July 27, 2012

Kermit v. Chick-fil-A

Okay, so I’m very briefly going to weigh in on the whole Muppets-Chick-fil-A controversy.  Not because it’s the most important news event of the week, but because I think it raises a larger issue that is important. 

For those of you who haven’t heard, here’s the story.  Chick-fil-A opposes gay rights.[1]  Over the years it has given millions of dollars to different anti-gay organizations, and its president has publicly attacked gay marriage, recently stating, for example, that he believes America is “inviting God’s judgment” by its “prideful, arrogant” attempt to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples.[2]

Well this past week the Jim Henson Company announced that, because it “has celebrated and embraced diversity and inclusiveness for over fifty years,” it has decided to terminate its business dealings with Chick-fil-A.  Henson further announced that it would be giving all the money it has received from Chick-fil-A to GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.[3] 

In response to this, many conservatives have attacked the Henson Company.  Someone I personally know claimed that the Henson Company is being hypocritical, this person’s argument being that it is hypocritical for one to claim to be tolerant while at the same time “shunning” someone else simply because they disagree with that person’s beliefs. 

Although this person’s argument—different forms of which I’ve heard over the years—might initially seem plausible, I think it crumbles upon closer examination.  First, the Henson Company hasn’t “shunned” Chick-fil-A.  To shun someone is to disassociate yourself from them, to refuse to even look their way when you encounter them on the street.  If you want to know what it means to shun someone, talk to a Mennonite.[4]  As far as I know, the Henson Company has simply decided to terminate its business dealings with Chick-fil-A.

For similar reasons, I don’t see how refusing to do business with someone makes you intolerant.  When we talk about intolerance, we generally mean—quoting Merriam-Webster—that one is “unwilling to grant or share social, political, or professional rights” with others.  The Henson Company clearly isn’t attempting to deprive anyone of their rights.  That’s what Chick-fil-A has been doing, using its money and influence in an attempt to continue depriving homosexuals of equal rights, namely, the right to marry the consenting adult of their choice.  The Henson Company’s decision to terminate its business relationship is not depriving Chick-fil-A of any rights.  It is instead an attempt to use its own money and influence to help homosexuals achieve equality. 

* * * * *


[1] And by “gay rights,” I mean equal rights for gays.

[2] “Chick-Fil-A Donated Nearly $2 Million To Anti-Gay Groups in 2010,” Equality Matters, July 2, 2012; Dylan Stableford, “Chick-fil-A president slams gay marriage,” Yahoo! News, July 18, 2012.

[3] The Jim Henson Company Facebook Page, July 20, 2012.

[4] Or read Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness.  Toews, who herself grew up in a Mennonite family, writes about the shunning act in some detail, describing how the shunned person essentially becomes dead to the believing community.   

July 23, 2012

Some Thoughts on the Aurora Shooting

Like many Americans, I’ve spent the weekend reeling from Friday morning’s massacre in Aurora.  I live in the Denver area, probably 15 miles or so from the theater, so for that reason the shooting has really affected me.  Not that I’m not affected by other tragedies.  Not that I don’t feel a sense of anger and sadness when I read, for example, of US drones murdering more people in Pakistan or Yemen.  But my proximity to the Aurora massacre has affected me on a different level.  It has served as a reminder of my own mortality. 

When I read about people being slaughtered overseas, I feel sad but I never feel a sense of personal danger, I never feel that that could happen to me.  Not so with the Aurora massacre.  I just went to a movie the previous weekend.  (My wife and I saw the other super-hero movie in theaters, Spider-Man.)  So I know that I could have easily been in that theater in Aurora.  I realize—more viscerally than I normally do—that I’m just as vulnerable as the people who were there.  I’m reminded that I could just as easily, at any moment, have my life taken from me. 

We—all of us—spend our lives in a cloud of unawareness, focusing on the minutiae of our daily lives and pushing the bigger issues from our minds.  It is only incidents like the shooting that seem capable of forcing us to remember that nothing’s certain, that this could all be taken from us in the blink of an eye. 

