The Threat Workout

March 19, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Depressed? Anxious? Can’t sleep? Feel everybody hates you?

If so, you could be vice-president of the National Rifle Association, Wayne La Pierre, who confessed his inner anguish to the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Here’s a taste—forget the politics, just listen to it as an influential public voice triggering loud applause:

In this uncertain world, surrounded by lies and corruption everywhere you look, there is no greater freedom than the right to survive and protect our families with all the rifles, shotguns, and handguns we want. We know in the world that surrounds us there are terrorists and there are home invaders, drug cartels, carjackers, knockout gamers, and rapers, and haters, and campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse our society that sustains us all.

What makes this speech more fun than a Martian invasion is that its paranoid excess has become so routine in the US that you might not even notice its violence. Like rant radio and guts & gore thrillers, the man earns a living by telling horror stories to pump up adrenalin and righteous outrage in true believers. What’s striking is that neither the man nor his audience seems to see how over-the-top the rant is: everything’s corrupt, on all sides people want to wipe out you and your power grid. Huff puff pant pant pant.

Oh, and how self-important. We’re so special that everybody hates “us,” “our” power grid, “our” society. Luckily. with all the guns we want, we’ll be the special heroes who will save us all. It’s like the deputy in an old cowboy melodrama crying “Mount up, boys. The sheriff’s gittin’ up a posse.”

I call this berserk style, because it makes radical fear and rage so familiar it encourages trigger-happy accidents. It also invites copycats, like rampage killers, who convince themselves they’re avenging wrongs and saving the world—or annihilating a rotten world—with a more sensational death toll than the last berserker. A close look shows you that most rampage killers are well aware they’re competing to command the world’s attention. Just as terrorists do.

This sort of speech is really an emotional workout. Pump up a little sweat and potency. The people on the treadmill next to you aren’t terrorists, they’re “responsible gun-owners” who can impulsively kill people ringing their doorbell after dark, or blow away black teenagers playing loud music at a stoplight. Seductive laws invite you into the gym, coaching you to “stand your ground” and get up some muscle and hair-trigger reflexes. And the gym keeps you repeating the drill over and over until the commands are natural habits and you don’t have to waste energy thinking about them.

The physiology is clear: in a panic, one reaction is to turn flight into fight. After all, that’s exactly what rant broadcasters do every day for depressed and anxious listeners. Better to feel pumped up than bored and depressed. It’s a morale massage. The problem is, enemies get stale. The pitchman has to keep the message intoxicating to keep spirits and adrenalin up. Give a man an enemy, and he’ll be thrilled today; teach a man to hate a world of enemies and he”ll feel good until doomsday and send you money.

This is a mild form of the crowd hysteria that used to culminate in regular lynchings in the south from the end of slavery till the 1950s. Excited lynch mobs targeted black males whose supposed sexual threat would pollute and potentially extinguish the white race. Crowds tortured and killed scapegoat blacks in atrocious ways, cutting off body parts for souvenirs, evoking a fad for postcard mementos (I kid you not). Like the crowds attending public executions, lynch mobs enjoyed the adrenalin high of witnessing righteous killing and enjoying their own escape from death.

Gun mania is inflammatory. It has no logical end. How much is enough? Give us “all the rifles, shotguns, and handguns we want.” Just one weapon won’t do. Why? Because the group fantasy is now so self-intoxicating that threats are everywhere, and preaching about it wins the applause of the faithful. And you are the target: you who would defend your kids and all of civilization from monsters, as the Messiah would do.

Pass me that there musket, Agnes, or they’ll “collapse our society” and kill us all.


Resources used in this essay:

Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil

Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power

Kirby Farrell: Berserk Style in American Culture

Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence


Straight talk about cannibals

February 23, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Cannibalism is taboo. It makes the neighbors nervous, and, if you carry it far enough, leads to extinction. Yet the Internet is buzzing with fantasies of a “zombie apocalypse.” When you read news stories about naked lowlifes high on “bath salts” and biting strangers’ faces, Jeffrey Dahmer, who dined on local kids and lovers, doesn’t seem so odd after all.[1]

We’re built around appetites for life: for food, sex, companionship. We cherish the symbols of fertility in culture. From infancy we learn to manage appetite. Fairy tale ogres and giants warn you not to let outsized greed make you a predator. In “Little Red Riding Hood,” bedridden Granny lives alone, widowed, frail, and hungry enough to need Red’s gift basket of grub. Like food stamps, Red’s family gift is feeding someone needy. After all, only a few centuries ago famine still periodically spoiled dinnertime. This is one reason that witch hysteria accused needy old ladies of eating babies, blighting crops, and enjoying sterile sex with the Devil.

