Robert F. Kennedy: An Iconoclast for the 60s

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Brent Budowsky, a former aide to Senator Lloyd Bensten recently wrote a brief article about Robert Kennedy in The Hill comparing Obama to RFK.   In my last post I made reference to the rarity of an iconoclast leader.  RFK was such a leader in that he was able to transcend the politics of the day and hold fast to his vision which many times lay outside the mainstream consensus.  While holding the post of Attorney General from 1960 to 1963, he supported the civil rights movement taking actions which ran counter to the  establishment of the day.  Originally supporting the Vietnam War, he split with President Johnson and opposed the war’s escalation before most of his colleagues in the Senate and the country at large.  The following quote is a portion of RFK’s remarks made during a speech at the University of Kansas on March 18, 1968 after declaring his intention to run for the presidency.

“And if we seem powerless to stop this growing division between Americans, who at least confront one another, there are millions more living in the hidden places, whose names and faces are completely unknown – but I have seen these other Americans – I have seen children in Mississippi starving, their bodies so crippled from hunger and their minds have been so destroyed for their whole life that they will have no future.  I have seen children in Mississippi – here in the United States – with a gross national product of $800 billion dollars – I have seen children in the Delta area of Mississippi with distended stomachs, whose faces are covered with sores from starvation, and we haven’t developed a policy so we can get enough food so that they can live, so that their children, so that their lives are not destroyed, I don’t think that’s acceptable in the United States of America and I think we need a change.

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Politics Is Perception: Why Iconoclasts Rarely Rule

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Have you ever considered that who you think you are is a mental construct of your thoughts, beliefs and experiences and that your identity is forged by this construct?  Neuroscience tells us that once we form a perception of the world we find it very difficult to see in ways different to what we already expect.

In his book Iconoclast, neuroscientist Gregory Berns states that the brain is structured for efficiency, not original thinking, so the average person’s brain falls into efficiency traps.  The brain functions more efficiently when our perceptions match what is already stored in our memory files.  It is much easier to place an event, emotion, thought or visual into a file that already exists than to create a new file.  Fear of uncertainty and public ridicule further re-enforce concepts we already hold to be true that have a history of support and acceptance.

“Everything that the brain sees or hears or touches has multiple interpretations.  The One that is ultimately chosen—the thing that is perceived—is simply the brain’s best guess at interpreting what flows into it…These guesses are heavily influenced by past experience and … what other people say.”

People who go against the grain (of either past experience or the opinion of others) or change their stripes midstream are often cast out. This is true socially and politically.  Most leaders rarely change their opinion and perceptions based on new information or changes in circumstances.  These changes come slowly and many only realize their mistaken perceptions in hind sight long after they have left political office.  The brain does not embrace uncertainty, ambiguity and novelty easily.  The iconoclast leader is a rare bird indeed.

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Politics of the Trickster: Not What You Think

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“Character is destiny” is a saying by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus often quoted when assessing political leadership.  This presumes that individuals including political leaders exhibit only one true defining persona.  James Hillman, a Jungian psychologist, suggests in his book  Re-Visioning Psychology that a more useful understanding of personalities is to re-personify personalities into metaphors—embodying and acting through various aspects of ourselves when called upon.  No, I am not referring to dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder) which is clearly pathological, but to the capability for each of us to live with an inner plurality of personae that respond differently depending on the current situation in our lives.  This model of psychology calls on us to embrace different aspects of ourselves to express the diversity of our wholeness while at the same time letting go of the illusion of a unified Self.

Most of the time we present one persona publicly while repressing the less socially acceptable or dysfunctional aspects of our personality.  This is a sign of a healthy mature individual.  You may feel like behaving like a two-year old by throwing a temper tantrum but are able to repress the impulse to act on that persona in order to present a more effective adult behavior in dealing with a particular issue.  However, I am not speaking of behavioral impulses when referring to persona plurality; I am pointing to embracing different HEALTHY aspects of our personality which come forth during particular times in our lives such as developmental stages or moments of crisis.

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The Land of the Orphan and the Home of the Rebel

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Americans have become Orphans, abandoned by their leaders as we descend further into the abyss of debt default.  The president has thrown his progressive base and the Democratic leadership in Congress under the proverbial bus, while the tea party wing of the Republican party wants to dismantle the entire federal government in favor of a Darwinian free-for-all.

The White House continues to focus on the Republicans and making the “deal” while ignoring the Democratic leadership which is now calling for the president to invoke the 14th Amendment to raise the debt ceiling and be done with it.  Even Bill Clinton has weighed in saying if it were his call, he would do so “without hesitation” and let the courts work it out.  Yet unbelievably the president insists that this option is not in play.  The White House at the very least is showing an appalling lack of strategic political skill.

