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“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

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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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Tattoos and Identity: Choose not a life of imitation

May 29, 2015
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Believe it or not, there’s actually a website(link is external) pitching “nine brilliant lyrical tattoo ideas that will have leave an indelible impression on your skin and your soul.” Even more astonishing, it recommends tattooing the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ maxim Choose not a life of imitation on your hide. And to really hook you, photos show the slogan tattooed on body parts from breastbone to instep.

OK, it may be a fad. But if so, why this fad? At first glance the pitch is just a string of empty advertising words like “brilliant” that are a meaningless grunt of enthusiasm.  And “Choose not a life of imitation” sounds like a lame truism that Bart Simpson’s teacher would make him write a hundred times on the blackboard. How could such clichés send anybody to the tattoo parlor?

As if that’s not puzzling enough, the pitch is an ad. It’s selling not tattoos but an idea that lures customers—and advertisers that pay the website for your clicks. The site’s voice mixes friendly advice and bossy certainty like an ad for vitamin “supplements.”.

Even more puzzling: the pitch is selling personal authenticity.  Choose not imitation is Polonius’s “To thine own self be true,” which in turn cribs from Socrates and high school graduation speeches. And it’s a mind-fuddling contradiction: Be truly yourself—do what other customers are doing.  Do what I tell you. What’s going on here?

For one thing, the friendly bossiness does put you in a flattering role. If you follow their advice, you’ll be heroically using your body to display your wisdom to other people for the rest of your life. Of course there’s a catch. By needling Choose not imitation under your skin, you’ll also be advertising sophomore wisdom like a sandwich board or Ronald McDonald. And you’ll be promoting the website and a tattooed pop rock band. It’s like wearing a cool teeshirt with a cool brandname on it. You’re an ad selling ads to get more people selling ads.

And why not? These days everybody’s marketing themselves in social media, only they call it sharing. On Facebook, say, you display friendly bits of yourself, and nobody expects a cry from the heart. Since Facebook sells your information to marketers, you’re working for them and advertising them. And since It’s a culture of Likes, and naturally you want to be liked, you can’t help selling yourself to Facebook “friends.”

But you want to be more than an ad in a world where intimacy means personal hygiene sprays and relationships are built on a high fibre breakfast. And the tattoo peddlers know it, too. That’s why they promise that their cool tattoo ideas will make “an indelibleimpression on your skin and your soul.” You’ll really feel the maxim, like facsimile pain in bondage play in “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Is it all just vapor? Maybe not.

Choose not imitation isn’t logic, it’s a song lyric. And music arouses a halo of emotion: associations with significant moments. You “understand” melodies yet they’re not logical the way words are. They repeat, they build toward a climax. They can feel intoxicating and keep playing in your head without your conscious prompting. So the song lyrics can develop the enchanting qualities of a fetish.

We’re fetishists, you recall, when we attribute special powers to something outside of us: money, a new BMW, a rabbit’s foot, that beloved snapshot, a safety blanket. Songs have fetish power. So do tattoos. Jared Loughner tattooed bullets on his back to psych himself up for his psychotic shooting rampage in Tucson. For most of us, fetishes have a quality of play. Jared Loughner, poor devil, really believed.

With a tattoo you can attempt to capture the momentary enchantment and make itindelible. Wouldn’t it be awesome if the tattoo could give you the feeling of the song, which could recover its special experiences which evoke, as Romeo and Juliet say, the face of heaven? Wouldn’t it be even more awesome if you’ve never had those feelings but wish like hell that you could?

But wait! as the ad says, there’s more! Tattoos get attention. And since the self is not a thing but a process, we need other people’s attention to feel real. Like oxygen, attention is crucial. This is one reason solitary confinement drives prisoners insane, and why romance creates ecstasy.  Even social media are good for a thrill of attention.

But how can you feel significant—heroic—if everybody is wearing your tattoo, imitating your Choose not imitation? It’s one of life’s routine illusions. We want to be heroic—which can be terrifying as well as terrific. But we also want the security and power of a group. Culture invents things such as teams to ease this conflict. On a team you can be a hero-worshiper around the team’s star player even as you and “your” winning team are also heroic.

In politics, the US is sharply conflicted about sharing identity as a team or being a lone heroic individual.  When we think about it, the usual balance falls apart. We’re more comfortable as consumers. In marketing, customers can be branded alike and buy the same product, and yet feel special about “my” face cream, “my” TV show, “my” music. The photoshopped glamor and ingenuity of marketing helps keep you enchanted so you don’t notice that you’re imitating a billion other bipeds.

If you’re at home in your inner life and trust your judgment, would you need a marketer telling you how to think?

One danger is that you may notice the illusion and feel empty. You look for deeper, more personal concerns. But nobody’s sharing deep experience on Twitter. In fact the language of inner life is increasingly screened out in a world of computer choice, where a life story is reduced to a decision tree: make the right decision, the right keystroke, and the program will take care of you. [1] You’re less likely to learn much language for inner life.

The marketers of choose not imitation encourage denial. They promise you an “indelible impression on your skin and your soul.” They’re selling lasting significance: heroic meaning that you can hold onto in a world of pixels, pills, and trivia. By giving your “soul” the “impression” of lasting significance, the sales pitch offers you nothing less than symbolic immortality. Marking yourself with the magic words is like reciting a mantra, over and over, in hopes that something meaningful will happen.

But then, why wait?  Put yourself in a conversation. Live your words. Make your own meaning.

[1] For more details, have a look at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/swim-in-denial/201208/ambivalence-a…

Also Steven Quartz & Annette Asp, “Unequal Yet Happy,” NY Times, April 11, 2015: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/opinion/sunday/unequal-yet-happy.html?…(link is external)

* * * *

And now available:  from Leveller’s Press and on Amazon: https://store.collectivecopies.com/store/show/Lev%20018(link is external)

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF ABANDON explores letting go as a behavior and a fantasy about behavior. Abandon terrifies but also fascinates us with the possibility of getting access to hidden resources by throwing off inhibitions. Farrell investigates how the idea of running amok lurks as a style in movies, sex, gambing, sports, war, banking and religion.

 Helena Farrell
Source: Tacit Muse: Helena Farrell

“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 re-framed 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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The Bear Hug and the Boogie Man: Are You Asleep Yet?

April 26, 2015
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if Khruschev was tired of the insanity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psychology is not real to him.

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

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

See what you think.

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

April 11, 2015
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources used in this essay:

Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil (1973).

Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon (2015)

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

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

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

Coming next month from Leveller’s Press:

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