Ridding Ourselves of Mental and Political Malware

Last night, I had a dream that Trumpf had planted malware in my mind. I don’t remember how, only the result. I couldn’t feel good about anything, couldn’t experience any happiness unless I did his bidding.

 

Like many dreams that synthesize multiple levels of meanings, this one revealed a twisted truth. T is trying to plant malware in our minds as well as into our political, economic, and social systems. He is doing this through actions, tweets and the statements he uses to manipulate headlines and capture attention. Even though so much of what T says and does is despicable—taking young children from their parents, starting to end the ban on asbestos and allowing its import from Russia, attacking anyone who speaks out against him, not protecting our voting systems, education and health care, etc., etc.—I think he prefers any headline over none.

 

And it’s not just the news media; it’s talk shows and social media. He is good at grabbing attention. So much of the news and entertainment media can’t or won’t resist him.

 

And it’s easy to get tired from all this. The bad news comes fast and furious. It is difficult to feel good about the future when his policies threaten that future. It’s hard to feel good about our lives when the lives of so many people are being undermined or destroyed. But doing his bidding by getting caught by his “information wars” only makes us more powerless, unhappy, and angry.

 

How do we remove the malware? Unfortunately, we can’t just download malware bytes. We can only find ways to resist. We resist by learning to be more aware and mindful of our own patterns of thinking and feeling. We can take care of ourselves and learn how to recognize the signs of anxiety and depression so we can let them go more readily.  We can strengthen our minds, our bodies, and our relationships so we can enjoy life despite him. It’s not just what he says and does that is so dangerous. It’s the values and ways of looking at the world that generates what he says and does that is dangerous.

 

And as odious as this may seem to some of us, and liberating to others, we can make political work a normal part of our lives. The midterm elections are about 3 months away. We have much to do.

 

When someone is pointing a gun at us, we can’t get caught up in debating the caliber or model. We take it away or get away. A gun is pointed now at each of us and we can’t run away.

 

We can’t lose sight of the goal or be fooled by distorted facts and statements meant to confuse and divide. Divide and conquer wasn’t just a strategy of ancient Rome. The GOP and T would like nothing more than to set progressives against liberals or moderates, debating whether health care for all is socialist or not or which candidate is more progressive.

 

In the past the GOP twisted the national discussion by turning ‘compromise’ and ‘liberal’ into dirty words. They made taxes and social support programs seem sinful, and accused the Democrats of class warfare when they pointed out how the GOP tax cuts were, yes, an example of class warfare—of the rich robbing from the poor and middle class. We need to resist their manipulation of imagery, language, and values. (Please read George Lakoff’s The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.)

 

In the last election, some of us were led to believe Hillary couldn’t lose, so we voted for Jill Stein. Others were taken in by arguments (and possibly bots) saying Hillary was as bad (or worse) than T. They would like us to bad mouth and treat should-be allies as enemies.

 

A democracy can only function when its people (including politicians) clearly consider and use a diversity of viewpoints to create new, broader understandings of issues and events. In order to hear and respect different viewpoints, a democracy must be a bit slow moving and require compromise. When anyone with different views is considered an enemy, meaningful discussion and debate is destroyed. Democracy is destroyed.

 

A recent article in the Guardian, written by Adam King and Emma Rees, explained how the Labour Party in Britain came back from a bad loss in 2015 to win in 2017. It created optimism with a bold agenda built on policies that excited people because they spoke to people’s real needs. The article recommended that Progressives in the US apply these same ideas, to work from within the Democratic Party and work with the DNC to win elections and create change.

 

King and Rees recommended that Democrats, and all those who oppose what T’s GOP is doing to our nation and our world, need to work together to support candidates who actually represent our views and interests, and will put those interests above even their own desire for office.

 

The candidates we support need to be able to work with others in congress to not only oppose T but advance democracy, at the ballot box and in the economy. When such candidates actually win, we have a better chance of unseating T and destroying his malware. (We need to research and hopefully support our local Democratic candidates. If you live in the 23rd Congressional District of Central New York, Tracy Mitrano is a candidate for Congress whose values I support. I also firmly support Michael Lausell for the N. Y. State Assembly 58th district.)

 

And as many in the centrist and progressive media have pointed out, this is already happening. Not only are more progressive candidates running as Democrats, but a report by the Center for American Progress shows there’s broad support among college educated and working class voters of all races in favor of a higher minimum wage, higher taxes on the wealthy, and more spending on health care and retirement. And more people are taking part in the political process. According to the Pew Research Center, the turnout in this years primary contests for House Democrats is 84% higher than in 2014. For Republicans, it is 24% higher.

