The Bear Hug and the Boogie Man: Are You Asleep Yet?

April 26, 2015
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

WW2 didn’t end, it came back from the graveyard as the zombie Cold War. Instead of demobilizing, armies pumped up threat displays that brought the Concerned Scientists’ clock to a few seconds from nuclear doomsday. J Edgar Hoover saw spies under your bed. The CIA imagined a scary “missile gap.” As a fifth grader, I shivered when an older kid pointed out that on the map the Soviet red splotch was much bigger than “our” US.

I thought about this as I was watching “Cold War Road Show,” an old PBS video about Nikita Khruschev’s 1959 visit to the US. You remember the bald, role-poly Soviet premier who baffled Washington because unlike most soviet apparatchiks, he tried to be personable.

On the runway in Washington the girl greeting the Premier with flowers wasn’t expecting a big hug, so Uncle Nikita seems to be grappling her to him. Was the hug spontaneous? just theater? Was his body language blurting something out?

Khruschev could be unpredictable—that is, personal. After Stalin’s death he surprised the world by blowing the whistle on the reign of terror. Having survived Stalin and Stalingrad in WW2, he seemed to be promoting a Cold War “thaw.”

Still, like president Eisenhower, Khruschev had to manage the paranoia and military economy around him. In 1956 he’d boasted “We will bury you,” but then took it back: “”I once said, ‘We will bury you,’ and I got into trouble with it. Of course we will not bury you with a shovel. Your own working class will bury you.” He knew that menacing Soviet military superiority was a CIA bedtime story. He also knew that his working class needed a decent refrigerator. Like Ike, he must have seen that corporate warriors had their fingers in working class pockets.

In the Cold War, big money hated “Communist” talk of sharing the wealth—now it’s “socialism” and “dependency.” The military industry on both sides hated talk of peace treaties that could stall careers and spoil lunch. They still do.

As Nikita was landing in Washington in 1959, I was on a school trip to admire two white Nike missiles. They slowly cranked up out of a meadow, then slowly cranked back down. If the missiles worked, they’d bring down a Soviet bomber with a live H-bomb in a Boston suburb. Even I could see this was a stupid trick.

What if Khruschev was tired of the insanity?

The PBS film calls his visit a road show. But there was frigidity in the air. The ceremonies were politely artificial. When Nikita tries to do something unscripted, it’s poignant. As he waved his hat to spectators from an open Cadillac, they watched him with blank faces frozen by years of propaganda. Was he only mimicking FDR and Churchill in wartime newsreels?  Or were the high spirits real?

Both sides were trying to score points. In LA, when the conservative mayor baited the guest with the “We will bury you” quote, the guest called him out on his rudeness (“You’re trying to make me uncomfortable”). To appear personal, ordinary, and vulnerable, Nikita took huge risks. Was he posing to embarrass the Americans, or did he mean it?

Journalists gaggled at every stop and enforced formulas. “I’d like to see Disneyland,” grumbled Nikita. If America’s so safe, why do they say security puts Disneyland off limits? Hollywood was so secure they made Mr and Mrs K watch cameras film a tacky dance and underpants routine from Can Can: the kind of precision sex routine that makes you homesick for factories.

No wonder Henry Cabot Lodge, the US guide, phoned Ike for advice about how to cope with sprained etiquette. The tour did include a corn farmer in Kansas whose hybrids Khruschev found pretty interesting since part of his job was feeding people. Americans didn’t know what to think.

At Camp David, Ike and Nikita strolled around with an interpreter. They had concerns in common, since Ike was also worried about a military industrial juggernaut being out of control. But with tyrannical slogans such as BETTER DEAD THAN RED in the air, it’s unlikely they got very personal.

Still, Khruschev went home with plans for Ike to visit Russia. But the plans crashed months later when the Soviets shot down a US spy plane. Then Kennedy’s sneaky Bay of Pigs invasion spurred the sneaky installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba. And a crisis to boost budgets. Before long the havoc in Vietnam led to the corporate military binge of the Reagan years, which led to the fairy tale that Reagan’s two-fisted military spending toppled the Berlin Wall.

The ironies are terrific. The Soviets’ supposed lust for “world domination” has infected the “global policeman,” who has military bases and NSA bugs all over. The wealthy cronies in Putin’s Kremlin have their counterpart in Wall Street and high-frequency lobbying. And today we have the four trillion dollar War on Terror paid for by bayoneting medical care and food stamps.

It’s possible that Khruschev’s visit was a post-traumatic moment. Everybody, especially the Soviets, knew someone killed in WW2. The mania for nukes and spying kept deathanxiety alive and insidious. So each side wanted to be the hero whose triumph could justify the pitiful insanity and grief of WW2.

You might wonder if Khruschev’s clumsy bear hug signaled an ambivalent but genuine impulse to ease years of emergency nerves. He wasn’t the only one. Only a few years later, in his Great Society program, and for the first time in American history, President Johnson called for a comprehensive national effort to improve the lives of marginal Americans.  LBJ, too, was a bear-hugger. And like Khruschev’s dream of a good working class refrigerator, Johnson’s Great Society was drowned out by bugles and bubbles. In the Soviet world the dream had to wait for 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev started giving glasnot and perestroika bear-hugs—until a coup gave him the boot.

