Scratching Each Itch -- A Dangerous Pleasure in the Body Politic

Last week, I lived through both an intense medical experience and an intense socio-political experience. The spiritual meaning of the medical challenge suddenly taught me the spiritual meaning of the politics.  And let me emphasize, just as the medical challenge was my own, so my response to it is my own; in this essay I am not speaking for The Shalom Center.

The medical experience was a preventive mid-level surgery to deal with the danger of an umbilical hernia. For almost everyone, it seems to be not problematic. But for me, a medicine prescribed to deal with moderate pain unexpectedly turned on my body’s inflammatory system.

I ended up with a widespread rash that was extremely itchy. The temptation to scratch was intense, but –- as I discovered -- self-destructive. (And just to be clear, I’m over it now and all is well.)

The other experience was helping lead a prayerful multireligious service that began the March for a Clean Energy Revolution on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. The March itself had no commitment or opposition to any particular presidential candidate. Among participants I met were supporters of Hillary Clinton, of Bernie Sanders, and of diehard insistence on some other response if Clinton were nominated for president.

What does the one have to do with the other?  In the quiet of a night, I realized that each scratch of an unbearable itch was intensely pleasurable.  I could feel my brain and my body responding to that momentary pleasure.

But within seconds, each scratch multiplied the itching. I was creating an addiction to scratching that was solving each specific itch for a moment but multiplying the danger of an even greater inflammatory response in my whole body – – a disaster.

I think the same is true about the urge of some burning feel-the-Bern supporters to scratch the infuriating itch of their defeat. Each scratch brings with it the intense pleasure of “voting my conscience" – – the individual conscience like each individual scratch. Each scratch relieves for a moment the pain of failure, the pain of fury at the 1/10 of 1% who rule America and impose impossible debts on college students, mass incarceration on Blacks, contempt on Muslims, deportation that tears apart Latino families.

But each individual scratch ignores the larger danger of inflaming the entire body politic. It ignores the danger of electing to Presidential power an outright bully who wants and would be able to carry out a bully’s politics: fascism.

A minority of Bernie supporters booed Bernie himself when he insisted that the way forward for a democratic revolution must include defeating Trump and electing Clinton.  They were acting as if a racist, misogynist,  xenophobic President of the United States could not destroy them and their hopes for a fuller American democracy.

Perhaps they have not noticed how the President of Turkey has swiftly destroyed all democratic institutions in his society –- firing or arresting judges, journalists, Army officers.

And for sure they have not realized that their actions betoken their own white-skin privilege – – that the impact of a Trump presidency would surely deeply worsen the situations of undocumented immigrants, young Blacks, women who need abortions.

Or perhaps they were simply responding to the great pleasure of scratching their own itch.

I can empathize with that pleasure. I feel it myself. But I have learned to deal with it another way. I have learned to use a medication that dulls the intensity of each itch and makes it easier for me to forego the addictive habit of the scratch. And I have learned to use a systemic medication that moves my whole body out of the inflammatory process.

Now I can even empathize with those supporters of Donald Trump who have become addicted to scratching their own itch. The itch of fear and fury at a social system that is marginalizing them not only economically but culturally and psychologically.

But empathy is not enough.  Before these twin dead-end scratch-the-itch addictions further inflame and shatter our whole society, we need to address both the specific local painful itches and the widespread inflammation.

We need, wistfully but with commitment, to make sure that a Clinton presidency will with specific reforms address specific ills –- including the real ills faced by many who have voted for Trump.  We will need to make sure that for reasons that for a moment, on the surface, may seem good,  she does not launch us into still another endless self-destructive war.

And we will need to insist on continuing to create a transformative movement working to heal our entire society from its inflammatory top-down corporate domination.

“God’s word burned like a fire in my bones,” said the Prophet Jeremiah. Not “Like the itch upon my burning skin.”  Healing the bones that map our wholeness, yes. Scratching each itch, no.

Blessings of shalom, salaam, peace, Earth!



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