Why We Can’t Go Home Again

In examining utopian thinking, we discovered an inner contradiction:  The goal of establishing an ideal society must be happiness, that is, the fulfillment of people’s desires, but success requires that people accept limitations on their desires.

One can soften the tension of contradiction by agreeing to less than perfect success, but still, when we recognize how disastrously some utopian experiments have failed, ranging from horrifying totalitarianism to mindless consumerism, we may suspect there’s more than just a moderate amount of tension here.

So we came to the conclusion that we must explore desire.  Why are human desires apparently endless?  Why do they often become destructive?

Espen Hammer gives us a clue when he cites Ernst Bloch’s argument that “all utopias ultimately express yearning for a reconciliation from which one has been estranged. They tell us how to get back home.”

The ultimate “back home” is, of course, our origin in the primal family.  Home and family with all that it might have meant – security and stability, with love and encouragement supporting our growth – is the ideal utopian situation. But virtually none of us experienced the complete fulfillment of our desires.

It was Sigmund Freud who pointed directly to this issue, locating the source of inner psychic conflict in those original desires.  He named the force of desire “Id,” meaning essentially IT, an anonymous vital life force that had to be tamed. But he also created a storm by associating this force with sexual impulses in infants and children.

Still today, many people find Freudian theory hard to accept because of this dimension. If you’re one of them, it may help you to know that I also was resistant to much of the theory, and found it all the more annoying because my resistance could be diagnosed as denial – a double-bind that I thought was extremely unfair.

Not until I began studying the work of the extraordinary biblical scholar  Avivah Zornberg  did I return to considering Freudian theory in a different light. Zornberg also had at her disposal a century of clinical work, research based on close observation of infants and children, and insights from other disciplines that contributed to deeper understandings of the phenomena of desire.  When she demonstrated how to read biblical narratives wearing the lenses of psychoanalytical insight as well as Hasidic commentaries, I came to see how this work on Desire could be helpful in understanding human psychosocial dynamics.

Here’s a summary of what I have been able to understand and integrate, simplified for the present purpose.

Humans experience almost intolerable frustration of desire before we are emotionally able to manage it. We are born totally dependent, needing almost constant presence and attention, and even the temporary disappearance of the mother is potentially traumatic. This is unlike most other mammals that are able to walk and feed themselves shortly after birth. Even when the mother is physically present, our emotional dependence on her, other early caretakers, and a supportive social environment continue to be essential to psychological stability. This level of emotional fragility is unknown in the animal kingdom.

When the infant or child experiences loss of this care and sustenance, stability is undermined. On a temporary basis, the psyche can tolerate this “missing.” But if it is too much – and individual variability is high in defining what is too much – natural desire becomes painful longing and yearning. Disappointment of desire generates irrational anger and hatred – irrational simply because it arises long before reason has any place in the psyche. Unfulfilled desire generates a search for substitutes that will replace the lost presence, and rage at substitutes that are ineffective (as eventually they all will be).

I could now see this dynamic in my experience as a mother and, watching with less involvement, as a grandmother. I write from the maternal perspective, with the understanding that this can apply to any early caretaker(s). I now understood Eros, desire, as that magnetic realm where one being extends itself toward another – the infant with radiance and with need; the mother with wonder and generosity; their gazing at one another. Through sheer energy they leap over the distance between them.

Yet she is also an independent being, while her child is not. She has thoughts that pull her away. Sometimes the baby’s desire is not met. At that instant, a chasm opens and the leap of desire becomes a fall into loneliness, abandonment into empty space. Hopefully the space is filled again, soon, so that the infant can learn that the movement from presence to absence is like the in and out of breathing, or perhaps more accurately the pleasure of eating but the discomfort of digesting, to be followed again by presence / eating.

But at some point it will become more difficult. Some accidental separation that is too long, or some willful anger or rejection, will create unbearable trauma. Or the child will experience the mother’s grief or terror, beyond his capacity to understand. Or the child will begin to sense there are other objects of the mother’s Eros, different and mysterious. (Sexualization of desire here often becomes confused with our associations from adult sexuality, so I will not use that language.)

The variants on the narrative are of infinite variety but generate the same dilemma: She is gone. Will I find her again? Must I lose her forever? How will this empty space be filled?

And when she returns — if I could put words to, say, an 8-month old’s feelings, they might be: I am so sad but – now, what? there she is, unbearably beautiful. I want to fall in her arms and weep. But will she leave again? How could she have done this? I am angry. I will not look at her. But I need her. …

The older child’s feelings become more complicated, as mirroring begins to yield some sense of “the other” with her own feelings. But they can easily be confused: Did I cause her to go away? I don’t want her to get angry at me. When I am angry she turns away. She looks sad when she sees me sad.

Virtually all of us carry some version of these traumas of dangerous and fearful absence — and some version of healing from them, or we would not be alive. Yet most of us can be triggered into trauma again, later in life. That’s when fear and rage arise, along with actions that are destructive to ourselves, to others, or both. To the extent that they were unbearable to us as children, to the extent that we were not helped to bear them, these feelings will still lurk under the surface, and may again become unbearable. Then we will turn them on ourselves (as in addiction), or outward on an enemy.

No wonder utopias don’t work. They promise a way to fulfill desire, but inevitably they fail in some dimension, and the disappointment is like losing one’s parents. Of course we would fantasize “reconciliation” with that from which we have been “estranged.” But do we really want to walk into that dangerous ground again, where we have been wounded to the heart? Or, if we take the risk to build community with others, are we always walking on eggshells, waiting for the chasm to open?

So communities degenerate into jealous factions, people become suspicious of neighbors. Authoritarian governments arise to administer the “utopia” — to manage rage and to displace one’s own rage on those lower in the hierarchy.  And “government” becomes an object of resentment too, but that is only one dimension of the frustration of desire.

I could go on.  The point is, we can’t talk about utopia or even seriously about social improvement unless we understand the volcanic dimensions of desire.

Zornberg treats these issues in her exposition of the biblical book of Numbers, entitled Bewilderments, where she follows the ancient Israelites in their wanderings in the wildness – the wilderness – of desire. We will look at her thinking more specifically in the next post.






Utopia, Anyone?

In recent posts, we rejected apocalyptic thinking for its tendency to play on fantasies of destruction, as well as for encouraging polarization and an “us vs. them” mentality. But another futurist vision perhaps should be considered — namely, utopia, the ideal society.

You might think it’s the reverse of apocalypse, the flip side of a negative vision. But looking more closely, we see it’s a different phenomenon. Utopia doesn’t require a disruptive collapse. And, although some apocalypses might prophesy a utopia at the other end (with the saved remnant or a new race), the two aren’t necessarily connected. Utopia can emerge gradually and grow toward perfection. Moreover, utopia doesn’t necessarily divide humanity into good and evil parts; it can be inclusive.

Yet oddly, the attempt to put utopian thinking into action often had destructive results.

In a recent essay, “A Utopia for a Dystopian Age,” political philosopher Espen Hammer, summarizes the modern  history of utopian thinking. He says there have been three main types of utopia — utopias of desire (pleasure), of technology (ease), and of justice (socioeconomic equality). All of them inspired new social programs and planning, but also demonstrated serious weaknesses.

The utopias of desire make little sense in a world overrun by cheap entertainment, unbridled consumerism and narcissistic behavior. The utopias of technology are less impressive than ever now that — after Hiroshima and Chernobyl — we are fully aware of the destructive potential of technology. Even the internet, perhaps the most recent candidate for technological optimism, turns out to have a number of potentially disastrous consequences, among them a widespread disregard for truth and objectivity, as well as an immense increase in the capacity for surveillance. The utopias of justice seem largely to have been eviscerated by 20th-century totalitarianism. . . .

The great irony of all forms of utopianism can hardly escape us. They say one thing, but when we attempt to realize them they seem to imply something entirely different. Their demand for perfection in all things human is often pitched at such a high level that they come across as aggressive and ultimately destructive. Their rejection of the past, and of established practice, is subject to its own logic of brutality.

I would add that another type of utopia has been tried, namely the spiritual or moral utopia, guided by either religious inspiration or an overriding value such as “Love” or “Enlightenment.” The nineteenth century saw the emergence of many such communities founded either by a charismatic leader, such as the Shakers, and/or by a group adhering to higher principles, such as the Transcendentalists’ “Brook Farm” or Theosophist communities. Most of these did not survive beyond the 1920s. They demanded a high order of behavior and most believed in the perfectibility of humanity.

Interestingly, unlike the secular utopias, most did not become outwardly aggressive (perhaps because they lacked the machinery of state; perhaps because they believed in voluntary adherence). Most failed for economic reasons or the normal processes of social groups — their ideals did not appeal to new generations, their leadership weakened, etc. A few adapted sufficiently to survive, for example as religious denominations such as the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons).

Utopias of justice are, we should note, also moral utopias, focusing specifically on socioeconomic issues. One that did not become totalitarian was the kibbutz movement in Israel, inspired by socialist ideas, which made outstanding contributions to the development of the land and the early state. Many kibbutzim do still exist, having adjusted some of their original practices over time. But they are no longer foundational to the Israeli economy; they did not succeed in competing with capitalism.

In any case, Hammer believes that two factors are relevant to understanding the difficulties faced by utopias: one, the utopians’ demand for perfection is so high that they “come across as aggressive.” Hmm. No, the non-religious utopians of “justice” actually were aggressive; it wasn’t simply a matter of perception. Most used coercive force (such as violent revolution) to create their societies.

Another problem was their rejection of the past which had “its own logic of brutality.” This seems to mean that people resented forced change, which is probably true; but in these social experiments many people also agreed to it. I think, for example, of the anti-religious tendencies in socialism and communism in Russia, China, and Israel. Yes, they were emotionally brutal; and yet the ideology that saw religion as delusional required submission on that issue.

With regard to utopias of desire, Hammer’s issue is not so much brutality as the cheapened versions of pleasure that modern society has come to adopt. The brutality, again, is moral and aesthetic rather than physical. I would suggest that we actually achieved, through capitalism and technology, a certain utopia of desire – but as he suggests, one that unintentionally mocks our philosophers’ greater visions of human potential. We became instead a society of accumulating material things for self-gratification.

Hammer holds that only one candidate for utopia is viable today, a particular version of a utopia of desire, namely a human society that is integrated and balanced with the natural world:

That candidate is nature and the relation we have to it. . . . As the climate is rapidly changing and the species extinction rate reaches unprecedented levels, we desperately need to conceive of alternative ways of inhabiting the planet. . . . The German thinker Ernst Bloch argued that all utopias ultimately express yearning for a reconciliation with that from which one has been estranged. They tell us how to get back home. A 21st-century utopia of nature would do that.

Hammer observes that industrial and capitalist society would have to make changes to accomplish this “reconciliation.” Of course, many have been saying the same for decades, without claiming to be promoting utopia. The underlying problem is lack of willingness to change.

In reality, despite the cheap consumerism, we in the West we already possess many of the qualities of utopias of desire – healthier and longer lives, material plenitude, creative endeavors. Why should we change except for the fear that it won’t last (here we lean suspiciously toward apocalyptic)? Why should we do anything that interrupts our current pleasures, on the questionable premise that we’ll feel better if “reconciled” with nature? Utopia is always a vision toward which people strive if they feel strongly enough about it.  But the idea of getting back “home,” finding that from which we have been “estranged,” doesn’t appear to be strong enough to overcome our addiction to immediate pleasure.

The mistake, as Hammer himself points out, is in the premises. Utopians wanted to find a formula that would satisfy human desires so fully that conflict would cease. The classic Utopias of desire (like Sir Thomas More’s) presumed unlimited resources, with the world always able to meet the breadth and depth of human desire. But in the real world, resources were still limited.

Enter technology. Extracting matter and energy from the natural world, we hoped to overcome the limits of our resources. Transportation and communication vastly expanded our reach. We even seemed to be able to solve the problem of scarcity by applying technology to agriculture. (Does anyone remember the apocalyptic prophecies of the 1970s that we would be starving within a generation?) Technology has done amazing things, but we now seem to be approaching intractable limits. We consider colonizing other planets, but that is even less likely to attract a genuine following than is a project of reconciling with nature.

Logically, we must conclude that utopia is possible only if desires are limited. Precisely this was recognized in religious utopias, where personal discipline was demanded, and social justice utopias also recognized the necessity of personal sacrifice for the sake of the greater whole. As Hammer well knows, virtually every social thinker in modern times recognized that a functioning society requires some individual sacrifice, at the very least through compromises and deals (in democracies) and often through giving up personal freedom (in autocracies – where, if people don’t want to limit their desires, they will be forced to do so). Of course, this seems counter-intuitive to the idea of utopia, which promises fulfillment without hardship.

I spent some time reflecting on whether any program demanding the limitation of desire has been successful on a broad scale over a long period of time. The only one I could come up with is the promotion of monogamy. One can argue that it succeeded only in the legal sense, with a multitude of private breaches. Even so, it would not have been as successful as it was, had it not been that women were generally happier with it, and it provided economic relief in that a man had to support only one woman.

Celibate communities also succeeded on a voluntary basis, in both Christianity and Buddhism. And in both cases, restriction on sexual desire was accompanied by the limitation of desire for personal property. Both of those have been historically successful, with the surrounding societies picking up part of the tab by supporting these communities through charity. Dedicated communities were seen as a moral benefit to all.

Religions in fact have been primary voices speaking out about the limitation of desire. Buddhism declared craving to be the source of suffering. Christianity put avarice, lust and gluttony among the seven deadly sins. Other religions may be less dogmatic on the issue, but all recognized the dangers of untrammeled desire and the necessity of personal discipline (for example in Judaism, the necessity of taming the “evil inclination”). Admittedly, convincing people that the dangers were greater than the pleasures required some heavy theologizing about divine punishment or other future disasters.

But we don’t need to turn to theology. We can now document that greed, jealousy and competitiveness have been the downfall of even the most promising utopian societies. We also know that restrictions on desire usually repel people, and they must be heavily persuaded or even forced to submit to limitations.

What is this problem? Animals don’t eat gluttonously, demand sex out of season, or accumulate stuff they don’t need. Indulgence and restriction have no meaning in the natural world. Yet we, as a species, seem thoroughly unwilling and unable to control our desires. And now we are at the point that if we don’t, we may see the end of civilization and even earth as we know it.

Now we’re getting to the crux of the matter. Why inordinate desires?

More to come.


A Long Shorter Way

When we are collectively anxious, we want relief – fast!  We want immediate results and we want to find shortcuts. If people offer a quick path to success, we are likely to jump on the bus. What could go wrong?

Do you remember a time when you were on a vacation and you wanted to get to the next town in time for lunch, but the traffic piled up and so you decided to take a shortcut? In unfamiliar territory, that fantasized shorter route could turn out to be awfully long.

We are in unfamiliar territory.  In two key areas of society we have experienced an enormous amount of change in just a couple of generations.  One is social change, encompassing ethnicity and immigration, gender identities, and women’s roles (which of course affects men’s roles). The other is technological change, moving from the society built over 200 years by an industrial revolution, to the digital revolution; from a manufacturing, nationally-oriented economy to a high-tech, more globally-oriented economy.

We don’t know what future to prepare for – just as our ancestors could have had no idea, after the steamboat and the sewing machine, that in a few more generations people would be driving private cars instead of riding horses, and women would be freed from hours of physical labor that had been the norm for all of human history.

The road ahead looks very complicated and is full of traffic.  So we look for shortcuts.  “There must be an easier way.”  “That guy gave us the wrong directions.”

In politics, the parties are expert at claiming they have the easier way and that the other party gave the wrong directions. That’s where polarization comes in:  We start seeing only two sides of an issue, and they start to look as different as “night and day.” (For yet another example of “polarization is the worst ever,” see this article on North Carolina politics.  Read it not to confirm your fears, but as another variety of apocalyptic projection of a terrible future.)

We forget that “night and day” are only metaphors, and shortcut ones at that.  Our actual experiences of night and day are rich and varied, and one moves slowly into the other. As a Jewish prayer says, “the day rolls away before the night, and the night before the day.”

So we have constructed oppositions of urban and rural, rich and poor, white and nonwhite (really?), religious and secular, nationalist and globalist, liberal and conservative.  Sometimes we project all the trouble outside — it’s terrorists or immigrants or another country scheming against us.

Both sides of a polarization promote the divisions. Leaders suggest, “Follow us! We can turn night into day!” Even though journalists and scholars do write more sensitive and complex analyses, they don’t get headlines or votes because they don’t promise a quick fix.

Conclusion?  In addition to rejecting easy polarities, we need to take time, each of us, to sort out the issues in our own lives. We can try to find a place in ourselves that can appreciate other positions. (Note, not just ONE other position – we’re trying not to reduce things to one OP-position.)

It helps to make this an active exercise, one that evokes your creative expression. For example, you might imagine you received a letter from a relative with a problem that relates to one of our polarizing issues.  You will now write a letter back to that person, then read it back to yourself.

