The Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) has graciously granted permission to post here the full video of my recent guest appearance on their ConnectIONS Live series on 20 August 2021. Enjoy the video below, and explore the other remarkable events and rigorous research underway at this global organization based in Northern California.
I became involved with IONS in the late 1990s and have watched them grow bold and strong as mainstream science increasingly explores and affirms what their research has been demonstrating for fifty years about the nature of consciousness.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” John Muir
Applied Intuition for Business and Life
In August 2021 I was a guest presenter for a webinar offered by the Institute of Noetic Sciences. Based in California, IONS was founded by astronaut Edgar Mitchell fifty years ago when he experienced a transcendent moment viewing the earth while returning from the moon. My original plan for the webinar was to offer a suite of intuitive tips and techniques to serve as useful, ethical tools for the conscious business leader. But a question arose during preparation for the talk that took me far afield from the topic at hand into what I hope is more than an imaginative flight of fancy: “What is the source of intuition?”
What is intuition and where does it come from?
My immediate, direct, hopefully modest, and absolutely truthful answer to the question is, “I don’t know.” I am neither physicist nor philosopher and stake no claim in these exalted realms. I cannot even begin to know what I do not know.
That being said, I am compelled to venture into the unknown and uncertain, borrowing a line from a television commercial aired by Farmer’s Insurance: “I know a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two.” Based on my deeply personal experience, I am going to jump out on a limb and assert the following about intuition and its role in consciousness:
all consciousness is aware of itself and also of all other components of the whole – of literally all that exists –
in any form or dimension, material and non-material
instantaneously at “space-like distances”
within and outside the experience of time and space
consciousness, by its very nature, is collaborative
(and here’s the kicker for my particular purposes) intuition makes collaboration possible between undifferentiated and differentiated parts of the whole.
intuition is present at the beginning and nothing could be expressed without it. The question isn’t so much, “Where does intuition come from?” but rather, “What could possibly emerge or emanate from the whole, the singularity, without intention and intuition joining together as its propelling force?”
Intuition is the perennial partner of creation, large and small
I like to sum up the beginning of all creation using one decidedly non-technical term: “Hmmmmmmm….” Curiosity makes things appear. Thankfully, I do not have the burden of proving this mathematically.
When undifferentiated consciousness began to explore itself and its potentialities, in my view it was curiosity that started it all, or what Alison Gopnik calls “primal wonder.” (Thanks for the pointer, Thomas J. Jackson!) While she focused on the awe she saw in infants and children, I think such a term could describe with uncharacteristic simplicity the moment when the undifferentiated becomes differentiated, relying on the collaboration of interconnected portions of itself to go out and play with other portions and bring back all they learned to the whole. Starlings flying in breathtaking synchrony is the closest image that comes to mind from the physical world, or the mycelium network of fungi described by mycologist and Star Trek Discovery muse Paul Stamets. Whether that playfulness is starting an entire galaxy or a business on this tiny blue planet, all projects begin with collaborative consciousness. The difference between them may be a difference of magnitude rather than mechanics.
In my worldview, intuition is embedded in the very nature of consciousness itself and supports the emanation from the “no thing” to the anything. Classical physics describes energy as “the force that makes things move,” or “the ability to do work or cause change.” I am claiming that intuition is the force that makes things and non-things move in response to curiosity and wonder; it is the mover and shaker of all that exists into continuous, differentiated expression. Galaxies and companies are able to move through the use of this creative force.
By its very nature, intuition never ceases and change never ceases, even when any particular thing is perceived to be in stasis. Embedded in that apparent stasis must exist the constant holding together as well as the potentiality to move again towards yet another destination or quality of being. This holding and moving requires collaboration. Collaboration is going on at every level, whether or not we are conscious of that action. Furthermore, from my lay person’s understanding, it takes the constant motion of smaller and smaller, but measurable units of energy to make a material thing maintain its static form in the cacophony and chaos of motion within and all around it. I cannot say with any certainty that intuition is the whole of consciousness, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the whole of consciousness communicates to itself in whole or in part through the language of intuition.
The Importance of Framing the question
Back to IONS. I seemed to be dreaming with great intensity in the days leading up to the webinar. I woke up on the morning of the event with the realization that for years we have framed the question backwards. The question isn’t, “What or where does intuition come from?” but rather, “What comes from intuition?” In a sudden burst of clarity, the answer exploded in my mind: “Everything!! Everything we experience, including joy and horror, derives from units of consciousness freely and collaboratively giving expression to every material and non-material potentiality imaginable, to curiosity and wonder. Whatever we ultimately understand those units of consciousness to be, no individuated thing or reality could exist without the decision of every infinitesimally small unit of consciousness agreeing to join together in such a way as to give form to the thought of that thing and its desire and intention to be expressed in the material world. The same is true for dreams, emotions, light, colors, unexpressed probabilities, yearnings, and non-material “things.” Without intuition, nothing would escape the dense and infinite void of the singularity. To reiterate: I am offering intuitive conjecture here, not proof.
Intuition is that capacity of consciousness to understand, communicate, and connect the parts to the whole of creation. Intuition permits individuation and emanation from the formless whole. It renders possible the co-creation of our bodies, our minds, our worlds, and our infinite potentiality.
Collaboration, even among enemies
Individuation requires collaboration. Experience requires collaboration. Period. Emergence from the void of an undifferentiated All That Exists could not occur without the joining of unfathomable units of consciousness mutating on the fly and transforming themselves into – or at least into the appearance of – form. Animal, vegetable, mineral, thought, emotion, dream, intention – all require various units of ineffable, indescribable, perhaps unknowable energy jumping on the same train of intention at the same “time” to create a differentiated and identifiable “event.” For war to happen both parties have to agree. For peace to happen both parties have to agree. For battles in the workplace to happen both parties have to agree – on some conscious or unconscious level.
Without intuition’s linking all forms of consciousness and knowing which units to gather for some stated purpose in some probable moment of experienced time and space, the act of making would be impossible. Personally, I prefer to use the term “realm” instead of time and space because those terms carry with them so much anthropomorphic and three-dimensional meaning. For our purposes here, space and even spacetime are probably limited. Somehow all components and outposts of literally all that is – or could ever be! – must communicate seamlessly, effortlessly, and simultaneously outside of space and time to make emanation into our experience of space and time possible.
A glass of water
We think of collaboration easily on macro levels: nation states and cultural groups loving, hating, thriving, surviving together against all odds: friends and enemies, us and them. What is most extraordinary, however, is the infinite complexity and coordination required to accomplish even the most mundane of daily tasks. In these small actions – lifting a glass of water – lies the all-encompassing, ideologically neutral cooperation that permits the physical world as we know it to exist and persist throughout our experience of time. Given the scope of current formulations about the nature and behaviors expressed within a multiverse, even our little blue planet’s circumnavigating the sun is a relatively small action by comparison.
During the IONS webinar I used lifting the glass of water I placed beside my laptop as an example of collaboration, mentioning principally the cooperation of the cells of my body to do the lifting and drinking without lapsing into a coughing fit in the middle of a presentation or spilling water all over my keyboard. But there was so much more to that simple act than met the eye!
The particular glass I raised – my favorite – was manufactured in France. I like that glass because it is thick and angular and comes with a lid to keep beverages from spilling and damaging the sensitive electronic equipment on my desk. It is my go-to glass for staying hydrated during virtual conversations.
But that glass is not mine; it belongs to my partner. When I moved to Hawaii from California a decade ago I brought very few household objects with me. Instead, I held a colossal yard sale and sold or gave away everything that was not nailed down. In my former home in Santa Rosa I, too, owned a glass exactly like the one I raised during the intuition webinar. But alas, it was left behind.
Both my Asian American partner and I spent many years living abroad as children and adults; we share similar sensibilities when it comes to many household items, having been raised as what D. Pollock and R. Van Reken call “third culture kids.” When we met again after a thirty-seven year absence, we had each purchased the same French glass during the interim and she just happened to have hers still, purchased here in Honolulu. That is the glass I raised during that Friday morning webinar.
Now I want to take that simple example of the water glass one step further. Hawaii is a small island in the middle of a vast ocean thousands of miles from any mainland, an island never colonized by the French and thousands of miles from Europe. Some manufacturer or distributor in France – or perhaps New York or San Francisco – had to decide that there just might be an interest in a thick, geometrically-shaped French glass with its own lid on this tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, perhaps because it is a destination for tourists and settlers of all races and ethnicities. Someone figured it was worth the time, money and effort to ship a few of these glasses here; that there were individuals like my partner, who is not French, who would buy French water glasses; and that “of all the juke joints in all the world” (thanks, Bogey), she would find someone like this African American woman who would appreciate these glasses and use them with the same appreciation she held for their craftsmanship. This glass, this morning, for this webinar during which I mentioned as part of my presentation a deep connection to French language and culture. I chose that example on the flyand seemingly at random out of so many others I might have chosen as an example of collaboration! I had no inkling in advance that I would need such an example.
Oh, and don’t let me get started on the collaboration between the hydrogen and oxygen molecules in that glass of water that agreed to quench my thirst rather than blow me up in the middle of a sentence! My head is spinning!
All of these apparently disparate factors conspired – collaborated with a precision that would put a Swiss timepiece to shame! – so that I could sip and talk about a simple glass of water. No wonder I have easily adopted an aphorism at the heart of the Seth material produced by Jane Roberts and Robert Butts: “The universe leans in your direction.” I don’t know how this happens theoretically or mathematically, but my direct, persistent, and consistent experience can surely attest to the power and credibility of such a declaration.
While we are busy focusing on the disruptions and lack of global collaboration in addressing the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, and political and economic turmoil in every corner of the globe, we are completely ignoring the simultaneous unimaginable collaboration that brought us to the same synchronous moment across dates and times and geographical boundaries to talk about intuition for an IONS webinar on consciousness. Some of us were not even attending on the same date from our idiosyncratic geographical locations and yet we were all there, right on time! Can you imagine what it must be like to hold the totality of all that is and ever could be expressed in its undifferentiated form in the singularity of a fully aware consciousness? Nope. No way. Not even close. What I do know intuitively, however, is that there is so much more that joins us than separates us, and it is intuition that makes the joining possible, even when we are joining in battle. I do not know how I know, but I trust without a doubt that I do know… at least this.
The language of the cosmos
I am daring to assert that consciousness, by its very nature, is collaborative and that intuition is the language of the cosmos. The question is not, “What is the source of intuition?” The real question is, “Is there an experience that does not have intuition as its foundation, that does not have the jabbering between and among parts of the whole in order to be manifest?” Here is an excerpt from my earlier writing on the subject around 2003:
Intuition is a continuous signal from the environment – exterior or interior environment – that provides information about the nature of the world, the universe, or any of its component parts, of All That Exists, the whole.
It is as if the unified whole were held together by a matrix, a colossal membrane that conducts signals instantaneously to any outpost of literally all that is. It records the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, the travel of a photon, the heartbeat of lovers locked in ecstasy or battle, the rotation of suns and moons, the birth of stars and galaxies. Each particle, quantum, whatever that unit ultimately is determined to be, has its own signature and is aware of its own existence and the existence of all other units of the Whole. It does not matter whether these units are identified individually or collectively as they change form and expression; their identity is inviolate and known by all others.
Intuition is the non-verbal language of the soul of the cosmos. I call intuition language because its purpose is communication within, between, and among parts of the whole, whatever the parts look like, act like, or become.
It is intuition that holds the whole together, in unison and in perpetual motion like a flock of birds flying south for the winter, dipping, diving, turning in mind boggling synchrony, heading sometimes for a destination they have never seen, but know exists.
The knowing is intuition.
The pattern of flight is maintained through intuition.
The maneuvering is possible because of the shared language of intuition that calls out commands instantaneously.
The destination calls to them through intuition.
The sun and moon and weather talk to them and prepare them through intuition.
They arrive at their breeding ground or sanctuary, knowing it is time to land, where they rest and prepare for the next journey into the unknown, carrying with them at all times a deep trust that somewhere in the bosom of All That Is fulfillment awaits them.
Intuition is the call of the wild untamed heart, the raging river, and the precise movement of a sophisticated timepiece. It is consciousness itself, part of all that is, organic and inorganic, elemental, biological, emotional, divine. Intuition is the language of HOME.
Helen will be a guest at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) on Friday, 20 August 2021. The subject is business applications of intuition. Here’s the link to get more information about this free webinar:
I recently read Caste by Isabel Wilkerson for our local book club. Much of what she wrote about was not new to me: I have lived with caste my entire life and have become intimately familiar with its emotional and social ramifications. But seeing everything compiled and laid out in gruesome detail in one place – in Wilkerson’s book – broke me. It broke me the way Princeton professor Eddie Glaude, Jr. described being broken when he watched the interminably long and callous murder of George Floyd.
During our book group’s Zoom meeting the sudden swell of emotion surprised me when we began discussing Wilkerson’s “Eight Pillars of Caste.” We didn’t go into great detail or depth during that conversation, but two personal revelations bowled me over. The first was realizing the unfathomable privilege of my own experience; the second was grasping fully the extent of individualized violence that persists in the African American psyche in contemporary everyday life, over one hundred fifty years after formal emancipation.
As Wilkerson recited the endless horrors of the slavery experience, during which slaves had to pretend to be happy and perform for potential buyers while they were being publicly humiliated and prodded in every orifice and on every inch of their bodies, it struck me how that primal violence persists within our communities and our families to this day. This is an existential cruelty inflicted not only by others as expected – we are prepared for this our entire lives and flinch almost reflexively in anticipation of physical and verbal aggressions every moment of every day. In addition, there is that cruelty imposed by our own on our own and by us privately on the intimate self, even when no one else is around. We participate in the horror because we remain untouchables in perpetuity, regardless of any external accomplishments or distance from the auction block. Even those of us descended from freedmen – the never enslaved – carry the slavery framework because we find it necessary to distinguish ourselves from the others who were not free.
Mixed Messages: Color
Don’t get me wrong: we have our sayings, such as, “The blacker the berry the sweeter the juice.” But for the most part colorism in our community – shades of black and brown – still carries as its reference point our proximity to the violence of involuntary miscegenation. We do not honor those families which have maintained their own version of African purity and continue to be very dark. Rather, and paradoxically, we honor those who are most decidedly the result of race mixing across the generations: those with lighter skin. I still recall one of the light-skinned leaders of the Black Power movement declaring with pride that his white-looking girlfriend was indeed black, purring about how hard it was to tell and that he had to announce it so she would not be ostracized and would be welcomed into our activist company. This is another form of internalized violence that has remained largely unaddressed until quite recently.
The Violence Within
I began to make a mental list of what I had until now considered idiosyncratic quirks in my family of origin, only to discover in reading Caste the extent to which these behaviors were the direct result of our antecedent slavery past not only in my family but in others as well: • Obsessing about cleanliness, bad breath, body odor • Stepping out of the way for just about everybody on sidewalks and in public spaces • Hoarding and sharing to the extreme • Using humor and parable to make pointed statements or criticize so as not to invoke wrath or physical retribution • Smiling through pain and wearing a “high pain threshold” as a badge of honor • Making excessive self-deprecating remarks • Surveilling self and others constantly – especially the children – for any sign of inappropriate behavior, dress, language, insubordination, or attitude in general. The surveillance is even more pronounced if there is a sense of responsibility for others: “You’ll ruin your father’s work.”
