Shall we have veal for dinner, dear?

From a blog post on January 28th, 2014. The following two paragraphs in italics are a long quote from Ernest Becker’s 1975 book, Escape from Evil, which I used extensively when I was teaching college sociology courses. The language may be somewhat crass and shocking, but it gets the message across.

“Man is an animal…Whatever else he is, is built on this…The only certain thing we know about this planet is that it is a theater for crawling life, organismic life, and at least we know what organisms are and what they are trying to do.

At its most elemental level the human organism, like crawling life, has a mouth, digestive tract, and anus, a skin to keep it intact, and appendages with which to acquire food.  Existence, for all organismic life, is a constant struggle to feed – a struggle to incorporate whatever other organisms that can fit into their mouths and press down their gullets without choking.  Seen in these stark terms, life in this planet is a gory spectacle, a science-fiction nightmare in which digestive tracts fitted with teeth at one end are tearing away at whatever flesh they can reach, and at the other end are piling up the fuming waste excrement as they move along in search of more flesh. I think this is why the epoch of the dinosaurs exerts such a strong fascination on us: it is an epic food orgy with king-size actors who convey unmistakably what organisms are dedicated to.  Sensitive souls have reacted with shock to the elemental drama of life on this planet, and one of the reasons Darwin so shocked his time – and still bothers ours – is that he showed this bone-crushing, blood-drinking drama in all of its elementality and necessity: Life cannot go on without the mutual devouring of organisms.  If the living spectacle of all that he had organismically incorporated in order to stay alive, he might well feel horrified by the living energy he had ingested.  The horizon of a gourmet, or even the average person, would be taken up with hundreds of chickens, flocks of lambs and sheep, a small herd of steers, sties full of pigs, and rivers of fish.  The din alone would be deafening.  To paraphrase Elias Canetti, each organism raises it’s head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.”

I post this in light of an online petition I signed recently opposing the practices of the veal production industry to take newborn calfs, separate them from their mothers and isolate them in veal fattening pens. These are often dome like plastic structures hardly big enough for the calf to turn around. The idea, I presume, is to allow the calf as little physical activity as possible so as to fatten them up and keep their meat nice and tender. Many farmers who send calves off to the slaughterhouse to become veal are humane and treat their animals with a degree of kindness (I actually have no proof of this, only second hand reports). I think the way we treat the animals we intend to eat reflects our values and assumptions about their intelligence and even whether or not we think they feel pain.

I once saw a video of a ‘scientist’ claiming that animals don’t feel pain. In the video he was standing beside a row of beagles with wires implanted through their skulls and into their brains. The fact that the argument is ongoing astounds me. It’s clear from the scientific evidence that animals feel pain, and they have emotional lives. There is a lot of scientific evidence to support this claim yet there is still controversy over it. Carl Safina in a National Geographic article is quoted as saying:

It is incredible to me there is still a debate over whether animals are conscious and even a debate over whether human beings can know animals are conscious. If you watch mammals or even birds, you will see how they respond to the world. They play. They act frightened when there’s danger. They relax when things are good. It seems illogical for us to think that animals might not be having a conscious mental experience of play, sleep, fear or love. 

Safina goes on to say later in the article that:

Many people simply assume that animals act consciously and base their belief on their own domestic animals or pets. Other people do not want animals to be conscious because it makes it easier for us to do things to animals that would be hard to do if we knew they were unhappy and suffering.

Safina singles out lab scientists as a particular group in denial about animal suffering and pain. He is quoted as saying: “However, in laboratories the dogma persists: don’t assume that animals think and have emotions–and many scientists insist that they do not.”

I am going to assume for the rest of this blog post that many animals species feel pain and experience emotional lives. If that’s the case, we have to address how we feel about that and think hard about how we treat non-human animals, especially the ones destined for our dinner tables. More importantly, what can we make of Becker’s argument in the quotation above given what we know about animal pain and suffering?

The vast majority of us have never experienced what goes on in a slaughterhouse. Slaughterhouses are sites of killing on an industrial scale. I can’t imagine anyone working in the killing line of a slaughterhouse not having been effectively desensitized to animal fear, pain and suffering. Obviously, the terror (and I don’t use this word lightly) that a bull feels on entering a slaughterhouse is very temporary. Stunning and then killing takes moments. Does that justify the slaughter in the first place? Should we all be vegetarians or vegans and avoid eating animals at all thus putting all slaughterhouses out of business?

Some people have definitely accepted the argument that a vegetarian or vegan life is much more ethical than the carnivorous life. They don’t eat animal flesh although they may indulge in the consumption of animal products such as eggs and milk. But is the vegetarian or vegan life possible for the majority of humans? Are humans inherently omnivorous or can we give up our animal flesh diets?

In my next blog post I address more directly the issues presented by Becker’s quote above. Are we not carnivorous by nature? How valuable is life? How valuable is death?


Nothing lasts forever.

I have pernicious anemia and I have been bad about taking my B12 vitamin which I have to inject into my thigh. I don’t have any problems doing that and don’t ask me why I didn’t carry on with my injections, but I stopped doing them at least a year ago. Consequently, I have lived in an anemic fog including cognitive impairment, vertigo, tingling in my hands and feet, severe itching and other symptoms for the last few months along with full body pain and overarching fatigue. For some reason I didn’t connect the fact that I had ceased injecting B12 with my ongoing debilitating symptoms. After having admitted to being a great cautionary tale, I am now resuming my injections and I hope the fog lifts soon. I seem to be improving a bit so we’ll see how things go. At the very least, I hope that the fog dissipates sufficiently so that I can put together a decent post here.

Pernicious anemia can be deadly if not treated but for some reason I was in denial of that fact. I know I’m mortal, of course. If pernicious anemia doesn’t kill me something else will  and I’m okay with that.  As my  title above says, nothing lasts forever. My personal mortality is assured. Fact is, the universe paved the way for it a very long time ago.

We watched a program on television last night called Wonders of the Universe with Brian Cox that explained the arrow of time and the fact that the universe will eventually die out to nothing. That certainly had not been my understanding of how things would turn out.* Cox argues that life depends on the arrow of time and would not be possible without it. Death is the inevitable consequence of life. In fact life and death are not opposites at all but integral elements in the process of time. Cox also argue that this time in the course of the universe is the only time life will be possible. By ‘this time’ he includes billions of years along the staggeringly long life of the universe which started thirteen billions years ago according to scientific calculations. Our sun will die in a billion years or so and will explode in six billion. You won’t have to cover your head and hide under your desk when it ends though because by then, life on earth will be completely obliterated.The universe itself will die in several trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of years.  So, life is meaningless and insignificant in the vastness of space and time. Sorry to have to remind you of that.

That said, we humans have decidedly taken sides on this issue and we favour life over death. To hell with the arrow of time! Well, sort of. We pay lip service to life, but we love to kill each other it seems (or just stand by as others kill each other)  and we kill other animals with glee, piling up their corpses on our dinner plates. So death has a certain attraction for us, but only if it happens to someone else. I know that some people take death in their stride and don’t feel any sympathy for animals they see squashed by a truck on the highway or on an assembly line waiting to give up their lives so that the trucker can have his chicken wings at the next bar down the road. They couldn’t care less either about hundreds of thousand of Rwandans massacred in the mid 1990s internecine war or the countless others who die daily in skirmishes in many parts of the planet. Conversely, they may just feel that death is necessary for life and they don’t sweat it. They may understand that we all have to eat dead things and for that to happen whether it’s animal or mineral, something has to die so that they will continue to live for a while longer. Whether or not they think about it in these terms or not, for some of them, killing an animal themselves is a more honest way of doing what has to be done than having a surrogate do the killing for them in an abattoir or other kind of killing factory. I eat animal flesh on occasion but I don’t kill the animals myself that I eat. I leave that up to someone else, someone in a factory out there somewhere by people I don’t know. Honestly, I sometimes feel guilty about that. I realize that isn’t a rational sentiment, but rationality has little to do with life and death.

How we feel about life and death, especially of domestic animals, depends largely on how inclusive we think about community belonging. We share many traits with other animals yet we deny any affinity with them. On the CBC News last evening Peter Mansbridge introduced a segment on chimera. Chimera are animals that have cells from other animals implanted in them. In his introduction, Mansbridge, with obvious horror, noted that pigs, animals that is,  were being implanted with human cells in order to make transplant organs for humans in the process. He spoke as if there are humans and then there are animals. He separated animals from humans in a way that would suggest that humans are not animals. Of course, that’s preposterous, but it’s a  widespread perspective. In separating us from other species we ‘other’ them and make it easier for us to kill them for whatever reason, often for food. But, as you read above, nothing lasts forever and who is to say what a good death is? Is animal extinction a bad thing? Not according to the arrow of time, by which measure everything goes extinct.

Have you ever watched another animal (human or other) die? Have you ever been  a witness to their light being extinguished permanently, the sentience that was there no longer existent? I have a number of times and every time, it gives me pause. I think this sensation of unease with the extinction of the momentous thing called life is inescapable for the majority of us.  I think that it is deep seated and relates to our instinct of self-preservation. So, are we doomed? Of course we are. The arrow of time proves it. Does that make us any more accepting of our fate? I don’t think so.


*I have a book by Stephen Jay Gould called Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time published in 1987. I’ve had it for years. I will begin to re-read it this evening to see what I can make of Cox’s argument in light of it.



My personal statement from 1990 on the Knowledge Network.

Why not post a video I did in 1990. That’s only 26 years ago! Frankly, what I say in this 7 minute clip I still relevant to me today. I think it’s a good way to start off my new set of blog posts. Hope you enjoy it, although ‘enjoy’ may not be the best word to use here. The clip was filmed in Vancouver with a Knowledge Network crew over a 12 hour period in one day. It was part of my North Island College tele course on the Knowledge Network that ran from 1986 until 1992. Interesting times.


I know where I was conceived.

I know where I was conceived. It was in a small rickety, squeaky bed in a small room at the end of a small corridor, door on the right. I’m quite convinced all nine of my younger brothers and sisters were also conceived there although I can’t be absolutely certain. I’m not at all sure of where my older siblings were conceived. They are my father’s children but not my mother’s. They shared this house with the rest of us but the details are not important for now. The small room where I was conceived was also the room where the baby of the family slept. There was always a baby in the family as I was growing up.


The house containing this small room was also small, and it was always full of children. It no longer exists. The small room and the small house are gone now, torn down and replaced by a large brown duplex not so many years ago. No one driving by on the inconspicuous street on which it fronts would ever know that the house in which I grew up had ever existed. Yet there was life there, lots of life. There still is life on that same place, in the brown duplex, but the people living there now would have no idea of the life that preceded them in that very location years before, just as I have no idea of the life that goes on in that duplex now. We share the experience of a place those duplex dwellers and I, not that they are aware of that. Why would they be?


January 29th, 2015, marked the 69th anniversary of my parents’ wedding day. My father has been dead since April, 2007 but my mother lives on in body if not in mind. She no longer recognizes the faces nor the voices of any of her family members and every moment of her life now is disconnected from her past and even from the very moment preceding it. She spends most of her days in a state of catatonia, as a result of years of dementia, she cannot feed herself and three years ago she was beaten up by another resident of the home in which she lives, but that’s mostly forgotten now.


In days gone by, when I was born, say, there was much life in my mother. She was a young, beautiful, strong twenty-one year old woman, twelve years younger than my father. In her time, she bore ten children, five daughters and four sons. I’m the oldest of my mother’s children but the sixth oldest of my father’s. He had five daughters from a previous marriage before his wife died in 1946 in childbirth bearing her sixth child, a son they were to call Roger. He shares a coffin with his mother.

…to be continued sometime.

Why are we afraid of people in wheelchairs?

[This is a bit of an exploratory post.  I have ideas here that I want to develop further, but rather than trying to refine them now to a publishable state, I’m putting them out there in a somewhat disjointed and unrefined state so that I can think about them further and get your comments on them if you are so inclined].


A couple of days ago I posted a comment here about an injury I suffered last Thursday evening to my ribcage after a bad fall resulting in a hospital visit and a great deal of pain to an area of my body that had already been traumatized by cancer surgery.  Well, that personal story was just a way of leading into today’s post.  Of course, everything about the report I made a couple of days ago was true.  I’m still in a great deal of pain.  I haven’t driven our vehicle since my injury and I’m not sure when I will be able to again.  Maybe later this week sometime.  The good news is that I do feel some improvement in my pain levels already and some improved mobility.

That said, there are many people with immobility issues that cannot look forward to any improvement whatsoever in their conditions.  I feel temporarily humbled by my lack of mobility in a mobility driven world, but they must only feel permanently humbled and even humiliated.  Someone I am acquainted with has muscular dystrophy.  He’s my age, a little older actually.  He lived a ‘normal’ life for decades before being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, but his mobility has continuously declined since his diagnosis.  He is now confined to an electric wheelchair and a scooter that allows him a certain degree of mobility.  He can even visit me in Cumberland from Courtenay (8K) although not in my home because it is not wheelchair accessible. There’s actually very few locations in the Comox Valley accessible to wheelchair bound people, homes or businesses.  As an educated guess I would say that about 1% of Valley homes are wheelchair accessible.  The big box stores are all accessible, but not many of the businesses along 5th Street or anywhere downtown are. I know other wheelchair bound people in the Comox Valley with varying degrees of immobility, but all have very mobile and agile minds.  Of course, like the rest of us, not all wheelchair bound people have agile brains and some have difficulty communicating with ‘normal’ folks.  I’ll get back to that in a bit.

My point is that we treat people immobilized by various kinds of physical ‘disabilities’, ‘abnormalities’, or whatever other qualification we might use in describing them, with a curious dismissiveness.  We don’t take them seriously and don’t expect anything intelligent to come out of their mouthes.  Mainly, we don’t address them at all and if we must, we’d rather do it through an intermediary, like a caregiver or companion. I use ‘we’ here because this is a generalized social reaction with few people being self-aware enough to realize what they are feeling and why they are feeling that way.

What I am arguing here is not that individuals in our society are insensitive or uncaring about people who are ‘differently-abled’ as they sometimes describe themselves, but that we have a very deep-seated fear of immobility because of its association with death and we are culturally programmed to shun it.  If you think about it for a moment you’ll soon realize that we unconsciously equate mobility with freedom and wealth, immobility with death and confinement, either, for example, in a wheelchair or in prison.  We punish people in our society by removing their mobility.  We laud people who are mobile.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve been asked since I retired from college teaching where I’ve travelled to (nowhere, actually) or what travel plans I have.  Our obsession with mobility is virtually universal, goes a long way back and is deeply embedded in our cultural fabric.

Colin Turnbull in his 1960s ethnography of the BaMbuti tribe of the Ituri Forest in Central Africa described how the BMbuti had developed a system of describing how dead a person was.  If a person was unable to speak because of a stroke or such ailment, that person would be described as partially dead.  The greater the inability to keep up with the group, communicate and contribute to tribal life, the more dead a person was considered to be.  There was always a danger that a person might be considered dead even though they still had a pulse.  I can’t remember which anthropologist it was, writing at about the same time as Turnbull, who described in his notebooks a tribe in the New Guinea highlands that buried people alive because they had lost the ability to speak. For this tribe, he wrote, an inability to communicate verbally was a sure and certain sign that the person was dead. Burial would follow no matter how much movement was evident in the rest of the affected person’s body.

So, part of our common human cultural heritage seems to associate immobility and its various manifestations in individual human beings with death, the ultimate evil (in Ernest Becker’s words).  It doesn’t seem to matter what part of the world we are from, what language we speak or what tribe we belong to.  If we cannot speak, have various ailments that confine us to a wheelchair or we are somehow immobilized in body or mind, we are somehow lesser human beings no matter what other qualities we may have.  If we are on crutches because of an injury caused during a hockey game we will face a wait-and-see attitude.  If we are playing hockey again in a reasonable period of time all is forgiven but if we fail to get back to the game in a timely manner or are prone to injury and hence immobilized too frequently we will be considered a slacker and not really a good team player. Hero status goes to the player who plays on despite being injured, flaunting pain and immobility.  If we are in a wheelchair with obvious mobility limitations there in no wait-and-see-attitude, there is just ostracism and sometimes revulsion.

This all takes me back to wheelchair bound people, ‘mobile’ and agile brains.  My friend with muscular dystrophy has a very active mind, is from a professional background, is community-minded and involved in various social groups and activities. He is articulate and fully capable of expressing himself. His scooter is quite impressive and commands respect, but even he has commented to me that on more than one occasion when he was in his wheelchair accompanied by one of his caregivers that a clerk or other frontline worker would address the caregiver rather than him even though it was his business that was being discussed.  They often behaved as if he weren’t even present and, without asking him directly, would address his caretaker with:”…and would he like a drink with that?”    He reported on these occasions of feeling somewhat humiliated and disrespected, even if it was just for a moment.

We seem unwilling to tolerate immobility in any of its manifestations.  As noted above, we find physical immobility disconcerting and we feel uncomfortable around people in wheelchairs.  People who are ‘mentally’ immobile are particularly scary for us because they cannot move a conversation forward in a predictable manner.  We feel afraid or disdainful of people ‘talking to themselves’ while walking down the street. And while we are fine with immobility on vacations, lying around beaches reading novels, it must only be as a temporary interlude in a busy work schedule.  We heap scorn on ‘lazy’ people.  We find the immobility brought on by poverty particularly vexing and distasteful.   We describe children and retired people as ‘unproductive’ because they fail to contribute to the forward mobility (growth) of the entire community.  Combine any number of physical and mental immobilities and the disdain and fear we experience are compounded.

One mental struggle I’ve had for decades now is determining just how much of our fear of immobility is driven by our biological built in urge to avoid death like every other animal species and how much by culturally specific imperatives, including learning and education.  It’s hard to dispute the idea that over our history on this planet (and even now) individuals might at any moment have had to flee a predator or fight for survival.  The ‘fight or flight’ reaction would have been severely impaired by individual immobility.  Obviously, anyone who was immobile for whatever reason might put a whole family or tribe in danger.  The consequence of being immobilized by injury, hunger or any number of other conditions could be catastrophic.  How many times in the movies have you seen a war scenario where there was great gnashing of teeth over whether to flee and leave behind a wounded colleague or endanger the whole group by dragging him along and slowing everybody down.  Of course, if the wounded colleague was a hero he might just commit suicide, thereby releasing the group of its obligation to him and ensure the safety of the whole group.

There’s no denying that we are animals and have animal preoccupations around sex and survival.  However, that doesn’t mean that our behaviours are forever destined to be driven by our animal natures.  Ernest Becker argued that it’s our ingenuity and not our animal nature that has pushed us into perpetrating more evil on this planet than ever before.  Is it our destiny to always fear immobility and death?  Is it possible for us to ever develop cultural and moral principles and imperatives that strive to accept immobility and death rather than to fight them at every turn?  Will we ever be at peace with the fact that we are a weak, vulnerable, finite animal that has limitations or are we driven inexorably to apotheosis and hubris?  Will we ever treat each other with respect no matter what our level of mobility?  I’m afraid I’m not very optimistic about our chances of answering any of these questions in the affirmative, at least not in the short term.

A lesson in humility

I’m not usually big on humility.  I figure life gives us plenty of opportunities to feel humble without actually cultivating that quality of mind.  I’ve often been humbled in the past when confronted by situations out of my control, when all I could do was stand by helplessly and observe the unfolding of sometimes very unpleasant events.  For me, feelings of humility are more often than not brought on by situations where I am helpless, prevented from acting in one way or another or immobilized by a physical condition.  One great example in my past of being immobilized, and humbled by it, was when I had a disk removed in my lumbar region many years ago.  I had had an ‘accident’ in a lumber mill and was left close to immobilized with a severe injury to my back.  I was off work for a year because of it.  As an active, eager young man, being subjected to the immobility brought on by my back surgery and lots of time in bed was humbling to say the least.  My vulnerability as a person and as a man was plain to see.  I was definitely humbled by it.  Lying in my bed for days on end, I was in no position to exercise hubris of any kind.  It was hard not to feel diminished by the situation.  Over the years I’ve had other similar experiences.  

