Roy Moore and the Sacrament of the Group

The big news was that Roy Moore lost the Senate race in Alabama, but the amazing story that goes along with it was that two-thirds of white women in that state voted for him. Even though it seems pretty obvious to an objective viewer that his accusers were telling the truth and Moore was lying about his escapades of the past, these ladies, who you would think would be up in arms against him, still gave him their vote. Why would they do that?

Well, one reason could be the way they prioritize their values : the danger to society from abortion, same-sex marriage, and all the rest of that kind of baggage outweighs their distaste for a man who was preying on teenage girls years ago. Another reason could be that they simply think the accusers were lying.   But a third important explanation was floated this week by the The Cut (one of New York Magazine’s online sites).   In an interview with neuroscientist Jonas Kaplan they raise the possibility that “motivated reasoning” is at work here. This is the phenomenon where once we buy into something psychologically, it’s not so easy to shake it off.   We’re “motivated” to stay with our initial choices.   This can be seen in many different types of thinking, but political thought is certainly an excellent example.

The fact is that we need to belong to something. Whether it’s a family, a community, a church, a party, a country, it’s in our DNA to establish ties to others, and once we’ve created those bonds, we will defend them. We don’t want to hear any criticisms, in fact the criticisms just trigger a defensiveness to the point of unreason: you must be wrong, because I know I’m right.   This is what got Trump elected and kept those Alabama women on board with Moore.

It’s all part of the Sacrament of the Group. Bonding with others can be exhilarating. In a stadium when your team wins in the final seconds or at a political rally when victory is declared, emotions rise to the level of euphoria. We’re part of something– What a great feeling!   It’s a way to transcend the mundane and get closer to something truly glorious.   The groups we choose mean so much to us.

But the danger of course is that it blinds us to considerations that are important.   As Hamlet reminded himself, the Devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape.  How do we keep from backing the wrong horse or the wrong idea?    Given that this impulse to defend is programed into us, rooted in our DNA, the only answer is an education that includes a check on this aspect of our behavior, a moral education, like the lessons we learn that curb other evolutionary impulses, like stealing what we want, or assaulting women at will.   These impulses were valuable to our primate ancestors, but vices for  men and women.

Every school curriculum should include an acknowledgement of motivated reasoning, and practice in how to step away from it.   Beginning with young children, we should emphasize that whenever you enter into a discussion with anyone, you should say to yourself , “I know what I think, but maybe I’ll learn something from this other person and change my thinking.”   Really listening, weighing evidence…it’s called keeping an open mind. It’s not something many of us currently practice.

A frontal attack on people’s beliefs and values makes them circle the wagons and fight back, tooth and nail.   A softer approach has a better chance of getting somewhere, and those chances would increase if our educators would instill a respect for the viewpoints of others.   It’s in the state’s interest to foster this kind of thinking, to combat  tribalism.  This is one reason why public schools are so important.


Free Speech Rallies and Death in Portland


More senseless killings, this time in Portland Oregon.  A mentally-disturbed man was verbally abusing two Muslim teen-aged girls on a train and ended up killing two men trying to intervene.   The killer had a troubled past, to say the least, and most recently came to police attention for his angry rants at a Free Speech Rally. In case you’ve missed them, these rallies are being held around the country by the alt-right following the dust-up on college campuses over uninviting conservative speakers, and in case you missed that, these were right-wing individuals whose views are unpalatable to some students on the left.  When there were complaints and protests about these speakers, their bookings were cancelled. “What happened to Freedom of Speech?” the conservatives ask, with good reason.

The Free Speech Rallies have been steeped in anger as the alt-right organizers and masked Anti-Fascist protesters on the left taunt each other and generally act like they would like nothing better than to get physical. The police have kept them apart mostly, but a lot of the people are young, and, as in the 60s, they are a volatile group.   It doesn’t take much for one person to do something stupid and the next thing you know “dying for a fight” is literally where we are.  Rallies can be powerful, transcendent moments, part of the Sacrament of the Group, but in the wrong hands they become the antithesis: angry mobs out of control, with the energy of the group reinforcing unthinking acts of violence.  Here’s a description from someone who was at the Boston rally—there was no violence there, but depressing doesn’t begin to cover it.

And now the promise of real violence has been met. Two good men are dead and one wounded because a guy with a tricky grip on reality was stirred up by all the acrimony in the air. He took his rant into a train and pointed it at these poor girls.  How many of us would have the courage to stand up to him as these men did?

