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.

 

 

Political Rhetoric in an Era of Division: Republicans Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln.

Political Rhetoric is a Literary Form

MLK.Speaking

In this blog, I reflect on many things gathered under the rubrics of “Psyche, Story, Spirit” – the wide range of psychological, literary, and spiritual issues that concern me. To me, the rhetoric of the emerging presidential campaign, especially on the Republican side, presents quite a story, its field littered with psychological intrigue – and maybe pathological intrigue. From my conversations with people, many Americans feel disspirited when we hear or read the debate. Since my chief interest in this blog is about writing, a form of rhetoric, I’ve been reflecting on what the campaign is doing to the language of our public conversation. This in turn brings me to two exemplars of political rhetoric in eras of deep division: Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln.

 

Trump                                           Lincoln

The Contexts Facing Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln

First, let’s consider the fact that Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Lincoln’s approaches to political speech emerged in two politically very similar epochs. The first was the period 1846 -1865. 1846 was the year Dred Scott first sued for his freedom, and 1865 was the year of Lincoln’s second inaugural address. At that point, the bloodied nation was concluding the Civil War. Even more consequentially, the soon-to-be-reunited states needed to reconcile after three generations’ conflict over states’ rights and slavery. In March 1865, although the Confederacy was losing the war and the issue of slavery was settled, the Reconstruction loomed contentious. People both honest and cynical, on both sides of the issues, fully and loudly voiced opinions about the role of government, states’ rights, and the status of the newly freed African Americans. There was great tension in the air.

Ours, the second period, I somewhat arbitrarily date from 1980, when the “Reagan revolution” began, through the present. Now, we can observe its second generation, the Tea Party TeaPubicanParty and it’s heroes Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, and the rest, promoting the politically divisive and racially controversial attitudes reminiscent of the pre- and post-Civil War era. I say the dating is arbitrary because although the Reagan revolution, bent on overturning the New Deal, achieved power in 1980, it had been brewing since the 1930s. Even in 1980, however, the debate was a conversation about ideas, not persons; it was sometimes calm, occasionally contentious, but usually civil. Reagan, for all his rhetoric (“guv’ment is the problem”), grew the government, and he collaborated with his opponents, led by Tip O’Neill, Democrat Speaker of the House.

Key Rhetorical Approaches from the Two Eras: Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Lincoln’s Speeches

Mr. Trump’s Political Rhetoric

Against this background, it is instructive to look at key rhetorical approaches from these two eras. For that comparison, I offer the rhetorical styles of Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln on the salient issues of their day. Let’s consider first a quote from Donald Trump’s website, concerning Latino immigrants to the United States:

In recent weeks, the headlines have been covered with cases of criminals who crossed our border illegally only to go on to commit horrific crimes against Americans. Most recently, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, with a long arrest record, is charged with breaking into a 64 year-old women’s home, crushing her skull and eye sockets with a hammer, raping her, and murdering her. The Police Chief in Santa Maria says the “blood trail” leads straight to Washington.

(Note: If you follow the link to the phrase “blood trail” in Mr. Trump’s statement reveals quite a different, and more complicated, story than his statement implies. I don’t have space here to go into the rhetorical sloppiness – or dishonesty – of his implication, but I will suggest that his use of the police chief’s opinions adds no rigor, but does cheapen, his arguments.)

Or consider this, from Mr. Trump’s stump speech against the Iran nuclear agreement:

“We are led by very, very stupid people.”

On his website, Mr. Trump continues, “It was amateur hour for those charged with striking this deal with Iran, demonstrating to the world, yet again, the total incompetence of our president and politicians.”

You’ll notice in all these quotes, which I think fairly represent the overall rhetorical tactics of Mr. Trump’s campaign, the approach is to attack the persons, not to discuss the issues. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the terms of the Iran nuclear agreement, the issue for discussion is the terms, not the intellectual adequacy of the diplomats from the six major Western powers. The old-fashioned word for this is the ad hominem argument – if you cannot win debate on the issues, attack the character of your opponent.

The other Republicans offer nothing else than rehashes of Mr. Trump’s talking points, Repub.Debate which raises an interesting side question about his rhetoric: Did Mr. Trump create the talking points himself, or did he borrow someone else’s? Is he as independent as he likes to claim? Moreover, aside from personal attacks, do the Republican candidates have any ideas to offer?

