For a few years I've had a book sitting on my shelf called If This Be Magic: The Forgotten Power of Hypnotism, by Guy Lyon Playfair. Originally published in 1985, it was reissued by White Crow Books in 2011, and I probably bought it around that time. But somehow I never quite got around to reading it, possibly because I was a little put off by the prospect of plowing through a fairly long, rather dense book on hypnotism.
Recently, however, I did pick up the book at last, and I found it to be one of the more intriguing items in my parapsychological library. The subtitle notwithstanding, it's not really all about hypnotism. Perhaps a more accurate subtitle would be "The Forgotten Power of the Unconscious Mind." The book concerns itself with the still-unknown extent of psi abilities and their mediation by the right hemisphere of the brain — or, more accurately, the mental states loosely associated with the right cerebral hemisphere.
If This Be Magic does begin with a discussion of hypnotism and the related practice of mesmerism, tracing work in this area from its beginnings to modern times. Along the way, we learn that the (logical) left hemisphere of the brain seems to inhibit hypnotism, while the (intuitive) right hemisphere readily accepts it. Dr. David Pederson, president of the British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnosis, puts it succinctly: “When we hypnotize a patient, what we are doing is altering their mode of consciousness to the right hemisphere by inhibition of the left.”
Many examples of remarkable experiments and even medical cures are provided, including remission of supposedly untreatable cancers and significant improvement in a case of ichthyosis, a disfiguring skin disease that had resisted all conventional treatment. And there were other experiments, such as one carried out in 1975 by Dr. Léon Chertok, a French psychiatrist. Playfair writes*:
Chertok showed that wounds can not only be healed by suggestion, but also caused by it. He managed to produce a handsome blister on the arm of patient by placing a coin on it and suggesting that it was very hot, which it was not. An intriguing detail was that the patient reported feeling no sensation of heat at all, and yet her skin reacted as if something extremely hot had indeed come into contact with it – on the exact spot where the coin had been placed.… Chertok saw this as “irrefutable proof of the influence of the mind on physiological processes,” and wondered why this was still not fully acknowledged “in spite of the accumulation of data.” [p. 18]
One reason, among others, why the establishment has resisted this conclusion is that the results obtained by experimenters have been inconsistent and unpredictable. The technique may work brilliantly on one occasion and fail utterly on another occasion, for no obvious reason. How can this be? Here we get to the core of the book – the nature of the mental attitude necessary for positive results. The attitude is essentially one of faith, though this word is not quite adequate and has some misleading connotations:
If we believe something, the effect on us is the same whether it is really true or not. As Paracelsus put it in the 16th century: “It is all one whether you believe in something real or something false. They will have the same effect on you. It is always the faith that works the miracle, and whether the faith is aroused by something real or something false, its miraculous power is the same.”
Faith has been cynically defined as a belief in something you know to be untrue. This is only a slight exaggeration; William Sargant defines it as “a profound and non-rational conviction of the truth of propositions to which the unaided intellect can at best accord only a temperate allegiance.” We need another word for this feeling, but until we have one Sargant’s “profound and non-rational conviction” will serve as a description of it; and it is a very good description of what seems to be one of the crucial factors of successful hypnosis.
In all the cases I have mentioned so far, the one common feature is a total and uncritical acceptance by the subject of the hypnotist’s suggestion. This in turn was given with conviction, and whether the conviction was rational or non-rational did not matter. [pp. 43–44]
What appears to happen in the successful cases is that the sheer conviction felt by the hypnotist, and sometimes also by his subject, is enough to bring about extraordinary results. But if the hypnotist's conviction falters for any reason, or if there is some other mitigating factor creating an atmosphere of doubt or disbelief, then positive results are much less likely.
As you might expect, this situation creates a serious problem in the scientific investigation of hypnotism.
The hypnotist, [Ronald] Shor says, faces a … dilemma. A good scientist, in the generally accepted sense, will be careful, well disciplined, methodical and objective, or what I would call highly left-minded. Unfortunately these are not the qualities that make a successful hypnotist, who needs to be adventurous, risk-taking, and above all subjective. Shor defines the [twin pitfalls] of hypnotism as “insufficient caution” and “insufficient conviction.” “The more the scientist-hypnotist tries to avoid one of the two dangers,” he says, “the more likely it becomes that he will succumb to the other.” [pp. 54—55]
The line dividing hypnosis from psi phenomena is pretty thin. Consider experiments performed in the Soviet Union in which a test subject was hypnotically put to sleep by hypnotic suggestions telepathically communicated over a distance of more than 1,000 miles.
Ivanova [the subject, in a laboratory in Leningrad] was kept under observation by a man who did not know what kind of experiment was being carried out. [Ivanova also did not know the purpose of the experiment.] Alone on the promenade at Sebastopol, Tomashevsky began transmitting at 10:10 PM. Ivanova was seen to enter a hypnotic trance one minute later. At 10:40, Tomashevksy sent the “wake” signal, and at precisely that time according to the observer whose watch, like Tomashevky’s, had been synchronized with Radio Moscow she woke up. [p. 145]
Having made the case that hypnosis overlaps psi, and that mental attitude is critical to each, Playfair sums up:
It must be clear by now that what made the Russians so successful in this kind of experiment (and, in my opinion, still does) was their intuitive understanding of the experimenter effect, whereby experimenters [become] part of the experiment, the outcome of which largely depends on how they play their part in it. This applies to all experiments in which a human mind is involved, from sending people to sleep and transmitting images to curing diseases like ichthyosis by suggestion. An experimenter who is not totally committed to success will probably not succeed. This is hard for scientists trained in objective step-by-step procedures to accept, but as I see it, spontaneous phenomena of any kind should be studied with a view to finding out under what circumstances they happen naturally. Expecting them to happen to order under conditions imposed by the “objective” experimenter is a complete waste of time. [p. 143]
For me, the most the richest part of the book is an interview conducted by Playfair with longtime PK investigator Kenneth Batcheldor. Batchelder's observations are so important, they are worth quoting at length. I can't quote everything, though, and I encourage you to buy the book and get the whole story.
“There is an awkward antagonism between the scientific, skeptical state of mind, and the state required for the production of PK,” [Batcheldor] told me. “To achieve a PK effect, you have got to believe one hundred per cent that it’s going to happen, whereas the characteristic attitude of the scientist is to doubt, and to say 'Let’s test this thing and see if it really is what it claims to be.' But for PK, you must not think 'Is it?' You have to think 'It is.' You’ve got to suspend your scientific attitude if you want it to occur. You can be as critical as you like after you’ve got it, but not while you’re doing it.”
This was not easy for scientists to accept, he admitted, but it was the approach he had found to work, and to make sense. “If the phenomena are shaped by thought,” he said, “then doubtful thoughts will obviously create only doubtful phenomena, or maybe none at all.” [p. 181]
But how to produce the necessary attitude of faith? It's not something that can just be willed into existence. There is, however, a backdoor approach that works remarkably well – something that has long been known to shamans and has been re-learned by modern investigators.
“It is almost impossible to acquire sufficient faith by deliberate mental effort,” [Batcheldor said]. “For instance, it would be useless to place your hands on the table and say to yourself 'I believe this table is going to levitate.' However hard you tried, you wouldn’t succeed because you’d be bound to experience an element of doubt. An adept might succeed, but most people aren’t adepts.
“Fortunately,” he went on, “there’s something about table-tipping that enables a group of ordinary people to succeed in generating PK without even trying, provided they are reasonably open-minded. It is this: in most cases, the table will start to move due to UMA [unconscious muscular action]. This can give an amazing illusion that the table is moving of its own accord as if animated by some mysterious force. You get the impression you are already succeeding in generating paranormal movements.