 

There certainly have been more political protests than any time since the 1960s. According to Vox, 20% of Americans have participated in political protests over the first 16 months of the T regime. It has only gone up since then.

 

Many of us can’t stand to hear T or his Congressional GOP sycophants lie so openly and rip us off so brazenly. We are angry and afraid. There clearly is much to be angry about. T is the “King of sleaze,” a would-be dictator and probably a traitor, etc. And the DNC, the should-be leader for people’s rights and economic justice, has often acted contrary to those goals. However, I hope our anger and fear can be used as energy to wake us up to what we need to do, not turn us away from hearing or seeing what frightens and disgusts us.

 

I hope I now know, and we know, to think two, three, or four times before believing or sharing on social media or elsewhere anything that divides the opposition to T and his quest for dictatorship. That we know not to get arrogant or tricked into thinking a battle is won until it actually is won. And we take care of others and ourselves while we vote T’s GOP out of office and work to create a political system more responsive to the rights, freedom, actual needs and well-being of the great majority of people.

 

 

 

When We Notice A Reality Different From Our Own Reflected in the Eyes of Another, We Can Come Together: A Look at Brooke Gladstone’s “The Trouble With Reality.”

Many books have been published lately shining light on the Trumpf darkness, and bringing rational analysis to seeming confusion. Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, or Luke Harding’s Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win, are two such books. Brooke Gladstone, co-host of NPR’s On The Media, gives us The Trouble With Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time. This is a very short book on a large question, built from her interviews. She ties Mr. T’s political strategy to how we perceive and understand the world, and shows us that to meet the threat of his administration, we, citizens of a democracy, will not only have to grow in our understanding, but in our emotional awareness and capacities.

 

It is too easy to get lost in Mr. T’s manipulations. His attacks on the media, truth, women, etc. are not simply the ravings of a deluded narcissist. His lies serve a purpose. They make it more difficult for many people to see the truth. Gladstone quotes philosopher Hannah Arendt, speaking in a 1974 interview about her own time and the rise of totalitarians: ”…[A] people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. With such a people, you [the demagogue] can do what you please.”

 

Truth, in a sense, is what we all share. If we lose a sense of what we share, we don’t know how to act. Just think how confusing it can be when everyone around us disagrees with us. Even if we are, or were, sure about something we saw, if everyone around us says they saw something different, we would most likely begin to doubt our perception. So Mr. T aims to undermine our sense of commonality, not only with other humans but with our understanding of what democracy is. A democracy does not require agreement over policies but of how to decide on policies. It requires at least some basic agreement over rights, responsibilities, and laws. Mr. T undermines all such agreements.

 

The existential threat to democracy “is not just the lies but the lying.” In a Gladstone interview with journalist Masha Gessen, Gessen says Putin and Trump might be very different, but “they are kin in the use of the lie:…they lie in the same way and for the same purpose—blatantly, to assert power over truth itself.” Mr. T and Putin want their reality to be THE reality. A demagogue does not just impose laws but dictates reality. In a way, he makes himself his own religion.

 

Many laugh at Mr. T’s tweets, calling them delusional or mad. But linguist George Lakoff says the tweets are often more complex and layered, more manipulative than we might think. According to Lakoff, T uses tweets to:

  1. Frame an issue: dominate discussion by getting his viewpoint out first. For example, “Only reason the hacking of the poorly defended DNC is discussed is that the loss by the Dems was so big…” First, he implies hacking the DNC by Russia, a foreign government, was no big deal. Secondly, his win was “So Big,” Dems loss so huge. Thirdly, the RNC was just better defended, “even though the RNC was also hacked by the Russians (only, they didn’t leak any of that stuff).”
  2. Divert attention: provoke the media’s attention from a more important story, usually by using a cultural issue, e.g. the tweets about the musical Hamilton and the cast’s comments to Mike Pence, appeared on the day it was revealed Mr. T paid out $25 million to settle lawsuits for fraud by Trump University.
  3. Send up a trial balloon: mention a possible policy to test how people would react, e.g. “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability…”
  4. Deflect: He tweets “Lock her up” when he is acting in ways that should get him locked up. He blames the messenger instead of taking responsibility. “The real scandal here [media revelations about Russia] is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy…”

 

And then there are tweets that might frame an issue, but I think mostly frame how vicious or vindictive he can be or how totally lacking he is in understanding an issue. (As in his recent tweet: “In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming….’”) The tweets are ways of shouting at the world and attracting those whose anger echoes his own.*

 

Gladstone says it is important to understand the purpose of his tweets so we can undermine their usefulness to him. If we repost, or allow ourselves to get too upset by them, it only supports his goals and upsets our mind. We need to take meaningful action, make calls, get facts out there, and never give up on the values, the faith in the possibility of public reason that makes democracy possible.

