I wanted to write something amusing, something light-hearted for several weeks now. In January I decided to stop writing about the pandemic and the election. I wanted to laugh. I wan Pie ted to make you laugh, my readers. Heavens knows we’ve been through four years of insults, rancor, lack of responsibility by our nation’s leaders and death.
I was poised to write about the time I bribed my way out of an African nation or when I escaped the wrath of the French police when I unintentionally illegally blocked a main street on market day and caused a major bottle neck.
Then came the attack on Congress by a frenzied mob than had been intoxicated by a fountain of lies about the legitimacy of the election. I just couldn’t ignore that. It didn’t seem like a time to be amusing. The democracy of the United States was under siege by a self-righteous rabble goaded by the very people who should have remembered that the peaceful transfer of power is one of the most important elements of our governmental system.
It appears that not all my readers agreed with everything I said in my last two essays. One in particular seemed to interpret everything I wrote as the cause of the problems in America and an overstep of my rights as a citizen of the U.S. to express my opinions. This reader also went on to say that Obama was the true narcissist and Biden was his puppet.
What didn’t hold up for me was being told, “How dare I compare President Trump to Hitler?” The irony of that statement being lost on this reader who had no problem making critical statements about our current President while criticizing my right to free expression. In fact, I did not directly compare the former president to Hitler. The comparison to certain historical parallels: delegitimizing elections, devaluing courts, ostracizing whole groups, was there but I took conscious pains to not label the former president a reincarnated Hitler. That would indeed, at this point at least, not have been supported by fact.
I was taught to look at history, not necessarily for carbon copies of past behavior, but for trends, portents of possible replication of similar events. I do not believe that we have lived in the United States under a National Socialist Government. I do believe we have been through a highly stressful time with government leadership that sought to further inflame social, racial and political differences among our citizens. We have also experienced a mishandled response to the deadliest pandemic in over a century.
In 1848, the French writer, satirist and amateur botanist, Jean-Batiste Alphonse Karr*, coined the now often quoted epigram, “ Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” or “The more things change, the more they remain the same”. This phrase has endured through the centuries because it captures human exasperation with the pace of change. When we want something to change, it never seems to happen fast enough. Humans seem to think they want some things to happen quickly to meet their needs. The reality, however, is that often humans will resist change if they feel it is happening too quickly or not to their liking. This may explain at least partially where many societies, including the United States, find themselves today.
I would suggest a variation to what Karr wrote. I would say that today we are at a place where, “The more things remain the same, the more they must change”. Like rising waters behind a weakening dam, social pressures have built up that threaten to cause major destruction in our lives. This past year we have witnessed a significant resurgence of political and social challenges, whether it is Black Lives Matter, Proud Boys, threats to women’s reproductive rights, climate change, a pandemic, income inequality, election security, and many others in the US and around the world.
I seriously wished I could write something amusing this week. I am tired of all the strife and stress we have been experiencing. But when I watch American citizens storming our Congress because they have been led to believe that the November election was fraudulent, I just can’t summon up much humor. Last night I had to stop watching the impeachment trial. I hit my limit of anger, disgust, fear, and sorrow.
I don’t care that much about whether the former President is impeached. I care more about the facts that lead up to that terrible event on January 6th. The Senate will convict or acquit based on their own conscience and, for some, whether their vote will support or hinder their next election. Ultimately it is the American public and to some degree the people of the world who will be the jurors. Partisan politics may let the former President escape once again the consequences of his actions, but the facts will dog him and his loyalists for years to come as did the aftermath of Nixon’s Watergate crimes. Nixon escaped impeachment because he resigned. This time the escape may come because of a politically split Senate and a one term Presidency.
The reader who admonished me for supposedly comparing Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler also said my ideas were “pie in the sky”. I will admit that many of the things I have written about in several of my essays since I began last March were idealistic. It is true I have written about the importance of shared responsibility for protecting our fellow citizens by wearing masks even as many people refused to do so. I wrote about the amazing non-partisan recovery effort at the World Trade Centers. I railed against small-minded politicians who called for their state to secede from the Union. I wrote about the calculated efforts to suppress the vote of legitimate citizens. I wrote about my awe at the power of a free market economy to develop a vaccination so quickly. I hope I was clear that what I was wishing for was a fair and just society, not one that only benefited the rich and powerful. I mourned the systemic violence used to keep minority populations “under control”. I quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
If these ideas are “pie in the sky” then indeed I am writing about delicious “pie”. I do not know how we can ever improve as a country or a world if we do not aspire to higher ideals. If history teaches us anything, it surely is that justice is restless, it cannot be held in check indefinitely. We cannot, “Make America Great Again” but we can continue to make it better. “Again” implies that there was once an ideal place in the life of the country where everything was perfect. All we need to do is go back to that time and place and everything will be OK.
It would be interesting to canvass a large sample of people and ask them what era was ideal for them and why. I think many people have an idealized time in their memory. It is doubtful that there would be anything close to universal agreement about a given era. Nostalgia is a powerful thing in the human psyche. It is one of our protections against the stresses of daily life. It is only when nostalgia replaces the needs of reality that magical thinking begins to evolve. When we start to believe that we will be happier and more secure by returning to some idealized time in our memory, we start to lose touch with the truth. We fantasize about a time that is long past and may never have existed. We embrace “alternative facts” and try to make them fit our current life.
