Archive for April, 2013


Run for Your Life

April 24, 2013
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Understanding the fascination of the marathon terror

Why do terrorism and rampage killing exert such hypnotic fascination?

Attacks on schoolchildren and marathon fans arouse “horror.” But the actual carnage (5 deaths, many injuries) is eclipsed by Massachusetts’ 334 routine auto deaths (California and ten-gallon Texas rack up an annual 3,000+ each). The news doesn’t even try to report them all, and they certainly don’t hold viewers spellbound for hours of monotonous, inconclusive TV reporting.

Some answers are in plain sight. Terrorism is spectacle. The attacks are designed to catch maximum attention. Many rampage murders are copycat crimes. The killers are in theory “berserk” and out of control, yet often evidence shows they’re aware of, and competing with, previous sensations.[1] This was true of the Columbine killers, and even Adam Lanza, the Newtown killer, compiled data on past rampage slaughter as you might collect baseball statistics. Terrorists deliberately design displays of spectacular death. How excited bin Laden must have been to know that on US TV “his” airliners were still regularly exploding into the twin towers weeks and months after the event. For the terrorist, that film clip powered an ad campaign that changed mental landscapes like the famous Macdonald’s jingles that toddlers recite by heart.

In this respect the Tsarnaev brothers were drawn into the creative mania that brought Barnum and Bailey to your town, or planned the Roman amphitheater’s gala gladiatorial combats, criminal executions, battle reenactments, and “hunts” that slaughtered hundreds of wild animals. We regard those Roman crowds as bloodthirsty primitives, yet terrorist spectacle appeals to the same motives. There’s pity and terror galore, spiced by the insinuation that the danger in front of your eyes is unique, unprecedented, possibly out of control. It could happen to me. The violence challenges police, insurance, doctors, criminal justice: all the technologies that we use to protect ourselves from the reality that we too can—in fact definitely will someday—die. In our imaginative participation, the story onscreen is about “trying out” death or playing dead and being rescued back to life. In the safety of your living room the events onscreen are vicarious and only half-real. But the emotions are doing real work in reframing what’s possible in life and reassuring you that you’re safe.

As the drama onscreen unfolds, our daily grind gives way to vicarious shock at the possibility that we too can die in a freakish moment. But the coverage is staged to allow us to participate vicariously in  heroic rescue from death by hunting down the criminal. The hope is that “one of the biggest manhunts in American history” gives our lives memorable significance. State Rep. John Scibak claimed that the attack “was a different act of terrorism than we’ve seen before,” and “literally and legitimately” shut down Boston. Note that “legitimately”: the word tells us that emergency reactions can be routine false alarms.

But the spellbound spectators aren’t “shut down” at all. “We” form a vicarious posse invited to contribute information, but also caught up in the hunt for an enemy who is now our quarry. Pictures of armed paramilitary police fill every screen. “Suspects” come into focus; overnight they’re pursued into a firefight, killing one enemy and one cop and wounding another officer. There’s vindictive satisfaction in this hunt. [2] We want to believe that death and terror make sense: that an evil someone has violated the sense of “what is right” on which we’ve grounded our personalities since infancy. The killers’ outraged uncle tells the media that his nephew “deserved to die.” Vengeance promises to restore “what is right” even as death has injured it. It’s how we’re built. We demand, and get, “reasons” to reinforce our account of reality.

Finally “we” have the surviving criminal holed up in a boat, wounded, and then in custody. The news reports that he was a sociable college kid, perhaps under the influence of a more hostile older brother. He was also apparently flunking out of school, so the fear of failure and social death may have been a cause of, and/or result of, the lure of terrorist ambitions. All told, a pitiful as well as cruel character.

Media carry our curiosity about criminal motives to Chechnya and, gingerly, to the “war on terror.” Op-eds suggest that the torment of Chechen refugees may have resonated with the Tsarnaev brothers. Whatever the motives, we have on our hands now a pathetic kid whose life is over, even if the we don’t kill him. He enters the poisonous cloud of self-justification and loathing that surrounds infamy.

So the logic of maiming and death ripples outward into the absurd mysteries of denial. In one direction the absurdity of the Marathon as hunt connects to the Euro-American quest for access to the world’s oil riches implicated in so much 20th century bloodshed and still raising havoc in the middle east and the Caucasus. About the time the young Tsarnaev was born in Kazakhstan, I was there doing some work for the Peace Corps and overhearing US officials discussing Kazakh sour crude oil. It was just the beginning.

