Archive for March, 2013


Guns and “Mental Illness”

March 27, 2013
"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

I think it may have started with Wayne LaPierre’s infamous press conference a week after Sandy Hook. In any case, we now here it as a common refrain of the no-holds-barred gun crowd – that the big problem is inadequate enforcement in keeping high-powered weapons out of the hands of the “mentally ill,” since obviously it is the “mentally ill” who perpetrate the mass killings of the type seen in Sandy Hook, Aurora, and dozens of other places around the country. In short, we ought all unite together to make sure no one with “mental illness” has easy access to these high powered weapons, but let them remain freely available for others.

In my view, even apart from the further stigmatization of mental illness this would entail, the policy itself is mind-bogglingly naive.

In the first place, “mental illness” is not a clearly definable condition. Other than a few very rare organic brain disorders, “mental illness” must be diagnosed on the basis of behavior. Therefore, in effect, supporters of this idea are advocating policies that would seek to proscribe allowing high powered weapons getting into the hands of people who have NOT YET behaved in such a way that we would diagnose them as killers.

Oh, but isn’t it true that with just about every person who has perpetrated mass killing people report that the suspect exhibited all sorts of strange and anti-social behavior long before the fact? Of course. But notice that we can only know that all of those behaviors we later recognize as strange and antisocial were actually “leading up to something” AFTER they have led up to something, that is, in retrospect. Thousands upon thousands of people display the same or similar behaviors and remain perfectly harmless.

Are advocates of such policies really saying they want us all to unite prophylactically to keep high powered weapons out of the hands of those many thousands who have been reported to exhibit strange and antisocial behaviors? Given that this would doubtlessly include many hundreds, if not thousands, of NRA members themselves, I rather doubt it.

But, taking them at their word, the complications have only just begun. Let us imagine we have the resources to seriously investigate each case of reportedly strange and antisocial behavior. Whom would we then trust to assess the investigations and decide if that person should be proscribed from gun ownership, and to have weapons in their possession confiscated? Would we trust that kind of power and wisdom to government officials? To mental health experts? To teachers? To police? To judges and lawyers?

Advocates of this approach should ask themselves whom they would trust enough for this assignment, for holding that degree of power over others, potentially including themselves?

I can only conclude that Wayne LaPierre and his followers have not even taken the first step in truly thinking through the implications of what they are advocating. Having it their way, we would very quickly find ourselves defending completely irrational interpretations of “2d Amendment Rights” by totally trampling on 1st Amendment, 4th Amendment and 5th Amendment Rights, creating veritable police state conditions, at best, as our “weapon against weapons.”

A much more reasonable, sensible and workable solution is to cool off a bit and then, with full acknowledgment of the 2d Amendment and the history of its interpretation in our laws and in our courts, begin the process of examining what weapons it make sense for civilians to have in private hands and what weapons it makes absolutely no sense for civilians to have in private hands (though these might still be “owned” by private citizens and accessible in controlled circumstances such as on regulated gun club target ranges.) In the meantime, as I have said in a previous posting, we could impose significant ammunition surcharges and heavy taxation on the weapons manufacturers designated to meaningfully compensate for the undeniable damage to society that all-but-unregulated weapons impose on all the rest of us on a daily basis, similar to tobacco and alcohol taxes designated for cancer care and treatment of victims of drunk drivers.


Competition, Paranoia, and Cannibalism

March 14, 2013
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Is that paranoia you hear around you? [1] The airwaves sizzle with suspicion. Crime’s down, gun sales up [2]. Drones are tracking you. Your food will kill you. The president is a closet Muslim, climate change a scientific conspiracy. What gives?

Here’s one piece of the puzzle: American culture prizes competition. And competition and paranoia are incestuously connected.

We like to think of competition as a handy tool for boosting morale and profits. It whips up “team spirit” and “fighting spirit.” You get a bonus for “beating the numbers” and your colleagues.

The catch is that “good” competition is actually a form of cooperation. On the playing field or in the office, the players—even opponents—cooperate for the good of the game. Whether it’s called good sportsmanship or civility, this ethos tries to prevent opponents from becoming paranoid enemies.

In the heat of the action, cooperation easily slides into paranoia. The search for strategic advantage is intoxicating. It summons up extraordinary emergency resources rooted in survival physiology. Under stress, competitors can feel “high” the way soldiers experience battle trance, with diminished fear and sensitivity to pain. In such a state boundaries blur. As you go all-out against opponents, you can be competing with yourself, trying to pump up that winning extra burst of fighting spirit. Next thing you know, competition becomes “do-or-die” and paranoia replaces cooperation.

