Suffering Fools

We've Traded Places Times Before

We’ve Traded Places Times Before painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2016)

“Life is a long lesson in humility.” James Barrie

My friend John Grimes, the cartoonist, recently sent me an article from the Washington Post about Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump for President of the United States. The writer of the article suggests that since both Palin and Trump are Reality Television stars, this endorsement furthers the frightening trend of American politics becoming little more than a media circus designed to numb the populous while aggrandizing the stand-ins for the despots.

But I think there is something else going on here with Trump and Palin, something much older and deeper than Reality Television, though directly connected to the televisionization of our culture and society, which has made us, more than ever before, the victims of aggressive extroverts who seem to be developmentally arrested somewhere between the ages of four and ten.

When I was in Sixth Grade, a decade or two before the introduction of Ritalin and other pharmaceuticals into mainstream-education class management, there were two kids in our class, Charlie and Amy, who were both so impulsive, loud, and disruptive, our well-meaning teacher was nearly powerless to control them. And even when Charlie and Amy were not acting out, we expected them to explode at any moment, so our classroom experience was about surviving Charlie and Amy, not about learning. Sadly, these two were not smart or creative or interesting. On the contrary, they were infantile and abusive—Trump and Palin.

When Charlie and Amy’s behavior became seriously dangerous, which it did every few weeks—they often erupted in tandem—they would be removed from the class room for a few days or a week, and renaissance would ensue. Kids rigid with fear would relax, discussions would become sophisticated, and real learning would ensue, along with joy and laughter and emotional growth. And then Charlie and Amy would return and so would the Dark Ages.

“My grandfather believed there are two kinds of people—those who know how the world fits together and those who think they know. The former work in hardware stores, the latter in politics.” Josef Anderson

Alas, adult versions of those two abusive children who wrecked school for many of us are plentiful in our society. I’m sure you have experienced the following: You are at a gathering of intelligent thoughtful people, save for one who is not particularly bright or thoughtful or interesting, but he—it is most often a he—holds forth incessantly about nothing of interest to anyone, interrupts anyone who dares speak for more than a moment, and ruins the gathering—the group powerless to overcome this person’s repulsive neurosis.

Why are there so many of these boorish people in America? Christopher Lasch posits in his fascinating books The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self, that the breakdown of the extended family within a larger cohesive social fabric, hastened by the invention of auto-centric suburbia combined with the intrusion of television into every home in America, birthed vast numbers of individuals incapable of forming healthy emotional bonds. And those individuals, he suggests, had children who had children who had children, while all the while the social fabric continued to unravel; and we are now several generations along this new evolutionary path to endemic emotional disconnect.

“Mankind is divisible into two great classes: hosts and guests.” Sir Max Beerbohm

When I taught Creative Writing at a summer school for highly motivated teenagers, I became aware that most of my charges did not know how to have conversations. They could exchange bits of information and make pronouncements, but they didn’t really know how to converse. After lengthy field study, I concluded that my teenagers did not know how to listen, did not know how to ask questions, did not know how to ask follow-up questions, and did not know how to think for a moment before responding to things other people said to them.

So we held conversation workshops in which my faculty demonstrated how to ask questions, how to listen to answers without interrupting, how to ask follow-up questions, and how to keep listening. Then we had our students practice writing out responses to the answers they received to their questions, which gave them practice in thinking about what they heard other people say before responding. And then we had them practice these techniques in groups of two and three and four people on a stage in front of an audience, after which people in the audience gave the performers feedback about which parts of the conversations they especially resonated with.

And though we worked on many aspects of the writing process during those month-long intensives, nothing we did for our students impacted them as profoundly as learning how to have meaningful conversations. For several years after I ceased teaching, I received letters from former students recounting the huge impacts those conversation workshops had on myriad aspects of their lives.

I often think of those workshops when I encounter these emotional black holes who will not allow anyone else to speak. You will notice that such people never ask questions of anyone, for to do so would be to enter into conversation. What, I wonder, do these incessant blabbers fear about other people speaking?

Could it be that the television itself is the primary role model these people have when it comes to relating to others? How does a television behave? It talks incessantly about the same things over and over again, never asks questions of those listening, and continues talking if anyone else tries to speak. Why wouldn’t people entrained by watching television for hours and hours every day from early childhood and throughout their formative years, imitate that “person”? Of course they would.

I don’t watch television, and it is only through what my friend Max Greenstreet informs me is called social osmosis that I know anything about Reality Television. But I would wager that most Reality Television shows feature people who would benefit greatly from conversation workshops.


