Menstuff® has compiled information and books on the issue of Diversophy®. This section is an archive from George Simons who is a US specialist in intercultural and gender communication who hangs out in Mandelieu - la Napoule, France, as well as in Santa Cruz, CA. In the 1980’s he was one of the founders of the Hidden Valley Center for Men and the Cyberguys network. He is currently the treasurer on the board of The National Men's Resource Center™. He is on the faculty of Management Centre Europe, where he consults on virtual global teamwork. He has written over a dozen books on culture and gender including  Working Together:  How to Become More Effective in a Multicultural Organization and with Deborah G. Weissman, Men & Women:  Partners at Work. (Crisp Foundation) and is the creator of the award-winning Diversophy® game. or

Blowing the Whistle on Hijacked U.S. Values
Both hands full—a case for diversity in thinking patterns
“Boys will be Boys" - and Sometimes "Girls will be Boys”
The Dynamics of Defamation
Frontier Justice
High and compelling ideals—are we Control Freaks?
How to talk about Men and Politics before it’s too late
Learning Nonviolent Communication
Literary Violence for Children--and the rest of us
Manifest Destiny—the Promised Land is Everywhere
Murder and the American Dream
“…one nation, indivisible, under God
Our Passion for Passion
Patriotism? Too much of a good thing? Co-opted? You bet!
Patriots at home
Playing with the Dark Angel of Abstraction
Stereotypes, our best friends and our worst enemies
SUV Nation—Mine’s bigger
A Tale of 10 Euros
Testosterone Poisoning
The use of fear and its relation to violence
“War for Peace” and the need to swim upstream

Murder and the American Dream

A revival of Stephen Sondheim's 1990 play "Assassins" now provides us with a musical meditation on the competitiveness and envy that fuel a great deal of what a number of social observers have noted as the rise in US "meanness."

Think about how we talk about what it takes to “make it” in business in the USA. What words show up again and again? Critic John Lahr has noted that,"...the vocabulary of murder has been inseparable from capitalism's bravado of success. 'Making a killing,' 'killer instinct,' 'going for the kill' and 'getting away with murder' are shibboleths of the psychopathic style that our entrepreneurial culture applauds and rewards."* Even when, in fact, there is no one to kill, we are encouraged to have the qualities of being able to stalk and dispatch our prey at the negotiating table or in the marketplace if not in the forest or on the savannah.

Though “killer” words still occur in our speech as they did when Sondheim first wrote “Assassins,” we need them less right now because we have a shared sense of victimhood in the wake of 9/11. Feeling like a victim allows the killer instinct in us to find a less murderous sounding outlet—there is a guilty enemy “out there” who needs to be brought to justice and punished. It is legitimate to defend against those who represent wrongdoing to us in the world and to attack them with a murderous intent that no longer seems murderous. We are the good guys and they are the bad guys. It is a virtue to feel murderous if we are the wronged good guys. We get a license to kill that turns psychopathology into virtue. Vengeance becomes acceptable at least at some unconscious level.

Lying behind the need stalk and to kill, is a US sense of entitlement. If we have a right to realize the American Dream, to enjoy our constitutional right to "the pursuit of happiness," (interpreted with amnesia about the "pursuit" part), then we have the right to target and dispatch those who get in the way of realizing our happiness, no matter who they may be.

Presidents make good targets because they are big shots. In Sondheim's theater piece, a group of historical presidential assassins, from John Wilkes Booth who killed Abraham Lincoln in an act of Southern justice, to John Hinckley, who shot Ronald Reagan to get Jody Foster's attention, are brought together on the stage. They sing about the disappointment, envy and anger that propel them to strike at the chieftain of the land that they see as having promised them so much and delivered so little.

Where does this rage spring from? The US is a culture where who one is what one does. We expect to be rewarded for hard work—or any effort at all. We construct ourselves through our work and our self advertisement. Others should see, recognize and reward this. Thus when we don’t succeed in work (which is our life) it strikes a double blow. First at our identity (losers are nobodies) and then at our goodness (having not succeeded, it is our own fault—we must be bad people).

In the US it is insufferable to be a nobody around others who are somebodies. We want to strike back for anything that feels like an attack on our sense of self and our goodness. We don’t need to be outcasts or even bad off; we just need to be one down to want revenge. Envy is stoked by being a lesser somebody than somebody else in a world of individualists. There is no one to assuage the loneliness accented by the feeling that one is not a winner. A loser is a dangerous loner

Okay, so few of us need to maim or kill another person or even kick the dog to balance our accounts, but small time everyday assassins abound. They steal the happiness of others to get even. The killer and the psychopath we see in film and on the stage would not make sense unless he or she were a believable exaggeration of very real tendencies that we can recognize in ourselves. Are not the moments of character assassination, Schadenfreude, gossip and backbiting not connected to the sense of getting less than the next guy or gal or getting less than what we feel should be our share.

In good theater and film, the internal workings of the killer instinct are laid bare. The catharsis of meeting our alter ego on stage can help prevent both the little murders we commit and the little deaths we die in day to day competition with each other. In the glow of the footlights we walk a bit with the enemy, and it is us.

Sondheim’s show is unfortunately a revival from another time, a decade past, and an era when a booming economy made not succeeding very painful. A post-9/11 sequel is sorely needed, one which examines more carefully our current solidarity in assassination and our denial of its murderous intent. We need theater that begs us not to leave unexamined the elements of entitlement, disappointment and revenge against humans who live beyond our borders, who, whatever their cause, attack us. Unfortunately there is little in the world of entertainment that takes us to a level of self-understanding in the way that Sondheim’s “Assassins” does. From video games to adventure movies, we are generally persuaded that killing is part of getting on in life.

A Tale of 10 Euros

Christine Longé and I visited La Bergerie at Colle sur Loup, the venue of our SIETAR Europa 2005 Congress. On the way home the three of us (her little son Marc came along) stopped at François, our favorite pizza house for a bite of lunch. Since the pizza and a drink cost 1000, I handed the counter man a 2000 bill. He apologized for not having smaller notes to make change and handed me five 200 coins. While waiting for the pizza to be served, I glanced at the coins. I was amazed to see in the same handful that each coin was from a different country...Spain, Germany, Portugal, France and Italy.

Perhaps like many of you much of my attention over the past year has been focused on what was not going quite right in the world, and rightfully so, as the political atmosphere seems to be as tense again as it was during the Cold War and there seems no end in sight to the provocations of fear and violence. Like you, I suspect, I held great hopes for the new Millennium, hopes that are certainly under siege each day. Endless wars and streams of refugees, constant threats and counter threats, rampant poverty and a withering ecology. There is so much to do…

The ten euros reminded me of something that something was going right, a perhaps small but not insignificant symbol of international, intercultural collaboration, a chance for human togetherness. The holiday season many of us celebrate with the transition to a new year and for us on the northern half, the gradual return of the light provides a moment of reflection a time to connect with each other, to restore our vision and to steady ourselves for what is yet to come.

Please accept my best wishes for you and those you love, for success and the fulfillment of your hopes in 2005 and for renewed inspiration on the part of all of us to pull together to create a more sustainable future for ourselves, our children and future generations.

Stereotypes, our best friends and our worst enemies.

In the panic for security now gripping the USA, typing and profiling others has become as commonplace as it is noxious.

Stereotypes are both our best friends and our worst enemies. Imagine your mind as the stereo playback of your computer. Stereotypes are the tracks that are running on the vast iPod of life. This goes for everything in life,though we tend to think of stereotypes about people when we use the word. For example, I see heavy black clouds and my stereotype says “rain” and I go for my umbrella or raincoat before leaving the house.

Generalizations (statistically probable data) about a culture (a group of people who develop ideas and approaches to life or a part of life in common) can give us a high probability that many people in that group will act, think, speak or behave in a certain way—but there is no certainty that the person before me who belongs to this group will do so.

“Stereotypes” is the common word for these functional generalizations. They are anchors for our thinking, one of our necessary mental processes. We have an immediate interpretive reaction for everything we see, hear or experience (at least those things for which biology and culture have trained our senses to register rather than ignore). New data is interpreted by what we have learned or previously experienced individually or collectively.

What we do next, however, is critical. WE CHECK THE REALITY AGAINST THE STEREOTYPE (this by the way refines the stereotype for its next use). We explore alternative interpretations, possiblities; use other stereotypes to question the ones that have arisen. We say of the dark clouds, “Maybe it will pass over.” But we have our rain gear ready in case it pours down cats and dogs, needles, or sheets or whatever cultural equivalent of abundant wet.

Stereotypes are the necessary mental/emotional chatter that we constantly are engaged in during our waking hours at least. If you don’t believe me, just pause for a moment to be aware of the THINGS YOU HAVE SAID TO YOURSELF OR INTERNALLY PRESENTED TO YOUR SELF (images, sounds, memories, judgements----have you heard yourself say “yesssssssss!” or “BS!”, etc., etc.?) about the couple of paragraphs you have just read, and, perhaps about their author (I don’t wanna’ know).

Whether you choose to share it or not, you have an opinion about everything; it’s always there if you care to listen in. Cognitive scientists, those people who study how the mind works, tell us that in listening to someone else, we are talking to ourselves about eight times as fast to figure out what is being said.

This, by the way, is how listening works. Good listening is selecting the right chatter track to run, not not reacting at all. The faster and more accurately we can unconsciously talk to ourselves about what is going on around us, its possiblities, its consequences, possible options, before we invest in one interpretation or an other, the better we listen.

Stereotypes are unitary elements in our listening, parts the running internal (cultural) interpretative dialogue that keeps us from having to figure life out at every second, which we are ever trying to do at the unconscious (thank God!) level. Well functioning mental wetware is forever challenging each bit of information it receives for:

  • is it true or false, right or wrong?
  • is it good or bad (safe or dangerous)?
  • is it ugly or beautiful (how the stereotypes on this one change from culture to culture and fashion season to fashion season.
  • is it one or many? (Is this strange arrangement of sticks a “chair”?)

We are talking this out internally all the time, before, during, and after taking decisions and acting.

Stereotypes are our friends. As long as we treat them like good friends, sit with them, ask them questions and try to find out what they mean when they say something, and hold their hands when it is pretty clear that we haven’t sorted something out yet.

That being said, this process is also an enemy, because we sometimes need to be alone, give it a rest, veg out, change the mental track that is playing by doing something different, singing, meditating, seeing a movie, making love. Playing the same track over and over and over and over leads to deadly certainty, inflexible fundamentalism. It is a march that promises and sometimes goose-steps its way power and glory and ultimately leads to cultural implosion and oblivion. Gross stereotypes about others (ethnic, racial, gender, age, etc.) can become self reinforcing systems, usually maintained in society for someone’s benefit and to someone’s loss. If we cannot change people’s minds we change the laws when these become too ominous.

This dynamic is why diversity is not just a fact, but a necessity for survival, and why making a monoculture out of our internal or external ecosystem, making a one-party system or a dictatorship of a government leads to great fortunes, empires and death, the death of a culture and usually the deaths of many of its people and of those around them. Eliminate diversity and you win big…for a while. Cultivate diversity, expand inclusion and we can all win bigger… if only it were not for the diversity of those who want to eliminate diversity… In dealing with life and especially in dealing with culture, we need to continually cultivate what Zen calls “beginners mind” and management consultants call “thinking out of the box.” We need a constant process of questioning the presumptions/stereotypes by which we necessarily operate on a day to day basis to discover and benefit from more possibilities.

Why, because some tracks like to take over. We empower them because we feel they will serve or save us. Sometimes people want their track to dominate in our selection of mental tracks that we play on our mental iPod (dogma). Some people are professionals at this (or use professionals) to ensure this, e.g., advertisers, politicians, anybody with a stake in something. They repeat things over and over until they are embedded in our operating systems.

This is never more true than when we are stressed, fearful or panicked. Old generalizations become certainties in our minds and get acted out in our behavior toward each other. They get more and more deeply rooted and harder to resist. They turn into thousand year old hatreds. Animosities we found inexplicable in the Balkans a decade ago as Usians—why can’t these people get along?!—we are now acting out with much of the Islamic world. We are making the world into a very large Balkans.

If anyone thinks the next election will be decided by the issues… Not a chance! There is a great struggle going on at the moment to embed the “right” stereotypes in voters’ minds, by making appeals to stereotypes they always have running. What Goebbels and Leni Reisenthal knew intuitively when they built Hitler’s propaganda machine, research offers today to all who will learn, and advertisers and political parties have learned. They know where the money and the power are at.

Yup, forget the issues. We don’t have time for them. Go for sound bites, memes, those contagious ideas, all competing for a share of our mind in a kind of Darwinian selection. If we can successfully stereotype the opposition, we can win. Seen in this light, it is not surprising that a month should have gone by when the military records of three decades ago are the main electorial prooccupation.

We are told that most of the undecided voters are not trying to resolve their indecision by studying the candidates and the issues, but that they will make up their mind on “how they feel about the candidates” on election day. They are taking their cues from entertainment media that appeal to them. If this is so, it is the end of democracy when those who don’t know and don’t want to know will decide for us which way things go.

The use of fear and its relation to violence

This month we have a reflection on the use of fear and its relation to violence by a friend and colleague Peter Isackson. Peter is a consultant and coach in international and intercultural communication. A native Californian, educated at UCLA and Oxford, living and working in Paris for the past 30 years, he recently launched a new company, InterSmart Communication dedicated to furthering collaboration and communication in international contexts with the effective integration of networking and mobile technology.

The pundits have stated that people voted for Bush because they were afraid of terrorism. Now looking at the electoral map I notice something curious. If fear is the motivating factor why did New York—the principal and most spectacular target of all terror, past and future—give an 18% margin to Kerry? Do the rural denizens of Alabama and Kansas live in fear that Bin Laden (or perhaps Saddam Hussein's faithful followers still believed to be responsible for 9/11) are seeking to attack them? Obviously not, but I assume that inspired by their faith—and by the information supplied by Fox news, they are fascinated by the excuse provided for "the most powerful country in history" to:

1) demonstrate its incomparably massive and pitiless power
2) exploit the bold personality of a politician who's willing to use it without hesitation or wavering.

