Archive for April, 2015


The Bear Hug and the Boogie Man: Are You Asleep Yet?

April 26, 2015
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

WW2 didn’t end, it came back from the graveyard as the zombie Cold War. Instead of demobilizing, armies pumped up threat displays that brought the Concerned Scientists’ clock to a few seconds from nuclear doomsday. J Edgar Hoover saw spies under your bed. The CIA imagined a scary “missile gap.” As a fifth grader, I shivered when an older kid pointed out that on the map the Soviet red splotch was much bigger than “our” US.

I thought about this as I was watching “Cold War Road Show,” an old PBS video about Nikita Khruschev’s 1959 visit to the US. You remember the bald, role-poly Soviet premier who baffled Washington because unlike most soviet apparatchiks, he tried to be personable.

On the runway in Washington the girl greeting the Premier with flowers wasn’t expecting a big hug, so Uncle Nikita seems to be grappling her to him. Was the hug spontaneous? just theater? Was his body language blurting something out?

Khruschev could be unpredictable—that is, personal. After Stalin’s death he surprised the world by blowing the whistle on the reign of terror. Having survived Stalin and Stalingrad in WW2, he seemed to be promoting a Cold War “thaw.”

Still, like president Eisenhower, Khruschev had to manage the paranoia and military economy around him. In 1956 he’d boasted “We will bury you,” but then took it back: “”I once said, ‘We will bury you,’ and I got into trouble with it. Of course we will not bury you with a shovel. Your own working class will bury you.” He knew that menacing Soviet military superiority was a CIA bedtime story. He also knew that his working class needed a decent refrigerator. Like Ike, he must have seen that corporate warriors had their fingers in working class pockets.

In the Cold War, big money hated “Communist” talk of sharing the wealth—now it’s “socialism” and “dependency.” The military industry on both sides hated talk of peace treaties that could stall careers and spoil lunch. They still do.

As Nikita was landing in Washington in 1959, I was on a school trip to admire two white Nike missiles. They slowly cranked up out of a meadow, then slowly cranked back down. If the missiles worked, they’d bring down a Soviet bomber with a live H-bomb in a Boston suburb. Even I could see this was a stupid trick.

What if Khruschev was tired of the insanity?

The PBS film calls his visit a road show. But there was frigidity in the air. The ceremonies were politely artificial. When Nikita tries to do something unscripted, it’s poignant. As he waved his hat to spectators from an open Cadillac, they watched him with blank faces frozen by years of propaganda. Was he only mimicking FDR and Churchill in wartime newsreels?  Or were the high spirits real?

Both sides were trying to score points. In LA, when the conservative mayor baited the guest with the “We will bury you” quote, the guest called him out on his rudeness (“You’re trying to make me uncomfortable”). To appear personal, ordinary, and vulnerable, Nikita took huge risks. Was he posing to embarrass the Americans, or did he mean it?

Journalists gaggled at every stop and enforced formulas. “I’d like to see Disneyland,” grumbled Nikita. If America’s so safe, why do they say security puts Disneyland off limits? Hollywood was so secure they made Mr and Mrs K watch cameras film a tacky dance and underpants routine from Can Can: the kind of precision sex routine that makes you homesick for factories.

No wonder Henry Cabot Lodge, the US guide, phoned Ike for advice about how to cope with sprained etiquette. The tour did include a corn farmer in Kansas whose hybrids Khruschev found pretty interesting since part of his job was feeding people. Americans didn’t know what to think.

At Camp David, Ike and Nikita strolled around with an interpreter. They had concerns in common, since Ike was also worried about a military industrial juggernaut being out of control. But with tyrannical slogans such as BETTER DEAD THAN RED in the air, it’s unlikely they got very personal.

Still, Khruschev went home with plans for Ike to visit Russia. But the plans crashed months later when the Soviets shot down a US spy plane. Then Kennedy’s sneaky Bay of Pigs invasion spurred the sneaky installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba. And a crisis to boost budgets. Before long the havoc in Vietnam led to the corporate military binge of the Reagan years, which led to the fairy tale that Reagan’s two-fisted military spending toppled the Berlin Wall.

The ironies are terrific. The Soviets’ supposed lust for “world domination” has infected the “global policeman,” who has military bases and NSA bugs all over. The wealthy cronies in Putin’s Kremlin have their counterpart in Wall Street and high-frequency lobbying. And today we have the four trillion dollar War on Terror paid for by bayoneting medical care and food stamps.

