Barry’s Blog # 293: We Like to Watch: Being There with Trump, Part Two of Seven

You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself. – Ivan Boesky

Just let me get elected, and then you can have your war. – Lyndon Johnson

Don’t you get the idea I’m one of those goddamn radicals. Don’t get the idea I’m knocking the American system.  – Al Capone

Near-universal outrage at the Robber Barons and their extravagant lifestyles led to the Progressive Era, during which Theodore Roosevelt broke up the trusts and increased taxes on the wealthy. This was followed by further income tax increases under Woodrow Wilson and then by women’s suffrage.

Most of the mega-rich may have lacked the most basic moral values, but they weren’t stupid. In these times of class warfare, they could see where the wind was blowing. With the glaring exception of Hearst, who would inspire the 1941 film Citizen Kane, they tended to rein in their worst public excesses and retreat to remote country estates and urban townhouses. For the most part, they watched (and collected dividends) as the nation suffered through periodic race riots, prohibition, the Great Depression, World War Two, Korea, the Cold War, Civil Rights, feminism and Viet Nam. For forty years, they even tolerated government regulation and high taxation, or at least as long as the economy continued to grow. That period ended in the 1970s. More on that later.

Throughout the century, however, the movies kept the rich and their toys in the public mind, even as post-war affluence and television convinced most white Americans that they had entered the middle class. But both extreme wealth and lower-class behavior patterns paraded across their imaginations as they sat back and watched.

Movies, writes Michael Ventura, “usurped the public’s interest in the arts as a whole and in literature especially.” Whereas indigenous people and earlier generations of Americans had participated in their entertainment, people of the new century became, in just a few years, passive consumers of culture, except for dancing. The Western mind-body split comes to its extreme in the concept of an audience. It “… has no body… all attention, all in its heads, while something on a screen or a stage enacts its body.” Americans liked to watch.

The end of World War Two marked the transition to consumer culture. The bulk of industrial activity became the manufacture of “goods.” Rather suddenly, youth became society’s ideal. Advertising suggested that things people bought would keep them young. Americans defined themselves less by what they did and more by what they had, even if it looked exactly like what their neighbors had. Entertainment “stars” brought back the display of wealth, with the implied message that you might become like them some day – especially if you bought the same things they had. Once it became clear that simply associating consumer products with celebrities was profitable, many of them used their status to sell stuff, none more convincingly than Ronald Reagan, who turned out to be a more successful TV salesman than film actor.

Journalist Sam Smith was “…blessed to come of age before the average American was seeing so many advertisements each a day…”

What I didn’t realize at the time was that television would…change how Americans saw things in striking ways that still aren’t given enough credit for their part in the decline of our culture…circus barkers became not a once a year curiosity in your town but part of the nightly visual experience. We called them TV commercials, but they had much the same effect. The constant sound of hyperbole and misrepresentation became a common part of our lives. Sure, radio had them, but radio being only a sound, stayed somewhat removed from our true being. When a guy is not only yakking but enhanced by an attractive blonde coming on to you…it inevitably becomes more than a sound.

Who can comprehend how 120 years of movies and seventy years of television have changed us? In the first five years (1969-73) of his role in Marcus Welby MD, the actor Robert Young received more than 250,000 letters from viewers, mostly asking for medical advice. These people were engaging in the one-sided relationships with celebrities or fictional characters that psychologists call “parasocial.”

Consider that prior to the twentieth century, for thousands of years nearly everyone, everywhere listened to storytellers at night. Sounds went directly into the ear and became pictures in the imagination. Eventually, when people enacted their myths, they created ritual drama, which later devolved into conventional theatre, where professional actors entertained passive spectators. For four centuries, educated people read those tales, privately. Later, they heard literalized versions of the myths on the radio, or consumed pre-formed images of beauty, courage and evil projected onto movie screens. In turn, millions returned the projection (their own inner gods and demons) onto celebrities. TV and computers further diluted our imaginative capacity. Now, such images (including the commercials) enter the brain directly, without even the mediation of a projector and screen.

“To go from a job you don’t like,” writes Ventura, “to watching a screen on which others live more intensely than you…is American life…” Well before the Internet and smart phone technology, electronic media became our immediate environment – not the land, not people, but images of the land and people.

By the 21st century, writes Christina Kotchemidova, media fostered an experience of emotion that is controlled, predictable, and undemanding without impinging on our rational lifestyles. Thus, “We can engage in mass-mediated emotions to the full while retaining control over our emotion experience and avoiding the risks of personal communication.”  By 2010, anyone could text or tweet without needing to actually interact with others or back up their claims. Even presidents would not have to stop watching while they tweeted..

Between World War Two and Viet Nam the old conflict between the American values of “freedom vs equality” that I describe in Chapter Seven of my book had shifted in favor of equality, at least in terms of opportunity, and at least for white people. As it turned out, however, the dream of a middle-class America lasted for only a couple of generations, propelled in large part by the astonishingly high (to us, now) tax rates that the New Deal coalition had imposed on the rich well into the 1960s,  and then ruined by Lyndon Johnson’s refusal to extend those rates to pay for his war.

By the end of the 1960s middle Americans were exhausted with the pace of change. They saw the violence and social excesses that they watched on TV as affronts to their conflicting ideals of suburban independence and religious conformism, and they revolted against the welfare state once it became clear that it was intended to help minorities. Conservatives who had accepted most New Deal values (see this 1956 Republican Platform) took the opportunity – we may never know why – to assault those assumptions by turning to the old American hatred of The Other. By the mid-1970s the backlash was creating the Reagan “revolution.”

Evoking both ends of the mythic spectrum, Reagan told Americans they could have it both ways. They could get rich and have their traditional values. They could be both Puritans and Opportunists. ronald-reagan-make-america-great-again He resolved white men of all responsibility when he called unemployment insurance “vacation for freeloaders” and claimed that people were homeless “by choice.”

Sociologists have shown that Americans tend to be very compassionate toward the poor – but only when two conditions are met: when the economy is growing, as in the early 1960s, and when the poor are perceived primarily as white, as they were in the 1930s. Neither of these conditions applied after 1975, and despite unrelenting government propaganda, they never have since. And when they do not apply, the old Puritan prejudices always rise up like zombies in a cheap horror movie: You are poor because of your bad character; and we are wealthy because we worked hard and deserve to keep every penny we earned.

In 1985 a member of Reagan’s Education Department unashamedly articulated his new contempt for the poor: “Unfair as it may seem, a person’s external circumstances do fit his level of inner spiritual development.”  Those of us who are familiar with American religion and mythology, however, can recognize the extremely old thinking that was resurfacing as a rebranded Social Darwinism. But this time, she was making a new connection – to New Age philosophy.

Reagan was also resolving the entire post-Viet Nam “Me Generation” of the responsibility to engage in politics. People who in their teens and twenties had moved from social protest to meditation were hearing the message that in their thirties it was more important to take care of Number one. The ancient Athenians had a term for those who ignored the general welfare: idiote. Reagan gave Americans permission to be idiots.

Reagan had influence far beyond the office of President because he was a celebrity. Of course, he had been an actor, but we are talking about his second career as a commercial spokesman that led to his third as a shill for big business. By the time he entered politics, the public had been conditioned by several decades of celebrity worship, and the transition to equating celebrities with actual, qualified leaders was nearly complete. Ever since then, the distinction between politics and entertainment has grown thinner. For a sharp overview of where the cult of celebrity has taken us in the 21st century, read here.

Celebrities are famous simply for being famous; we often have no idea how they entered our awareness. We admire them for being who they are, not for what they have done. Garry Wills writes:

…no one has undergone a more thorough initiation into every aspect of the American legend than Reagan has, and no one has found so many conduits…for bringing that legend to us in the freshest way. He is the perfect carrier: the ancient messages travel through him without friction.

Reagan, writes Joel Kovel, was so persuasive precisely because he could barely distinguish his life from his role. As President, he “played Ronald Reagan.” Reagan himself, with rare candor, once admitted, “The camera doesn’t lie. Eventually you are what you are.”  We can assume that a young Donald Trump was taking copious notes.

For more of my thoughts on the Cult of Celebrity, read The Royal Wedding and John F. Kennedy and America’s Obsession With Innocence.

By now, we – including plenty of Trump supporters – are well aware that every Republican president since Nixon has facilitated the shift of the national wealth from the working class to the rich. But by turning the world’s greatest creditor nation into its greatest debtor nation in a mere eight years, Reagan manifested the greatest con of all, long before Trump. “How skillful,” wrote Howard Zinn, “to tax the middle class to pay for the relief of the poor, building resentment on top of humiliation!”

Along with the innocent trust with which we bless our celebrity politicians comes its dark underside, corruption. Those who stand in the bright spotlight of our projections inevitably lose all humility (etymologically, their connection to the ground), come to believe their own rhetoric about deservingness, and feel entitled to take what they want. This, we must remember, is only a very mild distortion of the most basic American Puritan impulse. 

While the middle-class ideology of the American Dream reinforces the belief that people can “rise” through hard work and self-denial, our mythology of radical individualism also encourages an underworld of those who would achieve their aims by not playing according to the rules of polite society.

