Moral Aggression: cultural fantasies that made a comedy of errors fatal

(This is a reprint of an essay I did for Psychology Today, originally published July 20, 2013. I was writing In response to Trayvon Martin’s murder by George Zimmerman. The argument Is relevant to Donald Trump’s full-page newspaper ad calling for the execution of five Black teenagers later exonerated; and Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two protesters against police violence in Kenosha, Wisc. on Aug. 25, 2020,)

Were it not for the bullet in his heart, Trayvon Martin’s encounter with George Zimmerman would be a comedy of errors. As a stranger in street clothes packing a concealed weapon, Zimmerman had no business shadowing and challenging Martin—in fact a police dispatcher had just warned him to cool it. Zimmerman was literally looking for trouble, yet he misjudged the danger because Florida had put a pistol and the sinister “Stand-your-ground” law into his hands. Ironically, teen culture had put old-fashioned fists in Martin’s hands.

The problem is that both men were drawing on dangerous cultural fantasies. Emulating the heroic vigilante in American movies and lore, Zimmerman tried to live out a fatally unrealistic story. Instead of saving “his” neighborhood, he became a clownish bigshot getting a bloody nose and killing one of the neighbors he was supposed to be protecting—and an unarmed boy to boot. Whether he struck first or not, Martin too was acting out a cultural fantasy: the heroic black male fighting to survive racist mean streets. He had no idea he was suicidally confronting the sort of sinister concealed weapon that makes Florida an unsafe place to be.

Martin had as much reason to feel threatened as Zimmerman did, as he said in his phonecall to Rachel Jeantel. In legal terms, as Alafair Burke observed, if the court had pointed out that Martin was punching Zimmerman in self-defense, then the verdict could have been different. In fact it would reveal the dangerous absurdity of the neighborhood vigilante scenario. 

The incident escalated to hair-trigger fatality because each man was drawing on a cultural story that left out curiosity, inquiry, and negotiation. The fantasies excluded the imaginative sympathy–the “Hello, how are you?”—that is the basis of civility. In part they reflect the reliance on violence to stimulate thrills and chills and profits in entertainment. As media researcher George Gerbner found, one consequence is that heavy TV viewing will lead you to overestimate how dangerous your own neighborhood is.

The moralistic law-enforcement student who wanted to be a judge like his father seems to have imagined that law means enforcement, not talking through problems with strangers. The culture of young black males similarly prepares them to mistrust and fear a shadowy figure like Zimmerman, whether he was a cop or a potential mugger.  

So this is a story about a failure of civility—and the law—to control paranoia, hair-trigger reflexes, and fantasies of heroic force. What motivates the story and made it tragic is the combination of moral aggression and the allure of abandon.

Moral aggression ranges from petty hypocrisy and bullying to the systematic use of righteousness as a weapon to intimidate and kill. History quakes with murderous eruptions such as the Christian crusades, witchhunts, lynching, and all wars. But righteous malice can also be sly, as when politicians sanctimoniously punish the poor by cutting food stamps. 

Moral aggression is crucially entangled with self-esteem. In a sense it’s at the core of personality, as Karen Horney recognizes when she sees culture encoding demands or “shoulds” that from infancy start molding—and often warping—personalities. After all, mum and dad (culture) stuff you with a sense of “what is right” long before you’re know who are or can sort out your values. And people use “shoulds” against each other, which is one reason we fear dictators. When you put down someone who’s “wrong,” you feel “better,” pumping up your self-esteem. If you use moral aggression to exterminate “bad” others, as in Auschwitz or the Old Testament, you can even feel godlike.

The fantasy is most atrocious when it runs amok, as in witchhunts or ethnic cleansing. If you’re seething, the urge to throw off all inhibitions leads to rampage killing or “going postal.” But in American culture these days abandon is pervasive in movies, news, sports, and military ambitions. Shedding inhibitions is a style. Hence the copycat quality in many rampage killings. Our choices are always conditioned by culture. If you fly into a rage, you still have to choose how to act it out. Consciously or not, you need models. If everyone is fascinated by radical gun violence and you join the mayhem, your bigshot infamy commands the world’s attention.

But here’s the hook. Abandon is cruelly ambiguous. If losing control unleashes rage, it’s deplorable. Yet abandon can be seductive too. All sorts of cultural voices, from sports and warfare to advertising promise that if you could just throw off your inhibitions, you could tap some amazing resources in yourself: become a daring millionaire, an Olympic athlete, or an invincible gangster. In slang we say “Go for it!” Superman models this fantasy when he throws off his dorky Clark Kent duds and shows his superhero cape and jockstrap. This is the romance of abandon. Pro wrestling fakes it. Rampage killers live it.