Red Riding Hood dramatizes a version of this fear. Her grandma turns into a wolf who gobbles up all the food—and the “good” Granny and Red too. In effect, the hungry Granny develops a “wolfish” cannibal appetite, consuming her civilized everyday personality in the process. The hunter restores order by cutting open the wolf and freeing Red and the “real” Granny. Whereupon Red fills the wolf’s gut with “deadweight” stones, so that waking up, the wolf dies. The stones stand for the “burden” of guilt and food that’s obsessive and not nourishing: and the the predator dies when he “wakes up” to what he’s done. This is an ancient moral: that cannibal greed destroys you. You’ll eat till you drop.

The wolf’s survival greed is indiscriminate. He’ll even gobble up the family. We chew the bodies of the beloved Little Red Hen, the moocow, and Porky Pig by the billions. We prefer to depersonalize them as “things” or “enemies.” The diet industry reminds us that we feel guilty about overeating, and the air is full of food tips that help to disguise that eating is compulsory: it’s not a choice. We eat or die. Likewise, industrial food “processing” or slaughter is highly secretive, like funeral “homes.” We’re conflicted about killing to eat, partly because it reminds us we have to eat to survive. We try not to notice that eating is ultimately warfare, with animals forced to eat each other. If their owner dies, after a few days hungry pet dogs and cats will have a bite. Chickens are raised in factory compounds that look like concentration camps—actually, death camps.

Since enemies threaten death, it’s logical that in combat, soldiers may run amok and eat parts of the soldiers they kill. The cannibalism converts the enemy into nourishment and power over death. Like appetite, the food value of the dead is psychosomatic—both physiological and symbolic. And appetite is ambivalent too: again, it’s a threat, eat or die. Aristocratic Romans liked to eat living things—a live animal roasting on a spit, say—because they thought eating “more life” was tastier. Jeffrey Dahmer dined on male lovers: the ultimate romantic fusion of souls. As the old song says, “You always hurt the one you love.” And then there’s the Auntie who croons to the new baby, that epitome of lovable new life, “Oh, you’re so cute I could just eat you right up!” The ambivalence shows up in the ancient practice of attributing life-giving properties such as courage or strength to particular body parts “harvested” from a fallen enemy. The prized delicacies allay fear and grow the cannibal hero’s self-esteem.

Food value is part of economic life. Food intake = income = prosperity = more life. Swift’s satirical “Modest Proposal” spotlights the cannibal threat underlying economic life. He recommends that the starving poor sell their kids as food for the rich. The proposal develops the old saying that “the big fish eat up the little fish”. It anticipates the dog-eat-dog mentality celebrated in US business today, where they call Social Darwinism “the free market.” When dog eats dog, only winners survive. Losers are lunch. Again, the underlying idea is warfare. In Swift’s terms, the rich are eating parts of fallen enemies—the losers’ kids.

If you listen closely to the rationales for killing food stamps and health insurance for the poor, it’s warfare and Swift in reverse. The free food is “our” children given by big government to bloodsucking losers who feed on “us.” As polls show, these days Americans are more suspicious of others [2] and, especially in the deep south, have significantly turned against a government safety net for the hungry, homeless, and black [3]. And you can see why. Given decades of stagnant incomes for all but the rich, and the ongoing jobs crisis, Americans are hungry.

In the best of times the poor live shorter, less healthy lives than others. Cutting the safety net means cutting into life. The haves are consuming the have-nots. And no, this isn’t just a colorful figure of speech.

Think of it this way. Lives are a store of food energy. We consume each other’s energy all the time in the form of work. As long as it’s reciprocal, the consumption seems fair and benefits everyone. But you can see the sinister temptation. If you can take others’ energy without paying for it, that’s more life for you, as in slavery—and cannibalism. Feeding on others gives you power, so in turn you can take away food stamps and unemployment insurance, say, forcing the hungry to work cheap. If work doesn’t pay a “living wage,” then the working poor are dying. If they can never get out of debt, they’re peons—de facto slaves to the boss or the bank.[4] Owners feed on “their” workers as a vampire or the wolf does. Walmart and McDonalds pay so little that their workers need food stamps to get by. You know all this on one level—that’s why you call alpha cannibals “fat cats.” It’s also very likely why we’re fascinated by the swarms of vampire and zombie fantasies in the air.