We can think of crime in America in terms of getting rich through alternative means, whether through the shadow opposite of corporate capitalism known as “organized crime,” or through the anti-heroic exploits of a stock character of our mythology, the outlaw or villain. Because he takes whatever he wants, has no responsibilities and transgresses all moral codes, he is exciting and frankly attractive. Americans have always admired outlaws. Robert Warshow writes that the gangster is “what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become.” The culture of celebrity celebrates con men. We can’t help but admire them because they exemplify our deepest values.

To repeat: one aspect of our demythologized world, especially in America, is that the distinctions between religion, politics and entertainment have collapsed. This is perhaps because all three of these areas of public life share the con man’s main interest: making money and aggrandizing the self. If in the Age of Trump you haven’t noticed this, you haven’t been paying attention. Have you have been watching something else?

The fix, as they used to say, was in, once more. During Reagan’s eight years some 140 administration officials were investigated, indicted, or convicted. Studies indicated that many corporate CEOs have the personality characteristics of psychopaths. Such men, writes Alan Deutschman,

…have a profound lack of empathy…use other people callously and remorselessly for their own ends…pathological liars, master con artists, and heartless manipulators. Easily bored, they crave constant stimulation, so they seek thrills from real-life “games” they can win – and take pleasure from their power over other people.

By 1990, after a generation of New Age-ish justifications for getting rich, many observers were describing a “new Gilded Age” defined by the stunning rise of what we would all eventually come to know as the “one percent,” and many people were unashamedly envious.

Popular culture responded. Running from Reagan’s first term into the mid-1990s, the TV series Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous highlighted the extravagant lives of entertainers, athletes and business moguls. black-and-gold-sports-cars-5-free-wallpaper The show inspired two spinoff series, a board game and even a video slot machine. In an apparent benediction for an American future we all could share once “government” was out of the way, host Robin Leach ended each episode with “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.”

During the original Gilded Age, as noted above, the uber-rich received around a fifth of total income. By 1950, due to New Deal regulation, that share had been reduced considerably. But after 1980 it surged to levels equivalent to those of 1890. We’ve all seen the statistics by now, and we’re getting numb to the consequences. Thirty years after Reagan, income inequality is at the highest level since 1970. this-could-be-one-worlds-largest-superyachts-02 The highest personal and corporate tax rates are a fraction of what they once were. Four hundred persons control more wealth than the bottom 50% of households, who have lost $900 billion since 1989. During this time, the 1%, who now pay lower tax rates than the bottom 50%, have gained $21 trillion. And these people literally think very differently. Studies now show that wealth actually reduces compassion. 

There are clear differences between the two Gilded Ages. Workers’ real wages were rising then and stagnant now. Unions and their influence have declined, as many blue-collar whites have long deserted the Democratic Party for the short-lived satisfactions of race hatred, immigrant-bashing or substance abuse. Then, there was no social services safety net and now we have a vestigial one, even if Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it” and his successors followed his example.

Then, workers read socialist newspapers. Now, the right-wing is supported by its own TV network and over 1,600 Christian radio and TV stations.  Then, the slogan was “Solidarity Forever!” Now, Trump supporters proudly proclaim: “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!”  Then, images of conspicuous consumption were regarded with suspicion or contempt. Now, it seems that the message is: Be like me!

Throughout my city of Oakland, I observe three trends. There are over two dozen large apartment complexes being constructed for the thousands of tech workers driven out of San Francisco by the highest housing rates in the country, caused to a great extent by large private companies like Uber going public. There are an estimated 200 homeless encampments, composed 80% by people of color, caused to a great extent by this gentrification. And – most curiously, considering all the money coming into this city – I also see dozens of empty storefronts resulting from our new patterns of Internet shopping, an economy that employs most of those same tech workers.

In Part One of this essay, I mentioned Item # 1, the almost-new mansion near San Francisco that will be demolished for a much larger one. It’s hardly the only example. In Southern California, Bel Air boasts the 38,000 square foot pile known as “The Billionaire,” originally priced at $250 million. And you know someone had to top that. In the New Gilded Age, the satisfaction seems to be less about the possession and more about the impression that one can literally “top” one’s rival for attention in the public eye.

We naturally wonder about the early traumas that might have produced such a brittle sense of entitlement, or more grossly, “the larger the wheels, the smaller the dick.” But that’s our psychological perspective. If such displays didn’t produce the desired effect among the masses, if only temporarily (like all addictions), we wouldn’t hear about “The One,” a 105,000 square foot house being built, also in Bel Air. Its PR proudly proclaims that with a price tag of $500 million, it will be “America’s largest and most expensive private residence.”

Paul-McClean-500-Million-Mansion-Bel-Air1-1940x1091

“The One”

Had enough? Watch your moral indignation! Depth Psychology insists that attraction and repulsion, condemnation and envy, are closer than we think. Admit it – for one reason or another – we love this crap. We like to watch.

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Barry’s Blog # 292: We Like to Watch: Being There with Trump, Part One of Seven

…the shameful corruption which lately crept into our politics, and in a handful of years has spread until the pollution has affected some portion of every State and every Territory in the Union. – Mark Twain, 1873

I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half. – Jay Gould

We Spaniards know a sickness of the heart that only gold can cure. – Hernán Cortés

As summer of 2019 turns into autumn, several items come to my attention.

Item # 1: The San Francisco Chronicle announces that an investment banker and his wife have purchased a 6,400-square-foot, five-bedroom, 7.5-bath “modern Tuscan villa” in nearby Hillsborough for $15 million. Although it was completely renovated in 2013, the new owners “hope to demolish it as soon as possible” to build a mansion twice its size.

How do you react when you read this? With disgust or envy? To some extent, the answer may predict how you voted in 2016. More on that later. First, let’s consider the socio-economic atmosphere that generated it.

The San Francisco / Silicon Valley area is home to at least 75 billionaires, trailing only New York City (103) and Hong Kong (93). However, with a much smaller population, it has the highest density of billionaires in the world, most of them coming out of high tech. One out of every 11,600 people here is a billionaire. The house purchase above is a prime example of what many are calling the “New Gilded Age.”

The original Gilded Age lasted from about 1875 to 1900, when, for the first time in American history, the nation experienced extremely unequal distribution of wealth. A small number of men (some were known as “Robber Barons”) amassed inconceivable large fortunes. Two percent of households owned more than a third of the nation’s wealth, while the top 10% owned three quarters of it. The top one percent (sound familiar?) owned half of all property, while the bottom 40% had no wealth at all. Political corruption was rampant, as business leaders ensured that politicians would not regulate their activities.

Reconstruction in the South was replaced by legal segregation and white supremacist terrorism (sound familiar?) “Nativists” fretted over immigration by “undesirable” aliens. The passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Law marked the first time in history that a country denied entrance to people based exclusively on their skin color or country of origin. The 1880s saw seven major white-on-black race riots. William Randolph Hearst introduced the sensationalistic news reporting that came to be called “yellow journalism,” telegraphing to his correspondent in Havana in 1898, “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

Wealth had always signified to Americans that its possessors were among God’s chosen, but for 200 years the nation’s democratic ideals and its emphasis on equality had dictated a certain restraint in public display, and its Puritan heritage had kept a lid on the most extreme expression of its predatory instincts. After the Civil War however, America shifted from an agricultural nation to an urban industrial giant. And, like now, it was a simple matter for the wealthy to motivate pundits to sing their praises. As I write in Chapter Eight of my book,

Twisting the idea of natural selection…intellectuals claimed that America’s wealth proved its virtue. Exploitation and elimination of the weak were natural processes, and competition produced the survival of the fittest. The next step was to infer that only the affluent were worthy of survival. They were, of course, merely restating the Calvinist view of poverty as a condition of the spirit…Deeply religious people passionately argued that the suffering of the poor was good because it provoked remorse and repentance…

Class anger was intense, especially among new immigrants who hadn’t yet internalized the mythology of American radical individualism. Millions of others were driven off the land and forced into urban slums, where they received little assistance from government. American industry had the highest rate of accidents in the world, but the U.S. was the only industrial power to have no workman’s compensation program. Between 1880 and 1900, American workers staged nearly 37,000 strikes, including the Great Uprising of 1877, when clashes with police, state militia and federal troops killed over a hundred workers. But in 1888 the Supreme Court affirmed that corporations have all the rights of people and redefined the “common good” as the unregulated manipulation of both humans and the Earth for maximum profit. Sound familiar? The next year, 20,000 railroad workers were injured and 2,000 were killed on the job. The Pullman Strike of 1894 also resulted in over a hundred fatalities.

But Americans had been consuming the mythology of radical individualism and racial privilege for several generations, and media gatekeepers succeeded in distracting many. Horatio Alger’s dime-novel melodramas affirmed the Protestant virtues of frugality, hard work and delayed gratification. Since his young (white, male) heroes “pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps,” you could potentially do the same. His myth of personal success and upward mobility counteracted populist agitation. A decade after his 1899 death, his books were still selling a million copies per year. Library records in Muncie, Indiana showed that five percent of all the books checked out during this period were written by Alger.

