Category Archives: 2016 Presidential Election

Have We Been Bamboozled?

Before I deactivated my Facebook account last month, I ventured into a discussion of truth.  One astute individual noted, “One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us.”  Another observation discovered decades ago put it this way, “Our thinking is the belated rationalization of conclusions to which we’ve already been led by our desires.”

It is sobering to toy with the notion that we believe only what we want to and avoid anything that challenges this belief system.  This is graphically being illustrated currently with the power of the Trumpian delusional system to capture the reins of power in our government. This phenomenon is not intrinsically “bad” as it is merely an intrinsic “human” quality which each of us begin our life with and often grow beyond as we reach maturity.  But it becomes “bad” and even evil when our maturity does not include spiritual maturity so that we can have the humility to recognize this narcissistic tendency and be open to acknowledging self-deceit.

Self-deceit is the primary dimension of the Bible quip I offered yesterday about sin, noting that the essence of sin lies in the “thoughts and intents of the heart.”  It is easy to live in a religious culture and glibly acknowledge being a sinner but it is frightening to toy with the notion that sin goes deeply into our inner-most being (i.e. “heart”) and influences our view of the world, even including our view of ourselves.  Our usual response, when threatened with this truth is to utilize our ego’s defense system and simply cling more tightly to our customary view of the world and of ourselves, not daring to venture near the anguish of disillusionment.  This is most significantly an issue with respect to our certainties, including our religious certainties.  As W. H. Auden noted, “And Truth met him, and held out her hand.  But he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”  The “Gospel” of Pogo put it this way, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Advertisements

Vaclav Havel and Epistemic Closure

Epistemic closure and close-mindedness has been one of my “obsessions” in the six years I’ve been blogging.  There is no doubt that this is because I have spent my life in that prison and this “blathering” is my feeble effort to talk/think/write my way out of it.  But this effort is teaching me that there is no escape…or as Sartre put it in his short story, “No Exit,”…for we are confined to live in the world of appearance where we can only at best, “see through a glass darkly,” trusting that there is some, “Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  And I do have faith in that Divinity but the “faith” and the “Divinity” itself is of a different stripe than the one I was presented with by the happenstance of birth.  Accepting this world of limitations is slow and tedious and one is always dragged there kicking and screaming, for the ego wants to cling to the illusion that it is completely in control.  Accepting life in this world of incomplete knowledge…”seeing darkly”…is what I think the Biblical “fall” was about, the “fall” from the Uroborous of innocence into the world of cognition.

In the following quotation from Vaclav Havel’s 1986 book of essays, “Living in Truth,” we see his description of the, “post-totalitarian state” that he lived through in Czechoslovakia in the late 1980’s, leading to the Velvet Revolution which he led in 1992.  By the term, “post-totalitarian state” Havel was referring to a subtle form of totalitarianism which purports to no longer be totalitarian but only because the system of bondage has become systematized so finely that it is not readily recognized.  It brings to mind an observation made by psychologist B.F. Skinner who, in his book, “Beyond Freedom and Dignity,” declared that the most pernicious form of slavery is one which is so subtle that it does not breed revolt.  In Havel’s description we find a description of epistemic closure on the group level which closely parallels the epistemic closure of the individuals who have been consumed by “group think,” a dark cloud with whom they have a symbiotic relationship.  (I will address the individual dimension of this problem in my next post.)

The post-industrial system touches people at every step, but it does so with its ideological gloves on.  This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies, government by bureaucracy is called popular government, the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class, the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his or her ultimate liberation, depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical election become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views, military occupation becomes fraternal assistance.  Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything.  It falsifies the past.  It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future.  It falsifies statistics.  It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus.  It pretends to respect human rights.  It pretends to persecute no one.  It pretends to fear nothing.  It pretends to pretend nothing. (pg. 44-45, Vaclav Havel, “Living in Truth.”)