In Dixie, Ol Massa minimized guilt feelings and retaliation by dehumanizing slaves. Slaves were livestock. You breed them as you use them up, so they replace themselves when they croak. The larder’s always full. Having no legal identity, the slave is socially dead. Today if you’re socially dead, you’re expendable. You don’t need a “living” wage. In a corporate uniform and a mechanical role, low-paid workers today are interchangeable—and not real as persons. If they have no power to bargain over their work, they have no choices. They’re food energy for the boss who owns them and the customers who use them. If you use them up, an unemployed replacement steps in.

Economic cannibals also have another incentive. In feeding yourself, you’re eating up potential competitors. If you think other people are parasites or predators, then you want to swallow them before they eat you alive. It’s survival greed that follows from dog-eat-dog economics.

The problem’s not just snapping jaws and unsightly bite marks, but warped reality. Denial makes out the poor Ito be lazy, clever parasites, blaming the victim. It’s hard to hold the cannibal rich accountable, since they can have lobbyists cook for them and they can put you in the stew pot if you complain. On TV you can watch Donald Trump pick over job candidates the way you’d pick a meat dish from a menu. And if the cannibals have enough money and power, they’re free to swallow or spit out anyone they want. That’s what makes today’s America alarming. The nation resembles developing countries where people warn you not to stop for a dead or injured person lying beside the road, since it could be a trap to rob or blame you. Cannibals will take advantage of any kindness. The body in the ditch is roadkill, and you could be too, pal, so move on.

Even if you personally don’t get eaten, then, cannibalism eats away at trust, putting you in a society of epidemic insecurity and hair-trigger aggression, in which a paranoid gun fancier may answer the doorbell with bullets, as if it’s the wolf at the door not a stranded motorist, a lost neighbor with Alzheimer’s, or Red Riding Hood.

Why call attention to cannibalism? For one thing, we need to be reminded that we can be predators and live by killing and consuming other lives for every meal. We didn’t ask to be born this way, but if you forego food, you die.[5] So the cannibal feast is always tempting. But then, so is civilization. What is civilization? It’s that primal sense of “what is right” you take in from your earliest childhood. Does it work? Well, we find out by packing a lunch basket for Grandma, looking out for little Red, and taming wolves (as dogs, they make great pets).

Resources Used in This Essay:

1. << http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/01/cannibals-in-the-news-fi&#8230;

2. <

3. “Starting in 2007, the portion of Americans who said the government should guarantee every person enough to eat and a place to sleep started falling, from 69 percent to 59 percent last year . . . . It’s not unusual for people to react to economic downturns by becoming more self-interested. The recession of 1990-1991 was followed by a drop in the share of people who said the government has a responsibility to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. Opposing welfare programs just when they’re needed most seems perverse, but it may also be human nature. What’s different today is the duration of those shifts. Six years after the 1991 recession ended, public attitudes on the virtues of helping the needy had started to move back up. Today, six years after the onset of the last recession, those numbers are still moving down.”


—Pew Research Center: <<http://www.people-press.org/values-questions/q40f/government-should-help-more-needy-people-even-if-it-means-deeper-debt/#total

4. http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/among-american-wor&#8230;

5. <<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvXXRf-9Zdw&list=PL9C819400A10709C3&index=5


Nothing Focuses The Mind Like The Ultimate Deadline: Death

February 13, 2014
TDF Guest Jim Lieberman

TDF Guest Jim Lieberman

The “Deadline Watch” was a recent topic on National Public Radio. You put in data about yourself and the ticker on your wrist continuously estimates your time left on Earth. Its inventor, Fredrik Colting, a 37-year-old Swedish former grave-digger, then publisher, calls it “Tikker, the happiness watch” because it helps focus on the worthwhile and enjoyable use of time remaining.

Ernest Becker was present in spirit:  psychologist Sheldon Solomon cogently handled questions, emphasizing that death awareness can make us more appreciative of life, but also hostile and xenophobic: “intolerance against people who are different is the result of a psychological inability to tolerate death.”
Colting agreed that wearing it could push one in either direction. A live example came from a couple who tried out the device. Theresa experienced brighter colors around her, while a chore–making the bed–seemed senseless. Jeff was impatient, resenting time wasted with junk mail; he couldn’t wait to end the experiment. For Theresa the world was “sharpened” and she wants to get the Tikker for herself.

