Rashomon

elephant

Some friends and I gathered on the Friday after the election for a post-mortem. Everyone had a different idea of what had gone wrong.

I ticked off James Comey, new laws in swing states aimed at suppressing Democratic turnout, and the many who couldn’t stand Donald Trump but couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton—or vote at all—because they preferred “principle” over compromise, or didn’t think the outcome mattered either way.

“Stop blaming people for not voting!” one friend countered. “The problem is that it was the wrong nominee, and until the Democrats put forward a candidate who inspires young people, they’ll continue to lose.”

This sparked an indictment of neo-liberalism and Debbie Wasserman Schulz. When someone said the 2020 ticket needed a person of color and a woman, preferably Elizabeth Warren, I asked, “Did you not get the memo from this election?”

We certainly couldn’t conduct a proper post-mortem without a shout-out to racism and misogyny!

Not to mention Trump’s celebrity status and shrewd manipulation of the media, his constant lies bleeding together to obscure the stain of falseness; the lack of civics education; a post-factual electorate; the demonization of Hillary; her failure to reach out to working-class white men or articulate a clear message; the steady drip-drip-drip of Fox News and Emailgate; Anthony Weiner! (Oy vey, Anthony Weiner!)

Our host calmly interjected how hard it is for the incumbent party to ever win a third term.

“Joe Biden would have won,” someone said wistfully.

“Michael Moore nailed it,” said another.

This, and the existence of an empathy gap, was about all we could agree on, though empathy for one another was in short supply.

“We could call ourselves the Friendly Fire Salon!” I joked.

It was like Rashomon, where blind men correctly describe one aspect of an elephant, but nobody sees the whole.

Now there’s not only an elephant in the room, but one on the way to the White House, too.

*

Care to add your two cents and what your discussions have been like?

 

Aftermath

aftermathThe Day After the Election

Last night I felt the same as when McGovern lost in 1972, although then my 17-year-old self sobbed and sobbed, and now I am too shocked to feel much of anything. It was unthinkable that McGovern could lose. It meant the cataclysmic Vietnam War would continue, with thousands more pointless deaths, a country ruined further.

I don’t remember how my parents reacted. Probably my mother cried and cursed at the TV. Probably they tried to comfort me, sharing my horror and grief, assuring me that the good fight must continue.

Now it is my daughters seeking comfort via text in these inconsolable times. I don’t know what to say, but my husband does. He writes:

We are incredibly fortunate to have a loving, healthy, prosperous family whose members have strong and good values. By always cherishing and building on this, we can prevent those who appeal to hatred and divisiveness from defeating us.

Love, Daddy

The morning after the election I tell my husband I haven’t felt this bad since 9/11 (although thankfully, 11/9 has not entailed such a horrible loss of life). At least the earlier trauma was mitigated by a brief feeling of unity, of the best in the world coming forth to vanquish the worst. Not so now, though that’s what I hunger for. I stay away from the news, but I relish the lingering hellos I exchange with every woman I pass, the conversations with the regulars in Comforts, a string of texts and emails. All of my therapy clients talk about the election. It’s good to be distracted by work, to hold their feelings as they mingle with my own.

Three Days Out

Maria, the woman who was born in El Salvador and now cleans our house, comes on Fridays. Three days after the election, I open the door to greet her. As always, she is wreathed in smiles, ready to work.

“Trump—Lo Siento!” I say. I’m sorry. Maria’s smile crumples a bit; she gravely nods.

This Friday is also Veteran’s Day. Since school is closed, Maria’s American-born daughter is with her. I ask her a bit about school, what grade she’s in, how she likes it.

Then I ask, “How are you doing? Are kids afraid?”

“Some are,” she responds.

A couple of days later I check out the Facebook page of a racial justice organization I’m considering joining. Someone has posted an essay telling white people that their professions of shock and disbelief, even their apologies, to people of color are microaggressions.

I feel hopeless in a different way.

Later Still . . .

It gets worse as the shock wears off. I’ve had difficult sleeping; I drift off only to wake again to the cold pit in my stomach, “OMG, Trump was elected President!” flashing in neon lights in my head. Then a squall of tears, and my husband holds me, his warm body a blanket of comfort. I sigh that broken sigh of someone who needs to cry but can’t quite. The tears come again in the morning as I read the paper, the headlines indisputable. A climate change denier is announced to head the EPA’s transition team. I cry a little in the shower. Finally, several days out, I manage more than a brief squall. My husband holds me again, and at last I sleep better.

