The Self as Schtick: Life as a Bad Movie

September 11, 2015
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Spoiler alert!

If a story can be spoiled by knowing “the ending,” then the ending is likely to be an entertaining surprise, the answer to a puzzle or the punchline of a joke.  If the surprise comes to you like the flash answer to a riddle, bringing closure, then it seems to come from intuition or “the unconscious” or magic.  But the spoiler alert is warning us that the surprise has the contrived quality of a trick. Once you know it, it’s dead.

It’s schtick.

The Yiddish term schtick describes an easy, crowd-pleasing routine that usually has a clichéd or gimmicky quality. We’re ambivalent about schtick. It can be a habit that makes life gratifyingly easy. You sign off with a smiley face or xxxx kisses although that schtick could mean anything from “Have a nice day” to a heartfelt “I love you.” The cliché is boilerplate, a rubber stamp: a cut-&-paste substitute for more personal or even intimate meaning.  As schtick, the sign-off allows you to enjoy a facsimile of closeness. It’s also a labor-saving device, sparing you the sweat or anguish of deciding how you really feel about this relationship at this moment.

In a world overloaded with information, schtick can function as a code. It’s a kind of abbreviation or shorthand. You know what to expect, you don’t have to ponder it, test it, taste it, keep coming back to it. You don’t have to pay attention to details or read the whole thing. This gives you more time to enjoy more schtick.

Fast food is schtick. Most pop music is schtick. Industrial entertainment (TV, Hollywood, social media) relies on schtick. Think of the fights or explosions that climax thrillers. Bullets and fists fly, yet the heroes emerge triumphantly unscathed. Even romances build in a climactic kiss that resolves canned conflicts in a happy-ever-after ending. Advertising is often schtick making fun of schtick.

You can see where schtick shares some virtues of the factory. Identical products manufactured in scale are cheap and familiar. Once programmed, machines make production almost effortless and widely available. What’s not to like?

One complication is we’re pretty ambivalent about factories because they regiment, routinize, and depersonalize life. Schtick looks like “real life,” but you don’t have to take it seriously. It offers closure yet it doesn’t really resolve anything. Formula crime shows solve every crime. Nobody asks where crime comes from or what becomes of criminals after jail, or what happens to their families. In comedies, laugh tracks cue you to share in a nonexistent group’s hallucinatory merriment. The experience may be enjoyable, but like the popcorn box, you pitch it when the lights come on.

It’s a trick of course. Schtick is always going dead. Today’s schtick is tomorrow’s stale formula, so producers have to keep goosing it up to make it seem fresh. Yesterday’s climactic fistfight is today’s disemboweled loser or Los Angeles exploded by aliens, intestines slung in trees like holiday ornaments.

In this respect schtick is a kind of play. As in play, you know it isn’t true, but you behave for the moment as if it is. Here’s the catch: play as entertainment is different than play as exploration or experiment. A formula surprise isn’t the same experience as a discovery. A surprise is a product manufactured for you to use, whereas you have to make the discovery.

It follows that schtick is wish-fulfilling, even flattering. The customer is always right. Literature, by contrast, poses questions that sail off into the unknown, and dramatize suffering, hilarious absurdity, and death. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 asks, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Nah. That would be schtick. His plays don’t really resolve. They explore. In the end characters go offstage to puzzle over the disruptive merriment or horrors we’ve just witnessed. The plays open out into the strangeness of being alive.

Most novels and commercial films rely on schtick—editors think of it as the hook. Writers are under terrific pressure to honor sctick. A recent prizewinning novel, Atticus Lish’sPreparation for the Next Life, describes the relationship of a vet suffering PTSD (Skinner) with an illegal immigrant (a Uigher woman named Zhou) who barely survives in NYC doing scut work. It’s a serious story, full of eloquent, brilliantly detailed descriptions of urban squalor. In the end the vet kills a monstrous ex-con who’s tried to rape Zhou and then shoots himself. The stricken Zhou lights out for the territory and ends up contentedly working on a ranch.

Here’s the catch: the novel vividly evokes the characters’ misery, but neither of them is capable of abstract thinking.  Remember: it’s PTSD and an Asian woman with minimal English. The result is that the action is intense but the characters have almost no inner life. When you want to see what they’re thinking and feeling, brilliant pictures of the soulless city take over. The characters show little ambivalence or resistance to fatality, so the fatality they face seems plot-driven, and the ending contrived.

The novel dramatizes insistent themes in American culture these days: victimization, deadening work, vulnerable immigrants, callous government, damaged warriors, plucky women survivors, and sexual predators, to name a few. What’s eerily missing is inner life. Lots of grime, no imaginative sympathy in sight. The author and fans could reply that Well, that’s how American life is now. A society of cyborgs and ATMs. People talk schtick and self is no more than a logo on a sweatshirt. And yes, it can feel that way. But you could make that complaint about any era in history.

And more crucial still: values don’t pop out of manholes. Somebodies create them. Even when we fail or get it wrong, we’re always imagining values. It’s how we’re built

One sign of a cultural shift away from stories about inner life is the visionary sweep of soap operas such as The Sopranos, The Wire, or Rome. Their characters proliferate rather than develop in depth, but the scripts argue that that’s the effect of looking at a complex, big world. When it works, it’s powerful. It’s an epic perspective, an effect, you might say, of the globalized Information Age, where you get to know a tiny bit about a million people.  Nothing is wholly exotic anymore and your “mobile device” can bring up Uighurs playing kickball in China, quantum diagrams, and flyby Pluto.

We’re ambivalent about this overwhelming scale of awareness. It excites our curiosity and fantasies of escape and apotheosis. But it also shows us how ephemeral we are. We see that universe of information in snapshots of schtick. One fistfight and kiss after another. On this gameboard everybody’s a helpless victim. Inner life seems depleted, waiting for some leader or story to pump it up again. Meanwhile schtick offers merchandized tattoos, “selfies” and “selfie sticks”—Don’t leave home without one.