“This has precisely the same impact on you as real success would have. It sweeps your doubts aside and produces total faith or at least moments of total faith. This happens automatically, involuntarily and without any mental effort on your part. So you get moments of total faith in which you are able to generate real PK. For a while, these are superimposed on the UMA movements, but later they can occur without them. The table movements gradually become stronger and more varied, and in time may lead to movement without contact and levitation.” [p. 182]
In other words, it may be necessary to help the process along with some initial trickery – whether intentional or unconscious – in order to wear down the left brain's resistance to the very idea of PK. Batcheldor calls this technique "induction by artifact."
“All you need [Batchelder said] is for some set of normal events artifacts to be mistaken for paranormal events. This creates sufficiently intense faith to enable you to generate the real thing. Such artifacts can be either accidental or deliberate. In table-tipping, for instance, movements due to UMA arise quite accidentally. But if somebody gives the table a deliberate push, and keeps quiet about it, this will probably have the same effect.
“You mean that cheating can lead to real PK?” I asked. I felt he was adding yet another booby-trap to an already overcrowded minefield.
“Well,” he replied, “deliberate artifact-induction is equivalent to cheating, yes. But the development of PK in a group can and should take place entirely on the basis of artifacts of the accidental kind. Cheating would only lead to confusion even if theoretically it should work. And of course shamans have known for centuries that it does work.” [pp. 182–183]
This isn't just armchair theorizing. The hypothesis has been tested.
[Colin] Brookes-Smith designed and built a number of special tables … wired up in such a way that any normal mechanical force exerted by sitters’ hands could be recorded and printed out on chart paper. He then had his sitters draw lots before session to see who would be “joker”. The joker was allowed to cheat now and then, and the study of the recording would later reveal exactly when he had….
“The interesting thing [wrote Allan Barham, a participant in the experiments] was that this method of deliberately stimulating an upward force did help to induce a genuine paranormal effect.” The chart recording, he said, showed when the joker had done his joking, and it also showed the table continued to levitate after he had stopped it. “Our unjustified belief that something paranormal might be taking place released the PK force, which always tended to be repressed by our conscious or unconscious doubts.”…
Batcheldor reckons that almost anybody can produce PK who really believes and decides that it is possible. Anybody can also inhibited by believing consciously or subconsciously that it is not possible. [p. 185]
The role of the unconscious mind may also account, at least in part, for phenomena associated with what I've called the dark side of the paranormal. The Ouija board, for instance, is often noted for seemingly malicious and destructive communications.
“As soon as it spells something a bit strange, you get frightened, and then you’re in trouble,” Batcheldor explained. “The main danger of dabbling with psychic forces is that if you get frightened of them, you shape them into some frightening event – you create what you’re frightened of. If you know this, and exercise some control over not getting unduly frightened, by constantly reminding yourself that you’re creating this stuff by PK, and it’s going to do what you believe, you can keep things under control. I don’t allow my sitters to talk about apparitions of the devil or anything like that. We don’t know what we might create if we start thinking along those lines.”
As for poltergeist cases, he believes that in some cases the incidents that start them off can be seen as artifacts that arise accidentally. “I don’t go along with the idea that poltergeist outbreaks are the expression of repressed tension and aggression. Mental hospitals are full of people who have tremendous repressed aggression, but they don’t explode into poltergeist phenomena. It’s a bit naïve to think that aggression gets so strong when it’s repressed that it bursts out by throwing cups by PK. I prefer to think that if you have a tense family that interprets an accidental event like a cup falling off the shelf by accident as ghostly, then they can use it for the expression of some of their psychological needs. If you believe there’s going to be hostility, then you probably create it.” [p. 183]
What about the well-known difficulty of getting macro-PK effects recorded on video? Even passive infrared systems that operate in darkness rarely obtain results. Playfair notes that "audio tape, however, has no inhibiting effect at all."
This has reinforced Batcheldor’s belief that it is not light that inhibits PK, but sight, or the full awareness of the observer.…
“In darkness,” he told me, “the mind can be calm, because you are not witnessing paranormality in a clear-cut form. Also, certain kinds of spontaneous artifacts needed to stimulate belief tend to be prevented in light.” He believes that at some deep level we need a “loophole” in the evidence, to reassure ourselves that PK might not be taking place after all. An audio tape provides such a loophole, because it only contains part of the record – the sound. A videotape contains a more complete record, and while seeing may be believing, hearing without seeing is not.
“PK seems to cover its tracks whenever it can,” he added, “even to the extent of sabotaging cameras or video recorders to destroy the evidence, or of making sure that there is a scapegoat on hand to whom apparently paranormal activity can be attributed.” [p. 186]
In short, Batcheldor has come up with a sophisticated, meticulously thought-out explanatory system that covers much of the phenomena associated with PK and, by extension, hypnosis, mesmerism, and ESP.
And what of life after death? Playfair recounts a case of apparent spirit communication in response to spoken questions, and writes:
It is very tempting on such occasions to assume that you are in the presence of the spirits … The impression of an independent intelligence at work is very strong … And it has led me to feel justified in regarding PK-agents as independent entities. Some would call these spirits, and assume that they are driven by the intelligence of somebody who has died.
However, there is excellent evidence against the traditional spirit hypothesis. The Philip group in Toronto certainly conjured up a spirit, but it was one they had invented themselves, complete with portrait and detailed curriculum vitae. Philip had a life of his own, but it was a wholly imaginary one. The fact that this made it no less real in some respects has led some to speculate that reality as we perceive it may to some extent be the result of our imaginations. [pp. 200–201]
The Philip experiments are among the most interesting ever carried out in parapsychology, and they certainly show that it is possible for a group of sitters to "conjure up" a ghost with a distinctive personality and an apparently independent existence, who is nevertheless completely fictitious. How far we should carry the implications of these experiments is an open question, one that I've considered elsewhere.
Then there's the experience of the Rev. C. Hare Townsend, who performed many experiments in mesmerism. As quoted in If This Be Magic, Townsend wrote:
When I first began to mesmerize, I used to consult my sleepwalkers on dark and dubious points, with something of the blind faith of a novice in a new and wondrous science. Their answers to such inquiries were calculated to bewilder me by the pure influence of astonishment; for the simple had become theorists; the uneducated were turned into philosophers. At length I was awakened from my dream of somnambulic knowledge by finding that my patients’ ideas shifted so visibly with my own, and were so plainly the echo of my own thoughts, that not to have perceived the source whence they originated, would had been pertinacious blindness indeed. I was but taking back my own, and receiving coin issued from my own treasury. [p. 211]
There are possible implications here for the work of hypnotherapists who engage in so-called past-life regressions and between-lives regressions. Even if the hypnotist is not intentionally or overtly leading his entranced patient, it is conceivable that hypnosis itself allows the patient to read the hypnotist's mind and tell him what he expects to hear.
Incidentally, very young children are known to be more susceptible to suggestion than adults, and probably find it easier to exercise psi, a fact that perhaps should be taken into consideration when evaluating accounts of spontaneous and veridical past-life memories in children.
Playfair concludes his book by zeroing in on the fundamental attitude that underlies successful production of a variety of hypnotic, mesmeric, and paranormal phenomena:
The only hypothesis that seems to fit all the facts is that somebody must have faith in something. It can be the patient, the healer or hypnotist, or even a third party. The faith can be in God, Jesus, the Great Spirit – almost anything imaginable. It can even be simply in the doctor and his pills and nothing else. Miracles, it seems, can be worked by nothing more than a firm belief in their imminent occurrence. When such a belief is implanted in the right mind of a patient, by whatever method, even by deception, outright lying, or as in Dr. Mason’s classic case [of curing ichthyosis], by mistake, the suggested miracle fulfills itself automatically.