You can think of culture (“good sportsmanship”) as a technology for managing the connection between competition and paranoia. Rules and referees work to regulate the feedback loops that tap into rage. But violent competition can become a cultural style, with fans deliberately looking for a chance to run amok. On the job, the “loser” passed over or fired “goes postal” and shoots up the office. Thrilled by the sensational headlines, the copycat killer tries to break the record. In the corporate military, your paycheck literally depends on keeping up an arms “race” and the assumption that rival nations are always wannabe “enemies.” In politics nobody blinks at the idea of “competitive battleground states” and “attack” ads.

In a culture that prizes do-or-die ambition and snarls at regulations, it seems natural for violence to be sublimated in competition. You can forget that at bottom, winning and losing are associated with survival and death

In such an atmosphere you may be so used to competition that you may not even realize that you’re caught up in it. You’re just teasing or being idealistic or “going for it.” To “win” a boyfriend, a high school kid posts blue-ribbon nude snapshots of herself that go viral. Lovers compare themselves and their partners to rivals and ideals, and worry about “performance.” Invisible competition can break up relationships, with plenty of opportunity for the love of your life to become a silent adversary or, with the help of a divorce lawyer, your enemy.

The paranoid side of competition helps to explain some bizarre anomalies. California, for example, has over a third of young black males in some phase of the justice system, many imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses. You can point to racism, but racism is in part a paranoid reaction to competition for status, sex, jobs, and not least, self-esteem. The justice system is taking rival males—and their frustrated energy—out of circulation.

Or consider the fight over government debt. If the debt is at crisis levels, as radical conservatives insist, higher taxes could pay it down. But they balk at taxes, demanding spending cuts instead, especially in social safety net programs. In an era of “free market” and Ayn Rand ideology, they believe they’re “producers” competing with the 47% of the nation they label “takers”—parasites and welfare cheats. Supposedly they vote for Obama because he gives them “stuff” such as medical coverage and food stamps.

The underlying theme is Social Darwinism. It assumes that evolution advances through fatal competition, ignoring the reality of interdependence and symbiosis. Only the fittest survive. Winners live, losers die. If you support “takers,” you encourage fatal weakness in the body politic. If you think this way, a little deprivation motivates people, whereas rewards risk spoiling them. You recall the old bumper sticker:



If you have the power to set salaries, you don’t want to endanger the organization’s survival by overpaying weak players. If you have power, you earned your status through sweat and sacrifice. You feel good about it. Why shouldn’t obviously less worthy competitors undergo the same healthy lean and mean trials? Toughen them up. Make them compete.

The 47% theme is paranoid insofar as it imagines half the nation as a threat, exaggerating whatever cheating there is and ignoring actual needs. It views the competition between rich and poor not as class warfare, but as virtuous reform of “entitlements.” The stance is also paranoid inasmuch as conservatives never restrain the bloated corporate military budget, which pays for actual warfare against weak rivals. For good measure, the debt fighters ignore the recent epidemic of corporate crime, which has given us such colorful coinages as “banksters” and “too big to jail.”

It’s tricky, because once you’re a winner, you can bend the rules of good sportsmanship in your favor. Trying to keep up, your opponents will follow suit, raising the contest to a new level that’s likely to beget yet another level, so that competition becomes a funhouse of crazy mirrors.

But that’s not all.

The twist of the knife is this: intense competition kills competition. “Free market” doctrine is absurd, for example, because business drives toward monopoly. It’s the corporation and the boss striving to be “last man standing.” They concentrate wealth at the top, but have kept wages stagnant for decades. Today they’re fighting a rise in the minimum wage that still wouldn’t be enough to live on. For them, it’s a contest. Keeping employees at survival wages in a time of high unemployment is a good gaming strategy. It keeps them locked in, alone, powerless to compete. But whoa. Labor unions can muster enough strength to bargain. Hence the paranoia about unions and the relentless “free market” determination to kill them off.

What can you expect? Even God likes monopoly. He banished the competitive angel Satan to Hell. When Adam and Eve tried to be “as gods,” knowing good and evil, the cosmic Dad punished everybody who will ever exist with death, work, and the small human pelvis that makes childbirth painful for women. As Abel found out, even his brother Cain preferred monopoly.

Still, like individualism and survival of the fittest, monopoly has some drawbacks. The last man standing is the cannibal, who has no rivals left, but also no groceries, and no fun on Saturday night. In today’s version of this, the top 1% have swallowed so much of everybody’s income that consumers can no longer buy enough to keep the economy from stalling.

