Sunday, July 30, 2017

Screwtape Redux

[God] wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.”

 -C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letter VIII

My Dear Wormwood,

Of course we are pleased, but I do not want to hear any more of your ‘not believing our luck.’ Luck is not in play here, and we still have work to do.

You have done shrewdly well with the Patient and his like in this presidential election cycle. His newly aroused political passions have all but eclipsed what had been so bothersome about his Christianity. Don’t worry overmuch that he may appear to embrace positions or actions that appear to be “principled.” The point is to deepen his conviction that particular adjustments to the current political and economic order are ends in themselves, and that once they are achieved, all will be well.

Slowly but surely-- here again the glittering prospect of prosperity is such a boon—we have been able to encourage great masses of affiliated Christians that their faith is not an end, but a means to alluring earthly things, such as a prosperous and delightful mortal condition. With bright and smiling sales pitches from our fellow agents we have managed to convince professed Christians that achievement of earthly goods is no longer a distraction from their moral way forward in the world, but rather a sign of divine pleasure in all their worldly works. Who would have thought anyone once bitten by The Enemy’s bug would buy this? But Our Father Below works in strange ways his wonders to perform. 

Not only do we have a fully articulated Gospel of Wealth, we have TV shows and whole TV networks dedicated to the proposition. We have universities committed to  directing young lives to its realization. How utterly, demonically inspired that the Wealth and other self-realization gospels should be fueled by what their devotees righteously consider their Christian fervor, a fervor so unreflective and pleased with itself that it is impervious to contradiction, to science, to evidence, to charges of cruelty. It is not mere Christianity—pun intended!—but evangelical Christianity. Entirely faith-based!  Faith in sanitized, gleaming kitchens, manicured lawns, faith in everything clean and bright and predominantly white. Without a shred of connection to The Enemy and to those troubling beatitudes. 

In all, such gratifying progress--though it would help if more of our Wealth evangelists could manage to keep their sexual secrets and criminal investigations into their personal holdings out of the news.

We must not in any event become complacent in our labors. In the present political climate we can do much more than merely consolidate our gains. Our elected Agent-in-Chief has done astonishing work, but he cannot succeed without our dedicated help. His bold challenge to so-called “truthful” claims, to “facts” of any kind, promises to burst open the doors to the democratization of all claims, and in that exhilarating cultural climate conflicts can only be resolved by the stronger party, a principle well understood by the wise Machiavelli. Our Agent-in-Chief is on track to be that stronger party. But that will require the continuing nurturance of his hard-won base. This, my dear Wormwood, is where you and your fellow Junior Tempters can make an enduring contribution.

You must continue to remind your Patient and all subsequent patients of what he is most afraid of. Start with his physical vulnerability and fear of pain. We must thank Our Lord Below for Terrorism, its almost daily eruption in such inspired places as schools, hospitals, weddings, funerals, bistros, movie theaters, and shopping malls! Your patient must be constantly reminded of impending terror and terrorists. It has been helpful that people whose looks, dress, faith affiliation, and ethnicity help to identify them as likely terrorists, but even more promising is the startling possibility that anyone’s next door neighbor could fall under the sway of terrorist thinking—that anyone and ultimately everyone is a mortal enemy. Wormwood, the mind reels.

Here again our Agent-in-Chief has paved the way. He has proposed making his countrymen great again, safe again, untroubled again, wealthy again. Don’t you love that dizzying again: that dream state when everyone was Anglo-Saxon, wealthy, safe, and world dominant? When, yes, there was racial segregation and before that slavery, but no one minded. None of the political pundits know what our Agent-in-Chief knows about how willing his poor and suffering countrymen were to accept bold assurances of jobs restored and provision of all comforts, including those never previously enjoyed.

In fairness, Wormwood, you and your colleagues deserve credit for fanning the fervor of “single-issue” patients, helping them to blur or put aside doubts and critical thinking about worrying aspects of our Agent-in-Chief’s promised program. Our Lord Below knows well the preverbal, limbic brain fascination with guns and weapons, the “rights” to which our Agent-in-Chief supports with winsome zeal. The trick, which we now know well, is to acknowledge every patient’s most deep seated resentment and, with ringing certainty, pledge to fix it. For who, really, likes to be regulated? Who, really, wants to treat or even worry about other people’s sickness? Who, especially people who don’t have much, wants to share? With foreigners?

Wormwood, I must stress again what I stated at the outset. Despite so many heartening victories, our work is far from over. Yes, we have elected and all but enthroned our Agent-in-Chief. But the Enemy’s followers and millions more who hang skeptically in the balance are not yet silenced. 

Our chief concern must be those who persist in organizing a formal Resistance. Our  strategy must be to dismiss all such expression as unpatriotic, as mere partisan sour grapes. As our Agent-in-Chief is so fond of reminding Resisters: “I won, you lost, and you are losers.”  This, combined with a program of almost daily sensational distractions, is our best bet to delay the Resistance from revealing exactly how we won--about which the word from you should be mum!

While I cannot be absolutely certain, I believe the Resistances is quieting down. All of us in the Lowerarchy were concerned about the movement not to “normalize” our Agent-in-Chief. His normalization is of course Our Lord Below’s grand plan. Advancing our Agent-in-Chief to the highest office in the land was in itself a giant step toward Normalization, but it is only half the battle. Before the Second War, our German Agent did as much, but that glorious momentum was lost to those who refused to normalize him.

Let me be clear: you must work with your Patient to normalize our Agent-in-Chief. Take heart that every passing day supports your mission. The longer your Patient endures our Agent-in-Chief’s leadership and the more distance he keeps from the lessons and inspiration of the Enemy, the more surely he will be convinced that this, too, is life and he will endure it. Assure him he can weather what is only at the moment a historical novelty. Help him see that this or that disturbing headline is of little consequence in the fullness of time. Steer him to his favorite diversions. Encourage the extra drink. He must not mentally linger in the awareness that his days feel shot through with All-Wrongness. Comfort him with notions of his superior perspective. Assure him that his all-being disturbance is what sensitive men and woman have always known and felt. Help him to see that this too is history.

If you succeed in this, if all of us here below succeed in this, think of what we will have accomplished! We will have normalized—legitimized!-- the conduct of our Agent-in-Chief. We have made him, just as he is, the elected Leader of the Free World, exemplar of national character and will, arbiter of contending appeals to justice, role model for children’s future conduct as citizens and as public servants.

Moreover, we did it without aid of cheap tricks. In the course of his rise our future Agent-in-Chief wore no deceptive masks. He did not once offer a hypocritical nod to the works of the Enemy in order to achieve some short-term gain. He achieved each short-term gain just as he is. And hats off to that performance! He has boldly proclaimed events that have not occurred. He has made emphatic promises and broken them without apology or regret. He is unmoved and unashamed of the disclosure of repellant sexual behavior. He has introduced a mode of personal and public discourse so confusing and so coarse that it slips below standard efforts to argue and refute. He has thrillingly refused to be corrected even by judges in the highest courts, journalists, and scholars. Unrivalled by even our best Agents in the past, he has brought his people to the threshold of failing to distinguish true from false, real from fake. Of utter baselessness he has built a popular base, and what his base reveres in him is that he tells it like it is! Oh, Wormwood!