I grew up in two relatively small towns: one had about 8,000 residents and the other about 20,000. There are times I miss the ease, or imagined ease, of living in a slower paced, tidy town with its brick streets and late 19th century store fronts. Both of those towns are now faint echos of what they had once been, like so many small towns throughout the U.S. I can bask in the glow of the memory of those days but it is nostalgia, not reality. If I press a little harder into that memory, I also can recall some of things that were not going well in the world at that time and in my own family. I have often wondered if the reason human beings resist actually learning from history is because history is a “buzz kill” to that warm fuzzy memory we hold. I once read somewhere, “Nostalgia is longing for a time that actually never existed.”
There is nothing wrong with feeling nostalgic. It is the soft fuzzy cotton wool of life that reassures us that life isn’t all bad. It is only when it is evoked as an ideal, either personally or politically, and we attempt to make it our current reality, that we are setting ourselves up for disappointment or worse. In fact, the more rigidly we try to see the world only as we wish and insist everyone else adhere to our political or personal vision, the more as a society we feed the fires of rebellion. As Sigmund Freud said, “repression breeds hysteria”.
We have just witnessed a true collective hysteria in our nation’s capital. As I watched the video of angry people calling for Vice President Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s execution, I saw people lashing out at a system that they felt had ruined their vision of “Greatness”. It had been promised to them by their leaders and had been denied them by an election that didn’t turn out as they were promised. Little wonder that the reality of continually debunked conspiracy theories about a stollen election by court after court made no impact on their thinking.
The truth is, if history tells us anything, it is that there is no going back to some previous personal or collective state of “greatness”. The more we try to keep things in our lives the same, the more we have to suppress some new reality of what life currently requires. The more we suppress change, personal or collective, the more latent energy is built up in the ideas and people that are suppressed. It is like a coil spring, the more it is compressed the more force it will release with when it has the opportunity.
The crime of Donald Trump is not that he incited a riot on January 6th. His crime is that he promised his followers something that he could not, nor could anyone deliver. He promised to “Make America Great Again”. He tapped into the collective desire for a safer more predictable time that actually never existed except in the fuzzy nostalgia of his followers. His slogan implies that you can go back to better times rather than do the hard work of creating better times ahead. He told his followers that they didn’t need to change. They didn’t need to adapt to the reality that large groups of people were left out of the prosperity of America. That America didn’t need allies or treaties to keep the country safe, it could go it alone. America didn’t need to participate in a global economy. He absolved Americans of the responsibility to anyone except themselves. This can be a powerful argument, especially given that it is a law of nature that all living organisms sense change as a threat and will resist it at least initially. It’s a strange paradox that change is both threatening and unavoidable.
There was a time in my career when I worked with many children and families. I specialized in working with children who were experiencing serious self-destructive and antisocial behaviors. The majority of these children had experienced major trauma in the first two to three years of life. Some were put into the foster care system because of parental abuse or abandonment. Others had experienced early health issues that prevented them from successfully bonding with their mothers. Others just had over indulgent or overly harsh parents. In all of these situations, the child did not adequately develop a conscience. They had difficulty distinguishing between right and wrong. They had difficulty feeling empathy or sympathy for others. They only sought to serve their own perceived needs. These children were frequently given the diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder.**
One of the traits of children with this diagnosis is the inability to tell the truth. They could be caught red handed stealing cookies from the cookie jar and deny, with crumbs dropping from their lips, that they hadn’t touched the cookies. We call this “primary process lying”, lying in the face of the obvious. These children would deny to their last breath that they had taken any cookies. Proof of their “crime” meant nothing to them. They would alternate between accusing the adult of persecuting them, to attacking them in a rage. They simply were unable to admit they were wrong. It was too frightening to admit guilt because they lacked the internal regulation of a conscience.
With these children, it was understandable why they exhibited this behavior. There had been a major failing in the connection between parent and child. They could not trust anyone. Untreated these children grow up with a variety of serious issues usually stemming from sociopathic behavior. Many, but not all, end up in the criminal justice system with legal problems. Some actually end up in positions of power and influence. They learn early in their lives that they can manipulate people around them. They become master liars. They learn to manipulate and divide people around them. They become so confident in their skills to fool people into believing in them that they can brag about shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any followers.***
The people who stormed our capital on January 6th had, as many have now realized, fallen for a false vision of what was possible. They had been led to believe that the Presidential election on Nov. 3rd could be turned back. They had been fed “pie in the sky”, a dish that couldn’t be served because it had no substance, no basis in fact. They could not accept that their nostalgic vision of what “Great Again” meant to them had evaporated. No wonder they were so angry and looking for someone to blame for their loss.
There will, no doubt, be much speculation on what will transpire in the coming weeks and months. Will the citizens of the United States focus on achieving great things moving forward or will they cling to a personal vision, rooted in a nostalgia for an America that doesn’t recognize or value its complexity and diversity? Will we create a real “pie” that everyone can share in? I believe we can. I’ll have mine a la mode. Please.
*Jean-Batiste Alphonse Karr, 1808-1890
**Reactive Attachment Disorder is condition in which an infant or young child does not form a secure, healthy emotional bond with his or her primary caretakers (parental figures).
***On 23 January 2016, Donald Trump, at a campaign rally at Dordt College, a Christian college in Iowa said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue ( New York City) and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” It’s like, incredible.” Many in the crowd laughed.
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