What “Lockdown” Means

“Lockdown” appears to be a strange term to stop viral contagion. We “lock” things against threats. In panic we hope to lock out coronavirus and death.

“Lockdown” suggests government authority, especially imprisonment. More particularly, the term suggests a reaction to a prison riot in which the prisoners are locked in their cells. The idea is that individual prisoners are unlikely to act out panic or rage, whereas a crowd loosens inhibitions and paradoxically magnifies the illusion of personal power even as identity dissolves in the group. The fear is that the crowd may turn into an out-of-control mob.

Lockdown also suggests that we are prisoners in our everyday lives. We are trapped by habits, for example, which threaten to force us to recognize that though we may daydream of heroic exploits, all lives are ultimately trivial and faulty. And so, like prisoners in denial, we prefer to scapegoat others rather than take responsibility, as global leaders blame one another for the virus.

The term reaches into the central nervous system’s “fight or flight” reactions. Liberals tend to be anxious or even panicky about the viral threat. If you are locked up or invisible, the deadly virus cannot touch you.

By contrast, rightwing thinking combats fear by protesting against the group’s—Government’s—lock up. Rightwingers imagine that aggressive action can defeat the dominance of the group and also the threat of the virus. Hence the call to “open up” or “liberate” society.

The belief in fight shows up when extreme rightwingers invaded the Michigan State house brandishing military weapons. They were handling fear by advertising their ability to kill other people. In effect, they were behaving like the coronavirus, as if the virus was a human enemy that could be defeated by intimidation. The weapons made the protesters seem bigger and more powerful, like threat displays in other animals such as baring teeth.

The ultimate lockdown is death. A pandemic exposes the limits of culture to protect us. Religions, racial superiority, the economy, and science, for example, threaten to turn into fictions. We dream of being rescued by first-responders or super-medicines advertised on TV. Liberation is not merely “going back to work” or to “normalcy,” but our ability to be realistic.

The Authoritarian Virus and Denial

Check this out: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/06/opinion/coronavirus-trump-authoritarianism.html
The URL above takes you to Thomas Edsall’s op Ed in the New York Times that reminds us that an emergency such as the Covid virus keeping us “locked down” usually generates an authoritarian reaction.

You do see some signs all authoritarianism these days. For example, Mr. Trump proclaims that the virus makes him a “wartime president.” With flimsy evidence, he would blame the threat on the Chinese, as politicians all over the world, including the Chinese, are doing.

What’s missing is the concept of denial.

Edsall’s intelligent argument (above), not to mention his academic sources, never touches on the problem of death-anxiety.  Edsall quotes Eric Kaufmann, author of the book Whiteshift: Immigration, Populism and the Future of White Majorities, who takes “a more optimistic take on the likely political consequences of the pandemic, among other reasons, because pandemic “compels faith in experts, making it riskier to entrust ‘burn it all down.’”

As I have argued in the Psychology of Abandon and plenty of evidence supports (alas), the terror of losing oneself to death or social death often creates panic. Panic, in turn, may take the form of flight or fight as the nervous system is overloaded. Humans look to authoritarian hero-worship to be rescued from death.

Is Edsall points out, Nazis came to power in Germany partly because all of the 1919 flu pandemic and the global Great Depression. The “burn it all down” global war 2 expressed the terror of all the participants, especially the megalomaniac fantasy of immortality that Nazi ideology propagated.

The term “lockdown” expresses the authoritarian motivation that lurks in death anxiety. If anybody doubts this, think all of the protest against lockdown in Michigan that involved invasion of the Statehouse by “protesters” armed with military weapons. The threat of guns expressed the need all of the protesters not simply to stand up to Government, but also the need to feel superior to mere mortals. Insofar as the small invasion got global media exposure, the symbolic action resonated with the death-anxiety of viewers around the world.

TV as Creaturely Motives

Finally I’ve had a chance to catch up with television.

I was surprised at the naivete of the denial. Every channel advertises fertility (more life) and escape from death.  The ads are virtually all about food or pharmacy that builds you up (“Show more of you”) or that saves you from the Reaper. The magic pills or elixir are all washed down with sex or at least inexhaustible desire.

Humans are all sunny seductive smiles. Or they’re monsters.  Nature programs mostly feature the predatory shark or the predatory croc or the sneaky snake. Thrillers and police dramas feature predatory outlaws.  Heroes always rescue innocents from the gun,  jaws, or some other tool of the Reaper.

Politics of course also dramatizes a contest between fertility vs. death-anxiety.  The president promises to bring back utopia.  Like Zeus, he is secretly envied for his masterful sexuality: he delicately brags about getting his way with any swan he chooses.  In fact he can do anything he wants.  He commands indomitable vitality.  As the comparison shows, this is a desire to be god.  And by the way, immortal..

Naturally the Reaper is a scapegoat—at the moment, specifically immigrants who supposedly rape and kill,.  or opponents who threaten to attack you and scorn you to social death.

No wonder people are confused.  This politics isn’t about ideas or policies. It’s about survival, and it’s especially hard to deal with because of denial. If you talk about hunger for life and death-anxiety, nobody seems to know what you’re talking about.


Sticks and stones: words as weapons

”Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

As kids, we were encouraged to chant that to take the sting out of insults aimed at us. I was reminded of the chant by president Trump’s taunt to the four congresswomen: Go back to where you came from.

What struck me this time is that Mr Trump excites his supporters and his “enemies” by evoking a war that offers the thrill of survival and victory— but nobody risks actually dying.

The Trump taunt reminded me of a Christmas party in the 1970s when the Vietnam War was winding down but still killing people. A Continuing Ed student had invited my wife and me, without mentioning that the guests were executives of Smith & Wesson, the gun manufacturer.

When I realized, I heard my wife Susan deploring the war, and a young executive countering, “if you don’t like this country, you can leave it.” Meaning: Go back where you came from.

In my gut I felt a flight-or-fight reaction. My nervous system knew that his words was a form of combat. His insult was a put-down–as in putting an animal out of its misery–but the killing was social death.  Otto Rank put it right: every argument is symbolically about who lives and who dies. If you lose an argument, you lose face and self-esteem. You die a little. In a real war.  If you win an argument, you feel more alive. If your put-down is forceful enough and your opponent is intimidated, you have more freedom: more life.  In a real war, you impregnate or enslave the losers. This is one of the reasons that whites have needed blacks, especially when defeated Confederates needed scapegoats after losing the Civil War.

The problem is that words do have an impact on us.  As Robert C. Ellliot demonstrates in The Power of Satire: Magic, Ritual, Art, for example, satire originated in the impact of the curse.

As sublimated warfare, electoral contests naturally use terms such as “attack,” “defeat,” and synonyms for “striking a blow.” Ideas may be weaponized. The underlying tactic is to arouse supporters to feel as if they’re embattled but guaranteed to survive: to enjoy the combat.

The trick is to turn flight into fight. Slogans or propaganda can boost morale, as in “Make America Great Again.” The Canetti of Crowds and Power would find chanting a way of turning flight into fight, as in “Send her [the scapegoat] back” or “Lock her up.” Chanting together is like basic training in the military. Recruits learn to overcome inhibitions about destroying another person and feel the magnified fore of the group. Chanting is also a safe way for the group to take some initiative. They’re all on the same page, overcoming their differences. And of course they don’t threaten the leader.

Why is being a supporter enjoyable? Because as in war, you survive. The leader and the Cause promise you will escape from death.

The obverse applies to the scapegoats. They’re dehumanized as apes or imagined predators. Fears that your leader may be a crook are turned against the “enemy,” as in the Hillary Clinton steals wealth and preys on kids. Immigrants are not individual persons but a predatory gang. They rob, they rape, they fake being real US citizens: being one of us. Like spies, they deserve death.