It feels wrong to sleep better.

*

How are you doing post-election? Also, a kind reader sent along this link, which expresses what I’ve also been feeling: http://johnpavlovitz.com/2016/11/17/if-you-voted-for-him/

“Historic”

keep-calm-and-make-history-17We keep hearing about this historic election, which it certainly would have been had the first woman become president. But what exactly do we mean by pronouncing Donald Trump’s ascension “historic?” He certainly isn’t the first white man to assume the presidency. Nor is he the first to lose the popular vote. Do we mean he is the first reality TV star? The first candidate with absolutely no experience as an elected official? No record of public or military service? The first to conduct a campaign primarily through Twitter? The first to prove his point over and over again, at least metaphorically, that he could stand and shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes?

There are definitely many firsts that Donald Trump represents. But the word “historic” connotes breakthrough progress, not a regression to the meanness of Trump’s campaign. To call his election “historic” is to dignify a man who traffics in constant degradation and divisiveness. Such euphemistic language elevates him to a level he does not deserve. It is another in a long string of false equivalencies that have poisoned our politics.

Election Day

It was disconcerting Tuesday morning to walk downtown through the Hub, a big intersection that is crammed with people waving placards for every cause and candidate every election day. The Hub was deserted. Certainly our small town in its deep blue bubble was not a place to expend national resources, but no one? Not even people vying for highly competitive local races? It was as if the election weren’t even happening, except for a Trump/Pence bumper sticker on a parked truck a block away, and a handmade poster complete with horns and a pitchfork that read “Hellary 2016.”

Despite these ominous signs, I was sure I’d be celebrating the election of our first female president that night. The polls were looking pretty good, despite the FBI’s damaging salvo. During my final phone banking shift, when we were making calls to Florida, one supporter I spoke to told me her seven-year-old daughter’s class held a mock election, and Hillary had won in a landslide.

Then came another inkling of trouble that I also dismissed. A man told me that his first-grader was one of only ten Hillary voters in her classroom’s poll. “This is a blue county,” he said, “And Trump blew her out of the water. I am so frightened.” I told him about the woman I’d just talked with, reassuring myself if not him. A few hours later, as I headed off to our friend’s house with a plate of scrumptious chocolate layer bars and a bottle of bubbly, the closeness of the Virginia returns was worrisome. But I told myself that the northern suburbs had not yet come in, and remained confident.

As we tuned in to MSNBC, CNN, even Fox, looking for a different reality than the one that seemed to be unfolding, I started fielding texts from our daughter:

“I’M SO NERVOUS HOLY CRAP! HOW IS THIS HAPPENING?

“Keep the faith,” I texted back. “It will just be closer and a longer night than we’d hoped.”

Two hours later, as Stephen Colbert’s national wake ended on Showtime, I had dropped all optimism, all pretense of maternal comfort, unless “Fucking unbelievable” counts as reassurance.

Our host took the dog out to pee, and upon his return reported that the party at the neighbor’s house seemed oddly raucous, unlike our gloomy gathering. My husband and I left a bit before 10:00, still with no verdict, but with our champagne unpopped and our hearts broken. Some people were leaving the party across the street, and we heard a voice call out, “White men rule!” We tried to convince ourselves that we might have said the same thing in an ironic attempt at gallows humor. But we could not deny that they were celebrating, while we were in shock and mourning.

I know that I must engage in soul-searching to understand what I missed, and why. I must acknowledge my own failures of empathy, my candidate’s poor choices, the legitimate concerns of those who voted for her opponent. There are a million different converging factors that have resulted in this outcome, and I know that blaming it on racism and misogyny is overly simplistic and insulting. Still, it is naive to deny the powerful influence of these virulent strains. They are here in my own backyard.

This is our deep blue bubble. This is my deep denial. This is where we live.

*

What was your election day and night like?

Your Vote is Your Voice

Vote

Leave it to Dr. Seuss to guide us through perilous times. During this election season, we’d be wise to take a page from the good doctor.

In Horton Hears a Who, the residents of Who-ville face disaster unless they speak up. The Mayor rallies the townspeople to make their voices heard in an act not just of civic duty, but of survival. Unfortunately, it’s not enough. Desperate, the Mayor races through the town in search of those who aren’t taking part. Finally, he comes across a young citizen named Jo-Jo who is just standing there, not making a sound.

The Mayor grabs Jo-Jo and implores him to come to the aid of his country in its darkest hour, saying, “Open your mouth, lad! For every voice counts.’

