Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Loyalty and Legitimacy...Can We Look at Ourselves?

I have gotten curious about the word legitimate in our political milieux (plural, divided, polarizing…), particularly as I feel the wide divergences (the ‘gap(s)’ to be bridged) and a rather chosen short-sightedness, even acute amnesia, in the more liberal-progressive voices in our midst. Legitimate today seems most bandied about in the flurry of our presidential election politics, but not surprisingly, the ‘sides’ are using the term in different ways. 

An easy Google starting point, just to lay some groundwork: Legitimate in its adjectival form means conforming to the law or rules. The verb form, to legitimate something, is to justify something or make it lawful. Merriam-Webster gives a bit more nuance and depth, of course. 1a: “lawfully begotten,” and 1b “having full filial rights and obligations by birth,” as in a legitimate child, or more often in a dispute over patronage or kingship, an illegitimate child. Legitimate here is historically significant for patriarchal-aristocratic lineages and succession, but rather offensive in contemporary speech. No child is illegitimate today; every child is a human being in need of honored dignity and opportunity. I’m struck by 1b, of course, the idea of being born into obligations. We’ll come back to that.

Then there are adjectival definitions 2-4, which are more often the contours of our current predicament: 

  • 2: “being exactly as intended or presented; neither spurious or false” (a legitimate grievance); “being an actual example of something specified” (a legitimate threat to national security); “genuinely good, impressive, capable of success” (a legitimate contender for the Gold medal)

  • 3: “accordant with law or with established legal forms and requirements” (a legitimate government) and “ruling by or based on the strict principle of hereditary right” (a legitimate king)

  • 4: “conforming to recognized principles or accepted rules and standards” (a legitimate expenditure) and “fair or reasonable : VALID” (she raised some legitimate concerns)

My curiosity here first arose in a piece by Heather Cox Richardson on the necessity of a
loyal opposition in any healthy democracy. It landed next on the multiplicity of uses we can see for legitimate in our current civic worlds. I’m not sure where these two strands will meet as we listen together, but they seem connected somehow, with both needing more conscious attention. I’ll start with the Richardson bit on loyal opposition, then weave in what I see with legitimate.

“This recognition of a loyal opposition was key to more than 200 years 

of peaceful transfers of power….until now.”

Each morning, I receive an email from Heather Cox Richardson, a historian who teaches 19th century American history at Boston College. (These words above are hers…). I’m most intrigued by her recent book--How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America--though I’ve not invested time or money there yet. Christmas is coming… But this daily email is a calming thing for me--a slow presentation of facts in the news day, supported by links to the sources she’s relying on for what she says. It doesn’t have flashy news-media ‘eye-grabbers’ or advertisements. It doesn’t try to catch my attention with salacious or volatile prose. It’s a gentle overview of the news, given her social location and historical expertise in American political history, especially. I’ve been making the rounds of other news outlets for headlines--Washington Post, BBC, The New York Times, then a smattering of others including Fox News via Flipboard. But this morning email feels like a deep breath of something grounding and sane.

I am well aware that part of the reason why it calms me is because she writes and convinces through a communication style I value. The words aren’t flashy. She is persuasive within well-supported fact-based language. She is well-versed in American history that becomes relevant, or she makes so relevant, in her daily review. I love the sense of continuity in our country’s history I gain from her expertise. I appreciate the distinctive things she teaches me ‘on the sly’ as I’m ‘reading the news.’  Because of course I’m easily dis-eased by news events these days, whether it is the salacious news coverage of the Trump family losing status and power while grasping for it, or souring it for the Biden/Harris Administration, or the silent majority of Republicans watching this play out in the news each day, refusing to speak into the maelstrom of refusal and denial. This daily email affirms the things I yearn to have affirmed...a sense of logic, New England rationality, our American history (both proud and shameful aspects of it), and a clear head amidst entertainment politics.

It was informative to read the various developments of a news cycle last week, within her historical argument for the purposes of a loyal opposition in a healthy democracy. In the centuries before the founding of the Colonies-Become-States, you either agreed with the king or you were a traitor, who then often lost everything--standing, resources, even life. Eventually, in England, the idea of the loyal opposition emerged. One could criticize the policies and actions of the king and be loyal to the country (and keep one’s head firmly planted on one’s shoulder, Richardson jests). In this context, Richardson is pointing out that we have lost the felt-sense of “a loyal opposition.” The polarization of our country today means “the other side” is consistently delegitimized and condemned as ‘unPatriotic.’