The most comforting thing for these people, attached to the ideal of their comfortable unchanging world, is that it's not their power and it's not their responsibility. They can simply vote to leave that power in the hands of those who obviously seem to enjoy it and go home. The power is no longer delegated by the people to its representatives, as the classic theory of democracy states the case. It now belongs to those who have appropriated it with the casual consent of the governed (mediated by... the media). They have been given a free reign to do what they want with it.

Kerry himself fell into the trap by voting in favor of unrestricted power for the president in Iraq, sensing that that was the trend but probably believing that it would only be used to "compassionate" and reasonable (rather than "rational") ends. He was a Democrat and continued to believe in "reason", as the other half (49%) of the U.S population apparently continues to do. Bush, Wolfowitz, Rove and Co. are Republicans and believed not in reason, but in the "rational": the unrestricted scientific use of power to carefully calculated ends. This is where the deep cynicism becomes perceptible. The voters transfer power with no critical analysis as an act of faith to a group of people who in the name of faith are committed to a form of political and economic rationalism, the science of power.

The phenomenon of religious exclusivity and intolerance isn't all that new. I remember as a university student in the late 60s being accosted by what were then called "Jesus Freaks", a spin-off of hippydom. The scene took place at the eastern end of the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood (Sin City West). They shoved some of their literature into my face and told me that I needed to find Jesus. I replied (honestly) that I was a Catholic, thinking that they might see a link between that and Jesus and let me out of their grips. Out came a wild and obviously well prepared vituperative rant about the Whore of Babylon and the Pope as Anti-Christ. The ranter was a young woman of no more than 20.

Religiously formulated aggression seems to have a privileged place in U.S. culture, often boiling invisibly below the surface like a dormant volcano only to erupt from time to time with a variable degree of violence. For most people, the lava has cooled since 2001; it has been partially sublimated into a kind of misty nationalism that hasn't existed in Europe since the dismantling of the old empires. But it has also led to various degrees of reflection and analysis on the subject of culture, politics and religion. For some, however, 9/11 clearly reactivated the volcano of religious aggression. The touchy-feely mistiness that affected practically everyone— the sentiment of solidarity, national unity and collective mourning—was merely the initial spurt of steam caused by the slow and certain rise from below of the hot magma. As the misty reaction gradually dispersed to the winds, the aggressive religious side seems to have expanded towards the surface and is now, for the first time, fully aware of its awesome power.

This new configuration appears to have to do neither with sentiment, nor (in my opinion) with faith. It's characterized by a decision on the part of a majority of people to trust the one who is the most aggressive, on a pragmatic rather than on a moral level. Faith and moral values become mere excuses. The only value that's truly important is domination: the intent to impose one's will without asking any questions and with minimum accountability. Take from us what you need (so long as it isn't in the form of taxes) and do what you want to anyone who gets in your way (e.g. Arabs, Muslims or Democrats). Just use your power and be effective. Power and the use of power is the only way we know of relieving the stress. Let it erupt.

All this is to say that believing the election can be explained by the fear of terrorism which provoked a retreat into "traditional values" may be something of a dodge. Kerry was personally afraid of war because he had seen close up how fearful it was. Bush was afraid of nothing because he had lived a protected life. The voters in New York were so afraid of terrorism they were willing to elect a man committed to diplomacy to prevent it. The voters from the South and rural Middle West feared nothing for themselves, but used the notion of fear to send a message of aggression towards those who don't identify with their particular "values" (i.e., anything that is culturally familiar; not ethics, not tradition, not clearly formulated ideals).

Roosevelt's dictum in his first inaugural should perhaps be rewritten: "The only thing we have to fear is the tendency to use fear itself to create more fear".

SUV Nation—Mine’s bigger

“I love my SUV,” has become the slogan of hundreds of thousands of US Americans, to which many add, “I feel safe in it” And “It lets me get above it all.”

The SUV Enigma

The rise of the SUV in less than decade (currently over 22 million on the road) has been one of the outstanding enigmas of US culture. Enigma, because the reasons for owning a SUV fly in the face of proven wisdom and research about transportation on the road. The evidence:

SUVs are unsafe. Accident statistics assembled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Association prove that SUVs, far from being safer vehicles, are responsible for more deaths of their drivers and others involved in their accidents than minivans, standard cars, and even compacts and sports cars. Essentially they replace visibility, maneuverability and driving skill with harder-to-control size and mass. SUVs are four times more likely than cars to roll over in an accident and three times more likely to kill the occupants in a rollover.

SUVs are an ecological disaster. After years of effort to minimize pollution and gas guzzling, we have opted for the most wasteful form of personal transportation available, SUVs spew out 43% more global-warming pollution and 47% more pollutants than an average car. According to Sierra Club research, switching from an average car to the average SUV for a year wastes more energy than if you...

Left the refrigerator door open for 6 years

Left the bathroom light burning for 30 years, or

Left your color television turned on for 28 years

SUVs are overkill. Purportedly designed for off-road effectiveness, most SUVs never leave the highway except when they miss the driveway and slice up a corner of the neighbor’s lawn. Most of the time they simply contribute their useless features to the rush hour jam and their touted rigidity contributes to early arthritis as we bounce over potholes.

SUVs give you less for your money. Even in a time of uncertain economy, owners are willing to put out many more coins for the purchase and service one of these behemoths than they would pay for far more, drivable, comfortable and parkable transportation. We take pride in the pain of feeding our monsters in the face of the worst oil crisis and highest gas prices since the 1970’s.

So, okay, you own a SUV and are becoming ticked off with what I have had to say so far. You have already begun to suspect that I am a disgruntled schizoid who owns a Porsche 911 that he rarely drives, rides a bicycle to the grocery, and takes the bus to town. You are right on all counts. But my aim here is not to get you to torch your SUV—though it would make a safer world for pedal pushers like myself—but to get you to examine the mindset that has created the “SUV Nation,” a mental paradigm that (like the vehicles it produces) is affecting the entire world.

Touring the SUV mentality

Fasten your seat belts, because we are going to navigate the tight curves of the US mindset. Where are we headed? I’ll let you in on it at the outset. Down this road we will discover that the mental paradigm that created the SUV Nation is the same mental paradigm that George Bush used to justify four more years in the White House. A shorter name for our destination might also be: Bigger is just bigger and it costs more. So now (especially if you are a both a Democrat and a SUV owner), you may be really pissed off at me, but I hope I have your attention and that you are curious enough to read on. Stay buckled up, please. We just downshifted into second gear and four-wheel drive to navigate a bumpy neural pathway.

Have you ever noticed that fear gives you goose bumps and make the hair stand up on the back of your neck? Or, maybe you have seen your dog or cat get its fur up when alarmed or cornered. Why? Nature gives many of its creatures the ability to make themselves look bigger when threatened or afraid. Fear puffs up your pet so it looks too big to be swallowed by the beastie stalking it. This is true even if, newspaper in hand, you are the beastie trying to keep the hair-shedding culprit off the couch, though you never intend to turn your pet into dinner.

Zoologists say this reaction arises in the reptilian and limbic brain—neurology that we have in common with lizards and beasts of the field. Looking too big to swallow may end an animal face-off by discouraging the aggressor so the weaker can high tail it to its cave or burrow. Or, it may turn into a fur-flying fight to the death.

When it comes to humans, the friction of clothing, shaving, and depilatories have removed most traces of this natural defense. What recourse does the naked human have? How does the 21st century metrosexual or even good ol’ boy compensate for the paucity of chest and back hair or his balding crest? Where can the female of the species find a substitute for a howling, hirsute alpha protector? Is there an all-in-one solution that looks like it fits our needs for both flight and fight when we are scared?

Ah, yes, there is. An SUV, of course. Two of them in fact. One in the garage to make us look big on the highway, and one in the White House to puff us up in front of our enemies. BIG is their common strategy. Let’s look at how it works.

When threatened, our first reaction is to fight—if the odds are in our favor. When not or when the uncertainty and fear reach a certain level, we run. We cocoon, hide out, build walls and gate our communities. On the public highway, we take refuge in our Jimmy, Explorer or paramilitary Hummer. This is a natural instinct, our limbic reaction to threat. Flight tends to be safer than fight in most situations.

But, interestingly, once cuddled in our secure nest, hunkered down in our SUV or nestled in daddy’s arms, it is not a big step to feeling invulnerable and turning again from flight to fight. “My daddy can whup your daddy,” “Mine’s bigger,” and “God’s on our side” re-arm our morale. The problem with fight and flight is that they are both lizard-level programs. When they are in running, they keep our more highly developed human level applications from coming into play. We are deliberately operating in DOS when we could be working in virtual reality.

The Downside to Limbic Living

Automatic animal survival reactions are a first, but not always the best line of defense. Complex human confrontations are usually not resolved by flight or fight but tend to be aggravated by these responses. When endangered, we want easy and quick solutions instead of well thought out strategies. Living with each other on planet earth becomes every day more dangerous the more personal and political choices we make on the lizard level.

When social forces, terrorism, economic failure seem too big for us, the limbic response is: we need to look bigger to feel safer. Bigger than our friends as well as our enemies. When frightened we frequently lose perspective of who is for us and who against. Friends who see things in a different or perspective are unwelcome and may start to look like enemies as well.

Looking more macho or more protected are rudimentary male and female instincts that each of us has to measure in ourselves and deal with. The problem with bigger is that it sets off a race among the fearful—bigger stick, bigger wall, bigger car, bigger military, bigger budget, bigger bomb, bigger, bigger, bigger BANG! It is time to realize that bigger is just bigger. Also, it usually costs a lot more and produces lots less.

North Korea is a good example of the costs of trying to look too big to swallow. The USA, of course, has trillions more to spend before it can get to the same impoverished state that Kim Chong-il now enjoys, but we have made a good start at panic spending since 9/11. The escalation of military spending was a key factor in bringing an end to the Soviet Empire. It can do the same for the US Empire.

Terrorists, by the way, understand this very well. Our fear of what damage they can do will lead us ultimately to do more damage to our spirit and our economy than they can possibly carry off in a sustained way. A credible threat of nuclear terrorism is just as effective as a real one; perhaps more so since it keeps us consuming resources to look bigger and more invulnerable, whereas a real nuclear blast is likely to unleash an Armageddon in which everybody loses.

This strategy works well. Whether we are talking about the phony protection of a 4x4 or a political leader pretending to make the country and the world better and safer and freer, SUV thinking is the most expensive response and least likely to produce lasting results. What big does produce is individualistic and unilateral bluster, along with resource-guzzling habits and policies. We buy into an overpriced, oversized and underperforming military vehicle to convey our message. We invite deadly rollover on the highway at home and more roadside car bombs abroad. In short, it requires the same forms of faith and denial to pursue current foreign policy as it does to buy, feed and groom an SUV.

Are We Talking Culture or Politics? Probably both.

Before you conclude that this is a not-at-all veiled political propaganda piece begging for domestic regime change, remember that the objective of this opinion piece is to explore the cultural roots of violence in US society wherever that may lead. Culture consists of patterns in which a group of people think and act for survival and success. Cultures collapse when a group’s thinking turns into runaway trains of thought.

If you look at key US cultural values, high on the list are self-confidence and taking control of one’s environment. Their opposites are fear and being out of control. These predate the current administration and 9/11 by a long shot, but the severe economic, political and military crises of the last several years, have raised the nation’s fears for survival and fed the inclination on the part of many to look for a duce or a Führer, caudillo or strongman. These same factors also raise the temptation of politicos to take on roles that we would in more normal times quickly recognize as incompatible with our democracy.

Playing the 9/11 tune on a 24/7 basis as the current administration has done, particularly in its re-election campaign, whatever their post election intentions may be, is well designed to keep you in the pseudo safety of your political SUV as well as “protected” by the truck chassis of your 4x4 in case of terrorist attack. They might as well simply adapt SUV spots on TV. There is not just a similar public relations plan here; there is real SUV collusion, too, since President Bush's economic stimulus plan now offers a $100,000 tax credit for business owners who purchase any vehicle weighing 6,000 pounds or more when fully loaded. “One hand washes the other,” as they say in Cosa Nostra.

Fear and panic lead us to do things that may work for lizards and housecats but not for human security and global policy. SUV thinking is one of these patterns, cultural Viagra for the faint of heart. As USians, though we may personally feel small and defenseless, we already look too big and consume too much for most people in our world to stomach. It tempts them to want to bring us down or at least cut us down to size. SUV bluster on the road or in the White House may yield a sense of security and a feeling of potency or even omnipotence, but in fact what it does is waste enormous amounts of national resources, isolates us from others and raises prices at the pump.

Attention SUV Nation! It’s trade-in time.

How to talk about Men and Politics before it’s too late

With the election closing in on us, there seem to be only two kinds of people left in the country, those who have made up their minds and those who will vote their feelings on the day of the election. Statistically, those who vote their feelings will decide who will win. That a democratic country’s fate be determined in this way would be preposterous if it were not true. We are told that this new “silent majority” will vote for whom they like, and will like whom they like because that candidate seems most like them. They will look for safety, and comfort and self-justification in the familiar.

Yet how much different are those who have already firmly decided on their candidates? Again, likeness is likely to have played a like or perhaps even a stronger role in their decision-making. Napoleon Bonaparte is quoted as saying, "In politics stupidity is not a handicap." I sometimes think that our political system is trying to turn it into a virtue.

In this election, we men are caught between two images of masculinity, and many of us will probably vote our identity rather than the issues. I will borrow some words of cognitive Scientist George Lakoff to contrast these two images (

  • The PROGRESSIVE man/father “assumes that the world is basically good and can be made better and that one must work toward that. Children are born good; parents can make them better. Nurturing involves empathy, and the responsibility to take care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible.”
  • The CONSERVATIVE man/father “assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful discipline — physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline.”