A recent investigative commission reminds us that the Bush-Cheney “war on terror”not only terrorized Iraq on false pretenses, but also took us into the criminal practice of torture. We know that for many in those anguished regions of the world, Americans have a reputation for viciousness, even if we don’t yet know how that reputation may have affected the Tsarnaev brothers.[3]

But there’s another dimension to this absurdity. Pathetic young men ambitious for heroic self-esteem place ridiculous pressure-cooker bombs at the finish line of a race built around the human need to test the ability of our bodies to outrun death. Paleontologists speculate that early humans found evolutionary advantage in walking upright and the ability to run long distances as effective hunters. Warrior-hunters have long identified with jaguars and tigers. In this context, the marathon is a survival contest, and wittingly or not, the terrorists were joining in, and exploiting, this atavistic hunt.

Step back from the hypnotic anxiety of exploding pressure-cookers, and you begin to sense the pathetic inadequacy of our public chatter to account for the moral daze and tragic suffering of criminals and their blind victims joined in a moment of contemptible folly that cries out for clarity and compassion.

1. For an account of this mentality, have a look at my Berserk Style in American Culture (2011).

2. In Escape from Evil, Ernest Becker argues that human violence springs from our uniquely human death-anxiety. The Ernest Becker Foundation’s website assembles indispensable resources for thinking about violence.  <<



Beastly “Beauty”

April 16, 2013
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

You wouldn’t think that aristocracy would be popular with freedom-loving American individualists. But these extremes are often in bed with each other. Fantasy exaggerates them both too. Advertising and popular entertainment emphasize wealth and heroic individuality in a dream of consumer utopia. What’s peculiar is that these fantasies are also hostile to democracy, which is supposedly the at the heart of “the American dream.”

Take Disney’s grossly popular 1991 update of “Beauty and the Beast,” which has achieved mythic familiarity. The movie looks like the fairy tale model of tenderhearted romance until you realize that Belle is a gal on the make, and the Beast’s palace is a version of Downton Abbey.

The original French “Beauty and the Beast” (1756) had a class theme. Love nobly, and the genteel daughter of a rich merchant may redeem a “beastly” nobleman and make a princely marriage. Disney makes love competitive by inventing a village lout (“Gaston”) whose abusive courtship of Beauty (“Belle”) climaxes when he leads a mob of villagers to storm the Beast’s palace. Though he advertises his hunting prowess, Gaston is actually a sneaky coward, and after nearly killing the Beast, he falls out of the film. The recovering Beast turns into the Prince in a shower of fireworks or sperm, and the film ends with Belle and Prince waltzing before their admiring servants.

The Prince suffered the curse of an aged crone he once rejected, and the curse has turned his servants into appliances such as a candlestick, clock, and teapot. The Disney treatment foregrounds the servants. They’re loyal, eager to please, and as at Downton, they’re sympathetic, even parental toward Belle and Beast. But they’re not the only working stiffs in the tale.

The film shows Belle as a romantic dreamer. She’s sweetly contemptuous of her workaday village neighbors and their grinding drudgery. The film identifies them with the sheep who at one point mindlessly munch on one of Belle’s romance novels. While the palace servants are individualized, the villagers are independent yet faceless nobodies. And here’s where Disney politics fires up the plot. When Belle spurns Gaston’s advances, he turns into a rabble-rousing demagogue who turns the villagers into a vicious mob that invades the palace. The melee caricatures the French Revolution, pitting the Prince’s “good” servants against workaday louts. The good workers rout the bad workers with the usual cleverness of Disney underdogs, including some winking anal jokes (attackers burned and stabbed in the backside). The lowlife villagers and Gaston vanish into oblivion, and in their place aristocracy and its good servants become triumphantly human.

The sublimated class warfare makes it possible to forget that Belle has been striving for superior status and a “dream life” all along. When at last she becomes a princess, the premier woman in the land, it seems her natural reward. In the end she will preside over society as the supreme woman in the kingdom. As Americans say, she’s made it.

Like the Mitt Romney fundraiser that pepped up hostility toward the 47% of working Americans who are supposedly “takers,” the film slyly vilifies the villagers. They’re a mindless mob enraged at the ruling Beast / Prince. But just as Romney’s public lingo blurred the contempt for the 47%, so the film’s happy ending makes the beaten villagers vanish. Instead we find the curse lifted. No longer robotic appliances, the palace servants have become the bosses’ doting, starry-eyed family, with a footstool-become-doggy and a teacup-become-cute-tyke.

For the noble couple, no parent-child struggle for autonomy. No stressful pregnancy and childbirth. No demanding boss. No predatory credit cards. No need to give orders. Instead of the mob’s class warfare and a burlesque of the French and American revolutions, the palace servants’ song has become reality:

“Life is so unnerving / For a servant who’s not serving.”

