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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Civilization's First Attack Ads, by John Lundberg

If you've missed Rudy Giuliani's 9-11 exploitation ads or waited anxiously for Swiftboaters to start running some shadowy Bin Laden video, this 2008 Democratic primary is for you! At the rate it's devolving, voters in South Dakota and Montana can look forward to Deal or No Deal getting interrupted by footage of Hitler at the Reichstag--with Obama.

All the ridiculous sniping got me wondering how politicians went after one another before television. It turns out the Ancient Greeks--inventors of Democracy--may also have invented the first smear tactic: the attack poem.

Don't laugh. Poetry was primarily spoken, not written, back then, and it was often recited publicly. A well-timed poetic assault in front of the right audience could do some serious damage to one's rival. Archilochus, a soldier and renowned poet in the 7th Century BC, had such a gift for these attacks that it's said he drove a rival--and his entire family--to hang themselves. His verse was nasty enough to get him banned from Sparta. Just how how nasty could Archilochus get? Here's a poem he directed at a rival (all translations are from Brooks Haxton's book Dances for Flute and Thunder from Viking Press):

Swept overboard, unconscious in the breakers,

strangled with seaweed, may you wake up in a gelid

surf, your teeth, already cracked into the shingle,

now set rattling by the wind, while facedown,

helpless as a poisoned cur, on all fours you puke

brine reeking of dead fish. May those you meet,

barbarians as ugly as their souls are hateful,

treat you to the moldy wooden bread of slaves.

And may you, with your split teeth sunk in that,

smile, then, the way you did when speaking as my friend.

Such attacks weren't an uncommon practice. Even the kinder, gentler--though no less passionate--poet Sappho (7th-6th Century BC), lashed out at her enemies:

Dead, no thought of you from anyone

who wants or wishes anything,

no one word said concerning you, forgotten,

wavering beyond extinction, may you be

unseen, and restless there, among the corpses.

In a particularly vicious (and effective) political attack, Timokreon of Rhodes (5th Century BC) wrote the following lines about Themistokles, a hero in the Athenians' war against the Persian Empire. Off the battlefield, not everyone held Themistokles in such high regard. Here's Timokreon's attack:

Themistokles--who kept Timokreon his former host in exile,

and who helped his fellow thieves, hurt friends, and murdered

anyone you like, for money--first was ostracized,

and then, before he killed himself in shame, set up

an inn for scum and losers, whom he served cold meat.

There, at his own table, lowlife daily cursed his name.

It's the textual equivalent of stabbing someone on the forum floor. Simonides, a friend of Themistokles, struck back at Timokreon after his death with the following epitaph:

Having eaten much, drunk much, and said much ill

of many men, here lies Timokreon of Rhodes.

I guess it's heartening to know that politics hasn't deteriorated much since Ancient Greece. If anything, it's gotten more civil (and probably less artful). How might the old attack poem look today? Here's my best shot:

Barack--who kept me from my rightful nomination,

who would not wear flag pins, and called many men

bitter--long ago he crossed paths with scum and losers:

a thief, a former Weatherman and a crazed preacher

who said "God Damn America." He's also Muslim,

some say, though I take him at his word.

And, of course, the responding epitaph:

Having spent much, won...not so much, and said much ill

of one man, here lies Hillary's campaign.

Here's hoping we can use that last one soon.


Paschal: aside from the above, in both the Old Testament and the New we find plenty of "attack ads" or diatribes against others, even among the words of Jesus.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

How Texas viewed polygamist cults differently.

Unlike Arizona and Utah, it closed a compound forcibly.
By Miguel Bustillo and Nicholas Riccardi,
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
April 12, 2008

ELDORADO, TEXAS -- After a polygamist sect took up residence outside this tiny ranch town a few years ago, the library stocked paperback, cassette and hardcover copies of "Under the Banner of Heaven," an unsparing look at such groups that was suddenly in hot demand.

The local weekly newspaper devoted stories in nearly every edition to the outsiders. And it posted online audio clips of the sect's self-styled prophet, Warren Jeffs, ranting in a creepy monotone about the Beatles being covert agents of a "Negro race."

The people of Eldorado (pronounced el-doh-RAY-do) took in the sect's arrival with nervous anticipation -- because they understood that, unlike in Utah and Arizona, this would not last long in Texas.

Texas' aggressive raid this month -- in which state investigators took custody of more than 400 children, disclosed evidence that men were marrying girls at puberty, and discovered beds allegedly used for sex acts inside a towering temple -- is the most decisive action against the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in at least half a century.

Court papers released Friday showed that state investigators hauled off a cache of evidence from the polygamist compound that included marriage and birth records and what was cryptically described as a "cyanide poisoning document."

Texas' raid contrasts sharply with the approaches of Arizona and Utah, which have looked the other way for decades while the FLDS put underage girls into "spiritual marriages." The 10,000-member sect was founded in the 1930s by religious leaders who continued practicing polygamy after it was banned by the Mormon Church in 1890.

"God bless Texas," said Flora Jessop, an activist who escaped the FLDS at age 16. "The state has done in days what Arizona and Utah failed to do in more than a century -- protect children."