This cleavage, however we label it, has divided the nation into red and blue. It seems to have defined the choice and how it is made. I see it as a great threat to men. Why? A great deal of the men’s movement, helping us define and design ourselves for the time we live in has been centered around two things:

1) Using the positive power of our masculinity in the face of the stereotypes of patriarchy and male aggression, which the women’s movement reacted so strongly to. We learned from what happened to women in the past decades, but what we also learned most importantly was to define ourselves rather than letting others, present or past, to define us. Drums are a heartbeat for so many things besides marching off to war.

2) Seeking a balanced masculinity, one that could be both nurturing and protective, both expressive and reflective. We needed, as some have put it, to find our feminine side as women needed to find their masculine side. Doing so has meant a lot of work in overcoming our fear and distrust of one another. As a result of the men’s movement, male friendship, not just comradeship, has again become real and a delight in our lives. We also got our fathers back.

The problem with the current political choices lies in the fact that, despite all the progress we as men have made on this masculine agenda, the rhetoric of this election is aimed at driving us not to choose executives and legislators on their merits, but to choose which of the two kinds of men we see ourselves as or as wanting to be. This either-or choice then turns into the selections we will punch into the voting machine in November. Rather than demanding, before voting for them, that our candidates be well-rounded human beings capable of a range of behaviors that are appropriate for the world in which we live, we are offered primitive stereotypes, caricatures of ourselves to identify with. That is the choice.

Here is a suggestion that may sound at first a bit speculative or theoretical at first, but I feel will pay off. It is an alternative to shouting each other down when discussing candidates and issues. When we gather in our men’s groups or just as buddies over a beer, it would benefit us enormously to discuss how our male identity is involved in the decision to be made in November. The questions that launch this discussion are along this line:

  • How do we feel about ourselves as men right now given the national and world scene?
  • How do we want to feel about ourselves in the future?
  • How does the current choice of candidates, policies and initiatives on the ballot support or undermine our vision of life now and in the coming years?

Our maleness is what we have in common. Caring about how we live it out is what we have in common. Caring about how we model it for our sons and daughters (or if we are childless, nonetheless for the next generation), is what is important. Politics is about how diverse people can live together and forge a society that meets the needs of its stakeholders, majority and minority. If so, close to half the country’s stakeholders are men’s voices. We deserve to hear each other as men and be heard as such, on our own terms and with our own agenda, not driven by the stereotypes that further other interests’ agendas. It is, after all, a matter of our life and death.

Our Passion for Passion

“Passion” as a word has migrated at some point from its original simple meaning of “suffering” to generally describe a deep desire for someone or something, a suffering with desire. Like most words that get used a lot, this mutated further into “passion lite”—a passion is something one likes to be engaged in, more often a delight rather than a longing and a suffering.

Mel Gibson’s Passion, is a return to the story that made this word a key to Western culture. The Passion, i.e., the suffering and execution of Jesus of Nazareth has set an indelible stamp on world history whether we are followers of the Nazarene or not. It is not “passion lite” or “violence lite.”

Not surprising, retelling this story is a highly controversial act. From the violence visited on one man who thought outside of the box and bucked the system we have inherited not only an enduring paradigm for compassion, freedom of thought, respect and concern for one’s neighbor, but depending on the end user’s needs and intentions, the man’s name and his story has become lever for contemporary as well as historical violence. In his name (and against his name) come persecution, anti-semitism, crusades and conquistadores, witch hunts, genocide and isms of all sorts.

For viewers and reviewers of the film, Passion became a touchstone for the good and bad, the gentle and the incendiary in their personal and collective memories. As these passions surge, it becomes harder and harder to view the Passion. Some find release and purpose in it, others find fuel for their angers.

I attempted to view the film without an axe to grind. I found it plusible, fair, and without an overlying agenda. It told its tale definitely from a believer’s point of view. It did not target anyone, but showed an assortment of fallible human beings, some Roman, some Jewish, some of JC’s followers. There were both cruel as well as dedicated military as one might find in any occupation force. There were also responsible people and protesters on all sides. Given the reviews I have seen, it appears that some went to the film with a need to see something that wasn’t there. Most rabbis who have reviewed it found it authentic and reasonable. That it gives just the simple story of the Gospels to an ahistorical generation that no longer reads about dead white men or much of anything and, for this reason, is probably a service to cultural literacy.

Many of the scenes looked like they were deliberately based on the old masters and religious art of the middle ages and renaissance (Pieta)—visual echos. Yes lots of blood, but not more than you find on the crucifixes in the Spanish missions in California or in the medieval cathedrals.

It is important to remember the blood is the key of the redemption in the Christian story. It is so to speak the “red” thread that runs intentionally through the story. On the other hand, bloody as it is, even this movie is sanitized and does not compare with real torture and passion for death that is alive and well today as we all know. The film’s focus on passion and suffering is an antidote to big screen big bang violence. It takes us away from the vengeful Kill Bill and Terminator type gore. It lets us realize what happens via politics to innocent people and in particular to those who directly or indirectly challenge the system, today as yesterday.

The story was done with relatively good attention to the texts of the Gospels (not forgetting that these are also believers’ stories), and to historical setting. Slightly less litteral and more graphic than Pasolini’s simple telling of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, which some will recall (1965) was also controversial, perhaps more because the director was gay, Marxist and an atheist. There were few anachronisms—no Roman soldiers wearing Seikos. The film ended around a resurrection scene and no intimation whatever of revenge, though apparently some viewers seemed to project an echo of “Jesus is coming, and boy is he pissed off!” Certainly reactions are formed by the historical context in which viewers live: Pasolini was accused of making Christ a communist avant la lettre; Gibson is now seen by some as following a rightest fundamentalist zeitgeist.

Most importantly, there were no excursions into literary fantasy, such as that of Nikos Kazantzakis, which Martin Scorcese brought to the big screen in 1988, e.g., the obligatory “affair” between Jesus and Mary Magdalen, the “bathrobe” spectacules or fictional intrigues that Hollywood is so famous for and which today has found a place in Dan Brown’s page-turner, the Davinci Code.

Gibson chose to have the actors speak the languages of the time. Being a survivor of a classical education, I could understand the Latin without the subtitles and you get the feel of the Aramaic if you know a little bit of Hebrew. Fidelity to the story as the story is told seemed to be primary in the director’s mind. And perhaps this allows the story to be not just another tinseltown drama but an occasion to examine volence and suffering in a relatively pure form as it touches us and observe what images, feelings, fears, judgements and it touches off in us. Art has this effect. It is about how we see ourselves and what we tend to project on others.

There is the issue of how you show the “bad guys.” There were a lot of uglies on both sides (the Jews didn’t invent the Roman nose!) and lots of “good looking” high priests, etc. There was a personification of Satan as a kind of androgynous character, perhaps with a gay feel, but who can tell. The major issue is who is made to be the baddie. This is not peculiar to Gibson’s film but an issue in almost all films. Connecting ugly and bad is a lookism issue that seems to be insolvable in all forms of art, but particularly in cinema. We seem to have a need to give evil a face—as long as it is not ours. This has a lot to do with how we love or hate people, show them compassion or treat them with violence.

As the theme of this column is searching out the roots of violence in US culture, Gibson’s film reminds us that we cannot forget that the Jesus story is implicated. How one views this story has consequences for how one chooses to live out perhaps one’s faith or refusal of faith, but more importantly today at what level one subscribes to the civil religion of the USA that is so imbued with values from the religious refugees who colonized the land with their own sort of passion.

“Boys will be Boys" - and Sometimes "Girls will be Boys”

The scandal of US military abuse and torture of prisoners in Iraq and related activities at Guantanamo continues to be explored, exploited, and interpreted in the media, and it seems this will continue for some time.

Recently, a colleague in Finland emailed me suggesting that this activity came from the same mentality that created military and frat house initiations. Shortly afterward, On Fox Network, former Army Sgt. Tony Robinson was not disputed when he claimed that what took place at Abu-Ghraib wasn’t any different from "fraternity hazing." Subsequently another friend Kate Berardo provided me with a spoof on this from the Washington Post, which purported to be a letter from an Iraqi Sheik apologizing to Paul Bremmer and suggesting that the Iraqis be given cultural sensitivity training to US culture…

“We had no idea that this was an initiation ceremony for the pledge class of the Baghdad University chapter of Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity,” said Sheik Boutayoo. “In the past the only fraternal organizations at our universities were the College Suicide Bomber Coalition and the Saddam Scouts. We’re awfully sorry about the confusion and we sincerely hope that nobody has gotten into trouble about this.”

Rush Limbaugh took advantage of this same theme as a way of avoiding the seriousness of the accusations in the public eye—at least in the USA. In other words, he is asking USians to wink at this behavior as something normal and a generally understood if not fully accepted part of US culture—“Boys will be boys!” In his case of course we may add that “Girls will be boys,” since apparently Janis the “frat house mother” gave tacit approval and Lynndie, the sweetheart of Fort Ashby played a leading role. (Will the girls take the brunt of this scandal first as did Martha Stewart in the corporate scandals?)

Given the facts of what took place, it seems that many in the US are in active denial of both the actions of military police and intelligence officers as well as of the meaning of fraternity hazing. Deeply rooted in US culture seems to be a propensity to condone violence if done for a semblance of the “right reason.” Apparently, the right reason may be anything from “turning boys into men” to dealing with inferior people or enemies (inferior by definition). If you want a full picture of this, others have already given it on this site. Just click on:

While British schools are known for problems of bullying, and imitations may verge on the violent in many cultures, the hazing culture seems specifically US in its structure. The disappearance of effective male initiation rites that existed in many cultures and their replacement by cruel caricatures seemingly fueled by pure meanness provide the men’s movement with a challenge that continues to beg attention. The dynamic of a measure of fear of the unknown, a challenge to act that provides enlightenment into the self and to the society of men is a very different thing from violent and dangerous hazing as we know it in many college societies. It is certainly different from what is occurring in prison contexts.

Madhukar Shukla, an Indian colleague reminded me of the Stanford studies conducted by Philip Zimbardo some three decades ago on the dynamics of prison life. Zimbardo simulated a prison situation and had to terminate the experiment because of the danger to the students involved. The wardens become sadistic and the prisoners were victimized. Power over others quickly corrupts. When one can say, "You're my little puppy, now", restraint goes out of mind and actions quickly follow. This is not unique to the USA, but is perhaps particularly apparent here because of the size and mentality of our prison culture. That some countries will not extradite prisoners to the USA because they saw the US domestic penal system and the death penalty as “cruel and unusual punishment” occurred long before Guantanamo and the Iraqi prison scandals.

What key US values are involved here? Apparently individual imitative and taking control, which are often useful and virtuous parts of the US culture, can overshadow and subvert equally important values of fairness and law and order. Fortunately some military operated out of these latter values, as well as out of the value of speaking out when they blew the whistle on these operations. This is the way the US works when it works. Unfortunately, this usually brings an issue to the public, results in discipline to some individuals, but rarely changes the systems substantially, whether we are talking about hazing or torturing prisoners.

Despite politically motivated efforts to “get this behind us and move on”, it is not behind us, nor will moving on make it so. As men we do need to keep talking about it in order to surface and remain conscious of whatever elements of meanness and sadism it have become unconscious parts of our male formation.

Patriots at home.

[There are moments when one is particularly proud of one’s friends. This is one of them.

Back in March, patriotic and insightful US colleagues demonstrated their love of country by protesting the impending war in Iraq. They were arrested and brought to court for their activities.

One of these defendants, Bob Abramms is a close colleague and friend of mine for many years. He has consistently lived and worked for peace, justice and intercultural understanding. The organization that Bob founded and directs, ODT, Inc. is one of the distributors of our DIVERSOPHY games as well as of consciousness raising maps and books. You can see an article about these at or visit

On March 17th, Bob was sentenced for his participation in the March 2003 demonstration. The judge did not allow any motions related to first amendment rights, or freedom of speech. And, his instructions to the jury specifically omitted language that would have made it much more likely to find a NOT GUILTY verdict on the one count he and others were convicted of (Unlawful Assembly). Unlawful Assembly applies, by statute, to riotous and tumultuous activities, but that interpretation was excluded by the judge's ruling before the proceedings even began. The jury was not allowed to hear that legal definition.

If you would like to read Bob’s statement to the judge at sentencing, it is below. If you would like to see pictures of the March demonstration and a listen to a live interview, go to

As the fruits of our bellicose administration continue to mount worldwide, Bob’s ideals and actions stand as a reminder to me of the courage we need as citizens to love and support our nation as well as critically steer its course in world affairs. Men are at their best when courage, clarity and compassion drive them to act to foster and protect the well being of their countries and their families as Bob has done.

Sentencing Statement

Bob Abramms’ Statement after a Northampton Jury of Six rendered a Guilty Verdict on One Count of Unlawful Assembly. The jury deliberated over seven hours, and acquitted all three defendants of two of the three charges against them. The charges they were found “NOT GUILTY” of were “Disturbing the Peace” and “Obstructing a Passageway.”

The Statement....

Your honor, last March I was terribly concerned about the US invasion of Iraq. I felt it was immoral. I felt it was a violation of international law. It was, in fact, a violation of numerous international treaties the US had signed. It was a violation of the UN Charter. From all perspectives…moral, religious, and political…I was deeply opposed to the actions of my government.

I would like to take this small amount of time, prior to my sentencing, to explain the factors that influenced my decision. They include the kind of work I do, concerns for my children and grandchildren, my position in the community, my religious beliefs, and what I feel it means to be a patriotic American.

First let me explain my actions from the point of view of my work. My occupation is a publisher and consultant. I publish materials that help people see the world in new ways. This includes maps of the world, books, and a video called MANY WAYS TO SEE THE WORLD. As a consultant I work with organizations to address issues of workforce diversity, and teaching people how to respect others who have differing cultural values, different backgrounds or different points-of-view.

