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.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Our Self-Destructive Politics

We'll start with the long view, and a rational analysis based on ideals central to the American identity, at least until now.

Last week President Obama spoke about the current state of American politics to the Illinois legislature, where he began his elected public service, and where--nine years to the day--he announced his candidacy for President.

  After some ruefully funny stories about his early days there as a rookie and in the minority party, he detailed some of the relationships between Republican and Democratic members that grew over the years, as well as among members from cities and downstate rural areas, and from different ethnic groups.

"I don’t want to be nostalgic here -- we voted against each other all the time," he said. "And party lines held most of the time. But those relationships, that trust we’d built meant that we came at each debate assuming the best in one another and not the worst... And we didn’t call each other idiots or fascists who were trying to destroy America. Because then we’d have to explain why we were playing poker or having a drink with an idiot or a fascist who was trying to destroy America."

It was this experience, he said, that gave him confidence in a better kind of politics.  Because that spirit mirrored how constituents talked and went about their lives, the people that they represented. "And it convinced me that if we just approached our national politics the same way the American people approach their daily lives –- at the workplace, at the Little League game; at church or the synagogue -- with common sense, and a commitment to fair play and basic courtesy, that there is no problem that we couldn’t solve together."

"And that was the vision that guided me when I first ran for the United States Senate. That’s the vision I shared when I said we are more than just a collection of red states and blue states, but we are the United States of America."

"Now, over these nine years, I want you to know my faith in the generosity and the fundamental goodness of the American people has been rewarded and affirmed over and over and over again," he said, and gave examples.  But he also acknowledged that America's politics has not gotten better, but a whole lot worse.

In a preview of what we're likely to hear after he leaves the White House, he outlined structural changes that could counter entrenched divisiveness.  He spoke (Bernie Sanders-like) about the "corrosive influence of money in our politics."  He called out the Citizens United decision, and said exactly what I've said here: "I don't believe money is speech."

 Because of gerrymandering, most congressional seats belong to one party, so the greatest threat to a congressperson is somebody from their party attacking them from (for GOPers) the right or (for Dems) the left--pushing both parties to extremes, and demonizing compromise.  So drawing congressional districts has to be reformed (again, always.)

And the best way to make politics more responsive to peoples' needs is for more people to vote--and so voting should be made easier, not harder.  He went on to talk about American and democratic ideals, about reason and compromise, and ended with a subtly breathtaking metaphor.  He's often talked about the phrase "a more perfect Union," and how we're in a continual process of perfecting that Union.  But this time he layered it with another union:

And that’s the thing about America. We are a constant work of progress. And our success has never been certain, none of our journey has been preordained. And there’s always been a gap between our highest ideals and the reality that we witness every single day. But what makes us exceptional -- what makes us Americans -- is that we have fought wars, and passed laws, and reformed systems, and organized unions, and staged protests, and launched mighty movements to close that gap, and to bring the promise and the practice of America into closer alignment. We’ve made the effort to form that “more perfect union.”

America as the struggle to create a more perfect union between ideals and reality, the promise and the practice of American democracy--it's a beautiful image and a real inspiration.  To have such a vision can inform action and commitment at every given moment.

With that vision in mind, President Obama's prescriptions for structural changes made a lot of sense.  Increasing participation, opening up the process, not only further the goal of this better union, but lacking them does help explain why our politics today are so awful.

But they don't explain everything.  The next day after this speech, President Obama appeared at a party fundraiser north of San Francisco, among people who have supported him since the 2008 primaries.  In the course of his remarks, he spoke to them about income inequality, and its effect on this year's politics:

"And people are deeply concerned about inequality in the sense that the system is rigged against ordinary folks. And they’re not wrong that lobbyists and narrow special interests have disproportionate influence in Congress, and that big money and unaccountable, undisclosed money is distorting our politics in ways that are going to be damaging over the long term.

And that disquiet, that concern is expressing itself in the Republican Party as well as the Democratic Party. And we have to listen to that, and we have to pay attention to that and be mindful of it. 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."

