A Call for a More Dignified and Restrained Presidential Politics

I imagine that most of you are as offended by the Trump campaign as I am.  It is hyped and garish, nasty and brutish, and it is embarrassing to anyone who yearns for a measure of dignity in presidential politics.  The demands of the 24 hour news cycle have created a structured narcissism.  Even if Trump wasn’t so narcissistic to begin with, the demands of the news cycle might impose it upon him. The need to talk constantly about yourself, to keep your face in front of a camera, the virtual requests to attack your opponent—what we have brought upon ourselves is a Hollywood parody of democratic politics.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Barack Obama—and his family—have set a high standard for dignified behavior in the presidency.  They have exercised an ironic restraint, while the President shies away from attacking others and even seems to resist the temptation to return insults in kind.  I yearn for more restrained, reasonable, and respectful presidential politics.  Whether you agree with President Obama’s policy or not is not relevant to the point I’m making.  I simply want to shine a focus on the dignified way he conducts the business of his office.

I know that because President Obama is a sitting president, enacting policies that some dispute, it might be hard to separate the substance of his governing from his conduct.  So let me present a model that even the most patriotic of Americans will have trouble dismissing.  What follows is a brief sketch of our first President, George Washington.  True, he didn’t live in the world of Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, but he did live in a very small political community, where rumors spread easily and where even our great founding fathers, Jefferson in particular, spread false and damning rumors.  Believe me, it wasn’t as easy as it looked for Washington to take the high ground.

Washington’s character. Over the years, I have read many books about Washington and his times.  Among them are David McCullough’s 1776, Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency: George Washington, and Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life.  But for now I’m going to lean most heavily on the brilliant portraits of Gordon Wood.  As you read this portrait, keep in mind for comparison the Republican candidate.

Woods tells us that Washington didn’t seem to have much to say.  He was a quiet man.  Unlike Jefferson, Madison, and Adams, he was not an intellectual.  There was nothing abstract about him.  Instead, he was “a man of affairs,” a successful businessman.

Most of all, Washington was a man of great moral character, who put great stock in controlling his passions and conducted himself calmly during the most turbulent of times, as both a wartime general and as our founding President.  Here’s how Woods summarizes it:  Washington, “(a)n enlightened, civilized man, was disinterested and impartial, not swayed by self-interest and self-profit. He was cosmopolitan; he stood above all local and parochial considerations and was willing to sacrifice his personal desires for the greater good of his community or his country. He was a man of reason who resisted the passions most likely to afflict great men, that is, ambition and avarice. Such a liberal, enlightened gentleman avoided enthusiasms and fanaticisms of all sorts…Tolerance and liberality were his watchwords. Politeness and compassion toward his fellow man were his manners.”  In summary, Washington “was obsessed that he not seem base, mean, avaricious, or unduly ambitious.”

Actions that exemplify character. There’s an irony in Washington’s life: His two great acts were resignations, each representing a pillar of our democratic government.  At the end of the Revolutionary War, he resigned as Commander-in-Chief of the American forces.  This was unprecedented.  Throughout human history, the commanders of victorious armies all sought political and material rewards for their achievements.  In resigning, Washington made a symbolic statement about the nature of democracy – how it is different than autocracy.  Leadership must pass from one person to another; and leaders must not cling to power.  Power must reside in the citizenry. 

If Washington was highly respected beforehand, he was revered after his resignation.  The new democratic citizens appreciated how he stood by his word.  He meant to leave his career in order to cement the democratic ideal of peaceful leadership succession.  He was later persuaded that his prestige was essential to the construction of the new republic, and he returned to public life for the Constitutional Convention, where he was immediately elected President.  He accepted the reality that the ratification of the Constitution depended, in good measure, on his support.  As James Monroe wrote to Jefferson, “Be assured, his influence carried this government.”  But Washington lent more than his prestige; he worked extremely hard for ratification.  In other words, he was all in.

Many contemporaries believed that “Washington was the only part of the new government that captured the minds of the people.”  He believed that, too.  He knew that during that tumultuous time, when his country was still fragile, a steady and trusted hand at the helm was of critical importance.  He was self-consciously setting an example for future generations or what he called “the millions of unborn.”  By using his immense cache, he built a strong and somewhat independent executive branch, an idea at odds with the French-leaning Jeffersonians, but one that would forever shape the American Presidency.