Again, the normalization must proceed, and as it does, our Agent-in-Chief’s sensational gestures will begin to trigger a new, dark, adrenal response in your Patient. His reality will increasingly become our reality, and you can count on him to become immersed in all of the breaking news. At that point it will not matter whether he is fascinated or horrified. Whatever the case, he will be held helplessly in its thrall, and we will have him.

There has been much to praise in your recent work, Wormwood.

Full of hope, I remain, 

Monday, May 29, 2017

Neither Pigs nor Gods: Citizens in a Pathological Polis

The awareness emerged gradually but very surely in the course of a casual conversation. A group of us, all friends, were chatting amiably as we sat in the stands during the half-time of a college basketball game. Inevitably, predictably talk turned to the still alien-feeling Trump regime, mostly mordant comments offered in jest. Then what felt like a common realization came over us: that whether expressed lightly or not, to pass the time or not, we were incapable of coming to rest without the intrusion of some degree of Trump-related disturbance. A woman said that for her the worst thing since the election was that she awoke daily feeling the same dread and wrongness she first felt in November when the election returns were conclusive. It is like nothing she had felt before, she said. Like most of us sharing the conversation, she is an educated, left-leaning liberal, an academic. Another woman said that her ambient unease was nothing like what she had felt when Nixon and George W. Bush were elected, both of whom she strongly disapproved. We all hastened to agree, struggling to find words for the intensity of our aversion to Trump’s impact. Somebody said, “It’s a little like feeling sick.” Somebody else said, “I’ve actually been sick, since Thanksgiving!” We all laughed, and he added, “Really. I have been.” The woman sitting next to me, an English professor, said, “My therapist told me that since the election all her clients are worse.” Again we laughed, though she wasn’t joking. The game resumed, but I could not stop thinking about the notion of being held in a collective malaise.

Far from those bleachers, documented and undocumented Latinos, first and second generation Muslim Americans, and others composing the 42 million immigrants in the United States have more immediate and concrete reasons for feeling and being unwell. In February psychiatrist James Gordon reported in The Washington Post that Latino and Muslims currently living in the United States are newly stressed and sickened not just by measures like the administration’s contested travel ban and stepped up deportation measures, but by the outbreak of threats and denigration they now experience at the hands of newly liberated, unapologetic America First enthusiasts. These stresses and fears, Gordon maintains, contribute to more than a gloomy outlook; they promote heart disease, diabetes, exacerbate asthma, and in severe cases post traumatic stress disorder. More specific evidence of state policy-related health losses includes a study published in January, 2017 by The International Journal of Epidemiology documenting lower birth weight among Latino babies born in the aftermath of federal immigrations raids. No small thing, low birth weight is strongly correlated with physical and mental health deficits, diminished cognition, and poor school performance.

Should we be surprised that state policies, even those unrelated to health care, can make us sick? Whatever one’s particular prod to doing so, it is time to consider—seriously—the relationship between the state of the polis and the state of our mental and physical well-being.

Systematic thinking about politics in the western world began with a consideration of the relationship of individual citizens to the state that contains them: the polis. In his Politics Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E) traced the evolution of the polis through a succession of associations necessary to full human realization: from family to clan to village to polis. All associations, Aristotle wrote, aim at some good, and the polis aimed at the highest good, a condition in which citizens could most fully realize themselves in all their capacities. For Aristotle and the ancients the polis was the city-state, a polity sizable enough and dimensional enough to enable sustainable productivity and commerce and to protect citizens from dangers from within and without. The highest aspirations of humankind might be realized in a polis rightly constituted: artistic creation, the pursuit of knowledge, and—especially prized by Aristotle— the enjoyment of friendship. In anything less than a well composed polis, these individual benefits are less likely to be realized, if they are realized at all. A man without a polis, Aristotle pronounced, “is either a pig or a God.”

Plato (424-347 B.C.E.), with whom Aristotle studied for years, saw the personal well-being of the citizen as continuous with the integrity of the polis. In his master work, The Republic, Plato has the historical Socrates guide a group of fellow inquirers through an all-night consideration of what constitutes a good life. Through a succession of elegant arguments Socrates is able to establish that the quality of an individual’s life is inseparable from the composition and conduct of the state he lives in and serves. 

Socrates illustrates this point by logically constructing an ideal society. In it a cadre of future leaders is rigorously schooled from infancy to subordinate selfish appetites to the virtues of self-control and courage. When they are sufficiently mature, the future leaders are taught to see reason as the ultimate arbiter of what is true and false, right and wrong. These masters of reason become the deliberative, or law-making element of the polis. The laws are executed and enforced by those whose education has revealed their capacity for loyalty and courage. The rest of the citizenry is composed of Productive types whose chief function is to create and distribute the material goods necessary to sustain the polis. 

In this ideal polis, state and citizen are similarly constituted. Presaging Freud by two millennia, Plato conceived the human psyche as consisting of three dynamic components that develop successively over time: elemental animal appetites, a spirited capacity to direct the appetites, and a capacity for reason to direct the spirit. Seen this way individuals are politically viable—good citizens—to the extent their reason persuades their spirit to conduct their appetites in a productive way. Citizens constituted this way are governed by reasonable lawmakers whose laws are executed by spirited magistrates so that productive citizens can live well together.

In constructing this ideal state, Plato/Socrates does not draw on history or observed example, only on logically consistent premises. The ideal Republic resembles no regime known to Plato, nor any regime established since. However, when Socrates goes on to illustrate how the ideal might be corrupted and decline, the features of actual historical regimes, ancient and modern, come forth in vivid relief. In decline the ideal Republic comes to look historically familiar, even contemporary.

The decline of the ideal regime begins with the failure of its guiding attainment: reason. A generation of rulers arises who, among other lapses, can no longer see the reason for certain sustaining policies of the past—most critically, the strictures against the rulers holding private property and amassing personal fortunes. It takes only a generation for the emerging young to see that the virtues of the past—reason, honor, self-discipline—do not, at least materially, get you very far in life. As leaders dedicate themselves to acquiring wealth and luxury, the polis devolves into a commercial plutocracy in which the former virtues, to the extent they remain, are put in service of amassing and protecting private gains. The resulting income inequality and class tensions undermine the stability of the polis to the extent that the masses are finally able to wrest power from reigning plutocrats. “When the poor win,” Plato wrote, “the result is democracy.”

Plato acknowledges the heady exuberance of those who succeed in replacing the old oligarchic order with a radically egalitarian alternative. But democracy, he argues, is inherently unstable. Democracy’s enthronement of tolerance and acceptance extends to good and dangerous citizens alike, good and dangerous ideas alike. The pursuit of ruinous policies and ventures goes unchecked because to oppose them would be repressive. In a true democracy there is no basis to repress anything, including the animal appetites, the subordination of which to the general good was central to the founding of the ideal polis. 

Liberated, the appetitive desires of citizens in a democracy seek various excesses that undermine their collective viability and individual well-being. Some of what is desired may not be practically achievable, may not be affordable. Thus democratic magistrates attempt to realize citizens’ will and whims by usurping, whether through taxation or direct appropriation, the fortunes of the deposed but still productive plutocrats, forcing them into reactionary postures, to the point that they plot against the democratic regime. 