In short, Mr. Trump’s (or his colleagues’) rhetoric seems designed to promote anger, division, and contempt for those who disagree with him – a tactic borrowed by Tea Partiers from many strains of radical politics before them. On other issues such as immigration and women’s health, his talking points, and those of the other candidates on the right, follow the same plan.

Mr. Lincoln’s Political Rhetoric

In contrast, let’s turn to the speech of a politician who suffered personally for opposing the very sentiments espoused by the proto-Tea Partiers of the 1850s and 1860s, a politician who exactly one month after his speech would be assassinated for it, the ultimate ad hominem argument. Abraham Lincoln, who had every reason to feel profound anger with his opponents in both the Confederacy and in his own Congress, refused to speak harshly about them in his Second Inaugural Address. Instead, he sought the common ground.

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. … The prayers of both could not be answered—that of neither has been answered fully. …

Then Lincoln ended his address thus:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.

“With malice toward none; with charity for all . . .”: No ad hominem appeals, no calling forth the baser emotions of anger and hatred, and indeed, a firm rejection of them as a national ideal.

Would that the Republican politicians of 2015, 150 years after their party’s first great hero, could adopt his rhetorical style. That is, would that they could accept the burden of healing our divided nation, bringing mutually wounded opponents to the table of reconciliation. Our political psyche, our national story, and our community spirit would be profoundly changed, and richly nourished.

But if they cannot manage this, can you and I?

Writers as Heroes in Dark Times

On Maria Popova’s blog, you can find an interesting story about Pablo Picasso. It describes how he stayed in Paris during the Nazi occupation, despite being urged worldwide to leave and protect himself. Ms. Popova’ writes,

Despite frequent harassment by the Gestapo, Picasso refused to leave Nazi-occupied Paris. He was forbidden from exhibiting or publishing, all of his books were banned, and even the reproduction of his work was prohibited — but he continued to make art. When the Germans outlawed bronze casting, he went on making sculptures with bronze smuggled by the French Resistance — a symbolic act which the deflated creative community saw as an emboldening beam of hope.

picasso1

During World War II, it wasn’t just Picasso who acted heroically, though apparently he was an inspiration to artists in France. There were also Albert Camus and Ernest Hemingway, although Hemingway’s exploits (assembling his own private army to “liberate” the Hotel Ritz in 1944) are perhaps more comical – or pathological – than heroic. Not to forget Irène Némirovsky, who died in Auschwitz, but left us an extraordinary novel of life under the Nazi regime. And there were artists and writers and musicians throughout Europe who, if we knew their stories, would inspire us with their heroism

Nor were there heroes only during the world war. Consider also Vaclav Havel during the Communist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia, Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the middle years of the Soviet empire, and Yegeny Semyatin under Stalin. The list of artistic heroes is just as long as the list of oppressive societies or dictators. Whether during war or during periods of ongoing oppression, artists emerge as heroes, using their art to expose the horrors and corruption of the times. Sometimes, they themselves suffer retribution. Picasso was suppressed and in constant fear of arrest. Likewise, Camus, Havel, Solzhenitsyn, and Semyatin were imprisoned by the regimes they resisted. Irène Némirovsky, and no doubt many other artists, died in Auschwitz.

What, then, about artists in our time and in our country, where such blatant oppressions and imprisonments are said not to occur? (But ask African Americans or, increasingly, Hispanics and Latinos, or even women seeking low-cost health care, about that.) Do these times call for heroism from those us who are writers? And if so, against what is that heroism to stand?

I don’t know if my own answer works for everyone, but I think we do need heroism, and that we should stand against the perversions of truth.

We in the developed countries don’t face an obvious enemy such as Nazi or Soviet occupation. But we face something for which George Orwell coined the perfect name and against which he warned us in 1984: doublespeak. For Orwell, doublespeak signified the use of language to obscure and euphemize political evil.

Doublespeak

When the military uses the phrase “collateral damage,” they distort language to obscure an evil fact: the deaths of non-combatant civilians during an operation. Although in our everyday discourse, doublespeak rescues us from crudity or unpleasantness (we say “passed on” instead of “died,” “workforce reduction” instead of “firing workers,” or “new and improved” instead of “higher-priced”), doublespeak can be and is put to more sinister uses.

