Archive for November, 2012


We Give Birth Astride a Grave

November 25, 2012

TDF Guest Kim Pereira

I’ve been fortunate never to have experienced the crippling effects of chronic depression, although I’ve had my share of despair where the world seemed to spin out of control and even sleep, if it could be had, offered no respite. Like so many others, I have known late nights sprawled on a couch, clicking the hours away, remote in hand, finding nothing worth watching, relying on endless checking of meaningless Facebook updates to authenticate the feeling that I’m not alone in this spiraling vortex. Are we that obsessed with distracting ourselves? And if so, from what, I wonder? Being alone? Not alone by ourselves, though that too, but alone with our thoughts. Do we fill our days with sidetracking paraphernalia to avoid the agony of introspection which would inevitably lead to the central question of our lives—our mortality? The consuming question is this: are our lives being driven by the specter of death? Is that behind our attempts to fill every moment with something, anything, just to avoid confronting the only truth of which we are certain? Are we trying to divert ourselves from ourselves? What fears lurk beneath the urgency to keep busy, rushing through manufactured tasks and mundane events, going to church, jamming trivia into our days as though they were somehow meaningful, bestowing significance on them by virtue of our attention, deluding ourselves by clinging to an impuissant work ethic, a hand-me-down from past generations that prized it above all else? We save very little time for vacations, have the least number of public holidays of any country, and when we do take a break we’re lucky if we find time to enjoy a sunset!

When I first read Samuel Beckett’s anguished cry (the title of this essay) from his seminal work, Waiting for Godot, the full implications of it didn’t really strike me, although it vaguely echoed Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation.” Since then my fascination with the so-called Theatre of the Absurd has offered insights into the world as I traveled across the globe, making more sense of what I saw than I cared to admit. Looking through literature I found those sentiments reflected in other works—the sacrifices of “scapegoated” heroic figures from Shakespearean and Greek tragedies seek transcendence from the desolation of the human condition; comedic structures attempt to reorder societies by changing the rhythms of the old world to fit the melodies of youth, exchanging a past for a new future that will in time become replete with similar characteristics that made the past so unpalatable! The tortuous cycle continues.

These depictions offer only glimpses of hope as they strain against overwhelming realities. King Lear ends in a world as hopeless and barren as can be imagined, prompting Beckett to use the king and his fool metaphorically in Endgame, that entropic image of a world we have destroyed. For all his eternal optimism, Dickens’ brilliance lies in his excoriating portrayals of industrial London where little orphans were swallowed by rapacious thugs lurking in alleys and the trammels of England’s Courts of Chancery ensnared families for decades! Any journey through his pages cannot ignore the glowering pessimism of the nineteenth century and the crushing weight of factories and machines leading to disenchantment and inertia—Chekhov’s characters are unable to rise from their indolence and go to Moscow, preferring to yearn for what will never come, for longing is their raison d’etre, replacing vibrancy with torpor, banishing the cherry orchard to the lumber yard as commercialism and utility sweep away beauty and grace, false notions anyway, having been acquired on the backs of serfs and the underclass!

The machines have changed, but the effects persist—digital technology, once hailed with the same enthusiasm as the industrial machinery of the nineteenth century, is viewed with growing suspicion as intrusive, leading to questions of privacy and loss of identity, reducing us to disembodied voices on answering machines or twitter feeds. The ability to stay in contact with a swath of people robs us of the desire to do so; if it’s always available it loses its urgency, without which we drift into isolation, cocooned by the minutiae of every day, paralyzed by the burden of trying to authenticate our existence.

We don’t purchase products any more—they buy us!! Walking through shopping aisles we are attacked by displays that scream for attention; row upon shiny row leer as we walk past, similar to walking through a jail cell corridor showered by abuse from inmates on either side. Under relentless pressure we succumb, reach out and grab one; maybe we even read the specifications on the container to delude ourselves into believing we made a wise choice. But the selection is quite random, for the plethora of available products deadens our ability to choose. With our identities eviscerated by years of slavery to the gods of marketing strategies, we don’t know who we are, much less what we really want. We are now on sale, possessed by our possessions—clothes, household products, food, holiday resorts, TV channels, movies, books, and everything else; we have to take what we are given. They choose us!