Are You One of Us? Race, gender, and mental processes

Discussions about race have been making me uneasy. Not only because hate groups have been streaking in the media, flashing their naked prejudices. Even essential arguments for fairness and tolerance have been troubling me.

The problem is cognitive.  We refer to Whites and Blacks, or Afro-Americans, or the self-consciously polite “people of color.” But no matter what term you use, naming people into a group doesn’t just identify some quality they have in common. It makes them different, separate, even alien.  You’re not Bill or Tasheka, but “White” or “Black.” It’s as if you’ve been put on a team and you’re automatically someone’s opponent.

As in a sports or other game, there’s a quality of play about the categorization. You know who the “White” or “Black” really is, but for now the reality of the game takes precedence.  The reality is provisional.  While the game is on, you can love or hate the opponent, but you needn’t take responsibility for really loving or hating them forever.

People with different complexions are all humans. Individually we’re distinctive, but otherwise we’re more or less the same. To say an individual with a particular complexion is “a Black” or “a White” makes it sound as if that’s the important thing about the person. Which is nonsense. Whoever they are, they’re humans first of all, one of us—whoever we are. The idea of calling a person who could be you “a black” or “a white” gives me the creeps.

Since blackness has problematical or negative connotations, then, the label “Black” is a stigma not unlike the yellow star Nazis used to makes Jews targets. Naturally some Blacks have tried to rehabilitate the stigma by insisting “Black is beautiful.” But the slogan still uses the label. It’s the tricky way cognition works. To avoid the problem, should the movement “Black Lives Matter” be renamed “Variously-Pigmented-People-Associated-with-Negative-or-Threatening-Traits-Matter”?

It’s the way we’re built. The brain generates our reality by categorizing its sensory input. Out of a storm of undifferentiated experience, the infant’s brain makes objects. Parents and culture teach names that substantiate the tyke’s reality and a sense of “what is right.” Among the tyke’s first categories are “Us” and “Them.” From the start, self-esteem and paranoia get into the act. Which comes first—which do you prefer—Us or Them? Could They threaten or scare Us? If we choose between them, we imagine we’re supporting what’s right and, acting as judge, superior to both groups.

If we’re surviving, then evolution says we must be doing something right. But as the ancients realized, there’s something ambivalent, even tragic, about how we’re built. Adam and Eve busily started naming everything, using the tree of knowledge to categorize good and evil. So they opened the way to Google and microbiology, but by incurring the curse of labor and death—and worries about wardrobe. And the landlord evicted them from the Garden of Eden.  That’s a pretty ambivalent outcome.

Blackness has disturbing associations for humans because we’ve evolved to depend on sight, and so black night means disorientation, predators, and the ultimate blackness of death.  Likewise, we’ve all evolved from the same primate ancestor, but self-esteem revolts at the idea. We’re made of the same stuff as other animals, and have their body plan. But we fear and despise human features such as noses or hair that remind us of our animal nature. In disgust, we call scapegoats rats, apes, pigs, dogs, and the like. We imagine we’re superior; our lives have heroic purpose, whereas mere animals eat, mate, poop, and die.

It’s the way we’re built. To call people like you or me “blacks” or “whites” is a delusion. As science puts it, “Ashley Montagu demolished the concept of “race” in his book, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (1945). Nevertheless, like many a bad idea, the notion persists that there is some useful purpose in classifying humanity into five, six or a dozen races. . . . Living humans share too recent a common ancestor for there to be many deep-seated biological differences among us. From an evolutionary standpoint, we are all Africans.” [1]

As defining traits go, complexion is as trivial as—I was about to write freckles,but then I remembered that not so long ago you could be lynched as a witch because you had a suspicious freckle indicating that your black arts could kill me. Better to burn you and your freckle as a precaution.

People get lost in the funhouse of race in part because they can’t sort out which influences are cultural and which inherited. They blame “blacks” for crime, unwed mothers, welfare, and so on. Or they congratulate themselves for being above such failings.

In the end, the problem is cognitive and existential, which is also the way we’re built. Nobody is purely white or black or anything else, because everything evolves. Every crop of newborns presents a variety of temperaments and traits.  That makes even more striking the fact that one of our built-in traits is an instinct for fairness.

Meanwhile reality is in motion. With every breath, humans create and recreate. Everything changes and sooner or later everything dies. But since we’re social animals, there’s some comfort in knowing that we’re all in this together.

  1. “Is Race Real”?  http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/pub/2011/4/is-race-real

(Adapted from my essay in Psychology Today, Aug 31, 2016)

Creaturely Motives & Interpretation




Creaturely Motives: Irony and Denial

in “The Natural History of the Chicken”





Creaturely Motives, Irony, and Denial

in “The Natural History of the Chicken”


Humans have two guidance systems that shape behavior: genes and culture. We deemphasize creaturely motives—the need to breathe, sleep, eat, and mate—because they are compulsory and associated with death. Mark Lewis’s documentary film “The Natural History of the Chicken” illustrates our use of culture to manage basic conflicts between guidance systems. We are predators that must kill and eat other animals such as chickens in order to stay alive, yet culture can transform our sociable motives so that we may personalize chickens as children or sacralize them, symbolically harmonizing conflict and overcoming death. In dramatizing incongruities in our appetite for more life, Lewis demonstrates how irony enables us to suspend irrational meanings in cognitive play space and manage the insoluble conflicts that define us.



Like Narcissus, humans are captivated by an idealized image of ourselves. Although we too are animals, we imagine ourselves superior to other creatures. Culture encourages us to overestimate our autonomy and ignore our creatureliness, even though we have to breathe, eat, sleep, and mate in order to stay alive. A creaturely motive such as eating is not a choice, but a compulsion built into us. We are slaves to our creatureliness. Culture disguises our biological nature, and celebrates our autonomy. Romance idealizes mating by making it transcendent while consoling for failure. In addition, romance compensates for humankind’s terrifying awareness that we must die and disappear forever, not only acting out sexual fertility in the promise of posterity, but also intensifying exaltation in vows to love “till the end of time.”


“Eternal love” smothers the question that Ernest Becker posed to a friend and college chaplain: “Who ever gets enough life? Food, laughter, fucking, creativity?”[1] Becker’s question is really a challenge. One chilling implication is that a lifetime cannot exhaust our appetite for life. Another is that humans are always hungry, sometimes even starved. Accordingly, greed for life disposes us to violate restraints. Conrad famously dramatized this appetite Heart of Darkness, where Marlow remembers Kurtz “on the stretcher, opening his mouth voraciously, as if to devour all the earth with all its mankind.”


The mouth that shouts our appetite for life is also a terrifying heart of darkness. The same orifice that kisses tenderly and speaks our thoughts also hides teeth that kill and chew other living things in order to swallow and digest them, plundering their nutrients and expelling the waste as shameful excrement.