But wait. How does the palace pay its bills? Ah. Belle’s bumbling dad has invented a machine that chops firewood and eliminates grinding work. Dad has created the promise of industrialism without its cruel complications. No hoarded capital, no deafening assembly line, no pollutants, no strikes, no scabs, no 70 hour work week. But on his way to show the world his machine, Dad is jumped by wolves malicious as the village mob will be. They’re like furious workers losing their jobs to wood-chopping automation. Luckily, Dad finds shelter in the palace, held there until his daughter ransoms him.

So palatial wealth rescues “the new economy” from a mob of wolves sneaking out of the wilderness like unemployed rioters or illegal immigrants. Belle’s village suitor Gaston caricatures these wolvish low-lifes. Paternalistic, bullying, he’d keep a wife in servitude. He is piggishly pink and clumsy, but also a killer. Still, his ridiculous vanity helps the film to disguise Belle’s narcissism. Instead of having to recognize the heroine’s self-aggrandizing capture of the kingdom’s top spot, we can sympathize with her plucky flight from victimization.

Belle acquires not only the supreme husband, but also the supreme house and a literal army of happy servants. She acts out the media fascination with junior British royals. But it’s also an ad man’s dream of corporate America. By overcoming her distaste for the ugly, hostile Beast, the little woman wins a Prince and a palace full of wish-fulfilling appliances. Dad’s firewood-chopping machine turns into a utopia of creature comforts, with all human costs hidden and an attractive feminist gloss added to co-opt an audience certain to include many women and daughters.

The dark side of this gratification is not the blustering, bovine Beast, but Belle’s dream. She gets to the top by rejecting community for a life of decorative superiority. With the working world banished, she will be waited on and applauded by endlessly obliging inferiors. No need for bargaining or contracts. No need for democracy. If there’s conflict, the Praetorian servants will do the fighting. Like Downton Abbey and the US Gilded Age, the palace recreates the pretensions and authority of a mythic past. It shelters innocent, infantile narcissism. The noble couple play at snowball fights and feeding birds. The servants put on a Hollywoodish Busby Berkeley musical. The vast palace library promises that her romance-novel addiction will acquire the dignity of a university degree.

Because the film is so hostile to working people, Belle’s narcissism stands out. You might wonder: Why no fantasies of achievement and the rewards of challenging labor? One answer is that Belle is enticed by the American dream of palace utopia. A deeper answer lies in the fantasy that the supreme couple’s love originates in rescue from death. The Beast saves Belle from the wolves, then she nurses him. But symbolic death haunts them both, from the opening curse of an impoverished hag, to the wolves and the crushing violence of Gaston. The treatment of the villagers is especially disturbing because it insinuates that work kills the soul—unless you’re serving the princely boss.

These themes have been playing out in the US for decades. Unemployment and suppressed wages threaten today’s “villagers” with social death. Upward mobility has stalled. Meanwhile the rich are richer than they’ve ever been, with less obligation to share responsibility for the nation’s well-being. The financial system is now 40% of the economy, sustaining a billionaire aristocracy through sleight-of-hand bubbles and subsidies. Wall Street banks and media monopolies are “too big to fail” or break up. The “banksters” are “too big to jail.” Through its corporate and media lobbying, the palace has captured “big government,” working to kill labor unions, government medical and retirement insurance, food stamps, and other “entitlements.” The result is today’s stagnant economy.

The flip side of this greed is paranoia about Muslims, blacks, immigrants, and the “47%” of Americans who want to improve the village.

 When “Beauty and the Beast” appeared in 1992, riots were convulsing Los Angeles.  At the same time Disney was using fancy bookkeeping to give its chairman-prince just over $197 million in stock options and save the Magic Kingdom roughly $90 million in taxes that might otherwise have gone to rebuild South Los Angeles.

The more moviegoers identify with “Beauty and the Beast’s” magic circle of worshipful servants and waltzing lovers, the more limited their vision of society will be. The film invites viewers, and especially women viewers, to associate the beast not with a spoiled elite but with an enraged and frustrated mob in the poorest streets of America. If they learn to love the Prince and enjoy the righteous rout of Gaston’s loutish male chauvinism, audiences will see a glorious cartoon horizon which fades to a close before anyone can ask what has happened to Belle’s neighbors and how the infantile, cozily ruthless world of the palace can ever relate to those neighbors in the future. And children thrilling to this romance will be innocently preparing for service in the corporate fortress, unaware that they have left the old neighborhood behind.