"Bruce Mazlish, a historian of ideas who created controversy with psychoanalytic biographies of living world leaders, including one about Richard M. Nixon that assessed him as constantly seeking crises to confront as a way of handling unresolved childhood traumas, died on Sunday in Cambridge, Mass. He was 93."
I've been reading about the Revolutionary War lately, as self-help.
"These are the times that try men's souls," wrote Thomas Paine in late December of 1776 when the Continental Army was in tattered retreat—many of the soldiers were actually naked—and most observers from both sides of the war were ready to call the British victors. "The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."
The screed he wrote, titled "The American Crisis," was printed and passed around camps and read aloud to freezing American soldiers at the insistence of General Washington. The pamphlet is credited with retaining many troops who had fought some early winning battles but had been in retreat for months and were planning to quit the army when their contracts expired Dec. 31. The troops would cross the icy Delaware River and win the Battle of Princeton, partly on the strength of Paine's rhetoric—and probably that very first sentence, that rhythmically acknowledged reality.
This Trump election victory has shocked a lot of people, including middle-aged liberals like me. We feel we've made our gains and suffered our losses but we've seen many kinds of social progress and we feel with varying degrees of justification that we've worked for that progress. And just when it seemed that some of those advances were going to be anchored by a woman president who was going to more or less continue the policies—now all appears in grave jeopardy, and we're preparing for a winter in Valley Forge.
When you're hurt or discouraged or exhausted, "take a knee," the late Lt. Col. Mark Weber advised in Tell My Sons, the book I helped him write three years ago. "But you can't stay there."
We can't stay there, my friends. We have children who shouldn't see us staying there. We have work to do. And goddamn if I don't believe we have lots of energy left, whether we know it or not. Our American ancestors—people led through wars and famines and racial movements by people like Washington and Lincoln and Roosevelt and King—they have shown us the spirit and demonstrated the stamina.
"I have not yet begun to fight," said Captain John Paul Jones in response to a British request to surrender.
"Our republics cannot exist long in prosperity," said founding father Benjamin Rush. "We require adversity and appear to possess most of the republican spirit when most depressed."
These are the times that try our souls, Paine wrote, six years before we won the war.
Let's not let these times find our American souls wanting.
"We have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand." —Robert F. Kennedy
Not long ago my neighbor Igor—who is as unlikely to be reading a blog as his dead Ukrainian ancestors, so not to worry—asked me if he could build a fence to cut off the gangway between our houses.
Igor is a helpful and reliably cheerful neighbor whose only selfish pleasure, as far as I can tell, is his morning cigarette, smoked shirtless in the backyard as he rubs his hairy chest. The rest of the time, he is fixing people's cars in his garage for an extra dollar and or shoveling snow with his neighbors or dreaming up ways to kill the alley rats so feared by "our girls," as he refers to his wife and daughters and my wife and daughter.
So I'm inclined to do whatever Igor asks. But this fence would be mildly inconvenient to me, as it would force me to punch in a code every time I want to turn the water on to my garden hose.
So I asked Igor why he wants a fence.
The normally blunt Igor scratched his head. He uncharacteristically hemmed and incongruously hawed.
"It is," he said, in his heavy accent.
"It is," he said.
"It is ... the African Americans. I just don't like it when they go between our houses!"
Now that's some respectful racism right there.
I must say, I have not noticed legions of African Americans, or any other kind of Americans, passing between our houses. But I didn't even point that out to Igor.
If my neighbor wants to build a fence to make himself and his family feel more secure, I will allow him to anchor that fence to my western wall. And up with this unnecessary obstacle to my spigot (whether or not built by a bigot), I will gladly put.
And come to think of it, I think I'm like a lot of people in that way.
That seems important, these days, to understand.
The question arises in conversations between Americans trying to work it out: Is Donald Trump all bad?
I guess it's probably our mothers, if we have good ones, who give us the first and thus strongest sense of how to tell the difference between good people and bad people. I had a good mother, especially in this particular category. Mom had a huge intellect that produced a number of literary novels (after earning her "a 4.0 from the University of Michigan!" as she often reminded her kids, roaring over Vivaldi from a cloud of cigarette smoke).
She knew and appreciated many kinds of music, dance, art, literature and philosophy. But when it came to people, she split the world into exactly two.
