We Cannot perfect the world But We Also Cannot Stop Trying

There are times when problems resist our attempt to resolve them, when they seem too big and too embedded in our cultural fabric to be extirpated.  For those of us imbued with a need to make things better, failing to “heal the world” comes as a terrible blow.  This is a time when I am wrestling with that failure.

I have been so upset with our national politics that I’m unable to do more than glance at the daily headlines.  Pessimism is gaining a foothold.  For the last two years, I have avidly—no, voraciously—followed the news, waiting for Mueller or someone else to take down Trump, believing that eventually the electorate won’t stand for it.  At least the Democrats, I say to myself, can take back the House and curb his evil powers.

Now I fear that I have underestimated Trump, just like I did during the primaries and the general election.  He fights back. He’s dirty and mean and amoral, and he often wins.  The possibility of a Republican victory in the House elections is so depressing that I can’t even read about the Mueller investigation that has sustained my hope.  Worse, I fear that even working at the grassroots level and donating money—playing the long game—will be futile.  Evil could firmly take root.

As I fall into what I hope is a premature grief, I have begun to tell myself stories.  Chiefly that my family will weather the storm.  Our privilege will see us through, even as health care and the entire safety net for the poor is being destroyed, even as racism grows more blatant, even as our values are trampled.

But these thoughts are shameful and I begin looking for ways to pull myself out of this nightmarish vision.  I am looking for a lifeline.  I search for ways to escape the sense of passivity and hopelessness that have begun to crush my spirit.  Above all, I need an attitude change, a way to see the world in a more optimistic or, at leasts, a more energetic way.

There’s always the old saw:  “This too shall pass,” as most evil does.  Periods of growth and exuberance often follow periods of crisis and degradation.  We only have to look at the enormous prosperity and creativity in the West that followed the defeat of Nazism and Stalinism.  This image, this precedent, provides some comfort.  But only a little because it leaves the future vague and so far beyond our control. Much the same can be said of the American experience, where corporate greed and great disparities of wealth have led to a backlash.  The Gilded Age, for example, gave way to the Progressive Era; the New Deal fell to FDR’s New Deal.

But I don’t see any great and charismatic reformers on the horizon.  Even my knowledge of these specific cycles or growth, depression, and growth again seem too far off and reinforce my passivity.  History is not destiny;  and we can’t be sure of that better world will follow a disaster.  And hope is not faith.  It does not speak directly to action; leaving the future to fate is too passive to provide real comfort.

What else can I focus on?  Is it possible, through an act of will, to remind myself of the America I have loved all my life?  This is an America dedicated to a set of ideas:  the natural, inborn rights of human beings; the sovereignty of the people (not kings, not titans of industry); and political equality—the “truths” that we find “self evident.”  These are ideals to live by and to fight for.  They begin to stir my blood again.

In our comfort and security we forget that the colonists put their lives on the line to enshrine these ideals at the center of our laws and our culture.  We forget that the “founding fathers” weren’t just a group of philosophers, hiding out in Philadelphia.   They were revolutionaries who would have been hung if Britain had won the war (a point that is made crystal clear in the inspirational play, Hamilton).  Might there come a time when we will have to do the same?  That’s a frightening prospect and one I hope is never necessary—but it does begin to shake me out of my passivity.

I’m not naïve and, even as I look to American ideals, I know that we have not always lived up to them.  Huge numbers of our ‘citizens’ have been excluded from its benefits.  The racism beneath the Euro-American treatment of people of color has been long standing, and while there have been ebbs and flows in its virulence, though we have made progress since the days of slavery, racism has persisted from the beginning.  African Americans and Native Americans have been enslaved, thrashed, banished, and deprecated across our 300 year history.  Immigrants who do not have the good fortune of being Northern European and Protestant—the Irish of the 19th century, the Jews and Catholics, Italians and Latinxs of the 20th and 21st—have been resisted, rejected, and treated with contempt.  If you read the history of the 1840’s, when James Polk was President, then look at Donald Trump’s antics, you’ll find that attitudes towards Mexicans remain relatively unchanged.

Jill Lepore has just published a brilliant book, These Truths, that covers the sweep of American history; she places racism at its center.  It isn’t just a part of American history, she says.  “It defines us.”  Our traditional history books tell us about the noble battle against ‘bad King George,’ but she shows us that there is a different revolution that preceded the 1776 events that we celebrate.  Slaves and Native Americans mounted continuous revolts against European dominance, arguing just as the Founding Fathers did, “By what right do they rule us?”

