When Donald Trump steals our democracy, will Americans fight to save it? In Episode 7, Dr. Steven Reisner argues that if America is to be saved—if America is worth saving—Americans must reconnect with the emotion that psychoanalysts (and biblical prophets) believe is necessary for social change: shame.
I am coming to you today from St-Thomas-de-Conac, where I sought refuge from the American COVID Pandemic. But what I have discovered, in my exile, is that, even though I have lived my entire life in one place – New York City – exile is part of my DNA. I am the child of Jewish refugees who spent most of their lives in exile; When the Nazis attacked Warsaw, my father escaped into the Soviet Union, and five years later, when the Soviets advanced into Poland, he escaped from the Soviet Union, back into Poland, only to find Warsaw utterly destroyed.
My mother was sent from ghetto to ghetto and ultimately to Auschwitz. In the final days of the war, with the Soviet army approaching and the Nazis discovering they couldn’t kill Jews fast enough, she was one of a few thousand women prisoners sent on what is now referred to as a death march, to Germany. She escaped that march only to find her home also destroyed. She met my father soon afterward and together they escaped the pogroms in post-war Poland into Czechoslovakia, and then from Czechoslovakia into American Occupied Germany. Finally, eleven years after the start of the war, they arrived, on a military transport of Jewish refugees, in New York City.
New York City, where I was born, is a place where exiles come to be with other exiles. Everyone in New York is a refugee of one sort or another, whether as a result of immigration or of the great migration – everyone is in exile together. And I have taken exile even a step further. I have made exile my profession – because, honestly, that’s the psychoanalyst’s position – we are trained to look at the most important experiences in life from the outside. Intimate, but distant, offering patients a refuge because, in a sense, we are outsiders together.
And for the past six months I have been observing America from this little French village of about 500 people; a village where people have lived continuously for over a thousand years, where the church was built in the 11th century; where the house I am living in was built before the American revolution, and where the village itself was named for a skeptical apostle, doubting Thomas, who stood apart from the other apostles and poked his finger into Jesus’ wounds, to see what the truth really was.
So today, in the spirit of St. Thomas of Conac, I am going to poke my finger in America’s wounds, not because I doubt that they are real, they are real enough, but because I am skeptical of the way Americans have been responding to those wounds. Racism, COVID, poverty, the climate emergency – each is the cause of increasingly real and terrible suffering. But I fear that Americans have lost the ability to suffer in the true sense of the word. To suffer, etymologically and biblically, means to bear, to tolerate, to endure.
Americans do not suffer, we become traumatized. And, aided by psychologists and capitalists, Americans have come to believe that if we’ve been traumatized, it means we have been wronged, someone must be blamed, and someone owes it to us to make it right.
James Baldwin, writing from his own exile in France, put it this way: “Birth, suffering, love, and death are extreme states—extreme, universal, and inescapable. We all know this, but we would rather not know it.”
Capitalism helps us not know it. And how much effort Americans are willing to expend in order to not know suffering! That is the secret of why Americans do not vote in their own interest. Americans it seems will tolerate endless political corruption and corporate deception and personal debt, so long as we can continue to fool ourselves into believing that we live in a world where birth is not painful, love is not frightening, death is not inevitable and suffering can be undone by someone else’s suffering.
Suffering to avoid suffering? Sounds like MADNESS.
As I watch America from exile, the country is burning, people are fleeing and choking and dying – not only from the explosive fires in the West, but increasingly on the streets where police, Federal law enforcement and a few extremists seem to be working to stoke the embers of tribal hatred into full conflagrations of violence. Cars run over protesters, shots are being fired as groups of demonstrators taunt one another, and last week I watched footage of a man shooting point blank into a police car. And then more footage of a small group of bizarre protesters spewing venomous hatred near the hospital where the officers were being treated. The Sheriff took to social media to mobilize outrage, and the press amplified his words: Protesters were described as BLM; they weren’t. As endangering the lives of the hospitalized officers; they weren’t, and saying hateful things about the police, which they were.