A clear view from the liberal side: Loyalty to the country we all share means dissension and confrontation of Trumpist Republicanism and its dissolution of governmental institutions created to protect-support all of us... A view from the conservative side: Loyalty to the country we all share means honoring Trump’s presidency as legitimate, regardless of whether you agree with him or not. The question of the health of American democracy lives and breathes in this tension AND I will suggest that all of us have something to learn from ‘the other side,’ no matter how distasteful we may find it.

Richardson’s prose points to the obvious in the  news cycles. A majority of Republicans are refusing to honor that Democrats have legitimately won this election and will now legally govern. She cites a “generation of Republican rhetoric claiming that Democratic votes are illegitimate.” 1986, Republican operatives began to talk about cutting down Black voting under a “ballot integrity” initiative in hopes that would depress Democratic votes. Then developments like these in 1993, 1994 on into the 2013 Shelby v Holder decision in which the Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Richardson next summarizes the increase of gerrymandering-- manipulation of census and redistricting--which manipulates the power of the vote from the inside of government, wrestling it away from any ‘one-person-one-vote’ power of the people to speak plainly. She covers other topics here, but she concludes, “Aside from the outcome of this particular election, this attempt of Republican leaders to delegitimize the Democratic Party is an assault on our democracy. Here’s why…” 

She outlines the development of a loyal opposition in English history, and the natural development of it in the early United States, with the Jeffersonian Party that formed in response to George Washington’s power as First President. “Democracy requires at least two healthy political parties,” Richardson reminds us, “so there is always an organized opposition to the party in power.” This does two things…”it enables people to disagree with current leadership while staying loyal to the nation, and it provides a means for oversight of the people running the government.” Given how “loyalty to country we all share” is configured today--a classic either/or with an old white man straining for authoritarian (or at least oligarchic) rule at the center--we no longer remember the healthy practices of loyal opposition all of us will need over years of citizenship. It’s like the gloves are completely off, with blood everywhere...

So what do we need to learn collectively to honor, allow, attempt to reinstate for an honest, trustworthy loyal opposition to breathe...a way of being in our country that by definition will be dissenting with the party in power? What are the boundaries and grounds of healthy dissent, of resistance of the inhumane?

My gut sense is that there is some movement for us here in considering legitimacy and its uses in public discourse. It became a tag-word for me, of course, because of the everpresent focus on the legitimacy (or not) of the presidential election results, painstakingly certified by local officials in counties and then states across the nation and daily-hourly undermined by President Trump in his tweet streams and farces of legal challenges thrown out by judges for being farcical, all iced with right-wing media selling advertising to willing (and fearful) publics. It was helpful to receive Richardson’s historical overview, pointing out the Republican intentional focus on strategies for attacking the legitimacy of the (Democratic) vote, or any vote that would push Trump out of power. Suppression of the vote, gerrymandering districts so to corral power by the current party in power is a longstanding, historical practice of politicians forgetful or neglectful of their constituencies in more immediate contact with power-mongering in Washington. Which of course is a liberal-leaning way to describe what-is before us.

The Republican use of the word legitimate seems to land solidly in MW’s #2, with some #4 thrown in. [2: “genuinely good, impressive, capable of success”; 4: “conforming to recognized principles or accepted rules and standards.”]  Republican tactics rhetorically focused on phrases like “ballot integrity” and “too easy access to voting” seem to arise in response to Democratic “get out the vote” movements that strive to empower anyone and everyone who is eligible to vote to vote. Before I say more, it seems wise to recognize that we need both of these forces for balanced elections with deep integrity. We need the expansive everyone who is eligible and we need the specifications of what eligibility means. 

In this frame, so far, these Democratic ventures are legitimate in the #2 sense--genuinely good, impressive, capable of success--and so Republican strategy has been to focus on legitimacy in the #4 sense--conforming to recognized principles or accepted rules and standards (or arguably eroding the standards themselves, so to honor only those purposeful for the tactic). A fine tension, workable just as it is...except when a country’s history and systemic refusal of black-brown-PoC is explicitly and tacitly ignored. I struggle to understand these Republican strategies as patriotic or humane. But I also struggle to understand my husband’s conservatism that will choose an institution over a people, community, or person. Yet he does, and he still loves people. The important point here is that the tension is needed and the use of legitimate speaks to different things. We talk past each other (big surprise). We cannot welcome all who are eligible unless we are also clear on what eligibility means.

