Article 43


Saturday, September 15, 2007

Over Our Dead Bodies

How Political Psychology Explains Bush’s Ghastly Success

By John B. Judis
The New Republic
August 17, 2007

In June 2004, I went door to door in a white, working- class neighborhood of Martinsburg, West Virginia, a small blue-collar town in decline. There, I found voters disillusioned with both the Iraq war and the flagging economy. But, when I returned five months later - the Sunday before the election - I had difficulty digging up anyone who didn’t plan to vote for George W. Bush. As far as I could tell, Martinsburg voters were backing him for two reasons: first, because he opposed gay marriage and abortion ("There are two gays around the corner who are voting for Kerry,” one fellow, with a Bush sign in his yard, advised me scornfully from his stoop); and, second, because he was leading the war on terrorism ("I feel more safe with Bush in there,” an elderly disabled man explained). There was still grumbling over the war, the economy, and other topics - the same elderly man who praised Bush for making him feel safe also bemoaned America’s lack of universal health insurance - but these issues were eclipsed by the threat of gay weddings and terrorist attacks....



Conventional wisdom holds that we are afraid of dying and that religion helps assuage those fears. Now, empirical evidence seems to show that reminders of our mortality cause us to lash out violently at those who threaten not only our lives, but also our belief systems.

By Beth Kephart
Science And Spirit

We’ll do just about anything to keep thoughts of our own death at bay. We’ll clog our calendars with the commitments only the living can get done. We’ll yield our imaginations to mawkish late-night television. We’ll jump out of planes, scale icy cliffs, and otherwise laugh in the face of gravity. Dying is for others, we like to think and say, and we will not concede. We will build big buildings; we will forge great art; we will raise up children; we shall plant a tender bit of something in the ground and take care that it becomes a tree.

Of course, no amount of bravura can obscure our mortality. We’re too smart an animal; we are bombarded by too much news. We know that children are being gunned down in perfectly pleasant suburban schools, that villagers are being set on fire, that planes can be maneuvered into soaring city towers, that bombs fall from the sky. We know that people just like you and me, with families just like yours and mine, have finally succumbed. We know the clock is inexorably ticking.

Wanting desperately to survive, all too certain that we will not, we alone among the animals hold these warring thoughts inside our heads. Bliss is forgetting, life is knowing; and life, therefore, is riddled with anxiety. Anxiety, in its turn, creates instability, and instability opens the door to volatility. And when were not careful, when we fail to hold ourselves in check, we step across the line and yield to the darker side of our given natures - to anger, to confrontation, and, ultimately, to violence.

The theory of generative death anxiety points us toward a primitive contradiction in our human nature - the overriding biological survival instinct as it confronts the cognitive awareness of our mortal nature, says Daniel Liechty, who has degrees in both historical theology and peace studies and is currently a professor of social work at Illinois State University. This contradiction, he says, is the point “from which the most sublime, creative, and spiritually uplifting aspects of our nature emerge, but from where equally the most primitively reactive, paranoid, and violent aspects of our nature emerge.”

“If we at least begin to understand the psychological, emotional, and spiritual puppet strings that have us dancing in certain predictable patterns across human history,” Liechty contends, “we at least have a better chance of setting limits on our violence than would be the case otherwise.” In essence, if we can find constructive means of dealing with the innate conflict of our doomed existence, rather than destructive ones, we may be able to coexist in peace.

Over the last twenty years, three social psychologists have been recasting the psychology of terror in light of Liechtys theory of generative death anxiety and a more general theory of human nature. The origin of terrorism, they say, can be traced to the everpresent specter of death. Tom Pyszczynski of the University of Colorado, Sheldon Solomon of Skidmore College, and Jeff Greenberg of the University of Arizona have empirically tested what they call ғterror management theory, or TMT, in six different countries, and in all of them, they claim, it illuminates why ԓhatred toward those who are different from oneself is rooted, at least in part, in basic fears that are inherent in the human condition. And, they say, it offers an intriguing way of thinking about how the hovering inevitability of death affects the way we live and seek to protect our inescapably ephemeral lives.

