Category Archives: Politics

The Rise of the Far Right

By Dr David Laing Dawson

In the 1988 presidential debates Mike Dukakis was asked whether he would support the death penalty should his wife, Kitty, be raped and murdered. A long time opponent of the death penalty, Dukakis responded to the startling question from CNN’s Bernard Shaw, “No, I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life.”

It struck me at the time that Dukakis missed a moment in which he could be human, present himself as fully human, and at the same time as worthy of being a president.

He could have answered, “Of course. If a man raped and murdered my wife I would want to disembowel him; I would want to kill him in a manner that caused him maximum pain and suffering. Which is exactly why we have laws, and courts, and due process. Which is exactly why it cannot be my choice as victim or survivor to decide in the heat of the moment what should happen to the accused or convicted. Which is exactly why, to remain a civilized people, we must decide on appropriate penalties that will keep us civilized, that will not harden or poison our souls, that will not undermine our social contract. If the state does not value life, why should its people?”

And herein lies a human dilemma. We are biologically not far removed from chimpanzees and great apes. Our instincts, our immediate emotional responses, have been honed for years as jungle tribes. We guard our own watering hole. We are reluctant to share. We distrust the other. We are greedy. We are vengeful. We are easily brought to rage.

But, at least since the second world war, with many attempts before then, we have managed to overlay our primate instincts with a social contract that includes the rule of law. We have elected many leaders who could see beyond their primate selves and form alliances, be inclusive, share watering holes. We have created international forums, unions, agreements. At least in much of Europe and North America.

But those primitive instincts remain, the ones that led to the Holocaust, the massacres in Bosnia, the plight of the Rohingya, the destruction of Syria, the building of walls. They lie not far beneath the surface of each human. It is our collective that can overcome them, and that collective must have leaders and lawmakers who can see beyond their immediate fears and desires. Leaders and lawmakers who appeal to our better selves.

We always have had would-be leaders who could reach in and stoke our fears, fire up our distrust and hatred, get us ready to pick up torches and weapons, defend our watering holes from thirsty strangers, set upon those unlike ourselves in our villages. But, for the most part we have rejected them and chosen instead the Merkels and the Obamas. Trade has flourished. Europe has seen a long period of peace, cooperation, and open borders. Overall the people of this planet live longer and healthier lives than ever before.

I am writing this because a cousin asked me to write about the current struggles in Austria, where a far right fascist party has gained enough support to become part of a coalition government. This is happening seventy-two years after the death of Adolf Hitler, 90 years after the early Nazi’s received only 779 votes in a general election in Austria (1927), and 79 years since Nazi Germany annexed Austria.

I know little of the intricacies of Austrian life and politics. But this resurgence of the far right neo-fascist movement is occurring nearly everywhere in the west. Its leaders are appealing to our primate instincts, our rat brains. And this time, just as in the years between 1927 and 1938, they are finding more and more people responding to their simple message.

They stoke our fears and our grievances. Some of these are real. Most are manufactured or displaced. They point the finger at the other, the cause of our trouble. We respond and chant “Lock her up.” “Build a wall.” “Divorce Europe.” “Stop Immigration.”

We should have learned, especially Austrians, where this can lead. But apparently we didn’t.

Neo-fascism, jingoism, isolation, the breaking of alliances, the undermining of cooperation and the weakening of our international institutions will not fix our problems. And from recent history we know exactly where this trend can lead.

Our instant access of unfiltered world wide information, some truth, some fake, has us grossly exaggerating our risk. We find ourselves afraid of events that have a miniscule chance of occurring. We fear a terrorist attack more than we fear riding a motorcycle, when clearly death by motorcycle is far more likely than death by terrorist. Donald Trump can make us fear illegal immigrants when that, statistically, should be the least of our worries.

We do have real problems, problems big enough to spell the end of a habitable earth.

Paradoxically, these real problems can only be addressed by the unified, cooperative, inclusive, citizenry of one planet. These real problems cannot be addressed by walled off, exclusive, defensive separate states, each populated by a homogenous group of humans who feel they are the chosen.

