True Believers

The following I’ve already posted here but I’m posting it again because I have just completed a fictional account of a few days in the lives of oblate priests in what is now Manitoba and Saskatchewan in 1851. I wrote it in French for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to re-acquaint myself intimately with my first language and second, I wanted to write in the language of the people who are the subject of my piece.  A few moments ago I submitted this fictional piece to the Cedric Literary Awards. We’ll see how I do. I have no illusions about this, but I will never get published unless I submit material and for some, probably masochistic reason, I want to get published. Oh, I have been published before, but research reports, essays, dissertations and the like don’t count in my present world.

If you read French, you may soon be able to read my story. If not, oh well.

Here is the blog post from some time ago now:

Deep down, are we all racist and xenophobic?

In my last two posts I wrote about a book by Dom Benoit published in 1904 about the Catholic missions in the mid 19th Century in the Canadian West.  The book is a biography of Msg. Taché, second archbishop of St. Boniface (1853-1894).

Was I unfair in singling them out for a special call-out for being racist?

It’s pretty obvious that the missionaries understood that the indigenous peoples of the area were human, but that they were significantly different from themselves, especially in the fact that they weren’t ‘children of God.’ The derogatory manner in which they describe indigenous peoples, especially plains peoples, would immediately label them racist in most people’s books.

Their mission’s objective was to make ‘savages’ into ‘children of God’. They may have thought they had accomplished that by baptizing as many as possible, but that apparently still didn’t make them equal to white folk in the eyes of Canadian governments, all of which had institutionally racist practices and values regarding indigenous people. There is no doubt that Sir John A. Macdonald’s government was racist to the core. It’s hard not to conclude that most Canadian governments over the decades, both federal and provincial have been racist. Their policies prove it, the Indian Act proves it, all their actions prove it.

So, along with the missionaries of the mid 19th Century, are they special in their racism? Are governments racist, along with a few bad individuals, or are we all racist, deep down? Some of us may deny it vehemently, but the impetus, the imperative, the drive to characterize ‘other’ groups of people and their institutions as inferior or undeserving because of some national or group trait is pervasive. Can we avoid being racist and xenophobic? Can we avoid labelling groups (gender, age, colour, etc.) and nations with sweeping generalizations that deny human individuality and capacity for free thought?

The short answer is that I think we can, but it takes a lot of effort and thought. It means letting go of a lot of ‘isms’ some of which we love dearly, like patriotism.

If we believe that our society, our way of life is the greatest thing on earth, it makes it difficult to just accept others as they are and not to try to convince them, by ideology or coercion, that they should change. The Catholic missionaries of the Canadian West obviously thought that their religious beliefs and practices were the only ones that could lead to salvation, that is to eternal life in the presence of God. It seems to me that they would feel a holy obligation to try to ‘convert’ as many ‘savages’ as possible to save them from being condemned to an eternity in pergatory or hell. One could argue that their drive to ‘save’ the indigenous people is no different from a compulsion we might have to pull someone out of the way of a speeding train in order to save their lives. It’s just something ya gotta do.

So, yes, if we feel we have the only road to heaven, or to salvation, the good life, prosperity or whatever you might want to call it, it’s hard not to want to share it or conversely, to prove to others that ours is a superior way by kicking their asses just to prove it. If, however, we can express some humility in the face of the diversity of human (and other) life on this planet, we can begin to overcome prejudice and ignorance. It’s not easy and it’s not even likely to happen on any scale until the structural and historical conditions in place currently on the planet that make prejudice and ignorance possible and even inevitable are still dominant.

If you ever get a chance, watch a 2003 documentary film called Flight From Death: The Quest for Immortality. It does a beautiful job in visually summarizing my argument above. You can do that, or you can rummage around the archives on my blog to find references to Ernest Becker’s work Escape From Evil. The film is based on his work.

Why do 99% of movies follow the same formula?

Why do 99% of movies follow the same formula?

Because they address our most basic anxieties, our fear of death and our drive to deny it.  Denial of death is what I call a meta-institution. That means an institution (defined by Veblen as a crystallized habit of thought or life) that is globally dominant and pervasive. No place, country, society, culture or whatever group is immune.  We all create and nurture death-denying institutions. Sometimes they involve religion, sometimes not. Business is as good at death denial as religion is. There is no way that the film industry can escape our basic drive to deny death.

Death doesn’t necessarily mean what happens to you when your brain and body stop functioning. It can mean poverty or social death and isolation. In this sense death denies us the good life but leaves us, zombie-like, to live out our physical lives with not much of anything interesting to experience or for which to look forward.

The film industry barters in death, social or physical, worldly or eternal. So, you’ll often see a person die in movies but generally that’s considered a sacrifice for the survival of our favourite death-denying meta-institution, the one that promises us eternal life of one kind or another. The hero, that person or group that personifies the triumph over death, occasionally dies in a movie, but always with the proviso that what they’ve fought and died for lives on. From war movies to romantic comedies, the formula is always the same as is the outcome. Of course there is a lot of variation in how the formula plays out and how long an individual movie spends on any particular part of the formula, but that doesn’t negate the existence of the formula itself.

Triumph over complacency, attack from various quarters (earthly or otherwise), disease, rejection, isolation, poverty, or what-have-you, is the bread and butter of the film industry.

Escape 22: The Science of Man after Hitler

Escape 22: The Science of Man after Hitler

I have lingered on guilt, sacrifice, heroism, and immortality because they are the key concepts for the science of man in society that is emerging on our time. 

 Sociology has largely ignored this kind of analysis because it’s been caught up with it’s own immortality-project, it’s own definition of itself as a structural or constructionist endeavour.  History, evolution and process are not welcome in its parlour.  In my younger days I thought that if I wrote interesting and relevant material I would be taken seriously.  I was a bit naïve.  Sociologists could ignore Hitler or Mao as aberrations.  Becker mentions two sociologists who bucked the trend, Kenneth Burke and Hugh Dalziel Duncan.  I don’t know their work.  It was never on the curriculum when I studied at university.  Although Burke died it 1995 he was born in 1897 so his work could easily have been on the menu of any number of courses.  Becker does point out though that their work is pretty much contained within Rank’s, so I don’t feel so bad not having read them.  I have read many of Rank’s books, Art and Artist being one of my favourites.

The point here is that the old-time religious immortality-ideologies, the thousands that have existed and the many that still do can promise immortality.  The body is the source of all evil and temptation.  It’s where the Devil resides.  If you can stay in the realm of the symbolic you stand a chance of heroic eternal life, but if you succumb to the pleasures of the flesh, you die just as all flesh dies.  Spirit, if you can believe in it, lives on eternally.  That has got to be the most difficult thing for people who still believe in a supernatural world.  It’s bound to be a different supernatural world than many others so who’s supernatural world is the right one?  Doubt creeps in and that brings on guilt and the need to expiate that guilt.  One way out is to strike out at other immortality-projects, destroy them.  They all, potentially, have a role to play in the expiation of guilt and in the concretization of belief in the one and only real way to heaven.  But what happens in a world where the secular rules, where science and technology cannot promise any kind of sacred absolution?  Then, as Becker points out, the nation, the race or ‘the people’ become god, the transcendent immortality-project that keeps people in the same kind of grip that ancient religions did and modern religions still do.  It’s ridiculous, but it worked for Hitler and it worked for Mao.  Both had no transcendent god to offer the people, only a vision of the people themselves as the vehicle for apotheosis.  Hitler promised the German people a heroic victory over death as represented by the Jewish people.  Mao had the great revolution and the glorious future into which his believers would march in all their glory.

In this cosmology it is the people themselves who carry the ‘immortal revolutionary substance’; God, then, ‘is none other than the masses of the Chinese people.’

 Man still gropes for transcendence, but now this is not necessarily nature and God, but the SS or the CIA; the only thing that remains constant is that the individual still gives himself with the same humble trembling as the primitive to his totemic ancestor.  The stake is identical – immortality power – and the unit of motivation is still the single individual and his fears and hopes. 

The kind of effervescence that the promise of immortality brings is evident in events from music festivals to victory celebrations to protest marches.  We don’t often have the kind of real opportunity to feel alive alongside thousands of others in a common cause where the stakes are high.  We have our substitutes on professional hockey, football, soccer, cricket, the Olympics.  These can get our blood pressure up; they can get that collective effervescence (as Durkheim described it) going in a ritual bloodletting and victorious battle.  How often have I heard someone say, “Yeah, we kicked the shit out of the Oilers last night.”  Meaning that the Canucks defeated the Oilers.  The ‘we’ there is completely out of place in this sentence given the reality of the competition, but that doesn’t matter, it’s us against them, and it’s our immortality that’s at stake.

Escape 21: Scapegoating 101: “Hell is other people.”

Escape 21: Scapegoating 101: “Hell is other people.”

This is going to be a shorter post than the last few…which have been way too long.  I fear I’m getting pedantic in my old age.  Say it ain’t so.  I’ll carry on now, pedantry or not.  One positive thing I’m getting out of this is that my typing skills are improving, if nothing else.

So, in the last post we looked at Becker’s use of the term ‘sacrifice’.  This post is about a related term, scapegoating.  Scapegoating is a form of sacrifice…in the early days using a real goat.  Now we do it with people, mostly people we blame, realistically or not, for all of our troubles.  Becker opens this part of Chapter 8 with a quote from Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist, who said “Hell is other people.”  I need to put that on a T-shirt, damn it!

From the beginning, men have served the appetites of one another in the most varying ways, but these were always reducible to a single theme: the need for fuel for one’s own aggrandizement and immunity.  Men use one another to assure their personal victory over death…In one of the most logical formulas on the human condition Rank observed: ‘The death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the other; through the death of the other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of dying, of being killed.  No wonder men are addicted to war…war is a ritual for the emergence of heroes.

What about heroes? This is where Becker introduces the concept of heroism as a major element in his whole thought.  Heroes are not like the rest of us.  Most of us would be willing to sacrifice just about anyone who stands in our way, friend or foe, because inevitably people offend us.  A wife or husband ‘cheats’, another driver cuts us off in traffic then gives us the finger.  As Becker notes, this is the price of our natural narcissism.  We would like to kill people, or at least maim them, almost every day, but our fear of death prevents us.  Heroes are different.  They take the bullet, they take on the bad guys, they put themselves in harms way instead of throwing others in the way.  So “war IS a ritual for the emergence of heroes.”

The logic of scapegoating, then, is based on animal narcissism and hidden fear. If luck, as Aristotle said, is when the arrow hits the fellow next to you, then scapegoating is pushing the fellow into its path – with special alacrity if he is a stranger to you. 

Freud was right; in the narcissism of earthly bodies, where each is imprisoned fatally in his own finite integument, everyone is alien to oneself and subject to the status of scapegoating for one’s own life.

 We kill others, literally or socially, in order to affirm our own life. Then killing others in mass rituals like war is spectacularly affirming.  To bring it closer to home and in a bit of a less dramatic fashion, consider the way we treat the homeless and the poor and how desperately they try to hide their condition.  We kill them socially; it’s almost better than killing them physically because we prolong their suffering and see their distress and immobility as it slowly unfolds before our very eyes.  That affirms our life.

As we watch the Sochi Olympic Games, the victory celebration is a way of

…experiencing the power of our lives and the visible decrease of the enemy: it is a sort of staging of the whole meaning of a war, the demonstration of the essence of it – which is why the public display, humiliation, and execution of prisoners is so important. ‘They are weak and die: we are strong and live.’

We are disgusted by what is happening in North Korea but we turn a blind eye to the humiliation and degradation prisoners experience in our own prisons every day.

The U.S. is always keen to keep the torches lit and the electric chair warmed up.  Guantanamo Bay is a celebration of American power.

 It is obvious that man kills to cleanse the earth of tainted ones, and that is what victory means and how it commemorates life and power: man is bloodthirsty to ward off the flow of his own blood.

Other things that we have found hard to understand have been hatreds and feuds between tribes and families, and continual butchery practiced for what seemed petty, prideful motives of personal honor and revenge. 

Nothing has changed much.  We all think that we are the chosen people and if we don’t try literally to exterminate those who don’t agree with us or who aren’t like us therefore we can’t possibly ‘like’, we ostracize them, marginalize them, ignore them.

