A strong mind, not a loud voice is the best protection for populist dinner tables
vol. 1 issue 46
Here in the States, where most of my readers live, it’s Thanksgiving Eve. It is my favorite holiday, although for the past 20 years, there have been so many challenges to the status quo in my personal life that from year to year, the holiday has not been one I could reliably say would reflect traditions I associate with it. Sometimes, I even wonder why I still cling to it as my favorite holiday since how it plays out doesn’t look the way in my mind’s eye it should.
After the better part of this year of writing, podcasting, and publishing docu-mental, as well as developing offline friendships with some of my readers who generously share how my work is impacting them, I have an insight into why I cling to it: I need something that serves as a touchstone of my Americaness in these chaotic times. Thanksgiving is that thing.
The Fourth of July is our birthday, but I am repelled by its bombast. With all those so-called patriotic nostrums spooned down the throats of adherents of both predominant political parties, there is no real quiet time for reflecting on what being American means to each of us personally. The way I remember this most recent Fourth is by the several days-long migraine I had and the bizarre accounting by our president that Continental army troops overtook the airports to win concessions from the Red Coats during the Revolutionary War, added to his conflating a key battle from the War of 1812 with the War for Independence.
At the time, it was so absurd it was funny. Looking back on that, it’s not funny at all. It’s terrifying. We’ve handed the reigns over to someone who is utterly ignorant of our history. How can this person possibly be trusted with our future?
Meanwhile, Thanksgiving is private. I needn’t gag on the prescriptive notions of patriotism insisted upon by know-nothings. I can make the holiday whatever I want it to mean and share it with whomever I choose. The emphasis is on creating networks of love and togetherness and on nourishment, not just from a cornucopia of traditional foods, but from the milk of human kindness.
In the past week I have received several “here’s how to survive your MAGA relatives” missives, including one that laid out winning arguments for each talking point a MAGA person might make. There was even a surprisingly persuasive one that made shaming MAGA supporters an imperative. That directive’s power was in its simple list of all the cruelties and inhumane things that have had our president’s name and/or an executive order attached to them in the past three years. Stated plainly with no supporting argument , it was stark. Americans who support the current regime will have a lot of explaining to do when history asks them, “But, why?”
I reject these strategies only because Thanksgiving has never been for me about girding for battle, and certainly not WINNING. We can do with a little less winning lately. It’s exhausting and it’s hollow, even if it is vaunted by the Ft. McHenry commando and his Revolutionary War pilots. For me, Thanksgiving is about togetherness. Even if from year to year how I mark it has changed, and with whom I share it, there is one constant: Thanksgiving emphasizes the inherent kindness in Americans. It is our greatest blessing, the thing we confidently can be grateful we share and feel.
My neighborhood includes a milieu of foreign nationals who have traveled widely. Twice now, I have shared my holiday meal with some of them. Over and again, what my foreign born friends – people from nearly everywhere, from Sri Lanka to Saudi Arabia to France to Argentina to Ghana and the UK – tell me is that regardless of what they might think of American foreign policies, they love our amiability. We stand out globally for our charity and kindness. We can be counted upon to be generous and welcoming. I am always so proud to be American when I hear this.
And my own experience bears this out. I also have traveled extensively, and have been shown hospitality in many foreign lands, but in the 40 or so US states I have visited, my fellow Americans stand out. You are welcoming. You take an interest. You smile. You give. You love. You laugh. We are kind people, no matter our origins.
That’s why I think of Thanksgiving as a more honestly American holiday. It’s a time we can be true to ourselves, exhibit our kindness, minus the pressure to perform “being AMERICAN, the brand”.
This is what makes what we are doing to each other now so much more painful for me, all this shaming and blaming, battling and winning.
We are not remembering who we really are.
As I noted, it has been through publishing docu-mental this year that I have come to see how much I need a touchstone of my America, the one that feels most like the country I love. I need this talisman because with every report I’ve written, with nearly every insight I have shared, there has been a darkness that I – and you along with me – have had to explore.
