Jan 222011

A follow-up to my previous post about the relationship between politics and insanity: I recently came across this fascinating interview with Manfred Schneider, professor of aesthetics and literary media who has recently written on the subject of assassins and paranoiacs, exploring their stories throughout history and the role they play in present-day politics. In the interview, Schneider places the shooting in Arizona earlier this month into an historical context, describing the shooter, Jared Loughner, not as crazy or irrational, but as “hyper-rational”:

Every assassin is a perceptive observer and interpreter of signs and events. For him, nothing happens by accident. He scrutinizes the world in search of hostile intentions, and he imagines conspiracies everywhere. To us, the outcome seems insane. Yet logic and rationality are key components in the paranoid suppositions arrived at by the assassin. Paranoia is not irrationality but hyper-rationality. Loughner is a very typical example.

Yet this type of hyper-rationality can also characterize the minds of great thinkers and geniuses (such as the fictional character, Sherlock Holmes), who may also be skilled at discovering patterns of meaning in apparently random details or coincidental events. What makes the difference between a perceptive genius of analysis, and the hyper-rational delusions of the paranoiac and would-be assassin? In part, of course, it depends on how accurate or true to reality one’s conclusions are. Yet as Schneider points out, this may be particularly difficult to determine for oneself (Loughner certainly thought his conclusions were accurate), and so another check against paranoid hyper-rationality is the self-reflection and perspective to be gained from engagement with a broader community, which provides a means of examination and communication. Schneider explains, “Without a communicative means of reconciliation with the world around him, he [the paranoiac] begins to create his own system to explain the things that concern and oppress him.”

Once again, we see that the “insanity” of hyper-rationality has social and political undercurrents. Disconnection from a community capable of providing a sounding board for our individual psychological need to seek out meaningful patterns can result in paranoia and delusion. However, as I mentioned in my post last week, there are times when a community or society may itself be neurotic or psychologically unhealthy. The example that Schneider uses to illustrate the difference between delusional and insightful hyper-rationality is itself very telling:

[T]he analysis that then US Secretary of State Colin Powell presented to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003, which concluded that there were mobile biological weapons laboratories in Iraq, was based on the same structure as the lunacy of Adelheid Streidel, who critically injured (German politician) Oskar Lafontaine with a knife in 1990. She believed that there were underground factories in (the Bavarian town of) Wackersdorf, where people were being killed.

Here, the difference is that Powell was speaking for a nation, a community which confirmed and supported the suspicions of WMDs in Iraq, while Streidel acted alone, based solely on her own delusions. Yet we have since learned that there were no such weapons in Iraq, and that the reasons provided for the Iraq War were largely disingenuous, when they weren’t downright fabrications. What does this say about our ability to rely on community to provide us with a trustworthy check on personal paranoia? (And what of the role of dissenters, such as myself and millions all over the world, who were shouted down as traitors and cowards for opposing the war and calling its justifications into question?) Schenider himself cites the societies of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia as examples of communities in which the majority had succumbed to paranoid delusions. We find ourselves faced with the same troubling question that haunted Freud in his later years: what do we do when the society we live in might just be “crazy”?

Especially interesting, to me, is that statistical studies have found a correlation between an increase in paranoia and suspicion within the very societies that tend to be more secular, open and transparent. As Schneider theorizes, it’s as though the more information freely available and accessible to people, the more they tend to doubt its veracity and suspect “something else” is going on behind the scenes. Though Schneider doesn’t offer an explanation for why this might be, it may have something to do with our need to seek out meaning even when confronted with overwhelming amounts of information, or patterns of cause and effect so large or so detailed that they appear to the casual observer to be merely random. Paranoia rears its ugly head in the face of uncertainty and confusion, when we are ill-equipped by our community and by our own mental capacity to integrate and make sense of the world around us in any meaningful way. One of the primary signs of delusion, Schneider points out, is a total lack of uncertainty:

When all of the non-rational moments that are part of reason disappear. That’s when it turns pathological. When there are no longer any doubts in a person’s thoughts, and there is no hesitation in his actions. When empathy is no longer possible and the person becomes consumed by the feeling that it is absolutely necessary that certain things be done to prevent the worst from happening.

How does this relate to Paganism, and to pacifism?

