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.

 

 

Natural and Human Disasters

I had planned to post a more relaxing, reflective blog, but the latest reports from Florida stopped me. The suffering I see on the news is so powerful that I can almost know what it is like for my own home and life to be threatened. I feel my heart beating more quickly, thoughts race, and the world seems darker, like the storm clouds are racing towards me, not Florida.

 

This is made worse by hearing about the fires on the West coast and memories of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana. It is made worse by the political and social disasters, of the hate riot in Charlottesville, and the human disaster, the prejudices, shortsightedness, lack of empathy and caring expressed by the President’s response to Charlottesville, his actions to end DACA, and his first trip to Texas after Harvey. It can feel like the earth itself has lost its center, weeping one minute, angry the next. And yet here, right now, in central New York, it is cool and beautiful.

 

These physical hurricanes make the greed and shortsightedness crystal clear. Before Harvey, the Washington Post and other reputable news organizations reported that the President proposed cutting funding for FEMA, for long term preparedness for disasters; for HUD, which helps rebuild homes, parks, and hospitals; the National Weather Service, which forecasts extreme storms; and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), which does crucial research and applies that research to help coastal residents prepare for disasters. In the middle of August, he signed an executive order which, along with other things, rolled back standards set by President Obama requiring that federal infrastructure projects take climate change into account. During the election, he claimed, in a debate with Hillary Clinton, that global warming was a myth perpetuated by China. Despite denying later on that he said this, he still nominated climate change denier Scott Pruitt to head the EPA.

 

And all along, the number and severity of weather disasters have been increasing. According to NOAA, the number of weather-related disasters which caused a billion dollars or more in damage have increased from 5.5 per year, starting in 1980; then for the last 5 years of this study, 2012-2016, the average was 10.6. This year might exceed that. Yet, despite his denials and his proposed cuts to government services, he says to the people of Houston that he cares about their well-being. His supporters, like Rush Limbaugh, even say that the press is hyping, exaggerating the dangers of Irma “to advance [a] climate agenda” and create panic in order to sell products. And then he leaves Florida.

 

Other Republicans say “don’t bring up Global Warming” during a hurricane, don’t politicize the suffering from these natural events. I agree that our first priority should be safety. But after that, understanding why the number of natural disasters are increasing is crucial to preparing for and creating policies to slow down our deteriorating climate. We must take into account how the increased temperature and water vapor over the Caribbean and Gulf, due to Global Warming, are adding fuel to the storms. To ignore global warming is like saying don’t take facts into consideration when you think. It is like the President and his cohorts are saying: Don’t think rationally. Don’t care about others. Don’t consider the implications of our policies.

 

The timing of these hurricanes, after so many other human hurricanes and disasters, makes crystal clear just how lacking in foresight, empathy, and understanding, just how delusional these politicians are. They themselves are a hurricane wind trying to devastate the economic stability and the remnants of political power that remain in the hands of the poor and middle class. As investigative journalist Naomi Klein pointed out, they are using natural, corporate and politician-created forms of disaster to get us to feel fear and accept or ignore policies that we would never accept otherwise. But hurricanes devastate the world for everyone.

 

So, please. We all have to help the people of Florida, Louisiana and Texas in any way we can. But the best way to help them long term, and help us all, is to learn all we can of the science of global warming. Practice compassion and mindfulness to keep our thinking as clear as possible. Call out politicians to stop the policies based on hate, short-term greed, and denial of science. Give the EPA back to scientists who know what they’re doing. Give to environmental organizations and those working to end this disaster of an administration. Vote, Demonstrate. Join with others who are caring people. To recover long term from these physical disasters we will have to put aside differences and work together to end this political disaster.

Coming of Age

As many people have realized, this moment is a test. Right now. Or better yet, an opportunity. Not in the sense of a test in school, or for a job, not one with a number or letter score, not one with a scorekeeper. It is a test in the sense of a coming of age ceremony, which tests and strengthens our character. We human beings have a chance to come of age. Of course, this is true every moment. Every moment is an opportunity to wake up and demonstrate who we are. But some moments, both in our lives and in history, are heightened by the knowledge of what is at stake. This is such a moment.

 

In this moment in history, it is clear the Emperor has no clothes. His greed, and the greed of those other Republicans around him, his destructiveness, and total lust for power even at the expense of everyone else, even at the expense of the nation, even at the expense of the world’s environment, is there for everyone to see. Will the rest of us find ways to step up, come of age by working to save our age—and possibly the age of everyone who might come after us?

