Archive for October, 2011

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Tea Party Thinking (Part 2)

October 28, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

note: this contribution is continued from the previous one – it will make most sense if you read the previous one first. Thanks! Normal Dan

Now, it helps to understand this process of internal dialogue and the relative strength of its voices as a continuum. At the extreme ends, one voice snuffs out the other and the dialogue disappears entirely. In those few people in whom the voice of personal desire totally snuffs out the voice of social beneficence, we have the recipe for a sociopath. In those few people in whom the voice of social beneficence totally snuffs out the voice of personal desire, we have the recipe for a quite different set of problems. Such people may well get along with everyone and are certainly no danger to society, but on the other hand they are so far on the “masochistic” end of the spectrum that they make people uncomfortable, and may well become targets of abuse by others. In both cases, there really is no sustained internal dialogue at all, but only a tyrannical monologue.

Only a very small percentage of people inhabit the extreme ends of the continuum, however. The rest of us inhabit places along the continuum, maintaining the inner dialogue, hearing the voices, though in different relative strength. A significant amount of research suggests that Liberals and Progressives  tend to congregate on this continuum toward the side that gives the voice of social beneficence equal or stronger weight than the voice of personal gain (call this, the Center/Left position) whereas Conservatives and the current advocates of “libertarianism” (the internal contradictions there is a topic in its own right!)  tend to congregate on this continuum toward the side that gives the voice of personal desires equal or stronger weight than the voice of social beneficence (call this, the Center/Right position.)

This is in itself no judgment on either side. Both positions maintain and are maintained by the continuing healthy dialogue. In fact, we might say that the very strength of American Democracy is that, for the most part, we have been able to sustain that dialogue at the level of social and political policymaking. If there is a signal of “sickness” at present in our system, it is exactly that the Center, the very meeting ground for dialogue, is softening and our policymaking is increasingly characterized by the meeting of raw special interest power on both sides rather than genuine dialogue.

Given this framework for interpretation, how can we better understand the thought processes of our fellow citizens of the Center/Right in general, and within the Tea Party movement more specifically?

1. While genuinely supporting the ideals of personal freedom, they also have very high respect and admiration for power, law and authority, because they recognize that this is what they (and others) need to be kept in line, to maintain the choice of social beneficence over personal desire in their actions.

2. This high respect for traditional power, law and authority (the “strong state,” especially in its policing and military functions) is combined with an exaggerated contempt for appeals to sociability (the common good, social conscience) as adequate motivation for maintaining socially beneficent behavior in society (which is the appeal the “liberal state”) that downplays the centrality of the State’s policing and military functions.

3. The high respect for traditional power, law and authority in the State (its policing and military functions) easily combines and blends with high respect for traditional social institutions of power and authority, especially the family, social taboos, patriotism and religion. They are likely to see the “liberal state” as unfriendly toward solid social institutions such as family, taboos, patriotism and religion, just as much as they see it unfriendly toward the policing and military functions of the State.

4. In their view, at the conscious level, to downplay the centrality of the State’s police and military functions seems abjectly absurd and even immoral, because they genuinely don’t believe people are really governed by strong concerns for social beneficence. Rather, certain people have learned to manipulate the social dialogue, proclaiming such high ideals while actually pursuing their own self-interested purposes just like everyone else (“doing well, doing good,” we might say.) Such people (currently labeled by the catch-all designation “liberals”) are morally contemptible, in their view, because their rhetoric of social conscience replacing the traditional institutions of coercive social power directly undermines the actual moral conditions of society itself (of “law and order.”)

5. At a less conscious level, the very idea of society moving towards less coercive mechanisms for maintaining sociability frightens them, because they are not at all sure that, push come to shove, they would so consistently choose social beneficence over personal gain were it not for the ongoing presence of strong coercive, ritualistic institutions to keep them in line, step by step (in “lock step with others,” we might say) along the way.

