In a Country That Has Lost Its Mind

Eleven dead and counting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue.

I grew up in Pittsburgh (age 11–18). My high school played sports against the high school in Squirrel Hill where this shooting took place today. What happened there is yet another tragedy in a string of gun-violence tragedies in a country where gasoline is being poured on existing nationalist fires by a demagogical president. I resent the disturbing familiarity of the phrase “Senseless Act of Violence” for failing to capture the absurd tragedy of the mounting losses. How do you capture in words what no longer makes sense.

There is a sickness a-foot and it’s time now to move beyond our anxiety and fears into the full recognition of what is here. A friend and father of two young children who has shared my anxiety this past two years said to me earlier this week “It’s grown-up time”. Time to be awake, to do some straight-thinking, straight talking, straight walking in a crooked, volatile and truly dangerous moment in our country’s history.

It really sunk in for me this week how much the US is manifesting a pre-WWII Germany mentality. I know many have been saying it and, until recently, I have empathized but have also rationalized it is not *that* bad. Not yet.

Hitler rose to power in a country where the German citizenry was feeling such deep insecurity about its identity following the fall out and shaming of WWI. He did this in a “proud” country full of “patriotic” citizens that felt the need to defensively defend against shame TO THE CORE. There was so much insecurity, so much of a need to re-gain pride, so much desire to be “great again”. Germany craved the “self esteem” that Hitler’s “vision” promised. This strong-man united them in a nationalistic pride that hinged on the sadistic de-humanizing of lesser, “others”. NON-Germans, Jews, “homosexuals”. With his rousing public relations genius, his propaganda and conspiracy laden theories, he stole the minds of a nation. So many Germans looked the other way when the cost for their “confidence” was thousands of Jews being rounded up and sent off to death-camps.

I have resisted fully going here. Surely not in America? After all, in college I read the books of post-war, sociologists from the 50s and 60s who’s research and writing tried in earnest to make sense of what had happened. WWII was a horrific, rarefied time that we must ‘look back on and never forget’. But it couldn’t happen again, right? The risk is there, of course, but that was a different historical era.

When I was in university, we studied WW II like it was a fascinating, albeit horrific, human oddity we could observe in a curiosity cabinet. This past week, though, something shifted for me. I saw the writing on the wall. Something became clear as if I was finally accepting what I haven’t wanted to think possible.

With a House and Senate full of Republicans willing to stay quiet, willing to “look the other way”, the reality of a pro-Nationalist, anti-”other-ing”, mass mentality is here. We are in a country that has lost its mind.

Seeing the extend of the loss of rationality, the absence of a reference point for truth and reason, I have abandoned the hope that reason might save us. I’ve known for some time we are in the territory of madness and mental illness, but this is different. I can see the naivete that exists in the hope that de-escalation may happen without there first being something big and awful that might shake us back into our shared humanity. Shake us away from a pathology of pride and into an essential humility.

I do not want to be hysterical or foreboding, but I am at the point where I see no end to the polarization and hatred without more violent outbreaks in this country — more than the needless deaths of so many black men and school children who’s losses are mounting in a numb country, with a numb culture, under numb leadership. I am not advocating this. I pray it will not be at the scale of ‘war’, and I still have faith it won’t. Yet we are already in a cold civil war — something we need to name — and Trump’s hate-filled, Nationalist rhetoric takes us from cold -to- war — it is the match to the gunpowder. Trump advocating the death penalty and more armed guards as a solution — more militarism and violence — will do nothing to curb the forces of violence he has set in motion.

These are useless solutions spoken by a man whose core is so fragile, so insecure, so empty, that making it through a day feels like a matter of life and death. In Trump’s world, “self-esteem” so much as depends on violence.

I have been thinking of Hannah Arendt this week. A brilliant, albeit controversial, social theorist who wrote in the 50s and 60s about the “banality of evil” (how we become the frog in the pot that suddenly finds itself in cooking in boiling water). Arendt also, boldly and controversially, asked questions about what the Jews could have done to help themselves during the war. Arendt’s words have been widely seen to lack compassion and disregard important context, but there is something in the subject matter she writes that points to a dark, complex question at the heart of traumatic experience and a self that can act. There is a chilling story about a death camp the Germans occupied in France during the war. The Germans were driven out and the doors to the camp were opened. Many Jews — in shock, disbelief, perhaps? that they were there to be killed — did not leave. The Germans advanced again on the French and gained back control of the camp. The Jews who stayed died.

This is not a story about blame, nor anything that implicates Jews in their own fate. What happened across Europe and how we make sense of it is far more complex than any one story of one event can say. But this story does speak to the fact that it is more forgivably human to be “complicit by default” when normal people are confronted with a humanity that’s become un-hinged. And yet, we cannot let these lives be lost in vain. Every Jew who died in that camp offers us a gift today, teaching us a lesson IF we choose to learn it. It is human to have faith, to be shocked, terrified, freeze-up, to think this “cannot be so”… but it is equally human to vow that we will never again under-estimate the power of totalitarianism. We must not underestimate what deep, cultural insecurity will do to a country when it is ‘tended to’ by a dictatorial, strong-men.

We are in a country that has lost its mind. Do not abandon yours.

It’s grown-up time. Time to be awake, to do some straight thinking and straight talking and straight walking … not only to the polls, but — with love and ferocity — into our wide-eyed, conscious action moving forward.

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