The media constantly remind us of death, loss and grief affecting someone else–a form of reassurance. Most Americans are believers who count on a glorious afterlife, but want to take their good time getting there. The grateful owner of two artificial hips at 79, I don’t need a countdown watch to appreciate a little more time. We do need a watch that tells us when Mother Earth will likely die, to raise anxiety constructively. Disease, famine and war are crude yet insufficient remedies for overpopulation. Human life is choking the planet to death and the powers-that-be are in denial.


The Appeal of “Downton Abbey”

January 27, 2014
"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

As the BBC production Downton Abbey begins its fourth season amidst the typical swirl of sneak previews and gossip, it occurred to me that at least some of the show’s popularity reflects Becker’s ideas about culture. To be sure, there are many factors in the show’s success, foremost among them good writing and strong acting. Beyond the technical elements however, lies a storyline that speaks to our immediate condition as post-moderns who are maddeningly self-aware.

Downton Abbey tells the story of aristocrats in early twentieth-century England. Their travails revolve around the breakdown of their hierarchical world in the face of modernity. A parallel hierarchy of the servant class who wait on the aristocrats also suffers from similar stresses as the various liberation movements challenge their security. I maintain that part of the appeal of Downton Abbey is the vicarious pleasure we receive as we see the characters moving confidently in their prescribed roles. There is a clear rule book of behavioral expectations for both aristocrats and servants and those rules are framed against unconscious assumptions about the way things are. On that level we experience the program as a nostalgic reminder of a simpler day when Walter Cronkite could end his newscast with a confident “And that’s the way it is,” without the postmodern smirk of “Who says so?”

In a recent piece for The Wrap (http://www.thewrap.com/5-downton-abbey-problems-make-first-world-problems-look-like-malaria/), critic Tim Molloy mocks the trivial concerns of the Downton Abbey crew: maid who quits without notice, or an apron that rips at an inopportune time. My favorite trivial crisis is the cook who is stymied by an electric mixer. But is this really so different from contemporary technology anxiety that affects many in my baby boomer generation? Perhaps it is the very triviality that Molloy observes which allows the culture to work its magic and protects everyone at Downton Abbey from the terror of the human condition. As Becker observed, “The real world is too terrible to admit. It tells man that he is a small trembling animal who will someday decay and die. Culture changes all of this, makes man seem vital to the universe; immortal in some ways.” The detail and rigidity of the social order is perhaps a testament to its effectiveness as character armor.

The struggle to maintain a coherent narrative of meaning in the face of change is no less a challenge for us than for the fictional characters. In fact, the center holds less securely today. We recognize the trivial as trivial, hence the game Trivial Pursuit. The Downton characters invest their social roles with meaning in a marvelously sincere and unconscious fashion. Their repression works. To borrow Kierkegaard’s image, they stand on the brink of eternity wondering if their socks match. But again, the plot is driven by that very condition of unconscious duty crumbling under the stress of modernity. Lou Reed captured the theme beautifully when he sang, “Self-knowledge is a dangerous thing, the freedom of who you are.” Our freedom renders the future more open and therefore more terrifying. This explains the current flight of many people into reactionary tribes and fundamentalisms, both sacred and secular.

Fortunately, there are other ways of dealing with the terror that accompanies freedom. One way is to apply the “anthropologist game.” In the original form of the game, people exchange wallets and, like an anthropologist, analyze the culture. Because they are objectified by the other person, assumed truths are seen in a new light. Similarly, Downton Abbey provides a familiar yet exotic world that we can hold safely and reflectively at arm’s length, seeing people wrestle with our shared human condition. As soap operas go, not bad.


