On Fires and the Political Right

 My plan when I woke this morning had been to write on the divisions of the political left in the United States as part of my series on the Competition for Recognition. A number of responses from readers that have been lurking in my mind have induced me to diverge. I will focus on a few responses, though some of the other more significant comments I received will inevitably creep into the blog.

The first was very brief.

“What is to give light must endure burning.”  Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning.

This was a response more to the tale of my nightmare than of my analysis of the political right. But the two are related as I will try to show. Frankl, whom I have not read for years, was a Holocaust survivor and psychologist who came to the conclusion that the key to survival in the Nazi concentration camps was the maintenance of hope. He did not call his quest for meaning a quest for recognition, but the two certainly have a great deal of overlap. The signature of humanity was not desire (the need to satisfy the id in Freudian terms), otherwise defined as the quest for pleasure. Nor was it life per se defined as the quest for survival and, therefore, a key condition of survival, achieving power – again, in Freudian terms, to enable one’s self to become a superego in determining values for oneself and others. The key was neither the id nor the superego, but the development of the ego in interaction with others, in the search for meaning or, what I have called, the quest for recognition.

The stress was not narcissistic nor engaged in a search for power over others in the interest of preserving and enhancing your own power, but in assuming responsibility for yourself in relationship to others. We are responsible for choosing how we respond to and deal with another’s search for recognition.

That always involves pain. If one is a soldier or first responder, this involves the risk of pain which in its chronic mental form becomes PTSD. If one has lived a life significantly without pain and if one uses part of that beneficence to help those who experienced PTSD, in addition to the satisfaction in helping another, there will be some cost – the experience of vicarious pain. But both sufferers and carers or care-givers can also endure the worst of suffering and die or burn out. It is possible that nothing but a wasteland can emerge from the process. The best way to avoid the third option is for the two to interact, the direct and the vicarious sufferer, but not so much that the care giver – the first and second responders as you will – themselves get caught up in the conflagration. Holding onto hope is not a mantra but a very difficult challenge.

This is pithy analysis of a pithy quote with all the necessarily attendant miscues and distortions. But it gets at a truth that is very different than the one Plato suggested in his allegory of the cave.  In The Republic, Plato envisioned prisoners chained to a log and looking at the cave wall. They could not see the fire behind them for they were tied up so that they could not turn their heads. All they could see were the shadows cast by puppeteers standing between the backs of these totally confined figures and the fire behind. Since they knew no better, these people who lacked even the freedom of mobility, even the mobility of their heads and their senses, these humans chained to a log by mental dogmas and blinders, took these shadows on the cave walls to be reality.

Note two things. For Plato, fire is a source of light but not of warmth or heat or even burning. It offers no pain and is merely a purely cognitive experience. Secondly, if those prisoners on the log are unchained and turn around to discover the source of light and the puppeteers, they suddenly recognize the cause of what they see. They suddenly recognize that the images they see are only appearances and two-dimensional reflections of a concrete reality. They would see the cover of a book reflected on the cave wall and take the cover to be the book.  To comprehend, we have to go beyond appearances to perceive real objects and name them rather than objects as they appear reflected on a cave wall. We have to move from sensibility to perception.

We could travel further and not just turn our heads. We could get up, walk past the fire to the opening of the cave and see the light of day as the true reality rather than either just creating a taxonomy of objects or a taxonomy of shadows. We could move from sensibility through perception to understanding and comprehend the laws of causation that link and connect the interaction of objects.

However, there are two observations about Plato’s allegory, one that refers to what we cannot do and the other to that which we do not do. We cannot look directly at the sun, the source of all categories and scientific laws. If we do, we will burn our retinas. The second, what we do not do as we relate objects and their interaction to one another, as we relate agents to one another. There is no empathy in Plato’s allegory. There is no exposure of one’s own pain or exposure to the pain of others.

With regard to the first, as one psychoanalyst reader of mine from California noted with respect to my nightmare about the forest fires and my missing wife and children and my futile search for them, the dream did convey a sense of vulnerability – my physical chassis has grown old and in need of replacement parts. But so is the larger landscape. The California fires are not just fires in which we roast marshmallows and gather around to sing camp songs. Nor are they simply fires which burn through one forest or destroy a home or two. They are fires from hell. They leave a wasteland. And I feel the impotency not only to put out those fires, but the impotency to protect my children who are dedicated to combatting climate change, but do so in spite of their loss of hope that humans will get their act together to reverse the terrible course on which we are on.

Therefore, I feel frozen as well as empathetic, impotent not only about my personal demise, but I pick up the stress and strain on my children and grandchildren as they realistically contemplate that all their personal hopes will be dashed. It is shocking to think that the possibility of hope in a Nazi concentration camp may have been greater than the ability of young people to feel hope in the contemporary political climate and inadequate response to – and even denial of – climate change.

