Yesterday Ed Bratyon asked readers to share their opinions on the worst movies ever. Ed was looking for reader votes for movies that were terrible, while "carrying the pretense of being high quality." The post generated a behemoth thread with some interesting responses.
Today Ed followed up with a request for cinematic guilty pleasures--films readers enjoyed even though they were widely regarded as bad. He didn't mean films so bad that they're ironically good, but bad films that readers simply enjoyed. Once again, the thread is growing rapidly.
Yesterday, in my post on Rand, Salinger and narcissism, I discussed the adolescent appeal of Catcher in the Rye and Atlas Shrugged. In both novels, the protagonist maintains a secret place where he reigns as a godlike figure, protecting his Eden from the infiltration of evil.
In Islamic radicalism, we see a similar appeal to adolescents on the cusp of adulthood. Just as Holden Caulfield and John Galt are confronted with the inescapable limitations of membership in the human race, Islamic terrorists are confronted with infidel despoilers of the perfect Islamic society.
The clash between infantile perfection and reality can be devastating for the narcissistically fragile person, inciting murderous levels of rage. This clash sets in motion, an insatiable, but ultimately impossible, quest for the restoration of perfection. Such a person experiences helpless humiliation in the exposure of his own limitations, and vengeful rage at the compromisers who ruined everything (the infantile perfection). For such an individual, perception is distorted by archaic grandiosity that does not recognize or accept the psychological separateness and independent initiative of the other. Individual differences in viewpoint become increasingly intolerable because they degrade the purity of narcissistic perfection.
Back in 2001, Ernest Wolf articulated these dynamics better than I can in an excellent article entitled: Group Helplessness and Rage. Written before the 9/11 attacks, Wolf draws upon the work of Heinz Kohut for insights into the minds of killers who identify with groups and causes. The excerpts below apply equally to those who resort to ideological murder and those whose rage falls short of actually committing murder, though the intensity of their helpless rage can be fairly characterized as murderous.
From Group Helplessness and Rage:
Talking about rageful behavior [Kohut] observed that underlying the rage one often finds an uncompromising insistence on the perfection of the idealized other. The infant experiences itself still in a state of limitlessness power and knowledge, a state that we as outsiders deprecatingly call the child’s grandiosity, its grandiose self. If for a variety of reasons this infantile grandiose state of narcissism is prevented from maturing into healthy self-esteem we meet with what looks like an adult but really is a very shakily put together oversensitive and shame-prone narcissist. The fanaticism of the need for revenge and the unending compulsion of having to square the account after an offense are therefore not the attributes of an aggressivity that is integrated with the mature purposes of the ego - on the contrary, such bedevilment indicates that the aggression was mobilized in the service of an archaic grandiose self and that it is deployed within the framework of an archaic perception of reality. The shame-prone individual who is ready to experience setbacks as narcissistic injuries and to respond to them with insatiable rage does not recognize his opponent as a center of independent initiative with whom he happens to be at cross-purposes. Aggression, when employed in the pursuit of maturely experienced causes, are not limitless. However vigorously this aggression is mobilized, its aim is limited and definite: the defeat of the enemy who blocks the way to a cherished goal. As soon as the aim is reached, the rage is gone.
The narcissistically injured on the other hand, cannot rest until he has blotted out a vaguely experienced offender who dared to oppose him, to disagree with him, or to outshine him. ..It can never find rest because it can never wipe out the evidence that has contradicted its conviction it is unique and perfect. This archaic rage goes on and on and on. Furthermore, the enemy who calls forth the archaic rage of the narcissistically vulnerable is seen by him not as an autonomous source of impulsions, but as a flaw in a narcissistically perceived reality. The enemy is experienced as a recalcitrant part of an expanded self over which the narcissistically vulnerable person had expected to exercise full control. The mere fact, in other words, that the other person is independent or different is experienced as offensive by those with intense narcissistic needs.
Thus, not being in full control over self and over a narcissistically experienced world gives the afflicted individual an experience of utter powerlessness. Such powerlessness and the sense of helplessness via-a-vis the world are unbearably traumatic experiences that must be ended by any means whatsoever. The offending other must be wiped out.