It begins to seem, in fact, that the mere act of acknowledging the existence of some power greater than ourselves, or even just assuming this, is enough to activate it. [p. 255]
*All quotations from If This Be Magic have had their spelling and punctuation altered from British to American standards. The reason is simple: I used a voice-recognition program to dictate this material to my computer, and the program recognized it as American English.
The Atlantic has an interesting article on "post-VR sadness" – apparently a fairly common syndrome, in which people who use high-end virtual-reality devices experience feelings of depersonalization, derealization, and depression after returning to the real world. As the sub-headline puts it, "After exploring a virtual world, some people can’t shake the sense that the actual world isn’t real, either."
As someone who's interested in the idea that the "real world" might be a kind of virtual reality simulation in itself, albeit far more sophisticated and subtle than anything our technology can produce, I found some of these excerpts pretty intriguing (all links in the original):
“[W]hile standing and in the middle of a sentence, I had an incredibly strange, weird moment of comparing real life to the VR,” wrote the video-game developer Lee Vermeulen after he tried Valve’s SteamVR system back in 2014. He was mid-conversation with a coworker when he started to feel off, and the experience sounds almost metaphysical. “I understood that the demo was over, but it was [as] if a lower level part of my mind couldn’t exactly be sure. It gave me a very weird existential dread of my entire situation, and the only way I could get rid of that feeling was to walk around or touch things around me.” ...
Using a questionnaire to measure participants’ levels of dissociation before and after exposure to VR, Aardema found that VR increases dissociative experiences and lessens people’s sense of presence in actual reality. He also found that the greater the individual’s pre-existing tendency for dissociation and immersion, the greater the dissociative effects of VR. ...
While derealization is the feeling that the world isn’t real, depersonalization is the feeling that one’s self isn’t real. People who’ve experienced depersonalization say that it feels like they’re outside of their bodies, watching themselves. Derealization makes a person’s surroundings feel strange and dream-like, in an unsettling way, despite how familiar they may be. ...
In March, Alanah Pearce, an Australian video game journalist and podcast host, recounted troubling post-VR symptoms after the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. “I was very fatigued. I was dizzy. And it definitely hits that strange point where the real world feels surreal,” she said. “I’m not going to go into that too in-depth, because it’s something I haven’t yet grasped. But I know that I’m not alone, and other people who play VR feel the same thing, where it’s like, nothing really feels real anymore. It’s very odd.”
The article points out that there's a difference between the better-known effects of VR, such as motion sickness, and the more subtle but often more lingering psychological side effects.
This isn't an altogether new thing. Some people who saw the movie Avatar on an IMAX screen in 3D later complained that the real world paled by comparison. They weren't just kidding around. They seemed to experience a real sense of psychological withdrawal and a degree of difficulty in accepting ordinary reality again.
Help for Avatar withdrawal? Disney is developing a theme-park attraction that brings the planet of Pandora to life.
What struck me as particularly interesting is that the psychological effects described by subjects in the Atlantic piece are very similar to the state of mind often described by mystics or by people who have had intense transcendent experiences, such as NDEs. The feeling that the physical world is unreal, or at least less real than it appears, has been noted by people who contrast the hyperreality of an NDE or a transported mystical state with mundane reality. The intuition that the self is only a construct, something not ultimately real, is the realization toward which many meditative practices are directed.
Incidentally, there been reports that the practice of mindfulness meditation can also lead to feelings of derealization and depersonalization, along with a significant increase in anxiety. This may be further evidence that the mental state that sometimes follows virtual-reality immersion can be similar to the mental state produced by some methods of meditation. The Atlantic article itself notes that one person's post-VR experience "sounds almost metaphysical." Indeed.
And while I'm sure these changes of mind can be disorienting and upsetting to people who are unprepared for them, and may even be dangerous in people with a history of anxiety or depression, it's at least possible that these new outlooks, if creatively embraced and utilized, will prove not so much pathological as liberating.
The Atlantic piece frets:
To what extent is VR causing users to question the nature of their own reality? And how easily are people able to tackle this line of questioning without losing their grip?
A more difficult question, one the Atlantic doesn't ask, is whether or not the newfound perspective reported by these VR users might be valid. Could these people actually be correct in seeing the physical world as less than fully real and in seeing their own personal identity as an artificial construction? Rather than a step into madness, maybe they've taken a step toward greater sanity.
Or maybe not. It's much too early to tell.
But as VR becomes more ubiquitous and more fully immersive, we can expect to learn a lot more about how the mind processes its interaction with an environment that feels real but is only a remarkable simulation. At the same time, we may end up learning more about reality itself.
A fair amount of parapsychological research involves fieldwork and case studies, in which people's personal memories become an issue. In some cases, a subject recounts an episode that he or she remembers vividly, though it may have happened weeks, months, or even years or decades earlier. Usually this testimony is taken as essentially accurate unless there is some reason to suspect fabrication. In other cases, the researchers themselves must rely on their memory when writing up phenomena that they have witnessed (in a séance room, for instance) at some earlier time.
It seems only natural to assume that eyewitness accounts, especially when provided by disinterested parties, are generally reliable. And yet this may not be the case – a point addressed in detail in New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman's intriguing book Jesus Before the Gospels.
As the title indicates, the focus of the book is the way in which Jesus was remembered by various Christian communities in the early years of the religion's development. In the course of exploring this issue, Ehrman discusses modern findings on the nature and limitations of memory. He explains that our memories are often less accurate and dependable than we believe.
Remember when Donald Trump got in hot water for saying he had seen news footage of thousands of Muslims celebrating in New York City on 9/11? Even though no video was found to support Trump's assertion, he insisted he remembered it clearly. He probably did. A false memory can be every bit as convincing as a real one. One study makes this point via precisely the same phenomenon: people's vivid memories of news footage that never existed.
The study involves a cargo plane that crashed into an Amsterdam apartment building in 1992, killing dozens of people. Ten months after the event, survey respondents were asked if they remembered seeing news footage of the moment when the plane struck the building. More than half of them – 55% – said yes. In a later study, 66% of respondents remembered watching the footage. But there never had been any footage. The crash had not been caught on video.
These striking results obviously puzzled the researchers, in part because basic common sense should have told anyone that there could not have been a film. Remember, this is 1992, before cell phone cameras .… And yet, between half and two thirds of the people surveyed – most of them graduate students and professors – indicated they had seen the nonexistent film .…
Even more puzzling were the detailed answers that some of those interviewed [gave] about what they actually saw on the film – for example, whether the plane crashed into the building horizontally or vertically and whether the fire caused by the plane started at impact or only later .…
Obviously they were imagining [these details], based on logical inferences (the fire must have started right away) and on what they had been told by others (the plane crashed into the building as the plane was heading straight down). The psychologists argued that these people’s imaginations became so vivid, and were repeated so many times, that they eventually did not realize they were imagining something. They really thought they were remembering it. In fact they did remember it. But it was a false memory. Not just a false memory one of them had. A false memory most of them had.
Then there was a study done at Wesleyan University cheekily titled "Do You Remember Proposing Marriage to the Pepsi Machine?" In this study, forty students were escorted around campus and instructed to perform an action, or to imagine performing it, or to watch someone else perform it, or to imagine someone else performing it. Some of the actions were commonplace, while others were bizarre. In one case students were asked to propose marriage to a Pepsi machine.