In response to such threats a demagogue arises, demanding armed protection and other emergency measures, including the suspension of liberties on which the democracy had been founded. In this way the appetites unleashed under the democratic regime lead to their own negation: a polis in which a besieged despot, his reactionary nemeses, and a helpless and fearful citizenry are bound together in a dynamic pathology. In the absence of deliberative reason, spirited loyalty, and self-discipline, democracy’s governing majority can neither maintain the polis materially nor maintain necessary order, necessitating the demagogue tyrant who must rule by force.

But where were we? Yes, a consideration of the anomie, stress and outright sickness people experience when the regime governing them behaves pathologically. Revisiting the classical understanding of the relationship between the polis and its citizens is not a digression.  Plato and Aristotle established a continuous line of western political thought that would later shape and justify the United States Constitution. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, the principal authors of the prevailing argument for the constitution, The Federalist Papers (1787), were thoroughly schooled in Plato’s and Aristotle’s political writing. 

Probably the most persuasive argument for adopting the new federal constitution was offered by Madison in Federalist No. 10. Madison was aware of Plato’s grim assessment of democratic rule—“popular government”—unrestrained by higher order virtues: “The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.” Like Plato, Madison acknowledged that human beings were by nature appetitive and self-interested, and if granted the liberty to express their passions they could unite and inflame like minded fellows to ill considered,  repressive ends. For the Federalists, democracy, whatever its promise, was also a serious problem.

Madison laid out the problem this way: if given the liberty to do so, citizens could unite in a factious way to promote their interests over the interests of individuals or smaller factions, thus creating a tyranny, albeit of the majority. “Liberty,” Madison memorably wrote, “is to faction what air is to fire.” But just as you would not want to prevent fires by eliminating air, you would not want to prevent factions by eliminating liberty. Madison argued that the proposed solution to the problem was, if not perfect, promising: a federal constitution which, by separating the executive, legislative and judicial powers and empowering each branch to check the excesses of the others, would make it difficult for any single iniquitous faction to dominate the body politic and restrict the liberty of individual citizens.

So Madison and his co-authors hoped. It was a principled and considered hope. Like Plato, Madison understood that a mere process, however elegantly designed, could no more be counted on to rein in periodic eruptions of avarice than a putative Invisible Hand would restrain commercial interests from dominating markets. If the historically untested constitution the federalists proposed was going to work, it would require the foundational virtues Plato set in place in his ideal Republic. The fate of the American Republic would depend, in Madison’s words, on the efficacy of the proposed constitution to “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through a medium of a chosen body of citizens [elected representatives], whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”

These high hopes invite a consideration of how we are doing in the era of the Trump administration. How well have the separated branches of government and their established checks and balances managed to mitigate the dominance of single-interest factions, such as the gun lobby, pro- and anti-abortion advocates, or financial concerns deemed too big to fail? Did the early federalists foresee the way money could advance the interests of a faction—again the gun lobby comes to mind—disproportionately to the actual numbers composing the faction? Did they foresee the greater part of the nation’s wealth being held in so few hands, and the consequent ability of a few wealthy individuals to finance and shape the political programs of favored candidates? How money could purchase advertising and media in order to shape public opinion favorably to particular interests?

The constitution’s separation of powers was intended to reduce the likelihood of partisan interests overwhelming all three government branches at once. The Supreme Court was to be especially resistant to inflamed partisanship, since its justices, once appointed, were not beholden to any electoral constituency. Did the federalist founders foresee a Senate so stridently partisan that it would defy its constitutional obligation to fill a vacant court seat, lest its partisan leanings be checked? Central to the arguments for the proposed constitution is that without the intended checks, there is no balance.

What are the prospects for maintaining constitutional balance if the President ignores the designated authority of either the Court or Congress and proceeds, by executive order, to act without regard to the former’s decisions and legislation?  Could this happen? Might a helpful first step be for the President to deny the authority of those serving in those branches, perhaps to call a federal judge who rules in opposition a “so-called” judge?” To call the majority leader of the opposition party in the Senate its “head clown?”

In the clear absence of “wisdom and the love of justice” on the part of elected federal officials that Madison declared was essential to restrain fractious passions, the federal government has moved past mere partisan squabbling and disunity. It has become observably unbalanced. And as political philosophers from Plato forward have maintained, the condition of the polis ultimately determines the condition of  citizens. When, in the language of current social science, the state becomes dysfunctional, its citizens become dysfunctional. Like our leaders, we become without knowing it, without wanting to, erratic, angry, and fearful. We are to varying degrees sick in this condition.

To step back and reflect, how could it be otherwise? Political thinkers from the ancients forward have recognized that the integrity of the state bears directly on the integrity of citizens composing it. Both Plato and Aristotle insisted that the character of the polis does not merely affect us, it completes us. The state, like the microcosmic associations that precede it—families, tribes, villages—can be seen as the outermost rim of each member’s viability. 

In Plato’s dialog Crito a devoted friend urges Socrates to defy the unjust death sentence an Athenian jury has imposed by escaping to Thebes. There is even a workable plan to carry this out. Socrates, while acknowledging the kindness of his friend’s intention, argues that it is never just to defy and thus weaken the integrity of one’s polis—because Athens, even more than his mother and father, had sheltered, protected, and educated him throughout his life. It was as a citizen of Athens that Socrates was able to determine his life mission and to live in its service. Even his relentless challenges to his fellow citizens, including established leaders, were carried out in an attempt to improve and strengthen the polis. What would it say about this patriotic conviction, he asks Crito, if he evaded the polis’s ruling as to his innocence and ran away? He was in effect a product of Athens, and he had served it to the best of his ability. He did not need to add, as Aristotle would a generation later, that a man without a polis had no real existence at all.

Socrates compares the polis--favorably--to one’s family with respect to protection and nurturance. If this observation is hard to grasp and credit today, it is not because the analogy no longer applies, but because in the progression from city-state to nation state citizens have become profoundly distanced from the national magistrates acting in their care. The contemporary difficulty in recognizing the vital link between citizen and polis is a problem of scale.

Here a reconsideration of actual family dynamics may clarify the ways in which the integrity of the state, or lack of it, contributes to the personal welfare of citizens. Close scientific attention to child development over the past century has yielded a clearer understanding of the circumstances in which children thrive or fail to thrive. Attachment theorists, following the lead of British psychiatrist John Bowlby (1907-1990), have demonstrated that children securely attached to effective and attentive caregivers, beginning in early infancy, tend to meet their successive developmental challenges. Children insecurely attached succeed less well. Children unattached do not thrive at all. Had Aristotle chosen to shine the beam on family behavior that he focused on political behavior he might have written, “An unattached child is either a pig or a god.”

However and wherever one is situated in contemporary America, one doesn’t have to look far to observe the consequences of unsatisfactory early attachments, whether in the form of substandard school performance, delinquency, unemployment and underemployment, a failure to commit to sustained partnerships, a failure to contribute to common enterprises. Nor, more dramatically, does one have to look far to see the gruesome consequences of unattached former children. Two of them detonated lethal bombs killing and maiming observers of the Boston Marathon. One of them made his way into a church sanctuary in Charleston, South Carolina, where he shot and killed nine African Americans gathered for worship.

