Tag Archives: history

Why Horror?: Film Review

Recently I created a music-themed survey for my friends and family on Facebook, and I began it by answering all of the questions myself.  The last question on the survey was, which song would you say best sums up who you are?  For my part, after a bit of mental seesawing, I finally arrived at Tool’s Forty-Six & 2. If you don’t know the song, it deals with Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow.  Very simply, in Jungian psychology, our shadow is our (mostly) hidden dark side, those aspects of ourselves that are negative and that we don’t like to face, as well as a personal repository for all the social stigmas and taboos we must process in order to be a functional member of society. In the song, Maynard expresses his desire to boldly face down his shadow, to move through it and past it in order to fully become who he is.

This is a concept I am fully invested in, and for me at least, the horror genre has long been my preferred route through my own shadow. Which is why I am not only a fan of the genre, but also fascinated by the psychology of horror fans generally. What exactly is it about horror that attracts its true fans? Are such people well-adjusted or not? How do horror fans stack up against non-fans when it comes to life coping skills? In the documentary film Why Horror? (directed by Nicolas Kleiman and Rob Lindsay), the film’s subject, Tal Zimerman, sets out to answer some of those questions, and for the most part, he does so quite spectacularly.

Zimerman begins his examination of horror by peering into its history, beginning with religious iconography. Having grown up in a small Southern town, I am certainly aware of the human monstrosity and violence that permeates Christianity. This is the religion whose central symbol is a guy nailed to a tree after all, and whose holy book describes, among other atrocities, a dude getting a tent stake nailed through his head, a young woman being gang raped and then ripped to pieces (with her father’s approval no less), God causing disobedient followers to devour their own children, God causing bears to maul forty-two boys because they teased a bald guy, God giving his blessing to Moses and his followers to murder all the Midianites they’d conquered, including the little boys, and to save all the virginal young girls for themselves . . .

Are you detecting a trend here? Not to make this political, but I know Westerners tend to believe that Christianity is less gruesome than Islam; however, anyone who’s read the Bible beyond just the popular passages knows that’s absolute hokum. It’s fitting, then, that Zimmerman starts with Christianity, because so much of its history is absolutely glutted with blood and brutality. Not just what’s chronicled in their sacred text, but all the historical violence wreaked upon others in the name of furthering the faith: the Crusades, the witch burnings, the religious conversion at sword-point, and of course the many and varied tortures and murders committed by the Holy Inquisition during its roughly three hundred year reign of terror. Modern Christianity may be a kinder, gentler incarnation, but I think there is something about all of that murder and mayhem ingrained in our collective psyches, and that has surely had an effect on our appreciation for horror. Of course, the irony is that Christians these days will more often than not condemn the appreciation of fictional horror even as they downplay or whitewash their own religion’s abominable history of actual bloodshed and persecution. You gotta love the irony.

The cultural transition from religious to secular horror is embodied for Zimerman in William Hogarth’s famous print series The Four Stages of Cruelty. These pieces depict the evolution of viciousness in human beings, starting with school children tormenting animals and ending with a hanged man’s corpse being dissected by medical students. He notes here that, contrary to the popular opinion that constant exposure to fictional violence desensitizes people and makes them bloodthirsty and heartless, he himself is rather humbled by horror. It constantly reminds him of his own mortality, and is therefore an incitement to always be a good person. In that sense, the entire horror genre serves as a kind of memento mori for Zimerman, and by extrapolation, for many others as well. I think he’s definitely onto something there, as most of the real horror fans that I’ve met have been gentle and benevolent souls who wouldn’t hurt a fly . . . because, well, the fly might be one of us after all.

By contrast, Zimerman posits that most Americans actually go out of their way to avoid death, that they have an unhealthy relationship with it, making them ill-equipped to deal with their own mortality. I’m not so sure about this. Americans love their cinematic violence. They may not go whole hog with it like some of us, but bloody action films and thrillers remain quite popular, and anyway the horror genre itself has now moved into the mainstream. I do think that by and large other cultures may have a more sophisticated relationship with death than we do. Zimmerman does too, and his touchstone for this is Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, an annual celebration of the dead that, unlike its American analog of Halloween, is not about fear but rather respect for the dead. In Mexico, death is viewed not as something to be afraid of; it is instead a divine mystery that should inspire awe and reverence. I have to say, given the rising levels of violence taking place in our southern neighbor these days, this doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence. Nevertheless, it is something to be admired, I agree.

There are some fantastic highlights in Why Horror?—the interviews with directors George Romero and John Carpenter, the segment on J-Horror (which is actually rooted in Japanese kabuki and noh theater), an animated mini-history of the genre in cinema—but no part of the film lagged or failed to capture my full attention. In fact, my only real complaint is that, other than the J-Horror bit, it really didn’t spend much time on monsters or the supernatural side of the genre, both of which I prefer to Zimerman’s obvious slasher obsession. It does get into monsters a wee bit, including one of my all-time faves, Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, and how that particular monster’s story came into being. An entirely plausible theory about monsters is put forth here—they are said to be a projection of our dark side (our shadow, if you will) in symbolic form, which is then usually destroyed, much to the relief and satisfaction of filmgoers. Well, some filmgoers anyway. Me? I like when the monster triumphs. 🙂

Grade: A-

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The Final Word on Why the Civil War Was Fought

I grew up (and still live) in the South and there are some wonderful things about the place, but unfortunately, there is still a lot of nonsense here about the tainted history of the region, with many Southerners proclaiming that the Civil War was not fought over slavery, or that it was a minor issue at best.  These people are deluded.  Col. Ty Seidule, Professor of History at West Point, puts the final nail in the coffin of this argument in a succinct and powerful video in this article.  The debate is over.  The only people who still think that slavery was not the main issue that caused the Civil War are people who would not be convinced no matter how much evidence was presented to them—in other words, people who refuse to believe it because it hurts their pride.

