Sunday, September 09, 2018


Life in a time of confusion seems to be where we are, like it or not.  So many words we thought we understood are now redefined, often multipley, so what was a gun is not a gun anymore -- now it's anything from a plastic computer printout (not so different from a "zip gun" which shows that it's only a delivery system for a cartridge, which is based on gunpowder) to a bazooka -- isn't that just a delivery system?  Isn't a predator drone just a delivery system for a bomb?  So it isn't just a delivery system for death, but also a demonstration of our high-tech power even when it's operated by a girl GI sitting in a trailer in Indiana, watching a green screen.  At heart it's about projecting the power of force.

At the local level power is more often delivered through non-delivery.  No one has time to fix your car; when you call the sheriff no one is available; when you try to get on the Internet there's no bandwidth.  This shows that power can also be demonstrated by its absence, withdrawal.

Being a proud self-sufficient person -- who always finds a way -- can work or not work, depending on a lot of variables.  Social fairness is one of them but it is governed by boundaries.  If the boundary is in tight and close, based on money or aristocracy or merit, then it might be called "fascism" or "circling the wagons."  It works best when one can see signs plainly, seen right away like clothing, skin color or hair.  Defending that boundary, whatever it is, can lead to injustice and even violence, so we see it as destructive, to be resisted.

The alternative is seen as "left wing" or "liberal" because it tries to include everyone -- or what is seen as "everyone"-- but maybe it is more accurately a kind of individualism, since it doesn't gather people into categories, like who can vote and who can't.  

Today my twitter feed offered two essays, one of them from Culanth by Lilith Mahmood that redefines liberalism away from the political parties and proposes that it is a European mythic principle expressed by Freemasons.

". . . Liberalism as a cultural category performs the critical function of defining a common imaginary for Euro-American societies. As such, liberalism stands in for principles of equality, freedom, individualism, and the rule of law, principles that, far from constituting a cohesive political philosophy, are more accurately read as a cosmology, a worldview that sets the rules of engagement." 

More problematic is Maymood's assertion that liberalism is located among "white" people in a geographic place.  Therefore, it is attached to the history and present conditions of that place, NOT universal.

". . .Two key points about liberalism: first, that being liberal in the Occidentalist sense is an aspiration, not a fact, and it takes a painstaking labor of self-cultivation to naturalize it as a Western trait, and second, that widespread and systematic instances of illiberalism within Euro-American societies are coded as exceptions that only prove the rule . . . The origin story of liberalism coincides with the rise of modernity and peaks in the European Enlightenment."

In the Sixties and even more in 1988-91 when I was teaching on the Blackfeet reservation, I was the only or one of the few white people.  At Heart Butte during the later stint, I was among tribal people almost always (kids), except for the administration, which was still white, male, older.  As single tribal college students sometimes feel at state universities, I was self-conscious and judged through a fantasy of what white people are like.  If I "acted Indian," people were upset about it.  This was not the political opposition as the Western Canada tribal people are flaming with so much right now.  It was just that I was "supposed" to be wealthy, wear high heels, and go home for Christmas.  I was NOT supposed to have a private life.  Nor was I allowed to claim this place as home.

In the first Sixties "go-round" I could easily be seen as a form of fascist.  Certainly I was married to a former Mason.  (He was asked to leave after his second divorce, which hurt him very much.)  He -- and therefore myself -- and his family had been in Browning since 1903 but were careful to resist intermarriage with the tribal people.  They praised them (or some of them), hired them, and interacted with them, but never invited them over for dinner.  This was a protection for me, since even drunks knew not to alienate powerful people.  

When I was working on the biography of Bob Scriver, I had to confront the uproar he caused by selling the family collection of indigenous artifacts to the Edmonton Alberta Royal Provincial Museum.  My former students were pitched against white authorities and the media loved it.  Most of it came to resolution when the Sacred Bundles were given to the Holy Men of Blackfoot tribes for religious protection.

But my own issue to resolve with Bob led to reading the work of Sam Vaknin.  We easily say that Donald Trump is a toxic narcissist, which Vaknin calls "malignant self-love", the title of his first book on the subject.  He himself was upfront about being a narcissist, among other things.  Clearly he aspires to be a liberal and undertakes the work of self-cultivation.  Many of his ideas are useful to someone trying to detach from enabling and being abused by someone who can't see beyond the too-close limits of him or herself, which is the very dark (even evil) side of liberalism.  Where is the source of rebuke and guidance if since childhood one has escaped parenting?

Now Vaknin has gone beyond simply labeling and describing narcissism and accepts the idea that this is the Age of Narcissism.  So now he's putting his energy into drawing a line between what we might call "innocent narcissism" which is unconscious and unchallenged, and the far more problematic toxic version.  He has a set of questions.  Since I have no answers to them, I'll repeat them below.  They seem relevant to our present confrontation.

"What is pathological narcissism? Is it a mental health disorder – or an adaptation to our anomic, sick, and, yes, narcissistic civilization?

"Where is the demarcation between assertiveness, self-confidence, and self-esteem – and grandiose fantasies? What is the relationship between healthy narcissism and the pathological kind?

"Is leadership – corporate, political, social – enhanced by narcissism, or diminished by it?

"Should we encourage our children to be more narcissistic?

"How are narcissists made? Is early childhood abuse in the family really the precursor or is the etiology far more complex and involves an interplay with peers, role models, and the prevailing culture?"

Vaknin is a white European with a Ph.D.  It sounds to me as though he's responding mostly to his own kind.  So what wisdom can we draw about all this that comes from the Other?

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