Can we ever stop the hemorrhaging?

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America is sliding backwards in almost every way imaginable.   Like it or not, as a country we have become far more superstitious, fearful, intolerant, and tribal than we were twenty, forty, or even sixty years ago.   Such a worldview is incredibly dangerous to any real progress and the sustainability of democracy.

The following article will provide a background of why this happened, its historical roots, how our situation compares with the rest of the world, and what, if anything, we can do to reverse our destiny and restore democracy as we used to know it.

The Middle Ages.

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Hundreds of years ago, tribalism and irrational fear of the “Other” was the norm in the West. During the Middle Ages, the only form of government was basically a theocracy with “one party rule” by the medieval Catholic Church.  Feudal lords ruled over the serfs with an iron hand, with meager benefits, such as a small patch of land for a family to subsist on, handed out in return for loyalty and backbreaking labor.   There was very little to no chance of a common peasant or serf escaping their grim reality, or ever rising to the merchant class and certainly not the nobility (the oligarchs of those times).   For almost all who weren’t part of the nobility or merchant class,  life was “brutal and short.”  Harsh punishments were meted out liberally against those who dared question the regime or their overlords.  It was a life not much better than slavery.   Science was considered heresy and education was discouraged.  Higher education was limited to the clergy and the nobility, and even that was primarily religious education.

During these “dark ages,” which lasted approximately a thousand years following the fall of the Roman Empire, there was little to no progress, scientifically or otherwise.  Each generation lived pretty much the same way as the one that came before, and people did not live very long.   Daily life revolved around religion and the church and people were very superstitious.  Women were considered the property of men, their only role (besides backbreaking labor alongside the men) was producing as many children as possible as quickly as possible.  Most of those children died of illness before the age of 5 or so.   In fact, infant mortality was so common that medieval women didn’t bother to name a child until he or she was several years old, and more likely to survive.   Not naming a new child made it possible to not get too attached to the child and enabled the mother to take its death in stride without undue grief.

Modern feudalism and third world countries.

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Today, there are such societies. But they are not in the West. You can find feudal-like living conditions under harsh dictatorships and theocracies in third world countries in South America, Africa, and other parts of the undeveloped world.   Unlike advanced western democracies, these developing countries have not advanced in any discernible way, and do not contribute knowledge to the rest of the world. The vast majority of their people live much as Europeans did in medieval times.  The rulers and kings of these impoverished nations may themselves be very wealthy, but they keep their wealth for themselves at the expense of the populace, who have no chance to ever live a good life within their own countries.  These regimes are rife with corruption, oppression, sexism, and violence.  They are societies where hatred, fear, tribalism, and often religious superstition take the place of rational and enlightened thought and higher values such as inclusiveness and empathy for others.

Random violence and harsh and unforgiving laws are common in these societies, and people live in fear of their own government, who care nothing for them and treat them as vermin or at best, as inconvenient burdens.  Some people have been fortunate and able to escape from these regimes.  Many of those refugees emigratred to America for what they believed would be a better life, and for the most part, they have not been disappointed.

Tyranny outside the third world. 

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Islamic theocracies in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran are slightly better as far as quality of life than impoverished third world countries (most people have access to modern technology and generally have at least the basic necessities for survival), but are still rigidly authoritarian states that tolerate no dissent from the national religion and Sharia law. These regimes especially fear feminine power — a power which draws from the higher human values of empathy, altruism, and inclusiveness — and so women have been oppressed and denied a voice.    The rulers of such nations are always men, and they rule with an iron fist.   Toxic masculinity, where power, wealth, violence, and complete control are lauded as virtues, ensures that the “feminine” is kept silenced and where qualities associated with the feminine are dismissed or even considered evil (in medieval times, these qualities were usually associated with witchcraft).   Keeping women in line and obedient safeguards against the risk that the power of the feminine could ever threaten the hypermasculine regime’s control.

The Enlightenment.