Some Thoughts on Reading “Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist,” Part 4

January 9, 2014
"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

Like a number of other notable intellectuals who found the youthful excesses of the student-led New Left movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s to be abhorrent and frightening, Peter L. Berger denounced this movement and threw his lot in with the emerging web of academics, foundations and think tanks that was coalescing during the Reagan administration to oppose the forces of “Leftism.” I purposely use the scare quotes above, because while I do not doubt the sincerity of these people’s feelings that the Left presented a real and dangerous force to be reckoned with, there is no question that with the wisdom of hindsight, it is very clear that this force was mostly a mirage rooted in youthful energy. Meanwhile, the real power to shape every concrete aspect of social, political, economic life and culture (with the possible short-lived exception of pop music, which itself was soon fully coopted) always remained firmly in the hands of those with money and deeply-rooted establishmentarian connections. As even current advertising makes clear, coopting every symbol of New Left “revolution” to sell the endless products of late-capitalist consumption (He, denizen of the corner office: “Yea! Stick it to The Man!”  The office underling: “…but Sir, you ARE the Man.”) the supposed power of the New Left, along with the danger to the social order it represented, was always only one of style and not genuine substance.

Again, I have no need to question the sincerity of the initial feelings of threat felt by that cadre of intellectuals mentioned above. Though one of the younger of the Boomer generation, I am certain old enough myself to remember the short-lived sense, circa 1968-1970, that as the song said, “there’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” OK. But the shallowness and ineffectual nature of the supposed revolutionary spirit became clear to anyone with half a brain within a few short years. In the meantime, the forces of real power were reasserting themselves. As we know now, as a result of the “Powell Memo” of 1971, by 1980 there was a growing network of generously funded foundations, think tanks, magazine and journals established, all dedicated simultaneously to smashing whatever power there was on the Left even while keeping the myth of a powerful and danger Left alive, and to employ and massively fund the “research” projects of this cadre of intellectuals for both purposes. As the years have worn on, the very pitiful non-existence of any real and tangible power on the Left or even Liberal side of social politics appears to have only increased the need to shout all the louder about the hidden dangers it represents. Again, I do not necessarily doubt the sincerity of the original feelings of threat felt among this cadre of intellectuals. But it is simply not credible to me that such well-trained analysts of society have continued all these decades now to believe their own disturbing rhetoric about it.

These were the folks among whom Berger associated, both professionally and personally, during his late 40s, 50s and 60s. Berger claims that he was never really one of them, that he always maintained his sense of intellectual distance and independence, and that he remained basically the true liberal he had always been; and in fairness, it needs to be said that at key junctures Berger did act to assert his independence, for example, by having his name removed from the Contributing Editor mast of First Things magazine, as it moved increasingly from being a voice of traditional ecumenism to that of the most militant type of Roman Catholic conservative dogmatism (though we might notice that his conformities, such as The Hartford Appeal, were much more loud and public than his assertions of independence.). Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that these were years that might have otherwise been ones of solidifying his most concrete and lasting contributions, both to sociology and to wider academia. What mess of pottage did we get instead?

Berger veered off into economics and the sociology of development. Well and good. But what we got was book after book, article after the next, extolling the virtues of the Capitalist model of development over that of the Socialist model. In this, Berger always claimed his vaunted “value neutrality,” that he only went where the raw data led him. This illustrates vividly what I have found most frustrating about Berger’s work after about 1980. He excoriates the “ideological blindness” of others, especially academics of communist and socialist countries, in many places coming very close to or even crossing the line of suggesting that they largely see things the way they do only because seeing it that way enhances their power and economic self-interest. This is what we would expect from the author of The Social Construction of Reality. But in his own work, Berger resorts to the justification of value neutrality, even when referring to the “studies” he engaged in for the tobacco industry and their deep-pocketed attempts to undermine the public credibility of the nascent anti-smoking campaign in society.

Berger noted, rightly, that all economic development is a trade-off between the traditional forces of meaning (community, religion, tribal and family bonds) and that of increased material standards of living. His general view (where the raw data led him) was to see that while both the capitalist and socialist models of development more or less equally undermined the traditional forces of meaning, the capitalist mode at least delivered the material goods, a rising standard of living for the vast population, while the socialist model succeeded here barely at all or was even counter-productive. His work repeats this “finding” over and over again.

To put it mildly, Berger found no trouble lining up sources for continued funding of this work. It is highly doubtful, however, that any of it will be of lasting value to the profession. In the first place, that we would even think of “socialism” as a model for development is a relic of the Cold War competition between the USA and the USSR, which has little or no organic roots in the way people actually cooperate to create wealth. Secondly, the particular model, whether socialist or capitalist, is vastly overridden in the results it produces by such factors as whether or not there is an established and functioning independent judicial system in the countries undergoing development (certainly for a Weberian questions such as these should be front and center, not whether the social ideology is socialist or capitalist.) Berger and his contributors may have argued (I haven’t read all of those many studies and conference reports) that an independent judicial system is more compatible with the capitalist model. But I hardly think this could be empirically demonstrated unambiguously. If anything, our current experience in the USA suggests that the highly skewed distribution of wealth inherent in the capitalist model tends to undermine judicial independence.

