Plato noted a particular risk for tyrants: that they would be surrounded in the end by yes-men and enablers. Aristotle worried that, in a democracy, a wealthy and talented demagogue could all too easily master the minds of the populace. Aware of these risks and others, the framers of the Constitution instituted a system of checks and balances. The point was not simply to ensure that no one branch of government dominated the others but also to anchor in institutions different points of view.—Timothy Snyder “The American Abyss”New York Times Magazine Jan 17, 2021
|Statue of Freedom at the top
of the Capitol Dome
Seize the Moment
But the spirits of those who die before their time will live, for the sake of our present incompleteness, in dark hordes in the rafters of our houses and besiege our ears with urgent laments, until we grant them redemption…
—C.G. Jung The Red Book p. 297
We are in a major moment in American History. We have seen an Insurrection Breach the Capitol and had to realize how fragile our democracy is. Lady Liberty lay bleeding in the halls of Congress. But then, just two weeks later, She picked Herself up, got Herself all decked out in as a Native American Warrior Woman, and presided over a peaceful—if armed to the teeth—Inauguration Day at the very place—the scene of the crime—where she had been rampaged.
We who have survived the last four Years of Outrage, the Year of the Pandemic, of Economic Collapse, and the final insult—the Insurrectionary Breach of our Capitol—have been taken on a terrifying but illuminating tour of the Great American Shadow. In this underworld, where all that has been denied, not taught in our schools, forgotten, lied about in our history—the genocide of our indigenous population, slavery, Jim Crow, voter suppression, the theft of wealth from those who built our country, our Capitol, our White House, shows up in the cultural unconscious as furious, grieving shades, who haunt us, possess us, take on demonic forms.
The Statue of Armed Freedom, a manifestation of Lady Liberty, which graces the top of the Capitol Dome, holds some of the shadow truths we like to forget. She was created just before the Civil War, when the Capitol Dome was being rebuilt. Her creation was facilitated by a brilliant slave, Philip Reid, “who came with the idea of using a pulley to move the statue, was then paid $1.25 a day by the federal government to ‘keep up fires under the moulds,’ according to the architects records.” His owner pocketed the money. But when the final cast of the Statue was raised in 1863, Reid was a free man. It took until 2014 for his contribution to be recognized in a ceremony on the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
When you look at this statue, you’ll notice that Freedom wears feathers in her hair, and a beautiful blanket wrapped around her, Indian style. Wikipedia comments that many who see her assume she is a Native American. Was the designer, Thomas Crawford, haunted by the spirits of the indigenous dead, who died before their time?
|Statue of Freedom
With Lady Liberty, we find ourselves blinking in the light of a cold winter Inauguration Day—peaceful—though filled with armed soldiers. We are disoriented, relieved, joyous but still afraid. Will we return to our denial, our lies to ourselves, our unwillingness to do the hard work of Truth and Reconciliation? Will the demons return to do more damage? Or will we seize the moment, as our new President urges, to make America live up to her promise and bring Lady Liberty’s gifts to all our people?
In this blog, which I’ve been fussing with for months, I’m seeking the roots of the Great American Trouble with Truth, as experienced in my life and in that of my husband, Dan Safran. I’m covering a lot of ground, so this will come in several installments.
Attempted Insurrection Breaches the Capitol: January 6th 2021
All Lost Causes find their lifeblood in lies, big and small, lies born of beliefs in search of a history that can be forged into a story and mobilize masses of people to act politically, violently and in the name of ideology.—David W. Blight “Will the Myth of Trumpism Endure?”New York Times Sunday Review 1/10/21
Recent American history has been a runaway train, driven faster and faster by a Berserker Conductor until it flew off the rails and threw us passengers into violently splintered versions of reality. We who sit in the progressive cars of the train were flung out of our familiar compartments into an unknown landscape, one in which we seesawed from euphoria to outrage and terror, from Georgia giving us two democratic senators—the first black man—Raphael Warnock— and the first Jewish man—Jon Ossoff—elected from that state—to the carnage at the Capitol. Now the Democrats control the Senate by the slimmest of margins—requiring the vote of our first African American, first Asian American, first female Vice President—to break a tie. This gives us a bit of leverage and hope that the Biden–Harris administration will be able to deal with the overwhelming issues that the outgoing administration has neglected or abused—the pandemic, economic inequality, millions of citizens out of work, the Racial Justice Movement and Climate Change. We weren’t given long to take pleasure in that hard won victory, to praise the activism of Stacy Abrams and her dedicated volunteers who brought out the vote, or to relish the realization that Mitch McConnell will no longer be able to block us at every pass.
|Georgia’s Lady Liberty
Photo by Jim Bowen
Notice, this Lady Liberty is wearing a “Liberty Cap,” following the Roman tradition of wearing such a cap to indicate being a freed slave.
