Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Metaphors Enable the Patriarchy

Participant in 120,000 person march for women's
rights in Washington DC on 3/9/86
Jean Stimmell © 2018

The 1960’s shined a spotlight on systematic oppression in America, including illuminating my own shadow, etching away my innocence to reveal my glaring chauvinist complicity.  Since then I have considered myself a recovering, middle-class male.

That’s not to say, I am still not jolted by extreme examples of the patriarchy’s continuing influence, sullying as it does, all facets of our lives.

I had one of those jolts when I read a recent piece in the NYT: “The Perils of Mixing Masculinity and Missiles” by Carol Cohn1 She has a history working as a nuclear strategist and war planner, almost exclusively among men.

For her, ideas about masculinity and femininity are not trivial but have real, life-or-death consequences. 

She challenges the idea that President Trump’s sexually oriented tweets are merely impulsive and juvenile – like his recent one about having a nuclear button bigger & more powerful than that of his North Korean adversary.

Trump’s tweets remind her of how her male, war planner associates used sexual metaphors:
The human bodies evoked were not those of the victims; instead, there were conversations about vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration and the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks — or what one military adviser to the National Security Council called “releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump.”   

Cohn gives clear examples of how gender roles have the potential to determine the outcome in war strategy. When her fellow planners discussed political leaders, it was often regarding whether they had “the stones for war,” suggesting that solving conflict through peaceful means would be unmanly.

“One white male physicist told me that he and colleagues were once modeling a limited nuclear attack when he suddenly voiced dismay that they were talking so casually about “only 30 million” immediate deaths. “It was awful — I felt like a woman,” he said.”

Carol Cohn does a masterful job of describing how our military planners follow, rather than logic, our culturally embedded code for masculinity: dispassion, abstraction, risk-taking, toughness; as opposed to, what she says, is our cultural code for femininity: emotion, empathy, vulnerability, caution.

Unfortunately, the patriarchy lives not just in the metaphors of military planners and President Trump, but in all of us.  And it is these metaphors, we often unconsciously use, that help sustain the patriarchy.

George Lakoff, in his classic book, Metaphors We Live By, delves deeply into the nature of metaphors, persuasively demonstrating their fundamental importance as the essential building blocks of our language: the cognitive mechanism determining how we think and act.

If Lakoff is correct, and I believe he is, it opens our eyes as to why the patriarchy is so difficult to confront: we have built patriarchal metaphors into the cultural categories by which we think.

In Lakoff’s book, ”Don’t Think of an Elephant,” he shows how the metaphor portraying our nation is a family can either strengthen or weaken the patriarchy depending on the type of parent we identify with: the strict father model which conservatives favor or the nurturing parent model for progressives.

The strict father family has a background assumption that the world is a dangerous place that has to be subdued by force.  Children are born bad and have to be made good. Trump is a good example of the strict father model.

The nurturant parent, on the other hand, believes that children are born good and should be kept that way. The two core ideas for the nurturing parent are empathy and responsibility – which should not to be equated with weakness.

In another example, illustrating how the patriarchy has been incorporated into how we think, Lakoff shows how we structure our arguments in terms of war metaphors:

“It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground…It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture.”

Obviously, if we are going to make inroads against the patriarchy, we are going to have to make conscious choices about what metaphors to use.

For instance, Lakoff suggests trying “to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance,3” In other words: both/and rather than either/or.

Macho war metaphors in today’s postmodern world are dragging our country down in increasing conflict, both internally and externally, egging us on toward nuclear war, and shredding our democracy.

Our best hope is to radically revise our metaphor choices to promote equal and fair inclusion for everyone in our society – and around the world.

As Lakoff might say, we need to start a conversation and invite everyone to the dance.

