Guilty Games: Even law officers can behave like children when found guilty (Part Two)

December 13, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

If you ever doubted that humans are childlike creatures, watch the video that shows New York City police arresting—and killing—a 42 year old black father of six on a Staten Island sidewalk. Eric Garner was selling illegal loose (untaxed) cigarettes—you can see why he protested the triviality of the arrest. Perhaps he had trouble understanding why handcuffs for him when Wall Street bankers triggered the financial calamity of 2008 with shifty tricks and collected bonuses instead of punishments.

The arrest and killing have the quality of a children’s game. The cops are dressed up in uniforms and enjoy bossing the tall, heavyset, mild Garner. They’re the big kids; he‘s It. His size and his attempt not to be handcuffed give them the excuse to “take him down.” Two cops close in. One, officer Pantaleo, uses a taboo chokehold to drop the big guy to the pavement as the man pleads that he can’t breathe. Then there are four cops piling on. It’s the bigger boys’ version of what at age 10 we called a pig pile. It’s partly a macho exercise. If you’re “on top,” you feel great.

The police game, you notice, has no place for negotiation with the one who’s It, and no sense of medical emergency when the loser loses consciousness.  Various hands feel for Garner’s  pulse, nobody’s alarmed or tries CPR: the guy who’s “It” is hardly important.

Unluckily for the players, the city medical examiner rules Garner’s death a homicide caused by a chokehold and compression of his chest during an attempted arrest. When the grand jury looks the other way, the nation is outraged, especially because since Garner’s death, US police have killed at least half a dozen other unarmed black males in trivial circumstances.

What’s revealing is that the police shirk all responsibility. Not only do they blame Eric Garner for his death, they feel sorry for themselves, milking the public for pity. “Officers say the outcry has left them feeling betrayed and demonized by everyone.” [1] The problem is, “everyone” thinks the cops betrayed the citizens they serve, in particular Eric Garner, by choking instead of talking to him or even warning him.

“Police officers feel like they are being thrown under the bus,” said Patrick Lynch, president of the police union. Mr. Lynch depicts the cops as martyrs. They’re the ones being crushed to death, not Eric Garner. To keep up this grotesque projection, Lynch complains about the protests: “What we did not hear is this: You cannot go out and break the law. What we did not hear is that you cannot resist arrest. That’s a crime.”

The joke here of course is that the medical examiner found the cops, not Eric Garner, guilty of homicide. That’s a crime. Sometimes.

Prisons are full of folks who can’t handle the pain of guilt. They need to feel “right” as all of us do. Guilt attacks, wrecks, rots self-esteem. No wonder kids sometimes deny guilt so fast they can deny they’ve denied it. Yet coming to terms with guilt is crucial if we’re ever going to escape childhood.

The NYC police feel they played the game by the rules. And it is a game: their spokesmen, like coaches or sports dads, want to get on with the game. Don’t rattle the players or you’ll be sorry. Cop culture has no sense of tragedy. No sense that motives can betray us. No sense that like children, we’d rather deny responsibility than interrogate ourselves as suspects to find out why some guy’s dead on the sidewalk.

Rep. Peter King (R) argues that the grand jury outcome would have been the same if Garner had been white. Try to picture NY cops choking Lloyd Blankfein, the Chief Smooothie at Goldman Sachs, to the sidewalk of Wall Street.

Officer Pantaleo told the grand jury he tried to release Garner as soon as he began pleading, but the video doesn’t show that. He insisted that he hadn’t meant to hurt Eric Garner, which is how you feel playing a game.

Officer Pantaleo also explained that Garner’s ability to plead that he couldn’t breathe means he could breathe.

The officer is taking a cue from the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. Like the cops, the Queen doesn’t talk to you: she bosses you. Lewis Carroll understood the cops perfectly: The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. ‘Off with his head!’ she said, without even looking round.”


Resources used in this essay:

Kirby Farrell,  The Psychology of Abandon (Leveller’s Press, coming soon)

1. Tom Hays and Colleen Long, “Police: Chokehold Victim Eric Garner Complicit In Own Death,” Huffington Post, December 5, 2014.http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/05/police-chokehold-eric-garner_n_6277790.html

Eric L. Adams, a (black) retired NYPD Capt. and state senator observed the connection of police survival anxiety and attacks on the mascuinity of “losers” under arrest. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/05/opinion/we-must-stop-police-abu…


The Child Cop and the Monster: Police Killing and the Psychology of Abandon

December 3, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Police stops are scripted to minimize the chance of an emotional blowout. Stick to the rules and roles and nobody gets hurt. In Ferguson Missouri, a white cop named Darren Wilson and the black 18-year-old Michael Brown lost the script and a dozen bullets later, Michael Brown was dead, the nation rattled by protests, and the city choking on tear gas and arson. How did the script turn into do-or-die abandon?