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While these harsh conditions used to exist in the West during medieval times, since the Renaissance and Enlightenment they have gradually been discarded.   Since then, the West has come to embrace rational thought and democratic, humane values over superstition and religious intolerance — and has changed their beliefs and laws in keeping with that.   The recognition that science (over religious dogma) is about truth and secular and higher education is valid and desirable, coupled with the idea that different kinds of people can and should learn from each other — and that difference is not something to be feared but something to be celebrated — paved the way for western countries to establish new policies that greatly enhanced the quality of life for all their citizens.  Policies that recognize that each human being is intrinsically valuable and worthy (instead of valued only for what they own or the power they wield) and should therefore be nurtured and encouraged to develop their full potential instead of punished and controlled for attempting to assert that potential has led to greater happiness, prosperity, and longevity for almost all people who live in those societies.  This recognition by the west that the “feminine” is as important (or more important) to the advancement of humanity as the “masculine” is the foundation for democracy, the most spiritually advanced and humane form of government that currently exists.

“Manifest destiny” and the roots of American tyranny.

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America was, unfortunately, founded at least partly through the invasion and oppression of the native people who lived peacefully and sustainably on this continent for thousands of years.  This unpleasant reality has always hindered us as far as advancing in democratic values as easily as other western countries have been able to do. There has always been that undercurrent of violence and intolerance of the “other” that has darkened our path to true progress — even though our Founding Fathers did everything they could when writing up the Constitution to protect against tyranny, whether religious tyranny or some other form of it.

Since the Enlightenment, this reality has been concealed, even to ourselves.  We have convinced ourselves America is the most advanced, prosperous, and humanitarian democracy that ever existed, a concept known as “manifest destiny.”   We have long believed we are the one shining example of morality, liberty, and prosperity to the rest of the world — and that they should follow our example (even if by force at times).  But the reality is, while we lurched toward democracy with the rest of the west,  we were never a true democracy.   We have always been more hubristic and narcissistic than other countries, believing ourselves to be morally and in every other way better than anyone else, but it’s proven to be a slippery slope that has led to the serious problems we are facing right now.    In fact, our narcissism and belief in “manifest destiny” is causing us to slide back into a more medieval, almost feudal, type of society.   We are being sucked into a moral vacuum that was formed by our fear of the “other” and the feminine strengths that, for at least a while, forced us to face those fears and attempt to toss them on the ash heap of history.   The Roman Empire fell for the same reasons we are now.   In fact, America’s system of government was based on ancient Rome, and just as the ancient Romans did, we are eating ourselves alive with our wrongheaded belief that we are the rightful Masters of the Universe and should be treated as such by the rest of the world.

True democracy cannot exist when there is a moral vacuum where feminine qualities and higher human values that recognize all humans are intrinsically valuable are dismissed, ignored, or oppressed.   Toxic masculinity and “strongman” policies are, ironically, born in a crucible of fear.  Fear leads to nationalism and tribalism, which leads to hatred, which inevitably results in violence, oppression, and even tyranny.  The undercurrent of terror and superstition that has always existed in America is poisoning our fragile democracy, which never had a chance to fully flourish and become what it could have been.  Other western countries are far ahead of us in this sense, and now we are falling even farther behind.   We can no longer even pretend to be the “shining light on the hill” to the rest of the world, and to do so would only make us even more laughable to the developed world than we already are.

For over 240 years, in spite of our issues with narcissism, we were still able to make much progress — but we never let go of our need to regard ourselves as superior and make others treat us that way.  And because of our prosperity, our enviable technology, and our comfort with great power and wealth, other countries  did in fact look up to us as the rightful leaders of the free world.   Yet most of this was their perception — that being nothing more than an acknowledgement of the glorified image we wanted to project — not the actual reality of things.    No other western country ever had any concept of themselves comparable to “manifest destiny.”   The erroneous belief that we are “best” and should be admired and emulated by the entire world has kept us from developing sufficient humility to be able to empathize and take care of each other, never mind those “foreigners.”  Humility — the opposite of hubris — is necessary for the development of the feminine and the humane in any society, and that is why other western countries have had a much easier time adapting to true “social” democracy and the concept that good governance means “we’re all in this together” and not “I’ve got mine, screw you.”   Power and wealth has become more important in America than compassion and inclusiveness, and probably always was, if truth be told.  Democracy and unbridled, unregulated power cannot coexist. Since the days of Reagan, the idea that deregulated power and unlimited wealth trumps compassion, inclusion, and humanity (demonized by the right as “socialism”) has increased exponentially.

Our experiment with democracy.

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“Spirit of America” by Norman Rockwell (1894-1978).