Another photo I took that day in 1986,
this one of the NH contingent at the rally


1 NYT Opinion: 1/5/18
2 Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark, Metaphors We Live By. The University  of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1980. P. 4

Fear versus Faith on the Solstice

This essay was published in the Concord Monitor, 12/31/17
Photographing the solstice transition
from dark to light behind my house

These dark days of winter solstice pull me down, causing me to ruminate more than usual about the future of our country. I reflect on how, since 9/11, we have become consumed by fear: Fear of terrorists, immigrants, people who don’t look or vote like us; fear of nuclear war, climate change, epidemics, vaccinations, gluten; fear of almost everything. Given this fertile ground upon which to work, fear mongers and demagogues have weakened our democratic way of life, tilting us toward autocratic rule.
I ponder what gives my own life meaning and reason for hope. It dawns on me in the light of the approaching new year that what sustains me is my faith which continues to grow, the older I get. And, indeed, it is this faith that empowers me to confront my fears.
Choosing faith over fear is a remedy proven over the ages. As Alexander MacLaren has written, “Faith, which is trust, and fear are opposite poles.” If you have the one, you can’t have the other. Yes, it is the people with faith who dare to overcome their fears and make positive change by standing up to injustice.
Therefore, the essential question becomes, how do I strengthen my faith, how do I reestablish my trust in order banish resignation and fear?
 By way of example, I will share my circuitous journey toward faith, even though many may find it, at the very least, unconventional.
 Without doubt, I started my adult journey through life as a confirmed agnostic, dedicated to rational thought. Or, like the TV detective Joe Friday used to say, “Just the facts, ma’am.“
 Since starting out with unseeing eyes many decades ago, my faith has grown to the point where I can now glimpse the outline of what’s always been there, but I couldn’t see: What William Blake so superbly expresses with poetry:
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.”
 I think the most significant influence leading me toward faith has been my mentors; some known to me personally and others through books or the media. They have been shining lights in my life, modeling compassion, wisdom, and unbreakable faith, often forged through unspeakable tragedy and hardship.  I have especially learned, over the years, from my remarkable patients.
 Another positive influence is my meditation practice which I began while a graduate student at Antioch; it continues to this day although, I admit, on a haphazard basis. To me, meditation is an act of faith, like going to church. When I sit, after quieting my breath and cascading thoughts, a certain peace and calm envelopes me. Often, an unbidden smile lights up both my face – and my very being – coming from I know not where.  Except that I do know: I am in the presence of a greater whole, bigger than I am, that puts me in synch with the universe.
 A third influence is my Big Dreams. While I admit to having only a few in my long life, they have been quintessentially spiritual and sacred. In one such dream, I watching a little nun cross a raging river, beckoning for me to follow her to the other side.
 In another, I am wandering in a dark cave without beginning or end and stumble upon a Buddhist nun, tears streaming down her face, cradling her dead baby– which might, in fact, be me. In her grief, she is magnificent: fiercer than any warrior, more authentic than the Buddha. I sense that She is my guide, sent to lead me to the gate of real faith.
 Marion Woodman, well-respected Jungian analyst, tells us that in dreams, the Goddess often leads the dreamer into a deep cave: “Out of the darkness will come treasures and hidden riches… the possibility of something new.”1
 Many other influences have deepened my faith. Nature is a big one. Sometimes I can effortlessly merge with Her sacredness. Other times, it requires work like a long hike up a big mountain to achieve the effect. Hiking, hiking, …yet my mind will not stop distracting me with endless thoughts. Eventually, however, when fatigued enough, my mind gives up and stops: Then, gloriously, I find myself totally immersed in the wonder of the present. Like being wholly focused on chopping wood or carrying water, all I hear is the sound of my feet as they hit the ground. Free at last.
From all the things I have ever heard or read, there is only one passage that perfectly resonates with my experience. It’s in a wonderful book, Bright Abyss, by Christian Wiman:
When I assented to the faith that was latent within me— and I phrase it carefully, deliberately, for there was no white light, no ministering or avenging angel that tore my life in two; rather it seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me, or, more accurately, as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert and had known, though I was just then discovering it, that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief.2
 To fight the fire of fear raging all around us – and through us – we must, of course, as good citizens, rise up and take positive action.  But first, I think, we should try to quell our fears with the faith that comes from nourishing that rare flower that lives, lonely and neglected, in too many of us.
Marion Woodman, Dancing in the Flames: Shambhala: Boston, 1997
Wiman, Christian (2013-04-02). My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (p. 10). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Our Modern Tower of Babel

CC Jean Stimmell: photo taken 12/26/16

In 1900, American historian Henry Adams wrote his prediction for the year 2000: “At the rate of progress since 1800, every American who lived in the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power. He would think in complexities unimaginable to an earlier mind. He would deal with problems altogether beyond the range of earlier society. The new American would need to think in contradictions. The new universe would know no law that could not be proved by its anti-law. It would require a new social mind.”1

In part, Adams was right. We now control unlimited power and have invented many wonderful things, catnip to our never-ending quest for novelty and diversion. But we continue to be stymied in developing a new social mind.