Like other animals, we live by killing. To stay alive, we have to destroy and consume other living things. We thrive on captured life-energy. We enjoy a good meal, yet we fear, despise, and feel guilt over the waste we produce. “Shit” is disgusting and shameful because, among other things, it reminds us that we live by stealing vitality and degrading it. A contemptible person is an “asshole.” Our moral and social faculties are trapped in demanding bodies that will some day betray us and die. At home we cherish pets. Out of sight in the slaughterhouse we kill them on an assembly line, in a depersonalized ritual that numbs or dissociates guilt feelings. By the time they reach the supermarket, the moocow, the Little Red Hen, Mary’s little lamb, and Porky Pig are shrink-wrapped and labeled products, no longer lovable personalities. Culture compensates for our ambivalence in tributes such as Barbara J. King’s Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat.[2]


As a creaturely motive, appetite is tyrannical. If we stop eating, we die. We can love other living things, yet we live by pillaging their vitality. Opening his mouth “as if to devour all the earth with all its mankind,” Kurtz reminds us that humans, like chickens, can be cannibals. None of us asked to be born into this dilemma: it’s how we’re built. Culture harmonizes the conflict with ideas of renewal and ecologies, or theologies of specialness. We savor cuisine and admire the artistry of the dinner table. yet mealtime can shiver with conflict when the diners worry about what to put in their bodies. What will destroy health? What gives more life? Let the inhibitions of culture falter, and the latent terror of voracity emerges.


Neuroscience confirms that we construct reality in our own image, the brain limited in its access to the full range of what exists. For example, we can only perceive a small margin of the electromagnetic spectrum. In The Denial of Death,[3] Becker argued that since humans are uniquely aware of mortality, and nobody ever gets enough life, denial conditions all of our experience. Denial filters all our experience, yet it may go unnoticed.


The subject of this essay is a narrative entertainment that illustrates creaturely motives and the way denial pervades behavior: Mark Lewis’s documentary The Natural History of the Chicken (2000).[4] The film’s unassuming character and its comprehensive ironies make it possible to call attention to insoluble conflicts in the human condition without arousing prohibitive defenses.


From Aesop’s Fables to Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons, stories about animals have functioned as parables that help to clarify thinking. As a parable, a Road Runner episode helps us manage the difficult or even unthinkable problem that like coyotes, we live by killing and eating other living things. As children we form our sense of what’s right loving “the moocow” even as we watch one another chew a hamburger that doesn’t look anything like the living animal. The meal and its ritual rules are part of a cultural prescription. The dinner table masks the conflict over killing or transforms guilty perplexity into a question of taste. Mealtime culture changes the Little Red Hen into a “wishbone.” It may make our predation humorous, as in annual jokes about the Thanksgiving turkey trying to escape execution. These processes are likely to disguise our feelings as well as the prey.


Nevertheless, like the road runner, we survive by evading or defeating predators. The road runner cartoon models the insoluble ambivalence that is built into us as appetite. Humans are both predator and prey. Killing to eat is both a joy and a horror. Culture can rationalize the conflict as necessity and condition us with fatalism. But humankind may also react with ambitious denial, enlarging and reinforcing cultural projects such as the belief that cosmic authority ordains us lords of creation, free to use other creatures as measured appetite demands. As “the king of beasts,” the lion is a rival to the lord of creation. Affluent hunters pay to kill the trophy “lord” as a symbolic rival or enemy, not as a lion-chop to be eaten. Grocery stores in Europe market a breakfast cereal called ”Lion” which allows defenseless young hominids to catch and swallow “the king” as the king himself does an antelope in the wilderness. In its animated Lion King, Disney encourages children to identify with a lion cub who comes of age as “The Lion King.”


In Road Runner cartoons, the clever bird and Wile E. Coyote evoke conflicting aspects of childhood. The coyote’s violent futility comically moralizes obsessive greed, punishing the predator. As denial, it gives a comical disguise to the dog-eat-dog appetite in which all life is entangled. By contrast, the innocent road runner is never plagued by hunger and therefore is never tainted by aggression. Like the cartoon, Aesop’s fables also repeatedly project predators and prey, moralizing clashes. Even when the predator succeeds, as when the wolf eats the lamb in Aesop, the dying victim gets the last word, talking back to authority in a resounding protest: “Any excuse will serve a tyrant.”[5]


Moralizing about predatory greed, the Road Runner cartoon is a cultural tool to help stabilize creaturely motives and society. What needs to be emphasized is that we are conflicted creatures: biological animals like others on earth, yet also symbolic beings. As Clifford Geertz has pointed out, genes and culture give us two not always compatible guidance systems.[6] We are conflicted not only within culture, as in the class-conflict acted out by Aesop’s lamb and wolf, subject and tyrant, but also within the creaturely motives that shape us. The mouth that communicates, expresses tenderness, and tastes the world also hides the teeth and muscles we use to chew up, swallow, digest, and excrete other living things. We develop cultures to help us harmonize this conflict. We think of a dead steer as a “Whopper” or boeuf bourguinon rather than as a corpse. Like other tools such as law, medicine, and religion, food culture regulates our exposure to death and futility, and protects morale. Civilization confines slaughter to a farm or a “meat packing plant,” and ritualizes the consumption of body parts at the dinner table with polite manners perhaps framed by a prayer to invisible cosmic authority. Culture turns appetite into a system that promotes survival. It shelters us as habitat does. A house keeps out predators and foul weather, and stages the transformation of living things into food.


One of culture’s tools is irony. Definitions of the term focus on opposition, contradiction, and incongruity. What makes conflicted ideas ironic is tone of voice or an ironic attitude. In spirit, irony is open-ended: it suspends closure. In satire, it mocks inadequacies without necessarily specifying anything better. Confronting doom, gallows humor responds to the incongruity of death by suspending terror and depression in laughter. Whether signaled on the page or in person, irony tolerates conflicts. It makes shareable an acceptance of human inadequacy. If I tell you that “The coyote chases the road runner out of unrequited love,” you’re likely to conclude that the statement is factually incorrect or a joke. However, if I say the same thing ironically, in the context of this discussion of creaturely motives, we may share a hunch that there is more going on in the pursuit than a conventional explanation can say. In that case, the irony would be a suggestion, perhaps intuitive, and beyond any claims of proof. The irony would allow the possibility that there’s more going on in this silly cartoon than meets the eye—more than we can puzzle out just now. Eventually we might consider that the coyote’s chase may combine aggression and desire as stalking does. But meanwhile irony keeps open the

Irony is radically equivocal. It can foster humility in acknowledging that the world is always bigger than we are. But it can also flatter our intuitive powers as if we know more than we do. And irony is unaccountable—which is one reason that television is relentlessly ironical. Using chickens—ridiculous chickens—Mark Lewis has built his “natural history” out of contradictions observed from life.

The Natural History of the Chicken is “dedicated to the renowned Italian Renaissance natural historian Ulisse Aldrovandi who perceived the chicken as part of a much larger ‘order of things’” (0’41”). The “order of things” might call to mind a parental deity’s supervised “chain of being” or the Enlightenment’s sublime cosmic clockwork. Yet while the film examines crucial philosophical themes, it systematically juxtaposes anecdotal vignettes that demonstrates our contradictory attitudes toward chickens and nature. We raise the birds to be slaughtered and eaten, for example, yet also dote on them as pets, even as “soulmates.” The vignettes dramatize some of the myriad rationales we use to harmonize these contradictions. Taken as a natural history, the film evokes an “order of things” that defies scientific taxonomy. Instead of forcing motives into logical categories determined by a comprehensive theory, the film lets its incongruities speak for themselves.

The closing vignette illustrates the process. There, pastor Joseph Tauer recounts a reassuring fable about Lisa, a hen who covers her chicks to save them from an attacking hawk. He concludes that Lisa was willing to sacrifice herself. After some melodramatic suspense, the pastor reveals that the hawk missed. He vows that the incident proves that divine authority governs the world, and his homily seems to sum up the film on a reassuring note.

The pastor’s didactic tone signals that he is not being ironic. In a larger context, however, his lesson about Lisa is one of the many incongruities that make the film ironic. Among other things, the hawk’s failure to kill Lisa’s chicks means that her own hawk chicks may starve to death. More ironically still, to create the homily, the pastor has to be unchristian, scapegoating the hawk and perhaps sacrificing her offspring.





