The Romance Plot

July 7, 2014

By Kirby Farrell, Ph.D.

Stories are tools for making sense of the world.  They function as parables. In dramatizing situations, they put problems in a form that helps us to think about their puzzling qualities.  In computerspeak, stories “crunch” complex information into usable form. They may follow familiar mechanical schemes, with white hats taking black hats to the cleaners and offering you a momentary wishful high. Or they can be famously enigmatic “literature” such as Heart of Darkness that admits that the world is overwhelmingly bigger than we are, and whispers, So what are you going to do about it?

Let’s not stew like English majors over Hamlet. Let’s stew over hot Romance like perplexed and sexy hominids. I was going to say “like perplexed and sexy Americans,” but romance has a worldwide appeal. Harlequin books, the romance factory, tells us they sell more than four books a second, half of them internationally.

Who can be surprised? Romance is the go-to tool for thinking about mating. And mating is supremely popular with creatures who don’t want to go extinct. That’s the simple part that the stork delivers. The personal reality is much more complicated. For women readers, romance offers a way to think about self-discovery and relationships, especially now when, like climate change, life can be unpredictably frigid or hot, and storm warnings keep wailing in the background.

Some readers take in a novel a day, like vitamins or gin tonics. That sounds creepy until you remember that people who watch TV news faithfully can be addicted to daily tales of criminals nabbed, movie stars rehabbed, orphans and coal miners rescued, and other narrow escapes from oblivion. Heroic rescue from death is another face of the fertility fantasy in romantic love. Who wouldn’t want more life?

In the romance formula of the 20thC, the heroine is a young virgin, pretty but not glamorous, independent but not aggressively feminist, cut off from her usual support network and naturally a bit lonesome. The formula hero is older, more experienced, apparently recovering from bruising intimacy. He’s successful, with a robust credit card, and with an interesting rather than a pretty face.  According Bantam’s old 1980s Soft Romance specs, he might be a cruise ship captain or “an owner of vast estates.” He’s made it.

When they’re together at first, the ingénue and hero wrangle a bit to establish their positions on the game board. After some touch-n-go and tentative  tingling, he proposes. As the Trafalmadoreans in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five keep asking, Are you mating yet?

You can see the outlines of heroic rescue here. The heroine rises from the threat of nonentity (social death) to become an esteemed wife at the top of the food chain. Her virginity guarantees that the kids will be authentic, and his wealth insures that they’ll flourish at the dinner table and a Harvard commencement. For the couple, in different ways, the story prescribes an ideal economy. She trades her virginity, her specialness, for a future of reassuring fertility. He shares his prestige and his “vast estates” with her, trading his sterile solo success for love and family: fertility. Swept along by endorphins and romantic lingo—“fingertips” not “hands” touching—the couple fulfills biology’s and society’s standing order for posterity and immortality.

In this way the “realistic” romance reveals its kinship with its fairy tale cousins such as “Sleeping Beauty” and “Rumpelstiltskin,” in which magic spells, sleep, and captivity in the unheated tower are markers for death which the right kiss can overcome.

Consider St. George. In paintings (check em out online), a reptilian dragon threatens to devour a walled city. The beast is voracious, surrounded by bones and leftovers, a caricature of our own human compulsion to kill and eat other living things three times a day, all year round. The dragon’s cold-blooded and dwells underground like Satan. The Princess of the city has agreed to sacrifice herself if the dragon will spare her fellow citizens. She’s young, lovely, prayerful, and not a biter.

Along comes George, in armor with a blazing red cross. He’s on horseback, mounted high above the dragon (spiritual, aristocratic). He skewers the dragon, marries the Princess, and they together they go on to rule the walled city. (Her Dad conveniently disappears with the slain dragon.)

The George story shows you antecedents of the romance: aristocratic courtly love, the lethal warrior tamed to Christlike chivalry and protecting the self-sacrificing young woman. Mating, the couple overcome death and take over city hall, then come dynastic diapers and teething toys.

In the Disney Beauty and the Beast twist, the Prince is St. George crippled by his inner dragon. Following the 20thC formula, Belle defies his beastly pouting and liberates his royal pedigree, becoming the most prestigious woman in the kingdom. They mate in a waltz, to the servants’ applause.

Everybody wants to be rescued, whether by messiahs, movie stars, commandos, or a lover.  —Oh, and doctors and vitamin quacks.

These days romance feints at democracy, though mating elevates the modern girl even as it brings her consort back to intimate, emotional life. The climax of the plot is a form of conversion experience for both parties, offering a prestigious position in a idealized social world of money and baby. It’s not far-fetched to notice that the romance story is implicated in the economic inequality that protects ambitious billionaires while beggaring the working poor.

As for that red cross on George’s armor: in modern romance the meek don’t inherit the earth. If the modest heroine marries her way to the top, the top is there because she’s marrying a guy associated with Christ the redeemer. That’s a patriarchal fantasy that only a dragon could swallow nowadays. The giveaway is the idea that George can slay the dragon. That’s a specific religious belief. In the world of wedding cakes and vast estates, you can’t get rid of death and our creaturely limits with the poke of a spear.

These days, reports from the dating frontlines tell us, social life is changing so radically that it’s getting hard to tell the players apart. The runaway—or epidemic—bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey seems to recommend bondage, discipline, sadomasochism, contracts, and safe words as the tools you need to make sense of it all. The grim reaper and the grim raper are behind every locked door and yet gone the next morning, leaving only a dent in the pillow and a cold space on the mattress.

More on this around the next bend in da Nile.

Resources used in this essay:

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York, 1977)

Kirby Farrell, “Traumatic Heroism,” Post-Traumatic Culture (Baltimore, 1999).

Eva Illouz, Hard-Core Romance (Chicago, 2014).

Janice A. Radway, Reading the Romance (Chapel Hill, 1991).



Average Terror

June 25, 2014

By Kirby Farrell, Ph.D.

You know the theory: we create inequality because humans have a childlike need to feel protected, so we attribute extraordinary powers to someone or some thing that we believe can save us. The warlord, the boss, the cosmic Father or Mother, even a lover—they all promise to save us from danger and make our lives meaningful. It’s hero-worship or, to be fancy, transference.

Of course the behavior is a sort of denial, since sooner or later everybody bites the dust. We also know that hero-worship and even divine worship can get us in trouble when the supreme honcho turns out to be inept, cruel, selfish, or all too human. Not to mention our fear of not living up to the hero’s expectations, and the dread of being abandoned.

But there’s another way of thinking about this imbalance.

Without a heroic leader, we’d all be more equal, but also more average. We might manage to make plans and decisions by voting, say, but such a system is pretty unwieldy. We’re ambivalent about hierarchy, but we seem to keep returning to it. The Greeks recommended “the golden mean,” but they actually spent most of their time with spears and jockstraps, in violent competition to excel.

The cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker held that the drive to be heroic or to identify with a hero is the basis of self-esteem. If you exceed the standards of your culture, you feel “right” and enjoy the conviction that your life has lasting meaning. Becker thought of this as a form of symbolic immortality that enables you to get on with living without being crippled by fear.

This helps to explain why people fight to be a hero and not a loser. Heroes feel “right”; losers die. Part of the problem is that, as cognitive science reminds us, we think in terms of opposites such as good/bad, black/white, meaning/nonsense, accomplishment/futility, something/nothing, and leader/follower. You’re either a hero (or identifying with a hero) or you’re a loser. If you’re not heroically alive, you’re a goner.

The elevation of average people to heroic status is literal in human habitat. Mansions go up on hillsides to “oversee” the town. Castles were built on heights to fend off attackers. Skyscrapers such as the World Trade Center try to live up to the name: epitome of the world. It’s a dream of godlike immunity and command. There’s lordly oversight but also paranoia in the topography. You can see why terrorists chose it as a target. In their colossal destruction, like rampage killers, they were trying to grab heroic immortality for themselves.

The catch of course is that nobody can be heroic all the time. In fact heroes are usually coming or going. We never stop creating and killing them off. Even if the name “Genghis Khan” persists, Genghis himself is nothing now, just a grab-bag of puffy adjectives on a page. The fact is, most of us spend most of our lives between categories, not heroes or losers but muddling through. With luck, we get to feel heroic now and then, and to let go when it’s futile.

As the wreckage of Iraq shows, life turns nightmarish when leaders become so convinced of their heroism that they try to remake far-away countries by invading them with “shock and awe,” gullible followers, and a bucketful of lies. On a personal scale life can be nightmarish, too, when fantasies of heroism on TV and in the news are overblown, exhausted, or used to sell floor wax.

You’d think we’d know better. Today’s confusion over heroism and inequality shows the need to rethink. Americans let bankers, CEOs, and other “heroes” pick their pockets partly because the honchos have power to wangle what they want. We tolerate it, I suspect, because we want them to be larger-than-life. We want to believe in heroes and excellence. But the flip side of that wish is a fear of ordinariness: an average life.

Even if things are going smoothly, the golden mean can seem not golden but gray. Sameness can be gray. Routine, loyalty, stamina can be gray. Uneasiness about change can be gray. If you hate or disappoint yourself, you see a lot of gray. Yet sooner or later everything, even being rich as Scrooge McDuck or as famous as Lady Gaga, is some sort of routine. And all sorts of things remind you of the average. A shopper buying an overpriced gold watch is heroic; a crowd of shoppers is a stupid gaggle. Generals are given absolute power to send vast formations of average guys to their deaths. Crowds—or the crowded earth—make the average anonymous. Individuals disappear into a herd of insignificant motley bodies destined to wear out and vanish forever. 

Since WW2, the US has been flirting with phantom heroism. The corporate military has been playing “world-policeman” in a fabulous, sometimes criminal waste of effort and shame. Meanwhile big money and its ads promise to make everyone a hero while treating ordinary working people like appliances to be switched on and off as needed.

 You can see the lurking terror in the insane greed for information evident in corporate and government spying. NSA and internet data-gathering creates a stupefying bank of averages and indistinguishable selves, so much that nobody can master it all. It’s as if the powerful few at the top want to vacuum up all the lives below them. Sucking all those lives into a database is a fantasy of controlling millions of slaves, or chewing up all the steaks and drumsticks on earth. 

At the same time, “Former NSA general counsel Stewart Baker has admitted that ‘metadata absolutely tells you everything about someone’s life. If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content . . . .  [It’s] sort of embarrassing how predictable we are as human beings.’” (NYRB) That is, vacuum up enough of us and you can see that we’re pretty much all the same—average: innocent and boring. The fear’s not just of false prosecution or loss of “freedom,” but the anxiety of ordinariness: the terror that data-gathering exposes the trivial limits of identity and lives. Your unknown, private “free” self is your secret immortality. Once known, you’re just a number, one more mote in the churning dust of space.

You can hear the drip of cold fear behind attacks on “big” everything, from big government and storms to the populous billions of China. They make us feel small. Ephemeral. The urge is to withdraw into your own pure backyard, where you can be a heroic bullfrog in a goldfish pond. But that evades the basic question that we’re going to have to deal with.  What are we going to do about being average? What in the world do we mean by “average”? How are we going to make the average livable? 

What a trivial, gut-wrenching question.


Sources used in this essay:

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York, 1973)

David Cole, “Can Privacy Be Saved?” New York Review of Books (March 6, 2014).

David Cay Johnson, “The Impact of American Inequality,” Pirate Television.



Your Cheatin’ Heart: Who Can You Trust?

May 28, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Been cheating lately? Doubled over with gut-wrenching guilt? “As long as you didn’t think your cheating hurt anyone,” recent research tells us, “you may have felt great” or even” elated, thrilled, self-satisfied, superior and positive.”


Subjects in some experiments “adjusted” their scores upward when reporting them, and then felt a “cheater’s high” afterward. We’re supposed to be surprised that cheaters feel great. Conventional wisdom assumes that cheating is a function of your conscience—your “should” voice—like a memo from the boss in your head. A moral outlook, says traditional theory, is the default position in personality.


But deception is at work everywhere in nature. Among our primate cousins, marginal animals may have to cheat with one of the boss’s girlfriends to have a life—tell me they don’t enjoy “the cheater’s high.” And humans are social animals. We fib all the time to grease social life and get a little extra edge on others. Our evolutionary past as scavengers may show up in the slang for cheating: “to get away with something.”  In this way cheating is a bid for privilege and self-esteem that would lose its magic if cheaters talked about it.

Remember: the self’s not a thing—you can’t take it out to dry clean it. The self’s an event shaped by (ahem) “give and take” with others. We shape each other and ourselves as we go. We usually have a core sense of “what is right” that’s instilled in us from birth, long before we can remember. We spend most of our lives testing and sorting out “what is right” and “give and take.” That’s what culture is, and it’s always a work in progress.


Consider the experiment that discovered that subjects who doctored their scores enjoyed a “cheater’s high.” In cultural terms, the experiment itself is a test in hyper-competitive America, where tests increasingly govern school, business success, and self-worth. If tests seem like factory hoops to jump through, you might put your wishes first. After all, more self-esteem = more life; and being a “loser” = social death, so cheating, like food and sex, is a pretty basic motive. If a culture really rewards honesty as a heroic value, then “honor” can offer “more life” as cheating does. If you locate such a culture outside of books, let me know. Christian cultures have traditionally projected a melodrama in the beyond in which honesty = immortality and the cosmic Father’s love, whereas cheating = eternal heartburn. Not to worry: cheaters are not an endangered species.


So maybe everybody cheats a little. What’s the problem?


Well, cheaters enjoy the high when they believe nobody’s hurt. it’s a balance, an eco-system, of lies. But cheating has no natural limit. Fudge test scores today, doctor Wall Street books tomorrow. Before long paranoia howls at everything from climate science and food stamps to wedding rings. Who can you trust?


“Unethical behavior is increasingly studied by psychologists and management specialists,” says the report. They have their hands full. The same forces that are immortalizing billionaires and wiping out the middle class inspire cheating. If the alpha animals have all the power and are unaccountable behind blacked out limousine windows, you suspect they’re cheating. If you fear being on the bottom near social death, of course you’re tempted to cheat.


Research tells us that many CEO’s not only cheat: they qualify as psychopaths. In the 2008 finance scandals that nearly blew up the global piggy bank, nobody at the top was punished. Government fined criminal corporations, but investors paid the bill, not executives. As the world economy has rebalanced and US incomes have stagnated, the nation has suffered an epidemic of business fraud, from crooked banks to Enron, from Bernie Madoff to “liar loans.” With ”free market” ethics in the wind, business has been hoisting the jolly roger.


Complexity and global scale make policing business crime difficult. But alpha money has also put watchdogs to sleep. The mental hijinks can be baffling. “Conservatives” cut the IRS budget in order to make tax-cheating easier. The Chamber of Commerce lobbies to keep the bottom underemployed and hungry, and rationalizes that such cheating isn’t hurting anybody because “they don’t want to work,” etcetera. The fear of the bottom makes American justice hysterically brutal to the poor, with scandalous prison numbers, especially for poor black males.


How do we know when a little cheating is too much? A live question. If your sense of “what is right” is harmed, the world feels unfair and hostile. But the damage is not only to the world, but to you. If you can’t find work, can’t escape from debt, can’t—well, you get the picture.


The core example is the war veteran sickened by PTSD. I’m thinking of the PBS documentary “A Matter of Duty,” which follows efforts to heal returning veterans in Maine. They suffer from drugs, ailing economy, and war-induced demons. They’re soldiers, ordered to “suck it up,” silent about the leadership fraud that used phony pretexts to go after Iraqi oil, enriching “defense” corporations and losingskid pallets of the taxpayers’ shrink-wrapped fresh $20 bills (for real). Much of the country was caught up in “cheating a little” until suddenly it was a sticky nightmare of guilt and pain..


The veterans have seen and sometimes done atrocious things. They’re prone to chronic anxiety, rage, and jail sentences. They shoot up and drink, well-aware that they’re “self-medicating.” When Peter says, “I feel guilty,” he’s trying to square his sense of “what is right” with the suffering he caused. Peter died a few months later, with suicide suspected. A woman veteran who was raped (actually more men than women), feels shamed, dirty, helpless, and betrayed. She believed.


Here’s the sting: nobody in the film, not therapists or law enforcement, ever acknowledges the core of the suffering: the falseness. Bumper stickers call the men heroes, but they feel guilty and angry because they were saluting a lie, paid to invade a country not protecting family back home: betrayed by leaders and rapist “buddies.” If you sign up for heroism and are given guilt, there’s cheating going on, and you’re involved. No wonder the world seems full of predators to them. No wonder they mistrust themselves. No wonder they feel angry and crazy: even their supporters are having trouble with denial. The documentary ends with flags, a bugle playing taps at a cemetery, and the latest group of recruits being sent off to Afghanistan with a flowery speech to shut down some operations there.


The veterans, you can see, need to restore their trust. That sounds glib in a tragic world in which the word “hero” has been trivialized. Traditional wisdom says: understand, forgive, rebuild, help the stranger next to you. Raise the kids, tell the truth. Like it or not, we’re all signed up for that experiment.


Resources used in this essay:


“A Matter of Duty: the Continuing War against PTSD,” Jennifer Rooks and Charles C. Stuart, PBS.


Cheating Culture:   <<http://www.cheatingculture.com


Carrie Barron, M.D., “What’s Up With Cheating?” in The Creativity Cure, Psychology Today online <<http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-creativity-cure/201310/whats-cheating


Cheryl Chumley, “10 Top psychopathic professions,” Washington Times, March 21, 2014.


Kirby Farrell, Berserk Style in American Culture


Jan Hoffman,  “Cheating’s Surprising Thrill” (NY Times, 10.07.13) <<well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/07/in-bad-news-cheating-feels-good/


Timothy Noah, “The Justice Gap,” NY Times, April 10, 2014.


Nicole E. Ruedy et al, “The Cheater’s High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behavior,” The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology << http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-a0034231.pdf  (Nice bibliography.)


Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam (New York, 1983)


Beastly Love: What Animals are Telling Us About Us

May 20, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

By chance I’ve been coming across a (ahem) flock of nature documentaries lately. As usual, the photography is more breathtaking than a bungee jump into the Grand Canyon. But what intrigues me more is how moving the films can be.  As you get less young, you’re more keenly aware of our creaturely vulnerability. You’re inclined to feel for a duck ambushed by a snowstorm, a mare struggling to squeeze out a colt, or bears gunned down like schoolchildren for their magic gall bladders.

But it’s more than that. Science and modernity make it clearer than ever that we’re animals too. We know more about the natural world than once upon a time, when we were blissful, obedient freeloaders in the Garden of Eden. And the Garden’s changed too: it’s suffering bizarre climate skew, whether that’s caused by the sudden release of millions of years of trapped CO2 or by planetary indigestion. In fact, the world outside the world outside Eden has changed too. News tidbits casually remind you that in a few billion years the sun will burn out. Meanwhile the bipeds are vandalizing the oceans and hacking up the rainforests while sneering at “tree-huggers.” It’s not Johnny Appleseed’s frontier anymore.

So you sympathize with critters that have to make a living out there, from frogs to monkeys. This is the theme of the heroic veterinarian show I mentioned last time, “The Amazing Dr Pol.” The episodes present hardworking everyday bipeds rescuing animals and people who care about animals (mostly farmers). In clinical terms, the show offers you transference, a chance to identify with a good-humored, plucky father-figure and his motherly hands-on sidekick Dr Brenda. But the kicker is that you get to see folks cry on camera when Fido or Flicker the horse dies. Or a farmer kissing her cow on the nose as it agonizes giving birth. Those moments of unscripted feeling come as a shock when you’ve been dwelling in the Lollipop Land of TV, facebook, and Googlia.

