 100%, it is another indication of complete trust, as in an adored father figure.   The 'outrageous if' gains force the more evidence accrues to support it.  On the other hand, a counterexample would undermine it.  So far, to my mind, no such counterexample exists.

As a final caveat, research tells us that ignorance is smart.  The difference between ignorance and awareness is not intellect.  It is how intellect is employed.  Denial is not only strong, but superbly deflective.  Taking a psychological perspective adds to a sense that things are far worse than generally thought.  On the other hand, facing the darkest alternative could be galvanizing, and allows for the best, strongest defense of democracy.


Thursday, May 31, 2018

Greed Doesn't Have To Win

In the small, rural town where I live, there are two of us who protest Trump regularly.  Twice a week me and my friend Sid, who is in his eighties, stand with our signs for an hour.  This is a year-round thing.  Our goal this last winter was to stand unless the temperature dropped below zero degrees Fahrenheit.  Although I did pretty well at braving the cold, Sid did better.  He would go out on days that I wouldn't.  When I was there, I marveled at his hyperborean stamina.  He wore nothing but layers of old sweat pants and sweaters, and one not-so-thick worn coat.  I, on the other hand, always had a puffy parka. 

In the 'off season' especially, when tourists aren't around, we have time to reflect and converse.    We go back and forth on political follies, but also deeper questions of ethics and life.  Much of it, of course, revolves around the Trump phenomenon.  However, we make sure to remind ourselves that the United States had been descending before the election of the unconscionable bastard.  This doesn't mean his rise wasn't seismic, a sudden trench on a slippery slope.  Still it is crucial to acknowledge the lineage of corruption, brought on by decades of policies that fed money to the rich while taking from everyone else.  The effect was a slow bleed, one that amassed greater and greater malfeasance, delivered in a thousand cruel cuts.  Painful cuts to social services for the majority, lucrative cuts on taxes for the rich and the corporations.  In the 1960's the wealth curve was fair.  The middle class thrived.  Since then, it has only become more and more lopsided.  By the time Trump arrived, it was long past the point of grotesque.  He rode this disparity like a wave.

So, Trump is not the origin.  Nor is he the end.  Standing at Flatiron Corner with my anti-Trump sign ("Lock Him Up"), I've had ample time to reflect on the trajectory of moral decay, from past to future.  Driving it all is a perverse impetus of psychology, one that seems as sure and reliable as a force of physics.  This impetus is greed. 

Although "greed" is usually applied to wealth, as in the myth of Midas, it has a broader definition.  The American Heritage Dictionary offers, "An excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves."  And Webster's, similarly, has "excessive or rapacious desire."  Trump's insecure psyche takes such excess to the extreme, unchecked by guilt or fact, impelled by impregnable delusions of grandeur.  

The epitome of greed, its consummate embodiment, is an individual wholly enslaved by it. 

One hurdle to the spread of greed, and the designs of those shackled by its Marley-esque weight, is the counteraction of entrenched belief systems.  Religion, for instance, instills strict and venerable warnings against avarice of all kinds.  Another protective barrier is the hallowed secular ideology embedded in our Constitution.  Common sense virtues, such as kindness, fairness and graciousness, present yet another failsafe.

If people used intellect to ferret out contradictions in their own actions, and the actions of their leaders, instead of using it to obfuscate and self-deceive, we'd be in a much better place.  Any legitimate scholar of history, however, will point out our susceptibility to dogma, prejudice, denial and superstition.  Modern psychologists add concepts like confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance.  Research demonstrates that conformity is relatively easy to implant at a deep cognitive and perceptual level.  Contradictions go unseen, superficially dismissed.

Back to Sid, he is skilled at pointing out the hypocrisy of Christians who follow Trump.  He has become adept at writing darkly humorous lampoons.  Every time we meet, he hands me another sheet of paper.  Lowering my cardboard placard to my shins, I read these short yet pungent proclamations out loud, right on the green.  Their style is a blend of carny barker and burlesque, an attempt at outlandish description of a man almost immune to hyperbole, an egotist known for his garish vices.  Another of Sid's targets is the obsequious fascination of Trump's priggish followers, and hence the focus on the religious right.  

Sid and I often ask each other a question that has become almost rote, shaking our heads in a way \that has become sadly familiar:  How did the devout and principled worshippers of Jesus get twisted around  to praise a man who is the utter opposite?