For the latter, I take my cue again from Schneider, in discussing the events of 9/11 — he describes the tragedy as “a lesson in uncertainty,” in which the U.S. faced extreme pressure to step into the paranoid perspective of the terrorists, who imagined the stage of global politics as an epic battle between the West and the Muslim world. In many ways, socially and culturally, this is precisely what happened in this country, and we are still seeing the ramifications of this increase in paranoia in the rhetoric of many politicians on the Right. Yet Schneider also notes a much healthier way of responding: accepting such “black angels of chance” for what they are, unpredictable and often meaningless moments of grief and loss, moments that we may never be able to fully explain or predict. Yet, by acknowledging that it is not mere madness that drives such individuals and leads to such events, we can learn to understand the way that hyper-rationality functions both in individuals and in societies. Such understanding gives us precisely the insight and perspective necessary for the kind of self-reflection that can help us check our own tendencies towards paranoia.

Pacifism, ultimately, is an exercise in confronting uncertainty in just this way — learning to cope with the potential for violence (in both ourselves and in others) without resorting to violence in retaliation or defense, without stepping into the delusions of our attackers who might claim with paranoid certainty that no alternatives exist. Instead, the philosophy of pacifism encourages us to see in the actions of others reflections of our own potentials, so that we might learn from them with empathy and insight while also acting with intention to create alternatives to violence even in the face of doubt or uncertainty.

Paganism, too, can provide a check against the paranoia and delusions of unhealthy hyper-rationality, in two important ways. First, as I discussed in my previous post, it can provide us with a more-than-human community to which we can turn for a “communicative means of reconciliation” with the larger world, even when our human communities seem mired in neuroses. I think it is no coincidence that the societies in which paranoia seems to increase also tend to be societies that encourage a disconnection and isolation from the natural world.

The scientific comprehension and appreciation of ecology provides part of this engagement with the more-than-human natural world, yet Paganism and nature-centered spiritualities more generally also supplement and extend this engagement further through religious activities like prayer, meditation and ritual directed towards the natural world and its many beings and inhabitants, rather than towards a transcendent, supernatural deity. The modern Pagan movement also embraces certain aspects of postmodern philosophy, such as deep play and the celebration of meta-narratives and self- and group-identity creation, which can help to remind us of the “non-rational moments that are part of reason.” Grounded in healthy community, an engagement with the non-rational can provide the perspective, and the wilderness, in which uncertainty and doubt can find a proper home, without giving way to either hyper-rationality or the pure lunacy of irrationality.

Jan 142011

I’m not ready to comment, yet, directly on the horrific shooting in Arizona. I have a very different perspective on contributing causes that are drawn from my religious beliefs and have nothing to do with politics. I’m waiting for more time to go by so this isn’t quite so raw.

I do have some helpful hints for my (Pagan) friends after listening to them and reading their words about the shooting.  Since this advice is 100% unsolicited, I’m sure it will be well received.  I know I always enjoy it when I’m on the receiving end.

1. Please learn the difference between the Gold Standard and buying gold as a hedge against inflation.
I’ve seen Pagans attempting to tie Loughner to Glenn Beck by saying they both talk about a return to the Gold Standard. They then deride this as laughingly ‘ignorant’ of Glenn Beck and how this is a ‘staple’ of the Right. It’s generally not a good idea to deride someone as ignorant if you demonstrate your own ignorance on the topic in question. What Glenn Beck advocates is buying gold as a hedge against inflation and currency devaluation. It’s an investment strategy. If you had followed this ignorant advice, you could have tripled your money in the past 2 years.

Advocating a return to the Gold Standard (which Loughner seems to be talking about, but rather incoherently) is an entirely different thing. It is a monetary system in which the standard economic unit of account is a fixed weight of gold or some other finite and non-perishable commodity. Likewise, if you can’t articulate the pros and the cons of a gold standard perhaps you shouldn’t laugh about how stupid an idea this is. There are many topics I don’t weigh in about because I don’t know jack about it.  The Gold Standard is advocated by a minority of Libertarians and that’s about it.

This is kind of a tangent, but it’s been bugging me.

2.  Stress doesn’t build character.  It reveals it.
That’s actually a paraphrase of Heywood Broun’s famous quote, “Sports do not build character.  They reveal it.”  When we are confronted with horrifying situations, even if we are not involved, we are placed under stress.  I don’t think that people do things they normally wouldn’t do when they are placed under stress, they do what is most true to them.   What did your response to the shooting reveal to those around you?