After all, it isn’t the quantity of inner life we miss—who doesn’t know self-absorbed people? It’s the quality that matters. Something in us aspires to “get real” despite the warnings that life Contains Spoilers.


PS: it’s liberating to be able to spot when something is schtick and not the real thing. If you have an example, send it along. Let’s collect some tricks and kicks.


Helena K. Farrell/Tacit Muse. Used with permission
Source: Helena K. Farrell/Tacit Muse. Used with permission

In slang we talk about flipping out, running amok, losing it, etc., Berserk abandon is terrifying yet also alluring, since it promises access to extraordinary resources by overthrowing inhibitions. Berserk style has shaped many areas of contemporary American culture, from warfare and business to politics, sports, and intimate life. Focusing on post-Vietnam America and using perspectives from psychology, anthropology, and physiology, Farrell demonstrates the need to unpack the confusions in language and cultural fantasy that drive the nation’s fascination with berserk style.

<<This book amazes me with its audacity, its clarity, and its scope. We usually think of ‘berserk’ behaviors—from apocalyptic rampage killings to ecstatic revels like Burning Man—as extremes of experience, outside ordinary lives. in fascinating detail, Farrell shows how contemporary culture has reframed many varieties of abandon into self-conscious strategies of sense-making and control.

Abandon has become a common lens for organizing modern experience and an often troubling resource for mobilizing and rationalizing cultural and political action.This landmark analysis both enlightens and empowers us.>>

—Les Gasser, Professor of Information and Computer Science, U. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaigne.


Superman needs you: Do you have a super need?

August 27, 2015
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Great leaders, they say, have “magnetism.” Their “charisma” casts a spell.  But it’s really a collaboration. Hitler staged the Nuremburg rallies, but thousands had to show up and stand in the hot sun saluting and throbbing with crowd power. They’d been through a capital “D” Depression. They wanted to be rescued. They believed in a payoff. When it comes to leaders, them is us.

So here we are in our own American funk, telling pollsters who we’d like to rescue us. It’s highly scripted. People have been studying leadership formulas at least since Plato. And tycoons have been manufacturing leaders for ages. Yet followers still want to believe.

Consider candidate Trump, who’s a favorite among some voters. Instead of questioning whether he’s a worthy candidate, let’s look at tools he and others—including Hitler—have used. No, this isn’t to equate the two men. We’re talking tools here. And wondering how them could be us.

Let’s start with the obvious. Adolf and Trump play the roles of “Hitler” and “Trump,” heroes powerful as the parents who raise us as infants. Literally, they raise our morale and self-esteem, rousing us to feel heroic purpose, offering us more life. How can one person do all that? For one thing, they speak in abstractions while winking at you, so you can attribute to them qualities dear to your heart. It’s hero-worship. And it’s like the paradox of love: if you fall in love with someone who embodies your most cherished ideals, you’re in love with yourself.

So how can a “Trump” or an “Adolf” raise anybody up? Yes, they show stupendous self-confidence. But how does that pump us up? The trick is to turn depressive flight into invigorating fight. They gather us into a vigilante posse to drive out hated scapegoats. Trump’s scapegoats are “Mexican” immigrants, plain women, gays, and the losers he fires on TV. The blog Glaad describes him throwing victims “under the bus.” His rejects suffer social death. By contrast, Adolf’s losers—Jews, gypsies, Slavs, Commies, quite a list—get the real thing. “Trump” calls for “mass deportation”; Adolf put mass deportation in cattle cars to Auschwitz. But it doesn’t have to be so sensational. People “put down” others routinely—the same verb that describes euthanizing an animal.

The heroic rationale for this aggression is Social Darwinism and eugenics. Since only the fittest survive, you confirm your own merit by getting rid of the unfit.  Eugenics would improve “us” by wiping out disease and death. Adolf’s campaign famously characterized Jews as vermin and germs. Trump trooper Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas vows that “We don’t even know all of the diseases [immigrants carry], and how extensive the diseases are.”

Adolf relied a lot on slave labor. The idea is to drain the losers before disposing of them. Trump has been abusive to labor. But Iowa radio host Jan Mickelson created his own Nuremburg rally on Twitter by calling for undocumented immigrants to become “property of the state” and put into “compelled labor.” When a caller challenged the idea, Mickelson answered, “What’s wrong with slavery?” Even as it rattles the shackles for immigrants, this sort of slave talk points to America’s real slaves, black folks. Substitute “Jews and gypsies” for black Americans, and you’re reading Adolf’s playbook.

Given this sensitive program, “Trump” and “Adolf” have to be unquestionably right. The script calls for both to have infallible intuition and tell truths others are too cowardly or corrupt to utter. They see through journalists, scientists, and what VP and jailbird Spiro Agnew called “pointy-headed intellectuals.” And they never apologize. This enables them to hold demonstrably false ideas without blushing. Like Adolf’s delusions about Jews,Trump’s claims about immigrants don’t square with reality.

The freedom to lie is part of a larger freedom to break the rules that limit ordinary mortals. In The Art of the Deal, Trump brags about deceiving his business partners in Atlantic City. In a PR stop at the Tex/Mex border, “Trump” floated on a cloud of double-talk. Adolf too felt entitled to enjoy what Goebbels called “the big lie.”

To shore up their infallibility, “Trump” and the Führer “double-down” when wrong. Like double-or-nothing gambling, doubling down can be self-intoxicating. Like a Ponzi scheme, illusion requires more and more illusions to keep paying off. Keep it up and you end up in the toybox or the tomb.

When illusions fail, the great leader blames betrayals. For Adolf, defeat in WW1 was a stab in the back; the Gestapo had a full roster of traitors to kill. On a more playful note, “Trump” condemns Sen. McCain for betraying his troops, supporters, and others. But then, if you think that politicians and illegals are secretly undermining the nation, they’re all traitors.