The vast majority of that material is unlikely to have any lasting value to the profession also because so much of it was simply intellectual window dressing, an academic fig leaf, for people that were going to do what they wanted to do anyway, regardless of what the “studies” indicated, up to and including the use of economic and military coercion. At one point, Berger seems aware of this role he willingly played during those years. He relates being invited by very well-funded sources to come to a planning meeting at a private location in Texas, supposedly focused on economics and the Caribbean. It was all a bit vague, and while the money was there in abundance for just about any study he wanted to pursue, no one really seemed to care what he studied, or in the results produced. In retrospect, even Berger himself cannot escape the sneaking realization that his real purpose there was to provide a known public name as fig leaf for a meeting, the real purpose of which was to plan out covert strategy (clearly illegal) for getting funds and weapons to the Contra movement fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

I am not at all impugning Berger’s motives, nor suggesting that he himself took part in illegal activities in relation to Contra support. I am only saying it is unlikely that the comfortably funded report he produced as part of this venture will have any lasting value. I also must say that I would at least have hoped such an experience would have led the author of The Social Construction of Reality to engage in some very deep introspection about the current power relationships in society and his own place in that power structure. We might imagine him pondering the question, “If that is what they had in mind, why did they feel so confident inviting ME to be the beard?” There is no evidence here that Berger was led to engage in such introspection.

Despite these disappointments, I do want to say that this was an enjoyable book. Berger’s dry wit is evident throughout. He studiously stays on a “sociological” track, and refuses beyond a few tantalizing statements here and there to get into his personal (especially, religious) views. I found this odd for one known primarily as a sociologist of religion, but it is in keeping with the method of writing Berger established for himself over the decades, and it also raises my hopes that another volume focusing on this other side is in the making.

I know I have expressed a lot of frustration with Berger in these installments. In the end, however, the overall message I take away is that even our most highly regarded heroes and role models are “human, all too human.” Some have the advantage of dying young, before they have a chance to disappoint. Others, like Berger, live long lives and leave behind a very mixed legacy as a result. As readers of The Denial File know, one of my main intellectual heroes is Ernest Becker. Certainly he has never disappointed, right?! But let’s face it, Becker died very young, and though he did heroically stand up against S.I Hayakawa’s crack down on the student movement in the late 1960s (costing him his job, among other things) Becker also clearly had his strong reservations and revulsions toward the excesses of the time (as can be seen in his stated preference for Apollonian order over Dionysian disorder.) Becker can be seen clearly moving in an increasingly “conservative” direction in his last few works. At the very least, I think we can all agree that Becker’s political philosophy, such as it is (“seek maximum freedom within maximum community”) is highly compatible if not congruent with Berger’s idea of “radical in analysis, conservative in application.” Many times as I was reading this book, I wondered what my view of Becker would be had he lived to 89 instead of just 49.

Well, if for nothing else we have to thank Peter L. Berger for that vision of sociology he formulated with his group back in the early 1960s and for the vivid and entertaining style with which he communicated this vision to the rest of us. As I notice my students even today lighting up to the insights sparked in them by Berger’s work from that time, I know that at least that segment of his work does and will continue to have lasting value. May God bless you, Peter L. Berger.


The Devil’s Desiderata

November 10, 2013
"Leucocephalus" Phil Hansten

“Leucocephalus” Phil Hansten

Astronomers assumed for years that there were planets similar to earth throughout the universe… planets that could possibly harbor life and even intelligent beings. Now astronomers are regularly finding evidence of planets circling other stars (“exoplanets”). This virtually guarantees what many of us thought; we are not alone. Or does it?

There is a chilling alternative theory, namely that the very process of organisms evolving intelligence and “advanced” societies also limits the life-span of such high-tech civilizations to perhaps a few hundred years on average. As the argument goes, the competitive pressures of evolution eventually create creatures that end up destroying each other and destroying the planet on which they live. If one looks at the behavior of homo sapiens over the past century, the theory certainly seems credible.