The other focus of the word legitimate I will tend to today has longer reach back into these last four+ years, arguably even longer in the rancorous discourse(s) between Democrats and Republicans. #NotMyPresident points to this phenomenon, almost independent of ‘side’ and presidential administration. 

Almost independent of ‘side’ and administration

What I wish Richardson had seen and named aloud for her readers is the trajectory of Democratic rhetoric challenging the legitimacy of Trump’s Presidency these last four years. We are all reaping what all of us have sown, in some fashion.

One of my own family’s truisms can speak to this...from an exchange mirrored back to me for years as I was growing up. Somewhere in my youth, I learned that “It’s not fair!!!” had some social capital, some political capital in my family...until it didn’t. I would exclaim, “It’s not fair!!” and at first, I’d get the balancing attention I sought. But eventually my folks, wise to the competitive-sibling dynamics unfolding, would respond, “No, it’s fair. You just don’t like it.” In my family today, smiling, we know “It’s not fair” now means “Lisa doesn’t like it.” Today’s Democrats desperately need to learn this distinction, particularly as our democracy appears to be so incredibly fragile right now... which we have contributed all along. It's so easy to condemn current Republicans who voted for Trump because the Biden-Harris Administration is now certified as Elected. But complaining about their refusal of the election seems more and more petty to me, coming from liberal Democrats who refused and called Trump illegitimate. Say the man's character horrifies you. Say America is not the America you thought it was. Be horrified by the threats to our democracy and do everything you can to protect it. But own this is who we as a collective selected, against our own collective best interests. We have fertilized these seeds for four years, even longer...

Four years ago, the top-echelon of Democratic Party leadership honored the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency, though none of them liked it. [#3-4: “accordant with law or with established legal forms and requirements” (a legitimate government); 4: “conforming to recognized principles or accepted rules and standards” (a legitimate expenditure) and “fair or reasonable.”] Hillary Clinton conceded the day after Trump’s projected ‘wins’ (which must have been excruciating). The Obamas peaceably welcomed the incoming Trump administration, honoring the institutional legitimacy of it all (also bowing to Obama’s relative quiet amidst the four years of administration debilitating or trying to debilitate most of these institutions…). Countless others honored in actions that spoke louder than words: Trump’s presidency was indeed legitimate. But a stunned, liberally-based Democratic Party did not like it...was repulsed and horrified.

It then became easy and commonplace to argue that Trump was illegitimate, his presidency was a tweet-storm debacle. #NotMyPresident and excoriating refusals of the man, the Office, the Administration. [#2: “being exactly as intended or presented”...“genuinely good, impressive, capable of success”; 4: “conforming to recognized principles or accepted rules and standards” “fair or reasonable”]. All sentiments I understand in a deep-belly way, of course. I have tried (mostly) to hide from the news and participate in activist-advocacy ways for an honoring and rebuilding of our governmental institutions. But let's own up and see us all creating this threat...

Richardson’s email last week snagged something in me that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but finally could name when looking at legitimacy. Her fierce passion--deeply appreciated--is all about the current Republican Party’s refusal to honor the (now-certified) results of our Presidential Election, showing a clear victory for President-Elect Joseph R. Biden and Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris. She brilliantly outlines the development of the loyal opposition and argues a historical trajectory of Republican conservatism that has undermined the viability of honorable dissent in the face of an increasingly autocratic President.  And yet it is the Democrats of these last four years who have composted and fertilized the seeds of illegitimacy already all around us. And we are now surprised? A bit naive, don't you think?

Always, always here, it seems like all of us need to take a look at this man, our current President, Donald Trump, and see him as he is leaving the current stage (thank heavens) as who we are in some way. The aversions will be strong, and they will be different for each of us...but until more of our collective is willing to do just that, he--or authoritarians smarter and more malicious than he is--will return. Until we learn a new way...together...a new way in which everyone commits to help the current party in power to succeed on behalf of all of us.