In fact, it is quite the opposite: Politically and culturally, best exemplified by Trump, we are regressing back to reciting simple truisms from the past to avoid dealing with the complexities of our new age.

Rather than dealing with contradictions by inclusion, embracing both/and, we have doubled down on the dichotomy of either/or. Abortion is either good or bad; the opposite political party is either good or bad. Immigration is either good or bad…the list goes on and on

I see a parallel between our situation today and the story of the Tower of Babel, as told in Genesis 11:1-9: After the Great Flood, a united humanity, speaking a single language, came together and began work on a city and tower tall enough to reach heaven.

God became angry and put a stop to the project by scrambled their speech so they could no longer understand each other, and scattered them around the world. According to scholars, God was not angry because they were building the tower but because they were becoming filthy rich, corrupt, and idolatrous. Therefore, he knew that if allowed to work together, they could do much evil.2

Thousands of years have passed until now, when for the first time, we have the scientific know-how and technology to actually reach the heavens. We have attained god-like powers that we could use to:

Protect our precious, little planet Earth by switching to renewable resources to end pollution; use our amazing medical advances to ensure all earth’s inhabitants have the opportunity to live a long life; distribute the plentitude of food, we already grow, so each of us has a fair share. In short, we have enough expertise and resources so that all of us could afford a life of dignity and comfort without degrading the environment.

Or, conversely, we could use our god-like powers to divide and destroy, as we are doing today, embroiled as we are in a succession or wars without end; made worse by the darkening cloud of an impending nuclear holocaust, as our leader and that of North Korea huff and puff, playing a childhood game of chicken, each threatening to annihilate the other’s country – and perhaps the world – in a blast of fire and fury.

Rather than moving forward together, united in speech and trusting in our common humanity, we fight among ourselves. We condemn the immigrant, whom all of us originally were, calling them “illegal aliens.” We condemn our neighbors who practice a different faith, belong to a different political party or come in a different color. Rather than cooperating with other countries, seeking common ground for our common good, our president insists on “America First.”

Why have we not been able to develop that new social mind that historian Adams foresaw, capable of thinking in “complexities unimaginable to an earlier mind?”

The sticking point, in my opinion, is that a tolerant, all-inclusive mind requires what we are lacking: a solid spiritual foundation.

We have taken on the powers of a god in terms of our material life but, in the process, lost touch with age-old sacred values, which form the cornerstone of religions around the world: Do Unto Others What You Would Have Them Do Unto You; Speak the Truth; It’s More Blessed to Give Than To Receive; Love Thy Neighbor; Blessed Are the Peacemakers...3

Instead, our new gods have become celebrity culture and unfettered capitalism, which has resulted in an amoral society presiding of an Amazon of Things. Translated that means, survival of the financially fittest: If you don’t measure up, “you’re fired!”

Looking for a parallel with the Tower of Babel, it would make sense that we have angered God for our transgressions: dividing and destroying rather than uniting. God has taken umbrage, not because we are reaching toward the heavens but because, like the citizens of Babel, we are attempting it before we are spiritually ready.

Of course, if someday we do reach that higher state where we all see humanity as a unity and have compassion and respect for everyone, we will not need God’s heaven up there past the pearly gates. We will have created heaven right here on earth.

And, perhaps, that is what God intended all along.

1 The New Social Mind, Psychotherapy Networker. Nov/Dec 2017

Saturday, November 25, 2017

A daemon whose egg is us

Found on the outermost beach of Cape Cod: 3/17/13
CC Jean Stimmell 
Walking the deserted, outer beaches of Cape Cod in winter, reconnects me to that deep place in my psyche before humans walked the earth, a mythic place resonating to primal rhythms still being played today: the thumping sound of an endless series of ocean waves crashing ashore, in varying intensities and pitch, colliding with shimmering sand as far as the eye can see, all under an infinite sky canopy, alive with scudding clouds and screeching gulls.

One day on the outermost such beach, pristine and lonely, without a single human footprint, a mythical creature magically appeared. Awakening from an eons-long slumber, she’s crawling up out of the depths through a widening crack in human consciousness, created by the earth-shaking tremors of catastrophic climate change. She symbolizes the disruption in the rhythms of ordinary evolution, not seen since that giant meteor explosion rocked the earth, wiping out most of Earth's inhabitants.