The film opens with Janet Bonney’s introduction of her farm in Maine and her small flock of chickens. Since the camera sees only a comfortable house in an idyllic setting—no mud, manure, or back-breaking toil—the farm is already sheltered by pastoralism. Janet Bonney is unpretentious and self-reliant, an older woman but not elderly. She recounts how one of her flock died in a sudden snowstorm. The chicken was “lying on her back, frozen, like the kind you’d find in a grocery store” (3’42”). As she prepared to bury the bird, she detected a faint pulse. “My God, she’s alive! So, I got the hot water bottle and put her on her back on that.” She applied CPR, “which I didn’t know too much about, but I’d seen it on television on doctor shows.” Adding “mouth to beak” resuscitation, she brought the victim back to life. Audiences chuckle at the idea of reviving an animal with a life-giving kiss usually reserved for fellow humans and Sleeping Beauty.

No longer young and apparently living alone, the woman celebrated the triumph of life over death by naming the survivor Valerie “for her valor” and putting her in a baby’s playpen to recover. The rescuer, that is, turned the resurrected bird into an individual, a baby—a basic symbol of the desire for more life that is built into us. Valerie “enjoyed watching television”­—the source of the CPR instruction that saved her life and represented by a nearly subliminal 5- second clip of surgery (6’38”) spliced in to conclude the vignette. Valerie’s story illustrates the way culture elevates the accidental survival of a barnyard animal into a “miracle.” The process transforms an anonymous creature into the uncanny hero Valerie, whose remarkable triumph over death counters anxiety and dissolves ambivalence about whether to bond with, or kill and eat, her.

The following sequence ironically sums up Valerie’s transformation. A Cadillac comically decorated with a giant rooster head and tail feathers (6’50”) rushes to deliver Danny’s Fried Chicken. As symbolized by the car, the bird is both a personal totem and food, not to mention an attention-getting advertising logo. On the soundtrack, accompanied by banjo, bass, and country fiddle, a male vocalist yodels as if giving a voice to the automotive chicken on screen, bringing the impersonation to life. The chicken-mobile fuses chickens and humans together the way we identify with the chicken Valerie. At the same time, an intertltle announces that we “spend $40 billion each year on chicken products” and “eat 80 pounds of chicken per person per year.” By consuming chickens, we also make them part of us.


The sequence that follows visits a commercial chicken hatchery, the agricultural industry’s source of chickens as food. The film keeps the human concern for “more life” in the foreground by explaining that the steel buildings are “designed to hatch fertile eggs from breeder farms” (7’31”). However, the identical steel buildings, shrouded in secrecy, resemble a Nazi death camp. Inside, the camera shows eggs and newborn chicks in factory profusion, processed as a commodity, as in vaccination, which sends fluffy, newly hatched chicks down metal chutes. The vignette closes with an shot that fills the screen with crowded, doomed chickens. An intertltle announces that “This year 8 billion chickens will be slaughtered to meet consumer demand” (9’24”). On the soundtrack a choral Agnus Dei ironically sharpens the resemblance to a Nazi death camp.


Having laid out the conflicting ideas, the film moves to a family farm in Virginia where Joseph Martinez offers a farmer’s frank, naturalistic rationalization of killing to eat. He raises chickens as he does plants, to “be close to the chain of life,” which “gives him a sense of well-being” (10’10”). If you eat a chicken, “somebody is killing that animal for you.” Yet the food chain is a rhetorical device and artificially blends plants and animals. Nobody keeps a turnip as a pet or uses CPR and a baby’s crib to bring it back to life.


As depicted, the Martinez farm itself euphemizes the conflict. Unlike Janet Bonney’s blizzard-struck farm, the Martinez farm is sunnily pastoral. While agribusiness can plow a five-mile long furrow these days, Maple Spring Farm is personal in scale, verdant green, tidy as a dining room, and unburdened by muck, toil, and finance. The Martinez family includes an attractive spouse, two model children who search out the free-range hens’ eggs, and the family dog. Like their rooster, who protects his hens as “father-figure and lover,” the farmer cares for his kingdom as an idealized monarch. His chickens are “as free as I am” and happy, as if that would make killing them easier rather than more disturbing.


In these episodes, culture assimilates animals and the problem of death. It humanizes chickens as surrogate children, but also, contrariwise, it makes them commodities stripped of identity, so copious they threaten to burst the walls of the steel hatchery shed containing them. The next vignette, Joel Vavra’s demonstration of chicken behavior, returns to a personal scale.


In his performance, Joel Vavra impersonates chickens in order to explain them. As he mimics the animals’ actions and vocalizations, he gives them a human voice. Dressed in farmer brown overalls, he acts out imaginative sympathy with nature. Acting out the chickens’ mating dance, he interprets them to us. The rooster’s crow after mating, he explains, is a cry of triumphant fulfillment, part of the cock’s genetic endowment. Mating, life pushes back against death. In its genetic logic, the solitary creature cries in protest: I’m still here, I exist. With this mating cry the vignette closes. The camera withdraws and the rooster-man shrinks into the distance, vanishing into the vastness of the field in a visual demonstration that an individual life is a speck in the infinitude of the dark cosmos. Finally a still shot of a dark corn field is all that remains, with the man’s rooster-cry alone and defiant on the soundtrack.


Like valorous Valerie’s “resurrection,” this is a fantasy of overcoming mortality. In human terms, as presented, the mating behavior and rooster’s crow dramatize the hero’s defiance of death. The animal’s appetite for more life is assertive, even aggressive, as the next vignette dramatizes.


Bobby Wayne Webb tried to raise roosters for cock-fighting, but ended up in a court fight with his suburban Ohio neighbors (13’13”). For society, cock-fighting functions to manage morale. Like gladiators in the Roman arena, fighting cocks model the heroic need to face down death-anxiety. Wagering on a fight to the death, the combat offers the thrilling prospect of “more life” in a victory. Gamblers identify with “their” gladiator and vicariously experience the triumph over terror and the threat of cowardice. The cock allows the winner to stand out against anonymity which—as in the mob of doomed birds jammed into the chicken-raising factory (9’24”)—is tantamount to social death. The gambler who loses confronts death in his dead bird, who is potentially a scapegoat to be disavowed, just as the proud victor tacitly disavows the loser and his rooster. In this way the combat reproduces, and also potentially finesses, the social hierarchy.


Webb stakes over a hundred young roosters to the ground, so close to one another that it keeps them in a state of emergency aggression. The rows of metal huts resemble a military encampment, a factory layout, a prison, or a death camp. As a gamecock breeder explains, roosters crow to mark territory and protect their females. The cocks crow in a threat display to warn off rivals even as they are fighting against the tethers that keep them staked on the edge of danger and helpless. Webb’s “farm” keeps their nervous systems in a state of constant emergency threat, primed for an instinctual fight to the death.


The roosters’ nonstop clamor rattles Mr. Webb’s neighbors. They become caught up in the birds’ creaturely motives when they are fired up by the roosters’ war-cries. The special effects make houses quake and windows shudder as if in battle. Like the birds, the human neighbors square off in a territorial struggle, fantasizing about being snipers. One consults Sun Tzu’s The Art of War for guidance, mistaking the ancient Chinese warrior for Japanese. For relief, the neighbors go to court. As evidence, they tally some 20,000 cries in a single day. This is akin to the noise of battle, and the neighbors prevail in court. Since chickens will kill and even cannibalize one another, the ruckus points to the ultimate threat of extermination that resonates with the human nervous system’s alarm. Raised to kill or be killed, the cocks are enslaved to command as gladiators and soldiers are. In fighting to survive and propagate more life, the roosters dramatize the spectators’ creaturely motives.