Here I would quote a passage that Becker uses from Alan Harrington, but it’s too long and I’m too tired.  Suffice it to say, that that guy over there with the funny beard and strange looking clothes and hat, what if that guy is right in his beliefs.  Can he be my equal?  “All I know is if he’s right I’m wrong.” (p. 113)

In times of peace, without an external enemy, the fear that feeds war tends to find its outlet within the society, in the hatred between classes and races, in the everyday violence of crime, of automobile accidents, and even the self-violence of suicide.

 Enough for today, don’t you think?  Is anybody really reading this stuff anyway?

Escape 21: C’mon, ya gotta make sacrifices to get ahead!

Escape 21: C’mon, ya gotta make sacrifices to get ahead!

On page 100 of EFE, Becker takes on The Mystery of Sacrifice.  I must admit that I learned a lot from Thorstein Veblen about recognizing assumptions and separating them out from research findings.  There’s no question that Becker makes loads of assumptions about value in his work.  Even his concept of evil is based on a view that he must have about non-evil or good.  For him, evil is often measured by the wonton destruction of human life and environmental destruction.  His assumption is that human life has intrinsic value and should not be destroyed in the name of an ideology of immortality.  The ‘should’ there is the key to understanding Becker’s moral assumption here.  In the world of animals, there is a great deal of killing and sometimes for the equivalent of an immortality project.  When a wandering male lion challenges the dominant male in a lion pride and kills him, he also kills the cubs so that the females will immediately go into heat and bear his cubs.  He instinctively knows that his genes are superior to his defeated foe’s and must therefore be the ones to take the pride into the future.  In fact, lions are much more predictable than humans in their behaviour, but not entirely.  We often feel that the world is driven by irrationality.  I mean how else explain the 1994 Rwandan massacre or what’s happening in Syria today.  However, according to Alex Comfort, as Becker points out, “the Freudian revolution in thought…revealed to us that the irrational had structure and so we could begin to understand it.” (p. 101)

For Becker and many others before him, such as Brown and Mumford, to whom he acknowledges an intellectual debt, sacrifice is a barter with the gods.  It’s an acknowledgment of the “pitiful finitude and powerlessness of man in the face of the mysterium trememdum of the universe, the immensity of what transcends him and negates his significance.” (p. 101)

Sacrifice, then is not an ‘irrational aberration,’ but a basic human reflex of truth, a correct expiation of natural guilt. 

 If one feels blocked, immobilized, guilty in a word, the solution is to expiate that guilt and reassert the flow of life by sacrificing life to the gods.  The gods give life, but they want the sacrifice of life in return or their gift giving may just dry up.  Gift giving must be reciprocal between the gods and us.  Now, of course, the expiation of our guilt is a social-political affair. People are quite willing to put up with much tyranny “because of its rewards not only to their stomachs but also to their souls.” (p. 101)  Becker writes:

They support tyranny by willingly marching off to war, not only because that reduces the frustration they feel at home toward authority, not only because it enables them to project their hatreds on the enemy, but also because it expiates their guilt.  How else explain the parents that we read about during each war who, when told about the tragic death if their son, have expressed regret that they had not more to give?  This is  the age-old essence of primitive gift giving; it chills us only by the nature of the sacrifice that they make so willingly and by the secondhand god to whom it is offered – the nation-state.  But it is not cynical or callous: in guilt one gives with a melting heart and choking tears because one is guilty, one is transcended by the unspeakable majesty and superlativeness of the natural and cultural world, against which one feels realistically humbled; by giving one draws oneself into that power and emerges one’s existence with it. 

 Of course, there may be choking tears and genuine gratitude to the gods for providing us with life, but there is celebration in sacrifice too.  A scapegoat, in the original meaning of the word was really a goat over which a ritual was performed so that all the tribe’s uncleanliness and weakness was transferred to the goat which was then killed or run off leaving the village clean.

Men spill blood because it makes their hearts glad and fills out their organisms with a sense of vital power; ceremoniously killing captives is a way of affirming power over life, and therefore over death. 