I must add that I don't regard all idealizations and all group identifications as signs of narcissistic arrest. Ideals tempered by realism are essential to a healthy sense of membership in the human race. They supply us with moral purpose, inspiration and the capacity for healthy admiration. In this post, I was only discussing the genetics of rage in narcissistically vulnerable individuals who cannot find an accommodation between realty and their own primitive sense of perfection.
One of my readers is upset because I 'smeared' James O'Keefe and three others by reporting that they were arrested in connection with an attempt to tap phone lines in a Senator's office. I stand corrected.
O'Keefe and his friends were arrested on federal felony charges for false and fraudulent entry into federal building (posing as telephone repairmen there to check the senator's phone lines) and "willfully and maliciously interfering with a telephone system operated and controlled by the United States of America."
I apologize for smearing the accused felons.
Reply to another outrageous smear in the news:
I did not run him down with my car officer; I backed over him with my truck.
Terri (Wheatamongtares via Retriever) doesn't understand why all the fuss about Catcher in the Rye. What is so profound about a teenage boy and his inner life as he careens around for a few days trying to get drunk and score with women and cement his image of himself?
I posted a comment at Retriever’s blog, but afterward decided to expand on it a bit more here, because this is such an interesting question. I must admit up front that it has been decades since I read Catcher in the Rye and, in my case, it did not leave a lasting impression. So my comments here are built on recollections that, I hope, reflect something of what I actually read many years ago.
The human mind is a Rube Goldberg contraption, well-adapted for survival, but highly vulnerable to error. You might say that the mind is a struggle between many competing internal forces in a state of ongoing compromise. Unconscious conflicts, biases and rules of thumb continuously yield compromised expression in our thoughts, feelings and actions.
As intellect develops during adolescence, more sensitive and perceptive kids are challenged by the growing awareness of the compromises intrinsic to the human fabric, not the least of which are the inevitable moral compromises. The possible paths through this challenge can be represented by a three-way psychological crossroad, with each road offering a different solution to the problem of infantile narcissism confronted by the discovery of compromised real life.
Down one road lies a cynicism that masks a deeper sense of chronic disappointment, triggered by the discovery that grownups are hopelessly far from the omnipotent, all-good beings the child believes in. Cynicism and the chronic underlying disappointment behind cynicism covertly preserves the hope that perfection is possible. If one has not preserved a sense of perfection at some deeper level, there would be no cynicism. Disillusioned idealism is still idealism. This is Holden Caulfield.
Down another road lies a brittle, defensive idealism that deals with the problem of human failing by denying the inescapability of the human condition. Identification with a powerfully superior group or adherence to some allegedly perfected ideology sets the believer free, restoring Eden, though it never really does restore Eden. This is the solution found in rabid religious, political and philosophical ideologies. This is John Galt’s (Ayn Rand’s) solution in Atlas Shrugged. Galt’s Gulch is the restoration of Eden lost.
On the surface, Holden Caulfield and John Galt may appear to be very different characters. They would probably despise one another, but they are alike in that neither of them can bear the inescapable limitations that come with membership in the deeply flawed human family. Both cling to the narcissistic perfection of childhood psychic life.
Growing up, for Caulfield, would mean giving up the hope of restoration to perfection. Ayn Rand’s ideal man is also a boy who can’t bear to grow up. He creates his own fantasy society, where he is omnipotent and compromise is prohibited--not all that different from the Catcher in Caulfield’s secret fantasy.
It’s easy to see why Holden Caulfield and John Galt can capture the imagination of a sensitive, intelligent adolescent struggling in the passage to adulthood. Some of these kids are doing their best to resist the awareness that they are deeply brokenhearted by the loss of an idealized world.