The neighbors’ and animals’ unconscious affinity is ironically reinforced when the next clip shows the Martinez children happily gathering free-range eggs as if they have an intuitive pastoral understanding of the hens’ habits. Then Danny’s comical rooster-mobile briefly reappears, followed by a closeup of an industrial egg-production facility (hens lay 80 billion eggs a year) whose overcrowded cages and conveyor belts foreground the depersonalized scale of factory farming (23’39”).


As the film sets out the basic conflict, the vignettes become more intensely personal. Karen Estrada, for example, celebrates her “soulmate” Cotton, a Japanese Silkie Bantam rooster, as her surrogate toddler and as a magical tonic for morale (25’29”). She takes Cotton grocery shopping, shares her food with him, and keeps him domesticated with a special diaper. She swims with the rooster cuddled to her breast, reads a poem she has composed that glorifies the joy he imparts. When his owner goes out, she leaves Cotton watching television, maintaining that the rooster appreciates Pavrotti’s singing, even as the camera satirically implies that the operatic tenor resembles the rooster in his full-throated expression.


Karen Estrada gushes. Her jubilation has the didactic fervor of a tent revival. Although she may strike audiences as a warbling, dotty eccentric, her uninhibited euphoria can be understood as a performance akin to the clown’s role in Shakespeare: an escape from ambivalence meant to wake people from humdrum torpor.


As Janet Bonney resumes the story of Valerie (30’53”), she reports that news of Valerie’s “miraculous” escape from death awoke interest in mortals around the globe. She suggests that Valerie’s story may have uplifted audiences disturbed by the anxious coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. The trial was especially disturbing because a famous athletic symbol of fertility stood accused of destroying a wife and marriage that epitomized more life. “People” Janet Bonney theorizes, “needed . . . a Cinderella story”: that is, a fairy tale in which mating whisks a servant girl into the kingdom’s ruling family. In this context, Valerie did join the human family—in fact she led hopeful mortals up to the doorway to heaven. Janet Bonney called in Alex Kapuscinski, an “animal communicator,” who reported that Valerie told him she had gone into a tunnel of light while near death, only to have a supernatural voice tell her, on the edge of immortality, that she “must go back.”[7] The chicken’s experience seems to confirm the reality of life-beyond-death. What’s more, like a 19th century séance, the report affirms that the cosmos is personal, with a voice that a mere chicken can understand. At the end of a “tunnel of light,” a 20th century version of the séance experience, the voice tells the chicken on the threshold of ultimate revelation that she must return to life. When Valerie resumed her life in the barnyard, says Janet Bonney sounding like a virtuoso animal communicator herself, Valerie gave “the girls” an exciting, circumstantial account of her adventures, highlighting the pleasures of the playpen and television.


As in the ancients’ practices of ornithomancy, Valerie became associated with an uncanny life-force and, consciously or not, afforded onlookers reassuring omens. This is the fetish-power that farmer Lloyd Olson’s rooster Mike acquired after he was decapitated for the frying pan but “refused” to die (34’10”). The beheaded Mike behaved like an ordinary rooster. The film parodies a tall tale by having country folks relate the story. The vignette includes a photograph of the headless Mike as well as clips of neighbors who witnessed his freakish survival. Hoping to make money to pay off the farm, the Olsons exhibited the headless bird as “Miracle Mike” in sideshows at fairs. His apparent immortality fascinated crowds,[8] as if he proved that a will to live can triumph over death.


Since we locate our identity in the head, Mike’s decapitated life is an unwelcome reminder of our creaturely limits. Although we idealize our autonomy and attribute our executive capability to the brain, Mike’s survival makes the origin and organization of life mysterious again. It disrupts the conventional cultural story as well as our everyday experience of life. For some people, this disruption stirred sinister anxieties. After Life magazine featured Mike during World War Two, when war deaths tested cultural consolations, the Olsons received hate mail condemning their exploitation of Mike’s survival. Religious writers complained that death is God’s plan, and refusing to submit implies an unholy rebellion.


As it happens, Miracle Mike absurdly choked to death after the Olsons forgot an eyedropper to clear his throat. Since they had hoped that Mike’s career would rescue their farm from debt, the episode’s closing shot of the Olsons’ gravestones makes a sly comment on our striving for more life (41’22”). Their grandson sums up: “I think Lloyd and Clara thought that they were in the money, that they were going to go off and seek their fortune and retire off of this rooster. Mike drew a pretty good crowd at the sideshows, be it people that were just interested or thought it was a hoax.” For him, the contradictions stimulate wonder: “I really don’t know what to think of why Mike lived. Was it just fate? Did this one particular rooster have just that much will to live? Or was it just because he was so dumb of an animal he didn’t even know his head was cut off?”


When Joseph Martinez continues his story, by contrast, he philosophizes about life as a natural ecology rather than as a social Darwinist struggle for survival. As he kills a bird on camera, his commentary rationalizes his actions on the soundtrack. “In order to eat a chicken,” he says, “you have to kill a chicken. There’s just no easy way around that. I try to do it as easily on them as possible. I try to respect them all the way through the process to the table. All farmers take this as a matter of course.” He keeps the relationship personal and respectful. And he is proud to be forthright.


Still, the farmer’s philosophy is not without conflicts. His qualms about killing he displaces to non-farmers, whose ignorance amounts to denial. “I guess I feel a little odd about speaking about killing because I know many many people have no experience of this at all, and it’s very difficult for them to see it as not being cruel. But I don’t see it as being cruel. I see it as necessary.” In this formula, necessity is akin to the immemorial peasant’s bedrock fatalism. And it implies sacrifice: the victim’s sacrifice, and the demanding role of the heroic paterfamilias or priest who carries out the slaughter. “Somebody is doing it if you eat meat. Somebody is harvesting that creature for you.”


At the Martinez family dinner table, with the corpse of the chicken roasted golden brown, the farmer also acts as Dad and priest ritualizing the consumption of the sacrifice. He leads the family in a toast to “our beautiful chicken.” The ritual’s reverence recalls the worshipful mystification that Valerie and Miracle Mike inspired, corroborated by the family’s ceremonial harmony and security. The underlying pastoralism implies that “nature” has always been benevolent, as in “organic” farming and the Paleo Diet.


Facing the camera, Mr. Martinez is eloquent: “There’s a sense of wholeness about growing your own food. It reminds me that it’s not just me in this world. It helps me stay attuned to those things that are important to me like cycles of life and death, of happiness and sadness, just everything that makes a life rich. So it keeps me connected to things outside of myself.” While it recalls the Joel Vavra the rooster-man defiantly crowing in an overwhelmingly vast landscape, the family farmer’s creed of selflessness and necessity dramatizes for the camera a moment of contentment untroubled by survival greed.


The film closes with the pealing of church bells and Pastor Joseph Tauer’s appeal to divine authority to harmonize our conflicted nature (46’36”). In Unity Magazine, whose cover feature is titled “Courageous Living, Abundant Living” and illustrated by a photograph of a motherly woman with baskets of food—an explicit invocation of more life—the pastor has published a homily about chickens titled “Call Me Chicken.” As a rule, he explains, the word “chicken” usually implies cowardice. To refute that misperception, he tells us about Lisa, a Japanese silky bantam smaller than other chickens, “but big in her love for life.” The tale of Lisa provides climactic reassurance and associates the audience with a church congregation, yet irony colors the ritual.