I Came for the Sci-Fi; I Stayed for Robin Williams

Recently I got into a conversation on a friend’s Facebook thread about Robin Williams.  I grew up in the 70s and early 80s, so my fondest memories of Williams are as the iconic Mork from the sitcom Mork & Mindy.  I absolutely adored this show as a youngster.  The thing is, I was drawn to the show because it was about an alien from outer space living with a human, and as you know from the approximately google amount of times I’ve mentioned it here, I was obsessed with science fiction as a boy.  You can bet that if it had an alien, robot or weird creature in it, I was so there, especially since we only had two television channels where I lived, an ABC station (obviously) and the local PBS affiliate.  When there aren’t a lot of choices for a raging sci-fi geekboy, you tend to take whatever you can get.

Although in terms of science fiction content it wasn’t exactly on par with a Star Trek or a Battlestar Galactica, it had enough of a sci-fi hook to bring me in.  Even back then Mork & Mindy seemed to me less an out-an-out sci-fi show than a vehicle for allowing Robin Williams to vent his particular brand of hyperactive, oblique craziness.  But Williams was a world unto himself on the show, and the entire Mork & Mindy universe revolved around him and his ability to sell the character.  It was wildly successful, to say the least, and it’s hard to imagine a M&M series being half as entertaining without him.

After M&M Williams went on to fairly successful film acting career, including many roles for which he was nominated for some award or other, and a few that he won awards for.  What the films proved was that Robin was a versatile and dynamic performer, a man of many faces and identities.  But with all those masks, not a lot of people ever got to see his true face.  The sad clown is a bit of a cliche perhaps, but there is more than a grain of truth in it for Mr. Williams.  He battled chronic depression, alcohol and drug addiction to varying degrees throughout his life; I too have struggled with depression, and to a lesser extent drug problems.  It almost comes with the territory of being a creative person anyway, but when you have all the health issues I have and you’re too poor to afford treatment, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion.

But one thing I have never had to contend with was being in the never-ending spotlight and having to keep up appearances for the sake of your fans.  One of the reasons I chose to obscure my identity and write under a pseudonym, in fact, was because I am not interested in being personally famous.  A renowned writer?  Sure, give me every bit of that (but only if I’m worthy of it).  But I also dig my privacy.  I’m not a life-of-the-party kind of person–never have been and never want to be.  I have seen what that can do to perfectly good writers, artists and performers who aren’t cut out for it, and often it’s not pretty.  Williams is the quintessential example du jour, but there are so so soooo many examples.

Anyway, I just wanted to share a few thoughts about one of the greatest entertainers the planet was ever blessed with, an amazing one-of-a-kind soul who will never be replaced.

Na-Nu Na-Nu, sir, wherever you are.

. . . Of the Week (7-6-14)

So, I am again a day or two behind.  This time I can chalk it up to it being the Fourth of July weekend.  On top of that my house has been undergoing some major work, so that has occupied much of my time as of late.  But anyway, here it is . . .

Article of the Week

This week’s article comes from a site called {Life}Buzz.  I don’t want to say too much about it, but it includes a touching video clip that’s guaranteed to bring a tear or two to your eye.

He saved 669 Children During the Holocaust…

Artwork of the Week

Marcela Bolívar is surrealist digital collage artist whose work has adorned album covers, book covers, t-shirts and magazine articles.  Her style reminds me a good deal of Dave McKean’s, though with a more feminine feel to it.  Here website contains a nice assortment of her work, so check it out.  This piece references Eden and the Fall of Man.

Marcela Bolívar - Garden
Marcela Bolívar – Garden

Album Cover of the Week

This cover design is for Enigma’s A Posteriori album.  Again, the design is enhanced by strong basic shapes, in this case circles.  The muted colors also give it a nice antique aura, and the pink lines (almost literally) tie all of its various elements together.

Enigma - A Posteriori (cover)
Enigma – A Posteriori (cover)

Book Cover of the Week

I haven’t done one of these in awhile.  This is a cover design for Ray Bradbury’s Machineries of Joy.  The coolest things about it are the way the artist/designer worked Bradbury’s name into the frames, and the Art Deco feel of it.  I could easily see this as a poster design from the 1920s or 1930s.  A great concept well executed.

Ray Bradbury - Machineries of Joy (cover)
Ray Bradbury – Machineries of Joy (cover)

Meme of the Week

Here’s a wonderful little cartoon that charmingly symbolizes the nature of books and the knowledge they offer.

Everyone, be good and have a wonderful week!