 

The fact that Mr. T largely isolates himself in his own Breitbart or Fox news reality, and uses other news media mostly to fuel his anger, might be what eventually undermines his administration. According to Arendt, what makes a demagogue vulnerable is his own self-deception. “The self-deceived deceiver loses all contact with not only his audience, but the real world, which will catch up with him…”

 

“Not knowing,” says Gladstone, “is much scarier than knowing.” We might not be able to know the world fully, but “we have to live somewhere.” We often think our own facts are true and other people’s “facts” are wrong or incomplete. We need to learn to be more humble with our understanding of reality and what we think is “the” solution. There are always many actions we can take, “but all such efforts are hobbled, inexorably, by rage, bafflement, and despair.” We need to lower our blood pressure (and fear) so we can work and think more clearly. Rage might fuel our willingness to act, but should not decide what we do.

 

We need to understand, even to feel, that we share a great deal with other people, yet the reality reflected in another person’s eyes can be very different from our own. And this is an advantage, not a threat. It is what makes democracy not only possible but desirable. Only by perceiving the value of this difference can we learn from each other. Only by expanding our own capacities can we, those of us who understand the threat, truly work together to oppose Mr. T and create a better, more equitable and just, society.

 

*On January 5th, Politico had an article by Mathew Gertz, from Media Matters, saying that Mr. T is live-tweeting Fox, particularly Fox and Friends. He is not trying to distract us as much as himself. Despite having at his disposal the largest intelligence gathering machine on the earth, he relies on a conservative news organization to shape his views on current events.

 

 

Crossing the Divides

Our country is divided not only in terms of which presidential candidate we supported or which policies we support, but on a much more fundamental level. We differ on what it means to be a human being. We differ in our root beliefs, our understanding of the human mind, the self, and reality. It is a difference in the way of thinking and speaking with others, in activities we engage in, in our view of what a democracy is. It is not simply a matter of income, class or color, although I think income inequity and racism are central causes and indications of division. It is spiritual, intellectual and emotional. It is not a divide between one religion and another, or religious versus secular, but runs right through all such groupings. The differing sides all feel that the other, or one of the others, threatens the world itself. This makes extreme actions appear possible or even necessary.

 

Karen Armstrong, author, religious scholar, and former nun, provides an important perspective on one issue dividing our land. In 2005, talking about the rise of fundamentalism and terrorism, she said it is wrong to even speak of conducting a war on terrorism, because it is really a religious war, one form of fundamentalism versus another. Fundamentalism is a desire to return to the fundamental values, the original state of a religion. It interprets religious doctrine literally and calls for strict adherence to such doctrine. Truth is solid, fixed, and absolute and tolerance of the “other” can be considered sin. In our world today, there is a “mushrooming worldwide religious fundamentalist revolt against modernity and secularism.” She said, “We are creatures who seek transcendence… We’re meaning-seeking creatures, we fall easily into despair.” Thus, religion has always had a place in human affairs and even the appearance of assaulting religion can have dire consequences.

 

But, she says, there is “good” religion and “bad.” “Bad” suffocates the sacred and the search for meaning and truth in dogma and rules. “Good” religion is compassion and the experience of dethroning the ego at the center of your world and finding another person or something bigger than your self there. This good religion is not anti-intellectual; it recognizes that understanding deep truths is a matter of feeling, imagination, as well as rationality. For example, some religions consider experience, rational analysis, and wisdom essential to religion. The Dalai Lama, for example, said “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”

 

Religion is not usually a consciously chosen belief. It can be foundational to one’s sense of self, culture and reality. To threaten religion is to threaten the world itself. Bad religion considers any statement, factual or otherwise, that is contrary to their religious position not only an untruth or lie, but dangerous. This can include science. Armstrong also argues that especially in nations like the US, where there is so much violent imagery in the media and entertainment, the reaction against secularism can be violent. “Whenever religion is allowed to enter political debate, positions become more rigid and absolute.” And when religion is threatened, fundamentalist membership and action increases and bad religion replaces good.