Trading, by contrast, requires imaginative sympathy. To make a deal you have to be able to imagine what others want and value. Trading has always created rules and rituals, because both parties need to feel satisfied or somebody gets hurt.

Competition is the snake in that Eden. It promises ultimate security and yet it’s inherently unstable. It’s like keeping a gun—the power to kill—in your dresser drawer. It promises mastery and survival, but it’s much more likely to deliver gruesome insurance statistics.

Remember the old saying: You can take the cannibal out of the village, but you can’t take the village out of the cannibal.

1. We think of paranoia as a disorder, even when we use it casually. Here’s The World Health Organization‘s ICD-10 shopping list of symptoms. Three of more of these constitute what WHO calls paranoid personality:

  1. excessive sensitivity to setbacks and rebuffs;
  2. tendency to bear grudges persistently, i.e. refusal to forgive insults and injuries or slights;
  3. suspiciousness and a pervasive tendency to distort experience by misconstruing the neutral or friendly actions of others as hostile or contemptuous;
  4. a combative and tenacious sense of personal rights out of keeping with the actual situation;
  5. recurrent suspicions, without justification, regarding sexual fidelity of spouse or sexual partner;
  6. tendency to experience excessive self-importance, manifest in a persistent self-referential attitude;
  7. preoccupation with unsubstantiated “conspiratorial”  explanations of events both immediate to the patient and in the world at large.




Rise of the Planet of the Apps

March 2, 2013
"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

Our local paper recently featured a story about our zoo’s cutting edge program that gives iPads to our orangutans, Teak, Bella, Segundo, and Amber. The stated purpose is to provide mental stimulation that helps prevent boredom and depression. Without the slightest sense of irony, the zoo officials go on to explain that “Freedom of choice is critical to their well-being.” Good grief, of course they are bored and depressed. They are prisoners. If the doors were opened I doubt they’d stick around to play with the iPads. A friend suggested that for amusement the orangutans be shown Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Or was that Planet of the Apps?

As I reflected on this my mind turned to my own students, iPads in hand as they chart a brave new world of education. As with the apes, many students have regarded their formal education as a form of imprisonment. No less an authority than Professor A. Cooper gave expression to the general sentiment in his seminal work School’s Out For Summer.  Indeed, like prison, the reward of graduation is to finally “get out.” I suspect this may be as true for doctoral candidates as for high schoolers. Of course, the iPad is being promoted as a form of engagement, which it certainly is. But to what degree is it liberating? We have probably all read critiques of our cyber-age and the anomie it engenders. Are we happier, more fulfilled, living better lives than before? Is cyber community a complement to or a substitute for earlier forms of community?

Framing this in a Beckerian perspective, do the iPads reflect a genuflection at the altar of our new god Technos who has stepped into the void created by the demise of standard brand religious and cultural myths?  Facing myriad problems, insofar as we place faith in anything, we seem to place our faith in technology, even for our orangutans. One of Becker’s most compelling images is that of the philistine, which he borrowed from Kierkegaard. The modern philistine loses himself in the minutia of the daily routine and thereby represses existential anxiety. Does our technology allow us to maintain a distracted existence? Watching my students jump around the internet on their down time, that seems to be the case. I’m always mentally comparing these students to their predecessors in terms of their general awareness of the world and the issues we face. I should hasten to add that I am not talking down today’s  kids. They are simply what I see before me and I suspect the same distracted consciousness exists across generations.

I recently read The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter In A Distracted Time by David Ulin.  He makes the case for reading as a type of depth experience that leads to both a clearer understanding of self and at the same time a sort of negation of self as we turn the reins of our consciousness over to another. It is this sort of dialectical inner conversation between the author and the reader that produces the consciousness of an avid reader, at once adventurous and discriminating. He goes on to analyze the availability of such an experience on iPads, Kindles, and the like. I return here to the freedom of choice offered to the orangutans on their iPads. What is the difference between amusement and insight, between accessing data and entering the mind of another?  Like the orangutans, we are prisoners of a sort, confined by our mortal condition. Unlike the orangutan, our boredom and depression—and I would add here our self-conscious anxiety—is unlikely to be assuaged by the amusement the iPad provides. No, we are a different kind of prisoner and require something deeper. This may seem completely obvious, but I see people losing themselves in the surface components of technology as surely as Kierkegaard observed the philistines of his day. As we chart a course forward, how will we mediate technological change so as to live rich and productive lives? For me, it will entail a self-conscious effort to continue in-depth reading as well as pursuing in-depth conversations that involve eye-contact. Without such a self-conscious effort we may find ourselves more and more like the orangutans, prisoners of a lower order. Okay, enough of that. It’s time to check Facebook.