A hundred and twenty years later, our assumptions about our likelihood to “get ahead” have taken quite a hit. But the myth of the self-made man is as deeply engrained as our wild, naïve optimism. As recently as the year 2000, 19% of us believed they would “soon” be in the top one percent income bracket, and another 19% thought they already were! Two-thirds expected to have to pay the estate tax one day (only two percent will). Three years later, 56% of those blue-collar men who knew that George W. Bush’s tax cuts favored the rich still supported them.

Americans have twisted in the opposing winds of our paranoid and predatory imaginations for our entire history. The first tells us to deny ourselves, work hard and never succumb to the temptations of the flesh, while the latter tempts us with images of the good life and the nagging suspicion that our acceptance among God’s elite is proven only by our material success. This was and is crazy-making. Historian Greil Marcus writes:

To be an American is to feel the promise as a birthright, and to feel alone and haunted when the promise fails. No failure in America, whether of love or money, is ever simple; it is always a kind of betrayal.

But today we remember the Gilded Age primarily for its images of conspicuous consumption, ostentation and excess. “Social Darwinism” gave the wealthy permission to flaunt their good fortune, or as they saw it, their superior spiritual character. They deserved their wealth, and now they were free to show it off.

Dinner on Horseback

In places like Newport, Rhode Island they built gigantic mansions – some with solid gold toilets – for the express purpose of showcasing the unprecedented fortunes accumulated during this new industrial age. One building, “The Breakers,” had 70 rooms. But the greatest of all was in North Carolina, where the Vanderbilts (who also owned The Breakers) created the Biltmore Estate, with over 135,000 square feet of living space.  More on that later. The Vanderbilt family would build another 15 mega-mansions to advertise their wealth.

In Part Two, we’ll consider the New Gilded Age.

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Barry’s Blog # 291: Zero Dark Thirty is a CIA Recruitment Film, Part Two of Two

Hollywood is the only way that the public learns about the Agency. – Paul Barry, CIA Entertainment Industry Liaison Officer

All of these films and TV series superficially mask the old theme of the American Hero. But, as I write in Chapter Seven of my book, they are completely consistent DEVGRU26with stories of him and his evil opponent – the Other – who have been stock characters in the stories we’ve been telling each other about ourselves since the early 1700s. For nearly four centuries “they” have attacked “us” for no reason other than their hatred of our democratic way of life, and “our” sacred responsibility has always been to “terminate them with extreme prejudice,” even if it means breaking the law to do so, in the quest to save the innocent community from the clutches of pure evil. Nicholas Schou continues:

…while Homeland’s CIA protagonists are portrayed as flawed, and often tormented, heroes, the bottom line is they are heroes. Their Islamic militant antagonists, on the other hand, are generally filmed in conspiratorial shadows, and are portrayed as fanatics whose souls have become twisted by years of struggle against the West.

The American Hero, of course, has always been extremely masculine. Women first broke this particular glass ceiling as comic book superheroines such as Wonder Woman and later in films, but usually in the same, familiar tongue-in-cheek, comedy/action/kickass mode that most male spy and superhero movies have offered.  The new twist is that some of these protagonists are women, even (see below) if still drop-dead gorgeous.

Regardless of gender, Schou concludes:

With few exceptions, Hollywood has long functioned as a propaganda factory, churning out jingoistic revenge-fantasy films in which American audiences are allowed to exorcise their post-9/11 demons by watching the satisfying slaughter of countless onscreen jihadis. This never-ending parade of square-jawed secret agents and bearded, pumped-up commandos pitted against swarthy Muslim madmen straight out of central casting has been aided and abetted by a newly emboldened CIA all too happy to offer its “services” to Hollywood.

Oh, come on, aren’t we more sophisticated than that? In 2014, Clint Eastwood, producer/director of the film version of American Sniper th-2 (destined to be listed on many “Top Ten” lists), obviously couldn’t give Chris Kyle’s primary Muslim adversary the traditional black cowboy hat. So he did the next best thing (in American mythic terms): he dressed the bad guy entirely in black.

In 2016, Tom Hayden reviewed Tricia Jenkins’ book The CIA in Hollywood: How the Agency Shapes Film and Television, which detailed the very long collaboration between these two purveyors of “deception,” or in the mythic terminology readers of this blog may be familiar with: stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to renew our sense of American innocence:

Jenkins documents how the CIA has been influencing Hollywood for years, formally accelerating the effort in the 1990s when the Cold War ended, shocking spy scandals were unfolding, the mission was uncertain, and recruitment was down. In Jenkins’s account, the CIA needed a remake, and only Hollywood could supply it…it’s not that Hollywood is in bed with the CIA in some repugnant way, but that the Agency is looking to plant positive images about itself (in other words, propaganda) through our most popular forms of entertainment.

Movies and TV are only two types of electronic media that normalize war and line the pockets of military contractors. Now, drones and computer-controlled weapons have blurred the line between war and video games. Scott Beauchamp writes that as early as 1980,

…the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) set about appropriating the Atari game game Battlezone and Battlezone_Coverart repurposing it as a revolutionary new training system called Bradley Trainer…Tim Lenoir and Luke Caldwell’s The Military-Entertainment Complex is required reading for anyone curious about just how insidious the Pentagon’s raids on our collective imagination have become…the real work of sanitizing Pentagon operations for public view resides in making the work of war seem mundane and familiar: “Routinizing war is important for a globalized capitalist empire,” they write, “and…implicit in this process is the understanding of war as a project with not only military but also ideological and political dimensions.” In particular, they observe, video games and television are indispensable to the challenge of “habituating civilians to perpetual war.”

This is a complex and expensive process, part of which includes valorizing its actual (if virtual) practitioners. As I write here,

The banality of madness: In February of 2013 outgoing Defense Secretary Panetta announced a new medal for these desk-bound warriors. The Distinguished Warfare Medal Distinguished-Warefare-Medal-ROH will recognize drone “pilots” for their “extraordinary achievements that directly impact on combat operations, but do not involve acts of valor or physical risks that combat entails.” The drone medal will rank above the Bronze Medal and Purple Heart, meaning computer screen heroes will receive awards more prestigious than troops who get shot in battle.

We usually have to look outside of the United States for filmmakers grounded in older cultures that understand tragedy and loss, from nations that have witnessed two world wars on the ground, people who have been able to counter the seductive pull of the image and create masterpieces such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Behind the Lines (1999) or the elegiac Testament of Youth (2015). Paths of Glory (1957) is the one American film I’d include in this list. All four of these films depict World War One. Perhaps filmmakers need that kind of time bridge to get some distance from their own unconscious fascinations.

I’m not aware of any films about later wars that can do this, with the exception of the 1985 Soviet film Come and See. But they remain quite rare among the thousands of war movies (not counting Holocaust films) made in the past century. And even the best of them must dance around the inevitable clash between noble intentions and the seduction of images.

In other words, depiction almost always is endorsement, and no one should understand that concept more clearly than a highly intelligent director such as Bigelow.

And there certainly are other issues that Bigelow glossed over – or deliberately framed. Every single CIA agent in ZDT is presented as idealistic rather than cynical, reluctantly violent rather than sadistic. th Most of the actual violence is left to their Third-World accomplices. The film also portrays both the spooks and the Navy SEALs as young, hip (lots of beards), diverse (several black and women agents) – and, true to the tradition, drop-dead gorgeous, such as the main protagonist, played by Jessica Chastain. They encounter breathtaking adventures as often as tedious deskwork.

In other words, ZDT makes a career in the CIA look very attractive – especially for women. CNN approved, pronouncing the film a “reworking of the war on terror as a feminist epic.” Indeed, writes Cora Currier, Donald Trump’s 2018 nomination of Gina Haspel as CIA chief

…points to a long and fraught history of the CIA trying to burnish its image by highlighting women’s advancements in the agency…the agency’s Twitter feed celebrated Women’s History Month in March with a series of threads on Haspel’s female forebears at the CIA…

The mythmakers and deception experts have far more in common with each other than any of them have with the rest of us. But at some point we may find ourselves asking, “Who writes this stuff – Hollywood or Langely, Virginia? Are they one and the same?

In 2014, at the height of media attention on drone strikes, an article appeared in Real Clear Politics about “the CIA’s drone queens,” borrowing its title from a “Homeland” episode and stating that “the next time Obama authorizes a strike in Pakistan, the odds are that it will be a woman who gives the green light moments before death is delivered from a drone”…it described a “sisterhood” of women involved in the targeted killing campaign who drank iced lattes and baked birthday cakes for one another (spies — they’re just like us!). The top expert on Pakistan was said to be “strikingly attractive in her stiletto heels” – so attractive, the article asserts, that Barack Obama grinned and said, “You don’t look like a Pakistan expert.”

You can’t make this shit up. Or can you?

In this story that we tell ourselves about ourselves, the old-boy, Ivy League network of the CIA has become a leading institutional factor in the inclusion of the Other – those minorities so long denied their opportunity to compete for the American dream and bequeath it to our long-suffering allies in the Third World. 1280-james-bond-girls If all these photogenic women and people of color are doing the spook work, then so much the better; abu_ghraib_harman21 we can all relax and trust that we are in good (and good-looking) hands, even as the soft-core porn of the James Bond girls merges with Abu Ghraib’s pornography of violence. 