If greed is the antigen, and its resistors, like religion, are the antibody, how does greed prevail?  Theorizing with Sid (in our informal yet somehow efficacious way) the answer has been etched deeply into my neurons.  That answer is this:  division.  By "division" I mean simply the old 'divide and conquer'  strategy.  Create an in-group and out-group, thereby fracturing the whole and co-opting one of its parts to demonize the other.

Trump sows division through dog-whistles in his speeches and Twitters.  The inundation is endless, the repetition incessant.  Month after month.  Year after year.  It goes back at least to the start of the Birther movement.  No compunction slows the orange-haired fire-eater down as he not-so-subtly preaches hate.  His obsession for attention saddles him with a bottomless itch, stoking a razzle-dazzle of flummery, sophistry, perversion and lies.

Deconstruction of his facile appeal to the 'good old days'--Make America Great Again--yields a mixture of racism, Islamophobia, homophobia and sexism.  In short, Trump pitches the glory of patriarchy to white US citizens.  The price of buying into this image?  Obedience, adulation, hate.  Obedience to the nativist movement.  Fanatic praise ofTrump.  Hatred for those who are not in the in-group. 

Sid says the corrective is education, starting out with young children, and I agree.  But there's a catch-22.  To educate properly, you need to elect the right leaders.  To elect the right leaders, people need to be educated properly.   Republicans under Trump, spineless lickspittles who have accepted his dark falsehoods, have no reason to support open-minded, critical thinking  or scientific consensus based on experimental method.  Their legislations, adjudications and executive orders reflect as much.

So, the truth is hard to face.  It is devastating.  Yes, greed and division are winning.  They have co-opted the belief systems of a large number of Americans.  The Good Samaritan's kindness for a stranger has become, under the spell of Trumpian metamorphosis, 'kindness for a stranger who is white like me'.  Refractory in their support of Trump, evangelicals see no contradiction in their embrace of a crass bully whose own behavior is the antithesis of the Sermon on the Mount. 

If you look at global politics, Trump-types reign everywhere, accompanied by the herds who follow them.  The motive for the herds, in many cases, is cynical and venal:  privilege gained by oppressing those who aren't in the ruling party.  In other cases, where the dictatorship has ramped up to full god-mode, the herds have little choice left.  In North Korea, being part of the in-group could mean the difference between eating or starving; a relatively stable life or one in a concentration camp. 

Where does fear fit in?   I've had plenty of time to reflect on this while holding my protest sign.  Fear is another force of psychological physics.  It is even deeper than greed.  It is greed's driver.  It is obedience's driver as well.  Fear, though, is not necessarily a bad thing, and at times is wise and necessary.  What it comes down to is how you handle your fear.  People like Trump would have this force bind you to them, make you a mouthpiece for their agenda.

Most of all, what I've learned standing with Sid is that I am tremendous lucky.  I was born in a place where human rights have been somewhat honored, although weakly and unevenly.  I've come to greatly appreciate my freedom of speech.  Part of the reason I stand on the corner these days is to savor this gift, knowing it is a fragile one, denied to most human beings.  It is a gift that could soon be taken away. 

"Greed doesn't have to win."  The phrase takes ink readily enough.  Sort of like,  'Love triumphs in the end'.  The reality, though, is that greed often triumphs.  It has condemned many people to lives of poverty.  It erects cruel, unjust hierarchies.  It establishes ignorance as a foundational massif.  Indeed, the US has often installed puppet dictators in third world countries, dictators at least as diagnosable and vicious as Trump.

After fifty-five years, it sometimes feels like it would be easy for me to give up; to concede that we are all pathetically selfish; to hold nothing but contempt, as Trump does, for the human creature as petty and vile.   What gives me strength?  Honestly, sometimes I have no strength.  But other times ... For a start, maybe just the fact that there are people who have ideals and fight for them.  Maybe that's enough.  Any ethical act that challenges an unjust system is an extraordinary manifestation, given the prevalence of tyrants and punishment.  Chrysanthemums of shining behavior and noble philosophy spread their glowing seeds, even if, individually, they are snuffed out.   Sometimes these seeds find purchase.  The Civil Rights Movement.  The Women's Movement.  The advancement of LGBTQ.  The UN Declaration of Human Rights.  A budding Earth Awareness.  And yet it is easy to become disillusioned because change takes time, while we individuals are prisoners of the suffocative moment.

