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Despair Is Not An Option

A few years back, Patti and our daughter Ali and I were in a serious pickle. Sailing from Connecticut to Maine in a newly acquired sailboat, the engine seized up while we were coping with fierce winds and massive waves at the entrance to the Cape Cod Canal. So we called the marina in Mattapoisett for a tow boat to pull us back in for repairs. But the 40MPH winds had created troubled seas everywhere, and the tow boat refused to come to us. Sail back into the anchorage in the harbor, they said, and then we’ll tow you the rest of the way to the dock. Swell. Those huge winds were coming straight at us out of the harbor, making headway torturous. But we somehow tacked our way back into the midst of the dozens of boats at anchor and began to drop the mainsail as the tow boat approached.

That’s when the sail, flailing wildly in the winds, tangled around the mast, was billowed by a gust, and began dragging us sideways toward an anchored boat. No power, no sail, no steering control--completely at the mercy of the howling winds. A seasoned lifelong skipper, I knew just what to do. I frantically started shouting, “Oh, shit! Oh, shit! Oh, shit!”

That’s when Ali leapt up onto the top of the wildly rocking cockpit roof to free the tangled sail, shouting back at me, “Dad, ‘Oh, shit!’ is not a plan!”

Today we Americans are all in a pickle. I hear so many people reflecting my own helpless “Oh, shit!” and feeling genuine despair over the socio-political quagmire that is the United States of America right now. It feels like our paralyzed ship of state is being blown sideways without any steerage, at the mercy of hateful winds while those elected to preserve our democracy are cowering in the cockpit hoping to personally survive whatever happens next.

Much finer minds than mine have long since portrayed the explicit sins and idiocies of both political parties, of the silo-bound cohorts of know-nothings in echo chambers, and of the innumerable individuals in power whose despicable acquiescence in the sabotage of democracy prove John Stuart Mills’ declaration that “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” Many good men and women in Germany proved that definitively in the 1930s.

Well, I am ashamed to say that I have lately been catching myself all too close to doing nothing. Like many others, I'm feeling moments of despair, disillusionment, and worst—resignation—these days. Now that it has actually become a crime to offer water to a voter waiting in line on hot day, I feel the end is near. Unless I push myself toward some corrective move immediately, I fear I could actually surrender to hopelessness, conceding that the American experiment has run its course and just concentrating on my own trivial pursuits and random delights until I die in the next few years.

To forestall surrender, I am refreshing my appreciation for the work of my friend and former partner Roger Gould, M.D., an eminent psychiatrist who developed The Therapeutic Learning Program—a computer-based course of “cognitive-behavioral therapy” (CBT). At the risk of vastly oversimplifying his brilliant work, I am reminded that he says the source of our pain is not found in the situation but in our failure to take action. Your boss is a bully and it’s driving you crazy? What’s really driving you crazy is not your boss but your own failure to either push back or to go find another job. Ditto for your unsatisfying life partner, or whatever else is the apparent source of your being stressed out or depressed. You are stuck in your own seeming impotence.

But impotence is a self-inflicted injury. There is always something you can do to become un-stuck. You may just be blocked from either recognizing it or doing it because of previous experiences that make it seem too dangerous or unfeasible. But that’s just another way of keeping yourself stuck—insisting that what was problematic before would still and always be problematic. Instead, consider afresh how to do what you really need to do and why it might be just the right thing this time around. (For the un-simplified version, let Dr. Gould himself guide you:

So I’m deciding to head off hopelessness now, before it becomes chronic. I can’t tackle the entirety of what ails America right now, but certainly I can take some action, one action, any action that will move me off my duff and light a proverbial candle in the darkness. I just have to decide where to strike the match. So, groping around in the American darkness, I’m thinking that the preservation of democracy—the very most fundamental element of the American experiment—is the issue that matters most at this fateful moment of history.

