Archive for September, 2011

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The Psychic Bartender: Killing till We Get It Right

September 30, 2011

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

The media’s 9/11 memorial drill was almost as painful as the original attack on the World Trade Center.  Like Big Brother’s loudspeakers, the TV in the bar played the same message over and over, demanding that you never forget the cruel attack and the heroic response.

Woof.

One problem is that there is no sane way to feel about a massively choreographed media “ritual” devoted to an evil suicidal rampage.  The terrorist predators are dead.  The victims are gone.  Like most media programming, the “memorial” openly sought to manipulate morale.  In theory, you’re supposed to relived the horror of the murders – impact, fire, falling bodies, collapsing steel symbols of national self-esteem – and then you find consolation in the sacrificial heroism of the “first-responders” and survivors, who either perished in the disaster or managed to control their soul-destroying grief.

Don’t get me wrong.  They died, they suffered.  The torment was real.  But the need to replay those agonies over and over again has turned the crucial media footage into advertising clichés as famous as the McDonald’s golden arches.  After the hundredth repeat of planes exploding into the towers and firemen excavating rubble, imagination gets numb.  You stop experiencing what the cues represent, just as you no longer really see the same old billboard you pass every morning for months on your way to work.  It’s like trying to show love by saying “I love you.”  In short order habit kills the phrase and you find yourself having to say, “No, I really – really really really – love you.”  How much is enough?

The only way of overcoming the numbness of habit is through personal experience: those facial expressions and vocal notes – the behaviors – that show another person that you’re present and that you mean it.

Media and the arts have all sorts of brilliant tricks that create facsimiles of presence and conviction.  But in the end they’re still art, and treacherously ambiguous.  Lovers learn the cues, but so do con-artists.

And the problem is deeper than that, too.  The ancient conundrum in philosophy is that if you love the way your beloved embodies those ideals that you most cherish, then in a hilarious or nightmarish way, you’re in love with a version of yourself.  And beyond that, you’re actually using your lover and being love to substantiate your own needs: to make your conviction of “what’s right” real.

Okay okay.  In so-called real life we all find ways of finessing these dirty paradoxes so we can get on with life.  But be honest: when everyday life gets in trouble – when people are under stress or making fists – the desperate selfishness tends to come screaming to the fore.

And so the 9/11 memorial.  Yes, it dramatizes solidarity: you’re watching the ceremonies and the talking heads with others.  You’re not alone.  But nothing you feel can be adequate to the catastrophe.  You can relive your fear and then the reassurance of believing that the heroes will restore order, but that’s at least as much about you as it is those on the scene.  Basically, you’re using the catastrophe and the response to test your anxiety and reassure yourself. And as if that isn’t deflating enough, the whole exercise is also giving you a small, safe, thrilling chance to escape from the tedium of everyday blahs.

Can you transcend these creaturely limits?  Nah.  What you can do is recognize the reality and develop some tolerance and gallows humor about it.

It’s the way we’re built, pal.

And  here’s why it matters.

When the consolations aren’t enough, you can slip into emergency mode.  When the fear of death and injustice become too terrifying, you want to stamp out the threat.  Kill the offender, and you feel more alive and heroic.  You’ve survived, you’ve proved that you’re more deserving, more superior, more right.  If you happen to so invested in killing offenders that you own history’s most expensive military force, you can kill lots of offenders.  You can vicariously enjoy the pain of torturing offenders in imbecile TV thrillers such as “24” and the euphemistic media drone about “waterboarding” – which in reality is not just “torture” but actually killing somebody right up to the final moment of death.

If you still feel bad, replay the tape.  Redo the killing over and over again, the way you watch heroes mourn victims and crush criminals in prime time every night of your life.

So in this light, that memorial media marathon is reinforcing the reaction the 9/11 attacks.  The ongoing “war on terror” has slaughtered many more victims than the 9/11 attacks did – and dispatched staggering numbers of refugees to social death.  It’s damaged the soul: if you “support our troops,” you’re also supporting rage against scapegoats.  It’s been an obscenely expensive war, toxic with lies about the terrorists’ motives and corporate fraud. A decade later there’s no longer any doubt that the invasions were designed from the start to be an economic grab, especially for oil.  And what is oil, after all, but energy, wealth, vitality: it’s the antidote to death.  It’s anti-death.  Who wouldn’t be tempted to capture other people’s anti-death and bring it home in triumph?