Meanwhile, Americans are struggling to maintain what little economic security they have in spite of the continued rise is joblessness and foreclosures, while a Democratic president seems intent on trading the social safety net that has been the hallmark of Democratic legislation over the last 80 years for a one shot deal and a bad deal at that.  Americans are being abandoned and increasingly feel like exiles in their own country unable to trust in functioning legislative and executive branches  elected with the belief that the people’s business will be attended to.  Right now, this means providing JOBS and financial stability to continue to grow the economy.

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The Eclipse

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The eclipse is a moment in time when we stand face to face with our souls.  It is in the positive sense a marker of our linear and relative movement through the void, a focal point for our outward vision.  The duality of our world melds into a brief moment of unity—a moment of rest and reflection.

“If they ask you, ‘What is the evidence of your Father in you?’ say to them, It is motion and rest.”  Gospel of Thomas 50

If the sun remains in full eclipse, life would wither and die without its warm nourishment.  Motion must come into play once again or we would be consumed and destroyed by the void.  In ancient times Celtic astronomers could predict when the next eclipse would occur.  At that time, people performed a ritual to “force the dragon” to disgorge the sun.

For most of the eclipse, which lasts approximately one hour, the darkness of the moon slowly inches across the sun and one barely notices the decrease of light.  As time approaches for the beginning of totality (the merging of the light and dark, the masculine and feminine, as polar opposites unite) the landscape quickly darkens.  The dark shadow of the moon rushes with incredible speed towards the sun giving rise to primitive fears.  Moments before the totality of the eclipse—the marriage between the sun and moon—a bright glow appears around the moon and a burst of light remaining at one edge gives off a diamond ring effect.  The engagement before totality.

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Conquering Heros or Petty Tyrants?

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Mohamed A. El-Erian, the CEO of PIMCO and author of When Markets Collide wrote in a recent article concerning the debt ceiling and deficit issues facing America that elected representatives due to constant bickering are “failing miserably to communicate a vision that provides for even the smallest amount of medium-term optimism” and asks if politicians are aware of Main Street realities.

I would argue that there is a lack of vision not the failure to communicate one.  The fanatical tea party ideologues are what David Brooks, a republican and columnist for the New York Times, calls “…an intransigent, dangerous force in the country, as they value far-right ideological purity over everything else.”  They view themselves in heroic form failing to understand that the hero as conqueror must show more than the capacity to get what he wants. Villains show the same capacity and destroy with impunity to conquer for the sake of self gratification.

Carol Pearson, the  Provost at Pacifica Graduate Institute and author of many books on archetypal symbolism, believes that to be a true hero in the classic sense, one must have a nobility of spirit and use power and independence for unselfish ends.  The true hero transcends his ego to ride with courage and purpose and does not hold others hostage for vindication of petty ends.  The perpetuation of this narcissist show of force by tea party representatives, if allowed to continue, will be carried out on the backs of impoverished and struggling Americans who can least afford it, while those who have received a free ride for far too long will continue on with a false sense of entitlement supported by the few at the expense of the many.

The classic hero on the white horse, the knight slaying dragons, is one of defending the boundaries of the kingdom so its inhabitants can flourish.  Instead, we have a minority group of ideologues exemplifying the shadow side of the classic hero—the arrogant and ignorant Puer drawing his sword at any provocation and flashing it around just because he can.  This is a hero drunk with egocentric illusions believing he is ensconced at the center of a wrongly perceived vast national or cosmological drama—think Glen Beck.  No noble sustaining vision can come out of this quest.

A New American Mythos: Renewing Our Vision

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Mythology as applied to American politics need not be a negative concept, treated as a synonym for illusion.  Humankind has since the beginning of time has expressed itself through storytelling and symbolic imagery.  Lee McDonald wrote in his article, Myth, Politics and Political Science, “Myths are poetry, but a special kind of poetry—the poetry men live by.”  Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell echoes this understanding in saying that “the imagery of mythology is symbolic of spiritual powers within us” and warned us that myths are not conceptual but life forming by stating, “We must not confuse mythology with ideology.” Towards the end of his life, Campbell believed that the “old gods” were dying and that a new mythology must emerge symbolizing a better “life forming” vision of the world and humankind’s place in it.  This requires more inspired leadership and a national reassessment of who we are as Americans, what we stand for in the 21st century and why it matters.  As one woman of color stated in a recent inter-racial dialog I observed, “I know what it’s like to be a citizen of America but I don’t know what it means to be an American anymore.”

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