Two weeks later the participants were interviewed and asked if the action had been imagined or performed. The conclusions were clear. Whether the action was normal or bizarre, participants who imagined it often remember doing it: “We found that imagining familiar or bizarre actions during a campus walk can lead to the subsequent false recollection of having performed these actions.” In this instance the researchers found that imagining the action vividly, but just one time, could produce the false memory. Moreover, imagining someone else performing the action led to just as many false memories as imagining doing it oneself.
In his book Remembering, British psychologist F.C. Bartlett summed up the rather unsettling scientific consensus about memory. Ehrman summarizes:
On the basis of a large number of studies, Bartlett showed that memories are not snapshots stored in some location in the brain later. The brain doesn’t work like that. Instead, when we experience something, bits and pieces of its memory are stored in different parts of the brain. Later, when we try to retrieve the memory, these bits and pieces are reassembled. The problem is that when we reassemble the pieces, there are some, often lots of them, that are missing. To complete the memory we unconsciously fill in the gaps, for example, with analogous recollections from similar experiences .…
The problem is that there is precisely no way to know when your mind is filling in the gaps and when it has retrieved the information from this or that part of the brain.
At every point of this memory process something can go wrong: at the point at which you perceive something (… you may not notice everything, for example); when you store it (as your mind decides which parts to stick away to access later: it may do a very partial job of that); and when you retrieve it (as your mind pieces it all back together: it may be missing lots of pieces and to make the memory seamless it fills in the gaps with other recollections).
The net result of Bartlett’s experiments is that when we remember something, we are not simply pulling up an entire recollection of the past from some part of our brain. We are actually constructing the memory from bits and pieces here and there, sometimes with more and sometimes with less filler. In the process of this construction project, which we are undertaking virtually all the time, errors can happen. There can be massive omissions, alterations, and inventions of memory.
Some people would argue that while this may be true of trivial memories that are easily forgotten, it cannot be true of powerful, vivid memories of dramatic events in our lives. These memories, at least, must be preserved with considerable accuracy. And in fact, this was the prevailing view at one time. But not anymore. Ehrman:
A very famous article published by psychologists Roger Brown and James Kulik in 1977 argued that when we experience a highly unexpected, emotional, and consequential event we have a special memory mechanism that stores indelibly on the brain. It is almost as if the mind says, “Take a picture of this!” And it does so. Brown and Kulik called these “flashbulb memories.” When you recall such memories, they claimed, your mind says “Now print!” and the memory flashes back, as clear as day and as accurately as when you first experienced it ....
There has been an intense research on flashbulb memories since Brown and Kulik first proposed the phenomenon, however, and their original view appears to be wrong. Yes, such memories are highly vivid. But just because a memory is especially vivid does not mean that it is especially accurate. Many of us have a hard time believing that, at least when it comes to our own vivid memories. But it’s true, and has been shown repeatedly .…
The day after the space shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986, [psychologists Ulric Neisser and Nicole Harsch] gave 106 students in a psychology class at Emory University a questionnaire asking about their personal circumstances when they heard the news. A year and a half later, in the fall of 1988, they tracked down forty-four of the students and gave them the same questionnaire. A half year later, in spring 1989, they interviewed forty of these forty-four about the event.
The findings were startling but very telling. To begin with, seventy-five percent of those who took the second questionnaire were certain they had never taken the first one. That was obviously wrong. In terms of what was being asked, there were questions about where they were when they heard the news, what time of day was, what they were doing at the time, whom they learned it from, and so on – seven questions altogether. Twenty-five percent of the participants got every single answer wrong on the second questionnaire, another fifty percent got only two of the seven questions correct. Only three of the forty-four got all the answers right the second time, and even in those cases there were mistakes in some of the details. When the participants’ confidence in their answers was ranked in relation to their accuracy there was “no relation between confidence and accuracy at all” in forty-two of the forty-four instances.…
Instead, when confronted with evidence of what really took place, they consistently denied [what they were told] and said that their present memories were the correct ones. In the words of the researchers, “No one who had given an incorrect account in the interview even pretended that they now recalled what was stated on the original record. As far as we can tell, the original memories are just gone.”…
Or as a very recent study, by psychologists Jennifer Talarico and David Rubin, has shown, “[Flashbulb memories] are distinguished from ordinary memories by their vividness and the confidence with which they are held. There is little evidence that they are reliably different from ordinary autobiographical memories in accuracy, consistency, or longevity."
This last point may be of particular relevance to parapsychology, since the events described by case subjects are often remembered with extreme vividness and clarity – a fact that naturally leads investigators to assume that the memories are reliable. Sometimes, of course, such memories are reliable; if memory always failed, it would serve no useful purpose, which is hardly the case. But failure is common enough that the accuracy of eyewitness testimony and personal recollection cannot be assumed; and for that matter, false testimony should not be blithely taken as evidence of dishonesty or intent to deceive.
In terms of parapsychological fieldwork, the best results are probably obtained when a person's observations are noted while the event is in progress (for instance, by taking stenographic notes during a séance) or immediately afterward, or when some form of audio or video record of the event itself can be preserved. When dealing with personal recollections of experiences that happened some time earlier, no matter how vividly they may be described, researchers need to maintain at least a degree of skepticism. Even corroborating testimony from other witnesses may not be enough to establish the truth of the story; as we've seen, a majority of people remembered seeing news footage that never aired.
And even when a witness whose honesty seems to be beyond reproach insists on the truth of his or her story despite attempts to debunk it, researchers should still bear in mind that most of the students who were re-questioned about the Challenger disaster not only remembered it wrongly but would not change their minds or admit that their memories were in error even when confronted with the original questionnaires they had filled out.
It has often been remarked that psi is a tricksterish phenomenon – subtle, shape-shifting, hard to pin down. It may well be the case that memory itself is similarly nebulous, frustrating, and elusive.
Recently I saw a Facebook post by Cyrus Kirkpatrick, author of Understanding Life After Death, describing an evidential and intriguing session he'd had with Susanne Wilson. I asked Cyrus if he would tell his story here. What follows is his account of his experience.
Thanks for sharing, Cyrus!
Recently, I had my first session with a psychic medium, Susanne Wilson, whom a friend described as one of the very few authentic mental mediums she’s had the opportunity to experience. Booked several months in advance, the due-date finally rolled around, and I received my phone call from Susanne.
First, let’s get the skeptical part over with. I was very aware coming into the reading that I could become a victim of a “hot reading”. And initially this was the direction things went. Simply skimming my book (Understanding Life After Death), you can find a lot of info to construct a fake reading. So, I was a bit concerned that one of her initial comments was about a man eager to make his presence known as a “partner” of mine in the astral – the famous medium Leslie Flint. Of course I devote an entire chapter to Flint in my book, so it would be no great feat to use Flint as a tool to try and dupe me.
However, much to my relief, a gold standard of proof soon developed during the reading, beyond what could be considered a hot or cold reading (I took measures throughout the reading to minimize the information I was providing her as well, to reduce the chances of the latter form of hoax).
The high-caliber information began to roll in. Susanne first correctly identified my grandmother. She said a name was coming through that sounded like “Jules,” but that everyone always “spells it wrong.” My grandmother was always quick to note that people constantly spell her name Julya (with a “y”) incorrectly as Julia. My grandmother would always joke about this when I was a kid, and it is one of my distinct memories. Susanne identified that this character died at a very old age, close to 100, and that it was in fact my grandmother. She also identified the physical appearance of my grandfather alongside her, and that these people were all on my dad’s side.