Our Berserker Conductor—He Who Would “Repeal Reality”—to borrow Nancy Pelosi’s phrase—purveyor of the Big Lie that it was he who won the election—invited and incited his followers to join the insurrection that took over the Capitol. This horde of militias and Trumpists came straight out of America’s worst nightmares—they bore arms, waved Confederate flags, dressed as eagles, clowns, wore face paint and horns, wore “Camp Auschwitz” hoodies and tee shirts that read “Six Million Jews Were Not Enough.” They chanted “Stop the Steal!” and “1776!”
Wait. What? Let’s step out of the chaos for a moment to reflect. What possessed the Trumpist insurrectionists to chant the year of the American Revolution? Our country’s mythic heroes are the rebels who stood up to that Tyrant, King George of Britain, and, in 1776, penned a litany of accusations we call the Declaration of Independence against the King’s “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States” which is read religiously every July 4th on NPR. Our American rebels created a democracy in a world full of monarchies. How did this horde of wannabe revolutionaries get the story turned inside out—rebelling against democracy to support a would-be Tyrant? Were they fueled by the misinformation perpetrated by a lying leader and by social media set up to cultivate echo chambers of opinion without regard to the Truth? Or were they put into trance by a Cult Leader, following him into a conspiracy laced splinter faction of lost souls in which his enemies are the Devil’s Spawn, the rapists of Lady Liberty, and he is the only one who can save them?
Back at the Capitol, the would be King had promised he’d lead his followers in person, but true to form, could only be found on Twitter until Twitter cancelled him. His mob of Proud Boys and other White Supremacists, folks who buy into his Big Lies, had set up a noose to make their point very clear. They breached the barricades, climbed over walls, used bicycle racks to break glass and bust through doors, attacked Capitol Police with American flagpoles, fire extinguishers and bear mace, threatened news reporters, Senators, Congress People and their staff members. They planted a sign reading “Pelosi is Satan” in a conspicuous spot. The Senate had to make an archetypal descent into the underworld of the building, where they were held in a secure area.
Members of the House sheltered in place, cowering under their seats as the mob tried to break into their chamber. They pushed heavy chests against the doors to keep the horde from storming in. They put on gas masks to protect themselves from tear gas the police had deployed in the Rotunda. They were finally evacuated just before the mob entered the chamber and they too made their descent into a secure underworld where 200 members were piled into a small room. This outrage was not only the result of our Berserker King rousing his followers to an insurrection against the country he was supposedly leading and defending, but of a large group of Republican Senators and Congress People poised to throw out the legal and valid election results of millions of voters, simply because they didn’t like the outcome. Their accusations of voter fraud had been adjudicated in the courts and been thrown out over and over again as having no merit.
You wonder why I keep using the word Berserker? Berserkers were ancient Viking warriors, who wore bear skins, or nothing at all, drove themselves into a rages to prepare for battle. It seems the most appropriate words for what we’ve experienced with our 45th President and his followers.
On that wild train ride some of the outgoing President’s most loyal supporters were suddenly thrown to the other side. Vice President Pence refused to join those who were objecting to the certification. He insisted that his role was to do the bidding of the American people. And Senator McConnell said that hijacking the voting process would “send Democracy into a death spiral.” It was too little too late. On the Day of the Attempted Insurrection American Democracy was a train wreck—lying in pieces all over the land. Since then I’ve been working on this blog to try to get my bearings. The news keeps shifting, changing. Where are we? Where are we headed? That day looks worse and worse as more details are gathered. For example, it seems that some Republicans gave insurrectionists a reconnaissance tour of the building the night before the coup attempt, and that other Republicans refused to wear masks in the tight quarters where members of the House had to huddle and to share the air. Several who were there have since tested positive for Covid.
In hindsight it seems a miracle that no one from the press or from Congress was seriously hurt. However, many were badly traumatized. As the call to impeach the Inciter–in–Chief, again, was addressed in the House a week after the Coup attempt, the word was that many Republican members of Congress were afraid to take a stand against the would–be Tyrant, not only for political reasons—they were afraid for their physical safety and that of their families. Lady Liberty lies bleeding in the Temple of Democracy.