As a publisher, I have occasion to deal with customers around the globe. In the week prior to the US invasion, prior to my arrest, I talked with many of these international clients, who ON THEIR OWN, brought up the topic of politics (which was a bit unusual for them) and they unanimously expressed a deep concern for the pending US invasion action. They were all deeply disturbed about President’s Bush’s statements and our military posturing. In reply, I explained that a large number of people in my community in Western Massachusetts were strongly opposed to the war, and that we all hoped that we could create a groundswell of opposition that might prevent it.

At that time, there was a huge outpouring of international demonstrations protesting against the US intention to wage war. Even though these events were not widely reported in the US media, over 5 million people around the globe protested the US plans for an invasion. World opinion, including the governments of most of our allies, was strongly opposed to this war. At that time I resolved to do everything I could as a responsible citizen to prevent the momentum towards waging a “preemptive” war.

I am a parent, a grandparent and an uncle. My grown children are ages 36, 35, and 28. My grandchildren are ages 10, 5 and one. My nephew is 2.

Being a parent, grandparent, and uncle dramatically influenced my willingness to be part of the March 28, 2003 action. I expect that when my grandchildren grown up they’ll ask me how I could have delivered them a future so fraught with turmoil and peril. To face them, in that future, I need to able to say that I participated in events such as this demonstration in order to prevent the escalation of violence we see happening all around us…violence that the policy of our government will surely perpetuate and fuel. I would need to be able to explain to them why it was that I didn’t do everything in my power as a law-abiding citizen to prevent the initiation of a preemptive war. So how this war effects future generations, and specifically my children and my grandchildren was a conscious part of my motivation.

Last May, a group of 7 of us decided to forgo the opportunity to submit to a DEFENDANT’S CAPPED PLEA. Seventeen of my codefendants accepted the lenient capped plea…a suspended sentence and 10 hours of community service and one month’s probation. Why was it that I decided to carry this through to a jury trial leading to my possible conviction and sentencing?

I felt the message of our protest was so urgent and important, that I was unwilling to submit to guilt of any kind. Further, I felt it was important to represent the hundreds of my friends and neighbors who, like me, had grave concerns about the moral footing of this war. I have no regrets about my actions of March 28th, 2003. If I had the opportunity to go back, I would do the same thing again.

This is a way that I’ve been a responsible citizen. I have had the good fortune and flexibility in my life to be able to take the time to engage in this protest. I consider my actions to be a form of community service. Hundreds of people have thanked me for expressing their views on the immorality of our invasion of Iraq. I am part of a tiny group that represents hundreds and thousands of others, who because of the kinds of jobs, raising children, working two jobs…simply did not have the opportunity to participate in the action.

I’d like to tell you a bit about my religious motivations. I’m Jewish. But you don’t need to look at these issues from the perspective of my religion. All the world religious traditions have common themes, and common moral principles. Even if you don’t profess to have a religious practice, I would ask you to consider the moral compass that you use to guide your life, when considering these events.

There is a Jewish teaching called TIKUN OLAM. It has to do with doing what we can do to repair the world. It’s a form of shorthand for doing what we believe God would want us to do to leave the world a better place, to the best degree we can understand. In Judaism there are also 613 mitzvot (or good deeds we’re encouraged to perform). Among these is “Do not stand idly by” (Leviticus 19, verse 16). There is also a saying, “Just because you cannot complete the task, does not exempt you from trying.” I didn’t think it was likely that I alone, or acting in concert with 23 others, or with 400 others might actually change things. But neither could I walk away and not try. By acting as I did, I was acting on these religious convictions, which have a lot in common with many other traditions...Christian, Buddhist, Islamic and others.

Some people would have you believe that the world is a safer place because the US has invaded Iraq. I believe the opposite. I think it is MUCH more dangerous. Our preemptive invasion of Iraq has turned the tide of world opinion against us. Anything that a potential terrorist may have believed about our evil intentions and motives, is now IN THEIR EYES confirmed. We have added fuel to fire, and motivated those who see the world quite differently than we do to feel even more threatened. Threatened people are more violent people. We need an active anti-terror campaign. Invading Iraq is not only irrelevant to that…but, in my opinion, is significantly counterproductive.

This arrest has affected my life in significant ways. I feel more patriotic, and more involved in the future of this country than I have ever felt before. There have been plenty of times when I’ve felt hopeless or apathetic, and felt like I couldn’t change anything. I was just one person. This protest activity has touched thousands of people. They are more willing to stand up for what they believe in, whether they agree with me (or with our position) or not.

The essential thing is that as a civil society we need to engage each other, be willing to speak our truth, and be willing to listen. If I cannot protest in a law-abiding way, we have lost a very important right in this country. Our protest destroyed no property. No one was injured. At the most, the government asserts that some people may have been inconvenienced. What’s more important? Expressing my deeply held convictions, engaging others in a dialogue…or having the traffic flow smoothly?

Previously, I mentioned that I have been a diversity consultant. Earlier this month I was in Texas, doing consulting work at a Christian seminary. I conducted and produced videotaped interviews on issues of campus and theological university. I just got an email from the client there. It said “Thank you and the others for doing what I have heretofore had too much reticence to do. I’ll be thinking about you and praying that the judge makes a wise decision.”

3/17/04 Bob Abramms, Amherst MA

“…one nation, indivisible, under God”

Most would agree whatever their position politically, that 2003 has been “one helluva’ year.” We have commented in this column for almost a year now about the violent roots or “Bellicose Veins” of US culture and the implications and costs to us all, but particularly to our self-concept as US men trying to make the best of this world with gentleness instead of aggression.

Now we enter the New Year. For some reason the simple number on a calendar is an opportunity for renewal, hope and reversal of fortune. Please accept my best wishes for you and for your part of the world wherever and whenever you celebrate New Year. I resolve in the coming year to do my best to explore these issues of male self-awareness in US society and culture with you.

Recently friends have been sending me posts about the debate over the name of “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. I would like to throw some perspective on this question.

Though they and their descendents make up only a small part of the population the largely British founding generations of the nation have succeeded in leaving their values in the structure of the nation as well as in its culture. Thus, the country today belongs culturally in a special way to Protestant Christianity, despite the fact that in ensuing years Catholics became and remained the largest single denomination and that the population has been and is composed of all kinds of believers and non-believers as well.

However, it is not an actual discernable Protestant sect that dominates the US and its culture as a body. Rather, it is the nation itself that functions as a kind of religion, reconstituted daily by acts of faith such as the pledge of allegiance and other forms of reverence for the flag, and other sacred symbols (at a level of intensity, by the way not found in many other countries). This makes the US a theocracy of sorts, with its current high priest endlessly chanting, “God bless America,” as he preaches a God-given national purpose to reform the world.

History shows that religiously the country’s mood has swung between liberal Protestantism (sometimes even deism, but rarely in a leading role) and Calvinistic fundamentalism. This Calvinistic form tends to get glued to the driver's seat in the "Great Awakenings" and in times of stress as we seem to be undergoing right now—when there is a sense of insecurity and a need for control.

The doctrine of “Separation of Church and State" is a cornerstone of US liberty, but its actual implementation has had some strange effects. It serves to hinder the political interference of religious denominations, on one hand, but it also discourages religious dialogue and involvement of values in the public dialog, on the other. So more and more today, the separation doctrine seems to be used as a smoke screen behind which the increasingly fundamentalist civil religion is given free reign while its critics are silenced. How many holiday cards did you get this year in which, if Jesus was not pictured with the flag, then Santa’s sleigh was flying the Stars and Stripes as if it were a military vehicle?

Paradoxically, US Americans, Catholics, Muslims, Jews and others embrace this separation as a way of life, though it chafes from time to time. This is because an essential part of the immigrant assimilation process is coming to "believe in America." Religion is a private matter in the USA, but belief in America a public imperative. Check out the process of taking the oath of citizenship, oaths of office, and US (sole religion) passport policies over the years, if you find what I say hard to believe. These are not simply bureaucratic public acts as one would expect in a secular society, but they are constructed very much sacred acts of faith and rituals and sacraments of civil belonging that exclude all other allegiances. Since there is no state religion, we have had to create one to fill the void and there is no question as to where its denominational roots come from.

Making and keeping this Calvinistic God explicitly visible and audible in acts of state and as the foundation of US cultural values is an important part of keeping US civil religion dominant. The mention of God seems essential, at least now more than usual, for political success, so you hear it coming from the mouths of most potential candidates, even if they are not Protestant. So to be and act "American" you need to have these values or at least seem to, whatever your religion of origin or lack of it—hence the many current efforts to keep or “put God back” into our public acts like the Pledge of Allegiance. Many USians need somehow to feel that God is on their side, which makes it difficult to closely scrutinize just what we may be doing in national and commercial policy that may be fueling if not causing some of the problems we purport to be fixing. There is a strange but logical flow. If God is on our side, and God doesn’t make mistakes, then, neither do we. This easily becomes permission for violence of one sort or another.

Unfortunately, there are not many religious voices currently being raised to call this renegade religion into question. Certainly not from the churches or church leadership. Due to the well advertised clergy sex abuse scandals, Catholics, who in the past could contest some issues by their sheer numbers and solidarity, have no credible voice left. Given the puritan nature of the US civil religion, sexual issues are far more disqualifying than other problems (e.g., tricky accounting). To compare, in Italy a politician cavorting with bimbos half his age or a Ciccolina running for office is easily tolerated, and is even seen by quite a few people as a sign of vitality and energy. When in Rome do as the Romans do, but watch out in Washington... where Ashcroft is covering the tits of justice. Protestant liberals, as well, seem to have dwindling support.

Before I sound too much like a spoiler, it is important to say that there are attractive sides to many of the values in the civil religion. They are certain freedoms that virtually all of us love and are often what brings people to the USA and what they like when they get here. Many new USians tend to go to the right precisely because the right has no hesitation about touting them. That was true of immigrants and their children in my parents generation and is witnessed to now by the numbers, e.g., of Latino rightist groups, etc. Certainties are easily to live with than is questioning.

So, there is less skepticism and fewer raised voices, particularly now, about patriotism, politicians, and power, just when we need to keep these dominant values from getting distorted and out of control. This self-reinforcement of values, particularly under stress will tend to happen in any culture. Fortunately, the US has had the ability to right itself after tipping into various forms of excess in the past, e.g., Know-Nothings1 in the middle of the 19th century, McCarthyism in the middle of the 20th. However, bouncing back is not a given, but something to be worked hard at—and the power of the current regime and the lack of effective protest and alternatives gives me pause... History shows that the route to totalitarianism has gone this way before, and it is perhaps what the world fears most about the USA right now.

Such groups as the ACLU (often branded as "Jews, liberals and atheists" though many Protestants, Catholics and others are there as well) have struggled for years to keep the civil religion from abusing its position above and beyond the separation of church and state, in the name of full individual freedom. Their activity is necessary not only for the individual liberties it defends, but for reminding us in some way to be wary of encroachments on freedom in the name of protecting freedom. Such actions seem at times to put only band aids on the occasional open sore, when we need to address the essential cultural condition of the body politic. Our insistence on pluralism, however, is the best key to the use of our US values, both those from the civil religion and those we bring from our differing backgrounds.

So for the New Year, a good resolution for might be: I will listen, think, speak and make myself and your diversity heard, despite the pressures to conform to a single view of who I am, what I “should” believe, and what we “should” be doing as a people.

Blowing the Whistle on Hijacked U.S. Values

Had enough Viagra ads? I don’t mean spam. I mean in politics. The US men’s movement encourages men to distinguish between manliness and machismo. With over 2 million monthly hits, concerns itself with whatever makes men healthy, spiritually and politically as well as physically. In January 2003, just as the Administration’s propaganda campaign for the Iraq War was cresting, I was invited to contribute a monthly column to this site.

I chose to create a series of op-ed articles called Bellicose Veins to examine the strains of mental virus being used to override the US cultural immune system and stimulate the body politic to march deeper into the Middle East. Working abroad much of the time had me feeling ineffectual in influencing what was going on at home. But, it also had the advantage of letting me see how others see us, as well as of how we see ourselves. Here is how we have been examining some of the US cultural values during the past year.

1. “Manifest Destiny: the Promised Land is Everywhere”—How are individual entitlement and our love of challenging frontiers are being used to support economic expansionism and political imperialism? Do we have a perpetual right to bigger, better, more…?

2. “Frontier Justice”—19th century cowboy heroes of our collective fantasy are used in the 21st century to justify taking international law into our own hands to defeat the “bad guy.” Will today’s self-appointed federal marshals and sheriffs selflessly ride off into the sunset after the shootout at Baghdad Corral?

3. “Dynamics of Defamation”—Jingoistic rhetoric is perverting public moral sensitivity into black-and-white, good-and-evil labels for people. Indignant righteousness becomes the cover-up for fear and leads us to undermine our own civil and human rights. What will become of the pluralistic community that our diversity efforts have been building for generations?

4. “One Nation, indivisible under God”—While we value strict separation of church and state to protect freedom of belief from coercion by religious groups, a blatant Christian right sectarianism is being invited to dominate US civil religion. Manipulating familiar symbols and slogans, will we allow it to seduce individuals and co-opt religious organizations into supporting “crusades” against “the enemy?”

5. “High and compelling ideals—are we Control Freaks?”—Are we idealists or materialists or some combination of both? Certainly folks in the US are driven to achieve success and master their environment. At what cost to ourselves and our future?

6. Playing with the Dark Angel of Abstraction—the US love of play and technology is turned into fascination with “clean” battlefield prowess that abstracts from the human cost of violence. War is just another video game. Does your play station make you clean up the battlefield or look to the social or environmental fallout of the engagement?

7. Co-opted Patriotism—Instead of taking advantage of diverse values and perspectives in crisis, politicos define patriotism to exclude those who could oppose or question them. Telling the same stories over and over until nothing else can be heard, they are now free to do whatever they want, as panicked people buy duct tape to seal their windows instead of their ears.

