Thursday, November 27, 2008

"Curiosity Did Not Kill This Cat!" Studs Terkel Kerneling Through This Husk of Light

Studs Terkel 1912–2008: A Democracy Now! Special Tribute to the Beloved Oral Historian and Broadcaster

The legendary radio broadcaster, writer, oral historian, raconteur and chronicler of our times, Studs Terkel, died last month at the age of ninety-six in his home town of Chicago. Today, a Democracy special tribute: we spend the hour on Studs Terkel. Over the years, Terkel has been a regular guest on Democracy Now! We play a wide-ranging interview we did with him in 2005. We also feature a rare recording of Terkel interviewing the Rev. Martin Luther King at the bedside of the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. “My curiosity is what saw me through,” Terkel said in 2005. "What would the world be like, or will there be a world? And so, that’s my epitaph. I have it all set. Curiosity did not kill this cat. And it’s curiosity, I think, that has saved me thus far.”


[From an emailed, but otherwise unpublished essay I wrote last year: 11/14/2007 . ]

I've been researching empathy's role in altruism, from the naturalistic/physiological perspective of my alma mater, University of Washington, since the late 80s. I went looking for the line between one thing and another, you might say, and the next thing I know, I'm Zen. I'm excited by the work of two authors: Susan Faludi1 and Naomi Klein2.

Faludi is right: ever since 9/11, we've been living an overtly masculinized myth of making vengeful, defensive war against an evil Other. What were we living prior to that? I'm very thankful to her for focusing attention of the mythological context. But the roots of this process go back to ancient Sumer, if not further. And my ancestors of the Iroquois Confederation likely contributed more to American democracy than terrorizing the colonists. I’m sure it wasn’t her intention, but she defined us as terrorists, took the theft of our land for granted, and left us on the outside. I’d like to address that.

I’m more excited than I’ve been in years about Klein’s Shock Doctrine. It used to be thought that the human psyche didn't feature imprinting. It’s the Holy Grail of mind control. Why wash a brain when you can just blast it clean? And then you can build whatever you want on the cleared property. As you are painfully aware, not long ago, Americans mistook Giuliani and Bush for leaders. The spell is wearing off now.

ECT, torture, and economic shock therapy, all bundled into one doctrine. DAMN! If Prometheus has a sister, she's a lot like Naomi Klein.

As brilliantly elucidated by Klein, a devil’s bargain is presented to us when we’re most vulnerable, in a condition of shock.

The Shock Doctrine explains how, from electroconvulsive therapy to torture to economic shock therapy, the goal is the same: induce a state of complete openness to imprinting, just like a hatchling. This is the machining of the human psyche in the manufacture of our consent.

When they want our opinion, they’ll frighten and shock-and-awe it into us. They don’t intend to engage us as fellow citizens, they don’t intend to win hearts and minds, they don’t waste time with brainwashing: they just blast our minds and build what they want on the cleared property.

It’s a dictator’s fondest wish: a remote-control populace.

Rods from God, anybody? Our SPACECOM wants to be able to kill anybody anywhere anytime. They try to use their infernal machine to play god, and end up, as Oppenheimer said, becoming Death, destroyer of worlds. If we allow SPACECOM to succeed, we will have enslaved the whole world. That oughta make us REAL popular.

Look at our air force and the seeds of death we sow all over the planet.

Cluster bombs we dropped some 40 years ago will kill children in Cambodia today. Cluster bombs dropped by Israel in the last minutes of the US-sponsored war on Lebanon will likely go on killing for decades, too.

The nemesis of rational thought is the infamous Us Good\Them Bad false dichotomy. Look at our history. Look at your own habits of speech. Compare the positions of the other candidates. Look at how Kucinich has been treated for daring to call for impeachment, and tell me this isn’t true: Making war and enslaving others is what we do, even to our own.

Both Klein and UW professor Dr. Van Eenwyk, who treats torture victims and torturers, speak of the transitory state of complete openness brought about by overwhelming shock, physical or psychic. An experienced torturer, I'm told, recognizes this fleeting state.

That's what they're after. In that condition, normal humans faced with a binary choice presented in mythic narratives and symbols will eagerly do the formerly unthinkable. This is the machining of the human psyche in the manufacture of consent. How did the "good Germans" do it? Same way we're doing it. It's the most horrible realization I've ever realized.

We don't bother trying to win hearts and minds; we machine them.
I think the BushCo disregard for dissent is deeply alarming. They don't intend to engage us as even humans, let alone co-equal branches of government. They're using Shock and Awe, the age-old strategy famously described by Goerring, to get at our core brain itself.