While witnesses don’t agree on the details, Wilson tells the story this way: in his cruiser he heard a radio report of cigarillos swiped from a local market. Moments later he stopped Brown and a friend, Dorian Johnson, walking in the middle of the street, slowing traffic. Wilson claims he said, “Why don’t you guys walk on the sidewalk.”[1] According to Johnson, Wilson actually said, “Get the fuck on the sidewalk,” and Brown shot back: “Fuck what you have to say.” Startled by the defiance, Wilson notices cigarillos in Brown’s hand, calls in a request for help. When Wilson tries to get out of his cruiser to detain them, Brown pushes the door to shut him in and demands “What the fuck are you going to do about it?” Wilson retorts, “Get the fuck back.” Through the window Wilson grabs Brown’s arm (Johnson calls it a “tug of war”) and is shocked:

“And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan. That’s just how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.”[2]

Brown punches Wilson’s cheek, and Wilson panics at being punched and trapped in the cruiser. He draws his pistol and threatens to shoot, but Brown taunts that “You’re too much of a pussy to shoot me,” and grabs for the gun. They struggle, and Wilson fires two shots. Now Brown backs away. He “had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” Brown starts to flee, Wilson and his gun in pursuit. Then Brown turns, and ignoring commands to get down on the ground, charges him—or maybe steps toward him with his hands up to surrender. To the terrified Wilson,

“it looked like [Brown] was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way. I shoot a series of shots.” “I don’t know how many I shot, I just know I shot it.” 

Wilson empties his pistol at the suspect.[3]  This overkill stops “the demon.” With Brown’s death, the sense of abandon spread to violent protesters even as “the law” tried to restore the script. What caused the loss of control?

While panic is a response to terror, in abandon you cast off restraints and plunge ahead. A nervous system rush may give you emergency strength, daring, and clarity. This is why abandon fascinates us in boxing, bungee jumping, even in military training. But the experience is treacherous: you may “break through” to new powers or go berserk and run amok.

For whatever reasons, Michael Brown was on the edge of abandon from the moment he allegedly swiped the cigarillos—a move that disconcerted his friend Johnson. Challenged by Officer Wilson in the street, they exchanged macho Fuck-you’s, quickly creating a personal macho contest of threat displays.

Threat displays among animals usually involve deception such as puffing up to look fearsome. Cops rely on the authority of badge and gun to intimidate others. You and the officer both know he can kill you. Michael Brown was already large (6’4”, 290 pounds), and perhaps pumped up by brazen theft of the cigarillos. Both males used the jabbing Fuck you’s—abandon—as threat display. Slamming the cruiser door, trapping Wilson in the cruiser, grappling with him, Brown mocked the cop’s death threat:“You’re too much of a pussy to shoot me.”

For a moment Brown dominated the other man. He threw off inhibitions with a show of nerve and power, apparently believing the officer’s gun was a bluff.

Wilson, humiliated and frightened, imagining superhuman rage (the Hulk), tells us he felt like a helpless child. He coped by also plunging into abandon, turning flight to fight by pulling the trigger and chasing off Brown. When in the pursuit Brown turned back toward him, as if to dominate him again, Wilson saw it in macho body-building terms: Brown was “bulking up to run through the shots” and “like he was going to run right through me.”By then Wilson was far enough beyond self-control that he emptied the pistol in a spasm of overkill.[2]

Males use macho contests to sort out hierarchy. Masters used macho cruelty to dominate slaves. Later, whites used peonage and lynching to keep the upper hand. Wars of course are the ultimate macho contest. Like a soldier in Iraq or Vietnam, a white cop like Wilson is paid to protect yet also control “others” who may be friendly or hostile. As in Iraq, the temptation is to shoot first. And war is not just a figure of speech. Studies show that whites are quick to assume black men are criminals. Police guns kill 21 times more young black men than whites.[4] The justice system targets black males for imprisonment.

Americans fight over gun control because guns are a critical symbol in macho contests. Rampage killers identify with macho guns. Following a massacre, gun sales “surge,” with high-pitched NRA demands for more access to military-style automatic weapons.  The fear of being outgunned in a shootout and in threat display has American police militarizing with surplus corporate military hardware.

As you’d expect, this arms race makes abandon especially murderous, because anybody could be armed, and the logical brain can’t keep up with hair-trigger decisions.  Guns call for do-or-die survival reflexes and adrenalized passions, including racism. You can see the effects of abandon when a 911 call in Ohio sends cops to gun down 12-year-old Tamir Rice playing with a toy gun in an empty playground (11.23.2014).[5] The logical mind sees no threat here, but abandon grips the pistol and cries: He’s armed. Get him!  And then has a lifetime to remember the dead child and struggle with guilt and shameful excuses.

Abandon also shows up in the bizarre mismatch between deadly force and trivial offenses. Michael Brown died for a handful of cigars. With a chokehold, Staten Island police killed Eric Garner, a large frail black man, for selling loose “untaxed” cigarettes (7.17.2014). Trayvon Martin was killed basically for wearing a hoodie  (2.26.2013).

Martin’s death clarifies the psychology of abandon. Like Wilson, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, imagined his “police” role and gun gave him power over his young black “suspect.” He began trailing Martin, never imagining that the innocent, frightened “suspect” might seehim as a predator and also act with abandon. When Martin preemptively jumped him, dominating him in the scuffle, the vigilante panicked and shot him to death.

Prejudice (pre-judgment) says you can dominate “losers.” Until they sock you, that is— then suddenly they’re demons or the superhuman Hulk.

Abandon is modeled everywhere in American culture: from reality cop shows that trash “losers” to the bedwetting rhetoric of the National Rifle Association. After Adam Lanza’s rampage at Sandy Hook school, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre called for more guns: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” He elaborated: “our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters—people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them. They walk among us every day. And does anybody really believe that the next Adam Lanza isn’t planning his attack on a school he’s already identified at this very moment?”[i]

In this formula the gun makes you a heroic vigilante, and your adversary is “a genuine monster.” Officer Wilson saw Michael Brown as the monster Hulk Hogan. Ironically and tragically, some young black men try to look intimidating in order not to be taken for a loser. It’s a cycle, with each violent incident ratcheting up hair-trigger abandon.

The NRA and the corporate military want this nation to be a paramilitary state. With guns and “concealed carry” laws everywhere, cops are caught between prudence and do-or-die survival mode. Consider the way abandon is built into recent police killings in Ohio, and the training offered to the officers. A Beavercreek Ohio police training presentation focuses alarm on rampage killings, which are terrifying but actually rare. The instruction warns that “the faster we can neutralize [shoot] the suspect the less time he / she will have to harm innocent persons.” It concludes with an emotional photo of a teacher leading tots to safety at Sandy Hook school. (Remember officer Wilson feeling like a helpless “five-year-old.”)

In case you don’t get it, you’re tested: “An Active Threat is in a building with the person I love the most. I want Law Enforcement to: 1/ Wait outside for more officers. Or 2/ Enter the building and find the threat as fast as possible. What would you want?” [6] The psychological manipulation in this “training” contributes to a wild west mentality in which police shoot first and ask questions later.

“What would you want?”  It’s a macho taunt: Are you a coward?

It was in a Beavercreek Walmart that police killed 22-year-old John Crawford III as he held a fake gun from the merchandise rack while talking on his cellphone. Ronald Ritchie had phoned a phony alarm to a 911 dispatcher, and based on Ritchie’s lies, police fired on the shopper without sufficient warning. Crawford was black; Ritchie and the trigger-happy officer were not held responsible.

Policing is a system, and easily distorted by fear and bias. All of us, but especially police, are caught between official rules, which can’t cover every situation, and do-or-die abandon, which can make you a hero. Or a murderer.

The evidence says we need to do better.


Resources used in this essay:

Themes from the essay are further developed in my new book, The Psychology of Abandon, available soon from Leveller’s Press.

1. Grand Jury Testimony:https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1370494-grand-jury-volume-5.html#document/p212/a189246

2. Ang Lee’s film of the Marvel comic Incredible Hulk (2003) dramatizes berserk abandon. Made susceptible by radiation poisoning, Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) periodically becomes the Hulk: his eyes glow with alien fury, and his body swells to superhuman proportions.  He becomes indomitable but also abominably dangerous. The story is a parable about the risk of self-destruction in the struggle to master heroic autonomy.

3. Nonstop firing is a familiar symptom of berserk stress in combat, as in Lt. Calley’s killing at My Lai. While his platoon searched a house during the Iraq war, Kenneth Eastridge said he shot more than 1,700 rounds. “Families were out playing soccer and barbecuing,” and fled when the gunfire erupted. When asked how many people he killed, he said, “Not that many. Maybe a dozen.“

4. Charles M. Blow, “Fury after Ferguson,” NY Times, November 26, 2014.

5. http://readersupportednews.org/news-section2/318-66/27152-police-defend-killing-of-12-year-old-with-toy-gun

6. Beavercreek Police Training presentation, “Single Officer Response to Active Threats”


[i] Washington Post, Dec. 21, 2012, “Remarks from the NRA press conference on Sandy Hook school shooting (Transcript).”


The Placebo Diet: Thinking through the paleo principle

November 15, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

The Paleolithic or Stone Age Diet, they tell me, really works.  By eating like our ancestors before Farmer Brown started planting about 10,000 years ago, folks trapped in the decadent 21st century report losing weight and feeling healthier. The diet calls for protein and meat, fewer carbohydrates, and lots of fibre: you shun grain, legumes, and dairy products, and especially “processed” foods and sugar.

But the most intriguing ingredients in the diet are in the Placebo Group. They’re ideas about who we are and how we’re built—ideas that promise to make us feel better and shed lard by encouraging an old-fashioned, naturally organic Cave Dweller palate. The assumption is that since we evolved as hunter-gatherers, modern fare is making us sick.

This is an ancient dream. Roman aristocrats envied Vergil’s idyllic shepherd his unwashed, underfed freedom from the noxious city. The Victorians anguished over “the disease of modernism” and envied the Romans. Dr Cheyne, the 18th century’s Deepak Chopra, prescribed simple fare and fresh air for his dyspeptic, porky aristos. You remember granny’s proverb: “An apple a day from the Garden of Eden keeps the doctor away.”

The dream is that our metabolism is “in tune” with primordial conditions, with the possibility that our minds are out of tune with jangling modernity. But Stone Age birthday cakes were not overloaded with candles. Life was short and raw—and demanding. You did get lots of exercise. You didn’t go prowling in the refrigerator at bedtime. And when bones broke or childbirth went wrong, you saved a lot on copays and funeral expenses.

Today it’s never been easier to live the cave life. Supermarkets make hunter-gatherer shopping easy. Except for the occasional unlucky first-grader, we no longer have lifelong tormenting parasites such as scabies and lice, which make it hard to count calories on your fingers when you’re scratching all the time.

Humans around the world thrive on a variety of diets. Like dogs, we have a gift for adaptation. Some pathologies such as diabetes and tooth decay can be blamed on modern diets—thank the sugar trade that kept Caribbean slavery healthy for centuries, and the corn syrup racket that’s corrupting American agriculture. But the ancients also suffered from cancer and heart disease. After a hard day of scavenging, they couldn’t sleep too deeply lest they be scavenged.

We have tangled attitudes toward our animal origins. Usually we imagine ourselves as unique creatures, spiritual or psychological beings operating in a world of ideas, not bodies doomed to end up as forgettable as roadkill or the dead fly on the windowsill. We think of ourselves as a life story, moving through a plot that allows us to feel a bit heroic in the end, or at least not insignificant.

Because we live in culture, we dream of having some godlike control over our lives. We can forget that Mother Nature is still bossing us around all the time. We have to eat, and have to breathe. We have to sleep, and have to die. To eat, we kill and chew the Little Red Hen, the Moo-cow, and Porky Pig. In Thailand just now they’re debating whether it’s taboo to eat filet of Fido. Culture lets us rationalize a band of predators gnawing on a turkey carcass as “Thanksgiving.”

One reason for hostility to the poor is that they remind us of how trapped we are in animal bodies. The poor have to struggle for food, sleep, a roof, leisure, safe neighborhood, and cash to pay bills. And the poor die younger and less elegantly than everybody else.

In culture, all bipeds are said to be created equal. Yet everywhere you look, societies are still crippled by our predilection for hierarchy, with the rich lording it over the “animal” poor. On southern plantations they worked you like a mule because your face and coloring reminded them of the apes, and they despised you for reminding us that there’s ape in everybody’s family album.

The Global Slavery Index (globalslaveryindex.org) reminds you that slavery’s alive and well today. We praise Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, but if you work for Walmart, you need government welfare to have enough to eat. As in cotton-picking days, patriotic politicians profess democracy while scheming to block the “animals” from voting, Likewise, wherever you find alpha gunslingers in uniform, you find kleptocracy, and alpha animals hogging the bananas, whether it’s the corporate military or an African clique.

Culture, that is, tames nature. It disguises our creaturely motives. In multi-million-dollar football, “big man” males try to steal a morsel of animal flesh—“pigskin”—from each other. Their prosthetic carapaces and helmets swell their muscles and heads. They name themselves after ferocious predators such as tigers and bears. While eating football snacks, the audience thrills to the battling heroes on screen.  During the breaks, fertile females cheer to keep the audience excited until the contest reveals the most potent alpha mates in the land.

For that matter, you don’t even notice that most pop music is a mating call, without which we face extinction. Many hot button social issues, from gay marriage to anti-abortion fervor, involve misplaced anxiety about fertility, children, and extinction. Passionate abortion foes have dreamed they were rescuing humanity by murdering “child-killer” docs and forcing women to give birth. We’re unable to resist the urge to populate. History is a record of migrating groups absorbing or exterminating settled groups, as Europeans did in North America, the Bantu in Africa, and the Han in China. The conquerors don’t think of themselves greedy for life or scuffling to survive: their conquest just feels right. Culture edits out the insanity.

The paleo diet lets you love your inner animal.

In those moments when modern culture seems mind-twisting, phony, and dangerous to your health, you can dream of self-reliance in a paleo world, like those pop novels of yesteryear about the Cave Bear Clan. By contrast, modernity means we’re all involved with—and dependent on—strangers and strange bureaucracies. Please listen closely as our menu options have changed. Ugh.

So why does the paleo diet work for its fans?

For one thing, the food’s not bad for you. It’s also not so delicious that you heap your plate with seconds. And if you’re giving up sweets and hidden corn syrup fructose sweets, you’re automatically shucking calories.

Beyond that, the paleo diet takes you out of the mental world of toxic ads, corporate manipulation (“processing”), confusing labels, and bullyingdoctors. It Just Says No to modernity-caused climate change. It’s KSS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. The paleo you can really focus on you.

To put it another way, you’re not striving to reach some photoshopped glossy ideal self as in most diet promotions. You’re only watching what you eat in order to get back in touch with the natural you. It’s you wanting to be who you really are. The more you believe it, the better it works.

Put it that way, and the paleo diet is a mild version of psychotherapy andphilosophy: the project of considering how to live. There’s a certain amount of placebo in all such endeavors. It will be interesting to see how long the paleo magic lasts. Already media report that a few enthusiasts are trying to pump up its benefits by giving up modern soap, shampoo, and deodorant.

Well, let’s be pragmatic. Hold your nose and wish them well.


Resources used in this essay:

  1. Farrell, Post-Traumatic Culture: Injury and Interpretation in the 90s.

This winter Leveller’s Press will be bringing out in paperback my new book, The Psychology of Abandon: Berserk Style in American Culture. 


Who Can You Trust?

September 25, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

“Only one-third of Americans say most people can be trusted,” according to a 2013 poll. “Half felt that way in 1972.”  These days, “a record high of nearly two-thirds say ‘you can’t be too careful’ in dealing with people.” An AP-GfK poll conducted a year ago “found that Americans are suspicious of each other in everyday encounters. Less than one-third expressed a lot of trust in clerks who swipe their credit cards, drivers on the road or people they meet when traveling.”

News outlets love this sort of poll. It’s a filler thrill: a sip of adrenaline that can draw readers to notice ads that pay for the news. It says something, but what?  In a way this item is part of the problem: chances are, you don’t really trust the advertisers and journalists, but you sift the evidence and decide to read on. Or not.

Trust is at least two problems. One is that society needs enough trust to cohere. The other is that people need trust and mistrust—and to sort them out wisely. Too much trust makes you somebody’s slave or entrée. Too much suspicion saps morale, stalemates things, makes lawyers rich, and sabotages investment in the future. Think of all the Americans whose mistrust of politics tells them voting is a waste of time.

For society, the deep threat is civil war, as in battle cries about “big government” and sly “militia” threats of revolution. When police shoot unarmed black males, the bullets express white society’s mistrust of all blacks as a separate camp—an army—of parasites and criminals.

Economic war is here already, since most incomes have been stagnant for three decades, and the veiled guerrilla war against the poor is chronic. During the opening salvos of “lean and mean” business ideology, the New York Times featured a dispatch titled “Casualties on the Battlefield of Business.” In the new climate of insecurity, powerless employees were suffering. Meanwhile business has routed labor unions and won the weakest labor laws of any advanced country—the US is the only one with no guaranteed paid days off. When bankers crash the economy and get bonuses instead of prosecution, you know who’s winning.

“Fear is motivating people to not be away from the workplace, even though concerns about layoffs have mitigated since the recession, said Rusty Rueff, a career and workplace expert at employment site Glassdoor. American workers only used half of their eligible vacation time during the past 12 months, a Glassdoor survey found. The top reason for not taking vacation time was the concern that no other employee could do the job, followed by a fear of getting behind. Seventeen percent of respondents said they were afraid of losing their job.” Keep marching or die.

Since people spend half their waking lives at work (if they can find a fulltime job), mistrust on the job is painful. When Market Basket’s board ousted its worker-friendly CEO, you can see why employees rallied for his reinstatement—though the supermarket chain fired some to silence them. The workers used social media to organize, giving themselves an informal union and a voice.

This “union” is significant partly because theories about the decline of trust often focus on our increasing isolation: what Robert Putnam called “bowling alone.” More television time and more isolation produces what media researcher George Gerbner called “mean world syndrome.” His studies showed that the more TV you watch, the more likely you are to exaggerate the dangers in your neighborhood. The “mean world” of media violence is a marketing strategy. In effect, entertainment is stimulating mistrust as a pick-me-up, turning flight into fight and giving you a mood massage. The drawback is that massages don’t give you confidence on the job or on your street.

The poor of course do live in a meaner world and have to be more suspicious than the rich, who enjoy a gated community and a generous bank balance. TV’s mean world can be a tonic for the rich, since it proves how virtuously successful they are. It’s a tonic. For people dating, mean world vibes can be poisonous. In such a world even fantasies of bondage contracts in Fifty Shades of Grey look reassuring.

“In God we trust,” says the dollar bill. Assuming you trust dollar bills.

Psychologist Erik Erikson saw “basic trust” as the foundation ofpersonality. Mistrust, he concluded, can lead to kids beset by frustration, suspicion, withdrawal and a lack of confidence.

Since parents foster trust in infants, you might wonder how they’re doing. Among 35 developed countries, only Romanian kids face more poverty than American kids. “The U.S. economy is one of the most unequal in the developed world. This would explain why the United States, on child poverty, is ranked between Bulgaria and Romania, [34th of 35], though Americans are on average six times richer than Bulgarians and Romanians.” (1)

Despite the poverty and hunger, hot-button politicians want to force more women to bear unwanted children, at a time when “Roughly one live birth in seven was unwanted at conception.”(3) Not a prescription for trust. Maybe schools can even out kids’ chances.


In the US, says Robert Reich, “The wealthiest highest-spending districts are now providing about twice as much funding per student as are the lowest-spending districts, according to a federal advisory commission report. What are called a “public schools” in many of America’s wealthy communities aren’t really “public” at all. In effect, they’re private schools, whose tuition is hidden away in the purchase price of upscale homes there, and in the corresponding property taxes.”

And get this. “Rather than pay extra taxes that would go to poorer districts, many parents in upscale communities have quietly shifted their financial support to tax-deductible ‘parent’s foundations’ designed to enhance their own schools.” (4) The rich, you see, are cleverer than you and me. They can afford to be clever.

Politicians should have to consider whether a particular policy fosters wisedecisions about trust and mistrust. They’d BS about it no doubt, but at least trust would be a public issue. Think of the official insanity in Utah, where an elementary school teacher who was carrying a concealed firearm at school accidentally shot herself in the leg when the weapon discharged in a faculty bathroom shortly before classes started Thursday morning, officials said. The teacher at Westbrook Elementary School, in the Salt Lake City suburb of Taylorsville, was severely injured when the bullet entered and exited her leg.