And that last paragraph will be the text that begins my next sermon on this here site--on psychotic politics.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Blue, Too

And while we're on the feline circuit...Back in 2010, I wrote about a cat that had befriended me during the previous fall.  I called her Blue, for her eyes. She disappeared at the end of a semester, and so I assume she'd had a student owner, and left with her or him.




In 2015 I was befriended by another cat, much in the way as that one, also with striking blue eyes.  I called him Blue, Too.  Or Blue for short.

Blue was a skinny young cat when he started coming around.  (Although Margaret thought Blue was a she--and thanks to surgery, there was no easy way to tell--I always felt he was he.)  He tried to get inside the house, tried to cozy up to Pema, with little success.  He liked me, though.

Because of Pema, Blue couldn't come inside but we spend time together on the back porch. When I sat in the chair he would come up my chest, nuzzle my neck, and make an entire transit from one shoulder to behind my head to the other shoulder.  Other times he would just sit in my lap, occasionally falling asleep. (Once he fell asleep lying on his back--I've never seen a cat do that.)  And in an odd coincidence, one night we both saw a shooting star, just as the first Blue and I had watched the sky during a purported meteor shower (but didn't see any that time.)

I began seeing Blue so often that I worried he was homeless.  Students leaving cats behind is not unknown in this neighborhood.  So I gave him some dry food in a plastic cup.  He devoured it.  (That was very different from the first Blue, who was indifferent to food.)

It soon became apparent that Blue was bulking up, so he was probably eating somewhere else as well.  At first, assuming Nurse Margaret was right about gender, I thought Blue might be pregnant.  So of course I worried even more about food, shelter and where (and when) the kittens would drop.

But time passed, and Blue was filling out more than in the belly.  So that panic passed.

Still, I left a permanent bowl out on the porch for him, and put food in it when he came around.  I would see him on the back porch at all hours, so I left one of the cat beds Pema doesn't use anymore in a protected place.  But during the night he preferred to sleep on the chair.  Still, on many sunny afternoons I saw him asleep in the cat bed.

We spent this past Thanksgiving with Margaret's daughter, son in law and grandson Beckett in Menlo Park, six or so hours down the coast.  Monika, who works at Northtown Books and also does cat-sitting, lives nearby and came around twice a day to feed Pema.  To our usual feeding instructions, I added a note that this neighborhood cat with the blue eyes was apt to come around when he saw her, and if he did, please drop some dry food in his bowl on the porch.

Pema remains very shy of anybody but us, so in the two times Monika has taken care of her while we were gone (several days each time), Monika has never even seen Pema.  But this time she certainly saw Blue, who was very insistent on being attended to, and fed.

When we came home and I opened the car door, Blue was right there looking up at me.

Since then Margaret met our new neighbors across the street--a young family.  They told her that Blue was theirs, and that cats of his breed often adopt another household, and are generally very friendly.  And yes, Blue is male. Only they didn't call him Blue.  They named him Robert.

Even bulked up (likely an effect of castration at any early age) Blue (because I still call him that) is a beautiful cat.  The placement of black, brown and white is striking and various.  As the rainy season began and nights were colder, I don't see him around as much, especially at night.  But usually not more than 2 or 3 days go by without a reunion.  Sometimes he's distracted, but sometimes these are quite joyful reunions.  He still likes me to pick him up (which Pema still does not) and he can still do that transit from shoulder to shoulder.  We're buddies.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Meditating with Pema

Pema the cat joined our household almost ten years ago.  She was a young feral cat, who friends found in their barn, near starvation.  We named her Pema after Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun who has written several books and made many recorded talks about meditation.  In the past several months, Pema the cat has come more fully to her name.

Pema did know about stillness.  She used to sit in one spot outside and look around.  And as she's gotten older, she's spent more time being, well, still.  But she recently made this a more formal practice.