Then there are those behaviors in our larger family, our community: • Spanking and “cussing out” children in front of their peers. While I did not witness this public physical behavior much in Massachusetts, I witnessed it repeatedly when we visited family and spent summers in North Carolina. When getting a spanking we had to pick the switch taken from a tree branch ourselves and make sure the switch would hurt. If we held back, the “spanking” would be even worse. Straight out of Wilkerson’s stories. Most of us were actually not traumatized by these public humiliations because they happened to everybody. The more traumatic experiences – often psychological as well as physical – were the ones that occurred when there were no public witnesses.
Because I was the child of a Methodist pastor and army chaplain, comeuppances were frequent, private, and quiet. Deadly quiet so the neighbors wouldn’t hear. In the north most familiar to me violence usually came at the hands of the church and state: the sexual and physical abuse of truant and orphaned children. From the many stories I heard directly and witnessed through their consequences in the bodies and minds of my two foster brothers and others, these acts occurred behind closed doors: it was important to maintain the appearance of propriety – maintain the lie. • Insisting on silence about incest and physical brutality. Refusing to turn our men over to the police when they damage our women and children, female or male. We look the other way and stay silent during the brutal spanking and beatings of our own offspring. The sexual violence is most often done by men and adolescent boys; the harsh beatings by both men and women. We embrace without question the adage, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” It is my personal belief that these behaviors are the direct result of our slavery past, during which we adopted dominant caste and slaveholders’ interpretations of scripture. Those selectively chosen biblical interpretations were meant to keep us under control, in our place, and they did just that. In my professional life, I lost close friendships with other black administrators because I tried to turn in a black student who had raped another black student. My colleagues and I never reconciled. • Engaging in brutal fraternity hazing: branding, beating, humiliating pledges in front of each other and in front of women publicly. As during slavery, branding was the mark of ownership and coerced loyalty. Once initiated, the fraternity owned its members for life, the way slaveholders owned their property. And yet in the twentieth century men sometimes volunteered to be branded, even over the heart. No woman would ever receive the kind of fealty offered to the brotherhood. Unlike slaveholders, the fraternity took but also gave, supporting its members for life no matter where in the country or the workplace they might land. I have personally seen fraternity brands, and even recall one acquaintance who had been voluntarily branded twice over his heart: he was a true believer and literally belonged to his fraternity above all, even if God, country, and family were somewhere in the mix. It wasn’t until the 1990s that efforts were made to reduce violent Greek hazing, and yet I am told these practices continue to occur away from campus and prying eyes. Let me be quick to add that hazing is not the singular attribute of black fraternities; white ones engage in hazing as well. But the particular methods of initiation seem to be directly tied to the slavery experience for most black fraternities. What I do not know is how these practices might have changed as fraternities spread to the north and the rest of the country. • Being more demanding of each other than we are of white people: we expect nothing from them and everything from each other • Shunning individuals who do not conform; quite literally turning our backs to them for social violations (dress, sexual orientation, refusal to attend church)
The Black Body As Toxic
During my career I was teased often about my obsession with chewing gum and the way I would cover my mouth and lower my head if someone approached me for close conversation. The behavior was so dramatic others would have a difficult time deciphering what I was saying; I mumbled. On the one hand, to chew gum in polite company was considered unladylike and frowned upon. But for me, having bad breath was so much worse! I could suffer being teased about the gum as long as chewing it prevented me from having bad breath, which would render me foul smelling and even toxic. I was already at the bottom of the ladder in terms of my caste position and certainly did not consider myself in the running for a mate or for being well dressed in comparison to my bosses, peers and subordinates. Poor class behavior, however, was much less important than what I now recognize as unforgivable and immutable caste behavior: smelling bad was framed as a biological trait of black people as race mythology would describe it. Interestingly, black folks would regularly joke about how bad white people smelled and how poor they were with their personal hygiene. Those who worked as domestics would regale their friends and family with tales of the filthy houses they had to clean and the unbelievably ugly behaviors of the homes’ owners.
No Shame for the Dominant Group
From the white person’s viewpoint, however, one I had not fully considered before reading Wilkerson, the dominant caste might have figured they could leave their dirty clothes and dishes lying around for the untouchables to clean because their black servants were already immutably dirty and it was their job to handle the dirty objects of those above them. For whites, therefore, leaving dirty things strewn around did not make them feel dirty or ashamed; rather, it solidified their standing as members of the privileged caste. Conversely, no matter how fastidious, starched, pressed, bathed, and fragrant the domestic help were in their clothing and demeanor, they were perennially and existentially dirty. I am still wrapping my mind around this conundrum, even though I have witnessed this dynamic firsthand more often than I care to remember, not only in the United States but in neo-colonial Africa as well. Wilkerson nailed it.
Managing As a Black Military Officer
As my parents moved up in rank and my father became a field grade officer in the military, we had occasion to have servants of our own, especially when we lived abroad (that’s another entire conversation). My mother would insist on our helping to clean the house thoroughly before the maid arrived! By the time she got to our house, there was relatively little to do – primarily washing and ironing my father’s dress shirts and our bed linens. We would never leave our intimate items to another to clean. So my mother spent most of her time chatting with the “help” and taking advantage of this time together to learn about our housekeeper’s culture and to have her teach us a bit of the local language. When my brother and I would question why we had to clean the house before the maid came, my mother would respond with strong statements about her having been a maid herself before she became an officer’s wife; how important it was to make the servant’s life easier than it had been for her and how, since the maid was probably working in several other white officers’ homes in the neighborhood, there would be no negative stories to tell about those “dirty Negroes.” I am still not certain whether racially biased stories ever got back to her, but I am certain that my mother was vigilant, always on the lookout for feedback that might “ruin your father’s work.”
When we moved from one post to another, we had to make sure to leave the house in better condition than we found it: scrubbing, shellacking the hardwood floors until you could see yourself in them, washing walls and windows and eaves until we couldn’t crawl, then driving all night to the new location if we were on the mainland. We drove at night so our car would be harder to spot as one containing black passengers, thus reducing the likelihood of our being pulled over just because highway patrol wanted to have a little fun or make its monthly quota of stops, arrests, and fines. Most often my mother would do the driving since her driving would reduce the chances of my father’s being detained, with his Boston accent that could be problematic. It was also easier to pee on the side of the road at night since there most likely would be no hotels, motels, restaurants, or gas stations willing to serve us. We took everything we needed, camped out as often as possible as we could in safety, and got where we were going before daybreak if at all possible. That’s just the way it was. And my dad would often wear his Boy Scout uniform so that in case we were stopped we would be viewed as camping for fun, not moving everything we owned, lock, stock, and barrel. We were not fugitives on the run.
Once we got to the new place we’d have to clean that house as well, ceiling to floor, just in case the prior occupants left their own dirt behind. We washed and ironed and bathed incessantly. My uncle, born and raised in North Carolina, still does all of these things today, changing clothes sometimes multiple times a day and sheets almost as often as hotel service. We are all fastidious to a fault, but that deep-seated fear of offending by being existentially dirty never goes away. These habits border on obsession and Wilkerson helped me understand my family’s quirks in new ways. I now add a hefty dose of compassion and understanding and gratitude to this complex mix.
My Own Demons
Even now – especially now – my partner spends countless moments waiting for me to go through the interminable ritual of finding something to wear when we leave the house. No longer living in an all-black household but with someone who can trace her noble lineage twenty-nine generations to before the common era, I go into panic mode, trying on various outfits, tossing clothes all over the place, freaking out, just to take a trip to the market. Exceedingly modest and casual, she rarely mentions her family history and I have to pull hen’s teeth to get the full story. I never know when we might run into a relative or someone she knows from work and I don’t want to embarrass her or myself. At all costs, I cannot afford to bring unwanted notice or shame to this interracial, intercultural relationship.
The Land of Aloha Doesn’t Get a Pass
Living in Hawaii I am reminded daily how prevalent racial and ethnic stereotypes are here. Not just the usual black/white ones, but also those of various Asian, Polynesian, and Pacific Islander groups as well. My getting-dressed behavior is exhausting, not only for me but for my partner, who is forced to wait endlessly while I face my demons of caste. It is almost as if I go into another mental place, channeling my omnipresent, omni-surveilling mother, looking for the slightest flaw in my dress or comportment that might ruin my partner’s work. No wonder I am an introvert: playing by the rules is overwhelming, whether my playing is in compliance or defiance of caste! Reading Wilkerson made me comprehend this compulsive behavior more deeply than I ever had before and suddenly made my cancer diagnosis a few years ago all the more understandable. Fear and self-loathing can make anyone sick!
Why cancer now? I realized that I am not only more happy than ever, I am also more afraid than ever. I am afraid that I will upset the apple cart, will embarrass my partner, will violate some unfamiliar taboo of caste in what remains principally a plantation environment. As in some areas of the deep south, whites may be in the numerical minority here, but structurally – in the classic markers of power structure research – they still control almost everything, especially when it comes to land, tourism, military, and interstate or international business.
The land of Aloha is simmering in the toxic stew of caste and no one is calling it out. I feel it, I see it, but I dare not speak it for fear of threatening the delicate balance of my idyllic life. Hawaii may no longer be an iconic paradise if I rip off the scab and expose its underbelly in ways that only a black person can witness and name, through the voice of the perpetual untouchable.
The deep wounds here are different from those in Alabama and Mississippi, but minimally so. Original Hawaiians know it and feel it but their tongues have been largely silenced. They are not untouchables like me because they can lay historical claim to the land and a pre-colonial monarchy. I, on the other hand, have nothing to claim; my white ancestors whose Scottish-English names I bear have no meaning here. The mainland antebellum south has little currency here and yet I feel its tentacles reaching even these secluded islands in daily life, typically through its plantation history, the voice of the Christian church, and conservative talk radio. Caste is alive and well in Hawaii; make no mistake about it. And caste is denied as vociferously here as it is in Virginia.
I am a black Stewart and Hampton, not a white or mixed Campbell or Bishop or Castle or Cook. Even here I am Dalit, as Indian outcastes are called. I am nothing. I have nothing. I am worse than invisible: I am untouchable. Furthermore, like few others, I see clearly through the denials that caste does not exist in Hawaii.
Reclaiming the Sidewalk
Now that I recognize the illness of caste, I can heal my own melancholy. I can write and speak the unspeakable because in this world I am largely overlooked. Like the wind, I can be felt but I can no longer be contained. At last, through understanding the unbelievable scope of Wilkerson’s work, I am free.
Tomorrow, perhaps, I will go to the market without wearing earrings. And this time I will even use my side of the sidewalk.
This first and second business is really quite old: Cain was the firstborn son of Adam and Eve, who were farmers, already ejected from the Garden of Eden before he was born. Second-born son Abel comes along, a shepherd, and pleases God. Cain can’t figure out why God prefers Abel’s offerings, gets jealous, and kills Abel. God punishes Cain by making him work hard and struggle for sustenance that used to come with ease. He also forbids anybody to kill Cain, because Cain must endure his punishment for a very long time.
Bad Guys May Be Punished, But Good Guys End Up Extinct!
Abel, Adam’s second son, is pleasing to God but Abel is also, well… dead. Annihilated, along with any offspring he might have produced. His was a line cut off forever. Murderous Cain gets to rule and populate the world, to continue being first, but at a very stiff price: God puts a mark on him. Some perceive the mark as requiring Cain’s descendants to wander the earth as perpetual outsiders, tolerated but not embraced. Others, especially in modern times, perceive the curse as having dark skin, but that doesn’t fit the rest of the domination narrative: Cain prospers, something people with dark skin are not expected to accomplish.
More often dark skin is associated with the punishment of Noah’s son, Ham, who appears on the historical stage later on and is punished because he sees his father naked and talks about it. Now that the innocence of Eden is no more, nakedness is a source of shame and the body must be covered. In these early days long before the flood, God does not seem to be in the least obsessed with domination: there is no one else around, His dominion is assured, and He is quite comfortable with First Man for company. Apart from that bit of serpent drama in the Garden, things don’t really get complicated until there are more and more of Adam’s progeny on the scene.
The Price of Victory
Over the centuries the descendants of surviving brother Cain go on to rule the known world, but they also carry the stigma and dread that others will eventually learn of their ancestors’ wrongdoing and eject those descendants from the family of humanity. Perhaps in this story lies the true foundation of another great and powerful American fear, the fear of annihilation. More about annihilation later in the series.
The First Sinner Was First Man
Cain is actually the second sinner in our creation story. The first sinner is none other than his primal father Adam. Adam disobeyed God. He ate the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. He blamed his weakness on Eve.
Eve, the second sex, is taken from Adam’s own rib: an intimate part of him but also separate from him. Somehow that projected portion of the once undivided self becomes responsible for Adam’s fall from grace because Adam is too weak to resist Eve’s powerful feminine wiles. Subordinate, lesser, dependent on Adam for her very existence, yet possessing some mysterious power over him. In her own way, Eve could be as seductive as the snake! Ah, woman!
The Second Sex
To be fair, the sin of eating the fruit of the forbidden tree was not really Eve’s fault: in her innocence and subordinate status, she was seduced by that wily snake who was an old hand in the Garden and apparently preceded both Adam and Eve in this earthly paradise. Although fashioned from Adam’s strong body, Eve was perceived from the very beginning to be congenitally weak and a lesser being. The truth, however, is that Eve’s very existence was the result of Adam’s weakness, his inability to hide from God his deep sense of loneliness. How could Adam know that God had created him, Adam, because God, even in His perfection and infinite completeness, was also lonely? Who would tell Adam that it was compassion, not judgment, that prompted God to create a companion for him? That it was divine loneliness that prompted God to create the entire physical universe, including Man? It is possible that Adam felt weak on his own, forgetting that he was made in the image of God. Forgetting that “God don’t make no ugly,” as my grandmother would say.
Eve was lesser, and yet she must have been pretty powerful for the fall from grace to be all her fault because it was she who offered the forbidden fruit to Adam. Adam accepted and ate the fruit, of course, but he blamed Eve. The snake, on the other hand, was just being itself: a snake. The snake belonged to another order of consciousness, held to a different standard. While also punished – made to crawl on the ground – the snake was not judged as harshly by its maker as humans were judged. It was Adam’s and Eve’s awareness as human beings that caused our primal ancestors to be summarily ejected from the Garden of Eden and thrown into an exterior world of perpetual suffering and struggle. This was a peculiar quality of consciousness offered uniquely to humans: the ability to discern, to label behavior good or evil. Most importantly, this human quality grants its creatures the capacity to choose freely between seemingly irreconcilable opposites.
Meanwhile, those ancient women – Eve first, and later Sarah and Rebecca – all resort to cheating to manipulate tradition. They steal the firstborn son’s birthright and give it to the second born instead, ostensibly following both prophecy and God’s command. She who is the second sex is Adam’s companion but God’s handmaiden; she offers God’s blessing and grace to one who is the second-born son. The women don’t steal for themselves, mind you, but for their younger male children. Nevertheless, such action is still their fault, not God’s. Woman is a conundrum and the subject of a much longer conversation; she is far too much to tackle here. Gender will take a while to unravel for sure!