She then identified a bunch of people playing the song “Deep in the Heart of Texas” and all my ancestors who were together on the other side, proud Texans, dressed in very dapper/upper-class clothes. That’s all my dad’s side of the family.
She then identified my living father by his first name. “She (my grandmother) keeps saying guy, guy, guy. Who is guy? Is it maybe someone’s name? She really wants to provide a message for guy.” My dad’s name is Guy.
Now for the proof-positive part: My dad had a very unusual ADC after my mom died a few months ago. My father is known for his often unusual, borderline psychedelic experiences, and I don’t always take them all that seriously. He told me one night, in a very emotional phone call, that he was “visited” by a whole group of fluttering, faery-like creatures that came through the wall, illuminating his room, and sending telepathic messages. It’s possible I mentioned this story in passing on my Facebook group (“Afterlife Topics”), but I have no memory, and I assume no other soul knew about this. Well, Susanna said, “This is going to sound really strange. I almost don’t want to say it if it sounds crazy, but there’s like these faeries that are watching over your dad, helping him heal.”
The next hits, however, are even more irrefutable, as they concern my personal contacts with my mom, who recently passed. Since my mom died, I’ve had several astral experiences, where I’ve met with her and tried to help her on a particularly rocky transition period. In my most recent encounter, my mom seemed to materialize into my bedroom while I was partially out of body. She crawled up next to me and wrapped her arm around my waist, and with her usual sense of humor said, “This must be really creepy.” Susanne correctly stated, “Your mom tried to visit you recently, and made it a point to touch you so that you could remember the experience better. She wanted to verify that you received that experience.”
During one of the times that I visited my mom, I found myself in a hospital-like environment. My mom was in a special room, where she was recovering from a kind of nervous breakdown, having been doing various self-destructive things to herself. It was there that I encountered an older lady in a nurse’s outfit, who explained to me that my mom was going through a really hard transition, and would require a lot of baby steps to become, essentially, a fully functional person again.
Susanne identified that there was a nurse with my mom, and that her name was Mrs. Connor, and that she’d met with me before in this “hospital”-like area in the afterlife, which she calls the Halls of Healing. It’s possible some of this information had been supplied by me ahead of time, but the next part was impossible for her to know: Susanne transcribed for me Mrs. Connor’s explanation of my mom’s condition. “Connor tells me that your mom arrived with her consciousness split into two parts: one of an adult, and another of a child. This regression is, of course, very bad. However, she’s gotten better since arriving. Basically, the nursing staff are trying to make her into a whole person again.”
In the months leading to my mom’s sudden death, she began acting very strange. Half the time, she had reverted to the mind of a small child. This was a truly strange experience, and one of my brothers and I knew that it was a bad sign of mental deterioration — although, oddly, the other half of the time she was as normal as ever, so we couldn’t say for sure it was even a sign of dementia. None of us could fully grasp what had happened to her, and she did not see any doctors or receive any diagnoses at this time; this information was only noted between me and a brother. Further, upon visiting my mom in the astral, I noticed she retained these issues, as she talked about her new environment with a strange, childlike vocabulary.
So, now that it’s established it was the real deal, I’ll come back to the topic of Flint. Apparently, Leslie Flint has expressed a lot of happiness for my book and dedicated afterlife-related discussions online, and that there are “really important” things planned in the future that he, and scientists on the spirit side, are trying to get me and other afterlife researchers involved with. He said there is something I’m working on that Flint wants to be “front and center” of (but I’m not sure what that might be yet!).
Susanne explained that my most closely associated “guides” are my Texas ancestors, but also a group of “consciousness researchers” out of, of all places, Poland. That they were “using” me and my innate clairaudient abilities to further their influence on Earth.
However, I am also aware of other guides higher out on the spectrum that I’m associated with, that I really wanted to know more about. So I inquired further. Susanne mentioned that a primary guide of mine is an aboriginal Australian man. She then confirmed another fact—that this guide helped to heal me “when I was traveling.” I had a bad injury in Thailand a few years ago that required lengthy and dangerous surgery. However, in my astral experiences, I’ve never encountered this entity.
Next, I clued her in on some more information about an apparent guide or astral visitor I already knew about. During that said injury, while I was in the hospital, I had a vivid lucid dream of these very beautiful Egyptian twins, who reassured me that I would be well during my injury. They told me they were spirits of the Nile crocodile, once worshiped as goddesses in ancient Egypt. I’ve never been able to get those girls out of my head. So, I brought this up with Susanne. I said “What can you tell me about Egypt, crocodiles, and a female guide?”
Susanne then said that she saw a woman appearing. She seemed to stutter a lot on the topic, and then said something about a “sister”—that the woman was bringing her sister forward. She said they were twins, and although they were two different women, they existed together as one entity.
She then explained that the twins were showing her an infinity loop tattoo on their arms. The symbol was a representation of how these spirits have existed eternally. Then, a powerful male spirit appeared, a kind of ‘pharaoh’ of sorts. This spirit was somewhat dismissive of Susanne, who explained to me through her that they prefer not to work with mediums because of how unreliable they are. However, they would indulge my request just this once.
So who are they? Well, the twins called me “Little Brother,” related to a familial relationship to them from a past life. They are not from Earth or any realm we can even understand, but they did exist briefly in Egypt. During that time, apparently I had a life in Egypt, as well. They incarnated to help “build something,” and that I assisted them with building it. However, no details were given.
I was curious about why I haven’t had further experiences with them. Apparently, these spirits are so powerful, that if I were to come into contact with them, my physical body would instantly die. They said the only way they can be communicated with is through yes/no impressions through my own clairaudient abilities. Their advice for me was to remain calm throughout family matters and work for the next few months, and to meditate more.
Susanne concluded that they were probably from another star originally. My interpretation is that perhaps they are some of the progenitors of ancient Egyptian culture, and although highly influential on our culture, they're not even from Earth originally.
So, that’s a lot to take in. A pretty extraordinary experience, not sure what else to say.
Also, my auras are pink and blue, which is funny because those aren't my favorite colors--but it makes sense concerning my personality. Apparently, pinks are empaths, and I need to be careful not to be too empathic for my own good.
I've been reading Near Death in the ICU, by Laurin Bellg, MD, and finding a lot of fascinating material in it. But before I present some examples, I need to offer a caveat. At the beginning, the author says she has done her best to conceal the identities of the patients and family members in the stories told here. That's understandable, but she goes on to say that in some cases she has even created composite stories based on two or more episodes blended together.
I'm not entirely happy about that approach, since it necessarily means blurring the details of individual accounts and suggesting a more elaborate experience than any one person may have reported. Personally, I think that when it comes to NDE accounts, composites should be avoided and the details should be changed as little as possible.
Nevertheless, there is a lot of good stuff here, and I have no reason to doubt the general accuracy of what's being reported. Much of it is consistent with other NDE accounts, but told from a fresh perspective.
One common thread involves seeing a spiritual being (or more than one) in the form of a glowing point of light or a luminous orb. Another feature in common in several accounts is the patient's relocation to an ethereal space of perfect peace.
Here is an excerpt from the account of someone identified only as Dr. John, which includes both details:
His next awareness found him completely and peacefully enveloped in what he could only describe as a soft shroud of mist with tiny points of light blinking in and out, as they darted quickly back and forth all around him. He felt completely weightless and peaceful, void of any fear. The feeling of love was immense, almost unbearable, and recalling it now, Dr. John’s voice became fragile as he paused to fight back tears.