Thomas Mann Offered Prophetic Word to the U.S. in 1947

Literature can be a portal into the human soul.  As the current political and cultural drama continues to unfold in my country, it has been so interesting to stumble across observations from ancient…and not so ancient…cultures whose insights were so relevant to what is unfolding now in the American psyche.  The human soul is constant.  It never changes.  Oh yes, the historical moment changes but the human response to circumstances of any moment always reveal common themes.  Here I wish to share a lengthy excerpt from Thomas Mann’s 1947 novel, “Dr. Faustus,” which is very relevant to present day America:

We are lost…the war is lost; but that means more than a lost campaign, it means that in very truth WE are lost: our character, our cause, our hope, our history.  It is all up with Germany, it will be all up with her.  She is marked down for collapse, economic, moral, political, spiritual, in short all-embracing, unparalleled, final collapse.  I suppose I have not wished for it, this that threatens, for it is madness and despair.  I suppose I have not wished for it because my pity is too deep, my grief and sympathy are with this unhappy nation, when I think of the exaltation and blind ardour of its uprising, the breaking out, the breaking up, the breaking down, the purifying and fresh start, the national new birth of ten years ago, that seemingly religious intoxication—which then betrayed itself to any intelligent person for what it was by its crudity, vulgarity, gangsterism, sadism, degradation, filthiness, ah how unmistakably it bore within itself the seeds of this whole war!  My heart contracts painfully at the thought of that enormous investment of faith, zeal, lofty historic emotion; all this we made, all this is now puffed away in a bankruptcy without compare.  No, I surely did not want it, and yet—I have been driven to want it, I wish for it today and will welcome it, out of hatred for the outrageous contempt of reason, the vicious violation of truth, the cheap, filthy backstairs mythology, the criminal degradation and confusion of standards, the abuse, corruption, and blackmail of all that was good, genuine, trusting, and trustworthy in our old Germany.  For liars and lickspittles mixed us a poisonous draft and took away our senses.  We drank—for we Germans perennially yearn for intoxication—and under its spell, through years of deluded high living, we committed a superfluity of shameful deeds, which now must be paid for…with with despair.  (Thomas Mann, “Dr. Faustus”)

Trump Inauguration and Our Division

Yesterday, something happened in my country I never thought would happen.  Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President.  This has put the “right wing” (conservative) of the political spectrum in complete power of our government leaving those of us who support the “left wing” (liberal) scratching our heads in bewilderment.  This election has brought to a head a culture war that has building steam for decades and now the venom is so intense that I don’t see any immediate solution other than to hope that the fractious Republican Party and their mentally unstable leader will continue the internal meltdown that has been going on for decades.  And that would be a Pyrrhic victory as our country desperately needs a viable conservative voice.

I am one of those who has always been cursed with seeing at least two sides to every conflict, and sometimes more.  In this intense battle of collective wills, I’m passionately behind the liberal cause but I have been in the conservative camp for about half of my life and can see things their way.  I see that they have every right to see things through what I would call their very narrow view point but we liberals have the right to see things through our less narrow view point.  And here is where religion has gotten involved as conservatives have an enthusiastic support from evangelical Christians and their interpretation of their faith grants them the firm conviction that their view of the world, including politics,  is “right” because God is leading them.  I owe a lot to this background of religious fervor and understand the ardor.  It provides the basis of my very deep current faith though that ardor of my youth has taken a different direction which allows me to see that God is “big” enough to include different perspectives on this and all matters.  (God is so “big” that words like “big” are foolish!”)

Being right is such a pyrrhic victory.  For “right” is always determined by an external reference point and eventually one group’s definition of the term conflict gets in the way with another’s.  (Sounds a bit like marriage huh?)  Any group, any cause that gets too carried away with being “right” brings to my mind Isis; for there we have an example of what happens when “right” is carried to an extreme.  Isis has absolutely no doubt that “god” is leading them.

Here I have not provided an answer.  That is because I don’t have one. And that brings to my mind the profound wisdom of T. S. Eliot:

I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing. (Four Quartets)

 

Trump Inauguration is Upon Us!