The Sins of the Father
So in the second generation, Adam’s eldest son Cain kills his younger brother in a fit of jealous rage. This is the second major sin, another very long story, and conceivably the antecedent of what may be a universal fear, not just an American one: the fear of annihilation.
Centuries later, the Protestant Ethic is born, a worldview that acknowledges an eternally sinful self, but also offers a get-out-of-jail-free card: financial success. One can demonstrate God’s favor by signs of outward success and wealth: domination of markets and people and creatures and things. There is no fixing original sin, but grace and the right lottery number will save the lucky few from the jaws of eternal damnation. What begins as Jewish success and patrimony is now co-opted and embraced as Protestant Christian favor.
Eventually, Cain’s progeny embraces the Protestant ethic and makes it to the New World, where the mark of Cain gets interpreted through the lens of America’s peculiar institution of slavery. Not only did God give Abraham all the land he could see before him six thousand years ago in the fertile crescent, but God also gives him now – the Christian patriarch this time – land he could not see or imagine across vast oceans and centuries as well. As before, it doesn’t seem to matter that these lands are already inhabited by others who have been there a long time: God is fulfilling his promise to Abraham of old, patriarch of several peoples who believe themselves to be the chosen ones with a divine right to rule the world.
In the New World, the mark of Cain gets shuffled off at last – or so it seems – onto others whom the settlers deem unworthy: indigenous peoples on every continent and every island; African rulers and African slaves; Asians, Pacific Islanders, Micronesians and Polynesians; indigenous peoples of the Americas and the Caribbean, as well as on the Australian subcontinent; lesser southern, eastern, and Catholic Europeans; and Middle Easterners from the Levant or ancient Fertile Crescent, including the very Jews and Arabs from whom the narrative was taken. Here white Europeans, preferably Protestants, can begin anew; they can leave the old curse behind and create that “shining city on a hill.”
Cain Was Not the Only Bad Boy
For some reason, Americans love bad boys. We revel in our successful rebellion against the British crown, but we also need to prove ourselves to be as good as, or better than our Anglo-Saxon ancestors and cousins. We eschew monarchy, but we strut like peacocks in our veiled attempt to establish a new one with a distinctly American flavor. Our version of dominance establishes divine right through massive land ownership and awesome technology retrieved from endless colonial exploits and cultural expropriation.
Our “America First” narrative obscures the fact that the land was taken from others who were here thousands of years before we “discovered” it. Artifacts reveal that highly structured civilizations preceded ours. Consequently, fear surrounding the great lie of being first becomes even more entrenched, while the subsequent arrival of competitive nonwhite immigrant groups activates the peril of white extinction. There was no human in the Garden of Eden before Adam, but that was the last time Man could claim a pristine habitation free from preceding cultural expression.
Here we create new bad boys: Paul Revere, John Brown, Davy Crockett, Generals Patton and MacArthur. Some were praised, some were vilified, some were both. Each represents and shapes a fierce independence of spirit, ignoring the bad stuff for now. Each was fearless in his own way, each distinctly American. Each was larger than life and yet the fears persist. We still have something to prove.
Modern-day descendants of Cain in the U.S. remain petrified of being discovered to have been linked to that ancient fratricide involving Cain and Abel. Contemporary lingo would probably call this emotional dysfunction “imposter syndrome.” Men rewrite history to project their own weakness and disfavor in the sight of God – their mark of Cain – onto any “other” whom they encounter. The new narrative promotes their favored status instead. The larger and more diversified the world, the more opportunities for projection. Yet in our hidden places, in the cave of the eternally sinful self, we feel and fear that the status of being first is fundamentally undeserved: that Cain only got to dominate because Abel – good Abel – was dead. We got to be first because we wiped out the people already here.
Adam is riveted with questions and so are we: “Would my first place gain have held if Abel were alive?” “How can I truly know how I might have fared had I not stacked the deck and killed off any kind of competition?” Since my competitors are dead in most cases – clearly by my own hand in the case of Abel and many colonized peoples – I can never know for certain. I can never rest on my laurels and take my success for granted. I must prove myself over and over: collect more territory, dominate more creatures and cultures, build exterior signs of my having been. I must demonstrate that Kilroy is here and here to stay!
And so we have it, Cain’s personal lamentation: “As a founding member of the Being First Club, the most I can ever get is contrived fanfare and praise among those I have created or dominated or favored. What began as the source of my joy and pride has become the setting for my worst nightmares. I am caught in an infinite loop – my own form of ‘Groundhog Day®’ – where the same events play over and over until I go mad. I have destroyed the only true source that could have told me how good I am or helped me prove my skill. I could have ended the nightmares and stood on the podium proudly, pointing my finger at those lesser mortals who claimed to be first. Alas, I killed them all.”
We come right back to the beginning. Abel is good and Abel is meek and Abel is dead. Cain is angry and a few generations later Esau is angry because what is rightfully theirs goes to a younger, goody-two-shoes brother! They are betrayed by God, but it is woman who is blamed and thrown under the bus. She does God’s handiwork and fulfills His prophecy yet she is the damned, the eternal second, the one who wreaks havoc and turns the social order on its head by subverting the rule of the firstborn.
To make things even worse, Jesus comes along and turns the spiritual order on its head in addition to the political one. “The meek shall inherit the earth. Love thy neighbor as thyself. The last shall be first and the first last. Welcome the fallen like Mary Magdalene. Heal and embrace the leper. God is love, not retribution. Throw out the money changers. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter into heaven. My kingdom is not of this world.” Oh my!
The Modern Expression of Cain
So what do I accomplish by claiming my need to be first? How does my admission change the narrative, if indeed it does at all? Why do I feel shame when I claim my desire to be first, to win, to succeed? Because it goes against the other part of the biblical narrative, the New Testament; it goes against the grain of being a good Christian. Because I would no longer be meek and modest.
Abraham and his progeny did all right in the Old Testament, proclaiming divine right and divine punishment; but then along comes Jesus and turns that pyramid on its head: “… the meek shall inherit the earth.” I am done for. Furthermore, the farther I move away from my founding principles of the separation of church and state and towards the establishment of a theocracy, the more my very own religion showcases my flaws. “I say unto you, Inasmuch as yehave done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” KJV Matthew 25:40
Is the U.S. Playing Out a Modern Version of Cain and Abel?
Is there a difference between the simple desire to be first and the more complex sins of imperialism, colonialism, or white supremacy? Can we distinguish what makes our desire to win any different from any other country’s? We declare as a nation that we hold to a different set of values, but are we fooling ourselves? Is our declaration that we are first and best a device to help us feel better about our behavior? Finally, has the special history of the United States solved any of the problems that plagued European settlers? I think not. The sun has indeed set on the British empire; are we next?
Truth be told, secretly we believe that Asians are smarter and Africans are stronger and Arabs are more ruthless and determined to rule the world. We cloak our fears and declare that we must get them before they get us. China has become our current bogeyman; before that ISIS; before that Communism; before that miscegenation. Are we actually helping to manufacture and strengthen our enemies by the labels we sling around and the policies we enact to avoid our deep-seated fear of the other – any other?
Where does the truth begin, where does it end, when does the story we tell no longer look like the truth? When does the truth that we are no more nor less than any other part of teeming and varied humanity release us from our almost psychotic fear of being second? When will our declarations of freedom actually set us free? When will we learn that being second is not the kiss of death, but the embrace of life at its fullest? There will still be mountains to climb, visions to manifest, connections to make, peoples to know. There will be endless potentiality!
Being first means that we wait for the inevitable: we wait to be toppled by one, then another, in an endless succession of challengers. Being first means being consumed by fear: not only the fear of being overthrown but the fear of extinction. The only way to assure that we continue to live in the hearts and minds of the world is to discard the fear of being second. Unless we do this, there will be no one left to praise us. We will find ourselves again facing existential loneliness, a yearning so deep that nothing short of creating an entirely new world outside ourselves will suffice. In this authentically brave new world, Abel lives and so does the United States of America.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1 KJV
In the mainstream scientific community we rely on rigor and proof to showcase the material world. In the noetic scientific community we rely on rigor and proof to showcase the nonmaterial world. By noetic, I mean qualities of inner knowing and awareness that are outside the domain of reason, but not necessarily in contradiction with it. If we are tied to rational methodologies alone to prove the ineffable qualities of consciousness, we face daunting problems before the research even begins. Yet our need to prove the noetic persists in traditional scientific terms. We like instruments and control groups and double-blind studies and measurable outcomes. We like dissecting consciousness so we can discover its component parts, just like we like dissecting animals who must be dead in order to discover their innermost workings.
We believe, perhaps rightly so, that it is we who are on the cutting edge of science, hoping and praying that eventually the materialist worldview will catch up with us and realize that consciousness creates the material world and not the other way around. We claim that our goal is to understand, but I think more often that goal is to prove, as wayward adolescents do when they try to impress their older, more established parents. My hunch is that as long as we stick to understanding, without necessarily proving, we may make some headway in communicating the noetic, the lived knowing to which we struggle to ascribe shared words and meaning.
As a professional intuitive I am particularly interested in the thorny issue of replicability, a key component of rational methodologies. I have lots of stories, hundreds of clients, and remarkable successes to report from what my clients tell me, but not a single one of my stories is replicable. There is no control group, no exact circumstance, no dispassionate observer of our interaction, no machine measurement of brain waves or respiration pattern, and there may be no immediate result. Does that make my work any less interesting or valuable? Probably not. Is there a way to make it fit the scientific model and rational method? Also, probably not. Is the work less rigorous? I think not. What to do? I am coming to the conclusion that taking a phenomenological approach and describing the lived experience of intuition, rather than what should be or is expected to be, may be a good place to start.
Is rigor possible without replicability?
I like to think so. I believe that it is possible to access intuition on demand and to access it in a rigorous way. For me, an intuitive session involves my meeting one-on-one with an individual, occasionally with a couple. While each session is different in substance and sometimes style, I have adopted certain practices that occur each time, whether I am reading for an individual, a couple, or a business when there are multiple people in the room.
• I ask to know nothing in advance. • I begin by taking a single breath. • I state the name of the client and the date: “This is a session with on the .” • I state my own name “…and I am Helen Stewart.” • I ask the clients to say their own name the way they think of themselves. Even if they are inquiring about someone else they must say their own name first. This helps me focus primarily on that aspect of the other that is relevant to this particular client. • I anchor the time together with an initial scribbled intuitive statement that comes from “out of nowhere.” Even if I have worked with the individual before, each conversation begins the same way without my asking or wishing to know why the individual is contacting me in this particular moment. Each statement is unexpected and often holds surprise. • I read the statement back to the client verbatim. • I begin speaking first to flesh out the statement without information or feedback from the client. Each statement is different, each based on intuitive information, usually a sentence, sometimes two or three. I have no stock phrases that I repeat to every client. Once finished with the introductory ritual, I let the client know that now it is permissible to make specific comments or ask specific questions about what I have said, about him/herself, or another individual or the company or project. Sometimes the information appears to be strictly personal, sometimes professional. Sometimes what I say surprises the client. Most often the response is, “Interesting. That’s why I’m calling you.” • Each time the client asks about someone else I ask for the name of the someone else. These questions and answers are shorter than the first but the process is the same, eliciting a phrase that anchors the other individual for the client. • Sometimes I ask the client to make a list. Initially I ask only for the number of items on the list, rank order them before any content is filled in, and then tell the client my rank ordered list of priorities, which we now fill in one at a time. For example, the client has five items in the order written down; however, I have ranked item number three on their list as my priority number one for them. Here, the making of a list, where relevant, is replicable; the content of each list is not. • Typically I return to the original intuitive statement from time to time throughout the session as details emerge and make sense out of my original remarks.
That’s it. That is all that is “replicable” in the hour or so that I spend with the client. The rest is unstructured and depends on the flow of what is essentially a directed conversation, not a protocol. There is no control group and no external observer. What is replicable and comes with mastery is the expression of customer satisfaction at the end of our time together; the sense of wonder and joy.
This pattern of conducting an intuitive session seems to permit rigor in one sense: there is no information provided beforehand and I always begin each session in the same way, with a breath and an intuitive phrase. In a manner of speaking, we are both “flying blind” since neither of us knows what I will say to kick things off.
To make one session replicate another, however, seems impossible to me. I could replicate the physical sense of betrayal via a throbbing in the back I feel that is repeated from one client to the next who is facing similar issues. That sensation could perhaps be documented. Could the throbbing be measured by an instrument? I do not know. I cannot predict in advance that a particular session or client will trigger a betrayal issue, so I cannot set up instrumentation in the expectation of a particular outcome. Such preparation would, in and of itself, preclude the element of surprise that I depend on so much for accurate intuition.
Replicable methodology, not replicable content
There is nothing about content and, truthfully, very little about process that can be measured or controlled. Some information may be subject to immediate corroboration by the client and some may take months or years to to confirm. The mechanical process described above relays nothing about the extraordinary event that takes place within the confines and corners of a single hour of shared time.
Both client and intuitive are interested parties
Most often the client comes because there is a pressing personal or business issue and certain decisions are already overdue. What I say matters and both the client and I have a keen interest in making the time spent worthwhile. Detachment from the outcome is possible, however: the single breath that shifts me into intuitive mode helps assure that my rational mind and tender ego move out of the way appropriately.
If the client is dealing with an issue that reminds me of similar events in my own life, detachment is critical. This is tricky because my personal experience may be useful and offer a deeper understanding of their situation; on the other hand, I am likely to interject bias and unwarranted judgment. If I project my experience onto the client’s the person will feel that I am coming out of left field and will likely dismiss my commentary. And they won’t call back. Again, replicability is more difficult since the number of variables has increased exponentially when my past experience is added to the mix.
Detached from the outcome, but not dispassionate
I have cried in sessions with clients, whether or not they are crying. I have felt unspeakable love, unspeakable loss, unspeakable beauty of potential that will only be expressed in their future. In these circumstances I am personally detached from the outcome and yet I am feeling deeply with and for the other; I am anything but dispassionate. Willingness to feel, name, and express intense emotion is one of the most rewarding features of my work: love, fear, sadness, anger, all of it. I see it, I feel it, I name it, I help them transcend or achieve it. I am personally disinterested but metaphysically deeply invested in their success. I want to see them shimmer. All of these sessions are powerful. None of them are replicable.
Forgetting the details… and more
In the middle of an intuitive moment I am fully present. I am conscious and yet my awareness is slightly shifted. When the moment is over I begin to forget. If I have another appointment immediately following, the shift must occur quickly or I risk bringing information from the prior session into the next one, offering inaccurate and irrelevant information to the new person before me in person or on the screen or telephone. If my schedule is open I might remember for a while longer, but in any case by the next day I have no clue what specifically a client and I may have discussed. I know that sometimes a client will ask me the same question or set of questions more than once to see if there is consistency in my responses. They will tell me directly: “That’s the same thing you told me before.” Or, “But you said before that…. What is different now?”