Increasingly, this is what America looks like from exile: a country where the only acceptable emotions are hate and rage and selfishness. Trump calleds suspects “animals” and when police shoot them down in the streets, he calls it retribution, and takes credit for it. On social media, in the news, and in political discourse – rage: rage against antifa or BLM on one side, against the homeless housed in NYC hotels or politicians wanting to open schools, on the other.
This frightens me, because we are facing a very real threat to Democracy in the coming weeks. And if there’s one thing history has taught us, it is that rage can destroy democracy, but rage will not restore democracy. Rage is a tool of the right, because in America the right has always been armed, and ready to shoot, and backed by the government. Rage on the right is an end in itself – an expression of hatred of the left. On the left, rage is aimed in every direction, including at others on the left, and more and more, the rage is turning to violence. And it leaves the earth burning and scorched, like the fires in California, our days today are reminiscent of the prophecies of the old testament. Like this one, from the Prophet Amos:
“Listen, you who devour the needy and annihilate the poor … Shall not the earth shake for this? I will make the sun set at noon. I will darken the earth on a sunny day.”
Amos, Isaiah, all of the biblical prophets had basically one aim: to provoke the human response that is necessary, if we are to take responsibility for suffering and mobilize to alleviate it. But the emotion that guides us in desperate times, is in short supply in today’s America, even when democracy is burning and the sun is blotted out at noontime. That emotion is shame.
Shame – which according to prophets and psychoanalysts alike, is the foundation of civilization.
Primo Levi, writing about his liberation from Auschwitz, described the response of the Soviet soldiers looking for the first time upon the survivors:
They did not greet us, nor smile: they seemed oppressed, not only by pity but also by a confused restraint which sealed their mouths, and kept their eyes fastened on the funereal scene. It was the same shame which we knew so well, which submerged us after the selections, and every time we had to witness or undergo an outrage; the shame that the Germans never knew, the shame which the just man experiences when confronted by a crime committed by another, and he feels remorse because of its existence, because of its having been irrevocably introduced into the world of existing things, and because his will has proven nonexistent or feeble… incapable of putting up a good defense.
Shame is instant and visceral; we react to it even before our minds can process it. It is that vague or overwhelming internal sense that we have participated in something wrong. Shame is the first emotion that’s directed to ourselves, even if it is experienced in the presence of another, and our character develops under its influence. For the infant or child, it arises at the moment it discovers that its desire conflicts with its mother or parent’s desire. The infant is hungry and bites; the child wants to be naked in polite company. It’s not just a clash of desire, it’s what Freud calls, a fear of the loss of love. A fear of the loss of being welcome in the world that is good and safe and will feed you and clothe you and protect you.
Adam and Eve were ashamed because they acted on their desire to bite the apple only to discover that they were naked in the polite company of God. Expelled from the garden, human beings have tried ever since to learn the moral standards they must follow to be allowed back in.
Children are born helpless and dependent on their mothers, and simultaneously they are born primed to trust that their mother will care for them. And this is right, because, mothers are naturally inclined to care for their helpless babies. This is what led Freud to conclude that “the original helplessness of human beings is the primal source of all morality.” And not only morality, it’s also the of love, the love of giving and receiving care. And so when mother or father or God flinches in response to our desire, when our desire conflicts with their desire, we feel shame, and we are eager to learn the mysterious code of goodness that we have violated. Since they only want what is best for us, what have we done wrong?
I would say that it is because of this universal, primal shame that philosophers and theologians throughout history have worked to identify a universal code of goodness. And we fid the results of their search in religious texts, philosophical texts, in political documents – the rights of man, the declaration of independence, and it seems that over the centuries, our best minds have come to a consensus.
It comes down to a rather simple concept: and that is the idea that we have a moral obligation to welcome children into the world with love and thereafter to treat every human being as equally worthy of love. It is the concept that Emmanual Kant called Wurde, intrinsic worth, and which in English we call dignity.