There’s a moment in Ionesco’s Bald Soprano where the Smiths are discussing Bobby Watson’s death, reported in the newspaper; as the conversation proceeds we realize every single one of Bobby Watson’s relatives is named Bobby Watson. Of course, the amusing irony is that a couple named Smith is making this discovery. Keeping up with the Joneses (or Smiths) has turned us into Joneses, with the same houses, same clothes, and the same status updates. Look through the myriad photographs on Facebook and after a while the pictures of kids, families, and vacations devolve into endless cycles of sameness. We are all Bobby Watsons, interchangeable and alike, indistinguishable from one another, with nothing meaningful to say. Our political and social parties and FB profiles are vain attempts to distinguish us but very little there is unique.

Towards the end of The Bald Soprano dialogue descends into gibberish, culminating in a show of aggression. Failure to communicate leaves violence as the only option, for we desperately need something to remind us that we’re alive, that we still live in a social world, but all we have are anger, violence, and the instinct to survive—witness global skirmishes and full-fledged wars, ethnic cleansing, government sponsored torture, terrorism, street violence, political discourse and TV discussions that are shouting matches, mass murders in villages, movie theatres, and even temples! The jungle paths to destruction have always been available, obscured sometimes by the underbrush of forced civility, but easily accessible when survival is at stake.

This is the Age of Saturn, a sullen, scowling time where malevolence permeates the republic and millions of bloggers can pen their unfiltered thoughts; where politicians lie with impunity and truth is lost among thousands of commercials; where we cling to worthless promises because we’re desperate to believe someone cares about us; a time of distrust, skepticism, and fear! Music now finds its greatest audience only through competitions and the hushed loveliness of verse has descended into poetry slams. A hundred years ago Expressionists rebelled against the dehumanizing effects of an industrial age, distorting reality to give vent to passions and feelings, releasing their creative streams unencumbered by constraints of logic or order; they themselves were victims of an emotional angst that settled upon Europe before exploding in a massive conflagration across the continent. It almost seems like we have come full circle ten decades later. In the new reality of this century, language and relationships have been compressed and distorted—140 characters (as random as the work of Dadaists) are enough to say what we feel and the social networks of cyberspace have supplanted front porches, parish halls, and even playgrounds. We can now count the number of “friends” we have right there in the left column and on the right we know exactly what we “like.” And still we are alone. Waiting…

Earlier I alluded to the fear of death being the driving force behind much of what we do, suggesting that much of what we do are merely distractions designed to keep us from contemplating the void. Perhaps the most successful thing is to make it through each day. When one considers the absolute haphazardness of life (people dying accidentally or being stricken with fatal diseases—who among us doesn’t know someone we love in this situation?) it’s a small miracle we are alive at any moment! Despite the winding down of the world in Endgame they are left with the possibility of tomorrow; Godot never comes but Everyman still waits on the empty road; we persist. The original French title of the play is En Attendant Godot, WHILE waiting for Godot! Like Beckett’s tramps we find ways to amuse ourselves while waiting for the end—we play games, make art, have sex, get drunk, persevere in our jobs, convince ourselves that death is not tomorrow, and do a million things that slap our faces to wake us to the fact that we’re alive.

Dr. Kim Pereira is Professor of Theater and Director of the Honors Program at Illinois State University.


Rooster Tales

November 13, 2012

“Leucocephalus” Phil Hansten

What we can’t think about: We humans are lousy in dealing with issues of cause and effect.

It’s 5:00 AM and he flutters up onto the roof of his pen. Then he lets out a magnificent “cock-a-doodle-do”… and then another, and another. Minutes later the first rays of the sun stream over the top of a nearby hill. He has done it again! Every single morning as far back as he can remember his mighty crowing has caused the sun to rise!

This is “the rooster taking credit for the dawn”—the classic example of the “post hoc fallacy.” As many of you know, the phrase post hoc, ergo propter hoc means “after this, therefore because of this.” It is often abbreviated to post hoc and in my view it is one of the most pervasive and problematic thinking errors of humankind. This fallacy contaminates discourse in science, economics, education, business, sports, politics, as well as our casual conversations; nobody is immune.

Given our evolutionary history, perhaps it was inevitable that we should suffer from this error. After all, when our cave-dwelling ancestors saw a guy eat some nice red berries and moments later clutch his throat and collapse, well… it made sense to avoid eating those berries. This is post hoc reasoning of a rational kind.

