Friday, February 19, 2016

Our Psychotic Politics (and the P Word)

First, the politicians.  Are they crazier and more vicious than usual?  It's strangely comforting to be reminded of past precedent, as President Obama did in his Illinois address and elsewhere.  Thomas Jefferson was accused of being---wait for it--a Muslim, and some opponents warned that his election would mean that murder and rape would be openly taught.  Lincoln was called the obscene ape of Illinois, and worse.  And of course (though Obama didn't mention this) some of Lincoln's political opponents conspired to assassinate him, his vice-president and secretary of state on the same night.  One succeeded, at Ford's Theatre.

Apart from outright violence, there are plenty of other examples of outrageous charges and insults, and of persistent obstructionism.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt experienced both, during the Depression and even during World War II, which was not the unanimous national effort as depicted in surviving imagery.

But historical precedent, while calming, creates comfort that soon grows cold. President Obama spoke about the danger to democracy posed by political officeholders who can't civilly contend or eventually compromise, for political reasons.  But that's only one danger, and only one reason for it.  We have officeholders who can't civilly contend because their ideology forbids it, or because their political ambition and personal agenda mandate their inflammatory talk and action.  We have officeholders who are not equipped, intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, for the job they were elected to do.

We have a new communications environment with new power.  Demagogues have often arisen and flourished in new communications environment--newspapers, magazines, especially radio.  Now in the television plus social media environment, we have new and so far successful demagogues, exploiting the new possibilities of these combined media.

Yet there are echoes.  The transit of Donald Trump--from an underestimated joke to the candidate others leave alone as they fight among themselves, to a populist figure trading on specific fears and prejudices as well as an image of personal power--tracks pretty well with the rise of Hitler.

Ted Cruz is more of a Joe McCarthy figure (that, plus his physical resemblance, prompted political scientist Jonathan Bernstein to dub him Tail Gunner Ted, since McCarthy was known as Tail Gunner Joe.)  Cruz operates in a different way from Trump. He uses political professionals and local conservative leaders to build political machinery to form a power base.  There's a lot that's subterranean about his candidacy.  He uses code words with far more aplomb than Rubio.

  While it may be impolitic to call fellow politicians idiots and fascists (as President Obama said), those of us who are not politicians must call them as we see them, and some of these guys are idiots, some are fascists, and some are both.

Political support for obstructionism comes from powerful organized groups or, these days, a few billionaires.  But crazy pols--or evil pols that just talk crazy--also need response from the crazy side of ordinary people, who vote, or at least talk to opinion pollsters.

So, the people.

"Because when people are scared, then strange things can happen in politics. When people are nervous and feel threatened, then we can get a politics that is not about bringing people together, but is about “us and them,” and looking for somebody to blame."--President Obama

We typically deal in labels and shorthand abstractions, like income inequality or political discontent.  But people don't live in the abstract.  They live every day.

First, there's the normal darker side of human nature.  It isn't necessarily predominant, as has been pretty much the majority view of professionals who misunderstand evolution (sometimes willfully) or who believe that human nature is basically sinful, and cannot be otherwise without the intercession of an omnipotent being.

On the other hand, it's silly to deny that the darker side exists and is often expressed.  When President Obama spoke about getting our politics to align with how the American people approach their daily lives, it must be said that in terms of how some people live their daily lives, it is so aligned now--with aggressive, aggrieved, resentful, deluded, angry, clueless and/or greedy behavior.  I'm not sure having our politicians behave as some parents do at Little League games (one of Obama's examples) will be any improvement over how Republican candidates behaved at their last debate.

But there is also good--there is the impulse and commitment to civility, there is kindness, generosity, fair mindedness, cooperation, compassion, empathy, altruism and grace. As well as intelligent common sense. There is a balance we might call sanity that permits the better side to guide behavior.

Consistent sanity under extreme pressure can waver and break, leading to desperation, obsession and a lashing out.  So we talk about income inequality, or poverty, or unemployment, or working three jobs to make ends meet, or health problems.  What we don't talk about much in our political discourse is pain.

The P word is not politics or psychosis.  It's pain.

There have been many articles commenting on the news that the death rate in America has risen for only one category--middle-aged white men-- and that much of the rise seems attributable to suicide and drug addiction.  One of these articles, in the Guardian, pegged its abstractions on the story of an individual, a man who was in constant pain--not just the "broken heart" that Bill Clinton attributes to the political disenchantment of white men, who are the most prominent supporters of right wing politics--nor the pain of not having enough money to pay the bills or help a child in trouble.  But actual physical pain.