Pyszczynski, Solomon, and Greenberg are not the first social scientists to suggest an ever-present fear of death impacts our lives. Indeed, the matter was of compelling concern to Ernest Becker back in the 1950s. A cultural anthropologist credited with developing the science of evil, Becker was interested in the belief systems that human beings construct in order to give their own lives meaning. No belief system is terror-proof, Becker argued in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The DENIAL OF DEATH, but essential social relationships, such as romantic partnerships, play critical roles in shielding us from death anxiety by enhancing our sense of self-worth and giving our lives true meaning.

ԓOne very central and ubiquitous anxiety-compensatory move is to transfer the urge for continued living from the physical realm to the symbolic realm, explains Liechty, who had Pyszczynski, Solomon, and Greenberg writean essay for his 2002 book Death and Denial: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Legacy of Ernest Becker. ԓThe urge for symbolic immortality is the source of very large chunks of human creativity and life-affirming energies; it is the underlying function of culture and religion to serve as venues through which people achieve and maintain a sense of direct or vicarious participation in symbolic immortality.

We all defend ourselves against fears of death by seeking out and inculcating worldviews that elevate our own self-worth and sense of meaning. Those who can tolerate some level of uncertainty in their lives prefer more relativistic worldviews. But those who derive their self-worth and meaning from seemingly unambiguous worldviews tend to affiliate themselves with more radical movements and causes. In pursuit of psychic safety, they adhere to and fight in the name of a narrowly righteous worldview. They draw lines about themselves and stand ready to do battle with any opposing viewpoint. They stand, fiercely and fearsome, on their side of the fence, and lash out on behalf of their beliefs.

ԓThe radical Palestinians and Israelis tend to view themselves as fighting for their way of life,
says Pyszczynski. ԓThese are two groups who have historically been persecuted in many ways by many groups of people and who see each other as a major threat to their existence and way of life. [Oklahoma City bombers Terry] Nichols and [Timothy] McVeigh believed that the U.S. government had gone astray and that they were doing good by killing those people in a symbolic gesture of defiance. No doubt the terrorists in Russia believed that the murders they committed were justified because they were part of the battle of their own virtuousђ cultures struggle with what they viewed as evil Russian oppressors.

ғWars are always fought in this wayas a battle of oneגs own glorious and virtuousђ group against the evil others who threaten ones way of life,Ҕ he continues. The point is that peopleӒs perceptions of the other as evil enable them to justify acts of horror and violence and see them as serving their cause, their people, or their god.

Pyszczynski has spent the last three decades seeking to understand why those who perform violent acts in the name of group loyalty believe, ԓout of all the possible ways of understanding life and the world in which we live, theirs just happens to be the only one that is actually correct. In a paper called ԓImplications of Terror Management Theory for the War on Terrorism, he explains that the ԓmere existence of people with different cultural worldviews provides an implicit challenge to the validity of ones own worldview; they remind us that there are other ways of conceiving reality and raise the possibility that our own worldview might be wrong ҅ People respond with hostility to those who are different to diffuse the implicit threat to their own worldview posed by the alternative worldview held by the deviant others.

Through more than 250 experimental studies, Pyszczynski, Solomon, and Greenberg have tested the relationship between the cognitive awareness of mortality and hostility toward those who appear to have different worldviews. One study involved two groups of American college students, each of which was asked to read a pair of essays, one that was overtly pro-American in its outlook and one that most certainly was not. After reading the essays, one group of students was asked to evaluate the knowledgeability of the respective authors. The other group was asked to evaluate the same essays and authors, but first was asked to complete a questionnaire, the unstated but intended purpose of which was to remind the students of their own mortality. The study found that the pro-American author was better received and more respected than the anti-American author across the board, but the effect was further heightened by mortality salience. Subsequent studies have found that Italians become more nationalistic and Germans become more favorable to aspects of their own culture if interviewed next to a cemetery.

In 1998, psychology got its first true empirical look at the length to which people will go to hurt others who think differently from themselves. In what has become known as the ԓhot sauce study, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Greenberg, and others devised a situation in which participants were asked to indicate how much of a ԓblazingly hot hot sauce they wanted another student to have. In the study, Democratic students were to determine the fate of Republican students, and vice versa.