You can see how dangerous the memorial marathon is.  It has to insist loudly and monotonously on it’s truth, or else it risks uncovering the shameful motives that undermine our sense of what’s right as disturbingly as the original attacks did.

And you can understand why the few such as Paul Krugman who have openly deplored the lies and shame of the post-9/11, have aroused a firestorm of rage.  Of course.  As Terror Management Theory would remind us, if you challenge people’s consoling rituals and dogmas, their underlying death-anxiety will bite you and them.  You become the offender.

What’s the answer?  Silence?  Hypocrisy?  Denial?  In that glittering lineup of bottles behind the bar – the sherries, rum, vermouth, single malts, brandies – we need some jugs of compassion and courage too.  Hey, the big jugs, with the handle, since they’re fragile if you’re banging around when things get busy.

In the meantime, while we’re waiting for the delivery driver to arrive with the really noble sauce, how about a little homebrew?

[view Kirby’s website at http://people.umass.edu/kfarrell/]

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Making Faces at Death

September 27, 2011

TDF Guest Alex Murawski

I’ve always been drawn to ‘the human’ in people. When I was at primary school I remember looking at one of the so-called ‘tough kids’ and seeing them eat their sandwich or rub an eyelash from their eye, and suddenly I felt a deep recognition of their humanity. In an instant their tough exteriors were undercut by something universally human. Their surface was done away with and I felt a common connection with them, a deep empathy. I have never known quite what to do with this feeling, but at some level, I feel a need to express it; and perhaps, I my more hopeful moments, believe that hearing it could help make the world a little bit of a better place.

At the time of writing and shooting ‘Frail’ my Dad was very ill with secondary cancer. I don’t remember this having any specific influence on the writing. Death had always been of interest to me, our relation to it, how we deal with it as a reality in our lives. The genesis for the story of ‘Frail’ came from my mum’s recollection of the first time that she saw a dead body. It moved her deeply at the time and still holds and impact now. The idea of a cold austere morgue seemed very atmospheric to me, so I tried to express that feeling the best I could.

‘Frail’ was written before I had read any of Ernest Becker’s work or even knew who he was. I came across him in an interview with Woody Allen. He had featured The Denial of Death in his film ‘Annie Hall.’ I tracked down Becker’s book in the library and was immediately drawn to his writing. It was clear and passionate, but most of all someone was finally speaking out about our common frailty. This seemed a much needed discussion. Most academic writing has always seemed off the main point, sidetracked by various issues, valid in themselves but ignoring the most common, important and present one before our eyes.

Now, as I reflect on the film, I can see how interested I was in the idea that the honest realization of one’s human condition can lead to a greater connection with others; perhaps, a greater relaxedness in oneself. To avoid an honest confrontation seems to break us off from others; cage us in. However, it seems to take a tremendous courage of spirit to let go and face the fears and uncertainties of human experience, yet still to remain open. I don’t know to what level this is wholly possible, or if it can be sustained for any great length of time.

The human surrounds us at every moment. I sometimes wonder if constantly seeing it would crush us and make it impossible to act; the weight becoming too much. But I think that being reminded of it, revealing it every now and then can be very helpful. I don’t know if ‘Frail’ achieves this exactly. But hopefully if you like it enough it provides a space to feel and think about these issues and, ideally, allow the creation of your own response.

[Frail can be purchased on DVD at www.ernestbecker.org under the “Store” menu item –ed.]

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Ipso Facto Inefficiency?

September 13, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

In my last blog, I wrote about how confounded I am by the current antigovernment sentiment we are hearing everywhere. Moved to action, I did what all good academics do – I fired off a letter to the editor of our local paper! It was a shortened version of my last blog.