For a relatively short time — from sometime in the 1940s through the late 1970s — we experimented with social democracy.   Following FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, American life and prosperity improved immensely for most (though racism and sexism were still issues, no one anywhere had really recognized those things as problems yet — reform was to come later).   The middle class grew and poverty diminished greatly, though it was never completely eradicated (and probably can’t be anyway).  Still, the uniquely American concept that some people were “better” or more “deserving” than others by virtue of their wealth, social status, or what they owned were still the true measures of human worth, even though this remained hidden or denied during those decades where we experimented with real democracy.  The truth is, we were never entirely comfortable with democracy.  Reaganism came as a relief to many people who feared the kinds of changes democracy could bring about.   Reaganism also began the slow unraveling of our developing, but still fragile and easily derailed, progress toward a more fair and humane society.  Forty years later, we are confronted with the terrifying spectre a near- fascist regime whose moral bankruptcy, brutality, ruthlessness, and lack of any semblance of conscience and empathy seems to have no limits.

We all know (or should know) how Reaganism eventually morphed into Trumpism, so I won’t detail the whole story of how that happened here.  Trump is not really the problem, nor would his immediate removal stop the hemorrhaging.   Trump is merely a symptom of a very deep and pervasive problem we have always had and that has become cancerous in the past four decades.   Other western democracies don’t have this problem, at least not to the extent America does. Because humility and “feminine” values (seen by tyrants as “weakness”) are not anathema to them, and narcissism and hubris hasn’t taken over their concept of themselves, they have always been more immune than we are to backsliding into tyranny.  That doesn’t mean it can’t happen in other countries, but it is less likely and their far right factions wield less power.  Our own fear and narcissism is destroying us from within.  We are regressing.

America is no longer a first world country.

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We have arrived at a point where we are not far ahead of places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Russia. While these are not third world countries in the strict sense, they are second world theocracies or dictatorships where the common people have no freedom (though they may be told they do and believe they do), lies are passed as the truth, history is rewritten, the free press is replaced by state propaganda,  and fair elections are either outlawed or a sham, dissent is punished, journalists are jailed, and the “different” are ostracized or even eliminated.   Such regimes have a number of things in common: oppression of women, criminalizing perceived “immorality” (homosexuality is an almost universal example in all these regimes), general intolerance for outsiders, an emphasis placed on buildup of the military,  police states, suppression of the arts and humanities, disdain or hatred for scientific thought, silencing the free press, revisionist history, the merging of religion and state, and state propaganda (whether religious or not) that passes itself off as “education” (in Communist regimes, atheism is treated as the state “religion”).

Lies are their currency; truth is always the enemy. Compassion is seen as weak and toxic masculinity (violence, controlling others, harsh punishment) is seen as “strong.” Higher human values — gentleness, inclusiveness, empathy — are not just regarded as weak, but sometimes as outright evil.   Such regimes are prone to constant wars and violence. Poverty is a given.  The wealthy few rule.  There is no middle class and it is not possible for a person to move upward from one class to another.  The “values” that are rewarded — wealth, power, total control — are often aided and abetted by authoritarian religion whose beliefs dovetail with the regime’s hypermasculine values.  American evangelical right-wing Christianity has much in common with radical Islam and organizations like ISIS.  In theocracies, whether the state-sanctioned religion is Islam, Christianity (so far, we have managed to avoid a religious theocracy here, but it existed during the Middle Ages and in Puritan times), or something else, there is no separation between religion and state and the leaders rule over the masses with an iron fist.  Any deviation is not tolerated.   As I mentioned earlier, this was par for the course during medieval times, but this form of governance was discarded by Europe hundreds of years ago when rational thought supplanted superstition, tribalism, and fear.  America, though denying it, was never able to completely let go of it.

Looking in the mirror.     

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Trump did not cause our decline, but through his hyper-masculine “strongman” words, actions, and tweets, has emboldened those who have always secretly wished for a return to authoritarian, medieval-like conditions and have never been comfortable with democratic values because such values demand we accept those who are different or more vulnerable than we are.  It also demands we embrace so-called feminine values, and that we recognize that every human being is intrinsically valuable. To be able to recognize the value in all people requires empathy, a quality that may be lacking in many Trump supporters, or seen as a “weakness” by people — usually men — who cannot accept any feminine softness within themselves.