With a president who seems indifferent to the unrest he’s already caused and the mayhem that is waiting in the wings, don’t expect any improvement in the rhetoric from the leadership anytime soon, no Lincolnian appeals to our better angels.  But in the name of sanity, folks, please, calm down!  Don’t waste your time taunting people you don’t agree with. Talk to them if you feel you must– the chances of changing anyone’s mind may be slim–but it’s more likely to happen in a respectful atmosphere than in a super-charged anger zone.   What good does it do to toss around words like Fascist or carry an insulting placard? It’s just more fuel for the overheated atmosphere we live in.   Save your energy and organize for the next election, whatever side you’re on.  Let each side have their rallies, and if you must, quietly protest ideas you find reprehensible, but when you mock, jeer, or threaten the other side, especially to their face, it does nothing to advance whatever cause you’re fighting for.  It’s undignified and unworthy.


Christians Awake! Quit the Cult

The death of Tony Alamo in federal prison this week brought to mind all the damage done in the name of Jesus Christ by charlatans disguised as men of God. Here’s a guy who managed to convince hundreds if not thousands of people that he had a direct line to the Lord and if they would only turn over all their money and assets to the Church he created, they would be able to listen in and salvation would be theirs.

Presto! a cult is founded.

He had a TV ministry back in the late 70s and made a fortune selling, of all things, designer rhinestone jackets to pop stars, jackets that are still being sold online for a hefty sum. Shouldn’t that be a tip-off that all is not right in the New Jerusalem when your spiritual leader is selling both salvation and sequins?

Salvation: it’s what so many are looking for–a way out of the morass that their lives have become, or, perhaps they are just spiritual seekers, looking for a creed, a guru, floating around like chemical ions, waiting for that attraction, that pull that will create a bond to make their lives complete in a blinding flash, and I do mean blinding.

Alamo did a lot of sleazy things, but the worst was using salvation as a threat to get women and girls as young as 15 to sleep with him. He was on the run from the FBI for years and when they finally caught up with him, he ended up with a jail term of 175 years. At the sentencing Alamo is reported to have said “I’m glad I’m me and not the deceived people in the world.”

And there you have it. There are the Tony Alamos and there are the deceived.   But there are also the sons and daughters of the Enlightenment, who (we can only hope) will eventually outnumber both groups and combat hubris and ignorance with Humanism.

You don’t need a guru, you need to recognize that the sacred is all around us and does not involve complete surrender to a charismatic leader.   We all feel the need to belong to something—that’s the Sacrament of the Group. We also need people to guide us through life. That’s the Sacrament of Friends and Mentors. But the Tony Alamos of the world represent the dark side of both of those sacraments, when greed, lust, and ego masquerade as Goodness.

It all boils down to this: don’t abandon reason in your search for the Spirit.

The Women’s March: God vs. the Goddess

The Women’s March in Washington, D.C. –how can you even begin to describe it? It was out-of-this-world, a super-high, a transcendent moment according to my friends and family members who were there. The Climate March in NYC was mighty good, but this was beyond the Beyond.   It was electric. The energy that was flowing, the feeling of solidarity, of sisterhood, of caring… Despite the enormous crowds—and people were packed into the subway cars, jammed against each other in the streets, unable to move much at all—there was never a feeling of anxiety, of anything but this tremendous, invigorating Oneness with women everywhere. The Giantess has awakened! as one of my friends put it. Or perhaps the Goddess.

This is the Sacrament of the Group in a more powerful manifestation than has ever been found before. Millions of women all around the world, demanding a change.  My friends couldn’t sleep that night.   Too much on their minds, too many possibilities for the future. Even as they drove away from DC on Sunday they found the Spirit of the March lived on, all the way back home: at a rest stop where someone had chalked onto the sidewalk “What Did the Women’s March Mean To You?” and hundreds of replies scribbled up and down the walkway. At a gas station where young women in their 20s recognized them as fellow-marchers by their pink hats and exchanged stories. At another rest stop where a group of women were hugging the cleaning lady who hadn’t been able to march.

It was a day for transformation for everyone who was there.

And then there were the Fundamentalist Christians. A small group. All men. Off to one side of the street with signs 10 times bigger than anyone else’s. “God hates gays!”   “Have you gotten HIV yet?” “Here are the reasons you will go to hell (at least a dozen, led by abortion)” They had a bullhorn, and they looked grim, and they wouldn’t shut up.

So to them, all these women, coming together to protest the actions of the Gropen-Führer, were nothing but sinners in the hands of an angry God.