It’s possible that Khruschev’s visit was a post-traumatic moment. Everybody, especially the Soviets, knew someone killed in WW2. The mania for nukes and spying kept deathanxiety alive and insidious. So each side wanted to be the hero whose triumph could justify the pitiful insanity and grief of WW2.

You might wonder if Khruschev’s clumsy bear hug signaled an ambivalent but genuine impulse to ease years of emergency nerves. He wasn’t the only one. Only a few years later, in his Great Society program, and for the first time in American history, President Johnson called for a comprehensive national effort to improve the lives of marginal Americans.  LBJ, too, was a bear-hugger. And like Khruschev’s dream of a good working class refrigerator, Johnson’s Great Society was drowned out by bugles and bubbles. In the Soviet world the dream had to wait for 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev started giving glasnot and perestroika bear-hugs—until a coup gave him the boot.

Khruschev’s bear hug reminded me of Iran’s recent compromise on a nuclear treaty—and the hysterical efforts to sabotage it. The gunslingers are all shooting at the agreement: Iranian and US hardliners, Sheldon Adelson’s hirelings. They all favor infallible abstractions.

Former U.N. ambassador John R. Bolton cried “Bomb, Bomb Iran” (NY Times, March 26, 2015). Bolton thinks in terms of a “gold standard,” “inescapable conclusions,” and “inconvenient truths.” In his mind bombing another country means pushing button “A” rather than button “B.” The bombing “should be combined with vigorous American support for Iran’s opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran.” As if there really are an “opposition” and a “regime” like two pieces on a game board to be cleverly switched around.

This sort of barking led to the reckless US invasion of Iraq that helped destabilize the whole region. But it has another drawback too: the hardliner mentality sees behavior as computer programs and mechanics. Calculate the ballistics and the cue ball will drop “regime change” into the corner pocket. The “enemy” is not real to him.

Psychology is not real to him.

We’re ambivalent creatures. It’s how we’re built. Instead of being trapped in reflexes, we imagine alternatives. We sometimes fasten on one option and drive out others, but evolution seems to favor experiment, persuasion, and adaptation.

What if Khruschev’s body language, that clumsy bear hug, was a half-formed thought? A blurted wish to escape from the vicious grind of 20th century history. How you interpret his behavior reveals something about us as well as him. Have a look: << is external)

See what you think.


Murder in a Locked Room: When fear is more dangerous than an open door

April 11, 2015
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

You’ve read about the young Germanwings co-pilot who apparently locked the pilot out of the cockpit, took over the controls, and killed 150 people in a ghastly crash. We can only speculate about Andreas Lubitz’s motive, but the evidence so far fits a familiar pattern. About half of rampage killers have shown signs of psychiatric disturbance. By contrast, mental illness plays only a marginal role in ordinary violent crime. What makes rampage killing different?

For one thing, rampage is a spectacle, and planes make a spectacular weapon. The Columbine killers imagined crashing a plane into skyscrapers to amaze the world. They imagined Hollywood producers bidding in a frenzy for “their story.” The 9/11 flyboys wanted even God to salute. And Andreas Lubitz, the co-piot, also dreamed of capturing world attention. A former girlfriend said he told her last year that “One day I’ll do something that will change the whole system, and then all will know my name and remember it.”

She thought he crashed the plane because he had health problems that would make his dream of being a pilot “nearly impossible.” On the fatal day he was ignoring—­or defying—a doctor’s note classifying him unfit to fly. In effect, the crash was his reaction to the death of his dream on that day and maybe forever. You can see the logic: gravity like fate forces the heroic dream down from the heights to destruction. But if the co-pilot takes the controls, he can feel heroic mastering doom.

A high-ranking investigator, speaking with the newspaper Die Welt, characterized Mr. Lubitz’s writing as a window into the dark world of illness the co-pilot had skillfully concealed from outsiders. Lubitz was being treated for depression, and had shown “suicidal tendencies” in psychotherapy several years before receiving his pilot’s license. . But he must have been suffering from stress and anxiety too, since in conversations, hisgirlfriend recalled,(link is external) he “would suddenly freak out and yell at me.” He had nightmaresabout crashing. “We always talked a lot about work and then he became a different person. He became upset about the conditions we worked under: too little money, fear of losing the contract, too much pressure.” She said they finally broke up because he scared her.

