Thursday, April 30, 2009

Harvey Milk, Dan White, and the “Twinkie Defense”

I was incredibly moved tonight by an amazing film. It was the poignant and searing true story of Harvey Milk, gay rights icon and San Francisco Supervisor, who, in 1978, was murdered along with Mayor George Moscone by fellow councilman Dan White. The film took home two Oscars – Sean Penn for his portrayal of Milk and Dustin Lance Black for Best Original Screenplay.

During the trial, White’s lawyers offered the court the idea that the murders coincided with White’s increased consumption of high-sugar and other junk foods. White was convicted of manslaughter, not murder, and served five years of his sentence before being released. White’s lawyers argued that he suffered from diminished capacity, and the press dubbed it the “Twinkie defense.” When the film’s trailing commentary highlighted this fabricated term I was reminded of just how absurd the explanation was.

The irony of the label is that Twinkies never appeared in the court transcripts. Nevertheless, the public has maintained the misperception that a physical phenomenon, akin to a sugar rush, explains White’s cruel and despicable acts. In A View from the Cosmic Mirror, the “Twinkie defense” is an example of what is referred to as the crazy mirror. Over the last 30 years, we have medicalized our explanations of social behavior. If we are depressed we’re to take a pill to remedy it. If the pill does not work we are asked to take another pill to augment it. This has been the strategy of one pharmaceutical company who persuades us to add their pill to an antidepressant regimen when the symptoms of depression persist.

Insistently attributing medical causes in explaining cruel social actions does not make them true. From the perspective of the cosmic mirror, the cruel and inhumane treatment of others stems from buried reflections of the self, acted out in ways that mirror the darkness and cruelty contained within us. The film Milk depicts the troubled inner world of Dan White (played by Josh Brolin) leading to his assassination of Moscone and Milk. In the film, Milk shares with others his intuition that White was secretly closeting from himself his denied inner fears and conflicts about his homosexuality. White kills Milk who is merely the outer representation of White’s own shadow – his denied homosexuality. This is the nature of the cosmic mirror – that we often project into the world what is denied within us. Here we clearly see the destructiveness of being unaware of the depth of our shadow.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Eliot Spitzer Blames Hooker Scandal on "Gremlins"

If you are open to it, you can find the cosmic mirror everywhere. On the Today Show with Matt Lauer, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer blamed his attraction to prostitutes on his ‘Gremlins.” As Spitzer said, “There are no excuses. I've tried to address these gremlins and confront them." Spitzer was apparently referring to the darker side of his personality about which he was formerly in much denial. When asked by Lauer if he ever was worried about getting caught, Spitzer replied, "It crossed my mind.” His response came across to me as prepared but pathetically understated.

Spitzer’s exposure and resignation is example of what can happen when we get stuck in one aspect of our personality, and the cosmic mirror is one way we can understand it. The structure of our personality can be thought of as comprised of many dimensions, each anchored by their polar extremes – e.g., kind-cruel, patient-impulsive, honest-dishonest, accepting-rejecting. Without our awareness, one end often can become exaggerated. The other end becomes denied. Before his resignation, Spitzer was viewed as a “White Knight,” “The Sheriff of Wall Street,” and “Mr. Clean.” He was a fierce defender of ethics. Then, the FBI exposed his hidden and darker side – frequently using the services of high-priced call-girls. When the FBI’s evidence was publicly released, his image was fatally tarnished.

When we are at a very early age, as children, we mentally split or separate our sense of people and objects in our outer world into purely “good” and “bad” compartments. As we do, we also place our view of ourselves into one of these categories. Like two ends of a magnet, these polarities of “good” and “bad” are opposites of each other. As children, we also use a variety of other polarities or opposites in order to make crude distinctions for ourselves. For example, as a child, we construct and organize our world around such polarities as “light” and “dark,” “warm” and “cold,” “love” and “hate,” and so forth. As an adult, all of us do this as well. But many times, we can get lost or trapped at one end of a polarity or the other.

Ironically, Spitzer’s illicit behavior was not unlike the crimes of those he prosecuted when he was the New York State Attorney General. From the view of the cosmic mirror, Spitzer got caught up in an overly inflated image of himself. This was his persona – his outer image to others. He failed to give sufficient voice to the darkness within him. He also denied the likelihood of being caught and the real consequences to his life should others find out about his behavior. It seems that he may have been able to see only the darkness in those he prosecuted; not in himself. He blinded himself to his own self-destructiveness. And as often happens, he ended up acting out his denied dark side. These are the lessons from within the cosmic mirror.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Cosmic Mirror and the New York Post Chimp Cartoon

Like many people, I was appalled by the New York Post’s cartoon depicting two police officers shooting and killing a monkey then oddly quipping, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” As I did, the cartoon was widely interpreted as likening President Barack Obama to a chimpanzee. People around the world demanded the New York Post apologize for its senseless racial and political thoughtlessness.

I was bewildered and angered with the cartoon as were employees of the New York Post, who were inundated with complaints of racial prejudice. While at first defending the cartoon, New York Post chairman Rupert Murdoch eventually stated, “Last week, we made a mistake. We ran a cartoon that offended many people. Today I want to personally apologize to any reader who felt offended, and even insulted. Over the past couple of days, I have spoken to a number of people and I now better understand the hurt this cartoon has caused.”

What does the cosmic mirror have to say about what happened? From the perspective of the cosmic mirror, the editors of the New York Post initially denied considering how the cartoon could be interpreted as offensive. What was patently obvious in hindsight was the part of themselves they could not see. It was contained and hidden in the shadows of their emotional makeup. The hostility implied in their racial insensitivity was both denied and projected into the content of the cartoon itself. One way of looking at it was that the editors distanced themselves from the disowned feelings within themselves by placing it out into the world. Once, denied, the outward expression of their passive hostility took the form of the radically insensitive cartoon.

The idea of projecting our disowned and unwanted attributes onto others is ubiquitous and is the basis of scapegoating. Scapegoats come in many forms, are powerful mirrors of our own shadow, and are created to rid us of responsibility for our own failings and shortcomings. We blame others rather than acknowledging our own flaws. You can learn more about scapegoating, the psychic roots of prejudice, and the process of denial and projection in A View from the Cosmic Mirror: Reflections of the Self in Everyday Life.