Memoirs of a Superfan vol. 18.10: Treating America’s #1 Addiction: Abusive Power (Part 1)
by Ravi Chandra
October 7, 2023 (Indigenous People’s Day weekend)
Excerpted from a talk given on October 2, 2023, Gandhi’s birthday and the International Day of Non-Violence. That talk is linked as a YouTube video below. I start off archly in the talk, and then move into a Keynote presentation. The talk is also available as a podcast, in references. MOSF 18.9 and 18.10 were cross-posted on Psychology Today. All parts of the series on trauma and healing are linked in references.
The following remarks were delivered at Tadaima 2023 on Monday, October 2, 2023. Tadaima is organized by Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages. Following these remarks, I delivered a Keynote presentation on power, and had a conversation with community members facilitated by Julie Abo. The entire talk and conversation is on YouTube now, appended below.
Colonization of the American continent and the founding of the nation involved megalomanic, dominating drives.
These drives persist in conscious and overt, and subconscious and covert forms. We must bring them into awareness to overcome them.
These drives have become addictions, and addictions are driven by frustrated, traumatic, & diverted belonging.
Cruelty and violence have been amplified, particularly for marginalized and minoritized communities.
By strengthening love, compassion, egalitarianism, the common good, and belonging, we can turn the tide.
Thank you, Julie, Kimiko and Tadaima for inviting me. 3 weeks ago, on September 11, 2023, a white man broke into an Asian American family’s home in Georgetown, Texas, and beat a 6-year old boy with a baseball bat. Little Jeremy showed signs of recovery but was recently reintubated and is still in the ICU. I’m taking a moment to send him and his family our love for their healing. We all know what happened on September 11, 2001. But what’s less known is that Gandhi was thrown off a train in South Africa on September 11th, 1901. He refers to that event as not being thrown off a train, but being launched from it.
I’m happy to celebrate Gandhi’s birthday and the International Day of Nonviolence today with this talk. Next Monday, one week from today, is Indigenous People’s Day – and I’m celebrating in advance by wearing my Chief Seal’th t-shirt from the Duwamish tribe in Seattle, Washington. We are meeting in a context of racism, violence and colonialism that goes back hundreds of years, and we are here for a reason: to engage with that history and context, and connect, as a caring and compassionate community, with the distress that we feel. 9-11 has been a distress call since at least September 11th, 1901, and we are launched every day that violence and suffering exists.
So, I’m in danger of “having opinions!” today! And moreover, in danger of thinking “everyone is entitled to MY opinion!” I hope this talk will be good food for thought, and I’m sure everyone will have their own take on the material. I’m going to start sharply, and then elaborate with a Keynote presentation. My part will take up about 30 minutes in total. In the end, I’m just trying to find my notes in this great and dangerous jazz symphony called America. We’ll start off with my sax solo, perhaps modeled in name after “Deluge” by the late, great Wayne Shorter, but really more like “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane. DAH-dah-dah-dah DAH – dah dah dah, DAH duh dah! So here we go! Buckle in 😊
America doesn’t have a mental health crisis. America is a mental illness, by which I mean it is suffering and a cause of suffering. Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield has said “we’re all at least a little mentally ill until we’re enlightened.”
I think America’s primary illness is addiction to power and wealth, which become an addiction to cruelty, and avoidance and subordination of compassion, empathy, and shared humanity. The addiction is seen in the ways its citizens feel frustration at the supposed others who are trying to “take power away” from them. We see what happens when someone gets between the power addict and their fix – for example, when those who are diverse and more comfortable with diversity start showing up. The power addict blames immigrants, migrants, BIPOC peoples and sexual and gender minorities for daring to be seen and having “intolerable” voices and identities, for having human needs, just like them. We see the effects of the addiction in the futility and exhaustion experienced on the regular by anyone trying to supply what’s really needed – love, compassion, reason, justice, equity. We see the addiction to abusive power in the epidemic of gun violence and rising levels of gun ownership. When in doubt, when fearful – far too many Americans say “Buy a gun!” We see the addiction in the emotional burdens of women in a society geared for male dominance and authority, and in the violence visited on women by abusive men or men who can’t control their own distresses. “When you can’t control your own distress, you seek to control others.” This happens regardless of gender.
We see the addiction to abusive power in the structures of government and the electoral process which skew parties towards extremism, career politicians, lifetime ossification and loss of cognitive flexibility in the judicial and legislative branches, and performative, attention-and-money-seeking factionalism, particularly on the right. We see it in internet bullying and so-called “cancel culture” and online shaming. We see it in still rampant bias and exploitation of vulnerable groups, such as BIPOC people, sexual and gender minorities, the homeless, and the poor. We see it in the ways many, many Americans have to deal with abusive work environments. We see it in the ways artificial intelligence is being used by autocratic actors to dominate, manipulate, and control information. We see it in the way a special needs youth was recently nearly run over by hundreds of young men on motorcycles and ATVs on a so-called “slow street” in San Francisco.