Today’s failed or collapsed states—Rwanda, Somalia, Yemen, Libya—can be likened to families failing to establish attachments. Failed states do not provide safety or sustenance, abandoning inhabitants to prior associations: tribes, clans, and families. Without a polis, the people of failed states are neither pigs nor gods. They are damaged. They and the positive potential they represent are unrealized; without a polis they are incomplete.

Most of the planet’s sovereign nations are not failed states. But many sovereign nations, like many troubled families, fail to provide reliable, secure attachments to their constituents, resulting collectively in what besets insecurely attached children: underperformance, a disinclination to engage with and commit to others, latent and no so latent hostility. Just as dysfunctional families may produce children whose delinquency and hostility seem to pass into outright madness, dysfunctional states generate those behaviors in their least securely attached citizens.

It is past time to start comprehending what presently passes for incomprehensible behavior. Here again there is promise in recognizing how dysfunctional family transactions illuminate dysfunctional political transactions. Following Bowlby’s and other attachment theorists’ lead, British psychiatrists Aaron Esterson and R.D Laing immersed themselves in the personal lives of a number of people diagnosed with serious mental illness, including schizophrenia. Esterson and Laing were especially interested in how the seemingly deranged behavior and utterances of those so diagnosed reflected the dynamics of the families to which they were attached. Attachment theory findings suggest that mental health necessary to social viability is the result of secure attachments, beginning in infancy. Secure attachments require reliable, consistent, comprehensible, welfare-promoting gestures on the part of nurturers to those nurtured. Conversely, unreliable, inconsistent, contradictory—that is, untruthful—gestures on the part of nurturers result in insecure attachments with consequent failures to thrive.

From their work with diagnosed schizophrenics and their families Laing and Esterson proposed that the pathology ascribed to the subjects they worked with was not the result of an organic biological irregularity generated by the patients; it was created, rather, by disorienting, contradictory messages to the patients from members of their families. In the published study of their findings, Sanity, Madness, and the Family (1964), Laing and Esterson illustrate how a variety of contradictory messages, including outright lies and misrepresentations, on the part of primary nurturers and siblings create uncertainty and cognitive disturbance to the extent  that the child’s ability to think clearly and behave appropriately is impaired. Laing and Esterson did not claim, as some critics worried, that crossed family transactions were the sole, principal or even frequent cause of schizophrenia, only that such transactions could lead to personal impairments dramatic enough to be diagnosed as mental illness.  To the extent people are unreliably, insecurely attached, they lose competence. They become patients.

Which begs the contemporary question: if contradictory, confusing messages, including intentionally deceptive falsehoods on the part of parents and other nurturers can debilitate children even unto madness, what is to be expected in consequence of political leaders who do the same? To some extent we already know the answer because, whether due to the proliferation of fake news, the new administration’s attempts to discredit establish news sources, or the difficulty in understanding, much less verifying, the daily barrage of tweets and stated utterances of President Trump, we recognize the cognitive disturbance, the mounting distrust of those we constitutionally need to trust: a hard to articulate sense that this is bad, this is wrong--and this is new.

In plain terms, the unexpected rise to office of Trump and his administration has created an increasingly insecure attachment of citizens to polis. The incoherence, occasional mendacity, and belligerence of Trump’s statements and proposals have unsettled even those who, due to their allegiance to particular outcomes promised in the course of his campaign, voted for him. 

There is a broad consensus that Trump’s emergence, whatever its other features, is discontinuous with prior political process in this country. His conduct in office since his inauguration has done nothing to weaken that consensus. Americans dwell in a climate of collective uncertainty and doubt: does this President know enough about constitutional process, legal protection of individual rights, who and where our enemies are? Can a President preoccupied with the ratings of network television shows, who is publicly indignant about chain stores that discontinue selling a line of his daughter’s commercial products, who does not read books, who does not write the books published under his name, who appears to know no American or other history, who presents that face to the world, who talks that way—can such a figure be in charge?

In the weeks spanning Trump’s electoral college victory and his first weeks in office the prevailing question—can this be happening?-- has been definitively answered: yes. The abiding uncertainty, hostility, and anxiety that now beset us continue to take their psychological toll. If the Center for Disease Control should choose to turn its attention and metrics to the phenomenon, it might well reveal a toll on physical health as well. To date, the national press, now targeted as an “opposition party” by the President, continues to report, analyze, and criticize the substance and style of the administration, although the authority and even the sense of what constitutes a national press has been compromised by the proliferation of individual “news” sources, ranging from Alt-news outlets to bloggers to social media posters to the intentional fabricators of fake news.

In their uneasy, insecurely attached condition, citizens are apt to respond in the ways distressed and anxious peoples have responded historically. They deny the encompassing political reality, turn inward, divert themselves with proximate amusements, eat more, drink more. They may, unless chastened by a Socrates, fantasize or seriously consider flight to another polis. They may make an effort to “normalize” what feels so disturbingly abnormal. Like desperate children who project a former reliability onto a new, unreliable parent, they rationalize the intolerable to themselves and others, they try to see the menacing as benign, the dangerous as harmless, and if they succeed they will, like Laing’s and Esterson’s schizophrenic subjects, pass into what an objective observer or a former global ally would consider a kind of madness.

By contrast, dedicated and capable citizens will resist the repellant new reality. They may even feel newly invigorated in the effort--especially healthy. Like children whose early nurture has been truth-based and reliable, they will have no patience with unreliable successors. To proceed with the analogy, they will seek more secure attachments. They will confront, correct, and work to replace those who undermine the public trust on which the polis rests.

The dividedness, hostility and general malaise that currently characterize the American public is, however bad it feels, good information. It is clear evidence that we are out of alignment; specifically, citizens are out of alignment with the governors of the polis. Realizing this and making its realization normative is the first step in calling the nation to order. But in order to make the necessary corrections  the underlying cause, and not just the present symptoms, of the pathology must be identified.

Trump and his administration did not sneak up on a just and benevolent America and take it hostage. He did not terrorize or forcefully compel his “base” to support him. Surprising as it was to liberals opposing him, Trump gave voice and possibility to things millions of Americans wanted: to own and use deadly weapons, to elevate provisions of their religious faith to national law, to be rid of and untroubled by racial minorities and foreign nationals seeking refuge. Men and women who saw their status and material condition in decline were willing enough to consider a demagogue, to ignore the exposed excesses of a figure who, after all, “knows how to run a business” and “tells it like it is.” He was well known, a TV celebrity. And he promised to make America— which his supporters assumed included themselves—great again. Again.

The inauguration of President Trump and his ham-handed efforts to carry out the divisive pledges made during his campaign have not caused the present national malaise; they are the manifest result of a preexisting condition. What is wrong, what is sickening, has been festering for a long time. For over a century committed outlying thinkers have inveighed against market economy excesses that concentrate national wealth in so few hands that there is not enough left to sustain healthy and secure lives for masses of people. When the consequences of the imbalance become dire enough, as they were in the late nineteenth century’s Gilded Age and over the course of the past century’s Great Depression, progressive initiatives arose to break up the biggest financial conglomerates and, via progressive taxation, redistribute wealth.

With the crises of World War and the Depression seemingly met, the two established political parties, Republicans deemed to be Conservative and Democrats deemed to be Liberal, settled into outwardly opposed advocacies: Republicans favoring unregulated, market-driven pursuit of wealth; Democrats favoring a state regulated economy in order to prevent the devastating slumps and crises of the past. 