I would argue that doublespeak, when used to conceal evil intentions or actions, is itself evil. And I believe that writers who take a stand against such doublespeak are heroes, even in the absence of war and occupation. By “taking a stand,” I mean two things. Writers can directly and openly unmask the doublespeak, or they can write the truth about a thing without using the doublespeak.

Political sloganeering is an insidious and invisible kind of doublespeak that writers can (and I’d say, should) stand against. The standard American political reactions to an episode of gun violence provide good examples. From the left, we always hear, “We need common-sense gun control.” From the right: “We must protect Americans’ 2nd Amendment rights.” What’s insidious about both slogans is that they cover up two ugly realities.

Common-sense Gun Control?

First, there is nothing “common-sensical” about doing background checks to prohibit the mentally ill from owning guns. The evidence is that the mentally ill as a group are no more prone to be violent than anyone else. In fact, drug and alcohol abusers are much more likely to commit gun violence than depressed or anxious people, even more than paranoid schizophrenics during actively psychotic periods. The MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study reported that non-substance abusing mentally ill people – no matter their diagnosis – were no more likely to commit violence than their non-substance abusing neighbors. In earlier (1970s) studies, psychologists thought that one category of psychotic thinking, called threat/override-control symptoms, characterized one group that is prone to violent acts. (Threat/control-override symptoms are false beliefs that someone threatens one or that someone is actively controlling one’s thoughts. These symptoms are found almost solely in paranoid schizophrenics.) But later research suggests that this may not be true, except in the presence of active substance abuse. In other words, paranoid individuals who are not abusing drugs or alcohol are no more likely to become violent than their “normal” neighbors who don’t abuse drugs or alcohol. (Remember, this is about statistical groups, not about individuals like Vester Lee Flanagan in Roanoke.)

So it would be far more meaningful to screen for active substance abuse, which is correlated with episodes of violence, than to screen for mental illness. But can you imagine having the alcohol industry team up with the NRA and the gun industry against that solution? So we hear calls for “common-sense gun control,” which is neither common-sensical nor likely to control guns. The ugly fact that the slogan conceals is that the problem is guns themselves in the hands of angry substance-abusing people, not those who are mentally ill. Another ugly fact is that the one group of mentally ill persons who commit significant gun violence are those who commit suicide. But no one issues a call for “common-sense gun control” when a person commits suicide-by-gun. We never hear about him (it’s usually him).

Our 2nd Amendment Rights?

In the second example of doublespeak, appeals to the 2nd Amendment are used to obscure the corporate interests of gun manufacturers. Worse, the phrase in the Amendment about the militias’ being “well-regulated” is invariably ignored, often by slyly referring to the clause in which it appears as a mere “preface.”

2ndAmendment

The Second Amendment was adopted in December 1791, fifteen years later than our founders’ Declaration, in July 1776, that all persons have “an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Clearly, in the founders’ politics, the lives of the citizenry, their liberty from tyranny, and their ability to pursue happiness are prior to the right to bear arms. Now, I have no doubt that many gun hobbyists derive real pleasure from the liberty to enjoy their collections. But if someone derives happiness – as distinct from feelings of safety or control – from owning an arsenal of assault rifles on the grounds that it will protect themselves and their families from a government takeover of their back yards, I would argue that such delusions of “happiness” may signal mental illness. When guns deprive citizens of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it is sophistry to invoke the 2nd Amendment to trump that ugly fact.

More importantly, only five conservative Justices of the Supreme Court believed, in District of Washington vs Heller, that the 2nd Amendment intended that private individuals had the right to keep and bear arms. (And when it comes to cries that the 2nd Amendment is sacred, let’s note that, for some radical conservatives, the Constitutional amendments stop being so sacred when they accomplish political goals that the radical right-wing disdain, such as ensuring the right of birthright citizenship in the 14th Amendment).

