With 1984 Approaching, What Must We Do?

Not so long ago, I was more frightened by Ted Cruz than by Donald Trump.  I saw Trump as completely erratic and without strong beliefs in anything but himself, whereas I knew the threat of Cruz’ reactionary vision.  After Trump was elected, I worried that the real Republican strategy was to help Trump be elected, then to impeach him and install Mike Pence in his place.  Pence seemed like another version of Cruz but more in keeping with the Tea Party and the current Congress, which would make him more dangerous. Together they would tear down civil rights, health care, climate advances, and so many other hard-fought progressive victories.  But Pence is also preferable to Trump.

There is a good chance that Trump is rapidly moving this country towards authoritarian government.  Lest you think I’m being hysterical, that there are too Constitutional and cultural restraints on this kind of move, wouldn’t you wager that, under Trump, authoritarian governance has 10% potential?  If so, we need to prepare ourselves.

Almost all modern images of an authoritarian future begin with 1984, which is now the best selling book at Amazon.com.  At core, Orwell’s vision targets information control (through “Newspeak”) leading to mind control (through “Thought Police”).  Big Brother speaks and the population must believe him—or else.  In a parody of Nazi and Communist propaganda, 1984 tells us that “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” In other words, you can invent any version of the truth and impose it on an intimidated populous.  Trump means to intimidate us.

Trump’s talking head, Kellyanne Conway, offers a contemporary application of this logic by framing lies as “alternative facts.”  Trump’s investigation of voter fraud, which would lead to voter suppression might represent a concrete intervention by the ‘thought police.’  And he’s pushing the investigation in the face of virtually everyone, including the most right wing Republicans, like Jason Chaffetz.  Trump, the bully, will try to push past all opposition.

Trump’s binge of executive orders, without the consultation of Congress, or attorneys to check their legalities, or the cooperation of the people who would be charged with implementing them—without any effort to build consensus—speaks eloquently to his disregard for democratic process.  The use of a private security  service may auger the development of a personal militia.  So, too, the threat to bring federal troops to Chicago.  Bringing the Voice of America onto American soil may enable direct propaganda. I could go on but I think we can agree that the seeds of tyranny are being sown and the need for a massive response from all those who believe in democracy is urgent.

What, then, is to be done.  An opposition movement is already emerging, led by Bernie Sanders “Our Revolution,” by the organizers of the Women’s Marches, by MoveOn.org, by the ACLU, and by People for the American Way.  There are news organizations, like Politico, Think Progress, Slate, The New York Times, and the Washington Post that are gearing up for the opposition.

Almost everyone agrees that the long game requires organizing at the local and state level.  There is no other way to reverse the impact of gerrymandered districts on equal rights and protections under the law.

We need to organize to build a sense of solidarity, strength, and forward motion—and to gain confidence through numbers.  We need to turn ourselves on the way we did during the twin fights for civil rights and the end to the Vietnam War. Just marching together with so many thousands this last weekend furthered the sense that we are a movement.  Opposition to Trump and right-wing Republicans may unite progressive forces far more powerfully than the fight for specific issues like equal educational opportunity and climate repair.

We need to build rapidly and intentionally—before Trump’s authoritarian potential is entrenched. To do so, we need to know ahead of time, how and when to act, and we need to act in the most leveraged ways.  Here are a few suggestions.

First, we need to draw some clear lines in the sand so that we won’t have to figure out how to respond each time Trump transgresses democratic process and principles.  Crossing those lines will indicate that Trump has gone too far, and we must act.

Second, we must oppose every transgression. I read today that the Democratic Party is contemplating a “scorched earth” approach, which means opposing almost everything that Trump proposes.  It means refusing to normalize him.  It means giving up the folly of trying to negotiate with him—or with the Congress.  It means every bit the same kind of cross-the-board opposition as we saw from Senator McConnell and the Tea Party.  We need to act in this way for its own sake and in order to buy time for the Progressive opposition to gain strength.

Third, we need to utilize every possible way to oppose conflicts of interest that are already rife in the Trump administration.  His world-wide holdings make the United States incredibly vulnerable.  How much money and how many troops will we have to dedicate to protect them.  We need to have Trump in court every day, every day.

Fourth, we need to speak truth to power.  We need to say what we see.  We need to deny the Trump-Bannon-Conway lies and disable the disinformation machine that they have been building.  Bannon tells us to “shut up.” We have powerful communication tools.  We must speak up.