In 2002 I was diagnosed with kidney cell cancer and had my left kidney removed in a complex, delicate surgical procedure that left me with a 36 centimetre scar running around my left ribcage, front to back and chronic pain ever since.  We had just bought an acre of property which needed a great deal of work and here I was unable to do anything physical.  Carolyn was left to do all the work that needed to be done around the place and look after me too.  That was humbling and sometimes humiliating.  Of course I had no intention of getting cancer.  I have no idea how I got cancer.  It could have come from poor personal dietary decisions or who knows what.  So, I couldn’t be blamed for my immobility.  Still, being a conscious, sentient male of the species unable to move a great deal was humbling anyways.  Getting cancer and being immobilized by it highlighted in no uncertain terms my animal vulnerability.  

A few days ago, while working on a building project at home I had occasion again to feel my animal vulnerability, this time more acutely than in the past.  I’m 67 years old but in quite good physical condition.  Carolyn and I walk the dog on average 45 kilometres a week.  We average around 10 minutes per kilometre.  That’s a pretty good pace.  Along with that we regularly exercise in our little gym at home and with a trainer.  I’m pretty fit.  I’m able to do things.  I can lift heavy rocks for landscaping projects and work long hours in the shop or on various construction jobs.  That all came to an end last Thursday evening when I slipped on a loose board and crashed to the ground landing on another board in the process right on the exact location of my 2002 cancer surgery and the chronic pain its given me ever since.  Off to the emergency ward we went.  After a couple of hours of investigation, the hospital staff determined that I had not broken any ribs and that I should just go home and let it heal.  Well, that’s easier said than done.  I don’t have a lot of pain until I move, then the pain level shoots up to a 10 or higher.  I really can’t do much.  I can sit and type this as long as I keep my arms as still as possible but every once in a while without warning I get overwhelmed with a paroxysm of pain that threatens to leave me groaning and writhing uncontrollably on the floor.  Carolyn is required to do most of what I used to do for myself.  Thankfully, my family is here to help too.  My daughters and granddaughters have been great and my son-in-law is pitching in to move our deck building project along.  Still, I feel helpless and stupid for my carelessness.  It’s humbling to say the least to be immobilized and incapable of looking after myself and contributing to the many projects we have going to keep our home running smoothly.  I’ve always been careful around my shop tools and on the various construction projects we’ve undertaken around here…and, although I’ve injured myself now and again because of lack of care and attention, this last little bit of carelessness is costing me dearly.  It’s taken away my mobility, the very condition that we define as life.  I hope it doesn’t last too long.  Even though I’m of an ‘advanced’ age, I heal quite quickly so I have my fingers crossed that I’ll regain most of my mobility in the next few days.  Right now, I don’t particularly feel that way, but I must remain optimistic and maybe I’ll be able to get some decent painkillers when I see my family doctor next week.  I hate being humbled.  


Escape 19: All you wanted to know about human evil but were afraid to ask!

Escape 19: All you wanted to know about human evil but were afraid to ask!

Well, it looks like I may just get through this 30 day Becker marathon in 30 days.  I’m on Chapter 7 now, which starts on page 91.  Since there’s 170 pages in the book I’m close to half way there.

As noted earlier, Becker is the great synthesizer.  He gleans in a critical way the works of others to build his own model of how the world works.  Those ‘others’ include hundreds of scholars of all disciplines as can be verified by a glance at the bibliographic entries in his many books, but major influences have been Hocart, Huizinga, Brown and Rank.  The school of psychoanalysis to which Becker subscribes is the school, which broke away from Freud.  Rank was a special protégé of Freud’s but could not accept Freud’s Oedipus Complex and other aspects of his work.  Freud was no slouch, of course, but his work was nowhere near as historical as his detractors, Brown and Rank, not to mention Jung and Adler.  For Rank and Brown, following Freud, the basic foundation of an understanding of humankind’s evolution on this planet is our fear of life and death.  Of course we wouldn’t be able to stand it for long if every day of every year we were consumed by fear of life and death.  Rank accepted without any resistance one of the pillars of Freud’s work and that’s the idea of repression.  As Becker writes:

…men do not actually live stretched openly on a rack of cowardice and terror; if they did, they couldn’t continue on with such apparent equanimity and thoughtlessness.  Men’s fears are buried deep by repression, which gives to everyday life its tranquil façade; only occasionally does the desperation show through, and only for some people.  It is repression, then, that great discovery of psychoanalysis, that explains how well man can hide their basic motivations even from themselves.  But men also live in a dimension of carefreeness, trust, hope, and joy which gives them a buoyancy beyond that which repression alone could give.  This, as we saw with Rank, is achieved by the symbolic engineering of culture, which everywhere serves men as an antidote to terror by giving them a new and durable life beyond that of the body.

 I don’t think I could find a quote in EFE that better represents Rank’s thought as expressed here by Becker.  Following this quote Becker introduces Wilhelm Reich and his book The Mass Psychology of Fascism.  In his conclusion that much of the misery on this planet is a consequence of our attempt to deny our animal nature, the question for Reich is: how could we so willingly give over [our] destiny to the state and the great leader? (p. 93) Because we’re such suckers for promises of prosperity and good times ahead if only we follow the great leader, the steady, thoughtful great leader.  But, unfortunately, in attempts to avoid natural plagues and disasters by investing our trust in great leaders we unwittingly unleashed another plague brought on by our thoughtless allegiance and obedience to the politician.

Reich coined the apt term “political plague-mongers” to describe all politicians.  They are the ones who lied to the people about the real and the possible and launched mankind on impossible dreams which took impossible tolls of real life.  Once you base your whole life-striving on a desperate lie and try to implement that lie, try to make the world just the opposite of what it is, then you instrument your own undoing…all you have to do is to say that your group is pure and good, eligible for a full life and for some kind of eternal meaning.  But others, like Jews or Gypsies are the real animals, are spoiling everything for you, contaminating your purity and bringing disease and weakness into your vitality. 

It’s all about scapegoating…a theme we’ll run into again in this exercise.

Escape 18: Our Bodies, Our Deaths.

Escape 18: Our Bodies our Deaths: What evil has history wrought?

Chapter 6 in EFE ends with a section called The Demonics of History.  How to summarize Becker’s arguments here?  Not without some difficulty: every sentence is jam packed with meaning.  In the last post we noted that money is the new immortality ideology but ‘new’ here means after the fall of primitive society and the rise of classes some 10 to 12 thousand years ago in some parts of the world, much later in others.  But, it’s complicated.  As Becker writes:

If we say that ‘money is God,’ this seems like a simple and cynical observation on the corruptibility of men.  But if we say that ‘money negotiates immortality and therefore is God,’ this is a scientific formula that is limpidly objective to any serious student of man…We see the changes from tribal modes of achieving power to money modes right before our eyes.

 In the early days of French ‘exploration’ in North America, once the Huron, Montagnais and other tribes understood the power of the invaders from Europe they didn’t need to be coerced to let go of their previous immortality ideologies.  They were confronted by a relentless and powerful new god, one that did not want to compromise with theirs, a god who showed that the only way to salvation and eternal life was in the worship of it and it alone.  The earliest ‘conversions’ had been gotten with bribes and coercion, but in time that was no longer necessary.

Think; if a race of men with advanced learning, health, and weapons were to land on our planet and tell us about the god who sustains them in Alpha Centauri, a new religion would sweep over large numbers of people overnight and discredit most of our institutions. 

 So, money represents real earthly power, but its power is sacred.  Money gives power now!  No need to wait on an earthly death for apotheosis.

Man has become dependent on social symbols of prestige that single him out as especially worthy of being remembered in the eyes of the gods and in the minds of men.  But for an animal who actually lives on the level of the visible and knows nothing of the invisible, it is easy for the eyes of men to take precedence over the eyes of the gods.  The symbols of immortality power that money buys exist on the level of the visible, and so crowd out their invisible competitor.  Man succumbs easily to created life, which is to exercise power mainly in the dimension in which he moves and acts as an organism.  The pull of the body is so strong, lived experience is so direct; the ‘supernatural’ is so remote and problematic, so abstract and intangible.

 Indeed the pull of the body is strong but it’s the body that is the source of sin.  The body dies and that’s not an acceptable outcome for such a narcissistic species as our own.  That’s why we divide ourselves into body and soul.  The body dies but the soul lives on.  The soul is an immortality project in the real sense of the term.  The body leads us into temptation.  It’s the source of all death and guilt.  As I get older, in my penultimate years, I feel that as the life drains out of me I am betraying our most cherished immortality symbols and I must feel guilt for the loss of life.  But the immortality ideologies that dominate the planet now are betraying me because their promises of immortality are empty ones.  It’s interesting to me how the symbol of the devil represents “physical, earthly, visible power and on this planet easily holds sway over his more ethereal competitor, spiritual power.” (p. 85)

As we noted earlier we need evidence that we are being heard by the gods in our search for immortality; that assurance does not come easily.  But if we can convince ourselves, as the Calvinists suggested after some initial stumbling, that how we conduct ourselves on this planet may be an indication of where we will end up after we die, that can give us some comfort but it also can bring on anxiety.  As Becker writes:

No wonder economic equality is beyond the endurance of modern democratic man: the house, the car, the bank balance are his immortality symbols.  Or to put it another way, if a black man moves next door, it is not merely that your house diminishes in real estate value, but that you diminish in fullness on the level of visible immortality – and so you die…the decline of traditional religion has eclipsed the god whose eyes judged merit according to the goods you piled up…In other words, modern man cannot endure economic equality because he has no faith in self-transcendent, otherworldly immortality symbols; visible physical worth is the only thing he has to give him eternal life.  No wonder that people segregate themselves with such consuming dedication, that special ness is so much a fight to the death: man lashes out all the harder when he is cornered, when he is a pathetically impoverished immortality seeker.  He dies when his little symbols of specialness die. 

 This is a long quotation but I feel no qualms in putting it down here for you to read. It sums up a great deal of Becker’s thought in this chapter.  Over time we came to distrust invisible symbols of immortality.  As Becker writes: “Immortality power, then, came to reside in accumulated wealth.” (p. 87)

So, in a world dominated by secular immortality symbols, where we judge people on their possessions how do we understand the concept of sin?  In a world where our immortality is gotten by bartering with the gods, sin meant distancing oneself from invisible power.  It might mean angering the gods by not performing a ritual properly or by ignoring prescribed behaviours.

Sin is the experience of uncertainty in one’s relation to the divine ground of his being; he no longer is sure of possessing the right connection, the right means of expiation. 

Sin, in a Christian sense, defines a situation, created by certain actions or thoughts, that distances the believer from his God.  It’s a denial of the symbolic side of humankind.  And, of course, it’s our symbolic side that is the seat of our immortality.  The body betrays us, drags us down.  No wonder we often speak of the body in terms that connect it to the earth and in doing so we can barely mask our loathing of it.  Sex is ‘dirty’ unless of course it’s sanctioned and made acceptable by the application of essential rituals to ‘cleanse’ it.  In this sense, it’s easy for men to think of women as the source of evil and death.  Men can think of themselves as purely symbolic creatures whereas women’s bodies are the source of temptation and descent into death.  Women bleed monthly, they bleed in labour, they give life, but in so doing create death.  They are the carriers of death by giving birth.  The idea is perverse but any simple and cursory study of the ethnographic record easily demonstrates how widely it was, and is still, accepted.  I will explore this further in subsequent posts, but for now I have to wrap up this already too long post.

So what does it mean to sin in a secular world?  Well, I don’t agree completely with Becker in his conclusion here.  He claims that we’ve avoided sin by “simply denying the existence of the invisible dimension to which it is related.” (p. 89) But, in my mind to sin in a secular world that promises victory over death by the accumulation of wealth, sin must be the inability to accumulate wealth.  The poor, by definition, are sinners of the worse kind.  But how do we atone for this sin?  In a Christian world simply asking for forgiveness and promising to lead a better life can be enough.  In a secular world it’s not so easy.  Of course we make the poor pay for their ‘sin’ by treating them like shit.  “There, that will teach you for not being wealthy.”  Becker concludes:

History is the tragic record of heroism and expiation out of control and of man’s efforts to earn expiation in new, frantically driven and contrived ways.  The burden of guilt created by cumulative possessions, linear time, and secularization is assuredly greater than that experienced by primitive man; it has to come out some way…The point I am making is that most of the evil that man has visited on his world is the result precisely of the greater passion of his denials and his historical drivenness.  

Ernest Becker 6: Today, will the Broncos hang their heads in shame?

Ernest Becker 6: Today, will the Broncos hang their heads in shame?

Following from yesterday’s post, primitive ritual is a tool used for the production of life.  [We get to the Seahawks and Broncos at the end of this post!] The Mayans and especially the Aztec were quite capable of ritually sacrificing scores of human beings to ensure future prosperity.  In this post I explore with Becker the consequences of our search for immortality and the means by which we pursue that search.  They vary in time and space, of course, but their aim is always the same: ensure prosperity and the good life.  Defeat anything or anyone that threatens it.

We have a great deal of faith in our way of controlling life, via science and especially engineering and technology.  So when our technology fails us, our faith is shaken.  When a plane crashes or a pipeline ruptures or a train crashes into a town killing dozens of people we wring our hands in worry.  We are wracked with doubt.  Maybe we aren’t infallible after all.  Maybe our way of life won’t lead us to immortality.  Look how easily it kills.  Anxiety fills our hearts.

When imperialists and colonizers came across primitives and their crude attempts to ritually control life, they smashed and burned everything and created a critical breach in the faith primitives had had in their immortality projects.  They were shown to be useless in the face of Western weapons and ideas.

One thing primitives did that was a complete puzzle to Western observers for a long time was the way they organized their societies.

The Australian aborigines – who were living in the Stone Age – seemed to most paradoxical of all, with their luxuriant system of kinship classification and their complex divisions of their tribe into half and half and then half again…One of the main things that took place between halves was something homo sapiens seems to thrive on: contests of skill and excellence…In fact it is possible that all team games arose out of the dual organization…

Technically we call it ‘moity’ organization – a dry and forbidding anthropological term that makes the study of primitives so dull…

But Hocart did not get carried away into abstractions as many did.  His explanation for this profound dualism lies in the real world of human ambitions and hopes:

 Perhaps it is a law of nature, but that is not sufficient to explain the dual organization…Nor does it explain the curious interaction of the moieties; in fact it is this interaction which must explain the dual division; for men divide themselves into groups in order that they may impart life to one another, that they may intermarry, compete with one another, make offerings to one another, and do to one another whatever is required by their theory of prosperity. [this paragraph is Becker quoting Hocart]

 There you have it.  Leave it to Hocart to cut through to the heart of the matter…The fundamental imperative of all ritual is that one cannot do it alone; man cannot impart life to himself but must get it from his fellow man.  If ritual is a technique for generating life, then ritual organization is a necessary cooperation in order to make that technique work. 

 …We saw in the Introduction that one of the main motives of organismic life was the urge to self-feeling, to the heightened sense of self that comes with success in overcoming obstacles and incorporating other organisms…Man can expand his self-feeling not only by physical incorporation but by any kind of triumph or demonstration of his own excellence.  He expands his organization in complexity by games, puzzles, riddles, mental tricks of all types; by boasting about his achievements, taunting and humiliating his adversaries, or torturing and killing them.   Anything that reduces the other organisms and adds to one’s own size and importance is a direct way  to gain self-feeling; it is a natural development out of the simple incorporation and fighting behaviour of lower organisms.

 I leave you today with this most important insight in EFE:

By the time we get to man we find that he is in an almost constant struggle not to be diminished in his organismic importance.  But as his is also and especially a symbolic organism, this struggle against being diminished is carried on on the most minute levels of symbolic complexity.  To be outshone by another is to be attacked at some basic level of organismic durability. 

 As I type this, the Seahawks are ahead of the Broncos 29 to 0 in the Super Bowl.  Seahawk fans are cautiously optimistic.  Broncos fans are in despair.  Will they be diminished along with their team?  Will their heads hang low in shame?  Everything is at stake!  Will the Broncos give life to the Seahawks?  Or will the Broncos overcome all adversity and kick ass?

A Commie I’m not. A crusty old Marxist, maybe.

So, we had a big party at the homestead recently and I was lovingly described as a communist by my son-in-law. I appreciate the sentiment behind this remark.  For him, it’s a term of endearment.  There were many ‘left-leaners’ in the crowd who would have appreciated the comment because in some senses we share many moral precepts.  Oh, I’ve been described as a commie before.  It wasn’t the first time, nor will it be the last in all likelihood.  I really don’t mind all that much.  Whether or not people actually believe that I’m a communist is another matter and I hope to set the record straight here for anyone who cares.  If people read this blog posting,  and few will, they will know my position on the matter.  For my own sense of self, for myself, I want to set the record straight once and for all.

When I state that I’m not a commie, that doesn’t mean for one second that I’m a proponent of ‘capitalism.’  Many people see communism and ‘capitalism’ as opposites, as alternate ways of organizing ‘the economy’ and ‘society.’   I don’t, nor did Karl Marx when he got old enough to think straight.  As an aside, Harold Adams Innis, the brilliant Canadian political economist and historian said, in a moment of particular lucidity, that one cannot make a contribution to the social sciences before one reaches the age of 50 and he’s probably correct.  He was 58 when he died and his best work happened in the last 5 or 6 years of his life.  Marx was born in 1818 and died in 1883.  It wasn’t until the late 1860s that he really got his shit together, hunkered down in the British Museum and started writing Capital.  Yes, yes, he wrote the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts earlier, but he really got serious later.

The reason I say I’m not a communist is that I’m not a proponent of communism.  For me, or anyone else, to be labeled a communist or anything else for that matter implies a certain level of advocacy, of ‘proponency.’  It’s not necessary to be proponent of something that will eventually happen no matter what we think or wish.  It’s like being described as an old-agist.  I know that old age will happen to all of us, but that doesn’t mean I’m a proponent of old age.  I’M getting old, but that doesn’t mean that I advocate old age. That would be ridiculous.  A communist mode of production will inevitably replace the capitalist one because the internal contradictions within the capitalist mode of production dictate it in the same way the feudal relations of production replaced slave based ones and the capitalist mode of production replaced feudal ones.  The change will happen gradually, just as old age creeps up on us.  Before it’s clear what’s happening, the old bones get brittle, the arteries plug up and the organs just can’t cut it anymore.  The resiliency of youth is past, old solutions no longer get the same results they used to.  Life inevitably brings on death, they are different sides of the same coin.  What that means for me as an individual is clear, what it means for ‘society’ or for the ‘capitalist mode of production’ is also clear.  Nothing is forever, nothing.  Not the capitalist mode of production, not our beloved countries, not our cities, not our towns, not our fabulous wealth.  The question is not whether or not the capitalist mode of production will live on forever, but when it will die.  It’s not even a question of how.  That’s also been clear for a long time.  Still, classical economics is still in classical denial over the whole thing, a fact which is made clear on virtually every page of The Economist which is a proponent of capitalism.

For what I’ve written above I could be branded with the sin of determinism, one of scholarship’s seven deadliest.   If saying that one day I will die makes me a determinist, well that’s ok by me.  Call me whatever name you want.  Furthermore,  what I write above does not mean that life is completely meaningless to me.  We live life on many levels, a day at a time.  My life is full of activity and that means that every day I make many moral decisions most having nothing or little to do with my eventual death.  I don’t  live life as though my life is about to end (I didn’t do that even when I had cancer and the possibility of my quick exit from this life was very real).  I DO things, there is nothing else to do.  I read the papers, listen to the radio and watch TV.  I play with my grandkids.  I can’t help but get outraged by the blatant bullshit and crap that comes out of the government in Ottawa on a daily basis.  Yet I understand  the role that national governments play in the capitalist mode of production and their essential collaboration in making it possible for capital to flow with greater and greater ease globally  and for controlling labour by keeping tight reins on migrations and regulation.  I haven’t lost my moral compass.  I even get angry on one level…say, at incivility, at stupid driving, at poor highway engineering…while understanding that at other levels, the picture is much different and anger makes no sense.  As I write above, we live life on many levels, many planes.  They are all connected although not always in obvious ways.  Even otherwise highly educated people don’t see the connections.  The connections, interconnections and interweavings become visible only after a sustained gaze upon them.  To see them requires special training.  Somewhere, Norbert Elias got that training, as did many other thinkers who have had a sustained influence on me over the decades.