I don’t find it unreasonable that many jumped to the conclusion that the shooting had a political motive and was most probably done by someone from the political Right.  Not because the Right is more violent, but because the politician who was the target is on the Left.  I can also understand anger as an initial reaction.  That’ s not all that happened, though.  The extreme venting of hatred by some that I know on the Left was eye opening, shocking, ugly and continued for days.  This was done by people I respected and have conversed with for years.  As it quickly appeared increasingly unlikely that the shooter was from the Right, was influenced by Palin, talk Radio, had never been part of the Tea Party, and appears he has profound mental health issues and been fixated on Giffords starting in 2007 – there was no acknowledgment by them that the depth and heat of their words was excessive.  Instead, I watched them try to force the shooting to fit into their world view.  One person went so far as to say that although it was clear to them the shooter wasn’t part of the Left or the Right, this is an opportunity to push Palin and the Tea Party off the political stage.  Under stress they revealed who they are and what they actually think.  The polite social masks were removed.  Despite what they have said previously, they demonstrated a lack of respect towards ‘people like me’ and they feel contempt and hatred for those who have different views.  It was the same feeling you get when you realize a friend who has previously said they respect your Pagan religion slips up and lets you know that they think you are involved in something evil and they think you are a joke.   Perhaps you had a similar experience from people you knew on the Right or the Left?

However, most people revealed that they are wonderful, caring, respectful people – just as advertised.  What an incredible gift to have people like that in your life.  I treasure them all the more for the beauty that shown through during such a sad time.  When they make nuanced arguments that although Loughner didn’t appear to be motivated by political tone, pushing for a more civil discourse is still a worthy aspiration in and of itself – they have the moral credibility to make this argument.  They press for compassion for the mentally ill and wish that Loughner could have been treated by mental health professionals.  They prayed for those injured and the families of those killed.  They celebrated as the injured showed signs of recovery.  Hopefully you know people like this, too.

What did I reveal?  That I’m a persistent pain in the butt.  This should not be a surprise.

3.  If you want to promote civility and peace, sending me emails that you wish that I had “been the one shot” because, as part of the political Right, I’m “responsible for the hate and violence” is a bit counterproductive and hypocritical.
Calling me a “fascist teabagger bitch” in the same email where you complain about “toxic rhetoric” is pretty humorous.   Saying that “people like you” should die/disappear/be put in jail because we are “eliminationists” is projection – seeing in others that which you hate about yourself.  It stops being funny when you wish that someone would kill me or that if we are ever in the same room I will get what’s coming to me.  The same goes for comments about Palin, the Tea Party, Soros, Pelosi, or whatever person or group drives you to Pavlovian frothing at the mouth.

I read a comment from one Pagan, “Many Pagans believe that language carries magick – - words have meaning and consequences. In that framework, it is at best sloppy and at worst grossly negligent to call for violence as leaders on the Right – - but not the Left – - have been doing of late.” I would agree that words have power so the three Pagans (I’m assuming Pagans since they referenced Pagan+politics and wanted me to “shut the fuck up” and that I’m not a Pagan, blah, blah, blah)  who sent me an email wishing I would die or sad that it wasn’t me that was shot meant their words to have real and negative consequences in my life.  Since I’ve given these emails to the police, as I said I would do in a previous post on P+p, I hope there are legal consequences that come back to them for their words.

I disagree with the commenter that calls for violence are unique to the Right.  As a sign that the Gods have a sense of humor, I read his comment after coming back from the police station to turn over the threatening emails I mentioned.  It’s not words like ‘targeting’ that can be dangerous or the province of just pundits and politicians on the Right or the Left.  It’s the othering that we, regular folks like you and me, do.  When we define and secure our own positive identity through stigmatizing the “other” we open the door to hatred and violence.    When we otherize a group of people, we see them as inferior to us.  Extreme othering, where we no longer see those others as even human can result in killing homosexuals, or genocides such as WWII, Rwanda, or Darfur.  That’s the conversation Pagan+politics was created to have – to lessen this othering within our religious community.

I know – I know – that we have more in common than we have differences.  I know that you can be intelligent, informed, sincere, and ethical and have a political view that completely different than mine.

As for what is a danger to the average American – I would say our concern is better directed on our economy and the rising costs of fuel and food.