* * * * *

So how to respond to this death-awareness?  That, to me, seems like one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves. 

The answer, for me at least, is to confront my feelings of death as honestly as I can.  That is, to admit that I don’t know what the meaning of life is, that I don’t know what happens upon death, and that this ignorance scares the shit out of me. 

It’s much easier, on some level anyway, to tell myself that I do have it all figured out, that, for example, I know there’s an all-loving god who will ultimately right every wrong.  But when I’m honest with myself I have to admit that I don’t know the answers to any of these big questions.  And I have to admit that this uncertainty terrifies me.

Yet I’ve found that I’m much better off when I confront this terror.  Because when I repress it, the terror doesn’t go away, it simply manifests itself into different forms.  I end up with debilitating neuroses.  The terror often turns into aggression towards others.

Confronting my terror of death is not easy.  And, needless to say, it’s not completely possible: even when I spend time thinking about my own mortality, I still have difficulty believing, really believing, that I will one day die, that I will really, actually die.  Nonetheless, when I do, to some degree, confront my terror of death, I find that my awareness is heightened, I find that I'm better able to appreciate life and connect with others. 

* * * * *

Predictably, many have responded to the shootings by renewing their efforts to reinstate the ban on assault weapons.  Although I used to be against all forms of gun control, the shooting made me realize that reinstating the assault weapons ban really is—or should be—a no-brainer. 

There is absolutely no legitimate reason why such weapons are legal.  None at all.  As many columnists over the weekend have pointed out, the only reason the ban was allowed to expire is that the NRA has such a stranglehold on Congress. 

I’m actually starting to believe that banning other guns, not just assault weapons, would make us safer.  Which, coming from a former gun-toting right-winger, is saying a lot.  Anyway, I’ll save those thoughts for another day. 

* * * * *

One can’t read about such a massacre without wondering about the motives of the killer.  Clearly this man had some sort of mental breakdown.  That much seems obvious.  But that doesn’t preclude other factors, other explanations for his behavior.  Nicolas Powers at Alternet writes:

In her book The Amok Complex, [German professor Ines Geipel] analyzed five mass shootings in Europe and distilled from the gunmen a common character. They live in pricey towns, come from well-heeled families but are labeled outsiders due to their failure to achieve in the high pressure of class paranoia…

In the British paper the Independent, Dr. Keith Ashcroft wrote how the path from low self-esteem is layered with resentment which becomes paranoia. The retreat from others into a shrinking world of rage and self-pity creates the conditions for more social isolation. A fast and powerful downward spiral begins that pulls the young men into fantasies of revenge. And finally there is some triggering event, loss of a lover or a job or a home that snaps him. “Their paranoia heightens the sense that the whole world is against them, which increases their anger,” he wrote “It is very immature to want a gun in order to have a sense of power and fulfillment. But it is a way of regaining control.” (“A Long Dark Night: Gun Violence Romanticized and the New Batman Movie,” July 20, 2012).

Professor James Alan Fox writes in USA Today:

Mass killers tend to be profoundly frustrated and despondent over life's disappointments, isolated from family and friends who might be in a position to provide comfort and support, and see themselves as the victim of undeserved mistreatment and unfairness. For them, the act of murder against certain people seen as responsible for their misfortune, if not against a corrupt society in general, is justified. Successful and fulfilled people, by contrast, have little need for vengeance or reason to wreak havoc in such a dramatic and public fashion. (“Mass murder is predictably unpredictable,” July 22, 2012)

All of which makes me conclude that the best way to prevent future killings is not legislation.  As much as I think sensible gun-control is needed, I think loving others is a better, more effective solution.  As I said earlier, we—and I definitely include myself in this we—tend to live our lives in a state of unawareness, too paralyzed by our fear of death to ever really live.  If we could just deal with our own shit, if we could just wake up, so to speak, then we’d start to see, really see, those around us and be able to give them the love they deserve. 