 

Society’s Dread of Children Coming to a Head: The Slender Man Murder Case

First off, my apologies for missing this week’s Of the Week post.  I had a lot on my plate Friday and Saturday, and I was ill all day yesterday.  I reckon we’ll skip it this time and get back on schedule next weekend.  Anyway . . .

Before I get into the meat of this article, it should be said up front that I support youth rights, favoring the kind of system (or something very near it) expounded upon in Dr. Robert Epstein’s excellent book Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence.  Everyone should read this book, seriously.  Epstein points out that by treating kids essentially as slaves until they reach the arbitrary age at which we decide they are adults, the effects of raising children this way have been profoundly negative, using examples from other cultures to show how children in the West are particularly disadvantaged by this system.  Epstein proposes a system of tests that children can take when and if they so choose, and if they pass the tests, they can opt into age of majority.  I think this is an excellent idea.  It doesn’t treat youngsters with the one-size-fits-all sledgehammer approach to age of minority/majority and its attendant rights, and that is important in raising children to recognize themselves as individuals rather than just cogs in a machine who only become fully human at age 18 (one might even argue that by then it is too late to reverse the damage of such a system).

This simplistic, black-and-white system is ultimately hypocritical by design, and nowhere is the flaming hypocrisy of it more evident then in cases where kids commit shockingly violent crimes.  It seems that society wants to have it both ways: when kids kill, they can be treated as adults by law and locked up for as long as possible, but otherwise they are perfectly innocent little angels who must be protected from themselves and the big bad world every second of the day.  Since kids do not transition mentally, physically, morally  and so on from pure childish ignorance to perfect adulthood all in one day but rather develop gradually over time, this Magic Age system is astoundingly stupid and just plain lazy, not to mention much too convenient for those who hold power over kids.  I think they deserve better than that.

This is the context in which I want to examine the attempted murder of a young girl by her two friends.  The victim was stabbed nearly twenty times by the young girls, who claim they intended to sacrifice her to an internet-born fiend called the Slender Man.  The perpetrators were Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, both aged 12.  You’ll note that the name and face of the victim in this case has not been released, which is typical in cases where a minor has been victimized under law.  And yet the names and faces of the perpetrators–also kids–have been plastered all over the internet at this point.  There has been a discussion of whether or not these girls fully understood the moral ramifications of their actions, and most people seem to agree that 12-year-olds do know the difference between right and wrong, at least to the extent that they know not to kill their friends.  I tend to agree, but then kids do not all develop at the same rate either.  What we have to go by in this case are the psychological profiles of the perps, and their motives.  Since we don’t yet have the former, we’ll have to focus solely on the latter.

These girls, perhaps out of fear, were attempting to sacrifice another girl to a fictitious monster.  Many cultures have a less than sparkling history when it comes to human sacrifices to nonexistent beings, and I’m not entirely convinced this action wasn’t committed in the same spirit.  And these are kids, after all, and clearly imaginative ones at that.  The evidence suggests both of these girls were obsessed with the Slender Man.  So, are these girls immature for their age?  Well, far too many people–most of them adults, sadly–believe in a lot of nonsensical supernatural things, and perhaps the only thing stopping them from committing murders in the name of their faith is the law.  People don’t give up their mystical ideas easily, and many of them will behave just as irrationally if given half a chance.

It’s easy to point the finger at an internet meme (or a movie, or a video game, or whatever) and say, “There’s the culprit!”  Certainly we cannot ignore those factors either, but if you want my opinion–and you must if you’re still reading this article–then the real culprit here is the willingness of far, far too many people in our culture to put  their particular brand of spiritual silliness before logic and empirical evidence, which is to say, they value religion over science.  Many people will argue that their religion isn’t dangerous–after all, most people don’t commit murders in the name of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and so on, but I suggest that it is only because they fear legal or social reprisals, not because their religion happens to be a peaceful one by design.  I grew up in Christianity, hearing the stories of the Bible, so I know better.  The evidence for this is overwhelming when you examine historical contexts in which the Church, Temple or Mosque was all-powerful, and even today in societies that are theocratic (I’m looking at you, Islam) you see all kinds of atrocities committed in support of upholding the supremacy of that particular faith.  The fact is, the more superstitious the people, the more violent they tend to be, and America is still a pretty violent culture when compared against other Western industrial nations that are much less religious than we are.

Sure, kids are often more susceptible to social pressures than adults, who tend to become set in their ways and resistant to the social pressures of youth culture.  In fact, I believe it is because adults fear the power of youth culture that they keep them oppressed.  Many argue that it’s for their own good, and to an extent that’s true, but can you imagine any other minority group being oppressed as a whole on that argument alone, or really any such simplistic argument?  The evidence that we have become more and more terrified of children can be seen in every aspect of society, from its hypocritical and nonsensical laws that keep them firmly under adult control at all times (we are all born with inalienable rights, but we can’t actually use them until we turn 18–doesn’t that remind you of the pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm when they claim, “We are all equal, but some are more equal than others”?–it’s a flat-out contradiction and renders the whole concept of inalienable rights meaningless) to the massive moral panic we’re currently held captive to over child and adolescent sexuality.