There is a gift in the ability to forget quickly and move on, returning energy that is not mine to its rightful owner while avoiding repetition, bias, and laziness. That same forgetting makes replicability more difficult, however.
So what is replicable?
• Process: how I receive and communicate information • Session format: how I structure time with the client • Client statements regarding the accuracy of intuitive information given • Client expressed feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction
While the process and format are similar, each session is unique, whether I have worked with the same individual for ten years or have never met them before. The key to receiving truly intuitive information is being open to surprise at every moment. Unlike controlled studies, I am not looking for the same result over and over. I am looking for the unique in the present moment.
“On the Record”
For matters in the public domain, intuitive confirmation might appear in the news but could take months or years to appear. Notwithstanding these appearances, eventual confirmation still does not address the replicability issue.
Contemporaneous documentation through audio/videotapes, emails, or testimonials, might provide evidence that I had information I could not have known except for intuition because the knowledge was either outside my domain or privileged and secret. As a matter of course I have published some predictions on my website in an effort to go “on the record.” The information came before the events, but the postings about the events are ex post facto. Again, no replicability and no reporting on erroneous predictions; thus, no prediction score.
Furthermore, there are some events no one would wish ever to be replicated even if multiple sources predicted them, such as the nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima, Japan, and Chernobyl, Russia, or the earthquake in Haiti. We must find ways to codify and study such non-replicable events for which prior intuitive information exists.
The Chinese Restaurant
One of the most interesting examples of the power of intuition without replicability occurred for me in the 1990s. I have written about this elsewhere. Two British colleagues and I would connect virtually once a week for fifteen minutes and record our impressions. Each of us would “send” in successive order for five minutes and “receive” for the other two segments. During and following each session we would write down our impressions and exchange emails afterward which would automatically be date and time-stamped electronically. These were nothing like controlled experiments, but they were fun and raised a lot of questions that we are still trying to understand.
On a particular Monday, I forgot to send my colleague a cancellation notice about our session, but we later discovered that he saw what I was seeing anyway at the time we normally would have been sending back and forth intentionally. What my colleague saw was unusual and unexpected, but absolutely correct. We were not set up to record; I was not at my computer but sitting in a Chinese restaurant near a hospital where I had taken my daughter for an emergency. This was a one-time occasion, even for our loosely controlled weekly experiments. Replicability was out of the question, and yet the possibility of gaining an important understanding of the nature of consciousness was enormous. Is it time to give up replicability as a requirement for noetic scientific inquiry?
Evidence without proof
I am requesting that we lighten up a bit on our demand for rigor in the usual ways, let our minds wander just a bit off course, and explore the delights of inquiry and evidence without having to meet all the standards of scientific proof, starting perhaps with the requirement for replicability. We might come across a treasure trove of clues to the nature of consciousness that could straddle both materialist and non-materialist worldviews!
It broke my heart a few weeks ago to get a letter from my cousin and to have his partner mention offhandedly that all these years he has had to write my cousin’s letters for him. As part of the so-called new generation of African Americans, how is it possible that I can be more educated than most of any color, can make more money than many, and can see much of the world whenever I wish, while my first cousin cannot read or write, cannot get a job, and will likely die of AIDS before he gets out of his forties?
It is increasingly difficult to figure out the order of things, let alone the future of things because so many “things” seem to be in total disarray. We are struggling with a problem of definition, sometimes asking the wrong questions and sometimes looking in the wrong direction for answers. Many northeastern members of my family were actually better off in the Nineteen Twenties than they are now! I remember looking at the old photos of my grandparents attending the Massachusetts governor’s ball in the 1920s. My grandmother was a registered nurse, her husband was a sleeping car porter and her sister was an attorney: together they represented important elements of the black bourgeoisie at the time.
Today the photos are gone, the house has burned down and it is unlikely that either my cousin or I would be invited to a governor’s ball. On the other hand, there were only four black female lawyers in the entire country when my great aunt was practicing; now there are many, many more, to say nothing of black participation in every sector of the society at almost every level. The future may indeed be forward, but it is a lot harder to tell which way is “up.”
The very concept of “The Year 2000” is an illusion. We look to a number to explain a complex set of circumstances. No single number, whether that number signifies the beginning of a new millennium or an old debt, captures what we are doing through the policies we enact, the love we express or fail to express, or the distance we establish between ourselves and the rest of the world. African Americans are a symbolic group in American culture, just as the year 2000 is a symbolic number. Both represent hope and achievement, and both also represent dismay. The true meaning of the millennial concept is to be found in our collective consciousness, not in our mathematics or our calendar.
The Gift of the Ever-Changing Present
The year 2000 is NOW, created anew each moment by our complacency or commitment. To look in the mirror in this continuous present moment is to find the answer to what lies ahead for all of us, African American or other, in the year 2000 and beyond.
Is it possible that the ostensibly literate among us are skilled at the mechanics of reading, yet understand little of the content they encounter on the pages of our culture? Do we read the face of the homeless woman who sits each day in the pizza parlor and wonder what happens to her when the parlor closes? Do we read the heart of the person who looks and acts the least like us? Do we read the souls of our cities?
When Rev. Willie Smith asked me to do this piece I responded with a glib, “Sure!” But by the time I sat down to write I was in tears. I thought of my cousin, of the newly obtained knowledge that he cannot read or write and that he is dying. Then I remembered my mother’s telling me that he and every one of his brothers and sisters had failed the first grade. How can we fail our children in the first grade?! My cousin does not live in some rural outpost, mind you; he lives in the Boston metropolitan area, a region that acts as if it is the center of the universe and hosts about two hundred colleges and universities within a twenty-mile radius, some of which are the best in the country.
When I heard the news about my cousin I felt guilty and I felt a sense of desperation that the magnitude of the problems facing our community might defy human intervention. And yet it is human beings who created these circumstances. Now I know that each breath, each act of omission or commission, each story read to my granddaughter, each callous refusal to understand and embrace the soul of every beloved – first my own and then all others as if they were my own – is the year 2000 that I will have helped to create. Any sense of powerlessness I might have felt with regard to my cousin’s illiteracy or his illness is overshadowed by my absolute and uncompromising power to make myself emotionally, intellectually, ethically, and globally literate.
My people will live or die by the individual action of all people. If we take care of the now and treat all children as our own, then the year 2000 – or 2050 – will take care of itself.
MY COUSIN DIED A SHORT TIME AFTER THIS PIECE WAS PUBLISHED. HE NEVER LEARNED HOW TO READ AND WRITE.
Of all the words that might unite us across the political spectrum, the one I have heard most often over the past few days is “Enough!”
Enough dividing and conquering
Enough isolation due to COVID-19
Enough meddling from foreign powers
Enough being taken for granted in the electoral process
Enough working hard with nothing to show for it
Enough being sick without medical coverage
Enough being invisible, unheard, unseen
Enough condescension, misogyny, racism
Enough being the butt of others’ jokes
Enough threats to person, reputation, livelihood
Enough threats to democracy
Enough secrets and silences
Enough “bad actors”
Enough tearing the country apart
Enough problem solving by force
There is something for everyone on this list. Perhaps “Enough!” could become the rallying cry for a nation under siege from within as well as outside our geographical and economic borders.
For some time I have been wondering when and what it would take for the body politic to say “Enough!” January 6, 2021, may mark that day. Following the breach of the Capitol Building in Washington DC, my question becomes, “Are we looking at the beginning of the end of divisiveness, or are we looking at the beginning of something more sinister, a second civil war?
January 6th was the day to certify the selection of Joe Biden to become the 46th President of the United States. Typically this would have been a ho-hum, pro forma, procedural action in the House of Representatives. For many across the political spectrum, however, it was a nail-biter day.
At the end of his live televised address on that fateful day, President-Elect Joe Biden said, “Enough is enough is enough.” Early in the day, President Trump addressed his supporters at a rally in front of the White House: “We will never give up. We will never concede. Our country has had enough….we will stop the steal.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the events could mark the “death spiral of democracy.” Former Defense Secretary James Mattis called the lack of congressional action to rein in this president “profiles in cowardice.” CBS News anchor Major Garrett commented, “If this doesnʻt flush [Trump] out of the Republican Party, then he is not flushable.” When black Americans watched as one lone black Capitol guard faced a vicious mob without backup support, I experienced the collective sigh and whispered to myself, “Here we go again; enough.”
All parties claim to have had enough, but the focus of that enough varies widely. All claim to be on the side of righteousness. Many have repeated the sentiment that while certification of a Biden victory may signal the end of the Trump presidency, the end of Trumpism in America is nowhere in sight and his supporters have clearly not had enough. That base has been and likely will remain an omnipresent force in American history, just as other forces will remain that could be labeled “progressive” or “moderate.”
So let me be clear: my enough highlights cruelty, indecency, deception, and barriers to opportunity. I have had enough of beliefs and actions that inflict intentional harm, that stoke fear, that limit choice, or that see any other as evil. Particularly troubling are negative perceptions based on immutable physical characteristics, identity, and zip code.
How do we fashion peaceful coexistence among such starkly different perspectives? How do we determine the size and shape of such a tent that all would fit inside it without sacrificing fundamental identity? How can we make the ideal of American democracy an enduring form of governance, despite internal and external pressures?
Was Roberto Michels right? Is it impossible to avoid an eventual return to oligarchy, regardless of which form any governance structure takes at its beginning? What would it take for all parties to declare simultaneously “Enough!” and leave each other alone to live and vote and do no harm to their opponents while the pendulum swings back and forth, left to right, up and down?
Fifty years from now, what will turn out to have been the impact of these moments in the political life of our country? What choices will we make now to frame and reframe our identity as a nation so that fifty years from now we break out in a collective smile? I believe we are in a pivotal moment, one in which we face largely private daily choices-with-a-lower-case “c” and simultaneously long-term strategic cultural choices-with-a-capital “C.”
“Peace is not the absence of conflict; it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.“
Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of the end of both divisiveness and a second civil war. Perhaps we will remove ourselves as a society from false dichotomies. Perhaps we will fashion a contemporary framework for understanding and reaching out to those among us whom we do not understand and who may look or think differently from us, but who are also passionate and patriotic citizens.
We have become a bimodal society in which the gap between not only perceptions of reality, but between the very realities themselves shows up in stark contrast. Can simple notions of decency, acknowledgment, common sense, and the common good strike a familiar chord in all of us, regardless of circumstances, and provide the alchemy to turn the many into one? I certainly hope so.
Being SecondBeing DefiledBeing SeenBeing VulnerableBeing JudgedBeing PunishedBeing MortalBeing ImmortalBeing Annihilated
Here they are, right up front. The fears of:
The Roots of The Great American Fears
My earliest notes on the subject of what I call “The Great American Fears” date from as far back as 1981. At one point I envisioned a full-fledged book, but alas, that may never be. Instead, I will settle for a simple set of declarations that may or may not resound with any reader who happens upon this page and wishes to pursue the subject more deeply. Someone younger and wiser than I needs to get a handle on this perpetual American sickness: at the most foundational level a fear of annihilation so deep and all-consuming that we would destroy any and all shadows, all projections, all representations of humanity that mesmerize us on the one hand, and reflect the opposite of how we declare ourselves to be on the other. We insist that we are first, pure, strong, smart, inventive, envied, courageous, and eternally dominant even though we are less than three hundred years old as a nation. We want to carve out a new and never before seen homogeneous culture that is so enchanting the whole world idealizes and embraces us, willing to forego their own varied cultural expressions and mastery achieved over eons to taste the sweet nectar of a truly intentional and chosen society, a brave new world. For some, a white world.
It is my contention that the Great American Fears arise out of the very nature of American history and affect everything from family structure, sex, and the capacity for love in all its forms, to domestic politics, immigration policy, and foreign aid. Americans will do anything to allay these fears. We will engage in brutal behavior that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We will unwittingly invite the suicidal consequences of acting out the fears whose truth we wish so desperately to avoid.
Furthermore, I believe that these fears are the soil in which both well-deserved pride and shameful prejudice flourish in the currently dis-united states of America. We have produced a deadly compost of arrogance and self-loathing that threatens to subvert every attempt in every generation to achieve “a more perfect union,” the penultimate flower of American democracy. On the one hand, we speak and write endlessly about the centuries-old impact of institutional racism on American ethos and consciousness. On the other hand, much like Holocaust deniers and survivors in Europe, we rail against anyone who dares to bring “that” up again: the genocide of indigenous populations, the unique system of slavery that kept Africans bound in perpetuity, the laws that kept Chinese and Japanese “excluded,” and the ridiculing of Irish, Poles, and Italians as Europeans of lesser intelligence or weak moral fiber. We are obsessive and compulsive as we repeatedly acknowledge and deny the deepest contradictions that make us one of the most interesting places on the planet.
The Inevitability of Physical and Political Contradictions
We are mesmerized by almond eyes, chocolate skin, thick dark hair, muscular build, and feisty women. And yet we persist in proclaiming the divine right of blond hair, blue eyes, dainty damsels, and extremes of either genteel or boorish men, preferably all of Northern European ancestry. As Christians, we borrow Old Testament Scripture from Middle Eastern Jews and Muslims with whom we share Adam and Abraham as progenitors, to declare that God has made us the chosen people and them the castaways. Of course, He told the same thing to the others in this dynamic historical triad and ostensibly gave us as Christians, Jews, and Muslims dominion of all we see before us, not only in our own countries but also in all other nations of the world. Our dominion extends to other humans, animals, land; elements above and below the land and sky and sea; dominion over the very planet itself. We borrow the seeds of democracy from Indigenous Americans and our definitions of high culture from our swarthy Southern and Eastern European neighbors, even though we now refer to contemporary Greeks and Italians as fiscally irresponsible, lazy, even unintelligent, along with Poles whose centuries of rich intellectual and artistic culture have been almost totally annihilated. Dare I say it? We consider them stupid.
Categorization Is Normal
To be clear, the very nature of being in the world requires categories and categorization to simply help us identify, get by, and organize our bombarded and complex daily lives. There is nothing inherently wrong with using the tools at our disposal – in this case attributions and ideas about people, places and things – just to help us function with ease and order. It is when those tools take on a life of their own and keep us from thriving that we must revisit the usefulness of categorization and certain categories in particular like race, gender, national origin, ethnicity, religion, and class.
Geographically and Historically Challenged
In addition to physical and cultural categories, we are challenged geographically as well. Here in the West, we are unaware of the centuries-old and sometimes centuries-long empires of Africa such as the Kush, Punt, Carthaginian, Aksumite, Solomonic, Malian, Songhai, Benin, Yoruba, Hausa, and Zimbabwean. We even go so far as to remove culturally revered Egypt from Africa altogether, tacking it on to the Middle East instead based selectively on those in its population that are lighter-skinned. Many Americans have no idea that Egypt is actually located in Africa or that the continent (not country) is four times the size of the United States, or that there are Africans above the Sahara who are as dark as night. Some cartographers even point out that certain world maps, perceived to be scientifically objective, are not drawn to true scale because to do so would show the geographical diminutiveness of white inhabited spaces in multiple regions of the world vis-à-vis non-white ones. [globalcitizen.org/en/content/world-map-wrong-mercator-peters-projection-boston/(opens in a new tab)]
Europeans know much more about such things than we do here in the U.S. and are quite sophisticated about geography, but they become apoplectic when it comes to the Ottoman and Moorish invasions centuries ago by dark people and foreign cultures too powerful for anglicized Christianity to fend off. These “others” left their mark not only on the land but also on human biology, “defiling” the purity of northern European standards of beauty. That mixed biology persists in Western Europe and accompanied the first settlers to the U.S. centuries ago. Telltale tracks show up in DNA samples of genealogical buffs who make use of new technologies to unearth their roots, some of which are surprising and not altogether welcomed. Anecdotally, a few of my European friends confirm that much of what is going on politically in Europe at present stems in part from a centuries-old hatred of domination by Turks, and Moors, and Poles.