Kant explained intrinsic value by contrasting it relative value, or market price:
Anything with a market price, Kant said, can be replaced by something else as its equivalent, But something that has innate valu admits of no equivalent, is above all price, and is therefore an end in itself. When something is an end in itself, it has wurde, dignity.
Kant continued, “Anyone who violates the rights of men intends to make use of the personhood of others merely as means, without valuing them at the same time as ends.”
And so he was led to formulate the second part of his categorical imperative, which philosophers call ‘the humanity formulation’:
Act in such a way as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of anyone else, always as an end and never merely as a means.…
The Russian soldiers at Auschwitz felt shame because what they saw in front of them was indignity, human beings treated by the Nazis not as having innate worth, but as means to their ends of genocide, power, and retribution. And when the photographers starting sending pictures of the survivors out into the world, the entire world experienced that same visceral shame – shame that such raw, cruel, massive indignity had been introduced into the world of existing things.
In response to that shame, representatives from 50 of the nations of the world came together to begin the process of repairing the wound to humanity’s soul. And among the first actions undertaken by the newly formed United Nations was to craft a new universal moral code, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to serve as humanity’s collective answer to the death camps. It was based, much like Kant’s humanity formulation, on two simple propositions, : First, that all human beings are possessed of inherent dignity and, second, that by virtue of their inherent dignity, all human beings are possessed of human rights.
Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, chaired the drafting committee. Here she is, presenting the document to the world:
I’m going to read you the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law…
Now, therefore, the General Assembly, proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations…
The Universal Declaration was an attempt to transform the shame of the nations of the world into a kind of redemption. And together the delegates named 30 essential and universally shared human rights: among them were life, liberty, security, freedom of thought, conscience, peaceful assembly, health care, education, equality before the law, the presumption of innocence, a decent job, the right to join a union – 30 universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated essential human rights, not merely as means to other ends, but as values in themselves.
And throughout the 1950’s, 60’ and 70’s, the struggle for civil rights, political rights and economic rights in America took inspiration from the Declaration, mobilizing the power of shame in the face of unjust suffering to outrage the conscience. But since the 1980’s, this strategy for social change has been under attack. First, by the neoliberalism of the Reagan era and now by the evangelical Christian moralism of the Trump era.
Neoliberals simply reversed Kant’s maxim. What had been seen as having inherent value, under neoliberalism began to be valued instead according to its market price: health, knowledge, beauty, science, art, even nature itself, each had its price. People, too, began to be seen once again merely as means and not as ends: workers became costs, students became debtors, patients became clients, passengers became customers and prisoners became sources of profit. We might call this the neoliberal imperative: Act in such a way as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of anyone else, always as a means and never merely as an end.
Donald Trump is neoliberalism undisguised and without pretense. He is the terrifying mascot of a corporate and political America without shame. And in accepting neoliberal values, America’s will to protest injustice has been weakened – because neoliberalism teaches that suffering is not a moral issue, and it’s not a political issue, it is an economic issue, subject to negotiation. COVID, police violence, mass unemployment, climate disasters – we have been cajoled into seeing these, not as injustices, not as assaults on human dignity, but as personal traumas, to be addressed with cash payouts, so long as no corporate or government entity has to take responsibility.
Nowhere was this as clear as when the nation suffered a major attack on its own soil, on September 11th., leaving nearly 3,000 people dead and their families bereft. As with all mass tragedies, the government set up a fund to help those who suffered loss. But rather than distribute that money, as had always been done, according to need, or even equitably, the government chose to distribute the money in this case based on the assessment of what each life lost was worth – how much money that person would have made had they lived. The purpose was not to relieve or minimize suffering; rather it was the cold calculation of the means to stop lawsuits and protect American business. This is Kenneth Feinberg, the man who implemented the government program:
“If you’re going to discourage people from filing a lawsuit voluntarily, everybody has to receive a different amount of money. The stockbroker, the banker, they must get more than the waiter, the busboy, the cop, the fireman, the soldier… “
“It’s still a very cold calculation. It’s all mathematics.”
