Tag Archives: Politics

My Closing Argument: Take a Breath, Check Your Moral Compass, and Vote for Checks and Balances in Government

California Street FootbridgeTrust me.

As the election closes in, I’ve been obsessed with perusing the literature on mass hypnosis. Trust me happens to be a rather common phrase among stage hypnotists and used car salespeople.

Then, this morning an unusual word popped into my brain.

Demagogue

Believe me, really, I thought of demagogue first thing this morning. Funny coincidence, did you know that Donald Trump used the words, “Believe me” 40 times in the 2016 presidential debates?

Here’s what Wikipedia says about Demagogue:

A demagogue (from Greek δημαγωγός, a popular leader, a leader of a mob, from δῆμος, people, populace, the commons + ἀγωγός leading, leader) or rabble-rouser is a leader in a democracy who gains popularity by exploiting prejudice and ignorance among the common people, whipping up the passions of the crowd and shutting down reasoned deliberation. Demagogues overturn established customs of political conduct, or promise or threaten to do so.

I can’t help but wonder, maybe every century or so, a natural-born demagogue comes along. It’s possible.

You already know I’m referring to Donald Trump. He is, unarguably, a talented, master manipulator. We can all agree on that. Go ahead and match up Mr. Trump with the preceding definition of demagogue. See what you think. You’ll see a match like you’ve never seen before.

Tomorrow, the democrats will mostly vote for democrats and the republicans will mostly vote for republicans. The question, for those in the middle, is whether you believe and trust that Mr. Trump is employing his vast skills of manipulation for the good of America. I doubt it, but maybe that’s just me.

My Montana connections tell me that the Trump played “Sympathy for the Devil” to crank up the crowd at his October 18 Missoula rally. The lyrics begin, “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste.” You can find the rest of the words online. But just in case you don’t have time, I’ll share this: when Mick Jagger sings the lines, “Just as every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints. As heads is tails . . .” it gets hard to break free of the song’s powerful grip. But at the same time, somewhere, down deep, it’s also hard to imagine that Mr. Trump is looking out for the welfare of the average American citizen.

No question, Mr. Trump is fantastic at conjuring up fear, division, and hate. He’s also a master at giving his listeners permission to think and act on their least morally upright and most unhealthy thoughts and emotions. Believe me on this too. After all, this is the guy who, at one of his rallies, said, “I’d like to punch him in the face.”

Often I’ve heard Trump supporters say, “I like him because he says what everyone is thinking.” The problem is that although Mr. Trump’s extreme and judgmental statements may resonate with his audience, embracing a philosophy where acting on or sharing all of our thoughts is encouraged is nearly always a very bad idea. In fact, I think it might be the opposite—along with shooting refugees who throw rocks—of what Jesus might recommend.

The truth is (and you should trust me on this because I’m a psychologist), some thoughts (and some emotions) are simply not ready for prime time. Convincing listeners (as Mr. Trump does) to follow their coarse, uncensored thinking toward action is a common magic trick of someone who’s goal is to produce a mass trance or hypnotic state.

He might as well be telling people, “Trust your thoughts. and trust me. You know in your heart and mind there are many things to fear, but I will keep you safe. I know your thoughts, your thoughts and my words are as one, bring them together and all will be well. Trust me, I will keep you safe. And you will keep me safe. Because you feel anger and fear and because I’ve so helpfully pointed out the enemy, we know what we need to do. Maybe some of you 2nd amendment supporters will take care of it for me. We share common fears and anger and thoughts and actions and we can move forward together and you can let me take care of the rest of what’s important. Trust me. Trust me to do that for you. I can do it better and bigger than anyone else has ever even thought of doing it.”

The big question is, how to break the demagogue’s hypnotic spell?

Unfortunately, the big answer is . . . it’s very difficult.

Step 1: Hang on tight to reason and rational analysis. A hypnotic state requires suspending rational thought, therefore, it’s essential that messages from the demagogue not be accepted without critical analysis. Seek input from alternative viewpoints. Don’t just trust me. Don’t just watch MSNBC and Fox News. Find content from the middle . . . and then fact check that too.

Step 2: Get out of the heightened and focused state of arousal. Hypnotic trances are states involving hyper-focus. If you’re feeling activated all the time, take time to meditate, reflect, walk around the block, and talk to your neighbor about life and death and health (instead of politics). The truth is that you don’t “need” the demagogue on either end of the political continuum. What you need is balance.