We are really all at risk because of an interrelated set of developments:

  • Over population
  • Extremely uneven wealth distribution
  • Man-made global warming.
  • And a large subset of problems that flows from these three.

We can change this, turn it around, make progress, but only if we can function as the citizenry of one world, only if we have strong international institutions, only if we recognize that we will survive together or perish alone.

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Trick or Trump

By Dr David Laing Dawson

I had in my office yesterday an 11 year old who was in a bit of trouble at school. His defense was “Kevin did worse than me and he didn’t get in trouble.”

I laughed and then explained to the parents that I had just read a Donald Trump tweet along the same lines, “What about Crooked Hillary and the Dems.”

The parents smiled warily, but the boy took offense. He did not like being compared to Donald Trump. I tried to explain that deflecting the blame, or trying to do that from an immature sense of playground fairness, was quite appropriate at his age. He was still unhappy that I had compared him to Donald Trump.

Then I saw a 12 year boy, a little fire-plug of a kid who happens to have a mop of blonde hair, a square face, and a passable rendition of a Donald Trump pout. I asked if he was going to go out Halloween as Donald Trump. No way he told me. There are too many Donald Trumps. He was dressing as a robber. Besides, Donald Trump is stupid.

So, at least, I concluded, the fear that Donald Trump might be a role model for our children, at least our Canadian children, is unfounded.

Trump And/Or God?

By Dr David Laing Dawson

In Richard Russo’s novel, “Nobody’s Fool”, Rub Squeers, sometime friend of Sully (played by Paul Newman in the movie), often says with a stutter, sometimes to Sully, sometimes to himself, “You know what I w-wish -t?”

His wish is usually for a small improvement in his circumstances, never realized. Yet, he is optimistic and quite endearing.

The moment science reported that those among us with a modicum of optimism live longer, recover faster from illness, and tolerate chronic illness better than pessimists, a poster went up in the hallway of a mental health center I visit, proclaiming HOPE in bold letters. It has since come down.

I thought of these things while watching a bunch of religious (or faith community) leaders praise Donald Trump and the power of prayer in the oval office. One went as far as to announce that we all know prayer works. They each thanked Donald within the same paragraph they thanked God, knowing, I’m sure, who really had the power to dispense favour at this moment.

Of all the players in these three separate stories I think I prefer the simple honesty of Rub Squeers. He wishes, and momentarily it gives him hope and small pleasure, but he has few expectations as he trundles on getting by.

And prayer itself. I have always had a problem with prayer. Okay, it can support hope; it can strengthen community, but this juxtaposition of the stroking of Trump’s ego and the appeals to God certainly drew a clear parallel. For prayer itself implies that before God might notice my suffering, I must praise him. Not just praise him, but prostrate myself before him, beg him to intervene. So that image of God, that particular concept of God, involves an ego even bigger than Donald Trump’s. God the narcissist.

And as long as they have prayer I suppose they can continue to pave over the wetlands, ignore the disrepair of the damns, dykes, levees and drainage systems, cut taxes, remove environmental regulation, promote unfettered growth, and ignore climate change.

The Obama Legacy

By Dr David Laing Dawson

I have had a lifetime of sitting in a comfortable chair, walking safe streets, and observing the struggles of our neighbour to the south. Beneath their constant boasting I witnessed their progress, through Kennedy, desegregation, Johnson, Alabama, Martin Luther King, until finally they elected a black president. Which meant, I thought, that at least half of the population of the United States had worked through their demons of oppression and slavery, of segregation, of racism. Their future looked bright. And if the future of the USA looks bright so does that of the rest of the world.

But when I listen to Donald Trump, to Steve Bannon, to Harvey Weinstein for that matter, and many other white male Americans of age, I realize how much their terrible history is still in play. For beneath all of their bluster, their provocations, their aggression, there lies a deep pool of fear and guilt. Or guilt and then fear, which would be the correct order. Guilt to fear and then to aggression.

It is embodied by Donald Trump. It is being played out by Donald Trump on the world stage. His narcissism is astounding, as is his ability to lie, but he embodies another dynamic that must be addressed if the USA is not going to implode. And that is Donald’s fixation on Barack Obama.