Jo-Jo clears his throat and shouts out a single syllable: ‘YOPP!”

That one voice makes all the difference. Who-ville is saved.

Voters should heed the wisdom of Dr. Seuss. The United States has one of the lowest voter turnout rates of any advanced democracy: even the momentous 2008 presidential race brought out less than 63 percent of eligible voters. Participation rates drop to about 40 percent in mid-term elections; and this year’s primaries were decided by only 28.5 percent of eligible voters. Too many can’t be bothered, or feel their vote makes no difference, or that it’s all the same anyway.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Voting matters. This year’s presidential candidates offer a stark contrast. The stakes are high, the results consequential. First Lady Michelle Obama has pointed out that just a handful of votes in each precinct can swing the outcome in key states.

Your vote is your voice. And as Dr. Seuss reminds us, every voice counts.

*

Research has shown that one of the most effective ways to increase voter participation is to make a specific plan, and to share it with your friends, especially on social media. Planning and sharing that plan increases commitment and follow-through. What’s your voting plan?

 

 

 

The Girl on the Train

train-entering-tunnel

I was 17 years old and vacationing in Germany with my parents, who sat facing me on the train. I stared out the window, the seat beside me empty. As the train traveled through the Rhine Valley, we picked up more passengers. Eventually a middle-aged man boarded the crowded train, sat down next to me, and unfolded his newspaper. I continued to stare out the window. After a while, the train entered a tunnel and everything went dark.

Suddenly, the man was all over me, pressing his face into mine, groping my breasts, my thighs. I froze, too shocked and embarrassed to move or utter a sound. The instant the train emerged from the tunnel, he returned to reading his newspaper.

My parents looked at my ashen face and asked what was wrong.

“Nothing,” I mumbled.

I hadn’t thought much about this incident over the years.

Until Donald Trump was caught on tape bragging about forcing himself on women.  Then I was back in that dark tunnel again, along with millions of women remembering the unwanted advances we’ve silently endured.

Meanwhile, Trump’s doubled down on the disrespect that’s been evident throughout his campaign by demeaning and threatening those who have come forward with allegations against him.

“I don’t know these women,” he says dismissively.

He’s right about that–though not in the way he intended.

Trump did not know the woman who says he groped her on the plane, just as the man on the train didn’t know me. No one who views others as simply there for the taking bothers to know—or care—anything about them.

Trump may not know us, but we know him. And we’re tired of putting up with him and his kind.

I am no longer that scared-silent girl on the train. I have found my voice, and I intend to speak up.

*

Please feel free to share your experiences and your thoughts.

Persuasion

A metal toggle switch with plate reading Listen and Ignore, symbolizing how we choose to pay attention to certain messages

Recently I shared an article on Facebook by a Bernie-supporting Hillary skeptic who articulated his reasons for voting for her. He’d decided the volatile political climate and the increasing unreliability of polls made it too risky–even in “safe” states–to stay home or to vote for a third-party candidate.

I had not heard this argument before, and wanted to inject this thoughtful piece into a discourse largely dominated by bashing from both sides of the political divide.

Right away a Facebook friend I haven’t seen since college commented: “Don’t you think that incessantly hectoring people might have the effect opposite to that desired?”

I was taken aback. My posting rate on Facebook hardly qualifies as incessant. Besides, there was nothing remotely hectoring about this article. Still, there’s no denying that my motivation in sharing it was to persuade reluctant voters to choose Hillary.

I decided to engage with rather than ignore my friend. He immediately replied that he didn’t mean me personally, “but that the daily attacks on the folk who are not gung-ho for HRC, including the accusation that we are women-haters, are really counterproductive.” He likened well-meaning attempts at political persuasion to the noxious proselytizing meant to convert people from one religion to another. Besides, it made him think that Hillary’s supporters lacked the faith that she should and could win, and found their apocalyptic pronouncements about not voting for the Un-Trump unhelpful.

His response reminded me of a party I attended right before the 2004 election. Amid a dozen or so Chardonnay-sipping liberals eternally bitter over the selection of W four years earlier was one lone Nader supporter. Unrepentant, he planned to vote for Nader again.

“How COULD you?” everyone exploded in unison. As we all moved in for the oh-so-persuasive kill, I could see this man’s jaw tighten, his posture stiffen. You can probably guess who he voted for.