And the argument that kids must be protected from themselves could just as easily be extended to, say, women, and in fact once was.  Men used to believe that women were too prone to emotion-based actions and thus had to be controlled.  Is that not exactly the same argument (or a variant of it) applied to the whole group of 0-18s today?  Granted, rights have limitations–of course they do.  It would be ridiculous to treat a newborn the same way we treat 16-year-olds or even 12-year-olds, but in legal terms–and very frequently in social terms–that’s precisely what we do.

Unless, of course, they commit a horrific crime.  Then all bets are off.  Kids are no longer innocent angels but violent predators who knew exactly what they were doing.  Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways and still have a morally consistent system.  Either these girls knew what they were getting into or they didn’t.  If they didn’t, then they cannot in good conscience be tried as adults.  But if they did know, then why are they still legally designated as minors?  Would any kid ever really grow up morally confident in such a system, where they are only treated like adults when they fuck up big time?  To me that is a glaring, almost paradoxical flaw in the system.  It’s time to reexamine how we treat and view children and adolescents in our culture.  And while we’re at it, maybe we should grow up as a society and give up our own absurd mystical crutches too, to show kids that adulthood is actually something worth aspiring to.  Mystical fantasies are fine when treated as such, but when you use them to guide not only your own behavior but attempt to force others to abide by your belief system, then why should you expect kids to be able to discern fantasy from reality? Just a thought.

Fighting Monsters: Frankenstein’s Monster and the Culture of Outsider Persecution

I have good dispositions; my life has been hitherto harmless and in some degree beneficial; but a fatal prejudice clouds their eyes, and where they ought to see a feeling and kind friend, they behold only a detestable monster. – Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.  Friedrich Nietzsche

Chidog-01 - Frankenstein's Monster
Chidog-01 – Frankenstein’s Monster

DeviantArt: Chidog-01

I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein about five years ago.  The novel had been calling to me for years, but I had avoided it for one reason or another.  Ultimately, I think it was because I knew in some deeply recessed, intangible part of my being that I simply wasn’t ready for it.  Not because of its nigh impenetrable pre-Victorian English or the complex philosophical and moral issues it presents, although that was part of it, I suppose.  No, I think the main reason I waited so long is that I sensed I would identify too much with the monster and would be emotionally devastated by his end, which I assumed, having seen the 1931 film long ago, was death by fire.  (“Fire bad!”)  Actually, in the novel the monster doesn’t die–not physically anyway–but instead is self-exiled to the Arctic.  Given that the monster appears to be nearly immortal, and knowing what I know about social isolation, the monster’s lot struck me as a fate far worse than death.  Needless to say, my fears about reading the novel were well-founded . . . and then some.  Not that I regret reading it, mind you.  Quite the contrary.  It’s just that I have since become haunted by Frankenstein’s monster long after the fact, sometimes imagining myself wandering the vast wastelands of ice and snow, alone and unloved, until the end of my days.

I could have handled the monster being murdered.  This is what we’ve been conditioned to expect of monsters, isn’t it?  Of course, Shelley’s monster is not the kind we’re used to.  He’s hateful and murderous by the end, yes, but he’s also deeply psychologically tortured.  Despite the many cultural depictions to the contrary, Dr. Frankenstein’s creation was originally not the lumbering, ignorant, feral thing he became; he’s quite intelligent, in fact, even brilliant.  He has a taste for literature, particularly John Milton’s Paradise Lost, viewing himself as akin to Adam in the poem.  Likewise, the monster is sensitive and (initially anyway) compassionate towards mankind, only turning bitter and abhorrent after numerous failed attempts to win the affections of men, who continually respond to him with fear and revulsion rather than kindness and acceptance.

In the end the monster comes to despise himself even more than others despise him, because his already unbearable misery is compounded by the fact that he has become exactly what people view him as: twisted, violent and horrific.  As he says to his creator, “My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy, and when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture such as you cannot even imagine.”

The notion that a sentient being can take on aspects of how it is perceived by outsiders is nothing new today.  We even have a pretty solid and well-founded concept to describe this phenomenon: labeling theory.  In Mary Shelley’s time this was a fairly revolutionary idea though.  The basic view of criminal behavior at the time of her novel’s publication, the so-called Classical School of criminology, was that human behavior is essentially rational and that all crimes are therefore fully the choice of those committing them regardless of the circumstances or the mindset of the criminal.

There are tons of problems with this position.  First and most obvious, it ignores the root causes of crime pretty much entirely and focuses only on the behaviors associated with the crimes.  As a result, it tends to be reactive rather than proactive in terms of dealing with crime.  Second, it fails to account for mental illness, duress, or countless other things that might mitigate rational behavior and contribute to criminality.  Third, because it assumes that criminals are always solely and consciously responsible for their actions, it tends to encourage harsh and unfair punishments for crime.  There are others I could list but you get the idea.

So, Frankenstein’s monster is a classic example of the misunderstood villain.  Although his crimes are not exactly justified, they are perfectly understandable in light of how he is treated, and in perhaps one of the greatest bits of irony in all of literature, it is the very dread and repugnance society directs toward him which eventually turns him into something truly dreadful and repugnant.  The creature is merely fulfilling the social role expected of him, though he hates it and himself for doing so.

Beyond the book, most depictions of the monster lack this complexity, usually reducing him to a dimwitted thing that merely reacts to its environment and to humans, often angrily.  He is thus a precursor to the Incredible Hulk, whom I believe was influenced by Shelley’s character.  Hulk even shares the Frankenstein monster’s gray-green skin.

Positive depictions of the monster are rare and usually done for comic effect.  A friend of mine and I recently discussed the film The Monster Squad, for example, wherein Frankie deserts his cohorts–all classic movie monsters–and befriends the children of the Monster Squad, particularly young Phoebe, who demonstrates to the other kids that the monster is nothing to fear.  In direct contrast to the murder of the little girl in the original film, here he saves the little girl from death at the hands of his old boss, Dracula.  In many ways this small, nearly forgotten gem of a film takes a more enlightened view of monsters than many of its more respected predecessors.  There are still evil monsters, of course, but the movie demonstrates that not all monsters are bad; some are good, or potentially so, and only want to be loved.  In that sense The Monster Squad returns Frankenstein’s creature to his original status as a seeker of human companionship and understanding, even if it does reduce him to the nearly preverbal child-like being of his film heritage.  It’s a nice fusion of book and film Frankenstein.

The Monster Squad further blurs the line between human and monster when Scary German Guy (as the kids call him), formerly feared by them, becomes an ally of the Monster Squad.  During an early interaction between them, Scary German Guy (SGG) points out several facts about monsters which provokes one of the kids to say, “Man, you sure know a lot about monsters.”  SGG responds to this by raising his sleeve, displaying a series of tattooed numbers on his arm, and saying, “Now that you mention it, I suppose I do.”  Nothing further is said about this; nothing more needs to be said.  The audience, or rather those parts of it who are old enough to know about the Nazi atrocities, understands that SGG is saying implicitly that humans are capable of becoming monsters too.  SGG, whether intentionally or not, is essentially warning the kids not to lose their humanity in the process of hunting and destroying monsters.  Therefore, the Monster Squad (a club originally organized around a shared love of the classic monster films) must destroy their monstrous adversaries not because Dracula and the others are monsters in the traditional sense, but because they have evil intentions, and we as an audience know that the kids do understand the distinction due to their befriending of Frankenstein’s monster.

By contrast, the Nazis dehumanized and monstrocized entire classes of people: the Jews, of course, but also other ethnic minorities, gays and other “sexual deviants”, gypsies, the physically and mentally disabled, and yes, even criminals–pretty much anyone they perceived to be outsiders or a threat to their image of themselves as the Master Race.  All were subject to the Nazis’ Final Solution.  And no doubt, if Frankenstein’s monster had existed in Nazi Germany, whether the tortured, violent creature of Shelley’s book or the gentle giant of The Monster Squad, he would’ve met the same fate.

______________________________________________________________

Side Note: With the release of I, Frankenstein earlier this year the character has been remade, so to speak, yet again, this time as a handsome hero (played by Aaron Eckhart of all people) who fights demons, a concept almost completely antithetical to everything Shelley envisioned.  I haven’t seen it, but I’m aware that the film performed badly in theaters and was pretty much universally panned by critics, which I’m ecstatic about.  I usually don’t revel in the failure of a film, especially one I haven’t seen, but Frankenstein’s monster is an important character in literature and one of deep symbolic resonance to me personally, and I cannot abide this crass Hollywood trend of reimagining every beloved cultural icon as a heroic two-fisted pretty boy.  It demeans and cheapens them, and worse: it undermines their entire raison d’être.  Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films were bad enough, but I’ve never been into the Holmes mythos to the degree I am Frankenstein so that didn’t bother me nearly as much.

On Bigotry, Bugaboos, Beliefs & Balance . . .

(…And Boldly Going Where No One Has Gone Before)

On Facebook today, March 20th, I received the news that Fred Phelps, founder and ex-leader of the notoriously homophobic Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, had died.  With Reverend Phelps at its helm, the activist faction of the WBC has protested against the socialization and acceptance of gays and gay culture since at least the early nineties.  Among other targets of the WBC were secular and reformed Jews, all of the other mainstream religions (including all branches of Protestant Christianity but their own) and pedophiles.  You can get a pretty good overview of their philosophy, politics and M.O. at the Wikipedia page I linked to above.

A few days ago I had read that Phelps, who resembled some creepy cross between Clint Eastwood and the evil minister from Poltergeist II: The Other Side, was on his deathbed, so today’s news of his passing did not come as a surprise.  No, the truly surprising tidbit that has come out of this coverage was that Phelps had been ousted from his own church last year.  At first this fact seemed to me shockingly ironic, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that it isn’t so ironic after all.  If one examines the history of all the extremist us-versus-them ideological movements, regardless of their rallying points or the basis for their beliefs they tend to implode, and I think it is because the psychology of the leadership of such movements are often so paranoid that they eventually begin to turn on each other.

Kane; Eastwood; Phelps

This is what happened with the Klu Klux Klan when they were at the height of their power in the 1920s.  Even when such groups manage to take over a government like the Nazis did in Germany and the Communists did in Russia, there is inevitably some internal purge that rarely spares even the most powerful members within that group.  With the Nazis it was Ernst Röhm and the leadership of the Sturm-Abteilung, without which Hitler never could have become Chancellor of Germany.  (If you’re interested, I discuss Röhm in some detail in an earlier article, Bothersome Nazis: Ernst Röhm and Julius Streicher.)  With the Communists the list was even longer and included many of the so-called Old Bolsheviks, again without whom the Russian Revolution would not have been successful.

