Sunday, December 25, 2016

For Whom the Trump Tolls

I haven't written since Trump won.  It's been too traumatic.  I've been processing.  Here's a passage from one of the Op-eds that struck me hard, by Paul Waldman:

Trump realizes that ... you can take any idea, no matter how preposterous, and make half the country believe it. And when journalists push back, it’ll only make your supporters more firm in their loyalty.

This quote gets to the heart of it.  One theme of my blog has always been that people are primarily psychological, not rational.  Now, thanks to Trump, I see how psychological.  He says things that are clearly contrary to the physical evidence.  He puts forth straight-up contradictions.  He flip-flops.  The only thing he can't do, as I've argued, is seriously challenge his underlying, insinuative theme of white nationalism. 

Even for someone like me, who has been cynical and disappointed in humanity for decades (genocide, slavery, mass extinction, and on and on), it's a shock to stare so baldly at the brute side of the human psyche.  The reach of fear.  The harness of hate.  The victory of ignorance, its will to write history as it wants.  Well, not just to write history, but also to end it. 

I was born in the sixties, when nuclear weapons almost annihilated civilization during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  It was luck, actually, that saved us then, so historians say.  All my life, humanity has dwelled in the shadow of a high potential for Armageddon.  At various times, I've been relatively alert or numb to this fact.  Trump's win has made me more alert than ever before.  Trump is my Cuban Missile Crisis (I was an infant back then).  In a way, he is worse.  His Presidency shows us we haven't learned anything; that the abominable side of our psychology is winning, despite the accumulated evidence.

It all comes down to:  Can we be smarter than blind?

I will keep fighting, at least I hope.  People tell me to stay optimistic.  For me, that means staying inspired.  But it also means not lying to myself.  The truth is, given Trump, humanity is probably doomed.  Ironically, perhaps, that could be a reason to fight harder--not only to cling to a small percentage of survival, but also to show that humanity, in some  ways, can be stubbornly good.  Our legacy, even if we go down, deserves to showcase some moral heroism.  It gives the universe hope. 

When xeno-archaeologists arrive in spaceships and find our ruins, I want them to see the potential for advanced civilization to evolve; to cradle a chance, however small, for an angelic ethos, beyond the threat of war.  Given the billions of galaxies and all their planets, somewhere some sentient life-form might find a way.

Even in our death there can be hope--for the countless extraterrestials.

Paul Krugman made an analogy to the decline of the Roman Empire, its transition from Republic to autocracy.  In 2016,democracy failed to protect us from our own worst tendencies.  Indeed, it empowered those tendencies.  It gave them broad latitude to cripple our system of choice, such  that we won't have the option to vote more wisely next time.

Having written the above paragraph, I see what has floored me, this historic punch to my essence that leaves a permanent wound.  I knew about idiocy and ignorance on a grand scale.  But now I have witnessed them.  I've had a close seat as they debauched the one country that gave me hope.  Is China, with its police state, its anti-human-rights stance, going to take us in the right direction?  Is Russia?  The USA was the one hail mary for universal human rights.  We had the power, the imperial prerogative.  But the USA, rather than changing China and Russia, has shifted toward them.

Yes.  I have witnessed the disfigurement of something Beautiful, even if it was mostly potential, right before my eyes.  Ideals were building.  Now whatever they had accomplished wobbles.  It's the end of a global period of ethical renaissance.  We elected a man who bragged about sexual assault, a person who openly demeans blacks.  Abortion will probably become illegal in this nation, during Trump's tenure.  White nationalism has surged.  One of its main proponents, Steve Bannon, is in the new Cabinet.

Having written this, on this Christmas, I see what ails me.  I have witnessed the ugly betrayal of our last, best  Hope.  It's one thing to read about the emperor's new clothes, and the punitive downfall.   It's another thing to see it play out on the table with the highest stakes of all--this planet.

What awful karma we instantiate.

All of us who we see Trump for what he is--a clever narcissist who plays to the worst in souls, an insecure tyrant who could take us into World War III, or decide to advance his own Hitleresque pogroms--we need to keep going.  We need to appreciate the gift and the miracle.  Our reward is our realization and the resultant appreciation.  If I die tomorrow, I can say, I lived well.  There are miracles everywhere.  Our senses feed them to our lucky minds.

The artist's path embraces candor to seek ultimate compassion.  Counterpoise the hate.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Poem: Not So Vacant Lot

This poem is from my book, Escape From the Orchard of Wheels.  It was also published in American Poetry Review.  I think it's more about people than ants.

I wrote a poem yesterday or so, the first in about a year and half.