We will never be able to conquer death.  We will never be able to completely eliminate senseless violence.  But I think we can nonetheless get better.  We can make the world, even if just slightly, a better place.

July 20, 2012

President Obama Is Right

Sorry, but I completely agree with the following words from the President, which have, not surprisingly, generated so much fury among the Delusional Right.  Yes, that's right, I agree with the president, one hundred percent.  But before you get mad at me, I just ask that you read his words.  Actually read them.  And tell me what is so horrible about them.  Tell me what he says that's wrong.

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me -- because they want to give something back.  They know they didn’t -- look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.  You didn’t get there on your own.  I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.  There are a lot of smart people out there.  It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.  Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.  (Applause.)

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.  There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own.  I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service.  That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires. 

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together.  That’s how we funded the GI Bill.  That’s how we created the middle class.  That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam.  That’s how we invented the Internet.  That’s how we sent a man to the moon.  We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President -- because I still believe in that idea.  You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.  (Applause.)

Charles Krauthammer--who represents the Delusional Right perhaps as well as anybody--spends his most recent column attacking a complete straw-man, namely, the belief that "the most formative, most important influence on the individual" is the government.  And here's Mit Romney's equally absurd straw-man argument:

To say that Steve Jobs didn't build Apple, that Henry Ford didn't build Ford Motor, that Papa John didn't build Papa John Pizza, that Ray Crock didn't build McDonalds, that Bill Gates didn't build Microsoft, you go down the list, that Joe and his colleagues didn't build this enterprise, to say something like that is not just foolishness, it's insulting to every entrepreneur, every innovator in America. It's wrong.

But Obama didn't say any of these things.  All he said--and again, tell me why he's wrong--was that individuals owe their success due to both "individual initiative" and help from others.  That's all he said.  And I don't see how anyone--aside from a total narcissist, in other words, people like Krauthammer and Romney--could find this in any way objectionable. 

I also don't see how anyone could find it objectionable to claim that many, if not most, rich people owe their wealth, to some extent, to the government.  To use a notable example, many of the country's wealthiest bankers and investors still have jobs, still have ridiculously high-paying jobs, because the government bailed them out.  The entire defense industry owes its very existence to the government.  And I've just named some of the more notable Corporate Welfare Queens.  Many, many more could be cited.  For more on this, see:

July 16, 2012

Fox News Hypocrisy on Iran

From FoxNews.com:
 A little more than a week after accusing Iran of supplying arms for Syria’s bloody crackdown on democracy-minded rebels, the UN has given Tehran a key seat at negotiations for a global arms treaty… Critics say asking Iran to help craft a treaty aimed at stopping arms proliferation to terrorist groups and rogue states makes a mockery of the talks. Just two weeks ago, the UN Security Council accused Tehran of shipping arms to Syria.[1]

The article goes on to lambaste both the Obama Administration and the UN for allowing this outrage to happen, that is, for allowing Big Bad Iran to help draft a treaty which—we learn later in the article—“would regulate conventional arms and not weapons of mass destruction.”  The article, like many news articles I read, caused me to LOL.  Or I should say, it caused me to LLOL, that is, to literally laugh out loud.

Perhaps it is outrageous to given Iran this appointment, because Iran does have a history of arming Syria’s oppressive regime.  But, given this logic, it would be outrageous to give the United States any similar appointment, for we have our own ugly history of arming oppressive regimes.  For instance, just a year after Bahrain unleashed a wave of terror against its own people, we recently decided to resume arm sales to the country.[2]  Many, many more examples could be given: Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Uzbekistan, just to name a few.[3]  Not that we’ll ever hear any of this from Fox News.  Fair and Balanced.  They Report, We Decide.  (And, more often than not, Laugh.)

* * * * *


[2] Our Dictator in Bahrain,” March 20, 2011; “Bahrain: U.S. Arms Sales to Resume,” Reuters, May 12, 2012.

[3] Joshua E. Keating, “America’s Other Most Embarrassing Allies,” Foreign Policy, January 31, 2011. 