In neoliberal America, Suffering is paid off, and silenced, and subject to non-disclosure agreements. No one has to feel shame, or take responsibility, or apologize.
“To this day the government, the United States government has never apologized for 9/11. To this day, years later. It’s not litigation. It’s politics; it’s existential frankly. We were blindsided, we were attacked by a foreign power, this was an act of war. We will not apologize. BP never apologized. First of all they set up a program six weeks after the oil spill before there was any finding of any liability and they just said, look, pay the claim, we’re not apologizing…”
Donald Trump has a killer’s instinct for identifying whatever will provide him with the cultural and political power of the moment. Neoliberalism, white supremacists, and now he has empowered a third reactionary force; he has joined with a group of predominantly white evangelical Christians and orthodox Catholics, who instead of monetizing or ridiculing suffering, have moralized it, and not in the interest of social change, like the ancient prophets, but rather in the interest of social control.
Attorney General Bill Barr, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence, Betsy DeVos, Mitch McConnell, and now Trump, all are part of a Republican campaign to use Christian doctrine to turn back the clock on American rights and freedoms, to the 18th century, when only white, male, property owners could vote, when most American Blacks were enslaved, and indigenous peoples were seen as standing in the way of America’s Christian manifest destiny.
Mike Pompeo is identified on the State Department’s website as a “Christian leader.” He has stated publicly that every act he undertakes as Secretary of State is informed by the bible. Accordingly, he had the nation’s foreign policy commitment to human rights reevaluated by a commission of religious conservatives who concluded that the American tradition prioritizes two rights above all others: property rights and religious liberty. Pompeo claims these are “God-given rights” and others are secondary, or ‘ad hoc.’ The Commission report unapologetically concluded that: “Unlike the Universal Declaration and unlike the majority of constitutions of the world… the U.S. Constitution does not recognize economic and social rights.”
Like Pompeo, Bill Barr, too, believes that religion is the basis of our constitutional rights. The Founders, he explains, believed that free government is only suitable and sustainable for a religious people. “Judeo-Christian moral standards,“ Barr wrote on the Justice Department’s website, “are like God’s instruction manual for the best running of …society.” Accordingly, he sees suffering, not with compassion, but as a moral failure, blaming the country’s high rates of addiction and depression on America’s –quote- “grim moral upheaval.” As Pompeo uses American foreign policy to hasten the rapture, Barr uses the power of law enforcement, and his belief in the absolute powers of the President and the Attorney General to impose his moral order on the nation. Barr sees “secular progressives,” as “increasingly militant threats to the moral order,” responsible for “virtually every measure of social pathology.” He has described Black Lives Matter as Bolshevik revolutionaries and has suggested that protesters practicing civil disobedience be charged with sedition.
We are a few short weeks from the most consequential election in the history of our country. Not because Trump might win a second term and destroy what’s left of our democracy. But because it is pretty much guaranteed that we will never know who really won the election of 2020. Trump has already declared the election process corrupt and says that he will not accept the results if he loses. And you can be sure that he has a plans in place to disrupt the vote count, change the representation to the electoral college and declare himself victorious. Barr has made it clear that since, as he put it ““all prosecutorial power is vested in the attorney general,” he will prosecute the law as he chooses. And, Trump is about to seat his third reactionary catholic supreme court justice. Lest we forget, we already have as Chief Justice, the man who, in the year 2000, when he was clerk for William Rehnquist, wrote the legal argument used by the conservative majority to stop the Presidential vote count and hand the election to George W. Bush. The Executive, the Legislative and Judicial branches of the government are aligned. Law enforcement is aligned… And our military leaders have already made clear that they will not intervene.