Then he did it again.  After two terms, Washington left office.  More than any other presidential act, this resignation established the precedent for a peaceful transition of power, possibly the single most important quality of democratic governments.  Symbolically, it ushered in the rule of ordinary people and ushered out the rule of kings and queens, held in place by divine right.  Washington’s restraint – his refusal to profit by his leadership and popularity, his insistence that he was a man like other men—this was his greatest legacy.  In addition, “he established the standard by which all subsequent Presidents might be ultimately measured—not by the size of their electoral victories, not by their legislative programs, and not by the number of their vetoes, but by their moral character.”

Hillary Clinton has not always maintained Washington’s moral standards in her public life, though it appears that at least she aspires to those standards.  But her conduct during the 2016 campaign, in the face of many disgusting, provocative, misogynistic, and even dangerous attacks, Clinton has remained calm.  She has been strategic in her responses but never has she stooped to a the kind of childish tit for tat exchange that her rival has tried to generate.  Indeed, amidst all the patriotic slogans and iconography surrounding the Trump campaign, Donald Trump is an almost perfect anti-(George) Washington: immodest, greedy, ambitious, untruthful, and mean-spirited.  We, the citizenry, need to hew more closely to Washington’s model in selecting our candidates.


Reflections on Aging and Death

Last week, Franny and I were talking about our finances.  There has been such a drop in the interest paid on savings that I wondered whether it would be better to spend it down or try to live off of the interest.  When Franny questioned my thinking, I skipped all reasonable responses and blurted out “Look, I can only count on about five or six years.  I’d like to live them well.”  I find myself saying such things more often these days.

They speak less to actuarial tables than to mindset and mythology.  The mindset has to do with my experience of aging.  The mythology represents the magical ideas that shape my experience.  In this case, they are ideas about how long I will live and how long I will be healthy.  My father died at fifty; many of my friends still tease me about how I prepared them for my early death. There’s more: I shaped my image of an appropriate family size based on this supposition and not wanting to “orphan” my younger children, as happened to my father with his parents.   Now that I’ve exceeded what I thought was my allotted time, I’d like to make conscious my current myths.

There have always been people who struggle to diminish the power of death.  The great English poet, John Donne, wrote that “death shall have no dominion.”  And Dylan Thomas taught us to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”  I love their passion and courage but their message leaves me cold—no pun intended.  Others try to wrestle with their fears by trying to transform them into wisdom.  With wisdom, they believe, death’s dominion can be very much diminished.  But, for most of us, these quests for wisdom don’t succeed in quelling the fear very much at all.

For me, infirmity and death have increasing dominion.  The frequency of how much they enter my mind and conversation, often stealthily, is startling, especially when, for most of every day, I feel good, lively, even optimistic.  There’s nothing particularly morbid about this, at least I don’t think so.  It’s just a fact.  And I’m not alone with it. My friends tell me that they are pulled in the same direction.

Death comes to my door when I try to plan for the future, whether it’s a question of money, wills, diet, exercise, work, or vacations.  There’s always the question of how long I will have to enjoy things, how long I will be able to get around well, how much my wife and I want to spend on ourselves and how much leave to our children or to our causes. Premonitions of death slide into mind when my stomach is upset for “too long,” when my knees ache too much, when I’m breathing so much harder than I used to after an uphill climb.

There are times that I think about death because I think I should.  Isn’t that what people my age – 74 — do?  Irving Howe puts it this way:  “I think of death because it seems proper at this point in life, rather like beaming at the children of younger friends.”  It’s also proper in formal ways: making out a will; making arrangements with your children, because it can sneak up on you any time.

We plan and prepare for death as though we really could. The process can be almost ceremonial.  We try to imagine dying.  We might begin to write our own obituaries.  We wonder how people will think of us when we are gone, maybe even make adjustments in how we live so that we are remembered well.  We try to be kinder, more generous, even more interesting.  We do this until it seems too hard and we tell ourselves, with some irritation, that “I am who I am,” as though someone is trying to take that away.

Grandchildren are a constant stimulus.  Will I live to see Molly, our seventeen year old granddaughter, married, with children, if she so chooses?  Maybe.  The other day, my six year old grandson, Eli, proclaimed that I would surely be around to meet his children.  “Well, Eli, maybe not.” He looked disappointed, pondered this possibility for a while, then acknowledged what I’d said.  “You would be very old, Grandpa.”  Franny and I wonder if we will live to see our younger grandchildren graduate high school, find professions, get married, have children.  Probably not, at least for me.  (I’m a bit easier about hitting a few of these markers with my second grandchild Jake, already a high schooler.) These “imaginary” events become markers for us, and these subjects come up all the time, as if thinking about the future this way might give us more control over what will happen.