Best to All,


Not So Vacant Lot

ants stream from a nipple,
blur of apricot roan.

no psalm binds them,
no sergeant-at-arms yells stop.

they scatter like drams
of fiery milk, curdling

as they go, gnashing emeralds
that skew in their mandibles,

and hounding nature
with snicks of flame.

a slyphid trips, blunders,
gets torn to gobbets,

each the size of a
matchstick head.  the ants

ply their conga all day,
milling in droves, whirlpooling

to stuff their spoils
back down, into the adored



Monday, August 22, 2016

Anger and Emotional Competence

More often than not, we are told anger is a bad thing.  There are plenty of examples where anger has terrible results, elides care, or serves ignorance.  Things are even worse when rage is considered.  Horror movies and worst-case-scenarios come to mind.  Anger?  Awful.  Rage?  The ultimate fail.
 But such blanket condemnation is wrong.  Should anger appall us like some rabid animal, even when justified?  The bias against anger extends to passions in general, whose expression is consigned to certain forms, at certain times, under the imperious rules of an onerous etiquette.  These proscriptions, built into the cogworks of daily life, delimit an acceptable zone for conversation, especially at the levels of power.  It is a rather grey and formulaic space. 
I watch the babblers on the news, glib yet clad in the soporific tones of normalese.  Their phrases blur into so many dried out husks, eroded into a shuffling mass by the windspeak of their faux objectivity.  Without emotion there is no color, only the colorless numbness of the norm.  These talking heads not only reduce news analysis to sound bites between commercials, not only add their spins, slants and fallacies, but also imbue the tenor of their presentation with an insensitive nonchalance, or worse, the merest touch of saccharine concern.  After watching for a while, the speakers’ jaws seem to go wooden, like those of puppets, and their routines start to paralyze the soul, that seat of dream-riled inspirations.
 Shallowness is good fodder for the mind control of the masses.  It is good for consumerism.  It is good if you don’t want people to think too much about lopsided wealth curves, about the sweatshopping of the weak, about the nuclear threat to life itself, or ecosystems smashed on the nihilistic anvil of avarice.
Passion in service of justice, in contravention of the puppet show, isn’t shallow.  It doesn’t dull, deaden or oppress.
            Western tradition has a long history of placing the ‘rational’ above the emotional.  If a newscaster or pundit dares to show emotion they have lost their ‘objectivity’--and then, wow, nightmare, debacle, castigation (this applies to serious topics, involving money, military, law and politics, but not the cutesy sideshows).  In Plato’s writing, Emotion is the bad black horse, always in trouble unless strictly reined in by Reason, aided by the good white horse, Willpower.
The grand problem with this ancient worldview is that, ironically, it fosters ignorance.  The ‘smarter’ conquering people are superior to the defeated ‘savage’ peoples.  Men are ‘clearly’ superior to women, as they are more ‘logical’.  Conqueror over conquered, man over woman, human over animal, these oppressive splits draw from the false, enduring dual frame. 
The result has been a more-than-poignant history of atrocious sagas.  If the mechanisms of oppression continue, world collapse is imminent, brought on by the Narcissism of the Masters;   Greed sucking us all down into its gold-toothed, war-hawking gyre.  The oligarchs, no matter how many trophies they accumulate, seek fix after fix after fix.  It is accelerative, addictive.  No empathy.  No concern beyond the immediate grab (“We must maximize profit this quarter!”  “We must win this election!”  “We must defeat our competitors!”). 
Civilizations have died from top-heavy egoism.  Given our global interconnectivity, the next iteration of such pathology will take us all down.  As I say below, this is why we must evolve our emotional competency or perish.  If we do, it will foment a true breakthrough in the understanding of the self. 
Here’s what psychology tells us:  reason is an integrative process.  It involves many parts of the mind, interacting complexity in an ocean of memory/experience. The brain’s neural nets trellis as we go along.  These dendritic vines shape our interactions with the world, even as they shape us back.
           The sophistry of the status quo would have us belittle and box our anger and other passions.  But these sprightly forces are integral to the mind’s grand holistic schemes.  Its magical fractals of neurotransmitted sparks.  Passions are not alien to the pyrotechnics of cognitive expression.  They are players within its multidimensional spotlights.
           In a reflection of my Western bias, my first impulse, when drafting this essay, was to consider passions as being much like instruments in a mental orchestra.  But this metaphor is just another version of Plato’s Chariot.  The 'rational' charioteer imposes harsh objectifying control, keeps taut the reins. 
Passions are much more than instruments leashed to scores or scripts.  They are different than horses.  They are manifestations of voices within a greater sentience ( note that even the self is a player in the greater arena of the mind, as we can see in our dreams).  Imagine instruments and conductor so entangled as to be fused into a mutuality, one that thinks, lives and performs together. 
Importantly, it is not as if the instruments merely absorb the conductor’s will, or become living mirrors of the conductor.  They each bring their own voice to collective.  Carl Jung broke critical ground when he introduced an intrapsychic pantheon of archetypes.  Autonomous or semi-autonomous presences within the greater psyche.
            On this picture, if you segregate passions from the overall performance, and try to bridle them like a horse, or control them like a musical instrument, you not only diminish the music but also the ability to compose and orchestrate.


