Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Cults of Personality: Power, Narcissism & Delusions

They come in all sizes.
Christie's big tell: "I'm the victim."
We are living through a chronically tense and, in affluent parts of the world, a desperately self-indulgent era. Advertising teaches that fulfillment comes with compulsive consumption. News media trivialize history and turn current events into a competition of spectacles and personality cults. Addicted to fads and the quick fix, frightened of the future and cut adrift from the past, millions of people flee from imagination and look for meaning in pre-digested realities.
The very sense that we are part of real families and communities is threatened. Virtual images that dominate our days begin to look more real than we do. Experts meanwhile have a field day providing clever evaluations of the psychic assault on humanity and the breakdown of culture, while conveniently omitting that they are some of the culprits.
Societal narcissism has reached the epidemic level. Traditionally, a narcissist was often described as some "beautiful person" who can relate only to his or her own image or problems. But the definition has expanded to include traits like exploitation of the warmth provided by others, combined with fear of dependence, a sense of inner emptiness, boundless repressed rage, and unsatisfied cravings. Narcissists can be pseudo-intellectuals or calculating seducers. Usually, they are afraid of old age and death, and fascinated with celebrities. These callous, superficial climbers seek out the famous, and yet are also compelled to destroy their fantasy figures.
If this merely described a few "sick" individuals we might find comfort. But patterns of narcissistic behavior afflict millions and are reinforced daily. And perhaps most disquieting, the narcissistic personality is ideally suited for positions of power, the type of leader who sells himself to win at any price.
Capitalism has turned self promotion into a growth industry, with success often resting on the ability to project a "winning personality" and often false image. Relentless self-promotion, whether by conservative demagogues or their radical counterparts, meshes neatly with an idealization of powerful people who represent what the narcissist seeks.
Narcissists identify with winners out of a fear of being losers. Objects of hero worship give meaning to the frequently unfocused or direction-deprived lives of society's many emotional casualties. Yet mixed with this idealization is an urge to degrade the object of one's admiration, sparked when the "hero" ultimately disappoints. This desperate need, intensified by the machinery of mass promotion, can turn even assassination, political or physical, into a form of spectacle.
Among the influences that reinforce narcissism, mass media have the most pervasive impact. They tend to create both a sense of chronic tension and a cynical detachment from reality. But detachment does not have to express itself as cynicism. It can also lead to intelligent skepticism. This raises a political question, since media and other powerful institutions could help to reduce dependence and support individuals in solving their own problems. In recent years, however, being detached has mainly meant a crippling negativism about the entire political process, a nihilistic and escapist conclusion that no constructive change is possible.
The abdication of responsibility to various bureaucracies has meanwhile promoted character traits consistent with a corrupted culture, and this in turn has accelerated the excesses of corporate capitalism. The result is a kind of mass neurosis. Images of a "good" and a "bad" parent, objects of love and hatred, are formed early, internalized, and become part of the self-image of children. But rather than fusing into a super-ego that also contains social values and self-confidence, these early images often melt into a harsh, punishing super-ego. The emerging adult is torn between repressed rage and the desire for some all-powerful other. Sexual needs are also distorted, barriers are erected against strong emotions, and fear of death and old age becomes intense.
The decay of older traditions of self-help has eroded competence in one area after another, leaving the individual dependent on the state, corporations, and other bureaucratic structures. Narcissism is the psychological dimension of this dependence. Popular culture feeds on narcissistic fantasies, encouraging delusions of omnipotence while simultaneously reinforcing feelings of dependence and discouraging strong emotions.
Ultimately, the bland and empty facade of mass existence can become overwhelming. Yet within millions of people there remains enormous rage, resentment, and potential for which bureaucratic society provides few outlets. In truth, few people are actually satisfied with the facade. Some do nothing yet know the system doesn't work, others actively look for ways to limit the damage. Some strike out violently, others tap cultural resources like cooperative work, art, and spirituality to counteract the effects.
With the belief in individual responsibility undermined in so many ways, moral impulses help to keep alive a sense that people are responsible for what they do. If such a view spread widely enough, it could change an entire society. Another remedy, in response to professional imperialism, is to reclaim responsibilities we have ceded to the experts. Call it a program of conscious self-rule, one that could also protect us from discriminatory or authoritarian tendencies.
Such changes carry risks. For example, reactionary impulses in the family or church may be exploited. But given the state of society – moral bankruptcy, political corruption, economic inequality, and ecological decay – a few risks are preferable to playing it safe. The goal is to restore humanity's basic dignity through compassion, engagement, and mutual aid. Along with healthy skepticism and intelligently directed anger, these could be keys to a new, freer and more natural culture.
This is Chapter 34 of Prisoners of the Real. To read more, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey

Dangerous Words: A Political Memoir


Dangerous Words: A Political Memoir

By Greg Guma


Audio Prologue ON THE AIR: Burlington Reflections (May 2016)
Part One: Education of an Outsider (1960-1968)

Part Two: Fragile Paradise  (1968-1978)

Part Three: Prelude to a Revolution (1974-1978)

Monday, November 7, 2016

No Winner: What Happens If the Election is Close

It was 1:30 a.m. and CBS still wasn't ready to call Ohio's 20 electoral votes, or the presidential election, for George W. Bush. In Washington, Karl Rove was already declaring victory. But unlike 2000, when Al Gore almost conceded before it was clear that Florida deserved a recount, the Democrats were not rolling over this time.

For a while in November 2004, it looked like the counting could go on for weeks. As expected, Bush had swept the southern and mountain states, while John Kerry carried most of the two coasts. The President was leading in the popular vote, but neither candidate could claim the required electoral college majority.

As it emerged that Ohio might be the new Florida, ABC's Cokie Roberts complained, "This could be the worst of all possible worlds." She meant the prospect of extended litigation. Bush was ahead, but the Democrat were challenging Republican tactics and holding out for the counting of provisional ballots, a process that could take at least a week. Republican operatives called the tactic "bizarre, absurd, and ludicrous." This year they may copy it.

Commenting on the high 2004 turnout, George Will offered a disquieting Vietnam analogy. "When we have high turnout we tend to be an unhappy country," he argued, then adding that 1968 "was one of the worst years in US history. It ran up turnout, but I don't think we want to do that constantly."

State ballot initiatives were also influential, mainly bringing out social conservatives who tended to back Bush. Items calling for the rejection of same-sex marriage passed convincingly in 11 states; of these, nine went for Bush. In this sense, 2016 will be very different. The marriage debate is basically over, but five states will vote on recreational marijuana; another four will choose whether to permit its medical use. Four states are also voting to raise the minimum wage, and three will decide on background checks for gun buyers.

Still, one dynamic has stayed very much the same. It remains a closely divided electorate. As Chris Matthews put it in 2004, "It's an election between north and south that will be decided by the Midwest."

Using CNN's new high-tech wall of graphics, Jeff Greenfield posed various scenarios, including the possibility of a 269-269 tie. That prospect, an irresistible storyline that has emerged again this year, lingered into the night. Would the House of Representatives end up choosing the President? And if something like that happened now, who would the GOP-dominated House choose?

As the night wore on, speculation began to pass for fact. Shortly after 1 a.m., MSNBC announced that Bush was only one electoral vote shy of victory, while Kerry would have to win every remaining state to reach a tie. Actually, Bush had substantially fewer electors tied up at that point. The desire for an exciting story had eclipsed pre-election promises of caution.

By dawn the next morning, Bush actually had 254 electoral votes to Kerry's 252. That left Iowa and New Mexico, two states where Bush was clinging to a slim lead, and Ohio, where the likelihood of a Kerry victory looked slim. Kerry conceded by early afternoon. If something similar happens this time, no one expects either candidate to say uncle.

Whatever the outcome, there will be deep suspicions and lingering claims of fraud and manipulation. That certainly happened in 2004, when claims of cyber-warfare surfaced after the vote. The difference now is Trump, who will use any opening or legal option to win, or else challenge the legitimacy of the election.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Battling Bernie Has Never Been Easy

Thirty years ago Sanders also challenged a woman  
"Win Some, Lose Some," Chapter 20 
The People's Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution 
By Greg Guma

Madeleine Kunin was offended. She was being judged unfairly, she told the reporter from the Village Voice. Along with dozens of other writers, James Ridgeway was looking for insights into the race between Bernie Sanders, the Vermont "neosocialist," and Kunin, the "neoliberal."