So much work to be done.

Trump and the Lord of the Rings

I finally understand Donald Trump.  We decided to watch the first part of The Lord of the Rings again last week, and at the very end—do you remember?—when Frodo has brought the One Ring safely to the elf-home in Rivendell and everyone has gathered to decide what to do about it, there’s that scene where the ring is sitting on a pedestal and they all begin to argue about what to do next:  Use it to fight Mordor! Destroy it! Lose it in the ocean!    These are all good people from the different races of Middle Earth, and they all want to do the right thing, but the power of the ring is so great and so sinister that the argument becomes super-heated. Suddenly we see a close up of the ring itself and reflected in it are the angry faces of the elves, dwarves, hobbits and men, shouting at each other, growing red in the face, about to come to blows—a perfect image of the ring’s power to bend them to its will.

That’s what Trump does. He is the ring, making everybody crazy around him. Every time he opens his mouth or hits twitter there’s another round of media attention and everyone goes berserk.  At rallies, on talk-radio, on NPR, on TV good people get mad and start yelling at other good people. No one listens to anyone else, they just holler and scream and mock and tweet and sometimes even lash out, punching whoever is closest.  We’re all in its thrall, and by “its” I mean the power of anger.

Where does this analogy take us?   Where is our Mt. Doom, that place where we can un-make this power?   Is it in a protest march? A prayer for a speedy impeachment?   Or what?

Protests are fine –we need them too to send messages to our leaders–but what we also need  is  to recognize how reactive we’ve become and do something about it.   Limiting the time we spend with the media would help.  This 24-hour news cycle is making us all nutty.      Of course we have to keep up with events, but so many of us have become news junkies, that’s all we think about.    It’s eating away at us, devouring our very beings. Before you know it we’ll all be like Tolkien’s Nazgul, those black riders, the ring-wraiths, who were once men but are now the mere shadows of human beings, their bodies and spirits destroyed by the power of the Dark.

Let’s stop providing the fertile soil for the chaos the ring sows. Let’s turn off the radio and the screens and go play with our kids or  go to a community supper.   Perhaps instead of reacting to tweets, we could turn directly to our fellow citizens and try to understand what they’re telling us. Let’s get better at listening, and go into conversations willing to learn something we didn’t know before, and let’s hope our interlocutors are willing to do the same thing. Let’s be the change we want to see, as the old saying goes, and model the kinds of behaviors we wish to see take root.



What is a Post-Christian?

Great article in the NY Times Magazine this week: “The Evangelical Scion Who Stopped Believing” about Bart Campolo, a star in the world of evangelical Christianity, who left it all behind to become the humanist chaplain at USC in Los Angeles.    Campolo is described as a “post-Christian”—someone who loved everything about the Christian ministry except the Christianity, that is, his focus was on community building, friendship, taking care of those in need, those going through a hard time, and not on the virgin birth, the resurrection, the miracles which some would call magical thinking.  By talking with Greg Epstein (Good Without God), the humanist chaplain at Harvard and head of the Humanist Hub, Bart eventually found his way to his new position in LA.

The article raises the key question: Can we have the benefits of what an old-style religion offers without the supernatural?  We better all hope the answer is a resounding “yes!” because it’s so often the supernatural–that metaphysical quagmire–that creates the zealots, so caught up in the phantasmagoria of paradise, angels, hell, and transubstantiation that all the humanity has been wrung out of our brief lives here on this Earth and we’re left with an electorate determined to create God’s kingdom on Earth with all the bigotry and hatred that too often go with it.

I particularly like the picture at the head of the article. Look at the crowd of college students bonding through laughter at something Bart is saying.  That’s the Sacrament of the Group, creating those invaluable human-to-human connections through humor. They will remember more about their time in that group and that leader than in any classroom they’ve ever been in.



The United States of Ridicule

Have you noticed there’s a lot of derision shooting around out there in cyberspace and on the airwaves?   With good reason, perhaps. The world has never seemed as loony as it does this year, loony in the fun sense and also in the scary sense. With so much material to work from, the number of shows that specialize in making fun of people has grown, and with it, a danger to our society.

This dawned on me last night as I watched Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal Bus Tour through the heartland, where she and her cohorts managed to find some truly incredible representatives of the electorate, some of whom are delegates to the national conventions. The goal is, of course, to make us laugh at them, to have us shake our heads in disbelief at their quirks and contradictions–and I confess, I do. For example, one young woman from Pennsylvania, an auto mechanic, had this exchange, in which she said she could never vote for Hilary Clinton because

Woman: we don’t need a woman as president—we really don’t–we’re too dramatic!