As the nation passed through the Cold War era into the 1970s, the defense, automotive, and fuel industries created new concentrations of wealth, the combined influence of which eroded the economic difference between Republicans and Democrats. While Republicans continued apace as free marketeers, eager to deregulate and unapologetic about amassing impressive profits and individual fortunes--because they would “trickle down” to the benefit of all--Democratic elected officials, like their Republican counterparts, found that corporate largesse could in one way or another advance their own political and personal fortunes. In consequence political liberals became what economic thinkers ranging from Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman have called neo-liberals: those who might take tolerant, egalitarian positions on social issues, but who, like Republicans, favor leaving markets to market forces.

Socialists and historians have long known what happens when markets are left to market forces. State economies collapse, unless there is a redistributive intervention such as those composing Roosevelt’s New Deal or the stop-gap bail-outs the Obama administration imposed after the 2008 housing bubble. Yet even with, one might have assumed, the story book cautionary tale of unrestrained corporate greed provided by the 2008 crisis, Democrats, in their neo-liberal caution and comfort, continued on the same economic course that had not only brought the nation to the brink of a ruinous depression but had demonstrably failed to reverse the steadily declining economic prospects of the great majority of the American people.

Candidate Clinton’s appeals for a nicer, more inclusive America along with seemingly daily evidence of Trump’s personal awfulness failed to move sufficient millions of under acknowledged, undereducated, and underserved citizens whose economic prospects were in decline. These millions, as opposed to the quieter, rather more decorous super-rich who also composed Trump’s base, may have been less Deplorable than they were worrying symptoms of a polis far from well.

The nation’s descent into its present dysfunction has been accelerated by a decades-long failure of neo-liberals to confront the way unrestrained market forces generate income inequality and ultimately human inequality. A fitting case in point, since it bears directly on the health of citizens, is the wobbly test flight of the Affordable Care Act. Launched as President Obama’s first and signal initiative, the ACA looked at first as if it might succeed after more than a century of false starts in adding basic medical care to the expected benefits of American citizenship. 

The key variable in the initiative was affordable, which is the practical equivalent of possible. Universal health care was not in 2008 and is not now affordable given the prevailing insurance premiums set by the oligopoly of national insurance companies. The Obama administration recognized the political hopelessness of directly challenging the legitimacy of the insurance industry’s unaffordably high premiums, which would entail also challenging the wildly inflated—except for the insurable fortunate —cost of medical procedures, hospital stays, and prescription pharmaceuticals. No amount of redistributed tax income was going to cover the cost of insuring against those inflated fees. Nor was there the neo-liberal will to carry so “socialist” a notion as the Public Insurance Option initially proposed by the President: the establishment of a publicly managed insurance company, guaranteeing affordable rates—but thereby limiting the profits of private companies that could not or would not compete.

Thus to no thoughtful person’s surprise, but to seething Republican indignation, the provisions of the Affordable Care Act are increasingly unaffordable, as private insurers either refuse to participate or to do so at rates clients cannot afford. As the embattled Care Act now stands on the brink of Trump-promised repeal, blame and disparagement are heaped upon the departed President and his neo-liberal supporters—when it clearly falls on the insurers who in concert raised premiums to unaffordable levels. Neo-liberal Democrats who, with regard to markets, are indistinguishable from Republicans, do not acknowledge that fact. In consequence there is no universally affordable medical care in the United States, as citizens quite literally get sicker.

Because the Trump presidency is the malignant effect and not the cause of the present national malaise, his removal, whether by impeachment or other means, will not restore the polis to political health. An impeached and convicted Trump would leave the country under the leadership of his unwaveringly loyal vice president, followed in sequence by the Republican majority leader in the Senate, the Republican majority leader in the House of Representatives, then by Trump’s appointed cabinet members, in the historical order in which their offices were created. If the Democratic party should rise on the tide of topical Trump revulsion to gain control of both the Senate and the House while continuing on the neo-liberal economic course that has enabled the current level of income inequality and its  roiling antipathies, the inflamed and perhaps enlarged Trump “base” will be in position to champion a better, more efficient, more ruthless version. Uncorrected, the present partisan rancor, fear, and hostility hasten us in the direction of dark times history teaches are not merely constructs of dystopian novelists and hand-wringing essayists.

The critic Clive James proposes that a kind of “cultural amnesia,” an ominous desire to forget, is at work suppressing the historical impact of the devastations of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and Mao’s Cultural Revolution—not to mention the cautionary tales of more historically remote ruptures in the citizen-state connection.  

In Russia at the close of the sixteenth century tsarist rule utterly collapsed in what historians have called The Time of Troubles. A series of hapless pretender tsars arose and were violently eliminated. State governance dissolved in chaos, neighboring states invaded, and over the course of two decades millions of abandoned subjects starved to death, committed suicide, and otherwise lost their lives. At the outset of the French Revolution in 1789 when a longstanding monarchy was abruptly overthrown and no coherent scheme for restoring governance had yet evolved, French citizens far from Paris, the epicenter of the disruption, fell into a spontaneous violent unease that came to be known as The Great Fear, in which armed bands of peasants and townsmen arose to march on neighboring towns and estates with no clear idea of the wrong to be righted.

As suggested earlier, the present American misalignment of governors and governed can, if recognized and addressed, hasten needed realignment. Unaddressed, the anomie and rancor that characterize the current civic climate can only worsen. The contradictory gestures of the present administration—pledges made but not kept, threats to perceived opponents, false claims issued and defended—can only heighten the distrust, loss of confidence, and antipathy of those affected, further dividing and isolating them from one another. If escalating gestures of resistance on the part of the citizenry are suppressed, we will proceed from misalignment into tyranny. 

Under tyrants all citizens are patients, and with respect to personal fulfillment, their condition is terminal. In her seminal work, On Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt describes the diminished condition of citizens in a pathological polis.

One of the primary concerns of tyrannical government is to bring isolation about. Isolation may be the beginning of terror. Its hallmark is impotence in that power always comes from men acting together; isolated men are powerless by definition.

We as citizens are not yet isolated and powerless, but there is a sickening new awareness of the possibility. In a better world sickness seeks cure, and the first step in that direction is to see through the chauvinistic bluster and rhetorical smokescreen of Making America Great Again and to set about making it well.

                               Sources Consulted (In Sequence)

Aristotle. The Politics of Aristotle. Ernest Barker ed. and tr. (New York: Oxford University Press) 1963.

Plato. The Republic. Paul Shorey tr. The Collected Dialogues of Plato (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 1969.

Plato. Crito. Hugh Tredennick tr. Collected Dialogues of Plato (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 1969.

Madison, James. “Federalist Paper No. 10,” The Federalist Papers. Roy Fairfield ed.
Garden City: Anchor Books) 1966.

Bowlby, John. A Secure Base: Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development (London: Routledge) 1988.

Esterson, Aaron and Laing, R. D. Sanity, Madness and the Family (London: Tavistock) 

James, Clive. Cultural Amnesia (New York: W. W. Norton) 2007.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Caitlin Hamilton Summie Interviews Richard Hawley About His New Novel: The Three Lives of Jonathan Force

Q: What inspired you to write THE THREE LIVES OF JONATHAN FORCE?