As traumatic experiences can empower unconscious processes at the expense of ego consciousness (see "analysis." left), the International Trauma Treatment Program ( ) utilizes a Jungian approach to treat complex trauma.3

“Unconscious processes” is Dr. Van Eenwyk’s academic way of alluding to the mythic realm (Van Eenwyk, personal communication, July, 2007). Since I’m a poet, I can say that torturers become real demons. Genuine monsters. And their worst nightmare? Victims whom they put in the fire yet still don’t burn, victims who heal and return.

And with her "Rapture Rescue 911" concept, Klein shows how the coming model of society looks like an inverse concentration camp, with the good minority protected within blast walls from the evil majority. After all, the Oil Wars have begun, we're in WWIV, a fight to the death with Islamofacism (take your pick). If you take ordinary young men (not to worry, they're not people you know), turn them into dogs of war, then neglect them upon return, you won't want your children growing up on the same block with them, now will you?

Mythologically speaking, the Dems and Repubs are playing from the same playbook. I think Kucinich is the Other to these Dems, an existential threat to their presumptive power. The people see that the Dems stand for being played for fools by those who have no intention of abiding by rules they demand be obeyed by others.

The tip of this camel’s nose can be seen in Iowa. The Dems are employing a classic American strategy, albeit one I thought was only for export.

The Jefferson-Jackson charade reminds me of a comic of a hectored groom grudgingly allowed to choose the invitations from a set of three.4 "Except that one," the bride dismisses his first choice. "That one's ugly," she says to the second. "But you chose my choice!" the groom complains. "Good choice, hon. Now be a dear and leave the planning to me." It's the ol' Fake Election Regime Change ploy, as practiced so very well by us all over the world. We have the right to endorse the choice of the Party. When they want our opinion, they'll give it to us.

Many say, and I agree: this is the sentiment that motivates dictators. But to point to others is to imply Democrats are somehow not tainted by this fateful ideology. Tragically, both Left and Right believe in life as holy war. We need to lift up our eyes past election cycles, look deeply into our past and ask, as a people, what are we all about?

Making war and enslaving others is no aberration for us: it’s what we do. New Orleans should now be called New Israel. The hand of God cleared the heathen from the land for the chosen people, right? Isn’t that our MO?

Faludi has drawn much needed attention to the myth we’ve been living since 9/11. What were we living before that? Poetically speaking, this is what we do:

We send our machines out as our proxies into the fields of our lord to make war on our other half in an effort to impress an absentee-landlord/absolute tyrant of the universe we made up as a projection of our own mental line-making power. Strangely, we’ve turned into slaves of the corporations we invented in order to enslave others (the first colonies were administered by chartered corporations; see for more info).

Once upon a time, a Sumerian god, Aot by name, when faced with a famine brought about by the laziness of the gods, decided to create a race of slaves.

Then upon a later time, Zoroaster conceived of the universe as having once been pure good, but now as being corrupted by a dark and evil influence. You’re either making war on that corrupting influence, battling to return the cosmos to a pure state, or you are the corrupting influence.

And again upon a time, when the Habiru invaded Canaan, the priests inverted the endogenous myths of the goddess, perverting signs and symbols away from Mother and towards a bachelor Father with a very bad temper.

To this day, we live life as holy war waged upon our own shadow. That’s why the face of the Other terrifies us so: either we show this god how much we hate the Other, as measured by our violence against them, thus ensuring our own access to heaven, or we become the evil other. Extermination of the Other or corruption of our precious selves and eternal torment, that’s the devil’s bargain they use to march us of to war.

The global war on terror is the socio-political application of a myth of life as holy war. Much of public discourse amounts to, "Our holy war is the only holy holy war! All others are blasphemous heresy!" This is the subtext of even much liberal commentary. (Except my man Kucinich! I'm tellin' ya, he's got the heart of a poet.)

Joseph Campbell charged us all with being the heroes of our own lives. Especially the "poets and seers." Our assignment: "to render an experience of the transcendent in terms of the world in which we're living."

The power of myth is that it shapes the cosmos in which we act. (I sure would like to know what Phillip Zelikow has been up to over the last few years.)

