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.