Regaining his composure, after a few moments he continued. He described floating in such a beautiful and bright place of total peace that he lost all thoughts and concerns related to anything connected to his physical existence. He was aware of nothing except how good it felt to be there where he was – wherever that was. How long he lingered in this space he could not say because time had immediately lost meaning for him.
Out-of-body experiences feature in many of the accounts, and in some cases veridical observations are reported. I've already mentioned the next NDE in a book review of another book, The Self Does Not Die. Here is part of the story:
Howard started from the beginning and gave us a play-by-play of his experience. He recounted that at some point, he didn’t know when, he felt more than heard an intense, escalating buzzing. Not long afterward he experienced the sensation of shooting out of the top of his head with incredible speed ...
“Next thing I know,” he said, “I’m looking down on my body and it feels like I’m bobbing and bouncing against the ceiling. I was too shocked to be scared! It occurred to me that I might be dead, so I started to panic and, as crazy as it sounds, I tried swimming through the air to get back to my body. It didn’t work. That convinced me I must be dead, so I just watched and listened ...”
After this, he found himself rising up through the ceiling, where he saw the plumbing pipes and other fixtures between floors. Then he entered a strange environment in which mannequins were laid out in hospital beds. The nurses were flabbergasted when he described this detail to them, because there was no way he could have known about this room, which was used for training purposes. This part of the story is excerpted in my earlier post.
Two features of the above excerpt are interesting to me. First, the buzzing sensation is commonly reported by people who have OBEs, including people who have learned to induce these experiences at will. Exiting via the top of the head is also a pretty familiar observation. (The buzzing sensation is also reported in many cases of so-called alien abduction, a fact that lends credence to the idea that these episodes are OBEs misinterpreted as events in physical space.) Second, the business about bobbing against the ceiling reminded me of a time, some years ago, when I used to have exceptionally vivid dreams in which I would "bob and bounce" weightlessly against the ceiling of my home, sometimes exploring corners of the ceiling or treading water in midair. Was I dreaming? Or was my astral body exploring my environment while I slept?
A woman who suffered a series of heart attacks reported several NDEs that included the orb, veridical observations, and a sort of impromptu scientific experiment that she herself performed in her out-of-body state:
“What happened next was a big surprise, and that’s when I knew I must have died. I became distracted by a growing, bright light to my left, and when I turned my attention to it, it became bigger and brighter. It seemed like it should have been a blinding light, that’s how bright it was, but it wasn’t hard to look at, even though it was so intense. The more attention I gave to it, the closer it came and then, suddenly, I wasn’t concerned at all about what was going on with my body in the ER. Not one bit. In fact, in an instant, I forgot all about it. In just a blink, it was all about that incredible light for me.
“It was coming closer and I wanted it to, because the closer it came, the more intense love I felt ...
“It’s so hard to explain that kind of love. It was very intense and so real. More real than this,” [she said, indicating the room around her].
Later in the experience, she was reunited with her mother, who told her she had to go back. She didn’t want to return, and she put up quite a fight about it.
“I even tried pleading with her to let me stay. I told her, ‘It’s my life, I should get to choose. I should have a say-so.’ Then she told me, ‘It’s not that you don’t get to choose. Part of you, in fact, is choosing and participating in this decision. It would be easy for you to choose to stay here, but you understand on a level you can’t quite comprehend just now that there is more from your family relationships you need to experience and learn. And more they need to learn from you. When choosing is not an act of escape but an act of completion, then you will stay.’"
She did go back but suffered a second heart attack.
She knew it was coming. She felt a subtle buzzing sensation, then perceived a voice saying, “Get ready for it. Here it comes. It’s going to happen again.” Strangely, she said it sounded like her voice, as if she could hear aloud the thought she had spoken internally ...
Having the notion that the voice she heard was actually her own thoughts audibly manifesting so she could perceive them, she decided, in her disembodied state, to test her hypothesis and found her suspicions were correct. True to her self-professed, smarty-pants nature, she tossed out random words – butter, ping pong, tacos – and heard these very words echo aloud, although she was looking at her physical body that was unconscious, mouth unmoving, and clearly in distress. But she wasn’t in distress, not in the least. Rather, it fascinated her ...
Note that her OBE was also precipitated by a buzzing sensation.
Later, she had a third cardiac arrest. Afterward she reported a veridical observation.
She described it to me, and astonishingly, even reminded me of something I had forgotten. She was watching us from a position in middle space – not exactly floating above and not entirely standing; rather, she was somewhere in between. After having the thought, “Your heart is going to stop again,” and feeling the soft buzzing sensation tingle through her once more, she then saw the [sterile] blue drape being lifted up and the nurse reaching under it to start chest compressions.
Then she mentioned something I had forgotten entirely. She saw members of the resuscitation team try to tilt her whole body sideways to put a long, flat board under her and me saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, my stuff,” as I grabbed the things I had set on top of the sterile field to prevent them from falling onto the floor ...
The board is used to make the chest compressions more effective. The patient made this observation when she was totally unconscious and in need of CPR to restart her heart.
One of the book's more elaborate NDEs involves many of the above elements – and more. It is so lengthy and detailed that I have to wonder if it is one of the composite accounts. In any event, here are some excerpts from a much more extensive account:
[Marlene] soon became distracted by the presence of a soft blue orb of light that came into view on the opposite side of the room. She watched as it began to move slowly toward her the moment she had noticed it. How long it had been there hovering, watching before she had actually seen it, she could not say, but it seemed that the mere engagement of her attention drew it forward. While the orb was slowly approaching, she noticed that the voices below [in the hospital] became thinner and more distant while the visual scene grew ever smaller and more remote, as if she were looking through the wrong end of a telescope.
As the orb, about the size of a beach ball, came to rest in front of her, she felt overwhelmed with emotion and intense feelings of peace, love and complete safety. While nothing in particular was said, the thought came to her that she was going to be okay but that something was going to happen first. This was confusing to her, but she did not feel afraid or threatened ...
She passed between the floors, seeing the pipes and wiring, and then emerged into a hospital room where a patient was eating a meal in bed.
She noted a couple of vases of flowers on the window sill and perceived, more than actually smelled, their intoxicating fragrance. The flowers were the most vivid colors she had ever seen and the petals, stems and leaves all seemed to be made up of tiny particles that vibrated very fast. Remarkably, there was a palpable, humming energy emanating from the flowers that vibrated across the atmosphere, entered into her body, if she could call it that, and presented itself in such a way that she could feel the flowers ...
[After more such experiences, she concluded that] whatever she visually locked in on – from the hospital room where she had seen the flowers, to the roof and then the parking lot below – she gained an instant awareness of the sounds, smells and colors in hyper-sensory detail from a great distance. Her guide, if that is what it was, seemed in no hurry to move her along, allowing Marlene to marvel and observe with this phenomenal skill ...
Moving into lighter space, she was aware that the orb was less dense as well. Looking to her right as they moved along, she realized that her companion was actually no longer an orb but seemed to have stretched out to a filmier smudge of an elongated, cloud-like substance. She wondered why the orb had changed like that – dense and round in physical space but lighter and less formed in a more ethereal atmosphere ...
Her movement became literally as rapid as thought itself, as she whirled over the ocean and the field of rippling wheat, still accompanied by the cloudlike "guide."
Suddenly, she reported, they came to an instant stop with absolutely no sense of deceleration into a vast void that was incredibly silent. But even the silence seem to have texture. After a brief pause of floating in this splendid quiet, the environment took on more density, with subtle shifts in color and hue. At this point, Marlene really struggled to explain this to me, saying that it was like a cloud, but not really – like a mist, but not exactly. She described the feeling of silk or soft fog settling around her while, at the same time, muted colors of blues, grays, and faint pinks and greens fluctuated in and out. With the color there was a faint sound that had a somewhat musical quality, but there were no specific tones that she could identify. It was more vibrational than anything, she recounted, much like the connection she had felt from the vase of flowers ...