Authorities in the sect's home states have recently taken more aggressive steps; Utah successfully prosecuted Jeffs last year for being an accomplice to rape after he arranged the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her cousin, and Jeffs awaits trial in Arizona on similar charges.

Utah and Arizona officials have long argued that polygamists are too entrenched in their states to simply stamp them out. In Utah, Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff's office has prosecuted polygamists for child abuse. But it has never contemplated a full-scale raid like the one in Texas, spokesman Paul Murphy said.

"Our approach has been, if there is child abuse in one family, we will deal with that family," Murphy said.

The office is trying to build trust in polygamist communities to report crimes such as underage marriage, Murphy added, but the Texas raids have sowed panic even in groups that practice polygamy only among consenting adults.

Texas Rangers stressed they tried to respect the group's religious privacy while searching for a 16-year-old girl who called a family shelter and claimed she was sexually abused by a man she was forced to marry at age 15. But after being refused a key to the compound's imposing temple, Texas Rangers forced their way inside -- and even applied Jaws of Life rescue tools to its doors -- as 57 men from the sect cried and prayed.

The girl, who claimed she gave birth eight months ago and was pregnant once again, has yet to be found.

"You can worship what you want, think what you want. But if you act to abuse girls sexually in Texas, we are going to take action," said Texas Child Protective Services spokesman Darrell Azar.

The only FLDS event that compares to the Texas action is the dramatic 1953 raid by Arizona state police and the U.S. National Guard on the community of Short Creek. Authorities took about 400 residents -- the entire FLDS population at the time -- into custody and hauled away 236 children.

Emotional accounts of Short Creek children weeping while government agents stripped them from their mothers generated a backlash, and Arizona Gov. John Howard Pyle lost his job the next year, a lesson that influenced future Utah and Arizona politicians.

In Texas, however, the only criticism of the raid so far seems to be that it took too long to happen.

"It should have been taken care of a long time ago," said Charmarie Swinford, 37, a waitress at the Hitch'n Post, an Eldorado restaurant that had one item on the lunch menu: hamburger. "I have a daughter who's 14, and I just can't . . . " she said, her voice trailing off.

Men from the sect first showed up in Eldorado, population 1,800, in 2003 and said they were looking for a hunting retreat.

But soon after the men starting building up an exotic game ranch on the outskirts of town, it became clear that this was no hunters lodge.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

WHY GOOD PEOPLE KILL, Rosa Parks, referencing the work of psycholotgist Stanley Milgrim.

Why Good People Kill
Iraq murders reveal the warping power of conformity and dehumanization.
by Rosa Brooks

Are Americans good people?

After Vietnam — after My Lai, after the free-fire zones — many Americans were no longer sure.

After Haditha, the same question is again beginning to haunt us. We're supposed to be a virtuous nation; our troops are supposed to be the good guys. If it turns out that Marines murdered 24 civilians, including children and infants, how could that have happened?

In response to Haditha, U.S. government officials quickly reverted to the "bad apple" theory.

It's a tempting theory, and not just for the Bush administration. It suggests a vast and reassuring divide between "us" (the virtuous majority, who would never, under any circumstances, commit coldblooded murder) and "them" (the sociopathic, bad-apple minority). It allows us to hold on to our belief in our collective goodness. If we can just toss the few rotten Americans out of the barrel quickly enough, the rot won't spread.

The problem with this theory is that it rests on a false assumption about the relationship between character and deeds. Yes, sociopaths exist, but ordinary, "good" people are also perfectly capable of committing atrocities.

In 1961, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a famous experiment. He told subjects to administer electric shocks to other people, ostensibly to assess the effect of physical punishment on learning. In fact, Milgram wanted to "test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist."

Quite a lot of pain, it turned out. Most of Milgram's subjects continued to administer what they believed to be severe and agonizing shocks even when their "victims" (actually Milgram's assistants) screamed and begged them to stop.

Milgram's subjects weren't sociopaths. On the contrary, most expressed extreme distress about administering progressively more severe shocks. But almost all of them did it anyway.

Milgram's basic findings have been extended and confirmed since the 1960s. Depressingly, experimental evidence and historical experience suggest that even the gentlest people can usually be induced to inflict or ignore suffering.

There are several key factors that lead "good people" to do terrible things. The first, as the Milgram experiments powerfully demonstrated, is authority: Most ordinary people readily allow the dictates of "authorities" to trump their own moral instincts.

The second is conformity. Few people have the courage to go against the crowd.

The third is dehumanization of the victims. The Nazis routinely depicted Jews as "vermin" in need of extermination, for instance. Similarly, forcing victims to wear distinctive clothing (yellow stars, prison uniforms), shave their heads and so on can powerfully contribute to their dehumanization.

Orders, peer expectations and dehumanization need not be explicit to have a powerful effect. In adversarial settings such as prisons or conflict zones, subtle cues and omissions — the simple failure of authorities to send frequent, clear and consistent messages about appropriate behavior, for instance — can be as powerful as direct orders.