Simple things.  The simple fact that many people endure for equality and human rights, regardless of the odds, sometimes risking their own mortal safety.  Whatever happens, wherever we are going, maybe that's enough. 


Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Competence Versus Impotence

Emotional competence (EC) is a relatively new and evolving concept.  It overlaps with "emotional intelligence" but emphasizes learning instead of aptitude.  In basic form, EC is a capacity to deal with emotions in a healthy way.  I employ it in the heavy duty, practical sense used in the mental health profession, where psychologists, therapists and counselors struggle to protect, maintain, and regenerate themselves, sometimes even flourishing, while they work face-to-face with people besieged by woe. 

In this context, EC takes on heroic proportions.  Practitioners, who typically see multiple clients over the work week, can be easily triggered.  A client's ordeal might impel unwanted and intense reminiscence, unsealing a therapist's wounds.  Death.  Abuse.  Suicide.  Accident.  Obsession.  Addiction.  On and on.  Any similarity in a client's story can be a stimulus.  So can body language, whether subtle or intense.  Or clothes or jewelry.  Something physically small yet soulfully titanic, like a bruise in a certain place, might catapult a therapist through turmoil and time.  

To remain empathically engaged in the workplace, both validating and caring, while also aware of ethical boundaries, therapists must avoid some psychic pitfalls.  Projection and externalization, which involve scapegoating, are in this category.  So is repression, hiding the truth by locking it away in the unconscious.  Let me take a moment to distinguish these defense mechanisms from suppression.  Suppression means putting one's feelings aside for a while

Emotional competence utilizes suppression as part of its skill set, while avoiding the totalitarian mechanisms, which are components of what I call emotional impotence (discussed more below).  As they are definitive components, I want to elaborate on them.  These totalitarian mechanisms, such as repression, create walls in the mind, blind spots in perception.  Not facing the truth means not facing traumatic pain in a healthy way.  Instead of catharsis, a release of positive motivational energy, there is distortion that generates disgust, fear and hate.

The unacknowledged pain cries out to be heard.  This results is a worsening cycle.  Walls lead to more walls to hide from the pain, more 'compartments' in the psyche.  Addiction or fixation can result, as these 'patch' and distract from what is lurking below, unacknowledged and outraged.  The classic symbolism of a maze-like haunted house with a vengeful ghost very much applies.  

To do their job, and sustain themselves, mental health professionals  must face their inner pain.  They find and validate their ghosts. This is courageous, a journey to gain better understanding that nurtures a liberated way of perceiving and being.  This is the path of emotional competence.  It offers freedom in the sense of an open, inquisitive, adaptive mind.

An essential component of EC is heartfelt sincerity.  A deep, longitudinal candor.  Therapists strive to investigate and express their feelings in relation to any issue along the daunting scale of an entire life.  New experiences, talks with colleagues, research, and personal breakthroughs (which not uncommonly come from therapy for the therapist herself) are all part of a quest for psychological and philosophical growth.

Some terms associated with emotional competence are self-care, self-knowledge, self-acceptance, ethical awareness and mindfulness.  Emotional competence is not so much a unitary skill, such as riding a bicycle, as it is a mode of being.  Since life is everchanging, it is not something that can be truly mastered.  However, EC engages with the meaningful, the salutary, the profound.  Ancient greek wisdom, Gnothi Seauton, translates simply as Know Thyself.  This is not simply rationality.  It is a matter of locating rationality within emotionality.  A marriage of intrapsychic aspects.  The haunted house, its rancorous compartmentalization, is replaced by comity in celebration--of life, its journey, its miracles, and the self as centered in these.

Emotional competence leads to universal compassion.  It is consanguineous, in this sense, with many great religious or spiritual practices.  Such compassion, a great underlying Love, induces neither self-abnegation nor self-aggrandizement.   The egoistic/altruistic divide merges.  There is a balance, in a way, but it is more like an equilibrium, a dance.  One of the hardest lessons for therapists to learn is self-care.  They are often such self-abnegating people that they burn out for no other reason than that they give so much yet regenerate so little.  When emotional competence connects with universal compassion, it doesn't solve all problems or engender enlightenment;  but it does underscore a quintessential point:  to sustain good care for others, you must care for yourself.  The inward/outward dance  across the exquisite terrain of life is ongoing, a life that is inherently about relationships.