In the online discussion following, a number of people wrote in agreement, and quite a few more wrote in obvious disagreement, though not in any way that would leave me less perplexed about the original sentiment. But there was one thoughtful fellow. While acknowledging the point I had made about the value of government services, his position was that in the best of all possible worlds, all but a very limited few government services would be “privatized,” that is, carried out by private companies rather than by government workers. “My position is that high government employment itself represents a big inefficiency in any economy.”
That is a view I at least had heard before, back in my youthful days when I flirted with “Christian anarchy” as a viable political philosophy. But experience over the last 30 years has mostly raised only counter-arguments in my mind. But at least this is a view I can get my head around, even though I think it should subjected to more demand for evidence than I have seen to date.

Here is what I think. Any well-functioning modern society has “commons” work that needs to be done-basic social welfare, education, public health and sanitation, public land maintenance, park and recreation facility maintenance, protective services (emergency, fire, police), infrastructure building and maintenance, basic research, judicial affairs and such. There also needs to be adequate administration to oversee and regulate these. It is not at all clear to me that private employers, contracted by government for the purpose and driven by the motive to maximize their business profits, can or will do these types of “commons” work any cheaper, better, or more efficiently, than public employees. This has never been adequately demonstrated, and there are all sorts of common sense reasons to doubt it.

Of course there are stories of bad public employees, people who use their position to maximize personal gains at the expense of those they are there to serve. But there are at least as many stories of bad private employers and employees. It is the very fact that there is no great profit to be had that makes these areas of “commons” work in the first place. Once we recognize that, it becomes wrong-headed to think that subjecting this work to “market forces” will get it done any more cheaply or efficiently. If the fact that we have people employed by the commonwealth to do works of the common good represents, ipso facto, inefficiency in the economy, this indicates a problem in how we have been defining the economy in the first place. It is not a view of the economy that is up to the task of facilitating civilized living in a well-functioning modern society.

Why do we persist in defining our economic life as one big thunderdome of survival of the fittest (i.e., those who can squeeze out the most personal gain for the least input of resources.) It seems to me that pride of accomplishment and commitment to serving the common good (what we once hailed as civic-mindedness and recognized in our public service workers) could be even better motivational sources for economic life than maximum profits. The private sector hardly recognizes that it is actually dependent on a good public sector for its own success.  A strong public sector ethos, in which we are taught to appreciate public sector work and respect public sector employees, would be a much better economic foundation for a good society than this current private sector fetish we have now.

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The Emotions of a Meadow Mouse

September 9, 2011

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

Last night, because of no other reason than it was within reach and because it had been awhile since I looked through it, I picked Eight American Poets, and, propped up on two fat pillows, I read the selection of Theodore Roethke in the book—about twenty-five short poems, many of them anthologized many times– and one poem struck me. I don’t know why exactly, but I think the poem has to do with the “truth” of the world and how some men try to remedy the harsh reality, no matter how small and futile their efforts.

The poem I read and mused over is titled “The Meadow Mouse.” The poet finds a baby mouse in the meadow, small enough to cradle in Roethke’s big hand, the little creature trembling, almost sure to die if left alone in the meadow. Roethke takes the mouse home, where he feeds it “three kinds of cheese” and gives him water from a “bottle-cap watering-trough,” and then the little mouse sleeps, “His tail curled under him; his belly big / As his head; his bat-like ears / Twitching, tilting toward the least sound.”

And the poet, the man, the always hopeful self-conscious human creature, thinks,

Do I imagine he no longer trembles
When I come close to him?
He seems no longer to tremble.

The poet, like most of us, is a self-conscious creature constructed of  “seems.” The mouse “seems” to recognize the man, no longer tremble at his approach. The gentle poet, the man who so much wants the world to show more compassion, finds comfort in illusion. Who can blame him? The universe might not care about the abandoned and doomed meadow mouse, but the poet does–and it is his caring that defines a man’s life, this “unnatural” quality a man can create within himself. We’d not say that one of the attributes of nature is compassion. Nature is beyond such terms as “compassion” or “guilt.”