Khruschev’s bear hug reminded me of Iran’s recent compromise on a nuclear treaty—and the hysterical efforts to sabotage it. The gunslingers are all shooting at the agreement: Iranian and US hardliners, Sheldon Adelson’s hirelings. They all favor infallible abstractions.

Former U.N. ambassador John R. Bolton cried “Bomb, Bomb Iran” (NY Times, March 26, 2015). Bolton thinks in terms of a “gold standard,” “inescapable conclusions,” and “inconvenient truths.” In his mind bombing another country means pushing button “A” rather than button “B.” The bombing “should be combined with vigorous American support for Iran’s opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran.” As if there really are an “opposition” and a “regime” like two pieces on a game board to be cleverly switched around.

This sort of barking led to the reckless US invasion of Iraq that helped destabilize the whole region. But it has another drawback too: the hardliner mentality sees behavior as computer programs and mechanics. Calculate the ballistics and the cue ball will drop “regime change” into the corner pocket. The “enemy” is not real to him.

Psychology is not real to him.

We’re ambivalent creatures. It’s how we’re built. Instead of being trapped in reflexes, we imagine alternatives. We sometimes fasten on one option and drive out others, but evolution seems to favor experiment, persuasion, and adaptation.

What if Khruschev’s body language, that clumsy bear hug, was a half-formed thought? A blurted wish to escape from the vicious grind of 20th century history. How you interpret his behavior reveals something about us as well as him. Have a look: <<http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/roadshow/(link is external)

See what you think.


Murder in a Locked Room: When fear is more dangerous than an open door

April 11, 2015
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

You’ve read about the young Germanwings co-pilot who apparently locked the pilot out of the cockpit, took over the controls, and killed 150 people in a ghastly crash. We can only speculate about Andreas Lubitz’s motive, but the evidence so far fits a familiar pattern. About half of rampage killers have shown signs of psychiatric disturbance. By contrast, mental illness plays only a marginal role in ordinary violent crime. What makes rampage killing different?

For one thing, rampage is a spectacle, and planes make a spectacular weapon. The Columbine killers imagined crashing a plane into skyscrapers to amaze the world. They imagined Hollywood producers bidding in a frenzy for “their story.” The 9/11 flyboys wanted even God to salute. And Andreas Lubitz, the co-piot, also dreamed of capturing world attention. A former girlfriend said he told her last year that “One day I’ll do something that will change the whole system, and then all will know my name and remember it.”

She thought he crashed the plane because he had health problems that would make his dream of being a pilot “nearly impossible.” On the fatal day he was ignoring—­or defying—a doctor’s note classifying him unfit to fly. In effect, the crash was his reaction to the death of his dream on that day and maybe forever. You can see the logic: gravity like fate forces the heroic dream down from the heights to destruction. But if the co-pilot takes the controls, he can feel heroic mastering doom.

A high-ranking investigator, speaking with the newspaper Die Welt, characterized Mr. Lubitz’s writing as a window into the dark world of illness the co-pilot had skillfully concealed from outsiders. Lubitz was being treated for depression, and had shown “suicidal tendencies” in psychotherapy several years before receiving his pilot’s license. . But he must have been suffering from stress and anxiety too, since in conversations, hisgirlfriend recalled,(link is external) he “would suddenly freak out and yell at me.” He had nightmaresabout crashing. “We always talked a lot about work and then he became a different person. He became upset about the conditions we worked under: too little money, fear of losing the contract, too much pressure.” She said they finally broke up because he scared her.

Lubitz had to take a break from his pilot training, reportedly because of “burnoutsyndrome.” If he was suffering depression, anxiety, and stress, the inner distress saps vitality. It can “burn up” so much energy for life that personality becomes—or threatens to become—a dead husk. That terror is the horror of nothingness. Alcohol or drugs may bring a brief charge of energy and dull the alarm. The build-up to a spectacular rampage can be a stimulant. If you obsess over it, as the depressive Columbine killer Dylan Klebold did, the stimulant can be addictive. A woman who saw Mohammed Atta at flight school in Florida saw deadened depression in his eyes. What she couldn’t see were the obsessive prayers and 9/11 plans that kept him going even as he was already half out of life.

Survival instinct makes us want to be somebody. We fear death, especially the nothingness of death. We want our lives to matter. If your life is in trouble and you realize that death is inescapable, you’re trapped unless you take charge of your own destruction. Then you become the pilot again: the captain of your soul. A martyr.

But what if you take 149 people with you? In the ancient world, pharaohs and emperors had servants killed to keep them company in the afterlife. This, too, is a variety of rampage killing. After death, the ruler wants to keep the fantastic attention he’s been used to. It’s what made him a king and not just another ordinary doomed mortal with a scepter. And since the terror comes partly from of losing all your powers and of being utterly alone, there’s strength in numbers. What’s more, by taking others with you, you ease your envyand resentment of survivors.

Judging who lives and who dies, you feel the special power of the gods, as Atta did. Instead of living in fear of nothingness, you make an impact. One day I’ll do something that will change everything. It may be sadistic and vengeful, but to the killer it also feels right. How can this be?

The terror and the unfairness of death—Why me?—unsettles our core sense of what’s right: the sense of self and world that we develop all our lives. When all’s well, things feelright. In distress or under stress, we’re apt to feel alien, detached, queasy, “out of it,” not to mention terrified. The terror can show up as fear of death or an enemy or a  crash, something outside of you: something coming toward you.