The evolutionary stew is, indeed, being stirred anew by this daemon of old: part bird, part marsupial, incubating her egg, unprotected on her back. No longer cuddled in the fluffy nest of Mother Nature's maternal care, her egg is us –humankind – cast out of Eden as a result of our dirty, industrialization deeds.

We are on our own now: bright and shiny, alien and alone.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Welcome to Trump’s Theater of the Absurd

Gigantic, mutant, swamp-dwelling Mosquito*
CC Jean Stimmell: 12/28/16

Welcome to Trump’s Theater of the Absurd

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic cockroach.” This, of course, is the famous opening line of Kafka’s short story, “Metamorphosis.”

Because Kafka was living through times in many ways similar to what we are facing, I fear that being transformed into a giant insect is something we should all worry about.

John Sutherland[i] writes that for Kafka, the cockroach might be an allegory for racism, foretelling the rise of Hitler, authoritarianism, and his attempted extermination of an alleged “verminous” race”?

Or is Kafka foreseeing the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with its nightmarish results: fellow citizens like Kafka woke up one day to find their identities had vanished.

That’s the way I feel.

My sense of identity, if not vanished, has been seriously compromised. Before Trump, I felt securely grounded in what it meant to be an American; now I feel that ground has turned to quicksand.

Nevertheless, I hoped that as time went on, life under Trump would normalize, allowing me to regain a solid footing in reality. But that hasn’t happened.

But, on the first anniversary of the rise of Donald Trump, I awoke with the icy realization that my worst nightmares about Trump had become cold reality.

It was like I had dreamed that my beloved Statue of Liberty, benevolent greeter to the huddled masses of the world, had been turned into a gigantic, swamp-dwelling mosquito:

An avenging apparition hell-bent on sucking our identity out of us, those precious qualities we, as Americans have always held in common and cherished.

Yes, we have always had outliers but a huge majority of us have always believed in what the Statue of Liberty stood for: That we were the exceptional nation who believed in fair play, a beacon of light to other countries.

Being one-for-all was what it meant to be an American, each of us a unique ingredient in what had always been the great American melting pot.

Now Trump is attempting to reverse what it means to be an American. His cry of “America First” is a dog whistle meaning “white people first.” Not surprisingly, white nationalism and hatred of foreigners are on the rise.

Our situation is so beyond the pale, it’s not just tragic, it’s absurd. And that brings us back to Kafka.

Kafka’s surreal dream story was a forerunner to a type of theater that highlights the absurd to convey the playwright’s sense of bewilderment and anxiety in the face of the unexplainable. This genre, naturally enough, became known as the “Theater of the Absurd.”

And isn’t that exactly what we feel as a nation right now: a sense of bewilderment and anxiety in the face of the unexplainable.

We are living in Trump’s Theater of the Absurd, starting with his inaugural where the crowd was sparse but he said huge. Photographs proved him wrong, but his spokesperson touted his version as a perfectly acceptable “alternative fact.”

New examples crop up daily; here are a selected few:

Trump says Putin “means it” when he says he didn’t meddle in our elections despite the findings of all our intelligence chiefs, whom Trump dismisses as “political hacks.”

Man-made climate change is a hoax despite the unassailable scientific evidence, coupled with what we plainly see with our eyes. This week the Trump team was jeered at climate talks for promoting coal.

Christians, who support Trump even though he brags about grabbing women’s pussies, are now citing the bible to defend Roy Moore’s child molestation charges.

The U.S. has spent six trillion on wars of choice since 9/11, wars that have sunk into bottomless quagmires; meanwhile our infrastructure and standard of living are going to hell. Trump’s answer is to double down on the military.

The U.S. ranks near the bottom in indicators of mortality and life expectancy: Trump’s answer is to attempt to take health care away from millions more.

Is this the Theater of the Absurd or what!

Around the world, citizens take to the streets to protest grievances much less global than those I have listed. Yet, we sit immobilized as if in a stupor.

For us collectively as a people, it is like Trump has slipped a date rape drug in our drink. Or, in the words of conservative columnist, Bret Stephens[ii]: we inhabit a culture we despise but see no way of improving.

* The Mosquito is an inverted image of a photo I took of a tree in SF: 12/28/16
[i] A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland
[ii]  Bret Stevens, NYT, 11/10/17