Acute Illness brings death to the door.  I had a major surgery for a hiatal hernia in December.  It’s not clear that it has been a complete success and I might need reparative surgery in the upcoming months.  That gives me lots of time to contemplate “what if’s”.  This is catastrophic thinking brought on by real danger but there are many other aches and pains that kick me onto that increasingly well-worn path of concern.

When friends die, as they are doing with greater frequency these days, death comes powerfully to mind.  The worst, though, is seeing friends who have become terribly frail.  It is beyond poignant.  I identify with them and reject the identification at almost the same time.  It is their ongoing presence that makes it hard to maintain my own defenses and makes me wonder if death isn’t more desirable.  That is, until I start to think of death’s meaning: not being, not existing.  That is terrifying, and I want more of life; in  Howe’s words, a “greediness for time” takes over.

Some people play out their “greediness” by creating “bucket lists,” experiences that they must have before the end.  Some have relationships to mend, places to go, books to write, sunsets to view without rush.  I could extend this list a great deal, as could each of you.

The main point is, though, that as I age, death becomes more and more a part of my life, not something peripheral or grafted on.  It is part of my interior life, my social life, and my physical life.

Over time, though, I have learned to live a little more comfortably with death.  Thinking and talking about it, makes it less terrifying.  It brings it down to size, at least a bit.  Living for long stretches of days and weeks with full energy and concentration, even zest, also brings it down to size.  I won’t or don’t let it dominate me.  So far, I can neither turn away nor stare directly at it.  A sideways glance seems right for now.

That I have already lived the great majority of my life is a fact.  That I am declining and, soon enough, will find myself infirm—that’s for damn sure.  And I’m pretty sure that I will die one of these days.  If the obituaries that I now find myself reading more closely are to be trusted, that day will come sooner than I would like.

How I respond to these ‘facts’ though, that’s partly up to me.  It’s a state of mind that can shade many ways: gloomy, sunny, ironically, matter-of-factly.  I believe that I have some control over this.  Victor Frankl, writing of his time in a German concentration camp, put it this way.  “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  I can at least try.



A Report Card on Leadership for Trump

What can loosely be called the Trump leadership team has careened wildly over the last few months.  The last campaign directors, Lewendowski and Manafort, have been ingloriously deposed.  Steve Bannon, an Alt-Right, fire-breathing dirty trickster, has been newly appointed.  Ivanka and husband, Jared Kushner, from ‘behind the scenes,’ are said to be the real leadership.  But everyone concedes that it is Trump, himself, who calls the shots, while those who try to advise—or contain—him generally fall by the wayside.

Donald Trump has been measured on many grounds as a candidate and person, but I have seen remarkably little on how well he would lead a complex organization.  I believe that the United States government fits that designation.  Based on what we have seen so far, I have drawn up a report card.  It is built on the key skills, knowledge, and temperamental qualities that such experts as Jim Collins, John Kotter, the team of Kouzes and Posner have developed. At the risk of immodesty, I’ve also taken a page out of my own writing, Leadership in Nonprofit Organizations.


                                                Trump Leadership Report Card

Leadership Qualities Trump Performance  Grade
Create a shared vision of the future.  This is a picture of the future that excites others and motivates them to work on behalf of that vision. Trump has succeeded in mobilizing the anger and yearnings of people wanting relief from lives that seem less than they should be, but he has not shared a positive and convincing vision of what will lead to that relief unless you think that “Believe me” and “I’ll make it happen” can be considered a vision.  Nonetheless, while it may not be pretty, Trump has begun to create a vision. B
Create a viable and believable roadmap.  The map shows how you are going to realize the future vision thus making the vision seem believable. If you consider walls ‘extreme vetting,’ pulling out of long term alliances (such as NATO) and trade treaties, considering nuclear warfare, and forsaking climate control a roadmap, and then Trump has succeeded. But it is not at all clear how these would lead to prosperity for the working classes, his core constituency, and safety for our nation. C-
Hire the right people for the right positions.  This means people who are skilled, creative, and knowledgeable, doing the jobs that best suit their capabilities.  They are the next level organizational leaders, who should be smarter in their area of expertise than the overall leader. As far as I can see, Trump has shown no capacity whatsoever in hiring effective people.  Even Republicans are aghast at the low quality of his campaign organization.