How in the world was this violent breach allowed to happen? Nobody has been allowed into the Capitol since the beginning of the pandemic. These confederate flag waving terrorists were not wearing masks. Yet doors were opened for them. Some Capitol policemen took selfies with them. The murderous mob, shouting “Hang Pence!” and “Where’s Nancy?” was actively hunting down our Vice President and the Speaker of our House. They rifled through Nancy Pelosi’s papers, put their feet on her desk. They defecated in the hallways. Their purpose was to desecrate the People’s House. Quick thinking by the Secret Service and Capitol police saved our elected representatives from being slaughtered. Most of the line of presidential succession was in that building—they got Pence, Harris, Pelosi and Hoyer to safety, protected the Senate and the House. There was hand–to–hand combat with vengeful invaders. One brave Capitol policeman, Eugene Goodman, a Black man and a Veteran, led the mob away from its prey by risking being its prey. They chased him upstairs, downstairs and through hallways as he craftily steered them away from the Senate Chamber, where members were still being evacuated, and showed them the exit.
We all saw this train wreck coming. The Inciter–in–Chief had been tweeting for weeks that Jan. 6th would be “wild” in Washington. Why wasn’t there more protection and defense for our lawmakers and journalists? Any peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration would not gotten anywhere near the Capitol. I shudder to think what would have happened to them. And those Proud Boys, tough guys, who desecrated the Senate chambers and sat in Nancy Pelosi’s office chair, were sent off with a kiss and a declaration of love from our White Supremacist–in–Chief, who told them it was “time to go home.”
Thankfully, no groups from the left came out to counter the insurrectionaries. But all of America was glued to phones and computers, watching in horror and dismay, as the Great American train crashed into our Democratic ideals, and is lying in pieces all over our land. How did we get here? Who allowed a Berserker King of Bedlam to drive our train?
Bobby Kennedy for President
This is America. This has always been America. If this were not America, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s time we face this ugly truth; let it sink into the marrow of our bones, let it move us to action.
—Roxane Gay New York Times Sunday Review Jan. 10, 2021
Who allowed a Berserker King of Bedlam to drive our train? I have been pondering that question since the 2016 election. It was brought into focus after the 2020 election, when my husband, Dan Safran, and I watched a remarkable documentary, made in 2018— Bobby Kennedy for President—which took us both back to our youth. Dan and I are both war babies—he was born in 1939; I was born in 1943. Radio newscasts about the war are the background noise of our earliest memories and terrors. We were Jewish babies, breathing in our parents’ anxiety and horror as the realities of what was happening to European Jewry began to be understood.
Now our grandchildren are young adults. Many of them have had their lives stalled by the pandemic, by the train wreck of American leadership which has failed to provide a coherent plan to protect all of us from the virus. Our grandchildren’s college years or career development have been rudely interrupted. Our hearts break for them. As we watched footage from 1962—Jack Kennedy and his brother Bobby stood facing each other as the horrifying reality of the Cuban Missile Crisis sank in— it was as though a portal had opened for both of us, into our young adult selves.
|RFK and JFK facing each other
during Cuban Missile Crisis
At that moment in time, we were both early in our first marriages. I was pregnant, and terrified that the world would end before my child could be born. Dan and his new wife Barbara, were at Bryn Mawr College, studying Social Work. Dan was President of the Student Body of the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. Earlier, in college, he had helped organize Students for a Sane Nuclear Policy. He had protested nuclear testing. He remembers a gathering of his fellow Bryn Mawr students, including Barbara, all in a state of terror, as they contemplated the unthinkable possibility of nuclear war. For thirteen days the world held its breath as Soviet nuclear missiles intruded into our hemisphere. Cuba had suffered an attempted invasion by the United States—the Bay of Pigs debacle. They asked the Soviets to protect them with missiles. Two nuclear nations faced each other. How could this issue be resolved without risking the end of the world? Bobby, who was good at diplomacy, came up with the trade off—the Russians remove the missiles, in exchange, we won’t invade Cuba. Dan and I realized that our souls had been badly bruised during those thirteen days, when we were so young, so frightened that we would never get to live out our destinies as the fate of humanity hung by a thread.