The governor protested this classification. "You can't have the strategies that were true in the 60s or even 70s: simply spending money," she explained. "You've got to be accountable for every cent. You have to leverage the private sector and get them involved... I consider myself to be in the mold of governors like Dukakis, Cuomo, and to some extent Robb who is more conservative."

It was vintage Kunin -- cautious and firmly in the middle of the road. For years already she had lived with the nickname Straddlin' Madeleine and had learned to make the best of it. Elected a state representative, she proved herself as a strong chairperson of the House Appropriations Committee and defeated Peter Smith, Vermont's preppy Republican version of Robert Redford, to become lieutenant governor. After four years in Governor Richard Snelling's shadow, she challenged him in 1982 in her first gubernatorial run and lost. 

But Kunin didn't straddle when it came to setting goals or building a personal organization. In the 1984 election, with Snelling temporarily retired, she squeaked into office over Attorney General John Easton, becoming Vermont's first female chief executive, and began to set her own agenda.

In many ways, Kunin was an archetypal moderate: she favored social programs but fiscal conservatism. To progressives, her support of feminist and labor issues seemed weak and equivocal, yet she used her first term to bring women into state government and to prove, just as Sanders had done in Burlington, that being different -- in her case, female -- didn't mean she was incompetent. When it came to keeping the state in sound financial shape or protecting water quality, she could be as strong as Sanders and Snelling.

But Kunin was no world-shaker. She shied away from raising the minimum wage or demanding that corporations give notice before closing down plants. She wanted nuclear plants to be safe, but she didn't think they should be shut down "overnight." In the estimation of Sanders and his Rainbow backers, Kunin was just another "lesser evil"; supporting her would not be worth losing the chance to expand the Progressive base. If a Sanders run meant that Smith would be elected, so be it -- he would be only marginally different from her.

"If you ask her where she stands," said Sanders of Kunin, "she'd say, in the middle of the Democratic party. She's never said she'd do anything. The confusion lies in the fact that many people are excited because she's the first woman governor. But after that there ain't much."

Kunin was not much kinder to her socialist opponent. "I think he has messianic tendencies," she told Ridgeway. "That's not uncommon in politicians. But it does mean he dismisses everyone else's alternative solutions... His approach is always to tear down. But I think you can make progress and change for the better by working within the structure... A lot of what he says is rhetoric and undoable... He has to create a distinction between us, and to do that he has to push me more to the right, where I really don't think I am. I don't think it's fair. He's not running against evil, you know."

The third player, Smith, had some kind words for Kunin. "She's a good person," he said, "she's got some commitment." But he also felt that she was a case of "vision without substance." In Sanders, Smith saw passion, confusion, and noise. "If Bernie were as gutsy and honest as he says he is, he'd run as a Socialist," charged the Republican. "He is a socialist! That's why he went to Nicaragua.That's why he goes to Berkeley."

But if Sanders was a noisy neosocialist and Kunin was an empty vessel, what did that make Smith? He had begun his career as an educational reformer, launching Community College of Vermont. But his liberal leanings didn't prevent him from joining the Republicans; he supported first Bush, then Reagan, in 1980. He was intelligent and a creative thinker, and yet willing to play the compliant foot-soldier in Reagan's conservative revolution.

Kunin didn't view either of her opponents as devils, but she was concerned about how to survive the campaign, particularly the series of public debates that would give Sanders his best opportunity to win more votes. On the podium, she realized, nobody in Vermont did it better than the mayor.

Her press secretary, Bob Sherman, contacted me early in the summer. He knew I wasn't in Sanders' camp this time, and he wondered whether I would be available to help Kunin prepare for her debate ordeal with a rehearsal. The idea was to stage a mock debate between the governor and stand-ins for her two challengers. Would I be able to "play" Bernie? The offer was irresistible.

We met in a Montpelier "safe house," accompanied by key staff members. Democratic legislator Peter Youngbaer had prepared himself to be Smith; I had reviewed recent Sanders speeches and tried to unravel the magic of his style. With a video camera recording our face-off, we tackled environmental, tax, and development issues. Kunin's problem, I discovered, was her preoccupation with details. She often answered questions by trying to explain the thinking that led to her policy choice rather than by simply taking a strong stand. Bernie's strength, in contrast, was his ability to turn any question to his own advantage -- even if that meant ignoring it -- in order to get his point across.

