Seize the day! Creatively maladjust!

Poster graffiti, Mary St, Newtown NSW, July 2007 (Photo: Duncan Kimball). In the public domain.

Today’s post is the first in a series of two by guest author Deborah Belle.

On September 1, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, saying how pleased he was to take “a brief break from the day-to-day demands of our struggle for freedom and human dignity and discuss the issues involved in that struggle with concerned friends of good will…”

King credited psychology for the word “maladjusted,” noting that “destructive maladjustment should be destroyed and… all must seek the well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities.” But, King argued, “I am sure that we will recognize that there are some things in our society, some things in our world, to which we should never be adjusted. There are some things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.”

We have known for many years that in wealthy nations like ours, poor people experience more physical and emotional illness than non-impoverished people, and die at a younger age. This is hardly surprising, given the many risk factors associated with poverty—substandard housing and malnutrition, environmental toxins and pollutants, noise and crowding, violence and the threat of violence, and poor access to health care.

But the poverty—illness connection has other sources as well. Human beings respond to threat by mobilizing physiologically. Stress hormones course through our bodies. Our heart rate increases as our bodies prepare for fight or flight. When the threat has passed, our bodies return to their previous unstressed calm. However, when threat is chronic, as it often is for poor adults and children, levels of stress hormones remain chronically elevated, and there is no return to a healthy state of calmness.

Given the grim risks associated with poverty, it is distressing to realize that the child poverty rate in this country today is substantially higher than when Dr. King died. In 1969, 14% of children under 18 were poor.  Today, 22% of all U.S. children live in poverty. And poverty remains racialized. More than one in three Black or Hispanic children now live in poverty, compared to one in eight White, non-Hispanic children.

Our country is alone among industrialized nations in having child poverty rates of this magnitude. We also have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country. The richest 1 percent of the U.S. population owns 40 percent of all wealth, and most of this wealth is concentrated among the top one tenth of one percent. As Rebecca Solnit observed in Harper’s magazine, “Society has been divided into a desperate majority and an obscene minority that hoards wealth so colossal it’s meaningless.”

Deborah Belle is a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Boston University.  Her research focuses on the impact of poverty and inequality on individual mental health and family functioning, the ways adults and children make sense of poverty, wealth, and economic inequality, and the stresses that arise at the intersection of paid employment and family life. She is also interested in gender differences in social behavior and teaches courses on social psychology, the psychology of women, and the psychology of families. Her posts are excerpts from a speech given at Boston University January 19, 2015.

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American Sniper, Part II

By guest author Ross Caputi. This is the second in a series discussing the implications of the new film, American Sniper.

 

A US Marine Corps Corporal sights through the scope of a sniping rifle, while training at the Military Operations in Urban Terrain, Camp Pendleton, California, during Exercise Kernal Blitz 2001.

It is not my intention to accuse Chris Kyle of committing war crimes as an individual, or to attack his character in any way. Some critics have pointed out the many racist and anti-Islamic comments  Chris made in his autobiography (significantly toned down in the film). Others have noted his jingoistic beliefs. However, I too participated in the 2nd siege of Fallujah as a US Marine. Like Chris, I said some racist and despicable things while in Iraq. I am in no position to judge him, nor do I think it is important to do so. I am far more interested in our reaction to Chris Kyle as a society than in the nuances of his personality.

In both the book and the film, Chris Kyle comes off as a man who is slightly embarrassed by the labels his comrades-in-arms and his society throw on him, such as “legend” or “hero.” And the financial success of his autobiography and Clint Eastwood’s cinematic adaptation of it reveals just how willing America is to embrace him and his story, despite its factual inaccuracies.

Perhaps the only thing that is important to say about Chris Kyle the individual is that he has the power to legitimize a sanitized version of events in Iraq. Somehow in our culture, combat experience is mistaken for knowledge about a war. And Chris Kyle’s status as a Navy SEAL with mountains of medals and ribbons, multiple deployments to Iraq, and battlefield accolades makes him an “authority” on the topic of Iraq to those who don’t know better.

I sympathize with Chris, because while I was in Iraq, I believed many of the same things he believed: That Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction. That our mission was just and good. That the people we were fighting against in Iraq wanted to kill Americans because of some irrational political ideology or fanatical religious beliefs. And that most Iraqis wanted us in their country.

Notice how within this ideological framework, the emotional turmoil that Chris goes through and the strain his multiple deployments put on his family gets interpreted as a sacrifice that he bravely and consciously makes for a noble cause. Our mission in Iraq is, of course, understood as a peace keeping and nation building operation, not as the imposition of a political and economic project against the will of the majority of Iraqis. “Hearts and minds” become objects to be won, rather than something to be respected. The lives that Chris ends become “confirmed kills,” not murder. And the people he kills are interpreted as “terrorists,” not as people defending their country from a foreign, invading and occupying army.

This ideological framework is America’s war culture. Absent these ideological assumptions, the suffering that Chris and his family go through, and his tally of confirmed kills, do not get interpreted as brave sacrifices or heroic acts—they can only be tragic.

 

Posted in Armed conflict, culture of violence, militarization, Movie reviews, Propaganda, racism, Terrorism, Understanding violence, Weaponry | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

American Sniper, Part I

By guest author Ross Caputi. This is the first in a series discussing the implications of the new film, American Sniper.

What American Sniper offers us — more than a heart-wrenching tale about Chris Kyle’s struggle to be a soldier, a husband, and a father; more than an action packed story about America’s most lethal sniper — is an exposure of the often hidden side of American war culture. The criminality characterizing American military engagements since the American Indian Wars, and most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, is hardly noticeable in this film. And that’s exactly my point.

Chris Kyle built his reputation as a sniper during one of the most criminal operations of the entire occupation of Iraq, the 2nd siege of Fallujah, yet American Sniper doesn’t even hint that Chris Kyle did anything in Iraq except kill bad guys and defend America. This speaks volumes about how little we understand the wars our country fights around the world.

Perhaps my argument seems strange — that the most significant part of this film is what is not in it. I believe the omissions reflect more than what the director decided was irrelevant to the plot. They reveal an unconscious psychological process that shields our ideas about who we are as individuals and as a nation. This process, known as “moral disengagement ,” is extremely common in militaristic societies.

What is fascinating about American Sniper is how these omissions survive in the face of overwhelming evidence of the crimes in which Chris Kyle participated during the 2nd siege of Fallujah — an operation that killed between 4,000 and 6,000 civiliansdisplaced 200,000, and may have created an epidemic of birth defects and cancers. That he can come home, be embraced as a hero, be celebrated for the number of people he killed, write a bestselling book about it, and have it made into a Hollywood film is something we need to reflect on as a society.

Ross Caputi, a regular writer for engagingpeace.com, is a former Marine who participated in the 2nd Siege of Fallujah. Today he is on the Board of Directors of the Islah Reparations Project.  He is also the Director of the documentary film Fear Not the Path of Truth: a veteran’s journey after Fallujah  Ross holds an MA in Linguistics and he is working on an MA in English Studies at Fitchburg State University. Read his blog here.

Posted in Armed conflict, culture of violence, Media, Moral disengagement, Movie reviews, Terrorism, Understanding violence | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment