Monday, December 8, 2014

Late reflections on the Armstrong Affair: Faith – still not a virtue


I recently watched Alex Holmes’ fast-paced documentary Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story.



Surprising in light of my previous lack of interest in Armstrong (or, frankly, cycling for that matter), the film caught my attention and led me to read David Walsh’s (2012) Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong.* Not surprisingly, the story is most interesting to me in terms of what it suggests about problems of belief and faith in relation to politics.

I won’t say much about Armstrong personally, for a few reasons: first, I think Karen Horney’s chapter on the arrogant-vindictive type in Neurosis and Human Growth probably covers it; second, and relatedly, the cyclist Christophe Bassons, one of those harmed by Armstrong, has already provided a compassionate and reasonable response;** third, I think the focus on Armstrong as an individual, while necessary to understanding events, tends to divert attention from the social aspects of the phenomenon and to let others off the hook.

Many claim now that one of the most unsettling and upsetting facets of Armstrong’s masquerade was that he supposedly played upon people’s “best” inclinations. Another common belief is that pretty much everyone was innocently duped. I want to challenge these notions somewhat.

The most aggravating aspect of Armstrong’s project was his promotion of faith in faith and celebration of the faithful identity. He and the cycling big wigs consistently worked to create a community of the faithful that would exclude and shun doubters. He flattered his more credulous fans with the notion that they were better people for promoting Hope and Belief. While the believers were in reality the overwhelming majority, they were sold an image of themselves as members of a small elite whose gift of spirit set them apart from the cynical, faithless masses.

There was the constant refrain that the world was hostile to the possibility of recovery and great accomplishment and that “no one had believed.” “When I came back,” Armstrong claimed, “there was no interest. None.” After the 1999 Tour, he proclaimed:
Nobody believed in us. Nobody believed that if Lance Armstrong took the yellow jersey, with the help of his team, on Stage 8, how could they keep it to Stage 22? They thought the team would crack. But that team with seven out of nine guys being American – American team, American sponsor – they were the strongest team in the race. And everybody in Paris knew that. And I can assure you that at next year’s Tour de France, there will be no, there will be no doubters.
For the journalists who suspected or knew of the cheating but worked to feed the myth, the machine offered the self-image of champion of hope and protector of cycling.

As is always the case, the celebration of faith entailed a certain attitude toward, and treatment of, those who challenged the myth. Riders who stood against doping in cycling were pushed out. Journalists who published skeptical stories saw their careers threatened and friendships tested. More generally, skeptics were castigated in the traditional way: contrasted with the virtuous faithful, they were portrayed as mean, callous, lesser people who lacked the life-affirming spark of faith.*** In a speech at the end of the 2005 Tour which is especially sickening in retrospect (and maybe gag-inducing to some at the time, judging from the facial expressions on the cyclist standing behind Armstrong’s then-fiancée Sheryl Crow), Armstrong chastised all those who questioned him:
The last thing I’ll say for the people that don’t believe in cycling – the cynics and the skeptics. I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry you can’t dream big. And I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles. But this is one hell of a race. This is a great sporting event, and you should believe.
A vivid illustration of this phenomenon was an accusation in a letter from a reader of the Sunday Times about David Walsh:
I believe Armstrong’s victory was amazing, a triumph in sport and life. I believe he sets a good example for all of us. I believe in sport, in life, and in humanity…Sometimes we refuse to believe for whatever reason. Sometimes people get a cancer of the spirit. And maybe that says a lot about them (Seven Deadly Sins, 185).
Armstrong identified himself with the cause of fighting cancer, with the Tour de France, with cycling, with America, and with hope itself, and then publicly chastised anyone who doubted this representative of all that is good. People calling out lies and challenging myths weren’t just seen as spiritually deficient, but as hostile to the communities Armstrong was allegedly raising up. Journalists like Walsh and even cyclists themselves (and cyclists like Paul Kimmage who’d become journalists) who were exposing the culture of doping and Armstrong’s involvement were viewed as enemies of the sport, of the community of cancer sufferers and survivors and their families, and of all those idealists who retained faith in human possibilities.

Neither the film nor the book discusses the political context of this propaganda for faith, but that context is essential. Armstrong’s Tour “victories” spanned 1999 to 2005. These were the years that bracketed 9-11 and the invasion of Iraq. If ever there was a time in which it was dangerous to encourage faith in faith and uncritical belief in the claims of powerful people, this was it. As with Armstrong, the media lined up behind the Bush administration and its mythology of WMDs and a months-long war. Questioners and dissenters, as the Dixie Chicks learned,



were excluded from the self-celebratory community of belief, threatened, and treated with hostility and condescension.

If there’s one bright spot in this story it’s that Armstrong won’t be able – at least in the immediate future – to advance his political ambitions. (Unfortunately, the psychologically similar Chris Christie remains in a position of political power.) But the political lessons of the Armstrong affair transcend him personally.

It’s true that the public was kept in the dark about his doping, although very suggestive evidence was provided by Walsh and others a full decade before Armstrong’s final “exposure.” But it’s unhelpful, I think, to focus on people’s ignorance or, worse, on how people’s supposedly best and purest motives were exploited by Armstrong’s machine. Wanting to believe in something or someone is certainly understandable. But it’s not a virtue. Ignoring evidence in favor of defending people who claim to embody our hopes and ideals, allowing questioners to be attacked, doesn’t make us better people, and can lead down some very harmful paths.

* The book is OK. The seven deadly sins of the title refer to Armstrong’s seven Tour de France “wins.” I expected the chapters to be organized around this theme, but the title doesn’t really have anything to do with the book. As several of the Amazon reviewers noted, it seems sort of rushed and needed better editing, especially in the early chapters. But it’s not bad. I did learn from it that the race started as a means to get attention and circulation for a rightwing paper with an anti-Dreyfus message. Like almost everything in modern France, then, the Tour emerged from the Dreyfus Affair. Unfortunately, the book’s brief discussion of this history almost suggests a parallel between that case and Armstrong’s, which is so wrong.

** “The world of sport,” Bassons concludes, “should forget him but should not destroy him psychologically. Armstrong is still a human being with an individual personality that was built during his childhood. I know he had a difficult childhood, which might explain his need to win at all costs, even if that meant not respecting other people.

Today I feel more pity than contempt for him. I always preferred to be in my position than in his. I am honest, straight and happy. I don’t think he can say the same” (Seven Deadly Sins, 398).

*** Contemptibly, this came to involve pressuring Greg LeMond, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, to apologize for his public statements about Armstrong.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Dear Committee Members


Are you, were you ever, or might you become an academic? Do you enjoy laughing? You'll probably like this novel:



Thursday, October 30, 2014

Defiant Nurse


So I'm watching Rachel Maddow and her piece on Kaci Hickox rebelliously riding a bike, and I'm thinking about Halloween tomorrow and the surfeit of "slutty" this and that costumes for women.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if "slutty" were replaced by "defiant"? The librarians who bravely defied the Patriot Act, the teachers who've stood against Republican attacks on education and their unions, the nurses who've demanded that the health care system serve human needs, protect and fairly remunerate workers, and respect basic human rights? Wouldn't it be amazing if little girls and boys dressed up, aspirationally, as Kaci Hickox?

Friday, July 18, 2014

Debarked


Debarked

You can't bark in a poem.
Can't even howl, really.
You can only “howl,” a purified cry
rendered into tallow.

So a poem is like a lab
with its value-added by-products,
sacred and silent.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Interlude - Daughter


They have that underwater sound I love so.



Pairings: 24/7, The Forgotten Language, Solaris


It’s been a while since I recommended a pairing.* This one is actually a trebling (?), since it involves two books and a film.

“24/7 is a time of indifference,” Jonathan Crary suggests in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2013),
against which the fragility of human life is increasingly inadequate and within which sleep has no necessity or inevitability. In relation to labor, it renders plausible, even normal, the idea of working without pause, without limits. It is aligned with what is inanimate, inert, or unageing. As an advertising exhortation it decrees the absoluteness of availability, and hence the ceaselessness of needs and their incitement, but also their perpetual nonfulfillment.

…In its profound uselessness and intrinsic passivity, with the incalculable losses it causes in production time, circulation, and consumption, sleep will always collide with the demands of a 24/7 universe. The huge portion of our lives that we spend asleep, freed from a morass of simulated needs, subsists as one of the great human affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism.

…Sleep poses the idea of a human need and interval of time that cannot be colonized and harnessed to a massive engine of profitability, and thus remains an incongruous anomaly and site of crisis in the global present.

…Sleep is an irrational and intolerable affirmation that there might be limits to the compatibility of living beings with the allegedly irresistible forces of modernization.
While the book is insightful, and its arguments are all interesting if not all entirely convincing,** it does tend to meander away from its central topic, which is kind of a shame in that the discussion of sleep and dreaming could have been taken further.

In particular, Crary’s discussion of Freud’s and others’ “devaluation of the dream” is true as far as it goes. The “psychoanalytic reduction” of dreams to infantile wish-fulfillment
refuses the possibility of dreaming as a ceaseless and turbulent convergence of the lived present with ghosts from a fugitive and still indiscernable future.*** …Dreams may well be the vehicles of wishes, but the wishes at stake are the insatiable human desires to exceed the isolating and privatizing confines of the self.
But this section completely ignores the work of humanistic neo-Freudians like Erich Fromm and Karen Horney. Their exclusion from the critical-theory “canon” is sad both for their legacy and for the tradition itself. Fromm’s work on dreams in The Forgotten Language, for all the book’s problems, is especially relevant to Crary’s thesis. Under contemporary conditions, Fromm argues,
the human mind, of both rulers and ruled, becomes deflected from its essential human purpose, which is to feel and think humanly, to use and to develop the powers of reason and love that are inherent in man and without the full development of which he is crippled.

In this process of deflection and distortion man’s character becomes distorted. Aims which are in contrast to the interests of his real human self become paramount. His powers of love are impoverished, and he is driven to want power over others. His inner security is lessened, and he is driven to seek compensation by passionate cravings for fame and prestige. He loses the sense of dignity and integrity and is forced to turn himself into a commodity, deriving his self-respect from his salability, from his success. All this makes for the fact that we learn not only what is true, but also what is false. That we hear not only what is good, but are constantly under the influence of ideas detrimental to life.

…We are exposed to rationalizing lies which masquerade as truths, to plain nonsense which masquerades as common sense or as the higher wisdom of the specialist, of double talk, intellectual laziness, or dishonesty which speaks in the name of ‘honor’ or ‘realism’, as the case may be. We feel superior to the superstitions of former generations and so-called primitive cultures, and we are constantly hammered at by the very same kind of superstitious beliefs that set themselves up as the latest discoveries of science. Is it surprising, then, that to be awake is not exclusively a blessing but also a curse? Is it surprising that in a state of sleep, when we are alone with ourselves, when we can look into ourselves without being bothered by the noise and nonsense that surround us in the daytime, we are better able to feel and to think our truest and most valuable feelings and thoughts?
Solaris is discussed in 24/7, but Crary refers to the 1972 film by Andrei Tarkovsky, while I suggest the 2002 Steven Soderbergh version (both are adaptations of the 1961 novel by Stanislaw Lem). An essential element of the film is Cliff Martinez’ music:



* The video has since been removed, but the film I’d paired with Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided back then was The Assassination of Richard Nixon.

** For one, I don’t agree with his views on blogging!

*** I very much dislike this idea of sources of resistance found only in remembrances and imaginings, as I’ll discuss in more detail in an upcoming post. Crary’s basic point here is valid, though.

Gardens by the Sea


This weekend I did the “Gardens by the Sea” walking tour in Stonington, Connecticut. It’s hosted by the Stonington Garden Club for only two days every three years, so we were lucky to have such a beautiful day. Colorful pictures seem a little incongruous on my blog, but pretty flowers are never a bad thing.











The last stop on the tour was the Stonington Community Center Children’s Garden. It was about as charming as a children’s garden could be:


I also noticed that this summer is a bicentennial:


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Dear Petco: Bring back the old sponge ball cat toys!


One of the cats used to love playing with the old two-color soft balls. He would drop them down the stairs and chase them, carrying them back up in his mouth. If you threw one against a wall, he would jump up and catch it in the air on the rebound. When he was happily exhausted, he would drop the ball he'd been playing with in a shoe or bag. He played with them until they were falling apart, and it was always fun to get him a new set of four.

The new ones that you've been selling for the past several months are terrible. They're far too big and too hard for him to carry, and he's not interested in playing with them. They're also, incidentally, quite ugly. I don't know why you'd discontinue a great product and replace it with such a ridiculous one. I read the reviews on the Petco site, and every one I read says basically the same thing: "My cat loved the old ones and doesn't play with the new ones." I can't imagine any research was done before introducing the new version.

Please bring back the old ones!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

“It's over. You are all free of debt.”


My favorite artwork of 2014.

Democracy Now!



and others reported a couple of weeks ago on the work of Chilean artist, Papas Fritas (Francisco Tapia). In the context of the occupation of the (now closed) for-profit University of the Sea, Tapia retrieved the papers on which student debts were recorded. He then burned them and displayed the pile of ashes in his van.
Tapia said his plan was hatched after reading press accounts that Universidad del Mar students were being forced to pay debt even after the university was shut down.

In a statement delivered to a Chilean court, Tapia defended his action. He claimed to have smuggled the documents to Santiago, where he began to investigate the credit files, case-by-case, student-by-student. By day Tapia would investigate the financial situation and life struggle of a single student. Then in the evening, he would destroy the documents related to that particular debt. “Every night, like a ritual, I burned the documents that detailed the debt.”

...The ashes have since been converted into a mobile art exhibit built into the sides of a Volkswagen camper van. The back window of the van holds a video screen so that Tapia's message can be played to crowds of curious onlookers.

The van, laden with ash, has toured the streets of Santiago and Valparaiso, and even went on display at the GAM – a prominent Santiago art gallery and cultural centre. When Chilean detectives, wearing white body suits, attempted to confiscate the fine grey dust as evidence, they too were incorporated into the exhibit's PR blitz and listed as “media partners.”
It’s a wonderful political act, but a beautiful work of art as well. The best art challenges what Theodor Adorno called the “hegemony of the existent,” making people aware of new possibilities of freedom. This work accomplished that both symbolically and materially. Symbolically, the ashes represent not destruction but liberation from a necrophilous system that denies living human possibilities in the name of profit and power (Chile’s current educational system has its origins in Pinochet’s authoritarian, neoliberal regime). Materially, his actions offer students the possibility of freedom from the grip of unjust debt.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Karen Horney and Jean-Paul Sartre on the psychology of vindictiveness and violence


Elliot Rodger’s killing spree and the video and manifesto he made explaining his motivations brought to mind not only Joan Smith’s work on misogyny but also some of the ideas of psychiatrist Karen Horney and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

Horney’s writings about neurosis, particularly concerning the “arrogant-vindictive” type, whose “main motivating force in life is his need for vindictive triumph” (Neurosis and Human Growth, 197), are especially enlightening. While Horney didn’t like constructing typologies or using them for anything but the most general heuristic purposes, she provides an excellent description of the characteristics of this type, for which Rodger provides a near-perfect case study. For example:
[T]he expressions of vindictiveness may be checked by considerations of prudence or expediency, but they are counteracted very little by feelings of sympathy, fondness, or gratitude. In order to understand why this process of crushing positive feelings persists later on, when people may want his* friendship or love, we have to take a look at his second means of survival: his imagination and his vision of the future. He is and will be infinitely better than ‘they’ are. He will become great and put them to shame. He will show them how they have misjudged and wronged him. He will become the great hero…, the persecutor, the leader, the scientist attaining immortal fame. Driven by an understandable need for vindication, revenge, and triumph, these are not idle fantasies. They determine the course of his life. Driving himself from victory to victory, in large and small matters, he lives for the ‘day of reckoning’. (203)
and
[W]hat perhaps contributes most to his callousness toward others is his envy of them. It is a bitter envy – not for this or that particular asset, but pervasive – and stems from his feeling excluded from life in general. (211)
Jean-Paul Sartre’s fictional and nonfictional writings about violence are also surprisingly helpful in understanding the psychology of killers driven by misogyny and other forms of group hate. His short story “Erostratus” is actually told from the point of view of a spree shooter named Paul Hilbert. Hilbert is terrified of and at the same time has a grandiose disdain for humans and human society.

Before his crime, Hilbert sends over a hundred copies of a letter-manifesto to humanist writers. It reads in part:
I suppose you might be curious to know what a man can be like who does not love men. Very well, I am such a man, and I love them so little that soon I am going out and kill a half dozen of them: perhaps you might wonder why only half a dozen? Because my revolver has only six cartridges.

…Soon I am going to take my revolver, I am going down into the street and see if anybody can do anything to them. Goodbye, perhaps it will be you I shall meet. You will never know then with what pleasure I shall blow your brains out. If not – and this is more likely – read tomorrow’s papers. There you will see that an individual named Paul Hilbert has killed, in a moment of fury, six passers-by on the Boulevard Edgar-Quinet.
“Erostratus” appears in The Wall, a collection of short stories published in 1939 which also includes “The Birth of a Leader,” the story of the path by which one young man comes to join a fascist youth group. We see Lucien Fleurier’s struggles to define his identity. He fails until he encounters a violent rightwing group, where he at last finds an identity: he is an anti-Semite and part of the French patriarchal, landowning tradition. He finds a solid core of identity to cling to in his hatred (“…he thought, ‘I am Lucien! Somebody who can’t stand Jews’”), belief in the alleged rights deriving from his social position (“[Lucien] drew into himself for an instant, thoughtful and holy, and the words came of themselves. ‘I HAVE RIGHTS!’ Rights! Something like triangles and circles: it was so perfect that it didn’t exist…”), and sense of patriarchal entitlement and superiority:
[H]e would go and live in Férolles. Somewhere in France there was a bright young girl like Pierrette, a country girl with eyes like flowers who would stay chaste for him: sometimes she tried to imagine her future master, this gentle and terrible man; but she could not. She was a virgin; in the most secret part of her body she recognized the right of Lucien alone to possess her. He would marry her, she would be his wife, the tenderest of his rights. When, in the evening, she would undress with slender, sacred gestures, it would be like a holocaust. He would take her in his arms with the approval of everyone, and tell her, ‘You belong to me!’ What she would show him she would have the right to show to him alone and for him the act of love would be a voluptuous counting of his goods. His most tender right, his most intimate right: the right to be respected to the very flesh, obeyed to the very bed. ‘I’ll marry young’, he thought. He thought too that he would like to have many children; then he thought of his father’s work; he was impatient to continue it and wondered if M. Fleurier was not going to die soon.
This is all connected to acts of brutality, and the reader is left to assume more violence will follow as the movement Fleurier has joined gains power.

“Erostratus” and “The Birth of a Leader,” like the other stories in The Wall, are portraits of lives in bad faith. Sartre understood the roots of prejudice and violence in terms of attempts to flee from the freedom and responsibility inherent in the human condition.

The human condition is characterized by a freedom to define ourselves. We aren’t created by any God or other transcendent process that gives us an immutable identity, position, or rights over others. We have no destiny that externally gives our actions meaning or justification. This freedom carries great responsibility for the choices we make (and choosing not to act is just as much of a choice with just as much responsibility). Sartre believed that we’re under powerful psychological pressure to evade this freedom and responsibility, and that we do this through various forms of personal and political bad faith.

While bad faith can take any number of forms, Hilbert and Fleurier represent a similar form: the attempt to flee the human condition by creating or adopting a hostile identity and through violence.** In his 1945 “Portrait of the Antisemite,” he provides a nonfictional account of the process he fictionalizes in “The Birth of a Leader.” The anti-Semite runs from freedom and responsibility. The intense fear and anxiety created by the human condition give rise to a desperate longing for a given and immutable identity and position, for a global or cosmic order or teleology which justifies one’s actions. People create and claim such identities and orders, but deep down, Sartre suggests, it’s a belief in bad faith – ultimately, they know they have chosen it, but won’t let themselves be fully conscious of this fact.

Anti-Semitism, Sartre contends, is one means of constructing a bad-faith identity: “By adhering to antisemitism, [the anti-Semite] is not only adopting an opinion, he is choosing himself as a person. He is choosing the permanence and impenetrability of rock, the total irresponsibility of the warrior who obeys his leaders – and he has no leader” (345). “[T]he Jew’s existence,” he writes,
simply allows the antisemite to nip his anxieties in the bud by persuading himself that his place has always been cut out in the world, that it was waiting for him and that by virtue of tradition he has the right to occupy it. Antisemitism, in a word, is fear of man’s fate. The antisemite is the man who wants to be pitiless stone, furious torrent, devastating lightning: in short, everything but a man. (345)
To return to the fictional Lucien Fleurier, Hazel Barnes argues in Humanistic Existentialism (1959) that
every decisive action is the result of Lucien’s own desire to escape from a freedom which terrifies him. His bad faith – like all bad faith – consists in his refusing to accept a true view of himself as a combination of being and nothingness and in evading the responsibility of free decisions, whether with respect to the past or the future.

…Lucien has chosen himself as a man who will live as though he is an in-itself (albeit a highly privileged one) in a Serious World. The innate rights of the Gentile and of the industrialist and of the male are all manifestations of a single attitude. So were Lucien’s earlier responses to religion (though but lightly touched on in this story) and to psychoanalysis – all of them attempts either to flee from himself or to pin himself down as though he were classifiable once and for all – like a thing. (65)
To retreat into anti-Semitism is to flee from the reality that both identity and morality are humanly constructed and unstable. The anti-Semite displaces morality into a Manichean framework in which Jewish people are inherently evil in order to eliminate the burden of responsibility. He chooses to believe that Jews are behind wars and economic struggle:
The antisemite is afraid of discovering that the world is badly made: for then things would have to be invented, modified and man would find himself once more master of his fate, filled with agonizing and infinite responsibility. He localizes all of the evil of the universe in the Jew. (338)
This bad-faith belief provides some measure of escapist psychological relief:
This external model relieves him of the necessity of seeking his personality within himself; he has chosen to be all outside, never to examine his conscience, never to be anything but the very fear he strikes in others: he is running away from the intimate awareness that he has of himself even more than from Reason. (334)

…[A]bove all, this naïve dualism is eminently reassuring to the antisemite himself: if it is only a matter of getting rid of Evil, it means that Good is already assumed. There is no reason to seek it in anguish, to invent it, to debate it patiently when one has found it, to prove it in action, to verify its consequences and finally to saddle oneself with the responsibilities of the moral choice thus made. (340)
Such a worldview, in which the roots of all evil are located in a category of people, is inherently and necessarily violent and destructive:
[The antisemite’s] emphasis is on destruction. It is not a question of a conflict of interests but of the damage that an evil power causes to society. Behind the bitterness of the antisemitism is concealed the belief that harmony will be reestablished of itself once evil has been ejected. His task therefore is purely negative: there is no question of building a society but only of purifying the one that exists. (339)

…When he has fulfilled his mission as the sacred destroyer, the Lost Paradise will rebuild itself. For the time being the antisemite is absorbed by so many duties that he has no time to think about it: he is forever on the verge, he fights and each of his outbursts of indignation is a pretext which distracts him from the anguished search for the good. (340)
As this suggests, “the end of the struggle can only be an act of sacred destruction” (339). But in their day to day existence, even when not (yet) calling for the deaths of Jewish people, anti-Semites reveal a destructive and murderous intent. The expressions of hate and practices of discrimination, “the measures which they propose and which are all aimed at [the Jew’s] debasement, his humiliation, his banishment, are the prerequisites of this murder which they are contemplating: they are symbolic murders” (343).

Sartre views anti-Semitism not as the result of individual pathology or disturbance but as necessarily a social phenomenon. According to him, anti-Semites are generally too fearful to act independently. “This sentence: ‘I hate the Jews’,” he offers, “is a sentence which is said in chorus…” (335). And he indicts the armchair anti-Semites, who might not be members of fascist organizations or personally engaging in violence but who support the most violent and extreme through their willing conformity. Having completed his portrait, Sartre says:
If many people who willingly admit to hating the Jews do not recognize themselves, it is because they do not detest the Jews. They do not love them either. They would not do them the slightest harm, but they would not raise their little fingers to protect them from violence. They are not antisemites, they are nothing, they are no one; and since in spite of everything, one must appear to be something, they murmur, without thinking of evil, without thinking at all, they go about repeating some formulas which they have learned and which give them the right to enter certain drawing rooms.

…For antisemitism is distinguished, like all the manifestations of an irrational collective and tending to create a conservative and esoteric France. It seems to all these feather-brains that by repeating at will that the Jew injures the country, they are performing one of those initiation rites which allows them to feel themselves a part of the centers of warmth and social energy; in this sense antisemitism has retained something of the human sacrifice.

…Simple reflections, reeds bent in the wind, they would certainly never have invented antisemitism if conscious antisemitism had not already existed. But they are the ones who, in all indifference, insure the survival of antisemitism and carry it forward through the generations. (343-344)
As Sartre recognized, the choice of living and acting (including violently) in bad faith could potentially take a variety of individual and social forms depending on a person’s historical and particular circumstances. Hilbert’s and Fleurier’s choices are fundamentally similar. The difference – that Hilbert turned against all of humanity and became a spree killer while Fleurier would rise to a position of leadership in an anti-Semitic fascist organization – differed due to the options available in their specific times and places.

The choice of despised groups on which a bad-faith identity and morality is built is arbitrary. As Sartre notes, “The Jew is only a pretext: elsewhere it will be the Negro, the yellow race…” Indeed, in later years he would analyze colonialism and antiblack and anti-Asian racism in the same terms. The particular characteristics of the movements from which this bad faith draws are also shaped by the social environment. As Hazel Barnes writes:
[W]hile the existentialist cannot consistently represent environment as a determining force, he does not ignore it. Man is in-the-world. If his own free choice gives form to his way of life, still the situation in which he finds himself provides the matter or content. If Lucien had been brought up in the home of poverty-stricken fundamentalists, his bad faith might have manifested itself in Communism or in religion. (Humanistic Existentialism, 65)
The rights and position Lucien claims aren’t invented by him, but are part of his culture. His form of bad faith is encouraged by the movement in which he becomes involved and broadly supported by the social system.

There are some serious problems with Sartre’s work, including the reproduction of some of the ideas he explicitly rejects (or should reject) – essentialism, sexism, and particularly homophobia. He also attributes to a universal human condition several psychological features - anxieties, fears, desires - that are actually products of a particular culture (of which his own philosophy forms a part) and economic and political system. But these don’t erase the value of his understanding of the embrace of toxic and violent worldviews in terms of the evasion of freedom and responsibility.

Both Horney and Sartre, then, offer frameworks that might be useful in understanding violence – individual and collective - but which avoid the simplistic individual/political and mad/bad dichotomies. These frameworks recognize the intersection of the individual-psychological and the political without reducing either one to the other. Neurotic and bad-faith “solutions” grow from individual and culturally bound experiences, and the specific forms they take are also shaped by society, but they involve individual choices and purposes.

An important question arises: What did Horney and Sartre think were the possibilities for positive change, at both the individual and social levels? Can we prevent the emergence of such characters and movements, or turn individual people from this path, and if so how?

It’s tempting to wonder what would be the outcome if someone like Rodger had been treated by a therapist of Horney’s caliber, or just read her books. Horney herself recognized the difficulties involved in treating arrogant-vindictive sorts of neurotics, but counseled sympathy:
In analysis it gradually appears that the grapes of life, though he has declared them sour, are still desirable. We must not forget that his turning against life was not a voluntary move, and that the surrogate for which he exchanged living is a poor one. In other words his zest for living is stifled but not extinguished. In the beginning of analysis this is only a hopeful belief, but it proves justified in many more instances than is usually assumed. Upon its validity hinge the auspices for therapy. How could we help him if there were not something in him that does not want to live more fully?

…[I]f the analyst inwardly rejects him, he cannot be productive in his analytic work. The analyst will, however, have the necessary sympathetic and respectful understanding when he realizes that this patient too, despite his protestations to the contrary, is a suffering and struggling human being. (Neurosis and Human Growth, 211-212)
Horney shared with other humanistic psychiatrists and psychologists the belief that there was, at least in the vast majority of people, including those caught in the arrogant-vindictive spiral, a core that wanted to live and love fully, which could be cultivated and ultimately defeat harmful and self-defeating patterns.

It’s also clear from her socially informed explanations and therapeutic approaches that she didn’t regard neuroses, even in extreme cases, as biological illnesses (as today’s biopsychiatry falsely holds of “mental illnesses”). Neuroses were pathological in the sense that they led away from self-realization and positive relationships with the world and in regressive and destructive directions. They were patterns of thought and behavior that drained energy away from positive engagement toward the world. In Escape from Freedom (1941), Erich Fromm describes
an important difference between neurotic and rational activity. In the latter the result corresponds to the motivation of an activity – one acts in order to attain a certain result. In neurotic strivings one acts from a compulsion which has essentially a negative character: to escape an unbearable situation. The strivings tend in a direction which only fictitiously is a solution. Actually the result is contradictory to what the person wants to attain; the compulsion to get rid of an unbearable feeling was so strong that the person was unable to choose a line of action that could be a solution in any other but a fictitious sense. (153)
In Horney’s view, the unbearable psychological situation and the compulsive reactions were far more than superficial, and could persist, with devastating consequences, throughout a person’s entire life. They certainly involve the brain, beyond the basic fact that everything in our psychology and behavior involves the brain. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch, knowing what we do of neuroplasticity, to assume that Horney would have seen neuroses in terms of gradually emerging and complex changes to the brain that distort perceptions, emotions, and responses, leading away from healthy or positive patterns and forming a whole self-perpetuating system or mental world. These systems are difficult to uproot but ultimately amenable to change, particularly if the cultural and political context is conducive to healthier solutions (and conversely harder to change when they’re supported by the surrounding culture).

Though she recognized the significance of cultural and social factors in individual psychological formation, Horney’s suggested interventions remained largely at the individual level. In contact with and influenced by cultural anthropologists of her day, she recognized that observed psychological tendencies couldn’t be universalized. After reviewing some comparative evidence about varying definitions of what’s psychologically “normal” or healthy, she concludes:
The effect of all this is to confirm what some sociologists have repeatedly asserted: that there is no such thing as a normal psychology, which holds for all mankind.

These limitations, however, are more than compensated by the opening up of new possibilities of understanding. The essential implication of these anthropological considerations is that feelings and attitudes are to an amazingly high degree molded by the conditions under which we live, both cultural and individual, inseparably interwoven. This in turn means that if we know the cultural conditions under which we live we have a good chance of gaining a much deeper understanding of the special character of normal feelings and attitudes. (The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, 19)
The possibilities for a true social-psychological analysis using Horney’s concepts, though, were somewhat narrowed by her working at and focusing on the individual level (as a clinical psychiatrist) even as she recognized the role of societal conditions in the formation and content of neuroses. Also, while she was at the forefront of the neo-Freudian movement away from an exclusive focus on childhood in understanding psychological formation, this didn’t go far enough. Influenced by Freud even as she rejected many of his central concepts, Horney located the roots of “arrogant-vindictive” neurosis and other neuroses primarily in childhood and family experiences, though she did appreciate – more than most at that time (or since) – that these psychic patterns could be shaped by culture and the treatment of different categories of people (men and women, for example).