In a helpful synchronicity, we heard Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC, commenting on the Day of the Attempted Coup. It was fourteen days before the Inauguration of Biden and Harris. O’Donnell noted that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are old enough to remember those 13 days in 1962. They don’t want to relive that terror, and that is why they were pushing for an early departure for the outgoing Berserker. This helped me realize the obvious— our whole generation was shaped by the events of the 1960s, which were both an inspiration and a train wreck for America.
One year later President Kennedy was assassinated—a terrible crime that has never been solved. Two years after that Malcolm X was assassinated. Fifty-five years after his murder his case has been reopened by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office—there are ongoing questions about who murdered him. Three years after Malcolm’s murder Martin Luther King was assassinated. The F.B.I. fingered James Earl Ray, a career criminal and supporter of segregationist George Wallace. Ray has said he was not guilty. The family of Martin Luther King believes to this day that Ray was framed. There is evidence, they say of a conspiracy including the Mafia and the government. Two months after that it was Bobby Kennedy’s turn to be assassinated. Again, the accused gunman, Sirhan Sirhan, a slight Palestinian with no history of criminal behavior, has always claimed his innocence; there are many theories of who might really be responsible.
|Martin Luther King, Jr.
|Robert F. Kennedy
We on the progressive side of the political world are suspicious of contemporary conspiracy theories. They are mostly Big Lies, devoid of any factual truth. But what if there were actual conspiracies in the ‘60s to assassinate all the potent leaders of those days? What if we have lived with Big Lies all our adult lives, most of us in denial of the terrible truth—we have never come to grips with how those murders happened, we have never had a Truth and Reconciliation process to make sense of our history.
Watching Bobby Kennedy for President, I was suddenly overcome with a wave of grief for our generation—how traumatized we’d all been by the assassinations of our leaders—those who carried our hopes and dreams that we could work through America’s great and terrible evil—the crimes of four hundred years of slavery, and the genocide perpetrated against our indigenous population. America’s efforts at Reconstruction in the late nineteenth century were derailed by White Supremacists who took away the voting rights of African American men, stole their promised forty acres and a mule, stole their rights and their power in their personal and political lives. The civil war had been fought to right the wrongs of slavery. But new forms of slavery emerged—Jim Crow, segregation, voter suppression, redlining, block busting, mass incarceration—all manipulated by white supremacist policies pretending to be normal politics. In 1962, Jack Kennedy and his brother Bobby sent federal marshals and U.S. Army troops to protect James Meredith, an African American who had enrolled in the University of Mississippi.
|James Meredith at Old Miss
There was enormous resistance to desegregation, though the Supreme Court had made school desegregation the law of the land in 1954. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy all challenged the web of lies and racist ideas which were running the country; they dared to shine a light into what kept us in the dark about our own shadow. No wonder all those issues they spoke of so eloquently, the issues that Bobby came to understand so profoundly as he ran for president in 1968—starving children in Kentucky and Mississippi, inequality, segregation, poll taxes, lynchings—the entitlement claimed by rich white men over men of color and men who were poor—fell into an abyss of history.
|RFK during his 1968 presidential run
Bobby allowed himself to change, to become a different man, as the terrible unfolding of his life ground him down he opened his heart to grief and to the terrible truths about America. His friend John Lewis was with him in Indianapolis on the day Martin Luther King was assassinated. Bobby was slated to speak to a mostly black crowd. Lewis told him he had to tell the people what happened. Here is a small part of what Bobby said, just two months before his own assassination
I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.For those of you who are black--considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible--you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization--black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love. For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times…My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: "In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."
|RFK speaking to the crowd
We in the field of psychology understand that if you can’t confront your past, what has shaped you, what has traumatized you, if you allow family secrets to fester in the dark, if you live in denial and complacency, the demons will out. They’ll get you in the end. You’ll find yourself reenacting the horrors that were done to you. At the level of the culture those nasty shadows will grab the steering wheel and drive the country’s train like a Berserker Conductor and send us all off our rails.
How do we take up the truth again, deal with the history we’ve denied and revised? The light we can see now comes from Georgia, where Stacy Abrams and her group of activists and organizers just won us three important elections—one, in November 2020, for President Biden, the others, in January 2021 for Senator Warnock and Senator Ossoff? How do we keep that flame burning? That is when it occurred to me that I should talk to my favorite ‘60s activist, sitting on the couch beside me, Dan Safran, about the history he experienced.
|RFK shot (June 4, 1968)
To Be Continued.