As Facebook posts swoon over women achieving battlefield command positions and Tulsi Gabbard softens her criticism of the American empire with proud pictures of herself in combat gear, we could also keep these quotes in mind:

Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” – James Baldwin

You cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. – Audre Lorde

Hayden writes:

The star of The Sum of All Fears, Ben Affleck, whose hero as a young man was Howard Zinn, eventually married Jennifer Garner

th-1

Jennifer Garner

and brought Argo to the screen. As venerated representatives of the New Hollywood, Affleck and Garner may unwittingly have done more to save the CIA’s image than the entire Republican Party. True, their plots include duplicitous and destructive agents at times, but their credibility depends on a certain balance. The overall effect has been to usher a new brand of hip and sexy spooks into the post-9/11 world.

 

From the perspective of image, it is hard not to conclude that ZDT is essentially a CIA recruitment film. And because these spooks are perfectly willing to break the law (at least as most of the world outside of Washington and Hollywood interpret it), firstly by torturing suspected terrorists and secondly by invading the airspace of a sovereign ally (Pakistan – as the military would soon do in Syria), they embody our mythic American hero’s disdain for “normal channels.” Here is a big, open secret: this hero has as much contempt for democracy and the rule of law as does his opponent. Can you imagine Rambo – or Barack Obama – waiting for congressional approval? I know, I know: Trump is soooooo much worse, and Joe Biden would revive our pride in America, blah, blah…

Matt Taibbi gets to the core:

The real problem is what this movie says about us. When those Abu Ghraib pictures came out years ago, at least half of America was horrified. The national consensus (albeit by a frighteningly slim margin) was that this wasn’t who we, as a people, wanted to be. But now, four years later, Zero Dark Thirty comes out, and it seems that that we’ve become so blunted to the horror of what we did and/or are doing at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and Bagram and other places that we can accept it, provided we get a boffo movie out of it.

That’s why the theater managers showed all those action previews when I went to see ZDT. They knew very well what kind of people were coming to see it. They weren’t going to be intellectuals or students of politics and history, but members of that high-rolling, and much larger, demographic of young, uninitiated males. Maybe not CIA material (such people would likely be seeing the film at university showings), but certainly cannon fodder for the next war. And how could Kathryn Bigelow not know that? Hayden concludes:

Does it matter whether Zero Dark Thirty endorses or rejects torture, or ultimately applauds it for leading stalwart CIA heroes to our greatest enemy? Not really. In the end, perhaps the debate around the film is really just a distraction from what actually does matter: Zero Dark Thirty — by being such an entertaining, edge-of-your-seat thriller about the CIA that it would compel us to have a debate about it at all — is the greatest public relations gift a secret agency could possibly wish for. There we are, a captive audience, twisting our popcorn bags and Juicy Fruit boxes with nervous, sweaty palms while watching an obsessed, passionate, dedicated female CIA analyst named Maya, played by the beautiful and talented Jessica Chastain, dodge bullets, bombs, and boyfriends on her way to exacting bloodthirsty revenge. Is her revenge our own? By rooting for her, which we doubtlessly do, are we not rooting for the Agency she signifies? When she wins in the end, doesn’t America win too? If that’s not great public relations, I don’t know what is.

As I wrote in The Hero Must Die, a lengthy review of American hero mythology:

…the American hero (exceptions include James Bond parodies and Woody Allen-type antiheroes) doesn’t get or often, even want the girl. Even Bond, in his hyper-sexuality, remains a bachelor. More often, the hero must choose between an attractive sexual partner and his sense of duty to his mission; he cannot have both. Some, such as Batman and the Lone Ranger, prefer a comical male “sidekick.” How common is this unattached hero? Here are some others:

Hawkeye, the Virginian, Josey Wales, Paladin, Sam Spade, Nick Danger, Mike Hammer, Phillip Marlowe, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Dirty Harry, John Shaft, Indiana Jones, Robert Langdon, Mr. Spock, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, the Man With No Name, the Hobbits, Gandalf, Mad Max, Superman, Green Lantern, Green Hornet, Spiderman, the Hulk, Iron Man, Human Torch, The Flash, Dr. Strange, Hellboy, Nick Fury, Swamp Thing, Aquaman, Daredevil, Lone Wolf McQuade, Sargent Rock, Braveheart, Conan the Barbarian, Jack Sparrow, Captains Kirk, Picard, Atom, Nemo, Phillips, Marvel and America and the heroes of Death Wish, The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, Pale Rider, Unforgiven, Under Siege, Lethal Weapon, Blade, Casablanca, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, No Country for Old Men, Gran Torino, Walking Tall, Delta Force, Missing In Action, Avenger, Extreme Justice, The Equalizer, Terminator, The Exterminator, Rawhide, The Rifleman, Million Dollar Baby, Open Range and The Exorcist.

For 350 years our preferred hero has been Jehovah-like in his vengeance and Christ-like in his refusal to remain grounded in relationship and his longing to return to his Father. Now he has been joined by Maya, she of brilliant intellect, the idealism, the mysteriousness and the drop-dead gorgeousness; she whose first name means “illusion” in Sanskrit; she who is so unattached that we never even learn if she has a last name. Now that’s progress.

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Barry’s Blog # 290: Why Are Americans So Freaking Crazy? Part Nine of Nine

Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” – James Baldwin

You cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. – Audre Lorde

If our religion is based on salvation, our chief emotions will be fear and trembling. If our religion is based on wonder, our chief emotion will be gratitude. – C.G. Jung

Die before you die. – Rumi

En-lakesh (You are the other me) – Mayan Indian chant

There are no others. – Ramana Maharshi

We are now in a space where we can reframe a critical aspect of the American myth (Anything is possible), where anything – such as a sustainable world – really is possible. And this is one of those rare moments in world history when our values are in a wild state of transition that actually mirrors the initiatory liminality experienced – or longed for – by adolescents everywhere.

And what about our day-to-day emotional rollercoaster? Unfortunately for many, to wake up from our dream of innocence and separation is to fall back upon the other side of the simple polarity of “reality/unreality,” to fall into despair and hopelessness (“despair” is literally the opposite of the French word for “hope,” espoir).

The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth. ― Niels Bohr

Optimistic denial or pessimistic realism? Such opposites live in a world of twos. Myths live in a world of threes, where clashing truths may propel us into a new awareness. Only the creative imagination allows us to both acknowledge the truth and also to picture what we want to regain. Perhaps, as Theodore Roethke wrote, it is only “in a dark time” that the eye begins to see with a new kind of innocence. Or Marc Nepo:

Everything is beautiful and I am so sad.
This is how the heart makes a duet of wonder and grief.

The light spraying through the lace of the fern

is as delicate as the fibers of memory forming their web
around the knot in my throat.

The breeze makes the birds move from branch to branch
as this ache makes me look for those I’ve lost in the next room,

in the next song, in the laugh of the next stranger.

In the very center, under it all,

what we have that no one can take away

and all that we’ve lost face each other.
It is there that I’m adrift,

feeling punctured by a holiness that exists inside everything.
I am so sad and everything is beautiful.

– Adrift

This post-modern world constantly throws us into double binds. But we can also imagine positive double binds, such as the koan in Zen Buddhism. 1104265_orig Koans are deliberately crazy-making questions (What is the sound of one hand clapping?) designed to pull us out of our rational minds. They throw us into paradox, into liminal, transitional space – which is exactly where we need to be, aware that the old stories are dead, yet with no consensus about new ones.

Myths grab us for a reason. It’s not simply that they are untrue, that we have bought a lie. They describe us, in both our shadowy reality and in our potential. They are, for better and for worse, deep in our bones.

Joseph Campbell spoke of participating joyfully in the joys and sorrows of the world. To look more deeply into joys and sorrows, we need to see them as narratives that are being played out in the world, to realize that there are only a few basic narrative themes, and they are all quite old. And to do that, we need to step back and learn to think mythologically (See Chapter One of my book). This is how indigenous people used to consider stories, and how mythopoetic men’s groups, learning from them, have been doing for the past forty years. But now, in addition to working with fairy tales and Greek myths, we need to consider world events in the same way.

Looking at Trump, or any celebrity or public figure, we need to interrogate ourselves, to ask, for example, how does this person doing these things enact or embody a story about me that I still identify with? tumblr_or1agh9xrB1tr7vtjo1_1280 How does my emotional reaction or judgement, positive or negative, reveal my own place in this myth, this story we tell about him? How does my participation in this story affect my ability to act as a citizen? And in our American story, the ultimate questions are about our own innocence.

As far as definitions, we can now dump the DSM manual entirely and take a common sense, moral view of madness. Doing so, we can ask simple diagnostic questions such as these: Is what this person is saying or doing hurting themselves only, or are they impacting the community? Does their need for power and control affect us all? Do they act with the greater good in mind or make corporate profits their first priority? Would they advocate for non-violence except in self-defense?

What is madness? What is normalcy? In a sense, we’re back to square one, with Freud (“Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness”). Sydney J. Harris adds, “Freud’s prescription for personal happiness as consisting of work and love must be taken with the proviso that the work has to be loved, and the love has to be worked at.” We’re back to Malidoma Some´, who would ask, Is this person in touch with their purpose in life? Is he/she part of a loving community that can remind them of why they came here?

