Category Archives: Serious

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: TOWARDS AMERICAN RECOVERY

(My column for November 2018)

In the past few months, I’ve been trying to make the case that American society in the Age of Trump is very much like an addict – an addict that will soon be confronted with an existential decision: to recover or perish.

So what might that recovery look like?

The genius of the folks who developed “twelve-step” programs for alcoholics and other addicts beginning back in the 1930’s was simple. They saw that in order to recover, the addict couldn’t rely on his or her individual will alone, but needed to find something outside of themselves – they hit upon the term “higher power” – to which they could refer to help guide their decisions.

And the real genius was that they realized that it didn’t much matter exactly what that “higher power” was. It didn’t need to be a deity. In fact, it was better if the addict decided for himself or herself what it was, according to his or her own understanding. This avoided the need to reconcile oneself with someone else’s dogma or theology, and the possibility of destructive disputes or schisms. But th8s “higher power” did need to be something bigger than one’s self… something, in a sense, spiritual.

But if I were to say that the solution to America’s troubles is “spiritual” in nature, I fear that quite a few people would take me exactly the wrong way. The kind of spiritual solution of which I am thinking has absolutely nothing to do with posting monuments to the Ten Commandments, absolutely nothing to do with mandating prayer in the public schools or using the words “In God We Trust” – or, for that matter, with governments using public funds to support religious displays.

It has nothing to do with outward displays of religiosity at all.

It begins instead internally, with a strong dose of humility – a quality in short supply in the American national consciousness. It begins with an acknowledgment, an admission to ourselves that things have gotten out of control. Things are happening that seemingly exceed our ability to cope with them – from gun violence and opioid addiction to inequality and climate change.

To take even this first step would be a huge challenge for the American psyche, even in normal times. It runs completely counter to our treasured national narrative of “can-do” confidence, of “manifest destiny,” of shining cities on a hill.

That’s why this process won’t start – can’t start – until it absolutely has to.

But once it does start… then we will have to find what the term “higher power” means for us as a people. I don’t think that it’s God per se. Rather, it may be the set of values that we have always professed to believe in – things like equality, justice, fairness, freedom, responsibility – but have frequently failed to implement fully.

These qualities are not ours alone, of course. To rededicate ourselves to their service will also mean acknowledging that there is something beyond our own narrow perception of “national self-interest,” and that we are no longer some kind of final authority. Given our historical attitudes towards institutions like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, this will also be a hard pill to swallow… but swallow it we must.

That is, if we wish to recover our collective soul.

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Just a Symptom

Mister Trump
Is the lump
That you find
In your breast

His soul
Like a mole
That looks different
From the rest

He’s that thought
In your head
You might be better
Off dead

That rasping in your lung
That strange taste on your tongue
That little twinge in your hip
That small sore on your lip

Just a sign of what’s coming
That something’s wrong with the plumbing
Of a rot deep inside
That a suntan won’t hide

He’s a symptom, that’s all
Just a small warning call
The pride before the fall
It’s okay. Build your wall.

Prayer Against Fascism

Dear Lord, Guiding Spirit, Power beyond and around and within us…
as You know, there is a disease going around
a deep and terrible sickness
it attacks the soul, the mind, and the heart
of individuals, communities, cities, of whole nations
it’s infectious, virulent, easily communicable
spread by word of mouth, by constant exposure to lies
by propaganda’s relentless drumbeat
it feeds on fear, ignorance, and bruised pride
and it makes people do horrible things
sometimes in Your Name

let me not succumb to it

keep my heart open to the Other
keep my mind open to truth and to inquiry
keep my soul free of hatred and fear
grant me the courage to speak out
when I see this disease raise its ugly head
grant me compassion both for its victims
and for those infected by it
keep me free from arrogance and illusions of superiority
grant me humility and acceptance
let me never come to believe
that I have any exclusive answer, any special privilege
or that others are any less worthy than I am in Your sight

Lord, I pray for the humbling of bullies,
of those who abuse their power over others –
I ask for their hearts to be healed,
for the calming of their rage
Grant them empathy and inner peace
Let them find what it means to be human again

Help us to celebrate everything that we are
To fully embrace both our diversity and our unity
To care for each other and your Creation
Let the mighty step down, let the lowly be raised
Help us temper justice with mercy
Help us replace dissension with harmony
Help us overcome this disease, this epidemic we call fascism
with the healing power of love. Amen.