But the proverbial phoenix rises from the ashes.  Fortunately, those of us who believe in true democracy and embrace higher human values over base ones like wealth and power greatly outnumber those who do not.   Trump, as bad as he may be, has done one very good thing:  he has provided a mirror for us to see ourselves as we really are, and how sick a nation we have become.   Sometimes the cure for cancer is painful, sometimes more painful than the disease.  Trump has  woken us up from our complacency and our apathy — which, had they continued, would have allowed the incipient authoritarian regime to take full control.   Though unwittingly, he gave us a window of opportunity to recognize the truth and finally take action against the horror that faced us.   Had Clinton or someone else been elected, we might have missed the opportunity.   There would have been no Resistance movement, we would have continued to sit home during elections,  and the thoroughly corrupted new Republican party would have continued to consolidate power and increase their stranglehold on our democracy without us ever realizing it until it was too late.    The cancer America is battling would have metastasized to the point that our destruction was inevitable.   Yes, Trump is extremely dangerous and yes, we could still self destruct just like the Roman Empire did, but I think with things having happened as they did, such an outcome is actually less likely, even as close as we are to destruction now.

The future. 

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We have a long and difficult journey ahead, if we are ever to liberate our country from the jaws of fascism and return to the democratic, humanitarian values that leaders during the WWII and postwar years recognized were necessary for us to thrive and become a real inspiration to the rest of the world, instead of a flashy sham of one.

There may be war. It’s inevitable people will die.  No revolution ever occurred without bloodshed and great sacrifice. We can’t be cowards and just wait for things to change, because they won’t on their own.   Inaction is death.   America’s soul is in the balance: do we want democracy or tyranny? The choice is ours.

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My stupid ego stands in the way of empathy.

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There’s been something on my mind that’s been bothering me a lot, but I’ve hesitated posting about it because it makes me sound like a terrible person.  But I’ve always aimed to be honest on this blog, so I’m not going to make an exception this time.

A few weeks ago, I made a new online friend.  She’s in a severe depression right now due to receiving some bad news. She was so grief-stricken she had to go into the hospital and get treated for her depression.   Since then she’s been confiding in me by email, because she’s too shy to publicly comment about her situation.   For about a week or two, we corresponded almost daily.   Our emails to each other were long and deeply personal, and they proved therapeutic for me as well as for her.

I’m no therapist, but I’m always willing to correspond via email and try to direct people to the proper resources or actually help them directly if I can.   I felt like I could relate to this woman; I identified with a lot of her issues. She said she felt the same way about me.  I began to think of her as a friend, someone I cared deeply about, even though we never met and we’d only been corresponding for such a short time.   I felt a great deal of empathy for her situation.  These empathic feelings are  something rather new for me, because only recently I was too busy working on my own issues and trying to recover from my own trauma that I didn’t have the time or inclination or even the ability to really be able to empathize with anyone else.   Lately though, I’ve been rediscovering the empathy I possessed so much of as a child, and it’s a beautiful and wonderful thing.  I want it to keep growing because it makes it easier for me to connect with people and makes it possible for me to be authentic and help someone else in need, which is what I’ve been aiming to do more of.

My new friend told me that writing to me helped her a lot, and I was extremely touched by this.  I told her she was helping me too, which is true.   I began to look forward to her emails, because, well, the things she told me made me feel good.   I felt my ego puffing up with pride like a loaf of baking bread.   I began checking my inbox several times a day to see if there were any new emails.  I was getting a little obsessed, to be honest.  I was jonesing for that feeling of being needed, of feeling like I was important to someone, of knowing that someone I liked and cared for valued me that much.

I haven’t heard back from her in a few days.  Now I’m becoming insecure and hypervigilant and wondering if I said something wrong or overstepped her boundaries or if she just got tired of writing to me.    I kept reading over our emails trying to find anything, any hint at all, that I might have said something offputting that ran her off or made her want to stop emailing me.   I found nothing but obsessively, I kept looking.

After 3 days of no correspondence, I finally emailed her again.  I was extra careful not to sound too needy, and because she’s so fragile right now and came to me for help (and not the other way around), I tried extra hard to not to project my own “stuff” into my email to her.  I read it over several times and it sounded alright to me, but I still worry she may be able to pick up on my neediness.