Support and position your executive team in order to maximize their capacity to lead within their domains and in the organization as a whole. It appears that Trump systematically undermines virtually everyone who works for him.


Delegate and hold accountable. In order to enable a well-chosen staff, you need to give them broad swaths of responsibility and trust that they will find a way to do the job.  You won’t have the time, energy, or skill to do everyone’s job.  Once they are well on their way and your trust is building, you still have to hold them accountable.  Everyone must be held accountable for achieving goals—including the leader. Generally, Trump seems to delegate to no one, acting as though he can do it all himself.  When he does delegate, he does so in fits and starts, giving and pulling back responsibility almost randomly, and in the process driving employees crazy.  The only accountability he seems to exercise is by firing people.  He doesn’t train, educate or encourage them, nor praise them for good results.  In his mind, he is the sole source of good results.He certainly wants all the credit. F
Create an enabling culture, one that rewards both optimal individual effort and collaboration. Programs in complex organizations cross departmental boundaries and require collaboration to succeed. As far as commentators can see, the culture of the Trump campaign is chaotic and critical, keeping virtually everyone off balance, in spite of the efforts of Ivanka and Jared to calm things down. F
Create a learning environmentBuilding and sustaining organizational success depends on learning from what you have done well and what you have done poorly, on amplifying the former and correcting the latter.  Without the ability to learn, you stagnate or “crash and burn.” The Trump political organization has heeded no one’s advice.  There are no sustained course corrections.  Trump, himself, ignores advice, as though it would take over his personality, like an underworld demon. Trump seems to disdain learning.  After initially touting his University of Pennsylvania Wharton School pedigree, he has mainly made fun of “experts” and knowledge. F
Model exemplary values and behavior.  If you demand that others work hard, you must too.  If you need people to collaborate and to put organizational goals ahead of individual success, you must too.  If you think that treating one another well is not only ethical but leads to organizational success, then you must do it.  If you believe that people must always be learning, then you need to become the organization’s Chief Learning Officer, demonstrating over and again your capacity to change and grow. What’s to say?  Trump has been mean, defensive, narcissistic, self-referential, and bounded. —the opposite of a team player. Has served as a model for angry people who, instead of building something, find and lash out at one “enemy” after another.  We can only hope that few people take him as a guide. F

The United States government is a complex beast, with many interlocking parts, hopefully working in some form of coordination.  There is no way that anyone can run it as a one man show.  Even if you are able to set the national agenda and tone, inspiring the masses to back you, you need to manage the vast machinery of government to realize your goals.  That is not something Donald Trump is capable of doing.

In case you are wondering, I’d be willing to bet that these grades also hold for Trump’s real estate and branding companies.  They are not sustainable.  It appears that he drains them of every cent for himself, gets rid of people and properties when challenged, and destroys companies as fast as he creates them.    This, then is the potential model for Donald Trump as President.


Carving out common ground with blue collar White guys

There seems to be a virtual consensus among the journalistic punditry about the heart of the Tea Party: white men who are frightened and angry.  They lash out against any insult or imagined insult.  And, this portrait gets worse as we look down the economic ladder.  Once again, the poorly educated guys have the worst cases of White man’s disease.

But this portrait is drawn from a great distance.  It tells the story about the “other,” who is objectified and diminished in the telling.  There must be exceptions, but virtually every writer I can think of excludes himself or herself from this picture.  I can’t entirely do that.  I don’t share Tea Party opinions and I don’t vote Conservatively.   But I can identify with some of the feelings that drive these men.

We had no money when I was growing up in the Bronx and Levittown.  Later, as a teenager, when I delivered flowers in Manhattan, I would be directed to the ‘service’ entrance—I thought of it as the ‘servants’ entrance—and told to take ours shoes off in order to carry the heavy pots into the Park Avenue apartments.  I felt humiliated and angry.  I felt the same when I was caddying at a fancy golf club.

I  must have been forty years old, and very much a successful professional with a house of my own, before I could walk into a clothing store without worrying that the salesmen would look at me and say “what are you doing here.”  When we were teenagers, friends would borrow their parent’s cars and drive up to Great Neck to gawk like tourists at the “mansions.”  What I felt was not envy but anger.  I wanted to throw rocks.  I didn’t but that desire to get even—for what exactly, I don’t know—was palpable, and it’s not so hard to feel it to this day.