But the core terror is the terror of annihilation, your terror of everything, including you. There’s nothing to hold onto. If you know you’re terminally ill, you’re likely to daydream at some point about some great final gesture, a heroic sacrifice. It would be consoling to feel people affirming that you matter. After all, as New Yorker cartoons joke, death is the ultimate loss of self-esteem. Hence the compulsion, even in a blaze of infamy, to feel right.

But how, you ask, can anyone feel right about slaughtering innocent people?

One answer is that the self is not a thing. You can’t take your self out to clean and polish it. The self is experience, and experience that needs feedback and recognition from others to feel substantial—to feel right.  This is why social death—losing job, family, friends,identity—is so threatening. By contrast, a blaze of infamy compels unlimited attention. Yes, for the suicidal killer it’s only imagined attention. But attention from real people would open up the secret inner life of illness and terror.

Needless to say, not everyone in Andreas Lubitz’s situation would behave as he did. Secrecy must have magnified and distorted his desperation. For him, secrecy was right. In this late-industrial age, efficiency demands rules and allows few taboos to be shared. Anguish becomes matter for therapeutic culture, which doesn’t always communicate with business culture—as in Lubitz’s crumpled note from his doctor.

But then, one reason the horror of the crash grips us is the detail of the captain locked out of the cockpit and beating on the door, trying to communicate with his other half, so to speak. The captain is us, our agent, the baffled social self, shut out by the cunning unreality of terror and cold rage. In a paradox worthy of Greek tragedy, the fortified door was a technical solution that invited the threat of mass murder that it was meant to prevent. Sometimes fear is more dangerous than an open door.

Resources used in this essay:

Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil (1973).

Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon (2015)

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/27/germanwings-co-pilot-andrea…(link is external)

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/28/i-suffer-from-depre…(link is external)

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/30/germanwings-co-pilot-andrea…(link is external)

Coming next month from Leveller’s Press:

Helena Farrell for Tacit Muse
Source: Helena Farrell for Tacit Muse

Boston Strong: Engendering Self-Examination

April 4, 2015
TDF Guest Edward Mendelowitz

TDF Guest
Edward Mendelowitz

The 2014 Boston Marathon took place, like last year’s, on Patriot’s Day on a glorious spring day here in transcendentalist New England. It was a moment of triumph for so many people around our city and world, one that was preceded and accompanied by great anticipation, jubilation, sadness and an outpouring of municipal and patriotic zeal. The winner of the men’s division race was an Eritrean émigré, the first American to do so in over three decades. The entire event was typified by a spirit a determination, resilience and resolve. One year later, Bostonians were rightly triumphant, joyous and proud.

Several days after the horror of Marathon 2013, I noticed that a banner suddenly appeared suspended from one of the overpasses along Route 93, the northsouth expressway that half the population of metropolitan Boston seems to be traveling along at any moment in New England time. In large capital letters, it read: “NO MORE HURTING PEOPLE. PEACE.” These were the fateful words written by eight-yearold Martin Richard, who had made the sign under the graceful counsel of his teacher, Rachel Moo of the Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester where both student and teacher resided. Moo had taken the snapshot of the boy holding a sign that would become a rallying cry in the aftermath of tragedy. On the day of the race, Martin Richard’s family had been scrambling for safety after the first explosion when the second bomb detonated several feet to their rear. Richard’s seven-year-old sister would lose half of her leg; his mother would go blind in one eye; father suffered shrapnel wounds and would lose partial hearing. Martin Richard himself was one of three people who died in the blast. It was, as the press accurately reported, a “gargantuan crime.”

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two brothers suspected of perpetrating the bombings, was found several days later hiding in a boat in a backyard in Watertown, a suburban town just northwest of Boston. It is he that the surveillance videos disclose placing the device near the finish line that would take Martin Richard’s life. On the inside wall of the boat, Tsarnaev had scrawled these indignant, haunting words: “The U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians. Stop killing our innocent people and we will stop.” He, too, is certainly not wrong. We are doing it in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen as well. And aiding and abetting it elsewhere with shipments of arms and sundry material and political supports. The Rabaa Massacre one year ago in Cairo and recent atrocities in Gaza. So many surreptitious and sinister activities in the purported interests of humanitarianism, security and peace.

Tsarnaev has reportedly indicated that he and his brother had been influenced in their beliefs and ultimate ungodly act by lectures of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and Yemeni imam whose own message—once patently non-violent and proAmerican, albeit critical of its policies with respect to the Muslim world and the Middle East—had become increasingly radicalized as our government’s policies continued unabated and he himself became a hunted man. Eventually al-Awlaki was singled out for “targeted killing” and taken out by a drone attack on September 30th, 2011. Such targeted killing of an American citizen without charge, trial or conviction was unprecedented. Two weeks later, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Anwar’s 16-year-old-son, was killed by yet another drone strike in Yemen. A U.S. citizen born in Denver, Abdulrahman had no interests in radical movements of any sort. “He was a typical teenager,” recalls his grandfather Nasser al-Awlaki, a former Fulbright scholar. “He watched ‘The Simpsons,’ listened to Snoop Dogg, read ‘Harry Potter’ and had a Facebook page with many friends. He had a mop of curly hair, glasses like me and a wide, goofy smile.” An intelligent, gentle and circumspect soul, the elder al-Awlaki implores: “My grandson was killed by his own government. Shouldn’t it have at least to explain why?”

“Stop killing our people and we will stop.” “No more hurting people. Peace.” To be sure, Martin Richard’s exhortation is the more rarified moral code, but Tsarnaev’s chilling rejoinder, if we are honest with ourselves, has also its place.

And this, in the words of William James, is “the worm at the core”—something which it is difficult to discern precisely insofar as the locus of machinations resides within our own nation and selves. Going forward, we can best aspire to the democratic principles and ideals that underwrote those first shots of the American Revolution at Battle Green in Lexington and the Old North Bridge in Concord to the extent that we honor the multiplicity of contending voices. Those banished, unwanted voices comprise an essential part of the dialogue and narrative We must embrace, as Rollo May kept admonishing, the daemons within if we are to forestall future returns of the Furies. The Obama administration has garnered voluble and near-unanimous support from the third force from the very start. Important, then, that we, especially, attend to the stirrings, voices and alternate aspects and selves on those Jamesean “margins” of consciousness. Only in this way will life yield the “richness” and eventual good works to which luminaries like James and May and Ernest Becker tirelessly pointed. If Martin Richard’s message of peace is to be had, this is the way to do it. “God,” said C.G. Jung several days before he died, “is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions, and change the course of my life for better or for worse.” And then there is the poet Kafka who muses quietly in his diary, “Only in the chorus may be a certain truth.”


When Love Kills: The Romance of Hero-Worship

March 27, 2015
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

In every relationship, as the saying goes, one person agrees to love, the other to be loved. It’s heroes and hero-worship: the parties agree to make heroes bigger than life, and in exchange heroes can rescue worshipers. It’s a system, a bargain. While the dream lasts, everybody wins. When it goes bust, call the doctor, and maybe the cops—and just to be safe, the undertaker.

Here’s a case in point: a convent in 1850s Rome where devout women got entangled in fraud, murder, sexual hijinks, and what the Holy Office called “false holiness.” The Inquisition kept the scandal buried until 1998. It’s the basis for historian Hubert Wolf’s new book, The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio.

First, a little background. Women paid a dowery to join a convent. At St. Ambrose, they withdrew from the rumbling world to lives of worship, obedience, and self-denial. They formed a family of “sisters,” mother superior, and her lieutenant, the madre vicaria. Their total devotion idealized the holy family: the heavenly Father, Son, and Mother. As brides of Christ, the women enjoyed a supremely important role, yet they were suspended between worlds. Their new heavenly family was ideal but invisible. And practically speaking, isolated in the convent, having given up their earthly families, the nuns were also orphans.

The nuns had strong incentives to treat the convent’s founder and their Mother Superior as a heroic figure: ultimately a saint. And the woman, Maria Agnese Firrau, happily obliged. To break up this cult of “false holiness,” the Church transferred mother Agnes to another convent, where she died in 1816. At St. Ambrose, nevertheless, the nuns continued to treasure (and hide) relics and letters of their bygone Mother. They prayed to her for miraculous help. And they continued the special blessing rituals she had initiated, which involved cuddling, fingering genitals, french kissing, and the like.

Thus far, this sounds like a comic tale out of Boccacio. Conventional stereotypes took for granted that frustrated nuns would be frisky. But here the story darkens.

The cult of Mother Agnese was still going strong in the 1850s when a beautiful young novice joined the order. Maria Luisa had grown up in poverty, but showed such rapturous religiosity that she was given a dowery and admitted to the order. She enjoyed the erotic initiation, and she was so politically ambitious and astute that she promptly won over enough sisters to be elected madre vicaria, second in command, almost Mother. Among sisters, you’d say, she was a hero.

Maria Luisa was charismatic and bold. Lying abed, she had visions in which she visited with the Holy Family in heaven and came back with prophecies and endorsements of her policies. To a young nun with graceful handwriting she dictated letters supposed to be from the Holy Mother. With a secret key, Maria Luisa would slip the letters into a locked wooden box to be discovered by the convent, as posted from heaven. To add lustre to her visions, with embezzled funds, Maria Luisa secretly commissioned a breathtaking gold ring which the nuns and their two Jesuit confessors professed to believe had been sent from heaven as a sign of her special status. The more superhuman she became, the more predatory her appetite. Turning against a former favorite, the saintly one dispatched her with poison.

Trouble developed when a wealthy, well-connected aristo joined the convent. Maria Luisa hoped to use Princess Katharina von Hohenzöllern-Sigmaringen’s considerable loot and prestige to found a new convent with herself as the superhero that Agnese Firrau had been. But as the princess began to learn the convent’s secrets, she threatened to squeal to the authorities. Maria Luisa then reported that God decreed the Princess would soon die. Maria Luisa prayed for her while helping out God with poison, but this time the victim survived multiple draughts of poison and pushed for an investigation.

It’s easy to scoff at the nuns’ gullibility and their repressed sexuality—not to mention the sexual abuse the women in power forced on the novices. The gender prejudices of the day kept many women poorly educated, overworked, and stifled, their energies channeled into motherhood. Like Victorian society and the Church, Sant’Ambrogio was organized around hero-worship, but with personal fervor for mother-figures rather than patriarchs. Layers of surrogate mothers protected the sisters. Agnese Firrau and Maria Luisa actually tried to be all things to their followers: sisters, mothers, heroes and quasi-divine saints. They could offer wisdom, sanctify wishes, and find ways to let stifled desires speak.

It was a system based on play. The hero-worshipers ambiguously believed and pretended to believe in the heroes’ supernatural qualities, and in return shared in the exaltation. The system offered sex, but also self-esteem, flesh and blood devotion, and security—ultimately immortality.

The convent arrested life on the edge of childhood. It guaranteed you’d have caring parents forever. Its rules and fasts regulated the mortal body and concentrated imagination on heavenly ideals, especially on love of the Holy Mother and her son. But it also offered a middle range of mediating saints and heroes who could embody what the nuns—especially the young novices badly wanted. They lived in the halo of Maria Luisa’s visionary ecstasies and the ambiguous blessings of her bed. When they caught Maria Luisa lying or being malicious, they agreed to believe that it really hadn’t been her, but rather the Devil impersonating her. There is a psychotic quality to their experience, but it also makes sense as the doubleness of play: the willing suspension of disbelief in a story; the wish to believe in a world elsewhere.

One way to appreciate this is to see it as an expression of neoteny. Among animals, we are among the slowest to grow up. Most adult animals settle into a fixed repertory of behaviors: hunt, eat, mate, sleep—rinse and repeat. By contrast, humans retain juvenile characteristics from hairlessness and small jaws to curiosity, cooperation, and play. Hero-worship and prayer both express care-soliciting behavior and submissiveness.

In patriarchy, heroes like to act the commanding adult, the tough warrior, the stern parent. The convent’s mother-heroes shared more of their followers’ hopes and fears. They needed a touch of the divine innocent or the sociopath in order to keep their followers enchanted. Some heroes (muscle beach studs and bosomy babes) pump up the body or diet to model maximum fertility. Through facelifts and fashion, they idealize undying youth. The convent appreciated Maria Luisa’s beauty and stories of dead saints whose bodies never decayed, but fertility was vexing for them.

Like a child’s imagination, heroism can be terrifying. How much is enough? When heroism gets stale, it demands greater deeds, and those feats can be criminal. After awhile, Maria Luisa’s teas in heaven with the mother of God were no longer glorious enough. When she overreached, she found herself concocting poisons

Maria Luisa’s crimes and sexual romps, like her powwows in heaven, blurred reality and play, appetites and ecstasy. The nuns inhabited a play space, giving up their birth identities for special sacred names. Walled off from everyday social feedback as in a tomb, they had roles in a cosmic story. But there must have been times when bodies whispered and heaven’s glories seemed far away and unreal. Whoever gets enough life?

Maria Luisa could kill a sister nun partly because death wasn’t real to her, partly because the strict inhibitions of convent life tried to keep life impersonal. And it’s likely that something in the woman’s impoverished, motherless childhood complicated her ability to empathize. It’s true that she used others with the cruelty of a tabloid psychopath—despite the agonies of poison victims, she never lost her nerve. Decades later, she ended up in the streets as an incoherent bag lady. But pathology isn’t the whole story, and neither is sin.

There is something terrible in Maria Luisa’s strangled greed for life. Like everybody else, she was trapped in the stories we tell to make life less strange and more satisfying. The child of poverty took other people’s money and devotion and even their lives. Filling up the hollow spaces in herself, she was voracious. hungry for that energy, real and imaginary, living and dead, earthbound and divine.

She may have been a monster, but she was one of us.


Killing the Cartoon: Terrorism and the Struggle to be Real

February 6, 2015
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Headlines make the terrorist massacre in Paris a monumental “clash of civilizations.” Play by play, the police kill the killers. World leaders link arms for the cameras while the “greatest crowd in French history” masses in the background. The effort to grasp the terrorists’ attack on cartoonists becomes a cartoon.

The 17 terrorist murders are painfully vivid, though dwarfed by traffic fatalities. [1] The meaning of the atrocity is less clear. The adversaries shout threats at each other, but their grievances and principles are slogans. The killers claimed they massacred cartoonists to avenge the prophet Mohammed.  “Al Qaeda in Yemen” (!) claimed to be punishing French policies. Members of a  historic crowd supporting “free speech” each proclaimed “I am Charlie Hebdo.”

Terrorists and victims both have incentives to make terrorism look uniquely momentous. It’s easy to overlook familiar motives that make this picture tragically human. The clash over religion and free speech is also a clash over identity. There is the obvious conflict between outsiders and established society over values and rewards, but also something deeper: a struggle to feel real. This is worth a closer look.

As unemployed men from a marginalized, segregated immigrant minority, the three Paris terrorists were “losers” and outsiders. Like everyone else, immigrants want a secure identity. As a Muslim trucker put it, “we want to be respected according to our worth. The message, quite simply, is to be regarded as truly French.”  To be valued, they want to be “truly French,” citizens not outsiders. Self-esteem, the man implies, needs confirmation from other people, the “truly” French. If we’re only on the edge of society, we’re less significant—less meaningful, less real—than those around us. In the extreme this is social death.

Islamic immigrants are in a stressful position, caught between a traditional society “back home” that they had reason to leave, and French society increasingly unwilling to “truly” admit them. The terrorists used jihad from the world “back home” to seize an identity superior to the “truly French.” In reality of course, their “jihad” destroyed 17 victims and the terrorists as well.

Even if Jihad has little effect on government policy, a sensational massacre can pump up morale among insurgents and wannabe fighters. Unless it fails.

Regarded this way, the attack and responses to the attack are competing rituals or even ads trying to inspire adherents. Each side is trying to pump up ecstatic belief and belonging that can overcome death-anxiety.

To appreciate the competing rituals, it helps to remember that the self is an event, not a thing. During sleep, for instance, the self vanishes, which is why sleep is associated with death, as anxious kids show us at bedtime. The sense of self depends on confirmation by others, from Mum’s attention at birth to the throwaway greeting “How are you?” Facebook is wildly popular in part because it makes people feel more substantial. More real.

Alpha animals—heroes—get quality attention, whereas folks at the bottom get social death. Like blacks in the US, Muslims in France face discrimination and poverty. Like blacks, they’re only a fraction of the population (7-10%) but 50% of those imprisoned. By commanding the world’s attention, terrorism and rampage killing promise to make nobodies into infamous heroes. Add “hero-worship” to the role, and you begin to see religious psychology, as in jihad, coming into play.

The Kouachi brothers were orphans and, like Amedy Coulibaly, one of them was an ex-con. Prison exposed them to jihadist recruiting. Jihadists profess to be selfless, but in claiming to avenge Mohammed and God, they were identifying with the supreme hero and Islam’s promise of eternal life. Allied with superhuman powers, they wanted not merely to be “truly French,” but to outdo the French by demonstrating their power over life and death.

This fury makes sense as a drive to feel alive after the oppressive emotions of social death. Of course they targeted Charlie Hebdo, since the cartoons were deflating the convictions the jihadists’ new life depended on. As immigrants, half-legitimate, they were themselves caricatures of “true” French men. Since they were trapped in social death, it’s no surprise that they chose to inflict death on others as a remedy. If I have to suffer the torment of deadness, you will too.

To give themselves legitimacy and fortify their resolve, the trio tried to act as soldiers in the service of God, making a point of sparing women. In reality, they were rampage killers slaughtering defenseless victims in a sneak attack, and psychiatry would call them “pseudocommandos.”

In killing to make a fantasy identity real, the terrorists resemble Ismaayil Brinsley, who murdered two New York City police officers (December 20, 2014). Brinsley too was unemployed and failing, from an economically and racially marginalized group. Brinsley thought he was avenging police killings of unarmed blacks, and like many rampage killers took his own life afterward. Although the terrorists knew that their plan had a suicidal quality, the prospect of suicide—martyrdom—insured that if cornered, they could evade reality-testing and a return to prison as nobodies. The tragic paradox is that killing to be real is nightmarishly unreal.

Yet the paradox doesn’t stop there. The survivors of terrorism reacted in ways that mirror the terrorists’ experience. They too reacted to injustice and death with defiance and a determination to show the world they could “be somebody.” Like jihadists, the  “greatest crowd in French history” banded together to enjoy heightened solidarity.  They too felt avenged and vindicated when police killed the killers. Wittingly or not, they too strove for global, heroic importance to counter death.

This doesn’t equate the two sides, but recognizes that the terror of death can set in motion a cycle of retaliation based on the same creaturely dread. Americans illustrated the reflex by reacting to 9/11 with the brutal and illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, which expanded a cycle of violence that’s still underway.

For both sides, in different ways, terrorism fortifies identity by pumping up an ecstatic conviction of being right. People fight to the death over what’s right because on a gut level, as Otto Rank said, if you win an argument—if you’re right—you feel more alive, whereas if you’re wrong, uh-oh. As I use it, the sense of what’s right is foundational. It’s the understanding of the world that parents and culture start instilling in you at birth. It becomes what you believe, what works, what makes you feel at home in the world. At bottom, your sense of what’s right is you, as real and natural as “your” name—the name that in fact somebody gave you long before you can remember. Cultures around the world associate the experience of rightness with ideas of honor and reputation as well as law and religion.

Jihad gives what’s right religious authority. And since the word “jihad” usually refers to the soul’s struggle against evil, jihad is a way of thinking about identity too. Survivors also fortify what’s right by demonizing enemies. References to America as “the great Satan” had its counterpart in the fantasy that saw in photos of the smoke above the twin towers on 9/11 an image of Satan’s face.

It’s tempting to see tension between immigrants from traditional cultures and Europe’s modernity, but in fact nobody has a pure outlook. At one time or another we’re all given to magical thinking. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons, for example, can be seen as ironic, reminding you to stay open to multiple perspectives because sooner or later everything in life reveals some limits. But satire is also a critique, and presumably Parisians enjoy the witty exposure of foibles. And lest we forget, satire originated in the curse: the use of words and images to wound or kill. More complicated still: whether or not you’re really offended, hurt feelings can make inflammatory propaganda.

There are some advantages to thinking about terrorists struggling with creaturely limits as the rest of us do. For one thing, it exposes the folly of overreacting. Terrorism only works because it triggers panic and quixotic retaliation. Like the 9/11 attacks, the Paris massacre is better understood as a problem for police and forensic psychiatry than for invisible demonic armies. A glance back at the Americans and Iraqis killed, mutilated, or made homeless by the futile “war on terror” tells you that to overreact is to invite tragedy. Policing panic is as much a moral issue as terrorism.

Thinking about terrorists in terms of creaturely motives also reminds you how blind we can be to the inner lives of others. Official France and the alienated trio saw each other in terms of stereotypes. Like the US, France is a class society with sophisticated hypocrisy and doublethink. Prime minister Valls has defied taboo by acknowledging the reality of ghettos and apartheid. But sometimes generalizations aren’t enough. For their part, the terrorists demonstrate that one of the evils of their indoctrination is its substitution of political and religious stereotypes for imaginative sympathy. Their fixation made them incurious about the inner lives around them.

We are tricky creatures, and terrifically vulnerable, which makes it risky to moralize. France has offered citizenship to a grocery store employee from Mali who saved some shoppers from terrorist gunfire. You can praise that gesture as a sign of generous recognition or take it as an oppressive taunt that says to immigrants: You can be one of us when you save my life. It’s worth noting that the Romans freed slaves who saved their master’s life, and sometimes put a whole household to death if they didn’t.

Humans have been migrating with happy and horrific consequences since we hiked out of Africa way back when. The fear of scarcity and being overpowered can make population shifts nerve-wracking, as immigration is in some quarters of Europe and the US today. Love thy neighbor, says the book. Or as that Greek guy would put it, Know thy neighbor as thyself.

Resources used in this essay:

Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil 

Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power

G. R.Elliott, The Power of Satire

Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon 

1. Tom Engelhardt, “(Over)bearing Arms in America” (1.11.15). Americans are “statistically in less danger of dying from a terrorist attack than from a toddler shooting you.” You’re 2,059 times more likely to shoot yourself than die in a terrorist attack anywhere on Earth. “You’re also more than nine times as likely to be killed by a police officer as by a terrorist.”


Killing Me Softly: In a hair-trigger society, the stress is quicker than the eye

December 28, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Last week as I was doing a live podcast with Dr. Sophy, a listener called in wondering if Americans today are less trustworthy. This got me thinking about two competing ideas about American society. One is that notion of neighborly bonding associated with barn raising, quilting bees, the Great Depression, and WW2.  You help one another, and the strong help the weak. It’s the assumption thatwe’re all in this together. Today as in the old days, the notion varies from place to place, and it’s always under pressure.

The New Deal and WW2 treated society as a system. If we pull together, as the chorus goes, we can lick any problem. That mentality gave us Social Security, a winning war effort, and then postwar prosperity. When he died, FDR was envisioning basic rights to employment and health insurance.

The opposite idea, privatization, worked best for the rich. It meant individual responsibility, but also every man for himself. Pulling together was for Communists and socialists. Polls show that the lies of the Vietnam War undermined trust in government, and that spurred President Reagan to demand that “big government” (we’re all in this together) be privatized. The idea was to put Wall Street in charge of Social Security, punish welfare parasites, and lower taxes, especially on wealthy investors.

Privatization encouraged Scrooge McDuck, but ordinary salaries have been flat for three decades. Starting in the 1980s a family needed two wage earners to hold its own. MBAs preached that job insecurity is good for business, whereas an employee voice—organized labor—is bad. At Walmart the pay is now so low you need government food stamps to survive.  Even so, Walmart’s been caught cheating employees on their pay stubs (an estimated 5% of companies cheat their workers).[1] Any new expense may be the bullet that cripples or kills you.

When living standards are under stress, everybody’s tempted to cheat and fib. Privatization gets rid of regulations, so that when businesses advertise “A name you can trust” and run amok as the banks just did in 2008, nobody is punished. When you’re downsized, you suspect that maybe we’re not all in this together. You worry about trust.

But there’s a deeper problem. Pure trust is a fantasy. Even babies scream at their trusted parents when they’re scared and hungry. Trust is always a best guess, an estimate of how reliable others are. We want to believe that we’re all in this together—or that a privatized “free market” will police itself. But these are enabling fictions. In a psychological age, the ad industry manufactures belief. The advertising costs more than the beer in the bottle. People feel manipulated, unsure which corporate talking head to vote for. They worry about trust.

You can see these ideas shaping the turmoil over police killing young, unarmed black males. At the center of things, trust is in trouble.  If we’re all in this together, police are supposed to protect everyone, not victimize a stigmatized group of the poor. Yet alone on the street, his life at risk, the cop’s situation is radically privatized.

If he kills an innocent person, the law privatizes his role, too, by judging whether he felt his life threatened. Pulling together and privatization are desperately confused. In different ways, both sides are in denial about the reality of risk, the role of guesswork, and the overlays of prejudices that distort their assumptions.

The nationwide protests aren’t just about the numbers of victims (a few hundred a year versus 33,000 traffic deaths in 2012) and racism. The police killings, I think, dramatize a kind of hair-trigger oppression that’s becoming pervasive in the US. It feels like a betrayal when forces that should help you make a life are instead pushing you toward social death. Corporations send your job abroad or refuse you a living wage. Politicians shred the safety net to force you to settle for crumbs. Wall Street cheats on mortgages, then takes your house. The corporate military takes your social security trust fund to spend on endless futile wars. The law itself shoots first and asks questions afterward when it replaces the jury trial—every citizen’s right—with hair-trigger plea bargains that force you to plead guiltyor we’ll lock you up forever. [2] Police broke up Occupy Wall Street’s lawful demonstration with rough-house arrests and courthouse harassment.

