A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

Everyone I speak to wants to do something to counteract the toxic impact of the Trump presidency and the right wing Republican effort to deprive our government of its ability to serve the great majority of American people.

Almost everyone I meet feels powerless in the face of this challenge.  What can I do? The problem is too big for me.  It’s too far away.  And, of course, it is far away from citizens of Massachusetts, New York, and California, where our Democratic votes hardly seem to count.  Even those of us who are determined to head off to Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and other places to help in the Congressional races fear that our efforts could be in vain.

I’ve been held captive by this way of thinking for too much of my life. It was introduced to me at the age of seven.  My family, driving in our first car, a brand new Studebaker, was passing through the Bowery in lower Manhattan.  When we stopped for a red light, homeless men wiped our windshield.   “What is going on?” I asked my parents.  My dad said, “They have been pushed out of their jobs and have no place to live but the streets.”  I upset, angry, tearful.  “That’s not right.  I feel terrible.” Then my mother turned in her seat, looked me in the eye and said, “Feelings don’t count. Do something!”  The helplessness I felt at that moment has inhibited my political participation ever since.

But I think I misunderstood my mother’s lesson.  Both of my parents eschewed charity, believing that it just took the edge off of poverty.  Fundamental change, like higher minimum wages, universal health insurance, and protecting the rights of working people to organize, would be required to make a substantial and lasting difference.  They didn’t mean that helping individuals was unimportant, but that’s how I understood their lesson.  Since I couldn’t see my way to influencing such major change, I didn’t trust the power of small differences.

It may also be that my experience of the immediate post-World War II world – exuberant and  full of opportunity – reinforced my belief in the possibility, even the likelihood, of large scale change.  During the decades following the war, working people prospered with the help of union organizing and entered the middle class.  Civil rights for Black people, GLBT people, and women expanded steadily, sometimes dramatically.  Health care grew accessible to the majority.  Cures for infectious diseases appeared regularly.  The world was getting better.  Progress was simply a matter of effort.

But just as reforms progressed at scale and speed, so regression could follow with equal force.  I have watched with dismay the long withdrawal of progressive reforms during the presidencies of Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, Bush, and Trump.  Now it no longer seems possible to think of continual upward motion , of unalloyed progress.

These gigantic national mood swings, far beyond my control, deepened my sense of being an insignificantly small player in an immense universe.  I hated the feeling and, for many years, have sought solace in introspection, reflection, and meditation.  The effort has helped but only in partial way.  My parents would not have had much patience for the substitution of self-healing for social healing.  As it turns out, I have come to agree with them.

Over the years, even as I wrote soulfully in my journal, tried some psychotherapy, practiced psychotherapy, taught others to practice therapy, meditated, and took long journeys into the wilderness in search of inner peace, my parents words retained their strength.  I would complain to Franny that I’m not doing enough.  She would remind me that I was helping scores of patients and, through my students, scores more.  My efforts felt paltry.  Later, my work with nonprofits, an attempt to leverage my skills to reach greater numbers, felt the same way.  I was always counting, and the numbers were always too low.  Was it worth it to help a few if the social and economic systems that led to suffering remained the same?

Lately, I have begun to think it is.  I have come to believe my focus on numbers, the idea that only large scale change makes a difference, has had an oddly dehumanizing effect on me.  It blinds me to the real people with whom I live.  As one sage put it, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

I am not suggesting we jettison idealism and soaring goals.  To be truly human, we must aspire to the heights.  But, simultaneously, and even as we try to overthrow the Trump/Republican hegemony, we also need to establish modest and realizable goals for our nation and ourselves.

Two recent experiences helped to move me in this direction.  The first came from reading the novel Zoo Station, by David Downing. The protagonist, John Russell, is a British journalist living in Berlin in 1938.  The dehumanizing Nazi rule—especially its violence toward Jews—is increasingly absolute and horrifyingly cruel. He hates it but lays low because defiance might lead to his expulsion or worse, and so the loss of his German son and the woman he wants to marry.  When he imagines defying the odds, he tells himself that he can’t do enough anyway. It might be worth the risk if he could help 50 or 100 Jews, but short of that, well, what’s the point?  I have long identified with this kind of reasoning, knowing how it defeats action. But in spite of his calculation, Russell grows attached to a Jewish family and, eventually, decides that saving one family is enough to justify taking risks.  Numbers are abstract, he decides.  Courage is personal.  Action is personal.  By acting, Downing suggests—win or lose—Russell becomes more fully human.