Step 3: Listen for the “Trust me” card. Right now, in this state of questionable news and Russian bots, it’s tough to determine who to trust. If you’re feeling that, then get out your favorite moral guidelines—it doesn’t matter whether your favorite moral guidelines include the Dalai Lama or the Sermon on the Mount or the Eightfold Path or the Ten Commandments or the Koran. Take your moral guide and then place what Trump is saying right next to it. Is Trump saying something consistent with what’s in your guide? Does your moral guide say anything about holding children in cages? Or does it say something like “Let the little children come to me.”

This brings me to my closing argument.

Now is a good time to stop and take a breath. Break free from the aroused state of hyper-focus. Consult alternative views.

If you do, you may recognize that most democrats are not members of an angry mob. You may also recognize that most republicans are not White supremacists. Democrats, republicans, independents, (and yes, even libertarians) are your neighbors. Love them.

Now is a good time to shake yourself free from someone (anyone) who tells you what you should fear, how you should think, and for whom you should vote. After shaking yourself free, embrace your moral guide.

If you need a more obvious voting tip, consider voting for a balance of power. Right now, we need the checks and the balances to do what they do—to provide checks and balances so one person cannot wield too much power. This is especially true when that one person keeps repeating the words, “Trust me,” because . . . and you know this in your heart . . . that’s never a good sign.

 

Advertisements

Happy Birthday to Me

John Prof 2018

It’s political season.

Political season brings lots of things, including relentless television advertisings featuring creepy deep voices saying things that almost might be true, but are mostly unverifiable. One example, among many, accuses a candidate of “Voting against Montana.” Could that be true? It’s impossible to tell because it’s impossible to even know what voting against Montana even means? Obviously, the purpose of that sort of advertising is to mislead and influence.

Right now I’m on a bus from Missoula to Billings. It’s my birthday, which makes it a funny day for a bus ride. I could have stayed in Missoula, but today “he who shall not be named” is speaking there . . . and so I’m happily and anonymously riding this WiFi supplied Jefferson Lines Bus to Billings, where Rita will pick me up for a birthday dinner and poetry reading.

Political season always brings me fantasies of running for office. Today, while walking to the Missoula bus station, the fantasy was of me doing a political television advertisement. I might say something like this:

“Hey, I’m not featuring a creepy deep voice or attacking my opposition. All I want to do is look into this camera and talk directly to you. So let’s talk. Let’s talk about what you want in a Senator or Representative.

I grew up on the rural edge of Vancouver, Washington. My father owned a small business, installing window coverings. He was (and is at 92) the most honest person I’ve ever known. My mother was a traditional homemaker and worked along with my father in the family business. She was (and is) the kindest person I’ve ever known.

I’ve only got about 10 or 15 more years of a healthy active life left. And so, in honor of my parents and their values, I’d like to be a politician who will represent you with honesty and kindness. My parents also embraced the value of hard work. So let’s throw that in. I won’t be spending money on attack ads or misinformation. If you want to know where I stand on something, let’s talk. I’ll work hard to be an honest and kind representative of you and the whole state. In this advertising, all I’m asking is that you look at me, talk to me, compare me to my opponent, and then vote for the person who you think will be the most honest, kind, and hardworking person to represent you and this great state of Montana.”

Enough of the silly fantasies. My point is my birthday wish. I’m wishing today, for my birthday and for my birthday year, for a political takeover by politicians who are honest, kind, and hardworking. That’s all. They don’t have to be rich or powerful. They don’t have to have high IQs. Let’s just concentrate. Let’s just elect the honest and kind candidates and then see what happens.

Happy birthday to me.

Goodnight, South Carolina

Some days . . . the news is discouraging. Some days . . . evidence piles up suggesting that nearly everyone on the planet is far too greedy and selfish. On those days, I can’t help but wonder how our local, national, and worldwide communities survive. It feels like we’re a hopeless species heading for a cataclysmic end.

Sunset on StillwaterBut then I have a day like yesterday. A day where I had the honor and privilege to spend time hanging out with people who are professional, smart, compassionate, and dedicated to helping children learn, thrive, and get closer to reaching their potentials. I’m sure you know what I mean. If you turn off the media and peek under the surface, you’ll find tons of people “out there” who wake up every day and work tremendously hard to make the world just a little bit better, for everyone.