The second ambiguity is that abandon has no obvious limit. How much is enough? Abandon is terrifyingly lethal when the twitch of a finger can trigger maximum violence and kill a child or the city of Hiroshima. George Zimmerman’s pistol supported fantasies of abandon. With a gun he had no reason to be cautious about the hoodied stranger he spotted. He didn’t realize that Trayvon Martin was also into abandon until his fist smashed Zimmerman’s nose. 

flirtation with berserk abandon is one marker of “bad boy” fantasies in pop culture, as the many extravagant and dead rappers illustrate. Trayvon Martin flirted with the bad boy role, suspended from school several times, and once challenged by cops over some ladies’ jewelry found in his backpack. In one cellphone snapshot he posed with a potted marijuana plant, and in another gave the camera the finger with both hands. He had no police record, and these details are harmless, yet they suggest the ambiguities of outlaw self-reliance and streetwise toughness modeled in male adolescent culture—and the corresponding readiness of officialdom to profile minority males.

Ironically, Zimmerman was more of a “bad boy” than Martin. In 2005, he was in trouble for assaulting a cop, and his ex-fiancee took out a restraining order against him. In his new moral watchdog identity, in a recording of a call to police, he growls about “fucking punks” and “these assholes, they always get away.” This is not the wise voice of the law. You might conclude that Zimmerman uses moral aggression to keep himself better under control. 

Let’s not forget the larger cultural picture. Zimmerman echoes the nation’s ambition to be a self-appointed “global policeman.” In American mythology. the neighborhood watch vigilante is akin to “the minute man.” Today, the watch is also an expression of the national security state that spies on its citizens as possible terrorists and mounts a manhunt against any whistle-blowing Snowdens who refuse to cooperate. 

Overreaction to threat has official support in the “Bush doctrine” that at any sign of threat, the US is justified in “shooting first and asking questions afterward.” The Bush/Cheney mentality recalls the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction, the policy of launching a counterstrike the second you spot a missile inbound. The invasion of Iraq cynically employed this mentality, striking with “shock and awe” to counter an imminent attack: a sickening lie that strirred up insurgent anarchy and killed over 100 thousand civilians before the global policeman was forced to withdraw.. Li

Like the “Bush doctrine,” Florida’s “Stand-your-ground” law assumes that any threat to your security warrants total violence. You can see this bizarre idea sanitized in the use of unaccountable drones to assassinate suspects today. No trial, no evidence, no appeal. Given human bungling, drones are as dangerous as Zimmerman’s gun, without which this would be a story about a bloody nose. 

Among those miscalculations is the death of innocents. Only in recent years have we had to face incontrovertible DNA evidence of wrongful imprisonment and judicial murder. But faced with DNA evidence, some prosecutors have repeatedly refused to reopen such cases, presumably because to avoid feeling crushed by guilt. After all, what could be more abominable than the suffering of innocent people condemned to terror and death? Moral aggression put Todd Cameron Willingham to death in Texas despite scientific testimony ignored on appeal. Governor Perry (later head of the energy department in the Trump administration), openly sabotaged the resulting investigation.

Conventional wisdom often behaves as if morality and abandon are self-evidently “natural.” In fact they can used like any other cultural tool or weapon.  Hours after the politically skewed Supreme Court voted to gut the voting rights act Governor Perry’s Texas leapt to pass a discriminatory voter ID law disguised as a means of foiling fraud—for which no evidence exists.

Texas police recently jailed18 year old Justin Carter on $500,000 bail because a Canadian woman vigilante tipped them that in a bantering Facebook discussion two months after the Newtown massacre, Carter had made a sarcastic joke about murdering schoolkids, parenthetically signaling (lol) and (j/k) = just kidding. The Canadian snoop discovered that Justin had apparently lived near an elementary school as a kid (!) The First Amendment is supposed to protect us from witch hunters. Did racism exacerbate the ignorance and callousness of the police and judges?

 In Justin Carter’s case, prosecutor Jennifer Tharp seems to be using moral aggression to look tough to nervous voters. In a culture that is scaring itself silly and looking for easy scapegoats, the temptation to cheap heroism is addictive. Yes, there are vicious criminals around us, on Wall Street and in uniforms as well as in dark alleys. But the Zimmerman fiasco, and the vigilante culture that contributed to that fiasco, aren’t punishing treacherous wealth and crooked power. Rather, they use bogus morality to pick on defenseless nobodies. Like all cultures in all eras, the US is greedy for heroes, and we manufacture them the way Guangdong province turns out shoes. In a dizzyingly ironic way Trayvon Martin has lost his life opening a window on the hallucinations of heroism in the new century.