 We want to feel as though we have casual control over powerful forces.  Becker notes that Detroit car makers sell power and speed –“with their businessman’s realism about the truth of life –“ (p. 102) They knew that to sell cars they would be wasting their time talking about how great their cars were on gas.  It’s no coincidence that car ads on TV always show the manufacturer’s car with no other car in sight barreling down a highway, the driver with not a care in the world.  Perfect control.   The sacrifice in this case may be personal indebtedness but what is more important, having a sense of power driving a special car or living a prosaic, meek, invisible life with nothing obvious to show how great a person you are?   We feel guilt for driving an inferior vehicle or getting stuck in traffic unlike those fortunate, strong people in the car ads who apparently never experience traffic jams.

To bring this to an end for today, I think this quote from Becker is appropriate:

if you kill your enemy, your life is affirmed because it proves that the gods favor you.

 Does this analysis make any sense to you in trying to figure out what Harper and the conservatives are doing in Canada?  Harper is desperate to know that the gods of capital favour him.  He seems to be willing to sacrifice everything for that to happen.  Whatever it takes.

Escape 20: Why do we have to fight the death star?

Escape 20: Why do we have to fight the death star?

No, this post isn’t exactly about Star Wars, but that movie is such a brilliant commentary on a power mega-machine gone mad that it could easily serve as a basis for the discussion here. In many ways, movie makers have been more intuitively in tune with the insanity of the world today than most intellectuals and politicians, of course. Maybe after I finish this Becker marathon, I’ll turn to how movies and books have given us insights into our basis fears of life and death.

Chapter 8 in Becker’s EFE is called The Nature of Social Evil.  It’s a very dense chapter in which Becker can now get to the nitty-gritty.  He’s laid the groundwork and summarizes it in the first paragraph of the chapter, which I reproduce here in its entirety.

We have seen with Rank that the driving force behind evil in human affairs stems from man’s paradoxical nature: in the flesh and doomed with it, out of the flesh in the world of symbol and trying to continue on a heavenly flight.  The thing that makes man the most devastating animal that ever stuck his neck up into the sky is that the wants a stature and a destiny that is impossible for an animal; he wants an earth that is not an earth but a heaven, and the price for this kind of fantastic ambition is to make the earth an even more eager graveyard than it naturally is. 

 In the primitive world heroism and expiation were small time affairs.  Primitives weren’t capable technologically or ideationally to wreak havoc on the planet.  That’s changed now.  There is no comparing even the destructive power of an Aztec murderous ritual of thousands of victims with Hiroshima.  What can be said of a species that can pull off a Hiroshima and then (to make the point absolutely clear) a Nagasaki, a blood potlatch like the Nazi Holocaust or the Chinese Cultural Revolution under Mao?

Today we are agreed that the picture looks something like this: that once mankind got the means for large-scale manipulation of the world, the lust for power began to take devastating tolls…Masses of men were forged into obedient tools for really large-scale power operations directed by a powerful, exploitive class.  [in the process]… We see this in the degradation of tribal peoples today, when they hire themselves out for money to work monotonously in the mines. Primitive man could be transformed, in one small step, from a rich creator of meaning in a society of equals to a mechanical thing.

 It’s been ten or twelve thousand years in the making, but we’ve now unleashed this “colossus of power gone mad…” (p. 99)

…and with it began mankind’s real woes.  The new class society of conquerors and slaves right away had its own internal frictions; what better way to siphon them off than by directing the energies of the masses outward toward an ‘alien’ enemy?..this was the start of large-scale scapegoating that has consumed such mountains of lives down through history and continues to do so today, right up to Viet Nam and Bangladesh [and Rwanda, Eritria, Cambodia, East Timor, Iraq, Syria, etc.]: what better way to forge a nation into a unity, to take everyone’s eyes off the frightening state of domestic affairs, than by focusing on a heroic foreign cause? 

 …even if it has to be contrived, as in George Bush’s Iraqi ‘war’, probably the most blatantly contrived invasion of a country since Hitler invaded Poland. (http://deoxy.org/wc/wc-consp.htm)

Keeping up the lie for the sake of power takes its toll although people like Dick Cheney have no regrets because they are willing to make the sacrifice for domestic peace and future profits for oil producers.  This goes back a long way, way before Bush, of course, but as Becker notes:

Once you start an arms race, you are consumed by it.  This is the tragic fatality of power, that it leads to a fundamental distortion of the reality of man’s relationship with nature – and so can undermine his own well-being. 