For me, yesterday’s group was the South Carolina Association of School Psychologists. They were amazing. They were kind. About 110 of them listened to me drone on about doing counseling with students who, due, in part, to the quirky nature of universe, just happen to be living lives in challenging life and school situations. The school psychologists barely blinked. They rarely checked their social media. They asked great questions and made illuminating comments. They were committed to learning, to counseling, to helping the next generation become a better generation.

All day yesterday and into the night I had an interesting question periodically popping up in the back of my mind. Maybe it was because while on my flight to South Carolina, I sat next to a Dean of Students from a small public and rural high school in Wisconsin. Maybe it was because of the SCASP’s members unwavering focus and commitment to education. The question kept nipping at my psyche. It emerged at my lunch with the Chair of the Psychology Department at Winthrop University.  It came up again after my dinner with four exceptionally cool women.

The question: “How did we end up with so many people in government who are anti-education?”

Yesterday, I couldn’t focus in on the answer. I told someone that–even though I’m a psychologist–I don’t understand why people do the things they do. But that was silly. This morning the answer came flowing into my brain like fresh spring Mountain run-off. Of course, of course, of course . . . the answer is the same as it always has been.

The question is about motivation. Lots of people before me figured this out. I even had it figured out before, but, silly me, I forgot. Why do people oppose education when, as John Adams (our second President) said, “Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower classes of people, are so extremely wise and useful that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”

The answer is all about money and power and control and greed and revenge and ignorance. Without these motivations, nearly everyone has a “humane and generous mind” and believes deeply in funding public education.

Thanks to all the members of the South Carolina Association of School Psychologists, for giving me hope that more people can be like you, moving past greed and ignorance and toward a more educated and better world.

Good night, South Carolina. It’s been a good day.

 

The Morning of November 9, 2016

**This is only a semi-coherent first reaction to the Presidential election. Read if you want. Be aware that I channel a little Albert Ellis at the end.**

****************************************************

In four hours I’m supposed to teach a three-hour course on advanced theories of counseling and psychotherapy. The topic today is emotion-focused therapy for couples. It’s a good day to focus on emotions. I have more than a couple of them bouncing around inside me.

Maybe that’s why I made my way to a coffee shop at 5am this morning. That’s abnormal. But today is abnormal; the new abnormal.

Back in college a fellow student who was from Nepal explained to me the meaning of the greeting, “Namaste.”

“It means,” he said, “I salute the light within you.”

It’s a sad and painful morning. I’m not sure about the light in me. Instead, mostly I’m certain that yesterday and last night was a cosmic mistake. It feels like sexism, racism, and hate have triumphed over “. . . all men (and women) being created equal.” I feel this, even though I’m a White, heterosexual, Jewish-Christian-Agnostic male. Given my privileged status, it’s hard to comprehend the pain this vote has caused women and minorities.

But I can imagine it.

When I woke up to sounds on the street at 3am, my mind created evil agents of Donald Trump gathering outside my home to take me away. It was the sort of paranoid thought that can come in the night—even to those of us who are well endowed with safety and privilege. It makes me wonder if that what’s it like for my Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Mexican, and Muslim friends and students?

Late last night I got a text from a wealthy White Christian man who described himself as in tears. “What’s happening to our country?” he asked. And then he wondered what he could tell his children in the morning. He had put them to bed with kisses and the anticipation that they would awaken to the first woman President in the history of the United States.

There’s too much pain and sadness and suffering in the world. But there was too much pain and sadness and suffering in the world last week. And there will be too much next week.

I hold vivid memories of suffering through Reagan’s election, and George H. W. Bush’s election, and George W. Bush’s election. Those were difficult times. In each case I was certain that an evil force on the planet had somehow made it possible for the less honest, less compassionate, and less competent candidate to win.

But this is worse.

Even so, I refuse to believe that the majority of Americans are sexist and racist. I see too much kindness. I hope that Donald Trump is only a temporary phenomenon. I hope his existence will motivate us to swing the pendulum back toward justice, kindness, and empathy.

I’m reminded of the alleged words of Jesus, “Forgive them father, they know not what they do.”

Somewhat irrationally, I still have faith.

I have faith in the possibility that, as Jesus said, many people do not know what they’ve done. I have faith that although Donald Trump won the vote, that most people are not inherently sexist and racist at their core. I have faith that we can reach out to, reason with, and love our enemies, even when they’re our neighbors.