 

An example of just how little these Republicans in the center of this administration care about the well-being of others is the proposed health care legislation. The Senate bill would, according to the CBO, lead to 22 million Americans without health insurance, and thus lead to the deaths of 27,000 people annually due lack of adequate health care. It would have created economic and health insecurity for millions of Americans. The proposed repeal of Obamacare without a replacement would do even more damage to individuals and the economy as a whole. Yet they supported this and similar legislation over and over again. Why? To get a tax cut to a few thousand super rich? To say to their supporters, “look how we defeated the previous [Democratic/African-American?] President?” Certainly, none of the bills proposed by Republicans over the last four months would improve health care for a great majority of Americans.

 

Some argue that it has always been this way. By it they either mean all of human history, or all of US history. It is just more blatant now. Now, information is just more readily available. I disagree, not with the fact that the greed is more blatant now, but with the underlying assumption, that politicians or anyone in power, or every one of us, is essentially selfish, greedy, and lusts for power. That this selfish lust is just “human nature.” To believe this is to essentially give up. Look into your own heart. You will find enough selfish thoughts and feelings and motivations. But do those thoughts or feelings define you? Is that all or most of who you are? And when you feel that selfishness, what happens to your mind and emotions? Do you notice the isolation, sense of distrust, unease and fear that follow?

 

The struggle being waged this moment is not just to defeat the kleptocratic Republicans, preserve some remnants of democracy, and save our rights and environment. It is to save humankind— to save not only in the sense of physical survival, but in the sense of understanding whom we are. How we act is born in the womb of mind and heart.

 

Yes, throughout US history and possibly throughout human history (especially since the Neolithic Revolution and the invention of farming and private ownership), there have been people trying to seize power, not just for a moment, but for always. No denying that. But one of the allures of democracy is that it puts power in front of all of us (at least in theory) and says, “Go for it.” Political power is always in question because it resides “in the people,” dynamic and changing. Part of the dynamism arises from those who can’t handle that shared power and so try to end it by controlling it. However, the only way to have a relatively secure democracy is to teach people how to live with being insecure, and in living with and taking an active part, along with others, in exercising power.

 

Too many of us have been deceived into underestimating our own personal power and capacity to persist, endure, and to feel. We think the challenge is too large, the fight too long, the pain too strong. This is partly a result of the manipulation of media and events to create a sense of crisis or shock, like the “shock and awe” tactic in the invasion of Iraq. But this invasion is primarily against the American people.

 

According to Naomi Klein, in her new book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, this “shock tactic” is an attempt by the corporate right to take advantage of collective crises and natural disasters in order to disorient us, get us to feel so vulnerable that we will accept policies we would never have accepted otherwise. It is a sinister attempt to make us feel so vulnerable and powerless that our natural impulse to come together and help others is buried. But, as Klein says, we can and must refuse this manipulation. We can decide to use this common threat to build a movement of resistance, hope, justice and love.

 

To crudely juxtapose two disparate philosophies, that of the French existentialist philosopher J. P. Sartre, and the Buddha, humans are beings who, due to our ability to be conscious and self-reflect, define ourselves through our actions. Sartre said our “existence precedes essence.” We exist first as subjective experience, as personal conscious awareness, and then become who we are (within social and biological limits, of course) through our thoughts and actions. We are responsible for the person we come to be. And from a Buddhist perspective, one could say our essence is this very moment, this awareness. When our minds are clear, we feel how vibrant the world is, how interdependent we all are, and thus how vital and powerful our actions can be.

 

So, what will we do? What will you do? Will you speak up or take political action in a way you feel is right, maybe make phone calls to Congresspeople, sign petitions, write letters, demonstrate and educate? Feel the power of this moment and come of age? Even simple acts can be profound. Or let others shock us into surrender?

 

*Photo by Kathy Morris.

An Analysis of the News, Thoughts On A Gloomy Administration, and A Review of My Book

Three different pieces for you:

The first piece is a review of an article giving a detailed history of how a manufactured crisis in education and the undermining of American literacy might have led to the Republican administration. The second is an announcement of one of my blogs being published by the Good Men Project. The third is a link to a review of my book by Dr. Dave Lehman.

 

*Many people have said to me “I don’t understand the avid supporters of this President and his administration and can’t talk with them.” These Republican supporters “do not listen to facts,” and seem to be condoning the undermining of their own freedom, rights, and economic position. Many theories have been brought forth to explain this behavior: the fact of a tribalization of the news, so each group only listens to its own brand of news. The racism, anti-semitism, and misogyny inherent in our culture. Blaming the leftists and liberals for not listening to these people (and daring to have a different perspective). Not speaking the language and mythology of the right wing.

However, there is another interesting viewpoint: Did a long history of politically and economically manufactured crises, both in education and throughout our culture, cause increasing insecurity and illiteracy, and decreasing critical thinking, and thus lead to the new Republican administration?