My heart sinks fastest and deepest when I consider the newly perfected corruption of voting rights and procedures. Now, American politics have included various dirty tricks almost from the git-go. It was our fifth Vice-President Elbridge Gerry (serving with our legendary founder and President James Madison, no less) who demonstrated how “gerrymandering” could legally corrupt fair elections. But I doubt that he (or you or I) might have imagined that the gerrymandering maps now being established in states across America would cherry-pick individual homes for inclusion or exclusion in a freshly gerrymandered voting district based on tracing what TV cable news channels each separate household on a cul-de-sac typically watches (e.g., Fox vs. MSNBC).

Did you get that? I didn’t make it up. A professor at Princeton who specializes in political processes described these cherry-picking analytics to me in gut-wrenching detail. Almost as surprising to ignorant me, he noted that the United States of America is the only democratic nation on earth where voting districts are determined by the very politicians who will benefit from manipulating them. In every other significant democracy, they are drawn by independent commissions of bipartisan citizenry.

Our imaginations really can’t comprehend how far this might go. No one—absolutely no one—wants to imagine that our two-hundred year experiment in democracy is over and that we have actually already moved into a new form of government. And it has, until very recently, always seemed to me that there is a buoyancy to our country’s democratic urges that would always right the ship just as it appears to be in danger of swamping and sinking. And some people stave off despair by reassuring each other with that. But it does feel to me that the hundreds of new state laws governing who may vote, and how, are entirely likely to compromise our one-person, one-vote “democracy” to the point of no return.

Worse, if that’s imaginable, these laws might also compromise our very humanity. If we do not overturn that inhumane law that makes it a crime to give water to a thirsty person standing in line to vote on a hot day, what hope is there? Let something like that stand, and the game is over. Done. Gone forever.

But I have no confidence at this baleful moment in our political life that elected officials will ever redress these egregious wrongs. Their cowardice and/or ill will and/or incompetence has become the norm.

At this point, I believe that only the courts can stem the tide of sabotage. I have no means of directly influencing these decisions, but I can vigorously join with those who can. Accordingly, I set about doing considerable study of who seems most adept at advocating for honest democracy through the courts, and have decided that the extraordinary work of The Brennan Center for Justice is crucially important for preserving and restoring our democratic processes and ideals.

And so I am officially un-stuck now. We are redirecting and redoubling what used to be our political donations to support the Brennan Center instead. And we’re looking for other ways to become their partners in the effort. In keeping with that, it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyhow: I urge you to join us in that support. Here’s the link: If you’re fending off hopelessness yourself, just click that link for starters. It won’t fix everything, but it sure beats despair.

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Ali -had it right-"DAD OH, SHIT IS NOT A PLAN" that is what we hear from Washington these days. Time to send overboard a strong anchor to stabilize in this storm. Let's hope the mid term elections will bring in some stabilizing influence to help anchor our split America through this storm!!!!



Eliot - this is a wonderful post. The next step for me is to peruse the Brennan Center website. As your dear friend Fred Rogers said, "Look for the helpers." Thank you for being one. Just came across this today and wanted to share:

Karen O


Astounding coincidence! I too just read Carvell Wallace's outstanding piece about Fred today, never having known about Wallace before. It turns out he also has an 11-session podcast all about Fred. I think he's brilliant--at the very top of all those who have written about Fred and their experience of him. So glad you got onto him! (And The Brennan Center.)

XX Eliot



Suggest we take a lesson from the Civil Rights activists who joined hands and chanted. “We shall overcome som day” and join hands chanting “We shall not succumb, NO WAY. Let’s get off of our duff and March.



Redistricting is a somewhat self-conflicting issue when people who have things in common (from a standpoint of political and social philosophies) demand their group to be represented proportionately to the whole (such as minority community districts, wealthy homeowners, etc.) but a truly objective redistricting would look at population only regardless of race, color or creed. Gerrymandering might be seen as much the desire 0f the electorate as it is of those being elected. Excellent article and thoughts . As for election laws, living in California, I object to being able to register to vote by producing an electrical bill addressed to me, and not being required to prove that I am the person the bill was addressed to. My w…


Well said. i am a supporter of the Brennan center. Thank you for bringing it to everyone’s attention.!

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