The cynic in me says we have four years to learn a newer, better way. Let's not waste it by focusing on Trumpers. Can we look at ourselves? Really LOOK? Then LEARN? Perhaps a legitimate American is one who is willing to see his/her own shadow projections, constantly pulling them back from the political opposition to see what in that judgment speaks/points within. Perhaps every American is now born with the obligation to pull the projections back home and one action at a time, change the culture of discourse. Hmmm....

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Projections Aren't the End...Welcoming Them Home is the Way

Today I received the ‘bookend teaching’ to a question I have carried for well over three years now. I know I project my own pain into the world, and I am the focal point of other people’s projections; what is the wisdom teaching to break the cycle? To compost the pain? 

Multiple psychological perspectives upon the complexity of the human condition show a typical human response to discomfort, pain, overwhelming emotion is the projection of that pain beyond the body’s sensation. This requires dissociation of the pain from the body--usually a mental operation--and then the projection of this pain-ugliness-aversion onto another person, race, institution, community. All of us do this, though of course some more than others. All of us are creative in our projections too. When things get really tough, we can project most of our pain onto just about anyone in order to relieve the pain.

The bookend teaching I name above is a practice called the shadow bag, given marvelous contour and example, illustration and practice by Chameli Ardagh, founder of Awakening Women, an online (now) community of women’s empowerment and embodied mythology. It is not a practice that I can invite you into through these simple words--it needs context, preambles of other practices, a community of practitioners in which to allow the descent into repressed pains, forgotten sensations. But I can share with you the fruit of my practice this afternoon. If you’re interested and willing, you can be in touch with Chameli Ardagh via the linked website here for what she might offer you.

The instructions that led me to the journey I want to share? 

  • Drop down into your belly, your body, and identify a story or image in which you feel judgement of another. Feel the judgment. Describe it out loud, in your own voice, if you can.

  • Using your arms, in a scooping motion, bring your projection back to you. Release the object of your judgment from your projection, bringing it back into your body. Do this several times to feel the energy returning home to your own body.

  • Feel what you feel, back in your own body. Make space for it, in all its ugliness or pain or aversion. Let whatever images or memories that come arise into your awareness. Listen to your body for where the judgment-pain-aversion comes from. Where does it come from? Look into the Shadow Bag, to see what you learn...

  • Let the emotions-sensations expand. Feel everything that comes--tears, pain, shame, guilt, etc. Let your body hold it, release it, hold some more, release some more.

  • Perhaps using some music with a bit of a beat, a repetitive beat or lyrics, let your body move...gentle swaying...shaking...release… More may come...let it come…

  • Ease out of the practice gently, letting yourself transition from the depth spaces back into consciousness that communicates, might use words…

  • Sit with what you’ve learned...

My first exercise of this was a 'simple' domestic thing: my increased irritation and judgment of my husband’s way of eating at the dinner table. As our pandemic bubble has shrunk and we’ve had more and more extensive time together, I have been getting irritable about how he eats, the sound of him eating. It can become all I can think of when we sit there, sharing a meal. My stuff, not his. My judgment lands on him, unsuspecting and undeserving, but wow does it land. Sharing breakfast or dinner has become painful and distracting for me.

The fruit of the practice? I was led, viscerally, to a deep sadness I carry within me all the time, how often my own body as a woman gets judged...assessed… measured...even if it is to offer a compliment. I struggle to receive compliments from him, from many others, because to ‘succeed’ in beauty, the way beauty functions in our society, means others ‘fail’ at beauty. For a long time, I failed at beauty simply for self-protection in a world idolizing and abusing ‘attractive women.’ This was an unconscious choice, of course, so the judgments of my body by others and then internalized by me would cut me inside, for not being feminine enough, as ‘he’ defines ‘feminine’ (or as our society defines feminine, he has often retorted, like that would help). I shunned girly-girls or those ‘caving to society’s feminine’ as weak and uninteresting. And now today, this pandemic season, I’ve lost a ready source of seeing myself mirrored as beautiful in feminine eyes, nonjudgmental, curious, welcoming. I’ve lost the ability to be in loving and tactile ways of women being with women in circle time. Naturally, this old pain has arisen in me, projected onto him, at the dinner table. [Editorial note, 12 hours later: projection completely gone. Breakfast was delightful and free...].

Simple, right?