Essentially, when one delves into their psychology and motivations, what becomes apparent is that trust issues and delusions of persecution are often innate to members of groups that are built around the persecution of other groups.  Hmm, whodathunkit?  It seems Alexander Pope had it right when he wrote:

All seems infected to th’ infected spy,
As all looks yellow to the jaundic’d eye.

This is of course a generalization and we should be careful not to assign to it more weight than it genuinely possesses, but we cannot ignore the patterns which persist time and time again amongst such groups, or within the broader context of society as a whole.

We should also keep this paradigm in mind when considering how such all-encompassing hatred might take root to begin with.  In that light we might better understand what Daily Kos contributor tmservo433 is driving at in this article when he points out, “Last year, right before his ex-communication, Phelps faced confrontation of former members who wondered if Phelps himself wasn’t a gay man who’s self hatred manifested itself as it did.”  The article goes on to state that Phelps’s rage was at its most piquant whenever he was personally confronted with accusations of his own possible repressed homosexual feelings.  We may be tempted to write off these accusations as simply a desire by those former members to get Phelps’s goat, and no doubt some of that was going on, but it is neither here nor there, for the evidence for homophobic projection is now pretty well established.

My hunch is that this sort of projection applies to much more than just unpopular sexual orientations; I suspect it can be said of a great many qualities innate to humans both individually and as a whole, such as a will to violence.  We may all look down on murderers, but is there a person alive who has never had murderous feelings in his heart at some time?  Or sexual desires that make him uncomfortable?  Furthermore, I believe the overall moral health of a society is directly impacted by how openly and honestly its members are able to deal with such desires or drives in themselves, and perhaps more importantly, whether they are able to set aside their own personal guilt, shame, anger, etc. in order to deal fairly and ethically with others who violate that society’s laws and taboos.  I’m sorry to say in comparison to most of the Western world, Americans get an F in this department.  We are among the worst when it comes to our treatment of criminals.  For example, we are the only Western industrial (First World) nation to still practice the death penalty, despite the overwhelming evidence that it doesn’t work as a detriment to violence, and we are number one in the entire world–including the worst of the Third World nations–when it comes to incarceration.

Why is this?  Whenever you ask this question of anyone who supports this Kafkaesque status quo, the answers you receive are invariably either astoundingly false (the deterrence argument), prone to mystical mumbo-jumbo (it’s God’s will), rooted in feelings of revenge, or some evasive thought-terminating cliche which ultimately amounts to a big “fuck you.”  Sometimes, in heated discussions, you get all of the above.  These replies never hold up to logical or ethical scrutiny, which is why the vast majority of the civilized world has rejected them.  We are the holdouts.  This is not to say that there haven’t been improvements over the years.  Those are pretty much inevitable, but they are usually slow in coming and almost always hard won.  It seems that we Americans, regardless of our political stripe, are all too frequently a prudish and mistrustful lot.

Maybe this traces back to our Puritan heritage.  I think that’s part of it, certainly.  But I think there is something else going on here too, something even bigger and older than religious fundamentalism.  We poor humans are doomed to operate our lives according to a great many internal prejudices called cognitive biases that trace back to the evolutionary development of our brains as organs of survival in a highly complex, ever-changing and seemingly infinite universe . . . what’s referred to by systems theorists as an open system.

What this means in the end is that the world we exist in provides so much information for our brains to take in, engaging us in feedback loops of such number and complexity that if our brains were unable to make speedy decisions based on this astounding amount of input, we would simply be unable to operate.  Our brains would be subject to something like combinatorial explosion, wherein a process becomes so exponentially complex that it becomes trapped in data processing and effectively ceases to function at the macro level in any useful way.  Ergo, without our built-in biases, we could never have evolved intelligence as the ability to do so would be an intractable problem for us.

As Jeremy Campbell has laid out in his excellent book The Improbable Machine, this has long been a thorn in the side of those attempting to develop a genuine AI; the original assumption of those working in this field–what makes humans intelligent is mostly/solely their capacity to be logical and that if a complex enough logic processor (Turing machine) could be developed, we would have an AI–has been all but demolished by a long history of abysmal failures sprinkled by a handful of modest successes.  Campbell shows that what makes us smart isn’t just our facility for logic but also–and perhaps even more importantly–our brain’s ability to make snap judgments based on previous experiences, no matter how skimpy or seemingly inapplicable to the extant problem those experiences may be.

But there is a price to be paid for this superfast inductive reasoning, and that price is the frustrating degree of inexactness we are subject to in this grand and mysterious universe we live in; moreover, the fact that we have a wide array of genetics and life experiences means that we can likely never reach a true philosophical consensus.  The advent of science has certainly pushed us forward by leaps and bounds on the logic front, but Campbell shows that logic has its limits.  In short, we owe as much (or more) to our structural cognitive biases for our intelligence as we do to our capacity for deduction, even as those same cognitive biases doom us to being wrong about the big things almost as often as we are right.