RH: This work might have a fifty year genesis. A former boy and for decades a teacher and counselor of boys, I developed a fascination with boys’ deep natures—their urges and impulses and what I believe is a deep spiritual connection to the natural world and to various animal and human Presences. I am also concerned with how those natures are shaped, altered and sometimes lost to the institutions and expectations imposed on them by the larger social order. I wanted to tell that story. 

Q: The novel is organized in three parts—into three successive “books.” Why this structure?

RH: By my old man’s reckoning, the male life cycle unfolds in three discernable stages. One of my favorite Jungian writers, Robert Johnson, illustrates these helpfully in various books, including Transformations. Johnson proposes that all boys and young men are, to some extent, inspired fools like Parsifal and Don Quixote. Growing past that essential foolishness makes us acutely self-conscious and apparently intelligent—but increasingly disillusioned and unhappy for that—like Hamlet. If such a man is able to evolve past that despair, he may be able to reintegrate his original spiritual connectedness into full consciousness, shedding the illusion of his former worldly troubles as he goes—like Goethe’s Faust. My Jonathan Force makes this kind of journey.

Q: Your novel taps into major currents of philosophy and psychology and history as part of its story telling. How did these fields shape your vision of what Jonathan Force would become?

RH: When Jonathan—improbably—is admitted to Yale, he regresses to a realization that, as the larger world reckons, he knows absolutely nothing. Worse, he realizes that he cannot “catch up” by finding and storing up lots of information. He sees that what genuine intellectuals have is not so much information, as context for information: how thing relates to thing. So he sets about finding out how to establish context, which of course leads to a consideration of history, psychology and philosophy. In Jonathan’s case the threshold to all three is beholding Raphael’s masterwork, The School of Athens.

Q: As a boy Jonathan is a gifted musician. Later in life he is a world famous public intellectual. Indeed, at various moments in his boyhood and adulthood he seems to have it all. But he doesn’t have it all, does he? Was your point in making him so wildly successful to examine the definition and limits of success in our current culture?

RH: I did not set out to examine cultural standards of success per se, just Jonathan’s experience as, often to his surprise, he achieves it. Worldly success—fame, wealth—are for most of us abstractions. We may wonder about them, fantasize about them, secure in the realization that they are not likely to arrive. Neither of those abstractions motivated Jonathan to undertake the work he did. Nor, when he achieved fame and wealth, did it distract him much from his more urgent quest for meaning.

Q: Jonathan has three families, one in each section of the book. In the end he is closest to a young man, the son of his lover, not a blood relation at all. What are your thoughts on the place of family and mentors in how boys thrive?

RH: The love and close attention of families and mentors are critical to the realization of all children. But in my view, and in Jonathan’s experience, the essential contribution of loving nurture is not shrewd counsel or rigorous instruction but sheer witness to a child’s unfolding in all of its particularity: acknowledging that, welcoming that.  Jonathan did not always get this, but he was able to give it.

Q: Your portrayal of Elizabeth, Jonathan’s wife, is perfectly drawn and a little heartbreaking—she is a brittle, tense woman who only recognizes late in life how her anxieties have limited her. Why were she and their marriage important in shaping Jonathan’s character?

RH:  Beginning in adolescence and over the course of a long life’s partnership, Jonathan and Elizabeth dance about each other’s differences. Jonathan ultimately allows his inner drives to carry him up and out of his worldly station; Elizabeth feels she must hold fast to hers. She is intellectually acute, but has almost a child’s dread of exploring her inner world, for which she suffers. She tethers Jonathan to practical reality in ways that sometimes constrict him but which also allow him to participate in essential experiences of middle life, such as seeing beloved children through their own unfurling.

Q: Is part of the novel a spoof of the publishing industry? 

RH: I will leave that question for the publishing industry to decide. Although it has helped this book’s setting that the publishing industry over the course of Jonathan’s life has become analogous to what the Republican Party has become under the ascendency of Donald Trump.

Q: What are you hoping the readers will take away from this novel?

RH: I hope that readers will recognize the richness and insistence of the urges of our inner lives, including those that are unwelcome and even outrageous to the prevailing social order. This is a fairly long book, a life’s unfolding from first sense impression to last breath. I hope readers will not only take that ride but enjoy it, reminded of the wonder pulsing just below the surface of their own journeys.

Q: What’s next?

RH: I almost hesitate to say. It is non-fiction, a personal narrative about life’s—my life’s--closure. The book is tentatively  titled End Game, and I want it to capture the interplay between morbidity and vitality in late life. I would tell you more, but the narrative so far keeps surprising me and teaching me things I did not expect.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Growing Past Guns

It is impossible to engage in a consideration of contemporary culture’s continuing preoccupation with deadly pursuit without acknowledging the central place of guns in the process. From my first visitations of the pursuit fantasy as a child my pursuers were armed with guns, specifically handguns. The understanding was when they succeeded in cornering me and capturing me, I would be shot. As I grew older I began to imagine acquiring guns of my own, so I could return fire and defend myself. 

The prevailing commercial entertainments pitched to boys in the era of my growing up were cowboy dramas. In uncountable variations the cowboy heroes were threatened, defended themselves, and ultimately prevailed over villainous enemies by being shot at and shooting back. Knives and bows and arrows might also come into play in the cycle of deadly pursuit, but guns were the dominant assurance of lethal force. While the destructive capacity of today’s obtainable firearms—Glock rifles and pistols, military assault weapons—has increased dramatically since my boyhood preoccupation with cowboys’ Colt 45s and Winchester rifles, the role of firearms in sustaining the deadly pursuit motif has not changed. The cowboy west has not entirely lost its hold on contemporary imagination, but the deadly pursuit motif is more likely to be expressed today in contemporary, futuristic, or fantasy settings: Mafia sagas, Middle East war stories, gritty police procedurals, espionage thrillers, clashes between noble and malevolent superheroes, star wars. The principals are armed. For some of them—hit men, snipers—their command of their weapons and their marksmanship are their defining characteristic.

In sum, there is no useful consideration of the deadly pursuit motif—and certainly no consideration of moving past it—without a frank appraisal of the place guns have assumed in our civic life. Moreover, as can be seen in the aftermath of recent mass shootings in schools, malls, and movie theaters, even to raise the question of guns’ place in civic life is to create a virtual Rorschach Test onto which are projected stridently opposed convictions on the part of those outraged by what they consider to be the unacceptable toll easy access to guns has taken on our collective quality of life and those who feel that denying or limiting that access is an intolerable restriction of their autonomy, an autonomy grounded in natural law and guaranteed by the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

At present there is not even a guarded willingness on the part of gun control and gun rights advocates to reconsider their respective convictions about the place of guns in civic life. This impasse is not because those who hold gun control or gun rights convictions fail to understand the validity of their opponents’ position; it is because they are unable to feel what their opponents feel. Gun control advocates cite clear evidence that countries that deny or limit citizens’ access to firearms record only a fraction of the homicides and accidental deaths recorded in the United States, where such access is arguably increasing. Gun control advocates are incredulous that such statistics are not more compelling. They are beyond incredulous when, in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of twenty elementary school children and six members of the school staff in Newtown, Connecticut, by a deranged young man whose mother hoped to strengthen her relationship to him by maintaining an arsenal of firearms in their home, guns rights activists advocated, with some success across the country, arming more teachers and school staff.

