Category Archives: right-wing extremism

Ta-Nehesi Coates: “Thinking They are White”

Ta-nehesi Coates’s book on racism was one of the most provocative books I read last year. Mr. Coates grew up an impoverished black child in Baltimore, Maryland, managed to escape with an education, and wrote this very revealing book about what it is like to grow up under the tyranny of racism in ’70’s and 80’s America.  One line that really grabbed me a class of people who learned to “think they are white” and the power that comes with that understanding.  For, being white in America did carry, and still does to a large degree, implicit assumptions of power, i.e. prerogative.  Growing up a poor white boy in Arkansas I clearly remember discovering early the “black-white” distinction in my culture, the blacks being known, of course, as “N…….s” and viewed with great scorn and contempt.  Looking back I now recall distinctly how important this was as a poor white, having a class of people who were lower on the totem pole than we were though we were very low socio-economically.  Learning to “think I was white” was one of the most important early discoveries of my life, very much a formative part of my identity the early stages of which involves drawing distinctions between self and others, including between my group and other groups.

But Mr. Coates’ observation, “thinking they are white” really cut to the quick with me, conveying to me what he had seen about the smug observations we make early in our childhood which become solid bedrock in our cognitive grasp of the world.  And with my grasp of my “whiteness” I knew that though I lacked many things, no one could take away from me my “whiteness” and with that status came the power of eating on the right side of the diner, using the nicer bathrooms, drinking at the white water fountains, and going to the better white schools.  It was nothing I thought about…consciously.  It was a given, a basic assumption, an implicit part of the template through which I viewed the world.  I had a power that many others did not have, regardless of how powerlessness I might feel otherwise in my life.

Though I have long since gone beyond this racist view of the world, I know the template is still there in the depths of my heart thought quite faint.  In the past decade as I’ve aged I have recognized faint racist imagery and thoughts creep into my consciousness, an experience which has not alarmed me because I see them for what they are.  The earliest imprints from our culture, even those “burned in” on our pre-conscious soul, never leave us.   People may vehemently deny being racist but very often their behavior and passing thoughts betray them.  For example, note the Republican Party which is quick to deny racism but has systematically and persistently sought to deny blacks the right to vote in recent years.

Racism is only the surface of a deeper problem, an intrinsic dimension of identity formulation already alluded to.  For an identity to begin to organize and to escape the matrix in which it first existed, that “blooming, buzzing, confusing world of sense experience” spoken of by William James…it must draw distinctions between it and the “other”.  Blacks in my early life, and in most of my generation, was one of the earliest “others” that we found and when we “othered” them it was done with great emotional intensity.

So racism is merely an essential part of American identity and all cultures and tribes have some similar process at the bedrock of their collective psyche.  But I’ve discoursed here only as an introduction to my next blog post, the Christian faith utilized as a contrivance for identity formulation and, devoid of maturation, serving only to “other” masses of people.

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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 is an Overly Indulged Child

At times I actually feel sorry for Donald Trump.  For, like all of us he is a child at heart and his campaign demonstrates that beneath the surface he is a frightened, even terrified little boy.  Anyone who harbors unconscious terror like that must find someone or some group to project their own perceived inadequacies.  And it is a clinical fact that privileged children who have been overly indulged have a difficult time with boundaries, not learning that there is a world “out there” beyond their own private fantasies

Trump has consistently demonstrated blatant disregard for common courtesy and civility.  He even told the nation last week about his penis size, not being aware of how incredibly gauche this was.  And I’m sure he exaggerated…like I always do! Most of us who would make a declaration like, especially being in his position, would be checked by consideration of how it would be perceived by his audience and by the nation.  But with his narcissism, he lacks a “filter” or antennae which would allow him to be aware of how he is coming across to those outside of his private fantasy.

Someone with this deep-seated malady cannot admit they are wrong; they must always be right!  That is because beneath their grandiose persona they are filled with an unconscious dread based on the perception they are intrinsically wrong.  This “wrongness” is certainly nameless and if one with this problem could ever manage to simply muster the courage to own this feeling of wrongness, to acknowledge it, to “name the demon” there would be some relief if not complete.  It is similar to the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous, “Admitting that I am an alcoholic.”  This is the reason that every time Trump makes an outrageous statement or does something ridiculous, he never back tracks but only doubles down on his position.

But, back to my original point, he is in a world of pain.  I am not, however, excusing him or attempting to mitigate the tragedy that he is putting on our collective table.  We all live in a “world of pain” and carry the impact of the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir too” inside our hearts. I certainly do. But most of us have some ability to address this pain, acknowledge it, make appropriate adaptations, and live in this world with some respect for his fellow man.  Trump is sorely lacking in this regard and, as Shakespeare told us, “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.”  And, I would add, “not so great ones” also.

Trump, Romney, and Courage

I am resurrecting this blog after a long hiatus.  I should explain that my past as a mental health professional will be reflected in my human emphasis to the political scene.  And the current campaign for the presidency of my country, the United States, provides so much fodder for this emphasis.  Yes, we are all individuals but we “individuals” always coalesce into groups which are very revealing about our individual…and often hidden…predilictions.