Kate Julian in her excellent article, “Why are young people having so little sex?” in the current Atlantic, explores in depth a myriad of possible explanations from the following list:

“Over the course of many conversations with sex researchers, psychologists, economists, sociologists, therapists, sex educators, and young adults, I heard many other theories about what I have come to think of as the sex recession. I was told it might be a consequence of the hookup culture, of crushing economic pressures, of surging anxiety rates, of psychological frailty, of widespread antidepressant use, of streaming television, of environmental estrogens leaked by plastics, of dropping testosterone levels, of digital porn, of the vibrator’s golden age, of dating apps, of option paralysis, of helicopter parents, of careerism, of smartphones, of the news cycle, of information overload generally, of sleep deprivation, of obesity. Name a modern blight, and someone, somewhere, is ready to blame it for messing with the modern libido.”

Julian does not explore the possibility that the search for meaning, the search for recognition of others and by others, the exercise of hope, may have been seriously stunted. This may have contributed to the increasing impotence and disinterest in humans, men especially, connecting with others and developing a relationship. If the fires of passion are increasingly becoming dying embers, is there a link with the ideology of the right and Trump’s response to the forest fires in California?

One responder to my blog from Rhode Island thought I had been too soft on the Right and given the conservative as opposed to populist right a pass when he argued that the intellectual right and their political partners have been driven by a very negative agenda with the intent of burning through organized labour as they passed on tax cuts to the wealthiest underpinned by a barely hidden racism. The economic conservatives merely offered an intellectual cover, were merely shadow boxers on Plato’s cave wall. They exhibited a total absence of empathy, an absence of compassion, for the working poor and black and Hispanic minorities.

I’ve been hearing Republican intellectuals go on for years about a “conservative” approach to the rule of law.  And yet, such conservative values pale in comparison to the display of naked power when it comes to the denial of voting rights (Bush v Gore), or the denial of giving Merrick Garland a hearing.  Their so-called “values” have been a con game for 50 years, although now – in the age of Trump and Fox News – they no longer need to pretend or even be ashamed of what they have wrought.  The idea that there is an actual argument on the right is a lovely fiction that liberals enjoy telling themselves because, after all, the left has genuine debates, the right must have them as well.  I’m sorry, but the emperor has no clothes (and hasn’t had them for half a century).

On the other hand, another reader thought that I had been, and have been, too hard on Donald Trump. The “tree huggers’ of the left opposed clear cutting and replanting old growth forests with seedlings, when, he argued, “cleared areas create a natural barrier to end fires destroying the whole forest.” If vast areas are left uncut and untouched, “Nature will burn its own ‘clear cut.’

“Trump is therefore right. Current policy, where massive human housing is placed in the midst of an old growth forest floor, particularly in dry areas of California, is a recipe for certain disaster. One cannot discuss California without pointing out their precarious fresh water capacity. After all Howard, California has a population equal to CANADA, but compared to our verdant, massive, fresh water paradise, Californians need to clean-out their forest floors or clear out people from their tinder box hinterlands. Their problem is different from ours. They have a severe water shortage and a very thin soil base.”

he last sentence is certainly true. But is the rest? Does Trump deserve a pass on this one at least? Is the problem one of forest management, too few forest fire suppression workers, obsolete and inadequate equipment and a lack of an overall strategy? I myself think the latter is to some extent true. But why? And does this get Donald Trump off the hook? Those forced to breathe the most poisonous air in the world at this time should not be left on the hook and hung out to dry. They have been living under darkened skies with clouds of smoke blocking the sunlight as flames whipped up literally around them.

Over a thousand people may be dead. What did DT have to say when he finally visited the destroyed city of Paradise with a population of 27,000 and burned through 230 square miles? 10,000 homes were destroyed in surrounding communities. “This is very sad to see.”  For someone prone to hyperbole, this was an understatement to say the least in response to the Camp Fire II that had engulfed Paradise, known as a retirement community though it had 15 schools at different levels, including Butte College. What is left is only charred chassis of cars and the remains of incinerated homes and buildings. “Right now, we want to take care of the people who have been so badly hurt.” Not a very strong expression of compassion. Methinks Trumps does not suffer from compassion fatigue so much as he conveys someone challenged by an absence of empathy. He no sooner dipped his finger into the stream of compassion than he withdrew it and reverted back to his immediate response – blaming others.

Bad forest management was the problem for DT.

“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

At least there were no more words during Trump’s visit about withholding emergency aid for the victims. Then he referred to the President of Finland, but that president denied that he had ever said that Finland controlled wildfires by sweeping the forest floor.  It is also not true, contrary to what Trump said, that Finland has no problem with fires. Ironically, it lacked sufficient fires while Sweden suffered from massive blazes this past year under the same extreme heat this past summer. As did Russia to the east of Finland.

But the reason was not raking the forest floor. The President of Finland had not mentioned raking to Trump. He did discuss controlled burns. But California uses controlled burns. The difference is that Finland has much greater precipitation, much lower average temperatures and lacks the hot dry winds of California where the risk was too great for a so-called controlled burn to rage out of control.