At its heart, docu-mental was to be an online journal mapping the developing American psyche during these shifting times. My stated intention was to elucidate five particular states of the American mind set I’d observed has been specifically impacted in recent times. I figured that by drawing your attention to them, we could find new ways of thinking and together work to re-think how we approach our anxieties, fears, and darker moments so we could avoid being demoralized and come out stronger on the other side.
The key was to observe how thinking authentic thoughts has become increasingly difficult in an atmosphere of constantly being told to outsource our minds, bodies, and so many aspects of our lives to industry of one sort or another.
But this journey so far has led me to see irrefutably that we’re not talking about dark moments, but dark times.
We are on the precipice of some kind. Many of my readers and listeners have written to me privately to say so; they don’t want to say so on the comments threads. I used to get annoyed, but now I understand. There is a fear I hadn’t grasped the depths of before.
When we say the center cannot hold, we’re too late. The center has given way. Which way we tumble and whether we land on our feet is going to take more than re-thinking how we see our surroundings.
As we learned in this podcast with former US Senate secretary Kelly Johnston, the vacuum of power once held by centrists was formed in the early and mid-1970s, thanks to Watergate. The mad rush to fill it was given rocket fuel when, also during that time, we came off the Gold Standard, unleashing financial globalism and the unsustainable 99:1 scenario of today, as elucidated in this podcast with British economist Grace Blakeley.
The status quo of America as a law-abiding, Constitution-fearing, middle class-aspiring land of opportunity has been morphing into an outright fantasy for years now. It’s been pretense fueled by credit cards and staggering budget deficits.
The impeachment process is important, but it will not reverse the facts behind this fantasy. Neither will invoking the 25th Amendment. More than ever, my conviction as hinted at in this podcast with psychiatrist and sole surviving Goldwater Rule author Dr. Allen Dyer, is that the president and his behavior, erratic and however else you want to characterize it, is not the problem but the symptom of a larger illness: what we thought was our common truth has turned out to be false.
And now, we can’t agree on a common truth. I am telling you what I know it to be, namely that we are kind, but I fear it will be a long time before we remember and agree on that and then proceed to form governments accordingly.
Without a common plot line, the “status quo” is fluid right now. All of which makes challenging it less a mental health exercise, as I initially thought, and more of a strategy for outright survival.
Every populist movement I have studied has this element to it: leaders who see an opportunity for self-aggrandizement, and so clamor to tell the population what to think and how to act. They fear that without authoritarian enforcement of these “norms” they call for, they will lose power. More often than not, it doesn’t go so well for the citizens who cash their chips on such a leader, particularly if the citizenry have a history of exposure to mind controlling propaganda, and revisionist – and absurd accounting of – history. Here’s an article from The Atlantic that supports my assertion.
We live in a populist moment, but how long before it moves from a populist moment into a something else era? Careful re-reading and listening to what we’ve covered this past year in docu-mental gives clues to where we seem to be headed. This epiphany is informing how I arrange my editorial calendar and what I am preparing for writing and podcasting in 2020.
We are going to need to have our minds clear and strong, to have keen discernment and patience. Understanding how our minds are a vast resource others want to harvest, and so need our protection, will be essential. Hope must be in the ascendant as an antidote to anxiety, depression, and fear.
As The Atlantic article concludes,
“Thanks to the strength of its civil society and the widespread commitment to constitutional order, the United States, for example, may prove better able to withstand a populist president… Citizens of countries that are governed by authoritarian populists should certainly be concerned that similar governments have eroded checks and balances in a large number of cases. But that is a reason to fight rather than a reason to grow fatalistic.”
Our personal and national status quo might be in flux, our traditions might even slip away, but we can always choose to cling to what is in our hearts and minds as Americans. Whatever we’re about to face next, I believe in kindness as the touchstone, and if we must fight, then I believe a fiercely guarded mind of one’s own, not strategies for winning an argument, to be the best shield to carry into battle.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. I am grateful for being a trusted source of ideas in America and other places, too. I will see you here back in December!