Archive for October, 2012



October 27, 2012

“The Single Hound” Bruce Floyd

This article neglects to understand one of the basic tenets of Becker: increasing the longevity of life will do nothing to ameliorate the terror of the human predicament; in fact, it will exacerbate it, take anxiety to new heights, paralyze the will, make an early death even more “absurd” that one is now. This clamor, all this hue and cry, for the extension of life confirms Becker’s insights. The length of life means nothing to the self-conscious creature. All it knows it that he or she will die. What difference does it make whether it’s seventy years of one-hundred and fifty?

The problems that plague humanity, the existential ones, are not to be solved by insuring people they will live longer. No, what will console the mortal is some way of accepting the limitations of life, of coming to terms with life and its limitations. We must give in, even embrace, our fate. It’s hard to do. Of course it is, and that’s why we swim in an ocean of illusions.

The coming age of longevity will not change everything; it will just make the time-immemorial paradox more acute and baffling.



It’s the Cruelty, Stupid

October 21, 2012

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

You recall the famous campaign quip, “It’s the economy, stupid.” That may be true, but suppose we ask why it’s true. We’re not talking Economics 101 here, or the truism that in hard times you vote your pocketbook. More interesting is the cruelty that leaks into the air during election campaigns like a colorless, flavorless gas, intoxicating or poisonous—or both.

Campaigns are obviously cruel when one candidate spends millions trashing the other. As in boxing, that’s a euphemistic form of gladiatorial fight to the death. For losers, character assassination is painful, while for the symbolic killers, it offers the glee of survival and superiority without awkward bloodstains and guilt.

Less obvious is the cruelty when a candidate trashes unnamed “takers” who are draining “our” vitality like vampires. The speaker praises belt-tightening austerity.  But talk of cutting food stamps or health care never acknowledges that some particular real person will suffer. In fact the speech is a ceremonial attack on invisible victims. The conflict seems to play out between abstract nouns: “stimulus” in the blue trunks versus “austerity’ in red, say, or “entitlements” versus “self-reliance.” Most election speeches convey not information but an incendiary cocktail of half-truths.

Dissociation makes it easier to be gung-ho or angry about the attack than to empathize with the invisible souls it would torment.

True, campaigns routinely present a victim who illustrates a policy choice: “a woman in Akron who told me last week that . . . ,” or a homeowner stripped of house and job. But everybody knows that these are textbook examples, and discounts the emotional impact. Since elections are advertising contests, the victim’s appearance functions as a customer testimonial, with an unspoken disclaimer that this is a professional actor.

More often, the politician fingers a scapegoat such as President Reagan’s fantasy “Cadillac welfare queen,” with its sly racial allusion, or “takers,” who are robbing the candidate, you, me, and “our grandchildren,” who will have to pay the crushing debt created by the undeserving, greedy poor. Sometimes the self-pity is deflected onto your social class, like the whining billionaire hedge-fund managers quoted in a recent New Yorker [1], who imagine themselves persecuted by a president vicious as “Hitler.”

No Cadillac welfare phantom experiences real hunger or anguish at being unable to provide for her children. None cringes with humiliation or lies awake at night fearing social death. No medical patient is healed by killing a government health insurance plan.

Like judges, who can treat law as a transcendent abstraction beyond their personal prejudices and responsibility, many leaders and followers appeal to irresistible “principles” or ideology to keep their own motives masked [2]. Like the smoked glass windows of a limo, celebrity rhetoric can be glamorous and genteel while hiding the creaturely motives within.

Since WW2, the world economy has been rebalancing and the US can no longer be the automatic top dog. For Americans, the question is not whether living standards will have to adjust, but who will bear the cost, and how fair will the process be. Hence the cruelty when proponents of austerity demand cuts in food stamps and retirement benefits but never balk at bank bailouts or history’s most bloated “defense” budgets. “Keynesian militarism” is a devious form of stimulus program, but instead of putting your neighbor back to work, it pumps up the corporate military and the Pentagon’s sacred cows. Meanwhile, as the disgusting campaign to legitimize torture illustrates, chronic war desensitizes the public. TV comedians can casually joke about waterboarding and nobody hears screams or has to bury the dead.

The tough-minded mask of militarism also fits the executive’s “lean and mean” attitude of downsizing, outsourcing, and austerity. This is the mentality that suppresses trade unions and demands performance tests for teachers and students while cutting programs for children in a nation with a scandalous rate of child poverty. Testing won’t do much for an invisible kid from an invisible family. Nobody says it, but lurking in these policies is the idea of triage. Save the best, bury the rest.

As labor history shows, lean and mean factory discipline has often masked coercion, which is a major reason that managements have outsourced jobs to countries with compliant workers and pathetic labor laws. At the same time that wages have been kept stagnant in the US, piggybanks at the top are stuffed to epic proportions. But the deepest motive harks back to slavery. The more “hands” the boss has to do his bidding, the more powerful and invincible he feels. As control over other people, money magnifies the self.  Individual hands are personally invisible. They may perish, but executive will can replace them and enjoy a conviction of immortality.