So let’s lean into a larger field of judgment, easy at hand. President (for now) Donald Trump. There is little in our social media worlds today that will trigger judgment in me as quickly as hearing his voice in a soundbite (yes, on NPR, not Fox), or watching a clip of him at a pre-election rally, or seeing a picture of him sitting in a golf-cart with the presidential seal plastered to the front. I literally and physically clench by body, reactively, instinctively. My throat gets a lump in it. My stomach aches and sometimes, tears will come from a deeper place in my belly. I feel anger, rage, and I can wind up with an evening completely distracted and wasted in a futile sense of anxiety. I find him a reprehensible man, repulsive and painful to look at. (Uranus consciousness, AW would say, without the unified-unifying consciousness of Gaia who loves all of her children, even the most ugly/averse, mythically speaking).

What would it be like--what fruit might come--if I were to look into the shadow bag with this overflowing cauldron of judgment and condemnation?

First of all, the judgment being so plentiful and multifaceted, I’ll probably have to do this practice for days or weeks to get to even a portion of the strands of all of it. But I was surprised and quite moved by just the first strand of it, with a brief practice of it this afternoon, in the ‘online half-day retreat’ I’d registered for a couple weeks back. I dropped down into my belly… I felt the violence of the judgments in me, against him. My womb and stomach clenched, going into paroxysms of pain, tears, deep belly weeping. Part of me held the ground beneath me and invited it some more. As I ‘wept myself out,’ I breathed into the space opening up within my body, waiting for images or words or memories…

He is incapable of feeling, were the words that bubbled up. My heart has broken into a thousand pieces in these four+ years, seemingly again and again as he bluffs and postures, exacts suffering on a whim of his tweet, divides and accuses seemingly at random but ultimately, at the ‘other’ to himself, be that by economics (most important to him), status, race, ethnicity, ability, etc. As much as I condemn his actions to be inappropriate for presidential leadership and care, the source of my judgment is not these obvious rationalizations or arguments from within leadership studies. 

It is excruciating for me to see him living a life incapable of feeling…and it is excruciating because I know a bit of what that is now, from the inside. I have deep grief, rage, and sadness at my own achingly slow recovery of feeling in my own body. I have relatively recently awakened to my own body as a woman from the inside, having been reared in a devout, faithful loving family whose Protestant heritage was to rationalize feeling more than feel it, experience it. It wasn’t until I was 45 years old that I was finally strong enough to ‘retrieve this part of my soul’ or ‘break open’ to the abandonment of feeling that happened to all of us in my ancestral lineage upon our birth(s). I have slowly been regaining my capacity for feelings that have always been there but that I have dissociated, avoided, repressed, denied, projected onto… It is excruciating for me to listen to a man with as much power as he has had, seeing him so incapable of feeling...concern for another, love for a perceived ‘enemy,’ compassion for those suffering and dying (whether from COVID or in our armed services), even curiosity or wonder. I will react immediately with all my rage, grief, sadness when I see the unbearable suffering of so many I know, and don't even know, that could have been stopped if he was capable of feeling.

I can use political language and leadership studies to make a persuasive argument (to liberals and non-Trump Republicans) against Donald Trump, with logical reasons for the legitimate judgments I have made for years. But the source of my judgment, my projection, is own journey back to deep feeling, the fears of being strong enough to withstand all that would arise, the pain of so much dissociated and separated from me, myself, and I.

What might our country become if instead of making arguments within the hallowed (and legitimate) halls of Reason, each of us was willing to really look into the Shadow Bag for where these judgments come from, for each of us? Every one of them would be different, for one thing, because no one's story is the same as another's. More importantly, however, this practice shifts the grief, rage, sadness in the body... I am more freed from my immediate triggers because the energy is different now in my body. He doesn't need to change in order for me to be free, in other words. I need to do this practice with judgment, opening space for compassionate listening to my rage, grief, sadness...releasing the feelings I've prevented myself from feeling for years, if not (often) decades. And then I don't get hooked into the liberal rage(s)...or the Trumpist rage(s)...