Novels like Catcher in the Rye and Atlas Shrugged affirm their experience of reality, while exploring narcissistic solutions to human shortcoming that resonate with the reader's own defensive style. The Catcher is a godlike figure who saves the children from evil humanity. Galt holds the secret to cheap, unlimited power, withholding it from the evil world he abandoned. Both the Catcher and Galt can feel deeply needed by a world they cannot bear to live in. While the escape into omnipotent fantasy provides relief from the position of powerless imperfection, it is just as important that these characters tell the brokenhearted that they are not alone—that they are understood.
There is, however, at least one other road on the way to adulthood. Heinz Kohut would say that idealism tempered by a tolerant, forgiving realism, and the ability to appreciate what is good while learning to bear disappointment with oneself and others, is the road beyond infantile narcissism. He would also say that the road taken is largely determined by everything that came before.
Once again, where one stands on the political spectrum seems to dictate where one stands on the question of whether President Obama was right to call out the Supreme Court for last week's decision in Citizens United. The divide is less partisan over whether Justice Alito acted properly in mouthing/mumbling "No, that's not right" in response. So, from the right, e.g., Calvin Massey, Randy Barnett, Ann Althouse; from the right, e.g., Eric Muller, Jack Balkin (who adds a historical perspective), and Norman Williams' comments here. Refreshingly, Jonathan Chait of TNR can't understand the squeamishness from the left about a Republican disagreeing with the substance of a Democratic President's speech.
As usual, this is all silly. Of course the President (and any member of Congress) are entirely within the bounds of their structural powers and the doctrine of separation of powers to criticize the Court for its decisions. Especially when there is not much Congress can do to undo the decision. The other branches have largely ceded to the Court responsibility for constitutional interpretation; they cannot also cede the power to speak out about the Court's work. In fact, Obama's precursor about "all due deference to separation of powers" was unnecessary. Separation of powers assumes a conversation among the branches--they have to talk to one another, sometimes quite sharply.
Of course members of one governmental branch are free to criticize the actions of another branch of government. In the course of doing its job, the court must sometimes pass judgment on the actions of congress and the executive branch. Members of congress routinely criticize the president and the courts. And the president is free to criticize congress and the courts.
What makes this particular criticism of Obama so utterly hypocritical is the fact that Republican members of congress have regularly blasted the federal courts. Those awful unelected judges are overriding the will of the people. Sound familiar?
And here is President Bush criticizing the judiciary in his 2004 State of the Union address:
Activist judges, however, have begun redefining marriage by court order, without regard for the will of the people and their elected representatives. On an issue of such great consequence, the people's voice must be heard. If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process. Our Nation must defend the sanctity of marriage.
Last June, we also heard Senator McCain criticize the Supreme Court decision to allow Guantanamo detainees access to federal courts. But last night, McCain's former vice presidential running mate complained about Obama's lack of respect for separation of powers:
This is why people are disenchanted and are becoming more and more disengaged really from what their government is doing, because when we see an issue like this -- words spoken that may not be true coming from our president and embarrassing our Supreme Court and not respecting the separation of powers -- we have a problem.
No we do not have a problem. Presidents and congressional representatives from her party have criticized the courts, including the Supreme Court. It is their right to do so. This statement from Sarah Palin is the sort of stunningly silly comment that leads many to regard her as either a dishonest, pandering populist or a plain old ignoramus. I should note that it also possible to be both.
About That Grimace
As it happens, I am convinced that Obama is wrong about the predicted effects of the Citizens United decision. And I wasn't bothered by Alito's grimace or his mouthing the words "not true."
Still, if there is any area for reasonable disagreement about the Obama-Alito moment last night, it might be about decorum during the SOTU. Is it too impolite for the president to directly single out an individual or a small group of individuals in his audience for criticism during the SOTU address? Is it okay for members of the audience to grimace or silently mouth protest? Is it wrong for members of the audience to shout out their disapproval from time to time? Cheering and applauding is accepted; why not a little booing?
Granted, politeness is generally a good thing. I don't like the idea of shouting down a speaker from the audience. But the president is not a monarch; he is a politician.
I wouldn't want to see the president, congress or judges treated with a level of polite deference that rules out public criticism, even if it comes in the form of a grimace or a boo during the SOTU, as long as the president is not prevented from discharging his constitutional duty "to give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."