The results? Students who had not been reminded of their own inevitable death before they had to make their decisions doled out an average of 11.86 grams of hot sauce to their politically opposed classmates. Those who had been reminded of their own mortality prescribed a whopping 26.31 grams of hot sauce to those who held opposing beliefs.

When examined in conjunction with the results of other experiments, these studies led Pyszczynski, Solomon, and Greenberg to conclude that mortality salience lays the foundation for negativism and physical aggression toward people who hold opposing cultural worldviews. More than that, the work has shown that ԓwhen death is particularly close to consciousness, simpler worldviews focused on heroically triumphing over evil are preferred, says Greenberg.

Suicide bombers, for example, have been taught from childhood that taking their own lives along with the lives of others in the name of a culturally held belief is “the highest form of heroism,” he says. <b"Most are steeped within an Islamic fundamentalist worldview in which America and Israel are great evils and life is a short passage to something better.” Martyrdom assures eternal afterlife in heaven </b> I’m not sure our theory offers a pragmatic solution for those already deeply embedded in this view of life, but it does clarify how different a worldview can be from our own, and how powerfully worldviews determine the actions of us all.

TMT doesn’t negate all the other factors the weight of history, the scourge of inequity, the rub of politics that contribute to social tensions. While the latent fear of death can be brought to the surface and isolated in the lab, the real world is much more complex. There are several ways we choose to respond to those who threaten us, and we employ an array of defense mechanisms. Some, albeit a limited number, willingly convert to anothers worldview. Many more lean on tactics of derogation, diffusing opposing points of view by belittling them. Assimilation - the use of persuasive tactics to get the “wrong” thinker to come around to the “right” point of viewmight be attempted as well. In the first of the Crusades, for example, Christendom was urged to go to war under the battle cry “Deus volt,” or “God wills it,” and in the Spanish Inquisition, converted Jews and Muslims deemed insincere were punished with penance, imprisonment, and, ultimately, the death penalty. In certain situations, like most modern workplaces and educational institutions, accommodation occurs instead, allowing for the incorporation of some acceptable strains of otherness into the primary point of view. And then, as 9/11 most frighteningly drove home, there is annihilation - the decision to prove the “rightness” of ones position by physically eliminating those who disagree.

As Pyszczynski, Solomon, and Greenberg point out in their book In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror, commissioned by the American Psychological Association, Osama bin Laden referred to the killing of Americans as a Muslim duty. President Bush referred to the subsequent war on terrorism as a “crusade,” a holy undertaking. Reminders of death - like the impact of explosions captured and replayed again and again on televisionwill, according to TMT, increase support for political leaders who promise to wage war on evildoers in the name of God and country.

Still, most of us will never strap a bomb to our backs and sacrifice ourselves along with dozens of others. Few of us are so steeped in intractable worldviews that we have moved past that place where we might be mollified by more moderate teachings and less extreme persuasions. Yet TMT, the theorists say, offers us all the opportunity to better understand our own, and othersӗ, psychological needs, and ways we can meet these needs. Ultimately, this could lead to more fulfilling and mutually respectful lives. It would give politicians and other policy-makers a broader platform from which to draw conclusions and make decisions. If we can learn to project immortality to ourselves and to others through socially acceptable means, it should make more people stop before declaring the wisdom of war.

“Terror management theory can be a force for personal change because it provides us with knowledge about who we are,” says Tyler Volk, a biology professor at New York University and author of the book What is Death?: A Scientist Looks at the Cycle of Life. We might need to face its findings about our unconscious in the same way we accept the circulation of the body’s blood. Becoming aware of such dynamics of death creates the potential for new kinds of psychological futures. We will be less likely to cling to empty nationalism and arbitrary religious groups, to identify our egos with subcultures, political parties, or special interest groups. More skeptical of our own overall motivations, we will be less likely to seek fame or money as salves for our existential insecurities. We could be truly liberated to live fully in the present moment, yet responsible to others because they are in the same boat. This life with death in the conscious present will, quite naturally, but not without pain and struggle, offer the possibility for a new kind of being.