Self-intoxication leads to overreaching. Beginner’s luck lured Adolf into a doomed two-front war. “Trump” begins to imagine that he can control all the vicious chaos in the middle east. Adolf designed triumphal arches and stupendous buildings. As the kids say, speaking for the infant in all of us, Adolf’s monster buildings would be “awesome.”  Not to be outdone, “Trump” brags about “his” skyscrapers.

As self-intoxication intensifies, boundaries blur. The actor confuses theater and life. Emergency physiology takes over. More victims died in the last six months of WW2, when the outcome was obvious, than in all the war years before. Survival rage takes no prisoners.

Told about two young followers in Boston who mauled a  homeless Hispanic guy and praised Trump to the police, the candidate first said, “That would be a shame.” But he couldn’t resist adding, “I will say, the people that are following me are very passionate. They love this country. They want this country to be great again. But they are very passionate. I will say that.” Of course he was talking about himself too.

This dreamlike response echoes Adolf’s belief that passionate “will” can conquer the world. The idea is that the leader’s superhuman will can rouse enchanted followers to superhuman ambitions. In the ultimate blurring of boundaries, leader and followers imagine that they’re fusing. As in transference—hero worship—the merger of the enchanter and the enchanted creates not problem-solving wits but passionate belief. In reality all is not well, but in the mirror you see a champion.

Superman wears many costumes: politician, priest, lover, parent, celebrity, business executive, and more. In these days of insanely overpaid executives, for example, the formula shows up when the corporate CEO axes “other” employees in lean and mean downsizing, freeing up profits and awesome power for the impressed followers.

“Trump” and “Hitler” didn’t invent the Superman formula. They’re copycats inspiring more copycats. And like rampage killers, Superman copycats try to outdo one another to get noticed. They’re natural extremists—think “mass deportations.” As leaders and followers pump up the Superman dream, the dream is taking control of them, they breathe hot conviction, and salute.

Better not to stick around for the ending.


Some interesting youtube documentaries about eugenics and “eugenics”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=427&v=c2kV83nPWnM(link is external)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=101&v=ufqOe0_pres(link is external)


Helena K. Farrell/Tacit Muse. Used with permission
Source: Helena K. Farrell/Tacit Muse. Used with permission

As a cultural style, berserk abandon is terrifying yet also alluring. It promises access to extraordinary resources by overthrowing inhibitions. Berserk style has shaped many areas of contemporary American culture, from warfare to politics and intimate life. Focusing on post-Vietnam America and using perspectives from psychology, anthropology, and physiology, Farrell demonstrates the need to unpack the confusions in language and cultural fantasy that drive the nation’s fascination with berserk style.

<<This book amazes me with its audacity, its clarity, and its scope. We usually think of ‘berserk’ behaviors—from apocalyptic rampage killings to ecstatic revels like Burning Man—as extremes of experience, outside ordinary lives. in fascinating detail, Farrell shows how contemporary culture has reframed many varieties of abandon into self-conscious strategies of sense-making and control.

Abandon has become a common lens for organizing modern experience and an often troubling resource for mobilizing and rationalizing cultural and political action.This landmark analysis both enlightens and empowers us.>>

—Les Gasser, Professor of Information and Computer Science, U. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaigne.


Hunting Bwana the Dentist: What fantasies move a man to ambush an elderly tourist lion?

August 27, 2015
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

A Minnesota dentist has paid tens of thousands of dollars to “hunt” a rhino, an elk, a leopard, and lately Cecil the 13 year old celebrity lion in an African park.

Public opinion is outraged. The “hunt” has the stink of injustice about it. Dentist Walter Palmer hired a guide to bait Cecil out of a protected reserve. The dentist wounded him with his fancy bow, then trailed the dying “king of beasts” for 40 hours till he could finish him off with a bullet. Realizing their mistake, the mighty hunters naturally tried to hide Cecil’s GPS collar and left his severed head behind.

Wildlife authorities in Zimbabwe are making noises abut prosecuting Palmer. His next hunt may be for a shark with a briefcase.

The symbolic logic at work is worth some thought because it’s so prominent in the air these days. To kill a lion, the “king of beasts,” is to kill a mythic predator. The fantasy is that in bagging a “wild” animal, the mild dentist from Minnesota is overpowering “wild” death. The hunter takes nutrition out of the dead prey, but also the animal’s spirit strength.  Aztec warriors dressed up in jaguar skins to give themselves a little extra wildcat pick-me-up while killing enemies on the job.

Dentist vs Lion pits two top-dog males in a fight to the death to prove potency and death-defying juju. Conservatives often justify dog-eat-dog survival economics as Social Darwinism, “nature red in [ahem] tooth and claw.”

The public is outraged because the fantasy is such a lie.  The  rich suburbanite with his store-bought weapons hires a “guide” to whack an elderly tourist lion who’d lost his fear of humans and wore an Oxford University GPS collar. Like drones and sniper wetdreams, it’s shooting fish in a barrel without risk or even a sweat.

In this reading the tame hunter is a sort of murderer, and since he lured the lion out of the park, an assassin. Instead of being an alpha animal, the dentist has used lies and trophy heads the way lynch mobs cut off parts of tortured blacks as souvenirs of their glorious triumph over a “bestial” scapegoat.

Think of the familiar symbolic analogues to the hunt. It’s the child’s triumph over a father, the rebellious subject’s overthrow of the evil king. It’s the fired employee coming back in fatigues and shooting the boss. It’s the alienated schoolkid with a military assault weapon slaughtering schoolmates.  For that matter, think of the ISIS hot heads or the Saudigovernment beheading “trophy” POWs (ISIS) and criminals (Saudis) to dramatize superiority.

The “big game” hunt brings trophy glory the way rampage killing spurs global fame. The sleazy dishonesty of Walter Palmer’s ambush tells us how urgent his fantasy had become. But then, think of how the American corporate military played big game hunter in Iraq, slaughtering thousands in a safari that has thrown the entire region into chaos. Propaganda tried to keep the spotlight on the “big predator” Saddam Hussein, who had nothing to do with 9/11, but reality chased that script into the dumpster.