This second revolution did not end in 1776.  The fight for the freedom of “the other” has ebbed and flowed, and continues to this day.  We know of this struggle through reports of the Nat Turner “rebellion of 1831; the Civil War, 1860-1865; the founding and spread of the Ku Klux Klan during the days of the Reconstruction and again during the 1920s; and the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s.  We recognize the struggle through the rise and fall of nativism in the 1840’s, 1900’s, 1920’s, and, of course the current Trump-fueled present.  As a Jew, I especially knew it when America, even as it fought Nazi Germany, refused entry to many of my devastated people preceding and in the midst of the war..

In general the struggle is between those who define America in terms of blood or the ethnic superiority of White Anglo Saxons and those who see national identity as dedication to a set of ideas and ideals.  The former parallels European nationalistic movements such as Fascism and Nazism.  The latter is unique to the United States, Canada and, to be honest, other spinoffs of the British Empire.

Now my blood is boiling.  My passivity is falling away.  I can see that the battle between these two world views is long standing and continuous.  But here’s the important point: only a dreamer would think that the struggle will end.  The power and continuity of the struggle spells a simple lesson for me: We, who believe in the ideals of democracy, must be ready to fight forever.  We won’t “win,” per se.  But we can and must hold off the forces of base nationalism, and we can give the edge to democratic ideas.  In this sense, our loyalty and our energies must be dedicated to the fight.

There is famous Rabbinic injunction that applies here:  “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” I’ve come all the way back to this.

 

 

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The Devil Incarnate; the Devil in Us

I have sometimes been accused of having intemperate political views.  With this in mind, I generally try to moderate my passions and to adopt a reasonable tone of voice.  But I identify so closely with America and its values that the possibility of a Trump presidency has strained my resolve. I am heartsick about Trump’s momentum in the presidential race. He is insufferable and dangerous.  I’m frightened and angry, and not just at him or at “those people” who favor him, but also at myself and at all of the liberal and Progressive people who are so appalled yet have allowed this to happen.  So, in this essay, I need to let it rip.  Here goes.

Donald Trump is, without doubt, the Devil incarnate.  He tempts and taunts, seduces and destroys.  He seeks out good people and bad.  But, and this is my main point, he is not an isolated phenomena, crawling out of the dark swamps of con artists and circus performers.  He only succeeds because of the fertile ground within us.  If we look honestly, Trump, holds a mirror up to the worst in ourselves.

First, he reflects our culture’s retreat into self centeredness.  All those gurus, psychologists, and marketing mavens telling us that we, each one of us, is the most important person in the world.  We need to take care of number one.  And, even if we have an altruistic impulse, it won’t be effective, it won’t be authentic, if we don’t take care of ourselves first.  A culture of encouraged narcissism if I ever saw one.  We have swallowed too much of the encouragement.

How do we know that we’re number one.  The polls tell us.  Twitter and Facebook tell us through Notifications and Likes.  People tell us that we’re “awesome.”  Really?  I’ve been good, effective, kind at times but I doubt I’ve often been awesome.  Most tellingly, parents tell their children that they are number one.  They watch and comment on their every move, photograph and film every event, virtually eulogize their children when they graduate from grade school.  Those speeches about the accomplishments of young children are bizarre.

The laser-like focus of parents doesn’t stop there.  They help with term papers and exams.  Sometimes this “support” goes on right up through graduate school.  Food is provided at a distance.  I have heard numbers of university professors talk about parental calls to argue grades.  “This will ruin my child’s life…”  How else could they guarantee that their children get the right start, the competitive edge in life.  How else could they avoid unnecessary pain.  Is there necessary pain in growing up?  I think so but it doesn’t seem to be part of the contemporary agenda. Helicopter parents are there on cell phones at a moment’s notice, trying to help their children avoid an anxious moment.  They guide, criticize, assist.  Everything their children do matters to them.  Everything positive and negative tells their children just how important they are.  Attention tells the story.  No man I have ever observed craves attention more than Donald Trump.  Yet there may be more like him on the way.