Now PBS is screening “Touching the Wild,” directed by David Allen, in which Joe Hutto befriends a small herd of mule deer over seven years at his ranch in Wyoming. In the past he’s identified with wild turkeys and bighorn sheep. In this outing the photography is so stunningly intimate that you can’t forget how artful the argument is. In culture, the bipeds compete with brute sneakiness, whereas the mule deer have a magical sort of integrity as well as gorgeous big ears. It’s what we mean when we sigh over “Nature.” Only when you get to know the deer do you begin to remember that nature is also brain worms and earthquakes, and sooner or later it kills everything, even gorgeous big ears. Not for nothing did settlers call the local turf “Dead Man’s Gulch.”

After two years of passively showing up among them every day, Joe Hutto finally has the mule deer matriarch (Raggedy Ann, he calls her) swap the equivalent of handshakes. Eventually he gets to know them all, their fawns, the pronged bucks, and their social arrangements. With increasing enchantment (yes, that’s the word), he studies their migrations, their winter torments, and the terrifying, equally hungry predators that slowly tear the unlucky ones to death. Oh, and hunters mastering nature with high-powered rifles and a space on the wall for antlers, including a buck known for years.

As for Joe, after seven years, fears for his surrogate family and losses “rock him to his very core; sharing their world so personally finally takes a toll that sends him back to his own kind” (PBS).

Here’s where things get (ahem) chewy. As a viewer, you understand how appalling the relentless awareness of predators and vulnerability is. The mule deer are beautiful surrogate children, like your teenager behind the wheel among drivers who want to eat her. You want to rescue them from the cosmic grind of mutual killing, which even the good ol’ doc Pol can’t do.

Yet we’re animals too, also trapped in dog-eat-dog life, chawing down herds of cattle and pigs, and chickens by the million. Hilariously, the comments on the PBS website begin with a heartfelt testimonial about affectionate tears over the deer and then turn into gentle sparring over who’s a vegetarian. The fact is, we all live by killing, chewing, and excreting other living things. We have no choice. It’s how we’re built. It’s one reason why you may feel queasy hearing that a concealed hunter has just bagged another biped in stand-your-ground Florida.

We depend on culture to rationalize such painful conflicts for us. We quibble about meat-eating while unconsciously weeping and snarling at a world organized around predation. We try not to look too far over the back fence, even as the film lures you into the imaginative wilderness. It does what the deer do: it invites you to feel vivid vicarious love for Raggedy Ann and the gang, and then makes you feel the terror and craziness of seeing that love torn to pieces by wolves, rifles, or blizzards.

We care partly because we see the mule deer in human terms, as families, fellow creatures. We give them life stories, and they seem to answer to their names and share basic emotions with us. Like the neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, the philosopher Mary Midgley demonstrates that’s not unrealistic. In Raggedy Ann, the female leader of herd, you have everybody’s ideal mum—Bambi’s mum—looking after her brood and PBS viewers like you. When an orphan fawn bleats for her dead mother, your body is tuned to respond as it would to your baby in the next room.

Most industrial entertainment offers heroic rescue scenarios. The payoff is usually symbolic immortality fantasies. Heroism triumphs, symbolically forever. Or in grownup drama, heroism goes down in tragic sacrifice, but the ideal will live forever. The nature films can be more moving when they merely show you what is. The mule deer forage, nuzzle, mate, groom the kids, and survive. Or not. Either way, there’s no triumph, no trophies on the mantel. At best the deer achieve Hanging-Out-Munching-Together. Suckle the Kid. And maybe Not-Getting-Killed Today.

Stripped of heroic artifice, the mule deers’ experience is apparently pointless—as ours is once you screen out the greeting cards and frosting. In a sense, we’re all Just Getting By.