I’ve learned a lot since that encounter—if you want to preach outside the choir, it’s better not to screech or beseech. Still, there are reasons to try. Or was my Facebook friend a case in point that such attempts invariably backfire?

Recently I’ve had many conversations with my friend Linda (who also doesn’t like Hillary but who will vote for her). She has been talking with her son and his friends, most of them young, fervent Bernie supporters who care deeply about racial justice. They now feel totally disillusioned by the political process, seeing little difference between the parties and no point in voting. Linda has a lot of empathy for this viewpoint, and mostly listens. But when she does talk, whatever she has to say doesn’t only fall on deaf ears—it closes those ears further.

Periodically I send things with a fresh or compelling perspective to Linda, saying, “What about this? Could this help?” One was a recent column by Charles Blow. Linda was almost persuaded until the last paragraph:

Protest voting or not voting at all isn’t principled. It’s dumb, and childish, and self-immolating. I know you’re young, but grow up!

With those words, Blow blew it. Of course, Linda never forwarded the article to her son, and has wisely stopped talking to him about the election altogether.

Years ago Republican pollster Frank Luntz quipped, “The trouble with Hillary is she reminds everyone of their first wife.” She also reminds people of their mothers. There are legitimate reasons to be skeptical of Hillary, but this unconscious association has gotten short shrift in understanding the level of antipathy generated by the candidacy of the first woman who has a shot at the presidency. Often what mothers say, no matter how wise and well-intended, has the effect of generating resistance. You should listen to your mother, but do you really want to? Middle-aged mothers like me who are trying to persuade others, especially young people, may only be perpetuating the maternal nag problem.

Is it possible to change people’s minds? We are now inundated with 24/7 information and misinformation, and live in silos that reinforce our worldview while keeping out other perspectives. Social science research demonstrates that when people are shown evidence contradicting their firmly held beliefs, they don’t reconsider; instead, they double down.

If one person’s persuasion is another’s hectoring, what’s a mother to do? What’s a concerned citizen to do?

*

 Have you tried to influence anyone’s vote in this election season? Has anyone tried to influence yours? What works and doesn’t work?

 

 

Mental Health and Presidential Politics

presidents-mental-illnessWith all the furor over the presidential candidates’ physical and mental health, I found myself wondering not about the ethics of armchair analysis or the quality and timing of the information released so far, but another question: What would happen if the medical records of someone running for president revealed any current or past treatment for mental health issues?

In 1972, Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton had to step down when news surfaced about his prior hospitalizations and electroshock treatment for depression. What would happen today if there was a notation about ECT, Prozac, Lithium, addiction, or the like in a candidate’s chart? Would it be disqualifying? Should it be?

Given the stigma and discrimination that still surround mental illness, it’s not surprising that very few politicians and no presidential candidates admit to struggling with or seeking treatment for psychological problems. This does not mean there haven’t been plenty of afflicted presidents; a 2006 study found that nearly half of 37 presidents whose historical records were reviewed met the criteria for psychiatric diagnoses. Some, like Lincoln, rank among our greatest presidents.

It’s a shame that stigma and discrimination discourage proactive and responsible responses to many treatable conditions. It’s not the presence or absence of a mental illness (or life circumstance) that counts, but how someone deals with it. As any therapist knows, what’s worrisome is not the person who knows something is wrong and seeks help, but the person who doesn’t.

Not all mental illnesses are the same. Nor are all jobs. Military personnel and commercial airline pilots routinely face the quandary that acknowledging significant psychological distress may derail their careers not only because of stigma, but due to legitimate concerns about risk to self and others.

What about the presidency, a high-stress, high-responsibility job if ever there was one? People often quip that you’d have to be crazy to want to be president. It’s no joking matter, though: for decades there have been serious proposals for an independent and impartial evaluation of the physical and mental health of all presidential candidates. Assuming we could find such examiners and eliminate stigma, though, diagnosis is an imperfect art and poorly predictive of performance. (Thomas Eagleton, for example, went on to have a long and distinguished career in the Senate and academia.)

Anti-social personality disorder, malignant narcissism, and paranoia have been commonly cited as conditions that ought to raise alarm, if not disqualify someone from the presidency. There is often a partisan slant to these opinions. But even if an official and impartial diagnosis could be made, why would it be persuasive when the traits and behaviors in question are already perfectly obvious for all to see? Besides, such characteristics may or may not have anything to do with a candidate’s mental health.

Perhaps we should be more concerned about the ill state of the body politic: We are too often split into polarized camps, divorced from reality, and suffering from anxiety, paranoia, withdrawal, and despair.