Against this backdrop, is it really surprising that ordinary, decent Marines may have committed atrocities in Haditha? All the key ingredients were present in one form or another: intense pressure from authorities to capture or kill insurgents; intense pressure from peers to seem tough and to avenge the deaths of comrades; the almost inevitable dehumanization that occurs when two groups look different, speak different languages, live apart and are separated by a chasm of mistrust.

Add in the discomfort, the fear, the constant uncertainty about the identity and location of the enemy and the relative youth of so many of our soldiers, and you have a recipe for atrocities committed not by "bad apples" but by ordinary people little different, and probably no worse, than most of us.

Of course, individuals still make their own choices. Most of Milgram's experimental subjects administered severe electric shocks — but a few refused. If Marines are proved to have massacred civilians at Haditha, they should be punished accordingly.

But let's not let the Bush administration off the hook. It's the duty of the government that sends troops to war to create a context that enables and rewards compassion and courage rather than callousness and cruelty. This administration has done just the opposite.

Our troops were sent to fight an unnecessary war, without adequate resources or training for the challenges they faced. At the same time, senior members of the administration made clear their disdain for the Geneva Convention's rules on war and for the principles and traditions of the military. Belated and halfhearted investigations into earlier abuses sent the message that brutality would be winked at — unless the media noticed, in which case a few bad apples would be ceremoniously ejected from the barrel, while higher-ups would go unpunished.

If we're talking about apples, we should also keep another old proverb in mind: The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

Rosa Brooks is a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. Her experience includes service as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, as a consultant for the Open Society Institute and Human Rights Watch, as a board member of Amnesty International USA, and as a lecturer at Yale Law School. Brooks has authored articles on international law, human rights, and the law of war, and her book, "Can Might Make Rights? The Rule of Law After Military Interventions" (with Jane Stromseth and David Wippman), will be published in 2006 by Cambridge University Press.

Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times

Friday, May 26, 2006

Who do we hate the most? Those most like us.

The Narcissism of Differences Big and Small

By Sam Vaknin

Freud coined the phrase "narcissism of small differences" in a paper titled "The Taboo of Virginity" that he published in 1917. Referring to earlier work by British anthropologist Ernest Crawley, he said that we reserve our most virulent emotions – aggression, hatred, envy – towards those who resemble us the most. We feel threatened not by the Other with whom we have little in common – but by the "nearly-we", who mirror and reflect us.

The "nearly-he" imperils the narcissist's selfhood and challenges his uniqueness, perfection, and superiority – the fundaments of the narcissist's sense of self-worth. It provokes in him primitive narcissistic defences and leads him to adopt desperate measures to protect, preserve, and restore his balance. I call it the Gulliver Array of Defence Mechanisms.

The very existence of the "nearly-he" constitutes a narcissistic injury. The narcissist feels humiliated, shamed, and embarrassed not to be special after all – and he reacts with envy and aggression towards this source of frustration.

In doing so, he resorts to splitting, projection, and Projective Identification. He attributes to other people personal traits that he dislikes in himself and he forces them to behave in conformity with his expectations. In other words, the narcissist sees in others those parts of himself that he cannot countenance and deny. He forces people around him to become him and to reflect his shameful behaviours, hidden fears, and forbidden wishes.

But how does the narcissist avoid the realisation that what he loudly decries and derides is actually part of him? By exaggerating, or even dreaming up and creatively inventing, differences between his qualities and conduct and other people's. The more hostile he becomes towards the "nearly-he", the easier it is to distinguish himself from "the Other".

To maintain this self-differentiating aggression, the narcissist stokes the fires of hostility by obsessively and vengefully nurturing grudges and hurts (some of them imagined). He dwells on injustice and pain inflicted on him by these stereotypically "bad or unworthy" people. He devalues and dehumanises them and plots revenge to achieve closure. In the process, he indulges in grandiose fantasies, aimed to boost his feelings of omnipotence and magical immunity.

In the process of acquiring an adversary, the narcissist blocks out information that threatens to undermine his emerging self-perception as righteous and offended. He begins to base his whole identity on the brewing conflict which is by now a major preoccupation and a defining or even all-pervasive dimension of his existence.

Very much the same dynamic applies to coping with major differences between the narcissist and others. He emphasises the large disparities while transforming even the most minor ones into decisive and unbridgeable.

Deep inside, the narcissist is continuously subject to a gnawing suspicion that his self-perception as omnipotent, omniscient, and irresistible is flawed, confabulated, and unrealistic. When criticised, the narcissist actually agrees with the critic. In other words, there are only minor differences between the narcissist and his detractors. But this threatens the narcissist's internal cohesion. Hence the wild rage at any hint of disagreement, resistance, or debate.

Similarly, intimacy brings people closer together – it makes them more similar. There are only minor differences between intimate partners. The narcissist perceives this as a threat to his sense of uniqueness. He reacts by devaluing the source of his fears: the mate, spouse, lover, or partner. He re-establishes the boundaries and the distinctions that were removed by intimacy. Thus restored, he is emotionally ready to embark on another round of idealisation (the Approach-Avoidance Repetition Complex).