Some may find this fact distressing.  Personally, I embrace it, as it assures that humanity remains intellectually diverse enough to deal with almost any problem it faces.  Let’s put this into context.  Consider that there are types of algae that can reproduce both sexually and asexually (heterogamy); one magnificent example is the genus Volvox.  What’s fascinating about Volvox is that its use of heterogamy is dependent on environmental conditions.  When conditions are ideal, Volvox will often reproduce in asexual mode.  Asexual reproduction is basically a form of self-cloning, which makes sense for a species that finds its optimum environment.  It is operating by an instinctive version of that old adage ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’  However, when Volvox is threatened it will switch to sexual reproduction, diversifying itself so that some part of it will be able to meet the new environmental challenge.  When the Volvox finds a match for the new environmental conditions, it will then stabilize by once more switching to asexual reproduction mode.  It’s a beautiful survival strategy for this little waterborn plant.

Now, humans can only reproduce sexually, so diversity is assured in our species.  And that’s a good thing, as our diversity has been an essential contribution to our evolution as the dominant species on Earth, both in reaching that position and in maintaining it.  Could we ever have gotten this intelligent if we reproduced asexually and were all clones of each other?  I would argue that the chance of doing so approaches nil.  Diversity is not merely valuable for a species to reach this level of intelligence; it is vital.  And the more diversity, the better we are able to meet whatever challenges our infinitely complex universe has to throw at us.  The Vulcans of Star Trek have a more succinct way of putting it, a motto which is sacred to them and even has its own symbol.  This is IDIC, which stands for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.  For my part, I think the Vulcans are onto something.

Balsavor - Vulcan IDIC Symbol
Balsavor – Vulcan IDIC Symbol

DeviantArt – Balsavor

At any rate, our brains may be designed to be biased, but we shouldn’t assume that all forms of bias are then morally viable or insurmountable.  It is one thing to accept that our perception of reality is skewed in a thousand ways by our need to make sense of it and exist comfortably within it; it’s something else altogether to actively seek to justify the maltreatment of whole swaths of humanity based on these distorted perceptions.  Indeed, my point here is that we have a duty to try to understand our biases and overcome them when they negatively impact the moral status of society, because biases can be mimetic.

Yes, these cognitive biases can eventually manifest in some individuals as prejudice against whole groups of people, but that is not something that happens overnight.  It is largely a matter of social conditioning, and as such, it is morally unacceptable, for I see the higher moral imperative of diversity as a matter of survival for the entire human species, not just individuals (or races, or sexes, or cultures, or nations).  Why?  Because the humble Volvox, and indeed the whole history of humanity, demonstrates that the key to the survival of a species is to live within as broad an ecological niche as possible.

But what is it that provides the possibility for broadening our niche?  The answer is a broad environment with which to interact.  I include here in my definition of ‘environment’ aspects of both nature and human artifice, and I believe for the most part that anything that does not directly threaten the human species and does not threaten this highest of moral imperatives, the need for diversity, we should labor to protect.  Yet is there such a thing as too much diversity?  Theoretically at least, yes–when a species diversifies to the point where individuals can no longer interact, that is a direct threat to its continuance for obvious reasons.  But that is a difficult point for social animals like us to reach.  Still, the overall goal and the key to everything (you will hear me say this many more times on this blog) is balance.

It has been said that nature seeks stasis.  I think to a large degree this is true.  Nature is extremely flexible, but that flexibility is not, as many climate change deniers claim, infinite.  It does have limitations.  We should take care to keep in mind that it is absolutely a fact that humanity has within its capacity the ability to destroy all life on planet Earth.  A full-scale world war with nuclear weapons would probably do it.  If that is so, then isn’t it also the case that slowly corrupting the planet’s entire ecocosm could also eventually kill the planet off?  There is almost certainly a finite balance in the natural domain, but while we cannot know whether that balance can be permanently undermined, we can and do know that nature’s existing balance has served us well as a species thus far and is therefore worth conserving.

So, we now have a reason to embrace and defend diversity in both humanity and in nature as a whole: both are fundamental to our continued survival.  People like Fred Phelps are moral dinosaurs doomed to extinction not because they offend our sensibilities but because they are at heart anti-life.  They believe in rules for the sake of having rules rather than making life better and happier for us all.  They embrace hatred, cruelty and violence, which are inherently things of extreme divisiveness that, when taken to their logical conclusion, push our species towards extinction by directly threatening our need for diversity.

But, shouldn’t the views of people like Phelps be tolerated too, for, don’t they add to our diversity?  No, because their views and ideas are ultimately more destructive to this prime moral imperative than their existence is constructive to it.  And that is really where diversity as a moral imperative should end: at the point where it becomes anti-humanity and runs counter to itself.  That is only logical.

Bothersome Nazis: Ernst Röhm and Julius Streicher

While I haven’t yet begun reading any of my snags from the local book store (discussed in the last Dispatches from Kowtown post), I have been doing plenty of research online.  Right now I am particularly fascinated by two prominent Nazis, Ernst Röhm and Julius Streicher.

Röhm was a true career soldier.  A born head-buster, he had participated as a militiaman in the State’s violent suppression of a would-be Communist revolution in Munich, and the city thereafter became the hotspot for right-wingers, racists and grumpy, hateful jackasses of all sorts, including Hitler himself.  Later Röhm joined–and later still became leader of–the Nazis’ then fledgling armed unit, the Sturm-Abteilung (SA) or Storm Division. Yes, these were the infamous Brown Shirts, predecessors of the Schutzstaffel (SS) which eventually supplanted them.