I imagine that many of the people who analyze the White guys come from backgrounds like mine, but they don’t write that way.  They hide whatever identification they might feel.  Maybe identifying ‘down’ would be humiliating.  Maybe it would put them in touch with uncomfortable feelings like raw anger and shame.  So, with some trepidation, I would like to offer my not-so-distant understanding of why the White guys are so angry.

To begin, it they are filled with a feeling of having lost something and entirely unclear whether they will be able to regain a stable and secure place in American society.  The loss of blue collar jobs to Asian factories and the decline in blue collar wages have become the iconic image of the declining White man in America.  But, however important it is to earn a descent living and to support your family, there is more to the economic situation than money.  There is knowing that you can help lift your children out of this depressed life.  There is the stability, emotional as well as economic, that a steady, long-lasting job brings—and takes away when it is gone.

There is also the sense of protection and belonging that came with union membership.  That, too has eroded.  And with it the ability to fight for one’s rights and livelihood.  Everyone can be angry, but if you have a union that “has your back,” as the returning veterans currently say, that focuses your anger through campaigns and gives you a chance to win against all those rich snobs, then the anger isn’t so bad. It can yield positive results.  Organized anger, even though it upsets people in suits, is superior for an individual White men, who now must hold it himself, knowing that he, alone, can’t fight and win the battle for dignity and security.

His declining standing in the family seems equally important and less understood.  With the flight of stable and sufficient income, men can’t easily claim their traditional place at the head of the table.  When women earn almost as much, as much, or more, then the challenge to family leadership is legitimized.  When fifty years of women’s rights activity has entered every marriage, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, then it’s a new game that men have not yet figured out how to win or even how to fight.  Among other things, it’s not clear who the judge or the sheriff is.  Who will resolve the fights?  By what rules?  By all accounts, the women are more adept in this court.  Men are humiliated by their incompetence.  When they are humiliated, they may turn to violence.  But that victory is always horrible to the women, sickening to all, including the children, and at best a pyrrhic victory for the men.

They may retreat to bars, to drugs, to binging on sports, to a kind of despair.  They can’t see a way out of their dilemma.  It’s a dead end.  It looks endless.  They feel defeated.  The more they fall to these despairing activities, the less standing and nurturance they have at home.  The less nurturance, the more they retreat, the more they are alone.  No family to have their back then piles onto the loss of unions and solidarity with other workers.

Family loss may (or may not) be most intense among the poor and working class men, but it is surely not limited to them.  There is a similar sense of displacement among middle class and often enough among well-to-do men.  How many doctors and lawyers, for example, spend long days at work, commanding respect from nurses and administrators, then go home to their families who, after years of the long work hours, feel more neglected than eager to have them.  These professional warriors are not welcomed home, not given their proper place.  So they stay longer at work and become more alienated from families, and so the cycle builds.  This is why they often vacillate  between feelings of alliance and distancing themselves from their working class brethren.

While these immediate losses at work and at home are the most devastating, the cultural changes that surround their personal lives confirm and compound their sense of being left behind.  Take sports, not participatory but couch-based sports.  The players, the heroes, no longer look like them, at least not enough of them do.  They are often Black and Latino.  That’s certainly true in basketball and football.  Not so much true in baseball and hockey, whose popularity has seen a resurgence these days.  Take entertainment.  More and more singers and actors are people of color; and even the White entertainers are too often liberals, who really don’t understand the White guys.  More snobs, like the Wall Street crowd.  Too damn many successful people look and act different.  The class divide has been exacerbated.

The very idea of success is passing the White guys by.  Success is for somebody else.  It looks and talks and dresses like somebody else.  Not even the army offers a redemptive image—not like the heroes of World War II.  The army guys return, often beaten, traumatized, without sufficient support for work and health.  They may be publically lauded as heroes but, if you listen to their stories, that’s not their experience.  Nor can the veterans point the way towards a successful life.  They’re not the road out of the White guys dilemma.  They represent another way that the road out is closed.  Success remains hidden.

I’m no different than the analysts in my dislike for the road taken by these White guys, the votes for Trump, the nativism and racism, the fascination with guns, the domestic violence, the disdain for education.  But I do appreciate what has brought them to this place.  I do understand their attachment to the Trumps and the Tea Party as symptoms, not causes of disaffection in America.  We have to find a way to join forces—with them—to attack the real problems that have disenfranchised them.  It is up to us, too.  If we don’t, if we keep our distance, then we are very much a part of the real problem.

Do Something!