In the end, there will likely always be those who subscribe to worldviews that are too rigid or diffuse, just as there will always be those who fail to find any clear worldview to believe in at all, who live their lives without meaning or a sense of self-esteem. “Stripped of a meaningful view of reality in which one could be of worth, only the terror of impending nonexistence remains,
says Greenberg. “The Columbine [High School] killers appeared to have been the prototypic examples of this.” It seems as though their terror fueled their actions and their suicidal intent. Shakespeare noted that the way to rid oneself of the fear of death is to die.

However, “most people in every era live out their lives helping those in their social sphere and making advances by building and creating things and accumulating knowledge,” he concludes. “We can hope that someday, through education, these achievements will lead us to understand the necessity of compromise and that violence is not only morally wrong, but is no longer a productive direction for anyone.”



The Virus That Is Talk Radio

By Edgar Allen Beem
The Forecaster
September 25, 2008

Last week I had a disturbing conversation with a woman I have known for most of my life. At least I thought I knew her. What started out as idle chit-chat about the sorry economic state of the United States took a bizarre turn when I suggested that she vote for Democrats if she wanted to get the country back on a positive course.

“If you vote for that black man,” she shot back, “the Russians and the Chinese will take over the country.”

Huh? I mean I can usually hold up my end of a political debate, but where did that come from? I was dumbfounded.

“Sounds like youve been listening to too much talk radio,” I suggested somewhat facetiously. Turns out I was absolutely right.

As I listened with ever-increasing alarm to the ladys warped world view, she went on in some detail about a vast global conspiracy that the ғthe government doesnt want you to know about.Ҕ

She knows all about it, however, because she listens every night to Coast to Coast with George Noory, an overnight radio talk show frequented by kooks, cranks and conspiracy theorists like former British soccer player David Icke, who believes that a global elite of humanoids with reptilian bloodlines rules the world by keeping us mere mortals in the thrall of their dark plans. Bill Clintons pardons and renting out the Lincoln Bedroom seemed to figure in the conspiracy, too.

I had never heard of Coast to Coast or George Noory, but I was not at all surprised to find that the show airs nightly on WGAN radio, the same poisonous station that broadcasts the daily spit and spew of right-wing talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh, Bill OҒReilly, Glenn Beck and Howie Carr. I know these loudmouth jerks have a certain appeal to angry, friendless white males who believe that they should still rule the world, but I had no idea just how sick talk radio had become in this country. Talk radio, it now seems to me, is making us all sick.

The idea that a woman who believes (or at least entertains the idea) that reptiles are conspiring against us gets to vote on Nov. 4 is deeply disturbing. I want to have faith in the essential rationality and good will of the American people, but it gets harder and harder not to conclude that many of our citizens, their minds polluted by the ignorant rants of Limbaugh and his ilk, not to mention Coast to Coast nocturnal conspiracy theorists, are just too stupid to vote in their own best interest, let alone the best interest of the country.

You think Im exaggerating? The day after I had that alarming conversation with the conspiracy lady, there was a full-page ad in The New York Times taken out by a talk radio true believer who, in an open letter to the heads of ABC, CBS, and NBC television, advised the following:

“If you truly want to restore the credibility of your News Bureaus by getting back to reporting the news instead of propagandizing issues, I suggest you require your news chiefs to get more in touch with the true cares, concerns and issues of the average American and the way to do that is to listen to Talk Radio!”

According to someone who signed his name George J. Esseff Sr., talkers such as Rush Limbaugh, Bill OReilly, Mark Levin and Sean Hannity have “their hands on the real pulse of America.”

“By listening to Talk Radio,” Esseff concluded, “you’re listening to the voices of America and you’d be wise to follow their lead.”

Well, I do believe Esseff is hearing voices. But if Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly have their fingers on the pulse of America, this country is a lot sicker than I ever imagined.


Posted by Elvis on 09/15/07 •
Section Revelations • Section Spiritual Diversions
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