 Again, keep in mind that abandon and moral aggression go together. And so Florida’s berserk “stand-your-ground” law goes hand in hand with a harsh minimum sentencing law. George Zimmerman the killer is innocent, whereas Marissa Alexander, a black woman who fired a harmless warning shot through the ceiling to hold off an abusive husband, goes to prison for twenty years. To cut off the doctrine of self-defense from its cultural context is asking for trouble—not to mention, unjust. If two armed Floridians felt threatened, stood their ground, and shot each other to death, would the solution be to start firing whenever you first spot a stranger? Would lawmakers support that paranoia?

 Disney World is not the only magic kingdom in Florida that thrives on illusions.

Resources mentioned in this essay:

Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil

Alafair Burke, “What you may not know about the Zimmerman Verdict: the Evolution of a Jury Instruction,” Huffington Post, July 15, 2013. Burke

 Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth

Kirby Farrell, Berserk Style in American Culture

Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon

David Grann, “Trial by Fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?” New Yorker, Sept. 7, 2009.   <<

Michael J. Moore, “The Legacy” (documentary film about California’s Three Strikes law)

William Boardman, “Criminalizing Free Speech”


Victimhood and Self-Esteem

In a recent campaign rally in Georgia, President Trump labeled himself and his supporters victims. He insisted on the term “victims.”  Of course he meant that he was defeated in the presidential election by fraud—even though court after court has turned him down, demanding evidence. Commentators have argued that Trump has clung to the delusion because he can’t bear to lose, or he hopes to retain power for his Republican party.

But a deeper motive might lie in Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. Becker  argues that humans are the only animals  that can conceive of death and we protect ourselves from crippling anxiety by transforming culture into denial of death.  

You’ve probably noticed, for example, that television ads are all ultimately about symbolic immortality.  Whether it’s  medicine to cure disease or food to feed the appetite for more life, the ads emphasize romantic bonds and strength.  (A couple at their sexual peak, say, commands the most powerful and beautiful car—the car promising the most life.)

What about victimization?  After being the most powerful person in the  country,  you can see why Mr. Trump would associate defeat with death. And having considered  himself the most powerful person in American history,  you can see why he would see himself as a victim. His identification with victims could help to explain his campaign to have the innocent Central Park five and others put to death for brutalizing people.

But what about his supporters? Many of them, following his  lead, have denied the Covid virus. They have politicized masks and even denied that the pandemic is real. The present viral surge threatens the power of their denial. After all, the rightwing Trump  preaches individual strength and responsibility.  He snickers at “liberal” emphasis on compassion. But everybody is susceptible to illness; everybody dies.

Becker uses the term “symbolic immortality”  to capture the slipperiness of  denial.  To be a victim is to be unfairly hurt. The compensation is to be righteous.  And superior. Jihadi terrorists  invoke  the same sense of superiority in their use of “martyrdom”—dying to please God and be welcomed into heaven.

Victimhood magnifies the self.   And what could be more superior than the immortality of the gods?

Conspiracy as Heroic Purpose

The first year I worked in Germany, we met on American Jewish lad who’ve been living there for a year. I mentioned how impressive German culture was, thankful that it was democratic and no longer Nazi. The chap scolded me. His neighbors in Germany, he said, were as peaceful and productive as his neighbors at home in the US. Since I believe that people are mostly alike and good, I felt ashamed.

But I was ambivalent. History shows us people behaving with sadistic violence, at the same time they use cultural ideals trying to perfect themselves. But no life is perfect. If personality drives toward self-esteem, what do we do with actual failure and guilt? After Nazi victories in the west, Klemperer reports in his diary, Germans were satisfied to have the shame and depression off their defeat in World War I erased. With the Hitler cult, the victories created a sense of magical undoing. With their self-esteem assuaged, Germans had less enthusiasm for the invasion of Russia.

Once a German neighbor invited us over for a visit in order to show off her new humid and swanky swimming pool in the basement. Somehow the conversation touched on the Holocaust, and the woman became agitated. She made it clear that the subject was off-limits, saying something like she was fed up with hearing about German guilt for the Holocaust. It seemed to me she was boosting her self-esteem by identifying with the German nation, even as she was politely bragging about her swimming pool to the American visitors who had defeated the Germans in World War II.

I was intrigued that The New York Times (October 11th) reported that the “Q” conspiracy theory was “thriving” among German right-wingers. Not surprisingly, those who have embraced the Q fantasy are mostly from the former East Germany, where self-doubt and envy of the prosperous West Germany created an appetite for self-esteem.

The QAnon fantasy imagines Trump as a superhero battling forces within the government, “the deep state,” who are Satanists and pedophiles. The comic-book quality of the story gives riskless heroic purpose to the lives of believers. And the materials are ancient. The Jewish evil of the Deep State looks back to the blood libel of the Middle Ages (Jews supposedly killing Christian children to use their blood in matsos), even as Q’s antigovernment themes give new life to the deep South’s hatred of federal government going back before the US Civil War. More recently, as far right media has become prominent in the US, Q’s emphasis on the sexual abuse of children recalls the Satanic Abuse story in the 1980s and 90s.