The way out is not to simply dis-believe (even if we could), to replace one superficial level of identity with another. The way out is to go deeper in, to dwell at length in the possibilities of a new imagination that recasts our national and personal stories, to re-tell them in terms of both the real and the possible. Sophocles admitted that he portrayed people as they ought to be, while Euripides showed them as they actually were. We need them both, the imaginative and the tragic, with equal weight.

Affairs are now soul-size; the enterprise is exploration into God. – Christopher Frey, Sleep of Prisoners

Where some send their “thoughts and prayers,” I suppose we could hope and pray for a world of peace and oneness. But wouldn’t such a world be simply the opposite of what we have now, equally one-dimensional and unreflective of our complex archetypal realities? Wouldn’t that be simply another way of casting our darkness down into the otherworld, where it would fester and demand that we find yet another Other/scapegoat to hold it for us?

Campbell wrote, “The life of mythology springs from the metaphoric vigor of its symbols, which bring together and reconcile two contraries into a greater whole.”  The challenge is to live with those contraries, to hold the tension of the opposites, to invite the mystery to reveal itself, to remember the beauty of the world not in spite of its daily horrors, but equally together, because together they describe its – and our – fullness.

Good and bad are in my heart,

But I cannot tell to you

— For they never are apart —

Which is better of the two.

I am this! I am the other!

And the devil is my brother!

But my father He is God!

And my mother is the Sod!

I am safe enough, you see,

Owing to my pedigree.

So I shelter love and hate

Like twin brothers in a nest;

Lest I find, when it’s too late,

That the other was the best.

– James Stevens, The Twins

What if psychology were focused on finding a way to welcome and incorporate the Shadow and invite a third thing in? To acknowledge rather than deny our violent potentials – and then re-imagine cultural forms that could hold and eventually transform them, especially in our young men as they come of age? Of course, I’m talking about initiation, and I recommend that you read Chapter Five of my book, especially on the East African notion of litima:

Litima is the violent emotion peculiar to the masculine…source of quarrels, ruthless competition, possessiveness…and brutality, and that is also the source of independence, courage…and meaningful ideals…the willful emotional force that fuels the process of becoming an individual…source of the…aggression necessary to undergo radical change. But Litima is ambiguous…both the capacity to erupt in violence and the capacity to defend others, both the aggression that breaks things and the force that builds and protects.

Indigenous cultures with intact ritual traditions still understand the critical importance of welcoming the dark realities of the psyche and then channeling them into values and behaviors that can serve the greater good, rather than tear down society itself.

Again: Can broken people heal others in this broken world? Can uninitiated adults initiate their own youth? In a culture of madness and death, can anyone be truly healed unless everyone is? All I can tell you is that there are plenty of people and groups working to do just that, in countless ways, and this is the sole source of any optimism I can muster.

For me, the work is to welcome back the indigenous imagination with more of two things: poetry and ritual. The old knowledge has never completely left us, but, as Caroline Casey says, the spirits need to know that we are interested.  Ritual clarifies our intentions. It conjures (“with the law”), invoking aid from the other world, and invites us into unpredictable, chaotic, creative space, into communitas. Here is where new images, insights and metaphors are born, just as adults are born in initiation. Liminality, wrote Victor Turner, is “pure potency, where anything can happen.”

Perhaps only what the Greeks called “ritual madness” can keep us from being so freaking crazy. Do you recall the two groups of women in The Bacchae? The first group followed Dionysus wherever he went, choosing to enact his wild, cathartic rituals. Others who opposed him were struck with – possessed – by the return of the repressed. The first group engaged in ritual madness to avoid literal madness, losing their minds to become sane. Nor Hall writes of the second group: “Had they joined the Dionysian company willingly, they would have enacted this state of wild abandon within a protective circle.”

Poet Dianne Di Prima writes, “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.” Another poet, Frances Ponge, says that genuine hope lies in “…a poetry through which the world so invades the spirit of man that he becomes almost speechless and later reinvents a language.” We are required to collapse so deeply into the mournful realization of how much we have lost that we become speechless. Only from that position can new forms of speech arise to break the spell of our crazy amnesia.

Then, says Martin Prechtel, grief becomes a form of praise. This year (2019) our annual Day of the Dead grief ritual will be on Saturday, November 2nd.

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.

My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,

So I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up,

And so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion.

– Tich Nhat Hanh, Call Me by My True Names

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Barry’s Blog # 289: Why Are Americans So Freaking Crazy? Part Eight of Nine

We have no tradition of shamanism…of journeying into these mental worlds. We are terrified of madness. We fear it because the Western mind is a house of cards, and the people who built that house of cards know that, and they are terrified of madness. – Terrence McKenna

Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through. – Ronald Laing

What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance? – Theodore Roethke

Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness. – Blaise Pascal

They say in the village that an unruly youth is asking in his own way for someone to guide him. – Malidoma Somé

I’m hoping to reframe this business of fear and denial, but I need to mention two themes first:

1 – Soon we will begin the transition to the Dark time of the year, and this will propel us directly into the absolute core of the issue: Boo! Don’t be scared! The roots of Halloween are in the profound depths of Old Europe – Samhain and All Soul’s Day. But for most Americans, it is a festival of innocent consumption, with annual spending of $5 billion. Happy-Halloween-Widescreen-

Or perhaps we should speak of consuming innocence. Every year, millions of children confront the schizogenic double bind that utterly discounts their emotional intelligence. Boo! Scared you! Well, don’t cry, it’s only make believe! Death is everywhere but no one needs to grieve! Perhaps adults enjoy the emotional release of horror films, and yes, I’m a curmudgeon, but this is child abuse on a massive scale. Boo!

2 – As I wrote previously, in the midst of massive denial about a collapsing environment and the real sources of terrorism, Americans are allowed and “encouraged” to fret about issues that the media choose to present.

You want real fear? As my mother used to say, I’ll give you something to cry about! Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the doctrine of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) implied that neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union could instigate nuclear strikes without being destroyed itself. What mad genius invented that acronym! As I wrote in Chapter Eight,

…consider this 1960 statement by General Thomas Power, commander of the Strategic Air Command: “At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win.” Was it the joke of a psychopath or cynical hyperbole deliberately intended to maximize anxiety? Or would only the former do the latter?

Apparently, the U.S. “National Security Community” is no longer afraid of nuclear war, because now they seem to believe – not just Republicans, but Democrats as well – that they can win one. Are we mad to not label these people as mad?

Renewed NATO Military Deployments on Russia’s Doorstep

How US nuclear force Modernization is Undermining Strategic Stability

U.S. Keeps First-Strike Strategy

US confirms first strike policy with nukes

Or is it simply easier to manage our anxiety with Islamophobia than to ponder our own male suicidal fantasies that could destroy us all?

We are all stressed out, to be sure. Vast numbers of us are – or should be – dealing with PTSD. And thousands of the mentally ill really have been saddled with abnormal brain chemistry even before they were born. That leaves many others: the rebels, the inattentive, the under-achievers, the gang members, the white nationalists, the forty-somethings still living with their parents.

“Mad,” after all, has other meanings: angry, rabid. What if we were to think of mental illness as an unconscious attempt by a socially powerless person to unite body and feeling (or if we were to substitute “uninitiated” for “psychotic”)? Then we might see madness as an unconscious, natural (if painful and usually unsuccessful) attempt to heal oneself, to restore balance. And this, according to Malidoma Somé, is precisely the intention of ritual.

As Jung taught, the society that emphasizes extreme Apollonian, rational values and represses the Dionysian sets up a dynamic in which the god can only return in the symptoms. The return of Dionysus can appear as emotional dismemberment. For centuries of modernity, however, such experiences have typically occurred outside of any ritual containers. Schizophrenics enter liminal space alone, without guides, and receive only drugs or incarceration.

John Weir Perry saw schizophrenia as a natural renewal process. Many of his patients described visions consistent with the ancient symbolism of kingship and initiation. Joseph Campbell wrote that such fantasy “perfectly matches that of the mythological hero journey.” From this perspective, madness becomes an inward and backward process, under the dubious guidance of the mad god himself. unnamed

But we absolutely need to think mythologically, not literally. James Hillman mentioned that in historical accounts of persons who went mad but also had religious experiences, most took their revelations literally. They experienced death, apocalypse, crucifixion, sexual inversion, fertility and rebirth. A mythologist would identify all these visions as images of initiation. Those who did recover saw past the literal to the metaphoric.

But so many get stuck in what Robert Moore called “chronic liminality,” as illustrated by the myth of Ariadne. Many heroes entered the underground labyrinth, only to be killed by the Minotaur. Theseus defeated it because he had kept in contact with the world above by means of Ariadne’s thread, which enabled him to return to the light (normal consciousness). Those who have no thread of connection to community remain below in that “labyrinth of transformative space,” but only partially transformed. Later, Ariadne herself was rescued by Dionysus and became his wife.

Moore insisted that many pathological states are nothing other than failed initiations in which people could not think metaphorically. One of his clients was lucid enough to admit, “I need to die, before I kill myself.” This man knew intuitively that the most tragic of failed initiations is suicide, the heroic ego’s literal response to the symbolic challenge of transformation, and the inability to move madness into art.