Fifth, we need to paint the picture of Trump as Big Brother.  He has survived all of the other portraits—sexist, narcissist, liar—you name it.  But not Big Brother, which should frighten both left and right.  Neither want their rights of free speech and free action abridged as much as he intends.  Or maybe, in order to challenge his narcissism, Trump should be portrayed as Little Brother.

The most important strategic aim is to keep Trump off balance. Any serious challenge to his fragile ego (his TV ratings or finger length) throws him.  We saw that when Hillary Clinton defeated him in debates and beat him in the poplar vote.  We see that now when he is confronted with the far greater size of the Women’s March.  He and his Inauguration organizers were “losers.”  Trump can’t stand to be a loser.  When he is threatened in this way, he lashes out, he blusters and blunders.  He makes mistakes.  He will make mistakes that lead even Republicans to call for impeachment.

Impeachment must be our short term goal.  It will not lead immediately to the realization of progressive goals but it will buy time.  And it will fire up a united Progressive movement.  That seems to me the best we can aim for right now.

Advertisements

Free to Be You and Me

I had long thought that drawing a strong, unbroken line dividing work and retirement was for those who disliked their work and wanted to retreat to lawn chairs, mixed drinks, golf and cruises, and for those who had created large bucket lists to make up for unfulfilling lives.  A haughty framing, wouldn’t you say? When people asked me what I was going to do when I retired, I said “I don’t know.  There’s such a dense cloud cover between here and there, I can’t see what’s on the other side.  I can’t feel what it will be like.”  But I had a notion.  I wanted to be very engaged by activities that would continue to add satisfaction and give meaning to my life.

Along with others, I anticipated retirement with mixed feelings.  We looked forward to leaving the grind, to the absence of responsibilities, the slower pace, taking time over coffee and the newspaper in the morning, then a long leisurely walk in the early afternoon.  Some of us couldn’t wait to take up the piano again, throw pots or paint pictures, travel to far off places, and take time with friends. We wanted to take on work-like projects and board seats just for the satisfaction they brought.  For others, more time with grandchildren seemed an irresistible lure.

But there were also anticipatory anxieties.  We worried that we might be bored.  We would rapidly become irrelevant and ignored by all but those closest to us—and maybe some of them, too.  Our minds might wither without challenge.  Then, too, many of us associated retirement with the nearness of infirmity and death.

Since engagement—being deeply absorbed in activities for long periods of time—was  my Valhalla, I assumed that others would join me.  By being absorbed in meaningful activities, the primary desire for more leisure and social life would dissipate.  In an uncharacteristic fit of modesty, though, I began to doubt that my way was so universal and sent a note to about thirty friends asking what had changed in the way they attended to projects and other activities when they moved from work to retirement.

Their thoughtful responses spoke of many—not one—solutions to the developmental challenge represented by retirement.  They also led to a discovery: continuity of character seems to supersede changes in activity.  Even while many changed what they did with their time, they all seemed to remain very much themselves.

Some were like me.  They found projects that occupied their attention and gave zest to their lives.  Some of the projects mirrored their life’s work.  One friend, for example, expanded her research and writing about affordable housing.  Another pursued her passion to fix our climate but did so with greater flexibility and ease.  A third deepened her love of literature—something she had taught for decades—by writing a book on Dickens.  In each case, freedom from institutional constraints, from bosses, pay checks, and from injunctions to be well behaved turned out to be delicious, even liberating.

Others turned away from lifelong patterns.  These are people who had worked very, very hard, often with great success.  Now they don’t work hard; they hardly work at all. They play.  Where before they were highly focused, now they jump from one activity to the next, almost without pattern; the jumping, the freedom to follow their whims, to be inconsistent, is what they find pleasurable.  Even as they defy their own need to stick with work and projects, though, they retain their characteristic intensity.  Each little activity is taken up with great care and concentration.  But they eschew long-term projects with goals, measures of effectiveness, and airs of importance.

From what I observe, this second group is composed of people for whom work contained a driven and seriously anxious component, which they don’t want to repeat in retirement.  Even professional success had taken a great toll.  They dearly wanted to shed responsibilities and to stop pleasing.  They are ready to be responsible only to themselves.  Sustained projects would plunge them back into the old cauldron.