By the time Hitler and his party were fixtures and rising stars of the German government, Röhm’s SA–several million strong at this point–which had helped secure Hitler’s power had become a hindrance rather than a help to Hitler’s goal of becoming supreme commander of Germany.  The SA was essentially a powerful but undisciplined terrorist organization, and their activities threatened to push Bavaria into outright anarchy, which Prussian-German President Hindenburg vowed to suppress under martial law, which would’ve effectively ended Hitler’s chance of becoming supreme commander.  Thus, the SA as such had to go, and Hitler and his other top leaders devised a plan to demolish the entire leadership of the SA by gathering them all under false pretenses in one place and arresting and then executing them in an event later known as the Night of the Long Knives.

What’s most interesting to me about Röhm is that he was a homosexual and quite open about it, as was most of the SA leadership, in fact.  Hitler tolerated this at first because the SA served his brutal ends without question.  There is even some speculation that Hitler himself, another ex-soldier, may have been in a secret relationship with Röhm.  Indeed, they were such close friends that Röhm was the only known Nazi leader to get away with calling Hitler by his first name rather than by the proper designation of “Mein Führer.”  However, there is no absolute proof of this.  Whatever the case, Hitler hated the prospect of eliminating his old friend and only did so when several of Hitler’s underlings accused Röhm and the SA–probably falsely–of plotting a coup against the aspiring dictator.

So Ernst Röhm, as a prominent representative of the Nazi party, ostensibly stood against whatever the Nazis deemed immoral behavior, including homosexual sex.  Meanwhile, Röhm himself and most of his top compatriots were getting it on with each other!

Streicher, although never directly involved in the extermination of the Jews, arguably did more harm to the image of the Jew in Europe than anyone else, most prominently through his propaganda tabloid Der Stürmer which was almost entirely devoted to attacking Jews.  Streicher also used his publishing venue to produce anti-Semitic books, including children’s books, some of which he wrote himself.  A particularly atrocious example of this is Der Giftpilz (The Toadstool), which painted Jews as murderers, rapists, child molesters and criminals of all sorts and also linked them firmly to the rise of Communism.

And again, the most interesting thing about Streicher is his personal life.  Like many ultraconservatives, he was a raging hypocrite.  After WWI he became an elementary schoolteacher and was known to have a taste for young adolescent girls.  He was also a flagrant philanderer, a thief and even (according to one court case) a child murderer, a crime he escaped punishment for by pinning it on a lieutenant who had supposedly just died by suicide.  Hmmm . . .  So, as Streicher used his paper as a bully pulpit–literally–to scapegoat Jews by accusing them of all sorts of criminal behavior and immorality, he was himself screwing women and teenage girls, stealing, and was very nearly convicted of murdering a child.  And that’s just what we know about through records.  Because he also held the important position of Nazi Gauleiter, the head of the regional branch of the party, a position that conferred on him an almost unlimited degree of power, it is likely that many of Streicher’s more heinous activities were outright suppressed.

Although never assassinated like Röhm, Streicher’s shameful behavior eventually became such a thorn in Hitler’s side that he had Streicher stripped of his leadership position and real political power, leaving him merely to continue publishing his inflammatory rag.  He would eventually be convicted as a war criminal during the Nuremberg Trials and hanged though.

These two men are prime examples of the fact that fascists and moral bigots are quite often guilty of projection.  How better to cover up your own socially unacceptable behavior than to accuse some vulnerable and already disliked or distrusted ‘out group’ of the same offenses, thus directing scrutiny away from yourself?  I suspect that many of history’s greatest tragedies have at their heart just these kinds of psychological cover-ups and insecurities.  We humans can go to great lengths to quell our cognitive dissonance, including that caused by any unpopular tastes and behaviors on our part.  This can manifest in a variety of ways, but one of the main ones is through scapegoating.  Another is violence.  It seems often to be the case that the most puritanical cultures manifest these traits, and the most puritanical members of those cultures are the worst culprits of all.

Invariably the catalyst for such actions is fear–fear of others, and fear of themselves.  In the Germany of the 1920s and early 1930s, great change was happening very quickly.  The Weimar era brought to Germany a republican government.  And moreover, the Industrial Revolution caused an urban explosion, which in turn led to changing social and sexual mores, a fact that frightened many in Deutschland, a nation that had long been a place of tradition and conservatism.  After all, it was Germany which gave birth to Martin Luther and his no-nonsense, back-to-basics brand of theology that came to dominate in northeastern Europe.  After the First World War, because of Germany’s debts and high inflation, there was also the ever-looming dread of financial collapse, not to mention fear that Germany could become another Communist state like Russia.  In addition to fear, there was also anger over their loss in WWI and the rules imposed on them by the winners which included reparation costs and limits to the size of their standing army.  The Jews, a once-nomadic people who were increasingly playing a part in German life, were a visible and easy target to which to attach the blame for all of Germany’s problems, real or perceived.

Philosopher and historian Eric Hoffer, who wrote extensively on fascist psychology and the rise of fascistic states, once said, “You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you.”  I would go so far as to extend that by saying that you can discover what your enemy is hiding about himself by what he accuses you of.