What my mom taught me about politics

There’s a photograph of my mother that I treasure.  She’s in the middle of a crowd of friends, clearly on a protest march.  A poster tells in large gold letters against a black background, that she is marching with the Gray Panthers.  She’s smiling and waving, clearly relishing the moment. I would guess that she was about 75 when the picture was taken.  And it captures the pleasure she took throughout her long life in joining with others to stand for justice and against the cruelty of unhearing power.

This January, there was a march protesting Trump’s already abusive presidency.  Hundreds of thousands stood tall and proud on the Boston Common. There’s a photo of Franny and me, cheering with the crowd, listening to Elizabeth Warren and others articulate the need for economic and educational justice in our country. I liked that picture very much, just as my mother liked her Gray Panther photo.  My mother and I have both loved standing with fellow travelers.  We have kept a flame of hope alive, despite all the discouraging things that we’ve also seen.
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It’s only a few months later.  I’m 75 now; and I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep fueling the kind of hopefulness that my mother and I have shared.  Every day I scour the newspaper, looking for news that will bring down President Trump, even though I imagine that a Pence presidency might be worse.  (He wouldn’t be so incompetent, and he would be better aligned with Congressional Republicans.)  Trump is mean and bigoted and ignorant, and he was elected by American voters.  I ask:  Is this really my president?

Over 150 years ago, Henry Adams, struggling to understand the strange new theory of evolution, wondered: How could it be that Alexander the Great had conquered half the known world by 336 BC while the current leader of the United States of America was Ulysses S. Grant?  I have a comparable query: If, under the leadership of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and two Roosevelts, we have been trying to realize American ideals for almost 250 years, how can we have come to this moment?  And given that we have, how can we still believe in human progress?

I’m not thinking about political theory.  I was wondering about whether I, like my mother, who had endured Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon, could sustain my hopes for a better world.  It is possible that Trump will be the last president I will observe closely.  I will be 79 at the end of his current term and 83 if he is re-elected.  This may be the last Congress that I pay attention to, and they are the most ideologically rigid and mean spirited I have known.  And this Supreme Court, already prepared to undermine so many of the civil rights and other progressive laws that have been built over the last century, will only get worse once Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Stephen Beyer resign, as undoubtedly they soon will.

I find it exhausting to follow a current political scene that is dominated by the likes of Trump, Kushner and Bannon, McConnell and Ryan, Alito, Roberts, Thomas, and Gorsuch.  Yet I read on like an addict, hating each new informational fix but needing it, too, and unable to turn away.  The craving for a moment of hope comes each morning with the newspaper, each evening with Rachel Maddow, and throughout the day on Politico, Slate, and the Washington Post.

The news wears me down.  These days, I sometimes wish I didn’t care so much.  I don’t want Trump to invade my moods, my sense of efficacy, my feeling of pride in having lived a good life.  When I pay attention to this man, with his vulgarity and narcissism and mean-spirited combativeness, this man who represents almost all that I dislike most, I get angry.  I feel futile. I understand that 38% of the people still approve of the job he is doing and seem to prefer him; and I am shocked that the persistent strength of their support may overcome our efforts to overthrow his terrible regime.

As in addiction, I have my momentary highs—the Russian probe is growing; the healthcare bill might not pass; there is hope for a Democratic surge in the 2018 elections.  But the highs are regularly followed by a dispiriting thought: These people are sticking around; they will continue to damage our country.

Then I awaken the next morning, hoping again—or vowing not to watch the news, not to let it dominate my thoughts, promising to rid myself of that addictive, toxic brew.  I have my ways.  I’ll go for a few days avoiding the news.  I’ll focus on the good that’s happening in my family and among my friends.  I’ll meditate and practice not reacting to bad news, fake news, or any other kind of news.

Long term, though, I will need a deeper solution. Here’s what I’m thinking about.  I will have to let go of the idealism, passed like mother’s milk, from childhood. I will have to admit to myself that we don’t always make progress, and that people aren’t always good…even underneath, in their heart of hearts.  Some may be every bit as selfish, tribal, easily frightened and angry as others are decent and altruistic.  Maybe we won’t find solutions to poverty, addiction, and war.  Maybe we—or I—will have to build my political ideas on a much more realistic foundation.