One week before Russian soldiers freed Primo Levi and the other prisoners who remained in Auschwitz, my mother and her cousin Fela, along with a few thousand other girls and women, were rounded up and organized into a death march toward Germany. The Reich was losing the war but the inexorable passion to kill every last Jew still determined where the Nazis were putting their resources. The women were given wooden clogs to wear. The snow stuck to them and made it hard to walk. The temperature was below 0. They would sleep on the road, in the snow.
My mother told me that there was a German soldier who took her aside one evening and explained that the next day they would all be put on a train, and that the SS would be taking full control of the transport, and so after that there would be no hope for them. He said a few of the soldiers had gotten together and decided that if any of the women escaped during the night, they wouldn’t shoot. And so, in the middle of the night my mother stepped away from the March and ran into the woods. She came to a house and found that it had been recently abandoned. The fireplace was still warm, there were plates and pots in the kitchen and clothing in the chests of drawers. She sat on a cushioned chair in a kind of shock, thinking about what clothing to take home for her parents and brothers and sister, knowing and not knowing that they had all died in Auschwitz.
She said she doesn’t know how long she was sitting there, but she found herself feeling overwhelmingly, unutterably alone. More alone than she could bear. And so, she left the house, retraced her steps and snuck back to the march, where her cousin was still sleeping. She woke up her cousin and told her that she had escaped and come back to get her and they could now escape together. Her cousin told her she must have been dreaming. That it was impossible. Meanwhile the Germans were rousing the prisoners to wake up and move on. The women who could, got up from the ground and started to march. My mother turned and saw Fela and two other girls running off the line into the woods. She, too, started to walk toward the edge of the line, but a German soldier, with a rifle had spotted her and raised his gun. Instinctively she stepped off the line, to the side of the road, lifted up her skirt and squatted down, half naked, as if to pee. The soldier turned shamefully away, giving my mother a moment of private dignity. It was the moment she needed, and she was able to escape into the woods. Because that soldier turned away, my mother is alive. My brother is alive, I am alive, my niece and nephew are alive. My children are alive and my grandson.
If we are to save America, (sigh) Let me put it this way, if America is worth saving, it will be because there are enough Americans who are still capable of being moved by the suffering of their fellow Americans, still capable of feeling fear and trembling when the sun sets at noon. And the earth darkens on a sunny day. Americans capable of feeling shame when the needy are devoured and the poor annihilated.
Our job, then, is to provoke fear, trembling and shame. Because, as MLK understood, and Gandhi, and Mandela, when a human being, standing naked, is soiled, ridiculed, and abused, when human dignity is assaulted, shame moves people of conscience to action.
That was the power of the Memphis Sanitation workers strike in the 1960’s when they stood, dignified and silent, holding signs saying simply, ‘I am a man.’ It was the dignity of tired, elderly Rosa Parks that helped inspire a mass movement. Dignity is how we ‘I am a man’ transformed into Black Lives Matter, the largest protest movement in American history. And it is dignity of a naked woman of color in Portland, whom the press called Athena, making as clear as possible to those boys dressed up as soldiers that she carried no weapon other than the power of her naked vagina and her generosity of spirit, the spirit and the object that Courbet painted so beautifully and directly and which he rightly called the Origin of the World. Even when a soldier shot her and her foot was bleeding, she simply raised her foot into the air and gestured the mildest approbation – like the mother responding to the biting baby. Hoping to provoke in those soldiers, the spectators, and the country, the civilizing emotion of shame.
Loose the bonds of wickedness, Isaiah said.
Let the oppressed go free.
Share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless into your house.
Then shall your light rise in the darkness, and your gloom shall be as noonday.
Then you shall call and the lord will answer.
You shall cry and the lord will say
Here I am.
MOTHERLESS CHILD – Mahalia Jackson [Music]
This is Steven Reisner, and you have been listening to Madness, where psychology and capitalism collide. If you like what you hear, please write a review and share this podcast on social media and with your friends. My exile is ending tomorrow. By the time you hear this, I will be back in NYC, among my fellow refugees. Hopefully, I’ll talk to you, next time, from home.