Lubitz had to take a break from his pilot training, reportedly because of “burnoutsyndrome.” If he was suffering depression, anxiety, and stress, the inner distress saps vitality. It can “burn up” so much energy for life that personality becomes—or threatens to become—a dead husk. That terror is the horror of nothingness. Alcohol or drugs may bring a brief charge of energy and dull the alarm. The build-up to a spectacular rampage can be a stimulant. If you obsess over it, as the depressive Columbine killer Dylan Klebold did, the stimulant can be addictive. A woman who saw Mohammed Atta at flight school in Florida saw deadened depression in his eyes. What she couldn’t see were the obsessive prayers and 9/11 plans that kept him going even as he was already half out of life.

Survival instinct makes us want to be somebody. We fear death, especially the nothingness of death. We want our lives to matter. If your life is in trouble and you realize that death is inescapable, you’re trapped unless you take charge of your own destruction. Then you become the pilot again: the captain of your soul. A martyr.

But what if you take 149 people with you? In the ancient world, pharaohs and emperors had servants killed to keep them company in the afterlife. This, too, is a variety of rampage killing. After death, the ruler wants to keep the fantastic attention he’s been used to. It’s what made him a king and not just another ordinary doomed mortal with a scepter. And since the terror comes partly from of losing all your powers and of being utterly alone, there’s strength in numbers. What’s more, by taking others with you, you ease your envyand resentment of survivors.

Judging who lives and who dies, you feel the special power of the gods, as Atta did. Instead of living in fear of nothingness, you make an impact. One day I’ll do something that will change everything. It may be sadistic and vengeful, but to the killer it also feels right. How can this be?

The terror and the unfairness of death—Why me?—unsettles our core sense of what’s right: the sense of self and world that we develop all our lives. When all’s well, things feelright. In distress or under stress, we’re apt to feel alien, detached, queasy, “out of it,” not to mention terrified. The terror can show up as fear of death or an enemy or a  crash, something outside of you: something coming toward you.

But the core terror is the terror of annihilation, your terror of everything, including you. There’s nothing to hold onto. If you know you’re terminally ill, you’re likely to daydream at some point about some great final gesture, a heroic sacrifice. It would be consoling to feel people affirming that you matter. After all, as New Yorker cartoons joke, death is the ultimate loss of self-esteem. Hence the compulsion, even in a blaze of infamy, to feel right.

But how, you ask, can anyone feel right about slaughtering innocent people?

One answer is that the self is not a thing. You can’t take your self out to clean and polish it. The self is experience, and experience that needs feedback and recognition from others to feel substantial—to feel right.  This is why social death—losing job, family, friends,identity—is so threatening. By contrast, a blaze of infamy compels unlimited attention. Yes, for the suicidal killer it’s only imagined attention. But attention from real people would open up the secret inner life of illness and terror.

Needless to say, not everyone in Andreas Lubitz’s situation would behave as he did. Secrecy must have magnified and distorted his desperation. For him, secrecy was right. In this late-industrial age, efficiency demands rules and allows few taboos to be shared. Anguish becomes matter for therapeutic culture, which doesn’t always communicate with business culture—as in Lubitz’s crumpled note from his doctor.

But then, one reason the horror of the crash grips us is the detail of the captain locked out of the cockpit and beating on the door, trying to communicate with his other half, so to speak. The captain is us, our agent, the baffled social self, shut out by the cunning unreality of terror and cold rage. In a paradox worthy of Greek tragedy, the fortified door was a technical solution that invited the threat of mass murder that it was meant to prevent. Sometimes fear is more dangerous than an open door.

Resources used in this essay:

Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil (1973).

Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon (2015)…(link is external)…(link is external)…(link is external)

Coming next month from Leveller’s Press:

Helena Farrell for Tacit Muse
Source: Helena Farrell for Tacit Muse

Boston Strong: Engendering Self-Examination

April 4, 2015
TDF Guest Edward Mendelowitz

TDF Guest
Edward Mendelowitz

The 2014 Boston Marathon took place, like last year’s, on Patriot’s Day on a glorious spring day here in transcendentalist New England. It was a moment of triumph for so many people around our city and world, one that was preceded and accompanied by great anticipation, jubilation, sadness and an outpouring of municipal and patriotic zeal. The winner of the men’s division race was an Eritrean émigré, the first American to do so in over three decades. The entire event was typified by a spirit a determination, resilience and resolve. One year later, Bostonians were rightly triumphant, joyous and proud.