Lisa, the pastor believes, was desperate to be a mother, yet the other hens picked on her and predators scavenged her eggs. After some frustrated interventions, the pastor finally built Lisa a special home for her alone, implicitly taking the role of paterfamilias or rooster himself. In what amounts to a virgin birth—there is no rooster in the pastor’s tale—Lisa became an ideal mother to a brood of chicks. One day a hawk panicked the flock, and Lisa’s chicks hid under her. The hawk swooped down and appeared to kill Lisa but miraculously missed.


The pastor concludes that Lisa was willing to give her life for others, and that this proves “the absolute order in God’s universe.” Like a saint’s life, Lisa’s tale becomes a parable about cosmic truth. The pastor imagines Lisa “overcoming the so-called survival instinct,” willing to sacrifice herself for others. The assumption is that self-sacrifice is a value that transcends creaturely motives such as self-preservation, and fulfills a divine plan. In the process it also relieves our guilt as predators who must kill to live. Framed this way, the pastor’s story excludes alternative explanations such as the instinct to keep absolutely still or play dead in an attack in hopes that the predator will pass over the victim.


But as pointed out above, an even more serious omission undermines the pastor’s tale. In casting Lisa as a saintly heroine and the hawk the villain, he moralizes nature, imposing a cultural melodrama on it. Lisa becomes the supreme mother, and the mother hawk the messenger of death. The narrative becomes an allegory about human character. By envisioning nature not as an ecosystem but as a moral instrument, pastor Tauer screens out the reality that the hawk could be a parent too, possibly with hungry chicks doomed to starve because their parent’s talons missed. What’s more, if the pastor acknowledges that his God made both the Japanese bantam hen and the hawk, he is in the awkward position of believing that his God has created a predatory world and plays favorites.





Pastor Tauer tries to overcome conflicts that entangle us by devising a story that transcends them. As partner, he helps and loves Liza, and with her he creates a family: more life. Yet he invests this family with value by making Liza Christlike in her self-sacrifice while scapegoating the hawks. In cultural history, this is the dynamic of social hierarchy. One family or class is idealized or ennobled at the expense of others. Liza’s brood becomes a moral aristocracy, as it were, while the hawks go hungry or become outlaws. It is human imagination that distinguishes between Us and Them; nature is indifferent


Because we are insolubly ambivalent and hierarchies are contestable, we depersonalize the animals we slaughter or sacralize them as we do with the chicken Valerie or halal meat. In the ancient world, haruspicy or divination with bones projected the search for more life into the supernatural. Today the chicken’s wish-bone is a faded reminder of ornithomancy and the use of bird flight and organs as omens. Still, imagination today may attribute to birds a link to the cosmic life-force or supreme meaning. Like mating behavior, the symbolic transformation of a chicken into a family member or soulmate can be a means of generating more life and connecting the family to the mysteries of birth and death. The dynamic seems to be built into us in the instinct to divide reality into Us and Them.


The division of Us from Them directly registers the predatory and sociable motives that conflict us. The conflict lies in the need to kill to insure our survival, and the way the compulsion to kill arouses anxiety about death. The conflict is symbolized as the storm that “kills” (transforms) Valerie. The priestly “animal communicator” relays Valerie’s supernatural experience to her “family” and, by satellite, to the world. The Olsons’ story complements her story. The farmer’s slaughter of chickens for the frying pan is the storm that creates “Miracle Mike” and a magical promise to grow the farm and enrich the Olsons.


By symbolizing killing as a storm, we attempt to naturalize it. The storm disrupts and endangers routine, but it seems built into life and “natural.” At the same time, paradoxically, the symbolic storm dissolves the conventional cognitive categories that enable us to function but also rigidify thought. Habits, for example, make our mental operations more reliable and efficient, yet they also may rigidify as prejudices, inaccurate and resistant to reality-testing. A basic irony of the film is that our prevailing conventions misconceive the chicken. The symbolic storm of near-death or play-death makes Miracle Mike and Valerie—”dumb clucks”—into totemic figures that reveal to us a supernatural dimension to experience. In effect, the storm forces us to rethink.


Cognitively, a miracle resembles irony inasmuch as both concepts disrupt rigid conventional categories and allow for “unthinkable” incongruities. It’s ironic or possibly miraculous that humans can think of chickens as hard-wired dumb clucks and as personalities with uncanny connections to nature or the cosmos. Either way, as irony or miracle, these are mental operations. After all, even if these concepts expand or refresh our conception of reality, all creatures nevertheless do continue to age and die. What’s more, the knowledge of that physical reality of death stays with us.


Irony and miracle are related ways of managing an overplus of meaning. The film, for instance, presents humans as both biological and spiritual creatures, motivated by survival greed and moral aspiration. Both irony and miracle are ways of acknowledging incompatible realities. Irony suspends the excess meaning and the contradictions it implies. We can have a “sense” of irony without defining it. But miracle also suspends incompatible realities inasmuch as miracles depend on belief and cannot erase the contradictions that the miracle is supposed to transcend. To repeat: even with miracles, people continue to eat and die.


Both modes of thought are conditional or subjunctive, with a latent awareness that cannot be wholly integrated. While such a conditional mentality might seem extraordinary, it is common in everyday experience. In fact, it arguably affects all of our thinking. We more familiarly think of it as play.


In play, the idea of pretending or conjecture conditions experience. Play can be formal, as in theater or wordplay. But English has a cluster of words that overlap with the core idea such as possibility, uncertainty, guesswork, conjecture, intuition, surmise, suggestion, fancy, and presumption. The words are conditional insofar as they make it possible to entertain—to give attention or to consider—an idea that may be hypothetical. Conditional realities include stories, daydreams, the past and the future. Since dreams are made from recognizable materials, no matter how distorted, they too have characteristics of play.


Consider again the film’s treatment of the poultry industry. The steel buildings suggest a factory, prison, death camps, and social death. The process is designed to depersonalize slaughter. However, the film insinuates the need for a sacralized dimension by including on the soundtrack a choral Agnus Dei that worships the sacrificial lamb of God, innocence, and mercy. It can be religious feeling but also, if belief falters or hunger prevails, irony. Empathy and appetite are both possible, and the director makes it impossible to omit one perspective or the other. The overplus of meaning is irreducible, with no way to secure closure. At the same time the film’s argument is playful. Athough the industrial process culminates in slaughter, no killing, industrial accidents, or diseases such as salmonella appear onscreen. Likewise the symbolic storms, from the blizzard that “freezes” Valerie to the war-cries of roosters that quake the neighbors’ houses, are comic. In effect, the film’s clashing ironies build up a cognitive storm that disrupts our conventional reality. But this storm, too, is comic in its omission of sordid or agonizing examples.


It is easy to overlook the element of play in behavior. In re-enacting her rescue of Valerie, for example, Janet Bonney is ambivalent. She wants to affirm the profundity of her story, but she is also aware of her audience and the extraordinary claims that attracted worldwide attention. The film accompanies her account of the tunnel of light with choral music reminiscent of Holst’s “The Planets,” which may or may not be satiric. Rather than report the voice of God—“You must go back”—or the experience of the chicken, the woman relates the animal communicator’s account. She takes the role of a priest mediating between humans and the divine: Valerie ”realized” that she was “put on this farm not just to lay eggs, but to prove to people that with love and with caring, miracles do happen” (34:09). Her vow that “miracles do happen” is a blessing at the climax of the episode, followed by a roseate sunset. Interpreting Valerie to us, the woman also recreates the morale-boosting conviction of a mother rehearsing the lesson that comes with a new baby.


