A Swim in Denial

What we can't think about and how it shapes us.

Strong Medicine

Building Superhuman Strength through Denial

 If you buy pills labeled "Strong Medicine for Colds," the pitch assumes that you "fight" illness and win health through strength. Of course it's not really a fight or a contest. The virus has no quarrel with you. In fact the misery comes from your immune system's overreaction to the innocuous virus. If you wanted to personalize it, you're suffering from your own bodily hysteria. If "germs" spook you, you can buy "industrial strength" bathroom or kitchen cleaner, because industrial scale is massive, and bigger supposedly = more powerful = stronger = defeat of threat = more life. 

What makes industries staggeringly productive, ironically, are features that often scare people. They're organized, disciplined, and precise, without much room for forgiveness.  They also have a habit of replacing your job with a "strong" robot.

 So "strength" is just a figure of speech, and sometimes a misleading one. It wasn't strength that dramatically improved health and lifespan a century ago, it was understanding pathogens, which enabled political investment in public sanitation and new respect for soap. With our limited understanding of shifty viruses, we're firing a shotgun at mosquitoes.

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 We're cognitively prejudiced toward binaries. Strong/weak. Good/bad. Friend/ enemy. It's the way we're built. But in (ahem) reality, boundaries are squads of mischievous, quasi-hallucinatory sub-atomic particles. Even if you stay in familiar territory, we live by enabling fictions. The "opposite sex," for example, isn't really opposite. The sexes share similar traits in different combinations. Since everything is in motion, some biologists think the category of "species" is a tidy enabling fiction.

 Still, no denying: the fictions have power. Some politicians throw the word "strong" at voters like handfuls of cold pills. It's strong leader, strong military, strong economy, strong family values. Like obligatory nods to "God," the meaning is so vague—so diluted—that it's pure placebo. In politics, after all, "strength" is hallucinatory. Congress isn't paralyzed and toxic because of baffled problem-solving, but because of uncompromising gridlock and lobbyist cronyism. Gridlock acts out convictions that you "win" partisan power and "defeat" opponents by being uncompromisingly "strong." Dictatorships "defeat" gridlock by anointing a "strongman" or a messiah.

 In a polarized mental world the range of problem-solving options is small.

"Strong" is a favorite tool of individuals who consider themselves independent. In reality of course nobody can be wholly autonomous, so the belief in "strength" has a quality of magic about it. If you think you're self-created, parents, neighbors, and government are irrelevant when they're not actually hindering you and making you weak.

 On some level most of us probably know that "strong" is a code word and not to be taken literally. But the ambiguity is what makes It so attractive as a placebo. As long as you don't define it—as long as you don't look at the ingredients on the bottle—it's the elixir of life. "Strong" is really a stimulant like caffeine or a "power drink" or cocaine. It's about turning flight to fight, pumping up, feeling good. The kicker is that obsession with strength is folly not only because it's a delusion, but also because it keeps you from problem-solving and reality-testing.

 Politicians have to play along with this regimen. They're obliged to swear that this is "the greatest nation on earth," flattering voters as the world's "greatest" citizens. If "the greatest nation on earth" sounds like "the greatest show on earth," well, that fits. It's about death-defying heroism, spectacle, and sideshow illusion. This is the fantasy of American exceptionalism.

 Scott Shane described it in the NY Times as "The Opiate of American Exceptionalism": << http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/21/sunday-review/candidates-and-th...

 In child poverty, for example, the US comes in 34th among 35 economically advanced countries, just ahead of Romania, which spent decades after WW2 in Communist mothballs. At the same time, compared to global executives, American CEOs are preposterously overpaid, even when they fail.  And "contrary to fervent popular belief," says Shane, "the United States trails most of Europe, Australia and Canada in social mobility." You can check up on these realities here.

 No candidate dares to bring up such unwelcome realities. The candidate would be skewered for "hating America," "defeatism," or "apologizing."  "Strength" here is an anesthetic for voters whose incomes have gone nowhere in several decades, at a time when corporate power is outsourcing jobs and openly striving to destroy organized labor and pension obligations.

 After WW2, America was supreme.  But the economic and geopolitical victory came at a terrible cost, not only in grief, but also in warped identity. The economy was finally revved up, but the nation never really demobilized. The careers, technology, and ego-massage of the "Cold War" kept militarism adrenalized, and today "superpower strength" justifies absurd misallocation of resources, and spendthrift overreach.

 The injury to inner life shows up as an anxious sense of unreality: the blustering mistrust and conspiracy-addiction that poisons American airwaves. It appears in new lunatic gun laws that allow you to shoot anyone in your house, armed or not, if you claim you "feared for your life." The geostrategic version of this preemptive strength is Washington's new "kill list" that targets alleged enemies for assassination by remote control drones, with no clumsy legal process.

If you listened to recent televised political debates, you'd sleep with a pistol under your pillow because everyone in the world hates us. One challenger boasted that he would annihilate all our many enemies. The president countered that he would "bring them to justice."

 We ought to know a thing or two about bringing miscreants to justice, since we have a higher proportion of our citizens in prison than any nation on earth. California has almost half of its young black males in some phase of the criminal justice system, a form of apartheid spun out of "strong" drug laws. The politically warped US Supreme Court has turned down appeals of California's vicious Three Strikes law, which locks up mostly nonviolent offenders for what amounts to forever. At the same time the Court's Citizens United decision encourages corporations to intervene in elections, winking at the sordid recent history of spectacular corporate crime (think Enron and financial crime that's given us the nickname "banksters.") The recent financial blowout has exposed the true impact of paranoid militarism and imprisonment on gasping state budgets. The strength delusion has been draining resources from social safety nets, education, and other basics of civilization. 

Television reflects and helps to create adrenalin junkies. American industrial entertainment and corporate military propaganda both emphasize fantasies of heroic rescue from threat. As media researcher George Gerbner demonstrated, the more hours you watch television, the more likely you are to overestimate how dangerous your neighborhood is.  Media depict everyday life in America as an incipient rampage.  A cultural environment saturated with violence creates what Gerbner calls “the mean world syndrome,” full of suspicion and misanthropy. [1]

 In another study Gerbner calculated that young, potent males and fertile young women are grossly overrepresented on television, while children and the aged are almost invisible. Why? Well, buff young men and women epitomize strength and sexuality. And fertility itself fights off fears of futility and the relentless enemy: death-anxiety. After all, 99% of pop music is a mating call.  On most TV channels, fertility and fisticuffs routinely mix as "strong" rivals battle each other for access to juicy fertility and equivalents such as money and power. It's greed for life, but also escape from loneliness and failure.

 Every so often the mix of fertility and force reveals its sinister potential, as in Pittsburg a few years ago, when George Sodini quit trying to build himself up to attract women, and instead shot up an aerobics class, wounding nine women and killing three and himself. But how can we be surprised, given our ancestral tale of the Trojan War in which the mix of strength and fertility produced greed for life—survival greed—that annihilated an entire civilization.

 It must have crossed the bard's mind that there must be a better way.

Meanwhile, in its list of "Psych Basics," Psychology Today doesn't include denial. That means there's a river to explore.

  

[1] George Gerbner, “Who Is Shooting Whom: The Content and Context of Media Violence,” Popping Culture, ed. Murray Pomerance and John Sakeris (New York, 2008), 99.

 

Kirby Farrell, Ph.D.'s most recent book is Berserk Style in American Culture.

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