Several days after the horror of Marathon 2013, I noticed that a banner suddenly appeared suspended from one of the overpasses along Route 93, the northsouth expressway that half the population of metropolitan Boston seems to be traveling along at any moment in New England time. In large capital letters, it read: “NO MORE HURTING PEOPLE. PEACE.” These were the fateful words written by eight-yearold Martin Richard, who had made the sign under the graceful counsel of his teacher, Rachel Moo of the Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester where both student and teacher resided. Moo had taken the snapshot of the boy holding a sign that would become a rallying cry in the aftermath of tragedy. On the day of the race, Martin Richard’s family had been scrambling for safety after the first explosion when the second bomb detonated several feet to their rear. Richard’s seven-year-old sister would lose half of her leg; his mother would go blind in one eye; father suffered shrapnel wounds and would lose partial hearing. Martin Richard himself was one of three people who died in the blast. It was, as the press accurately reported, a “gargantuan crime.”

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two brothers suspected of perpetrating the bombings, was found several days later hiding in a boat in a backyard in Watertown, a suburban town just northwest of Boston. It is he that the surveillance videos disclose placing the device near the finish line that would take Martin Richard’s life. On the inside wall of the boat, Tsarnaev had scrawled these indignant, haunting words: “The U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians. Stop killing our innocent people and we will stop.” He, too, is certainly not wrong. We are doing it in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen as well. And aiding and abetting it elsewhere with shipments of arms and sundry material and political supports. The Rabaa Massacre one year ago in Cairo and recent atrocities in Gaza. So many surreptitious and sinister activities in the purported interests of humanitarianism, security and peace.

Tsarnaev has reportedly indicated that he and his brother had been influenced in their beliefs and ultimate ungodly act by lectures of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and Yemeni imam whose own message—once patently non-violent and proAmerican, albeit critical of its policies with respect to the Muslim world and the Middle East—had become increasingly radicalized as our government’s policies continued unabated and he himself became a hunted man. Eventually al-Awlaki was singled out for “targeted killing” and taken out by a drone attack on September 30th, 2011. Such targeted killing of an American citizen without charge, trial or conviction was unprecedented. Two weeks later, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Anwar’s 16-year-old-son, was killed by yet another drone strike in Yemen. A U.S. citizen born in Denver, Abdulrahman had no interests in radical movements of any sort. “He was a typical teenager,” recalls his grandfather Nasser al-Awlaki, a former Fulbright scholar. “He watched ‘The Simpsons,’ listened to Snoop Dogg, read ‘Harry Potter’ and had a Facebook page with many friends. He had a mop of curly hair, glasses like me and a wide, goofy smile.” An intelligent, gentle and circumspect soul, the elder al-Awlaki implores: “My grandson was killed by his own government. Shouldn’t it have at least to explain why?”

“Stop killing our people and we will stop.” “No more hurting people. Peace.” To be sure, Martin Richard’s exhortation is the more rarified moral code, but Tsarnaev’s chilling rejoinder, if we are honest with ourselves, has also its place.

And this, in the words of William James, is “the worm at the core”—something which it is difficult to discern precisely insofar as the locus of machinations resides within our own nation and selves. Going forward, we can best aspire to the democratic principles and ideals that underwrote those first shots of the American Revolution at Battle Green in Lexington and the Old North Bridge in Concord to the extent that we honor the multiplicity of contending voices. Those banished, unwanted voices comprise an essential part of the dialogue and narrative We must embrace, as Rollo May kept admonishing, the daemons within if we are to forestall future returns of the Furies. The Obama administration has garnered voluble and near-unanimous support from the third force from the very start. Important, then, that we, especially, attend to the stirrings, voices and alternate aspects and selves on those Jamesean “margins” of consciousness. Only in this way will life yield the “richness” and eventual good works to which luminaries like James and May and Ernest Becker tirelessly pointed. If Martin Richard’s message of peace is to be had, this is the way to do it. “God,” said C.G. Jung several days before he died, “is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions, and change the course of my life for better or for worse.” And then there is the poet Kafka who muses quietly in his diary, “Only in the chorus may be a certain truth.”