Words she used to describe a good person:
Words she used to describe a schmuck:
Mom might describe her complicated moods as comme ci comme ça, but I never heard her describe a person that way.
Why? I won't tell her life story here, but I think experience told her it was important to delineate good people from bad people. And I think she thought it was especially important for empathetic and generous people, who could see beauty and goodness in bad people as well as they could forgive bad behavior in good people. The latter had to be done. The former was goddamned dangerous.
Lately I've been struggling, as maybe you have, with the cognitive thunderstorm that is contained in the simple term, President Trump.
President: A civic-minded, journalistic, hopeful part of me promised in a second barroom brawl I've had with a close friend since the election, to keep an open mind to the notion that Trump could turn out to be in some ways a productive president. Or maybe—it was late—I just promised him we wouldn't discuss the U.S. presidency for a year.
Trump: But my mom is speaking to me more strongly from the grave. Last week she spoke to me through New York Times columnist Charles Blow (who didn't even know). "As long as a threat to the state is the head of state," Blow wrote, "all citizens of good faith and national fidelity ... have an absolute obligation to meet you and your agenda with resistance at every turn."
How do I know Trump is a cold fish, creep, bastard, pecker, turd, stuffed shirt, horse's ass, asshole, turkey, fucker?
In one of my more popular Writing Boots posts, I wrote that "it's not so much your regular behavior that communicates most strongly. It's the things you never do that say the most." I explained:
That's how we sum people up when they're gone. Of good people, we say, "she never had an unkind word to say about anybody." Of bastards, it's, "he never did anything for anyone but himself."
It's not what we do that means the most, it's what we never do: The couple knows we don't like them because though we play euchre with them at soccer tournaments, we never ask them over to dinner. The CEO has a blog on the intranet and shows up regularly at all the employee town meetings, but she says so much more by never eating in the employee cafeteria.
The parents who get along most of the time but never hold hands, the mother who never said she loved you. The supervisor who never sought the spotlight for himself, the friend who never let you down. The friend who never calls you first, the colleague who never asks your opinion, the client who never asks how you're doing. Specific and general, these "never" behaviors are the ones that say the most, because they're the ones that speak the truth far more powerfully than the things we consciously do.
It's often been pointed out that Trump never says he's sorry and never admits he has been wrong.
But what my mother is pointing out to me is more emotionally elemental. Here we have a president who never really laughs, and whom you can't imagine ever crying. A guy whom you can't imagine ever having a two-hour heart-to-heart conversation with somebody, or even a casual coffee with a friend. A guy whom you can't imagine ever reading a book or for that matter, sending an email any longer than a sentence or two. Trump might attend your funeral, but he'd never visit you in the hospital.
We know Trump. We know him well.
Keeping an open mind about him is dangerous and asking others to do so is asking too much.
If you disagree, take it up with my mother.
Everyone knows that belonging to the Professional Speechwriters Association offers an embarrassment of benefits, from a free subscription to Vital Speeches of the Day to discounts on every professional development event the PSA puts on.
Less well known is that each PSA member receives a free birthday cake.
It's conventional but dumb to scold ourselves for taking people for granted. Because people who we can take for granted—who we don't have to worry whether they'll be there or how they'll behave or what they'll think about us—they're a great gift. And the greater, the more uncertain the times.
The thing to do isn't to convince ourselves that our old shoes are new, or work ourselves into a panic that they might be stolen. It's to appreciate their comfort—and to occasionally try to describe their beauty. Such expressions don't soar like fresh love declarations; they rumble, like Winston Churchill. You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.
E.B. White wrote to his wife Katharine, “I realized that so strongly one day a couple of weeks ago when, after being away and among people I wasn’t sure of and in circumstances I had doubts about, I came back and walked into your office and saw how real and incontrovertible you seemed. I don’t know whether you know just what I mean or whether you experience, ever, the same feeling; but what I mean is, that being with you is like walking on a very clear morning—definitely the sensation of belonging there.”
This year I'm thankful for my wife Cristie—and also for others in my personal and professional life (I hardly know the difference between the two) with whom I have the sensation of belonging.
I hope you feel you belong with me, too.
