Category Archives: conservativism

Epistemic Closure in Poetry

The political impasse in my country with the hijacking of the Republican Party by hyper-conservative voices has brought to my focus the topic of epistemic closure.  This is the idea of an idea, or group of ideas, that so captivates a group that any disagreement is forbidden as it would threaten their unconscious need for certainty.  Carried to an extreme this phenomenon always produces a figure head, someone extremely immune from feedback from external reality like Donald Trump.

This morning I ran across a beautiful poem in the Times Literary Supplement which illustrates this phenomenon.  It then brought to my mind two other poems, all three of which I will now share:

Sleeping Dogs by Stephen Dobyns

The satisfied are always chewing something;
like eternal daybreak their smiles remain constant.
They think they travelled far to get here. In fact,
it was two or three steps. Their definitions
surround them like a kennel contains a hound.
Let’s say you rattle their gate. Let’s say you became
a flea nibbling the delicate skin of their belief.
One eye rolls up, a raised lip reveals a tooth.

Like a thrown stone imagining it will not fall
their explanations work to keep the world fixed.
And here you’ve come with your trumpet. Did you
think they would like your music? Your accusers
are blameless. They press their paws to their soft ears.
Why share their kennel if you won’t let them sleep?

And here is one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson who uses vivid, concrete language to describe the emphatic closing of a mind against any feedback from one’s private frame of reference:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

And finally here is an excerpt from “New Year Letter” by W. H. Auden who poignantly captures the duplicity of the social contract and the courage it takes to explore beneath its facade:

…only “despair

Can shape the hero who will dare

The desperate databases

Into the snarl of the abyss

That always lies just underneath

Our jolly picnic on the heath

Of the agreeable, where we bask,

Agreed on what we will not ask,

Bland, sunny, and adjusted by

The light of the accepted lie?

 

Language is Nuanced and Contextual

Ben Carson is now on stage with Trump, playing his part in the daily clown show.  He almost immediately made a splash when in his first speech after taking office as Housing and Urban Development Secretary described slaves on slave ships as “immigrants.”   When he was immediately criticized over this statement, he responded with, “Look up the definition of immigrants.”

Carson is another demonstration of the Trump administration’s lack of appreciation of nuance in language, reminding me of the former Supreme Court jurist, Antonin Scalia who argued, “The constitution means just what it says.”  Conservative politicians, and theologians, are literalists and do not consider the contextual dimension of words.  Though these very same persons will readily argue that one who cries “Fire” in a theater does not have the right to do so, that venue being one one “context” which is relevant to the use of words.

Carson replied in response to critics of his observation, “Look it up in the dictionary!.”  He is right, “immigrant” means someone moving to another country.  However, the notion that a black person in the bowels of an 18th century slave ship was an “immigrant” is just absolutely ridiculous.  And, though this is only obliquely related, let me show you a photo of Ben Carson and Jesus in his household, the nuances of which are highly comical.

If only I was skilled with photo-shop, you would soon see a picture of myself with Jesus and Buddha on either side of me, arms around me and myself with a beatific smile.  This photo is such a stunning example of how Ben Carson, and so many of the Republican Party, have no idea of how they are coming across to the onlooker.

ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/stats/day/literarylew.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

Hiking the Appalachian Trail.

In 2009 this phrase entered the English metaphorical lexicon as a synonym for having an extra-marital affair.  The Republican Governor of South Carolina, Mark Stanford disappeared from office for a suspicious amount of time and no one could fully account for his absence.  His staff at one point, under mounting pressure, finally explained that the governor was “hiking the Appalachian Trail” and could not be reached.  Shortly thereafter it was revealed that he was in Argentina cavorting with his sexy paramour.  Thus an apt metaphor for “cheating” came into our language. Stanford had to resign from the office and submit to the humiliation of the press, especially the late-night comedians who pilloried him for his hypocrisy.  Being an outspoken supporter of “family values” and moral propriety, his hypocrisy was apparent to all.  He was a broken man.

But now he is back in Congress as an outspoken Republican critic of Donald Trump while most of his party continues to cower before the “sound and fury” of Mr. Trump, all of which “signifies nothing.”  Sanford describes himself as a “dead man walking,” noting how that he lost everything and knows how it feels and so now has nothing to lose.  Circumstances of life, I like to call it that “bitch reality, slapped him in the face and he managed to find the courage to accept the loss of face and emerge with a newly found humility.

Disillusionment is painful.  It is particularly painful for those who are outspoken proponents of moral virtue and political correctness.  Such hypocrisy now abounds in the Republican Party and they have unwittingly elected as President the very epitome of dishonesty, insincerity, and moral depravity.  They now have the opportunity to use the words of the cartoon character Pogo and humbly lament, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Sanford declares he now has nothing to lose.  And he doesn’t.  The Republican Party needs to find that same humility and simply admit, “We made a mistake,” uttering the words that Trump is incapable of uttering.  And, furthermore, the entirety of our country needs to find this humility as Trump’s election is a reflection of the American soul and not merely the soul of those who voted for him.  We now have a learning opportunity before us.  Let’s see what happens.  Usually in these circumstances the wisdom of W. H. Auden is relevant, “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.”