“A shaman,” wrote Terrance McKenna, is someone who swims in the same ocean as the schizophrenic, but the shaman has thousands…of years of sanctioned technique and tradition to draw upon.”

Traditional Africans still perceive mental distress as a call for help. Indeed, madness is a sign that the community (who know nothing of “family systems therapy”) is sick. They perceive crazy people as undergoing crises resulting from the activity of spirit and protect them, hoping that their healing will benefit the community. To them, the spirits of a sick world speak through the most sensitive of us, those with the most fluid boundaries.

Malidoma Somé, an initiated elder of the Dagara people, writes that his people perceive mental disorders as spiritual crises that can potentially signal “the birth of a healer.” So this is “good news from the other world.” Beings from the other side of the veil are drawn to people whose senses have not been anesthetized, whereas modernity

…has consistently ignored the birth of the healer…Consequently, there will be a tendency from the other world to keep trying as many people as possible in an attempt to get somebody’s attention. They have to try harder…The sensitivity is pretty much read as an invitation to come in…(In the West)…it is the overload of the culture they’re in that is just wrecking them.

Through ritual, Dagara communities attempt to help such persons reconcile the energies of both worlds – “the world of the spirit that he or she is merged with, and the village…” Ideally, such persons eventually become able to serve as bridges between the worlds and assist the living as healers.

Somé utilizes spiritual terminology that we might feel a bit uncomfortable with. But in fact, many western psychologists have understood this wisdom for decades, beginning with Jung and later with Hillman’s Archetypal Psychology and Laing and the Anti-Psychiatry movement.

More recently groups such as Mad in America, the Critical Mental Health Nurses’ Network, Mad Pride, Mind Freedom International, and the Network Against Psychiatric Assault emphasize social justice, patient’s rights and political action. This includes questioning the idea of “normalcy” with an alternative: “neurodiversity.

Yes, it is possible (and necessary) for an enlightened community to enfold troubled individuals, keep them from hurting themselves, identify the sources of their distress as their innate purposes struggling to emerge, and ritually guide and welcome them as initiated members, as in the deepest sense of the word, citizens.

But this evokes deeper questions: Are there any such communities anymore? Can broken people heal others in a broken world? Can uninitiated adults initiate their youth? In a culture of madness and death, can anyone be truly healed unless everyone is? When myths change as gradually as they do, how much time do we have left? What do we do about it? How do we rise above it?

Stop. Go back.

Notice what you took from that last question. Consider that “rising above it” is often a euphemism for denying that problems even exist, or that they really affect me, and that our characteristic American practicality often propels us far too quickly from realization of the truth – and the difficult process of grieving fully – into thoughtless “action,” as I write here.

I am not suggesting that joining with likeminded people to engage in political action is wrong or ineffective. And we certainly need to invite the Other – all Others – back within the pale, both literally and metaphorically, for their good and ours. But it’s worth asking whether the Other would even want to be part of what Greg Palast has called an “armed madhouse.”

What I am suggesting is that we need to consider John Zerzan’s observation: “To assert that we can be whole/ enlightened/healed within the present madness amounts to endorsing the madness.” Or as Hillman put it:

…waking up to the insanity of the way we have structured ourselves rather than doing something in the world to make a change. That’s the old-style American way: Let’s fix it! I’m not talking about fixing it. I’m talking about making a change in the mind that realizes, My God, I’m crazy!

Rather, he says, we have to develop (or re-develop what our ancestors had) an aesthetic response to the world:

Once we waken our aesthetic sense and are not an-aestheticized, as we are, by all the distractions…we would be able to see and appreciate the beauty in the world. Now the moment there’s beauty, you fall in love with beauty…and if you fall in love with something, love the world, not through Christian moralism, about “You must love the world,” or an economic one that says, “Sustainability for our own benefit, therefore we’ll live longer.” That is not it. It’s got to be something much more profound that touches the heart…if you realize that our job on the Earth is to love it, to fall in love with it…and you only fall in love with it if you’re aesthetically alive to it.

Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” May it be so. Bertolt Brecht, however, began a poem with, “He who laughs has not yet heard the terrible tidings.” He insisted that we break through the walls of denial, to comprehend how dreadful our plight actually is, to feel how much we have lost. Yet pessimism can create its own reality. Expecting the worst, we are very likely to find it; then hope can turn into despair. Or we can fall into a polarizing anger that replicates conventional demonization of the Other. Brecht knew this, too. In the same poem, he wrote:

Even the hatred of squalor

Makes the brow grow stern.

Even anger against injustice

Makes the voice grow harsh.

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Barry’s Blog # 288: Why Are Americans So Freaking Crazy? Part Seven of Nine

It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. – Jiddu Krishnamurti

 …divide us those in darkness from the ones who walk in light… – Kurt Weill

The price of hating other human beings is loving oneself less. – Eldridge Cleaver

Denial and fear; fear and denial, all electronically mediated. Do you remember the anthrax scare of 2001 – how it targeted only Democratic Senators who opposed the Patriot Act, t1larg-terror-alerts-gi and how it disappeared as a news item once Congress passed the legislation? Do you remember how the government took this lunacy to its logical extreme with its color-coded alert system, how we all awakened daily to a degree of anxiety that shifted according to government “findings?” Who determined the nature of these “findings?” How – and why? terror_alert

Recall how this anxiety also diminished once the invasion of Iraq commenced, and how, as in any addiction, the reduction in stress was only temporary, until the next “threat” arose? Do you remember when all three TV networks introduced series about alien invasions? Do you remember the “immanent” Muslim terror attacks that never happened, that six in ten people expected a terrorist attack in 2007, how fifty percent of us were not opposed to torturing suspected terrorists? Be very afraid.

And yet – and this is where Americans really are exceptional – studies showed that most people had the existential experience of nothing being particularly wrong in their personal lives, at least until the economic crash of 2008. It’s falling apart all around us, but we’re OK. It’s all good.

This is critical to understanding our American state of mind, so let’s explore the implications further. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz summarized Google search rates for anxiety since 2008, noting that they have more than doubled since they were first tracked in 2004, and were the highest in 2016, the last year he surveyed. Surprisingly, “terrorism” and “Trump” are not major indicators of anxiety. And the places (Google can do that) where anxiety is highest are overwhelmingly concentrated in less educated, poorer and more religious parts of the country, particularly Appalachia and the South.

He sees two relevant factors. The first is the economy. Areas that were more deeply affected by the recession saw bigger increases in anxiety. The second:

I put “panic attack” in Google Correlate, and one of the highest correlated search queries was “opiate withdrawal.” Panic attacks are a known symptom of opiate withdrawal…The places with high opiate prescription rates — and high search rates for opiate withdrawal — are among the places with the highest search rates for panic attacks…(these) searches…have continued to rise over the past few years, even as opiate prescription rates have finally fallen.

These areas include, once again, the South, precisely the area where Trump’s support is the strongest, where white male identity is most under threat and where Republicans have been mining fear for fifty years (the places, incidentally, that view the most gay porn).

Fear and denial. Psychologists speak of intermittent reinforcement, a conditioning schedule in which a reward doesn’t always follow the desired response. Typically, the behavior lasts longer than with normal, predictable, continuous reinforcement. An example is gambling, when one doesn’t win every time. The intermittent reinforcement of winning causes a euphoric response that can lead to gambling addiction. Another example is how people remain in abusive relationships with narcissistic lovers whose unpredictable behavior encourages them to hope for an unattainable ideal.

The double bind is a dilemma in which someone in authority gives conflicting messages. When a successful response to one message results in a failed response to the other, we are wrong either way. The double bind occurs when we cannot confront or resolve the dilemma. Gregory Bateson proposed that growing up amidst perpetual double binds produces anxiety and confused thinking. In extreme situations (Bateson called them “schizogenetic”), the child experiences it continually and habitually within the family context from infancy on. By the time he is old enough to have identified the situation, it has already been internalized, and she may only be able to confront it by withdrawing into delusion and schizophrenia.

Or consider Marx’s idea of mystification: By representing forms of exploitation as forms of benevolence, the exploiters bemuse the exploited into feeling at one with their exploiters or into feeling evil or mad even to consider rebellion. R. D.Laing extrapolated this idea from politics to the schizogenetic family.

The mystified person is confused but may or may not feel confused. What child hasn’t heard this: “It’s just your imagination,” or “you must have dreamt it.” A deeper form of mystification happens when the authority figure disconfirms the content of the other’s experience and narcissistically replaces it with their own projection. A child is playing noisily in the evening; his exhausted mother needs some rest. A clear and honest statement might be: “I am tired, and I want you to go to bed.” Or, “Go to bed, because it’s your bedtime.” Or even, “Go to bed, because I say so.” But a mystifying statement would be: “I’m sure you feel tired, sweetie, and you want to go to bed now, don’t you?” Perhaps you heard this message from your own parents: “But you can’t be unhappy! Haven’t we given you everything you want? How can you complain after all our sacrifices?”

Are these just silly Jewish mother jokes? I don’t think so. What if you heard them regularly, every single day, throughout your childhood? They are wounds – ungrieved wounds – of the soul, the stuff D.H. Lawrence wrote of. I’m suggesting that most of us did experience those messages, that our loved ones conditioned us, if unconsciously, to become adults who would not perceive the nature of our own willing participation in the simultaneous denial and distrust that I’ve been describing. And those messages landed so deeply in our psyches precisely because of the loving – and mystifying – tones in which they were delivered.