The article centered on a middle-aged white man in Montana whose health was ruined partly by overwork, which was necessitated by poor pay.  That used to be called exploitation, now it's called normal.  He had health insurance, but with deductibles and copays and a lot of operations etc., he went heavily into debt just for medical care alone. It took government five years to process his application for disability, but even a large lump payment for back benefits went entirely to medical bills, and that wasn't enough.  He remains heavily in debt, and doesn't have the money to even file for bankruptcy.

This is a man who did not smoke or drink, and once built homes for Habitats for Humanity alongside Jimmy Carter.  He has never owned his own home.  And he has chronic pain.  It's an everyday experience.

Each story has its particularity.  But medical costs continue to be a burden in the US that they just aren't in other countries.  Partly because of the financial vagaries of the so-called healthcare system, many men especially don't see doctors when they are sick or injured.  Couple that with the physical results of a toxic environment loaded with chemicals etc. that attack human bodies, as well as poor nutrition and other unhealthy behavior pushed by the consumer economy, and what you get is a lot of people who are in pain.  It's hardly coincidental that the fastest growing category of drug abuse is painkillers.

There's also the ordinary pain of working badly paying jobs--even running from one to the other-- that are likely unpleasant ways to spend those hours (awful and questionable work for petty tyrant bosses enforcing decrees of distant corporations, and perhaps dealing with rightfully angry and frustrated customers)  while juggling family concerns and expenses, in a round of sleeplessness and walking exhaustion.  The physical costs of standing or sitting and repeating rote physical and mental tasks are high, if not as obvious as coal mining.  This is a life of different kinds of pain that is itself insane, and the body and mind experience it as such, even if it isn't defined out loud in these terms.

People like the Montana man never achieved what others with their education and background did in the previous generation.  Others who were able to carefully assemble some financial support and as close to an independent life as most people get--i.e. a home and some savings--were wiped out by the Great Recession.  And while the millionaires and billionaires made their money back, most others did not.  Their lives are harder and more painful.

More and more Americans of retirement age don't have the means to retire.  Contrary to almost universal belief, social security is often not adequate to stave off poverty, especially for people who never earned much in a given year.  Medicare--whether "Medicare for all" or as currently constituted-- is not free medical care, but comes with monthly premiums and high deductibles, as much or more than private plans in recent years.  So older people work as long as they can, regardless of pain, and live with pain when they can't afford medical care except when they can't avoid it any longer.

So again it's not surprising--however shocking--that whereas a man in the top half of income in the early 1970s could expect to live about a year longer than a man in the bottom half, the difference is now 14 years.  (And this is one category where men and women are about equal, for those born in 1950 and after.)

When people are in pain of all kinds, when the pain is relentless, their remaining energy can turn to desperation and anger.  They lash out, without much regard for accuracy.  Anyone with more power seems like an appropriate target.  And many are really victimized by government bureaucracy, and increasingly by corporate indifference, hiding behind "customer service" that can't be contacted, leading only to endless waiting and scripted response by badly paid workers across several oceans with whom communication is frustrating if not impossible.

For their general plight they may blame other groups, especially when they come to believe the easy answers of false information (that black people don't work and are supported by government in lavish style, or Obama gives them cushy jobs etc. or even that Mexicans are taking their jobs.) Such misery loves company, and the illusion of power, fueling another increase in the number of hate groups, including armed hate groups.

 Even anarchy seems just if you are in constant pain.  Why not?  How much worse can it get?  Maybe if others feel some pain, they might understand.  Politics as justice easily becomes politics as vengeance, most often against those who aren't the cause.

Pain and powerlessness fuel the need for guns.  (Somebody wasn't really wrong years ago when he talked about people clinging to their guns and their religion.)  So the symbol of this insecurity kills the people with guns, as well as their children and total strangers who are trying to help them.

There is all kind of pain in this society, and it isn't reserved for white men without a college education.  The affluent society, the pressure to conform to materialist goals and career tracks, must still alienate some young people.  Women who must deal with gender discrimination and sexual predators.  And people of color confronting the realities of racism and white supremacy, as so surprisingly and well described by Hillary Clinton recently in Harlem.

Only distance can provide a sense of irony about white male privilege to white men who have never felt many of its benefits.  Race doesn't trump class, nor does class trump race.  The combination these days just gives us Trump.

There are lots of reasons for the rise of psychotic politics in our time, including geographical and cultural pockets of mutually reinforcing darkness.   Perhaps the climate crisis, as nuclear bombs in my generation, is an underlying cause of fear and despair that cannot be named, it's just too big.  But there's one everyday contributing cause.  Pain.  Because pain drives people crazy.

No comments: