Newspeak at Work

What is Doublespeak?

As a writer – of fiction, outside of this blog – I’m always intrigued by imaginative uses of words to communicate, and appalled by equally imaginative uses of words to distort and prevent authentic communication. My sense of intrigue (in both its meanings) has been piqued by the verbal performances of members of the administration, who find curious words to convey their “alternative facts,” that is, their untruths. This, of course, has a venerable history, and not only in politics; but it is the political use of “doublespeak” that I want to talk about here.

Doublespeak, also called “double talk,” happens when one changes or somehow distorts words to make something unpleasant or offensive sound positive. 

The word was given to us by George Orwell in his prescient novel, 1984, which has seen a remarkable surge in sales since the election to the U.S. presidency of one of the world’s masters of doublespeak, Donald J. Trump. You may have heard (incessantly) about him.

Orwell’s novel, if you’re not familiar with it, is a chilling description of life under a dictatorship that controls – and watches, literally – every aspect of human life. One cannot even use the toilet without being watched by the ubiquitous telescreeens. (On an ironic twist of that meme, we now carry our own telescreens – which, as Orwell predicted, can track us everywhere.) As a key feature of the intellectual and moral devaluation of human discourse, the government practices – and insists the “citizens” practice – doublespeak, based on the ability to think (and therefore to say) something, while knowing full well it is utterly false. In order to soften the dissonance, the technique involves using euphemisms and word-distortions.

“Doublespeak” Flows from “Newspeak”

In 1984, Orwell describes how the government of Oceania (the fictional dictatorship) invents a new language whose primary character is to “rid itself of unnecessary words.” For instance, since the word “good” implies the absence of “bad,” there is no need for the word bad. Since the word “peace” implies the absence of war, there is no need for the word war. Instead, prefixes suffice: “Ungood” and “unpeace” cover “bad” and “war.”

The point is that words the government wishes to hide for any reason can be simply be put out of use. The concepts they express will soon follow suit and wither away. Take the case of “collateral damage.” How often do we hear this euphemism for the murder of innocent civilians? This reminds me of something I was taught in college about the Confucian emperors’ practice, when ascending to the throne, of issuing a new dictionary. The goal was to ensure that everyone could use the right meaning for words. The key difference with Orwellian Newspeak, though, is that the aim of the Confucians was to facilitate clear communication across a vast, polyglot empire, whereas the aim of the Oceania government was, to the contrary, to ensure an absence of genuine communication among the citizens. By doing so, the government aimed to control their minds. “Through his creation and explanation of Newspeak, Orwell warns the reader that a government that creates the language and mandates how it is used can control the minds of its citizens.”

Examples of Doublespeak

We already live in an era of vast doublespeak. The website “Your Dictionary,” from which I got my definition of doublespeak above, gives a list of 30 examples we all use in our everyday lives. Have you ever said “John passed” instead of “John died”? Put your dog “to sleep” instead of “euthanized” him? Protested “capital punishment” instead of “state-murder”?

It’s no surprise that many examples of doublespeak come from our government, and always reflect some action or decision that will harm someone. “Pre-emptive strikes” (as opposed to “unprovoked attacks”) have become commonplace. “Ethnic cleansing” is more sanitary than “genocide.”

On the domestic political front, we have seen in recent months a significant uptick in doublespeak . We now talk about “making health care affordable” (Paul Ryan) rather than “taking away people’s health care insurance.” The decision to defund Planned Parenthood (for instance) is spoken of as “protecting the unborn” rather than as “depriving poor women of health care.”

And of course, there is the blanket, one-size-fits-all response to re-phrasing those in the direction of more honesty. Saying that defunding Planned Parenthood, for instance, is “depriving poor women of health care” is attacked from the conservatives as being “failed liberal cant,” despite the fact that it is a much more accurate—and honest—phrase than “protecting the unborn.” (My source here is FactCheck.org.)

On the military side, we hear the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD), which are presumed to be different in kind from “conventional weapons.” But is “the mother of all bombs” that was dropped on an almost-vacant area in Afganistan last week really different in kind from a chemical weapons attack? Sure, the “Mother” (is the word meant to lull us into feeling secure—“Mom’s on the watch”?) only killed (reports vary) 36 or 94 ISIS soldiers. But the bomb was dropped in a nearly deserted corner of Afghanistan; drop the Mother-of-all-bombs on a city and count the bodies.

Doublespeak Is Doublespeak, No Matter Who Says It

No one disputes that ours is a dangerous world, a precarious time. The man who controls our nuclear codes ordered, from his dining table, an airstrike against a Syrian airbase because photos of dead babies made him emotional. Meanwhile, North Korea has succeeded in provoking the Trump team into escalating the tension on the Korean peninsula—at a moment when there is no viable government in the south.

Vice-President Mike Pence went to Seoul, South Korea, and offered stern words to the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un. At the end of his statement—filled with innuendo and, yes, doublespeak—we heard this: “There was a period of strategic patience but the era of strategic patience is over.”

Strategic patience?

Mr. Vice-president, did you mean “peace”?

And were you telling us, with the “era of strategic patience” now over, that we are entering a period of war?

Why Not Speak Straight?

“The idea behind Newspeak is that, as language must become less expressive, the mind is more easily controlled.” I find it hard to imagine hoards of citizens carrying signs and marching in the streets against “the end of strategic patience” (that is, war with North Korea).

I cannot imagine the people of the United States rising in anger at Trumpist efforts to “protect the unborn” (that is, to defund women’s health care).

I cannot see my fellow citizens standing shoulder to shoulder in rainy spring weather to protest “tax cuts for the middle class” that in fact actually are for the wealthy, such as Donald Trump, and that – for many working class and single parents –  would result in a tax increase.

What I can envision, though, is citizens learning to see through the doublespeak. Even with telescreens glued to our noses, most Americans have a healthy dose of skepticism about politicians. Sure, the base of the Republican party has acted foolishly, deluded by the doublespeak, but the base’s bedrock remains common sense. They know that drought is drought, even if the president declaims, “There is no drought” in California, it’s just “them shoving the water into the sea.” Many of the people living in the Great Plains have family memories of the Dust Bowl, and they recognize that dust-bowl conditions in California’s central valley are dust-bowl conditions. No amount of doublespeak can change what people know in their bones.

And most of us know that “the end of an era of strategic peace” means a promise of war.