There does seem to be a third type: those with shorter attention spans, who never could or never wanted to manage lengthy projects. One friend, for instance, dearly wanted to be done with institutions.  He maintains that he could have continued in his work without them but that’s hard for a surgeon to do.  He does not want to conform to organizational norms—or to any norms.  He chose early retirement and has become happier than he’s ever been as he grows more eccentric with time.

Knowing him, I noted that he does have a sustaining project: building a beautiful art collection and broadening his expertise in Asian and African artifacts.  He insists that I am wrong.  What he’s doing is just so much fun.  Even auctions, which others find tense, are an engrossing game to him.  He pursues his project by choice and in the style he wants and in accordance with the timing he chooses.  He engages and disengages as he sees fit.  He is free and that’s what he likes.  Much of his behavior looks very much as it did when he worked but he is the master of the whole domain.

I suspect that the desire to distance ourselves from our masters is what many of us have in common—whatever and whoever those masters are.  Some are external—bosses, financial responsibilities and the like—or creatures of our own psychic creation.  We want the freedom to make our own choices and to serve as our sole judges.

Character crosses the developmental divide more or less intact..  Whoever we were before we continue to be after retirement.  If we were intense before, we remain so.  If we had a short attention span beforehand, that is how we are afterwards. If we were focused before, we remain so, though in retirement, fearing the need to achieve, our focus may be in brief bursts of energy and attention.  If we needed sustained engagement with something outside of ourselves—like big projects—then we are likely to continue in that vein.  The post-retirement strategies we choose are meant to provide satisfaction and pleasure and to protect us in new ways from our inner demons.

At the same time as we doggedly remain the same, we also roam.  We roam from old consistencies, from the need to achieve, from the need for approval and external reward.  As we roam from old behaviors and, more importantly, from old injunctions, we grow a little or a lot more eccentric.  The permission we give to ourselves to be eccentric and the way we demand that others accept our eccentricities may be the truest achievement of retirement and aging.

When Bullies Become Tyrants

Ever since the he  swept into view last year, I have known the bully in Trump.  Only gradually have I realized how central it is to his persona and to his success.   I didn’t want to know that bullying could be so effective.

I’ve always hated bullying but haven’t fully credited its potential for power.  I’m an Alpha male myself, and always figured I could show up any bully who came my way.  I haven’t suffered the pain and indignities that women and my gentler friends have at the hands of such internally weak and injured buffoons.  For the most part, I haven’t suffered the tyranny that comes when bullies achieve institutional power.

That’s not entirely true.  I was a boy during the McCarthy period.  The FBI would occasionally come to the door of our apartment in the Bronx, asking after my father, who was always at work.  It was day time, after all.  In retrospect, I can see the visits as harassment, indirect bullying.  At the time, I was only mildly afraid.  Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover liked that, no doubt.  They wanted to create an air of anxiety in our culture, and they succeeded.

Now I see that there is no Trump without bullying. It is at the core of his “leadership.” His method is clear:  He enters the scene, any scene, with an air of implied threat, and feigned welcome.  He begins conversation with a criticism or an insult.  When he doesn’t get his way, he pushes.  When pushing fails, he manipulates.  When manipulation fails, he insults.  If the insults aren’t strong enough, he ups the ante through hyperbole and scandalous lies.  He is relentless.  He won’t stop until he has won…until he has backed people down, frightened them, worn them out, hurt them.

Trump fits well within our understanding of bullies.  Here are a couple of definitions that do him credit:  First: “Bullying is a distinctive pattern of harming and humiliating others, specifically those who are in some way smaller, weaker, younger or in any way more vulnerable than the bully.” Second: “…bullying is a subcategory of aggressive behavior characterized by the following three minimum criteria: (1) hostile intent, (2) imbalance of power, and (3) repetition over a period of time.[11] Bullying may thus be defined as the activity of repeated, aggressive behavior intended to hurt another individual, physically, mentally or emotionally.”

Trump is not the first bully to gain political advantage.  His is a company of thousands, including McCarthy, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gadaffi, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Hitler, Stalin, and other dictators.  Dictators are bullies by definition.  They almost always gain power by bullying, though the centrality of bullying is not always obvious to followers at first.