In this more rarefied environment, Marlene encountered deceased loved ones, as well as a barely remembered neighbor to whom she had been helpful. Though the small acts of kindness she showed him had meant little to her, they had been more important than she realized.
To her dismay, she was told she could not stay in the afterlife. A child of four or five years old was brought before her; the child, she was told, was "special" and would need her. The child would be named Crystal, and would struggle with a mental issue; the struggle would be helpful to the personal growth of the people around her. The child herself seemed to be looking forward to the assignment. Marlene "was informed, again through a thought that seemed to be deposited in her mind, that this was a preordained task agreed upon by the young child and her guides.”
After this, she retreated to physical reality and was back in her body feeling pain and exhaustion.
For years, Marlene never told her daughter or anyone else about the deepest parts of her experience; she made no mention of Crystal, the girl who was waiting to be born. Nevertheless, twenty-one years after Marlene's NDE, her daughter gave birth to a child who was named Crystal, and the child did struggle with autism and other issues. Bellg writes, “Crystal required a lot of work and attention but her ready smile, infectious humor and unqualified affection more than compensated for it." She goes on:
Marlene and Crystal had a particularly special connection, a bond that was instant and strong. They spent hours together and, living close by, Crystal often stayed the night with Marlene ... Once when Crystal was about four years old, as Marlene was tucking her into bed for the evening, she looked peacefully up at her grandmother and, lost in a soft gaze that connected her to something far away, said, “I saw you before, Grammy, remember?”
“What do you mean, Sweetheart?” Marlene did not immediately understand.
“When you died before, and came to Heaven. I saw you there. Remember?”
With a shiver of excitement, Marlene leaned in toward her granddaughter and replied softly through instant tears, “Yes, Crystal, I remember.” Marlene’s death and return to life so long ago was now a distant memory. It was something she rarely talked about, and certainly not with Crystal. There was no way that this child could have known what she seemed to know about what had happened over twenty years earlier.
“You were sad that you had to go back in your body,” Crystal became pensive as tears poured down Marlene’s cheeks. “Are you still sad?”
“No, Crystal, I’m not sad. I’m very happy to be here with you."
Again, I would prefer it if none of the stories had been conflated to create somewhat fictionalized composite accounts, and I would also prefer to have as few details altered as possible. Still, Dr. Bellg's sincerity is obvious throughout the book, and I don't doubt that she was told of these experiences, though maybe not exactly in the form in which they appear in print.
Near Death in the ICU contains several other fascinating cases. I'll provide excerpts from those in an upcoming post.
Roger Knights sent me a private message recently, suggesting that I index this blog to help people people find the subject matter that interests them without having to slog through the monthly archives.
It's a good idea. Unfortunately, creating a full index would be a time-consuming and tedious project. But a partial solution occurred to me.
Most of my posts have been tagged in different categories such as Afterlife and NDEs. Many posts are tagged in multiple categories, since the subjects often overlap. Until now, though, there hasn't been any convenient way to use these category tags to search the archives. A little bit of research into the mechanics of TypePad revealed that it's easy to post a list of categories in a sidebar.
So that's what I've done. Scroll down the left-hand side of this page, and you'll see a list of recent posts, followed by a list of recent comments, and below that, a list of all the categories. If you click on any category, all of the posts included in that category will come up.
Scrolling down further, you'll find a Google search box, which can be used to search the blog archives for specific terms. (This feature has been available for a while, though I think most people are not aware of it.) Below that, there are the monthly archives, which include everything in chronological order, all the way back to April, 2005.
This way, if you're interested only in reading about NDEs, you can just click on that category link and find a fairly comprehensive collection of the relevant posts. I say "fairly comprehensive" because I'm not sure that I always applied the category tags consistently, especially in the early years.
It's not an ideal system, but it's an improvement over what I had before.
Let us count the ways, shall we?
(Oh, and I know I said the last one would be my final post on Trump, but that's because I thought he would lose. This one really will be my last political piece for a while. Pinkie swear.)
The election, of course, is not yet over – and yet it is. At least at the presidential level, the outcome is already known. Indeed, one bookmaking outfit is already paying out to its clients who bet on Hillary Clinton. There’s no reason to think the firm will regret its decision.
Yeah, well, best-laid plans, mice and men, yada yada.
In coming months, there will be endless debate about whether or not Donald Trump, under other circumstances or following a different strategy, could have won this election. For me, the answer is simple: the Donald Trump we know, the Trump who exists in our universe, could not have won. He simply lacks the right stuff. [etc.]
Swing and a miss!
This election was the Republican Party’s to lose – and lose it they did.
Or ... not. With a Republican President, House, and (almost certainly) Senate, as well as gains in governorships (the GOP now holds 33 of them), the Republican Party is as well positioned as it could possibly hope to be. At least for the time being, it has won back the fabled Reagan Democrats and recast itself as a populist party that is not the vassal of Wall Street arbitrageurs (even if its standard-bearer is an obnoxious Manhattan plutocrat).
Most likely, a President Trump would not prove to be a dictator, if only because being a dictator requires a mental focus, determination, and courage that Trump doesn’t possess. ... Had he been elected, he probably would have spent most of his time goofing off on the golf course or on social media, while his vice president, chief of staff, and cabinet members did the heavy lifting.
At this point I have no idea what kind of president Trump will prove to be. His victory speech was surprisingly low-key and gracious, even if it did feature the usual unrealistic promises.
... it could be argued that electing Hillary Clinton actually pushes us a tad closer to banana-republic status by cementing the idea that the rich, powerful, and politically connected are above the law.
This I still believe. In fact, throughout Election Day, as I pondered the looming reality (so I thought) of a Hillary victory, I found myself increasingly depressed and angry. The idea that this kleptocratic serial liar would be rewarded with the presidency after a lifetime of cheating justice and failing upward was infuriating and deeply discouraging to me. A four-year slog through a Hillary administration seemed like an almost unbearable prospect. Honestly, if I had voted on Election Day, I might have pulled the lever for Trump just out of sheer despair at the alternative — even though I still think Trump is dangerously unqualified and temperamentally unfit for the job.
In such a discouraging political environment, it’s easy to give up hope. Some academics argue that, having crossed our own Rubicon, we’ve effected the transition from a republican system of government to an “elective monarchy” not too dissimilar from that of Imperial Rome ...
Not necessarily wrong, but last night the people reminded us that they are still in charge, and that the "elective" part is at least as significant as the "monarchy" part.
In this country there’s still enough innate suspicion of government to prevent a Hitler, Stalin, or Mussolini from gaining power, and, for most Americans, life is still comfortable enough to make manning the barricades an unviable proposition.
I think this is true, and I sincerely hope it won't be put to the test. In fact, I hold out a smidgen of hope that Trump and the Republican Congress will rein in the imperial presidency at least a little. (Okay, okay ... it's unlikely. I said it was a smidgen.)
Another unattractive feature of today’s politics is the assumption that one’s opponents have been hypnotized, duped, and brainwashed – assuming, of course, that they are not actually evil. The possibility of honest, intelligent disagreement is rarely broached.
I've been guilty of this as well — sometimes tarring Trump supporters in general with the brush of the alt-right white supremacist crowd, who represent only a small (I hope) subset of his voters. Most of the people who voted for Trump did so because they want a new direction, because they feel that the smug, self-satisfied elites are out of touch and out of control, and because they had no confidence in either the competence or the integrity of Hillary Clinton. These are valid reasons to support a candidate.