I've been gifted with a bookend practice to a question I have been asking for well over three years. In the fall of 2017, I became the lightning rod attractor of vicious projections from a participant in the Conscious Feminine Leadership Academy I led, co-facilitated. She wrote an excoriating several page review, spewing her pain onto me (mostly), and no one in the leadership circle could (or would?) protect or defend me in it. I knew everything she was spewing had more to do with her than with me, but I had no method or practice to move us to the next step (even if she would have wanted to be free of her pain, projected onto me). Our community line was "I refuse your projection," but that doesn't do any work with it, which is what we needed to learn how to do. But the leadership in our women's community didn't have the body-wisdom or the willingness...

Yet this is the wisdom of women committed to continual awakening. It is not to be done lightheartedly or haphazardly. It takes a strong container, a wise guide well versed in attachment and release of ego, a community of practice, and a willingness to descend with a trust that ascension will follow in its time.

Most Americans I know don’t have the preamble or patience for this kind of journey…so there's that...there's invitational and gentling work to be done to even open the portal(s)...

...but when enough of us are dead and dying...when the earth is even nearer her breaking point...then there will be more of us to hold the space for the rest of us to do this Work. This deeply Sacred Work of the Feminine awakening in women and men being readied for co-creation, new stories, better horizons...

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Freedom is Complicated...Complicating

Today (as is every day) a good day to remember our veterans, to consider the complicated freedom for which they’ve given so much, even the most that can be given.

One of the CrossFit traditions I so enjoy is the ‘hero workout’ chosen by the ‘box’ to honor a day like today. McGhee was the wko selected today, and here’s a bit about the veteran. Corporal Ryan C. McGhee, 21, was a US Army Ranger who was killed in action on May 13, 2009 by small arms fire during combat in central Iraq. He served with 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment of Fort Benning, GA. This was his fourth deployment, his first to Iraq. Ryan was engaged to Ashleigh Mitchell of Fredericksburg, VA. He is survived by his father Steven McGhee of Myrtle Beach SC, his mother Sherrie Battle McGhee, and his brother Zachary. These tend to be longer workouts, more strenuous so to honor the discipline and strength of those serving, especially those who lost their lives in the line of duty. We partnered up to do deadlifts, pushups, and box jumps. My body is weary and appreciates this visceral sense of honoring Veterans’ Day, of remembering Ryan McGhee, of mourning alongside his family and his fiancee.

Freedom is the clarion call for so many who stress our country does not do enough to support our troops, honor their service. It’s easy to make the argument that more could and should be done, particularly if you enter into the Veterans Hospital systems or the VA. Veterans often don’t know the benefits available to them, and the resourcing of the VA has historically been the least funded and most administratively challenged within lesser resources. So if we support our troops, we should fund and support the institutions that care for them, right? Except that would require more government than most Americans want to spend our money on, Republicans especially harping on about the need to shrink the government.

Complicated, right? We could dive into freedom in its “freedom from” lens, or move first into “freedom for.” Given the human propensity to see the world in an anxious, even negative/fearful light, the loudest voices clamoring for freedom today come in the freedom from stream… Freedom from government oversight (economy, guns, small business regulation), except in the matter of women’s bodies, of course, which does not merit this advocacy in “freedom from government oversight.” Complicated. Freedom from tyranny too, of course, fighting authoritarians all over the world...unless you like y/our currently-governing authoritarian, in which case, freedom from tyranny is not the lens as much as freedom from “them” or “those” who might disagree with you. Again, complicated.

“Freedom for” tends to focus on other streams at some cross purposes, but not always, from the “Freedom from” voices. Many today clamor for freedom to live freely, without government interference into love or family choices, into health or medicinal (shall we say?) choices. To be the Land of the Free, this suggests, means Americans (US ones) get to choose their work, their lifestyle, their religion, their leisure. The diversity in this stream of thought is overwhelming and contradictory, by definition. Complicated, to even know the newest wave of human expression (gender, for instance) or voice (pronouns) or creativity (art, culture, ritual and more).

So how do soldiers today perceive their calling(s) to discipline and performance, to protect this Land of the Free? At the root of freedom is an irrepressible paradox, after all. Soldiers live (and some die) to protect freedoms they would not choose themselves, simply because they are the complicated Whole of the United States. We have even crafted a Union (so far) that patiently processes and protects the freedom of some to endanger the whole, to endanger the entire democratic experiment itself.

