Archive for February, 2012


What Social Research Can Tell Us About the OWS Enthusiasm Gap

February 27, 2012

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Bob Burnett, blogging for the Huffington Post ( recently articulated a fact of American political life that has puzzled many observers. While upwards of 80% of average Americans express approval for statements like “Wall Street has too much power,” and “The rich need to pay more taxes,” nearly the same number say they “do not support” the Occupy Wall Street movement. In other words, there is a large, even majority group of Americans, who express agreement with the basic OSW message, but express disapproval of the OWS movement itself. Very strange?

Laurence Kohlberg’s stage theory of adult moral development might give a clue to this surprising problem.  Based on his research, Kohlberg outlined 3 levels of moral development: the pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional levels. Each of these levels consists of two stages, for 6 stages in total. In terms of numbers, if we were to graph these levels onto a bell curve, it would roughly put 80% in the conventional category and about 10% each in the pre- and post-conventional categories. The conventional level is just that, the level of moral development attained by the average citizen, and reflecting exactly the kinds of moral values on which a solid society is based. These are, in particular, (1) high regard for how you are viewed by others (stage 3), and (2) high regard for maintenance of law and order (stage 4).

It is not difficult to see, therefore, why significant numbers of people might agree to certain policy-oriented statements (on civil rights, ending a war, curtailing Wall Street power, taxing the rich) and yet feel an almost knee-jerk revulsion against those creating “disorder” in pursuit of those ideas and policies. Richard Nixon, of course, was the absolute master of manipulating for his own political ends this gut-level revulsion of the majority against those creating “disorder.” But the American right on the whole seems to better understand this dynamic than does the left. Notice today how even with Tea Party folks showing up fully armed, the rallies still take on the undercurrent of support for “law and order”; even the Militia Movement folks loudly assume this mantle of standing for order against chaos!

Recognition that morality stands above “law and order” is, in Kohlberg’s research, reflective of higher level moral thought, and only reached as a solidly habitual way of thinking by a relatively small minority of people. Many more people, however, can be spurred to consider it in specific cases, such as when police (symbolic enforcers of order) turn dogs and fire hoses loose on children, or casually coat unarmed and peaceful people with pepper spray at close range, in full view of the cameras.

The upshot of what needs to be learned from Kohlberg’s research, however, is that street protest movements need to very early on demonstrate itself as supportive of law and order, and standing again disruption of social order, if they want to gain widespread public acceptance. This is not, of course, an easy thing to accomplish when the actual goal of a movement is truly dramatic upheaval in the current system. But history demonstrates that it is not impossible either.


Misery Loves Company

February 21, 2012

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

This morning when I checked my e-mail I found a rather weepy one from a minister who writes to me from time to time, always writing dolorous, self-indulgent, and overly dramatic words. This time, in lamenting several impediments in his life, he quoted Shakespeare, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He repined that all he endeavored seem to fail, that all his hopeful dreams were as “momentary as a sound,”

Swift as a shadow, short as any dream;
Brief as lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,
And ere a man hath power to say, “Behold!”
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to confusion.

Well, true enough, I suppose, but the sentimental preacher is wrong to take the above words and narrowly apply them to his own life. Just about anybody who knows anything about Shakespeare knows the quoted passage above, but few know Hermia’s response to Lysander:

If, then, true lovers have been ever crost,
It stands as an edict in destiny:
Then let us teach our trial patience,
Because it is a customary cross,
As due to love as thoughts, and dreams, and sighs,
Wishes, and tears, poor fancy’s followers.

In short, what the self-centered preacher needs to comprehend is that the tragedy of “quick bright things” fading into nothingness lies in the condition of mankind, not of a particular man. The human condition in many regards is hopeless and heartbreaking. Becker calls it a tragedy, this predicament in which we find ourselves. The truth is that the “jaws of darkness” will swallow us all, in time swallow the earth itself, and, some cosmologists say, the entire universe itself. If you’re like me you can’t think much beyond this small planet whereupon we find ourselves. We have to deal with the mess of our own lives; we can’t worry about the lives of Martians, not that Martians exist. It’s probably true that we care less about stars falling into one another, about the immeasurable cataclysms tossing galaxies as if they were match sticks; yes, we care less about these conflagrations than we do our own belly aches—and for good reason too.

I can understand my tender preacher’s grief at his lost dreams, at the sorrow rolling like a river through his life, but he’s wrong to think that life demands any more of him that it demands of any of us. I could advise him that it is futile to mourn what is not only inexorable but unavoidable. But this man doesn’t want advice; he wants consolation, wants sympathy. Of course, I won’t advise him of anything. He wants me to be complicit in his descent into self-pity, to echo him, “O God, isn’t it awful!” I will say nothing about his particular complaint. It seems as foolish to state this as to say, “The wind blows” or the “rain down does fall.” Oh, how he’d bristle with outrage did I tell him that he is drifting perilously close to solipsism.

The most I could tell him, the most I understand, is that we all have to go a hard road, often on a dark night, but we have no other option but to go it. Perhaps we should go it as cheerfully and courageously as we can. I think Samuel Johnson would agree with me. In fact, I suppose I really steal the notion from the great man. I don’t think he’d object.


What do we mean by “government?”

February 14, 2012

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

In today’s local newspaper, there is a letter written by a fellow citizen of my town. The letter, titled “Government is nothing but a spending machine,” expressed the writer’s view that government is a farce, a flim flam. It reads, in part, “The harsh reality is that government produces neither goods nor services. How can it? Most of its members have never run a business, never met a payroll, never assumed any risk. Rather, government is an unbridled spending machine … the very antithesis of profit. Government spends, it does not produce.”

I genuinely seek to understand the view of such fellow citizens, which we are hearing with increasing frequency and volume. I attended a “listening session” (but which was highly engineered toward selling the Ryan Budget Plan) held by my elected congressman, Adam Kinzinger, and he made much the same claims about government – that government cannot by its very nature create “real jobs,” something only private sector employers can do (a strange sentiment coming from a man who had spent at least a third of his life in active pursuit of a government job.) Echoes of the same sentiment are being heard in the statements of various would-be political leaders such as Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. I am sure that in no matter what area of the nation you live, you could easily pick up your own local newspaper, turn on your radio, or do a little eavesdropping on conversations in your local coffee shop, and quickly encounter sentiments like this.

Much as I have tried to comprehend this view, I remain totally perplexed. Have these people not benefited from a public education, either personally or for family members, or employees? Do they not drive on public streets? Do they not assume the daily public protection of police, fire and emergency services? Do they never enjoy public parks, pools or recreational facilities? Do they not benefit from the social insurance offered by the Social Security Administration? Do they not take for granted the control and protection of government regulators every time they buy medical supplies, meat or other foodstuffs? Do they not appreciate that because of government regulated licensing procedures, they do not have to personally investigate the qualifications of every physician, lawyer, dentist, CPA, psychologist and social worker they may need to employ? Do they not appreciate that because of government zoning enforcement a toxic waste dump cannot be placed right next to their property? Do they not daily enjoy the protection of the US military and defense services? The list goes on and on.

Certainly, every thinking person agrees that there is plenty of waste involved in the way government spends tax dollars, mostly because government programs must endure the cost overruns, fiscal shenanigans and outright fraud perpetrated by private contractors–government programs are easy marks for these business-suited crooks exactly because there is no funding for adequate oversight. But just as clearly, the fact remains that government sponsored programs, products and services (schools, parks, safety, roads, food, air and water regulations, to name only a few)  represent the closest measure we have 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 increasingly difficult to comprehend this current knee-jerk anti-government opinion as more than a sort of adolescent anti-authoritarian shriek. At the very least, I can only conclude that these folks use the term “government” to mean something other than the empirical designation of that term.


Fist Come, Fist Served

February 10, 2012

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

What we can’t think about:
The goal of political debates is not to test ideas but to kill the losing candidate.

“Newt Gingrich Fails To Knock Out Mitt Romney At Final Florida Debate,” headlined Amanda Terkel in Huffington Post (1.27.12). The trope of debate as boxing is of course so routine it’s transparent, like “fighting” a cold.
The New York Post punched its way to the deeper level when it summed up the “contest” with the larger idea of a fight to the death: “Romney, Gingrich Continue War” (1.26.12). The Post too saw the debate as boxing, but goosed up the fisticuffs by calling the candidates’ punches “haymakers,” meaning knockout blows and oblivion.

You get the idea.

Yes, the media are desperate to excite their audiences with punchy rhetoric. After all, these days the media outlets themselves are taking it in the chin. They’re in the ring slugging it out. Their problem is a culture addicted to shows of violent confrontation because violent conventions in movies and news and weatherforecasting have become so boringly familiar that it takes more and more extreme action to hold your attention. As the Bible puts it, If the salt or the cocaine loseth its flavor, wherewith shall it be salted?

But then, moaning about degenerate media has also become a tired convention. Let’s talk about the raw material.
If a policy debate is boxing, then by implication the force of argument determines a winner and a loser. Flattened, a loser is humiliated and helpless. Knock out the opponent and winners wipe out–annihilate–any possible opposition now or in the future. No need to negotiate or compromise or qualify your answers–everyone knows you’re right.
You can see where this is going. If the goal is a knockout, then the “argument” is not about testing ideas or solving problems. Deep down, it’s about killing resistance to your conviction of rightness. And if we agree with you–that’s what gives your words knockout force–then we too feel supremely triumphant. You’d think a system based on sublimated killing would be too disruptive to go on for long. But annihilation can be strategic. It’s a powerful solution to human ambivalence. We love and hate at the same time. And every action brings a reaction. This is why Machiavelli recommended exterminating enemies to avoid backtalk. Killing simplifies mixed feelings. The cycle of retaliation stops. In trial by combat, “Might makes right.” It may be primitive jurisprudence, but it guarantees that the winner can enforce the winning argument. When abstract law is weak, trial by combat makes a judgment irrefutable, so it can prevent schism and troublesome bad losers.

Knockout contests work best in an authoritarian society where people are used to one infallible boss replacing another. Ordinary people–in Wall Street slang, “the herd” or “sheeple”–fall in line. When life demands problem-solving and cooperation, by contrast, killing opponents has serious disadvantages. In the last congressional session, one side stonewalled the other on every initiative, producing an aptly named deadlock.

If sublimated bloodlust is dysfunctional in today’s complex societies, why don’t we break the habit? Otto Rank might say we get a special thrill out of the deaths of others. Nothing beats survival. A knockout gives a politician survival magic that we love. After all, the hero is promising to save us. As in combat, the possibility of death proves you’re alive, whereas the loser dies a little. Identify with a death-tainted loser and it might infect you too.

Conflicts over truth, said Otto Rank, are finally “just the same old struggle over . . . immortality.” As Becker elaborates in Escape from Evil, “If anyone doubts this, let him try to explain in any other way the life-and-death viciousness of all ideological disputes. . . . No wonder men go into a rage about fine points of belief: if your adversary wins the argument about truth, you die. Your immortality system has been shown to be fallible, your life becomes fallible” (64).
Notice that Becker conflates immortality with infallibility. The core of personality is the conviction of what is right drummed into us from birth. It’s like the operating system in a computer. It’s the core of self-esteem. You can see how it works in debates when the loser’s reputation for rightness “dies.” And you can see it in the themes that crop up in debate. Every politician promises to rescue you from death. From employment to abortion, the themes are tacitly about making more life. Between the lines the debaters attack enemies who stand for death. Combine the themes, and you have Newt Gingrich’s fantasy of a doomsday electrical wave followed by his pipedream of a colony on the moon: a transcendent escape to another planet.

Knockout mentality assumes that the difficulties we face can only be managed by radical violence and parental rescue. It operates as a binary switch: friend or foe; on or off; alive or dead. In a sinister way the mentality is close to fantasies of The Last Judgment in which the opponent is the Evil One and the eternal survivor is the cosmic Father Who Will Take Care of You. Knockout mentality won’t help you much if you’re researching cancer cells or trying to help people find work. You have to get used to swimming in complexity.

You can see why a politician might dream about escaping to his colony on the moon like Dr Strangelove planning to survive doomsday in a bomb-proof cave with a harem of fertile followers.

At some point en route to a colony on Mars, when there’s lots of time for reflection, one of the rocket crew will start to wonder why humans turn everything into a “knockout” or a “fight.” For a moment denial will stop fogging the porthole, and looking back on the shrinking blue earth, the traveler will think, “Wait a minute. Weren’t there problems we were supposed to solve back there?”


Our Culture of Illusion

February 7, 2012

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

In my theology class we are studying the classic spiritual journey, a widespread archetypal pattern. The pattern is similar to the Hero’s Journey as described by mythologist Joseph Campbell and the spiritual journey explored by poet Robert Bly. In all three of these examples the focus is on the individual and a personal quest. With this blog post, I’d like to extend the insights to our broader society. First, here is a quick overview of the individual quest and then the application to the broader culture.

The individual journey begins with an Apollonian ascent, the first thirty years of life characterized by rising power, idealism, and egocentrism. From film, the “I’m king of the world” scene in Titanic comes to mind, as does the invincible, “it’s only a flesh wound” Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Eventually the ascent of youth is tempered by the realization of limits. At this point, the journey can go in one of three directions. The first is the attempt to maintain the ascent, reject the reality of limits, and continued reliance on heroic virtues that no longer work. This path produces the Old Fool who just doesn’t get it. The second path is the embittering journey of the individual who recognizes the existence of limits but rejects them and searches for someone to blame. This path produces the negative and cynical individual. The final option is the wisdom journey, which involves a descent, a dark night of the soul grounded in the acceptance of limits. It produces the Holy Fool. It is the Abrahamic journey into the unknown and results in what Alan Watts characterized as the wisdom of insecurity. Here we find the Socratic ideal of the person who knows he doesn’t know and can make his peace with that. This is the person who can, in the words of Becker, “fashion something—an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering, so to speak, to the life force.”

Turning to our society, where do we stand?  I maintain we are very much in the crisis of limits, limits born of scarcity of resources and also a scarcity of new vision. Coming out of World War II the American Century was characterized not only by expansion, but pedal to the metal expansion. More, faster, and better became the watch words for a western culture bent on ever higher material standards. Now we are realizing the truth of Edward Abbey’s famous quote: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Our Apollonian ascent is melting our Icarian wings. Will we continue our attempt to ascend and tumble into the sea or attempt a controlled glide downward?

Surveying the political landscape does not engender much hope for the latter. Both political parties talk the talk of returning to business as usual, growing the economy and expanding infinitely. Writ large, this is the Old Fool who just doesn’t get it. The second option, the embittering journey characterized by cynicism and blaming others, is much in evidence. The polarization on almost every issue requires a demonizing of the other and, as Becker has shown, results in violence. The third option, the wisdom journey that embraces limits, is not yet part of the official discourse that you hear from public officials and their media outlets.

And yet, there are perhaps reasons for optimism and hope that we may still “get it.” There appears to be a growing movement toward localization of life processes, community gardens, and farmer’s markets for example. The general disillusionment with both political parties, all three branches of government, and Wall Street portend a potential for a new vision. New voices are emerging that give lie to the culture of illusion. Two of these voices that I’ve been following recently are journalist Chris Hedges, whose columns can be found at, and psychologist Brad Peters at Modern Psychologist

One final trait of the wisdom journey of the Holy Fool resonates with Ernest Becker’s analysis. For Becker, our crucial dilemma is that we are both godly and creaturely, blessed with an almost infinite spirit and intellect housed in a finite body. In the words of author Terry Pratchett, “Humans are the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.” The Holy Fool, having ridden the Apollonian rocket skyward and returned to earth safely is at home with paradox, the central human condition.



February 1, 2012

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

After mentioning Robert Frost to a friend in an e-mail, I found myself reading him tonight. Frost is like Lamb and Hazlitt: he never disappoints one. I confess to liking what Lionel Trilling called the “dark” Frost (confirming that Frost was not an avuncular old man sitting around a pot-bellied stove and dishing out bromides). Frost is one of those poets who does not lie about the human condition–yet he is one, when all is over, who must be seen as somewhat of an optimist. Certainly, his poetry comes to terms with our living in a diminished world, the realization that the world will never really give us what we want: an affirmation for our existence, a supporting cry from the heavens, nature to nudge us with love.

In any case, tonight I was stuck as never before by a few lines in “An Old Man’s Winter Night.” I can’t think of a poem that better portrays the loneliness of aging. It is an unpitying look, but, more so, it is an accurate look. The old man is alone. It is cold outside and dark. The frost is on the window panes. He can hear sounds from outside: “like the roar / Of trees and cracks of branches. . . .”  The log in the stove “shifted with a jolt” and startled the old man. Here the lines that for some reason moved me tonight:

A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.