Perhaps in a future blog, we can employ this same framework for outlining and understanding the internal contradictions of Center/Left Progressives. But in the meantime, my general hope is that we all continue to try to understand each other in the best light, and work to maintain the dialogue. Ironically, given the state of polarization we see in our social dialogue, the fact that each side contains fundamental internal contradictions if one of our best signs of hope!

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The Psychic Bartender – Trick or Treat

October 24, 2011

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

Here it is, Halloween, the holiday whooping up the joys of the harvest and playing at fears of the dark winter ahead.  The ancient Celts dressed as animals, stoked bonfires, sacrificed and feasted, worked on their fortune-telling, sucked up to the gods, and stocked up for winter.  As the Romans reported, the Celts practiced human sacrifice, so preparations for winter may have included feeding the gods to insure they wouldn’t starve you by the end of winter like concentration camp guards.

With central heating and supermarkets today, the ambivalence of Halloween is kinder and gentler—at least if you’re not foreclosed and unemployed.  Today’s costumes and rituals mute the old wintry death-anxiety.  Skeletons and witches have become brands for Halloween the way Christmas trees and Santa advertise Christmas, the birth of the new year.  The markers for sterile old age and decay have become sanitized—it’s easy to forget that the Jack O’Lantern is a symbolic skull showing out of a harvest vegetable, just as the Christmas tree and its lights show you a tree loaded with symbolic fruit and generous Santa brings goodies in the terrifying gloom of midwinter.

The idea is to massage morale: build up courage and generosity in the face of death-anxiety and survival greed.

The rituals are arguably a bit worn out now.  Dracula and the fairy princess are slaves to industrial entertainment. In the suburbs the ritual has been tamed.  Mum now is supposed to buy or make an impressive costume for the kids, and trick or treat is a performance of the decorated self rather like the presentation of self in social media, where you select idealized material about your life to broadcast to “friends” and Facebook’s snooping ad apparatus.

For the kids the rewards are praise and candy: in fact as much as a  quarter of all candy sold during the year.  Every so often there’s a paranoid thrill to enliven this beauty contest, as when urban legend has psycho neighbors slipping razor blades into apples.  Apart from recreating the mentality of renaissance witch hunts and fairy tales, the tales rationalize parents’ vigilant policing of the young at a time when the economy is declining amid a clamor about “achievement.”  As the bumper sticker shouts, MY CHILD IS AN HONORS STUDENT.  You can see where a kid trapped in a slogan might  prefer to be a vampire.

Even the trickster associations of the old Halloween are nearly extinct.  Apparently the Jack O’Lantern originated as a prop in a story about an Irishman who successfully tricked the devil and, for a time anyway, outwitted wintry death. There’s not much menace to trick or treat in a massively militarized nation with history’s most expensive corporate security apparatus looking at you through surveillance cameras with more lenses than a fly’s eye.

Death-anxiety has gone corporate.  You can see it in the stupefying survival greed of the bank binge that’s busted the economy.  Money—the spinning zeroes on Wall Street computers—stands for harvest food.

But of course that’s one reason why this Halloween is so uncanny.  The protesters “occupying Wall Street” across the nation are often dressed up in festival costumes.  The play could remind you of Mardi Gras, but in the dread dark of winter and police squads, Halloween seems more apt.

The truth is the nation is reaching the end of the postwar season of bumper crops and low-hanging fruit.  On all sides the emphasis has shifted to finance and outsourcing of seed money to cope with competition and declining crop yields.  The hired hands have been let go in spooky numbers.

So far the trick or treat has been remarkably peaceful and sensible.  After all, even acting out the ritual is a heroic role, with heroic purpose, and that helps to fortify the shivering self against the winter ahead.  But those who’ve turned two decades of trick or treating into unprecedented wealth are shrieking threats against the protesters, and the winter could be cruel.  It remains to be seen if the nation can rekindle the flame in Jack the lantern to light the way to a healthier society.

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Tea Party Thinking (Part 1)

October 19, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Many people are quite confused about the thought processes of our fellow citizens of the Tea Party. They seem to support very contradictory ideas and policies, for example, sticking up for the Little Guy against increasing and pervasive social control of Wall Street, but they want to do that through policies that reduce economic regulations on Wall Street bankers. They voice support for Main Street and small business as America’s job creators, but they want to do that through policies that reduce taxes on large corporations, even those special tax breaks that encourage large corporations to lay off America workers and replace their jobs with workers in other countries.