After all, the Founding Fathers did so.  The Constitutional democracy they constructed, with all of its checks and balances, was built to protect democracy from the profound flaws of our of the human species.  They would probably say that my hope that we would become better and better over time was utopian.  In this light, I can place my hope, not in the President and his programs but in the checks and balances that may preserve the foundations of Constitutional democracy.

I may have to shift my focus, too.  All my life, my emotional well-being has depended a good deal on the state of the nation and the world.  It may be better to shift my attention even more to family and friends, and to the nonprofits and local governments that do good work in communities that are nearby.

However reasonable, these changes would feel as though I am betraying, my mother and myself, abandoning the whole tradition of progressive and idealistic politics that has provided me with a sense of purpose and belonging.  It would feel like I am leaving a far more cynical world behind me.

Upon further reflection, though, I can’t permit myself that level of pessimism.  I might move towards a more realistic perspective but I can’t let go my hope for a better world, even if it comes long after I am alive to see it.

I remind myself that, not too long ago (1992), Francis Fukuyama argued that there are no longer viable alternatives to liberal democratic systems married to a regulated form of free-market capitalism.  Judging by the rise of Trumpian America, Orban in Hungary, Brexit in Britain, and the rebirth of Russian autocracy and imperialism under Putin, Fukuyama was overly optimistic.  The world can turn rapidly.  To me, that also means that it can also turn back in the positive direction, driven by the seeds that people like my mother and others have planted.  Even if I don’t see the fruits of those seeds, they are worth feeding.

For now, then, I’d like to share a Talmudic tale, Honi and the Carob Tree, because it speaks eloquently to this theme.

Honi the Wise One was also known as Honi the Circle Maker. By drawing a circle and stepping inside of it, he would recite special prayers for rain, sometimes even argue with God during a drought, and the rains would come. He was, indeed, a miracle maker. As wise as he was, Honi sometimes saw something that puzzled him. Then he would ask questions so he could unravel the mystery.

One day, Honi the Circle Maker was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree.

Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”

The man replied, “Seventy years.”

Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?”

The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”

 

 

Fighting “learned helplessness” and the march to monarchy

Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously told the American people that “the only thing we have to fear is fear, itself.”  Today people are afraid of the direction that Donald Trump is taking our nation, and I think that’s good.  It means they take the threat seriously.  My concern is that we do not fall into the state that psychologists call “learned helplessness.”

As I watched last night’s newscasts of the James Comey firing, I no doubt joined millions of others who were galvanized, outraged, activated, and afraid.  Part of me said, “so this is what it feels like to live in an authoritarian society.”  You see so many unethical practices, so many activities that turn your stomach.  But the moment you think about objecting, publicly objecting, you swallow any thoughts of opposition—and you swallow your pride—for fear of reprisals.  You learn to be docile.

There is a research literature on learned helplessness, initiated by psychologist Martin Seligman.  Seligman applied the research to both dogs and people.  He demonstrated that learned helplessness is produced by aversive and painful stimuli that we are unable to escape or avoid.  Like shocks and torture.  Once learned, we fail to even try escaping new situations where the punishment. In effect, both animals and people feel that they have lost control of the situation and give up.  As time goes by, the original stimulus isn’t required—only a hint of it is enough—to keep the experimental dog or the oppressed populous in order.

I have been predicting for some time that Trump might well move towards autocratic government—running it, as he said, like a business, in which one man rules.  I have said that he would find an excuse to limit, maybe banish, democratic forms in order to fight an enemy—any enemy that he could find or create. The most likely enemies to require “wartime readiness” for example, seemed to be Syria, ISIS, North Korea, Al Qaeda, Afghanistan or any number of “threats” to our national security.  Along with others, I call this the Reichstag moment.  Hitler used the (mysterious) burning of the German Parliament to essentially institute martial law.  Dictators throughout the world and throughout time have created many similar excuses to take control.