And note this too: That 2008 decision, Heller, was far more limited than NRA and the 2nd Amendment zealots admit. Here is a summary of the actual decision:

[T]he Court ultimately concluded that the second amendment “guarantee[s] the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation” (id. at 592); that “central to” this right is “the inherent right of self-defense”(id. at 628); that “the home” is “where the need for defense of self, family, and property is most acute” (id. at 628); and that, “above all other interests,” the second amendment elevates “the right of law abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home” (id. at 635). Based on this understanding, the Court held that a District of Columbia law banning handgun possession in the home violated the second amendment. Id. at 635.

Note that small phrase, “hearth and home.” What was decided in 2008, then, was that possession of handguns in the home for self-defense is allowed. Nothing in the decision applies to or implies the onslaught of state laws allowing for public and concealed carry, ownership and brandishing of semi-automatic weapons, and the like.

So what has this example got to do with the heroism required of writers?

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Writers don’t hesitate to do hours of research to make sure we get even a single fact right. (I’ve spent at least four hours just researching this blog post.) I’d argue that writers, including writers of fiction, know how to search out an issue’s niggling finer points, as I’ve tried to do by way of example with two common political slogans. In this charged and volatile political environment, where politicians demonize entire groups of people, I think writers have a responsibility to search deeply into the truths or facts being obscured or concealed by political doublespeak.

Finally, let me nominate a writer who has shown heroism recently in fighting lies coming from politicians. In March of this year, Governor Paul LePage of Maine used Steven King as a whipping boy to flog his plan for eliminating the state income tax in order to lure rich retirees to Maine. He claimed that the Steven King had moved to Florida to escape the Maine income tax, implying that King did not pay income taxes in Maine. Both statements were lies, covering up an ugly agenda: Taxing the poor (through hiking the sales tax) to reward the rich (by ending the income tax).

Steven King struck back the next day. He released this Tweet:

Governor LePage is full of the stuff that makes the grass grow green. Tabby (King’s wife, Tabitha) and I pay every cent of our Maine state income taxes, and are glad to do it. We feel, as Governor LePage apparently does not, that much is owed from those to whom much has been given. We see our taxes as a way of paying back the state that has given us so much. State taxes pay for state services. There’s just no way around it. Governor LePage needs to remember there ain’t no free lunch.

         In his response, King revealed how much he’d paid in taxes in 2013 – 1.4 million dollars. He stood for truth against political doublespeak by exposing himself. I salute him.

Let’s do our part.

 

How to Create Sympathetic Fictional Characters Who Are Right-wing Extremists

A sub-theme of my novel, Climbing the Coliseum, explores the recent resurgence of the extremist  anti-government and racist right wing in our society.

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When I was writing the book, I wanted the action to show, from inside the movement, the kind of hate-filled thinking that drives this it. At the same time, I wanted to avoid demonizing anyone and to portray the characters involved with some sympathy. In this sub-plot, Climbing the Coliseum portrays an anti-tax, anti-government conspiracy modeled on the real-life Posse Comitatus, more on whom later.

If I couldn’t write the characters with genuinely mixed good-and-bad traits, I knew that my readers would be unable to feel a human connection with them, and that would sink the story. This problem absorbed a lot of my energy in the early going. In a moment, I’ll share with you the solution that evolved. First, let me give you some back-story on the Posse Comitatus, which is the model for my conspiracy.

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In the novel, as in real life, the Posse Comitatus is an ugly, hate-filled, and (if they weren’t so violent) ludicrous group of human beings. If you want an in-depth look at what the Posse is about, you can check out Rachel Maddow’s deep-historical overview here. It’s long – twenty-one minutes – but she’s very thorough. She traces the roots of the Posse to the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which effectively ended Reconstruction and opened the door to Jim Crow. (If you’d prefer a shorter explanation, check Dana Milbank’s article here.)