We all have our contradictions, I suppose, but those of this Tea Party crowd are so blatant it is confusing to outside observers.

In thinking about this the other day, it struck me that in Ernest Becker’s synthesis of psychodynamic maturation processes with a sociological perspective on human development (outlined most clearly in his 1964 book, The Revolution in Psychiatry) we gain a significant handle on understanding both the Tea Party and the Progressive mentality. I am not saying this analysis is exhaustive, but I do think it points us in some useful directions. See what you think – and I will try to keep the dry jargon to a minimum!

Throughout life, we all regularly experience conflicts between what we want and what is socially acceptable and socially beneficial. In other words, what is good for me and what is good for the group do not always line up so neatly, and navigating this conflict is at the root of both the core personality of each of us as well as the core of our competing political philosophies.

Socialization (growing up) is the process of becoming a social person, a person fit to live in society with others. Obviously, a person who always acted according to personal gain with no regard for the good of others would not be able to function well in society, and society itself would crumble if it contained too many such people.  From the first struggles with potty training onward, childhood is a process of learning to navigate the lines between what I want as an individual and what society expects of me as a socially fit person and citizen.

We consider someone to be grown up, mature and responsible (adequately socialized, in the dry jargon) when in the inner dialogue of daily living (do I choose to act this way, or that?) the person is self-disciplined enough to submit individual wants and desires to what is beneficial for and acceptable to the society as a whole. A person who mostly acts according to self-benefit, without regard to what is beneficial for and acceptable to society as a whole we think of as childish, immature and irresponsible (inadequately socialized.)

When we consider how strongly self-centered we naturally are at birth (an infant, after all, has no conception of society and its needs) it is easy to see that learning this balance between personal wants and social benefit is both ongoing and absolutely central to who we are as human beings. To master this conflict in our internal dialogue, we eventually internalize and take on as our own the voice that was initially the external voice of society, of law, of civilization.

Once internalized, we own it as the voice of “our conscience,” and claim it not as an external voice at all but rather our own true voice, the voice of our own authentic self. Earlier we chose social benefit over personal gain mainly because we feared external force and punishment, and our decisions in each successive situation were likely based on a rather intricate analysis of the likelihood of being caught, of the type and magnitude of the punishment we might expect if caught, and all of this weighed against the benefit of what we gain by barging ahead to act on personal gain alone in this situation. But as we grow and mature, we increasingly choose social beneficence over personal gain as a free expression of our true self. I certainly continue to have angry and even fleetingly murderous feelings when my wants and desires are thwarted by others, for example, but I don’t act on that because “I” am not a murderer (robber, rapist, sneak-thief, liar, adulterer, etc.)

A healthy internal dialogue between personal desires and social beneficence continues on day by day, hour by hour, even minute by minute, but we learn ways of sublimate the most antisocial of these personal desires such that our actions always remain at least within the law, our basic social code, and maybe sometimes even “above” the law.

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Robinson Jeffers

October 14, 2011

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

Robinson Jeffers, the great poet of the California coast, says that poetry should address only the eternal things: “poetry’s function is the passionate presentment of beauty. . . an intensification of life, not an escape from it.”

Jeffers (1887-1962) feared poetry was becoming the domain of those who were interested in writing only virtuoso trivialities. Poetry must be “rhythmic, and must deal with permanent things, and must avoid affectation” Well, Jeffers has fallen on hard times. I don’t know that many people, especially academics, read him any more. I don’t know how most member of the EBF feel about Jeffers, but I find myself, for reasons not entirely clear to me, drawn to his vision of the universe. I suppose it’s Jeffers’s insistence that we should live with as few illusions as possible. Jeffers though the most pernicious illusion was the one of the herd, the mass of humanity following a mad hallucination, one demanding the Scapegoat, the spilling of sacrificial blood. The first half of the twentieth century did not prove Jeffers wrong.