Aggression Versus Intelligence




Mr. Magician painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2013)

“The tendency to aggression is an innate, independent, instinctual disposition in man and constitutes the powerful obstacle to culture.” Sigmund Freud

Konrad Lorenz famously defined aggression as “the fighting instinct in beast and man which is directed against members of the same species.” How about violence directed against members of the same society? I’ve been thinking about the certifiably insane people in Congress who want to deny tens of millions of poor and hungry people sufficient food and shelter and healthcare. I am referring to those duly elected nutcases willing to shut down the entire government to get their murderously selfish way. We might ask: why are these crazy idiots so pissed off at poor people? But more interesting to me is the question: how did these horrible, racist, sexist dimwits attain positions of such great power? And though it may seem overly simplistic, I think the answer is that in degenerate human societies, which ours has definitely become, aggression is a more successful survival trait, in the short term, than intelligence.

I recently read a report summarizing the calculations of a group of budget analysts and economists showing that if the United States government would spend a quarter, that is one-fourth, of the amount currently spent on our military, all the tens of millions of people currently living in poverty in America would immediately be lifted out of poverty. Now why won’t our government do that? The only feasible explanation for our government’s failure to quickly rectify the grotesque economic imbalance in our society is that the people running our government are more aggressive than intelligent. They would rather attack members of their own species than help members of their own species. In other words, they are moronic goons.

Consider this. If you and I got together with two other people, and you had hundreds of eggs and eleven big bags of potatoes and I had thousands of carrots and seventy-three loaves of bread, and the other two people had nothing and were very hungry, what do you think we would do with our abundance of food? Well, if we were even moderately intelligent and just a tiny bit compassionate we would share our food with those less fortunate people. But if we were very aggressive and extremely stupid, we would not share our food but do everything in our power to keep those two people from having anything to eat. This is what we are living through right now on a national scale. We are witness to and victims of a few hundred senselessly aggressive people trying to hoard everything for themselves rather than give anybody else anything. Defies belief, but there it is.

What went wrong? How did we, the people, allow our society to degenerate to this critical point where so few have so much and so many have so little? Another recent article reported that over 75% of the American people have no savings whatsoever and no money beyond this month’s paycheck, if they are fortunate enough to have a paycheck. That’s three out of every four people in the country on the verge of hunger and homelessness. So how is it that we haven’t elected a Congress to represent this vast majority of the population?

In thinking about aggression versus intelligence and why we handed over the reins of power to a bunch of heartless jackals, I am reminded of Marshall Mcluhan saying, “The modern Little Red Riding Hood, reared on singing commercials, has no objection to being eaten by the wolf.” I interpret this to mean that adults infantilized by mass media (and raised by parents infantilized by mass media) are as powerless to defend themselves against the aggressive depredations of the corporate rulers and their government lackeys, as children are powerless to defend themselves against the depredations of violent adults.

Whenever I think of Mcluhan I also think of Christopher Lasch, author of The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self. Lasch said, “The effect of the mass media is not to elicit belief but to maintain the apparatus of addiction.” This crucial observation was especially prescient since it was made before the advent of cell phone computers and Ipads and their ilk, apparatuses that purvey the addictive flow of mind-altering media while the devices themselves are as addictive as the gunk they purvey.

Lasch also said, “Every age develops its own peculiar forms of pathology, which express in exaggerated form its underlying character structure.” So what does it say about our underlying character structure, the American character circa 2013, that we, the people, would consciously choose hyper-aggressive idiots to run roughshod over our nation and the world? I think it says that we, the people, have been lobotomized by mass media and the insidiously invasive technologies purveying that media to the point that we are now, for all intents and purposes, collectively supine and passive in the face of the pathological aggression of a tiny minority of raving bullies.

I think it is crucial in any discussion of media manipulation of the masses to recall that television in its most primitive form did not become ubiquitous in American households until the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, and it was not until the 1990’s that television and television-like media were empowered by the internet and internet gizmos to go everywhere with us. Think about what has happened culturally and politically in synch with this television-based takeover of our lives and our society. Our public education system has entirely collapsed, our industrial base is gone, meaningful journalism has been replaced by sensationalist propaganda, our food supply is controlled by chemical companies, our largest banks are owned and operated by unregulated criminals, and we now have a vast underclass, hundreds of millions of people living in or on the verge of poverty, whereas in the 1960’s homelessness and dire poverty were essentially non-existent in America. There is a clear and direct connection between the conquest of our homes and minds by television and mass media, and the collapse of our society—a conquest that took very little time at all.