At root, the Posse is an outgrowth of two earlier (but still active) extremist movements: Christian Identity and the Sovereign Citizen movement. From the Christian Identity movement, the Posse Comitatus inherits its virulent strain of white supremacy, racial hatred, and anti-Semitism. From the sovereign citizens, it borrows a set of potent but bizarre ideological beliefs:

  • The individual citizen is sovereign; that is, a citizen is a nation unto him- or herself, and citizens are free to decide for themselves which laws, if any, they will obey. This, of course, is utterly confused thinking, since by definition, the citizen is a member of the sovereign state. This idea leads to a basketful of bizarre behaviors, such as people deciding to simply eliminate their debts — without paying anything (except $1500.00 to the sovereign citizen site that promotes the idea).
  • The federal, state, and local governments, with one exception, do not exist and have no authority over individual citizens.
  • The county sheriff is the highest – and only – valid governmental official; however, see the next point.
  • If a sheriff, or anyone, attempts to impose “illegal” taxes or other laws on citizens, the Posse is empowered to try him or her by a “citizens’ grand jury” and, if warranted, “We the People” (you’ll find Posse speakers referring to themselves this way all the time) shall penalize him, and even, if necessary, hang him. Yes, that’s right. Hang him. Don’t believe me? Check it out here. The original statement of this is that the offending sheriff “shall be removed by the Posse to the most populated intersection of streets in the township and at high noon hung by the neck, the body remaining until sundown as an example to those who would subvert the law.” The quote is from 1968. Yes, Nineteen-sixty-eight.

As I said, if they weren’t so violent, the Posse would be ludicrous. But they are violent. Remember Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the Oklahoma City bombers? Posse members. Remember Randy Weaver of Ruby Ridge, Idaho? Posse-influenced, if not a member.

Rancher Cliven Bundy, middle, addresses his supporters along side Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie, right, on April 12, 2014. Bundy informed the public that the BLM has agreed to cease the roundup of his family's cattle.(AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, Jason Bean)
Rancher Cliven Bundy, middle, addresses his supporters.

Remember Cliven Bundy? He’s the Nevada rancher who for many years has grazed his cattle on federal lands but refused to pay more than a million dollars in grazing fees – because he does not believe the federal government exists! Remember how he and his supporters stood with rifles aimed at federal marshals who came to remove his cattle from public lands? Remember how he told Fox News that he thinks “the Negro” would be better off as a slave? Why? Because they (“the Negro”) are “basically on government subsidy, so . . . they abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton.” (This video clip appears starting at 19:19 into the Rachel Maddow segment mentioned above.) That Cliven Bundy.

Well, Cliven Bundy was repeating Posse Comitatus propaganda, chapter and verse.

Writing

So, when I was writing Climbing the Coliseum, I faced this difficult task: How could I keep the Posse Comitatus-based group in the novel from so resembling the real Posse that readers couldn’t engage with them, maybe couldn’t even believe they were real? How could I depict the group sympathetically, without descending into either condescension or farce, and without condoning their destructive ideas?

 

As is so often the case, my characters saved me. Originally, Vic Sobstak, the rancher I envisioned belonging to the anti-tax conspiracy, was like most Posse Members. He was opinionated, racist, against the government, and brimming with anger. But I was also writing about his wife, Maggie, a much more sympathetic character, indeed, a good and strong person. The trouble was, Maggie truly loved Vic. This forced me to ask myself, “Would Maggie have stayed married to this guy for so long if he was as big a jerk as I’m portraying him?” The only answer I could find was, “No way on earth.” So Vic had to change.

Vic and Maggie were small-time ranchers facing bankruptcy as a result of a big tax problem. I realized that Vic didn’t have to be an anti-Semitic racist to join an anti-tax conspiracy: Lots of folks are searching for a way to solve their tax problems, and the leaders of the conspiracy could pitch it (during its initial recruiting phase) as a benign help-with-taxes organization. The fact that it turns out so much more deadly than that didn’t need to discount Vic’s motivation for getting involved: He wanted to save his ranch and win back Maggie’s respect.

 

So my solution, thanks to Maggie’s love for her husband, was to write Vic’s character as a decent, hard-working, but stubbornly prideful rancher who, rather innocently (at first), attends some anti-tax meetings put on by the Reverend Crane, from Idaho, who preaches the Posse Comitatus Bible. In his naiveté, Vic has no idea the wasps’ nest he’s being seduced into, and when he finally wakes up to the craziness – and the hatred – it’s almost to late to get out. I wanted Victor to emerge as a vivid and sympathetic guy, trapped by his own pride and fear of failure.

In other words, a person like most of us.

If you’re wondering whether Vic stumbles his way out of trouble, here’s where you can find Climbing the Coliseum!