In recent years, when the television came on sometime after dinner, Pema made herself scarce.  I think it was when we had to put speakers on the floor--something about the sound alarmed her.  But recently Margaret and I revived our after dinner practice of meditating.  At first we went the traditional route, on our old meditation cushions in front of the couch.  But after a knee problem Margaret retreated to her chair.  Not wanting to her to feel out of place (and willing to seize on any excuse), I moved my meditation to the couch, where I sat upright.

Our stillness and silence attracted Pema like a magnet.  She can't get up on Margaret's chair as easily as she can hop on the couch, so she joined me.  With just a little hesitation she moved onto my lap.  And so Pema the cat joined us as Pema the meditation cat.  She has adopted this as part of her routine.

Of course, I am expected to pet her, rub her head, cheeks, ears etc., which pretty much disallows single point meditation.  However I try to stay in the moment.
And there are forms of meditation that this should allow or even enhance, such as the kind practiced by...Pema Chodron, of course.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Clearing the Air

The sudden death of ultra-conservative Republican Supreme Court Justice Scalia and the likelihood that the Republican Senate will at least try to maintain this vacancy for a long time is also likely to result in a number of important no-decisions that will fracture federal law, as lower court rulings that conflict with one another will rule over different parts of the country.

But the negative effect of at least one recent Court decision--to postpone federal regulations on carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act--is likely to diminish. Even before today, despite the dire headlines, that decision was probably not going to have a major impact anyway.

While that stay issued last week does delay formal implementation of the regulations, it was likely only a delay.  As Jonathan Chiat noted: "Because the Supreme Court ordered the regulation of carbon in the first place, there’s little doubt that some kind of power plan could be designed that would pass legal muster."  This might require a different approach to the regulations, which would further delay implementation, but not ultimate success--as long as the executive branch wants those regulations.  Which means a Democrat in the White House.

Even a delay could weaken American leadership in the global effort to address the climate crisis that the world formally engaged in Paris 2015.  But as a practical matter, there may be no delay--because US power companies are going forward with their plans to meet the carbon goals.  The Washington Post reported:

"Executives for electricity producers and industry trade associations say they expect little deviation from what was already an industry-wide move from coal-burning to cleaner and cheaper forms of energy to produce electricity. The shift is likely to accelerate further in the near future, industry officials and analysts said, meaning that many of the administration’s carbon-cutting goals may be met regardless of what courts and lawmakers ultimately decide to do."

But now the legal fate of the regulations in the near term is clearer. The Supreme Court's stay on the regulations is to be in effect until the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals makes its decision on the merits.  Chiat today:

"The stay indicated that a majority of the justices foresee a reasonably high likelihood that they would ultimately strike down Obama’s plan, which could jeopardize the Paris climate agreement and leave greenhouse gasses unchecked. Without Scalia on the Court, the odds of this drop to virtually zero. The challenge is set to be decided by a D.C. Circuit panel composed of a majority of Democratic appointees, which will almost certainly uphold the regulations. If the plan is upheld, it would require a majority of the Court to strike it down. With the Court now tied 4-4, such a ruling now seems nearly impossible."

This is going to be obvious to everyone involved, and further motivate electricity producers to go ahead with changes to limit carbon pollution.  Once that happens, even a Republican in the White House wouldn't be able to do much about it, because after all that investment, power companies aren't going back.

President of the United States
As for the impact on the election of Scalia's death and the Republican's open demand that the Constitution be violated and the President of the United States not appoint a Justice to fill the vacancy, at least one analyst believes it could further the likelihood of a Democrat being elected President in November.  John Cassidy in the New Yorker:

"If the Republicans block the nomination without properly considering it, which also seems likely, a huge political row will ensue, enveloping the Presidential race. (In fact, it has already done that, as the Republican debate proved.) Come summer and fall, the Democratic candidate, be it Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, will be able to go the country and appeal for support in preventing the Republicans from humiliating President Obama and making a mockery of democracy."

So in that case who would win the 2016 election? By bringing to the polls the coalition that elected him twice:  President Obama.

Update: A summary of other views on how Republican "strategy" on the Supreme Court vacancy could hurt them in November and beyond.