We the people are perpetually entranced now, the images and sounds and special effects and hypnotic suggestions brought to us minute-by-minute and hour-after-hour carefully designed and calculated to amplify our yearning for friendship and community and adventure and love and health and meaningful work. But rather than actually help us fulfill our desires and satisfy our yearnings, the media never ceases to whisper that fulfillment comes from watching enactments of other people fulfilling those desires. We needn’t do anything but get the latest and fastest and highest definition devices for displaying those constantly reiterated myths we so greatly desire to inhabit. By watching actors and athletes and celebrities and lucky winners attain their goals and live their dreams, or at least lead lives more exciting and colorful than our own dreary lives, so shall we be satisfied.

But only if we keep watching. Should we ever cease to check our phones or our portable screens every few minutes to get an update, a quick fix, or if we miss an episode of that gritty drama comedy murder mystery series we are now hopelessly addicted to, we will fall into a bottomless pit of fear and depression from which there is no escape, no return. Happiness is maintaining a strong clear high-speed connection anywhere and everywhere 24-7. Got it?

And while we’re imbibing remarkable graphics and awesome surround sound and never-ending car crash sequences and fascinating presentations about all the things we’d really like to be involved in if only we had the time for those sorts of things (but we don’t), we are too distracted to pay attention to those maniacs looting the nation and tearing the heart out of what might have been a great society, because whenever we do pay attention we feel, you know, bummed out, because there’s nothing we can do about those unpleasantly aggressive men wrecking everything. That’s just the way things are. Don’t the most popular television shows glorify amorality and violence and stupidity and drug dealing and serial killing and out-of-control aggression? Haven’t things always been that way? Haven’t violent bullies always wrecked everything for everybody else? That’s never going to change, right?

Even so, here’s a wild idea. The next time you go for a walk on the beach, don’t take your phone with you. I know that sounds crazy and reckless and dangerously daring; but do it anyway. You’ll be okay. I promise. And when you’re way out there on the sand, have a seat and watch the waves and just hang out for a while and see what happens. See what you think.


Culture of Narcissism

(This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, July 2010)

“Every age develops its own peculiar forms of pathology, which express in exaggerated form its underlying character structure.” Christopher Lasch

A few weeks before my second novel was to be published in 1980, I got a call from my editor at Simon & Schuster saying that Sales had decided my title wasn’t strong enough and they needed a more seductive replacement. Mackie was the title of my novel and the name of its central character, a charismatic narcissist on the verge of a nervous breakdown. As it happened, I was in the midst of reading Christopher Lasch’s remarkable book The Culture of Narcissism, and therein found the expression “forgotten impulses”, which Sales adored. Thus my novel was published as Forgotten Impulses and garnered the following from The New York Times. “Piercingly real eroticism told in an ear-perfect rendering.” Oh, for such a review today.

For those not familiar with The Culture of Narcissism, I will briefly synopsize this seminal work. Seminal is an appropriate adjective, for The Culture of Narcissism spawned dozens of other works in response to it. Lasch, a historian with a special interest in the history of psychotherapy, theorized that the social developments of the 20th century, particularly World War II and its aftermath, suburbanization, consumerism, the movie industry, and the conquest of our psyches by television, created a perfect storm of conditioning from which emerged a society of narcissists: individuals with no reliable inner sense of self, and thus prone to fixations on celebrities and extreme vulnerability to manipulation by mass media. In the 1960’s, psychotherapists in America began to see more and more of this personality type entering therapy until by the mid-1970’s such persons were the norm rather than the exception. Other eminent traits of this personality type include a fear of commitment, a dread of aging (which Lasch posited as the engine of the youth culture of the 1960’s and 1970’s) and the puzzling contradiction that, despite the absence of an authentic self, these people operate as if they are the center of the universe. Combine this narcissistic personality with the dissolution of multi-generational social continuity (neighborhoods and extended families) that marked the latter stages of industrialization and the coming of the technological state, and we have America today: a cultural wasteland populated with people not merely separated from the natural world, but separated from who and what they actually are, i.e. human beings.

Which brings me to Lebron James, a huge and talented basketball player who recently chose to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join forces with two other superstars on the Miami Heat. Larger than life describes what the corporate oligarchy has made of Lebron, so that his decision to switch teams has been declared by numerous sources to be an economic disaster for Cleveland and Ohio and possibly the entire Midwest. The millions of Clevelanders who once worshiped Lebron with fanatical fervor have embarked on an equally fanatical campaign to remove all signs of Lebron’s Cleveland existence; and Spike Lee predicts that when Lebron returns to Cleveland to play against the Cavaliers, the governor will have to call out the National Guard to protect Lebron from the wrath of those he has forsaken.

