A Soft Tyranny in Mind

Some things you just have to do without thinking. Not a natural approach for a friend who calls from Boston. She’s successfully completed a round of cancer treatment. No more daily treks to the hospital for a dose of radiation. It’s over. She had a routine, and she stuck to it. She couldn’t think much about it. She just did it.

Now she’s thinking about it. How the person she was before is not the person she is after. How some things can’t be lived without also being thought. How her sense of self has somehow been restructured. How some division of labor between the unthinkable and possible has shifted. Some recognition that events out there can be dismissed yet persist in here. How the unseen is not necessarily unfelt.

We gnawed on politics for awhile, the queasiness of Trumpworld. I stepped on and off my soapbox, and when she tried to change the subject and I just couldn’t let it go, she asked a real question: so why do you care? It’s a good, multilayered question, especially as I look around at friends who still seem to be living in a sense of normalcy, able to try on political statements then lay them aside and get on with business as usual. Be honest — does this opinion make me look divisive?

Many of us care for many reasons, but the Trumpist mantra post-election sit down and shut up” hurts in my gut. We are now obligated to get in line, and why not? No one needs to speak (let alone think) anymore. The Dear Leader now embodies the will of us all, all voices folded into one voice. This is what Trump promised in his dark speech at the Republican National Convention. Total. Authoritarian. All we have to do is sit down and shut up.

And here’s my dirty secret: In harping at my friend I was harping at myself — shouting down a lurking fear that I would be all too happy to sit down and shut up. That being let off the hook would be a relief from all this unnerving activity. And I know better but hear my fear between the lines. I have no obvious reason to be afraid. I must be poking at a structure of mind.

~   ~   ~

A few weeks ago a drone followed me through a parking lot. It looked to my untrained eye to be armed with a camera but not, like the drones the U.S. deploys elsewhere in the world, with weapons. But what if it was weaponized? And in that paranoid moment, my brain lit up the way it does for a shock-jock news story, like the ones on Fox News that portray all protest as violent, illegal, inexcusable agitation. What if I am at risk? Better safe than sorry.

I thought about this on February 18 when I walked with thousands of people through the streets of downtown LA in a peaceful demonstration for immigrants’ rights. No arrests were made.This wasn’t even civil disobedience; the march was permitted, the police friendly and cooperative. We were simply exercising our constitutional right. And then a drone approached, hovering over an intersection as the crowd moved through. It dropped lower and lower, then moved slowly toward us, passing overhead, trailing the crowd. Who was watching? Was this citizen journalism, like Digital Smoke Signals documenting Standing Rock? Or was this the FBI capturing faces for a facial recognition program? Have I been indexed? Am I at risk? Maybe I should have stayed home…

Even when we are physically safe, threat can operate in the mind, where it works hard on the imagination. And it’s imagination that most powerfully prepares people to turn against each other. It grinds ruts in the mind that seek the paranoid certainty, freezing the ability to think. The more frightened I am, the less able I am to respond. The more overwhelmed I feel for my own safety, the less I care about yours.

Blacks, Native Americans, Latinos, Muslims — all are marked as enemies in Trumpworld, making my white skin a sack of unearned privilege. What do I do with this legacy of immigrant forebears who came to workable circumstances and had some luck? What do I do with their hand-me-down patriotism, a mental military operation aimed at guarding the taboos that conserve a preferable—though lost—past (the loss itself what I learned to revel in most)? What do I do with this mind structured for loyalty to this imagined America? What do I do with this mind trained to distrust people who wield power in the distant places we see on TV? New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC—places that for many Americans exist more in distorted imagination than in any lived reality.

Growing up in this distant place marked by a Midwestern mindset, I learned to be quiet, though clutched by unruly thoughts that kept me busy disciplining myself. Every word, every impulse was checked and triple-checked in a tyranny of self-doubt. The operation was always framed by a vague notion of what it means to be correct—to be in the right. I dropped tiny thoughts that felt like teaspoons of explosive.

This is a structure of mind, comforted by certainty while seeking just enough novelty to prop up the illusion of freedom. It is not mindless, but it is secretly happy not to mind.

That craving for righteousness kills expression. To clear a space for my own thoughts and words, I cast it away on a daily basis (every morning it returns). Catch and release. Perpetually on a threshold—neither in nor out. Poised. This was and is a structure of mind, comforted by certainty while seeking just enough novelty to prop up the illusion of freedom. It is not mindless, but it is secretly happy not to mind. It carefully curates what degree of thought is possible without upsetting the way things are. It sustains the belief that I’m a good person (which sometimes means being good at being bad). Above all, obedience. Above all, the discipline of being nice (this, especially, for the girls). Family first. Fairness, yes. Justice if it’s convenient (but don’t count on it). Keep yourself to yourself. Seek to do no harm, but don’t worry if you do no good.

~ ~ ~

What keeps this in place is the hovering threat of loss. Loss of love. Loss of position. Loss of support. Loss of privilege. Loss of the self I imagine myself to be. So many ways to lose, and they are all at risk where loyalty-without-question structures mind and binds thought. And while I tell myself I can’t, it continues to call—it’s got my number—the ringing in my head, the false front nodding, the chalk outline of empathy, the palpable ghost of my banished self. A grave curiosity pulls me away from my rootstock. (Something I called “trust” turns out to be blind loyalty. Something I called “love” turns out to be brittle dependence.)

Strangely, when I am able to tolerate the threat of loss, I feel lighter but never for long. Next comes the exhaustion and longing for a boa-tight embrace, a single answer, a total voice to replace my stutters, hesitations and half-formed words.

I suspect the silent majority has its fair share of people staring enthusiastically into the future, ready to take up whatever task is offered. Not because they believe in it but because, well, why not? It’s easy to choose what’s given and cash the check. When the order comes, why not seize the land? Arrest the mother? Handcuff the child in airport detention or on the playground? Interrogate a citizen because of his religion? Grab the girl ones? Rough up the brown ones? Shoot the black ones? Why not craft the press release, prepare the paychecks, run the numbers, bind the copies, proofread the report? From the violence that lays its hand on the citizen, immigrant and refugee, a web of small and large actions stretches back into and through the bureaucracy. At some point, I know it reaches me. Even at a distance, I know the metallic taste that comes right before—

In this accelerating stream of events, I struggle to live it and think it at the same time—imperfectly, overwhelmingly. I wake up each morning with complicity on my mind, with the first act of resistance being simply to open my eyes and not look away. There are no lines in the sand, just broad beaches that recede and continue under the surf. Any number of futures are possible, but a soft tyranny in mind, one that suffocates service and care under calls to authority and discipline, can only build rough castles. Cruelty is calling itself patriotism, and we’re all invited to join that party.

I hear the call. I feel its pull. Today, I choose not to go.