This wisdom risks being a platitude, and also comes dangerously close to humankind’s death-anxiety. Aware of our ambivalence, Janet Bonney compares Valerie’s lesson to the OJ Simpson trial, whose audience was “kind of fed up and needed a story that was homey and—a Cinderella story, if you will, that did work out” (31:41). The heroic Cinderella, originally chicken number seven, “we decided to call ‘Valerie’ for her valor. Queen Valor—I don’t know, but ’Valerie’ it was, and she has responded to that name ever since” (31:50). The interjected “I don’t know” shows the woman giving the culturally welcome blessing while being ironically aware that it may sound inflated and fake.


The self-critical moment illustrates the multiplicity of human mentality. The woman is aware of the human need for Valerie’s miracle while she is also critical that the miracle may seem unbelievable. After all, however valorous Valerie may be, she will presumably go on laying eggs and ultimately be eaten. Among other things, Janet Bonney’s exaggeration would call attention to her failure as an artist as well as a priest by misjudging the audience’s temper. Her self-correction—“I don’t know”—is a sign that the “blessing” she gives is conditional: colored by play and irony.



[1] “Letters from Ernest,” Christian Century, March 9, 1977, 220.

[2] Barbara J. King, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2018.

[3] (New York: Free Press, 1974). At his death, Becker was writing Escape from Evil (New York: Free Press, 1975), applying the implications of denial to violence. George Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh .


[4] As of June 7, 2018, the film is available on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AlcocVRQAaI

[5] Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/28/pg28.html

[6] Cf. Clifford Geertz’s well-known formulation in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 1973): “our ideas, our values, our acts, even our emotions are, like our nervous system itself, cultural products–products manufactured, indeed, out of tendencies, capacities, and dispositions with which we were born, but manufactured nonetheless.”

[7] Raymond Moody, Life After Life (1975) established the term “near-death experience as paranormal. The best-seller ”Proof of Heaven” by nerurosurgeon Eben Alexander, which claims proof of a near-death experience, has been repeatedly debunked, as in Luke Dittrich, “The Prophet,” in Esquire (July 2, 2013).


[8] The guillotine’s traumatic decapitation during the French Revolution gave rise to fascination with “the dividing line between history, madness, dream, and decapitation.” See Laure Murat, The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon: Toward a Political History of Madness (Chicago, 2015), 69.


Refugee Identity: dreaming new roots for the self

A dream of meeting God reveals much about the roots of identity in a precarious world.

Refugees call identity into question. Fleeing home, they have to leave behind the familiar society that confirms their identity. After all, the self is not a thing, but a social process. You can’t drop off your self for an oil change. Recognition by others, even a simple exchange of “Hellos,” mutually substantiates identity. In an adoptive country, refugees can be strangers, perhaps suspicious or sinister. They may feel abandoned, and remind others of the threat of isolation or even social death.  Without trying, that is, refugees can get you thinking about identity.

I’m reminded of a workshop I offered in 1993, at a grammar school in Kazakhstan, in Central Asia. Rimmed by the Tien Shan mountains across the border in China, Taldy Korgan had a functional look rathe than a distinctive personality. Instead of a jungle gym, the playground of the the brick elementary school had an old Soviet fighter jet.  Otherwise the school could have been in Abilene Kansas. The USSR had come apart, the Cold War was over, and the first Peace Corps volunteers were helping with language programs in newly independent countries such as Kazakhstan.

Stalin had exiled many Russians to Kazakhstan, and their descendants thought of themselves as Kazakhstanis. As managers, they kept institutions running. The country was mostly Russian-speaking, but parliament had passed a law specifying that to hold onto your job, you had to speak Kazakh—which only 40% of citizens spoke. The idea was to affirm Kazakh identity, but also to redistribute jobs and power to native Kazakhs. Not surprisingly, there was a subtle rumble of panic among Russian-speaking folks who suddenly could see themselves as unemployed refugees.

The workshop participants were two dozen teachers of English, mostly women in the 40s, two-thirds of them native Kazakhs. Some of the Kazakh women had Central Asian features, but at first glance the group was a blend.

To start, I invited them to tell us about any sort of problem they’d encountered lately. At first they were tongue-tied.  Gradually, one after another they talked cautiously about students, teaching, and caring for their own families. But then a blonde woman I’ll call Tatiana spoke up and sent a ripple of concern through the room.

“My problem,” said Tatiana half-jokingly, “is that in a dream I met the Christ.” When I coaxed out some details, she said that her messiah was a handsome Russian-looking young man, and when she asked if he was truly “the God,” he had assured her he was the real thing. When she told her husband about the dream, Tatiana said wryly, “He told me I was crazy.”

Everyone chuckled at this wink of domestic comedy and reality-testing. The sensible, motherly blonde Tatiana was not about to enlist in a holy war. Traditionally, Kazakhs are animists, though in the 1990s Islam was beginning to catch on. Officially, Soviet Russians were atheists, but since the USSR about 2/3 have gone back their Russian Orthodox roots.

In the course of a delicate conversation, Tatiana reported that she was aware that her family were Tatars from Russia.  Granddad had been an exiled Communist official, and that she feared her own family would soon be refugees.

Instead of talking about the “truth” of a religion, we focused the work Tatiana’s dream was doing for her. The Kazakhs’ new law had everyone on edge. Turmoil in Yeltsin’s Moscow made Russia uninviting. Germany was repatriating Germans whose families had migrated to Catherine the Great’s Russia in the 18th century, and many had recently queued at the German embassy to get visas and exit. Although ghastly massacres in the Balkans were yet to come, in 1993 the threat of ethnic cleansing was in the air.  It was impossible to tell if people knew about, or wanted to think about, Stalin’s sickening purges in the 1930s. [1]

One function of Tatiana’s dream was to reassure herself that Russia would welcome her family. Her messiah seemed to be encouraging her to identify with Christian Russia if the cultural crash in Kazakhstan forced her out. One woman reminded us that religions often offer stories of deliverance. The Kazakh teachers were sympathetic, but mostly by denying that the new law—and any of them—might hurt their colleagues.

The current widespread refugee crisis makes Tatiana’s dream especially relevant. She was envisioning a savior who could welcome her family into a Russia where nobody knew them and they had no support network. Terror Management Theory (TMT) can deepen this interpretation because experiments show that anxiety about death stimulates attachment to immortality symbols such as a flag or the cross. [2] For Tatiana, Russia meant social death: a world in which nobody knows you and the social foundation of your identity is lost. [3]

Existential psychology can extend this insight further. Again: the self is not a thing but a sociocultural process. A social ritual asking “How are you?” poses a question but also affirms the reality of the participants. In sleep, by contrast, the waking self becomes unrecognizable or vanishes. As a result, the self is always potentially ephemeral,  and this is a source of conscious or unconscious anxiety. It was in the shiver of fear in the air when one of the Russians” gulped: “I don’t know anyone there [in Russia].”

Insecurity about status in society is partly uneasiness about the permanence of the self. By analogy, the self is always potentially a refugee, and refugees remind us that if you lose your social identity, you can suffer social death. In turn, as TMT predicts, people exposed to “mortality salience” are likely to fear strangers for their association with death.

However much we wish for autonomy, we are social animals. We take form out of the genetic and psychic stuff of other people. But in periods when the scale and pace of life rapidly change, self-esteem comes under pressure, with new anxiety, aggression, and aspirations to manage as a result. Tatiana faced a challenging future, yet it’s possible that she used the workshop and her dream as a way of speaking her mind to her colleagues and relieving her isolation.

Some of the teachers—the potential refugees—came to the airport to see us off. A woman who had shown her interest during the workshop was plainly moved. I couldn’t be sure if the conversation had made her more aware of the way the old USSR had made the school a means of intimidation and social control. But I was touched when she hugged me and said: “This was the first time in all these years of working together that we teachers spoke to each other.” There were tears in her eyes.

