When I was a kid, probably not yet a teenager, I used to walk around our residential neighborhood. I wish I could remember the flavor of my thoughts and feelings as I strolled around; I wonder if I felt the thrill of the wind passing through the branches, as I do these days.
I imagine that my thoughts and feelings would have relaxed, for the moment free from obligation and confinement; for I was already well into the process that trains young minds in the rules that govern our society. Like my peers, I was spending a good part of my days sitting at a small desk pretending to listen to a teacher doing her best to help us be good members of society.
On one of these strolls through the neighborhood, I was joined by a dog. He didn’t resemble any pet I had ever seen taking a walk with its owner on a leash. For one thing he didn’t have a collar to which a leash could have been attached. For another, Laddie (that’s the name I gave him when he followed me home and my parents said we could keep him until his owner showed up), seemed like a wolf to me but was probably a Shepard mix. Back at our house, he surprised me when he jumped through a hula hoop that I just happened to be holding, thereby reinforcing my sense that he was a visitor from another world than mine.
He seemed to treat me as the one person in the world he fully trusted, which did wonders for my confidence. His air of independence made his allegiance to me all the more welcome, but soon his wildness erupted a couple of times, with consequences too serious to ignore.
One afternoon, while walking, we were joined by another large dog and the three of us walked together until a cat appeared on the road ahead. Both dogs immediately surrounded it, one of them caught the cat in its jaws, and then they tossed it back and forth until it lay dead on the roadway.
In another incident, this time in our back yard, he attacked a small dog visiting us with some friends of my parents and would probably have killed it if we hadn’t quickly intervened. That was the end of his stay with us.
These memories came back to me this morning, when it occurred to me that the public’s relationship with the current American president has some features common to how pet owners relate to their pets. Pet owners recognize and value both their dog’s independence and their loyalty to their special humans. As well, many pet owners believe that their animal speaks a language of their own that is intelligent and meaningful.
The current America president definitely has a different kind of language than was used by all the men who have previously occupied that office. His language is free of the complexities of historical knowledge and he is not interested in perspectives other than his own and those of his pack.
The current president’s language is remarkably like the barking of a dog when it sees a UPS truck pull up in front of the house. This barking is without premeditation, a reaction to the uniform not the person wearing it, and appears to be forgotten as soon as the intruder leaves.
My wife, working as a letter carrier, told me about a man who kicked his pit bull, because he had been friendly to her as she delivered the mail. That must have been how the president was trained. And now, he would rather die fighting than be seen to cower in a corner.
All of us, humans and animals alike, have been conditioned by the treatment we received in our formative years. The current president had a father who taught him how to scam the New York real estate market and make money off the inattention or helplessness of others. This early training in seizing opportunity for quick gain–leaving the bills and the consequences of failure for others to pay, while never acknowledging responsibility–prepared him to be tutored for more serious scamming by Roy Cohn, who in the 1960’s was a hitman for McCarthy during the Communist ‘witch hunts’. He taught the fledging real estate manipulator—before his TV show and political career–to never invest his own money, to capitalize on the vulnerabilities of others, and to scrounge in the dumpsters of a negligent New York elite.
There may be quite good reasons for the loyalty that many feel toward him. Like a good guard dog: he attacks perceived enemies: he is friendly toward his special humans; and he is genuinely innocent of America’s long-standing indifference to the election results of other countries. Many have become so fed up with the insincere face of American imperialism—where wolves in sheep’s clothing talk of sharing democracy–that a wolf in wolf’s clothing is a relief to them.
After almost four years, in which a rising tide of callousness towards anyone not in the pack is washing away the best accomplishments of civilization–which our courageous ancestors have sacrificed their lives to make available to us–who among us is able to grapple with the complexities of health care, pay attention to the toxic flow of money in politics, and stay aware of the potential for foreign policy to sustain the stability of thought-out strategies and accepted precedent? Who among us, heart-broken, can keep striving to protect the beauty and health of the lands, the sky and the waters of our planet?
Perhaps the fundamental culprit is the decades-long deterioration of an educational system that has banned art, music, and physical exercise in crowded schools, to order to leave room for the recitation of ‘facts’, singled out from the rich ambiguity that could inspire students to engage with the fullness of their body, mind and spirit.
While a dog–who has been trained to stand on his hind legs and bark into a microphone–holds our attention, deep exhaustion threatens to drown out the quieter voices of anyone who has something thoughtful and important to say. And those who have earned their right to speak, and whose wisdom could help guide us out of the shadows, can only be heard by those of us who still care for this world.