One could make a case that Jeffers is in many ways Beckerian–particularly in how men (the “dream led masses”) embrace illusion to palliate the truth of the world. Jeffers accuses the human race of an incestuous self-indulgence; that is, loving itself more than it loves the world. Jeffers, who died in early 1962, would not be surprised at how we have spoiled the environment.  Humans would, he said, “shit on a star.”  He said that the three things he that are endemic to humans are cruelty, filth, and superstition.

It’s almost as if Jeffers thought self-consciousness was an aberration in the universe. He knew the great working-out of the universe was unconscious, no more aware of itself than the orange lightning’s jagged razor slicing through the dark belly of a summer’s night. The question, Jeffers seems to say, is this: if a man understands how things are in this world, the enigma of the human predicament, he must figure out  how he is to live in the world as it is. Jeffers advises us to stay away from the spoiled and cruel world of men, from tormented men and their need for victims, their  need for certitude, their insane clamoring for the world to provide to them what it cannot give.

Jeffers urges us to love the beauty of things, not mankind. Jeffers lived in his isolation at Carmel, in his stone house by the Pacific. He was not a hermit. He had wife and twin sons. He occasionally ventured into the world, this lonely and austere man, but he did not like what humankind had become, its constant probing of itself, a relentless and almost incestuous self-indulgence. Could he see what humans have done to the environment, the foul and pestilent thing we have turned Mother Earth into, he would say, “I told you so!” And he did.

He said, “One thing is left us: the beauty of the things, not men; / The immense beauty of the world, not the human world. / Look–and without imagination, desire nor dream–directly / At the mountains and the sea.” I find I am more sympathetic to Jeffers and his arduous and honest struggle about what it means to be a man than I am to the hermetic academic poet, narrow and self-absorbed, too often choked with resentment, too often devoid of talent and vision.

Was Jeffers a misanthrope? In some ways, I suppose he was. Though like all men he sometimes was infected with that obscure human fidelity toward his own kind, prone, as are most, to self-pity and absurd sentimentality. Jeffers wanted to stand under meaningless but beautiful skies, stand there with “bitter earnestness,” though Jeffers knew what most of us know: we are at war with ourselves, with our consciousness and its hunt for sweet illusions, the comfort of the tribe, the creed, the hot ideology, the fatuous diversion, the inane murmuring of human voices. How does a man shed his weakness?  Oh, for to be human is to be weak, to tremble in one’s singularity.

In The Aenied, when Aeneas and his men attend the banquet given by Dido, after the hearty and deep imbibing of wine, one called Iopas, “the long-haired bard” picks up his lyre and soon poetry resounds through the halls:

. . . he sings
the wandering moon and laboring sun eclipsed,
the roots of the race and the wild beasts,
the source of storms and the lightning bolts on high,
Arcturus, the rainy Hyades and the Great and Little Bears,
and why the winter suns so rush to bathe themselves in the sea
and what slows down the nights to a long lingering crawl . . .

Virgil writes the kind of poetry Jeffers admired. Virgil and other Classical poets in general do not sing of pity and sentimentality, of temporal and petty things, of the desperate and selfish phantoms that haunt little men and their arrogant views of themselves. They sing of men who strive with gods. They sing not of the whining of lost men but rather of the prodigious strength and courage of men who contend with Fate, men who know where they stand in the cosmos.

And so Jeffers writes of the tossing ocean, the wind singing over it, the moon, swollen, gravid in the sky, and then the dawn coming, the birds in flight, the sunlight on the water –these things will be here when you and I are gone:

And when the whole human race
Has been like me rubbed out, they will still be here:
storms, moon and ocean,
Dawn and birds.And I say this: their beauty has
more meaning
Than the whole human race and the race of birds.