I will also follow the advice that I give people for coping with crisis.

  • Take care of yourself.
  • Look around and do what you can do to take care of others, your family, your friends, and your community.
  • And, don’t do anything stupid.

After I woke up at 3 a.m. and shook off my paranoid thoughts of evil Trump agents outside my door, other words emerged.

“Don’t mourn.”

An old memory was knocking at my door.

“But I want to mourn,” was my response. “I want to mourn. I need to mourn. I want to feel the pain for myself, and for my community of friends and family who have had their hopes crushed.”

“Okay. The voice conceded. “Mourn briefly. Do not linger.”

I recognized that this message wasn’t necessarily mine or God’s. It sounded like Joe Hill, the old union activist. He was saying,

“Don’t mourn. Organize.”

Then I was up. I had my hour of mourning. It was 4am. The sun will rise. I will teach my class.

But more important, I will focus. I will organize. I will, in Freud’s words, “Sublimate my emotions.”

I will whisper “Namaste” to everyone I see. I will salute the light within them.

Even though, right now, it’s so fucking hard to see the light.

 

What My Card-Playing Genius Father Says About Donald Trump

There are so many things in the world that I just don’t understand.

One of the biggest mysteries to me is how my 90-year-old father can keep beating me at cards. It happens every time. Often it’s not even close. Yesterday he skunked me in two of three games of Gin. I’d switch to Poker, but I know from experience, it would just be worse.

What’s puzzling is that I have the younger brain. But somehow he still counts and remembers the cards better than I do. I’m also the one with the Ph.D. in psychology. He made it through one semester of college at the University of Portland. Mostly he spent his semester playing football. Despite my eight years of college and graduate school, nine published books, and over 50 professional articles in psychology, he reads me like I’m the book. He knows what’s in my hand better than I do. And then, when he obfuscates and complains that I’ve dealt him a bad hand, my ability to reason fogs over and I don’t know if he’s telling me the truth or setting me up. He’s like a card-playing mystic wrapped in an enigma.

All I can say is that must have been one damn good fall semester at the University of Portland way back in 1945.

When I need a break from repeated stinging defeats, our conversation naturally turns to politics. CNN is on in the background. We complain back and forth about various issues. I tell him that I’m disappointed and don’t understand how and why so many people are planning to vote for Donald Trump. I follow that with an over-analysis of socioeconomic disparities, racial dynamics, and voter motivation.

His eyes meet mine and I know it’s time for me to shut up and listen. As he begins speaking, his analysis—like his card-playing, is simple, incisive, and on-point.

“He’s a cheat and a con man,” my dad says, “and a very good one.”

His words are elegant and precise. As a professor and academic, I’d describe it as parsimonious.

“You can see him do it in every speech. He repeats himself. He says ‘crooked Hillary.’ Then he says it again and the media broadcasts it dozens of times every day. He says our economy is a disaster. He says he’ll make it beautiful. Then he repeats that message. It’s a disaster. It will be beautiful. Even though there’s no evidence for what he’s saying, he’s an actor, he’s convincing, and he’s repetitive. That’s what a good con man does. After a while, the truth doesn’t matter, people believe him. That’s how he’s made money. That’s how he gets votes. He says what some people want to hear. Then he says it again. Truth be damned, people believe him.”

In some ways, I still prefer my intellectual analysis. But part of me knows that my father’s explanation for Trump’s success is better than mine. How can you get people to believe the economy is bad when Obama has successfully cut unemployment in half? How can you get people to believe the country is less safe when overall, crime rates are down? How can you convince people you know more about ISIS than all the generals? How can you get away with saying that if you’re a star you can grab a woman by the pussy? How can you convince people that Hillary Clinton is corrupt and dishonest when your lies outnumber hers five-to-one?

“He’s a cheat and a con man . . . and a very good one.”

This is my father talking. He has 90 years of experience on this planet. I believe him.

Then again, it’s always good to question yourself; maybe I only believe him because he just beat me in Gin again. If I think of him as a psychic superhero it helps comfort my aching ego.

But there’s one other thing. My father is also the most honest man I know. He’s never cheated anyone of anything in his life. He’s a role model and card-playing genius. He reads people like I never could. And so when he says Donald Trump is a cheat and a con man. . . it’s simple.

I believe him.

20161104_123954