Here’s the tyrant’s profile, written long before the current president-elect came to power.  You decide who it calls to mind.  First:

  • Continual claims for attention and admiration
  • Cold and uncaring behavior toward others
  • Other people are seen only as an extension of the self to be manipulated and/or eliminated as needed; an inability to relate to people as people or separate from oneself
  • Inflated/exaggerated sense of self-importance.

You may object to my grouping Trump with tyrants.  So far he only has the potential to join the club, but he does have that potential.  The likelihood of potential turning into reality most likely depends on the conditions in the larger culture.  Following World War II, social scientists labored endlessly to identify the conditions that readied German for Hitler.  They focused on the anguish and anger of the nation following the humiliating peace treaty for World War I,  the country’s social dislocation and economic depression, the availability of ready made scapegoats, and the tendency towards  “authoritarian personalities” among the populous. These are people ready to surrender their own power in favor of a strongman, who could tell them what to do.  Many Trump supporters fit that same profile.  They did not vote for his policies—what policies?  They voted mostly for the promise of a fix, the highlighting of a bogeyman (immigrants) and the promise that he alone could make things right.

You might ask: why am I writing this essay when we already disapprove of Trump’s approach to leadership?  The reason is simple: I want to put words to what we all know.  I want to say it out loud.  I want to be clear about the direction the Trump bullying might take.  Bullying women is one thing.  Slanderous reactions to John Lewis and his terrible Congressional district (he means the Black areas of Atlanta) is another.  Bullying the press takes it a step further. . Imposing private security teams with the potential to be small armies take the trend too far. And trying to bully other countries, those who cannot and those who might retaliate, may speak mainly to the grandiosity that often goes with the bully.

You might say that people like Trump are “just” bullies, not tyrants, and it’s not fair to place Trump in their ranks.  But don’t forget that these tyrants didn’t begin that way.  Hitler, for example, portrayed himself as a “little man,” much aggrieved and neglected.  Mao, Fidel, even Hugo Chavez were said to be men of the people.  Dictatorships that don’t begin in coups, begin as populist rebellions that draw on the people’s yearning for change.  These populist leaders, once they have gained institutional position, turn rapidly into dictators.

Their initial campaigns seek out enemies—often an oppressed ethnic group, like the Jewish people, or a callous elite, like the money-lenders (read financiers or read Shylock).  Often enough, they are elected to office.  Then the transformation from democratic to dictatorial leadership happens quickly and decisively.  Here is how “leaders” move from bullying to tyranny:

Control of public information and opinion Use of the law for competition suppression
Vote fraud used to prevent the election of reformers Creation of a class of officials who are above the law
Undue official influence on trials and juries Subversion of internal checks and balances
Usurpation of undelegated powers Conversion of rights into privileges
Seeking a government monopoly on the capability and use of armed force Increasing public ignorance of their civic duties and reluctance to perform them
Militarization of law enforcement Political correctness
Infiltration and subversion of citizen groups that could be forces for reform Increasing dependency of the people on government
Suppression of investigators and whistle blowers Use of staged events to produce popular support

I could go into much greater detail about the transition from bullying populists to outright dictatorship, but I hope you’ve got the general idea.

The next and probably more important subject is: what to do.  That will take some deep thinking and concerted action.  Remember, bullies and tyrants do not yield to reason, to compassion, to ethical standards.  In other words, they do not respond to the most cherished tools that are used by a non-violent opposition.   For them, it is not just power itself, the ability to achieve what you want.  It is the power over others.  The pleasure, the thrill is in humbling enemies and doubters; it is the thrill of domination.  What’s more, wielding power distracts bullies from personal insecurities, minimizing what can  otherwise be incapacitating anxiety for bullies.

We know that it’s important to stand up to bullies.  We have a thousand small, often personal, examples of standing strong.  Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Walsh, who helped to dislodge Joe McCarthy from his perch, are shining examples of this approach.  They are heroes.  But it will take more than the courageous acts of individuals to keep Trump from tyranny.  It will take organized opposition.  Thank goodness, the opposition has begun.

The Wisdom of Aging Couples

For several months now, I’ve been wanting to write about aging couples.  It’s relatively recent that I’ve been part of one.  I was a couple therapist and taught clinical practice for about thirty years.  In 1993, with my friend, Michael Glenn, I published a book called Couples; a few years later I published a book on the practice of therapy, Readiness and Change in Couple Therapy. The work was so absorbing and I was so well known to others as “the couple therapist” that it virtually defined me in those days.  This is a homecoming of sorts.