 

George Lakoff, in his wonderful book, The All New Don’t Think of An Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, provides another way to frame the divide in our nation. In America, we often use the metaphor of the nation as a family. Yet, Republicans and Democrats have a very different notion of the nature of that family, or what should be that nature. The Republicans think of the nation as needing to conform to a “strict father” model. The Democrats think of needing a “nurturant parent” model. This is, of course, a simplification of both the reality and Lakoff’s analysis, but it provides a general overview of the theory.

 

The strict father family thinks of the world “as a dangerous place…because there is evil out there in the world.” It is competitive, there is absolute right and wrong, and children, when “bad,” are born bad. So a strict father is needed to protect and teach the children. Children need to be obedient and learn discipline, and be punished when disobedient. Without discipline, the world would go to hell. If you are wealthy, it means you are disciplined. Reality dictates that if you work for your own selfish motives and success, everyone will benefit. If you try to help someone else, be compassionate, and try to nurture others, you interfere with his or her own self-discipline, and undermine self-interest. According to this reasoning, the rich are good, the poor are bad. These metaphors and beliefs translate into domestic and foreign policies that maximize the value of the rich pursuing their self-interest.

 

Democrats and progressives are likely to believe in a more gender-neutral parent model. Any gender is equally responsible for, and capable of, raising children. Children are born basically “good” or full of potential and can be nurtured to be better. You need empathy, so you can know better what your child needs. You need to take care of yourself so you can take care of your child. You need a sense of responsibility and commitment, not only for your family but your community, country, and world. You want your child to be fulfilled in life, happy. You value freedom, fairness, service, cooperation, and trust.

 

To speak across this great divide, you must use language that reflects the values others hold dear and does not threaten their religion. To tell another person they are just wrong or their ideas are evil, you strengthen the idea you oppose in the mind of the person you are talking to.

 

These are just two different perspectives out of many. We’re multidimensional and complex beings. Progressives can be closeted conservatives and conservatives can be closeted progressives. So instead of just attacking those who disagree with you, use the language and metaphors that they value in order to expose the implications or perspective they hadn’t considered. According to Lakoff, the Republican and conservative message is that Democrats, liberals and progressives are weak, angry, and softhearted, so be sincere, respectful, calm, and hold your ground. Re-frame any story anyone tries to use against you in order to illustrate that your point of view and your values show you, too, love your country. You, too, want security, opportunity, and freedom, just as they do. You agree more than you disagree. The road to the freedom and stability that conservatives’ value highly must merge with the road to equity and compassion you value highly.

 

*You might find this recent post on the election by George Lakoff extremely useful.

Root Beliefs

When someone says something to you that seems outrageously wrong and you want to jump onto his back and pound him, or at least leap onto his words and pound them, consider this first. What beliefs or assumptions about the nature of reality that you hold is he threatening? What beliefs or assumptions of his are behind his statements? You might think his reasoning needs correction or her factual knowledge is deficient. But what might instead be the culprit is her cosmology or “meta-narrative,” meaning the central story that he tells himself to make sense of the world. And if so, your response won’t reach him unless you take that into account.

 

You aren’t going to change someone’s belief system in one conversation, and attacking that belief system will just lead to defensive behavior. No one likes having their God or favorite story threatened. To do so threatens a person’s whole sense of self and reality.

 

For example, if you believe that there is a male God who favors the rich, and politically and economically powerful, you are likely to believe what these people say even if it is absurd. According to this viewpoint, it is not the institutions, economic and legal systems of a particular society that favor certain people to gain riches. It is nature itself that puts these people in their position. Another form of this cosmology is presented by Ayn Rand, a novelist and philosopher who has influenced a great many Republican political leaders. For Rand, altruism and compassion are signs of weakness and are unhealthy, immoral, even evil. In her book, The Voice of Reason, she said that altruism is a “monstrous notion.”  “It is the morality of cannibals devouring one another. It is a theory of profound hatred for man, for reason, for achievement, for any form of human success and happiness on earth.” To help someone else, she argued, especially if the act is dangerous, is immoral because it would show a lack of esteem for your self. It would be putting someone’s interest above your own, thus degrading you. Governments not only cannot, but should not, help the poor, sick, and elderly, who are to be considered killers of growth. Those who take anything from the government are looting from everyone else. It is the poor who exploit the rich, not the other way around. Christian calls to help the needy, or the image of Jesus as compassionate, are likewise notions that promote immorality. If you believe Rand, you treat those who are on Social Security or Medicare as looters, and those people who want to reduce their college debt as immoral, wanting to steal from the coffers of the brave bankers who loaned them money.