Misconceiving our selves as Newtonian billiard balls in empty space does at least three tragic things to our psyches:

1) Cosmic Pinheads: Psychic implosion into a quantum singularity of pain; is this the source of the Buddha's First Noble Truth? (“Sitting astride the senses is a shadowy, phantomlike figure with insatiable desires and a lust for dominance. His name? Ego, Ego the Magician, and the deadly tricks he carries up his sleeve are delusive thinking, greed, and anger. Where he came from no one knows, but he has surely been around as long as the human mind.) 5

2) Cellf-Imprisonment: Atomized egos are cellves of our own making;

3) Mother-pimping vs. Husbanding: Mechanical Mind makes a Frankenstein's monster of our Mother that we pimp for all She's worth, then blame for the fouling of our nest, yet still we claim we can whip Her into shape so the monster we made can save us from our cellves.

The monstrous mechanical cosmos is powered by binary thinking. Disagreement and criticism, even among friends, is outright blasphemy to this binary frame of mind.

Binary thinking is composed of ratios. Witness Lynne Cheney on The Daily Show (10 October 07). She was claiming success for her husband's disastrous policies because "they" hadn't attacked "us" in 6 years. Jon gently reminded her of the anthrax attacks, the Madrid bombing, the London bombing. She said, "I'm talking about _American_ interests," leaning half way across the desk and glaring at her host over the dead bodies of the victims of those attacks. The audience let loose a rare boo as Jon said meekly, "I thought they were our allies." In binary thinking, there is no common ground.

Before you get to feeling all self-righteous, please note that we all share the assumption of an atomized self: we think we exist apart from that which gives rise to us. This is where research psychology meets Buddhism meets politics. One might even say, a moment of Zen. . . .


The binary, Divide-and-Conquer-ratio-making-mind is stringing out this line of words you are reading right here right now. Please note that, by the nature of drawing a line, 3 things seem to appear: Side A, a Line (of data, pixels, words, and reasoning), and Side B. They appear in a field that begins and remains _indivisible_.

[Side A] — [Side B]
[Good God Us Me] — [Evil Devil Them You]

That's us. That's We, the indivisible People. We find our common ground in the spaces in between.

Even a monkey can see that there are things spelled out on either sides of a line. But do you see the indivisible field around those things? The field in which we find our common ground? That indivisible field is We, the People (if you’ll pardon my grammar).
We stand united in divinity just exactly as these words right here are standing in this field right now. E pluribus, unum: Out of Many, Union.

On the Left, we call our binary mind Science. Have you heard Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher preach the gospel of rationalism lately? They have humans confused with androids.

On the Right, they call their binary mind God, or the Free Market. Obscene selfishness in amassing blood-drenched riches is taken as proof of their god's blessing no matter what that dirty hippy, Jesus, said, and especially despite what those loser Buddhists say. I mean, all they bring to a gunfight is an open heart.

But binary thinking doesn’t even imagine common ground, let alone see it. Growing up in this mythological context, we become invisible to ourselves. We are not seen for who and what we are, we are invested with the beliefs of our brothers and sisters.

JAMES BALDWIN: What they do see when they look at you is what they’ve invested you with. And what they’ve invested you with is all the agony and the pain and the danger and the passion and the torment, you know, sin, death and hell, at which everyone in this country is terrified. You represent a level of experience which Americans deny. And I think you can see in the life of the country, not only in the South, what a terrible price the country has paid for this effort to keep a distance between themselves and black people. And what Americans today don’t know about the rest of the world, like Cuba or Africa, is what they don’t know about me. An incoherent, totally incoherent foreign policy of this country is a reflection of the incoherence of the private lives here.
STUDS TERKEL: So we don’t even know our own names.
JAMES BALDWIN: No, we don’t. That’s the whole point. And I suggest this, I suggest this, that in order to learn your name, you're going to have to learn mine. You know, in a way, the key to this country -- the American Negro is the key figure in this country. And if we don’t face him, we will never face anything.6

Our psychophysiology and our mythology impose and exaggerate divisions in an essentially indivisible field. What Newton regarded as ‘things’ we now know are events. And the energy of one event flows freely in and out of all of its neighbors. The glass, therefore, is neither half full nor half empty: it is BOTH, it is self-filling and self-emptying.

I must mention my main guru: Alan Watts and the Electronic University. I'm too young to have studied with him in person, but I have been immeasurably enlightened by listening to his books and lectures. His philosophy was informed by the psychophysiology of Karl Pribram. I can take that to the next level by emphasizing Yevgeny Sokolov, the direct successor to Pavlov. Their lab came up the Neuronal Model of the Stimulus, which we now accept as the fundamental unit of minds.