On the political front here at home, we refuse to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, even if our very own white women and girls are disenfranchised from participating in what we tell ourselves we built altruistically for them, not for ourselves. The documentary history of the suffrage movement in the U.S. shows intense brutality as well as disdain directed towards women who insisted on the vote.
“Women shall have equal rights in the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
That’s it. That is all there is, and since 1776 we cannot seem to get this done. Only fear can explain this – a fear so visceral and so deeply embedded in the American male psyche that no amount of evidence or assurance to the contrary can abate it.
Science and Reason
Okay, so what about the so-called preëminence of reason and neutrality: what about science? A science that derives from a religious worldview teaches us that genes come in three varieties: good, bad, and downright evil. The description of an eternally flawed and sinful self dominates many recognized religions, especially in the West, based on the concept of original sin.
On the other hand, a science rooted in a secular worldview teaches us that consciousness is local and controlled by a physical brain inside an ultimately weak body ravaged by instinct rather than choice. This view is based on the simple presumption of the survival of the fittest. The secular worldview also teaches us that we are a random collection of chemicals. If we could only kill and dissect enough species and grow their now-dead cells in a Petri dish, sooner or later we could actually locate, describe, predict, and control human consciousness, behavior, and morality.
Belief: evil is stronger than good and human nature is fundamentally flawed
In the deepest recesses of our minds, we believe that evil is actually stronger than good and that Satan, the fallen angel exiled and left to his own devices, could ultimately vanquish the good angels unless God and humanity exercise the strictest controls. The body must be constrained and the “other” must be controlled by force, if necessary, or these strong elements will get out of hand and drive us inexorably towards our baser instincts. If control proves difficult or impossible, then we must weed out and annihilate that evil twin before it takes preëmptive action. Furthermore, the good that we tell ourselves we represent must be cloned, evangelizing the world and bringing our particular “good news” to the ignorant.
Because of its locus in weak biology with limited recognition of consciousness and choice, good must often rely on external mechanical tools and military force. I believe this to be part of our love for “gadgets:” guns, bombs, and other weapons of localized or mass destruction, psychological experimentation, and technological games. Our natural curiosity offers endless possibilities for nonviolent creativity, but there is something lurking beneath our initially innocent creativity that leans regularly towards tools of dominance. We believe ourselves to be fundamentally weak as a species and thus no match for an evil which in some distorted way symbolizes the epitome of strength in our dominant Western cultural myths.
The Expression and Power of Fear
Free will must be the culprit; choice the leveler. That which purportedly distinguishes humans from beasts actually makes us behave more like our beastly constructs; therefore, we cannot be trusted with unlimited choice.
What makes us not do unto others as we would have them do unto us as individuals and as a nation? For me, the simple answer is fear – an interrelated set of fears that stop us in our tracks every time we attempt to live the American ideal of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. After all, we chose intentionally to add equal access and treatment under the law as we broadened the scope of inclusion for our citizens. When we knew better, we did better, and we can do that again.
Fear of Being Second
When I first began this inquiry I thought that the fear of being second was the most important great American fear, triggered perhaps by my own experience of having been born both the second child and the second sex in my second race family of origin. Eventually, however, my interest turned to the largely male-dominated fascination with sports and war. There are only winners and losers in these domains, and only those who are first can be declared true winners. Those who come in “only” second or farther behind by the slightest margin are losers. Seared into my consciousness from an early age was the phrase from some grade school history lesson in which a Spartan mother admonishes her son to “return with your shield, or on it.”Win or lose, dead or alive, give no quarter to anything less than being first.
Fast forward (and backward) to the macrocosm of America’s place in the world, particularly following World Wars I and II. America must be first on the global stage and American ideals must be dominant.
Nowhere is this obsession with winning and being first more apparent than in sports as the peacetime equivalent of war when there are no external enemies to fight. There may be literally a millisecond between first and second place, or a point on the scoreboard, or a length at the Indy 500 or Kentucky Derby, but the only name remembered and honored is the one that came in first.
What is most remarkable about sports as metaphor for cultural identity is that many of our most revered sports figures are also those who are the most “other” in American society: Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American, nonwhite Hispanics, and Eastern Europeans. Even those bastions of Northern European and American sports dominance – tennis, golf, cricket, polo, rugby, and baseball – have crumbled under the weight of crushing defeats by the likes of Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson, Venus and Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, “A-Rod” Rodriguez. The 1936 Olympic Games rattled the world when Jesse Owens, a black man, defeated the Germans and other “Aryans” in track and field just as they were beginning a putsch for control of white-dominated Europe.
The Fear of Being Defiled
The truth be told (but we dare not say it), the Aryan race is remarkably fragile. Our Scandinavian ancestors and cousins can withstand bitter cold and hostile climates, but mixed with the tiniest amount of non-Aryan genetic material their offspring quickly begin to look more like the subordinate others than like their tall, warrior, patrician blond and blue progenitors who claim to be the country’s primal source. That telltale blush of extra melanin, or fold in the eyelids, or curl in the hair, gives away its secrets even when the nonwhite parent is absent and possibly even unknown.
There are some parents who feel enormous pride in the racial admixture of their children while others are ashamed, regretting their youthful idealism, or even folly. The children know: they can feel the emotion, whether or not those feelings are ever said out loud. The grandparents are even more interesting to watch, as they move about in public with young children who do not look much like them. Accustomed to being unremarkable, suddenly all eyes are on the grandparents as they claim or distance themselves from their own kin. When the grandparents are uncomfortable, embarrassment and shame are palpable; when comfortable, everyone around the little family constellation seems to breathe a sigh of relief.
The Fear of Annihilation
It dawned on me at some point that deeper than the fear of being second lies an all-encompassing fear of annihilation, of having not only failed to win, or having existed in a subordinate position, but of not having existed at all! It is the fear of oblivion: no ruins to be discovered a thousand years later reflecting the natural rise and fall of civilizations; rather – and this is the most frightening of all – no evidence of ever having existed on the planet, let alone ever having exercised dominance over it as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob commanded. Worse than being the disappeared is the never having been.
And so it begins: tackling the Great American Fears. In this introductory moment, I will simply list them and let those thoughts rumble through our collective awareness. Then, bit by bit and musing by musing, I will attempt to deepen my understanding of each fear with compassion rather than judgment. This is a free-wheeling effort, neither doctoral dissertation nor history book: it is meant to be food for thought and thought for growth as the U.S. meets and fulfills its role of national icon and global citizen. I welcome all perspectives and ask for reflection and civil discourse as together we attempt once more what Franklin D. Roosevelt asked of us as a nation in the midst of the Great Depression:
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933 Inaugural Address
Here again, then, are the Great American Fears, based on the natural presence and inevitability of contradiction in the deepest recesses of our national consciousness:
Let us begin to claim these fears, to take the sting out of them. Let us learn to be confident without being arrogant, to embrace our pluralism because it makes us stronger, not weaker. Let us be defenseless in our search for that more perfect union because the journey itself is the ever-present teachable moment. The task is never finished; we are never finished. In this way we remain both mortal and immortal: we exist and our very existence serves the whole and is imbued in the whole. Annihilation is impossible and it is never too late to exercise choice; that is the very nature of reality in my worldview. All that is simply is, ever-present. It is only our focus, our attention that shifts away from one scenario towards another. However challenging the present moment, together we can craft another that is more in line with our individual and collective desires. How fortunate we are that fear need not prevail!
Asylum, border security, and comprehensive immigration reform are not just issues for the mainland. In August 2019, three non-profit organizations co-sponsored a forum on issues of immigration and sanctuary here in the Hawaiian Islands. Panelists spoke of the historical roots of anti-immigration sentiment in the United States since the Seventeenth Century. We were reminded that anti-immigrant policies and actions have been implemented under both Republican and Democrat presidencies. Many contemporary detention centers on the mainland are indistinguishable from European concentration camps during the 1930s before they morphed into death camps. Speakers provided context for an immigration crisis looming here in the land of Aloha as well as elsewhere. All made it abundantly clear that the fundamental purpose of the Trump administration’s immigration policy is precisely and principally to exercise cruelty and to instill fear.
It is estimated that there are currently 40,000 undocumented workers in Hawaiʻi. Many work in the agricultural sector, typically flying under the radar of direct public awareness. They grow our crops, tend our fields, care for our children and the sick, and clean up after our tourists. In earlier times Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, and Korean workers performed many of these tasks but eventually moved up the assimilation ladder to non-farm jobs, businesses, higher education, and public service.
Immigration attorneys are doing what they can to assist with court proceedings, and places like Harris Methodist Church on Oahu have declared themselves to be sanctuaries for immigrants, providing whatever assistance they can through church and volunteer generosity. I have learned that migrants from the southern border of the mainland have been dispersed here to Hawaii too, not just to varied locations in the contiguous states. Determining who should be the last to arrive in any given location has always been a tricky issue, one that dogs our politics as well as our hearts and minds.
The Federal administration under Donald J. Trump’s presidency has brought out the worst in human nature, and Hawaiʻi has not been able to escape virulent anti-immigration rhetoric entirely, even though the situation here is better than in many other locations. One speaker that evening requested not to be recorded for fear of retaliation against him, his family, and his business.
There are many mixed-status families in Hawaiʻi too, in which some are citizens and others are not, who fear that they are all in danger of intimidation and deportation. Round up first, ask questions later. Once again, American citizens are being questioned for no reason other than presumed ethnicity and national origin. Immigration lawyers have more cases than they can possibly handle. Here. In Hawaiʻi.
What we still lack is a positive, integrative vision for immigration, not only as a country, but also as a state. Eventually the hysteria will pass. Eventually good people will speak truth to power. Who and how will we be then, and what can we do now? The panelists at the August event offered a lot of practical advice, to which I have added a few tips of my own:
Find out what is going on. Do not turn away because the truth is uncomfortable and the images are disturbing.
Camp out at the offices of our state representatives. Pressure them to support sound immigration bills. Ask them to refuse to support bills that round people up, deny, or circumvent international conventions.
Ask our representatives to fight any effort to transfer Federal funds from other important programs, including health and education, to support unwarranted and inhumane military action. Humanitarian aid funds should be used for humanitarianaid.
Refuse to support ICE raids and help neighbors you see being harassed or rounded up if you can do so safely.
If you can and wish, buy airline tickets for immigrant families who cannot afford to fly back and forth from the outer islands to immigration court on Oahu and then get slapped with deportation orders for failure to appear. Help them get court information and dates right. Here in Hawaii, air travel is the only way to get from island to island.
Make donations to the ACLU, sanctuary locations like Harris Methodist Church locally, and other organizations that provide aid and comfort to undocumented workers.
Form an immigration-related hui or community group to stay on top of immigration issues, inform the community, and engage in specific action.
Pressure the Federal government to end abusive practices of all immigrants seeking asylum on the southern border of the mainland, especially women and children.
Speak out against those who claim that the physical abuse of women and children should be considered acceptable “cultural practice.”
When you see someone being harassed by ICE or the police regarding immigration issues, walk up to the individual(s) and ask quietly if they are okay and if they need help.
Speak up when you see or hear racist remarks or behavior unless to do so would threaten your own safety or that of your family. When you can, team up and work in groups to lessen any individual threats to person, property, or business.
Write letters of praise when you see people getting “caught” doing good.
Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper about immigration issues and legislative actions that would negatively impact any and all of us. Write op-ed pieces like this one was intended to be.
Provide pro bono services as you can afford for individuals and families traumatized as a result of their immigration experience.
Notice your own behavior: watch and listen to yourself as you interact with people who are different from you. Remember that many undocumented workers are knowingly hired by local employers, are paid less in wages than other residents for the same work, and pay taxes on the money they receive in the form of sales and other taxes, even if they are paid under the table.
Do not turn your anger against adult immigrants onto their children, who are innocent and traumatized. Permit immigrant children to be healthy in every way.
Remember your own family history: how long ago were you immigrants here and your family was walking in their shoes?
March, carry signs, write-draw-paint-photograph, resist, listen deeply, and learn always. Adopt behavior that is consistent with the best in all of us.
The morning was filled with politics. What are we for, what are we against? What matters? What could touch the heart of any individual anywhere on the planet? What slogan could unify a divided country, a divided world, a divided self?
At the end of a recent local political meeting the phrase “Count me in!” suddenly burst into the forefront of my mind. Someone mentioned the power and effectiveness of Obama’s “Yes, we can!” slogan, and also Trump’s “It’s a disgrace!” or “It’s a hoax!”
“Make America Great Again,” with four words and even more syllables, has not seemed to carry the same force as those three-word tweets; in fact, most often that particular tag line is reduced to two syllables: MA’GA. Just in the past few days count me in has become identified with participating in the once a decade census: public service announcements show people of varied backgrounds extolling the importance of being counted… counted in!
“Count me in!” captures the importance of personal choice and personal responsibility, while at the same time joining with the rest of humanity. It is personal journey, tailored to the full range of human experience and possibility. I can make it mine; I can find my “tribe;” I can express positive action about something near to my heart without excluding someone else who also wants to be counted in, but whose tribe is different from mine.
We are all joined together by three simple words: count me in. Antithetical to the exclusionary tone of many campaign slogans that offer tests of purity or shared horror, these words embrace inclusion without having to mark people” in” or “out.”
Several years ago, my then teenaged granddaughter and I watched a reality television series called Project Runway. The contestants were to create an entire season’s fashion collection in one week, after which the collection would be judged by successful designers and by celebrities who might one day want to wear their fashions.
By the end of the week the fashion competition narrows to two contenders when the host finally declares, “Justin, you’re in; that means Sarah, you’re out.” Both finalists received high marks, but ultimately one was “in” and the other, by the very nature of the process, was “out.”
“Count me in” does not require that I be sent away, thrown out, fired, or labeled a loser because I only came in second. Rather, I am permitted to have a single focus, a short list of fundamental goals, or a long list that would change the world. I can be counted in the limited stratosphere of particle physics enthusiasts, or global activists for health care or civil rights, or those who want to assure continued corporate dominance. My list could be as long as what could fit legibly on a T-shirt, or it could be succinct: world peace or whirled peas.
Count me in implies belonging, even if I am a recluse or hermit. It offers agency, choice, and power without the need to dominate another. I can be part of a shared experience, whether local or at a distance. I can transcend language and cultural barriers.
Count me in levels the playing field when there would otherwise be separations based on physical characteristics, socioeconomic status, religion, or political point of view. It permits me to support healthcare whether I want Medicare for all, for all who want it, for all who don’t want to give up self-funded coverage, for all who want union plans and employer paid pensions, and for all who want to be left alone so they can create a plan tailored for their special needs, such as prosthetics or mental health.