8. “War for Peace”—Paradoxically US Americans believe that worthwhile things take time and effort. At the same time, we love to get something for nothing and make things happen. This ambivalence in our mental software allows political hackers to insert a delusional code into our programming—it’s called “war for peace.”

9. “Learning Non-Violent Communication”—How we choose and use words can often block communication despite our good will. We reviewed some of the principles developed by the Center for Non-Violent Communication to remove even unintended aggresson from how we speak.

10. “Testosterone Poisoning”—Penis power seems to be integral to the national identity now, with women pictured as desiring it as much as men. Where is this monomaniacal need, reflected in endless waves of spam, coming from? Is there no other less penile way to establish the US identity and influence?

11. “Literary Violence for Children—and the rest of us”—Taking a look at popular literature, we see books and films created for children that capture adults as well with a sense of lawlessness and justified violence. How can we stay creatively childlike without being stubborn and belligerent children?

12. “Both hands full —a case for diversity in thinking patterns”—There is a difference beween knowing what is right and wrong and making everything either right or wrong, or worse, good and evil. Even friends can have a good passionate argument in search of the truth once this is understood and accepted.

I am proud to have among my friends, both those who served in Vietnam and those who resisted the war. Resisters to Vietnam sometimes desecrated US symbols, e.g., burning flags, to express deeply felt values. Feeling alienated, they acted so and made themselves outsiders. Today’s objectors must insist that our US identity and culture are truly ours and take them back when they are being hijacked. That is an important aim of this column. Bellicose Veins continues this year to encourage you to examine our cherished symbols and beliefs and to claim them and reassert them in all their integrity when caricatures of them are being used to manipulate and ultimately destroy our public good sense. You are invited to contribute to this column. Write with your reactions and ideas.

Learning Nonviolent Communication

Toward the end of the 1970’s, while at the Gestalt Institute San Diego, a colleague gave me a list of tips about language that came from a local group calling itself the Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC). I found the list both intriguing and helpful, and I tried to practice it. About 25 years later I discovered the book about it by Marshall Rosenberg and I was both delighted to reconnect with the NVC movement and also curious as to how the passage of so much time might have their work and my attitudes.

In the passing years, I had changed my shifted away from humanistic and traditional psychology and let my thinking go in the direction of linguistics and cognitive science. I delved into intercultural studies and did lots of working abroad. This distanced me to some degree from my narrow US thinking and made me reexamine ideas and movements that I had formerly swallowed whole.

Treated to a review copy of the Center’s latest edition of Nonviolent Communication, I ate it up, my appetite whetted by years of waiting. At the same time I attempted to critique it with the palate I had developed since I had last tasted it. What did I discover?

First, then as now, I was reminded that NVC remains an act of courage, courage to confront self and others with both honesty and empathy. This has not become easier in a culture that, from kindergarten to White House, seems to value shooting from the hip followed up by cover-your-ass strategies.

Other important insights emerged. For years I had been uneasy with assertiveness training where a constantly whining, “You make me feel…” tone under the formula “When you do/say X, I feel Y.” People were learning assertive scripts but practicing them punitively, that is, without the regard that would allow them to become constructive. It is this regard that is at the core of NVC. Life is frequently made up of competing and getting, and trying to look good as we claw our way to the top. Ambition tempts us to put imitate trendy ways of communicating so we can look good and be liked.

Being positive is an essential demand in today’s US culture. Put another way, the quickest route to becoming an outcast in both work and with friends is to fail to be positive. Make negative judgments, fail to look on the bright side, criticize, complain, or mourn your failures and no one listens or even worse no one wants to be around you. So, we develop a positive surface layer—positive feedback, lots of encouragement, and a steady diet of “atta’ boy/atta’ girl” language. Negativity is bad, violent, and destructive. “Blessed are the positive!” is beatitude in US civil religion.

Plenty of non-US folk had been telling me that they felt attacked and aggressed upon by US “positivity.” My initial temptation was to dismiss their complaint as negativity or pessimism. However, listening to what they felt, I learned that having a positive attitude was not itself the problem. They felt that they were being judged, that their US interlocutor was taking a one-up or arrogant stance toward them. I had overlooked the fact that both positive and negative evaluations can be violent communication forms. Both play into our US addiction to dichotomous thinking and our love of passing moral judgment on the other guy. We fail to notice that saying, “Great job,” or, “You screwed up,” are identical acts of violence. What people get is the message, “I judge you,” whether the judgment be positive or negative. As long as it is positive we swallow it, but let it be critical….

Being positive can also be a power play used to beat up someone who disagrees with or ideas or plans. Criticize me, or look on the negative side of what I am doing or saying, and you are no longer my friend. This happens every day, and recently saw it writ large, in US policy toward those countries that refused to support the US invasion of Iraq.

Should we be surprised that there is a national crisis of self-esteem when empowerment based on judgment is a norm of communication? Self-esteem comes from acknowledged accomplishment and a growing sense of one’s own competence, something that no number of feel-good strokes can replace. Particularly since US folk believe they are what they do, there is an insatiable thirst for identity via accomplishment. Respect, not being “dissed,” is the yearning; positivity is the sugar pill. In this light, NVC can be without question an important tool for healing in the USA, as it teaches the attitudes as well as the practices that help us genuinely respect others as well as ourselves.

In the past 50 or so years we have become aware that it is with language that we create things. construct and deconstruct reality with words. We use them to create powerful visions and dreams. But the words create illusions unless they are backed up by what we do and how we relate to each other. Power leads us to imagine that when we say, “Let there be light,” there will be light. However, being only human, our sound bytes and adverts, propaganda and spin require a closer more critical look, something they rarely get in the fog of okayness we try to maintain. When Richard Nixon uttered his famous denial of dishonesty by saying, “What I said then is now inoperative,” a lot of us got our first clue that big lies could happen here as well as elsewhere in the world. NVC is a call to use the creative power of words with compassion and honesty as individuals. Much still needs to be done to see how NVC can be more broadly applied in public life.

The need to decide who is good and who is evil, to judge, and then to act, drives us to a stark “good guys vs. bad guys” view of reality, personal, economic and political. Rosenberg astutely notes how we, “having learned that the bad guys deserve to be punished, take pleasure in watching this violence.” It is this addiction to violence and vengeance that we are struggling with daily as, particularly since 9/11 when political, religious and economic stress seem always in our face. Feeling self-righteousness tempts us to delight in others’ misfortune almost anywhere and anytime—especially if we see them as the bad guys. Mastering NVC can keep us from turning observations and desires into take-it-or-leave-it confrontations, and help us prevent the brush fires of disagreement from becoming deadly firefights.

If you want to take the plunge into NVC, lay your hands on a copy of Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life at you local books store or directly from The book is highly readable, value for the money. Each chapter gives you the chance to test what you are learning by asking you to check a list of statements in terms of their non-violent quality. The book includes occasional poetry and quotes that remind us that there is beauty in what we are learning to practice. Key insights are highlighted so that you can flip through the book for a refresher course in a few minutes.

It will be good for the world’s trouble spots to know that Nonviolent Communication and not just tear gas canisters and weapons bear the cachet “Made in the USA.”

Testosterone Poisoning

As an expatriate spending much of my time working in Europe, I am dependent on email as my life-link with friends and colleagues in the USA. Those of us with email, of course, have been struggling with spam for the better part of this year. Mostly, I would just like to trash it without looking at it. however, spam filters being imperfect, I am forced to review the senders and the subject lines to make sure I don’t through away something personal or something valuable.

It’s getting to me. Over here it looks like the US is having an impotence problem. As far as I can tell, ads for Viagra and longer penises have now far outstripped any other form of advertising in our history, due to their sheer quantity. I get 50 to 60 a day. A friend sent me an animated cartoon of George Bush answering one of these “want a longer penis” spasm, sent by a certain Tanya. When he inquired about how to get one, the answer came back, “Attach Irak!” In the final frame of the cartoon, Osama Bin Laden was revealed as the person posing as Tanya at the computer at the other end.

This may not be far off the mark. Now that the US occupational security seems faltering, the urgency to “push” macho solutions on the scene and impose them on the UN seems to be the desperate strategy. One of the effects of “testosterone poisoning,” as a psychologist friend of mine used to call the need to always look and act macho, is that the victim needs to look self-sufficient no matter what it costs, and he doesn’t know how to ask for help.

I have often wondered if the fact that USians don't have other sources of identity that really count (regional, familial, etc.) makes it imperative that we erect something or do something in order to be someone. "Who are you?" is not a question we ask in the US when we meet new people. Rather, it is the answer to, "What do you do?" that gives us substance and title to life. Pity those who don't do don't have an identity from what they do. They are low on the salvation chain of the US civic religion.

Penis power seems to be integral to the national identity now, with women pictured as desiring it as much as men. Where is this monomaniacal need coming from? One of the things that I learned in years of working with men's groups is that it is insecurity over one’s masculinity rather than solid masculinity that is the source of extreme competition and violence among men. Once men adopt their fathers and forgive them as well as forgiving themselves for “dissing” their fathers, the gentle, creative, caring, and nurturing side of masculinity can come out of hiding. If I no longer have to prove that I am male, I can act like a man. Keeping men insecure about performance, however, provides a reliable source of belligerence for political purposes and stocks the military with rocket-launcher fodder.

Unfortunately, mature masculinity is dearly lacking from public life. Perhaps given the obligatory patriotic zeitgeist, those in politics who might be suspected of having or developing it seem compelled to hide it. Given the fact that we are coming up on primaries for next year’s presidential election, the Democrats are forced to look, not so much for a platform, but for a candidate who can actually be elected. This candidate must be a tall flagpole that men will vote for. Yes, that is correct, that MEN will vote for. It is in this light that Wesley Clark is being drafted as the undeniably male, ex-military answer. Certainly a general has got to have cojones. Clark may indeed prove a good bet for the Dems, but it would be more heartening if the search were motivated by the desire to get away from the usual suspects, the lawyers with business connections as candidates. But, in fact, the hunt is on for marketable testosterone.

Another indicator of the national hard-on has been flagged by Nina Bernstein, of the New York Times. In her September 28 article, “For Americans It's French Sissies vs. German He-Men,” she resolved the weird paradox that we have been sensing lately. Both France and Germany have taken essentially the same resistant stance vis-à-vis US foreign policy and US initiatives or lack of them in the UN Security Council. Yet, it is plain for all to see that France gets our full and continuous rancor, while Germany is treated with mild demurral if there is any response at all. (Bernstein’s article is archived at:

Bernstein insists that this paradox results from the fact that France is seen and treated as a woman while Germany is seen and treated as a man. An analysis of the language used toward both by the US administration and toady journalists confirms this. Even Colin Powell spoke about his French counterpart as having a fit of “the vapors,” that is, on his “monthlies.” We are all familiar with the military tradition of picturing the enemy as women or “pussies” in order to boast our male courage and to dispatch them.

So women, you are the real enemies of insecure masculinity after all… Floods of testosterone poisoning peak when men are least confident about themselves and need somehow to prove their existence and their maleness by pulling out a larger cannon. Male inflation means regression to roles in which men protect rather than partner with women. “Dick head,” male hubris, whether political, domestic, or occupational leads to isolation, desperation, and ultimately to the destruction of the deep potential of men as fathers, lovers, mentors, friends, teachers, and political beings. Men march to their own destruction if the only beat they ever hear is in four-quarter time. Lysistrata, arise!

Literary Violence for Children--and the rest of us.

Culture is transmitted in a variety of ways, not the least of which are the legends, tales and literature of a people. In the last score years of the 20th century the heritage of traditional tales found in childhood and school literature was carefully scrutinized and bowdlerized for racial and gender inequities and slights. Many of us, though deeply devoted to diversity, sensed beneath this process the sense of Heinrich Heine s words, "Whenever books are burned men also in the end are burned."

While classics were being expurgated and rewritten, they were in any version becoming an increasingly unvisited backwater, as new forms of comics, videogames and fantasia in print and on screen seized the lioness’s share of attention and, of course, the market.

Recently my good friend Walt gifted me with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Both Walt and I have been sci-fi fans, if our years be added-together for over a century. I am largely of the “hardware” type of fan, interested in the human variation of alternative futures—escapism, if you will, into a better world, whatever the true or imagined struggle used by the author to bring us there. The advent of Tolkien left me cold, and as the world turned to Harry Potter, I found myself totally out of the pale.

With Pullman, Walt offered me another chance to connect. So, here are a few reader’s notes of my literary journey across three books, perhaps seeking as so many of Pullman’s characters do, for the right company in which to discuss the crash and bang of what I think I have found.

Books one and two were readable and sustained attention. Book three lost it, trying to get everyone into the rush toward an aborted apocalypse. Like much adult children’s literature today, the level of violence, death and destruction begs Spielbergian visual interpretation, while good/evil, beautiful/ugly, true/false seem engraved into the characters’ identity rather than being dimensions of their behavior. We seem to have fallen under the spell of “evil empires” as an interpretation of the world and it is a chicken-and-egg question as to which comes first. Like most cultural constructions, it doesn’t much matter, since these dichotomies build upon each other until the whole edifice collapses from its own weight.

What are the cultural lessons imparted in this trilogy? Many, perhaps too many to count, but recurring themes do occur at the structural level of the author’s worldview and that of his characters. Despite Pullman’s childhood travels, perhaps remembered only in fantasy, he writes as a staunchly ethnocentric public school pedant. If one attempts to draw out the beliefs, values, attitudes that mark his writing culturally, one comes upon a pretty strong profile of the modern, secular, Anglo individualist, an armored bear, at best true to his or her own intentions, but with no clan affiliations, cuddly at moments, but quite deadly. Here are some cultural pegs that stand out:

  • Institutions and authorities are for the most part evil, unless perhaps they are scientific or academic. The tendency is to fight them rather than influence them and take responsibility for them.
  • Organized religion, the church, and in particularly the Roman Catholic Church is the archetype of the evil institution.
  • God is dead or should be, though spiritual beings both good and evil abound.
  • Friendships and contractual obligations are more important than blood lines.
  • Children are more important than adults.
  • If you are one of the good ones, there will always be someone to rescue you.
  • Constant warfare is normal and ongoing, punctuated only by greater and lesser battles.
  • Killing deserves a just cause.
  • Romantic love makes the world go round, but it is ultimately forbidden and delusional. Work toward progress is the real human destiny.