An article in Salon.com by Henry Giroux raises this issue very cogently. It is called: Manufactured illiteracy and miseducation: A long process of decline led to President Donald Trump. At first, I thought the article was another attack on public education, blaming schools and teachers for the US political crisis. Not so.

Diane Ravitch, in her book Reign of Error, and Naomi Klein, in The Shock Doctrine, first provided me with this analysis. Starting with the Reagan years, public schools have been under attack, sometimes by the Federal government itself, often by private economic interests and the politicians who supported them, certainly in many media. For example, A Nation At Risk, a report issued by the Reagan administration in 1983, claimed public education and teachers were responsible for everything from a declining college graduation rate to the loss of manufacturing jobs. It said, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” It said graduation rates, SAT scores, etc. were decreasing—all of this was later proved untrue. Academic achievement from 1975 to 1988 was actually improving, and not only for middle class white Americans. The divide in academic achievement between rich and poor was diminishing. But the A Nation At Risk report was just the beginning of the attack.

Giroux points out how the supposed reform movement led by elements of both major political parties called for “teaching to the test,” increased “accountability” (or decreased flexibility, creativity, and freedom for teachers to meet the individual needs of students), national standardization, corporate-produced tests and lesson plans, and the weakening of unions—all leading to “a frontal assault on the imagination of students” and the attempt to create corporate “pedagogies of repression.” Even in universities, knowledge has been increasingly viewed as a commodity, where the “culture of business” has become “the business of education.” Of course, many teachers are doing their best to fight this deformation of education.

The Republican administration, says Giroux, is now engaged in a frontal attack on thoughtfulness and compassion. Everyone and everything is valued mainly as a commodity and a source of profit. At the same time, Republicans provide their oppressed supporters with the illusion that those who impose “misery and suffering on their lives” are actually their liberators. What blinds them to the reality of their situation is what binds them together. (Newspeak, “consciously to induce unconsciousness,” 1984?)

You might want to read the whole article.

 

*In the gym yesterday, one of the younger men, in his late twenties, turned off CNN on the tv monitors above the elliptical machines and stationary bikes. He said, “I am sick of watching politics.” I understand how the news has become too disturbing for many to watch. But for this man, the news itself was political; facts were opinions or political statements, not statements about what was real…

This blog post was originally published here five weeks ago and was just re-published, in an edited form, by the Good Men Project. Here is a link you can use to read the rest of the piece.

 

*Dr. Dave Lehman, the founding principal of the Lehman Alternative Community School, in Ithaca, N. Y., where I taught for 27 wonderful years, wrote a review of my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching. The review was published in the National School Reform Faculty, Connections. Here is a link. (Thank you Dr. Dave.)

 

*Photo by Kathy Morris

**Thank you to Jill Swenson who sent me the Salon.com article.

 

 

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Undermining the Public (In Order to Rip Us Off?)

Yesterday, Mr. T spoke to members of the National Sheriffs Association and said: “the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years.” According to the Washington Post, he blamed the news media for not publicizing this development, and then added, “But the murder rate is the highest it’s been in, I guess, 45 to 47 years.” But according to the Post, Politifact, and the FBI, this claim by him is clearly false. In 1980, the murder rate was 10.2 per 100,000 residents. In 2014 it was 4.4. In 2015, it did go up to 4.9, less than half of the 1980 rate. Violent crime in America in general has gone down. But not in the America Mr. T sees. He sees, or tries to get us to feel, that the rate is going up. Why? To create fear. To create a sense of society falling apart so he can ride in and save us.

 

Likewise, on 2/6 Politifact reported on Mr. T’s comment that the US news media, regarding terrorist attacks, are “dishonest” and it has “gotten to the point where it’s [terrorist attacks are] not even being reported.” He tells us that there is so much more extremist violence happening and we are not safe. But, of course, the violence committed by Muslims from other nations is being constantly reported, maybe even too much. And, as Democracy Now, CNN, and other respected media report, if there isn’t any violence, Mr. T and his associates will lie or manufacture “fake news” to make us think there is. For example, Kellyanne Conway talking about a “Bowling Green Massacre” that never took place. Why? To create a sense of distrust in the media and a fear of the other, of other people, of our society falling apart so he, or HE, can ride in to save us.

 

But he has no plans to save anyone. In fact, this is the same strategy started in the Reagan administration to undermine public schools. Diane Ravitch argued in her book Reign of Error that different corporations, working with political institutions and individual politicians, are leading an effort to undermine public schools by undermining teachers, teacher unions, and the very concept that a public institution working for the general good, instead of a for-profit corporation, can successfully manage and direct an educational system.

