Saturday, January 6, 2018

Unfocus the Shitshow

When Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky became public in 1998, I had lived in the US for three years. The focus on his affair with the intern, and the following impeachment proceedings left me with my first case of culture shock, or rather, a complete lack of understanding of what was going on and why. I could not grasp why people were paying so much attention to the private life of the president. I felt that no matter what we thought of his private choices, it should not affect how we viewed his political work (which I was highly critical of). Yes, 2017’s #MeToo perspective makes me more critical of his behaviour - a man in power taking advantage of an impressionable young woman. It’s stupid, sexist, privileged and disgusting, and pretty common, as we now find out. It still doesn't make me waste thoughts on the man as a private person. I still dislike him for what he did around welfare ‘reform’, and for his failure to create a health care system back then, as well as for moving the democratic party to the neoliberal middle and paving the way for much of today’s shitty political environment.

Growing up in Western Germany, a parliamentary democracy, we learned to observe 5+ parties, policies, coalitions, strategy. All this is of course carried out by individuals. The office of the German chancellor tends to be held by one person, usually for a longer time than American presidents stay in office. Still, this important leader gets to do their private stuff privately, and is judged by what they do or don’t achieve politically. I went on to study political science, and learned more about polity, democracy, international relations, the political economy, pluralism, globalization. I always strived to understand the complexity of these systems and developments, and was never tempted to boil them down to the character of one person. Thus the ‘98 culture shock.

US society, marked by its strong individualistic culture, has turned politics into a person cult. The presidential system only reinforces this by placing a lot of (some of which, as we find out, unchecked) power into the hands of one person. The media, and we as observers of politics now attribute all power, responsibility, blame, to individuals. The cult of personality is fed by unrelenting propaganda from both political sides, and the public and private conversation degrades - today it has become largely about Trump and the people around him.

The individualist lens is applied, unfortunately, also by the electorate. Less than 20 years after Bill Clinton the person cult in American politics led straight to the election of Donald Trump. It made Bernie Sanders incredibly popular on the left, made people dislike Hillary Clinton for an array of ‘character issues’ Trump happily built his campaign on, and led all the ‘vote my conscience’ people to either stay home or vote for insignificant 3rd party candidates. The nonvoters and the 3rd party voters brought Trump to office. They reacted to person(s), and were not led by a political strategy.

As a consequence, they (and everyone else alongside them) have had to watch the Trump shitshow ever since. Trump’s tweets, the White House rumor mill and all of its reception and regurgitation in the (social) media pile up to be the most incessant, disgusting, mind numbing manifestation of the person cult to date.

I watched from over in Europe. First I was fascinated too. After the hundredth time of “I can’t believe he said that” and “ I thought it couldn't get lower than that”, about six months into it, I started losing interest, and began to filter the news for those old things that matter to me: policy, legislation, stuff that affects people’s lives. ACA, taxes, environmental protection, climate change, DACA. How much can they actually fuck up before this is over?

I focused on analyses of what this era will likely mean in the long term. Questions like, how do we contain the damage? How is the US polity holding up? What needs to change legislatively to assure that the erosion of standards is turned back and will not happen again?

The shitshow rolls on, meanwhile, the outrage on the left about each transgression, and the inevitable delighted reaction to the outrage in the Trump camp. The distraction from real issues. From the fact that the Republican party is actively working to dismantle what’s left of the economic fabric of this nation through tax and ‘entitlement’ ‘reform’. (Fortunately, they seem to have mostly lost the skills needed to create and pass legislation.) And we, along with the clown in chief, rage about kneeling athletes, whose news is more fake, and who has the bigger button. Michael Wolff’s book ‘Fire and Fury’ that came out this week tells us nothing we didn’t know about Trump. Yet we delight in the fact that now the bad guys get at each other’s throats. All media is dominated for days by this, the book selling quicker than they can print it. Can we instead please focus on what matters?

Oh, speaking of the button. The one exception I would make to the rule ‘unfocus the shitshow’ is taking a serious look at Trump’s mental health - for purposes of human survival. ‘The president is not well’ is what we hear from many concerned observers now, and increasingly, mental health professionals speak up. They are well within their ethical code which mandates them to act when an individual may cause harm to himself or others. Someone like the Germanwings pilot who took everyone on the plane with him on the suicidal flight into an alpine mountain in 2015. Somebody should have taken his pilot license away and should have provided him with help. Trump, who tweets of his power to unleash nuclear war as having the bigger and better working button, if not well, might just use that button one day (it is not a button, as we all know). So if he is sick, he needs to be removed from the job.

Apart from that, all the talks of impeachment, Article 25, etc. seem largely rhetoric to me. All these are political processes, and they will not happen as long as the Republican Party sees political benefit in keeping Trump. And, as many point out: as a consequence, we would get people in charge who are more strategic, smarter, actually read stuff, know how to pass legislation and are only slightly less creepy. People with darkness in their souls would still be ruling - without the screaming clown. I don’t like that idea.

I’d rather let Trump deal the final death blows to his long-rotting party, while we ignore all the drama. We should stop trying to convince the world that Trump is batshit nuts, unfit, devoid of morality. Anyone with half a mind knows that already. (Just forget about the leftover Trump fans.) Ignore it. Meanwhile we can do a lot more effective things than wallow in outrage. The shitshow is not only a distraction of our attention, it is a diversion of our time and our energy. And a way to deny ourselves power.

We have the power to flip the House and Senate in 2018 along with state and local governments. Support and participate in the upsurge of awesome people from all backgrounds, especially women, who are getting ready to run this year. These awesome people need your help so they can take the time to convince voters of their programs, their policies, and their values. Make politics about ideas again, not about the person.

(Thanks to St├ęphane Luchini for inspiring this piece and giving me input.)