The school gun is legal and encouraged in Utah. The official babble rationalized the leg wound. How many of the kids, you wonder, drew the right lesson: the toilets are dangerous on the ship of fools.


 Resources used in this essay:

1. Max Fisher, “Map: How 35 countries compare on child poverty (the US is ranked 34th),” Washington Post, April 15, 2013.


2. Aimee Picchi, “Why Americans take only half their vacation time,” CBS Moneywatch, April 4, 2014.

3. Joel E. Cohn reports on a report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2008) in “The Case for More Babies,” New York Review (April 24, 2014), 58.

4. Robert Reich’s Blog, “Back to School ad Widening Inequality,” August 26, 2014.

5. Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon: Berserk Style in American Culture, available this winter in a new paperback edition from Leveller Press.


Antonin Scalia and the Sleep of Reason

September 17, 2014
"Leucocephalus" Phil Hansten

“Leucocephalus” Phil Hansten

“…the gallows is not merely a machine of death, but the oldest and most obscene symbol of that tendency in mankind which drives it towards moral self-destruction.”

Arthur Koestler, Reflections on Hanging

By now most of you have heard that two mentally disabled half-brothers from North Carolina, convicted of a brutal murder of an 11-year old girl, have been exonerated and released. Both Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown spent 30 years in prison for a crime they did not commit; McCollum spent it on death row. This is nothing new, you say. After all, 144 defendants on death row had already been exonerated and released for reasons of innocence. But this case is different in one significant respect.

In 1994, using the McCollum case as an example, Justice Antonin Scalia dismissively (does he have another way of communicating?) rejected then-justice Harry Blackmun’s claim that the death penalty is unconstitutional. But instead of proving Scalia’s point, it turns out that the McCollum case is the perfect example of why the death penalty should be abolished. If Scalia were a reflective thinker rather than a reactive ideologue, he would acknowledge that he was dead wrong on this case, and perhaps consider the possibility that he is wrong about capital punishment in general. Don’t hold your breath.

Justice Scalia refuses to acknowledge that our criminal justice system is fatally flawed in its application of capital punishment. His mind-numbing obstinacy appears to arise primarily from his rejection of incontrovertible facts, but also through his distortion of data. It is truly unfortunate that the longest serving justice on the current Supreme Court is no more capable of rational thought than your raving crazy uncle at Thanksgiving. (I realize that I am venturing into ad hominem territory here, but there are rare times when it seems almost required.)

So how Justice Scalia demonstrate his inability to apply reason to capital punishment? Let us count the ways.

First, Scalia denies that we have a serious problem of putting innocent people on death row. A rational person would look at the now 145 people exonerated and released from death row, and admit that our criminal justice system—one that metes out an irreversible punishment—is badly broken. But Scalia dismisses or ignores the simple fact that we regularly convict the innocent in capital cases.

Secondly, Scalia rants about the failure of death penalty opponents to show him a single case of an innocent person who has been executed. Scalia’s demand is irrational and disingenuous, however, because once a person is executed, efforts to prove his innocence basically stop. There are so many potentially innocent people still alive on death row, that the efforts are focused on them. Moreover there are many cases where the evidence does in fact suggest that the executed person was probably innocent, such as Cameron Todd Willingham, who almost certainly was innocent of setting the fire that killed his 3 children. Rick Perry, the oligosynaptic “hang-‘em-high” governor of Texas, ensured that Willingham would be executed by replacing key members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission just days before they were to hear from a forensic expert who would testify that the evidence in the Willingham case was invalid. Rick Perry… tough on crime… soft on the truth.

Third, Scalia has resorted to an unconscionable distortion of data. In 2007, Scalia wrote in a concurring Supreme Court opinion that the error rate in the American criminal justice system is a paltry 0.027 percent. Nonetheless, as Samuel Gross and colleagues pointed out in their scholarly 2014 paper in the normally staid Proceedings of the American Academy of Sciences, Scalia’s claim is “silly.” Actually, “silly” is a charitable characterization given Scalia’s egregious distortion of the facts. As Gross, et al point out, Scalia committed the flagrant error of taking the exonerations known at the time for murder and rape (which what almost certainly a very small subset of the actual false convictions) and divided that number by all felonies for any crime, including things like income tax evasion. It is a sad day when a Justice of the highest court in the land makes a claim that would earn an “F” on a paper if he submitted it as freshman in a criminal justice class.

Finally, Antonin Scalia has now become famous for claiming that executing the innocent is not unconstitutional. Is Scalia actually saying that we can commit any repugnant and outrageous act as long as it is not against the constitution? Moreover, we do have the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution that prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishments. If executing the innocent is not cruel, I’m not sure what could be possibly be classified as cruel. Vincent Rossmeier stated in Solon, in an understatement of Olympic proportions, that Scalia’s views on the constitutionality of executing the innocent “…suggested a certain callousness…” I would take it a step further: If you are actually arguing that it is okay to execute innocent people, you need some serious therapy, not a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court.