July 8, 2012

Ernest Becker: An Introduction

Human Motives, Human Lies

Writing in the Adlerian tradition, Ernest Becker claims that, along with physical survival, humans are primarily motivated by self-esteem. That is to say, we need to feel good about ourselves, to feel that we’re significant, that we matter and that the world is a better place because we’re in it. As Becker puts it, we need to feel that we’re objects of primary value in a world of meaning (DD 4-7). Now it might seem that we’re actually striving after different things, as some spend their lives seeking fame, others political power, others business success, others religious transcendence, and so on. But these are just different attempts to achieve the same end, assurance that we’re objects of primary value in a world of meaning.

Much in life is capable of diminishing this feeling. Other people can easily make us feel that we don’t matter after all, committing violence against us, expropriating our property, sometimes just wounding with their words. When we think about life as a whole, it’s also easy to conclude that we’re not valuable and that the world is not a place of meaning. No matter how we live, no matter how ethically or successfully, we’re not immune from diseases and natural disasters and, depending on where we live, the violence of the animal kingdom. Even if we pass through life relatively unscathed, we must eventually die (53-54). We must eventually, as Becker so vividly reminds us, become “food for worms” (26). And although some of us comfort ourselves with belief in an afterlife, the fact is that we can’t really know if there’s an afterlife, or if there’s a god, or if life has any transcendent meaning and the values we live by have any sort of basis in reality (BDM 159, 189-90).

Facing up to all of this is enough to engender terror in the strongest of us. If we tried to live in full knowledge of reality, we would be paralyzed, too overwhelmed for meaningful action; Becker in fact claims that we would quite literally go insane (27). Consequently, we end up distorting reality—all of us at times, some of us more than others—this being the only way we’re able to go on living. Put differently, in order to convince ourselves that things really aren’t so horrible, that we really are objects of primary value in a world of meaning, we lie to ourselves.

This lying occurs subconsciously. So, although we’re the ones who do the lying, we don’t realize that we’re doing it. Our lies often come in the form of defense mechanisms, actions whereby our egos falsify reality in order to make us feel that we are in fact objects of value. Through repression, for example, the ego blocks certain painful feelings from consciousness.  Through denial, the ego blocks certain facts from consciousness. Through projection, the ego ascribes one’s unacceptable feelings to others (BDM 55).

We also lie to ourselves by engaging in transference. Transference has historically referred to the process whereby patients in analysis unknowingly transfer the feelings of dependence and awe they had for their parents during childhood onto their therapist, drawing “protection and power from him just as the child merges his destiny with the parents.” In transference then “we see the grown person as a child at heart, a child who distorts the world to relieve his helplessness and fears, who sees things as he wishes them to be for his own safety, who acts automatically and uncritically, just as he did in the pre-Oedipal period” (DD 129).

Pointing out that this phenomenon occurs throughout all of culture, not just in the therapist’s office, Becker broadens the definition of transference. Deep down, he writes, we’re all children, longing “to get back to the magical protection, the participation in omnipotence, the ‘oceanic feeling’ that [we] enjoyed when [we] were loved and protected by [our] parents” (132). Our transference object, Becker writes,

need not be overtly a god or openly a stronger person, but it can be the power of an all-absorbing activity, a passion, a dedication to a game, a way of life, that like a comfortable web keeps a person buoyed up and ignorant of himself, of the fact that he does not rest on his own center. All of us are driven to be supported in a self-forgetful way, ignorant of what energies we really draw on, of the kind of lie we have fashioned in order to live securely and serenely. Augustine was a master analyst of this, as were Kierkegaard, Scheler, and Tillich in our day. They saw that man could strut and boast all he wanted, but that he really drew his “courage to be” from a god, a string of sexual conquests, a Big Brother, a flag, the proletariat, and the fetish of money and the size of a bank balance. (55-56)

Becker describes transference as a “taming of terror”:

Realistically the universe contains overwhelming power. Beyond ourselves we sense chaos. We can’t really do much about this unbelievable power, except for one thing: we can endow certain persons with it. The child takes natural awe and terror and focuses them on individual beings, which allows him to find the power and the horror all in one place instead of diffused throughout a chaotic universe. Mirabile! The transference object, being endowed with the transcendent powers of the universe, now has in himself the power to control, order, and combat them…By the means, the child can control his fate. As ultimately power means power over life and death, the child can now safely emerge in relation to the transference object. The object becomes his locus of safe operation. All he has to do is conform to it in the ways that he learns; conciliate it if it becomes terrible; use it severely for automatic daily activities. (145-46)

Transference explains “the urge to deification of the other, the constant placing of certain select persons on pedestals, the reading into them of extra powers: the more they have, the more rubs off on us.  We participate in their immortality, and so we create immortals” (148).

The Respective Perils of Self-Delusion and Self-Awareness

So, to summarize, we lie to ourselves because we need to believe that we’re objects of primary value in a world of meaning. As Becker puts it, man lies to convince himself “that he controls his life and his death, that he really does live and act as a willful and free individual, that he has a unique and self-fashioned identity, that he is somebody—not just a trembling accident germinated on this hothouse planet” (55). Following the great psychoanalysts, Becker points out that the lies we tell ourselves can be harmful, both to ourselves and to others (179). For this reason, obtaining self-awareness can have real value:

Psychotherapy can allow people to affirm themselves, to smash idols that constrict the self-esteem, to lift the load of neurotic guilt…It can clear away neurotic despair—the despair that comes from a too-constricted focus for one’s safety and satisfactions. When a person becomes less fragmented, less blocked and bottled up, he does experience real joy: the joy of finding more of himself, of the release from armor and binding reflexes, of throwing off the chains of uncritical and self-defeating dependency, of controlling his own energies, of discovering aspects of the world, intense experience in the present moment that is now freer of prefixed perceptions, new possibilities of choice and action, and so on. (270)

Although attaining self-awareness can be beneficial, “[b]eyond a given point man is not helped by more ‘knowing,’ but only by living and doing in a partly self-forgetful way” (199). This follows for the simple reason that attaining self-awareness cannot alter the human predicament; it cannot change the fact that we live in a terrifying, indeterminate world and are very possibly not objects of value. As Becker puts it, “All the analysis in the world doesn’t allow the person to find out who he is and why he is here on earth, why he has to die, and how he can make his life a triumph” (193). Self-awareness doesn’t change the fact

that human life may not be more than a meaningless interlude in a vicious drama of flesh and bones that we call evolution; that the Creator may not care any more for the destiny of man or the self-perpetuation of individual men than He seems to have cared for the dinosaurs or the Tasmanians. The whisper is the same one that slips incongruously out of the Bible in the voice of Ecclesiastes: that all is vanity, vanity of vanities. (187)

So, although living under too much self-delusion can be harmful, living under too much self-awareness can be just as harmful:

The person gives up something restricting and illusory, it is true, but only to come face to face with something even more awful: genuine despair. Full humanness [that is, self-awareness] means full fear and trembling, at least some of the waking day. When you get a person to emerge into life, away from his dependencies, his automatic safety in the cloak of someone else’s power, what joy can you promise him with the burden of his aloneness? When you get a person to look at the sun as it bakes down on the daily carnage taking place on earth, the ridiculous accidents, the utter fragility of life, the powerlessness of those he thought most powerful—what comfort can you give him from a psychotherapeutic point of view? (59)

For seeing the world “as it really is is devastating and terrifying,” making “routine, automatic, secure, self-confident activity impossible,” placing “a trembling animal at the mercy of the entire cosmos and the problem of the meaning of it” (60). For this reason, Becker tells us that becoming unrepressed would be tantamount to being “reborn into madness” (66) and that, although self-knowledge can make “an untenable life liveable," it “can entirely destroy it for some people” (269).