I've grounded this discussion in the mental health professions for a reason.  EC is not just for secluded mystics.  Maybe it sounds fantastical and otherworldly.  But EC is not only attainable, but also necessary and practical, especially within the business of healing.  Indeed, a primary purpose of therapy is to facilitate emotional management, so clients partake of EC as well.  Feminist consciousness raising, or the simple 'letting go' of mindful meditation, are samples of other routes outside the profession.

You might say, "The larger culture is totally lost to this way of living."  And there you would be completely right.  That is part of why EC might seem so alien and impossible.

However, there have been plenty of radical changes to our culture, accelerating as we rush into the computer age.  One example is women gaining the right to vote (and since then other advances, like #MeToo).  So it is worth asking, What if people were acculturated into emotional competence?  What if cleansing perspectives were instilled in us, starting from birth?

The task seems daunting .  Where we are today?  Stymied in a consumerist, egotistic culture.  The system feeds off self-doubt, insecurity and belittling competition.  Gushes of ads inundate us, ads claiming that our self-worth depends on what we buy, what we own, what we consume.   Those who eat beef at McDonalds are, ipso facto, of a 'higher' status than the global majority.  Those who wear certain jeans or sneakers attain yet another rung.  Owning a Mercedes Benz is a major leap.  The hierarchy of toys and envy proceeds all the way up the condescending ladder.  If you think about it, the marketing industry bullies us.  We are body-shamed constantly, especially women.  Status-shamed.  Health-shamed.  Relationship-shamed.  Ours is a crass, material, juvenile collective consciousness that demeans humanity in the early 21st century.

Riding the fear-wave of Trumpism, things have become, if not more despicable, then more obvious.  It's about who you can swindle.  What you can get away with.  How much you can abuse others.  How much you can gloat..  The USA, obscenely wealthy after WWII, initiated a wrestling match between two worldviews:  greed and indulgence, on one side, and the social virtues that shepherded people through the Great Depression, virtues such as humility, charity, and thrift, on the other.  Given the current political theater of fear and hate, its colosseums of cruelty, it is hard to deny that greed and indulgence have utterly won. 

This brings me back to emotional impotence.  EI epitomizes a complete inability to deal with one's emotions in a healthy manner.  It is a disordered state athwart purification.  Instead of self-acceptance, it dwells in self-loathing  It demands a gargantuan dishonesty.  The defensive, vulnerable swagger of a middle-school mentality.  Bullying.  Bragging.  Intractable envy.  Fixation on conquests and toys.

As a diagnosable narcissist, with a hole in his heart that he will never face, Trump represents our country to the world.  Insatiable insecurity harnesses him to insatiable need for attention.  His weapons of psychological warfare are repression and scapegoating.  'Truth' ("alternate facts") is what he needs it to be.  He is never wrong.  What is wrong is the other, the object of fear and hate.  Immigrants.  Mexicans.  African Americans.  Liberals.  Feminists.  Anyone who threatens his ego.  His vituperative invective knows no bounds (see my previous blog entry, "Moral Cowardice").

We are all trapped in Trump's excruciated, abysmal place.  It is the place where white nationalism is the fixation and addiction of a very powerful man, head of the mightiest military in the world, a tyrant with tens of millions of avid followers.  It is a place where this white nationalism is his means to seek infinite and unconditional worship.  A Red Queen's race.

The authoritarian coin has two sides.  Trump is not alone in his emotional impotence.  At this desperate juncture, dragged down to a national nadir, a hate-infested dysfunction, it would seem that only therapeutic techniques offer any serious hope.  At the very least, emotional competence provides a means of personal ascent.  And yet maybe it can do more.  Maybe it can uplift entire communities, and then, with snowballing traction, salvage the nation.



Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Moral Cowardice Syndrome

In the movies, the norm is the fairytale.  Good and evil are clearly defined, and the anti-hero is obvious.  To make it easy, there is usually a mea culpa.  The anti-hero revels in being bad and says so.  If not, their acts are so blatant and extreme that no doubt remains.  The motive is crystal clear, something petty and narcissistic:  lust, envy, a personal grudge, power.  The villain accepts and even wallows in this lack of virtue.  If they do happen to object, the denial is so thin that the audience scoffs.