An Emerging Republican Meme: Harming Americans is Merciful and Compassionate

Merciful and Compassionate–redefined

After preliminary scores suggested that the Republicans’ plan to replace the Affordable Care Act would take away the health insurance of between ten and twenty-four million Americans, Paul Ryan went on the offense—literally.

Paul Ryan

He described the repeal-and-replace bills as “an act of mercy.” Sure. Taking health insurance away from millions and reducing Medicaid even more (which pays, albeit poorly, for health care for the poorest, and often sickest, citizens) is merciful—but only to the wealthy, who will get huge tax cuts as a result.

Next, Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, defended the draconian budget cuts to social, scientific, diplomatic, medical, educational, cultural, and humanitarian programs this way:

And I think it’s fairly compassionate to go to them [the single mom in Detroit or the coal miner in West Virginia] and say ‘Look, we’re not going to ask you for your hard earned money any more.

‘Single mom of two in Detroit.  Give us your money.

‘We’re not going to do that any more… unless we can guarantee to you that that money is actually [going to] be used in a proper function.

‘And I think that is about as compassionate as you can get.

Really?

It’s better for the country if cancer survivors die faster

After that, HHS Secretary Tom Price took the Orwellian doublespeak to a new, appalling low (read the full article here). When a cancer survivor told Price that the repeal-and-replace plan would end his Obamacare and jeopardize his survival, Price said this: “At the end of the day, it’s better for our national budget if cancer patients pass away more quickly, it’s a lousy way to live anyway, and I’m sorry to say it out loud, but it’s the truth.”

The reference “it’s a lousy way to live anyway . . .” was to something he’d said earlier: “I know it’s not pretty, but at the end of the day, even people who are able to fight off cancer . . . they can’t lead 100 percent normal lives, ever again. What kind of an existence is that, to have to survive instead of live?” Remember 1984? “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength”? 

No doubt there are cancer survivors who have a lessened quality of life, who survive but suffer. Still, of the many cancer survivors I know, nearly all are living meaningful, active, and enjoyable lives, and want to continue doing so, even if they are not 100%. But Ryan, Mulvaney, and Price are advancing the notion that repealing the Affordable Care Act and advancing a cruel budget are compassionate acts–people with diminished health should die faster. This is not only Orwellian, it is hateful propaganda, party line disguised as truth.

Here is their compassion: Take away people’s health care insurance and replace it with, uh, access to insurance—which all scoring agencies (e.g., the Congressional Budget Office and Standard and Poor’s) believe will cost up to twice what their insurance costs now. Let cancer patients die faster (because surviving cancer means you’ll have a lousy life, and if you die, it helps the budget). Or let the known benefits of social programs for the elderly poor lapse (because the programs really don’t “serve their proper function”). Let school lunch programs be cut or eliminated because “there’s no shown link between free lunch and improved test scores.” So die, sick people. So starve, old people. So go hungry, kids.

An emerging Republican meme

This perverse logic—that taking away people’s health insurance is merciful—seems to be an emerging meme in the Republican propaganda. There are other dishonest memes too—such as this gem from Price: Obamacare has so “weakened the U.S. economy” that without repeal “we’re looking at nationwide riots and another economic recession.” What economy is he talking about? The one that has recovered from the Republican-created Great Recession better than any other developed nation? (Read the Wall Street Journal’s article about that.)

But focus with me on the “merciful act of compassion” meme for a moment. Another adjective I would use for it is obscene.

Follow the logic: Mulvaney says his budget-cutting sword has two sharp edges: He looked at the recipients of federal money (such as the poor single mom in Detroit), and he looked at the people who paid taxes to support federal programs. Since the “single mom in Detroit” or the “coal miner in West Virginia” pay taxes, his “compassionate” budget “has mercy” on them by reducing the programs they may well be depending on (for instance, Title IX protections for the single mom’s daughters or the Coal Miners’ Assistance Program for Appalachian communities). The only compassion in this nonsense is for the very wealthy who will profit, yet again, from tax cuts the poor don’t get.

Mulvaney and Ryan and Price and a whole gaggle of Republican gangsters are saying it, loud and proud: We’re going to steal what meager aid we already give poor people, sick people, old people, and kids, and we’re going to tell them we’re doing it as a kindness to them. All to pay for a whopping jump in the defense and homeland security budget and a massive tax cut for the wealthiest. George Orwell got it right.

Compassion? Mercy? No. It is economic violence. This government is no more merciful and compassionate than the father who beats his child “for your own damn good.”

An Impoverishment of Language

 

“Ecumenical” vs. “Interfaith”: Words reflect views

I’m a writer, so I have two loves: Words, and the sentences they create. No, three: Michele, my wife and best reader. So it was of interest to me when Michele mentioned the phrase “interfaith dialogue.” She’s Jewish, and I’m a former Catholic and dabbler in theologies far and wide. We were talking about dialog among different practitioners of various religious groups, and she said, “Didn’t that used to be called ecumenical?”

It did. And I want to say that the switch of words reflects an impoverishing of our language—and of our worldview.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, members of differing churches or religious groups talked to one another, attempting to understand what each group contributes to our experience of the sacred, we called our conversations “ecumenical.” Now, such conversations are called “interfaith dialog.”

I mourn the change of the term-of-art from ecumenical to interfaith, because I think it signals a loss of something precious: The notion of “at-home-ness.”

The first two syllables of the word ecumenical derive from the Greek oikos, which means, variously, a house, a home, our family, or our neighborhood or community. The oikos is exactly that intangible something that makes a house a home.

Oikos is also the root for a number of other English words, including ecology. Ecumenical is most often used to refer to work toward Christian unity—the hoped for at-home-ness of the now-separate churches; but the term also refers to gatherings of multiple faiths, as when Jews, Christians, and Muslims meet to discuss their common ground in the domain of the sacred.

Or consider the word ecology. Does it not connote something ‘home-like,’ familial, domestic? We share a home—that home being the world, whether the world we call “Earth,” or the lived world of our homes and towns, or the natural home we call our ecology. Our ecology is the “home” environment we share with multiple species, all of us depending on our environment—and each other—for survival.

Sadly, for me, the word “interfaith” has largely supplanted “ecumenical” when we talk about dialog among differing churches or religions about their common life in the realm of the sacred. When we say “interfaith,” our language is transactional—something will be exchanged between (inter) the participants. My sadness is, the word “interfaith” loses the nuance of home, of the oikos, a belonging to a shared world. It loses all that “home” means to us.

Subtly, and I’d like to say tragically, in transactional thinking we get more concerned with what we can learn from or give to each other, rather than searching for our common ground, our shared home, our oikos. In our ecumenical dialogs in the 1960s and 1970s, our goal was to discover what we shared together, what we intuited together about the sacred and about the obligations our intuitions imposed on us in this world. Now, “inter-faith dialog” is about giving and getting: What can your faith give me to enhance my own? It’s about transactions.

In this spirit, certain Catholic parishes put on “Seder dinners” in their social halls, resembling the Jewish observance in “interfaith” reach-outs, whose objectives include demonstrating not only that Catholics respect their ancestral, if outmoded, Judaism, but also that Jesus’s Last Supper once and for all superseded the Paschal meal. We’ll acknowledge the Seder meal, if you’ll acknowledge us the True Faith. Quid pro quo.

 

Transactions need not give life

Transactional language is about exchanges, not about life as we actually live it. Indeed, at root, life at home, life lived with our families and neighbors, with those who share our oikos, is mostly non-transactional. When my children were young, for instance, the only really transactional relationship we had was that they did certain household chores (doing the dishes, cleaning their rooms) for which we gave them an “allowance.” (I’ll note that giving an allowance in return for work has its advocates as well as its detractors, but that’s for another discussion.) Beyond that allowance, our shared family and neighborhood life, while there are some actual transactions, far transcends them. And I think most families are the same.

Family life and neighborhood life and community life in general—life lived in the oikos—give intangible, non-quantifiable rewards: Love, companionship, mutual support, and the like. Equally, life in the oikos burdens us with obligations and responsibilities to one another that often are impossible to tally up or to balance against the rewards. There is no quantity that can be assigned to sitting hour after hour at the bedside of one’s sick child or washing the hair of one’s aged parent.

Transactions, on the other hand, involve no intangibles. I select my groceries off the shelf and I pay the checkout person, and I leave. That concludes the transaction. Love, companionship, mutual support need not figure in the transaction at all. Professional diplomacy is another example: Diplomats remain polite, but there is no requirement that they like one another or do anything more than negotiate issues in their own interests.

The corporation, even before Citizens United, is the model par excellance of transactionalism. The corporation gives out its products or services and we pay for them. We need not like or admire Exxon Mobil, but we do pay for its fossil fuels. In return, Exxon Mobil need not care a whit for our communities or our environments, our ecologies, it need only produce a reliable stream of oil and gas. Nowadays, the corporation is the core organizing principle of our public lives, if not our homes. (The corporate thinkers, of course, claim that they organize themselves and their worlds as a household, which is a lie.)

So what?

We live in a world, and especially in a nation, utterly enthralled with the corporate ethos. We’ve sold our soul to the corporation. The heart of all corporate relationships is profit, that is, winnings, and the soul of profit is competition, a sibling of transaction. We adore sports. And sports are competition as transactional conflict organized by means, methods, and goals. As long as the competitors agree to the organizing means, methods, and goals, the conflict does not flare out of control.

Sports obey that rule. But what about political or corporate competition? To the degree that politicians or corporations—or nations—do NOT agree on the parameters, the means, methods, and goals of the struggle, the danger that our conflicts will flare out of control is real and enormous. We see this in Syria currently. We see it in the American government. Essentially transactional, corporate, and competitive, American government and politics are no longer about our neighborhoods, our lived lives, our nation-as-home, but are about ginning up phony conflicts and then organizing them as a competition. To our chagrin (and loss), our politics allows competition with cheating.

Judging by its actions, our Republicans feel little obligation to the poor or the sick, to immigrants, to gays and lesbians and the transgendered folks, or to anyone not like themselves. The current leaders of our nation appear not to feel any responsibility to make life in the country more neighborly. Nor to tell us the truth, truth without which no family and no community can thrive.

In other words, they seem to have no sense of the ecumenical, of the oikos, only of the transaction, the competition for gain.

Is there room for principles?

In a transactional world, the ruling principle is quid pro quo—What do I get for what I give? Don’t think that I’m proposing that there is anything wrong with quid pro quo, as far as it goes (which is not very far). I’m suggesting only that it reflects a poverty of thought, feeling, and spirituality. Within quid pro quo there is no room for love, for generosity, for unasked-for humor, or for spontaneous help, for all the parts of life that make a house a home or a group of homes a neighborhood. I have no objection to paying the grocery store for groceries, but I would object to demanding that my wife pay me when I cook them for her. Paying the hardware store for a snow shovel? Sure. But I’d rebel if my elderly neighbor was forced to pay me to shovel her sidewalk. There’s scant space inside quid pro quo for the realities of family life, neighborhood life, community life. In those more home-like realms, there are other principles at play than quid pro quo.

In a transaction-only world (and world-view), other human values—care, loyalty (even to those who hurt me), compassion, giving to the poor—die of thirst. The very things that make life livable don’t figure in transactional thinking. And so, when religiously serious people talk across the divides between their faiths, we now call it “interfaith” dialog. We don’t use the word ecumenical, which connotes what faith really is about: Being at home amid the sacred.

I’m making this simple point because our language reflects our thinking and our thinking reflects the way we perceive reality. If you think this is a transaction-only world, I suggest that your language reflects that. Pay attention to the words you—and I—use, and especially to the words of the people who talk about the things that matter in our lived lives.

Injuries to Our Spirits

oval-office

The subtitle of my blog is “Psyche, Story, Spirit.” Today I’m thinking about something that binds together “psyche” and “spirit”—the feelings many Americans have after last week’s election. Many are elated. Many are saddened, or afraid. What I’m interested in, though, is that in earlier elections when Democrats won, those who are now elated were saddened, or afraid. I’m not really interested, at the moment, in the reasons or causes for either side’s emotional responses; what interests me is that finally, between left and right, we have common ground.

That common ground is that now we are all familiar with how it feels to receive an injury to our spirits. By those words I mean to convey a kind of woundedness that not only brings pain, but diminishes our sense of meaning and threatens our hope. What most affected me after the election was the bewildering and, yes, even frightening sense that the truths I’ve trusted may not hold. Since the results came plain, I feel what many people say they feel: They’ve taken my country away. I’ve heard that sentence from folks on the right, and wondered what they meant by it. Finally, I have common ground with those on the right who’ve been so angry and afraid all these years. It is not pleasant ground to stand on, but it’s shared, at least.

Common ground? Really?

Psychologists know, as do folks who suffer PTSD, that the aftermath is sometimes worse than the wound itself. It is one thing to be shocked, to go on auto-pilot, to rely on numbness to make it through a traumatizing situation. But as the days, weeks, months, and years after the event pile up, the longer term consequences start coming to light. And alongside them, along with the pain, come questions, doubts, self-blame, a rupture of connection. thinkerDid I do something to cause the tragedy? Am I wrong, bad, or even evil? Or is someone else to blame, someone I may have counted on or even loved? What’s wrong with this damn world? Who am I after all is said and done? What does this all man? What should I do now? Questions that disrupt the settled world I thought I had.

Perhaps it’s fair to say that this injury to our spirits accompanies many of our presidential elections. Certainly, the nation endured it as a sundering catastrophe in 1860, when the visceral reactions of real people tore the country apart—a gulf that has haunted us since. But the elections of 2000, when we elected a war-maker, and of 2008, when we elected a Black man, and of 2016, when we tried to elect a woman, belong to us who are living now, and are the injurers of our times.

I’m thinking of PTSD too, or in psychologists’ language, “acute stress disorder” (since it’s only days since the event, not months). Combat veterans who suffer PTSD, especially those who had to do things they would never have dreamed of doing in civilian life, report these injuries to the spirit I’m thinking about. So do many survivors of sexual or physical abuse, especially those who accepted the abuse by one person in order to protect someone else—the other parent, for instance, or siblings. Traumatic experiences like those alter a person’s sense of her goodness, of his ability to make a difference by his actions, of being who they thought they were.

Wait.

Am I implying that the emotional aftermath of losing an election is equivalent to killing in war or witnessing its horrors? Am I arguing that seeing one’s candidate lose is the same as being raped by a drunken father or by a violent boyfriend on a date?

No.

I am, though, trying to say that our spirits can be injured, and that when they are, the result can be fear, shame, anger, blame, confusion, despair. These emotions are the common ground all of us stand on who share strong passions about American politics, and lose. And what challenges me about this common ground is that it can be, may be, the ground of empathy. We on the left may be feeling—and if so, understanding—what those on the right have felt.

Forgive, forget, move on?

Absolutely not.

Each of us will find some way to heal, or so we all can hope. But I’m not ready to forgive. Psychologists remind us that the first step after an offense is not to forgive when there remain unhealed wounds. The first step is to talk, to name the fear, the rage, the despair, or whatever form the injury takes. To talk not only with loved ones, but with whomever will listen. To speak what is true in each of our hearts. That’s the first step.

Forget? I will never forget the obscenity and cruelty of President-elect Trump’s campaign and of his talk. Until he demonstrates compassion for all the citizens, especially the vulnerable and the disenfranchised, in real and tangible ways, my memory of his insults and assaults will stay fresh. But that does not mean I will resist everything he does. What is truly honorable I will support. What benefits real people in real ways, I will support. But when he proposes actions that will harm those who have already suffered much harm—women held back or assaulted, immigrants terrified, Muslims vilified, Jews slandered, disabled people mocked, the elderly threatened, the rebuilders of the infrastructure obstructed, the polluters of the air and water empowered—I will resist.

Move on? Only in one respect: I will move on in my own work of managing my personal spiritual woundedness, and in comforting those around me when I can. I will move on to organize my thinking and my writing and my contributing and my action so that I don’t add to the injuries to the spirit that already pile too high.

What can I do?

It’s a dark time.

Those of us who won the election last week must wait, anxiously, to see whether the promises they counted on are real or merely “politics,” rhetoric designed to fool them into delivering power to the likes of Bannon and Breitbart.

Those of us who lost must grieve and wait as well, to see what emerges from the shadows of that ugly and debasing campaign. I hope that we all, winners and losers, will seek connectedness, not disunion. Civility, not hate.

Still, there have been other dark, perhaps darker, times. hitler-polandThink back to September 1, 1939, the night Hitler invaded Poland. The world awoke next morning shocked, gaggled, unstrung, despairing. Most of us now are shocked, and half of us are unstrung, seventy-seven years later. To many, the world seems just as dark—while others believe a dawn is breaking (though I fear they will soon find their hopes dashed as well).

W. H. Auden wrote a poem about that night, “1st September 1939.” Here is its final stanza.

Defenseless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

 

On both sides of our country’s divide, I hope we will listen, and exchange our messages of justice, and, despite the injuries to our spirits, show an affirming flame.

 

 

A Psychologist’s Thoughts on Trumpism

The “Trump Effect” or “Trumpism”?

I’m a writer of fiction and a psychologist, and I’m observing the current political campaign in the United States with a mix of horror and fascination. I’m not the only one. A few days ago, Gail Sheehy gail-sheehy in Politico magazine published an article about the concerns that thousands of mental health professionals feel about the effect of so-called “Trumpism” on the emotional and mental well-being of the American people. What we usually read in the media are terms such as “the Trump Effect,” focusing narrowly on Donald Trump’s personality, behavior, and rhetoric. Sheehy writes more broadly, focusing on the underlying attitudes and cultural movements that comprise the motivations and attitudes of the larger cultural phenomenon, which some have named “Trumpism.”

I don’t usually write about politics in this blog, but Sheehy’s article spoke to me, since I too, like the people she reports on, find myself feeling more and more demoralized, dispirited, and frightened about the future of our country as it responds to Donald Trump and the cultural currents he represents and exploits–but did not invent.

Demoralized, dispirited, frightened? Really? Why?

Before I dig into that deeper question, I’d encourage you to read Sheehy’s article for the research it presents. That research was done by Dr. William Doherty, a highly respected professor of marriage and family therapy from Minnesota who has done much to promote a more civil and decent society. Based on that work, Doherty wrote a “Manifesto of Citizen Therapists,” in which you can read the argument signed by more than 3000 mental health professionals concerned about “Trumpism,” which Doherty defines descriptively in the “Manifesto” as follows:

Trumpism is an ideology, not an individual, and it may well endure and grow after the Presidential election even if Donald Trump is defeated. (Variants can be seen all over Europe.)

Trumpism is a set of ideas about public life and a set of public practices characterized by:

  • Scapegoating and banishing groups of people who are seen as threats, including immigrants and religious minorities.

  • Degrading, ridiculing, and demeaning rivals and critics.

  • Fostering a cult of the Strong Man who:

    • Appeals to fear and anger

    • Promises to solve our problems if we just trust in him

    • Reinvents history and has little concern for truth

    • Never apologizes or admits mistakes of consequence

    • Sees no need for rational persuasion

    • Subordinates women while claiming to idealize them

    • Disdains public institutions like the courts when they are not subservient

    • Champions national power over international law and respect for other nations

    • Incites and excuses public violence by supporters

The “Manifesto” considers what the mental health professionals see as the causes of Trumpism, as well as its consequences, and they discuss its psychological impact on people exposed to it.

What Doherty’s Research Suggests . . .

Here are a few points brought up in Sheehy’s article about Doherty’s research:

  • Out of more than 1000 respondents to Doherty’s survey, “43 percent of the respondents—not limited to people in therapy—reported experiencing emotional distress related to Trump and his campaign.” In addition, 28% reflected emotional distress about Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and over 90% said their distress is worse than in any previous election. (I’m not writing about Clinton’s campaign because the causes and roots of the distress felt by her opponents is of an entirely different kind that that caused by Trumpism.)
  • A number of the therapists who signed the Manifesto (full disclosure: I have signed it) report an uptick in symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other psychological distress after a significant Trump-related event, such as the recent Presidential Debates.
  • They also report that many of their clients who suffered traumata (abuse, emotional, physical, and/or sexual) in childhood at the hands of a dogmatic, “strong-man” father, find those experiences revived and their impact intensified by Trump’s rhetoric and behavior, especially toward women and marginalized groups (such as immigrants and Muslims).
  • One therapist, a Marine vet, felt compelled to provide a way for his clients to bring their reactions to the campaign into the consulting room. He says, “I wrote a letter about the prevalence of hate speech in the campaign, about terrorism and mass shootings, and left it in my waiting room. I closed by saying, ‘If these things are troubling you, I want to invite you to bring it into your therapy session.’”

Anecdotally, in more than ten conversations with friends during the past week, I have heard repeated stories of disgust, anxiety, anger, and apprehension about the direction of the country triggered by coverage of Trump and his surrogates. Many of my friends have said they cannot bear to watch media coverage any more, because the latest insult or depredation by Trump or his Trumpists is so painful to observe. Some mild-mannered and gentle friends admit that they find themselves feeling unaccustomed anger with Trump because of his behavior toward women, Muslims, and marginalized groups in general.

But more importantly, they–and I–are even more uncomfortable because it has become plain that the gains we thought we had made against racism, hatred of others, and women’s rights are nowhere near as substantial as we thought. Our liberal democracy is much more fragile and threatened than we had dreamed. I myself feel discouraged and deeply worried, as I said before. It’s time I say why.

Why I Feel Distress about Trumpism

I spent forty years providing psychotherapy for people who were abused by people who lived out a worldview that fits the definition of Trumpism. They grew up being afraid—of a parent or parents who abused them, of bullies who attacked them, of shaming by others who found them “different,” of exclusion and rejection. For some, their fear led them to be angry; for most, to being depressed and self-hating. Perhaps most insidious of all, many of my clients feared the “Oh, suck it up” kind of rejection and social abuse so commonly heard from Trumpists who consider any criticism to be invalid and a sign of the critics’ weakness.

No doubt, my saying these things might inflame some; I expect to be accused of emotional weakness and hyper-sensitivity, because I don’t believe that the solution to fear is to turn around and instill more fear in others or to exploit the fear by ginning up hate.

Yes, I am emotionally sensitive. I do care when innocent people are abused–hell, I care when non-innocent people are abused. I think Trumpist bullying, no matter who carries it out, is a stain on our character, and I mean that word stain. But more to the point of my own fears, I am afraid that Trumpism—which will outlast Trump whether he wins or loses the election—is an active cancer on our civic body.

  • Hating Muslims is one step away from hating Jews—and we see in the white nationalist endorsers of Trump exactly that broad-brush anti-Semitism. And I reject anti-Semitism, whatever its form.
  • Promising total violence as a tool of foreign policy—refusing to decline the option of nuclear war, for instance, or promising to “bomb the shit out of them”—isn’t simply a stupid and thoughtless rejection of any standard of international decency and cooperation: It’s immorality writ large.
  • Delighting in the mistreatment of women, sexualizing encounters with them, sizing them up like cattle at auction, claiming to “cherish women” while privately boasting of “moving on her like a b***h,” are signs of a degraded consciousness, but one that women have been battling since the beginning of written history. And before, no doubt. Is this our American version of masculinity? God help us.
  • Rejecting immigrants is not even a short step away from racism—it is fruit of the same tree.

 

I do not want an America where perhaps 35% or 40% of our citizens subscribe to Trumpism, operating out of fear and trembling from behind the façade of the Strong Man. But that’s what we face, at this moment in our history.

So, I think it’s time for people like me to say Stop.

What’s the Alternative?

A simple return to rational discussion of issues would go far. I’d suggest replacing fear with curiosity. Would it be so hard, instead of railing in anger and fear, to ask questions like:

  • What are the immigrants actually like? How do they live their everyday lives? Do they contribute to our society, and how? Where do we find our common humanity?
  • What do the majority of Muslims believe about civil society? What do the majority of Muslims in our country believe and how do they actually behave? Where do we find our common sense of God and the spiritual?
  • What do women think and feel when they hear sexist and lewd comments about their sisters–or about themselves? What do they actually want for the society they live in? What common ground do feminists and non-feminist women stand on together? What do men need to feel safe and equal with women? What do men need to feel safe in letting their defenses down? What do women need to be safe in pointing to men’s misunderstandings and assumptions about them?
  • What are the impulses toward good, decent, civil behavior that citizens feel when they detect injustice–no matter their political affiliation? What are those ideals for the country that are so often referred to without being spelled out? Are punishment, revenge, violence all we have to choose from? (Personally, I doubt it.)

Who do we believe we are, as a nation and a people? I suggest that we have always held a different vision of ourselves, unlike the neo-fascism of the European type and Trumpism, our American version. I cherish, to borrow one of Donald Trump’s favorite words, Abraham Lincoln’s famous “angels of our better nature.” Where do we find them?

Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, inscribed on the Stature of Liberty, reminds us, Americans, of what those angels are. We usually just quote the final stanza, but please read the entire poem, and remember who we once proudly thought of ourselves.

statue-of-liberty

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

 

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The “Mother of Exiles.” A lovely phrase. Trumpism, to quote its most watched spokesman, “has no idea.”

A Prayer on Bastille Day

He must be very tired.

About two hundred yards from where I sit on the deck, a lone osprey sits quietly on his nest atop a Douglas fir, immobile, illuminated by sunset, looking down at the lake. All day, a very busy day, he’s been shuttling to and from his nest, hunting and bringing food back for his offspring—who are just about ready to learn to hunt for themselves.

Lake Pend Oreille Sunset
Lake Pend Oreille Sunset

Perhaps he’s enjoying the view of the lake. I’m curious, though. I’ve never seen the big bird so quiet for so long. It’s been almost 45 minutes, and neither of us has moved. The poor guy must be very tired. Or, perhaps, it’s something else?

These guys never rest, do they?

If you draw a straight line between my chair and the osprey’s nest, our hummingbird feeder hangs directly in that line. By shifting my depth of field close and far, I can focus on the osprey, then on the hummingbirds that visit, then back to the amazingly quiet osprey. A ruby-throated hummingbird hovers, drinks, hovers, drinks again, then perches on the feeder bracket. He too is still. Very still, and I hardly breathe—these little guys never perch here, and I don’t want to scare him away. So, why is he waiting?

For a minute, two, even three, he sits entirely still, facing me. Then, he flits his wings once, twice, defecates a tiny drop, a jewel that falls and sparkles in the evening sunlight. He hovers again, above the feeder, moves in, takes a last drink, vanishes.

Peace and tragedy are siblings

Shortly before I sat down here on my deck in peaceful north Idaho, a maniac waited in a truck until the Bastille Day fireworks in Nice, France, were done, and when the crowd was milling down the Promenade des Anglais, he drove the 19-ton lorry into them and murdered 84 people, injuring  scores of others.

The Beach at Nice
The Beach at Nice

I’ve been to big-city fireworks on the Fourth of July, and I imagine you have, too. I know the crush of the crowd when the display and the oohs and ahs are done, the nowhere-to-go-just-accept-it feeling. I can imagine the screams behind me and my family, the sudden panic around us. I can imagine turning to see what’s happening and beholding the looming lorry, the white death, bearing down.

Here on my deck, soothed by the evening breeze, sharing with the birds the quietest evening of this summer, I am perhaps an infinite distance from Nice and the Promenade Des Anglais. But in one small way, I am there.

How? How?

For the first time in many years, after a career spent in the service of the science of psychology (which requires no gods), I join thousands in Nice: I am praying.

To whom are we praying?

No doubt, you and I answer this in our own ways. I’m not praying to anyone in particular. I just speak words into the soft and darkening air, to the One in whom we live and breathe and have our being. I feel mourning, and imagine that I see mourning—my projection, no doubt—in the osprey’s stillness and the hummingbird’s wait on the feeder bracket.

I pray into the empty sky of the evening for an idea, a thought, any glimmer of a road from all this tragedy to peace. I pray for something I’m afraid I could lose: A word of hope.

No word comes back.

Until I see a boat . . .

. . . crossing Lake Pend Oreille. As I watch, the wake, opening always out in the cut water, fades, diminishes, passes. The boat’s knife has slashed, but it has not wounded, the water. No, water absorbs the violent energy, swells with its effect for a moment, then passes it along. Each molecule of water accepts the blast of energy and passes it to the next. We see the wave, and then it is gone. No molecule is lost or injured, because each accepts what comes, then moves it on.

Can we?

Can you share with me—in this blog post—my sorrow at the human violence in our world? Sorrow for Paris, San Bernardino, Syria, Israel, Istanbul, Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Gaza, Burkina Faso, Mali, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Baltimore, Orlando, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Minnesota, now Nice. Sorrow for the thousand other places and million other deaths. Can you pass this sorrow along after tasting it for your moment, and ask your fellow human beings, friends, family, Facebook folk, to stop a moment, share the sorrow, then pass it on?

Will you?

A Politics of Hate, or a Politics of Service?

A trip down the Danube

Blue Danube Budpest

Earlier this month, I traveled with my wife and friends through central Europe–Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest, among other cities–cruising the not-so-blue Danube river. In each of those cities, we encountered people young and old who passionately remember and condemn the occupations and oppressions of the Hapsburgs, the Nazis, and the Communists. Equally passionately, they love their countries and cherish the new political freedom they have enjoyed since 1989.

Many of the people we talked with, and especially the younger folks, lamented the growing anti-immigrant sentiments currently polluting political talk and writing in Europe—and the U.S. One twenty-eight year old woman said, “They want us to oppress other people just because they are not our people. But we remember how the Communists oppressed our parents.” One of her friends, a young man in his thirties, shook his head. “Not just that. They want to make us into Nazis. That’s not what our Velvet Revolution stands for.”

Here in the United States, separated from our own revolution by 330 years, I wonder if we exhibit that kind of maturity, that yearning to hang on to fragile freedoms that, if they are denied to others, are denied to us all.

 

Vaclav Havel’s politics of internal peace

V. Havel

Vaclav Havel, beloved last president of Czechoslovakia and first president of the Czech Republic, said this:

Without free, self-respecting, and autonomous citizens there can be no free and independent nations. Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace (emphasis added).

What are we, citizens, to make of Havel’s idea? We’re encouraged by one presidential nominee and many lower-office holders to fear our neighbors and to distrust and despise the state. It has been so long since Americans were at peace with their fellow citizens and with their state, I can hardly conceive of it. Perhaps we can probe Havel’s words, test them for their sense and value. Take that second sentence: What does it mean?

Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace.

Is Havel saying that as long as we feud among ourselves, we can’t assure that the outside world will be peaceful? Or perhaps more boldly: Our inner division, our rancor toward one another, our fear of the state—are they perhaps contributing causes to the external threats and hatreds that face us abroad? Could he be saying that?

At the very moment when he was being arrested, soon to be executed by the state, it is said that Jesus told the young disciple who tried to defend him, “Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). To choose violence as our first response to external threats is to invite violence in return, as we have seen in the Middle East every day since 2003. If Americans choose to hate one another, to metaphorically draw swords against our neighbors, can we rationally complain when external swords of hatred are aimed at us?

 

Resisting evil

There is a saying of which American “patriots” are quite fond:

The tree of liberty is watered by the blood of patriots.

The quotation is loose, and almost inaccurate because it is out of context. The actual quote appears in a letter from Thomas Jefferson:

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.

But here’s the context: Jefferson was writing to Madison about citizens who are (Jefferson thought, inevitably) misinformed about their government. He thinks that, misperceiving the truth and misunderstanding the real, such ignorant citizens will become angry and desire to rebel. And if they do not take up arms—even though they are wrong—Jefferson thinks it is a symptom of “lethargy,” which in his mind threatens the vitality of a nation. Thus, rebellions—in which the blood of patriots and tyrants refreshes the tree of liberty—should occur from time to time, despite being misguided! Needless to say, this was not one of Jefferson’s most inspired opinions, nor was it enshrined in the new Constitution of 1789.

Protester w: Sign

In any case, this truncated and out-of-context quote is trotted out at right-wing rallies to exhort the faithful to keep their guns ready, their eyes vigilant, and their anger—with their government—hot. Now, there’s no doubt that evil must be resisted, and sometimes, at last resort, with force. But who, may I ask, is resisting the evil words being spouted in his campaign rallies by the would-be tyrant who hates Muslims and immigrants and pretends to love gays and Hispanics? Who is resisting him before it is too late?

I hear real resistance coming from those who speak up, pitting honest words against Trump’s cynicism, people—and nominees—who yearn for a politics of service, not of hate. Havel says:

Genuine politics—even politics worthy of the name—the only politics I am willing to devote myself to—is simply a matter of serving those around us: serving the community and serving those who will come after us. Its deepest roots are moral because it is a responsibility expressed through action, to and for the whole.

“Genuine politics . . . is simply a matter of serving those around us.” I can believe in that. Or rather, hope for it someday.

The Average Person Isn’t

Alongside highway 200 entering Sandpoint, Idaho, sits the Hoot Owl Café, a venerable diner beloved for its abundant breakfasts and tasty lunches. Outside the Hoot Owl is a sign on which they post witty sayings. These days, the sign reads “The Average Person Thinks She Isn’t.” Avg Person Isn't When I saw it the first time, I laughed, and thought how accurate that sounded.

Since that first sighting, I’ve driven by the sign dozens of times, and each time, I’ve thought about the message. Though it still makes me smile, I now think it’s wrong.

First, a little background.

Several sources credit the quip to Father Larry Lorenzoni, LLorenzonia priest of the Salesian Order in San Francisco. Father Lorenzoni, however, does not appear to be the originator of the saying. In fact, its earliest use appears to be in the New York humor magazine, The Judge, in 1927. Since that time, one website lists at least four additional published appearances of the saying between 1934 and 1987, none of which are attributed to Father Lorenzoni.

There is something ironic about Father Lorenzoni’s use of the quote. Average people (if there are any such) don’t pretend to be the author of something they did not originate. In her book, How to Work a Room, Susan RoAne writes, “I met a significant person in my life on a plane from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Father Larry Lorenzoni and I spent an hour chatting, laughing, comparing publications . . .” SRoAneUnfortunately, a fairly deep Google search revealed that Father Lorenzoni has no publications to his credit—except a few letters to the editor—despite “comparing” them with Ms. RoAne’s publications. But there’s more: A further Google search reveals that the good Father also stands accused of sexually molesting young boys in his charge.

Father Lorenzoni is not your average person, obviously, and it appears he doesn’t think he is, either. Not only does he permit his name to be associated, on multiple websites and in books of quotations, with a quote he did not author, not only does he talk of his nonexistent publications with a young woman who is an author, he is accused of sexually abusing children. The average person does none of those things.

Father Lorenzoni’s apparent duplicity is one example of why I think the saying is wrong. My argument is with the notion of an “average person.” An average is a pure mathematical abstraction that cannot be said to describe accurately any real human being. Forty years practicing psychotherapy and teaching psychology to graduate students has taught me that no matter how ordinary a person might seem, that person’s story—or stories—make her unique. And while many people experience similar incidents, and respond in similar ways, always the nuances of their experience and their response are distinctly their own.

Unique? One of a kind? Yes.

When I write fiction, my aim is to tell stories of ordinary people confronting extraordinary challenges—challenges that mystify them (and sometimes me!) and demand solutions that reflect the uniqueness of their character. Novelists, like psychologists, look for the patterns in a person’s behavior that define him or her. Some characters could be considered ordinary, average people. But as their challenges mount and their sufferings mount with it, and as their desire and action to change or remove the challenge grows, the complexities of their characters reveal themselves. It isn’t that these average people think they aren’t: These average people aren’t average.

Father Larry Lorenzoni is not your average priest, or even your ordinary priest. If he were a character in a novel, we would learn why, in his uniqueness, he takes credit for things he did not do and conceals the evil that he is said to have done. But we do not know the story. In my lifetime, I have known personally nearly one hundred priests of the Roman church. I am confident that all but two of those have never molested a child. Even those two, living public lives that concealed their private crimes, manifested a powerful commitment to, even love for, the people whom they served. No one is average. Everyone has a story. And nobody’s story is simple. Not even Father Larry Lorenzoni’s.

Winter Holiday Lessons for a Troubled World

Scrooge

The holiday season is tormented this year. Terrorism here and abroad piles anxiety upon anxiety for many people. Racist and fear-mongering politicians capitalize on those anxieties to promote themselves. The Christmas decorations in stores and restaurants, the drone of holiday carols and songs over MUZAK systems—all seem strained, as if we were trying to deal with an ugly stain on the wall by splashing it with new paint.

Despite the fact that you and I are roughly sixteen times more likely to die in a car accident than in a terrorist attack (check it out at “Ask the Odds.com”), some people are falling all over themselves to rush us to war in the (false) name of “national security.” The politicians’ rhetoric of fear, war, bigotry, and retaliation ramps up the anxiety in the air. So much for “peace on earth, good will toward men.”

Do the legends surrounding this season, the Hanukkah story of the eight days of light and the Christmas story of the stable and the angels and shepherds, offer us any real comfort in these times? I think they might, though not the sort of comfort we usually associate with the season. It’s not a year for sentimentality. But perhaps it’s a year for some understanding, even compassion.

Forget Hanukkah’s miraculous, never-ending lamp oil. Ask instead, what were the circumstances during which that miracle took place? It was an insurrection, a revolt against the Seleucid rulers of Judea, triggered by the Seleucid decree that the Jews worship the Greek gods in their Temple in Jerusalem. MaccabeesThe rebellion was led by a farm family, Mattathias and his five sons, later called the Maccabees (after the oldest son, Judah, whose nickname was “the hammer,” which in Greek was “Maccabeus”). The rebels formed a guerilla militia of about 22,000 men. They took on a larger army and after many years of struggle, eventually won independence for Judea (which lasted around one-hundred years, until the Romans came to town).

Hanukkah celebrates that victory and the purification of the Temple in Jerusalem. But it is a story curiously similar to what is going on in our world: One group imposing their religious beliefs on another, and the other resisting violently. Looking back, we call the Maccabees “freedom fighters.” The Seleucids called them terrorists.

One lesson of Hanukkah, then, may be that naming a group or a person “terrorist” depends entirely on one’s point of view. If you are fighting the dominant power because you believe it has polluted your religion and is destroying your culture, you call yourself a freedom fighter, a maccabbee, a hammer of your enemy. On the other hand, if you belong to the dominant power and feel threatened or afraid of these maccabees, you call them terrorists.

Either name arouses enormous passion, and it’s that passion that leads to the ruthless commitment of the rebels to tear down the dominant power and the dominant power’s obsession with destroying the terrorists. The last thing either side intends is dialog. The last emotion either side feels is compassion. Is there any hope in this scenario?

Perhaps. Think about the Christmas story’s circumstances, as they are portrayed in Luke’s Gospel, the gospel most people consider somewhat historical. I’ll ignore the fact that the property tax census that forced Joseph and Mary to travel three days to Bethlehem did not happen in the years when Jesus was likely born. I’ll ignore too the fact that the Romans conducted their censuses and collected taxes at people’s homes, not at their ancestors’ birthplaces JesusMangerShepherds(the property on which the tax was assessed existed at their homes, not at their ancestors’ birthplaces). Finally, I’ll ignore the fact that to require everyone to travel to their ancestors’ birthplaces would have created chaos across the Empire. The Romans were ruthless, but they weren’t stupid. (If you want to read more about these facts, go here.)

In any case, whether in Bethlehem or Nazareth, Joseph was an artisan, probably a carpenter. At that time, as John Dominic Crossan has shown, using the work of Gerhard Lenski, artisans were probably the second-poorest groups in Judean agrarian society, one step away from homelessness. Ironically, by the time of his public preaching, Jesus had indeed become effectively homeless, an itinerant teacher.

Dean Snyder makes the point that, whereas the Magi are the stars of Matthew’s nativity story, it’s shepherds who come to see the baby. He notes (also following Lenski) that shepherds belong to the lowest class in the Roman world, the “expendable class,” too poor to even afford a home of their own. These shepherds were hired hands, living in the fields with their flocks (which belonged to wealthier farm owners).

Shepherd

In short, Jesus was born into poverty, beautifully symbolized by the story of the stable and the manger, surrounded by shepherds. But poverty and oppression by an occupying empire are two of the conditions that frequently “radicalize” young men. Keep in mind that throughout his life, Jesus was quite familiar—everyone in Judea was—with terrorist groups such as the Zealots and the Sicarii (“dagger-men”), who kept up a guerilla war against Rome for more than 70 years, using violence and assassination. There had been a revolt against Rome in Joseph and Mary’s province, Galilee, in 4 B.C.E., when Jesus most likely was a little boy. Terrorism (if you were Roman) or freedom fighters (if you were Jewish) would have been a fact of life for Jesus. However, he chose, and later preached, neither. He did not fall into the trap of name-calling (“I’m a freedom fighter,” “No, you’re a terrorist”). Instead, do you remember what he said?

You have heard it said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt. 5:43-44).

Perhaps there’s a message there for this tormented time, torn apart by fear and grief and their inevitable followers, rage and hatred. Of course, some will remind me, that’s naïve. After all, Jesus was crucified.

October Light in Idaho

Photo by Marianne Love
Photo by Marianne Love

 

Here in north Idaho, the October light has been stunning, golden, filtered as if through the dusts of heaven. At times pale and soft, the light spreads a patina over the gardens and the forest. This October, the light almost appears to emerge from within the trees and the rocks and the mountains themselves rather than from the sun; it’s as if the hot, dry, fiery summer heat soaked into the material of this land and now glows softly.

 

October light

 

This morning, watching the October light, I remembered that John Gardner published a novel with that title in 1976. It tells the story of James Page, a septuagenarian living in a small town in Vermont, and his widowed sister, Sally Page Abbott, who has come to live with him. The book opens with James Page enraged at Sally’s television, so angry he fires his shotgun into the machine, nearly killing his sister of fright.

James Page, we learn, is very conservative, so conservative that he considers TV and technology demonic. He hates it. And he browbeats and torments his sister with his demands to the point that . . . well, I’ll let you read the book. I remember it as a dark book in many ways, but I also recall finding the title strangely apt. This October’s radiant light in the northern part of Idaho (and who knows, everywhere else perhaps) reminds me of Gardner’s story.

Photo by Marianne Love
Photo by Marianne Love

Gardner’s October Light is deeper than a story about a curmudgeon and his tormented sister who finally rebels. Published in 1976, it was Gardner’s bicentennial take on the American revolution—an oppressive “king”—James—and his “subject” (Sally), who first struggles to remain loyal, but in the end rebels. However, if Gardner had stopped with that, the book would merely be a modern allegory. He’s up to something more profound, and the title captures that depth just as our north Idaho October light captures something of “the dusts of heaven.” But what?

The web site “enotes.com” says this about October Light:

[T]he novel focuses on . . . the power of nature to act as a moral force and become the positive center for human life, strengthening that which is best and serving as a guide. Nature cannot accomplish this alone but needs to be mediated by art, and that art, as October Light makes explicit, must be moral art—moral fiction.

This morning, when I was absorbing the light radiating from the trees, the grasses, the rocks, from the lake stretching out in front of our house, LakePendOreille1 I could feel that power of nature in the light that welled up from within the natural world like water from a deep spring. It occurred to me that the task of moral fiction, among other things, is not to let such beauty as this morning’s light go unsung. (By the way, for a different take on “moral fiction,” read Mary Gordon’s piece in the Atlantic.) This light is as true and, brought into fiction, can be as much a source of energy as the cruelties and hidden motives and conflicts that are so important in my fiction, in any fiction. There is darkness. But there is also light.

In all the spiritual traditions I am aware of, light is everything. Think of all the hymns you’ve sung or prayers you’ve recited, sutras you’ve chanted—Jewish, Muslim, Christian, whatever—hasn’t the word “light” infused many of them? Zen master Foyan said, “[The mind’s] light penetrates everywhere and engulfs everything, so why does it not know itself?”

So what should be my song about this October light? I can’t sing as well as Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet,

But there is much beauty here,

Because there is much beauty everywhere.

That’s what the traditions are telling us: There is much beauty here in north Idaho’s October light–or wherever you are–because there is much beauty everywhere.

Remember this next time the politicians cast their dark spell over the land. Remember the October light.