 

The fact that such beliefs reduce each person to a fortress at war not only with everyone else but nature itself is not a result to be deplored but just the way the world works. For Rand, happiness results from acting in tune with this reality.

 

I fundamentally disagree with this viewpoint. It often leads to a disquieting tendency to react defensively, not to what I’d call happiness. Contemporary neuroscience describes a “negativity bias” in our brain and perceptual system. We react to the mere possibility of a threat to our selves or even to our self-image, to pain or negative experience, more quickly than to positive experiences. Our fight-flight-freeze response activates quickly. In fact, during the course of a normal day, our thoughts might center on one negative or threatening comment and gloss over the far more numerous positive experiences. Rand’s philosophy reinforces this negative reactivity.

 

Happiness, whether in the form of joy or overall well-being, only appears as this negativity ends. According to neuroscience, one of the greatest sources of happiness is a close, caring relationship, a relationship where you value the other person as highly as yourself. Where you can let down your guard and relax. It’s difficult to feel happy when you feel everyone around you is primarily motivated by the thought of taking from you whatever you have. Helping others increases self-esteem. It leads you to feel you have something valuable to give and the other is worth your attention. It strengthens the ties between people. How you feel about others and the world includes how you feel about yourself. You value others and in turn feel valued.

 

But if you can’t speak at the level of these core beliefs in a conversation with someone you disagree with, what do you do? Instead of attacking what divides you, think of what you share. Think from a place of agreement so you can reach some agreement. Use language that doesn’t set off a sense of threat.

 

George Lakoff, in his book, The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant, gives a guide to do just that. You can’t say to someone “don’t think of an elephant” and imagine they won’t think of an elephant. Likewise, to say “Ayn Rand is wrong” or this idea is evil, you strengthen the idea you oppose in the mind of the people you are speaking with. Instead, use the language and metaphors that a person values in order to expose the implications or perspective they hadn’t considered.

 

Borrowing again from Lakoff, think of “freedom.” Rand and other conservatives speak frequently about freedom. Ask them to imagine that they want to walk on a beach, but it’s owned by a rich person who fences it off from the public. They want good medical care but can’t get it because they don’t have the money. Or they want to attend college but it’s too expensive. What then happens to their freedom? Whose freedom is supported by the belief that the rich are favored by God? Are the rich to be allowed to deny these freedoms to others?

 

In an important way, we inhabit the world we believe is true and live the story (or the consequences of the story) about reality that we tell ourselves. If we believe that the only way to be free and get what we need is to seize it, no matter the consequences for others or the environment, then others are unlikely to respond to us with love and friendship. If we put up strong walls, then it’s unlikely anyone will get inside with us. Happiness is reduced to the thrill of defending our isolation. But society is a relationship amongst all its members. The quality of society and of our happiness will depend on how much we respect and value each other and value caring relationships.

Fearing Science #2 and The Value of Money in Distorting Understanding

In the last paragraph of my latest blog, I spoke about needing the “intention, the commitment, the care” as well as a clear mind in order to act constructively to limit or slow global warming—or to take any effective ethical action. We act according to what we value. Valuing the earth, and our intellectual understanding of human caused climate change, is purposely undermined by corporate and other parties creating false, frightening countervailing claims. Claims such as “addressing global warming is too expensive, cost massive job layoffs, increase energy dependency, and so on.” We’ve all heard these claims, all largely false. (See George Lakoff.) How is it that people who make and believe such claims don’t consider that an uninhabitable earth would really undermine the economy? Why don’t they consider (or admit they are already considering) the growing economic and personal costs we are paying now for extremes in climate change, costs of increasing droughts, floods, fires, loss of animal habitat, maintenance of infrastructure stressed by climate extremes, etc.?

 

As George Lakoff put it, “… when the wealthy control what appears in the public media, they can control public discourse and public thought mechanisms through the control of language and imagery.”

 

Mirriam Webster defines money as a medium of exchange and the storing of value. Viewed psychologically, it is a reification of value or value symbolized in matter. What is labeled as costing one million dollars is more valuable than what costs ten dollars; or someone being paid one million or more annually is more valued in our culture than someone paid ten thousand dollars annually. Money can be invoked to distort our understanding and caring.  I hope we, all of us, can learn how to better discern and control its influence. Lakoff says that, “Global warming is the greatest moral issue facing our generation” and increasing concentration of wealth in the few runs a close second. “Together, they present a clear and present danger, not just to the United States, but to the world.”