Your heart, lungs, veins, and brains also work on the basis of a principle crucial to mysticism, the best single word for which is _sunyata_, which has recently been revised out of the static nominative tense, with the suffix -ness, thus: emptiness; into the present imperfect as a gerund, to which I add a reflexive property: self-emptying. The Greeks call it kenosis. Think of a coffee cup, especially if you drink it endlessly like I do:

Neuronal models of stimuli are the self-emptying vessels of Mind, into which experience is pouring; from which awareness is arising like steam; and out of which we are flowing like water.


Now think of a torture chamber. Think of the hyperpolarization of the energy in that chamber. See the showers of sparks and blood? The human psyche experiences quantum leaps of Being, into complete helplessness (rape victims experience tonic immobility, terror-induced paralysis) and complete power: real demons.

Can torture work? He said emphatically no, torture doesn't work. All the victim has to do is hold out long enough. "And they do," he said softly, "and they do." Prof. Van Eenwyk prefers the less colorful term "autonomous collective" to demons, but he does concur with my analysis. His approach reminds me of the old APA stance on homosexuality, but that's not why I'm writing.

How does one endure torture?

All we need are durable vessels
Vessels durable just long enough to
Keep the Flow going

The streams we call mysticism and physics converge in their common source. But the Newtonian ego has been used as a building block in a world of Darwinian competition. Once again, we see how the false dichotomy of binary thinking has cut off the mind that wields it from its own source.

In the West, one might answer a child’s question, what’s that?, with endless dissection and analysis, then leave the child in an utterly disintegrated, atomized cosmos, just for expressing innocent curiosity. The Upanishads have a different answer.

What is that? Thou art that. And guess what? That loves that! Compassion, empathic identity with the Other, is the proper basis for being human, not lifeless, soulless, mechanical competition.

MAHALIA JACKSON: I don’t know. This thing, it’s peculiar. When I’m on the stage and on television and working with white people, they just hug me and love me and say I’m so wonderful and I’m so great. And then, when I’m walking down the street like an ordinary citizen, they don’t recognize me. And when I go into the department store in the South, I can’t get a sandwich, I can’t get a bottle of pop. I gotta stay -- I can’t even get a cab. And I’m just the Mahalia Jackson that they got through saying how wonderful I am. What I don’t understand is what makes people act like that?
STUDS TERKEL: Well, this is the big question, Mahalia, this split in people.
MAHALIA JACKSON: I do want to -- I want to see my people be respected. You know, it’s the most distasteful thing to hear a white man call your man, your husband or your brother a "boy," like he’s -- he’s no boy; he’s a man like anybody. That’s disrespect. That’s the height of ignorance, complete ignorance, for people to treat people like that. It’s awful. It just hurts me. And I’m so hurt about it, it keeps me praying, you know, for the Lord not to let hate get in my heart. This world will make you think -- I tell ya -- it’ll make you think, because if you don’t, you’ll go down the drain in despair, and I don’t believe in letting nothing get down in my soul. I speak it out so I can be free, because if it stay inside, well, my god, I’ll become a hateful woman. And I don’t want to hate. I want to love.

Christians in general, especially our dearly beloved Evangelicals, believe in the exclusive sanctity of the Jews and, by extension, themselves. All Others can go to hell. No, make that WILL go to hell, and look how good we are at sending them there!

One needs only count the dead in Iraq on any given day, and ratio that with the living Iraqis allowed into our benighted land on that same ignoble day, to put the lie to our denial of practicing human sacrifice.

We believe in an absolute Away, in which things like human & radioactive waste and political malfeasance disappear when we make then go ‘away.’ We are shocked when our self-proclaimed demi-godlike efforts not to kill real people, just to collaterally damage things, end up with such horrific results.

This is unbalanced. This is koyaanisqatsi. This is our mythology. It’s no accident or disease or any such thing. It’s what we do.

In the East, they have their own reasons for the monstrous violence that keeps people in their cellves. But for all of us, it’s partially a result of binary thinking. It’s our brains playing tricks on our minds. Our belief in an absolute Other, our belief in our unique sanctity (for us, shared belief with Israel in our unique relationship with that Other as our creator god), and our shared assumption of atomized egos ruled by Newtonian mechanics in absolutely empty space, these have spawned the Frankenstein’s monster that now chases us as a global juggernaut.

We’re burning the black blood of Mother Earth to fuel this monstrous mechanical juggernaut we’ve sent as our proxy into the fields of our lords in an effort to make ourselves over in the image of the gods we make. The fumes from it promise to choke us to death. It crushes and grinds whole peoples under its wheels.