We used to call Roger D'Aprix the father of employee communication, but now that he's past 80, he's clearly the grandfather. But he's still raising us all. The day after the presidential election, Roger wrote to his daughter that he knew Trump voters well: "For years I've heard their laments in corporate focus groups. Their economic and social losses are more deeply felt than the rest of us can fully understand. ... Last night was their chance to get back at the people they blame for their plight and their bruised, hard feelings."
Roger's words took me back to focus groups that I conducted during my short, unhappy life as a communication consultant, which I chronicled in a confessional essay a long while back.
Back to a focus group at a nuclear plant where the sinister supervisor wouldn't leave the room until I ordered him out in a quavering voice; when the door slammed, the employees burst into applause.
Back to a focus group at a retail chain where employees were universally stressed out, underpaid and unhappy, and we were asking them how they enjoyed the employee newsletter.
And most memorably, Roger's words took me back to the series of focus groups I conducted at the best grocery store I've ever been in, where the employees were as angry as hell. From my essay:
Having more or less given up our efforts to soothe the problems in the communication department, we began to conduct focus groups at the organization's most prized store—a high-end supermarket near the company headquarters.
I'll never forget the experience. Walking through the store as a customer on breaks between focus groups, I found the employees incredibly cheerful, helpful and competent. It was truly a great grocery store, beautifully designed and with an amazing selection of fresh foods. And far from the rancor in the employee-communication department, the store employees seemed to have an intense ownership of their sections and deep knowledge of the food they sold. The place seemed like a piece of heaven.
But close the door in the upstairs office where we held the focus groups, and look out. Venom poured from these people. Some of the complaints were similar to the other retail chain—too much work to do, too little time, and no time at all for employee communication "stuff," as they usually called it, politely. Also, the workers felt they were forced to smile in the face of humiliation by mean and bitchy customers from the rich neighborhood that surrounded the store.
At some point as a consultant, you learn to listen to these focus groups only for problems you can actually solve, and in the course of these particular groups, I though I heard one such problem.
To wit: Because the store was sort of the company's flagship, and because it was located so close to the HQ, the CEO came in every afternoon to check on things, and usually to try out new merchandising ideas. The CEO—trailed by various vice presidents, who employees suspected weren't nearly as sincerely interested in the store as the boss—was forever asking the employees to change this display, rearrange that section, create a special promotion. The CEO's hands-on approach was admirable, but the fact that it happened every day in the same store was clearly excessive. "We don't have time to do our jobs," the employees complained—again, from managers to front-line workers.
This seemed easy enough to solve. Our recommendation was that the CEO cut back his daily visits to this store to weekly, or perhaps twice a week. If he wanted to visit a store every day, he and his colleagues could fan out a bit and cover some of the many stores in the surrounding community, and give their star workers a break.
But of course, we didn't have direct access to the CEO. We had to go through the communication manager.
"That will never fly," she said. "We can't tell him that." We argued, but no no avail. And with that, the one reasonable, practical recommendation that came out of all these time-consuming and expensive focus groups was dropped.
So in the end, despite months and months of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars in billing, I'm afraid we didn't help the company, we didn't help the employees and we didn't even help the communicators.
That was more than 15 years ago. It's not just government that people are pissed at. It's the companies they work for, too. And not just because the companies are moving jobs overseas and automating factories and laying people off, which they've been doing for more than a generation—but because they drive such a heartless and thoughtless employment bargain, and then bring in consultants to ask employees why they're so unhappy. Or, in the parlance of this century, "unengaged."
When this grocery store's employees were spitting fire in the back room while they ran the best store I had ever been in, what would I have told the CEO even if I had had his ear? Looking back, I might have said to him: These people are doing a great job for you now despite their misery. Maybe you should do what you can to give them every bit of the dignity, financial compensation, and career mobility possible, because otherwise, one day they're going to get fed up and they're going to smash something.
That would have probably fallen on deaf ears, partly because I might not have had the courage of my conviction in saying it.
But I would love to talk to that CEO right now. No doubt like most CEOs, he's nervous about a Trump administration and all the uncertainty it brings with it. He probably wonders what Trump's brand of populism is going to do to his heretofore obedient workforce. Perhaps he's confused about how Americans got so angry all of a sudden.
One thing I can tell him, and one thing everybody should remember: Americans have been angry for a very long time.