Count me in gives me the power to decide if I belong or not. It also provides me the opportunity to leave a particular group or cohort if I change my mind. I get to be counted or not. I get to feel a part of something larger than myself – or not. I get to belong even if I don’t know the secret handshake, because being counted in is framed by me. I get to run towards or away from an ideal as much as a political party or social act. I get to shout my passion out loud or whisper it in small font under my “Count me in!” logo.
Count me in can express values as well as actions, identity as well as legislation, financial priority as well as cultural identity or heritage. It can be a tree house hideaway in my back yard or a march of thousands in front of the White House.
Count me in. Period. No more, no less. It is enough!
As I see it, the most significant difference between the United States of America and other developed countries is the public expression of guilt when its ideals are not met, when it slips up in its efforts to become “a more perfect union.” That guilt goes all the way back to the Declaration of Independence.
This willingness to name and rectify our flaws is, I believe, the true source of American exceptionalism. In some respects we are seen as a bumbling but well-intentioned adolescent nation, whose antics endear us to the rest of a world that has seen endless suffering, wars, and dynasties come and go.
The Netherlands, South Africa, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Japan, China, France, Germany, and England displayed little, if any, remorse for their brutal behavior as they colonized known and unknown worlds. Here in the United States, however, we have put our moral heart on display for all the world to see. Typically, we show remorse through legislative arguments and amendments to the Constitution; through varied iterations of a Marshall Plan to rebuild distant locations when we bomb or otherwise decimate a population; through political activism and research; and through continuous investigative reporting by a relatively free press.
Showing our American heart was probably not required, but because we did so, we demonstrated our moral dominance over those cousins who made no claim to care about equality. We are proud that we have embraced different values from those of our class-ridden parents and centuries of European and Judeo-Christian tradition. It is this ideal that makes the world want to come to our shores and that makes us feel guilty, especially since the end of the Second World War.
Natural vs. Unnatural Guilt
That is natural guilt, laudable guilt, a guilt that makes us over time a more perfect union – if we can achieve it. We operate on the assumptions that, while we have made significant improvements, we can be even better and we can do better. We are immersed in good intent.
The downside of openness is that we must hold ourselves accountable to our compassionate heart in a public way. Denying our imperfection renders us ordinary, just like everyone else.
A negative by-product of guilt is that it can make us want to hide our imperfections: not only from others, but also from ourselves. It is this latter hiding, dissembling, and downright lying that becomes the source of our eventual undoing, our unnatural guilt. This insidious form of guilt relies on the falsehoods that humanity is unworthy, that some groups are more unworthy than others, and that human nature is fundamentally and eternally sinful.
In one of Jane Roberts’ many books there is a discussion by her source of wisdom called Seth that makes an important distinction between natural and unnatural guilt. Natural guilt helps us navigate the material world and avoid negative and even dire consequences. Unnatural guilt, on the other hand, makes us obsess endlessly about perfection and imperfection; about purity, the threat of defilement, and extinction. It causes us to get stalled in our progress and project attributes onto others that we notice in ourselves but cannot accept.
It is unnatural guilt that brings about arrogance, self-loathing, prejudice, fanaticism, and dictatorship. Natural guilt keeps us from repeating mistakes as we gradually recognize the pain we cause others and ourselves, and move to eliminate the pain. Natural guilt can become a source of compassion and empathy, derived from individual and collective experience. Unnatural guilt, on the other hand, becomes a source of narcissism: it bolsters the lies we tell about the world, about nature, about others and, most importantly, about ourselves.
As a nation, the United States is full of both natural and unnatural guilt. We celebrate the generosity of the indigenous peoples of the Americas who helped the early settlers survive in harsh conditions. On the other hand, we wipe them out, steal their land and natural resources, and force them to retreat into smaller and smaller spaces where the land is often not even arable. Similarly, we relegate African Americans to a state of perpetual servitude, then proudly wear Michael Jordan tank tops with the number 23 emblazoned on our own and our children’s backs. As slaves they are dangerous; as sub-human mascots they are endearing. We celebrate Henry Louis Gates as a Harvard scholar and then arrest him on his own front porch because a black man should not be living in that neighborhood. While battling and deriding China’s imperialism from one side of our mouth, we import and export vast sums of money, debt, and products from the other side. We flout our dominance in the world, and yet we put our land, iconic buildings, industries, and even our stock market up for sale to foreign nationals and companies. For Native and African Americans, their very being triggers a guilt that must not be named: the sin of coveting the land of others, and the sin of slavery when a centerpiece of the Judeo-Christian story recounts the evils of slavery and the exodus from Egypt.
This interplay of natural and unnatural guilt literally makes us crazy as a country and as a force in the world. We cannot sort out who we are and how we should behave, so we whine and flail and make excuses as the pendulum swings wildly from one extreme to the other.
But our ideals are like no others in the modern Western world. We dream of utopian community, a society free from persecution without the need for force, harsh penalties and undue violence. We subscribe to higher secular laws, a morality that is meant to govern our social discourse and behavior. We proclaim equality for all. We pronounce the importance of the separation of church and state and the freedoms of religious belief and privacy. And then we turn around and elect a president who is the antithesis of all most of us claim to stand for.
We are full of contradiction and unnatural guilt.
Contradictions persist. We believe in our strength as a nation, but we also believe that we stand on the precipice of racial and cultural extinction because evil and the “Other” are stronger still.
Contradiction is inevitable, but we can handle it. We can embrace our contradictions and still be strong enough to persist, survive, and even thrive as a vibrant and diverse nation. Our natural guilt helps us catch our shortcomings and oversights, as well as our cultural sins of omission and commission. When we see that some members of our society are left out, we create laws to address past oversights. There is a sense of natural guilt expressed here, fixing and clarifying existing harms. There is appropriate conscience and consciousness, even though we seem to be backsliding right now.
Because we are one in spite of ourselves, all harm done to the other inevitably comes back to bite us when and where we least expect it: in our homes and schools and churches and playgrounds and streets – and in our political parties and physical bodies.
What begins as natural guilt gets contorted into an effort to exterminate the very people who remind us of our earlier transgressions and imperfection. The effort to hide our unsavory history backfires and becomes the primary source of unnatural guilt.
Could This Be the Beginning of the End of America As We Know It?
Guilt, whether natural or unnatural, signifies the presence of conscience and of self-consciousness. Theoretically the absence of guilt could represent innocence and the absence of malice. On the other hand, it could represent the absence of a moral compass, which might prove to be the telltale sign of a civilization in decline.
What shall we do with our national guilt? Which history will have been written about us one hundred years from now? We are writing that history by the choices we make now. From the vantage point of the future, what will have been your story, my story, the story we created together in our search for a “more perfect union?” Did we abandon that ideal or did we move it forward?
The best gift we have is the gift of choice, a possibility that eluded many world cultures over the centuries. Choice: use it or lose it, and in so doing, take responsibility for our own individual and shared future.
Can we return to a state of natural guilt without getting trapped by denial and unnatural guilt? Can we hold on to moral leadership in the world without having the U.S. become yet another case study in failed democracy? Time will tell. In the meantime, I choose the path of natural guilt and an open heart.
When we look for ways to respond to danger, loss, economic challenge, and threats to the future of the planet itself, why are educators and schools the first target for budget cuts, as if education were a “discretionary” expenditure?
These are the people and institutions to whom we entrust our prized legacy – our children – not only to get them educated, but also, if truth be told, to get them out of our hair at last! Teachers and academic support personnel are the people who teach them, feed them on every level, counsel them, and prepare them for a world we cannot possibly imagine. Often scrimping on their own families’ needs to take care of ours, these are unsung heroes.
Let’s face it: educators are underpaid for their equivalent professional training and credentials. Many of them hold doctorates as well as master’s degrees and many studied just as long as physicians and lawyers at the graduate level. Furthermore, the pace of their workday is exhausting! Have you ever followed a K-12 teacher around all day? Apart from lesson prep, have you witnessed how many twenty- and forty-page papers college faculty read and critique in depth during the course of a semester? Astounding! Yet they all persist on shoestring resources and lack of sleep. I know firsthand. I have been there.
To be fair, legislators are not the only ones at fault. Within our institutions of higher learning education is at the bottom of the caste system of academic disciplines. These students and faculty are underacknowledged and downright stigmatized for their “soft” science and allegedly limited academic rigor. And yet it is they who prepare the future leaders of the world in all sectors, leaders who are found not only in private and charter schools and upper-class neighborhoods, but also in public ones as well and in every zip code.
When celebrities, uncommon heroes, scientists, politicians and entrepreneurs receive public acclaim, it is often a teacher they thank first, sometimes even before a parent. They say it was a teacher who saw their potential early on when no one else did, who believed in them, who challenged them to strive and thrive, who was indeed the wind beneath their wings.
Stop the madness. Stop treating education as an unnecessary appendage, always first in line for any austerity measure due to legitimate budgetary concerns and constraints. These institutions already operate close to the bone, having volunteered or been asked to make bricks without straw time and time again.
Look elsewhere for budget cuts. Floating the possibility of a twenty per cent pay cut for teacher salaries and benefits in Hawaii and elsewhere is absurd. If we cut into our future, we are cutting off our collective nose to spite our face. This strategy has not worked before and it will not work now. After leading for a long time, America’s rankings by sector are declining in the world because we fail to honor the importance of a broad-based liberal arts education, strong math and science, and unbiased research. When the time comes to put our money where our future lies, put and keep that money in education, or there will be no one left to work and adapt and lead when the economy recovers.
A few years ago we rescued a wild cottontail rabbit whom I later came to call Teacher. Brought into the house in less than perfect condition by our beloved dog Boomer, we spent several days nursing the rabbit back to health.
Caring for Teacher meant feeding many times a day, protecting it from the cat and dog who considered it “lunch” rather than “pet.” We had to block off certain areas of the house to make sure it was safe, adding to an already full life. On the other hand, this little creature was beautiful, tiny, open to being fed with an eyedropper, and to being held against my heart.
Having taken care of a wild rabbit before for a couple of years, we agonized about whether or not to keep it, whether it could survive in the wild after ten days in captivity since rabbits are quickly independent and shun human contact, whether we could handle again the demands of such a delicate pet. We talked, we cried, we changed our minds. The days went by.
Suddenly, one afternoon, I was literally propelled from the chair where I had been sitting. NOW!!! Release Teacher now! I jumped up, took Sam the cat’s kennel, stuffed it full of goodies and water, and took this tiny creature outside on a hill near the house. With the whole family pitching in we found a relatively safe spot not too far away from the house, and hopefully not too close to the ubiquitous coyotes that roam our yard in the night, and we let Teacher go. We knew the coyotes were hungry too and had to eat, but hoped beyond hope that they would let this little creature live.
As we stood on the balcony crying, hoping we had made the right decision, straining for a glimpse of our rabbit, this special creature came right up to the balcony, in plain sight and just yards away, and began to frolic in the dirt right under our noses! It ran up and down right next to the fence, rolling over on its back, digging up dirt, hopping all over the place.
Right then and there, in the midst of our tears, we all broke out laughing. “Thank you, thank you, thank you for letting me out of that cage! I’m fine, I’m at home and having a wonderful time.” We felt and heard Teacher communicating with us. This rabbit had particular markings, especially since Boomer had wounded it, and its gait was not yet steady.
There was no doubt in any of our minds that this rabbit knew us, traveled across the yard to greet and thank us, and taught us all a little lesson about limits. Given the hectic pace of our lives at the time it would have been hard to keep this rabbit. We learned that there was no betrayal in letting it go, and that by being true to ourselves and responding to that profound and forceful inner voice that said “NOW!!! Release teacher now!” we also supported the fulfillment of our tiny and beloved Teacher.
Later that evening I went for a walk on the dirt road in front of our house in Santa Fe. Still a bit sad, I followed a hunch and walked off the emotion of the day. As I approached the house returning from my walk, something prompted me to look up at the sky. It was a subtle tug this time, not the dramatic push of earlier in the day that made me set Teacher free. This time it was a gentle sigh, soft and easy, like the sigh that comes just before going into trance.
There, above my head in the early evening sky, was a GIGANTIC cloud in the complete and perfectly shaped form of a cottontail rabbit! I knew Teacher was fine, and I knew Teacher was an ally in my own learning.
This time intuition did not come in the form of a traditional “spirit guide” or disembodied human-like entity. This time my teacher was a rabbit, and its lesson was guided by intuition.
Had I not paid attention to the jolt to release the rabbit “NOW,” had I failed to notice the subtle prompts to take a walk tonight (something I have not done on that portion of our road since), had I not stopped to look at the sky before going up the stairs and back into the house, this series of most remarkable experiences, this turning point in my life, might not have happened at that time. Without learning something about limits from Teacher, I might have resisted the impulse to take well-deserved time for myself and might not have come to Aruba to write this book.
It is only in those realms outside of time and space that these things make sense…in the realm of intuition and the implicate order, holding together seemingly unrelated events and potentialities.
If Teacher had not taught me about the wisdom of setting limits, I might still be that martyr, sitting at home keeping the dog and cat and rabbit separated, struggling to make ends meet, resisting my own fulfillment. Thanks to Teacher, whose intuition was able to link to mine in some way still to be explained, a new stream of probabilities opened up for both of us and for all those in our lives, including Teacher’s children we now see playing in the yard in the warmth of a summer day.
I continue to be an optimist. I continue to believe that human nature is fundamentally good, regardless of evidence to the contrary. After all, judgment and interpretation are matters of perspective: time and distance are likely to increase my understanding. “Ah, that’s what was going on!” “Ah, those are the consequences of my action or inaction!”
When we look lovingly into each other’s eyes we see in them incredible beauty and our hearts skip a beat. We feel profoundly lucky to have found each other. From the perspective of other animals with different eyes, however, or biologists with sophisticated microscopes, or extraterrestrial beings with different optical and sensory equipment altogether, we may look like hairy monsters with bugs crawling all over us, especially menacing to those closest to us! It is all relative and all true, depending on where and how and who we are, and where we are standing.
Looking back on these years from the future, what will the good intention in all of this current turmoil turn out to have been? Only through hindsight and perspective will we know the rest of the story, and even then a broader understanding might continue to elude us.
We can only act now with the tools we have and the best intention at our disposal. As Maya Angelou is alleged to have said, we have permission to forgive ourselves for not knowing what we didn’t know before we knew it.
We can lighten up on ourselves. We can hold to an internal standard of achievement regardless of the choices others are making. We can hold others and ourselves accountable from our present vantage point, understanding that our knowledge is limited.
When we witness disturbing events we can act to make a difference where and how we are, understanding that those events exist to offer us choice and free will. We get to find out who we are. Lastly, we can come to trust in our own and others’ fundamental good intention, even if what we see right now is unmitigated horror, and even if only the passage of time and a broader perspective can make sense of it all. Our theater, our choice.
I think of the universe as conscious, alive, and collaborative. In my worldview both friends and foes are allies at the deepest levels of awareness to show us not only who they are, but also to show us who we are. When they show us who they are we should believe them and act accordingly. In like manner, when we show them who we are, we should believe ourselves and also believe in ourselves.