In science, of course, we try to avoid the post hoc fallacy. We study drug efficacy using double-blind placebo-controlled studies, and in epidemiological studies we try to control for every possible factor that may interfere with detection of a true causal relationship. We are not always successful, however. Case reports published in the medical literature notoriously suffer from post hoc fallacies. The “blood thinner” warfarin, for example, is affected by all sorts of dietary, pharmaceutical and other influences, so over time the blood thinning effect may fluctuate. But since people on warfarin start new drugs periodically, just by chance the new drug is sometimes started right before one of these fluctuations. Naturally, the new drug gets blamed, even though it may have had nothing to do with it. This is the post hoc fallacyand there is much nonsense in the drug interaction literature as a result.

Social scientists need to be especially vigilant to minimize the post hoc fallacy. Several years ago a study found that couples who lived together before marriage had a greater likelihood of divorcing than couples who did not. They concluded that couples should not cohabitate before marriage. I wondered, however, if they considered the very real possibility that people who lived together before marriage may have substantial differences (other than their living arrangements) from those who chose not to live together. It seems almost impossible to avoid post hoc in this case; couples might object to being randomly forced to live together or not for the sake of research!

It is easy to fall prey to the post hoc fallacy. Most of us are no better than the rooster, especially if we are not overly given to reflective thought. Human nature may foil our efforts to untether completely from post hoc thinking, but we must try nonetheless!


Strong Medicine

November 1, 2012

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

If you buy pills labeled “Strong Medicine for Colds,” the pitch assumes that you “fight” illness and win health through strength. Of course it’s not really a fight or a contest. The virus has no quarrel with you. In fact the misery comes from your immune system’s overreaction to the innocuous virus. If you wanted to personalize it, you’re suffering from your own bodily hysteria. If “germs” spook you, you can buy “industrial strength” bathroom or kitchen cleaner, because industrial scale is massive, and bigger supposedly = more powerful = stronger = defeat of threat = more life.

What makes industries staggeringly productive, ironically, are features that often scare people. They’re organized, disciplined, and precise, without much room for forgiveness.  They also have a habit of replacing your job with a “strong” robot.

So “strength” is just a figure of speech, and sometimes a misleading one. It wasn’t strength that dramatically improved health and lifespan a century ago, it was understanding pathogens, which enabled political investment in public sanitation and new respect for soap. With our limited understanding of shifty viruses, we’re firing a shotgun at mosquitoes.

We’re cognitively prejudiced toward binaries. Strong/weak. Good/bad. Friend/ enemy. It’s the way we’re built. But in (ahem) reality, boundaries are squads of mischievous, quasi-hallucinatory sub-atomic particles. Even if you stay in familiar territory, we live by enabling fictions. The “opposite sex,” for example, isn’t really opposite. The sexes share similar traits in different combinations. Since everything is in motion, some biologists think the category of “species” is a tidy enabling fiction.

Still, no denying: the fictions have power. Some politicians throw the word “strong” at voters like handfuls of cold pills. It’s strong leader, strong military, strong economy, strong family values. Like obligatory nods to “God,” the meaning is so vague—so diluted—that it’s pure placebo. In politics, after all, “strength” is hallucinatory. Congress isn’t paralyzed and toxic because of baffled problem-solving, but because of uncompromising gridlock and lobbyist cronyism. Gridlock acts out convictions that you “win” partisan power and “defeat” opponents by being uncompromisingly “strong.” Dictatorships “defeat” gridlock by anointing a “strongman” or a messiah.

In a polarized mental world the range of problem-solving options is small.

“Strong” is a favorite tool of individuals who consider themselves independent. In reality of course nobody can be wholly autonomous, so the belief in “strength” has a quality of magic about it. If you think you’re self-created, parents, neighbors, and government are irrelevant when they’re not actually hindering you and making you weak.

On some level most of us probably know that “strong” is a code word and not to be taken literally. But the ambiguity is what makes It so attractive as a placebo. As long as you don’t define it—as long as you don’t look at the ingredients on the bottle—it’s the elixir of life. “Strong” is really a stimulant like caffeine or a “power drink” or cocaine. It’s about turning flight to fight, pumping up, feeling good. The kicker is that obsession with strength is folly not only because it’s a delusion, but also because it keeps you from problem-solving and reality-testing.