In panic, a sleazy war pulls on a religious helmet. Note the fantasies in “The Marine Rifle Creed”: “My rifle is human . . .  We will become part of each other  . . . Before God, I swear this creed.  My rifle and myself are the defenders of my country.  We are the masters of our enemy.  WE ARE THE SAVIORS OF MY LIFE.  So be it, until victory is America’s and there is no enemy, but peace.”

Forget the bad writing (they’re creating “no enemy but peace”). The creed makes the warrior-hero a quasi-religious figure.  It turns the hunt into a sacred crusade so the killers won’t feel so guilty violating the deep prohibitions against killing others. As we see in thePTSD suffering and suicides of vets, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes you just can’t hide the GPS collar and the severed head.

But there’s another fantasy in play too. This summer Americans have been also appalled at the spectacle of cops killing trophy “bad” blacks. As Dylann Roof justified shooting up a Charleston prayer group, black folks are rapists who’d exterminate whites—just as lions are predators. Trapped in his child brain, trying to be a big (ahem) shot, he reasons that it’s kill or be killed.

The point is not that police and a bigshot dentist are conscious racists, but that a constellation of fantasies contribute to their viciousness. The cop who threatened to “light up” Sandra Bland in Texas saw her as a wild animal he had to subdue at all costs. Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown reported that he saw Brown as the mythic, wild “Hulk” and felt by contrast like a helpless child.

Such fantasies are exaggerated by the cruel stress in American life that keeps audiences pumped up for nitwit rant broadcasting, Trump and dump meanness, and TV “nature” programming that obsesses over sharks, lions, alligators, and other voracious jaws. I

For a dentist, such jaws can be especially potent, since destists have an unusually highsuicide rate and deal every day with the spectacle of inner human decay. The mouth, after all, focuses the terrifying contradictions of being human. It’s the source of civilized speech, kissing, and taste, but also hides bacteria and rot, not to mention the teeth we use to kill and chew up the bodies of other  creatures.

We have to kill and eat or we’d die—again, we’re at once victims and warrior heroes brandishing fine china, knives and forks. We display French cookware on the wall and venerate “cuisine.”  But the sneaky reality is that we digest our “prey” into shameful excrement, and then project our angry guilt onto “assholes” and “shitheads.” Dentists charge us a lot of money to look into this frightening paradox every day. Whether they know it or not. Killing “big game” is taking out your fear and rage on a scapegoat, the more shameful when the scapegoat is in effect everybody’s national pet.

A child dresses up as Bwana the great white hunter.  If he hasn’t been able to understand the courage it takes to make something healthy out of the fearful human paradox, Bwana the dentist is pitifully trapped in the maw out of which he makes his living.


Now available in paperback from Leveller’s Press and Amazon:

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

When behavior becomes a cultural style, berserk abandon is terrifying yet also alluring. It promises access to extraordinary resources by overthrowing inhibitions. Berserk style has shaped many areas of contemporary American culture, from warfare to politics and intimate life. Focusing on post-Vietnam America and using perspectives from psychology, anthropology, and physiology, Farrell demonstrates the need to unpack the confusions in language and cultural fantasy that drive the nation’s fascination with berserk style.

<<This book amazes me with its audacity, its clarity, and its scope. We usually think of ‘berserk’ behaviors—from apocalyptic rampage killings to ecstatic revels like Burning Man—as extremes of experience, outside ordinary lives. in fascinating detail, Farrell shows how contemporary culture has reframed many varieties of abandon into self-conscious strategies of sense-making and control.

Abandon has become a common lens for organizing modern experience and an often troubling resource for mobilizing and rationalizing cultural and political action.This landmark analysis both enlightens and empowers us.>>

—Les Gasser, Professor of Information and Computer Science, U. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaigne.


“All Roads Lead to Becker”: An Interview with Bill Bornschein

July 22, 2015

Bill Bornschein is a long-time supporter of the Ernest Becker Foundation who teaches religion and philosophy at St. Xavier High School in Louisville, Kentucky. He graciously agreed to share some of his thoughts and experiences with us regarding teaching Ernest Becker’s work at a high-school level. This is the first in a series of EBF interviews with secondary school teachers about their approaches to Becker conducted by EBF team member Christa Masson. quote-1

So let’s start with my favorite question to ask- how were you first introduced to Becker?

It was maybe 10 years ago and I was in my local independent video store, Wild and Woolly Video. Wild and Woolly was an amazing place. I noticed the cover of [Flight From Death] and watched the film. I was blown away. One of my favorite things to say about Becker is that “all roads lead to Becker”, which means that various things I’ve read in psychology, philosophy, theology, sociology, you know, all these different areas – he synthesizes them so beautifully. I think I picked up on that right away. Having seen the film I immediately went out and read the book, The Denial of Death, and devoured it. I think the experience that a lot of people have with Becker is this recognition like “Yes, this is it”.

Becker touches on so many topics, what aspects of his work that resonated with you the most?

The work with Kierkegaard and Freud. Contextualizing the two of them in terms with one another was very interesting to me. The thing I like about Becker is that he is so interdisciplinary. If I’m teaching a philosophy class, we can talk about the philosopher Kierkegaard, or if it’s a psychology class we can hit Freud and Rank. If it’s an art class, or something with an art angle, we can get into Otto Rank’s work on the artist … Becker is an amazing platform with which to delve into diverse disciplines.

You mentioned to me earlier that you currently teach a couple of classes and work Becker into the curriculum. How you do this?