Assignments

Here is my life
As I have to live it
Here is my gift
As I have to give it
Here is my work
As I have to do it
Here is my time
As I have to go through it

Here is the world
As I have to see it
Here is my self
As I have to be it
Here is my house
And I have to clean it
Here is my promise
And I have to mean it

Here is my heart
As I have to show it
Here is my truth
As I have to know it
Here are my feelings
As I have to feel them
Here are my wounds
As I have to heal them

Here is my darkness
That I must bring to light
Here is my struggle
That I have to fight
Here are the things
I don’t yet understand
You are my friends
With whom I can stand

Here is my soul
That I have to show
Here is my God
That I must get to know
These are the tasks
That I have been given
This is my life
I had better start living
This is my life
I had better start living

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: AMERICAN PSYCHOSIS

I don’t mind telling you: back in January, when I got back to America from my yearlong sojourn to Europe, I was a mess, in many different ways.

Fortunately, I had three things going for me: a well-knit community, a network of supportive friends, and access to decent mental health services. These things have made it possible for me to start the process of pulling myself together and getting on my own feet. I’m not out of the woods yet, by any means, and I have a lot of work ahead – but these resources have really come through for me, and I am grateful.

Not everyone is so fortunate, however. As I wrote in this space a couple of months ago, depression and suicide rates have become a increasing concern, one underscored by the recent high-profile suicides of designer Kate Spade and television personality Anthony Bourdain.

And now many people are starting not just to ask why, but to look past the simple, facile answers and search for underlying root causes – things that may not be easy to face. CNN analyst and former FOX News staffer Kirsten Powers, in a column for USA TODAY, makes a bold statement: “…most Americans are depressed, anxious or suicidal because something is wrong with our culture, not because something is wrong with them.”

There is such a thing as “endogenous” depression – depression caused by internal, physical factors, such as chemical imbalances in the brain. This can be addressed by medications. But more frequently people struggle with “exogenous” or “reactive” depression, brought about by external traumatic events or circumstances. Medications can help, along with various kinds of counseling or therapy, but only to an extent.

The “medical-industrial complex” would, of course, prefer that we only focus on the endogenous kind. They can make money, after all, off of a pharmaceutical approach to the problem.

But we know in our bones that this will not be enough… because we are all, I suspect, feeling the effects of the dysfunctions inherent in our present society. We are working harder, but with fewer tangible results and greater economic uncertainty. Even people who “succeed,” as did Bourdain and Spade, may find that mere material prosperity is not fulfilling in and of itself.

“Rather than pathologizing the despair and emotional suffering that is a rational response to a culture that values people based on ever escalating financial and personal achievements, we should acknowledge that something is very wrong,” Powers writes. “We should stop telling people who yearn for a deeper meaning in life that they have an illness or need therapy. Instead, we need to help people craft lives that are more meaningful and built on a firmer foundation than personal success.”

She also cites a recent bestseller by journalist Johann Hari, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions. Hari notes that “we exist largely disconnected from our extended families, friends and communities — except in the shallow interactions of social media — because we are too busy trying to ‘make it’ without realizing that once we reach that goal, it won’t be enough.” (Click here find some interesting videos where Mr. Hari discusses his ideas.)

Now, I don’t know if Ms. Powers is quite ready to take the next logical step and recognize the role played by modern American capitalism in creating the conditions that have led to this crisis…

But I think it might be a good place to start.

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: POWER, PAIN, AND PSYCHOPATHY

In 2011, I submitted a joke to the public radio program “Prairie Home Companion” for inclusion in their annual “Joke Show” – and it got in! (A small claim to fame, perhaps, but I’ll take it.) Here it is :

“Knock knock!”

“Who’s there?”
“Bush and Cheney tortured.”
“Bush and Cheney tortured who?”
“Sorry, that information is classified – and you’re under arrest.”