And again, we are talking about the relatively privileged among us. Those born or fallen into poverty, racism, war, misogyny, sickness and/or abuse experience these conditions at much greater extremes.

But all of us spend hours – several hours, every day, even when we are out of the house – gazing at screens, writes Johnstone, that are “full of voices that are always lying to us, and experts wonder why we’re so crazy and miserable all the time.”

The screens tell us, “This is a perfectly normal and sane way of doing things. It is perfectly normal and sane to strip the earth bare and poison the air and the water in an economic system which requires infinite growth on a finite planet…Trust that it is good and proper for the citizens of Nation X to be killed with bombs and bullets,” and then they wonder why people keep snapping and committing mass shootings…The screens tell us, “Of course this is the way things are; it’s the only way things could ever be. Anyone who would try to change any part of this is either mentally ill or a Russian propagandist,” and they wonder why people shut down and numb themselves with opiates…The screens tell us, “Everything is great. Everyone is doing fine. Everyone is happy. Look how happy everyone is on this sitcom. If you aren’t happy like that, it’s not because of the machine, it’s because of you.

The pathology of this condition is that the modern soul is subject to persistent messages that its emotional intelligence – its intuitive knowing of the sheer craziness of modern life – has been completely discounted. This happens every day to almost every one of us, for our entire lives. And it carries an underlying, irresistible lesson: My ways of evaluating reality are failures.

But this is America, and we all carry the legacy of Puritanism, which tells us, if my ways of evaluation are failures, then so am I. And – since failure in America is always moral failure, then I am also bad – I am a sinner. This, I suspect, is the major source of our massive epidemics of depression and substance abuse and our retreat from political involvement – or the need to bypass politics entirely, through violent actions against the Other.

The scapegoat: what is the deeper meaning of police violence against unarmed people of color? When societies begin to collapse, they turn to human sacrifice. I covered this issue in depth in a previous blog series:

To deny something is to declare it taboo. And “taboo” (“kapu” in Hawaiian) means “too sacred to mention.” The sacred is a secret, and this is the secret: Americans regularly unite in our fear of the evil Other, and enough of us will regularly declare allegiance to a culture whose primary religious ritual is the sacrifice of this Other. He is sacred because for a while he takes our sins away.

But this mode of sacrifice – the “shock” of localized violence – cannot fully re-invigorate the “awe” of denial, because this scapegoat suffers only within the polis. Horrifying to contemplate, the function of racist violence may well be to divert our attention from the deeper madness, the regular sacrifice of the best of our young men to our god of nationalism. As Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle write: 

The doctrine that provides the central experience of Christian faith is the sacrifice of an irreplaceable son by an all-powerful father whose will it was that the son should die violently…Sacrifice restores totem authority and reconsolidates the group. This is why we die for the flag and commit our children to do so. img002 2 To resolve totem crisis, the totem must re-create its exclusive killing authority out of the very flesh of its members. Blood is the group bond. Blood sacrifice at the border, or war, is the holiest ritual of the nation-state…Our deepest secret, the collective group taboo, is the knowledge that society depends on the death of this sacrificial group at the hands of the group itself…But what keeps the group together and makes us feel unified is not the sacrifice of the enemy but the sacrifice of our own.

As more flaws appear in the fabric of our mythic narratives and as the crazy-making conditions of our lives make it more obvious that the old story is dying but no new story has yet arisen to replace it, watch for the next sacrificial ritual.

Watch how your fear of Trump motivates you to vote for the despicable Joe Biden — even in California and the other 40 states that are safely Democratic. Watch, thirty years after the fall of communism, how we fall back on the tired, old red-baiting, even without any reds! Watch how the Democrats can’t stop flogging the latest threat – Russians hacking our elections! Read the Time cover: Faith in the U.S. Election! This is religious language, and the gatekeepers would not be united in their sermons if they weren’t aware of how many of us need to be reminded.

It’s all about the anxiety. And the situation really does demand of us that we stay woke and step back from our need to reflexively parrot the liberal – yes, the liberal – media. Watch your willingness to see them as saviors. Watch their willingness to blame “the Russians” when Trump is re-elected. Watch your need to remain innocent, to be reassured that it’s all good. Watch how much money you’ll be willing to spend to be ceaselessly told that it is. Christmas is coming.

Our American craziness has persisted for centuries. And any answers we might contribute have also been around for a long time. James Hillman offered this one after a well-known shooting:

The shadow is in full view, and we cannot get rid of evil by blaming the Radical Right or the Black Muslims or…communists, or…call evil “psychopathic.” With such sadness and reality, destructive evil strikes. Assassinations, murder – and war, too – begin this way. This revolution is not just outside us in the streets and jails and detention homes and clinics, or in Texas, but is the Shadow in each of us that is trying to come out.

The date? November 1963, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

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Barry’s Blog # 287: Why Are Americans So Freaking Crazy? Part Six of Nine

As long as we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord. – Increase Mather

Don’t blame Wall Street; don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job, and you’re not rich, blame yourself. – Herman Caine

In a mad world, only the mad are sane. – Akira Kurosawa

God against man. Man against God. Man against nature. Nature against man. Nature against God. God against nature. Very funny religion! – D.T. Suzuki

So, the statistics that appear throughout this essay may well be inflated. Or maybe not. Robert Whitaker argues that the adverse effects of psychiatric medications are the primary cause of the epidemic. He reports that these drugs can cause moderate emotional and behavioral problems to become severe, chronic and disabling ones:

Once psychiatrists started putting ‘hyperactive’ children on Ritalin, they started to see prepubertal children with manic symptoms. Same thing happened when psychiatrists started prescribing antidepressants to children and teenagers. A significant percentage had manic or hypomanic reactions to the antidepressants.

These children and teenagers are then put on heavier duty drugs, including drug cocktails, and often do not respond favorably to treatment and deteriorate. BabyPills1 And that, for Whitaker, is a major reason for the 35-fold increase between 1987 and 2007 of children classified as being disabled by mental disorders. He acknowledges that the psychiatric community is coming around to sharing his opinions, especially on the pseudo-science behind the “chemical imbalance” theories of mental illness. However,

Psychiatry, all along, knew that the evidence wasn’t really there to support the chemical imbalance notion…and yet psychiatry failed to inform the public of that crucial fact…Researchers haven’t identified a characteristic pathology for the major mental disorders; no specific genes for the disorders have been found; and there isn’t evidence that neatly separates one disorder from the next. The “disease model,” as a basis for making psychiatric diagnoses, has failed…the entire edifice that modern psychiatry is built upon is flawed, and unsupported by science…Even as the intellectual foundation for our drug-based paradigm of care is collapsing, starting with the diagnostics, our society’s use of these medications is increasing; the percentage of children and youth being medicated is increasing; and states are expanding their authority to forcibly treat people in outpatient settings with antipsychotics drugs…I think we have to appreciate this fact: any medical specialty has guild interests, meaning that it needs to protect the market value of its treatments…Diagnosis and the prescribing of drugs constitute the main function of psychiatrists today in our society.

Cui Bono? So clearly, the industry survives and replicates itself in each generation by over-diagnosing countless people, especially children, many of whom exhibit only slightly more extreme behavior than normal people, and then pushing drugs on them. It follows, then, that the statistics at the top of this essay are probably inflated, and that there aren’t as many mentally ill among us as they would indicate. Wrong.

Because very large numbers of those suffering from legitimate mental conditions never appear in the surveys. How can you diagnose a homeless person who won’t enter a shelter; or a “functioning, productive alcoholic”; or a sexual predator priest;

Martin-Shkreli

The “Pharma-Bro”

or a Big Pharma executive who jacks up the prices of critical drugs; or an openly racist member of Congress? Between 30% and 80% of the homeless receive little or no “treatment”, including 50% of those with severe psychiatric disorders,  meaning medication rather than psychotherapy.

Who is crazy? Trump responds to every mass shooting with the standard argument that the problem is not guns but the “mentally ill” people who perpetrate these massacres, which have added immeasurably (actually, very measurably) to the level of fear in society. Many on the left have taken his bait and risen to the defense of the mentally ill with statistics that refute his accusations.

They are right, but this is unfortunate, since their argument normalizes violence and implies that mass shooters are not crazy. This can only be true in a world where the DSM-5, for all its hundreds of categories, has not (yet) officially declared it so. Perhaps it hasn’t because if the actual shooters were nuts, then the dozens of others who publicly threaten to perpetrate shootings and the thousands of white nationalists who support them online must be nuts. And if those people are crazy, then the millions of right-wing and evangelical activists and climate-deniers from whom they arise must be as well. It would never stop – until we all agree that the culture, its politics, its economy, its educational institutions and its mythology are mad, and that a corrupt pharma/psychiatric industry is merely a symptom of that madness.