Last week we attended an immigration-related vigil that my daughter-in-law Rachael, who works for the Newton schools, helped to organize. The husband and father of a Newton family originally from Guatemala, Rigoberto, is now being threatened with deportation—this, after 21 years of living and working here, raising two sons, and being active in their school communities.  His wife, Imelda, also active in the community, has cancer.  His 18 year old has plans to attend college in September, the first in their extended families. The cruelty of this impending family rupture is breathtaking—the result of dehumanizing federal policy that treats people as “illegal”—a stunning concept when you think of it.

How can we change that policy?  How can we stand firm against the Trump immigration steamroller?  It is easy to get disheartened by the challenge.  Not Rachael, and not people like her.  Her main focus is on this one family.  Each family, by itself, is worth the effort.  But you would miss the point if you thought of Rachael as driven “only” by compassion.  The vigil was also a political act meant to galvanize and activate others.  The vigil won’t directly change the world, as I imagined my mother wanted me to do, and were she still alive, would unabashedly instruct her granddaughter-in-law to attempt.  But it makes a statement: Here we stand; we care. I find that position admirable — and for perhaps the first time in my life, enough. These small, seemingly understated actions do change the world, our immediate world, enough to make a difference.  Indeed, as the Talmud notes, “to save one life is to save a whole world.”

As I have grown older, I have been watching them – these local and targeted actions — as carefully as I can.  They are helping to break me out of a prison of self-recrimination that my mother built for me by demanding too much too soon.

As it turns out, I have also been persuaded by my mother’s warning about feelings. They might form the bedrock of protest.  First you have to feel, as Russell and Rachael felt, that injustice to others is injustice to you.  Their oppression becomes yours. That empathic bond makes inaction virtually impossible.  And action, however “small,” to protect the vulnerable, becomes essential.  In the end, it circles back, providing true grist for the self-acceptance so many of us pursue

 

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Letter to My Granddaughter

Dear Molly,

A couple of weeks ago, you wrote to tell me that you’re taking a history seminar on the 1960’s, that transformational decade.  You needed to do some interviews, you said.  “How about you, Grandpa?”  Naturally I loved the idea, loved that you asked, loved getting to know you better in an adult-to-adult way.  But as a relic, a remainder from antediluvian times?  A living historical archive?

Truth be told, Molly, I wasn’t outraged at all.  I have come to relish the view of myself as a man in the midst of a long, long journey, mostly with my eyes open.  As I’ve traveled, I’ve sometimes felt at home, a loving American patriot, and sometimes like a stranger in my own world.  And here’s a key point: My sense of belonging depended not so much on my own stage of personal development as on my assessment of American culture at any given point in time.

Let me give you a broad sense of my journey.  I have vague memories of people rejoicing on the streets of New York during Victory Europe (VE) Day, 1945.  I was three and the imagery from that day feels like a series of snapshots.  But by 1948, when my family moved from the Bronx to Long Island, pioneers of the urban exodus, the memories are more continuous, more like a motion picture.  As I look back  I can almost see headlines about the Korean war and the anguish of the adults who witnessed it.  I remember the McCarthy-fueled Red Scare of the early 1950’s and the first marches on Washington for the civil rights of Black people.  That was in 1956 and I traveled with a bus filled almost exclusively with African American teenagers, listening during the long rides to their songs.  And finally joining in.

I was already a grown man during the long, torturous days of the Vietnam War, then, much later, the trumped up accusations of weapons of mass destruction to justify the attack on Iraq.

And I’m just getting started.  My parents bought the first television on our block. That was 1949.  I remember when the Russians put Sputnik into space in 1957, creating an outcry of fear and anger throughout America; then being put into small, advanced math and science classes created to help us catch up to the evil Soviet empire.  We young people would have to hurry up.  Then there were the first space ships circling the earth, the first computers, which would have made typing my doctoral dissertation so much easier.  Soon there was email that my political and professional activities required, even though I fought it every step of the way.  By then, technology was moving too fast for me and I had become a stranger in my own land.

It wasn’t just the constant change and innovation that formed my generation—what they now call pre-boomers—but the way that we were steeped in the values and experiences of the 1930’s, truths that we took in from our parents like direct transfusions of blood.  The Great Depression that began in 1929 wasn’t history to us.  The financial anxiety and general prudence that it created defined our own life styles.  The Holocaust may have been stopped by 1945 but, as a Jew, the feelings it generated were still raw, the fears still live.  As the children of the generation that was formed by those events, we, much like our parents, were steeped in its wariness and prohibitions.