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

America the Sick

Berlin, October 3, 2017

These days, hearing the news from the USA is like watching a sick or injured animal writhe in agony. The brain is insane, the heart broken, the body covered in self-inflicted wounds.

People here ask me - did you know this was gonna happen? Is that why you left, came back home? But home is the US too - the familiar smells, sensations, the desert air, the towns I used to live in, the houses I bought and fixed up into homes, loved in, birthed my babies in, the friends, the work and the community. 

No, I left for other reasons. I didn’t know. I turned my back and then all hell broke loose. 

I guess that is not quite true. I knew the fish was rotting, and not just from the head. A few years ago, I read Tony Judt’s 'Ill Fares the Land', which predicts pretty much what now happens to an US society that has let go of its values and standards. Tony Judt’s dying words rang so true, and in a way contributed to me re-owning my European social democrat identity, paving the way to come ‚home‘.

Now it seems more insane, watching from a distance, probably than it feels being in it. All the attention on the clown president, outrage becoming the main political sentiment. The vitriol of social media, and non-social media reduced to reporting what social media says. My dear friends, seeking emotional shelter with each other, from learned practices, non-violence, gardening, love, travel. Others just tuning it all out, for self-preservation.

People here shake their heads, recent developments just the explosion of what they always suspected was true about US society and politics: dog eats dog, everyone for themselves, hollowed meritocracy, with no value tradition of solidarity. 

Mix in the erosion of US democracy and the amplifying function of social media, and eventually, all that brings out the evil in people, more and more people, until the whole society is so sick it starts writhing and dying. Mass shootings and the response, or lack thereof, one painful symptom of how we missed a turn a while ago and now its all downhill and speeding up.

Watching this from here, my main sentiment now, ironically and unfortunately, is a selfish one, too:  Thank not god but myself that we are out. Especially, that my children are out. 

They get to grow up exposed to values we hold dear -  solidarity, pluralism, tolerance, respect. Every parent in the US can still assure this for their kids too, but here it is not constantly contradicted by the political discussion and the economic reality. Here my children have access to education and health care without anyone going into debt. Rory and Kaya have access to state support while they build their respective start-up businesses.

There are some scary developments here too, no doubt: an extreme right wing party just entered the German parliament for the first time post-war. There is heated discussion, stupidity and meanness on social media, homelessness, shitty weather and heartless bureaucrats. But I feel safe, because the basic values seem still to be agreed upon. A cab driver I talked to recently had just thrown an elderly couple out of his cab because the man said that refugees should be gassed. 


And the kids have the added benefit of a bi-national, bi-cultural perspective on everything, maybe helping them to understand this world and their place in it. Today is the 3rd of October, the national holiday in Germany that celebrates the re-unification of the two German states. Which is a whole other topic….Ben asks: so what is this holiday today? I explain and he, thinking of the 4th of July, asks: Is there a parade or something? No parade. No display of national pride. But a society where we feel fairly safe, free and surrounded by a tolerable amount of insanity.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

50: Trust and Curiosity

What a curious time in life. Those of us at the end of the baby boomer generation, we are all at this point: we have understood that our life time is finite - the limit of the time horizon is now in sight. Those of us who had kids are growing out of the parent role, the jury still being out on whether or not we managed to steer the next generation to where they need to be for themselves and for the world.

Those of us who had passions and professions are in a review period. Can we go on working this hard for another decade or more? Or maybe the economic system has changed, and our business models and value systems don’t work anymore.  But how figure out what is next, how to reinvent ourselves?

Some of us are utterly lost. What do we do after kids and without that business model? If you haven’t had kids, how do you create something that lasts beyond your time? Too late to build a house or write an opera?

And then, our parents are getting old, or sick or dying. Many of us are inheriting wealth we didn’t earn from this much more successful generation before us.  Others are sandwiched between fledgling children and aging parents, or inheriting an economic or real estate mess, apartments full of books. What if your parents became demented before you could forgive them for their screw-ups?  Now they need you and you haven’t even found the peace to love them. I am seeing it all around me.

I see a lot of desperation, sadly, especially among men.  Self-hatred. The feeling of having wasted time, either having done the same thing for too many years, or doing too many different things without real focus or depth. Unemployment,  boredom, doubt, loss, alcohol. Teenage kids glued to little screens, farther and farther from the reach of our love.  Do we still matter for anyone?

The good news: we know what we know, we know what we are able to do, and we know what we don’t want. For some of us, long-term partnerships have not survived this life phase of contemplation and change…. and we rediscover who we are just by ourselves. Not too bad. The big dream has died, but the little dreams live on.

We have 15+ years of productive time left. Enough time to do something different, learn one new thing, try one new system, change location. A few (lucky ones), manage to fill the remaining time, keep riding the same professional wave to the end, chin up, and gather applause on the way out. 

More good news: those who don’t have self-doubt, and are not lost or desperate, not on a wave petering out, actually may now reach a calm sense of positive expectation, resting on two pillars: trust and curiosity. I think, at this point in our lives, we cannot ask for more than to base our lives on a healthy mix of those two sentiments.  Trust in ourselves and in our abilities, and our judgment, and in the basic goodness of the world.  Curiosity about what gifts will come our way, and who will be there with us to enjoy them, and what we can make out of them.  

My gifts are so many now: my children, who are turning into amazing sensitive and sensible people, my parents, who get older and weirder, yet I am learning to love them and enjoy them in new ways, appreciating every minute I have with them. My work, which is ever changing and rich with learning and a team that is growing together and working in sync, in ways I didn’t even know existed.   New and old friends who provide comfort, companionship and love, and with who I can look into the darkness and into the light, as we hold and support each other. Stepping out into the night, breathing the cool air and hearing the rustle of the trees, feeling that I have had it good. 

50. I couldn’t think of a better age.