Q thrives on the peculiar hero-worship that Trump inspires in some people. But Q also depends on what Canettti calls crowds and power. As in a cult, you join the belief system with others who expand your power: Q’s motto is “Where we go one, we go all.” Like all conspiracy theories, Q makes believers elite: the special knowledge makes the believer superior to everybody else.

“Q always says: ‘Trust the plan. You have to wait. Trump’s people will take care of it,’” a researcher said. “If Trump does not invade Germany, then some might say, ‘Let’s take the plan in our own hands.’”

Echoes of the messianic Hitler. Covid scares people, but for some, the virus intensifies threats to identity. Not Hitler or Trump but the conspiracy story itself rescues believers by providing heroic purpose.

Dinner with the Singapore Air Force

The Mouse Ran Up the Clock

In 2006, when I was working in Singapore, an officer in the local Air Force invited me to dinner.   President Bush and Cheney had just invaded Iraq on the pretext that Saddam had instigated 9/11. Cheney had recently been CEO of Halliburton, and maps of Iraq had figured in a secret meeting of oil executives in the vice president’s office. Things were unsettled in the Middle East and there was anxiety about fuel scarcity and cost: fear that “the low hanging fruit”  had been picked.  

So during dinner in Singapore I argued that the Bush/ Cheney invasion of Iraq was a dishonest imperialistic attempt to capture one of the last top oil reserves in the world using 9/11 as a bold  smash-and-grab maneuver unlike, say, the secretive grab of Iranian oil with the installation of Mr Pahlavi as Shah.

The Air Force officer disapproved of my grumbling about the invasion of Iraq.   Singapore is a wealthy island the size of a golf course, and very vulnerable. What I didn’t realize was that the officer was looking ahead to China’s hegemonic ambitions in Southeast Asia and the world.

Lo, not two decades later, China has become on economic and authoritarian powerhouse.   China has subsumed the Tibetans, Uighurs, and Hong Kong,  and global influence through the checkbook diplomacy,  including “The Belt and Road” initiative. As the country expands, the reliance on technology for social control is breathtaking—see  the previous post, “Measuring Up.”

Now President Trump seems to be confronting China with his tariff wars and lately skirmishes over the Covid flu, 5G, TikTok, and weChat. Supposedly the threat—even all of the juvenile TikTok—is that the company gathers data on naïve Americans which the communist government can command.

The shuddering joke is that American corporations have been gathering big data without limits.  The Internet has become a market for big data. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter pretend that truth matters, but their real business is buying and selling big data, which gives pricing power to advertising. Unlike European countries,  the US has few laws protecting privacy. Politicians are free to use big data in their propaganda and outright lies.

Measurement is a tool. The computer makes  measurement a powerful tool. As population grows, science itself becomes a tool.  As the powerful become more anxious about the political imbalance, the  appetite for newer and more powerful tools seems inexhaustible. How will it be used?  Is the Singapore Air Force right?

Measuring Up;

1984 Points of Light

(From Psychology Today, June 12, 2017

China is developing a digital system to track and evaluate its population of 1.3 billion people. The system excites comparisons to Orwell’s 1984 and dystopian films, but it is only one use of big data to manage people.  Kai Strittmatter, who has reported on Chinese culture for the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, summarizes the new program in “Punkteregime” or “Points Regime” (May 19, 2017). 
Some apps for the system are already in trials. When you download “Honest Shanghai,” the app scans your face as you register, and retrieves data about you from the Internet. Like a credit rating in the U.S., the app uses algorithms to evaluate your financial transactions (bills paid on time?) and rank your creditworthiness.

By 2020, the system is planned to include all Chinese in a “system for social trustworthiness.” The idea is not only to facilitate more, and more secure, business transactions but also to improve individual behavior.  As in Orwell’s 1984, big data, social media, and a digital point system will use rewards and disincentives or outright punishments to create a new model person. An official in the town of Rongchen declares “We want to civilize people.”

Zhang Zheng, Dean of Faculty of Economics at Beijing University, explains, “How do you treat your parents and your spouse, all your social actions, whether and how you comply with moral rules—does not that also tell you about your trustworthiness?”

According to the Director of the pilot project in Rongchen, the system will rank every company and citizen in China. In the pilot project everyone starts with 1000 points. Approved behavior improves your score. You “can be an AAA citizen (“model of honesty”, more than 1050 points). But a slip to 849 points is the “warning level.” Below 599 points, rated “dishonest,” your name will be blacklisted, published, and you become the “object of significant monitoring.” This is specified in the Rongcheng official handbook of the “Administrative Measures for the Reliability of Natural Persons.”