As old as I get, and as much perspective as I have gained on myself, there are still ancient voices from my past that regularly push into consciousness, sometimes with some  urgency.  I can’t seem to ignore them.  One of them—my mother’s voice—is a call to action and a virtual dismissal of all else.

Let me tell you a story about the first time I heard her clarion call.  I was a boy of seven.  We had driven from Levittown, Long Island, into The City.  My father was driving our brand new, gray, four-door Studebaker, our first car, and I was very proud of it.  We had just come into a run down part of the city that was called The Bowery.  As we stopped for a red light, several men dressed in rags trudged over to the car and began rubbing dirty rags on our windows.  They may have meant to clean it, but instead they made the windshield filthy.  My parents were annoyed, especially when the men reached out for money to pay for their efforts.  I was confused and upset.  Scared, too.  My little sister began to cry and my brother burrowed deeper into the corner of the back seat.

“Who are they,” I asked.

“Bums,” said my mother.

That’s what they were called at the time.  There were no words like homeless men to

describe them.

“I feel really sorry for them,” I continued.  “Why are they doing this?”

“Because they don’t have jobs and they need to eat,” my mother said with seeming

appreciation of their plight.

“That’s terrible,”

“Yes it is, but don’t just feel sorry for them.  That won’t help them.  Do something about it!”

What I could do wasn’t exactly clear to me.  I was seven years old.  But her commanding and scolding voice made it clear that I had already done something wrong.  That’s the ancient voice that I hear, even now at seventy-four.  It tells me that action is the most important, maybe the only important thing.  Feeling and thinking, alone, are self indulgent, a cop-out.  I should keep my mouth shut unless I was willing to work at changing things.  Preferably at a world-wide level.

To say that I felt powerless is a massive understatement, and it took me years to begin putting that feeling on the back burner.

But that was not the only impact of my mother’s injunction; and over time, there was another that gained traction.  The call to action was also instructive and enabling.  It pointed me in a direction and a basis for decision making that has lasted a lifetime.  When, for example, at 26, I found myself wondering how the life of an historian—I was completing a PhD in Intellectual History—would help anyone but me, I left academia.  The voice then pointed me inexorably towards social justice work at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

When I chose to do psychotherapy, I did not choose psychoanalytical psychotherapy because it was passive and focused on internal and unresolved issues from the past.  It seemed pretty clear to me that families, communities, and economic, social, and medical conditions, played a large role in individual well being.  This ‘radical’ position was just common sense but seemed outrageous to the insiders of the time.  With an intrepid band of rebels, I focused on an action-oriented therapy that took the social context into account.  It also led me to require that my patients do something.  Understanding your situation isn’t enough, I would intone, act differently.  Otherwise, like Woody Allen, you will remain stuck in the systems that hold you prisoner.

My mother’s injunction had also invaded many other spheres of my brain in less enabling ways.  It interrupted my relaxation.  It invaded and shortened my pleasures.  “Enough,” said the voice.  “Do something worthwhile.”  And it got me to measure almost everything I do: is it good enough, practical enough; will it have enough impact on people’s lives?  Self evaluation according to the ‘do something rule’ has long been my name, and never have I gotten better than a B-.

Now, in retirement, that voice, that insistence on doing worthwhile things, still commands too much of my attention.  I don’t believe that moderate amounts of volunteer work, alone, will do the trick.  I am on a few boards of directors already and continue to mentor numbers of my old students who lead nonprofits.  But these activities don’t create a sufficient buffer to the voice.  I’m pretty sure—and this is a sad admission—that increasing time with my grandchildren won’t muffle the voice enough, no matter how much I love them and I believe in the importance of ushering the next generation into healthy adulthood.  Even those lovely children can’t drown out the injunction.  But I don’t want to go back to full-time work just to appease that need to always be doing something worthwhile.

What to do?  I know that reflection, therapy, and sharing with friends haven’t worked as well as I’d like, not in the sense of muting the voice to the point of near extinction.  What really seems to help is the truce that I am closing in on.  I have learned to live with it the way I do with my creaky knees and weakened shoulders, with the losses I’ve experienced—and the way I might live with a slightly cranky family member.  The voice is just part of me.  It is me as much as my arms and my smile. It is me, not my mother.

Maybe most importantly, I am no longer trying to cure myself, to rid myself of all that ails me.  It won’t happen.  And I don’t feel like a failure just because the voice remains.   That is a condition I share with all people.  I no longer judge my life by the absence of struggle.  Instead, I ask myself, has the struggle enlivened me, and will it continue to enliven me in old age.   This one has and does.