Jeffers built, stone by stone, a tower on the coast, there by the sea, and at night, he’d climb to the top of his tower, look over the sea and up at the sky full of stars or of clouds. He heard the wind and the old antiphony of the sea, the two chanting as they have been doing since time immemorial. Jeffers knew what science has since proved: that the universe is in cataclysm, worlds in fiery birth, stars collapsing upon themselves in furious wrath. A man cannot comprehend, but he can observe. All the world will ever give to him is its beauty, its prolific and superfluous beauty, its utter ruthlessness. It will never explain itself. It will bring him oblivion. All a man can do is sit and watch–and adore the splendor of things, the night in convulsion.

And yet men write poetry and when they sleep they dream.

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Bad Moon Risin’

October 11, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

This post begins with a sense of melancholy born of a reluctant realization that both Ernest Becker and Richard Heineberg are correct in their respective analyses. Becker synthesized the insights of the master cartographers of the human condition and took the all important step of moving from the individual’s experience of existential terror and necessary repression to how that looks when writ large in culture. He demonstrated the connection between our sacred symbols, customs, and ideologies and our penchant for violence, both active (war) and passive (neglect). Anyone who has read Ernest Becker has had the thought, “Why does he have to be so right about this?”  Similar thoughts attend the work of Richard Heineberg.

Actually, I’m using Heineberg as a representative for a collection of writers on the topic of the physical limits humanity is running up against. These writers include James Kunstler, Colin Campbell, Dmitry Orlov, and Matthew Simmons. Along with Heineberg, these writers have crunched the numbers on our natural resources. Specifically, they’ve analyzed energy supplies, the cost of extraction, and the viability of energy alternatives. Their bottom line conclusion is that we can no longer continue to grow, grow, grow.  In this brief space I really don’t want to rehash their arguments. Suffice it to say that I am drawn to their work because they use hard science such as geology to make their case. Just as Becker demonstrated the impossibility of removing ourselves from the human condition itself, so too Heineberg and company demonstrate the impossibility of skirting the laws of physics. I encourage you to judge their work on its merits. Their bottom line conclusion is that our future success lies in the direction of local responses and greater self-sufficiency. The current economic downturn is not seen as cyclic, but rather the bumpy plateau as we descend the energy curve. Things will get tougher.

What do we see as we survey our social landscape? We see a lot of social dislocation, frustration, anger and above all, fear. There is a growing apprehension of entering new unknown territory. As Becker would predict, we see a rise in ideologically framed arguments, less reasoned debate and more finger pointing. The values of The Enlightenment appear impotent against the demagogues. The better angels of our nature look to be on the verge of getting their winged asses kicked. The harder times get , the more people will seek security in their symbol systems. The western credo has always been one of expansion and now our myth is proving toxic.  Death by story.

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Silenced voices, ever louder symbols: Troy Davis and Mark MacPhail

October 4, 2011

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

By the time I turned my attention to Troy Davis, he was already wrapped in symbols. The symbols I saw were channeled through my usual lenses. On the cable news commentary shows that I tend to watch (because they affirm my beliefs) I saw the image of  a healthy, vigorous, positive young black man in a collage of still photographs, mainly in somber black and white. In one, he wore a sweatshirt with a thick embroidered cross, raised and in a darker grey than the background fabric, but not as dark as Troy’s face. In another, this one in color, he wore a white t-shirt with a bright red logo. This photo was probably taken during some sweltering visiting day at the Georgia Diagnostic and Assessment Prison. The t-shirt logo was the word Jesus written in blood bright red in cursive letters that reminded me of a Cardinals Jersey. I saw images of Troy’s family members, fatigued, already grieving, although there was still some symbolic chance for Troy to live beyond this week. I saw defense lawyers and journalists of all ages and races straining to tell the story in a way that made sense to them, to give a moral ending to that story that would be some bittersweet blend of justice and mercy.