Archbishop Nienstedt, Writers, and Where Bullies Belong

Originally, today’s posting was going to be about bullies and writers; in a way it still is, but with an added personal slant. In my forthcoming novel, tentatively titled The Third Noble Truth, one of the characters, who had been abused by a monk in his youth, achieves a radical and nearly lethal resolution to his suffering – one that is entirely a surprise, even to him. I found myself, writing those scenes, liberating some of the anger I’d accumulated over more than thirty years working with adult survivors of clergy abuse in Minnesota. Beyond working on committees to advance mandatory reporting laws in the state and providing consultant services to attorneys attempting to sue the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis on behalf of victims, I had to contain my rage at the cover-up by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minnesota so as not to betray my clients’ privacy. Now that I am retired from practice, I can write about what, then, I could not say: The Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, John Nienstedt, is a bully.

Nienstedt

Nienstedt resigned on June 14, after his Archdiocese was charged by the Ramsey County (St. Paul) prosecutor with failing to protect minors from sexual abuse by a priest. I rejoiced. Although it’s my opinion, it isn’t only mine that Nienstedt, like too many powerful men at the head of too-big-to-fail corporations, is a bully.

Now, I’m not taking on faithful Catholics or other spiritually minded people whose churches happen also to be big corporations. Nor am I cynical about Pope Francis, who seems to be a fresh wind blowing through the Vatican: He accepted Nienstedt’s resignation in fewer than twenty-four hours. No, I’m talking about the corporate bullies who use their power to hurt real people. And archbishops aren’t the only examples of this.

For a fair sampling of what others think of him, you can click here.

To save you the time, here are a few examples:

  • On September 17, 2013, the Huffington Post reported that “In October of 2012, . . . a letter he [Nienstedt] wrote surfaced in which he tells the mother a young gay man that she must reject her son or go to hell herself.”
  • Earlier that year, Jesse Marx of the City Pages blog wrote that Nienstedt “used his position to bully proponents and demonize fellow Catholics who disagreed with him.”
  • In 2012, Nienstedt ordered priests in the Archdiocese to refuse Holy Eucharist to any openly gay persons – and even to anyone wearing a gay pride button – who came to the altar for the sacrament.
  • In that same year, as part of his virulent campaign against gay marriage (on the ballot that fall), he sent teams – a priest and a married heterosexual couple – into Catholic high schools to deliver mandatory lectures against gay marriage to seniors, who presumably would be eligible to vote in the next fall’s election.
  • He ordered his priests to form political action committees in their parishes – and parishioners’ expense – to support the gay marriage ban in the upcoming election.
  • He ordered his priests either to speak out against gay marriage (before the election) or to remain silent if they could not condemn it.

Naturally, then, it surfaced in 2014 that Nienstedt had been accused, it’s reported, of having had sexual encounters with priests, seminarians, and other adult men, and that he may have had a sexual relationship with the very priest who sexual abuse of children he failed to report to authorities. (Clearly, since any results of those investigations have not been made public, he remains innocent until proven guilty.)

I’ll reflect on some of the deeper psychological and literary issues those allegations raise in next week’s post.

Allegations are not facts, of course, so my calling Nienstedt a bully will have to stand on his overt behaviors, some of which are mentioned above, and others of which can be found easily online.

Writers need bullies, of course. Called, more primly, “antagonists,” bullies (for fiction writers) usually are people – and not all antagonists are bullies (think Fred Clumly and the Sunlight Man in John Gardner’s The Sunshine Dialogues). For writers of non-fiction, ideas can be the antagonist (as in Eli Levin’s Disturbing Art Lessons: A Memoir of Questionable Ideas and Equivocal Lessons); or, a hiker’s incompetence and the trail itself may serve (as in Cheryl Strayed’s Wild); or a German submarine aided and abetted by the British secret code-breaking agency will do (as in Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania one hundred years ago).

Whatever form they take, we writers need our bullies or antagonists for the conflict and tension they generate, and all writer’s hope that their bullies have dimensions and heft, even perhaps some redeeming qualities. The more complex the bully’s character is, the greater is his or her potential to capture readers and hold them to the page. Bullies are great in books.

But real life is too full of bullies like John Nienstedt. I am very glad he is going away.