Nor did Horney realize the possibility of extending her ideas about neurosis beyond individuals. There’s good reason to resist a simplistic equating of individual and societal tendencies. Caution concerning “diagnoses” of cultures or movements or the application of conceptual frameworks developed to understand individual psychological patterns to social groups is well warranted. But, as I said several months ago, “This doesn’t mean…that Horney’s concepts don’t have great applicability for understanding cultural and political dynamics and how individuals are formed in conditions of oppression.” As long as it’s done cautiously and with intellectual rigor, I see no reason Horney’s ideas can’t be fruitfully applied at these other levels.

In terms of explaining the existence of these forms of bad faith generally and why certain people fall prey to them, Sartre veers, in “Portrait” and elsewhere, between a suggestion that hateful-violent bad faith emerges, like all forms of bad faith, from basic problems of the human condition on the one hand and simplistic Marxist and, frankly, often sexist and homophobic claims about which people succumb to the worst forms of bad faith on the other. While he offers a rich descriptive psychological analysis of bad faith itself, he doesn’t provide a satisfying explanation of, for example, why some French people became collaborators and others Resistance heroes.***

Because his explanations are lacking, his solutions – in theory, at least – are also weak. In practice, Sartre supported struggles against oppression – particularly Marxist and anticolonial movements – as struggles against collective, violent forms of bad faith. He sometimes had utopian expectations for these movements: existing forms of bad faith would no longer be a problem following national liberation or “after the revolution.” However, his political advocacy showed a real appreciation of the relationship between domination and oppression on the one hand and the most destructive forms of bad faith on the other. Furthermore, he thought, correctly in my view, that raising consciousness through writing could make more people aware of their bad faith and the psychological roots of their participation in oppressive and violent systems. While many of his works seem to demand almost superhuman powers to live consistently in good faith, he did provide models of good faith and encouraged the cultivation of habits to resist the temptations of bad faith.

* All of the works discussed in this post, written in an earlier era, use the patriarchal male pronoun and other sexist language. My reproducing that language shouldn’t be taken as an indication of approval.

** Hilbert uses a gun to commit mass murder, but it’s important to understand how Sartre saw the meaning of guns in this sort of thinking. In Sartre’s view, a gun is significant not just as a weapon capable of mass killing but in terms of what it represents for bad faith. A gun, to Hilbert, was a material metaphor for his desired image of himself as a hard, inhuman substance. In one passage, we see the coincidence between Hilbert’s emotional response to a gun and his sense of self: “I felt a strange power in my body when I went down into the street. I had my revolver on me, the thing that explodes and makes noise. But I no longer drew my assurance from that, it was from myself: I was a being like a revolver, a torpedo or a bomb. I too, one day at the end of my somber life, would explode and light the world with a flash as short and violent as magnesium.”

*** Or indeed any recognition that some Resistance activists might have been acting in bad faith. In contrast, Horney appreciated that “many persons may have a severe neurosis who according to surface observation are adapted to existing patterns of life,” while others may appear deviant or abnormal but not be neurotic at all.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

There’s only one Santa Barbara shooter

Peter Sutcliffe was always different, but not by a wide margin: the world is full of men who beat their wives, destroy their self-respect, treat them like dirt. They do it because they hate and despise women, because they are disgusted by them, because they need to prove to themselves and to their friends that they are real men. Occasionally, for one in a million, it isn’t enough. Peter Sutcliffe was one of those. But when the trees are so dense, who can with certainty pick out the really rotten timber?
This is from the concluding paragraph of the chapter of Joan Smith’s 1989 Misogynies*



titled “There’s Only One Yorkshire Ripper.” In it, she analyzes, in the context of societal misogyny, the police investigation into the string of murders and attempted murders of women carried out by Peter Sutcliffe in northern England in the late 1970s. In the preface to the 2013 edition, Smith describes how these events originally provided the impetus for the book:
The murders seemed to me a pure manifestation of misogyny, the consequence in one disturbed individual of the suspicion and dislike for women which I saw all around me. Peter Sutcliffe’s hatred of women was extreme but it wasn’t unique, which was one of the reasons why the police had such trouble catching him. They thought he would stand out and I thought exactly the opposite: that he could hide quite easily in a culture which often displayed casual contempt for women. It later emerged that Sutcliffe had been interviewed ten times without ever becoming a serious suspect.
It seems relevant in light of the recent killings in Santa Barbara.

* I don’t endorse every argument in this book, but I do recommend it.