Impulsive display of brute power and a lack of empathy exists at all levels of American society and masculinity – because that’s what gets attention and feels “risky” and exciting. Ask yourself how much compassion people with disabilities get in society or in the workplace – mileage varies substantially, and lawsuits are often required to get fair treatment.
We see the fallout from our addiction in the resentment, frustration, and anger experienced by all Americans – because power and money can’t buy you love. You see the fallout in the 100,000 opioid overdose deaths a year. When people aren’t cared about, they can turn to abusing themselves and others. Some seek a kind of power and control in an addiction. They might seek to numb the pain of powerlessness, vulnerability, and shame. On a more subtle level, you see our escape from discomfort, boredom, and loneliness into a kind of power and control with our smartphones and screens, which are a real mixed bag, because our screens surface the need for belonging, but do not resolve it. More dangerously, we see the addiction to abusive power in the misplaced and misinformed rage exhibited on January 6th, 2021 at the Capitol. We see it in the increasing number of violent threats against elections officials, and judges, and prosecutors involved in the cases against the former president. We see it in the racist violence in Jacksonville, Florida, Buffalo, New York and elsewhere.
All addictions are tied to and worsened by frustrated, traumatic, and diverted belonging. Someone once told me you’re not American until you realize you’ve been screwed. Our ability to create and participate in belonging is what we are regularly screwed out of.
But when the power-addicted are anxious and insecure, when they feel they’ve been screwed, they don’t seek belonging – they bind their anxiety by creating scapegoats. The power addict looks for someone to blame, rather than admitting we are all fundamentally powerless as humans, and we all need help. We all need to learn how to better comfort ourselves when we don’t get what we want, and we do get what we don’t want. The power addict can’t understand that we are interdependent, or is deeply troubled by interdependence. The power addict can’t face the fact that we are actually dependent on others, and that we lean on others for safety and wellness.
As Chief Seal’th (Seattle) said, “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” The power addict thinks that when they act abusively, they act on “others” whom they consider – or make – bad, wrong, inferior, or their opponent in an antagonistic game. This is the central delusion and gaslight in abusive power. White supremacy – a form of self-centered factionalism – is a gaslight and delusion, and it has driven this continent’s colonization, the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Blacks, and the exclusion and subjugation of Asians and Latinx peoples – even as egalitarianism and conscience contend to create a “more perfect union” and a more resilient democracy. And we are still fighting to be understood in our identities – which are currently being dismissed as a “woke agenda” and “identity politics.” We are still fighting in our quest for greater belonging, our quest to become Dr. King’s beloved community.
Is there a 12-step program for America’s addiction to power? A PAA, Power-Addicts-Anonymous program? It’s pretty wrenching, because as far as I can see, America, as our patient, is unwilling to admit she has a problem. And is unwilling to see those who are trying to help her as her allies. Maybe she’s content to see everyone quite miserable, living with her addiction, addicted to seeing who exactly comes out on “top.” Which for her means who gets the most attention.
So then – what are we giving the most attention within ourselves? Power is a force within all our psyches, and we have to consciously cultivate what kind of power we will create, as individuals, as a community, as a nation, and ultimately as sentient beings on planet Earth.
I’ll turn now to the Keynote, and discuss problematic and enduring power in greater and historical detail.
References and further reading/viewing:
A podcast version of this talk (with added music and intros and outros by me) on Soundcloud and Apple Podcasts
Wing Luke Museum incident: Mayer M. Balang R. Wing Luke Museum hate crime — Suspect: “The Chinese ruined my life” Northwest Asian Weekly, September 15, 2023
GoFundme for 6-year old beaten by a white man in Georgetown, Texas, and KVUE story about the incident on YouTube
Four-part series on trauma and healing:
Dr. Satsuki Ina on Japanese American Trauma and Healing (September 26, 2023)
Cultivating Sense of Self to Cope With Trauma and Life (October 3, 2023)
Creating Transitional Spaces to Heal Intergenerational Trauma (October 5, 2023) also at East Wind, with better images – MOSF 18.9: On Creating Transitional Spaces to Heal Intergenerational Trauma (EAAPAAO Part 5)
Abusive Power and Megalomania Perpetuate American Trauma (a summary of my talk, and different from this article. To be published on Indigenous People’s Day, October 9, 2023)