It is useful to ask why guns rights advocates are unmoved by statistics showing a comparatively high incidence of homicides and accidental shooting deaths where guns are readily available, by the succession of highly publicized mass shootings in schools and public places, by the shooting deaths or attempted shooting deaths of beloved celebrities and public figures, by gang-related shooting deaths that continue apace in America’s big cities. From a gun control advocate’s perspective, and certainly from the perspective of someone who has lost a child or another loved one to gunfire, an unwillingness to restrict the means of such killing seems heartless, monstrous. For them, gun lobby slogans like “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” ring false. In the aftermath of a recent, highly publicized supermarket tragedy in which a two-year-old found his mother’s loaded pistol in her purse, accidently discharged the gun, killing his mother, a writer friend of mine mordantly commented, “I guess guns don’t kill people; toddlers kill people.” From a gun control advocate’s perspective, the idea of arming more people as a means of combatting gun violence seems nothing short of pathological. But gun rights advocates typically do not regard themselves as either heartless or pathological.

In addition to convictions about their constitutional rights and their preferred means to achieve civic safety, gun rights advocates, including gun owners of my acquaintance, have deep feelings about guns that their adversaries do not feel and to which they thus cannot begin to relate. These feelings are, I believe, preverbal and sub-verbal and thus do not enter into public discourse on the societal role of guns. I believe this because I too, from early childhood through early adolescence, was held in the thrall of guns.  These were the guns of the western movies and TV shows produced primarily for me and my male friends during the American 1950s: holstered, pearl handled six guns and pump action Winchester rifles toted stylishly by TV cowboys like Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, The Cisco Kid, The Lone Ranger, Palladin, and their like on the big screen portrayed by John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Randolph Scott. 

Given strong views and justified suspicions held by my mother and father, it was made clear that under no circumstances was I allowed to own or shoot a gun that fired anything like a real bullet. My almost tearful appeals to have at least a pellet rifle or a Daisy BB gun were curtly declined. “We live in a neighborhood,” my mother would say. “Where would you shoot a gun?” My father was more impatient and more direct. “What do you want to do,” he would say, “shoot somebody’s eye out?” Given the clarity of the family policy, my passion for pistols and rifles—partly esthetic, partly something like (if not actually) libido-- was necessarily diverted to toy facsimiles, the closer to the real thing the better. 

Between my fifth and tenth year, I was rarely without a set of mother-of-pearl handled cap guns, holstered and tied down around the thigh of my chaps with a string of rawhide. The charred smell released when the hammer of my cap gun met the tiny bead of gun powder embedded in each paper cap transported me out of my suburban neighborhood northwest of Chicago into a wilder, earlier realm. In my reveries before sleep, I would take cover in a comfortable ditch or behind just the right formation of rock and exchange cap gun fire with unseen, cap gun wielding enemies similarly concealed. In that hazy mental territory between imagining and dreaming, my cap gun would morph into a real gun, and I would feel myself newly arrived in a condition and a place where I had always wanted to be.

Between my tenth year and early teens I found ways to skirt my parents’ firm no-have, no-use gun policy. Some friends had been given BB guns, and when out of view of grown-ups, we set up bottles and cans and fired away. A few blocks from where I lived paved streets gave way to double rutted tractor paths leading into vast sweeps of cornfields and grassy meadows. My friends and I referred to this undeveloped territory as “the fields,” which I pictured extending westward in an unbroken sweep to Colorado where it erupted into the Rocky Mountains. In my after school and weekend hours my friends and I roamed the fields, climbed trees, built temporary forts. In the course of such outings we would occasionally cross paths with older boys my family and neighbors had told me to steer clear of because they were given to various delinquencies, including vandalism. Two of these boys, brothers, carried pellet rifles when they took to the fields, shooting at birds and squirrels and improvised targets. 

I longed to have such a gun. Imagining the heft of it under my arm created a dizzying, almost erotic sense of empowerment, transforming every chirping bird on a limb, every zig-zagging rabbit into a target. I remember one chilly afternoon sitting along the bank of a little creek with a group of my friends, when the older brothers, bearing their rifles, sat down and joined us. They had not been very nice to us in the past, and I was a little uneasy about keeping their company. They were not beyond hurting us. Our talk turned to their rifles, where they got them, birds and animals they had killed. The elder of the two brothers shared a scenario he had been thinking about in which he might break into somebody’s empty house and shoot everything up, shoot every lighting fixture and standing lamp, shoot the pictures on the wall, shoot the television screen. I was simultaneously repelled by what he was saying—my parents’ darkest nightmare—and fascinated. I could feel the anarchic allure. I could see everything inside a house being a target, everything aimed at and spectacularly shattered. 

The brothers left us to look for birds, and my friends and I followed at a distance. I watched as one of them pumped his rifle and fired into the tree line. The dark silhouette of a small bird dropped to the grass. Without deliberation we moved to view the kill. Years later, because I could not put it out of my mind, I wrote down what happened next, an episode recorded in a memoir I called Seeing Things. 

We ran to [the fallen bird]. Incredibly tiny, bat-like, its legs drove its injured torso around in a circle.  There was a dark red hole at the base of the bird’s neck, in which a glimpse of metal pellet could be seen. The gray bird seemed to be skewered to the earth by the pellet. Its bright black eye saw nothing. The bald little legs would grow still, then start spasmodically, driving the damaged torso around the hub of its pain. 

“Your turn,”[one of the brothers] said to me. “Kill it.” He pumped the rifle and handed it to me.

“Kill it, and it’s your bird.”

He guided the barrel of the rifle so it rested on the bird’s pulsing head.

“Kill it.”

I looked into the tree line and squeezed the trigger.

“Bye, bird.” Their laughter hung in the cold like pain. One of them made a show of crushing the little carcass underfoot, and they moved on, toward home. They let me carry the rifle.

This troubling episode was no doubt a factor in cooling my ardor to own and to shoot guns, but there were other factors. As I entered my teens, practical matters came to dominate my interior reveries. I still drifted off into occasional fantasies, including gun fantasies and the older fantasy of deadly pursuit, but less often. It became hard to picture any plausible scenario, including a large enough and rugged enough landscape, in which I might be gladly and excitedly armed. A more pressing concern was that I would be included in the right group of friends at school. I was also preoccupied with forging satisfying attachments to girls I liked. Owning and operating guns had no place in these scenarios. I had also begun to surrender to the allure of competitive sports: tracking against bright sky the trajectory of a spiraling forward pass and the gratifying thunk of hauling it under my shoulder pads as I ran down field; the smack of my fast ball—strike!---into the fat cushion of the catcher’s mitt; longing throughout dreary school weeks for the release of Saturday morning basketball games, with uniforms, stripe-shirted referees, the satiny, sweaty race up and down gym floors the color of butterscotch, penetrating the blurry thicket of defenders for a banked lay-up, from the far perimeter of play launching a desperate shot, intuiting its thrilling swish.