Plato knew about people like Justice Scalia, and would have called him a “philodoxer”—defined as a person who is especially fond of his or her own opinions, without having objectively investigated the facts of the situation. We all encounter people like this in our daily lives, and we are all guilty of this failing to one degree or another. We do not deserve, however, to have a flagrant and unrepentant philodoxer on the Supreme Court.

Nonetheless, one does not have to focus on the irrationality of a Supreme Court Justice to decide whether or not we should have the death penalty. If one considers the empirical evidence objectively, an astonishing conclusion appears: A rational person looking at the data on capital punishment in the US would necessarily come to the conclusion that the death penalty almost certainly results in a net increase in the deaths of innocent human beings. You heard that right. Capital punishment most likely increases the deaths of innocents and the reasoning is very simple.

First, there is no credible evidence that capital punishment reduces future murders. Deterrence was debunked in the 1950s by Arthur Koestler (whom I quoted above) in perhaps the most eloquent and penetrating essay ever written on the death penalty, entitled “Reflections on Hanging.” Moreover, a panel of the Committee on Law and Justice of the National Research Council concluded in a 2012 report that the evidence for the death penalty acting as a deterrent has no basis in fact.

Indeed, the available evidence actually points to a “brutalizing effect” which is the term criminologists use to describe an increase in the murder rate in the presence of the death penalty. A poll of leading criminologists found that while only 2.6 percent of criminologists think that capital punishment is a deterrent to future murders, 18.8 percent feel that the death penalty increases the murder rate. These are only educated opinions, of course, but they certainly show that the experts in the field do not support the deterrence effect.

Other evidence adds more embarrassment to the death penalty proponent. It is uncontested that the murder rate is substantially higher in states that have the death penalty than in those without it. And it is also true (as pointed out by Koestler) that the murder rate usually decreases when countries abolish the death penalty. If the data were reversed, we can be sure that death penalty advocates would be citing the figures incessantly. Death penalty opponents, however, are generally willing to admit that these data do not prove that the death penalty increases murders, even though the data suggest it.

Secondly, the evidence that innocent people are regularly condemned to death row is overwhelming. The fact that 145 people on death row have been exonerated cannot be ignored. Moreover, Samuel Gross and colleagues calculated in their recent publication (mentioned above) at least one in 25 people sentenced to death in the US is innocent of the crime for which they are condemned. The conclusion is clear: If the death penalty does not prevent murders but does result in the execution of innocent defendants, capital punishment results in a net increase in the deaths of innocent human beings. There is no other rational way to interpret the data.

I am optimistic that when these uncomfortable facts become common knowledge, the obscene and dehumanizing spectacle that is the death penalty will be no more.


Soft Porn in Makeup: The fine print in “Fifty Shades of Grey” signs you up for more than you think

July 30, 2014


"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

You might not think of being nude, tied up, and tingling as a disguise. But that’s the reality behind E. L. James’s best-selling soft-porn romance Fifty Shades of Grey (2012). Just as some parties and carnival frolics call for fanciful masks, so does James’s bondage/sadomasochistic (BDSM) trilogy.  In the novels’ Seattle, a virginal college student named Anastasia Steele (Ana) discovers exceptional sexual pleasure and eventually idealized romantic devotion in a rich, handsome young man named Christian Grey.  Their relationship is based on a contract in which Ana agrees to become Christian’s “submissive,” willing to be beaten, spanked, and tied up, to lower her eyes in his presence, and to let him dictate her sleep, food and dress.


Nominally the novel dramatizes the partners’ search for extraordinary sexual fulfillment. In bondage (BDSM) sex, pain and submission overthrow everyday self-protective inhibitions. They excite hypervigilance and sensitivity, making you more acutely aware of your body and your partner with the whip. Fifty Shades walks readers through the sex play in a sort of “self-help eroticism.” It introduces and explains techniques of pleasure the way Cosmo does. And it manages to wink at you while sounding breathlessly earnest. This pain is really “pain,” a technique, and (ahem) comes with “safe words” to disguise the reality that the thrill of losing control is always under control—in particular, under Ana’s control. So the contract here is really a script that’s thrilling because you pretend to cut loose and let it all hang out. it uses a taste of pain to strip off the swaddling wrap of habit that keeps us safe and half-asleep in our everyday lives.


It might look as if the bondage contract overturns feminist goals of equality and independence for women. In fact the master/submissive relationship is a plot device. By the third volume the sex-partners are married and it’s shades of mum and dad. By now Ana’s in charge of her life and, in reality, the family, and Mr Fifty Shades, as if in a trance, follows her around like a puppy and keeps repeating that he loves her.


The real “master” in the novel is the creaturely urge to reproduce that’s built into us and adds another seat at the breakfast table. Mr Fifty Shades with his sex toys and sympathy is really just (to be cute) the First Mate on this kinky voyage. Like a conventional romance, that is, this one boostsself-esteem by lavishing freedom, wealth, comfort, protective love, and motherhood on an average gal. Making it with Christian becomes a way for Ana to really make it. Ana gets (as they say) to have it all.