How can this be?  Tomorrow we tackle the role of sacrifice in all of this.  We’ve had a taste of it in previous blogs.  Now for the main course.

 Let me tell you again that there is no substitute for reading Becker’s Denial of Death or Escape From Evil if you want to understand his thought in its richness and wholeness.  I must say, though, that his message is not in the least upbeat.  This is scary stuff and it requires a certain degree of courage and detachment to wrestle with it.  I know it nearly drove me crazy, but it seems so familiar to me now, comforting in a way.  And let me say here and now that I do have an immortality-ideology and at the end of this Becker marathon I’ll tell you exactly what it is.  But for now, let’s carry on with the task at hand.  

Escape 16: Promises, empty promises of immortality!

Escape 16: Promises, empty promises of immortality.

A group that doesn’t promise its members immortality doesn’t exist for long.  Of course promises of immortality in a secular society are hard to figure out, but we manage.  If your group has power and its proven it over and over again by military action and by delivering prosperity to most of its members then you’d be crazy to cross it.  We get locked into group ideologies precisely because our group delivers on its promises of prosperity.  We resent dissenters, we think protesters are fools and ingrates.  Not only that,

[man] accepts the social limitations on his appetites because the group gives expression to the most important appetite of all, the hunger for the continuation of life. (p. 65)

We’ve given over our power to the state sometimes reluctantly, sometimes gleefully but we do it because of the power we feel and see everyday exercised around us.  Of course, there are police, the military, the courts, and virtually the whole apparatus of the state to ensure its continuity.  And, of course, there’s our complicity.  As we saw earlier, be barter away our freedom for promises of immortality.  We don’t ever get immortality if we think of ourselves only as physical things but we do if we think of ourselves as being symbolic creatures as well as physical ones and who or what controls the symbols in our lives?  The groups in which we are born, learn language (an ultimate symbol system), and the values we live by, that’s who.  The groups I refer to here can be as small as a nuclear family or as large as ‘Western Civilization’.  We often relate to our countries as our group, but they aren’t necessarily so.  In fact, there is increasingly a global power emerging to challenge the nation-state.  The era of the nation-state is coming to an end, but slowly, bit by bit.  We hardly notice it, really, until we lose our job because the company we work for has decided to manufacture in Malaysia the products it sells.  How it will continue to sell product to unemployed workers is besides the point.  It’s anarchy out there.  There is no global economic planning, just economic activity that increasingly jumps borders.  People normally stay put, capital need not.  It moves freely anywhere for the most part.  So it could be that our nation-states, our secular gods, are losing their gloss.  The poor poll ratings of most ‘Western’ leaders is an indication that the tarnish is rubbing off on them too.

Primitives knew that very powerful invisible forces ruled the world and that they had no control over them unless, just maybe, by engaging just the right sacrificial ritual at just the right time, those forces might just sit up and take notice.  Better still, pick a special person in the group and make them a representative of the invisible forces.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.  Then go one step further and give that person or his proxies ongoing power as a reward for bringing prosperity to the group.

Now, though, as Becker points out following Rank, we have entered a new era, what Rank called the ‘era of the son’ and it carried with it a new development.

It took the form of a new kind of scientific individualism that burst out of the Renaissance and the Reformation.  It represented a new power candidate for replacing all the previous ideologies of immortality, but now an almost completely and unashamedly secular one.  This was a new Faustian pursuit of immortality through one’s own acts, his own works, his own discovery of truth.  This was a kind of secular-humanist immortality based on the gifts of the individual.  Instead of having one hero chieftain leading a tribe or a kingdom or one hero savior leading all of mankind, society would now become the breeding ground for the development of many heroes as possible, individual geniuses in great numbers who would enrich mankind. 

…But alas it has been our sad experience that the new scientific Faustian man too has failed. 

 We haven’t created equality for one thing nor have we learned the Truth.  The Truth might have made us real gods, but we haven’t learned much.  As Becker so wryly notes:

…[man] is actually ruining the very theater of his own immortality with his own poisonous and madly driven works; once he had eclipsed the sacred dimension , he had only the earth left to testify to the value of his life.

 Ironic, isn’t it?