Why, after all, should the man care about the meadow mouse? He just does. Many of us care about such things. Some people wouldn’t care. It takes a tremendous leap of the imagination, imagination arcing over knowledge, to birth compassion. Schopenhauer says that the highest virtue, the supreme thing self-conscious can give to us, is empathy. We can “imagine” how another person feels.  A lot of us simply can’t get used to the truth that much of life, sentient life, is filled with suffering and anguish. We sometimes think our concern will somehow supersede the order of things, the way things are. Becker says, “ . . .what we call the human character is actually a lie about the nature of reality.” The nature of reality is hard to take.

We can break our hearts loving this world, but it never glances in our direction, never returns our love. Still, we love, and some men rush to alleviate suffering–even to save the meadow mouse, trying to save one mouse while the gimlet-eyed hawk and the big-eyed owl and the gray cat prowling grassy field beyond my study window seek their prey, all under the blue sky and sighing wind in the trees.

We see the bent-beaked hawk riding high in the sky, spy the gray cat mercilessly stalking through the field. Sometimes at night, on a still night, I can hear the mournful cry of the owl seeping from deep in the swamp. We know the owl hunts at night. It is I who describes the owl’s cry as mournful, the illusory character projecting itself on reality, creating things that are not: owls don’t mourn. We, however, identify with the meadow mouse, and as absurd at it is, we will, if given a chance, attempt to save the helpless creature.

I have stopped my truck and removed the slow-crawling turtle from the busy highway, but even though I tried, I could not save the piglet from my dog’s primitive fury, from the blind instinct running in his blood. Walking the dog in the country, the dog way ahead of me, I heard terrible screams up the dirt lane and around the corner, and though I ran, I was too late to save the piglet, which had somehow wandered off from from where he should have been. I was horrified, but it’d been futile to blame the dog, this creature who likes nothing better than to climb into my lap when I sit reading in the recliner, who sleeps under my desk as I write, his head lying upon my right foot.

The innocent murderousness of the world disturbs us, but the world has no mercy: it is a great killing machine, a greedy but blind and dumb drinker of blood. (I will not speak of the not so innocent murderousness of the human animal; that will make for another essay.)

So, yes, the poet did his best to save a meadow mouse. He made a noble gesture into the void, into yawning infinity. It might be an absurd gesture, but it’s far from meaningless.

The next morning the little mouse is gone:

But this morning the shoe-box house on the back porch is empty.
Where has he gone, my meadow mouse,
My thumb of a child that nuzzled in my palm?–
To run under the hawk’s wing,
Under the eye of the great owl watching from the elm tree,
To live by courtesy of the shrike, the snake, the tom-cat.

I think of the nestling fallen into the deep grass,
The turtle gasping in the dusty rubble of the highway,
The paralytic stunned in the tub, and the water rising,–
All things innocent, hapless, forsaken.

I think most of us would willingly go forth with the poet to save the meadow mouse. We too would stand over the little thing as it slept. We too would want to protect it from the ravages of the natural world, knowing full well we could not. But we’d try anyhow. The next morning, as the poet did, we’d find the little mouse gone. We’d imagine its making its way through the meadow while overhead the hawk, its keen eyes missing nothing below, prepares to dive, elegant feathery death falling like a stone through the blue and gentle morning, plummeting ruthlessly and efficiently down upon “All things innocent, hapless, and forsaken.”

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The Current Antigovernment Sentiment

September 7, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

I work hard to genuinely understand the views of those with whom I disagree. For me, it is not only a point of honor, an exercise of practicing what I preach, but also I find that I can learn important aspects of issues I might have otherwise missed, and that even if I don’t substantially change my views because of the encounter, I have most always felt it worth the effort.

I must say, however, that I am quite perplexed by the rise of a blanket antigovernment sentiment I am seeing increasingly. The first time I noticed it explicitly was in a “listening session” held by my freshman congressman, Adam Kinzinger, last spring. Kinzinger was one of those many young Republicans swept into office by Tea Party voters in the 2010 election. Since he is a PoliSci graduate of the state university where I teach, I attended his listening session, which turned out to be almost exclusively a one-way communication focused on the great wisdom of the Paul Ryan budget proposals. Well, OK, that’s about what I expected anyway. But in the course of his presentation, Kinzinger made many totally knee-jerk antigovernment statements that really surprised me. The most bewildering statement, confounding enough that I remember it clearly all these months later, was to the effect that only private sector jobs, not government jobs, can be counted as “real” jobs. This seemed like a very odd thing for him to say, given that he is a product of public and state schools, has spend all of his adult years preparing for and gaining public office, and was surrounded even that day by a cadre of buff-cut young staffers on his payroll who very likely would tell similar stories. It made me wonder just what the heck they were teaching over there in the PoliSci Department. But I just shrugged it off at the time-if my years of teaching have given me anything, it is an amazing tolerance for the excesses of youthful enthusiasm!