(If you want to see more details about Govenor Sanford’s fall from power and rebirth, see the following link:  http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/02/mark-sanford-profile-214791)

Truth and a Mall Santa Claus

A street preacher, already notorious in Amarillo, Texas, disrupted a shopping mall’s Santa visitation with children recently, loudly announcing to them, “Santa Claus is not real.”  There is no doubt he was very sincere in what he was doing; for, yes, Santa Claus is not “real” but that does not mean his tradition in our country is not valid for little children.  But he demonstrated the wisdom of the bumper sticker I’ve been obsessed with recently, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

This gentleman believes he has the “truth” and that the “truth” most boldly proclaimed because hapless parents lack the spiritual depth he has or they would not subject their innocent children to this falsity.  And this illustrates the dilemma of “truth” and the danger that occurs when one is “filled with the spirit” and knows that he has the truth exclusively.  As admitted in the past, I write from experience and now realize just how arrogant I was, now seeing Truth as much more subtle part of a mystical dimension of human experience which we can never own.  But, oh is it tempting to think that we do!

I readily admit that I feel I am writing “truth” when I discourse here but have no illusion that it is axiomatic, written in stone, sent from on “high” Truth.  I have only a simple perspective, shaped by my biological and social past and for some unknown reason I am moved to “hold forth” in this venue, taking comfort in the knowledge that no one is being coerced to pay any attention.  And oh so many don’t!

The street preacher’s “truth-proclaiming” belied the certainty that consumes him about his beliefs and that certainty is now consuming American culture, especially the conservative element.  The braggadocio of Donald Trump and his promise to “Make America Great Again” appealed to a segment of the population who pines foe the days when life was more certain.  Furthermore, Trump’s rhetoric appealed to fundamentalist Christians who readily looked past his moral depravity in the hope that the “certainty” of their faith could be reassured.  Certainty is so much easier than faith.

But the certainty I’m exploring here belies a profound lack of certainty, a deep existential doubt that must be assuaged by addictively clinging to some dogma, even “dogma” that I have found to have great value once I had the courage to see the role my ego was playing in my immature and dogmatic faith.  When one is existentially insecure, he must find something to latch on to in order to alleviate the emotional, spiritual duress he would otherwise feel.

(See story about Mall Santa verbal attack, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2016/12/13/preacher-children-santa-claus-does-not-exist/95371826/)

 

Reason and Politics

I’ve followed politics closely for the past 28 years or so and I’ve noticed each time that on some level I merely want “my pony to win the race.” I merely want to be on the winning side and oh how disappointing it is when “my pony”, particularly in a Presidential campaign, does not win.  But in this same 28 years I’ve been increasingly conscious that the drama being played out is far greater than my youthful desire to be on the winning side and even in crushing defeats I’ve always maintained that there is some “method to this madness” or that there is a “Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  In other words, the picture is always much bigger than I can see and the “picture” before me is always merely the latest screen shot of the historical drama that is ongoing.

I have a bevy of close friends here in Taos, NM  who I see quite often and we are on the same page, being fearful of what lies before us but having firm confidence that “the process” will prevail, even if we are disappointed on this occasion.  For life itself is a process, a “flow”, and it will continue even if catastrophe should come, be that a personal catastrophe and my life is suddenly snuffed out, or even if the whole species is wiped out!  The picture is always bigger than the one I see or even bigger than the one that humankind sees at the moment.  We are always caught up in the historical moment and have no idea of what actually is going on.

Of course, some think that they do and have firm confidence in their perspective, often vowing that God has declared it to them.  To them I would merely note that when the flat earth view of the world was crumbling, most people clung tenaciously to their antiquated world view and even put to death many of those who saw things otherwise.  And, of course, “God was leading them.”  We have only a finite view of the world, but understanding and experiencing this finitude is so frightening that we usually disallow it from every seeping into our awareness.

No one’s reason is autonomous.  We think we employ reason to draw correct conclusions but science has proven that reason is always under the control of our preconceptions so that we are inclined to see only what we want to see.  W. H. Auden emphasized the need of our reasoning being, “redeemed from incestuous fixation on her own logic.”  Auden recognized that our reason was subservient to an “incestuous logic” which always provides us justification for our conscious rational grasp of our world.  When we are subservient only to reason, we need to recall the wisdom of Goethe who noted, “They call it Reason, using light celestial, just to outdo the beasts in being bestial.”