  1. Don’t miss Nikita Mikhailkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov’s moving film Burnt by the Sun (1994), which begins like a Chekhov weekend in the country but slowly reveals Stalin’s terror.
  2. See Sheldon Solomon et al, The Worm at the Core (2015) and the Ernest Becker Foundation: http://ernestbecker.org/
  3. I take the term “social death” from Orlando Patterson (Slavery and Social Death).

Resources used in this essay:

Zygmunt Bauman, Strangers at the Door (2015)                                                            Kirby Farrell, Post-Traumatic Culture (1998)                                                                Sheldon Solomon et al, The Worm at the Core (2015)                                                   Irvin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy (1980).



A Blonde’s Year in Review


Took new scarf back to store because it was too tight..


Fired from pharmacy job for failing to print labels……                Helllloooo!!!…….bottles won’t fit in printer !!!


Got really excited…..finished jigsaw puzzle in 6 months….. box said “2-4 years!”


Trapped on escalator for hours ….. power went out!!!


Tried to make Kool-Aid…..wrong instructions….8 cups of
water won’t fit into those little packets!!!


Tried to go water skiing…….couldn’t find a lake with a slope.


Lost breast stroke swimming competition….
the other swimmers cheated, they used their arms!


Got locked out of my car in rain storm….. car swamped because soft-top was open.


The capital of California is “C”…..isn’t it???


Hate M & M’s…..they are so hard to peel.


Baked turkey for 4 1/2 days .. instructions said 1 hour per pound and I weigh 108!!


Couldn’t call 911 . “Duh”…..there’s no “eleven” button on the stupid phone!!!


Understanding Engineers #1

Two engineering students were biking across a university campus when
one said, “Where did you get such a great bike?”

The second engineer replied, “Well, I was walking along yesterday,
minding my own business, when a beautiful woman rode up on this bike,
threw it to the ground, took off all her clothes and said, “Take what
you want.”

The first engineer nodded approvingly and said, “Good choice: The
clothes probably wouldn’t have fit you anyway.”

> >>
Understanding Engineers #2

To the optimist, the glass is half-full. To the pessimist, the glass
is half-empty. To the engineer, the glass is twice as big as it needs
to be.
> >>

Understanding Engineers #3

A priest, a doctor, and an engineer were waiting one morning
for a particularly slow group of golfers. The engineer fumed, “What’s
with those guys? We must have been waiting for fifteen minutes!” The
doctor chimed in, “I don’t know, but I’ve never
seen such inept golf!”

The priest said, “Here comes the greens-keeper.
Let’s have a word with him.” He said, “Hello George, What’s wrong
with that group ahead of us? They’re rather slow, aren’t they?”

The greens-keeper replied, “Oh, yes. That’s a group of blind firemen.
They lost their sight saving our clubhouse from a fire last year, so
we always let them play for free anytime!.”

The group fell silent for a moment. The priest said, “That’s so sad.
I think I will say a special prayer for them tonight.”

The doctor said, “Good idea. I’m going to contact my ophthalmologist
colleague and see if there’s anything she can do for them.”

The engineer said, “Why can’t they play at night?”
> >>

 Understanding Engineers #4
What is the difference between mechanical engineers
and civil engineers? Mechanical engineers build weapons.
Civil engineers build targets.
> >>

Understanding Engineers #5

Three engineering students were gathered together discussing who must
have designed the human body. One said, “It was a mechanical engineer. Just look at all the joints.”

Another said, “No, it was an electrical engineer. The nervous system has many thousands of electrical connections.”

The last one said, “No, actually it had to have been a civil engineer. Who else would run a toxic waste pipeline through a recreational area?”
> >>

Understanding Engineers #6>

Normal people believe that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Engineers believe that if it ain’t broke, it doesn’t have
enough features yet.
> >>

 Understanding Engineers #7>

An engineer was crossing a road one day, when a frog
called out to him and said, “If you kiss me, I’ll turn into
a beautiful princess.”

He bent over, picked up the frog, and put it in his pocket. The frog
spoke up again and said,”If you kiss me, I’ll turn back into a
beautiful princess and stay with you for one week.”

The engineer took the frog out of his pocket, smiled at it and returned it to the pocket. The frog then cried out, “If you kiss me and turn me  back into a princess, I’ll stay with you for one week and do anything  you want.”

Again, the engineer took the frog out, smiled at it and put it back  into his pocket.

Finally, the frog asked, “What’s the matter? I’ve told you I’m a beautiful princess and that I’ll stay with you for one week and do anything you want. Why won’t you kiss me?”

The engineer said, “Look, I’m an engineer. I don’t have time for a
girlfriend. But a talking frog – now that’s cool.”

 Understanding Engineers #9

Four engineers get in a car. The car won’t start.
The Mechanical Engineer says: “It’s a broken starter”
The Electrical engineer says: “Dead battery”
The Chemical engineer says: “Impurities in the fuel”
The IT engineer says: “Hey guys, I have an idea. How about we all get
out of the car and get back in”

Diversity vs. “Me First”

A friend just sent me this tidbit about Penguin’s new strategy for coping with the pressures on publishers:


You’ll notice that Penguin, which is now the corporate imprint empire of Emperor Penguins, wants to market to every pigeonhole that people might use for an identity. This is partly a reflection of marketing machinery, which slots us into lists and databases.

But one assumption is that Penguin wants to find love by whispering what each customer wants to hear.  The assumption is that reading is all about Me, and selling to Me.  So why expect readers to be  curious about others.

If you don’t have a product for a target audience, or if you oppose the idea of target audiences, you’re a writer in trouble on the Penguin’s ice flow.

Since gratification sells, editors are always trying to peep at, and name, what gratifies people.  You’d think one risk is that such voyeuristic strategies would flatten out personality.  After all, online marketing strategy is always spying on you in order to target you with “appropriate” ads “relevant to you.”  Or relevant to the target you’re supposed to be.

Maybe this is why individuals are willing to be herded into pigeonholes (?) While social media brags about enhancing you, it may be a sign that you feel more threatened by anomie: more in need of a social media mic to amplify your voice. Maybe the theories don’t fit the lives they want to explain.

Think of the Parisian editors who had to read MSS submissions without computer printouts helping them decide who’s loitering in the book stalls wondering what to read.

I just read that Proust had to pay to have Swann’s Way published, and another payment (about $900 = cheap) for a glowing front-page review in (I think it was) Le Monde.

We hear all the time about box office records; they can more important than what’s in the box.  Everybody knows this, yet there’s almost always a gap. To connect, you’d to ask about behavior.  That’s not the slippery shadow the Penguin’s fishing for.




The Tacit Muse

The Tacit Muse expands my blog for Psychology Today, Aswim in DaNile.  After six years I had to quit writing for the magazine because advertising pressure was pressuring the editors to censor content.

My last essay for them weighed in on the #Me too controversy. I suggested that the workplace is more authoritarian these days because business has crushed unions and made it harder for working folks to have a voice.  And without a voice, it’s not easy to say No.

Since the editors’ job was, among other things, to sell ads, and since business generally has been hostile to organized labor, an essay urging a stronger voice for working folks would have presented problems.  In the Internet world, where things can suddenly go viral, the editors I dealt with didn’t risk being quoted. So they refused to answer questions, explain policy, etc.  A totally de-professionalized situation.

In six years if writing for Psychology Today, I had roughly 250,000 reads.  Such figures, I take it, are marginal—trivial—for online business.  So let’s try to create a space for ideas here.