Binary thinking says: ‘C’mon, if our victims weren’t in the Holy Land, whether that be Rachel Corrie in Israel or the Nez Perce at Wounded Knee, then they wouldn’t get crushed under our Caterpillar tractor treads or gunned down en masse, now would they? They shouldn’t have been in front of our Gatling guns. It’s their fault for being,’ according to binary thinking.

MARIO LOZANO: I don’t blame her for being upset, but she has to take the focus off me a little bit and look at Sgrena, because if it wasn’t for Sgrena, this situation wouldn’t happen. You know, she went out there. She wanted to mingle with the terrorists and all that. And then she gets caught. Now we have to send -- now we have to send good men to go after this one person that knows that she put herself in the situation. You know, she knows that if she’s going to go talk to terrorists, she knows there’s a 99% chance she will get caught. So, why did she do that for? It’s beyond my -- you know, I don’t understand. So it’s her fault that this is happening, not my fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not America's fault. It’s Sgrena’s fault.8

Binary thinking is powering the juggernaut that chases us. Thing is, you don’t overpower juggernauts: the Lozano Strategy is shown to be a loser. There’s one simple solution to the existential threat posed by this planetary juggernaut.

You don’t outrun juggernauts. You _sidestep_ them! We’ve gone from thinking of the Universe as a machine to believing it to be so. We are machining our selves to death, including the planet which spawns us all, by imagining ourselves to be machines that operate in a cosmos where divinity is always somewhere else, thereby making the whole earth just god-forsaken dirt into which we can stuff whatever pollution we want.

The Manhattan Project put the toxic waste of our atomic genie in the ground at Hanford, WA (sure it’s poisoning our very own Mother, it’s jobs jobs jobs wage servitude for the people) and expected it to stay right where they put it. But of course, if you shove a poison stick in your arm, your circulatory system will notice. The Columbia River is now radioactive. On whose balance sheet do we account for that?

We agreed with the Tribes, when they reserved the right to fish where they had always fished. Now we dam and poison the river itself. A government accountants “externality” is somebody else’s carcinoma. What good is fishing for salmon “for as long as the rivers run and the grass grows” once they’ve both been made radioactive? It’s as if we atom-bombed the buffalo. And people wonder why the Tribes are so pissed.

We must bring to fruition a new, organic mythology (which won’t be anything new to the First Nations, now will it?) and midwife ourselves in giving birth to a new civilization, at the same time that we sidestep the mechanical monster we’re riding as it crashes to the ground.

1 Faludi on DN!

2 Naomi Klein on DN!

3 Dr. Van Eenwyk’s interview is archived audio at Hot Potato Media:

From his Web site:
Dialogues between the conscious ego and unconscious processes are essential for three main reasons:
Interactions between the two modify each
Unconscious processes are up and running long before ego consciousness forms
Life experiences that overwhelm the ego are dealt with by the unconscious
To understand the influence of unconscius processes on its perceptions and behavior, the ego must learn to interpret its manifestations. Affects, fantasies, and dreams can be very useful grounds for learning about the unconscious. Folktales, myths and popular culture can also be of use.

4 Candorville comic by Darren Bell

5 Tricycle's Daily Dharma: November 4, 2007
The "I" in Ego
Sitting astride the senses is a shadowy, phantomlike figure with insatiable desires and a lust for dominance. His name? Ego, Ego the Magician, and the deadly tricks he carries up his sleeve are delusive thinking, greed, and anger. Where he came from no one knows, but he has surely been around as long as the human mind. This wily and slippery conjurer deludes us into believing that we can only enjoy the delights of the senses without pain by delivering ourselves into his hands. Of the many devices employed by Ego to keep us in his power, none is more effective than language. The English language is so structured that it demands the repeated use of the personal pronoun "I" for grammatical nicety and presumed clarity. . . . All this plays into the hands of Ego, strengthening our servitude and enlarging our sufferings, for the more we postulate this I the more we are exposed to Ego's never-ending demands.
--Philip Kapleau, in Thich Nhat Hanh's Zen Keys
from Everyday Mind, edited by Jean Smith, a Tricycle book

6 Studs Terkel interviewing James Baldwin, Democracy Now! 13 Nov 07

7 Studs Terkel interviewing Mahalia Jackson, Democracy Now! 13 Nov 07

8 Mario Lozano clip, Democracy Now! 10 July 07

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