Beyond and below the manipulated numbers stands this base craziness. Phil Rockstroh suggests the impact of growing up in such a world on adolescents:

Inundate a teenager with the soul-defying criteria of the corporate/consumer state, with its overbearing, pre-careerist pressures, its paucity of communal eros, its demands, overt and implicit, to conform to a shallow, manic, nebulously defined yet oppressive societal order, and insist that those who cannot adapt, much less excel, are “losers” who are fated to become “basement dwellers” in their parents’ homes or, for those who lack the privilege, be cast into homelessness, then the minds of the young or old alike are apt to be inundated with feelings of angst and dread…Worse, if teenagers are culturally conditioned to believe said feelings and responses are exclusively experienced by weaklings, parasites, and losers then their suffering might fester to the point of emotional paralysis and suicidal inclinations.

Over twenty years ago, Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, acknowledged a depression epidemic:

We discovered two astonishing things about the rate of depression across the century. The first was there is now between ten and twenty times as much of it as there was fifty years ago. And the second is that it has become a young person’s problem. When I first started working in depression thirty years ago…the average age of which the first onset of depression occurred was 29.5…Now the average age is between 14 and 15.

Antidepressants are the most frequently used class of medications by Americans ages 18-44 years. Even if we assume that many of these diagnoses are bogus (see above), that still leaves an awful lot of unhappy young people.

In Chapter Five of my book, I quote former teacher John Taylor Gatto as I distinguish between authentic tribal initiation (“education”: to lead out) and American schooling (“instruction”: to stuff in), the primary purpose of which is to create compliant consumers. Not wanting to veer too far off topic, I encourage you to read that chapter, or look at his website. But for our purposes, this is another crazy-making American institution. So we shouldn’t be surprised to learn, as Bruce Levine writes, that only 40% of high school students report being “engaged with school.” And, seen from this perspective, much teenage behavior that the psychiatric profession has pathologized and medicated really is rebellion against a dehumanizing society.

…those labeled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) do worst in environments that are boring, repetitive, and externally controlled…(and) are indistinguishable from “normals” when they have chosen their learning activities and are interested in them. Thus, the standard classroom could not be more imperfectly designed to meet the learning needs of young people who are labeled with ADHD…there is a fundamental bias in mental health professionals for interpreting inattention and noncompliance as a mental disorder. Those with extended schooling have lived for many years in a world where all pay attention to much that is unstimulating. In this world, one routinely complies with the demands of authorities…When we have hope, energy and friends, we can choose to rebel against societal oppression with, for example, a wildcat strike or a back-to-the-land commune. But when we lack hope, energy and friends, we routinely rebel without consciousness of rebellion and in a manner in which we today commonly call mental illness.

But mostly, in talking about adolescents, we are expressing and enacting what I consider to be the most fundamental myth of Western culture (which I discuss in Chapter Six): the sacrifice of the children. It’s a world in which too many parents are too willing to allow too many profit-driven experts to diagnose, pathologize, medicate and institutionalize their children.

Centuries ago, American Puritans pointed to the “bad seeds” who, simply by their presence within the community, showed who was fated and who was not fated to join the heavenly choir – and who were the sources of pollution. Today, we use the terminology of “abnormality,” “development disorder,” “neurologically defective” or “brain chemistry disfunction.”

We can’t deny that large numbers of children do suffer from genetic and in-utero problems – one in forty (up from one in 68 just two years ago) are now on the Autism spectrum – and perhaps the effects of untested vaccines created and hawked by that same Big Pharma, or that electronic devices are harming them.

Clearly, however, madness predates capitalism, and the economics of corrupt institutions doesn’t explain all of it. Nor does Protestantism, which first demonized the mentally ill as “immoral” and institutionalized them in the 17th century. 

Enter Dionysus, who tells us that madness is a fundamental, archetypal aspect of the psyche. Plato spoke of the “divine madness” that comes as gifts from the gods: poetic madness was inspired by the Muses; Apollo and the Muses were the patron deities of prophetic madness; Aphrodite and Eros inspired erotic madness; and Dionysus was the patron of ritual madness. We recall Walter Otto: “A god who is mad! … There can be a god who is mad only if there is a mad world which reveals itself through him.” James Hillman, who saw pathology as existentially human, summarized the old thinking: “…insanity is following the wrong god.” And most religious traditions, especially Sufism and Buddhism, have long honored the carriers of “crazy wisdom.”

But we have to keep coming back to American innocence.

When our personal or national self-image has no shadow, we imagine that our motivations have the purity of white sugar on white bread, washed down with milk. We have dreamed up a world – the American Dream – in which we are so good, so generous, so caring, so pure, so willing to bring enlightenment to others, that no one – except for the incarnation of pure evil, Satan himself – or his dark, ethnic surrogates – could ever doubt us. And the fear? Doesn’t much of it spring not also from the media but also from our own subliminal guilt and our unwillingness to confront our grief? Is this not the stance of an inexperienced, uninitiated, naïve youth unconsciously daring the world to smack him with a wakeup call?

So when we really are attacked, the release of disillusioned energy results in our astonishingly violent extremes. Our lost innocence (We have done so much good! Why do they hate us so?) and denial of death justify the revenge fantasies that support or ignore reactionary and genocidal behavior or treat it as if it were a football game. U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

Certainly since 9/11/2001, and arguably since the beginning of World War Two – three to four generations – Americans have endured (or more often ignored) the fact that their government and their young men have been waging wars and covert interventions – and dying in them – almost continually. I really don’t think that we can imagine healing our internal epidemic of mass shootings (including police murders), or the rage that motivates the shooters, or the helplessness and lost dreams below that, without addressing these external realities. Few politicians are willing to do so. The only presidential candidate to try has been Tulsi Gabbard, and the media have slammed her for the effort.

What has our awareness of what we do, regardless of why we do it, done to our souls? Caitlin Johnstone comments:

The most significant and consequential aspect of establishment propaganda is the simple, everyday practice of manufacturing normality.  Every time something horrible happens without news reporters treating it like something horrible…Every time something unimportant happens that is treated as newsworthy, normality is being manufactured…In an even marginally sane world, the fact that a nation’s armed forces are engaged in daily military violence would be cause for shock and alarm…A hypothetical space alien observing our civilization for the first time would conclude that we are insane…It is absolutely bat shit crazy that we feel normal about the most powerful military force in the history of civilization running around the world invading and occupying and bombing and killing…

Dionysus asks us, what is madness in the only nation to have used atomic weapons, and following that war has bombed nearly fifty nations, whose people, every single time (with one exception, Serbia) were people of color? A nation that dropped seven million tons of bombs on Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia? A nation that utilized free-fire zones and defoliation and made the body count its primary metric to judge military progress? Phillip Slater asked at the time,

This transfer of killing from a means to an end in itself constitutes a practical definition of genocide…Do Americans hate life? Has there ever been a people who have destroyed so many living things?

Well, that was then. And now? Dionysus might wonder what we should make of a nation in which a third of the population favors a nuclear strike on North Korea even if it killed a million people.  Twenty-four hundred years ago, Euripides (in The Bacchae) instructed the Athenians that their failure to listen to the mad god, and their own normalization of warfare, would drive their own children mad. William Hawes, (“Growing Up Insane”) writes,

…we must at least question whether collectively, we the citizenry, are as susceptible to mass delusions as our psychopathic leaders are. Our society can be effectively generalized as forming what Paulo Freire calls a culture of silence, many of whom see no problems with exploiting and despoiling other countries, looting wealth, and killing millions; and many more that are simply afraid to speak out against the indignity of the U.S. empire, in fear of socio-cultural reprisals. This culture of silence, which we are taught at a young age, indoctrinates and effectively eliminates the ability of people to form critiques of our rotten political and economic systems. This is who Richard Nixon was really referring to, when he spoke of the “Silent Majority”: citizens too naïve, dumb, childlike, and afraid to confront the injustices inherent to our system…

The mention of Nixon (“When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal”) reminds us that in this demythologized world, every single one of our major institutions has been corrupted by capitalism, democrats-are-zeroing-in-on-top-trump-aide-stephen-miller-in-the-house-russia-probe and that we have to address all political, social and cultural issues by asking Cui Bono? Who profits?

We’ve established that the mental health industrial complex drugs millions unnecessarily and ineffectively. Looking, however, through the lens of American myth, we also discover that, in true Protestant fashion, it frames mental health problems as purely individual issues and conditions everyone to overlook structural issues such as racism and systemic violence. Eric Greene argues

…this reduction serves a specific political function…it keeps those who are oppressed inward looking and forecloses knowledge of the dominant class as they exert enough force to contribute to extensive suffering and mental illness in the oppressed…This specific kind of colonization of consciousness (i.e., ideology or false consciousness), by the mental health industrial complex contributes to…the current ‘culture of incapacity’ and elicits mantras of self-blame while exploiting humans as patients for the bottom-line dollar. In short, the definition and diagnosing of mental illness is political…The clinic and the therapies provided therein act as a tool of systemic oppression. Unless clinicians actively work against dominant racial inequalities and institutional forms of oppression, our tools work to perpetuate and exacerbate them.

Bad dreams constantly interrupt our 400-year sleep of denial. Waking exhausted, we reach for our devices. Denial and fear; fear and denial, all electronically mediated. In 1968 Muriel Rukheyser saw this:

I lived in the first century of world wars.

Most mornings I would be more or less insane,

The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,

The news would pour out of various devices

Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.

I would call my friends on other devices;

They would be more or less mad for similar reasons…

– “Poem”

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