“The World is My Oyster” (Not)

I hardly know where to start.  This Donald Trump demon that has been unleashed on the American psyche has tripped all of my triggers too and “literarylew” has “more offenses at my beck than thoughts to put them in.”  So I’m reaching into my stuffed “beck” and pulling out, “The world is not my oyster.”

To Trump, the world is his oyster.  He is a two-year old boy who never had limits set when he went through the developmental stage of the “terrible two’s” and so remains a two year old boy, “breathing out threatenings and slaughterings” anytime he is faced with a limit.  All of us go through this developmental stage, very much related to what we clinicians describe as the Oedipal transition. Though this is a challenging moment in our young lives, most of us learn to control our rage and acclimate to the external world, accepting deferred gratification over immediate gratification.  Without this willingness, we fail to fully enter the human race.

I know it was challenging for myself and even remember a dream in my early thirties when I was beginning to address my early childhood repression.  In this dream I was a furious little tyke, red-faced, shaking my fist in defiance when denied what I wanted.  It took a girl friend at the time to point out, with a laugh, what that dream was about.  She knew me very well!  And I can tell you very clearly now, in my mid-sixties, I feel the frustration of dealing with the experience of the world not being my oyster.  I often declare, “I want it all” and add, “Why should I have to accept limits” as I deal with the frustrations of aging, especially the realization that the river Styx is fast approaching.  But mercifully, back in my terrible two’s, the gods (i.e. “God”) recognized he did not need to unleash a redneck Arkansas Trump on the world and tied me down with a fundamentalist Christian load of guilt and shame.  And, central Arkansas, you better be grateful to Him!

But Trump has used wealth to create a world for himself in which he could get by with the assumption that the world is his oyster.  And, now given to the severe pathology of the American psyche, the Republican Party finds itself willing to cater to his narcissism to the point that he is their nominee for the Presidency.  Furthermore, and gravely troubling to me, evangelical Christians are lining up behind him in over whelming numbers displaying a profound lack of critical thinking skills.

Accepting the fact that the world is not our oyster is merely accepting limits.  Watching Trump allows us to see an impulse that we all have, if we could only come unleashed for a few minutes.  I think Trump’s fanatical following by the Republican extremists represents their unconscious desire to become unleashed, to give vent to their darkest, most violent impulses which are a very “human” response to the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”  But this is a dimension of the “human” experience that must be kept in check and certainly does not need to be encouraged by demogogues.

The Ego and “Distinction Drawing”

Fr. Richard Rohr today offered observations about the ego which are relevant to my present focus on the “distinction drawing” that is an essential part of our identity.  He pointed out how the ego is concerned only about itself which is just a basic dimension of being human and only becomes toxic when it metastasizes and begins to project its shadow outside onto “them” and in extreme attempts to obliterate “them.”  The best example is Isis but the same phenomena is found with any extremist group.

Ordinary ego functioning is, yes, “egotistic” but it is usually benign and helps provide group/tribal coherence.  It provides an identity which always sets one apart from “them.”  I shared recently about my upbringing in a conservative Landmark Baptist Church and it does provide an example of an inordinate need to “draw distinctions” and thus overly emphasized the biblical admonishment, “Come out ye from among them and be ye separate” and “Be ye a peculiar people.”  I often facetiously note to friends that my little church clearly succeeded in this endeavor and, with chagrin, admit I won the prize for “peculiar”!  But let me assure you that in my little central Arkansas community these people were not toxic, were very good people, and did a great job in providing me the social and educational structure that would allow me to now be able to “discourse” about them.  Conservative groups, with non-toxic ego needs, are the backbone of any tribe and even of the entire world.

But when the toxicity metastasizes, we find phenomena like Isis and Westboro Baptist Church, the latter of which is a caricature of Baptist churches.  In these groups the “distinction drawer” has become so powerful due to repressed fears and anxieties from the reptilian brain that there is a need to strike out at somebody.  In a way they are so much under the grip of the unconsciousness that they are powerless which is how Rohr interprets Jesus’ dying words on the Cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”  Jesus knew that those who hated him to the point of wanting to kill him merely were not conscious of what they were doing.

When distinction drawing becomes too rigid, when the need for boundaries becomes paramount, it always leads to an over emphasis of what sets the group apart rather seeking for common denominators with others. It is not accidental that one of the most appealing dimensions of Donald Trump is his promise to “Build that wall” to keep out the Mexicans.  And it is not often remembered now but not long after he started this emphasis one of his competitors went to the absurd extreme of proposing to build a wall between our country and Canada also!  Trump’s message appeals to frightened people who see their out dated certainties threatened.  The message of “building a wall” is a symbol that resonates with the need to “set boundaries” and keep change from happening, not recognizing that “change” is an essential dynamic of life and must be embraced rather than opposed.  Otherwise we would still be living in the Stone Age.