Enter Donald Trump.  We all know reality is more complex than the movies.  Or do we?  Because Trump embraces Disneyfication.  Over the past few years, his oratory has woven casuistic strings to tug people like puppets.  Trump takes the black-and-white template of childhood fears and imposes it on reality. There is a good side and a bad side, nothing in-between, and he is the champion of the good.  He has seduced tens of millions of people to look at the world this way.

The momentum is still on his side.  False visions can spread by accumulating and offering power to a select group.  Even the most amateur historian knows this.

I want to make it clear that Trump is egregious or evil.  Actually, it is enough for my argument that his actions and words, viewed as a whole, promote things we consider egregious or evil.  Things such as sexism and racism.  

Furthermore, the evil of Trump's actions is obvious from a reasonable point of view. No one without psychological blinders could deny that he is pushing white nationalism.  This conclusion has been argued many times, many ways.  I'm just going to accept and meme it:


Trump is the villain.  But, as I will elaborate, he deviates from a fairytale villain in that he absolutely denies he is the villain and, in fact, calls those on the other side the villains.  At the core of his great darkness is a colossal dishonesty.  

I can now make some points about what I call moral cowardice syndrome.  Moral cowardice is (a) promoting evil in ways that are obvious from a reasonable view, and (b) claiming that you are the good one and that those who oppose  you are the evil ones.  Not just a little evil, or partially evil, but rather completely evil.  Full-on Disneyfication.  Apply endless adjectives like repulsive, reviling, disgusting, and so on.  The cruel rhetoric of the moral coward is ceaseless. 

In fact, this harangue and abuse of those opposed to the moral coward is itself a terrible sickness and obsession, an immoral way of acting.  Another aspect of moral cowardice, then, is (c)  ceaseless, obsessive, specious, spurious, grandiloquent rhetoric to bury what you are doing even from yourself and to coerce others.  This anti-reality of utter abuse is one of the most abhorrent parts of the syndrome.

To emphasize, such rhetoric is abuse.  It is sheer bullying.  Right now, everyone in America lives under an abusive roof at the political level, the level that steers our country and, in effect, everyone in it.  

Those reasonably opposed to the moral coward, those being viciously attacked, are honest and ethical.  They see the hate-mongering, stereotyping and effigy-building for what it is, a mental disorder resulting in a raw power grab.  Not so ironically, then, moral cowards not only promote Disneyfication, they match the ugliness of the fairytale villain's motives.

Claiming you are fighting for certain ideals, such as freedom, while in fact pushing for fascism, is cowardice.  Following a leader who does this, accepting--no, worshipping--that leader's false narrative, is cowardice.  To paraphrase the Bible, Woe unto them who call evil good.  Of course, this is useless as a curative tool.  Presented with such a statement, the coward simply claims that their opponents are the ones calling evil good.

There is no way that logic can reach someone who has embraced a full-fledged moral cowardice.  So, I add yet another component, (d) the coward can no longer see that they are perpetrating evil.  In a sense, the coward has sold their soul by fracturing their mind into a severe compartmentalization.  Such compartmentalization is the antithesis of freedom.

Add to this the ability of the demagogue to fill hearts and minds with twisted emotions that are, in effect, psychic chains.   So, (e) the moral coward is trapped, subconsciously, by twisted emotions such as hate.

In conclusion, villains who admit to evil, like those in the movies, are little threat to society as a whole.  Their actions are horrific to the audience.  They are relatively easy to spot and therefore neutralize.  The true threats to society, the worst of the worst, are those locked in the iron maiden of moral cowardice.  I say "iron maiden" because the syndrome torments those it enshrouds.  It pulls the debauched soul into an abyss of us-vs-them, blinding and binding them.  The coward sits in the darkness of this abyss, chained, while claiming it is light.

There is no worse defeat.

The grip gets tighter as moral cowardice grows stronger.  The vector is toward a country like North Korea.  That is the road we are on, herded down painful miles of collective transformation by Donald Trump, the great Coward.  We are on a journey of fear and delusion.

Hopefully the concept of Moral Cowardice (MCS) will help the resistance.  A force of darkness is easier to deal with once it is classified and understood.

If history is a guide, things are far worse right now than you and I think.  In other words, we all need to fight against Trumpification, but even if we do, right now, with all our strength, we might get crushed. 

Still, as Elie Wiesel beseeches us in Night, we should try.