Not surprising, there is also a strong Anglo bias in the principal characters and English will not just dominate the world but the worlds. The same line of reasoning that once assumed that God spoke Hebrew has chosen another lingua franca. So, cutting a hole from one world to another may change the landscape but not the comic-book nature of the beings that inhabit it.

Alfred A. Knopf, the US publisher of the trilogy has recommended that Pullman’s books are comparable to the writings of John Milton. Some teachers even suggest that they be used as a substitute for teaching Paradise Lost. One suspects that few at Knopf and at the head of the classroom who make such suggestions have actually read more than Internet snippets of Milton, though they may have Cliffs Notes on a shelf somewhere.

In the late 1970’s I remember scouring Paris with a Swedish colleague for toy soldiers to take back to his little boy (war toys were not sold in Sweden). As I was working with him, I put up in a Stockholm hotel while he went home. On finishing breakfast the next morning, I discovered that the hotel was hosting a sales meeting for sales of Swedish armaments to representatives of foreign governments and other interested parties. The lobby, restaurant and bar were full of Swedes with armaments catalogs talking to and taking orders from their visitors. (Real armaments are big, grisly business in Sweden). Minding oneself is the way to mind one’s children. Swedish hypocrisy may, however, be a cut above the marketing of violence to children and the rest of us in unremitting fantasy such as Pullman’s.

Our desire to believe in the innocence of children is certainly more for our sake than theirs. Pullman, unfortunately, unlike his characters, may never have to grow up. There will be lots of royalties and movie money to keep him from other realities.

Playing with the Dark Angel of Abstraction

We USians are not noted for being intellectuals, nor do we fancy ourselves as such. To the degree that we see the intellectual as abstract from reality and impractical, we eschew the “ivory tower” for what is down-to-earth and action-oriented. When outsiders view us, they are more likely to fault us for jumping into things for short-term benefits without thinking through long term consequences.

One does not have to be a philosopher or academic, however, to be visited by the dark angel of abstraction, by the spirit that pulls us away from the full human dimensions of things and allows us to assess situations, make decisions and take action on ideas, ideals, or principles that appear innocent and well intentioned, while they wreak havoc on those about us. In "Hearts and Minds" the documentary about the Vietnam War there was an interview with a US B52 bombardier who was carpet bombing. His comment was something about the satisfaction he felt at laying down a perfect pattern from 20k feet up.

We also have a very large realm of abstraction from reality that, as USiansm we are in love with—play.

Power and perils of play

In the early 1940’s my cousins and I used to play soldiers. We were too young really to know much about WWII, but enough to divvy up the roles of good guys and bad guys and run around the house and the yard shooting up each other as well inflicting collateral damage on adults. At one point, our grandmother had been “shot” enough times and wanted to end the game. She went to the attic, brought down grandpa’s double barreled Browning and with mock threat said, “Now we’ll see who gets shot around here.” Needless to say, we vanished and our military maneuvers quickly disintegrated into a game of aggies. The point of this dip into personal history is that we were very clear about the difference between games and reality.

Games, I am reminded by my colleague Charles Cameron are “pocket universes.” Some purport to mirror universes we know, while others try to lead us to new worlds of fantasy. Of course we cannot escape the human dynamics involved in either kind. So in a sense, games are always a part of reality as well as mirroring some reality or other. In play, children are taught the social and physical skills they will need to grow up with. Plays and simulations guide military commanders and business people in making real world decisions.

Some years ago a friend of mine was facilitating an urban simulation that lasted several days. At one point one of the participants was so engaged and enraged that he began choking the facilitator. Only when the facilitator wheezed out a feeble “Game’s over!” did the participant come to himself and release the throat hold. Such is the power of alternative realities.

Virtual distance and virtual reality

In recent years, a whole new world of virtual and electronic play has come into being, making the fantasy world of games ever more vivid and life-like. This seems to have two effects. The first is that it enhances the ability of play to be more real than real when one is playing it. Such gaming is obviously enormously useful but at the same time fraught with dangers. Those raised on video and computer games have a distance between what they do and the human reality of it.

Virtual communication may not seem real to people because virtual reality is somehow filtered. People can be more calculating in how they present themselves and their words, and cues and clues to a person's genuine intentions and identities that we get in real life person to person settings are often lost.

Virtual settings, particularly ones that facilitate interaction between anonymous strangers, can diminish feelings of loyalty and the obligation to feel real feelings for others. In chat rooms, we know that real people are behind the text that is typed (except for the horrid advertisements), and yet we more easily ignore, dismiss, insult, or desert them than we are likely to do in face-to-face reality.

Somehow the culture of technology blurs the relation between cause and effect. You don't really see what you are doing and you imagine and eventually believe that what comes out of the black box is what you put into it. Writing HTML is like driving stick shift, but still doesn't tell me too much more about the motor.

It's all too clean, somehow. When I was a kid the Sunday chicken dinner was still clucking when grandma brought it home from the market. What if games brought us closer to reality rather than further away, closer to people rather than farther away? How could this be?

The blame game

As to the Middle East and perhaps Korea, the US believes in guilt--somebody is to blame, find and punish the culprit. Many other peoples focus on honor and shame. This means protect those who are vulnerable or who have made mistakes. When point the finger we shame their whole family or nation, and then we wonder why they don't like us!

I would like to hear some others' thoughts on this or how our culture of games might connect us better instead of dividing us. Email me at

“War for Peace” and the need to swim upstream

Resisters to the war in Vietnam touted the slogan, “Make love, not war,” as a protest to the prevailing US action in Vietnam. At first hearing the phrase seems to suggest that dropping out for sex, drugs, and rock and roll are a replacement for bellicose activities. But, the cleverness of this slogan lay not in its sign-of-the-times relevance to the hippy generation and the “Summer of Love.” The war and the draft were certainly serious threats to the “Me Generation,” who had known few threats to their well being in growing up. What they identified as the “military-industrial complex” was about their future, and they didn’t learn to like it until they became part of it.

However, buried in the slogan was the important truth that one cannot not fight violence with violence without being caught up a cycle that repeats itself with karmic intensity. While the slogan and much else turned the tide of much popular opinion against the war in Vietnam, it became clear that the war could not go on because it simply cost too much and could not be won, not because of a failure of the cultural value of “war for peace.” In fact, many critics continue to speak of the failure in Vietnam as due to a lack of political will that restraints placed on the military’s use of more aggressive strategies.

The expression, “War for peace” owes its US popularity largely to Theodore Roosevelt, gentleman cowboy turned president (served 1901-1909), whose motto was “Speak softly and carry a big stick." Roosevelt was himself a famous war hero for leading the charge of his Rough Riders up San Jan hill in Cuba. As a result of the Spanish-American War which he championed, the US became an imperial power with territorial possessions around the world. "All the great masterful races have been fighting races," boasted Roosevelt, "And no triumph of peace is quite so great as the triumphs of war." Paradoxically, Roosevelt achieved most of his goals with both bellicose and diplomatic rhetoric and strongly supported international arbitration. The Teddy Bear is named after him.

Nonetheless, the concept of “war for peace” seems to be the US reason, or perhaps rationalization for most of its bellicose activity in the last 100-plus years. USians have essentially prided themselves on being a peaceful people who only went to war for the sake of peace. It is what we would like to believe about ourselves. War for peace is not about self-defense. It is about undertaking military initiatives where one perceives threat (or perhaps more often than we would like to believe, political or economic advantage spiced with threat). Yes, there is generally a pretext, an offence committed or purportedly committed by a foreign power that tips us over the brink into war, a necessary justification. But, more and more deterrence through first-strike policies is being promoted.

Is “war for Peace” actually a US value? Is the desire for peace is so strong that one paradoxically accepts its opposite to have it, despite lessons that tell clearly that wars “to end all wars” are the chief generators of future wars? Or, is it indeed one of those mixed slogans that politicians can sell so easily because it justifies latent violence with the highest of motives. Political rhetoric from Roosevelt through Bush would lead one to believe the latter is the case. Today we can listen to the speeches of these men on the Internet and catch the flavor of the rhetoric, not only the words.

The vision of a peaceful empire is a strong motivator for many people, and indeed currently an explicit part of the neoconservative agenda. The instrument for this is “war for peace” when and where it seems doable. Doable today seems to mean where we can do it with few casualties and quickly and come off looking invincible. Strangely coincident with the Iraq War was the intensification of spam to the point that anyone with an email account is liable to get 15 to 50 ads daily for aids to “get it up” and “make it bigger, longer and stronger” (whether the email recipient has one or not?!)

This explains the choice made in the case of Afghanistan and twice in Iraq as well as the reluctance to engage North Korea where we once experienced over 50,000 casualties and still have about 9,000 individuals unaccounted for.

Is there an alternative to “war for peace?” Certainly there have been and could be many imaginative ways to address conflict. In the Vietnam years, one heard the line, “What if they gave a war and nobody came.” The pacifism of Gandhi is one of the few that has been tried and found successful. In order to approach conflict differently, we don’t need solutions as much as the ability to deal with our own impatience for action and our own anger and outrage at the other. It is hard to address and alter a cultural paradigm with the currency of “war for peace” because “just” impatience and anger are daily reinforced both in real world reportage and in fiction. With a new attitude come new solutions. Swimming upstream in ones own culture takes much effort.

High and compelling ideals—are we Control Freaks?

US Americans have high ideals, and the gap between the ideals and their actual accomplishment fuels their efforts for achieving them, even though outsiders are often prone to see this gap as hypocrisy. Most in the US assume that, given the choice, the majority of the world’s people would choose to be like them or to live in the USA. They take a missionary approach to spreading US style business practice, US values, and US democratic principles around the world whenever it is in their interest to do so. Indeed, because of the power of US media worldwide and the strong US influence in global business. If you come from another culture recently you may be surprised to find that some of the practices and attitudes now commonplace in your own culture had their roots in US cultural values.

Knowing our underlying values enables us to resolve many seeming contradictions in US behavior, for example, the belief in power and control or taking charge may lead some of us to demand immediate pharmaceutical and surgical interventions when they are ill, while others, operating out of the same values, believe they can heal themselves if they personally make the right lifestyle changes. Both are born of a desire to control.

While the strong US separation of church and state is seen as a protection of individual’s freedom of belief from coercion from by churches, the influence of the dominantly Protestant civil religion strongly underlies each of the cultural values we have been discussing in this series of articles. President John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) observed that, "The highest glory of the American Revolution was this: It connected in one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government with those of Christianity," and, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

This belief has been turned into a real agenda to justify “a US empire” in a “new American Century during the Bush administration by think tanks dominated by what we are now calling “The Religious Right.” It is a paradox that the country with the most severe separation of church and state has also the most powerful sense of civil religion that undercuts religious freedom in political and military policy.

Take charge of the Earth

The earth had not stopped shaking from the aftershocks of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake when then California Governor George Deukmejian told NBC-TV: “I've never once been told by our people that we had any kind of a problem with respect to our freeways holding up under an earthquake situation, the severity of the one that we experienced here. So this came as a big surprise to me, a terrible disappointment. His assumption was that technology should have prevented the effects of a natural disaster. I don't think we can say this earthquake was sent by God, said Evangelist Billy Graham.

On June 21, 1990 a quake of similar magnitude in Iran resulted in 50,000 dead, 100,000 injured, while 500,000 were made homeless. I can't do anything and I don't want to think about it. Where can I go? I live here,' said 29- year old accountant Amiri Farhad. My job is here, and I think when your time has come, you leave the world, and you can't do anything about it. “It was the will of God,” was a theme echoed again and again as both mullahs and lay people reflected on the disaster.

Both Californians and Iranians are concerned about earthquake safety and expend resources to secure themselves against natural disaster. They differ in the extent of power and control they feel it is possible to exercise as humans and as individuals. US Americans strongly believe that it is important to take charge of situations and be in charge of their individual lives.

US Americans tend to believe that they can control their world and their destiny. Self-reliance and freedom would make little sense if people did not feel in charge of their own fate and in control of their world. They like systems and products that will enable and broaden the span of their power and control. “Empowered” is a favorite term of US managers.

US Americans feel that the world of material and human resources was created to be used and exploited. Nature, the environment, like the legendary endless US frontier, is to be conquered and made over to suit current needs. Many believe that they have a God-given right to do so or even mandate to do so.

Control leads to bigger, better, more…

As a nation, we believe that progress is linear and upward. The company should always be growing, the economy always expanding. Successful careers mean steady promotions and pay increases.

If problems arise they are not a matter of destiny, fate or chance, but should be looked on as challenges that can be met with optimism, ingenuity, hard work and technology. Power and control extend also to the mind, the spirit, to health and personal lifestyle, where it is assumed that the right thinking and behaviors can prevent or cure problems and diseases.

There are lots of words and images that go along with our passion for control. Here are some examples:

  • Take charge. Where there’s a will there’s a way. Explore every option. Be creative.
  • American know-how. It ain’t who you know, it’s what you know.
  • Can do. Just do it. Don’t just stand there, do something.
  • Goal setting. Management by objectives. To-do lists.
  • Pragmatism. What can be done will be done.
  • Ads which glorify our control—some classics are: “Progress is our most important product,” “Better things for better living through chemistry,” and the ubiquitous “New and improved…”
  • Books like “The Power of Positive Thinking,” which tout: Mind over matter. Think big. You can have it all.
  • Belief is stronger than disease. Conquer the pain, rather than endure it. If you live right you will live long. Smoke-free, scent-free environments. Labels with ingredients and warnings.
  • Don’t cry over spilt milk.