With much of what Trump says he leaves unspoken a final sentence that is beginning to ring loudly in my ears. And that is the removal of the “stain” of Barack Obama; the castration and lynching of Obama, expunging him from history.

The dynamic is guilt (guilt from deeds and thoughts and a denied history) which leads to a fear of retaliation, which is quickly turned into aggression.

It is risky applying individual psychology to the behaviour of groups and nations but over the past 50 years I think I have been watching Cognitive Behavioural Therapy being applied to America’s history of slavery, violence, segregation and racism. Superficially much progress has been made. “We shall overcome.” But I think they need Desmond Tutu. Some truth and reconciliation. A full catharsis if we are not to see this cycle repeated again and again.

That is (and perhaps it will be possible in the backlash choice of president after Donald Trump), they need to really face their history, the truth of slavery, the remnants of the civil war, their guilt and fear. It could start with a loud and public discussion about all those civil war monuments and what to do with them.

After that they could look at the guilt they must feel for the destruction they unleashed on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Perhaps if that is ever faced we will no longer read that 50% of Republicans are in favour of a pre-emptive strike on North Korea.

The Women on the Right

By Dr David Laing Dawson

I am not puzzled by the heavy-set blowhard males who espouse the views of Briebart, Fox News, and the Alt right. I know them. I remember them. They were always loud, obnoxious, dripping with hostility, overcompensating for something: Didn’t make the cut for the football team, passed over for Prom king, snubbed by the prettiest girl in the school, not dumb but certainly not first in the class, never cast in the lead of the school play.

But I have been puzzled by the females espousing the same views. The Ann Coulters of our television. But then I think, maybe I’m being sexist. Maybe I expect women to all be kind, empathetic, generous, inclusive, self-effacing. There is no reason a woman cannot be as selfish and short sighted and loud as a man. After all, their bible was written by a woman, one Ayn Rand.

Okay, adjust your thinking David. A woman has just as much right as a man to be a Roger Ailes, a Sean Hannity, a Glenn Beck, a Bill O’Reilly. Women can be loud, obnoxious, and right wing too.

But my puzzlement has returned, for yet another Fox News commentator has been suspended for “lewd photos sent to female colleagues.”

My puzzlement is not about these men behaving socially and sexually as if their development was arrested at age 14. That goes with the territory. That is where they are.

It is all one and the same. Their sense of white male privilege extends to being lord of the jungle, having ownership of all they survey, and that includes the women folk. And their notion of courtship has always been to display plumage and induce fear.

But why don’t the women recognize this? They are not and will never be equal partners in this right wing endeavor. Hand maids, concubines, and incubators, yes. But not equals.

So I remain puzzled by the women. Unless, of course, they have a plan to get rid of all the blowhard males and take over themselves.

Neo-nazis, thugs, and little boys.

By Dr David Laing Dawson

In our history psychiatry overplayed its hand. As the theories of Freud, Jung, Adler and others caught on, some psychiatrists and psychologists thought we might have something to offer society as a whole. Perhaps psychological intervention could reduce violence generally, and even prevent war and promote peace.

This was overreach. And we are all aware now, I think, that the tools of psychiatry/psychology are more apt to be misused by the state (The Soviet Union), the CIA, Casinos, and by marketing, or building a better soldier, creating brand loyalty, selling junk food to kids, keeping a scholar or athlete focused.

For the most part the profession of psychiatry retreated to being a medical specialty engaged in the treatment of mental illness.

I was thinking of this while watching neo-nazi Christopher Cantwell on his Youtube video. He was an organizer and marcher in Charlottesville, and then a social media hit when he alternately ranted and sobbed on a self-produced video, after hearing there might be a warrant for his arrest.

Why any young and not-so-young American (or German or Canadian for that matter) might proclaim himself a Nazi today is a puzzle. As has been pointed out, they did not grow up watching their fathers lynch Negros or blame Jews for a recession. Where on earth does this come from?

But watching the performance of Christopher Cantwell it occurred to me that I had seen this many times before.

