Saturday, January 21, 2017

Salmon Akhtar – Dionne Powell – and Donald Trump’s Inauguration

Yesterday, while Donald Trump was being inaugurated, the reluctant wife and daughter prepared to march on Washington while I sat in New York listening to analysts talk about the nature of the human mind.  Salmon Akhtar delivered a Plenary Address – a speech in which an accomplished analyst is given free rein to talk about what that analyst believes is important.  Salmon chose to speak about curiosity.  Later, Dionne Powell, who will be visiting our institute in the spring, led a panel of speakers who were reflecting on the forces that led to the election and that represent the exposure of underlying racism (and sexism) that have been hidden by our apparent forward movements in civil rights (and women’s rights).  Meanwhile, Trump assumed the presidency.

As I reflected on this day after a night’s sleep, it was a set of remarks that Dr. Akhtar made – not central to his thesis – that seemed to organize swirling sets of thoughts.  Dr. Akhtar noted that we are not powerful creatures – we don’t have fur so we can’t regulate our temperature – we don’t have claws and teeth so we aren’t at the top of the food chain based on our native tools, but we have achieved our claim to the top by by virtue of our wits and our tools.  But, he maintained, despite our having attained power in a variety of ways, we have a central and ineradicable experience of being vulnerable.  We compensate for our vulnerability – and ultimately gain our power not just by our wits, he didn’t say this, but I believe – and think he would agree – by being social creatures.  But our dominant American myth is that of the rugged individualist – the autonomous person – the autonomous man – who vanquishes nature (and hostile others) through sheer strength of (his) wit and will.

The content of Dr. Akhtar’s talk was about a very different mythological and lived world.  He talked about how his mother, when he was a child in India, responded to his curiosity about the lid of the tea pot bouncing by telling a story about a Scottish man, John Watt, who was also curious about this, and how John Watt figured out that it was the steam that was coming off of the heated water that led the lid to dance – and he figured out that by focusing the steam on a wheel he could make it go around – and thus created the railroad trains that carried them to Mumbai.  She went on to say that she was sure that Akhtar’s curiosity would lead him to discover great things – and that he would be invited to give a Plenary Address someday! 

Dr. Akhtar comes from a very prominent Indian family.  For generations, the members of his family have been extremely productive poets, philosophers and teachers.  He traced this intergenerational productivity, indirectly, to the family's support of curiosity – and support of sharing the ways that satisfying the curiosity with the world that is generative and constructive – indeed, it that will lead to being rewarded with fame.  And this has led to a very productive career, where the books that he has published, when stacked together, are almost as tall as he is.  His wits – responding to curiosity – allow him to assert – not aggressively but generatively – many useful and organizing ways of thinking about the world.  He has also mentored many others, including them in his generativity.

At the other end of the spectrum is the developmental message that the panel reported is delivered to African American males who are brought up in supportive families in our culture.  They are taught to avoid asserting themselves because of the danger of doing this.  The curiosity of young African American males is stunted by anxiety about the ways in which their assertion will be seen as aggression and lead to their death.  Dorothy Holmes also spoke about this in her own plenary address a year or two ago. 

Many of our kids do not get this message, especially those who are economically disadvantaged and those who are members of marginalized groups.  In fact, many of them have the experience of overwhelming trauma within their homes and within their peer groups from early on.  This morning I am in a panel of psychoanalysts talking about working with kids who have been traumatized and who are acting that out aggressively.  Interestingly, here, also, the need to open up curiosity – to think about what it is that the opponent is thinking – becomes a means of helping fragile individuals who resort to violence in order to protect how fragile they are feeling – becomes a strategy for helping a person manage their anxiety about their vulnerability.  And this, paradoxically, permits them to be curious about others in ways that leads to their becoming more comfortably attached to others.  This attachment – rather than autonomy – is ultimately what helps them “heal” from their “diagnosis” of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (or whatever diagnosis or sentence they receive). 