Depends on the particular course. For example, this spring I taught a theology and a psychology course. Towards the end of the year I showed the film and broadly talked about these things. Nothing too adventurous there. But first semester I ran a Socratic seminar, which is a particular discussion technique where the goal is not breadth but depth. Instead of doing an overview of Becker, we would take a couple of paragraphs from Denial of Death or Escape From Evil, and then have an in-depth discussion that doesn’t get into the theoretical stuff but really gets to the heart of the existential. That’s something I’m interested in developing and it turns out that next year we are required to teach a sacraments course. One of those is the last rites, or anointing of the sick, so I’ll be working Becker there in a different kind of context. When I do it in philosophy or psychology I don’t usually get into the religious side of things- but that will be unavoidable in a sacraments class. I think I’ll do what I’ve always done- which is locate religion in terms of mythology- break it down structurally and logically. I think Becker, along with a defrocked Catholic priest called Matthew Fox, will breathe some life into it.

quote-2So that was the first time you had done the Socratic seminar?  How did the students respond?

Generally, they like Socratic seminar because it’s a really dynamic technique. But, there was only one session on Becker and I think that’s actually the key to engaging people with Becker. You’ve got to do so on an existential level where it really hits home, because once you strike that spark, they know how to research, they know how to think… but you’ve got to get them interested first. Part of my philosophy in presenting Becker in all my classes is that I realize it’s going to be an initial exposure. My thought is that they’re going to go to college and there’s a chance they’re going to hear about it again and think “oh, yeah, Becker, that guy Bornschein was always going on about” and maybe they’ll take a more in-depth look at it. That’s the same with any of the contemporary thinkers that I throw out there- it’s giving [the students] the initial exposure so that the next time around it will take on a bit.

Are there ways that work better than others to engage students with Becker?

One of the best things to do is go to cemeteries and basically provide different rituals and exercises to do. We would take one day and go to Cave Hill Cemetery, which is Louisville’s great historic cemetery where Col. Sanders is buried and all the Louisville luminaries. We go there and do a series of exercises and then later in the week we go to Potter’s Field, where people who can’t afford to be buried are taken. On our campus, there is a cemetery for the Xaverian brothers and I’ll have class out there. I get them thinking in different physical settings, getting them out of the classroom.

How have your students responded to Becker?

You get all kinds of reactions to Becker. I mean you get some students who thank you and come back 10 years later to say that “the class meant so much”, but the story that I take heart from is the final temptation of the Buddha. Basically, the devil says “okay, you win, Buddha, you’ve figured it all out… but you know that what you’ve achieved is so far beyond the common man, your words will be twisted.” And the Buddha responds as he touches the earth, “the earth as my witness, some will understand”. I figure if Becker had the wherewithal to put it out there, then as a teacher, I can have the wherewithal to put it out there too. Maybe not everybody’s going to get it but that’s okay. There’s a synergistic power to this stuff.

quote-3Why did you choose to bring Becker into your work and not just keep it as a work that defines part of your own ideology?

I don’t want to sound like I’m a stark raving true believer or whatever, but I do believe that if you really engage these ideas I don’t know how you can not share them. It’s almost like the early Christians and the good news- except it’s the bad news. Bad news that’s not all that bad. Yeah- I could not not talk about it.

What led you to be a teacher? Did you jump straight into teaching high school?

I come from a family of educators and I think I naturally fell into it. When I was a freshman at University of Louisville, I took a course called “Western Religion and Sexism” and there was this one book called The Great Mother– it was a Jungian style discussion of the archetype. That’s where I got really interested in the study of religion. They didn’t have a degree program so I went to Xavier University in Cincinnati and [studied with] Paul Knitter who was into comparative world religions. I got my undergrad there and my masters at University of Chicago. I came back and got a job at Baden High School in Hamilton, Ohio. I taught there for 5 years and then moved to Louisville and the last 30 years or so I’ve been teaching at St. Xavier, all the time continuing to read and think and philosophize.

If you were going to offer any advice to young educators or those just starting to teach Becker, would there be anything in particular you’d want to tell them?

Well, I guess the first words I’d say would be “thank you”. And I’d suggest to them that they have a good lay of the land in terms of dealing with these issues. I know at the high school level, there have been people that have gotten in trouble because parents are upset with the issues dealt with. You also need to know your students. I always let my kids know where the book is going, not necessarily if we’re doing the Socratic seminar, but if we’re watching the film or going into more depth on Becker, I always try to be sensitive. If you show the film, have it in a situation where they can immediately write down their reactions, hot off the press. Whatever you do with it, they have the raw material. But I always let kids know where we’re going and let them opt out. That’s one way of avoiding that political problem. I have an incredible amount of freedom where I teach; I’ve been there enough that they give me some slack, but you really have to know your situation and your ability to relate to kids. It’s not something I’d go into flippantly. I don’t want to sound discouraging but you need to be aware of what you’re doing. The other thing I’d say is: obviously you can get to Becker from so many different sources. From psychology, from sociology… you could do historical analysis, you could do any kind of social science, so I never worry about presenting Becker in its entirety. I will take pieces and try to spark interest and ultimately leave it up to them to follow up. That’s what I can do where I’m at. I tell them if I have my druthers, I’d teach a whole course on Becker and we’d buy The Denial of Death, but I don’t have that freedom. I make inroads where I can. *to access more of Bill’s recommendations and a list of exercises to perform at a cemetery, visit http://ernestbecker.org/approaching-becker-across-a-high-school-curriculum.html


Lethal Absurdity

June 26, 2015
"Leucocephalus" Phil Hansten

“Leucocephalus” Phil Hansten

The most costly of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind. H. L. Mencken

We seem to have an epidemic of absurd thinking. Discussions based on empirical evidence and rational arguments still occur, but they are drowned out by the disputes in which one side has adopted an absurd position—that is, an intransigent stand on an issue in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

It is absurd, for example, to avoid giving life-saving vaccines to your children. It is also absurd to defend a health care system with per capita costs that are roughly twice that of any other country, yet give results that are inferior to most other developed countries.

It is absurd to claim that unlimited amounts of political donations will not debauch our elections. It is absurd to claim that giving the super-wealthy tax breaks will result in trickle-down to the middle class.

It is absurd to promote gun policies that allow purchase of assault rifles, guns in bars (guns and alcohol… what could possibly go wrong?), and high-capacity magazines. It is absurd to promote a death penalty that does not act as a deterrent, regularly kills innocent people, and costs substantially more than life in prison without parole.

And probably the most chilling absurdity of all is denying the compelling evidence that climate change is largely caused by human activity, and that it represents an existential threat to every person on the planet… including, ironically, the billionaires who are desperately trying to obfuscate the scientific evidence.

We thus have a cadre of state and national politicians who have allowed their self-interest and willful ignorance to distort or deny the empirical evidence on a wide range of issues. They constitute a confederacy of dunces and knaves in a theater of the absurd who are fighting against rational and evidence-based solutions to serious problems.

In the case of climate change they are sabotaging energy policies that are needed to reduce the risk of an unfathomable catastrophe to the human race, one in which the worst-case (but plausible) scenarios suggest that billions of people may perish. Blaise Pascal aptly called humankind the “mindless worm of the earth.” Ironically, by the time we are done destroying the earth, worms may be one of the few life forms left.

What all of these absurdities have in common is that they are on the wrong side of empirical evidence and rational thought. Unfortunately, absurd positions often have the backing of powerful interests or—as with the vaccine avoiders and supporters of capital punishment—they emanate from the pervasive intellectual indolence of the American public.

quoteMere opinions are not inherently misguided, of course. It may be my opinion that chocolate ice cream tastes better than strawberry, and even some moral opinions do not necessarily have an objective and rational basis. I can be for or against gay marriage, for example, without being asked to present any facts about the matter.

But the central question is seldom considered: is absurd thinking immoral? Sometimes not. I think we can give a pass to the person who put rectangular (not square) pants on SpongeBob SquarePants or who painted the trucks of the Yellow Truck Company orange (not yellow). I would argue, however, that absurd thinking can indeed be immoral for those in a position to influence public policy. Most of the absurdities discussed above result in a net increase in the deaths of innocent human beings. People who promote public policy based on these absurd positions are no doubt sincere, and consider themselves moral creatures. But I think Pascal was right when he said in his Pensées, “So Let us work on thinking well. That is the principle of morality.” Irrational and counterfactual thinking leading to deaths of our fellow humans is not “thinking well” and it is not moral, no matter how much spin they apply.

One could, therefore, divide public policy debates into three categories: 1) moral questions that do not require much consideration of evidence (e.g., gay marriage, abortion), 2) policy questions that have at least some legitimate arguments and evidence on opposing sides (e.g., education, economic policy), and 3) issues where the empirical evidence has clearly reached the threshold for action, but absurd positions prevail due to predatory self-interest (e.g., climate change) or ignorance (e.g., death penalty). There is hope for correcting absurd positions if they derive from ignorance, such as the death penalty issue, because there is little money supporting the absurd side. For many absurd positions such as those on health care, gun control, and climate change, however, lasting solutions depend on minimizing the overpowering effect of money in politics. It will not be easy, but our very survival may depend on it.


The Worm at the Core

June 12, 2015
Michael Baumgardner

Michael Baumgardner

Of Recent Interest… is the new book The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski (Random House 2015). In his brilliant multidisciplinary synthesis, The Denial of Death (1974), Ernest Becker recognized the overwhelming significance of the impossible paradox that death presents to us and posited that “…the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity”. (DOD, p. ix) The 1973 Pulitzer Prize winner for General Non-Fiction, Becker’s work also inspired a group of social psychologists, the authors of The Worm at the Core, to see if they could use the tools of social psychology to find evidence consistent with Becker’s ideas. If death is indeed a mainspring of human activity, then perhaps experiments inducing a group of people to focus on death could produce measurable behavioral effects consistent with Becker’s ideas. This book presents their formal theory, which they call Terror Management Theory (TMT), based on some of Becker’s ideas on our struggle to cope with the reality of death. This is accompanied by the description and results from an array of experimental studies conducted under TMT, and ending with some general observations on living with death.

The Worm at the Core is written in a very readable format, with “little academic jargon” or “cumbersome technical details”, and with “enlivened accounts” (WC, p. x-xi) of key participants from various experiments. There are plenty of light anecdotes, wit, and colorful, figurative language. The book appears targeted to an audience of undergraduate level or educated lay readers. Many will like this style, though specialists may find the presentation a little too loose for serious scientific discourse (since it can create some ambiguity in terms and weak links in the chain of argument). With those caveats, the book is entertaining and well written, which many readers will appreciate and enjoy.

The central tenants of TMT are that we deal with the fact of death by sustaining “faith in our cultural worldview, which imbues our sense of reality with order, meaning, and permanence(p.9), which in turn fosters the ability to maintain a “feeling of personal significance commonly known as self-esteem… [that] shield us against rumblings of dread… [and] enables us to believe we are enduring significant beings(WC, p. 9). This is enough to provide a logical springboard for explaining why bringing death to the forefront of consciousness could drive us to cling even harder to both our worldview and our self-esteem. With these two concepts, the authors claim they have “…formalized Becker’s analysis of the human condition into terror management theory(WC, p. 211). This, I believe, is very much an overstatement. TMT simply does not get to a sufficient depth to allow a reader to fully appreciate Becker’s complex analysis. The Denial of Death is a magnificent interdisciplinary tapestry of the human condition, brilliantly presented and tying together the thoughts of diverse lay, religious, and scientific luminaries (Rank, Freud, James, Brown, Chesterton, Jung, Perls, Kierkegaard, May, Maslow, Fromm, Tillich, to name just a few). The result is a majestic and compelling picture of the human existential paradox. As just one example with TMT, the absence alone of a thorough integration with psychoanalytic concepts such as anxiety, repression, and transference leads to a greatly restricted picture when compared to Becker. Those well-versed in Becker’s works will easily notice other examples. TMT, as presented in The Worm at the Core, is simply not an adequate substitute for Becker’s analysis; it is much less than a “formalized” presentation of Becker’s analysis. I’ll have more to say about this below.

TMT has generated a lot of research in social psychology (over 500 studies according to the authors) and some of these studies are presented in narrative form throughout the book. On the whole, there is consistent support to demonstrate that a “mortality salience” manipulation (giving death reminders to experimental subjects) does produce behavioral results consistent with protective defense of cultural world views and self-esteem. While details of these studies require access to the sources listed in the references, TMT studies have been widely published in some of the most respected journals of social psychology and the reader can generally have faith in their reliability. In terms of empirical support, the only glitch is a study that finds that mortality salience works as predicted only if we expose people to a short exposure to death reminders and not too long. This led the authors to postulate proximal and distal defenses, which are plausible but also come across as a bit of a post hoc stretch.

On the whole, I am very pleased to see this book published and I hope that it is widely read. Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski are to be commended for formulating some of Becker’s ideas in a manner that allows for experimental outcomes, and for launching a successful research program that brings these ideas to an audience that may be far removed from Becker’s original works. However, I do have clear reservations as well. I have a real concern that TMT is becoming more or less synonymous with “Ernest Becker’s analysis” in the eyes of the academic community, or at least to those who may read this book. They are not synonymous formulations. At best TMT is an over-simplification. Becker’s work, and especially The Denial of Death, is a timeless masterpiece of tremendous integrated depth. It needs to retain its own identity, and TMT alone is not a surrogate.

Finally, I want to elucidate another point of differentiation I see between Becker and TMT, specifically, concerning conclusions about what death denial means for mankind. The authors conclude that “…we hope that knowing death thoughts instigate a host of unfortunate psychological and behavioral defenses enables you to monitor and alter such reactions(WC, p. 225). Becker, in contrast, warns of the man who “buries himself in psychology in the belief that awareness all by itself will be some kind of magical cure for his problems” (DOD, p. 284). It isn’t. Becker concludes The Denial of Death by stating, “There is a driving force behind a mystery that we cannot understand, and it includes more than reason alone. The urge to cosmic heroism, then, is sacred and mysterious and not to be neatly ordered and rationalized by science and secularism(DOD, p. ix). Becker had no illusions that science has the answers we seek. In his dialog with Sam Keen shortly before his death, Becker concluded that “it is impossible to continue living without massive anxiety” without a power source outside ourselves.  “One’s existence is a question which must be answered. And the answer can never come from oneself. A life can only be validated by some kind of ‘beyond’ which explains it and in which it is immersed(Spectrum of Loneliness, 1974). The direction Becker points us to is ultimately theological rather than scientific. This is absent in TMT and one of the reasons Becker cautioned about science. In fact, Becker’s analysis ultimately ends at a hopeful faith that “beyond this world of accident and contingency and terror and death there is a meaning that redeems(Psychology Today, 1974).


Michael Baumgardner, Ph.D., is an Experimental Social Psychologist from Ohio State University (1978) where he was a student of Anthony Greenwald, developer of the widely known Implicit-association test. After a post- doctoral year with Dr. Greenwald, Dr. Baumgardner worked with the FDA in Washington, D.C. as a Research Scientist. In 1980, Dr. Baumgardner joined Burke, Inc., applying social science skills to a commercial marketing research setting and teaching those skills to others. After a highly successful 30 years, he retired as President, CEO and Chairman of the Board at Burke. He has been on the Board of the EBF since 2008.


Don’t Be Fooled by Arresting Logic: Using the Psychology of Abandon to Decode Scare Tactics

June 10, 2015
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

It was bound to happen. Protests against police killings have triggered a propaganda backlash. In the Wall Street Journal—now part of the Fox news empire—Heather MacDonald, author of Are Cops Racist?, warns that protests against police killings in cities such as Baltimore have unleashed “A New Nationwide Crime Wave.”

In a world of ads and rant screaming for attention, it makes sense to study the tools used to manipulate us. MacDonald’s argument uses what the psychology of abandon calls “berserk style.” Protests against police violence, she implies, have created a crisis, which presumably calls for emergency force to suppress protests and crime.

The psychology of abandon studies styles of thinking that disguise or rationalize behavior that is—or seems to be—out of control. In this instance, MacDonald equates demands for justice with an “onslaught” of “anti-cop rhetoric,” looting, and a “crime wave.” Protesters have run amok. But even as she inflates crime to crisis proportions, she ignores the real crisis mentality that leads hair-trigger cops to kill unarmed “suspects,” especially black “suspects.”

MacDonald’s creates her crisis out of inflammatory clichés:

This incessant drumbeat against the police has resulted in what St. Louis police chief Sam Dotson last November called the “Ferguson effect.” Cops are disengaging from discretionary enforcement activity and the “criminal element is feeling empowered,” Mr. Dotson reported. Arrests in St. Louis city and county by that point had dropped a third since the shooting of Michael Brown in August. Not surprisingly, homicides in the city surged 47% by early November and robberies in the county were up 82%.  Similar “Ferguson effects” are happening across the country as officers scale back on proactive policing under the onslaught of anti-cop rhetoric. Arrests in Baltimore were down 56% in May compared with 2014.

This is the language of abandon. The “incessant drumbeat” evokes an invading army or dark-skinned jungle savages. Rather than blame protesters for a national crime wave, MacDonald alleges only that a situation “has resulted,” as if Zeus or gravity caused it. Poor blacks protest because they need to be empowered, but in the WSJ, only “the criminal element is feeling empowered.” The idea of being “empowered” is being poisoned in this negative use the way rant media have corrupted terms such as “entitlement.” Criminals are not actual people but an “element” alien as insects or atoms.

The official-sounding social science jargon clashes with the hysterical melodrama of protesters attacking police in an “onslaught.” Meanwhile the police aren’t disobeying orders, they’re “disengaging” and “scaling back” like businessmen or generals in a battle for civilization. If cops feel unhappy, MacDonald implies, they’re free to ignore orders and make their own policy. This is a vigilante fantasy.