I realized with horror that my worry about her possibly abandoning me was more powerful than my concern that she might have had to go back into the hospital (or just couldn’t get online, or was busy, or whatever).    My insecurity made my email sound more stilted and less natural than usual.  I no longer feel like I can be as open and honest, because of my own stupid fears of being offensive or overbearing and making her think badly of me.  It isn’t her fault I feel like this–it’s my own ego getting in the way of the real empathy I have for this person.

This happens to me all the time, and is one of the reasons I’ve sometimes thought I’m actually a narcissist.  Everything is always about me, my ego, what other people are thinking about me, am I being validated, am I still valued by them, are they going to leave me, do they secretly hate me?  Even when all the evidence is to the contrary, I still look for the microscopic speck of dirt in my bowl of ice cream–and always find it even though it isn’t really there.

Yes, I do have empathy–and a lot more of it has been freed to me lately–but when there’s any uncertainty or insecurity and I begin to feel hypervigilant and paranoid.  I start fretting that maybe I’m being deliberately ignored or God forbid, abandoned, and all that wonderful, healing empathy I’m learning how to use goes flying out the window and everything becomes all about me and my stupid ego again.

I still care about this individual and want to help her, but I want my empathy to flow naturally and my ego to stay out of it, because all that does is fuck everything up.  I’ve been praying for this to change, because how can I ever really be of help to anyone else if I’m always worried about what other people are thinking about me?   This isn’t about me; it’s about her and trying to help her heal, not getting some sort of ego boost for myself.

I’m not going to email her again.   I’ll just wait now, and if I never hear from her again, I can live with that.   Maybe she got what she needed from me–the encouragement she needed–and that should be enough.   I hope she is okay.

If nothing else, then I have learned a hard lesson about pride and ego: pride comes before the fall.  True empathy requires humility and the ability to set your own ego outside the door.

“Saving face”

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“Saving face” is the concept of avoiding facing the consequences of having been shamed, sometimes by sacrificing something you value. A perfect example is what I almost did yesterday when my irresponsibility for posting a certain article was called out elsewhere. I almost took down this blog!

Throughout my life, “saving face,” has been my usual reaction to being held accountable for choosing wrong actions. It’s never made me happier, and more often than not, I wind up regretting it later. I later wonder why I didn’t just own up to it and take responsibility. But the fear of being shamed is great enough to make you do crazy things just to avoid it. In my case that usually meant some sort of disappearing act–you know, acting on that urge to “sink through the floor in shame.” But the thing is, all it does is make you look like a coward and that in itself makes you look worse than the thing that caused it all! Please note I am not talking about situations in which you are being unfairly treated or bullied. That does happen, and it happens to the sensitive the most of all. In those cases removing yourself might be the best and smartest course of action. No, I’m talking about situations in which you know you’ve acted badly and are called to the carpet about it.

“Saving face” is a staple of some cultures. In Japan, ancient samurais adhered to the tradition of seppoku, which meant stabbing oneself through the heart with a dagger when one had been shamed.* The intent was to avoid shame, even if your life was the price. Related to this (but different) is the practice of “honor killings” some fundamentalist Muslim countries still adhere to. This means killing a family member (usually a woman) when they are believed to have brought shame to the family. In these cases, love is weaker than narcissistic pride. How else could one voluntarily kill their own wife or daughter who they claim to love?

It’s interesting to me that even the term, “saving face,” is a reference to the False Self, a mask shown to the world. Saving face isn’t about honesty or authenticity; it’s about maintaining the mask, even if all it involves is escaping consequences.

Some people see “saving face” as somehow noble. But it isn’t–it’s cowardly and narcissistic. Unfortunately it’s human nature, especially for those of us who grew up in situations where we were constantly shamed just for being ourselves and developed low self esteem. We may not be suicidal, but we’ll sacrifice things we love if the consequences of behaving badly are too embarrassing.

But why should it be that way? People are still going to talk even if you remove yourself from the situation or disappear, the way I’ve always tended to do. Wouldn’t it be better to face the consequences? Even if people aren’t forgiving, ironically your humility shows them you have self respect and the courage to own up to your mistakes. What’s so shameful about a simple “I was wrong” or “I’m sorry.”

* I understand that non western cultures differ and to call traditional practices narcissistic or selfish is probably not accurate.