Since the children are so important, it is vital that they don’t make mistakes.  If their grades aren’t up to snuff, it must be the teacher’s fault.  If they get hurt, it must be someone else’s fault.  If the perpetrator isn’t obvious, parents and children, together, will find someone to blame.  Taking responsibility for flaws and faults is no part of their Trumpian agenda.

In contemporary society, certainly in contemporary politics, we refuse to admit our mistakes or accept losses.  When confronted, we begin with denial and misdirection.  If that doesn’t work, we attack the critic or we sue the sources of our pain.  We sue those who actually hurt us, and those who might.  For justice sake?  I don’t think so.  To get even, yes; but that’s not justice; it’s vengeance.  To line our pockets.  Sure.  You can earn a good living by suing people.  To intimidate, of course.  Trump’s love affair with litigation and bullying grows right from the ground of our litigious culture.  We have created a litigious society that has more people covering their rear ends than standing courageously for what they believe.

We sue and blame so we don’t have to deal with pain.  Pain is not supposed to be part of the equation for important people.  And when we see pain in others, it makes us uneasy.  To relieve our uneasiness, we blame or isolate them.  We blame victims.  We blame disabled people.  We blame “losers.”  We pump ourselves up by putting others down: immigrants, people of color, the disabled.  This approach seems to be reaching a crescendo in contemporary culture.

We have other ways to pump ourselves up, too.  We build larger and larger houses, wear more fashionable clothes, spend inconceivable amounts on hair “treatments.”  Can you even imagine what Trump pays to keep his hair looking like a horizontal yellow facsimile of his obscene towers.  This is the new gilded age, garish and full of self aggrandizement.  It is very much like the turn of the nineteenth century, when the Vanderbilts and Jay Gould fashioned castles in homage to their egos.  How has it gotten lost that Trump Tower, Trump Airlines, Trump whatever is just a hilarious and exaggerated caricature of the mcmansions  and malls that now fill the American suburbs.

We are narcissists, loving or trying to love our own image and trying to stay young forever.  We are social, national narcissists.  The social form of narcissism is nativism and racism.  These bigoted extensions of self love are just kissing cousins to America First, American exceptionalism, and making America Great Again.  Never mind that democratic ideals, practically applied, are what really make us great.  Give us a good carpet bombing or a Gucci bag to make us feel strong and beautiful.

Trump believes that sensational gestures, Hollywood come to politics, are what makes the difference in our political life, and we reward him by paying avid attention.  All of us.  Those who love him and those who hate him.  This is nothing but free marketing for him.  It’s a betrayal of American democratic ideals for us.  But we have grown accustomed to sensationalism.  We need it the way others need drugs.  We need our fix of Fox-generated drama.  We thrill with identification or humiliation to the angry crowd screaming to put Hillary in jail or even to kill her.  The media are ecstatic and we are their prey—or their mates.

We have lost the sense of what is real and what is not.   We have learned to watch carnage on TV, as if it is a video game.  We play video games that aren’t very different than the drones that bomb far away villages.  We are numb.  We have lost our sense of agency.  We are so consumed by our own lives that we want someone else to do it for us.  If that means a dictator, so be it.  He’ll be our dictator, like our Jedi.  There are many times when Donald Trump sounds almost exactly like Benito Mussolini.  Some alert journalists have pointed this out but it has not awakened us.  I suspect the image arouses many of his fans.

The Devil, with all of his excitement, has lulled us to sleep.  We are numb to his lies, numb to his reversals, numb to his bigotry, numb to his ignorance, numb to his immaturity and name calling, numb to the vile way he treats people.  We are almost literally in a trance.  Why are we so numb?  Because, the Devil is us.  We don’t want to hear that we are flawed, angry, bigoted, and self-centered.  And I mean all of us, not just the conservative right.

We the people of the United States need to wake up, cast off the Devil’s potions, accept responsibility for what is wrong, begin to redress those wrongs, and thrill to the opportunity to do so.  If we don’t, the Devil within us will win.

 

 

 

 

Personally, I am heartsick about Trump’s momentum in the presidential race. He is insufferable and dangerous.  I would hate to end my life with him as president.  That would feel like a defeat to all that I have stood for in my life: kindness and compassion; equality and pluralism; democracy and collaboration.   I am now seventy four years old;  and I dread entering old age and dying, while a narcissistic, cold-hearted bully and liar is the representative our once-proud nation.