Beneath the self-evident selfishness of these masks is a cluster of rarely examined creaturely motives. Like talkshow rant, “tough-minded” austerity can convert flight to fight. With the right attitude, a wave of the magician’s handkerchief can disappear living people in trouble. If necessary, it can convert them to scapegoat “enemies” greedy for a handout. By defeating and denying them, the executive self confirms its success and, in the process, converts anxiety into aggressive mastery. Flight becomes fight. The social death of others confirms your superior self-reliance. It tells the world that like a god, without meddling parents or public services, you created yourself. Spreading your arms wide, you invite your followers to bask in the glow of your special powers.

Like the hysteria of US gun culture, these convictions of mastery are grounded in fantasies of survival. They depend on melodramas in which superior weapons and discipline allow you to annihilate cartoon or video-game adversaries. In clumsy real life, as data insists, guns are much more likely to kill your child than an intruder. Likewise, the payoff of campaign cruelty comes in the illusion of personal mastery achieved through the triage, the sacrifice, of unseen, undeserving others. They’re diminished, but in our inability to see them and honor their reality, so are we.

Cross posted from Psychology Today


Peak Complexity, Peak Oil, Peak Terror

October 17, 2012

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

I was fortunate to hear University of Washington professor Phillip Hansten’s talk at the recent EBF Fall Conference. His topic was what he refers to as “premature factulation,” which he defines as “the process of coming to conclusions without adequate study or contemplation; usually applied to complex concepts or situations.” The diagram below represents the basic dynamic.

Premature Factulation

Hansten’s book Premature Factulation provides many examples of this process as well as prescriptions for dealing more successfully with complex issues. Peppered with quotes from great thinkers across the ages, this book has the synthetic feel of Becker’s work and I recommend it.

As I looked at the Hansten diagram, M. King Hubbert’s famous oil depletion curve appeared in my mind’s eye. Hubbert’s Peak, as it is called, explains that the rate at which oil can be extracted follows a Bell curve and further, calculates that such a peak has already been reached. Indeed, global production of oil reached its apex in 2005. The economic downturn that followed shortly thereafter reflects our inability to project future growth based on cheap energy. Economic contraction is the new reality, regardless of which political party is victorious or what the consumers want. The laws of physics seem to stand quite independent of human desire.

As I compared the two models, the first thing that struck me was the role of complexity in the first half of the curve. The dramatic growth curve that has accompanied the age of oil really took off in the post-WWII era with the Green Revolution quadrupling global population and the advent of modern consumer culture more than quadrupling our, for lack of a better term, stuff. Indeed, our Apollonian ascent, which has provided the basic template for progress and heroism, has been fueled by vast amounts of cheap, easy-to-get oil. As we pass through this gate of history, we bear witness to the consequences of the collapsing hyper-complexity, from our undecipherable financial instruments to our interconnected food and energy delivery systems, to our far-flung military superstructure and beyond. The stop-and-start nature of our economic recovery is evidence of the change as a recalibration ensues and we continually adjust to the new normal, downscaling and localizing. Elsewhere I have suggested the emergent localism as an opportunity for a more practical heroism of scale involving more face-to-face interactions. At the same time, it is potentially an opportunity for panic and terror on scale that is horrific.

When considering the potential for panic and horror I often direct my students toward reflecting on our biggest symbols, like the cross or the flag, as a way of understanding symbolic immortality and its consequences. Reflecting again, in light of Hansten’s presentation, the very complexity of our symbolic immortality system really comes to the fore. It’s not just the archetypal symbols, it’s all the little stuff we take for granted; the designer label, the exclusive membership, the branded product loyalty.  I’m guessing that this is where the early apprehension of panic will register. Ernest Becker’s ideas would be most useful at this point in the process, giving the better angels of our nature, if not ground to stand on, at least ground to hover over. Here, at the tipping point, Becker’s work could paradoxically be a life saver. The question is how to get the word out.  I have advocated getting Becker in the hands of artists, the re-mythologizers who could get these ideas to a mass audience.

While still maintaining this view, Hansten’s model provided new insight.

Since encountering Becker I’ve been frustrated, as I’m sure some of you have as well, by the difficulty of getting folks to pick up on his work. The ideas are so important, the argument so well crafted, and with the Mortality Salience Hypothesis so demonstrable, how can people not get it? The voice of Becker whispers, “Yes, Bill, it’s called denial.” Okay, I get that. Still … this is where Hansten’s model is helpful. Upon reaching peak complexity in the problem-solving process, and having done the requisite reflection, an ideational breakthrough occurs, which Hansten calls “enlightened simplification.” As it is applied in the real world, it becomes “authentic simplicity.”  What might this mean for our problem of peak oil and peak terror? It indicates that there may be a point at which a significant part of our culture of denial can give way to more authentic realism. One reason that denial is so readily available to moderns is the very complexity of our world. We can readily be the Kierkegaardian philistine, distracted by the trivial. As the nature of our predicament becomes more apparent, we will have less time for trivia and necessarily more focused on the basics. Much like the addict who must hit bottom to escape his own denial, so too our culture must sober up to move forward. Becker’s ideas, I believe, will find a more receptive audience as the crisis deepens. The power and simplicity of his core insights will match the “authentic simplicity” our earthier society will require.