            Adrienne Rich was eulogized by the New Yorker as a poet of “towering rage.”  This was not pejorative.  She stepped out bravely in the face of inveterate social inequality, the sort that  lurks unacknowledged yet ubiquitous.  Entrenched.  Imagine a broken  light bulb, shattered in its socket , shedding no light; and yet suppose the people around it all say it is glowing.  You challenge them, “The bulb is broken,” and trot out the evidence, already feeling like you are in Wonderland, because it is ridiculous to have to explain:  the brokenness is obvious, immediate, empirical.
But the group gets angry.  They call you a liar and worse.  If you resort to anger yourself, you discover it is a prerogative of the in-group.   Their anger is just fine.  They are, at the core, ‘rational’.  You, on the other hand, are branded as ‘emotional’, an exile-worthy stigma.  If you are a woman, like Rich, your ‘emotional’ status validates the prejudice that women are ‘weepy’ and ‘weak’.   The group might suggest you ‘stay in your place.’  If you are a male, your ‘emotional’ status might be taken to validate another stereotype, and get you labeled as gay.  For them, homosexuality is an abomination.
This light-bulb allegory only hints at the viciousness of the counterattack that activists confront.  From the ramparts of the denialists, there is simply no controversy.  The broken light bulb is glowing.  The white race is superior.  Men should rule.  LGBT is evil.  And on and on.
This sort of reality-bending has a term in mental health jargon, “gaslighting.”  Gaslighting is used to describe an abusive person (in the full criminal sense) who manipulates and threatens so much that the victims snap.  They embrace the implanted, false picture.   If the abuser says the light in on, it is certainly on in the eyes of those mentally (and often physically) battered.
Indoctrination into society as a whole is abusive this way.  Citizens get gaslighted from all sides--media, commercial, family, government.  This assembly line of acculturation is backed by an omnipresence, the Panopticon as Foucault would say.  Young children are the ones who often point out the contradictions and cruelties in our ways of living; that is, before they themselves get molded into walking echo chambers of the loud, standardized scripts.
            The subconscious, interlocking reinforcement mechanisms of our canons and institutions, the citadel-like strength of the Panopticon, cannot be easily defied.  Immense honesty is necessary, the sort that fueled Rich’s “towering rage.”
Such rage is natural if you don’t hide from the truth.  Republican leaders dismiss global warming as a hoax, even as evidence piles to the contrary.  They call it a hoax despite an extreme consensus among climatologists.  Similarly, Republican leaders don’t seem concerned by the current mass extinction event, or the unprecedented pollution and overtaxing of the Earth itself.  They balk at racism even as they hammer racism into the hearts of their followers with paranoid, delusional rhetoric.  They employ homophobia and  misogyny as recruitment tools, couching them in insidious ‘dog whistle’ references.  Their shortsightedness reveals the danger of passion imprisoned, passion harnessed by deception.

     We understandably fear anger in such cases because it resembles a powder keg.   But artists and poets, like Rich, effectively work with intense anger.  They are alchemists of emotion, wielding pen or paintbrush.  Anger wedded to honesty opens the mind and stimulates thought.  It is liberatory, cathartic and cleansing.  It motivates vigilance and seeks evolution of the collective consciousness.
Much of what I’m saying relates to the academic discussion of emotional intelligence.  “The [Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence] helps people build effective emotion-regulation strategies, equipping them to transform powerful emotions like anger into action that targets unjust systems.”  This is a vast step in the direction of saving humanity.  I would go so far as to say that humanity will either persist or crash depending on how far we can evolve our relationship with our intrapsychic forces.
We can no longer afford  a planet where sociopaths take center stage, pushing the anti-virtues of fascism on susceptible masses, even as they seek to usurp the right to choose  how and when we go to war.  If psychological maturity overwhelms bigotry, the malice of  demagogues who seek power for ignoble ends will be readily thwarted.
The problem I see with the Yale Center’s philosophy is the talk of  'transforming' anger, as if it were a mere stage in an hierarchical process.  Obviously anger, and all passions, need to coexist with wisdom.  The artist hurls paint at the canvas, the writer hurls words onto the page, the protesters yell chants or cover themselves in fake blood.  They don’t throw rocks.  If the voices of anger are allowed to speak, the mind might be cleared for moods of peace.  Organic experience will be cyclical, not hierarchical.  It’s not as if one passion is better than others, or that peaceful moods are superior.  All participate in actualization.
As the contexts and stories of our lives change, so do the cognitive weather patterns within our brain lobes.  If some ‘rational’ tyrant of an ego imposes shackles on the stormy emotions, it has tremendous consequences.
Wise relationship with the forces within the mind, a sort of respectful, mutual management, is hard.  It requires acceptance.  Purging.  Dealing with wounds and shames.  Heroic effort goes into working with anger and other passions.  But the honesty, the truth, the raw wonder and release that leave one feeling quintessentially alive; the soulfelt urge to heal this world and strive for love not hate, compassion not greed, these are no mere perks to be acquired, no mere trophies for a shelf.  They are liberatory centers of action with many offshoots and implications. 
By marrying truth and ethos--merging the science of psychology with the most noble concepts we can discern, such as human rights--we can live deeply and well, and strive to navigate the perils of the current age, of doomsday weapons and extinctions, despots and wars-- and confront the very gaping curses, not yet begun to heal, forged from the awful, monumental genocides, starting with the invasion by Columbus.