You can see some deep metaphors in the system. It resembles games based on scoring, combined with the standardized processes of a factory. Measuring worth by scores evokes trade and business, especially bookkeeping. Like most computer technology, it makes a trait theory and a decision tree more important than inner life.  

Enthusiasts make the system sound wholesome as a TV game show, with built-in safeguards for flexibility and fairness.  But if history is any guide, the Communist Party and big business will prefer a muscular system that enhances social control. It remains to be seen if any design can rule out incompetence or  corruption. 

In some ways the scheme echoes the corporate promotion of privileges in the U.S., where a certain level of spending or customer “loyalty” qualifies you for special treatment. But when Chinese dissenters disagree with the Party, they’re not usually disappeared into an airline’s Elite Club lounge.

The enthusiasts avoid the specter of punishment by suggesting that negative ratings might reshape the citizen by limiting social privileges, such as access to library books or travel. But no matter how gentle the euphemisms, influence over others is bound to have a coercive element.  Even utopia needs the protections of law and due process.

The dream of the New Man was the 20th century nightmare of totalitarianism.  Who will control the controllers? Who will police the police? Who will sort out the confusion of business practice with governance? The goal is to spur self-policing while disguising the controller.

In the U.S., as advertising and recent election cycles have shown, miners of big data envision algorithms that can predict people’s choices. The dream is that given enough information, a program will be able to tease out and control the consumer or voter’s intuitive and still-unconscious preferences.

Social media such as Facebook and academic endeavors such as The World Well-Being Project and myPersonality promise to enhance individual freedom. They assume that psychological machinery can actualize authentic values otherwise merely latent in us. But in all such efforts to help the butterfly out of the cocoon, the tools and assumptions of the project color the butterfly. 

And of course some butterfly hunters are frankly interested in perfecting the tools for sale to the highest bidder. In a YouTube presentation, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica claims to have combined personality test responses with data from social media to produce “psychographic profiles.” Supposedly his “models that predict personality traits for every adult in America” played a role in the last election.  But “it is important to remember that this much-discussed video is a sales pitch.” [1]  

Despite different emphases, Chinese and American interest in social control overlap.  As shown by the new hysteria about illegal immigrants and terrorism, and massive government investment in surveillance, the U.S. shares the Chinese anxiety that the scale of life exceeds traditional constraints.  U.S. immigration officials are combing records looking for even minor infractions that could justify expulsion.

 At  the same time both countries nurture ambitions that look for a payoff from new tools of control.  Some of the tools are crude propaganda such as the ballyhooed Mexican wall, but others are exploring the depths of electronic data technology and human nature. Why the hysteria? For the moment the scale of life has reached a tipping point. Big numbers challenge the brain, whether they’re population, trade, or environmental figures. And competition makes high-strung humans nervous, since the deep metaphor is combat.  You see the hysteria in the hoarding of power and money at the top, a gun under every pillow, and shameful attacks on the working poor and labor law.

The Chinese have a thousand-point surveillance system. The US has the smarmy slogan “a thousand points of light.” Both cultures are trying to devise narratives that control rambunctious reality without leaving unsightly scars. It’s an old project. Let’s see how it works out this time.

In his Notes from Underground, Dostoyevsky vowed that some humans are defiantly perverse and therefore will be defiantly free. Skeptics anticipate that some Chinese will find ways around the ratings system and its likely corruptions. We are social animals, but also competitive and devious creatures.  The same mentality that enables traders to intuit what others value may also be able to imagine what fools them.  As we see around us today, we can deplore deception even as the crowd is applauding a hoodwinking magic show.

Resources used in this essay:

1. Tamsin Shaw, “Invisible Manipulators of Your Mind,” New York Review of Books  (April 20, 2017), 64.

The Woman Who Met God

Back when the Soviet Union had just come unglued, in 1993, I was doing some workshops for the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan.  In Taldy-Korgan, just across the Tien Shan mountains from the Uighurs in China, I met with a group of local grammar school teachers. They were hard-workers: Instructors, mothers to their own families as well as to their students,

I asked them to write about a problem they faced.  Finally the fortyish, motherly blonde Tatiana obliged by volunteering that she had met “the Christ” in a dream.  Her problem, she said wryly, was that when she told her husband, he thought she was crazy. 

Her dream messiah was a handsome Russian-looking young man who assured her he was the real thing.  Tatiana had grown up in Tatarstan in a nominally Islamic family.  Like many others in the group whose families the paranoid Stalin had  exiled to Kazakhstan, she was now  anxious, because the post-Soviet Kazakh government was pressuring non-ethnic Kazakhs to emigrate and appropriating their jobs.