The Bush-era torture program – sorry, “enhanced interrogation” – was no laughing matter, of course. From the infamous abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, to Guantanamo and who knows how many “black sites” around the world, prisoners were subjected to horrific treatment, ostensibly to extract information about possible future attacks. Convoluted legal and moral arguments were put forward to justify conduct that violated not only international law, but fundamental standards of civilized behavior, and the very values that Americans were supposedly fighting to defend. A great debate erupted about what the willingness to torture said about the character of the American spirit. (The Senate’s final investigative report remains classified, though a summary was published.)
This sordid history was resurrected with the recent nominations of Mike Pompeo to be Secretary of State, and Gina Haskel to replace him as CIA Director – but let’s go a little deeper.
Part of the debate about torture was whether or not it was even a good way of getting information. Conservative commentators and politicians, caught up in fantasies of Jack Bauer from “24,” expressed an almost religious faith in its efficacy. Academic studies, meanwhile, suggested that the practice was not only useless but counterproductive. Not only were prisoners likely to give false information just to make the torture stop, the revelations undermined America’s reputation, and gave potential enemies greater motivation to attack us. Less coercive and vicious means were shown to provide viable alternatives and produce worthwhile results.
Watching this debate unfold, I was suddenly struck by a dark and deeply disturbing possibility.
Why, I wondered, would these people be such cheerleaders for torture, even in the face of contrary evidence? Why so passionate, so insistent, in its defense?
Could it be simply… that they liked the idea?
Go back, if you have the stomach, and look at the photos from Abu Ghraib. Look at the gleeful smiles, the thumbs-up gestures. These people weren’t just doing a job…
They were having fun.
There’s a word for that. That word is sadism.
(Please note that I‘m not speaking of the sexual hobby, but the psychopathic condition – wherein one derives pleasure from witnessing or causing someone else’s pain.)
There is a certain correlation between sadism and the urge to have and exert power. Consider this quote from Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, in which Winston is being tortured by O’Brien:

“How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?“

Winston thought. “By making him suffer,” he said.

“Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation…”

Would it be so crazy to imagine that within the halls of power there are people who seek and wield power, who devise, influence, and implement policy, motivated not by the desire to serve, but by the desire to inflict suffering? Could such gratuitous cruelty actually operate openly, undetected and unchallenged?
Try reading the headlines through such a lens, and then you tell me.
PS. For more information on studies about torture and interrogation, see this recent article from Scientific American magazine: “We’ve Known for 400 Years That Torture Doesn’t Work”

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: TO BE OR NOT TO BE

That is the question. – Shakespeare, HAMLET

On April 5, I attended a very moving event at The Cooperage in Honesdale – an “open mic” benefit for an organization called the Northeast Suicide Prevention Initiative. Besides the excellent musical performances, the evening featured heartfelt remembrances from survivors of loved ones who had lost their individual struggles, and inspiring testimonies from others who had faced the abyss but had been able to keep going.

The evening also included a skit performed by high-schoolers from the “Wallenpaupack Players,” illustrating some of the warning signs exhibited by a potential suicide, and demonstrating possible ways to intervene.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that suicide is an increasingly serious public health problem in the United States – the tenth leading cause of death, according to some studies. Nor do you need me to list for you the many external and internal factors that can contribute to a person’s decision to give up on life, from addiction to isolation, from depression to hopelessness, from economic distress to medical difficulties.

And you certainly don’t need me to draw you a picture to show you how much these factors have become more and more prevalent in the life of 21st-century America. A life devoid both of purpose and of pleasure, after all, leaves little reason to stick around to witness another sunrise.

But I want to put this problem into an even larger context.

I found myself thinking about this event a few days later, when Donald Trump issued his now-infamous “get ready” tweet, taunting the Russians regarding the escalating tensions around the Syrian civil war. Suddenly, a prospect that many of us may have thought was an unwelcome artifact from a long-gone era – the scenario of a rapidly escalating military conflict between Washington and Moscow, with potential nuclear consequences – re-emerged as a very real possibility.

The thought occurred to me: can a society… or a nation… or an entire sentient species… itself become suicidal?

And if so, who could possibly intervene?

“We’re like the dinosaurs,” wrote Percy Farrell in his song “Pets” – “only we are doing ourselves in / much faster than they ever did.” Maybe it’s just me projecting my own existential struggles – I’ve considered the lure of the abyss myself more than once – but it sure seems to me at times that we are collectively wrestling with what Albert Camus called the only “really serious philosophical question.”

After all, if we were truly sincere about keeping this thing called human existence going for the long haul, we might be taking better care of the things that make that existence possible. We wouldn’t be focusing so much on narrow-minded power games, short-term interests, and petty territorial squabbles. We might pay more attention, and devote more effort, to making sure that everyone has the chance for a meaningful and joyful existence.

There was one song I expected to hear at that suicide prevention event but didn’t – so let me close this by quoting it…

When the day is long
And the night, the night is yours alone
When you’re sure you’ve had enough
Of this life, well hang on

Don’t let yourself go
‘Cause everybody cries
And everybody hurts sometimes

(I’d like to dedicate this column to the memory of my friend and former TRR writer Tom Kane.)