Troubled boys between age 14 and 17. Some ADHD, some labile emotions, and some developmental/cognitive immaturity. Within a half hour they might talk prison talk full of expletive laden revenge, need for respect, blame, threaten, and then cry, weep, apologize to me and their mothers. There is a frightened little boy inside that would-be thug.

They are trapped developmentally, still children dependent on adults, angry their needs are not immediately satisfied, experimenting with male roles of toughness, power, strength, (often borrowed from gang, drug, and prison cultures), ultimately terrified of adulthood and its demands for skills and responsibility.

Most get through this. Good parenting, time for the brain to develop and mature, some boundaries and structures that promote skill building and confidence, more self-reliance, less blaming of others. Sometimes pills for either ADHD or anxiety or both are required.

That is where Chris Cantwell is. I don’t know how much he truly believes what he says, but he is still, developmentally, 14 to 17, at once angry, blaming, playing a macho role, labile and fearful.

So yes, good parenting, some accessible mental health services, the right school system, opportunities to develop skills and confidence, could reduce the number of young men who become neo-nazis, or terrorists for that matter.

Trump’s Great Service to Americans – But Time To Go

By Dr David Laing Dawson

The unraveling of Donald Trump is nigh. And if it happens soon, and if the reaction he has provoked has staying power, then, surprisingly, Donald Trump will have performed a great service for America. Perhaps the reaction to Donald will bring about a better America.

Donald has brought to light the simmering racism, the unholy divide, and the hypocrisy that is America. It has always been there of course, addressed politely from time to time, but recently not so overtly, so publicly that it could not be ignored by others.

To be fair though, the credit probably goes equally to Barack Obama, for it may be this unusual sequence of a first black president, and a very good one, followed by a Donald Trump that so ignited the fires of white supremacists and then lifted the fog of denial from the eyes of liberals.

All of them, the KKK, the Nazis and neo-nazis, the white supremacists, they all quietly nursed their wounds and hatred during Obama’s eight years. Now Donald has set them free.

On Tuesday, August 15, off the teleprompter, peppered with questions, Donald Trump revealed Donald. He was of course full of himself, referring back to his successes, even to his riches, boasting of his holdings, taking credit for an improved economy, defending his first statement after the events in Charlottesville, even taking it from his pocket and reading it again, even shamelessly claiming he received praise from the mother of the woman killed.

He became combative with the press, calling them fake news, stating he is more attentive and truthful than they are.

But most of all this exchange revealed his brittle narcissism and the extent to which he cannot tolerate any criticism, any possibility that he may not be the smartest, the best, the most successful person in the room, that he may have been imperfect this one time. And it revealed how his ego overshadows any concept of country, democracy, history. Asked if he would visit Charlottesville he told us he owns a house and a golf course there, the biggest, thus demonstrating his confusion between being president of a democracy and the emperor of all he surveys.

And it gave us a hint of how mad (this word meant to be read both ways) he will become when he is finally cornered and dethroned.

Do it soon. Do it carefully. Do it with a safety net in place.

On Democracy

By Dr David Laing Dawson

In my childhood I took my birth certificate with me to sign up for a summer soccer league. Of course I lost it. There is a good chance I did not tell this to my parents. But three nights later we all responded to a knock on the door. Standing on the porch was a stocky man who proved to have a thick middle European accent and my birth certificate, a little grass stained.

I remember all this because he gave me a stern lecture about my birthright as a citizen in this democracy while I blushed under my father’s gaze. Although, in my defense it was either my father or my mother who allowed me to take this precious piece of paper on my bike ride to the soccer field in the first place.

Among many others I have been writing about the threat to democracy Donald Trump and his colleagues pose as they systematically undermine the Fourth Estate, the judiciary, instill unease in the citizens, point their fingers at immigrants, and undermine the people’s confidence in the electoral process.

But I did not think it would be so easy. Surely the very idea of free, regular, unfettered elections is sacrosanct in this American Democracy of which they are so proud.

Apparently not. A new poll finds that over 50 percent of Republicans would be quite happy to have the 2020 elections postponed if either Trump or the Republican Party suggested or requested this.

Wow. Should not their instinctive response be, “No way!”