Politicians have to play along with this regimen. They’re obliged to swear that this is “the greatest nation on earth,” flattering voters as the world’s “greatest” citizens. If “the greatest nation on earth” sounds like “the greatest show on earth,” well, that fits. It’s about death-defying heroism, spectacle, and sideshow illusion. This is the fantasy of American exceptionalism.

Scott Shane described it in the NY Times as “The Opiate of American Exceptionalism

In child poverty, for example, the US comes in 34th among 35 economically advanced countries, just ahead of Romania, which spent decades after WW2 in Communist mothballs. At the same time, compared to global executives, American CEOs are preposterously overpaid, even when they fail.  And “contrary to fervent popular belief,” says Shane, “the United States trails most of Europe, Australia and Canada in social mobility.” You can check up on these realities here.

No candidate dares to bring up such unwelcome realities. The candidate would be skewered for “hating America,” “defeatism,” or “apologizing.” “Strength” here is an anesthetic for voters whose incomes have gone nowhere in several decades, at a time when corporate power is outsourcing jobs and openly striving to destroy organized labor and pension obligations.

After WW2, America was supreme.  But the economic and geopolitical victory came at a terrible cost, not only in grief, but also in warped identity. The economy was finally revved up, but the nation never really demobilized. The careers, technology, and ego-massage of the “Cold War” kept militarism adrenalized, and today “superpower strength” justifies absurd misallocation of resources, and spendthrift overreach.

The injury to inner life shows up as an anxious sense of unreality: the blustering mistrust and conspiracy-addiction that poisons American airwaves. It appears in new lunatic gun laws that allow you to shoot anyone in your house, armed or not, if you claim you “feared for your life.” The geostrategic version of this preemptive strength is Washington’s new “kill list” that targets alleged enemies for assassination by remote control drones, with no clumsy legal process.

If you listened to recent televised political debates, you’d sleep with a pistol under your pillow because everyone in the world hates us. One challenger boasted that he would annihilate all our many enemies. The president countered that he would “bring them to justice.”

We ought to know a thing or two about bringing miscreants to justice, since we have a higher proportion of our citizens in prison than any nation on earth. California has almost half of its young black males in some phase of the criminal justice system, a form of apartheid spun out of “strong” drug laws. The politically warped US Supreme Court has turned down appeals of California’s vicious Three Strikes law, which locks up mostly nonviolent offenders for what amounts to forever. At the same time the Court’s Citizens United decision encourages corporations to intervene in elections, winking at the sordid recent history of spectacular corporate crime (think Enron and financial crime that’s given us the nickname “banksters.”) The recent financial blowout has exposed the true impact of paranoid militarism and imprisonment on gasping state budgets. The strength delusion has been draining resources from social safety nets, education, and other basics of civilization.

Television reflects and helps to create adrenalin junkies. American industrial entertainment and corporate military propaganda both emphasize fantasies of heroic rescue from threat. As media researcher George Gerbner demonstrated, the more hours you watch television, the more likely you are to overestimate how dangerous your neighborhood is.  Media depict everyday life in America as an incipient rampage.  A cultural environment saturated with violence creates what Gerbner calls “the mean world syndrome,” full of suspicion and misanthropy. [1]

In another study Gerbner calculated that young, potent males and fertile young women are grossly overrepresented on television, while children and the aged are almost invisible. Why? Well, buff young men and women epitomize strength and sexuality. And fertility itself fights off fears of futility and the relentless enemy: death-anxiety. After all, 99% of pop music is a mating call.  On most TV channels, fertility and fisticuffs routinely mix as “strong” rivals battle each other for access to juicy fertility and equivalents such as money and power. It’s greed for life, but also escape from loneliness and failure.

Every so often the mix of fertility and force reveals its sinister potential, as in Pittsburg a few years ago, when George Sodini quit trying to build himself up to attract women, and instead shot up an aerobics class, wounding nine women and killing three and himself. But how can we be surprised, given our ancestral tale of the Trojan War in which the mix of strength and fertility produced greed for life—survival greed—that annihilated an entire civilization.

It must have crossed the bard’s mind that there must be a better way.

Meanwhile, in its list of “Psych Basics,” Psychology Today doesn’t include denial. That means there’s a river to explore.

[1] George Gerbner, “Who Is Shooting Whom: The Content and Context of Media Violence,” Popping Culture, ed. Murray Pomerance and John Sakeris (New York, 2008), 99.