In 2000 I wrote that the centerpiece of optimism for me is the recognition that specific events – good, bad, even ugly – provide opportunities for choice and individual action. I concluded that at the deepest levels of our shared humanity, horror and discomfort serve our eventual fulfillment just as much as joy and abundance. I still believe this to be true, just as I believe that bad behavior is the result of distorted, suppressed and repressed good intention gone awry. Understood properly, we have the potential and the mastery to turn negative things around and to reflect the better aspects of ourselves to each other.
So for me there is room for optimism, even now. I intend to find that room and live in it.
It broke my heart when a dear friend of some 25 years, a soft-spoken, devout pacifist and Buddhist, suddenly began shouting obscene remarks about a political candidate: not just about her politics, but also about her person! It was hard to believe I was talking to the same individual I had known for so long – or thought I had known. He was unrecognizable as far as I was concerned and we had nothing more to say to each other. We hit a brick wall and the friendship ended. Period. A year or so later, after the 2016 election, we found our way back to each other with incredible gentleness and some sadness, but we have never been quite the same. Something had gone awry in our friendship and something had also gone awry with the American political system.
Yes, it can happen here…
For several years I have been thinking about the issue of creeping fascism in our country and in the world. In the United States this increased intensity began in earnest with the primary season heading into the 2016 presidential elections, or perhaps just bubbled at last above the surface. It has now been almost four years since the first draft of this post sat in my website’s unpublished content folder. My initial plan was to go “On the Record” with this concern and a prediction at that time, but the draft languished unfinished.
Typically I post intuitive analysis and predictions, then follow up later when a topic subsequently hits mainstream news outlets. Occasionally, however, I have to wait years for certain predictions to come into public view, and the 2016 presidential election cycle was no exception. I told several friends that there was no way Hillary Clinton, a female, would immediately follow a black man as elected President of the United States. Such a move would spell a threat to the domination and worldview of a select group of resource-rich white men whose strict constitutionalist view pays homage to a founding document unfettered by later, more inclusive amendments, including the Bill of Rights. I reminded those friends that fifty years elapsed between legislation granting the vote to black men and that giving it to women. The possibility of black and female presidencies following immediately on the heels of one other would raise alarm and would be halted by any means necessary! And so it was…
Something about the Sanders campaign back then struck a nerve with me too but I could not fully explain why. This concern was especially curious given my decidedly liberal and clearly “progressive” politics. This malaise wasn’t just about race or gender. What was it that was making me so uncomfortable? Why was I focused so much more on Sanders than on the other raft of unacceptable and sometimes patently worse candidates? Why was the hair standing up on the back of my neck as social media became increasingly uncivil and uncivilized?
Finally, I realized that the issue for me is not about left- or right-wing politics, nor even about racial or gender equality, though all those issues are important to me. The predominant issue for me is – and remains – fanaticism in any form and from any quarter. Fanaticism makes the hairs stand up because as a sociologist trained in social movements and collective behavior, I have seen how quickly the move from civilized to barbaric can happen. The shift usually follows the slippery slope of self-righteous fanaticism, especially the rendering of the Other as somehow less than fully human and undeserving of understanding or compassion.
I have even taken to calling the extreme left the Alt-Left, considering it not a whit different from the Alt-Right. The Sanders campaign and supporters in 2016 were fanatical and have still not let up four years later. Both extremes of true believers would lock up anyone who disagreed with their world view without a second glance; both would discriminate against me as a black woman with different rhetoric but precisely similar consequences. The right is unapologetic about its political and social conservatism; the left is self-righteous and unaware of its own dismissive and often racist treatment of the very people it claims to represent. Thanks, but I will pass on both extremes, regardless of any professed and laudable platform.
Even with the best intention, fanaticism destroys civilizations and exposes the potential for true savagery lurking within them. Savagery is not determined by the presence or absence of written language or creature comforts such as water and technology; it is determined by the presence or absence of fanatical behavior.
Much of my thinking would rightly be considered radical and certainly unconventional by both extremes on the right and on the left. My insistence on living in a both-and, rather than an either-or world, for example, is undoubtedly radical. This is particularly relevant if radical means a dramatic departure from present circumstance or convention, an action that triggers social change. What I hope, however, is that no matter how radical my thinking, my deeply held convictions will not make me a fanatic.
The absence of fanaticism is what I continue to seek in a presidential candidate or a next door neighbor or a good friend or a teacher. My commitment is to to avoid fanaticism in any form and to embrace decency no matter the intensity of agreement or disagreement. Perhaps that candidate’s campaign has changed since then – I certainly hope so.
It is my blessing and honor to have friends and acquaintances who would place themselves at literally every point on the continuum of social, political and religious perspectives: right, left, up, down, middle, none. What allows us to meet each other is our willingness to step delicately around fanaticism, to ignore it, to actively avoid it without judgment or blame, to simply vote with our feet and our heart. This is not an easy path for me nor for the many I know personally, but somehow we manage to make it work. Indeed, some friendships have suffered and have been lost irreparably, but so many others have endured and persisted and blossomed and flourished over the decades. This warm embrace of deep conviction without fanaticism is possible and this is the sweet spot I seek in all potentialities. I hope and expect to have good company here in our shared space.
The following audio recording is a speech I gave on January 23, 2000, at the Music, Musings and Meditation Fellowship in Albuquerque NM. The talk is about choice and ease at a time when folks were beginning to realize that the anticipated Y2K technological bug did not bring about the end of the world as we knew it after all. Nor will the world end with the conviction or acquittal of President Donald J. Trump. The heartfelt speeches of Adam Schiff and Mitt Romney will stand the test of time, just as will the speeches and actions of the president and all nationally elected officials before, during, and after this impeachment process.
My twenty-three minute speech is a simple one and certainly one without such significant consequences. Nevertheless, it may assist us emotionally and spiritually as we wend our way through the current political landscape. The talk was recorded rather informally in the old cassette tape days by a designated member of the MMM Fellowship, so there is a buzzing sound in the background which I have been unable to clear with my amateur editing skills. Hopefully the content will be powerful enough, however, to hold your interest and attention. Turning down the volume helps.
We are beginning the third decade of this new century in a new millennium. Choice and ease may seem to be in short supply of late; on the other hand, they may be just as available now as they were twenty years ago, or will be twenty or fifty or a thousand years into the future…
“Witch hunt!” “Fake News!” “Crooked Hillary!” “It’s a Disgrace!” Few people can sling around incendiary phrases like the current President of the United States. He engages in what seems to be crazy behavior, eventually wresting control of any situation through surprise, redefinition, name-calling, and denial, at least for a time. This shocks the opposition into disarray while he pushes through his political agenda, always skirting the law. The lag time between his language and legislative response is a principal source of upheaval and change. Unexpected but legal…maybe
President Trump provides a perfect example of what I call “buffering,” which is the strategic use of an idea to dance in the areas between socially recognized categories in ways that are unusual and unexpected, but not clearly illegal…at least not yet.
He has fired the head of the FBI, attempted to fire the special prosecutor, claimed the power to pardon himself, appointed his children to sensitive government advisory roles, opened a hotel right near the White House that makes money from foreign diplomats and corporate executives, and used the attorney general as his personal lawyer. For the most part other presidents have hewn to political convention, whether or not that convention is also law. This president, on the other hand, routinely mocks precedent while being called adolescent, boorish, a pathological liar, and even downright crazy. Nevertheless, he continues to be “crazy like a fox,” taking his support of deregulation and extreme right-wing causes to the bank.
At first people simply laughed at Trump, but as one, and then another long-held dream of the most conservative Americans became reality, moderate voices fell silent, more and more politicians and citizens jumped on his bandwagon, and ordinary people suffered one social and economic loss after the other. In a little over two years he successfully introduced additional tax breaks for the domestic or foreign wealthiest few, the privatization of education, an onslaught of anti-immigration measures including the separation of parents from their minor children, the end of the separation of church and state, the stacking of appellate and federal courts and the Supreme Court with conservative judges, the end or curtailment of women’s and minority civil rights, increased construction and privatization of prisons and immigrant detention camps, reduction of healthcare benefits, the denial of climate change and rollback of emissions standards, increased mercenary intervention in selected foreign countries, the privatization and shrinking of the most important natural parks in the service of large corporations, the end of international alliances formed after World Wars I and II, the end of robust support for the United Nations, European Union and NATO, and the end of many statutes regarding conflicts of interest and banking regulations. All of these efforts are in play on many fronts simultaneously with significant headway towards realization. Other presidents have made advances in one arena or the other incrementally, but none has successfully removed or limited most protections for ordinary folks all at once. How does he do it???
An Idea Put to Use
President Trump does what he does by “buffering.” Currently we hear the term associated with information technology, especially when streaming data are taking a long time to load on our laptops and smartphones. But when I introduced this concept in the late 1970s, buffering was primarily associated with chemistry.
The sociological version of buffering that is relevant to Trump’s behavior permits anyone, including people with limited material resources, to use an idea to wrest control of social situations by dancing in the spaces between recognized and largely accepted social categories through the strategic use of leeway. The categories get interpreted in new ways that are partially recognizable but altogether unexpected, and also not clearly illegal.
One example from a very different moment in American history by a dramatically different leader – Huey P. Newton – can help understand how buffering works in contemporary politics. On the surface Newton and Trump appear to be polar opposites. The way Black Panthers protested in the 1960s and early 70s would certainly be considered the opposite of how an American president would act. I hope to show that they were not as different as one might imagine.
Huey Newton didn’t have much going for him when he co-founded the Black Panther Party (BPP) in Oakland, California in 1967. He was African American, certainly not wealthy, and almost totally powerless. In addition to his signature black beret and matching leather jacket, all he had was an idea — an idea that the real criminals in American society were not the people in jails but the people who put them there: law enforcement officers and a corrupt legal system. Newton claimed that government officials were not worthy of the respect demanded and given them; and that “The MAN,” a slang word for the police at the time, was not really a man at all but entirely corrupt. He called the police “pigs” undeserving of respect.
Interestingly enough, President Trump came to a similar conclusion when he declared the press to be “an enemy of the state,” the Washington political arena to be “the swamp” he was going to drain, and the FBI and Justice Departments inept and corrupt. Both Newton and Trump were convinced that if enough people would accept their idea – their redefinition of the situation – then the so-called criminals could put the real criminals in jail or otherwise divest them of their power and respect.
In my own life I have used buffering to explain and manage situations of external disadvantage based on race and gender. Born during the Second World War, long before the desegregation of schools and the military, encountering the racial divide was commonplace. Under normal circumstances I might have accepted that I was inferior. Somehow, though, I exhibited a healthy sense of self that led me to excel in school and ultimately to develop an explanation for my unusual calm in the racial storms that swirled around me.
As a young child I considered myself a “good Christian” and labeled those who would oppress me or consider me inferior as “unchristian.” That was my particular form of buffering, of name-calling, of using an acceptable social construct for my personal benefit. An Army chaplain’s daughter, I could not use bad words or swear, but I could call those who excluded me unchristian with a certain confidence and smugness. I rejected the dominant definition of the situation that attempted to make me feel inferior as a black girl by resorting to God who, in my mind, was a “higher authority.” Instead of feeling bad I felt quite fine, found all sorts of things to do to occupy my time while my schoolmates attended segregated events away from the military post in Kentucky where my dad was stationed, and occasionally even got to spend special one-on-one time with my favorite teacher while I sat alone in an empty classroom. This is a simple and personal example of putting a social category – an idea – to individual use based my unique and largely unknown life experience. When I later found ways to use that buffering ability as an adult in entirely different situations, no one needed to know my idiosyncratic history, that I was a chaplain’s daughter who used God to outmaneuver racist behavior. I just did it. My very personal definition of the situation permitted me to do well in school, feel confident and competent, and explain away reasons I was excluded.
Eventually, I wrote a doctoral thesis on this subject. I called the process “buffering” and applied it to a black power leader in the 1960s. Recently I began to see they same dynamic playing out once again in the presidency of Donald Trump.
Like Newton, even like me, Donald Trump is an expert at putting ideas to use to control the political climate and to do the unexpected over and over again. He routinely uses slogans like “Drain the Swamp!” “It’s a disgrace!” and “Fake news!” to deflect attention from his actions and to rally his base. For both Newton and Trump their base is comprised primarily of hard-working, largely blue-collar people who feel left out of the political process and the economic benefits of citizenship. Newton’s base was comprised of Afro-Americans and his declared adversaries were the police at a local level who criminalize good people on the basis of race. Trump’s base is primarily white, hard-working, largely blue-collar men and his enemies are the police at the Federal level: The FBI, Department of Justice, and the Special Counsel who threaten good white people (Trump himself) on the basis of race by enforcing inclusive laws for inferior people, and who threaten to expose what he considers normal business practice as wrongdoing. For Trump, the enemy is the Washington elite from both Republican and Democratic parties who hinder his ability to do whatever he wants and believes he deserves. For Newton, the enemy was Oakland police officers and courts that used a variety of bureaucratic and questionably legal measures to keep black people “in their place.”
Name-calling is a powerful tool of the buffering process, and if there is no current name that works, buffering allows us to simply make one up! Most often this involves putting an existing term to a new use or interpreting existing laws in new ways until questions about interpretation eventually get settled once and for all, usually in the courts and other legislative bodies. Settlement takes time and creates leeway, carving out lots of room to maneuver.
The president is a master at name-calling and labeling his adversaries. Huey Newton was too, and he became famous for calling the Oakland police “Pigs.” This was shocking at the time! The FBI was no slouch at name-calling either, labeling the Black Panther Party “Communist” or “Communist-infiltrated.” The communist label gave the FBI an excuse to incite fear, conduct raids, kill, and otherwise violate the civil rights of citizens, since communism was believed to pose a threat to national security. Trump uses “crisis at the border” language, labeling immigrants rapists and thugs in much the same way as the FBI labeled Panthers communists, whether or not they were. Suddenly the routine immigration process becomes a threat to national security in the contemporary context.
Government documents released years later showed that while the FBI constantly labeled the BPP Communists, the agency actually knew at the time that there was no evidence of outside control of the Party, just as our current government knows that Al Qaeda does not enter the country through the border with Mexico. The government simply “made stuff up” and disseminated it, a tactic labeled “disinformation.” This is indeed a very old tactic, one used by various despotic leaders throughout the world as Madeleine Albright explains in her book Fascism. In Trump’s case, he would latch onto anticipated bad news that might threaten to expose him as a liar, for example, jump out ahead of the story and immediately call his adversaries liars; if the question had to do with obstruction of justice or even treason, he would send out a tweet and call those investigating or reporting on him obstructionists and traitors. This is name-calling ping pong; this is buffering.
In the 1960s disinformation was part of a larger strategy to discredit Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party. What Newton was doing was not illegal; in fact, there is evidence he actually went to great lengths to ensure that party behavior was meticulously legal during the years he was in control. The government then resorted to charges that the party must be communist-controlled or infiltrated, tossing it into a category that could be labeled as clearly illegal or as a threat to national security.