Aging invariably includes lots of accounting, coming finally to terms with who you are, how your life has gone, how much you like and respect yourself.  Accounting goes a great deal better when done by a good friend, which is what I am trying to be for myself.  And that includes being a good friend to ‘the voice.’

Continue reading “Do Something!”

The perils of America’s missionary narrative

If the world is falling apart as so many people fear, how did this begin?  That’s the subject of Steven Kinzer’s excellent article this Sunday, August 7, 2016: “Don’t Blame the Masses if the World Isn’t Unified.”  He lays the blame primarily on our misinterpretation of the Soviet collapse.  “It was a Soviet failure, but we interpreted it as an epochal American victory.”

According to Kinzer, this led to further misinterpretations and poor judgment.  We believed that we were the sole international super power and built a foreign policy based on this idea and the need to sustain it.  The belief then pitted us against China, Russia, Iran, and anyone else who defied us.  We believed that we could build a world economic order—“Globalization” and free market economies—that would give sustained structure and credence to our triumph.  And to preserve that world order, we attacked Iraq, taking down a cruel dictator and protecting our oil interests, putting an exclamation point on our new position astride the world.

One of the reasons that this narrative of American ascendance took hold was because it isn’t new, and from here on in, I will be extending and reshaping Kinzer’s argument.  From the time of the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny in the early nineteenth century, the American narrative has marked us as special, the standard bearer of democratic and Christian values.  Our special place then entitled, and sometimes mandated, us to spread the word.  It undergirded, for example, our push across the American continent.  So powerful was this narrative, that it managed to hide or exclude conflicting evidence, such as the enslavement of millions of Africans, the destruction of Native American nations, and the undermining of many Latin American governments that did not align with our ideas—and our economic interests.

The narrative of American exceptionalism continued into the twentieth century, with the nationalistic Spanish American War and the colonization of other nations, among others, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.  Even the most progressive of our politicians, Teddy Roosevelt, joined in with gusto.  The narrative then began to reach its current power with the experience of the World Wars, particularly the second war in which our American army and the American way defeated European fascism and the decadence that we always had seen in the “old world.”  We were the new world.  We interpreted our strength not just as strength but as proof that our values and culture were superior.  We no longer had to just trumpet our values.  We could insist on them.  What followed was economic and cultural dominance, symbolized by the spread of the English language and U.S. movies and music.

The one sticking point was the Soviet Union, whose armies also laid equal claim to defeating Hitler and, along with us, developed nuclear arms.  Ever since the Russian Revolution in 1917, we have been anxious that Communism could undermine what Alexis de Toqueville termed “the great American experiment.” This has led to repressive, sometimes violent reactions, like the “Great Red Scare” of 1919, and the McCarthy period of the 1950’s.  To combat the Soviet threat, we built the NATO pact, which created a European barrier to the American shores.

So it is no surprise that we reacted with joy to the American triumph in the Cold War and against the Communist threat, but, as Kinzer suggests, the American narrative of exceptionalism was so powerful that it led to a failure in logic.  Since we had been fighting Communism, we must have caused its demise. That is the conclusion that enshrined Ronald Regan as a national hero.

Let me lay out the logic of this theme.  By building and sustaining a democratic government, we are the anointed ones.  That is our origin story, our Garden of Eden.  It combines the religious rebellion of the Puritans and the democratic rebellion of the colonies.  That, then, gives us the right to establish our hegemony over other peoples.

Power then becomes addictive, an end in itself.  This has been the fate of virtually all empires. They all say that they expand for two reasons: to spread their culture and values and to defend the homeland.  Think of Rome and England.  Russia, too, for that matter, no matter how much we disagree with what they were selling.  For all empires, those outside the inner circle, are heathens, sometimes primitives.  The narrative paints them that way and builds the picture of lawless tribes trying to tear down the shining empire.  Thus the hordes attacked Rome, the Indian natives rose up against Britain, and, according to Donald Trump, among others, the Mexicans and Muslims threaten to bring down the great American civilization.

With the strength of the narrative of American exceptionalism married to the overweaning power of the United States armed forces and the need to tame the heathens, Bush’s assault on Saddam Hussein is understandable.  The attack on Iraq, according to Kinzer then led to a cascading series of events that have, in turn, led to the feeling that the world is falling apart.  The argument goes this way: the Iraq war led to war, starvation, desperation, and the growth of terrorism.  These events led to the migrations of millions of people and refugee crises.  The refugees, in turn, destabilized Europe and hinted at the dissolution of the European Union.