If that sounds too pat and too good to be true, there must be more going on. And sure enough. For one thing, this is equal opportunity wish-fulfillment. It turns out that Christian’s been traumatically abused as a child, but Ana’s love heals him. And he too shares in the triumph, since he gets to be a Pygmalion helping to form Ana, his Galatea. Of course this is the borrowed plot of Hollywood’s Pretty Woman (1990), where Julia Roberts heals the rich traumatized businessman (Richard Gere) by mixing a spoonful of love with a dash of submissive street sex.


One reason for the S/M business—the beating, spanking, and humiliation—is to make it seem that Ana is earning her total wish-fulfillment through some pain, humiliation, and self-discipline. But there’s more to it than that. Think of it this way: at the start Ana is like a teenage girl worried about being forever average. In the contract, in effect, she’s sexting nude photos of herself to woo a lover, giving herself to a stranger, risking everything. She’s defying all the rules Mum teaches you. It’s especially risky because, like most people, she fears she’s not attractive and remarkable enough to land a mate. What’s more, she’s breaking the rules that held Mum back, about to outdo her. In exposing herself with Christian, Ana advertises her charms and availability—and is also neatly “punished” so the guilty daughter can get what she wants in the end without a lot of uptight ambivalence.


If you doubt this, look again at the contract. Instead of imagining it “commanding submission,” think of it in plain terms as bossy. Remember, the contract orders her to lower her eyes around Christian, let him spank her and dictate her sleep habits, food, and dress. The program demands respect and controls every phase of Ana’s life like an affluent suburbanparent totally invested in a trophy kid. In the process, her self-effacement (the “submissiveness”) can purge feelings of guilt and inadequacy and earn Mum’s love.


Yes, but Christian’s a man (!) True, but this is when you notice that Christian is as nurturing and protective as a mother. This is Janice Radway’s insight about the romance formula. No matter how buff the heroes may be on the front cover, eye patch and biceps turn into maternal nurture by the last page. For a lonesome reader, he’s a dream: he listens to you, respects you, protects you—talks to you, for heaven’s sake. Following Nancy Chodorow, Radway points out that boys grow to marry a version of mum, whereas girls have to leave mum behind. Women who become addicted romance readers (multi-volumes a week), Radway concludes, are making up for that empty spot.


Fifty Shades, then, tries to reconcile “the conflicting imperatives of autonomy and attachment” (70) in a 21st century society where mating rituals and gender roles have become intimidatingly improvisatory. The characters cope by substituting a contract that uses bondage to create bonds and spell out every move. What appears to be self-abandon and the discovery of some hidden authentic you turns out to be a device for loosening of inhibitions, so that the partners can learn to enjoy the intimacy that romance assumes was in them all along. —Oh, and it invites a visit from the stork.


Here’s are two chewy paradoxes:

In a time of modern anxiety about love and mating, the contract in the novel takes us back (or out) into the world of arranged marriages, in which families negotiated the future well-being of two young strangers and kin. Conventional wisdom has it that sometimes such contracts actually worked, with intimate bonds and merriment to match. Of course Romeo and Juliet warn us not to take any such thing for granted.

In a time when attitudes toward sex are gratefully relaxed and roles are less prescribed, you might expect that this freedom to explore would make for more grown-up insight.  But in Fifty Shades the plot gratuitously gives the sex partners a happy ending. Nobody has to put up with suffering, hilarity, and hard work to wise up. The contract is a basic tool of good business sense, but it also skirts the hassle of dealing with living personalities.  And in consumer capitalism—as if you didn’t know—sex and wish-fulfillment are marketing strategies that flatteringly insist it’s all about You, wonderful You. (The movie will hit the theaters next Valentines Day.)  You could be excused for wondering if signing the contract doesn’t make us more childlike.


And finally this: as fantasy, Fifty Shades is a culture’s classic effort to turn a terrifying reality—the American hysteria about terrorism and the shameful justification of torture—into a kinky recipe for romantic bliss. You could say that Jack Bauer of  “24” is the vicious godfather of Fifty Shades. This is an indication of how much the novel and its readers want to stay enchanted.  Fifty Shades equips the eventual marriage with sex toys and a locked room for pleasure, but the couple’s child and their monotonous pledges of love suggest that as the clock ticks and more candles blaze on the birthday cake, ecstatic taboo is great, but it may not be forever.


In this sense the kinky contract is disguising not only mum, old traumas, and the stork, but also the shadowy role of that other parent, Father Time.


This essay is Part Two of two parts. For Part one, see: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/swim-in-denial/201407/the-romance-plot

Resources used in this essay:


Eva Illouz, Hard-Core Romance: Fifty Shades of Grey, Best-Sellers, and Society (Chicago, 2014),

Kirby Farrell, Post-Traumatic Culture (Baltimore, 1998).

_________, Berserk Style in American Culture (New York, 2011)

Jan Hoffman, “Poisoned Web: A Girl’s Nude Photo and Altered Lives, New York Times, March 27, 2011.

Amy Pavuk, “Rebecca Sedwick’s suicide highlights dagers of cyberbullying,” Orlando Sentinel (Sept. 16, 2013)


Janice Radway, Reading the Romance (Chapel Hill, 1984).



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).



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