I also saw photographs of the young thin, eternally youthful “white” face of  the man Troy was convicted of killing, Mark MacPhail.  Beyond his face, I did not see him literally wrapped in symbols, as I did Troy Davis, but the symbols were there nonetheless. These were more the symbols of honor and duty than the symbols of faith. One of the police sergeants who commemorated him on the day Davis was executed said that MacPhail had died because of the badge and the uniform he wore. He was a police officer slain on his off-duty job of guarding a Burger King, in a society where it makes some kind of sense to guard a Burger King using guards who are moonlighting cops with guns. We have all seen them, men who are too wiry or too fat from years of stress, alcohol, nicotine, and stale coffee. I did not see Mark wearing a cross, or a Jesus t-shirt. On my usual channels and websites, I didn’t see photographs of Mark MacPhail’s family, but I knew they were out there. I knew there were flags and badges in the story that people were making for him since his death. Mark was not there to tell any story.

I heard and read stunning facts about the course of justice in the case. I learned that the scales of justice had been pushed several times to reset the balance, and it never stopped in Troy’s favor. Mark was not asking for reconsideration, at least not from anywhere that sends us news. I heard many people speak of Troy’s innocence and I knew that many people had testified to Mark’s heroism, valor, and charity in trying to break up a parking lot fight over a bottle of beer.

I heard an old colleague, Allen Ault, formerly Director of the National Institute of Corrections being interviewed on TV. Over a decade ago, Allen had sent me to my first professional job in the South. I was to conduct a training workshop on psychopaths in Montgomery Alabama, to an audience of criminal justice students and professionals.  The local psychologist who acted as my guide in Montgomery drove me around all the major sights, but what sticks in my memory was inching down a residential street past a scorched white frame house. This was the home of former Governor George Wallace. It had been hit by a Molotov cocktail after Wallace had renounced the hard version of racism and came out against the Klan. My guide had explained that Wallace’s bodyguard and caretaker was a retired black state trooper. Although I had no wish to ever go back, I was long grateful to Allen for sending me down there. I learned something about the slow squeeze of institutional and cultural racism that eventually makes something pop, like an infected patch of acne that you just can’t keep your hands from trying to sooth and heal, all the while making it worse. It helped me understand why from 1690 to 1976, 49% of the executed were African American while 41% were European Americans, and why since 1976, the practice of frequent state-sponsored executions has become almost the exclusive province of former slave states or territories, which include all of the top seven (Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Florida, Missouri, Alabama, and Georgia).

Allen was asked during the TV interview, by a proud, self-proclaimed liberal commentator, if he thought Troy Davis was innocent. Wisely, Allen said he had no way of knowing that. He said he did know that there was no justification for our death penalty. I knew that the Pope had repeated his stand against the death penalty, and in this instance of it, so had any number of eminencies. I also knew that Troy Davis was going to die.

In the end, it was decided by the Supreme Court, as a matter of law, that there was no basis, no grounds, and no reason for intervention in Georgia’s enforcement of the law. Davis had presented no new evidence. Recanting witnesses were new evidence, but of what? Claims of police coercion against witnesses could have been investigated and confronted in the original trial and appeals. Hearsay of the confessions of an alternate suspect in the murder could have been made admissible as new evidence if the defense attorneys had confronted the man with his alleged words at a formal court hearing. Bottom Line: whether he was innocent or not, in fact, or morally, Davis was found legally guilty of an act that no one doubted was a crime.

I found myself thinking that all the symbols and many of the practices interwoven in this story were the same as in the Jesus execution story. Jesus was guilty as a matter of law. He had claimed some authority separate from Caesar, or so the witnesses said. He had claimed to be the son of God, or claimed to be some kind of god himself. These were all crimes punishable by death. Jesus had exhausted his appeals in a system not as elaborate and counter-balanced as ours, but which was its own kind of civilized justice machine, one that delivered justice much faster than ours. I also found myself thinking that Mark MacPhail was not here to put on Jesus t-shirts, or to be anything to those of us who did not know him but a flashing symbol of being wronged, and the less we knew about the details of his work and life, the more readily he became a symbol. I found myself thinking that Troy Davis had not seized and shaped the narrative, as liberal commentators are always saying Obama should do. Mark MacPhail was not here to try to shape any kind of narrative. Now, Troy Davis, like Jesus and Mark MacPhail, is no longer shaping a story. Through different doors, perhaps, they have entered the empire of symbols and images where they continue to exist through narratives containing their names, but shaped by the living.