Today I’d like to focus on Mitt Romney and the courage he demonstrated yesterday.  He dared to attack current GOP front runner, Donald Trump, by suggesting that Trump has tax issue that could prove to be very problematic.  I do not think that Romney is stupid and he knew that Trump would fire back with venom and would point out the obvious that Romney himself appeared to have tax issues four years ago when he was the GOP nominee.  Well, of course Trump responded immediately with his “Tweet” obsession and castigated Romney as being “a dope,” as “awkward and goofy,” and “looked the fool” on his own tax issues in 2012.  Well, of course, Trump is right on target.  BUT, most politicians would confront Romney on these issues without being to rudely personal and personally insulting.  But Trump has consistently been completely without consideration of commonplace civilities in this campaign, revealing a nascent…well, maybe not so “nascent”… sociopathic disregard that most of us have to not undress someone that we oppose and even dislike.  This is because of a social contract, “I will not ‘undress’ you, if you will not undress me.”

I have come face to face with bullies before, back on the playground on my youth and the “playground” of my adulthood.  They scared me.  I knew they saw my foibles and could readily strip me naked and would readily do so if I confronted them, for they had no limits.  “Civility” is a contrivance, yes a “falsity” that we agree upon, but occasionally a sociopath comes along who reveals just how specious that contrivance is.  It is scary to have witnessed just how readily this current slate of GOP candidates have cowered before this sociopath.

We are such scared little critters.  I confess, I am.  But I’m gaining courage in my old age and thus I am speaking out here in this cyber black hole which is the only format I really have.  This powerlessness is because of the powerlessness and cowardice that has charactized my life.  But, perhaps I am now “growing a pair.”

The Pleasure of Being a Victim

In my country there currently a rise of “victimhood,” best illustrated by the current standoff in Burns, Oregon by right-wing armed extremists.  These men have succumbed to the siren call of politicians on the far right who routinely appeal to a profound sense of alienation and despair in the hearts of the disenfranchised often who happen to be “low-information voters.”  One of the most popular pieces of red-meat these politicians toss out there is, “President Obama is coming to take your guns.”  And related to this fear is the fear of “government/Presidential over reach” which is the suspicion that the government is intruding too far into individual freedoms.

I grew up in this madness, though the version I lived through never led to anything like we are witnessing today.  My father was the patriarch in my early life and he often brought home right-wing fears that evoked fears that were already in my youthful heart as I was discovering that life was capricious all too often.  But dad never would have participated in an armed insurrection.  And another factor in my life was hyper-conservative fundamentalist Christianity which presented me with a “loving” God who was always ready to pinch the heads off of any miscreant and that the world was a really bad place, merely a temporary abode we must endure before we go to heaven and pluck on harps and fawn over Jesus for quatrillions of years.  In my study of religious history, this style of religion is termed “the religion of the dispossessed.”  And my family roots, as well as denominational roots, stemmed from the post-Civil War era when Southerners were first dealing with the alienation that comes from having one’s life wrenched from them by some invading force.

But fear is just a fundamental dimension of human experience.  Human culture is a contrivance that has evolved to help us deal with this fear…usually by completely avoiding it…but also by providing adaptations that allow us to invest in the common good and realize that in spite of the fact that life is transitory and capricious it is a worthwhile and important endeavor.  And I think that religion, and other expressions of faith, can provide a helpful accommodation, but only if we can avoid the challenge of using our accommodation only to escape of the vulnerability that is intrinsic to the human experience.

I have fear, often a lot of it, usually in the form of anxiety.  But for some reason, I can now cope with it more effectively than when I was a child and so without the need for stockpiles of guns and ammunition, belief in an absent Despotic Deity, or even bowing before my country’s true God—consumerism.  So, what does this get me?  Well, if I take it down to MacDonald’s in the morning and lie about my age, and given them a dollar, they will give me a senior cup of coffee.  I don’t think there is anything to “get” other than the simple pleasure of life, the beauty of this world and being here to experience it and be able to handle my frustration that it will not last long enough to satisfy the demands of my ego.

But, this approach denies me the great delight and satisfaction of victim hood, knowing that “they” are always out there to get me, mistreat me, and shame me.  It was so ego-rewarding back then to know that my tribe was a “band of brothers” beleaguered by forces greater than I/we could control but that “we” were together in our faith and knew firmly that we were believing and doing the right thing.  And if anyone should challenge our belief system, we would merely rely on the comforting premise, “We are right, and they are wrong.”  And we knew this because God was leading us.  And armed men in Oregon have the same comfort today, knowing they are “right” and they are willing even to die and to kill because if their convictions.

But this emphasis on “being right” and certainty of having acquired this status always stems from a deep-seated lack of security and feeling of “wrongness”.  This existential doubt is buried deep in the unconscious and, of course, those driven by those subterranean forces never will consider its influence in the choices they make.  To consider these “influences” that are beyond the grasp of consciousness would require a knowledge of the mystery of life, feelings of not being as much in control as once thought, existential doubt all of which lead ultimately to a need of faith.

These feelings of powerlessness often evoke an expression of physical power often in the form of overt aggression.  The pain felt within has to find expression and inevitably leads to acting out, a phenomena vividly illustrated by anthropologist Rene Girard in his classic book, “Violence and the Sacred.”

(New York Times article related to the above:  The delight of victimhood—http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/27/opinion/sunday/the-real-victims-of-victimhood.html)