 As these thoughts were swirling last night, I passed a couple of street banners here in New York in support of Trump.  Next to them were posters encouraging avoiding being pissed on by Trump (If my grandmother had lived to hear golden showers and the President mentioned in the same sentence she would surely have died at that instant).  The idea condensed in the poster is that Trump, far from being the savior of the disenfranchised, is actually intending to use the power of government not for the good of the populace, but for his own ends – and he will therefore be using the population to meet his needs.  Ironically, of course, I think this is what his campaign was promising to interrupt – a government that is oppressing rather than supporting people.  The poster might be suggesting that Trump’s demonstrating and encouraging aggression against groups that are seen as threatening in various ways betrays his true intent.
More broadly, those who, from the position of others, appear to be privileged do not themselves experience that sense of privilege.  We have a more fundamental, primal experience of being alone – and of having, from that perspective, to protect ourselves.  If we are going to move away from feeling alone, we are going to move towards people who look and feel like us – the other, from this perspective, feels threatening the more they differ from us.  Akhtar is encouraging us to remain open to remain curious.  This is really hard for us to do when we are anxious.  We inhibit our curiosity and restrict our vision.  This leads us to avoid exploring and instead to begin asserting – telling ourselves that we know what we know – that we are certain rather than curious.

Ironically then, in the US in 2014, for the first time in decades, children became less poor relative to women (who, in turn, are poorer than men) than they had been the year before.  We reversed a trend that had been occurring for decades.  Reversing this will lead to greater security among children, which will allow them, in turn to be more curious – to be more open to possibility rather than to foreclose on possibility and assert certainty.  However, as the tide of people now swelling around the Waldorf and headed towards Trump Tower in a jovial and festive mood wearing pink knitted hats and objecting to the impending loss of social supports that have allowed this trend to turn around would attest, we cannot maintain these gains without a government that shares this as a value.  Out of anxiety about others taking from us what is rightfully ours, leaving us impoverished and vulnerable, we have elected a chief executive who has no interest in supporting the kind of support that would reduce all of our anxiety.  Instead he promises the illusion of greater individual strength – as if that were possible without social support – and a congress and senate that are similarly minded.

Ironically, it is, as far as I can tell, highly privileged people who are marching.  These are the people who, in the short run, are most likely to benefit from the policies that Trump is likely to put into place.  These people are marching against their own immediate best short term interest because they know that in the long term this is not in the best interests of the country.  The majority of those who voted for Trump are those who are LEAST likely to gain from what his administration is likely to put in place (or disrupt), though, they believe that, in the long run what he will be doing will be in their best interests.  What a weird world we live in...

So, rather than staying with the joyful and disruptive crowds outside (there is gridlock as a swelling, large and very cordial crowd is not contained to any parade route – if there ever was one – and spill over into various streets and avenues, having a good time and stopping traffic - and when the taxis honk their horns in protest, the marchers raise a chorus of hoots and yelps as if the horns were joining them in support rather than frustration), I have come back inside to attend a panel on disillusion.  In this panel, a similar conclusion to that from this morning is being reached: Disillusion is inevitable, but this can be a source of creativity – Akhtar’s curiosity re-emerges when we are able to recognize that illusion is part and parcel of living.  The primal illusion is that mother and I are one – and that is all that matters – there is nothing outside of this bound world.  But to stay in that world is impossible.  How do we use curiosity to help us move beyond the circumscribed bounds of this relationship so that we gain more as we experience new and exciting things – rather than feeling overwhelmed by the losses associated with losing our deeply felt (or hoped for) sense of safety in the presence of others?

I frequently find the annual conference to reignite my interest in psychoanalysis – something that I can lose faith in and contact with as I do so many other things during my day – and as my clinical and academic engagement waxes and wanes.  But this year, I am more impressed with the ways in which psychoanalytic thinking is an integral and important way of understanding not just my patients, not just the books and movies that I read, but the way that the world – on a social, political, economic, biological and relational level.  It seems, somehow, essential to me, despite my reluctance, as a person, not just as a psychoanalyst.  I know the world is moving in many ways away from a psychoanalytic perspective – I think it always has.  But the truths that are at the heart of psychoanalytic thinking continue to be at the center of the way that world in both the consulting room but also the world much more broadly.  We need to partner with other perspectives, but we also need to keep alive this powerfully useful and accurate perspective.  

One of the final speakers at the panel on illusions noted that the New York Times credited Trump with seeing the simultaneous implosion of faith in the illusions that the church, universities, the press, the government, psychoanalysis as field and society as a whole has created for us to live by (such things as All Men (and now Women) are created with equal opportunities) not as a threat but as an opportunity.  My dinner companions and I agree that the Times is giving Trump too much credit, but I do think this is functionally what we are seeing happen.  How will we weather this?  What will we create to guide us into a strange new world?  I don't know, but I was buoyed by the enthusiasm and the infectious happiness of the crowd today.  There were many slogans in evidence, but the repeated tried and true one, "Love Trumps Hate" seemed to resonate with this old child of the hippie days.  Could it be that we could forge our youthful dreams into a mature illusion that will sustain us?  We can look forward with curiosity...

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