The difference between Finland and Sweden has been attributed to different forest management practices in both countries with similar geographies and weather patterns. In recent years, conservative governments in Sweden have cut back on monies for forest management and opened the forests to broader clear cutting while the Finnish government has increased the allocations to forest management. The recent social democratic government was unable to reverse this trend.

Finland, as my reader defending Trump implied as practicing good forest management, under a conservative president, Sauli Niinsto was able to continue and even expand the forest management practices of previous social democratic governments. Finland divided its forests into small containable compartments. Sweden has not. In Sweden in September, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, a social democrat, lost a vote of confidence. The far-right in the elections had made significant gains at the expense of both the social democrats and their traditional conservative opponents who had been in power prior to Lotven. The tale of responsibility for improved practices is not simply attributable to right and left, though the far right has certainly made governance in Sweden much more difficult.

Both Scandinavian countries view climate change as the major challenge of our era. However, Trump insisted that the fires had not made him change his denial of the effects of climate change. Yet he would conclude after his visit to Paradise that, “I think everybody’s seen the light and I don’t think we’ll have this again to this extent.” Climate scientists overwhelmingly profess the opposite to be true.

But has Trump seen the light? The surprise for me is that some of the victims still professed hope in an area that Trump won by four percentage points in 2016. “I hope he helps us. I hope he sees what we’re all going through,” said Casey Belcher, 33. “I hope he sees what we’re all going through and he feels our emotional pain.” Amy Velazquez, whose husband worked day and night as a firefighter, said, “Threatening to not send resources was the biggest blow. They’re thinking is hope alive? It was pretty devastating.”

People, especially leaders, chained to dogmatic positions and fixated on the shadows on a cave wall, are least likely to either discern causal connections and connect with those who suffer. As Bryan Belcher said, “The fact that we are not the ones to blame in this — why should we have to be the ones stuck with the hardship of it?” Others were more accusatory as Trump’s motorcade passed holding banners that read, “Climate change” and “Apocalypse!”

Of course, this is what Trump does, first focusing on blame and directing the blame onto others and away from himself. Then, in his almost complete ignorance and total distortions of sources of authority, he pronounces the problem solved as if he were god who says and there is. Trump says what is and then there is not. Of course, the causes of the fire are many. Building homes in a wilderness as in Paradise is itself problematic. Further, there had been previous warnings. Ten years earlier, the Humboldt Fire swept through 22,800 acres in that area. The next month, Camp Fire I – 2018 was the year of Camp Fire II – forced the evacuation of parts of Paradise but the fire never crossed the Feather River.

Residents thought that the Feather River to the east and Butte Creek to the west would continue to protect the homes spread out and built on a wide ridge between the two canyons. But this time the fires were so intense and the winds so strong that the canyons acted like a large chimney and residents fled with few belongings in cars surrounded by walls of flames and blocked by cars already charred. The major cause, as everyone but DT seems to know, is not forest management, but drought and non-seasonal high winds that whipped up from the high pressure areas of Nevada and Utah towards the cooler coast. On 8 November, humidity had plummeted as hot, dry winds swept over the parched vegetation. It was already a month or more after seasonal rains were expected, but again had not arrived. The vegetation on the ground was even more parched than usual.

Was poor forest management also a problem? Did tree huggers prevent wood from being cut? The Forest Practice Division, in fact, permits tree harvesting on a private as well as commercial scale, but also regulates it to protect forests, fish, wildlife and streams. However, the Forest Practice Division does not even have the power to reject a Timber Harvesting Plan of the major commercial operators as long as the plans are prepared by registered foresters. From 500 to 1,500 THPs are approved each year.

Thus, though regulated by rules and best practices, harvesting is not overseen by government. Further, given the resistance to taxes characteristic of the United States, especially of regions that are politically red, the firefighters are a volunteer force. If there is a problem with forest management on the northern part of the state, it is not with too much regulation or misguided regulation, but with too little government involvement in management, control and firefighting when necessary under the California Forest Practices Act.

The southern fires were not even forest fires. Fiery tumbleweed missiles flew through the air like cannonballs. The Woolsey Fire burned through 146 square miles in Los Angeles County and parts of Ventura County as well as parts of Malibu where many wealthy homeowners were able to hire their own private firefighting force to save their homes. The causes of the fires in an area of brush rather than forests were again dry vegetation and the hot and dry Santa Ana winds. This was also true of The Hill Fire in Santa Rosa Valley east of the Woolsey fire, but it was stopped, not by clear cutting, but by a large patch of land destroyed by fire five years earlier.

Management of forests and scrub lands, the planning of houses in the midst of all this, some management problems, are all contributing factors. But the main causes have been drought and high dry winds seen by most scientists to be a by-product of climate change.

DT does not deserve a pass. As one survivor described the maelstrom, “the gates of hell had opened up. Black and red was all you could see.” In the case of the environment, the light demands that we NOT endure burning while we burn with compassion on an interpersonal level.


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