Since US Americans believe that they can control their destiny, it follows that they assume control over their life style, environment, and resources. People manage their lives with time management tools and numerous organizers, from agendas to grocery coupons. They are task and achievement-oriented.

They want to bear arms to ensure their own safety, set alarms for security, buy insurance and warranties for peace of mind, and take artificial measures to guarantee health and longevity. They have contingency plans for everything and would like to draw contracts for every possible situation, including prenuptials.

There are gadgets for doing everything. There is a thriving industry for natural foods and health, safety and hygiene products of all sorts. US Americans are likely to blame themselves for life’s misfortunes and for their own ill health.

Power positions (numbers, economic strength, simple majority vote) may be wielded in negotiations and decision making. When the stakes are large, opposition may be dismissed as irrelevant and dissidents may be fired or cut out of the arrangement.

Power extends to the spiritual realm where there are claims of power and miracles ranging from traditional faith healers to the panoply of “New Age” nostrums and practices.

Even in business, having the right attitude and permanent optimism is seen to overcome all obstacles and change the world. There is a religious, missionary cast to doing business, sometimes explicitly so. Because of US economic success, US business people tend to assume that others will follow US norms and practices and may be surprised when this is not the case.

All of this may have its upside, but not always. When outsiders look at the USA they often observe:

  • High blood pressure and stress resulting from Type A or compulsive behavior and “workaholism.”
  • They think they will never die.
  • US people are perceived to be difficult to work with and are often described as “control freaks.” They want instant solutions and lose patience when not in control, resulting in arrogant and overbearing behavior.
  • Missed opportunity for serendipity. Quantity over quality.
  • There can be an obsession with what is “big” and powerful. SUVs crowd the streets in many areas.
  • Tolerance for a high level of violent behavior in civil society. Machismo, masculinized feminism.
  • Might makes right. Prone to use bullying or force to compete or get agreement.
  • Crusaders--out to conquer the world, destroy the evil, to “make the world safe for democracy” (read: US business interests).
  • They are obsessed with bigger and better, gluttons for power. Some outsiders connect US obesity with what they is an insatiable appetite to “have it all.”

Having high ideals has produced much good in US society, and, indeed, in the world. They have also been stretched in ways that are plain to see that lead to violence against ourselves and others. Control likes simple formulae and so do US Americans. As President Bush has shown, look idealistic and repeat a simple formula over and over again and inevitably you and others begin to believe it, whether it is true or workable or not. But indeed, in life, as well as in policy, domestic and foreign increasing complexity is the name of the game and besides ideals, we need patience and empathy with ourselves and others to play well.

Both hands full—a case for diversity in thinking patterns

Some years ago, I was facilitating an ecumenical dialogue between Hillel and Protestant campus ministers at the University of California at Berkeley. It was not an easy intercultural dialogue, largely because of the different positions being taken within the Protestant group vis-à-vis who had the correct interpretations of biblical and theological points. During one of the breaks, one of the Hillel rabbis commented on the process in words that have stuck with me ever since. He said:

“When there is a disagreement among rabbis, we tend to argue our differences in terms of ‘on one hand’ and, ‘on the other hand…’ This means that we go away with ‘both hands full’ of possibilities and ideas. I notice that when the Christians argue among themselves, it is about who is right and who is wrong. This means that the person who is defeated goes away with both hands empty and the person who has ‘won’ has nothing more than he started with—or perhaps less since he has probably lost the good will of those he disagrees with.”

No one who has listened to the logic of US administration positions during the past months can fail to notice that at least the rhetoric reflects a dangerous kind of dualistic thinking pattern that generates empty-handedness. If someone is right, then someone must then be wrong. If one side is good, then the others constitute an ‘axis of evil.’ Either someone is with us or they are against us. Friends who chance to disagree with us become enemies, and therefore must be punished for their infidelity. Threats and violent behavior have replaced dialogue and collaboration. A form of mental fundamentalism strives to overwhelm diversity.

It is not my purpose here to offer simply a critique on the political positions of the current Bush administration. Rather I wish to point to a clear and present danger: thinking patterns stemming from truncated US cultural values and strengths are becoming real sources of conflict and leading to violence, because we are failing to use the range of values and the diversity or thinking patterns we possess. Dominant strengths in a culture always run the risk of “overplaying their hand.” They reinforce themselves, particularly when the culture is under stress, and therefore overshadow and risk the loss of other important and complementary values in the culture. Ultimately this leads to cultural implosion, because the requisite variety for survival in a changing environment is systematically eliminated by the party line.

My point is that using the language of debate when no debate is intended or allowed, is a violence-prone deviation from essential US cultural values of free speech, fairness, pluralism and diversity. It is hard to encourage win-win solutions when these values are in eclipse.

Dichotomous, dualistic thinking patterns are important to the language of debate whether academic or parliamentary. They are rooted in the Western intellectual tradition elaborated by the Greek and Roman philosophers and refined by the scholastic and enlightenment thinkers. Usually debates are played out within a context of a contest or game in which we agree to “let the best man win”. However, we expect that, from the energy expended in a well conducted a debate, issues will be profoundly visited and listeners will be given the richest possible set of choices about what to accept, believe, or act on.

Good debate sharpens the intellect, gathers and interprets data, and provides positions and viewpoints for finding out where we stand and where we want to go on an issue. This dialectic can reveal the holes in our logic and send poorly researched information packing. If one picks up the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, one sees this Aristotelian pattern of debate used repeatedly:

  • A Question
  • Arguments for a position on the question.
  • Sed contra, objections or “on the other hand” arguments
  • Responses to the objections
  • A summary resolution of the question on the basis of what the debate has revealed.

In Aquinas’ time it was the mark of a good professor at the University of Paris to hold disputations or intellectual tournaments using this approach for the advancement of knowledge.

Debate in the West has subsequently become bound up with the Hegelian dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, which assumes that willy-nilly from conflicting forces there will emerge a better or greater or more evolved understanding or policy. To contain this process and keep it from being a Darwinian struggle for survival of the fittest, we require a social context that contains the arguments and keeps them from becoming destructive. Whether this is Robert’s Rules of Order or a set of socially understood boundaries the context is meant to contain the reactions and prevent them from spilling over and polluting the ground from which they spring. Just as it takes male and female to continue biological life, it takes what have been traditionally defined as “male” (defense) and “female” (nurture) functions to guarantee survival, though, in any given case, either of these behaviors can be exercised by women or men. Debate requires a background of holistic thinking and community nurturance if it is to create rather than fragment.

Living part-time in France, I have grown used to and enjoy the kind of Cartesian dialectic that can spring up at any moment in the salon or on the street. Differing perceptions develop into good, passionate argument and generally close, if not with agreement, at least with a mutual understanding in which everyone wins something, as well as having been energized and better connected to each other by sharing opinions and feelings. Good friends have good arguments. This, interestingly, has been the repeated position of French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, who, despite the political and popular abuse being heaped on France from the US side, continues to position France as the USA’s best friend, since friends offer each other the gifts of critical insight and solid argument.

In US education and culture, however, there has been a decline of debate. Such debate as still exists is less and less an exercise in communication. One can only speculate why. Perhaps the answer lies in one or more of several elements: perhaps the general decline of educational resources, perhaps politics by sound byte rather than discussion of issues, perhaps the prevalence of persuasion through advertising, maybe the growing conflict-avoidance in US behavior. In a national climate where disagreement quickly results in violence, verbal (stereotyping and name-calling), psychological (threats and manipulation), or physical (from “road rage” to war), the inclination when confronted is to smile and change the subject. Instead of debates and arguments promoting mutual appreciation, the result is, more often than not, fear and active dislike. It is not very safe to argue in the USA. There is little or no context for it. Productive disagreement requires social connection.

Increasing competitive individualism, it’s-all-about-me-ness, and diminished social links in US culture have caused some French observers to note that while the US enjoys liberté and égalité, franernité is certainly missing. “Both hands full” in a dialectical context requires connection and commitment to, as well as respect for one’s opponent. When dichotomous thinking is separated from the element of debate or is used to actively discourage debate, it quickly becomes a weapon of mass destruction rather than a mentally and socially useful tool for resolving problems and meeting challenges.

This is, I believe, a great part of the cultural crisis that the USA is now facing. Represented by the bully pulpit of its current political administration, the nation is seen to delight in taking the moral high ground over what are described as “senile” and “underdeveloped” nations. It projects and hopes to impose its own unraveling social fabric (which it fantasizes as the world standard of “democracy” and “family values”) and its dichotomous thinking patterns on cultures where connections are as important as being right and, indeed, a way of being right.

Healing the stressed cultural values in this crisis, will require that “on one hand” we not abandon the value of clear thinking and debate and “on the other hand” we value and foster an inclusive, diverse context for that debate both domestically and internationally.

Manifest Destiny—the Promised Land is Everywhere

The Bible Said So...

The biblical account of the Exodus was an important part of the mindset of Protestant religious refugees and of many early settlers from Europe to the colonies of North America. This seminal story told of the escape of the Hebrews from slavery in pharaoh’s Egypt, across the sea, and through the wilderness to the “promised land” of Canaan. Religious refugees saw a direct parallel in their persecution in Europe (their Egypt), in making the dangerous passage across the Atlantic (Red Sea), and in their need to carve a place for themselves out of the wilderness of the New World.

Following the biblical images they saw themselves as the righteous few, the inheritors, by divine promise, of a “land flowing with milk and honey,” that was to belong to themselves and their descendants forever. Explicit in the bible was a God-given mandate to waste the native inhabitants of the land (Canaanites): “But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth, but thou shalt utterly destroy them…”

Though the Promised Land was a vision of finding a peaceful and prosperous place to live, and though the image itself may have lost its conscious religious relevance for many, it seems to have become a permanent fixture of the US cultural mentality, not for peace but for its value in undergirding a boundless sense of entitlement.

From Sea to Shining Sea and Beyond

This sense of entitlement has other roots as well. It certainly borrows from the expansionist and colonialist tendencies of European nations whose political, religious, and economic competition divided up the New World.

Following the success against the British in the War of 1812, many in the US were free to expand their dream of a promised land that stretched from “sea to shining sea” and beyond. The Monroe Doctrine in 1823 was a shot across the bow of Europe, a clear statement that the USA saw the entire hemisphere as its own and would brook no challenges to its hegemony.

Aggressive wars led to the defeat and siezure of Spanish colonies and the occupation and siezure of Texas and California, at which time the term “Manifest Destiny” became a popular way to describe this growing sense of national entitlement to territorial expansion. Thousands shouted “Westward ho!” and trailed across the continent to take possession of what they saw as their natural due.

Manifest Destiny did not end when the shores of the continent were reached. It went international. Alaska was purchased from the Russians and Hawai’i was siezed from its native owners. Theodore Roosevelt expanded the Monroe Doctrine to the defense of US business in the hemisphere and reserved for the US the right to intervene in contracts that European nations might make with those in the hemisphere. Challenged US interests became the often used excuse for sending in the marines whose “defensive” force had already been deployed “from the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli.” It is interesting to observe that currently USMC histories are being rewritten as “wars against terrorism.”

Yellow Press and Yellow Art

Selective and exaggerated coverage of Cuba’s conflict with Spain in 1895-98 brought US media into the service of Manifest Destiny. Newspapers competing for readership stoked US emotions much like the Fox News news anchors and reporters do at present. They made US citizens ready for the “inevitable” war that President McKinley decided to wage on Spain in 1898. Correspondents not only sent daily reports but joined in the shooting.

Artist Frederic Remington was assigned the task of drawing inflammatory images for the Hearst newspapers and when he could find none was reputedly told by William R.Hearst, “You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war."

British poet Rudyard Kipling, part time US resident, encouraged the US to to take the lead set by British colonialism and share the “White Man’s Burden” of helping the world’s inferior races to Christianity. He is echoed in the now secular version of “making the world safe for (our) democracy.”

Moral Superiority

This historical background makes what is occuring in the Middle East today less than surprising, as it taps into one of the important “bellicose veins” of our cultural consciousness. George W. Bush was not the first to claim US moral superiority as a reason for premptive action against those peoples and governments seen as less moral.

Though the racial tones are no longer as explicit, Bush and Rumsfeld, in fact, echo Albert T. Beveridge, the Senator from Indiana, who remarked close to the turn of the century: “God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns... that we may administer government among savages and senile peoples.

Manifest Destiny was not without resisters then as now. In a 1837 letter to Henry Clay, William E. Channing, a founder of Unitarianism, wrote: “It is sometimes said, that nations are swayed by laws, as unfailing as those which govern matter; that they have their destinies; that their character and position carry them forward irresistibly to their goal; ... the Indians have melted before the white man, and the mixed, degraded race of Mexico must melt before the Anglo-Saxon. Away with this vile sophistry! There is no necessity for crime.”

Ceaseless Warfare

George W. Bush has promised us an endless war on terror. History tells us we should believe him. US attempts to take possession of the Philippine islands resulted in the first Vietnam type conflict to divide US public sentiment. US treachery in abrogating its treaty with Filipino Muslims by invading their territory in 1903 was a direct cause of the continuing stuggles in the Philippine Republic that still involve US personnel today, a century later. In 1906 US troops massacred 900 Muslim Filipinos, men, women and children, at Bud Dajo trapping them in a volcanic crater and firing at them from the rim until all were exterminated.

Such atrocities continued despite Theodore Roosevelt’s attempt to declare the war over. Mark Twain might have been writing directly to the White House of the 70’s and perhaps predicting our future in the Middle East when he remarked, "…we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater." The Philippine massacre was repeated at Bud Bagsak in 1913…and, of course, at Mi Lai in Vietnam again in 1968. At this moment in time, Harvard philosopher George Santayana’s words, too often cited, still ring very true, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Unfortunately, we have too few journalists today like Mark Twain who might remind presidents and people of the truth of our situation then as now: "To be a patriot, one had to say, and keep on saying, 'Our Country, right or wrong,' and urge on the little war. Have you not perceived that that phrase is an insult to the nation?" And from the other side of the Atlantic Mr. Blair might listen to G.K. Chesterton’s echo of the same quote, “'My country, right or wrong' is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying 'My mother, drunk or sober.'"