The obsessive craving for more power impels the already powerful to do whatever it takes to win—thereby risking the destruction of civilization. All of this reminds me of Nietzsche, who said, “What is strong wins; that is the universal law. If only it were not so often precisely what is stupid and evil.” And although he probably wasn’t thinking of exoplanets when he said “universal law,” he would probably have agreed that his law would apply to little green men and women as well as human beings. It’s just the way things usually work out.

Look at present day United States and consider “what is strong” and therefore winning… a veritable devil’s desiderata: billionaires launching organized campaigns to deny climate change; gun manufacturers preventing common sense gun laws; private prison owners ensuring that we have the highest incarceration rates in the world; military contractors collecting billions in profits through no-bid contracts; for-profit hospitals shunting poor emergency patients to non-profit hospitals; wall-street criminals using their ill-gotten gains to buy a fifth or sixth luxury home; billionaires paying lower tax rates than their secretaries; a completely dysfunctional government where most legislators are bought and sold by wealthy special interests; a US Supreme Court laden with ideologues whose every vote serves the powerful and betrays the vulnerable (note Scalia’s astonishing statement that there is nothing unconstitutional about executing the innocent). The list goes on, but you get the point.

If Beelzebub existed, reading the previous paragraph would no doubt make him feel all warm and fuzzy inside, especially because all of this happened without him lifting a finger; we have done this to ourselves.

Of course, “man’s inhumanity to man” has existed from the beginning, but for the first time in human history, human evil has existential implications. We are in the process of destroying the planet on which our lives and the lives of our descendants depend. Will the “strong” (but stupid and evil) individuals Nietzsche talked about be able to keep us on this course until it is too late? Perhaps. Has this scenario already played out on countless other planets in the cosmos? We can only guess.

Ernest Becker warned us that there are no guarantees of survival for the human race, but he remained optimistic. We may know within a few decades whether or not his optimism was warranted.

Let us give Nietzsche the last word on how we ended up in this mess: “Not necessity, not desire—no, the love of power is the demon of men. Let them have everything—health, food, a place to live, entertainment—they are and remain unhappy and low-spirited: for the demon waits and waits and will be satisfied.”


If Tattoos Could Talk: fangs, gangs, and the pangs of youth

October 29, 2013
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Humans have been tattooing skin, filing teeth, and spiked with ornaments since prehistoric times: sometimes to stand out, sometimes to blend into a group. The 5000+ year old Ice Man (Oetzi) uncovered in the Alps has tattoos that may have telegraphed identity or magical thinking, or worked to relieve, physically or psychosomatically, his local aches and pains. Or all of these.


Today, tattoos have proliferated. While rationales can be as varied as the designs, all tattoos modify self-esteem as well as bodies. Like cosmetics, tattoos are prosthetic, since like an artificial limb they make up for something felt to be missing or inadequate. We’re always devising ways to enhance parts of our bodies, from diets and wigs to a Michael Jackson makeover. Once we’re self-aware, there’s really no such thing as a wholly “natural” body. We compete with others and ourselves to envision a more perfect us.


As a symbol and a behavior, the tattoo has power. The quest to be better than ordinary is an appetite for more life, more good feeling about yourself and more response from others. The tattoo also promises to stop time. The tattoo implies you’re in an eternal present, willing to change your body permanently, not worried that the image will eventually become an embarrassing cliché or a maze of wrinkles on grandma’s tired skin.


Tattoos idealize youth and fertility by drawing eyes to youthful skin and often erotic parts of the body. In the process they counter anxiety about aging and death. Nothing beats a butterfly for signaling rebirth. Many symbols, including hearts and ancient Egyptian ankhs, are comforting. And this is no surprise, since terror management experiments in social psychology show that people unconsciously honor the potency of immortality symbols such as the cross and the flag.


But you don’t have to believe in the magic of pharaonic goddesses or old glory to enjoy death-avoidance. The decision to submit to the tattoing needle is a modestly painful initiation rite. The design substantiates your choice: makes it physical, touchable, enduring. The commitment can be a kind of conversion experience, a mark of independence from parents and conformity. In opening toward ultimate concerns—self-esteem, fertility, death—the ritual is doing the sort of work religion does.


Like a vaccine, fear of death can stimulate useful defenses such as anxiety that scouts for dangers ahead. But death and anxiety are pretty nebulous, especially when denial fuzzes them out. Hence the urge to confront the threat head on in order to subdue it. By putting a skull on your skin, for instance, you—and everyone who looks at you—honor your control over death. The skull insists you’re not afraid, and even “own” death. If you emphasize teeth, as in images of wolfish jaws and fangs, the signal is a threat display that should intimidate potential adversaries and pump up you, the beast’s owner, turning nervous system flight into courage and fight.