A couple of examples – you can make up your own:

  • Your cousin, 48 years old, just lost his job to a downsizing — his employer is bringing in robots for the job.
  • An old friend who is in a difficult marriage writes you that she is pregnant and because of her religious beliefs is afraid to have an abortion, but also worries that the marriage is dissolving.
  • An uncle who became very wealthy in the tech revolution asks you to work in an organization promoting a tax reform bill that will favor the rich. You need the job.

If letter-writing is not your cup of tea, try another form of expression.  Pick up a sketch pad and draw any images that come to you of social and political issues significant in your life.  Or, make spaces in your garden or patio for “Republican plants,”  “Democratic plants,” “Independent plants,” “Green plants,” etc.

Watch your own reactions as you try these “thought experiments in action,”  and share your reflections with a friend, or as comments.


Winding Down from Apocalypse

In my last post, I wrote about apocalyptic thinking – the idea that we are in a time of massive destruction. Sixty years ago, apocalyptic fears were generated around the possibility of a nuclear war destroying the civilized world. Today – aside from the movie industry, which does apocalypse through alien invasions and science fiction – other versions have come to the fore, ranging from warning of environmental apocalypse to celebrating political apocalypse, as I explained in reference to strategist Steven Bannon’s approach.

This is fear-mongering, plain and simple, no more connected to reality than the sci-fi fantasy that aliens have invaded and insinuated themselves into one or both of the major political parties.   But we have strong inclinations to listen to tales of potential disaster – that’s why we pay money to see those films.

Meanwhile, ordinary life goes on.

But seeds of paranoia have been sown.  Since the 2016 election campaign, the public domain has been full of talk about leaks, conspiracies real or imagined, and fake news.   (For an apocalyptically-tinged and humorous snapshot of the communications jungle we’re living in, Samantha Bee’s Video ‘Fantastic Words….’ ) While the executive branch seems to relish the chaos, opponents bemoan it – while also promoting their versions of why we should be afraid.

The result:  circling the wagons, staying with your group for defense against uncertainty and, in a word, polarization.

Politically, we are a two-party system, so polarization is to be expected.  We also are human, and for millennia, humans have created situations of polarization and opposition. As we said, it’s the stuff of exciting stories. When it’s fiction, we call it drama. When it’s non-fiction, we call it history.

In either form, the usual solution is for one side to WIN. At least for awhile, till the dark side gathers its forces and rises up again. Likewise in politics — the people in power claim they will resolve it by winning. Until they don’t.

Meanwhile, the intensity of the drama builds. Look at all the articles saying that “polarization is the worst it’s been in my lifetime.” In such an environment, desperation grows on the (temporarily) losing side, while on the (temporarily) winning side, anticipation of complete victory creates a (temporary) hope. We experienced the same dynamic 8 years ago with the sides switched. 16 years ago. 24 years ago.

It’s not even clear that in politics, “winning” means anything other than a numerical victory.  (On this, see this week’s astute commentary on winning by Nitsuh Abebe.)

So what then?

Conflictual thinking is itself the problem — thinking in oppositions and polarities. That includes thinking in terms of winning and losing. (Forget the “win-win” approach, which as Abebe points out, only confused the issue though it sounded good at the time.)

The win-lose, us-them, strong-weak, good-evil habit is so ingrained that we cannot at first imagine how we could approach situations differently. But we do, all the time. We have many modalities of relating to the world, but our emotional energy has been invested in conflictual thinking.

The solutions are in us already. They are hidden in our spiritual and artistic traditions – hidden because of the complex weaving of thought patterns that have marginalized those traditions. They are hidden in our bodies and in our micro-universes.

The answers are not what we usually think of as problem-solving in the rational sense – for example, finding a “compromise” position between two opposing thoughts. (As, for example, in “thesis – antithesis – synthesis.”)  Rather, they start from the viewpoint that there is no such thing as opposition in lived reality. We construct differences as opposites.

The next time you use oppositional vocabulary, see if you can change it. Imagine for example a parent speaking of two children, saying: “Their personalities are like night and day.” How would you shift that way of thinking?

More to come.

The Great Emptiness

I have felt a deepening sadness over the past few weeks, over our situation in America, the state of our people and our interrelations with one another and with others in the larger world. My sense is that the viewpoint undergirding the Trump administration – and yes, I believe there is one, though not conscious to most of its participants – is sinking us more deeply into a destructive cycle.

The main person behind this viewpoint is strategist Stephen Bannon, but it now has its own momentum by virtue of habit if not persuasion.