By mid-adolescence guns, which had so recently beckoned with an almost erotic force, had ceased to beckon at all. Practically, I was still appropriately fearful of firearms, in that I did not want to be shot and killed by one, but I had lost all desire to own a gun or to fire it. Moving past my gun obsession carried with it no special dread or moral censure. As a younger man I cannot remember disapproving of guns or much interest in them of any kind. Only decades later, when I was professionally established as a teacher, would the schoolyard shootings at Jonesboro and Columbine beg a consideration of better laws and policy.

It took only a little dedicated reflection on my part to realize that, with only a minor adjustment of my own youthful circumstances, I could have accidentally, perhaps even intentionally, become a boy shooter and killer. I did not suppress such impulses as a boy, but I did manage to grow through and past them. This is a crucial distinction and one that might help gun control advocates better understand the gun rights adversaries they vilify.

Henry David Thoreau, now lionized for his principled pacifism, knew better. He had owned and discharged weapons. He had hunted in his youth. In his maturity he reflected, “We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected.” In my own case I don’t know how “sadly” my education would have been neglected if I had not been exposed to guns at all, but I am certain that, as in other critical, if perilous, stages of my early development, the way out was through. 

My own boyhood obsession with guns led ultimately to a desire to understand it. For several years I had wanted guns so badly that, while not an especially difficult or disobedient boy, I was impervious to parental and civic prohibitions. If and when I could get my hands on a gun, I did so. But because I managed to grow through the process, by grace not injuring others or myself, I was able to see that my gun obsession was not really about guns. I had projected onto various firearms a more primal yearning, very possibly a call from my evolutionary past. About this realization I wrote a poem.


I dreamed of rifles
On the wall, ownable, heft in my hands,
The shoulder fit of the oiled stock,
An eye down the dull blue barrel.

Cocking one with a clink, I could feel it
Tense inside, over-ready.
Finger joint cool on the trigger’s curve,
Fondling, refitting itself,
A certain tickle of control;
The firm pull would be final.

Once there was a rifle, a toy.
A blue tin facsimile.
But I could cock it,
Set a spring and shoot
Hard corks across the living room
Or at the line of plastic crows
Clipped upon a wire rack.
Cork-struck, they dropped
And clicked like plastic on the hardwood,
A slight recognition
In each tinny kill.

So few guns would shoot.
Lightweight pistols lined with flimsy springs
Launched plunger-headed plastic darts
Puckering onto a pane of glass.
Maybe. Maybe at first.
Then the flash and bone of western guns,
Rhinestone-holstered handfuls—

One wide morning in a summer field,
I draw suddenly on something in the treeline
And shoot. A cap cracks the clearness.
The sweet char of its powder
Reminds me of something,

And I pass between the sun and form
Of an old mythic bird,
Dead again in the grass.
Again its stillness startles—

Bone-beaked, feather edges fine as snakeskin:

Prey. I am pre-Indian
Standing over pre-Eagle.
Before bison or bow
I was sinew and spear,
A sense of skull, of flank, of tender throat,
The cat’s night eye,

A pounce.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

My God Damned Elite Education

The realization crystallized when the fellow came over to fix the refrigerator. Except to greet him at the door and let him in, I realized I couldn’t talk to him. Whatever Fessenden, Andover, Harvard, and a Yale doctorate in English literature have prepared me for, the process has also erected insurmountable barriers to relating humanely and empathically to a Whirlpool technician.

He began straightforwardly enough, asking, “So what’s the trouble?”

“Ice,” I said, wanting to be succinct. But then, “Not so much ice as the absence of ice when I press my glass against the thingy on the door where ice is supposed to come out.”

He looked bewildered. “So you’re not getting ice.”

“I’m getting it,” I struggled to put it in a way I thought he might understand. “But I am not getting it out of the chute or whatever it is on the front of the door. There was ice for a while in the big drawer-like thing on the inside of the refrigerator that you can pull all the way out, but nothing was coming out from the place on the door.”

“O.K.,” he said, looking troubled. “So the ice isn’t coming down. But you have ice in the bin?”

I was momentarily flummoxed by “bin.” But if “bin” was his term for the big plastic drawer-like thing that stored the ice inside the refrigerator, then I believed I could proceed. “There was ice in there for a while, but after I used up what there was, there was no more new ice. I have been going to the Seven Eleven for ice since it stopped coming out of the door.”

Seemingly impervious to what I had explained, he turned away from me and said, “I’ll have a look.” There followed an awkward silence while he wheeled the refrigerator out from the wall, opened the double doors and extracted the big drawer-like thing or “bin,” nosing around behind it with a flashlight, the beam of which seemed to come out of something like a ballpoint pen. For what seemed like ages he poked around the recess behind the bin with tools I could not see. Unable to stand there idly any longer, I said, “I have work in the other room. Let me know if you need me for anything.”

To this he grunted something hurtfully dismissive, which may have been “fine.”

In the quiet of my study, I tried to make sense of what had just happened, but there was no satisfying resolution. There was simply no bridge between the world I experienced and the names I assigned to the things within that world and the world of the Whirlpool man clinking about not fifteen yards from where I sat. He was approximately my age. It is conceivable that, like me, he could have grown up in Dedham, Massachusetts, though probably not in our neighborhood. He would more likely have lived in West Roxbury or Medford. But as toddlers we could have played, even become friends.

But then, not unlike putative earthlings drawn up into an alien spacecraft to be put to unfathomable uses known only to the abductors, I was enrolled in a succession of elite institutions that in the name of enlarging my understanding of the world would instead limit that understanding to what is no more than a rarefied freemasonry of class driven concepts and language. Thus, like my fellow graduates of the elite schools, I entered a world of khaki pants, ergonomic furniture, livable salaries, and paid sabbaticals under the unexamined assumption that it was the world, a world best understood by my fellow ivy leaguers—and least understood by the likes of a Whirlpool repair man.

Yet here I was in mid-life without ice. Or at least ice coming out of the refrigerator door. And there he was, just out of earshot, fixing it.

“Hello. Hello?” It was his way of summoning me back to the kitchen.

“Problem was the water line between the sink and the fridge was pinched shut. Something must’ve banged against it and made this—crimp.” He held up the damaged section of tubing. “So I replaced the line, and you’re all set.”

He was replacing his tools in their metal box, clearly preparing to leave. I would have to say something as he departed, but what? Would “thanks”—coming from me---be condescending, given the near certainty that he probably had not attended an undergraduate college at all, and almost certainly not a highly selective one. “Good job” would be even more hollow, as he was fully aware I would have no idea of what  constituted a “good” refrigerator repair.

In the event, I cringe at what I actually did manage to say. I had been eyeing his trousers, which were rugged looking and the color of baked yams. They had extra zippered pockets sown down along the legs. These extra pockets might reasonably be expected to hold tools and thus appropriate for an appliance repairman, but I had also seen similar zippered pockets in shorts and slacks sold by upscale retail clothiers like Banana Republic. A little hesitantly, I said, “Interesting pants.”

I will not soon forget the look he gave me in response. Not bewilderment, but an emphatic mock bewilderment, stating more strongly than any actual words: “Interesting pants? What the fuck?”

He left the bill for his services on the butcher block counter and as he went out the door said, “Have a nice day.”

And at that moment I would have traded my acceptance letters to every one of my elite schools not to have been lacerated by the irony of that valediction.