I call this hair-trigger oppression because its violence seems to happen too fast for a response, let alone accountability. Any number of processes now are structured so that deadlines or rates are triggered, as if nobody is responsible. Financialized mortgages disguised risk so that it blew up in somebody else’s hands. Inquiries or problem-solving efforts meet with a phone tree (“Your call is very important to us, please wait“). A Cleveland police spokesman on TV expressed the underlying fantasy when he warned that nobody would be killed “if people would just obey us when we tell them to stop”—even though two Ohio cops had just been caught on film shooting first and asking questions afterward.

TV allowed no follow-up to determine if the spokesman was lying or just in denial. He assumes that you’ll sympathize: You can’t expect obedience from those people.

This is the formula for our undeclared wars, as in the invasion of Iraq on the false suspicion that Saddam Hussein had terror weapons.  As in police killings, with hair-trigger panic, soldiers cut down innocent civilians without punishment. The Cleveland spokesman implies that as in warfare, policing is all about obedience, at a time when police departments are becoming militarized by acquiring equipment from the armed forces. More chillingly still, when a deranged black man ambushed two New York policemen in retaliation for publicized black victims of police bullets, NYPD spokesmen purportedly threatened that the protesters’ concern for justice had caused the officers’ deaths, and that the NYPD would “become a ‘wartime’ police department. We will act accordingly.” They vowed that protesters and New York mayor de Blasio had blood on their hands. [3, 4]

Notice what happened: denying the agonizing guilt of killing innocent civilians, the police accuse the protesters and the mayor of being murderers. Retaliating for the deranged killer’s retaliation, they indirectly threaten to escalate their killing. This is of course how real wars start, in a cycle of fear and wounded self-esteem. At the same time, in a calmer mood, they’re actually demanding more support (Support Our Troops) to cope with their fears: they too want to believe that we’re all in this together.

You can understand the cops’ denial. Who wants to wake up every morning thinking, I killed a 12-year-old boy with a toy gun in a playground? In countries free of American mania for guns, cops are rarely if ever killed. When people try to privatize policing by being armed to the teeth, suspicion and terror are explosive.

Even if it’s only an enabling fiction, it’s useful to maintain that we’re all in this together as a way of defusing paranoia and that devilish cycle of retaliation. It helps keep morale up and stress down. American police are scared, especially in cities, among racial “strangers.” Risk is real, yet ironically polls show blacks generally trust police, while police overestimate the criminality of blacks, especially black males.

When living standards are under pressure, racism is inflamed, especially with a mixed race president to blame for any ills. The invective hurled at Obama shows that gut-level mistrust of blacks is surfacing again. Race also spurs some to blame minority victims rather than cops. Maybe they were lazy parasites sucking your money out of the system. Maybe they were competitors for scarce jobs and status. In any event, scared citizens don’t want to blame police. They don’t want to know that a scared and unreliable cop killed someone by mistake. They want to feel protected, whatever the cost.

Trust, belonging, race, crime, hair-trigger oppression—you can see why people dream of escape from such stress. In the PBS documentary “America by the Numbers,” Maria Hinojosa interviews folks in Coeur d’Alene Idaho, once a bastion of Aryan Nation white supremacy, now a civilized suburb that is, nevertheless, 94% white. The citizens say they’re not racists, they just feel more comfortable among people like themselves. We’re all in this together—as long as you’re in my family, my exclusive suburb.

The problem is, differences and “strangers” are everywhere, and they compete, sometimes to the death. Like the nation, Coeur d’Alene is reluctant to acknowledge the economic injustice minorities face (since the 2008 banking disaster, net worth has shrunk by 25% vs. 43% for minority families).[5] It’s particularly perverse since haves feel so much mistrust and contempt for have-nots. Cops don’t gun down Wall Street crooks with attaché cases.

The air today sizzles with images of excessive force. In Montana a man named Kaarma shot to death an unarmed German exchange student, enraged that the kid might pilfer something out of his garage. Meanwhile the “global policeman” uses hair-trigger drones to whack “enemies” who may turn out to be visiting aunts. Hair-trigger CIA has tortured innocents off the street. Oh, and by the way, NSA has you and me under surveillance.Just obey when they tell you to stop.

Across the planet, like children, humans react to strangers with mistrust and hair-trigger nerves. It’s how we’re built. Even with our big brains it’s not easy to understand that it doesn’t have to be that way.


Resources used in this essay:

Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon (soon to be out in paperback from Leveller’s Press)

Kirby Farrell/Leveller’s Press

Also in this series, “Who Can You Trust?” (September 15, 2014); “The Child and the Monster” (November 29); and “Guilty Games” (December 5).

1. Laura Klawson, “Walmart ordered to pay $188 million in Pennsylvania wage theft lawsuit,”Daily Kos, December 16, 2014.   <<http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/12/16/1352314/-Walmart-ordered…

2. Jed S. Rakoff, “Why Innocent People Plead Guilty,” New York Review of Books, November 20, 2014.

3. Steven Thrasher, “Two NYPD Cops Get Killed and ‘Wartime’ Police Blame Protesters.” Guardian UK, December 22, 2014.

4. Michelle Conlin, “Off Duty Black Officers in New York SayThey Fear Fellow Cops,” Reuters, December 23, 2014.

5.Quentin Fortrell, “Americans Are 40 Percent Poorer Than Before the Recession,” MarketWatch (December 16, 2014).


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…


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 138 other followers