When I wrote about him several months ago, I pointed out his aims of increasing executive power, making strategic use of new media, and shoring up the political base by promoting nationalism.  But at that time I barely touched on another dimension of his world view, namely his espousal of disruptive change.

Bannon had spoken of himself as being part of the “Dark Side,” and of our era as being one of the “turning points” at which the known world crumbles to make room for something new. Warnings of dramatic collapse suited many themes of Trump’s election campaign, but now it’s clear that was more than a temporary rhetorical strategy.

Such a world view is called “apocalyptic,” believing in a radical, perhaps violent, shattering of the known world. While claiming to be anti-systematic, it is nevertheless a framework of thinking about the world. It is not logical or rigorous like a philosophy, but a rough-hewn construct expressing an attitude, an orientation, a set of motivations.

All world views are human pictures of how the world is constituted, and how we fit into its larger patterns. “Isms” are attempts to sketch out historical patterns — as did the social philosophies of the 20th century (e.g. capitalism, communism, socialism, fascism). The great world religions also try to set us in a historical or cosmic framework that tells us how the world works.   An apocalyptic world view does the same, but places us at the end of history, or end of a cycle.

From a psychological and anthropological point of view (and putting aside the question of truth for the moment), all such frameworks are tricks of the human mind to create a stable background for our planning and action. With such a framework, we gain a sense of the world’s reliability and with that, a basic emotional security. Without a stable system of beliefs, our limbic system goes wild with fear and worry. So we naturally incline to a consistent world view. We proclaim the success of the one that seems to benefit us most, and when challenged, we try to prove the inadequacy of others. We join groups that support our favorite beliefs.

When we seriously question the truth or reliability of past or existing systems, we could find ourselves awash in uncertainty. But there is another possible explanation, namely, that we don’t see clearly because this is a Dark Time. This is what generates apocalyptic points of view (or even nihilism, which says there is no meaning ever, anywhere).

If one can say, with apocalyptic confidence, that things are confusing because the old ways are ending, one can participate in the larger world by accepting and celebrating chaos, even hurrying it along if possible. Apocalyptic beliefs can be used to generate and justify almost any kind of disruptive behavior, on the grounds that such actions are in tune with what history, or the cosmic process, demands at this moment.

Here are some implications of apocalyptic politics:

Any position can be adopted for the moment when a decision is needed, but it can change the next day.

Leaders often remind people that destruction is necessary, but the right people are in charge and will guide everyone through.
In religious apocalyptic, one might be passive, waiting for God to take action (as in, sending the Messiah). The passive position might be: just stay pure.  On the other hand, in political apocalyptic, revolutionary destruction is a human job.  One will seek opportunities to take power and use it. But there is no implementation of a defined ideology; apocalyptic acts are for the short-term, on a day by day basis.

Enemies are those who uphold the existing structures, particularly those who represent and defend long-lasting social values.  Examples would be:

  • upholders of laws and constitutions (such as judges and attorneys);
  • administrators who implement those laws (such as government department heads and inspectors);
  • journalists with commitments to truth and transparency; and
  • elected officials who are committed to principles and values rather than simply trying to hold power.

Like any enemies, they can be given meaningless but fear-generating labels like the “deep state” or “the swamp,” suggesting that unknown forces are threatening (as one would expect in the mythical End Times).

In our current situation, the president’s apparently random behavior is perfect for apocalyptic. A person without ideology, without method in the madness, is matched with one whose method is to create madness.

That downward spiral is what makes me sad. Like most people, I find myself readily captivated by daily and weekly dramas that magnetize our attention. I am puzzled, shocked, despairing or elated at one event or the next. But I am beginning to understand that it is all virtual reality, manufactured to the impulse of the moment, detached from the pulse of life.

* * *

What comes to me are the famous verses of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. As it turns out, lines from this poem were quoted more often during the first six months of 2016 (under the pressure of the American presidential campaign and England’s Brexit) than in the previous thirty years.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
The falcon cannot hear the falconer.
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. . . .

What many do not know is that Yeats was an apocalyptic mystic sympathetic to authoritarian governments, disdainful of democracy. The rough beast of his poem, rousing itself in the desert after thousands of years of sleep wracked by nightmares, stares toward us blank and pitiless.

Is there an alternative to apocalypse or other forms of self-delusion?

To be continued.