Eventually, the California legislature passed what was known as the Mulford Bill, specifically targeting the Black Panthers. One component of that legislation restricted gun behavior and another declared the public gathering of more than three people a “riot.” In response, the Panthers had to adapt and change their tactics to meet the specifications of the new law, including limitations on their right to carry guns or to gather in public. While the bill specifically targeted the Black Panther Party, other groups would also be impacted, so differential enforcement became key and created new leeway for people to conform to the new regulations or not. The National Rifle Association, for example, is an extremely powerful lobby, and California legislators and police were mindful of their duty to protect gun ownership for conservative whites while keeping guns out of the hands of blacks, who were never intended to be beneficiaries of the “right to bear arms.”
The very same technique is now being used both to aid and to stop President Trump. Unlike Newton’s leadership of the BPP in the 60s, or the Communist scares under Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, there appears to be clear evidence of Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election. In this instance, however, it seems to be the president himself who is making things up and then accusing the press of reporting fake news. In both historical examples, it was the use of buffering that allowed an individual or group or even the government itself to control the political situation by putting certain ideas to use.
Count the number of times a day the president proclaims, “No collusion, no obstruction!” He is repeatedly denying the mountains of evidence in Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s Report on potential collusion and obstruction of justice. If he repeats that denial often and loudly enough, perhaps he will convince the public to accept his interpretation and disbelieve their own eyes.
In order to effectively redefine a particular situation, the validity of the prior definition must first be denied, sometimes without sufficient evidence. This denial is often supported by subscription to a set of different or higher laws. In calling on God’s law, I denied the power of human law even while obeying it – in this case segregation. I did not insist on going with my team even though I was team captain, but I did not feel at all the lesser for having to acquiesce.
Refusal to Conform
All of us find ways to conform or resist conforming on a daily basis, regardless of station in life.
In his refusal to make his tax returns public, Trump has avoided traps set to catch public officials who collude with a foreign power or who reap financial gain personally through what is perceived to be a conflict of interest: the “emoluments clause” of the Constitution. While there are laws forbidding conflict of interest and abuse of authority, the law is unclear with regard to when and whether a sitting President is required to make such documentation publicly available. The President and his family have taken advantage of the leeway in social and legal categories to avoid being charged with what would otherwise be declared clearly illegal behavior, at least for a time. He has so far successfully avoided conforming to behavior for which there are clear precedents and conventions but no clear law, even though his actions trigger outrage for some. In so doing he also avoids legal liability by cloaking his actions. He has used this maneuver over and over again to shock, confound, evade, and ultimately to achieve his goals without being held accountable legally. He also relies on the legal presumption that a sitting president cannot be indicted for criminal behavior while still in office. Being a sitting president protects him from criminal indictment, but it also puts constraints on his business behavior for personal gain. He is not accustomed to constraint from any source and it seems inevitable that he will get himself in trouble sooner or later.
What we are dealing with is a multi-headed hydra: there are so many laws to watch, precincts to guard, apparently unrelated nefarious deeds to first recognize and then offset that no one can keep up with them all, letting action after action slip through the cracks, weakening and eroding the ideals for which the U.S. became known as the dominant force in the world – the powerhouse that makes others willing to risk their lives trying to protect and trying to land on these shores in search of a better life.
Trump’s approach can only go so far for so long, however, which is a key element of the buffering process. As the laws and categories catch up to and constrain behavior, the leader is forced to shift ground continuously – shift definitions of the situation – so as to continue to surprise. Eventually other provisions of the Constitution will be used to force him to reveal information he has successfully withheld until now, information that would once again place him squarely within the range and purview of existing law, not just convention and expected Presidential behavior.
The President and his administration are being forced to stay on top of existing law and interpretations of the law in order to remain legal – or questionably legal – as the opposition circles and attempts to regain control of the definition of the situation. The only recourse for those who oppose this administration is to act much like a boa constrictor, gradually tightening their grip on their prey – in this case the President of the United States of America – until escape is no longer possible and no evasive maneuvers remain. The President has gone from predator to prey, and each day it becomes a bit more difficult for him to breathe.
Democrats and other members of the opposition have grasped two key concepts, two ideas – “collusion” and “emoluments” – to corner this President. They, too, are using a little buffering of their own to engage in a battle not only of wits, but also of ideas put to use to gain control of the current political situation.
Remaining Adaptable and Flexible
As conditions change, so do the names people call each other and the actions individuals and groups take. A key element in successful buffering involves remaining flexible and adaptive to constantly changing circumstances. If the various parties are not vigilant they could easily get caught in one legal situation or the other as each party maneuvers to entrap the other.
In recent efforts to secure the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, for example, news articles surfaced alleging that attorneys and representatives of the President and the Republican Party attempted to pay women who knew the judge in college to say that he always treated them with respect and did not drink to excess. If proven, such actions would be illegal, but the process was organized in ways to avoid providing opponents access to complete information. Republicans used legal but unexpected ways to circumvent sharing complete information with Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee: they provided only one copy of the document in a single location with individual access of Democratic committee members limited to one hour the night before the vote. Meanwhile the President continuously called the Kavanaugh confirmation proceedings “a disgrace,” earning sympathy for the judge from women as well as from men.
In the buffering process all parties use whatever tools are available to them and even go so far as to make things up when there is insufficient evidence to make the particular case they wish to make. Remember, the efficacy of buffering is that it involves an “idea put to use.” Ideas are ephemeral, invisible, and exceedingly flexible. They can adapt much more quickly than codified laws and institutions. It takes a long time to bring about change, whether the desired change is maintaining the status quo or upsetting it.
Any idea can work
Huey P. Newton made up a name for what he was doing: he called it “shock-a-buku.” This was his personal tactic of catching his opponent off guard with legal but unexpected behavior. He thoroughly enjoyed being thought of as crazy and used that moniker to his advantage to render the local police “apoplectic.” Trump does the same thing when he uses Tweets, berates his own officials publicly, fires by press report, veers off script during public events, and embraces white nationalism in the full light of day.
Again, this may be unprecedented and certainly unexpected behavior, but the burden of proof in declaring his actions illegal rests on the President’s accusers, who comb the news and case law daily looking for loopholes that might catch him in some violation of the law, at last bringing unexpected behavior under expected control and possible criminal punishment.
This is the heart of buffering and of the buffering process, especially when an individual has no significant resources and no institutional authority. Furthermore, when one explanation no longer works the individual can pull a different one out of his or her unique life experience to get through, get by, redefine, and perhaps even ultimately control any given situation. This is what Huey P. Newton did in 1968 and what Donald J. Trump is doing now. While my personal actions using ideas of being Christian or unchristian occurred on a very small scale, theirs occurred and occur on a national and even international level. The process, however, is identical.
Polar opposites at first glance, these two leaders were much more alike in leadership style than one would imagine: they used a series of crazy ideas and flamboyant name-calling to gain control of their respective political situations. Newton’s black beret is matched by Trump’s red Make America Great Again hat. Both men – each in his own way and for very different reasons – sent out the call to “Drain the Swamp!” Both reveled in being thought crazy because it permitted them the element of surprise and the ability to accomplish political goals once thought to be impossible.
What distinguishes Trump from Newton is their respective access to material and legal resources. As President, Trump can now claim control of the government, majority control of the Supreme Court, support of the very rich, and control of the military. He has not yet succeeded in controlling the press, and so he declares it the “enemy of the state” and an “enemy of the people.” In effect, he is attempting to neutralize the fourth estate and the power of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which could offer the greatest threat to his new definition of the situation and trigger a true constitutional crisis. Furthermore he declared the FBI, which has not been entirely controllable, a “cancer in the system,” rather than the protector of democracy.
Newton, on the other hand, possessed a black beret, a black leather jacket, a good education, a legally owned rifle, and a powerful idea. That’s it. In spite of the chasm between them, both leaders managed to turn the nation upside down for a time. I believe they were able to do this by the strategic use of an idea: “Off the Pig!” or “Fake news!” While Newton’s power ended decades ago, it is uncertain how much time the President has left to continue manipulating public awareness by engaging in crazy and unexpected behaviors. In the meantime, using the phrase “It’s a disgrace!” when he is challenged has had a powerful and enduring impact on voters long after the 2016 election.
When one is able to use unknown and idiosyncratic tools that emanate from within the mind of the individual it becomes almost impossible to fully know, understand, predict, and control the behavior of that individual. This is how he does it. As a nation we continue to watch in awe while the president continues to surprise and to evade control, even by his closest advisors, West Wing staff, the media, and even long time friends. People throw their hands up and eventually give up trying to figure out what will come next. Trump is not playing by the rules, by historical convention, nor even by the law.
The Art of the Deal
This is how he does it. Not why, but how he does the implausible and otherwise near impossible. The idea that shapes his definition of the situation is called the “deal” and his is increasingly called a “transactional” presidency. He attempts to shape domestic policy and international accord through deal making that lines the pockets of the President and his immediate circle of family and associates, while excluding others’ participation in his special deals. He has perfected the art of the steal.
Think about the ways the word “deal” has crept into public awareness. Barely an hour goes by when I don’t hear the word crop up in news feeds and in ordinary conversation. Even the most staid news outlets report routinely on deals that are on or off the table as the United States interacts with other countries. The traditional language of international diplomacy – convention, agreement, accord, entente, détente – have all fallen by the wayside and been replaced by the single word, “deal.” The power of this president’s definition of the situation has now permeated not only American culture, but global culture as well.
As I listen to world news in English and French, the deal has taken over. That, in itself, is a stunning example of the power of the buffering process, of putting an idea to use to gain control of a situation. One notable exception: the host of one of the most respected news outlets recently interviewed a South American ambassador to the United States and constantly used “deal” in her questions to him. Interestingly, the ambassador insisted on using the word “accord” and assiduously avoided using the term “deal” during the extended interview.
Nevertheless, and whether or not this president is impeached and brought into submission, I have a hunch that the “deal” word will remain embedded in global language for a very long time.
Donald Trump is in trouble now. People are expecting him to act crazy and are developing strategies to block his unprecedented but possibly legal behavior by rewriting or reinterpreting the law. Whoever uses an idiosyncratic idea to redefine the situation in his or her own terms eventually runs out of options when new laws are passed to curb the legal but unexpected behavior. Therefore it is critical to come up with some new surprise, some different “shock-a-buku” tactic to keep people guessing a while longer. Nevertheless, the proverbial chickens will eventually come home to roost.
In the meantime, President Trump has learned to make the secret sauce of situation control: do the unexpected within the bounds of questionable legality, then do it again to stay ahead of the game and make people think you are crazy. Then change your tactic. Deny what is right there in front of your face. Make up your own terms for things as you go along and change your terms often to keep others off balance and surprised. Never permit yourself to become predictable; that is the kiss of death! The more outrageous your behavior, the more you dominate the definition because there are no words – and most importantly – no laws to contain you. This is not a mark of stupidity but of brilliance, so the leader gets to smirk while others feel self-righteous in their outrage. If you are a misunderstood leader, being underestimated comes as an added benefit and keeps you in control.
What a formula for success! …At least for a time until others figure out what is going on. Buffering is universal, but for Donald J. Trump buffering is indeed a special “deal.”
For years the L. in my middle name stood for “late,” “lazy,” “loony,” and seemingly downright “lackadaisical.” My negative inner voice was relentless and the outer voices were often a match. I would put things off and put them off again until I had frustrated everyone around me and myself as well: just ask the members of my dissertation committee or my first book publisher!
The only conclusion to draw was that I must be undisciplined, scared of rejection, not very good, and, truth be told, I must not have that much to say of any value. Thankfully none of this was true, but it took me a very long time to find redemption. I was actually guilty of working too much, not too little: a ball of constant disorganized motion, taking on more, losing focus and a clear sense of priorities, all fed with an incessant and addictive need to prove my worth. I had become the proverbial absent-minded klutzy professor long after I left the classroom and the administration building.
Finally – and I must admit quite recently – it dawned on me that contrary to popular opinion, procrastination is not necessarily a debilitating moral weakness, it may actually be a signal from the deeper self saying, “Not yet, be patient.” I was “putting it off” because “it” was not exactly what I wanted to say; it was not quite the time to be heard; it (the idea) was not fully baked and might not serve my deepest intention. I didn’t want to end up with the wrong brand, didn’t want to be stuck talking endlessly about something that was not passion for me. Nor did I want to throw out an idea that could not be understood or accepted yet and might make me appear to be flaky or “woo woo.” After all, I still had something to prove about being a serious academic and a serious writer, even about comical subjects.
At last it dawned on me I that I had come to use procrastination as my personal biofeedback mechanism: warmer, cold, warmer, cooler, closer, waaay off the desired track… now!
Procrastination can be a gift, at least for me
After weeks and months and sometimes even years a magic moment happens. For me that moment is a deadline, a possibility, an opening through which I can move with clarity, assured that this is indeed what I wish to say or do or become. Or, I can let that door close, trusting that when the right configuration shows up I will walk through the next one with ease, and that there will always be…always!… another door. My approach can drive the plugging away and persevering and perspiration crowd crazy, but it is, after all, another viable approach. And when I stop judging myself so harshly for working this way, the period of time when I am procrastinating may even get shorter and shorter. Or not.
Deadlines, and how to use them
Deadlines serve a critical function for the inveterate procrastinator like me. Left to my own devices I could procrastinate my life away, but deadlines serve to capture my attention, harness my energy, and make me choose. They are the sudden whirlwind that shapes my total focus and clear priorities:
Is this the moment?
Is this the vehicle?
Is this the title?
Is this the label/brand I accept and offer the world?
I saw a local magazine announcement on the subject of writing tips a few months ago and tucked it away, dredging it up to the surface of my conscious awareness from time to time, without worry or attachment. That same announcement popped up some time later and I noticed that the deadline was exactly one month out. I jotted down a few notes and still the article percolated. Not yet, warmer, not quite, closer, hold…
A short while later, searching for something apparently unrelated, I suddenly gathered the energy to complete that piece in two days, and also stumbled upon the subject of my next book, which I began many years ago and have been passionate about for much of my adult life, but kept putting on the back burner for decades. All of the “bits and pieces” I had been pulling together and slogging through fell neatly under the rubric of an old topic that had been tickling my sociological and creative fancy for thirty years. I knew at last that my next book would be completed and I knew that the piece – this piece – would make its dreaded deadline.
This was the writer’s “harmonic convergence:” clarity of subject, moment of opportunity (in this case, deadline) that pushed me to choose. In a flash, surrounded by the cacophony of Kahala Mall where I was writing, it was done. I am now clear, I have chosen, I have met a deadline, and I love the subject matter!
In the meantime the magazine that submitted the call for the piece seems to have fallen off a cliff (did it ever exist at all?), so I have decided to publish it right here as a blog instead: “The Gift of Procrastination.”
The dual gifts of procrastination and deadlines have once again worked wonders for me. In one fell swoop I have conquered another of the great American fears: the fear of being lazy. And, by the way, that next subject I was talking about, the one that has been percolating for decades? It is appropriately called “The Great American Fears,” part one of a trilogy under the broader rubric I call Grits and Granola. The book is a combination of down home political and social commentary embedded with deeper spiritual and metaphysical meaning. We’ll see if this is the door that finally opens….