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…


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

December 3, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The evidence says we need to do better.


Resources used in this essay:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The Placebo Diet: Thinking through the paleo principle

November 15, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The paleo diet lets you love your inner animal.

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

So why does the paleo diet work for its fans?

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

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

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

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

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


Resources used in this essay:

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

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


Who Can You Trust?

September 25, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


 Resources used in this essay:

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


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

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

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

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


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