But the generation born before or during World War II were also children of the American dream.  Paradoxical as it may seem, I think we were more optimistic than any generation since.  We were defined by a belief that, if we worked hard, very hard, we could achieve any goals we set for ourselves—or any goals that our parents, who had lost so much during the Depression had set for us.  That belief was both personal and political.  We believed in progress, that, for each generation, life would get better and better—especially for poor people, Black people, and Brown people—because we would make it so.  That’s how the idea of progress ruled our hearts and minds.

Many of us lived for decades in that happy belief.  We knew that there would be set backs—like the damage of the Vietnam War and periodic economic recessions—and we knew that some benefited from progress more than others—but we saw those set backs and injustices as obstacles that we would eventually overcome.

Our profound optimism began to erode during the last couple of decades, during the presidencies of Reagan and the Bushes and culminating with Donald Trump.  It seemed that our economic largesse was increasingly devoured by the wealthy, that the idea of heroic wars in defense of freedom had fallen to cynical, imperialistic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Panama and Yemen—to defend our material interests.  Political discourse was balkanized, racism was revitalized, and the only people who pursued what looked like an idealistic agenda were the “hard right” and the evangelical Christians, who were not so happy sharing it with people who didn’t look like them.  Our Presidents and their “bases” were willing to let our infrastructure, our climate and our commitment to basic democratic values rot.

By 2015, I found myself writing in my journal that I was “tormented by what is happening in America,” the country whose core promise of liberty, equality, and justice so closely mirrored my own, the country I had loved so deeply for 70 years.  I wondered if the damage was beyond repair. I was tempted to retreat into myself and my personal development.

But, I have to tell you, Molly, that I don’t think my despair is worthy of you and your generation.  In the midst of the current rubble there are so many seeds of hope, so many young people living into their dreams, which are the same American dreams that motivated my generation.  Instead of retreating, I formed an organization to train idealistic and very diverse young people in organizational and community leadership.  That turned out to feel redemptive to me and, I hope, to them.

Do you know that, even in retirement, I still mentor many of those young people, who make me believe that our society may be circling back to its better self.  My students work on behalf of foster children, abused children, and children who have been denied the opportunities that good educations afford.  Students work for affordable housing, immigrant rights and disability rights, and environmental protection.  They work with limited financial rewards towards goals of equality and the right of all Americans to social, economic, and political opportunity.

I have come to believe that they have the power to “bend the arc” of our tormented country back in the direction of justice.  They make me experience my own life, not as having lived under the false god of progress but as part of a cadre of people who retain their optimism and fire in the face of great odds.

I know that your heart lives in this same place and my hope, dear Molly, is that you will join us.

Love,

Grandpa

Acting Well in an Absurd World

 

 

I write this essay on the morning of the Clinton-Trump debates.  As the possibility of a Trump presidency grows in strength, sounds of confusion and the stink of fear have begun to fill the air.  How could a man who lies like a psychopath, who bullies and mocks and finds common cause with White Supremacists be our president. It makes no sense.  We must be living in an altered state of consciousness.

We have been lied to before.  Think back to our entry into the Iraq war, the Iran contra affair, Watergate, and the torture chambers that we transferred to foreign soil, lest they infect our own.  We have had presidents who have torn down what we thought was almost sacred—the New Deal safety net—Reagan, Bush, and Clinton readily come to mind—and helped to build a world in which the 1% own 50% of our wealth and god knows what percentage of the decision-making power.

What I want to talk about today, though, is the impact of the presidential campaign on us, moderate, liberal, and Progressive Americans who wonder how this could be happening to them, feeling like bystanders to a process that is out of our control.

I have studied the European climate during the rise of fascism and Nazism.  It was fed by extreme poverty and loss of life during World War 1, which, in turn, fueled the rise of Nazism and the concomitant anti-Semitism that almost wiped out the entire Jewish people.  For me, just behind the actual death and destruction, the worst part was that so many people just stood by and let it happen.  I don’t mean the time-worn and erroneous way that later anti-Semites described Jews as passively accepting their fate like lambs to slaughter.  I mean the millions of people who did not believe in fascism or didn’t wholly  believe in it, who were offended, but who did nothing to resist.

Now I am afraid that we are standing by.  Almost 70% of Americans dislike Trump and much of what he stands for but—and this is the point—I don’t believe that we are taking the threat seriously enough.  If we don’t, it may not be the “basket of deplorables” who are most to blame, it will be us.  As Albert Einstein famously warned, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.”