The inauguration of Trump this week, and the multitude of problems that are already attending his presence on the stage has me really alarmed.  And the greatest concern I have is his supporters who have chosen to be oblivious to his mental instability and lament re people like myself, “Why don’t you just stop being “sour grapes” and get behind our new President”.  Some of them even have the audacity to then describe him as “elected fair and square,” completely disregarding the overt chicanery that went into getting him elected.  Ordinarily, “sour grapes” would be a legitimate complaint and I always do feel it myself when my “pony in the race” loses.  But his supporters have overlooked their own recent contempt of Trump and recognition of his mental instabiliand expect the rest of the country…and world…to do the same.  Now all of us are “conflicted” as in having a few “bats in the belfry” and that is certainly true for myself.  But Donald Trump has given us so much insight into his flawed psyche that it is apparent to anyone willing to be honest with himself that he is seriously mentally ill.

Last weekend Saturday Night Live skewered Trump on life television again.  It sunk in on me that they are humiliating him as are most of the other comedians and that is so easy to do as he is such an humiliation to my country and to the world.  We are being laughed at and should be.  But what I realized as I watched the comedy sketch is that the ridicule only exacerbates the problem as his supporters who even catch a glimpse of the ridicule will then feel ridiculed and humiliated themselves making it even more unlikely that they will lessen their support for him.  For, when facing ridicule and humiliation, it is human nature to defend himself rigorously, staunchly defending what to others is his lunacy as the pain of humiliation, of being “wrong” is more than the ego can bear.  Yes, have been there, done that!  Trump’s absurd refusal to acknowledge that he has made a mistake, to utter the words “I was wrong” reflects why he is the choice of so many people in the country who, I allege, cannot acknowledge themselves being wrong in critical dimensions of their life.  And, it is no accident that early in the campaign Trump, even as he vied for evangelical Christian creds, admitted that he had never felt the need to ask God for forgiveness.  His shame base is so intense that on that note he flunked the “Christian test” as he has consistently done…though evangelical leaders have continued to fawn over him and evangelical Christians have lined up behind him religiously.

I’m not for sure what ridicule accomplishes other than exacerbating the cultural divide that is now so apparent.  It makes people like me appear contemptuous and arrogant.  And anyone with my latent insecurity certainly is not free of those qualities.  But what can one do?  Write a meaningless blog post like this and “piss into the wind.”?  Well, that is better than reasoning with Trump or his supporters as “reason” has nothing to do with this matter and at least tossing this blather into the cyber void gets it somewhat off my chest.  Why in the hell can’t people just set down and be reasonable like myself?  Chuckle, chuckle!  Once again, this is not about reason.  Perhaps that is something we could realize from this mess, that there is a dimension of human experience that is beyond the grasp of mere reason.  However, those who most need to learn this are the least likely to know and experience it.  It would be too scary to experience and it is easier for them to scream their platitudes and certainties a little louder and blame Obama or “them” a little more.

(Here is the link to an hilarious spoof of Trump’s inauguration.  https://qz.com/885900/saturday-night-live-the-last-snl-before-trumps-inauguration-of-course-featured-alec-baldwin-in-the-cold-open/)

Negative Capability, Humility, & Politics

For 40 years I’ve been keenly tuned into literary wisdom, often memorizing tons of poetry and prose, some remnants of which remain today but only those which resonated with the deepest recesses of my mind/heart.  Facebook offered me one gem yesterday that will stick with me, from Gore Vidal, “The unfed mind devours itself.”  That took only seconds before it fluttered down into the inner-most depths of my being and I understood what he was saying.  All of us have a mind and it is always incorporating “stuff” from our world but by nature this “stuff” is then incorporated into our reality by our ego’s self-serving grasp and thus we skew it to merely reassure ourselves of our premises.  For example, when the earth was assumed to be flat, any “rational” intellectual of the day took this as an unquestioned assumption just as when I was a youth in the South I never doubted my culture’s wisdom that blacks were inferior to whites and should “get back in their place.”  This does not make practitioners of conservative tradition “bad”; it just makes them human and therefore capable of “badness.”