In the end I summed up with some classic Sanderisms. "In my view, the Reagan administration has been a disaster for Americans," I barked. "We are planning to spend a trillion dollars on Star Wars and hundreds of millions to overthrow the government of Nicaragua while, in Vermont, we don't have enough money to adequately fund education or social services. That has to change.

"The other candidates think we can just say a lot of nice things and tinker here and there to make everything okay. I don't. I believe we need fundamental change, and that the governor of Vermont should be leading the fight. We can be the conscience of the nation. We don't have to settle for Reagan's insanity or the indecision of the Democrats."

Afterward, when Kunin saw her image on the screen, she was a bit shaken. "Sanders" and "Smith" had won some points, while she had been tedious and indecisive. Yet she balked at the suggestion that she challenge Sanders if he went on the attack, arguing, "He's not the enemy."

To support Kunin over Sanders was, of course, progressive heresy. Even  those who felt he was authoritarian could see no reason to support his Democratic opponent. As labor organizer Ellen David-Friedman put it, "Challenging the system is considered a better goal than maintaining the status quo." 

Queen Madeleine, Preppie Peter, and Lord Bernie -- the nicknames created by columnist Peter Freyne were apt descriptions of Vermont's new political royalty. Each was an established star with a proven popular base. But Sanders' early boast that he was "running to win" was soon revised by his campaign organizers. A July poll put the Lord of Burlington at a mere 11 percent statewide, while the Queen, also a Burlingtonian, had 53, well outdistancing Preppie.

By October, the Sanders campaign, if not the candidate himself, had lowered its sights to seeking a respectable 20 percent. Within his organization, feelings were frayed and hopes disappointed. Writing in the Guardian, a radical newsweekly, Kevin Kelley explained that even David-Friedman, who had managed the campaign for several months, felt it hadn't become a grassroots movement. "Bernie had trouble," she said, "recruiting activists and contributors who had been involved in his previous campaigns. Some of them felt it was the wrong race to be running, and others thought it was more important that he stay in Burlington to consolidate the gains we had made there."

She also noted that "middle-class progressives" weren't enthusiastic since Sanders wasn't organizing but simply running. "Bernie acts in a way that's similar to [Jesse] Jackson in terms of focusing more on a candidacy and less on an organization," she felt. She was still committed to his campaign, but she acknowledged his limitations. In a public letter to the left two weeks before the election, she praised Sanders' leadership but scored his resistance to accountability or organization.

Murray Bookchin, a libertarian socialist thinker and leader of the emerging Green movement, was more blunt. "Bernie's running a one-man show," he said. "The only justification for a socialist campaign at this point is to try to educate people, and Sanders isn't doing that at all. Instead, he's running on the preposterous notion that he can get elected as governor this year."

In truth, however, Sanders was running on issues as well: reducing reliance on the property tax, a more progressive income and corporate tax system, lowering utility bills, raising the minimum wage, and phasing out Vermont Yankee, among others. It was basically the same thrust he had always pushed -- redistribution of income and wealth. But neither his reform program nor his powerful speaking style were enough to overcome the barriers in his way. His opponents could still outspend him, and his own ranks were split.

Working with Patrick Leahy, who was fighting Snelling to keep his US Senate seat, Kunin staged an impressive get-out-the-vote effort. It was the most sophisticated voter-identification program in state history. With unemployment at a record low and no state deficit, she had economics on her side. On Election Day, Kunin failed to win 50 percent of the vote, but she left both her opponents well behind and was dutifully confirmed by the legislature.

Sanders came away with 15 percent -- far less than he had been hoping for, but nevertheless remarkable. Running as an Independent, he had established a solid base, and his percentage was far too big to be simply a protest vote. But it wasn't just the total that was significant, noted Chris Graff, Vermont's Associated Press bureau chief. "It is the fact that it came from the conservative hilltowns, the Republican strongholds, the farm communities." Sanders had, in fact, won his highest percentage in the conservative Northeast Kingdom. Once again he had touched a chord and transcended traditional lines.

(Originally published in 1989)