Splitting the Horns of the Dilemma

So how then are we to live? Given the discussion so far, it seems that we’re in an impossible situation, that no matter what we choose we’re bound to fail. For being self-deluded has disastrous consequences, but so does being self-aware. But all is not lost, Becker tells us; we need not choose between happy-but-destructive delusion and unhappy-but-non-destructive awareness.

In order to live well, he writes, we must turn to religion. For only God can give us what we most need: true self-esteem, assurance that we’re objects of value in a world of meaning. If God is there, then our basic problems are solved. The universe is a place of meaning, for the creator is running things, working everything together for good. And humans are objects of value, for even if we don’t attain earthly success, we can know we’re valued by the author of life and that even the lowliest among us can be used for divine purposes. And of course, God eliminates the problem of death, granting us eternal life.

All secular worldviews, Becker writes, ultimately fail because they cannot do anything about the sources of terror and unhappiness; they cannot impart meaning to the universe and they cannot grant humans cosmic worth (190-99). As he puts it, psychology—and we can replace psychology with any number of other human systems: science, medicine, democracy, capitalism, family, etc., etc.—“does not give what men want, which is immortality” (271).

Religion also has the potential of liberating us from the transference objects that hold us in bondage. As we saw earlier, transference prevents us from seeing people as they really are and for this reason often has disastrous consequences—for example, causing us to blindly trust self-serving leaders (BDM 177). As we’ve also seen, transference is essential to taming the overwhelming terror of reality; for this reason we cannot ever stop engaging in it, or if we do it’s at the risk of losing our sanity (DD 188-89). Religion gives us a new transference object, a more worthy one, “a Creator who is the First Cause of all created things, not merely the second-hand, intermediate creators of society, the parents and the panoply of cultural heroics. These are the social and cultural progenitors who themselves have been caused, who themselves are embedded in a web of someone else’s powers” (90).  By being freed from these human powers, we’re now able to grow as individuals:

Our life ceases to be a reflexive dialogue with the standards of our wives, husbands, friends, and leaders and becomes instead measured by standards of the highest heroism, ideals truly fit to lead us on and beyond ourselves. In this way we fill ourselves with independent values, can make free decisions, and, most importantly, can lean on powers that really support us and do not oppose us. The personality can truly begin to emerge in religion because God, as an abstraction, does not oppose the individual as others do, but instead provides the individual with all the powers necessary for independent self-justification. What greater security than to lean confidently on God, on the Fount of creation, the most terrifying power of all? If God is hidden and intangible, all the better: that allows man to expand and develop by himself. (202)

Although Becker sees the value of religious faith, he stresses that it must be the right type of faith. “As psychoanalysts have taught us, religion, like any human aspiration, can also be automatic, reflexive, obsessive” (BDM 197). One can have religious faith while remaining in a state of self-delusion, continuing to falsify reality in myriad ways. Needless to say, faith built upon self-delusion is not liberating. Moreover, as history has shown, such faith can be extraordinarily destructive (197-98).

For this reason, Becker advocates combining the liberating potential of religion with the liberating potential of self-awareness (BDM 185, DD 280). To put it another way, we must maintain faith in a loving god while remaining honest, honest about ourselves and about the terrifying and tragic world in which we live (DD 283-84). Belief in a loving god in many ways seems incompatible with belief in the terror of creation, and for this reason Becker stresses that we must be strong enough to “support contradictions, no matter how glaring or hopeless they may seem” (BDM 198).

So this is the answer Becker gives us, his prescription for human living. It’s not an easy pill to swallow, and if we’re to evolve in this manner we must develop “new forms of courage and endurance” (DD 279). Faith has never been easy, but especially not in this age of ever-expanding scientific explanations (200). Self-awareness isn’t easy either: being honest about ourselves and about the world in which we live, accepting the terror and ultimate indeterminacy of it all.

* * * * *


DD: The Denial of Death. New York: The Free Press, 1973.

BDM: The Birth and Death of Meaning. New York: The Free Press, 1971.