I pointed out that a messiah rescues people.  What, I asked, might Tatiana need to be rescued from? In no time we were discussing a  new law that threatened non-Kazakh- speakers with the loss of job and deportation.  (Since only 40% of Kazakhs spoke the language, the law was eventually ignored.) We talked about emigration and the threats it posed, especially at a time when Yugoslavia was breaking up in  murderous ethnic cleansing.

In this context Tatiana’s Russian-looking messiah seemed to be trying out her “Russian” identity, grounding her in a deeper frame than the politically unstable local scene.  To put it another way, if the cultural crash uprooted her, Tatiana was facing social death as threatening as real death. She was envisioning a new Russian Christian identity that would welcome and console her.                                                                          

The Kazakh women began reassuring or even mothering one another. But when the idea of exile–social death–surfaced, a few of the Kazakh women testily denied that there was any threat at all.  They may have felt guilty that a national policy which benefitted their own group would injure their colleagues and neighbors.  Yet they were also threatened by economic insecurity in the new post-Soviet environment, so they no doubt had their own anxiety to contend with. 

What struck me was the Kazakh teachers’ desire to resolve their ambivalence about hurting the openly anxious non-Kazakh women.  Their self-esteem was pumped up, and yet that made them feel guilty.  In turn, they dispelled guilt by defensively—aggressively—attacking their non-Kazakh colleagues. After all,  sending colleagues into exile was symbolically killing them.

Some of the non-Kazakh teachers saw us off to the airport. One said the workshop had been the only time in decades working together that they had ever really talked to one another.  Although I’d  had the group shake hands and re-introduce themselves to one another, nothing was resolved. Yet some of them at least were grateful that the many years of polite professional silence have been broken.  The teachers’  professional culture had  ordered the workplace for many years, but it wasn’t enough.

In the parting hugs one of the women thanked me again, and her eyes shimmered with tears.

Us Outlaws

An elderly neighbor of mine once struck up a conversation about his frail health—George’s doctor had warned him that  his heart was bad.  Suddenly he began to tell me about being a teenage lifeguard at a local pool during Prohibition.  Every Friday afternoon a big car from Canada would pull up, and the driver would give him $5 to watch his car for him. $5 was a fabulous tip. Needless to say, this became a regular appointment.

 A few years later George  and his new wife were in Montréal.  The city was jammed for a holiday,  and they couldn’t find a hotel room. They were desperately quizzing a hotel clerk when someone in the crowd hailed him.  It was the bootlegger whose car George had been minding by  the pool a few years before.

They renewed auld acquaintance, and the bootlegger instructed the hotel clerk to give George and his wife a prize suite.

The anecdote seemed to be about life’s surprising coincidences.   But a few years later I was talking to a  retired carpenter.   He began to  describe being a doorman in New York City as a young man. In one of the apartments lived a gangster who was often visited in the evenings by members of his gang.  They would send the doorman out on errands and would tip laviishly. 

A month or so after our conversation the carpenter died.   This let me know that he had told me about being an unofficial gangster because he was aware,  as George had been,  that his time was running out. The memories were haunting.

Both memories were especially meaningful as the storytellers summed up their lives.   They had been unofficial outlaws, breaking out of the constraints of  conventional culture. They had received privileged rewards for breaking the law, but the memories were important because the association with outlaws seemed important.  You could say that both flirted with the idea of being a bigshot, or of being like an obliging son to a powerful and generous parent. After all, to a child, adults can do whatever they want. Everything has purpose. The child in us imagines grown-ups have perfect freedom.

The Trouble with Heroes

We use Hitler to stand for monumental evil, but he fascinates us because hero-worship is so dangerous. Everybody knows the footage of Hitler at the podium in Nürnberg lecturing the sweating worshipful crowd of supporters in military formation below him. Likewise, Trump gave his acceptance speech at the White House—also a grandiose setting—to guaranteed followers.

It’s naughty to compare the Donald to Adolf. Yet it’s hard to avoid.

Both Adolf and Donald are famous narcissists, but narcissism is a system. Both flatter their followers. As Trump has said, “I want every child in America to know that . . . ANYONE CAN RISE.” The slogan is also a euphemism. “Make America great again” means “I can make YOU great again.”  He’s talking about self-esteem. YOURS and HIS.

The hatred of “enemies,” whether Jews or liberals, reinforces the conviction of supremacy.  There is a direct connection between fantasies of Aryan and white superiority. You stroke my self-esteem and I’ll help you “RISE.” To rise means not just an elevation in status, but to grow up as a hero.