But this sentiment is popping up in many places now, and coming from people, such as the current slate of Republican “candidates,” who really ought to know better. I am genuinely perplexed by this. Just the other morning we had a letter to the editor in our local paper, under the title “Government is nothing but a spending machine!” In this letter, the writer, who I am sure thinks he was making sense, stated that “…government produces neither goods nor services!” I stopped short on that one. Is it possible that neither this fellow nor any of his family, nor any of his employees, have benefited from a public education? Is it possible that he does not drive on public streets, roads and highways? Does he not daily enjoy the protection of public police, fire and emergency services? Does he not enjoy public parks, pools and recreational facilities? Does he not appreciate the social insurance provided for himself and his family by Social Security? Does he not take for granted the control and protection of government regulators every time he buys medical supplies, meats and other foodstuffs? Does he not recognize that because of government regulated licensing procedures, he does not have to personally investigate the qualifications of every physician, lawyer, dentist, CPA, psychologist and social worker he may need to employ? Does he not appreciate that it is because of government zoning enforcement that a toxic waste dump cannot be placed right next to his property? The list goes on and on for any person who takes a minute to think about it.

I would be the first to grant that there is plenty of “waste and fraud” involved in the way government spends tax dollars. But let’s remember that by far the largest share of that waste and fraud comes from private-sector people contracting for government programs, who deliberately depend on cost overruns and other forms of fraud, knowing well that there is inadequate funding available for proper oversight. But the fact remains that government programs, products and services (schools, parks, safety, roads, food, air and water regulations, to name only a few)  represent the closest thing we in this country to “common wealth” that enhances the general quality of life and thus raises the standard of living for all citizens. While I want to respect and understand the views of all fellow citizens, it is very difficult to comprehend this current knee-jerk antigovernment sentiment as more than a sort of adolescent antiauthoritarian shriek.  Please, fellow citizens, we can surely do better than this.

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The Psychic Bartender-Fangs a Lot

September 1, 2011

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

Lively summer outside the bar, no?

In Norway a deadeye nobody competes for notoriety with rampage killers around the world by blowing up government buildings and whacking teenagers at a summer camp for kids interested in public service.  In the US, unhappy homes produce at least a couple of rampages that leave about a dozen people shot to death.  In the UK, gangs of young bipeds, mostly males, riot in the streets, torching a storefront or two, breaking glass, and looting a bit.  In the US, efforts at rioting fizzle out in the face of lavish police gear and a curfew or two.

In the street and in the media you hear excited chitchat about “social media” and government austerity politics as incitements to mob mayhem.  Mopping sticky spilled beer off the bar in a slow moment you might well ask, What’s going on here?

Okay, there’s the obvious: if you’re rioting, chances are you’re un- or underemployed.  If you are out of work, it means you’re not only facing a blank future, but also a vague or even blank identity.  If you’re marginally educated and a creature of industrial entertainment, you’re probably frustrated when not sufficiently distracted, since school and the box office both promise you consumer utopia.  If utopia turns out to be a bag of potato chips and a joint, of course you might want to raise a ruckus.

Well, as it happens – lucky you – the culture is full of ideas for action.  Take rioting, for example.  You define yourself against “enemies” – cops, the haves, stores that tease you by putting under your nose but out of reach behind plate glass desirable goodies that promise you prestige.  In an emergency – a riot, say – the window’s like a psychic alarm box: break glass and pull loot, and relief rushes into your hands like the fire department.