Once upon a time skulls and fangs were mostly military insignia. Like the jaguar-masked warriors of Aztec Mesoamerica, combat soldiers sometimes cope with fear and rage by identifying with death’s heads and ferocious animals. Closer to home the ravenous beast is mascot to sports teams pumped up to “wipe out” opponents. These days you can even spot a petite blonde teenager sporting a ravenous beast on her arm. What gives?


For one thing, that devouring maw is open to swallow more life: more food-energy, but also, as a tattoo, more vital attention. We’re social animals. It’s how we’re built. Remember: the self is an event, not a thing. In the neurochemical conditions of deep sleep, the self disappears. We rely on social behavior—attention—to substantiate us and make us feel real. Exile, solitary confinement, and social death punish by starving the self for attention.


Tattoos promise to make you attractive, as if you have a personal force akin to gravity. Notice me. The more attraction you command, the more attention you get, and the more life you have—as we see in the public’s devotion to celebrities and leaders. As the name says, hero-worship, too, has a religious character, and if you’re the hero, you’re superhuman. The more people you have thinking about you, the more of you there seems to be. In the wisdom of slang, you can be, if not godlike, at least a “bigshot.”


The devouring beast tattoo is one way of compelling attention. It’s threatening but also appealing as a sign of outsized appetite. Greed for attention—and more life—inspires fear and envy, so one function of groups is to regulate competition for attention. Gangs use tattoos to boost a feeling of unique but shared status and power. When it works, the gang emblem pumps up self-esteem even as it absorbs the individual into the group. Tattoos spotlight the individual but also signify membership in the group of similarly marked folks.


But let’s keep that ferocious beast in focus. It speaks to the peculiar conflicts that beset the young. They’re hungry for life and yet constantly held in check by rivals and the generation ahead of them—which is also hungry to “make it.” American culture celebrates freedom, individualism, and entrepreneurial aggressiveness. But in the current economy, the young earn up to 40% less today than a few decades ago. Aspirations go to bed hungry, scraping by on a dead end job and food stamps. Marriage, a house, retirement—these look increasingly chimerical. If you don’t have “enough to live on,” well, you’re dying. The tattoo suggests living for the present rather than emulating the traditional dream.


In today’s economy the big fish swallow the little ones. The rich consume the energy of the working poor, and especially the underpaid young. It’s like a fairy tale inasmuch as the nation fibs and finesses the reality. In a culture of employment sharks, the ferocious beast tattoo works as a guard dog protecting morale. If the workaday world opens its jaws, the beast tattoo threatens to bite back.


The air is full of biting terrors—literally, if you recall the summer flick Sharknado,

in which a tornado flings monstrous sharks into your backyard. No less startling is Werner Herzog’s documentary film Grizzly Man, which recounts how Timothy Treadwell escaped the jaws of workaday life by role-playing the innocent friend of ferocious Alaskan grizzlies, one of whom devoured him and his companion. Or consider the judicial killing of Todd Willingham in Texas because, among other hysterical testimony, a witness regarded his heavy metal skull tattoo as a demonic sign making him capable of murdering his young girls in a house fire.


What’s striking about threatening tattoos is how equivocal they are. They’re frightening signs of real conflicts, yet also just playful abstractions. They wink and snarl at the same time. They make a passive aggressive protest rather than openly defy injustice and abuse. This may be a logical reaction in an era when people feel haunted by a sense of oppression whose sources are masked and too big to confront. Government surveillance crystallizes unease about invisible systems of control and invasions of privacy—really, of self.


In the real economy, for the young and those not “making a living,” corporate machinery and slick media have enabled the rich to undermine organized labor, minimum wage and health care initiatives, and lately even the foodstamps that make peonage survivable. In this way the tattooed beast of youth growls at the unseen masters that feed it but keep a tight choke on the collar.





Ernest Backer, Escape from Evil

Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power

Jerff Greenberg et al, “The Causes and Consequences of a Need for Self-Esteem: A Terror Management Theory,” in R. F. Baumeister (ed.), Public Self and Private Self

“A Terror Management Theory of Social Behavior: the Psychological Functions of self-Esteem and Cultural Worldviews,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 24.


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