This essay was originally published in The Badger, Year 4, Vol 2, March 2018. Thanks to The Badger for permission to reprint! It seems as relevant now as ever…
This past year (2018) has been a difficult one in the world. There continues to be a movement of anti-democracy and radical “other-ing,” in which we see our brothers and sisters as “others,” and we break down, rather than strengthen, the bonds of our common humanity. In the United States the freedom of the press is under attack, environmental regulations are being rolled back and hostility toward non-white, non-Christians is being promoted at the highest levels of government. Not only is there an attempt to drive people apart and promote fear, there is even talk of building a physical wall between the United States and Mexico. Walls are the most concrete dividers of people.
While the stated goal is to “make America great again,” in reality it is an anti-democracy movement that has all the hallmarks of totalitarian and fascist regimes of the 20th century.
I do not intend to regularly write on politics in this column (Becoming Medicine in The Badger), but we are in unprecedented times and times such as these spirituality needs to be engaged and to speak up for peace and human rights.
In 2017, I published an essay called “The End of E pluribus Unum? The De-evolution of Out of Many, One, to ME First” in The Badger (Year 3, Volume 2, pgs 57-66). In the essay I describe how the idea of “America First” is thinly veiled selfishness, essentially ME first. It’s history traces back to Charles Lindberg and the America First movement that was sympathetic to the Nazis and encouraged the US to stay out of the war (see M. Albright, Fascism: A Warning and J. Stanley How Fascism Works). This attitude is the pinnacle of self-centered capitalism, and betrays the ideals upon which the United States was founded.
In my work with Native American visionary Joseph Rael, in our book, Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD, we discuss the motto on the back of the Great Seal of the United States which has the Latin phrase E pluribus unum, “out of many, one.” This motto captures the “united” aspect of the country’s name: the United States, symbolized by the 13 arrows the eagle is clutching. (Glenn Aparicio Parry has written in Original Politics: Making American Sacred Again about Chief Canasatego, of the Onondaga, giving Benjamin Franklin a single arrow that he then snapped easily, then giving him 13 arrows bundled together, which could not be easily broken). The 13 colonies had different cultural, political, religious, and economic foundations, and yet these 13 colonies united and came together with the idea of strength through union, “united we stand, divided we fall.” This phrase was used in the early years of the American Revolution by such figures as John Dickinson, Patrick Henry, and Abraham Lincoln also paraphrased it. I do not mean to gloss over the major failures of living up to the ideals of the United States in regard to its inhuman policies toward Black and Native American people, but ideals provide a vision of a better world to strive for.
In my essay, I discussed how crucial it is for the idea of democracy to be able to see ourselves as similar and united within our diversity. When Joseph and I wrote our book on helping veterans return from war to peace, we saw this motto, “out of many, one” as crucial. Moving from war to peace means moving from a perspective of human beings as “other” to seeing them as “brother and sister.” As Joseph often says, “I am my brother’s keeper.” This statement shows affiliation and human bonding. In war, military personnel are taught to view human beings as “other” as the enemy. However, after war, this perspective of viewing human beings as “other” does not promote reintegration or democracy. All of us here in the USA (except for Native Americans) come from other lands. Our current First Lady is an immigrant, born in Slovenia.
I was uncertain if I should write a political piece earlier in the year and I am still uncomfortable with speaking out politically for several reasons.
Yet, as a human being, and as a healer, I feel obligated to speak up against totalitarianism and fascism: attacking the press, threatening federal employees, appointing government officials who seek to undermine the mandate of those agencies (e.g. the Environmental Protection Agency, the United Nations Ambassador), lying without any consequences, and consolidating power in fewer and fewer hands.
Another instance of anti-democracy is the censorship of science by banning the words “diversity,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based” in official Center for Disease Control documents. My friend Father Gerald Arbuckle has been writing on topics of bullying and fundamentalism, and he describes how “Trumpism” is a fine example of both (see my review of Gerry’s latest book, Fundamentalism: At Home and Abroad).
Other healers have felt similarly that they have a moral, ethical, and professional obligation to speak up about the current risks to American democracy. The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, edited by Bandy Lee, MD, MDiv, includes perspectives of 27 professionals. (Now in a second edition with 37 professionals contributing and also a companion volume The World Mental Health Coalition Documents). While the Goldwater Rule banned mental health professionals from diagnosing mental illness in politicians who had not been formally evaluated, many of these authors take another perspective on our responsibility as mental health professionals to warn others when we see signs of dangerousness.
Two psychiatrists who were very influential in my learning about trauma studies contribute to this volume: Robert Jay Lifton and Judith Herman. Lifton’s work includes the books The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (which examines how “good” German doctors could gradually become perpetrators of genocide) and Destroying the World to Save It (which examines apocalyptic cults and global terrorism). Judith Herman is the author of the classic book, Trauma and Recovery The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. What I admire about both of these authors, and part of what drew me to working clinically with trauma is that they take a strong human rights stance in their work and do not focus solely on the individual. Their work bears witness to human rights violations as well as seeks to provide a pathway of healing for those who have been traumatized at the hands of fellow human beings.
While I am glad to see that other health professionals are also struggling with the commitment to human rights that is part of being a healer, I do not think that the questions about specific psychiatric diagnoses are important. It does not matter why someone is acting in a totalitarian and fascist manner, danger is danger: fomenting anger and division, whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment, attacking the press, and lying so much that people have come to accept his lying as “normal.” Robert Jay Lifton calls the normalizing of lies, “malignant normality,” through the sheer repetition of lies, people no longer expect the truth.
The Washington Post Fact Checker reported that the current president of the US made “2,140 false or misleading claims” in the first year of office (as of 10/2/20, the total is 20,055 false or misleading claims).
In an interview with Bill Moyers, Robert Jay Lifton describes the concept of health care providers as “witnessing professionals” who have a responsibility to confront malignant normality. Lifton ends the interview with Moyers with the following statement:
“I always feel we have to work both outside and inside of our existing institutions, so we have to…examine carefully our institutions and what they’re meant to do and how they’re being violated. I also think we need movements from below that oppose what this administration and administrations like it are doing to ordinary people. And for those of us who contributed to this book — well, as I said earlier, we have to be ‘witnessing professionals’ and fulfill our duty to warn.” (Robert Jay Lifton)
I am obligated to provide some follow-up to last year’s essay and to do my part as a witnessing professional. When I spoke of the de-evolution of E pluribus unum to “ME first,” I was speaking on how the current administration’s policies promoted selfishness and self-centeredness over the idea of coming together into union. In many ways my essay predicted that the president would remove E pluribus unum from the official discourse, and in fact he literally did so when he removed it from the new presidential coin and replaced with “Make America Great Again.” The deletion of E pluribus unum promotes anti-democracy. I am very worried about the direction the United States is heading because we are seeing statements and actions that have historically led to the rise of totalitarian and fascist regimes.
Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) and I continue to work together to promote peace. In our latest book, Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality, we seek to illuminate the pathway in the heart that brings us from “other” to “brother and sister.” Mystics, visionaries, and shamans teach us that there is a state of radical union that transcends even the separation implied in our relation as brothers and sisters.
Joseph Rael teaches us that we do not exist as separate beings, but are all part of Divine Oneness. Anti-democracy and radical other-ing are not consistent with spiritual reality. Spiritual Democracy asks us to walk the path of the heart at the center of the medicine wheel.
Many Native American traditions speak of walking the good Red Road, and Joseph tells us that the Red Road is currently off kilter and we must all strive to straighten the path that we are walking upon.