The truth is, the media and the #NeverTrump crowd (including me) made little effort to understand where Trump's support was coming from, outside of the spittle-flecked Pepe-the-Frog social-media trolls who were noisy and hateful, but probably not especially numerous. The more mainstream dimension of Trump's support largely eluded us, leaving us unprepared for his upset win.
So there you have it. That's my mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Having been wrong in my forecasts of the last three presidential elections, I now confess I am hopelessly out of touch with the American zeitgeist. Just when I think I've got it figured out, everything changes. Sort of like life.
For people (like me) who are still worried by the potential (large) downside of a Trump presidency, I'll add that, if nothing else, last night's outcome teaches us that our powers of prognostication are limited, and wildly unexpected things can happen. This can be a calming and even liberating thought. It reminds us that, even in our personal lives, the trajectory we believe we're on can be altered at any moment, sometimes for the better. You think you're destined to be alone for the rest of your life ... and then your eyes meet hers across a restaurant. You think you'll be poor forever ... and then your latest crazy idea takes off and makes you a million bucks. You think you have nothing to look forward to ... and then suddenly you do.
If Trump's surreal victory proves anything — if the consensus-defying election of an abrasive, septuagenarian reality TV star who's never held political office carries any larger message —it's that anything is possible. And if we ever think we have all the answers, reality shows up to give us a swift kick in the ass.
Lately, as you may have noticed, I haven’t published very many new posts on this blog. The reason is that I’ve been preoccupied with politics, and I’ve found it’s exceedingly difficult to focus on spiritual matters when immersed (emotionally, at least) in the clash and grind of a presidential campaign. With this post, I hope to close the book on this election so I can get back to our usual subject matter.
The election, of course, is not yet over – and yet it is. At least at the presidential level, the outcome is already known. Indeed, one bookmaking outfit is already paying out to its clients who bet on Hillary Clinton. There’s no reason to think the firm will regret its decision.
In coming months, there will be endless debate about whether or not Donald Trump, under other circumstances or following a different strategy, could have won this election. For me, the answer is simple: the Donald Trump we know, the Trump who exists in our universe, could not have won. He simply lacks the right stuff. Nobody handicapped by Trump’s liabilities could realistically have attained the White House. He is a man with zero knowledge of public policy, a man who quite possibly cannot explain how a bill becomes a law or name the three branches of government. Worse, he has no interest in learning anything new, because he believes he’s already a universal expert. Knowing nothing about military matters, he boasts that he knows more than the generals. Knowing nothing about international trade deals, he boasts that he can make the best deals. Knowing nothing about campaign strategy, he ignores his advisers and pursues a hopelessly self-defeating course.
A candidate who won’t prepare for debates, who spends his nights tweeting insults to celebrity journalists, who limits his media appearances to a few friendly venues on Fox News and talk radio, who insults and ridicules constituencies he needs to win over, who foments pointless and destructive intraparty feuds, and who behaves like an emotionally unstable six-year-old ... is simply not going to win. There’s a story that when Donald was a small boy, he became so unhappy at a friend’s birthday party, presumably because the attention was on his friend and not on himself, that he picked up the birthday cake and threw it on the floor. Trump has said his temperament has not changed since he was in kindergarten. This appears to be true. He is still the angry little kid who throws the cake on the floor.
Still, it’s possible to argue that some version of Trump could have won this election – a Trump 2.0, a Trump from a parallel universe, a Trump who could master his worst tendencies, learn a modicum of self-discipline, memorize a smattering of salient facts, and organize a serious campaign with a competent get-out-the-vote effort. A Trump, in other words, who could pivot and act presidential, as the Trump of the primaries promised to do – which is just one of many promises that have not been fulfilled. A better Trump, a more adult, less volatile, less thin-skinned, more serious Trump who actually heeded his advisers and did the things that serious candidates do, might very well have won against the scandal-ridden, socially maladroit, and personally unlikable Hillary Clinton, who represents a continuation of eight years of policies that are widely felt to have been disappointing. This election was the Republican Party’s to lose – and lose it they did.
In an earlier post I pondered the question of whether Trump is a fascist. I concluded that he is probably not a true fascist but more of a right-wing populist with proto-fascist tendencies. To me, this still seems like an accurate assessment of Trump as he came across in the primaries; but in the general election his message became so muddled and his behavior so bizarre that I’m not sure what assessment to make of him today. Most likely, a President Trump would not prove to be a dictator, if only because being a dictator requires a mental focus, determination, and courage that Trump doesn’t possess. He’s a flighty, narcissistic popinjay mainly concerned with protecting his own image and preserving his persnickety vanity. Had he been elected, he probably would have spent most of his time goofing off on the golf course or on social media, while his vice president, chief of staff, and cabinet members did the heavy lifting.
So I don’t think we’ve dodged the bullet of fascism, as some people say. On the contrary, it could be argued that electing Hillary Clinton actually pushes us a tad closer to banana-republic status by cementing the idea that the rich, powerful, and politically connected are above the law. It’s palpably obvious that Hillary and her friends in high office saw to it that the FBI “investigation” into Hillary’s server scandal was fatally hobbled. This is hardly a surprise, but it is a disappointment and a worrying harbinger of the next four (or eight) years. We can expect Madam President to use the machineries of the IRS, the Justice Department, the EPA, and other bureaucratic organs to harass and stifle her political enemies when possible. This is, after all, the same Hillary who, as First Lady, tried to put the career civil servants of the White House Travel Office in prison simply so she could replace them with her Arkansas cronies.
In such a discouraging political environment, it’s easy to give up hope. Some academics argue that, having crossed our own Rubicon, we’ve effected the transition from a republican system of government to an “elective monarchy” not too dissimilar from that of Imperial Rome (though with the key difference that Rome never worked out a rational method for the transfer of power). Even if this perspective is valid, it doesn’t mean the United States is finished. Rome survived for hundreds of years after the republic died, achieving its greatest power, wealth, and influence in its imperial phase.
Besides, it may not be valid. The similarities between the United States and ancient Rome are arguably more superficial than real. And history doesn’t have to repeat itself.
What can we do to improve our prospects? For starters, we can eschew overheated rhetoric and irresponsible fear-mongering. Although it’s become de rigueur for each side to foresee an apocalypse if its candidate loses, the partisanship this time has been more feverish than usual. The hard left predicts a Fourth Reich if Trump wins, while the hard right predicts civil insurrection, even civil war. It’s time to remember Kipling’s advice to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” The American system of government and the American people have both proven exceptionally stable, a fact that has consistently frustrated radicals and revolutionaries of all stripes. In this country there’s still enough innate suspicion of government to prevent a Hitler, Stalin, or Mussolini from gaining power, and, for most Americans, life is still comfortable enough to make manning the barricades an unviable proposition.
Another unattractive feature of today’s politics is the assumption that one’s opponents have been hypnotized, duped, and brainwashed – assuming, of course, that they are not actually evil. The possibility of honest, intelligent disagreement is rarely broached. And yet trade-offs are an essential part of democracy, and sensible compromise is the key to good governance. There’s nothing disreputable or traitorous about seeking common ground; the effort to find and uphold shared values has been the cornerstone of American politics throughout our history. Our best hope for the future is to reach out to those with whom we disagree, to respect each other’s differences, and, in the famous words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, to “bind up the nation's wounds” while showing “malice toward none [and] charity for all.”
If we want a better country, we can begin by being better people. Let’s wash the stain of this election season off our hands and get to work.