Hidden Risks

I spent some time in the previous two posts outlining the analogy between a RISK game and current international politics, because of a deeper concern — the “inner dimensions” of our lives, which is the idea that animates this blog.

Our inner lives are of highest significance. Clarity, moral strength, and sensitivity come from within. Yet our inner world is often hidden from us, affected unconsciously by events that we only barely notice. Often international events are like that — unnoticed until too late.

When we look at recent events, we see how personal dramas can occupy center stage – last week, for example, James Comey’s testimony. We can identify with such a drama. In contrast, foreign affairs like the Saudi-Iranian-Qatari issue seem distant and don’t arouse much conscious emotion. Neuroscientists have in fact shown that we have a colder response to events distant from us (see Dr. Eric Leuthardt‘s explanation).

Yet when we hear or read an account of what’s going on “over there,” it imprints somewhere in our brain. What is the unconscious message?  How do we receive it?

For most of us, knowledge of international policy and process is rather sketchy.  The executive branch has fewer checks and balances there, and its official versions of events meet with fewer challenges. By contrast, watching a congressional testimony or reading about legal maneuvering displays our constitutional processes at work. We see two (or more) sides wrangling in our own cultural idioms and we can develop a more complex perspective.

We absorb messages from international news more like a child perceiving his father or mother addressing a stranger who comes to the door. Is the parent welcoming or defensive, curious or suspicious, respectful or disdainful? Unconsciously, the child watching such interactions absorbs attitudes toward the unknown other.

So again, what is the message? Consciously, we are told by McMaster and Cohn, American international goals are simple: Strength. Prosperity. Advantage. Alliances with other economically successful nations.

But an unspoken message is that the poor and weak have no place in these relationships – as if the stranger at the door were a poor beggar deserving of no notice.

A second unspoken message: the “Strongman” style in politics is acceptable again. Clan-based and hierarchical, this style probably has roots in very ancient human social organization, if not also our primate ancestors.  Only a handful of times in human history have the clan (or dynasty) and its strongmen been seriously challenged. The cultivation of democracy to the extent we experience it in the United States is quite recent, yet part of the natural fabric of American life. So we are barely aware of the unconscious part of our psyche that admires, identifies with, and also fears the strongman. Even while we were shocked by the president’s praise of figures like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, and Rodrigo Duterte, they may resonate fearfully with unconscious elements in our psyche.

Now we are dancing with those images again – literally, through the president’s sword dance in Saudia Arabia. For decades, we have been told that in cultures like those of the Middle East, “strength is the only thing those people understand.” Insulting? Yes, but it’s also something that the deep layers of our own psyche “understand,” and when those layers are triggered, it takes effort to engage the frontal neocortex and think of the situation in different ways.

I am not speaking of political solutions. I am horrified by the vast military projects financed by wealthy Middle Eastern countries that could be using their wealth for the benefit of all. I don’t know what can be done about that. But I am concerned about the possible collapse of our inner vision in foreign affairs. That is one of the hidden risks of adopting strongman politics and wearing the lenses that focus on wealth and are blind to poverty.

The issues are complex. The scope is vast. It took the West a long time to implement a new vision for human potential and relationships, a vision sparked centuries ago. But we can’t give up. When we see the previous blog’s map with red lines, like flames burning at borders, we need to remember that people have been dying in those flames, from bombs and guns and chemicals, and strongman politics has not extinguished them.

Courage takes more than “strength.” Growth and improvement require more than the edge of “advantage.”  Lives of enrichment, of true value, require more than alliance with huge bank accounts.  To preserve the deeper commitments of our life together, we need to heighten our awareness of the messages seeping into our minds even from afar.

What’s the RISK?

In my last blog I compared the current administration’s international stance to a game of RISK. It’s not a great stretch, when one reads the approach outlined by the National Security Advisor, General H.R. McMaster, and Chief Economic Advisor, Gary D. Cohn in their May 30th op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. (As a reminder since these folks are still new to us, McMaster continues to serve on active duty while in office; Cohn was formerly president and CEO of Goldman Sachs.)

Summarizing the president’s first foreign trip, they concluded that “we have a vital interest in taking the lead internationally to advance American military, political, and economic strength.” This involves both “competing to advance interests” and “engaging to develop relationships and foster cooperation,” but anticipates sharp divisions: “America will once again be a true friend to our partners and the worst foe to our enemies.”