Ah, but that’s what makes the bond you feel so mysteriously meaningful. You can’t sum it up in words or in honks, squawks, and bleats. Its visceral, a gut feeling. Whether or not you get in a hug, you feel for the other critters. And because we’re symbolic animals, it’s maybe even more interesting, since what you feel suggests we’re broadcasting these animal stories to each other out of anxious fellow-feeling about a planet under stress, blurred cultures, and never enough oxygen and insight in the air. If you want to get fancy about it, you might muse that somehow the animals are signaling us to stand in the footsteps—or hoofsteps—of others and expand our sense of the world. And adapt.

And relish it.

*  *  *

Resources used in this essay:

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

Mary Midgley, Beast and Man

Panksepp, J., and Biven, L. (2012). The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion.

Panksepp J (Ed.) (2004) A Textbook of Biological Psychiatry

Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions.


The Parasites and the Doctors: Using Animals to Think About Us

April 23, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

With a straight face the news tells us that a Nevada rancher named Cliven Bundy (no relation to the serial killer Ted) has been grazing his herd on public lands for decades and refusing to pay the required fees. Now the government has moved to enforce a July 2013 court order requiring confiscation and sale of Bundy’s hoofers to pay the million bucks in fines he’s piled up by scoffing the law.

Then we’re told that members of several militia groups have joined the scofflaw at his ranch to “protect” him from the “tyranny” of having to pay his bill. And now two groups sponsored by the Koch brothers’ propaganda arm Americans For Prosperity have chimed in, helping “conservative” media stage a thrilling “sagebrush rebellion,” threatening another Waco or Ruby Ridge shootout.

The spectacle of tax-dodging billionaires supporting a fees-dodging rancher in order to spread top hog propaganda makes your lasso go limp. But it tells us a lot about the lawlessness and lunacy slopped into the media trough these days for Americans to eat.

Yes yes, I know, the billionaires are one of the main reasons the 99% of Americans are under financial stress. And yes, I agree, their money has caused epidemic mad cow disease in Washington and on some Nevada ranches as well. Changes in tax policy and labor law would directly fight that epidemic. While we hold our breath waiting for those changes, we should diagnose some of the really sinister brain damage.

For instance, propaganda vilifies “government.” But government is “the people,” and Cliven Bundy’s cows have been chewing up a public resource that actually belongs to you and me. And the billionaire Koch brothers want us to defend him.

Supposedly government “tyranny” is hassling Cliven Bundy. But without government, think what would happen if other freedom-loving ranchers wanted to chew on the same public resource. Would Cliven and his militia cowboys shoot them? That’s exactly what happened in the range wars of yesteryear. Listen to the rancher threaten to run amok on a recent rant radio show:

“I haven’t called no militia or anything like that, but hey it looks like that’s where we’re at.” He added, “We got a strong army here, we have to fight.” Previously Bundy told the Las Vegas Sun that “he keeps firearms at his ranch” and promised to “do whatever it takes” to defend his cattle being seized, adding, “I abide by almost zero federal laws.”

To “do whatever it takes.” That’s a do-or-die threat: berserk abandon. You’ll never take me alive, copper.  It’s also the bluster of a parasite who’s been sponging off you and me, eating our lunch, as his billionaire benefactors insinuate that the freeloading lazy poor do. In today’s corrupt America you can legally pack a gun and threaten to blow away authority as long as you’re not Muslim or a black kid or a Commie. 

And we’re not talking nickels and dimes here. The cattle baron Cliven Bundy owes you and me $1million in fines from 20 years of playing outlaw. You can buy a lot of medical care or school lunches or tuition for that kind of wampum.

The 19thC Gilded Age, as you know, was a period in which the west was full of sharp chisellers like Cliven Bundy and the Koch brothers. Back then they were scamming and jamming settlers when no sheriff was looking, and pushing General Custer to move stubborn Indians off tribal lands and, even better, off the face of the earth. City slicker finance was the octopus, the long arm of leverage that turned public language and laws inside out while keeping hungry farmers up to their ears in hock.