These problems are much more difficult to diagnose and treat.

*

What are your thoughts about this?

 

When Will It Be Over?

giant-meteor-2016Please! Make it stop!

That’s how a lot of people are feeling about the 2016 presidential election. So I had to chuckle when I saw the novel solution to this endless and demoralizing campaign season proposed on the above bumper sticker.

Still, planetary annihilation seems a steep price to pay, especially when you consider that the race will actually end one way or another in just a few weeks.

So rather than clutching our heads and moaning, “When will it be over?” a better question is “When it’s over, how do you want things to be?”

For me, the choice is easy.

For starters, I’d like a president who actually believes that climate change is real, so will try to do something to prevent planetary annihilation.  Or not bring it about more catastrophically than even a giant meteor would:

“I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”  — Tony Schwartz, the repentant ghostwriter of  The Art of the Deal, in conversation with Jane Mayer of The New Yorker.

On a less dire note, I’d like a president with steadiness and grit.

I’d like a president with lifelong dedication to public service and fighting tirelessly to improve the lives of children, women, families, and ordinary Americans.

I’d like a president who will appoint Supreme Court justices who will uphold a woman’s right to choose and overturn Citizen’s United.

I’d like a president who will build upon and improve Obamacare so that everyone can have high-quality and affordable healthcare.

I’d like a president who will make college more affordable and create good-paying jobs for the world we live in now.

I’d like a president who is famous for the ability to listen, do the homework required to understand complex issues, work collaboratively even with people whose views are different, and find solutions to vexing problems.

I’d like a president with experience, heart, keen intelligence, and respectability on the international stage.

I’d like a president who doesn’t insult and mock people, incite violence and prejudice, cheat people, lie routinely, drive businesses into the ground, and require 24/7 attention.

That’s why I’m voting for Hillary Clinton. And spending my free time volunteering to help elect her.

Sure, I’m not thrilled about her hawkishness or the self-inflicted wounds we sometimes see. But even if she’s not my ideal candidate, I’d vote for her even if I didn’t think her opponent would be an unmitigated disaster whose elevation to the highest office would reward and reinforce all that is worst in America.

Fortunately, I like and admire Hillary, and think she’d make an excellent president. But if you share only my misgivings about Trump and not my enthusiasm for her, you can still vote while holding your nose.

That’s it. That’s the choice. No third-party votes or staying home to “send a message.”

Because that message might result in President Donald Trump.

I’d rather withstand a giant meteor.

 

 

 

Fifteen Years Out

Candle in the darkIt’s been fifteen years since nineteen men on a suicide mission turned the Twin Towers into smoldering rubble and America into a traumatized nation. I turned off the TV soon after the horror broke. Back then, I had no need of seeing the black billows of toxic smoke on continuous loop, the skyscrapers imploding again and again. Instead I fastened on stories of humanity’s best in response to humanity’s worst—people standing in line for hours to donate blood; young kids emptying their piggybanks for the Red Cross; volunteers forming brigades to get food and supplies to rescue workers; the heroism of first responders; outpourings of sorrow and support from all over the globe.

It’s hard to remember such ordinary and extraordinary acts of kindness and courage now, obscured as they are by what often seems a world in flames. Those planes flew not only into the heart of financial and political power, but right into our collective psyche, fracturing a unifying moment into long-lasting reverberations of fear and vengeance.

As we commemorate the trauma that has so shaped our new century, I’ve found again a remnant of hope. The Red Bandanna: A Life. A Choice. A Legacy, by Tom Rinaldi, recounts the story of Welles Crowther, a 24-year-old volunteer firefighter turned equities trader who led people from the 78th floor of the burning South Tower to safety, returning again and again to rescue others before dying himself when the building collapsed. His body was found six months later. Those whose lives he’d saved remembered him for his red bandanna, something he’d worn since his father gave it to him at age seven.

The NPR segment in which I learned about the Man in the Red Bandanna featured Crowther’s mother, Alison, speaking at the dedication of the National September 11 Memorial in 2014. Here’s what she said:

“It is our greatest hope that when people come here and see Welles’s red bandanna, they will remember how people helped each other that day, and we hope that they will be inspired to do the same in ways both big and small. This is the true legacy of September 11th.”

Her words bring back to me what I felt in that briefest of pauses fifteen years ago, when people’s love and generosity and courage prevailed over hatred and fear.

*

What are your thoughts on this anniversary of 9/11?