Jan 102011

On Saturday the United States saw unfold a terrible tragedy that has left many dead, including a Federal judge and a nine year old girl, and more wounded.  Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona only just escaped death by luck and remains in critical condition.  Yet this act did not take place in a vacuum.  It happened hot on the heels of one of the most vitriolic and downright vicious elections in recent memory.  Now this charge may sound hyperbolic until you look at snippets from the 2010 campaign trail with examples like an appeal to “Second Amendment remedies”, resorting to the “bullet box” if the ballot box fails, declarations that Obama’s election was an assault on America’s soul, the urging of  “don’t retreat, just reload”, declarations that the Vietnamese are after “my” seat, and the infamous target map.  It cannot be said with any certainty that any one of these acts was what led to the bloodbath this past Saturday.  It is highly unlikely that the increasingly hostile political climate, with the flames recklessly and cynically fanned by political personalities, candidates, and elected officials, had nothing to do with the tragedy in Tuscon.  If this were an isolated incident, a one-time act by an unhinged individual, then such claims would be over the top, laughable, and easily dismissed.

If only that were the case.

Far from being a single act by a lone gunman Saturday’s explosion of violence has much in the way of recent and infamous company.  In early 2009 a Pennsylvania man ambushed and killed several police officers out of fear that the new Obama administration was going to take his guns away.  A little more than a month later abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, a man repeatedly called a  “baby killer” by political pundit Bill O’Reilly, was gunned down in his church.  In February of this past year a small plane deliberately rammed the IRS building in Austin, Texas.  In August a lone man exchanged fire with California Highway Patrol officers while on the way to attempt to attack the Tides Foundation, a frequent target of the rants of Glenn Beck.  October 25th saw the brutal beating administered by a Rand Paul supporter to a MoveOn activist in Kentucky.  Most recently, only just on the heels of the Tuscon attack, was today’s discovery of the dead body of the Congressional affairs director for Progress Energy in a burning car.

These attacks show a disturbing pattern of violent action rising to meet the siren song of violent rhetoric.  Far more troubling is the increasingly cavalier attitude public personalities are taking to the handling of freedom of speech.  In none of these incidents, so far, has an apology for previous violent speech been offered.  There has been no attempt by the loudest voices to dial back the heat but to stoke the flames to a roaring inferno.  All the while the oh-so-objective media has supplied the fuel to these modern day demagogues by giving them coverage without consideration for content and creating sensation for the sake of puffing up ratings.  Instead of shunning such radicals, as a civil society should, they have been consistently given the loudest megaphone the broadcast world can find.  They rage freely with no concern for the potential consequences of abusing a position of public trust ducking responsibility every time they are cornered.

There is something terribly wrong with this picture.  Far from what the old child’s rhyme says words have the greatest power of all.  In virtually every cosmology the world over speech and writing are of divine origin.  Skalds, bards, messengers, and scribes were under divine protection and their speech given great weight.  Our ancestors understood that words have the power to undo kings and lay low empires.  Our own history validates this.  It was not the first shots fired at Lexington and Concord that pushed the colonies to secede from Britain but the bold words of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson that ignited the hearts of the first American patriots.  While bloody battles and the hail of lead would begin and end the Civil War it was the clarion call of the Emancipation Proclamation that truly turned the tide of the conflict and our nation’s history.  It was the words of Upton Sinclair that led to the creation of the FDA and the soaring dream of Dr. Martin Luther King that lit the night during the battle for Civil Rights in the 1960s.  Now we have loud, shrill voices screaming for attention with no regard for the effect their speech may have on society.

This dangerous, reckless attitude has already borne much in the way of poisonous fruit.  Our ancestors understood that as much as freedom isn’t free rights come with responsibilities.  Part of why we keep those rights is because we have a civil society which will defend both our rights and protect those who exercise them from retribution.  It is this lack of violence in the political sphere, just as much as the blood and honor of America’s finest on battlefields the world over, that secures the blessings of liberty for both us and our posterity.  The attack in Arizona is a rare moment where, on the brink of madness, we can stop and pull ourselves back from the abyss.

If we do not pull back from the brinksmanship that dominates our discourse then we will fall into something much worse.  Hopefully it will not take another shooting, another bombing, or a Congressman beating a Senator senseless to drive home how serious our situation truly is.

Also published at Ryan’s Desk