Posts Tagged ‘empathy’

Reflections

Monday, December 19th, 2016

dancing in the shadows

Dancing In The Shadows painting by Nolan Winkler

“As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron.” — H. L. Mencken, Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1921.

Since the election of Donald Trump, I have been haunted by aphorisms. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything is connected. There are no accidents. Life is but a dream.

More and more, as Trump’s inauguration approaches, I am reminded of the days following the election of George W. Bush. Okay, so George wasn’t technically elected the first time, but he was elected the second time. Remember? He won twice. His cabinet was a horror show. Yet so many people seem to have forgotten that, along with everything else that happened before last week.

Trump’s election is hardly unprecedented when it comes to electing narcissistic morons. Does the name Ronald Reagan ring a bell? And though he was not a moron, Bill Clinton would give any other narcissistic ruler in history a run for his or her money. Marie Antoinette may have said, “Let them eat cake,” but when Bill Clinton pushed through NAFTA while dismantling Welfare, thus relegating millions to poverty, he essentially said, “Let them eat nothing.”

Oh but Trump is worse. Worse than what? The Obama administration, it is now revealed, subsidized dirty coal and dirty oil all over the world to the tune of several hundred billion dollars, yet Obama-wan calls himself the Environmentalist President. Reminds me of Trump calling himself a feminist.

But more interesting to me than our general forgetfulness and gullibility is the question posed by the Mencken quote at the beginning of this article: do these narcissists and liars and morons we keep electing represent the inner soul of the American people? Are we essentially a nation of dishonest narcissistic morons?

What is a narcissist? Narcissus, so says the myth from whence comes the term narcissist, became enamored of his own reflection to the exclusion of all else. He did not fall in love with his essence because he had none. He could only see and relate to his reflection—that which he appeared to be, not what he actually was

Narcissists are incapable of empathy because empathy requires an inner-self capable of bonding emotionally with others. And why would so many people in America repeatedly choose emotional ciphers to be our leaders, our lawmakers, and the stewards of our futures? Why would we choose people incapable of being kind and generous and thoughtful?

There must be something we, the general we, mistrust about genuine kindness and generosity and thoughtfulness; and there must be something we find attractive and reassuring about narcissists. And I think these tendencies begin very early in our American lives.

Do you remember the first time you realized that being smart and creative was appreciated by your teachers, but not by all of your peers? Do you remember seeing someone being teased for wearing glasses? Or maybe you were teased or bullied for being smart or wearing glasses.

In high school, I hung out with a gang of people who loved poetry and music and art. They were sensitive, thoughtful, empathetic, self-effacing, and appreciative of each other, while the general high school population looked upon them as strange and flawed and weak. As you may have guessed, none of them pursued careers in politics.

We, the general we, also do not like complex solutions to complex problems. Nor do we like complex explanations. We don’t really want to know the details. We are an impatient people. We want instant results, and if not results, then the promise of results. Or maybe we just want promises. Maybe because we were raised on promises, not results, we learned to value promises more than the fulfillment of promises. Trump promised to build a wall to rival the Great Wall of China. Now that is an amazing promise, one he will never keep. But maybe we like being amazed by impossible promises that can only come true using special effects in super hero science fiction fantasy movies.

Maybe we, the general we, no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy, between promises and the aftermaths of promises, between what people say and what people do. Maybe we choose narcissists to rule our country because they are not constrained by truth, and those who are constrained by truth seem weak and might wear glasses and listen to classical music and have complex explanations for why something will take more than a minute or two to fix.

Jimmy Carter, who was not a narcissist or a moron, told the nation we needed to start taking action to address the limits of natural resources. We needed to stop plundering and start regenerating. He talked about complex things, such as the interconnectedness of everything. Huh? This sounded strange and weak, so we replaced him with Ronald Reagan who said we could have anything we wanted without limits, that there was no reason to worry about the environment, that America was the strongest and the best in the world, so go for the gusto. Have it all.

And if you were poor and disadvantaged, that wasn’t Reagan’s fault. Just as nothing will ever be Trump’s fault and Trump will never be wrong, just as Bush and Clinton and Obama were never wrong. Narcissists are never wrong. They look in their mirrors and see knights in shining armor.

Then they stand before us and say, “I am a knight in shining armor. I’ll slay the dragon, build a giant wall, give everyone jobs, lower taxes, rebuild the infrastructure, and make you happy. I promise.”

And despite history and reality, many of us will believe those narcissists, over and over again. Maybe it’s genetic. Maybe the tendency goes back a million years to some crucial moment when a big stupid narcissistic ape appeared to save the species, when our real savior was the little ape wearing glasses and writing a poem.