One of my favorite West Wing episodes is The Midterms, one of the early Season Two episodes following the shootings at Rosyln, Virginia. Josh is recovering from intensive surgery on his lungs/heart, trying to get CJ to open her briefing with a thing on the Theory of Everything. “Psychics at Cal-Tech have found…” she begins, then stops, then recalls, “That was probably supposed to be physicists...physicists at Cal-Tech…” Josh bangs his head against the hospital bed headboard. 

The most moving moment, however, is at the very end, when all of the efforts in the staff and down the Democratic Party line offered up the precise same number of seats in House with which they ran. Everything would remain the same. The staff sit outside drinking beer on the steps of Josh’s home, with him in his PJs and a robe. “Don’t tell me democracy doesn’t have a sense of humor,” Josh says. “Toby...what do you say about a Government that goes out of its way to protect even citizens that try to destroy it?” Then begins a refrain...spoken by each staff there...

God bless America

God bless America

God bless America

God bless America

Today, in the face of a confirmed and re-confirmed honest election, in the face of an outgoing President who calls veterans suckers and losers, especially those who have paid the ultimate price...I bow to all veterans who serve to protect all of usThat has to feel so incredibly complicated, complicating...

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Collective Habits of Mind in White America? How Do We Begin...Continue...?

“Stacey Abrams certainly made her mark today,” she smiled, musing aloud over her coffee the morning she and her husband awoke to the news Georgia was turning Blue. He looked up from his iPad, having been immersed himself in the unfolding election drama. “It’s white voters in Atlanta who are shifting the State,” he said. She startled, and looked at him for a while, considering. She returned to her own read of the news.

This hypothetical exchange demonstrates something that seems particularly White and even potentially damning for all of us today, as endemic to higher education as it is: knee-jerk contradiction and refusal to consider larger stories than we hear on first impulse. Our immediate assessment may be one of racism, a prejudgment of some event within racialized terms. And it is that, because if you have White skin in the USA, you are interwoven with racialized presumptions. (See “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” Avenue Q, for a light-hearted banter about this. To deny being a racist is to presume one could be a purist and not have racialized assumptions, a thing impossible in the USofA history and caste system). But I want to ask a different kind of question, while not contradicting that one.

This exchange illustrates a habit of mind that is initially not collective...that doesn’t have a broad collective sense underneath it. Stay with me...this may take a little bit to get at, within text. This is a quiet, typical exchange between a husband and wife (who are both white), and yet a curious one too. The wife’s statement was true, no matter the color of voters. [This assessment should be deepened to include the sisters with whom Abrams made her mark in Georgia politics (Tamieka Atkins-ProGeorgia, Helen Butler-GCPA, Nse Ufot - New Georgia Project, and Deborah Scott - GA Stand Up). An illustration of collective-thinking, as Abrams has repeatedly offered in the social media and news media acclaim she has received]. The husband’s statement may have been accurate for the voters of that particular county, in metro Atlanta. It would take research to confirm. But why draw the distinction in the first place? Why the need to contradict a statement as bland as "made her mark"? Why the need to state it was White voters? Why not presuppose a collective in which Black and White voters together made the difference? 

I have found myself wondering how such a pattern could arguably originate within White heritage and what, if anything (else) can be done about it within me? Within those I love? Deep within the white bodies I know...what impulses rise and why? 

I’m connecting dots from something that clicked within me this past summer, when I heard a YouTube video of a man I’d never heard of before: Stephen Jenkinson. He is the focus of a documentary, Griefwalker, and has founded an educational community called Orphan Wisdom.

To cite from Wikipedia: “Orphan Wisdom is a method of inquiry gathered together and wondered about primarily, but not exclusively, by Stephen Jenkinson. Jenkinson expresses his experience in seeing what modern Western people "suffer from most is culture failure, amnesia of ancestry and deep family story, phantom or sham rites of passage, no instruction on how to live with each other or with the world around us or with our dead or with our history. Orphan Wisdom wonders about the origins and consequence of this state and contends with building skills to be in the presence of this fact.”  [To hear Jenkinson’s voice, you can listen to the first of seven clips here. It’s about 18 minutes long.] In this clip, he shares observations that I never really considered, having swum in the American politic unconsciously for so many decades.