But Vidal was challenging us to consider that a mind trapped within the premises that constitute its “reality” can metastasize, and slowly eat away at its very core, devouring itself, or as Shakespeare put it, “feeding even on the pith of life.”  A mind imprisoned in this dark world has not ventured to explore its parameters, its boundaries, and to tippy-toe into the world of the liminal where “what is ‘out there’” and “what is ‘in here’” is not so clear and distinct.  This is the very heart of spirituality but when “spirituality” consists of dogma (“well-worn and ready phrases that build comfortable walls against the wilderness”–Conrad Aiken), even spirituality has drifted into the domain of the ersatz and is the very antithesis of the teachings of persons like Jesus Christ.

This is the “willful ignorance” spoken of in the New Testament (2nd Peter).  Terry Eagleton, reviewing “The Limits of Critique” by Rita Felski in the current edition of London Review of Books declared, “The closest one can come to the truth is a knowledge of one’s self-deception.” This knowledge is the awareness of a penchant to be “wrong,” that one “sees through a glass darkly” and inevitably will lead to inevitably to the pain of disillusionment occasionally as the flicker of light burns through some of our ego’s obfuscation.  This is related to poet John Keats’ term negative capability which is the ability of some individuals, usually writers or artists, who can delve into the realm of ambiguity and uncertainty and not live enslaved by religious or philosophical certainty.

But the willful ignorance noted by St. Peter is an unconscious blindness to even the possibility of knowing that one might be deceived.  One cannot handle even the notion of being wrong. This problem is relevant to the Dunning-Kruger effect though I’m hesitant to use this that term because it refers to “stupid people” and my focus here is people that are often very bright and not stupid in the least.  These are merely people who lack some version of “negative capability,” their “non-literary” version being my recognition that negative capability is not for everyone and that in fact the world could not with function with too much of it!

But when “negative capability” is squashed to the extent that all vestiges of it are obliterated, the result will always be an arrogant certainty which will be some version of, “Let’s Make America Great Again.”  And when this ego need metastasizes to some point, some version of Isis will appear on the stage be it Nazi Germany or the extremism of the hinterlands of modern day evangelical Christianity.

I want to include a brilliant observation by Hannah Arendt from her book, “The Origins of Totalitarianism.”

Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men* as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

The Peril of an Unexamined Life

This bumper sticker, actually the title of a book by Thubten Chodron, probably summarized what life had to teach me in 2016.  This wisdom has been percolating in my heart for several years and primarily with the Presidential election in my country I finally “got it” fully, seeing how much lunacy I’ve subscribed to over my lifetime merely because I subscribed to every idle thought that fluttered through my mind without giving any of them much scrutiny.

I can’t fully explain how my life ever took the course of getting out of the echo-chamber variety of thought that I was born into and indoctrinated with, destined to continue for my allotted “three score and ten” years.  I do remember in my teen years posing a question or two in Sunday school that challenged some of the premises of my belief system but I readily overlooked my realization that my questions were not being answered and continued dutifully along my charted course into my twenties.

But critical thinking flirted with me, gradually finding a home, and I discovered the wisdom of the Greeks who told us to avoid “the unexamined life.”  For if we never mature to the point of using the metacognitive skills that our neocortex blesses us with, we will live our life in a very narrow world of unexamined preconceptions.  This is what prompted the fear of Henry David Thoreau that he would come to the end of his life and realize that what he had lived was not really life at all.   And this is very much what Jesus had in mind when he warned us about “gaining the whole world and losing our own soul.”  Jesus knew that we are only a soul, a spiritual being having an earthly moment, and to never engage in the “working out of our own salvation with fear and trembling,” as the Apostle Paul would  put it, would mean never knowing that Inner Essence that seeks so desperately to find expression.

Thinking itself is never the problem.  The problem is our ego’s attachment to our thinking which too often blocks us from the realization that other people might have equally valid ways of thinking about the world.  This is only too apparent in my country now as the division between drastically different ways of viewing the world has been exposed by the arrival of Donald Trump and the phenomenon of Trumpism.  And there can be no resolution unless these contrasting belief systems employ some transcendent reference point and get beyond themselves long enough to focus on a common good. I sometimes facetiously suggest to friends that what we need to have is the threat from an alien life form that threatens our very existence!  Perhaps that would encourage us to overlook some of our petty differences.