The poem is full of heartbreaking loneliness, though there is no indication that the old man is especially aware of his plight. We sense his mind is failing a little. We sense too, perhaps more than we’d like, the singular man at his end, the universe dark and cold, no help out there in the dark, no justice. And Frost, resigned to the world, does not speak of fairness. He does not pout at the hard truth.  It’s true: “One aged man–one man–can’t keep a house / . . .or if he can, / It’s thus he does it of a winter’s night.” The old man keeps the house the best he can. One knows tomorrow night will be the same. If we asked the old man about his plight, I suppose he might say what another hard-pressed character says in Frost’s “A Servant to Servants”: “I s’pose I’ve go to go the road I’m going: / Other folks have to, and why shouldn’t I?”

Donald Hall writes of how Frost hated to be alone, how he would not let a visitor leave, and if the visitor insisted on leaving, Frost would walk the visitor to his destination. We tend to forget that Frost was alone for a long time. His wife died in 1938 (he’d live until 1963). He had a son who committed suicide. One daughter died in childbirth and another was institutionalized for mental problems. Frost is not, of course, the “man” in his poems, but what man is like the man in his imagination? Like another great American poet, Wallace Stevens–though in different ways–Frost imposed an order upon the world, striving to establish the “momentary stay against confusion.”This is what Frost called a poem: “A momentary stay against confusion.”

But what I think of most when I read “An Old Man’s Winter Night” are the last days of Samuel Johnson, the sick old man, all alone, that thing he dreaded most of all finally coming to claim him. I’ve mentioned it before, but I can’t erase the image of the old man that Boswell gives us of the last time the two men met. They are in a carriage. The vehicle stops so that Johnson can exit and walk to his house. He asks Boswell to go with him. Boswell can’t. Boswell does not know it’s the last time he will see Johnson. And then Johnson, knowing he is going home to an empty and cheerless house, going to a bed in which his pain (he is very ill) and anxiety will not allow him to sleep,”steps away with a pathetic briskness.” Nonetheless it is a courageous leave taking, and though one is proud of Johnson, one winces too.

There is a lot in life to make us wince, but Johnson avers that to whine about it would be self-indulgent cant. That life is hard was to Johnson axiomatic. One didn’t complain. When times were good, one expressed gratitude. Oh, Johnson knew without peradventure that better than any king’s throne was a stool in a tavern and that no pleasure could equal a man’s being alone with a pretty woman in a post chaise. A good drink and a pretty woman: they are hard to beat.

How does a man keep a house on a winter’s night? How does a man keep a life? How does a man do anything? He does it the best he can. I think Johnson would have agreed. Johnson, as did Becker, asks the simple question: “Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate, / Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate?” Of course each of us must. Johnson advises us, as does Becker, not to attempt to obtain the mercies of the skies; that is, to make sense of things, to gain privileged reward from natural law. One must, instead, try to have faith in something beyond humanity, a faith that, even if one will never know what it is, each person furnishes some part of the great scheme of the universe. I am sure most of members of the Ernest Becker Foundation can remember the last sentence in Denial of Death: “The most that any one of us can do is to fashion something—an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering, so to speak, to the life force.”

I don’t know the following is relevant to what precedes it, but it might be important for us members of the EBF to remember something Becker said in his deathbed interview with Sam Keen. I don’t know, have no idea really, possess no data at all, but I’d guess that most members of the EBF are atheists. We should note, whether we agree with him or not, what Becker says to Keen a few days before Becker dies. Keen says, “Your personal philosophy of life seems to be a  Stoic kind of heroism.” Well, I suspect few of Beckerians have any problem with Keen’s summing here. You might, however, if you haven’t read Becker’s response to Keen’s comment, be surprised at what Becker says: “Yes, though I would add the qualification that I believe in God.”

Both Becker and Johnson know that when the world is shed of all illusion, when things stand revealed for what they are, the only consolation available is a faith in something higher than humankind that redeems life, though neither man’s mind, and neither can ours, can encompass this Force that they thought, regardless of the impossibility of ever understanding it, life could be said to have a purpose.