In the face of our own fear and confusion, it is hard to know what to do.  Many in the middle and on the left seem dispirited, depressed, just short of giving in to despair.  Genuine hope seems an illusion.  Others are in a state of denial.  Hillary Clinton will surely win in the end, they say, however timidly.  We are Americans.  We will come to our senses.  We can’t be this lax, can we?  This is just how political contests go.  They tighten up at the end.  The forces of good will come through in the end.

Alternatively, we whisper that Trump may not turn out as badly as he seems.  He’s just saying all those terrible things to win the votes of the Republican base.  Look at the influence of beautiful Ivanka and her new childcare proposals.  Maybe these “denials” will prove out and Clinton will win or Trump will turn out to be better than he seems.  Maybe, but are we willing to take that chance?

I know that this article will seem alarmist to many, extreme to some.  But shouldn’t we raise the cry, just in case?  We do need to organize.  We do need to fight our own despair and impotence.  We need to fight our way out of this nightmare.  The question, then, is how do we do that.  I know that the Democratic Party will organize.  I get several fundraising emails every day.  The “ground” troops are hard at work.  The ads are ubiquitous.  But that hasn’t worked so far.  The harder the Clinton troops work, the more they seem to be losing.  Trump continues to gain; and he is now tied.  When you continue to try one strategy—characterize Trump as an immoral lunatic who can’t be entrusted with the keys to the kingdom—and that strategy does not work, you can’t keep repeating yourself.  You will lose.

We need to be heartier and more creative in the coming weeks.  We need to shake our confusion and despair.  Before we strengthen ourselves on the big stage, we have to raise our spirit, one person at a time.  Here are some thoughts about breaking loose.

When I start down that road to despair, I generally try to make sense of what’s going on.  I’ve been trying to do that for months and months now, and I can’t.  It makes no sense that Trump’s popularity grows.  I have written more than ten essays about the subject, trying to understand and not just condemn White working class voters, but I have failed to clarify things even to myself.  The political situation just seems absurd.

So I have begun to turn to the master of absurdity, Albert Camus.  Camus, who wrote in the face of fascist and communist totalitarianism, simply began with the premise that the world is, in fact, absurd.  The absurdity that we face in the present day is not an aberration, it is our shared reality.  We cannot grasp it logically.  Theological explanations are not helpful: no amount of sin or the need for cleansing, for example, could explain the rise of Hitler.  Our moral compass just seems to spin.  As Camus would say, we live in a godless universe and Trump exemplifies that universe.  Sociology and psychology also bring us to a kind of dead end because explaining the horror doesn’t stop it.  What to do, then, in the face of this absurdity.

Camus’ philosophy is complex but here’s the simple version from his The Myth of Sisyphus that has sometimes kept me going.  Sisyphus is a character in Greek mythology who was condemned to repeat forever the meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain only to see it roll down again.  This sometimes characterizes the experience for those of us who have tried year after year to build upon progressive values.  We push the rock up the hill for a generation, then it comes tumbling down. Why, we ask, should we keep trying.

Camus tells us that Sisyphus is only freed from his despair when he recognizes the absurdity of his situation.  I suppose that goes for progressives like me, who might call ourselves realistic but who have in mind an idealized future just beneath the surface of our policy proposals.  What I feel when I fully acknowledge that the Trump surge may well win out, when I give up hope, even for a moment, is first terror that is soon, paradoxically, followed by relief.  I can stop trying to push the rock to the top.

By pushing and pushing, I had become robotic.  I had lost all creativity and, maybe even compassion for the people I want to help.  It was as though I had been closing my eyes and holding my breath, hoping that the nightmare would go away.  When I give up, when I stop pretending that the world is other than it is, and that includes a world with Donald Trump in it, I can breathe again.  With breath, there comes relief.  For a moment, I relax, as though the worst is past.   Relief is then followed by a sense of freedom.  There is no rock.  I can do as I please.  I can choose my future.

What do I choose?  I still choose to push the rock of progress up the hill.  But now, no gods are making me do so.  And maybe, free from the constant struggle, I can find more creative ways to get that rock up the hill.  A lever?  Jet propulsion?  I sustain my effort because there is nothing else that I can do that fits my values, that gives me a sense of meaning, that sustains my integrity. My struggle for social justice is selfish in this way.

Giving up the robotic struggle leads to freedom and freedom leads to possibilities for a better future because—and this I believe even if logic won’t verify it—the world demands that we strive towards freedom and decency, respect and equality for all.  It urges us forward like a mighty river.  It is the only path that is worthwhile. So we take it.