Interviewer: What if people said that about you—and you’re working on their truck—

Woman: Oh, they do all the time.

Interviewer: Well how does that make your feel?

Woman: I just get over it.

Interviewer: But do you think they’re right?

Woman: I know they’re not and I’ll tell them that.

So the point here is, that she could not see the contradiction, but the real goal of the show was for us to heap scorn upon this young person from the safety of our couches, and bask in self-righteous indignation.   The show offered victims from different ends of the political spectrum, but the constant was, of course, the need to get us to sneer at their eccentricities and blind spots.

I was reminded of a scene from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, where a smart guy from Connecticut time travels to the Middle Ages and ends up the Boss. At one point he tries to explain how inflation works to one of the commoners, and he just doesn’t get it. All he can see is that high wages are better than low wages—he can’t get the concept that higher prices negate higher wages. The Boss says, “I was stunned; partly with this unlooked-for stupidity on his part, and partly because his fellows so manifestly sided with him and were of his mind—if you might call it mind.”   The Boss gets more and more frustrated trying to explain it and mad enough to bust a blood vessel—just as we do when we’re confronted with someone of an opposing political view who won’t see it our way, even when we’re unquestionably right.  These mindless ignoramuses, these brainless clods should be–

And here is the danger. This anger, this frustration, this recourse to name calling.  There are so many opportunities now on TV, on youtube, in any number of media forums to ridicule our political opposites, that the temperature is rising all over the country. That’s not what we need right now. What we need is what we’ve always needed:

1) respectful forums where we can voice our opinions

2) open minds that will allow us to really hear what other people are saying and perhaps lead to the adjustment of our own thinking

3) the understanding that there will always be differences of opinions, and that in a democracy you have to find a way to live with the fact that you won’t always have it your way.   That’s the nature of political life.

The way to ensure that all three of these aspects of a healthy commonwealth are in place is to invest in the right kind of education.   We’re not spending enough time in what used to be called “civics”.   To hell with higher math, let’s teach people before they’re old enough to vote how to tell a lie from a truth, to open their minds, and to respect differences of opinions.   This is all part of the Sacrament of the Group and we need to get on it now.


Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe”and the Sacrament of the Group

A terrific book is out there waiting for you: Tribe, by Sebastian Junger, a combat journalist in Afghanistan who found that his experience on returning home from deployment was shared by many others in the military: it was hard to fit back in. He longed for the camaraderie you experience in battle, in a war zone where it’s life and death and each member of the team has to be there to support the other. Psychologically we need a tribe–that’s how we evolved.  Living a successful modern life means we don’t need each other physically as much any more, but the need to forge connections still haunts us.   When we are deprived of those connections we get messed up; when we find them, something clicks and our lives fall into place

The irony is that in peacetime, as affluence grows, we tend to be on our own making money to buy more stuff: we grow apart,we get selfish, we even get mean. But when we’re faced with a common enemy in a combat zone, or back on the home front supporting the troops as the nation did in World War II,  we get that sense of belonging, of  greater purpose. We come together, we share resources and have a sense of the tribe.

Junger is talking about what I call the Sacrament of the Group–a profound, feeling when we’re actively involved with people who are all on the same wavelength, with amplitudes reinforcing each other in what can sometimes be a sublime experience.  You can see this at political rallies, in concert halls, or at the World Cup. As a moment of transcendence it’s a powerful, fulfilling force, but at a more mundane level,  it is the bond of the tribe that Junger is referring to, something we sense day in, day out.  We’re missing this now in an America that is splintered as never before, which is why the vets are finding re-entry so difficult. How do we change that?

As Junger points out, we don’t get there by speaking contemptuously of our fellow citizens. The trolls are out there on the internet, and one of them has even leapt out of his reality TV screen to snatch a presidential nomination based on insults and umbrage. To glory in contempt is to destroy civilization. We should all be teaching our children to respect the dignity of everyone, even those they disagree with. This is a job for the family, schools, and community leaders. The primary campaign of 2016 is a measure of how far we’ve fallen.

We all need to belong to something, but tribes nestle within each other like Russian dolls. We begin with the family, then the neighborhood groups, and the community. Beyond that there is the city, the state, the nation, but ultimately we can’t forget that we are all citizens-of-the world.  Our task for the future is to get used to the idea of belonging  both locally AND globally.

Sebastian Junger appeared on the radio show On Point.   It’s worth listening to.