Reboot

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

twins

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2015)

“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” Herman Melville

Female-led Ghostbusters reboot gets summer 2016 release date.

Report: Disney is considering Chris Pratt for an Indiana Jones reboot.

Fantastic Four reboot: What do we think?

We think remakes and reboots and sequels and prequels indistinguishable from the previous reboots of remakes have taken over the movie industry along with movies so similar to hundreds of other movies they might as well be reboots or remakes. What’s going on here? We live in an era of cinematic redundancy on an epic scale, and the messages being repeated ad nauseam are so primitive and shallow and false, one wonders, “When was it the Not Very Bright Children took control of everything?”

Who cares? I do. I think our movies and books, those that the corporate overlords allow to reach large audiences, intentionally purvey what our overlords want us to believe and think and feel. There is method to this mad redundancy, and a purpose, which is to keep us captive in what Iain McGilchrist calls “a hall of mirrors wherein we just get reflected back into more of what we know about what we know about what we know.”

 “No man was ever great by imitation” Samuel Johnson

Original art is subversive to the dominant paradigm, and the controlling stockholders in the current dominant paradigm are especially keen on squelching anything that might upset their iron grip on the collective consciousness. Thus they employ their news media to heap praise on the unending flow of wholly unoriginal literature, cinema, and music spewed into our bookstores, movie theatres, radio stations, and our always-on computer pad phone things.

Why? What do they, those in charge of the faucets of media, think will happen if original art is allowed to flourish? What they think will happen is what will happen: they will lose control of our beautiful minds, and human society will change in ways antithetical to the dominant paradigm.

It is not generally known or remembered, but in response to that brief artistic and social revolution known as the Sixties, the most powerful multi-national corporations in the world bought up every independent publisher in America, fired every last open-minded editor, and instituted a system of selectivity that would make the most fascist of dictators envious. Control what people read and watch and you control the foundations of modern culture.

“Men often applaud an imitation and hiss the real thing.” Aesop

As I was pondering this whole reboot phenomenon, I found on Dave Smith’s valuable Ukiah Blog Live, a link to a delightfully animated lecture called The Divided Brain by the above-quoted Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and brain expert. To my mind, his lecture clearly and concisely explains the reboot mania. To grossly oversimplify his lecture: our culture and society have been taken over by those who are entirely controlled by the dominant functions of the left sides of their brains, and, as a consequence, we have become a society and culture dominated by left-brain dynamics.

McGilchrist debunks many of the popular ideas about differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and he is adamant that the two sides need each other to function optimally. He also has a nifty explanation for the importance of the frontal lobe in mediating the collaborations of the left and right halves of the brain.

I highly recommend this animated lecture (you can find it on YouTube) and suggest you may want to pause the flow occasionally because McGilchrist presents a great deal of information in a short amount of time. I will not try to recapitulate his many startling facts and observations, but I will list some of his characterizations of the two halves of our brains.

Left brain: narrow sharp focus on what is already known, prefers simplified models of reality, chooses virtual over real, static, isolated, fixed, decontextualized, ultimately lifeless.

Right brain: sustained broad focus, openness to what is not yet known, interested in the living rather than the mechanical, changing, evolving, comfortable with what is never perfectly known.

McGilchrist concludes his lecture by quoting Einstein—“The intuitive mind (right brain) is a sacred gift, and the rational mind (left brain) is a faithful servant.” McGilchrist then responds to Einstein’s insight by saying, “Our society now honors the servant, but has forgotten the gift.”

I would argue that we have not so much forgotten the gift as it has been wrested away from us by our punitive system of education (left brain), our highly controlled media (left brain) and an economic system that pretends to support innovation but is primarily interested in refining what we already have in place (left brain) while intentionally inciting our deep-seated fears (left brain) to keep us from taking creative risks (right brain).

When I walk around downtown Mendocino on my errands or in search of a sunny perch, I will often encounter people—young, middle-aged, old—who seem to be looking for something they cannot find. They peer down alleyways, frown at buildings they fear to enter, exchange troubled glances, and stumble on until they grow tired and return to their vehicles or find a place where they can sit down and eat something.

I imagine they are doing battle with the left sides of their brains. They have come here, knowingly or unknowingly, to escape their left-brained realities in hope of finding a right-brained reality. Intuitively, they know their spirits are being strangled by mechanized redundancy, and their inner voices have directed them to this place whose name was once synonymous with counter culture.