Frontier Justice

Frontier Justice. The words bring to mind my boyhood heroes, the Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy and endless Sunday matinees of double features and serials. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry didn’t really fit the mold for me. They spent too much time singing, and besides, the girls liked them—the kiss of death. It was the homeless, moving-on and anonymous--Who was that masked man?--range rider, ever protecting, ever defending, who struck the chord.

Cowboy heroes were reluctant but violent peacemakers. Their image sticks in the US psyche, coloring our sense of who a hero is and what he does. Even Zorro, a story paradoxically based on Joaquin Murieta, a Mexican miner who struck at the gold-hungry, violent gringos who overran the Mexican town of San Andreas, was transformed from a Mexican resistance fighter into a US style avenger.

What is the perennial piece of US thinking embedded in these characters? It runs something like this. Evil is afoot. The justice system is either weak or corrupt. Somebody has to take charge. Enter the man in the white hat, or in the case of Hoppy, the man with Topper the white horse. He reluctantly shoots up the bad guys and rides off into the sunset to the big music of female heartthrobs. He leaves the sheriff in charge of the hen house.

These heroes are deathless, not only because Hollywood needs sequels, but because they are ideals, bearers of the cultural script. These “real men” are not real men. They are comic book superheroes projected on the big screen. Step aside, Lois Lane, there is man’s work to do. Or, perhaps, nowadays, do it yourselves, Thelma and Louise. Today power-chick films are chic. All-American Halle Berry can finally upstage 007, that degenerate Brit.

The big guys would have been even more colorless and austere if they didn't have minority, or comic sidekicks like Jay "Tonto" Silverheels or George "Gabby" Hayes to remind them that they were flesh and blood during quest for justice. Witness the solitary righteousness of Rambo, until now the final statement of the stubborn, blow-‘em-up loner against everybody. Rescue with vengeance, vengeance for my lost buddies, vengeance for my wife and children, vengeance for my lonliness.

While the earlier cowboy imbedded themselves in our memories as selflesly principled, they paled before John Wayne who boasted unflappable and indomitable "man of the hour" qualities. As one website describes him by his movie titles, “John Wayne was a man of True Grit, who was Tall in the Saddle, and Without Reservations stood up for what he believed. Through adversity he remained one of The Undefeated as he Cast a Giant Shadow over this great land of ours.” The Duke had just enough vulnerability to keep his testosterone poisoning from being easily diagnosed. Given the necessary provocation, whether riding the plains or flying the planes, Wayne would fight to the death (almost always someone else's). Peace through violence--this is the shadow he cast over the land.

But gunslinging, bounty hunting, and war were, then as now, not very romantic adventures, as Clint Eastwood tried to show in “Unforgiven” (1992). Here is one eyewitness account of Frontier Justice from Texas the last quarter of the 19th century.

“On the Trinity Creek bottom N.E. of Grandview there now is still standing an Oak tree which was the court house and temple of justice used by the ranchers who enforced their law. The tree is a large one and during its early period of growth it was bent out of its normal position. The tree grew in a slanting position and one special limb extends out in a straight level with the ground. During one two year period I know of 11 men whom were made good citizens by hanging at the end of a rope from that straight limb. The 11 hanged men were the results of 55 trials held under the tree.”

Whatever the justification for frontier justice and taking the law into one’s own hands, projecting it into 2003’s world is a dangerous undertaking. Today’s mutant Texas gunslinger sashays out on the world stage and undermines the system of justice instead of supporting it. He lives in his own white-hat vision of the world in which no one but himself can get it right. Whether bombing a courthouse or a nation of children, he is the loner terrorist living in and among us that we all fear, because he becomes a law unto himself. He is entitled to shoot first and ask questions later, if ever. He knows with absolute sureness, “You are all wrong but me.”

How do we heal this hero wound in our consciousness, perpetuated in so many incarnations of frontier justice, the private eye, the busted cop, the sheriff with the big stick, the tragic martial artist? Is it Steven Segal’s violent Aikido? Eddie Murphy’s smart-ass cop?

I offer you Columbo, who never picks up a weapon or strikes a blow, never judges, who doesn’t need to walk tall, but never goes away, who never says, “I’m getting impatient!” He keeps asking questions until the truth shows up. Under his needling curiosity the problem collapses of its own weight, the perpetrator self-destructs. True, we never see Mrs. Columbo, but she is always there. He is not alone, dogged as he may be in the search for truth and for "the cheapest cigars money can buy." He sleeps in his own bed at night. You don’t have to have a shabby raincoat, drive a bagnole Peugeot (yes, French), or walk a Basset. Just keep asking the right kind of questions, "Just one more thing... Just one more thing..."

Patriotism? Too much of a good thing? Co-opted? You bet!

Remember the foo-foo bird? When we were grade school-aged guys, we passed around the story of the legendary foo-foo bird. This winged wonder flew around faster and faster, in ever tighter circles, until it finally flew up its own backside and disappeared. A laughable paradox, yes. Wisdom? We didn't recognize it then. We need to recognize it now.

Our culture is like this. It has develop marvelous traits and values and stories to help us survive and thrive on our part of the planet. It enables us to soar upward and outward to new levels of well being. But then, the environment changes, but our thinking does not. What worked before should work again and again, like a magic spell. The culture starts to crumble under the weight of the senseless repetition of now destructive ideas and actions. We ignore our neighbors and exhaust our resources--and theirs as well. The momentum increases.

Or, there is a serious threat to the environment, like 9/11. Instead of taking advantage of diverse values and perspectives, politicos, drunk with the chance to sieze power that crisis offers, magnify the threat. They call on most basic and most primitive values and responses that our culture holds. They tell the same stories over and over until nothing else can be heard. They are now free to do whatever they want, as panicked people buy duct tape to seal their windows instead of their ears.

Beset by fear and urgency, we respond to slogans and suspicions that elicit primitive flight and fight responses. Some of us blindly lash out at anyone who looks or feels like the enemy. We intensify the vortex. Others, more timid, do nothing but add dead weight to the momentum of the deadly swirl.

Immigrants who flocked to our shores, now flee the ugliness. They pack their bags and go, taking their diversity with them. Friends and long-friendly nations who see and disagree are branded weasels and traitors. The vertigo increases as the nation gets ready to fly up its own ass.

How do we stop this vicious spiral? Patriotism? Well, yes. A hair of the dog that bit us. Millions are starting to see that we are on a collision course not just with the rest of the world, but with ourselves. They demonstrate, write letters, resist. We will see more and more patriots placing themselves in the line of fire.

This column will have one simple objective--to look at and put into play our full and diverse heritage in this time of crisis. It will restore circulation to the rich, nourishing patriotic values and stories of the USA. We will focus specially on "Bellicose Veins," values and beliefs that have atrophied, been plugged up, and turned into weapons of mass psychological destruction. We will turn them into prescriptions for healing.

Each column will discuss a traditional US cultural value. It will identify the images and history that have emerged from it, and finally offer a Rx for turning it into sane, sound and motivating medicine for the health of our nation. You can look forward to discussing Manifest Destiny, Frontier Justice, In God we Trust, Horatio Alger and Hoop Dreams, and many more of the messages that live in the corners of our national consciousness, messages that can give us glory or add to our pain. It will welcome your insights and viewpoints.

The Dynamics of Defamation

What’s defamation? What is it all about?

Defamation is about damaging someone’s reputation. When it comes to culture, it is about damaging the image of a group of people. While our constitution promises freedom of speech, and laws protect us from certain direct attacks and harassment in individual cases, it is much harder to defend a group identity from subtle and incessant attacks that become part of a culture as the history of many minorities in the US bears witness.

Such defamation is rooted in group identity. If somebody calls me "a dumb shit" personally, I may not like it, but it is not group defamation (unless it were an incident in a constant pattern directed against me and others like me). But if someone calls me a "dumb guinea" (US term for Italian immigrant families when I was a kid—in that period in the 1940’s guinea was of course rich in synonyms like ginzos, wops, dagos and greaseballs, who kept company with krautheads, polacks, etc., ad infinitum) it had social and economic consequences. It was about social safety, jobs, and human dignity.

Earlier in this column I recommended a look at Amin Maalouf's book “In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong,” and I would still say it is essential reading if you would like to understand the dynamics of group formation and exclusion, without which group defamation has no fuel to burn. We seem addicted to forming in-groups, which means we are addicted to having out-groups.

Most of the world's religions and philosophies in their best moments have tried to broaden the acceptance of others. Unfortunately redemption and enlightenment vacillate between ideals of brother and sisterhood and human weakness for coercion, assimilation and exclusion. As some wag scrawled on the wall at the beach where I swim regularly, "People have just enough religion to kill each other, but not enough to love each other."

Why is defamation? What's in it for the defamer?

Historically, it seems just about everything. Power, control, seizure of property. If you can create an in-group vs. out-group dynamic you can justify just about anything against the out-group if you defame them, wars, pogroms, eugenics, preferential treatment, maintaining social structures and promotion systems, slavery, sexual domination. There can be big payoffs. Defamation is a handy tool for the ambitious.

Psychologically there is an emotional payload as well. Running another group down can compensate for low self-esteem by a sense of belonging to my own group, a feeling of superiority, assuage fears of difference. It can make me feel like a man among men of my own kind.

Defamation is a way of diminishing the other. It is easier to kill the enemy if as a marine you learn to think of them as krauts, gooks, slants, pussies, or rag heads, and not full-fledged people like oneself. As the young bomber in "Hearts and Minds" observed, "From 10,000 feet I can lay down a nice carpet of mathematically precise bomb strikes." From up there, you don't have to see (the) people die. Defamation gives you altitude as well as attitude.

When did this all start? Perhaps it harkens back to a time when we had evolved only as far as seeing other tribes and non-relatives as a ready source of edible protein. Apparently the myth of the “noble savage” in North America is now bending under weighty accusations of rampant anthropophagi. Have we stopped eating each other because we recognize wider kinship? Or, have we simply found more sophisticated and less directly physical ways to munch our soilent green bickies.

What does defamation look like?

Defamation is in the realm of communication—the creation of messages about others. Some of it is pretty blatant, e.g., name calling-based on group identity was my starting point, and though we have tried to eliminate it in the schoolyard, the instinct is far from broken. It is often seen as result of testosterone poisoning in young males but, not exclusively. Women can do it just as well. I was catching up with old flicks over the weekend and last night I rented “Bend it like Beckham” Watching the young Indian footballer Jas lose it and come out slugging when a on the other team called her a “paki.”

Name-calling is connected to stories. Stories about group behaviors and characteristics take on a life of their own and give acceptance to unquestioned stereotypes. A Jewish friend of mine who went to the University of Kansas once told how she woke up in the middle of the night with her Midwestern small-town roommate feeling her head, looking for the horns that all Jews were supposed to all have. The defamed in legend have a strong history of eating children, raping women, devil worship, etc., etc.

Defamation stories are even better when there is a real or mythical “historical grounding” for them, often taking the form of, “Your ancestors did this to our ancestors…” Centuries long cycles of blame are based on stories like this. After Tito was no longer around to keep the lid on in Yugoslavia, it took only a couple years of media propaganda to revive enough animosity for just about everybody to go to war with each other in the former Yugo land. This despite the fact that, as a Croatian doctor once told me, "When two soldiers kill each other in this war, the same grandmother goes to both funerals." It seems like there is a strong human predilection to cherishing a historical chip on the shoulder, a “you owe me” attitude.

Name-calling and storytelling are age old. With today's media there is a lot more sophistication. Choosing your shots, innuendo from what you show and don't show, sound bytes. I would really like you to research here, rather than into the classical slurs. Look at how today's propaganda machines work. Seems they spent a small fortune on the lighting for Dubya's landing on the aircraft carrier (shades of Leni Riefenstahl's *Triumph des Willens*), for example, so the trick is to look for the subtle stuff, stuff that hits you unnoticed and forms your Judgments about others.

How do people fight defamation?

There are groups that create anti-defamation leagues, when it really gets tough, as Jewish Americans have done and Arab Americans are now doing. Identify defamation, label it, and make evident to others what is going on, hoping there is enough decency in the public to tell the difference between fair and foul play. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn't. Public receptivity to defamatory behavior mostly has to do with stress and fear levels.

Some people respond in kind, defaming the defamers, if they can muster the power to do so and make it stick. Even where this is not possible, doing so at least creates the illusion among the defamed of marginalizing their aggressors.

Some joke about it, make light of it, try not to notice it. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” was the stock phrase of my childhood. It was an attempt to deny that names hurt more than physical injuries, though in fact they were often the cause of sticks and stones that lead to more vicious cycles of words and wallops. Some people make fun of themselves hoping the defamers will see them as harmless and leave them alone. I remember some pretty righteous diversity trainers a few years back blaming Borscht Belt comedians for as colluding with discrimination.

There are people who abandon their own defamed group and try to "pass" or assimilate with the power group, often proving themselves by persecuting their own group or, at least, disassociating from it and criticizing it. This tends to be a biggie for invisible minorities, Gay men were often susceptible to this in the US in the past, e.g., the J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohen stories, and, so it seems from recent biographers, Joe McCarthy. Whether or not Joe belongs on this list he is a good example someone who mastered defamation activity if you look at the structure of the anti-communist rhetoric and tactics--apparently not far from the Bush and Fox Network rhetoric as some linguists now contend.

Sometimes people try to break the cycle of defamation by trying to apologize for the past, like the Pope did in his trip to Croatia and Bosnia. However, apology, because it involves admitting you were wrong or something your group did in the past was unfair or defaming, apology not high on the list of US behaviors, particularly in the political realm. Most preferred way of “damage control,” of handling the past is denial, explanagion or putting a new “spin” on old words in the hope that the public has a thick skin and a short memory. Currently our politicos seem to be at high RPM--“spinning out of control.”

© 2007 George Simons

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