The three pillars of future relationships will be security, American prosperity, and “strong alliances and economically thriving partners.” Security in their essay focuses primarily on anti-terrorist policies and practices. Prosperity is not clearly delineated, other than that America expects a “fair and level playing field.”

The requirement that partners be “economically thriving” is perhaps the clearest clue to the game being played. Unless you can ante up to a high level, you won’t be on America’s radar for forming a “strong alliance.” Poor countries — too bad.

That may be why the president’s first tour highlighted elaborate dealings with Saudi Arabia. The oil-rich sheikdoms are a natural attraction for the president, not least because of his hotel businesses established long ago, and certainly familiar ground for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, formerly of Exxon.

Fortuitously for this blog, events immediately after the president’s return provided an example of the RISK-game approach.  Four Arab countries, led by the Saudis, broke off diplomatic relations with a former partner, Qatar, and the president hailed the deed.

Oh, no — Middle East politics? Before your eyes glaze over, look again. The region is confusing, because the Arab countries combine a mixture of religion, dynasties based on clans, and influence from outside powers. However, we can simplify for present purposes by looking at maps as we would at a RISK game. Here, for example, is a 2015 map from NBC News portraying Iran’s growing influence in the region. The red areas are not entirely controlled by (Shiite-Muslim) Iran, but they are tumultuous areas in which Iran wields a lot of power. Imagine that Iran is also colored in red.


Look where (Sunni-Muslim) Saudi Arabia sits — with Iran right across the Gulf and Iranian influence to the north and south.  Lots of red lines in the desert sands.  To the west is Jordan, a safe Sunni ally (though it has not joined in breaking with Qatar) and further west, Egypt. Now where is Qatar, the country that the Saudi alliance wants to expel? You can’t see it because it’s hidden by the label of another tiny country! It’s a peninsula barely jutting out under the “N” in Bahrain. Really? This is causing such furor? But remember, in a RISK game, every country gives you more “armies” on the next turn. Imagine the area under the “N” as a blinking red light.

Given its location across the Persian Gulf from Iran, you can understand that Qatar might want to play both sides, Saudi and Iranian, blinking now one way, now another.  As a majority-Sunni country, it has allied with the Saudis on most policies but also has annoyed them – and pleased Iran — by using its vast wealth to support not only radical Sunni terrorism (like Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoot Hamas in Gaza), but also Iran’s satellite Hezbollah, an autocratic Shiite dominion in south Lebanon. Qatar also funds the influential Arabic-language media company Al-Jazeera.

This has been going on for a long time, but now the Saudis are fed up, and want Qatar to cut ties with Iran and shut down Al-Jazeera. Qatar denies any provocation, claiming ‘fake news.’

Just for clarity, while the map is in front of you, the other two countries breaking with Qatar are Qatar’s northern and southern neighbors, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is also not labeled here. Bahrain’s label vastly over-represents its physical size and, really, the size of all three. Bahrain is an archipelago, a group of small islands off the Saudi coast, ruled by a Sunni minority, hosting an American naval base, but troubled periodically by Shiite rebellions. In fact, in 2011, Bahrain would also have been a blinking red light when Shiites attempted a coup.

All three countries – Bahrain, Qatar, UAE have large populations of foreign workers; each is ruled by an elite. All sit as a kind of buffer between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Or, from Iran’s perspective, they might be a permeable membrane.

(Two more countries on the peninsula are not labeled – Oman to the east of Yemen, and Kuwait in the northeast corner, south of Iraq.  They are not involved, yet.)

The “armies” of a RISK game have lined up to threaten Qatar, not militarily but ideologically and politically, and thus send a message to Iran. The four countries may be a small player, but now a large player from North America has thrown his weight behind the challenge.  What will Qatar do?

In the background, hovering along the northern border of the region, is Russia, which has directly intervened in Syria, in support of Assad’s government and indirectly Iran. The Qatar incident is a direct challenge to Iran’s influence. Will Putin care whether Qatar capitulates?

And finally, is it a coincidence that, this same week, the Iranian parliament was attacked by terrorists claimed to be from (Sunni) ISIS?

Likely this will be resolved without military action, but it heightens the international drama. This is exactly the point of a game of RISK – what seems like a small challenge can lead to a bigger opening, when the time is right. Who will be the big players, in the end?

“Strong alliances with economically thriving partners” to “advance American military, political, and economic strength.” What will that map look like?

And how will this RISKy dynamic affect us here at home?