Let’s be honest: looting can feel heroic.  The great mega-celebrities of history – Genghis Whatsisname, the Vikings, Napoleon, Hitler, Goldman Sachs – they’re all looters.  Yes yes, they use warrior muscle to make sure you agree that they’re noble aristocrats or royalty or supremo honchos.  Or they use Wall Street cunning.  But the bottom line is looting.  The Old Testament nicely models the business plan.  God tells the Israelites to conquer the Canaanites, commanding them to exterminate the rival men and boys, enslave the women, and back up the truck for the chattel and grandma’s Canaanite cuckoo clock. And this even though the archeologists tells us that Canaanites, Israelites, and today’s Israelis are the same people, so the conquest is in a sense a riot.

Of course in today’s modern world we emphasize representative democracy, consensus, and MBA managerial ju-jitsu.  Oh, and love.  But in fact that sissy stuff only takes you so far when it comes to enjoying your fellow hominids.  From birth, long before you’re old enough to remember who they’ve told you you are, the authorities – mum, dad, and the auntie who says “You’re so cute I could eat you right up!” – they’re all instilling in you a conviction of what’s right.  You grow up obeying mostly invisible rules that reinforce what’s right.  You say “Please,” keep to the sidewalk, buy supermarket chops rather than carve up your neighbor’s tasty-looking dog, and learn toilet paper skills.

Ideally the rules help you steer through the wickets when the cosmic croquet mallet puts you in motion at birth.  But we all know that the rules can suffocate and enslave you too.  You love them, you chafe at them.  When you and the crowd agree on the rules, you feel superhuman.  When you disagree, you try to bully one another into “seeing it my way.”  In extreme cases you shake fists until knuckles and jaw connect.

What to do, what to do?

Think of all the movies you’ve seen that routinely climax in a do-or-die battle in which the frustrated hero finally overcomes all inhibitions and suddenly gains access to superhuman daring, whips enemies, and survives.  This is berserk style.  The fantasy is that if you can break out of the daily grind of rules – if you can go to the very edge of control, “flipping out,” “losing it,” and “going for the jugular ” –  you can tap special powers that make you indomitable.

Rampage killers actually act on such fantasies.  But since it’s a style, it invites you think you can scare the world into doing things your way.  The style has a wide reach. In the Washington debt ceiling debate this summer, do-or-die righteousness threatened economic “catastrophe” and “Armageddon.”  Critics called them “the wrecking-ball right” (Reich), “Debt Kamikazees” (Avlon), while rant radio hosts vilified liberals as “more dangerous than Hitler.”  You can hear fantasies of extermination in these colorful terms.  And what could be more supremely supreme than being the sole survivor of a battle?  MBA’s, who know a thing or two about threat displays, sometimes call this “winning through intimidation.”

What all these extreme behaviors have in common is the use of theatricalized rage to force the world to recognize your supreme righteousness and your (ahem) even more supreme self-esteem.  The Norwegian killer took time out from shooting kids to call the cops on his cellphone to let them know what a hotshot he was.  He was keeping score and settling scores.  Most copycat rampages reveal a competitive rage to be El Supremo.  In his diary and online rants little Eric Harris of Columbine demanded total obedience and total extermination for his stupid “enemies.”

We can’t tell when verbal riot will turn into muscle mayhem.  Some thirty percent of rampage killers have a military background, as many as half have a history of mental illness.  But like urban rioters, even the crazies have to get their ideas from somewhere.  And everyday life offers lots of prompts.

The hidden assumption is that once the pretty ribbons are off, the world really works as a system of threat displays, and the animal succeeds most that rears up tallest, roars the loudest, and shows a do-or-die rack of fangs.  If you’re boxed in by deadly rules and nobody will listen to you, and you can’t negotiate, the temptation is to break out by force – or at least show those eyeteeth. The trouble is, threat displays escalate.  Sooner or later a bigger fist will box you and box you in.

So how to get out of the trap?  Hey, I’m just the bartender here.  But the customers who drink up with a smile talk as if self-esteem doesn’t have to depend on being supremely right.  And another thing: they’ve learned to recognize a threat display when they see one, even if it’s disguised as a certificate or a flag.  Or a kiss.  Then they use their wits.

Or so they tell me.

So.  What’ve you got for wits?  While you think about that, maybe you’ve worked up a thirst.  Glad to oblige.  What’ll it be?