The Antidote to Skinheads in Brussels

Once again, is nothing sacred?

Last week the citizens of Brussels wanted to hold a memorial for the victims of the bombings and express their desire for unity.  They gathered at the Place de la Bourse, a central square in the city. They lit candles. They laid flowers. They prayed. They left messages for the victims. About 500 people were present from all backgrounds, including Muslims.   It was a time to mourn. When tragedy strikes, the need to come together is overwhelming.   We feel a deep yearning to reach out to those around us, even strangers.   It’s the Sacrament of the Group, bringing us some measure of solace. Peace was in the air at the Place de la Bourse.

Then into this scene of solidarity and compassion, hundreds of right-wing skinheads appeared. They marched into the square, row upon row of them. Some wore hoods. Some masks. All were in black and many were holding cans of beer. They trampled down the carpet of flowers, they chanted anti-immigrant slogans, and “Death to Arabs.” They gave the Nazi salute. They leered at the news cameras. They had come from football (soccer) clubs from all over Belgium, perhaps 500 to 1000 of them. Some proudly called themselves “hooligans”. These are the men who are drawn to sports because of the possibility of fights, on the field or in the stands. There’s nothing they like better than a brawl.

Those who had gathered for the vigil were horrified. “They’re worse than the terrorists!” one older woman cried. “No, this isn’t possible! Tell me it isn’t true that they’re here!” sobbed one man.

The riot police stood by for a while, but as the situation deteriorated, they moved in. After some extremely tense confrontations, using water cannon, shields and batons, the police managed to isolate the invaders and they were eventually herded out of the area. Some arrests were made.  It was over. “We won!” said one young woman as the vigil resumed. “No we didn’t,” her friend said, “It’s a mess.”

The world is a mess. We thought it was bad in the 60s, now we’re back in the 30s with groups of proto-stormtroopers throwing their weigh around wherever you look. They also are motivated by the Sacrament of the Group, drawing their strength from their comrades-in-arms, but have turned it into something dark, the antithesis of what is sacred.

As we confront terrorism on a daily basis, what do we do about this, the inevitable reaction that many will experience: the hate, the desire to fight back, to lash out at whoever or whatever seems the cause of the problem…?

An excellent article in the Christian Science Monitor shows us the way. A neo-nazi skinhead from Vancouver left all the hate behind him when his daughter was born. “What happened in that moment is that I became connected to another human being for the first time since I could remember.” This is the Sacrament of Birth. It’s a transformative moment that brings out the best in all of us. We’re blown away by the miracle of it all, by the mother’s courage, by the need to take care of that helpless child. That’s the stuff from which to build a new world.

There are seven universal sacraments that bind us to each other by virtue of our humanity.  If we can only make each other aware of what unites us, we’ll have a chance.  The reformed father from Vancouver puts it this way:  “It’s very important for everybody to keep their sense of compassion. If society responds with fear and clamps down, it’s not a nice place to be.”

The reporting from Brussels was translated from Le Monde

Twain and Mencken on Trump

One of the most worrying trends of this election cycle is that tempers are rising to the boiling point and physical confrontations are taking place. A war of words is natural during an election, but to come to blows is one step away from knives and guns. President Obama gets high marks for his “we need to calm it down” speech this week. Let’s hope his fellow Democrats can get on board with that and cool it on the protests. He’s less likely to influence the acolytes of Trump, however.

Part of the problem is that everyone loves a showman, and that’s really what Trump is.   They want the one-liners, the snide comments, the put-downs. All politicians do this to a degree, but Trump takes it to a new level.  It’s now a circus act, and as P.T. Barnum knew only too well, we’ve always been willing to pay good money to join the line to a sideshow, however bogus it may be. As one of the conmen in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn puts it as he makes plans to fleece the inhabitants of a small village: “Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”

H.L. Mencken, Twain’s equal in cynicism, famously said: “No one in this world… has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.” (This is usually misquoted as “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”)

Mencken comes to mind as you witness the fervor with which some of our fellow-citizens at Trump events chant, sway, and even close their eyes in rapturous prayer when he repeats his anti-immigrant mantras and his vow to lead us once more to  the pinnacles of Greatness.   Back in 1920 Mencken could have been reporting from a Trump rally:

“When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost… All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

For those of you in despair at the outcomes of the most recent primary elections, perhaps there is some cold comfort in the  fact that we’ve been here before and survived.

But that was a world without nuclear weapons.

If you liked this see “Trumpland: The Ugly Side of America”