Among cops, “proactive” enforcement is known as “broken windows” policing. It challenges indications of disorder before any actual crime can take place. If you’re black in a rough neighborhood in Philly, say, that means cops have “discretionary” power to put you down on the sidewalk and look for signs of crime. No matter how innocent you are, they can hassle, humiliate, and sometimes arrest you on phony charges.[1] The strategy sometimes works, but there is a tradeoff, sometimes a tragic tradeoff.

“Discretionary” policing takes place on the shadowy edge of the law. Police on Staten Island were being proactive when they arrested Eric Garner for selling loose (untaxed) cigarettes (July 17, 2014). He protested and they took him down, choking him to death. (Police excused.) Just as MacDonald’s polemic strips out references to actual people, so ordinary racial prejudice strips out individuality, seeing groups or stereotypes. It would be harder to kill Eric Garner if you knew him as a 43 year old father of six kids—including a 3-month infant—with a bum heart. The police knew him as a rap sheet of minor offenses: a black guy who had filed a complaint about being strip-searched on a public street.

In the WSJ op-ed, Garner is buried in unmarked numbers. Even if we try to take the statistics seriously, they’re inflammatory. How many murders does a spike of 100% entail? 2 instead of 1?  2,000 instead of 1,000?  Last year US cops killed about 467 people enforcing the law, twice as many unarmed blacks as unarmed whites.[2]  In Europe, the casualties are close to zero. And if statistics are so persuasive, they should reassure hair-trigger police, since according to OSHA, construction workers are 400% more likely than cops to die on the job, and police fatalities include traffic and other mishaps.

Actually it should be no surprise if crime rates spike around protests. In the 1960s when LBJ’s Great Society programs acknowledged the injustice and misery of poverty—really for the first time in US history—riots followed. In Detroit and Watts, frustrated young blacks saw that the public effort to help was indirectly an admission of past injustice, as if that justified retaliation. This is the vindictiveness of victim psychology. Feeling painfully victimized after 9/11, Americans felt justified in destroying thousands of innocent lives in Iraq, and in a  war as berserk as any riot.

Police killing involves another form of abandon that’s crucial to understand. Police help maintain society in many ways. In “fighting” crime, however, they are akin to warriors, playing a heroic role by risking death. Arresting criminals is especially dangerous in the US, where gun culture has a hair trigger. Human terror of death disposes us to admire heroes whose courage can master it. It goes without saying that our need to believe in that courage disposes us to overlook or deny the survival panic in police killing.

At the bottom of society, by contrast, many blacks live on the edge of social death, some surviving through crime. Just as we inflate super-heroes, so we’re apt to exaggerate the failings of the poor, associating them with crime, laziness, brutishness, and other markers of social death. Putting down scapegoats gives self-regard a boost.

Confrontation with a poor “suspect,” then, presents two kinds of abandon.  One kind is the moment when unrealistic assumptions, emergency physiology, and guns overcome judgment. The other is the danger, for the cop, of losing heroic self-esteem in a (possibly fatal) moment of panic. The cop fears death, but also the fantasy qualities he’s attributed to the “suspect.” If the suspect escapes or otherwise “wins” the contest of wills, the cop loses his heroic confidence. In officer Wilson’s fatal tangle in Ferguson, he described Michael Brown as the superhuman Hulk and himself as a helpless child. As in battle, the instant of total danger trumps inhibitions and our foundational sense of “what’s right,” triggering survival rage: berserk abandon.

“Fighting” crime, the cop feels heroic. Defying poverty and social death, the criminal feels heroic. In each case heroism offers the sensation, like a drug rush, of being a bigshot, invincibly lucky, safe from death. You don’t have to plan the moment of crisis. It can happen by chance or by “chance.” Prejudice can guide the outcome if, say, you assume that all black men are likely to be criminals. In any event, guns create their own hair-trigger mentality. To ignore this psychological dimension is as callous as it absurd:

“‘Any cop who uses his gun now has to worry about being indicted and losing his job and family,’ a New York City officer tells me.”

Hmm. What about the black guy who has to worry every day about a cop’s trigger finger? What about Eric Garner’s family?

In this regard, Heather MacDonald is a hired gun for comfortable people who read theWall Street Journal. As in Vietnam and the “war on terror,” her backlash says: Shoot first and ask questions afterward.

Do I need to add that of course not all police are killers?  But even one killer can spoil your welcome home.

That’s why we need justice as well as law.

1.  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/05/opinion/we-must-stop-police-abuse-of-b…(link is external)

http://blackagendareport.com/data_cops_more_aggressive_against_blacks_mi…(link is external)

2. The US government doesn’t publish a tally of police deaths. For useful data, see:http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/jun/01/the-counte…(link is external)

Also: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/09/the-counted-police-killin…(link is external)

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

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

When behavior becomes a cultural style, berserk abandon is terrifying yet also alluring. It promises access to extraordinary resources by overthrowing inhibitions. Berserk style has shaped many areas of contemporary American culture, from warfare to politics and intimate life. Focusing on post-Vietnam America and using perspectives from psychology, anthropology, and physiology, Farrell demonstrates the need to unpack the confusions in language and cultural fantasy that drive the nation’s fascination with berserk style.

“This book amazes me with its audacity, its clarity, and its scope. We usually think of ‘berserk’ behaviors—from apocalyptic rampage killings to ecstatic revels like Burning Man—as extremes of experience, outside ordinary lives. in fascinating detail, Farrell shows how contemporary culture has reframed many varieties of abandon into self-conscious strategies of sense-making and control.

Abandon has become a common lens for organizing modern experience and an often troubling resource for mobilizing and rationalizing cultural and political action.This landmark analysis both enlightens and empowers us.”

—Les Gasser, Professor of Information and Computer Science, U. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaigne.


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