As I began to think about aging couples, though, I realized that my knowledge is a tad dated.  I had mostly worked with young and middle-aged couples.  So I began to talk with and read about couples in their sixties, seventies, and eighties.  They are different. But before I turn to older couples in my next essay, I want to tell you what I learned about the general social habits of old coots like me.

Here’s the headline: “Aging people experience more satisfaction and less conflict in relationships.”  They “report better quality ties with their children, more positive marriages, closer friendships, and an overall greater proportion of positive versus problem-ridden relationships than do middle-aged or young adults (1)”  For me, this conclusion defies expectations and stereotypes about grumpy, cantankerous old people.

According to researchers (2), as people age, they develop a “cognitive bias,” leading them to attend mostly to positive experiences while avoiding the negative.  That bias leads older people to structure their lives in ways that minimize stress.  They choose harmonious companions and avoid both people and situations that create difficulties.  What’s more, their judgment, their ability to determine who will be good for them and who won’ improves with the years.

When in contact with difficult people, elders are more adept at regulating what happens.  If discussions become stressful, for instance, they know how to deflect and defuse matters.   They ask and receive more and better support  than young people do from friends and spouses.(3).   “In sum, …, [they] learn how to…regulate their social and emotional experiences.” (4)

The natural course of life also lends itself to greater harmony.  After mid-life, for example, many people begin to shed their adolescent—and post-adolescent–children.  It turns out that the empty nest presents more of a sentimental than a real crisis.  For many couples, whose fights often revolved around their children, the departure is a great relief.  Then, too, leaving the tensions and pretensions of work also brings relief.

Not only are there fewer tensions, but older people interpret stressful experience in a calmer way.  For example, “When recalling…conflict discussions, older adults rate the behavior of their spouses more positively than do objective coders. By contrast, middle-aged spouses rate their spouses’ behavior similarly to the ratings of the objective viewers (5).  Long experience has taught older people that the pain won’t last, things that are said in anger do not represent the final or definitive word.  They are better able to re-interpret conflict, then defuse its longer term impact.

With age, people  say, they find greater support from friends and mates That calming support is often freely offered by friends but it is also actively sought.  Older people both receive and “express more sentimental and positive messages” than they did when younger.  The more they support others, the more the support is returned.  This creates what couple therapists call a “virtuous cycle.”  In other words, the calming of their social world is an active achievement.

What I have reported on so far tells us that older people, in general, have calmer, more satisfying relationships with both peers.  .  It doesn’t tell us why.  Several researchers do. They emphasize the “short horizon” in the lives of aging people.  “When perceived time grows shorter, individuals place a greater priority on present-oriented goals, such as regulating social experiences to maximize relationship satisfaction.”  Another researcher tells us that “Foreshortened time perspective in relationships with older adults also may lead to greater forgiveness for social grievances (2)”. “In addition to perceiving time remaining in their own lives, individuals perceive the time left within any given relationship. As the time left to spend with a social partner narrows, people may recognize this diminished horizon and focus increasingly on emotional harmony as opposed to other non-emotional goals (e.g., seeking information) in the relationship.”  The very fact of the relationship becomes more important than making it fuller or better.

People eventually learn what is pliable and what is not with friends and spouses.  After years and decades of trying to change one another, making the other more responsive or responsible, for example, we recognize the futility of our efforts.  It hasn’t worked.  We yield to what is and then we accept it.  Then there are two possibilities.   We can walk away or we can simply stop what has been a failing and dispiriting effort.  The very act of no longer failing is a relief; and a considerable calm comes over us.

There is a kind of death in the decision to accept people as they are, a sense that you will never fully achieve what you have been trying to do for a long, long time, and you will never fully have what you have so long wanted.  We have also put so much of ourselves into changing others, and that part of ourselves dies, too.  But it is that death that compels us to treasure who our friends and mates are and to savor the beauty of what is.   As the poet, Wallace Stevens, says,

“Death is the mother of beauty;  Hence from her,

Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams

And our Desires.”

 

  1. Fingerman, Hay, & Birditt, 2004; Rook, 1984; 2003
  2. Charles, Mather & Carstensen, 2003
  3. Field & Minkler, 1988; Schnittker, 2007
  4. Hess, Osowski, & LeClerc, 2005
  5. Story et al., 2007
  6. Field & Minkler, 1988; Schnittker, 2007