 

The strategy calls for publicizing deceptive and often inaccurate information to create a sense of a crisis in education so corporations can step in and save the day. For example, A Nation At Risk, a report issued by the Reagan administration in 1983, claimed public education and teachers were responsible for everything from a declining college graduation rate to the loss of manufacturing jobs. It said, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” It said graduation rates, SAT scores, etc. were decreasing—all later proved untrue. According to Edutopia and government statistics, Academic achievement from 1975 to 1988 was actually improving, and not only for middle class white Americans. The divide in academic achievement between rich and poor, white and African-American, Latino, Native-American, was diminishing. But the A Nation At Risk report was just the beginning. Betsy DeVos and the destruction she might wreak is the end result.

 

In 2007, Naomi Klein wrote The Shock Doctrine. Klein’s book argued that when people feel they are in a crisis, they support doctrines, policies, laws that they never would have supported otherwise. Crises can be of all kinds; economic, public health, national security, education. Mr. T. is shocking. He is creating a crisis so he, with the help of some large corporations and his billionaire buddies, can step in and sell the solution.

 

As I said in an earlier blog, we live in relationship with others and our world. This relationship, and our very lives, is more fragile than we like to recognize. If society falls apart, it is not so easy to piece it back together. Mr. T is not a populist working for the common good, but someone working to undermine the sense of relationship that underlies a society and then reconfigure it to fit his interests. By favoring the very few over the whole, his policies undermine the public good and he weakens and isolates himself and his cohorts ever further from everyone else. His delusion and hunger for power threatens every person, maybe every living being on this planet.

 

Only by understanding even those you oppose can you fight them. Only by working to create a society that prioritizes relationships that are mutual, inclusive, caring, and honest can we, as a species, live well, and possibly, live at all.

 

*For information on a foiled white supremacist terrorist plan to massacre African-Americans and Jewish people in Bowling Green, Ohio, see ProPublica post.

Does Catastrophe Lead To Positive Social Action?

So many people have, maybe forever, been trying to figure out how to improve the political, social, environmental, educational and other conditions in our world. I have been reading two books lately that have helped me and might be of help to others in thinking about social action. I will write about one this week, and the second next week.

 

It is tempting to think that almost anything that can be done should be done in order to stop a wrong from being committed. If the world is on its way to destruction, shouldn’t any act be deemed acceptable to stop it? Last weekend, I heard Sasha Lilley, writer, political analyst, host of Pacifica Radio’s Against The Grain, talk in Buffalo Street Bookstore about Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth. She is one of four authors, along with David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis. “Catastrophism presumes that society is headed for a collapse… a great cleansing out of which a new society will be born.” Catastrophists tend to believe “disaster will waken the masses from their long slumber” and act for a utopian revival.

 

We might think Rosa Parks, for example, just sat down on the bus one day and created the bus boycott and civil rights legislation, and ignore all the actions she did before and after that. We might think the Arab spring was one day’s or one season’s awakening. We might think “increase the repression and people will wake up and act.” We might think we should create a fear of the possible end of the world and people will spontaneously rise up to prevent that catastrophe.  Increasing the fear, pain, discomfort of the masses doesn’t necessarily promote social change—it just promotes fear and pain.

 

Such thinking has catapulted the right-wing into the headlines. Back in 2007, in the book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein made clear how a crisis mentality is being manipulated by those in economic and political power to shock people into accepting the unacceptable. After the shock of Katrina, public housing, schools, hospitals in New Orleans were taken over by private interests. After 9/11, the “War on Terror” was turned into a “for-profit venture” benefitting large corporations. The analysis also applies to education, where the right wing controlled media tell us our public schools are in a crisis of poor grades and the solution is privatization. The examples go on and on. Fear does not promote clear thinking; it inhibits it.

 

According to Sasha’s research, Catastrophism is deeply reactionary. It supports the right-wing politics of fear and repression, austerity and gated communities. The power of the right-wing increases in a crisis and capitalism tends to renew itself, not burn out. Social action decreases. When people don’t have a job, they usually don’t organize and rarely demonstrate for better working conditions or a more equal distribution of wealth. They want an income. I think the term is disciplining labor. When there’s no hope, there’s little positive action.

 

Sasha also pointed out that a public space is needed where big groups of progressive people can come together to openly examine headlines, discuss social conditions, and events. Where organizing can be planned and a movement can be born. The corporate media is not that space. Political parties have not been that space. The internet so far (despite blogs such as this one) has not been that space. How can that common space be created? How can a movement be created?

 

I highly recommend Catastrophism. It would make great reading for a social studies class of teenagers or anyone else caught up in a crisis mentality.