The mention of farmers is reminding me of the reality TV show called “The Amazing Dr Pol.” Each week on the NatGeo channel the camera follows around the bald-headed sixty-something veterinarian Jan Pol, who moved from Holland to rural Michigan when he was 18 and has been doctoring pets and farm animals ever since. Why should anyone notice this lightly scripted low-budget TV show?

Okay, for one thing, it feels homemade. It doesn’t have the hyperactive editing that gooses up TV documentaries to make them “interesting.” It lacks the usual smartass ironies that reassure you with a wink that none of this really matters. The upbeat doc and his husky fellow vet Dr Brenda, are unglamorous, hands-on problem-solvers. In a medium where everyone is sexy and nobody dies, these guys wrestle calves out of mum’s uterus, up to the armpit in cow. They neuter, treat hoof rot, pluck quills, cut ingested stones out of Rover, diagnose birds and a pet reptile. The camera occasionally blurs animal privates and gore to spare delicate suburban sensibilities, but otherwise there’s little euphemizing.

Whatever their TV income, as vets, the Pols seem to be square shooters. Details hint that the docs consider what a farm economy can afford, as opposed to some suburban veterinarians these days who crush your wallet without anaesthetic. The farms they visit remind you of the wholesome world of bare- handed work and the muck of bodily life. This isn’t corporate ag lobbying to make it a felony if you photograph their criminal mistreatment of the animals working for them. The everyday routine of birth and death reminds you with a shrug that of course we’re all trapped in clunky bodies struggling to stay alive—and by the way, get a load of that puppy’s charisma.

But I bet the world outside the idiot box is coloring the onscreen episodes.  Every day the vets are relieving creaturely suffering in a world in which American billionaires and their hired tongues are trying to poison health care for poor bipeds who feel pain just like the horse whose eyes tell you he’ll never get up again. In the bigger picture, you’re watching individual people care for individual animals in a world in which human sprawl, government-hating poachers, and ignorant superstition about sharkfins and rhino horns are annihilating the last wild animals out there on the other side of the barbed wire fence. Didn’t I just read about Vietnamese patrols trying to intercept some of the rare wildlife shipped to restaurants in China?

In this light the stars of the Dr Pol episodes are the animals. Instead of exotic creatures in stunningly photographed nature documentaries, the animals are humdrum enough—like you and me—to be worth seeing up close and personal. It’s worth looking over the Doc’s shoulder at the mysteries of anatomy, or glimpse a neighbor’s face strained by concern for a critter in trouble, or redfaced tears at the news that Dobbin is suffering and has to be put down. Some of these moments are eerily real in a medium that constantly titillates you with pretentious death threats.

Still, even Doc Pol’s producers can’t resist playing to America’s adrenaline junkies with clips of his Jeep speeding to save a suffering heifer, and warnings that it’s an emergency, the patient could die. It’s heroic rescue of course, and much more addictive than the pot a client’s dog goofed out on in one Dr Pol episode.

Death threats are capitalism’s snake oil. If you work harder for less, the boss will save you; a pill will save you; a superhero will save you; a diet of turnips and string will save you. For $1million, Cliven Bundy will rescue his cattle from you and me; vigilante “militias” will save Cliven Bundy and his cows; the Koch brothers will save Cliven Bundy and his cows and the militias, and save you and me from Medicare, Obamacare, labor unions, and social security. Oh, and we’ll all be saved from immigrants like that Michigan Dutchman with his arm in the cow..

Good thing Dr Pol got in the door before the big money locked the barn.



Resources used in this essay:


Kirby Farrell, Berserk Style in American Culture

George Huppert, After the Black Death; A Social History of Modern Europe

Mary Midgley, Beast and Man

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Oliver Willis, “Feds Turn From Landlords to Warlords: Koch Groups Back Rancher Making Violent Threats Against Federal Government,” Media Matters

(April 11, 2014)



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


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