So the groundwork has been laid. And apparently few Americans received the awakening I received in my childhood, a stern lecture from a man who escaped a tyranny, and who knew shortsightedness, indifference, and stupidity can lose a democracy but only bloodshed can regain it.

Fire and Fury

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Some years ago the person who oversaw both the men’s and women’s shelters in this city expressed his surprise that far more actual physical fights broke out in the women’s shelter than in the men’s.

But it did make perfect sense after we discussed it.

Some irritation would occur, expected when living on top of one another, and a man would verbally insult another man. Then a pattern of behaviour would unfold that was learned on the playgrounds of every public school, playing field and back alley, one that probably has genetic roots we can observe with our cousins, the apes and chimpanzees.

“Yeah, and who’s gonna make me?”

“You and who’s army?”

Chin thrust forward, the baring of teeth, the snarl, the threatened encroachment on the other’s space, insulting the other’s sexuality, his courage, his birth, his mother, name calling, dire threats for the future, the unfurling of plumage.

Other men (boys) would intervene pulling the two apart as they hurled their last insults at one another. Their assuaging words were always of the order of, “He ain’t worth it.”

This last part is important, for it is face saving for both antagonists. And an actual fight is averted. Life goes on.

In the women’s shelter, one would insult the other, and the recipient of the insult would hurl herself at the antagonist. They had not experienced the same playground socialization.

I am thinking about this because of Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump and the way war begins, and even those words of Tillerson and others, “It’s the only language Kim Jong Un understands.”

No. No. No.

Tillerson, your job is to put your arm around Donald Trump, pull him aside and say, “He ain’t worth it.”

Maybe no one can do that with Kim.

It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that one of the protagonists, these blustering would-be alpha males, especially the stronger of the two, gets pulled back.

“Donald, he ain’t worth it.”

Now if American leadership really was smart and confident, it could offer Kim some face saving device. “But we will look weak,” American leadership will scream. This despite the fact they have the capacity to destroy the world and we all know it.

Tillerson, you appear mostly sane to me, and a man who understands a few things. It is your job to pull Trump aside and tell him, “He ain’t worth it. You could take him easy, but it ain’t worth it.”

And would it kill you to promise Kim that you will stop flying B 52’s over North Korea and stop practicing war in South Korea if he stops testing A bombs?

“I Think Anthony Will Do Amazing.”

By Dr David Laing Dawson

In his brief sojourn in public life Anthony Scaramucci managed to provide hours of material for the late night shows and many columns of commentary by serious pundits.

It is all so troubling and disturbing. A man so obviously unqualified to be a Communications Director quickly drops the tenor of the office to the level of teen boy locker room talk in an under founded school system.

He has come and gone.

But within all the inaccuracies, lies, egoism, and stupidity of Donald Trump’s statements in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on July 25, this particular use of language stood out for me:

“I think Anthony will do amazing.”

There is a time in one’s development of intellectual and linguistic abilities when nouns and adverbs and adjectives get all mixed up, when the brain cannot yet formulate explanatory secondary clauses, and when the brain does not yet notice the misuse of words, catch this, and then explain further.

That age is about 13, 14, 15. (and younger than this of course)

13, 14, 15 is the age at which I hear kids use the phrase, “will do amazing.”

By 17, if they say “will do amazing” they catch themselves and explain further in a second clause, such as, “I mean, like, I think he will get really high marks.”

By university level they realize that the quality of being amazed belongs to the observer, not the doer, and the whole thing is phrased differently.

And all through the transcripts of recent interviews and off-the-teleprompter speeches it is clear Donald Trump does not catch his own absurdities, his own unfinished thoughts, his own deviations from logic, and his own outrageous boasting.

I hear the same from 14-year-olds in my clinical practice. By 17 or so, most have the ability to hear what they have just said, to notice when it veers from truth or logic.

My American friends, your president is a very narcissistic entitled 14 year old.

Though, I must admit, as damaging as he is to the reputation of America in the rest of the world, he may be less dangerous than many Republican alternatives.

Might I suggest a strategy to keep us all safe: Every other leader in this fragile world of ours should send Donald Trump an effusive Valentine card four times a year, at least.