My paraphrase of his observations in the video: The ancestors for so many white bodies in the USA today chose--out of necessity, most likely--to cut ties with all that they knew, to make a new life without economic servitude or religious persecution.  White bodies today have a heritage of disconnection and dissociation from all that came before, all that could not be survived. A friend/mentor of mine has quipped, with a smile: “Western ancestors are the least employed on the planet. They never get invited to help with anything.” To survive in the New World required a break with elders, with the wisdom of what had been before. A break in the human generational, ancestral line. Quite distinctive in the thousands of generations of human beings on the planet. White bodies broke with collective habits of mind to survive ‘on their own’ in a New World that they gambled on having a better chance at life than where and with whom they had lived before. This elemental decision of so many, over so much time, could so easily have this deleterious effect on white bodies’ ability to think collectively, to live through persecution (real or simply intergenerational-body-memoried). So much of the White American consciousness is this differentiation, this tendency to depart and divide.

Of course, it can be idealized in the notions of American self-sufficiency and individualism that can be seeds of innovation and artistry. But it can also show up in an utter refusal of limits, of loss, leading to an unconscious belligerence we are seeing so much of today, in White populations. (If communities of color are deemed 'belligerent,' I would call that conscious-activity, with good reason lived in their bodies, needing to protest to be seen and heard.) Or more subtly, this tendency can show up in an unconscious, kneejerk reaction of contradiction and refusal to see any larger pattern in anyone else’s suffering, anyone else's lineage. Like can happen over morning coffee, reading the news.

Regardless of the verifiability of such an observation, the question remains before us… What will it take for White America to develop (again? From within?) collective habits of mind? Ones that do not differentiate and divide from a larger and larger pattern of  meaning-making in the world?

The context of the conversation with Stephen Jenkinson was elderhood, an apparent crisis in elderhood. One can hear his words as commentary on the crisis of leadership in our world today, or more broadly, the challenge within American norms to value aging, becoming an initiated elder (able to sustain and share the wisdom of a collective), honoring the lineages through which we come, as American individuals. I think we could agree that our country is in a crisis of leadership, what many cultures would call elderhood. We have vastly different cultures surrounding what leadership is supposed to do/be, and what/whom we can accept as leader. We could parse until the Eschaton the modern-trope that young people need to lead in our world today, but thousands of generations of human beings have lived in cultures where young people didn’t have to lead...where the culture actually initiated its adults into elderhood, living wisdom of the collective as a whole. We do not live in a culture of initiated adulthood, moving toward elderhood.

Our leadership in the United States does not (by and large) demonstrate Elderhood: wisdom of ancestors, accountability to heritage/lessons learned, collective habits of mind, willingness to compromise/collaborate for the sake of the Whole, making unpopular decisions for the sake of the majority’s care of the minority, caring for the least-last-lost-poor-left-behind. [Note: not the leader’s care of the minority, but the leader’s leadership of the majority to care for the minority.] If anything, our government(s)--State and Federal--are increasingly adolescent (which I realize is an insult to adolescents). We are governed, heightened by media-sound-bites, by either/or thinking, win/lose philosophies, winner-takes-all money-driven discourse, refusal to compromise or collaborate, ultimately, name-call and disrespect of all who are not in ‘your tribe.’ Hardball, or nothing

It’s junior-high-time in the Senate and the House, driven by the worst impulses of power-over, greed, and disdain. It’s Junior-High Time in American politics because that is who we have become as an electorate. We do not realize that very few of us are in touch with our heritage, few of us are attuned to the reality of democracy (and its fragility) and its intense demand to be able to hold irreconcilables side by side as a community, as a collective caring for all. 

Lots more could be said here, of course, but for now… How does this crisis in elderhood originate for White America? How can we begin to look at our habits of mind that immediately contradict, resist, and refuse...all without throwing out science, the critical mind, the need to refine our common discourses with intellect yet steeped in the heart?

What work does White America need to do to reshape collective habits of mind, that more easily imagine larger patterns around us beyond what we know or have experienced?

What if what White America needs to wake up to is not only what we're hearing from communities of color--all justifiable--but elementally how white minds think in higher education? How they have been shaped in Protestantism, one of the most conflict-and-schism oriented traditions on the planet?

This would also be a HUGE inroad into liberal root of higher education is this prioritization of criticism, of skepticism, often at expense of charity/caritas, of interdependence.

How do White people relearn COLLECTIVE habits of mind and body? How do educated White people learn their own predilection to criticize and demonize the unintellectual? Hmmmm....

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