If you rise far enough, you become a god, the messiah. In Trump’s words, “I am the chosen one.” As Donald has told us many times,  he is infallible—supremely right—and like Adolf, he has no plans ever to step down.

But remember: it’s a system. We’re all tempted. Everyone wants to be rescued from something. The messiah saves you, but without somebody to save, the messiah is nothing.  Adolf and Donald both need the base. “I’m with you. I am your voice.” And the fantasy of rescue requires the hero to profess, as the Donald does, “they are coming after ME, because I am fighting for YOU.” 

The base worships the super-parent  to feel, as they say, on top of the world.

Adolf’s followers had lost a “world” war and suffered the Great Depression. Donald keeps trashing his predecessor Obama in order to have something to rescue us from.  Meanwhile, Donald promises magical  rescue from the pandemic as Adolf associated Jews with disease. Identify with the hero and you RISE above social death or, in a pandemic, real death. In a lockdown you feel helpless: you’re surrounded by an invisible viral enemy.  If you give in and wear a mask,  you risk realizing that the hero can’t reliably defeat of virus and therefore can’t save you.

As in sports, one of the best remedies for fear is winning. In combat the winner controls the loser, enslaving or killing them. Both Adolf and Donald promise victory.  

This sounds like populism. But it is a parental promise to sacrifice for the kids, although the Hitler kids would die as martyrs in combat, and Trump’s militarism (so far) is his defense of gun rights, the Armed Forces, and white militias. Hence his taunt to Democrats. “We’re here and they’re not”—meaning we’re in the White House and they are not; but also, we are alive and immortal, and they are not.

The Trouble with Protest

Personality is organized around self-esteem. We want to feel good about ourselves. We want to feel right. This is a social behavior, since being right is competitive and like winning in sports or victory in warfare.  But being right is also a survival behavior. Being right about the world and its dangers means that you are likely to live longer.

You can see why protest attracts us. Whether it’s solitary or a crowd behavior, in thought or in action, protest intensifies the feeling of being right.  As Canetti says in Crowds and Power, joining a crowd expands yourself.  There is more of you. The crowd amplifies your power.  You don’t have to worry about faults or the fine details of being right: the crowd shares your responsibility even as it confirms your feeling of being right.

This is true whether your protest is right or wrong. Presumably, depending on the circumstances, you can get an ego- boost whether you believe in White Power or Black Lives Matter. Incidentally, this is a good place to repeat that I believe that blacks in this country have been oppressed and subject to social death. Perhaps that needs to be emphasized because I want to write about the psychology of protest—a  distinction that may be misunderstood.

For one thing, protest is attractive, even seductive. Like a drug, it feels good,  whichever side you happen to be on. Fighting against a protest is itself a kind of protest.  In Hong Kong, the authoritarian Chinese communist party demonizes protesters. Cops disparage those they fight in the streets, partly out of guilt for their attacks  on people usually unarmed, partly out of fear that they could be injured too.

Both sides—cops and protesters—illustrate the tragic creaturely motive that there is no natural limit to protest. Both sides in a skirmish are likely to be gripped by idealism.  Both sides feel that they’re acting to improve a threat. But concepts such as “peace,” “goodness,” “purity,” and “order” have no upper limit.  How much is enough? This is one reason why people fight to the death over religion—which after all tends to be cosmic.

In everyday psychology, the danger is hysteria.  Cops  act hysterical when they beat unarmed protesters;  lynching is a  sadistic form of protest. And some protesters act hysterically when they try to  burn down government buildings. The appetite for self-esteem can be voracious.

This doesn’t mean protest is never justified, but that it needs to be grounded.

For implications, have a look at The Psychology of Abandon (Leveller’s Press).

Ambivalence and the Decision Tree

If you’re ambivalent, you have conflicting or even opposite feelings. It sounds simple enough, but it’s not so easy to appreciate how thoroughly it shapes your life. Ambivalence can be paralyzing, exasperating, intimidating—or inspiring–when you have to admit that we’re of two minds (at least) about everything.

As Ernest Becker reminds us, we’re animals like all the other animals: and we’re built to be both predators and prey. Among other things, we are self-aware.  But conflict often escapes us.  We can’t wait to grow up, for example, yet we hate to grow up because it means narrowing choices and inescapable death.

Ambivalence began to intrigue me when I found to my amazement that most (smart) college students I asked were unable to define the term. They confuse it with ambiguity and equivocation. The concept that we have conflicted feelings and attitudes about everything seemed strange to them, or only hazily familiar. Students know they have complicated inner life, but they’re fuzzy about the concept that would give them some control over it.  What’s going on here?

 A generation or two ago most college students knew Freudian lingo. Thinking about inner life, they used terms such as repression and ambivalence—sometimes clumsily, but that’s another story.