Because two of my published works involve basketball, several people have asked if I intended to write about “the whole Lebron thing.” I said I didn’t think I would, but now that literally hundreds of sports writers and pundits have branded Lebron a narcissist, I feel compelled to point out that though narcissists may be profoundly self-centered, it is more important to understand them as emotionally fragile and captives of illusion. Narcissists are not, merely because they are narcissists, malicious or inherently evil.

Narcissus, as the myth describes, fell in love with his reflection, and in so doing spurned Echo, a sexy woman ready and willing to give him all she had to give, if you know what I mean. Thus poor Narcissus literally missed out on life as he gazed unto death at his reflection. One may argue that Lebron is certainly not missing out on the Echoes of our culture, that he is living the high life and adroitly wielding power at the top of the steep-sided pyramid that delineates the corporate kingdom ruling and devouring the world. Lebron is, by all the mainstream measures of modern America, one of the most successful people alive. But that assessment assumes Lebron is actually here, in the sense of being true to himself. And having listened to The King (as he is called by his worshipers) speak to the slavering hordes that greeted him upon his arrival in Miami, I conclude he is only sort of here. For he said to that deluded mob, “I chose Miami because this organization is all about family, and that’s what I’m all about.” And I could not have invented a larger falsity than that.

In 1996, long before the advent of Lebron James, I invented and published Ruby & Spear, a Buddhist novel, if you can imagine such a thing, that wondered for a few hundred pages what might happen if a vastly talented black basketball player developed a deep spiritual practice and a profound commitment to family and community before becoming a professional athlete? Would not his playing be imbued with all he had become? And would not the huge and talented Spear of my novel represent the quantum opposite fulfillment of the potentiality of the likes of LeBron James?

Ruby & Spear proved to be my last novelistic adventure with a big New York publisher. Sales (this time at Bantam) killed the book upon publication and fully three weeks before The New York Times declared the book to be pretty good. Hollywood sniffed around the story for a time, but the consensus among agents and studio gatekeepers was that since my black characters were disturbingly atypical and complex, and there was much talk of poetry and art and love and mysticism, and the humor was offbeat and subtle, and the female characters were every bit as strong and important as the male characters, and there was a shocking absence of violence, and the hero was a friggin’ Buddhist with a clairvoyant grandmother…who’d want to see a movie like that?

So today the myriad pundits suggest Lebron acted cruelly when he abandoned Cleveland for Miami. I think he acted predictably. A braver narcissist would have gone to New York, to the really big show. But Lebron, if you’ve ever watched him play, is a classic bully and not particularly brave. More than half of his many shots per game are dunks and few of these are contested. Anyone stupid enough to get in the way of nearly three hundred pounds of Lebron rampaging toward the hoop would surely suffer broken bones in the ensuing collision.

In the game of my youth (those fabled 1960’s and 70’s) Lebron would have been called for traveling every time he went to dunk, or penalized with a charging foul. But Lebron grew up as the game evolved to accommodate his style, which in less dramatic form was perfected by the not-very-talented-but-enormously-huge-and-strong Shaquille O’Neal knocking people over to score. Indeed, this legalized violence has necessitated adding a line in the paint five feet from the hoop, inside of which a player is permitted by the new rules to shove other players out of the way on his way to score. Thus for the likes of little old me, LeBron represents a further devolution of the game into staged bits and circus faire. Yawn.

Friends of mine not keen on sports, roll their eyes when I muse aloud about Lebron. “Why do you care?” they ask. “It’s such a huge waste of time, such a waste of human potential.”

Perhaps. But I was entranced by the spectacle of the overlords of America’s great city states bidding for the services of this inarticulate gladiator, a god to so many in our collapsing culture. The spectacle of billionaires groveling at the feet of this ephemeral colossus seemed a perfect echo of Christopher Lasch’s pronouncement that “Every age develops its own peculiar forms of pathology, which express in exaggerated form its underlying character structure.”

Greed upon greed beyond greed. Insatiable hunger, never to be appeased, even should they eat the entire globe. Buddha’s hungry ghosts unleashed upon the carcass of the dying culture. So it goes.

The first hour of Todd’s reading of Ruby & Spear may be heard gratis at UnderThe and is available in its entirety from iTunes. The book itself may be had for pennies via the Interweb.