This week’s selected media: April 14, 2024: The Denial of Death, Braving the Wilderness, Future Shock documentary, Al Gore’s Climate Leadership Training

April 14, 2024 by Joshua
in Tips

This week I finished:

The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker: A friend I considered insightful recommended this book over a decade ago. At last I got a copy from the library. Reading it made me glad to have the PhD in physics. Otherwise, I’d feel stupid. It read to me like a salad of hard words strung together, maybe more like spaghetti. It seems like Freud created a bunch of models for people based not on experiment, but just making things up and writing about it. Then a bunch of intellectuals took up his ideas and started expanding on them, with complex language.

I quote below one of the craziest passages, surrounding one of the most implausible and eyebrow-raising sentences, “Why is it that the fetishist needs some object like a shoe or a corset before he can begin to make love to a woman? Freud answered: ‘To put it plainly: the fetish is a substitute for the woman’s (mother’s) phallus which the little boy once believed in and does not wish to forego.'”

On what did he base this idea (I can’t call it a hypothesis, which would imply someone intended to test it, which I doubt.)? I can’t tell, but his acolytes followed along.

The reason that it is worth dwelling on so seemingly an esoteric and marginal matter as the perversions is that they are not marginal at all. So much has been written on them precisely because they are the core problem of human action. They reveal what is at stake in that action better than any other behavior because they narrow it down to its essentials. In this sense the perversions are truly the sub-atomic theory of the human sciences, the nucleus where the basic particles and energies are concentrated. This is why, too, they are usually reserved for the advanced and sophisticated student. But now, after we have covered so much ground, our summary will really be a review of everything we have discussed and so should be understandable with ease. 

We saw earlier in several examples that Freud’s genius opened up whole new territories to the understanding, and yet he phrased his formulations in such narrow and single-minded terms that they obscured matters and caused a continued scientific debate long past the need for such debate. Nowhere is this more true than on the problem of the perversions. Freud made possible the conquest of this most difficult terrain, and yet once again he caused us to shrug in disbelief. Take fetishism, which is surely the paradigm of perversion and which Freud himself used as a kind of epitome of his whole theoretical system. Why is it that the fetishist needs some object like a shoe or a corset before he can begin to make love to a woman? Freud answered: 'To put it plainly: the fetish is a substitute for the woman’s (mother’s) phallus which the little boy once believed in and does not wish to forego.'

Note the utter assurance of that last phrase. The 'reason' is that the female genitals prove the reality of castration and awaken the horror of it for oneself. The only way to triumph over this threat is to “give” the woman a phallus, however artificially and symbolically; and the fetish is precisely the “token of triumph over the threat of castration and a safeguard against it... .” With it, the fetishist can proceed to have intercourse. The fetish “saves the fetishist from being a homosexual by endowing women with the attribute which makes them acceptable as sexual objects.” In a word, the fetish gives him the courage to be a man. Freud was so confident of his formulation that he said categorically:

Probably no male human being is spared the terrifying shock of threatened castration at the sight of the female genitals... . [And he concluded triumphantly:] "Investigations into fetishism are to be recommended to all who still doubt the existence of the castration complex."

I don’t know why, but I decided to finish the book no matter what, even though I couldn’t understand most of it. I think I thought it would build to a great crescendo of a conclusion. It started strong, the introduction and first chapter or two. Then it just seemed overly intellectualized, ungrounded. The book won a Pulitzer Prize and got great reviews, so maybe I’m missing the point, not them. I didn’t see a grand conclusion.

I did see a few insights, but I can’t remember them now. I haven’t researched about it, so will read articles and reviews about it to see if I missed anything.

I think a lot of the writer’s community of psychologists’ ideas got replaced with evolutionary psychology and other alternatives that I find make more sense. Maybe we couldn’t have reached what makes more sense without this stage.


Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, by Brené Brown: I knew her name and probably saw her first TED talk, but hadn’t read her books. This one was short and became a bestseller. I’m mixed. It shared many insights, though not that groundbreaking, but her stories made them feel relevant nonetheless. It made me want to examine experiences in my life and my responses to them similar to those she shared about herself. I valued her openness.


Future Shock documentary, by Alvin Toffler: A friend recommended I read Toffler’s next book, The Third Wave. I’d seen Future Shock on my parents’ shelves growing up but never read it. I think I’d like it and suspect it ages well, in that I suspect a lot of its descriptions of that time and predictions of its near future, meaning now, are accurate. I think The Third Wave overlaps with my book’s treatment of human cultural evolution since before the Agricultural Revolution.

Climate Reality Leadership Training, led by Al Gore: They invited me, so I went. Top on the list: Gore’s slide presentation is effective. He covers a lot of major environmental issues, evoking powerful emotions, resolving them so you end up feeling hope.

Still, no one talked about growth or population. They called wind and solar “renewable,” with scant questioning their unsustainability. They treated sustainability as sacrifice, deprivation, and hard work, never intrinsically liberating or fun.

On a panel toward the end, Gore asked a panelist what she’d recommend new people. She recommended “self care.” Gore confirmed, not to burn yourself out. From a leadership perspective, they reinforced a belief that it’s hard and taxing. To me, it’s liberating and rewarding. To say don’t burn yourself out working on sustainability is like saying don’t burn yourself out going for a walk in the park or playing sports. It reinforces that most in the community haven’t actually tried living sustainably so they don’t know the actual challenges or rewards.

One speaker said, “we all fly. We all buy cell phones.” I wanted to cry out, “No we don’t!” Another person was applauded for coming from Nairobi. I doubt they sailed. I didn’t hear people living the values they claim to promote.

I don’t think I heard anyone talk about personal action to live more sustainably themselves. They wanted to blame and change politicians and corporate executives, but never themselves. I don’t know how they can expect flying to become sustainable or even limited through legislation as harming people if they keep funding it themselves.

I attended a “skills building workshop” that didn’t remotely teach skills. They don’t want to change culture. They want to make it more efficient and don’t realize they’ll accelerate it.

An organizer I talked to described them as nonpartisan as a nonprofit, but I heard a lot of liberal politics and they described conservatives and Republicans as “wrong,” “greedy,” and so on. I didn’t hear empathy or compassion for people not there. I remember whites and European settlers described negatively but not positively. So I saw them as more bound to tribe than wanting to achieve their goals.

Oh yeah, I’ve recommended never to refer only to climate unless you specifically want to wreck yet more our the other facets of nature we’re wrecking. Well, I see them doing so. A lot of stepping on the gas, thinking it’s the brake, wanting congratulations.

Still, I recommend it for the presentation and to see what one of the larger organizations working on climate is doing. Despite the tone of my description so far, I’m glad I went and that they are doing the work they’re doing. I hope to collaborate with them and for where we disagree, learn what I’m missing or help them learn what they are.

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