There seems to be no end to the vicious cycle created, as Kinzer says, by our misinterpretation of the Soviet collapse and by what I think is better framed as the out-of-control narrative of American exceptionalism—not the misinterpretation of a single event.

We badly need a new narrative, one that does not emphasize one way of life over another, one nation over all others.  But the universalistic narratives of the modern world—those of the League of Nations, the United Nations or the European Union have not seemed up to the task. The American notion of the Melting Pot, implying that all Americans should eventually be transformed – in essence — into White, Anglo Saxon Protestants, has similarly fallen by the wayside. Thank God.  In all cases, tribalism (sometimes expressed as Identity politics) seems stronger.  This is what makes the current world so dangerous.

I have personally struggled with this question for my entire adult life.  I feel inspired when listening to songs that bring all of us together, songs like “We are the World” and “Ballad for Americans.”  I am a universalist at heart.  But I certainly don’t know how to make that happen while accounting sufficiently for the need for belonging and protection that the tribal impulse seems to fill.  We desperately need a widespread and deep dialogue on how to blend the two.  We need a new, more collaborative, communal narrative to absorb and reconfigure all of the discordant and messy facts of our lives together…one that also leaves out all forms of exceptionalism –  religious, nationalistic, racial, and cultural.


On loneliness

One sunny day, Franny and I were walking along a tree covered boulevard. The air was crisp; our steps were too.  We were chatting happily, noting how fortunate we were to have lived this long and this well.  Yet I was lonely.  I thought to tell her, and I knew that she would smile and wonder what she could do to help.  But I knew that even her most compassionate efforts wouldn’t make things appreciably better.  It might placate but never completely banish the ache.  She loves me. We are married for forty years.  We have shared children and grandchildren, laughs and hard times.  We are very close.  But I still felt incomplete.

When I was young I began to seek a cure for this loneliness.  First, I sought love.  I was sure that having a girlfriend would do the trick.  Each of my early girlfriends were lovely and loving.  They helped but not completely.  When there was no strong relationship, I would prowl the streets of Cambridge, searching, searching, and feeling empty as I searched.  Then I married, more than once, and found a great love but it was not enough.

So I turned to the spiritual life, studying Buddhism and Sufism, and living in a Sufi commune, which was lively and full of company.  I found solace in the idea that loneliness, like other feelings, was a construct of mine—just a thought—that would flow by, like a river, if I didn’t get too nervous about it.  I learned to meditate and to observe this river of feelings; when I did, the loneliness did, indeed, flow by.  But not so much at night, when I was alone on the river.  I hoped that, with discipline and tenacity, I would I would eventually lift myself above all the petty human feelings that oppress me: envy, for example, hurt and defensiveness.  I loved William Butler’s image of wise old men, hoping it mirrored my own journey:

There, on the mountain and the sky,

On all the tragic scene they stare.

One asks for mournful melodies;

Accomplished fingers begin to play.

Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,

Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

But I never climbed to the top of that spiritual mountain, never freed myself from the slings and arrows, and, eventually, the image grew cold in my mind, leaving me lonely still.  Much as I tried to transform loneliness into solitude and peace, I succeeded only some of the time.  I came to accept the truth of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “We live as we dream—alone…”

Now seventy-four, I know that I will never fully lose that ache, and I know that I am not alone.  Though I have rarely discussed my loneliness with others, I believe that almost everyone shares this condition.  It is a part of the human condition.  Philosophers have noted it over the millennia.  I remember, especially, the despair of the Existentialists, Camus, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, who I read avidly in my youth.  I loved Camus best, particularly his advice: carry on in spite of the pain because it is the only thing we human beings can do.  I have carried on.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are many times with Franny, with my family and friends when I lose myself in play and love.  But I also accept that old philosophical saw that we are ultimately alone, ultimately encapsulated in our individual bodies.  The older I get, the more this simple truth becomes just that: a simple truth.  There is nothing to fight.  I live with it as I might an old friend.  When it comes to consciousness, I greet it with some affection.  “I see that you have come to visit me tonight.  Rest.  Stay a while.”

This is the great value of aging: that you let go of the idea that you can ‘cure’ everything, that you can make yourself better and better, if only you work at it; that you accept your limitations, including your singularity and your loneliness.  And that brings rest.