But I can also imagine Trump just wearing down and maybe eliminating the domestic checks and balances to Executive Branch control.  He has been attacking judicial opposition.  He disregards House and Senate calls for information.  He ignores all criticism about conflicts of interest, creating what looks like the gigantic Banana Republic of America.  Now he has fired the person who is conducting an investigation into his likely collusion with Russian hackers to undermine American elections, and into his probable indebtedness to Russian businessmen who exert control over his foreign business investments. Both Comey and former NSA Director, James Clapper, have hinted at this.

As the former Acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, has made clear, Trump and his associates  are compromised, open to bribery because of shady business practice.  By doing so, they have placed the American nation in compromising positions.  Yates has been fired.  Preet Bharara, who seemed to be investigating Trump’s foreign business interests is gone.  So, too, all of the United States Attorneys.  Michael Flynn is gone.  Devin Nunes is gone.  Anyone and everyone who have information that threatens the Trump regime is being eliminated.  The approach does not measure up to Putin’s style of simply killing the opposition but the effect of Trump’s efforts to get rid of anyone who is more loyal to the truth than to him is chilling enough.

As he eliminates the opposition, Trump amplifies the power of the loyalists.  Look at the increasing and increasingly public place of The Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who has supposedly recused himself from both the Russian investigation and the Comey-Clinton-letters investigation.   Sessions is the one who recommended that Comey, who has led the investigations, be fired.  Watch closely and you will see Sessions’ increasingly strong support for police departments and the increased incarceration of both immigrants and homegrown criminals.  Then there is the deregulation of the web, eliminating the principle that everyone should have equal access.  I don’t think that it requires conspiratorial thinking to see Trump exercising more and more control over the levers of power in the United States.

Look at the impotence of a greedy, Republican Congress, hoping that they can use the value-free, winner-take-all Trump to their own ends—the repeal of the ACA and tax breaks for the wealthy, for example—even as he tries to break the power and the will of its investigative committees.  They will soon learn that they have made a pact with the devil.  Even so, it seems likely that, with McConnell and Ryan in leadership, they will become increasingly afraid to oppose Trump.  His motto—“Anybody who hits me, we’re gonna hit ten times harder”—will be more frequently the order of the day.

Since Donald Trump was elected, opposition has run high among Democrats and progressives.  There is tremendous activity at state and local levels.  The internet is brimming with calls to action and for financial contributions to sustain the resistance.  Since the House repeal of the ACA, the cry for action has increased further. We have seen the 2018 elections as the great divide, the moment to put in a Democratic Congress able to finally stop both Trump and the right wing Republican agenda in their tracks.  I can only hope the Resistance continues to build and then succeeds before Trump tightens his grip and before learned helplessness sets in.

Seligman’s experiments suggest that there is only one cure for helplessness.  His dogs do not even try to escape because they have learned that nothing they do will stop the shock that taught them to be helpless in the first place.  To change the expectations of the experimental animals, Seligman’s assistants literally picked the dogs up and moved their legs for them.  They replicated what the dogs would need to do to escape the electrified grid that had tortured them.  “This had to be done at least twice before the dogs would start willfully jumping over the barrier on their own. In contrast, threats, rewards, and observed demonstrations had no effect on the “helpless” Group 3 dogs.[4][5] We do not want to reach this point.

We are not dogs and unlike the inhabitants of long-lasting tyrannies like Cuba and Russia, we have not yet become helpless.  But we must be quick before lethargy sets in.  We need to lift up our legs now and fight for self determination.  Trump may think this is his Reichstag moment.  I believe it is our moment.  As Chuck Schumer said yesterday, the Comey firing is a cover up of Nixonian proportions.  There is a good chance that it is covering sins that far exceed any committed by Richard Nixon.  Like Archibald Cox and Elliot Richardson did then, we must rise to this occasion.  They had a Democratic Congress to support them.  We don’t.  Our call for action, then, needs to be all the greater.