Freud, you recall, saw personality beset by conflicting forces. The challenge was to face up to the storm of reality and keep your balance. For Freud, you were a detective of inner life trying to identify the often invisible pressures pushing you off the sidewalk. It was all about keeping an eye on the shadows and continual problem-solving. It was all process, with no trophy answers and lifetime guarantees. And it was a moral drama too. It prodded you to admire courage and honesty and the ability to harmonize tensions—what the Victorians used to call character.

The Freudian heyday was the hair-raising twentieth century with its insane industrial killing, sickening economic Depressions, and social revolutions smoked down to a roach that burned your fingers.

Lately, I’ve been told, Freud is old-fashioned. What’s changed?

A generation has grown up in the post-Vietnam age of computer technology and consumer utopia. Tech boosts productivity and wealth. But now the trope shaping inner life is no longer Freud’s vision of wrestling with ambivalence, but the decision tree. Like a computer program, life is a sequence of choices.  

Technology lays out, even guarantees the choice. The computer assembles a database and guides you to pick the right career, the right spouse, the right neighborhood, the right child, the right pediatrician, the right school. If you choose correctly each branch of the decision tree, you reach utopia as in a board game. Or you kill every enemy in sight and rest your tired thumbs in video-game triumph. The model implies that utopia means success, prestige, perfect contentment, envious eyes on your awesome wardrobe and your McMansion.

Industrialism and robotics seem to make wealth and correct choices for us.  Today’s bling overlaps periods of historical wealth such as the Gilded Age, but the decision tree is different.

Of course we’ve always been ambivalent, so we do and don’t believe in perfect choice. Belief in perfect success may elate you but also depress you. Or make you cynical. Or gullible.

And the bigger picture remains ambivalent. Google promises that omniscience is only a click away. In hopes of escaping the mechanical schema, we try to think “outside the box.” Historically, plague dumped bodies into mass graves, and worshipers blamed themselves and begged a “loving god” for forgiveness. These days nature threatens us with a pandemic virus, but we choose a tech-inspired “warp speed” vaccine to save us, as if such a solution already existed.

Tech is so convincing—so comprehensive—that we easily lose touch with the ambivalence built into us. Science wisecracks that we are thinking meat. Astronomers see terrifying black holes and the media run colorful photos of the heavens. Already we can see the prospect of human extinction, and popular science is fantasizing about exoplanets light years away.

One problem is denial.  Cosmic photos flatter us with technical heroism. At the same time they deny our creaturely motives: fear of our puny helplessness and our compulsion for more life. TV ads sell immortal snake oil or boost your immunity.  Brands idealize romance and sex, which literally make more life in the comfortable families that populate advertising. 

You love intimacy, but you resent its demands too. You enjoy sex but there are times when part of your brain is echoing Lord Chesterfield’s harumpf that “the sensation’s only momentary, and the positions are ridiculous.” When hormones are boogeying, you nearly faint at the sight of a beautiful body. Yet bodies are also hilariously grotesque, with a big toe on one end, a bony pod of thinking meat on the other–and in the middle, thirty feet of plumbing, erratic hair, and assorted orifices. You love your body. It feels sexy and promises to generate more life yet you’re also trapped in it and if you stick around long enough, it will decay and take you with it.

Decision tree behavior is easy to caricature because you and I know that in reality it’s artificial (1).  Dig deeper and you find that decision tree behavior is also insolubly ambivalent. Decision tree culture privileges executive freedom and enforces factory controls. Yet it’s raised living standards by systematizing work in scale  at the same time that it  fosters delusion and injustice.

The paradox is that ambivalence generates anxiety: and anxiety spurs us to create cultures that shelter us from creaturely conflicts. No wonder us bipeds are continually renovating houses, religions, and scientific theories. No wonder we’re tirelessly tinkering with the cultures that  enable us to believe our lives have enduring significance. We love them. We fear and hate them. We try to improve them.

1. The best caricature of decision-tree thinking I know is in one of the most profound American novels, John Barth’s devastatingly tragicomic The End of the Road (1958). Not to be missed. 

One way of coping with ambivalence is to “let it all hang out” or “go for it.” Berserk abandon promises access to extraordinary resources by overthrowing inhibitions. If this dynamic interests you, check out The Psychology of Abandon (Levellers Press):

<<Berserk style has shaped many areas of contemporary American culture, from warfare to politics and intimate life.>>

<<This book amazes me with its audacity, its clarity, and its scope. We usually think of ‘berserk’ behaviors—from apocalyptic rampage killings to ecstatic revels like Burning Man—as extremes of experience, outside ordinary lives. In fascinating detail, Farrell shows how contemporary culture has reframed many varieties of abandon into self-conscious strategies of sense-making and control.>>