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Michael Jackson, Child Abuse, and JW Apologist Firpo Carr

Michael Jackson, Child Abuse, and JW Apologist Firpo Carr

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” – William James

Recently, I participated in an online discussion in the comments of an article written by a prominent friend/adviser to the late Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson & Jehovah’s Witnesses, by Firpo Carr

The Michael Jackson case and the issue of child abuse are both important to me, but I didn’t really know who Firpo Carr was when I made my first comment. I’d run into his name before, but I was a little under-prepared for his particular style of debate. I felt pretty battered by the end of it, much like what happens when I try to have a political discussion with someone who has already been stirred up by their favorite propaganda machine.

His back and forth with Jerry Bergman is illuminating and true to form.

A sampling of Carr’s other L.A. Sentinel articles for you to chew on:

One article on money and priorities took an argument that was very familiar to me from JW days, and made it much more compelling and interesting. He’s clearly a smart guy, but something….

I hadn’t really thought about this very much before, but there might be a serious educational problem with a dependence on some forms of long-distance learning, especially at the upper levels in the humanities. Potential scholars may simply lose too much by not participating on-site at their universities. There is a sort of human osmosis effect that can only be learned by being there. It’s important to have both peers that are interacting with you and trustworthy mentors that can call attention to your blind spots without attacking you as a person. It may be more difficult to absorb the values and norms of dialogue and debate if you’re not part of the ebb and flow of discussion.

On campus, you become part of a network of friendship that includes worthy adversaries, and you develop different skills as you learn how to respect people independently of whether or not you have disagreements. Constant exposure to a wide range of scholarship and discussion not only helps the scholar to develop an ethical sense of discernment, but also models the qualities that they admire (or reject!) in a teacher. At its best, university life at the graduate level is amazingly liberating, intellectually stimulating, and fulfilling.

It’s not just the “immorality” (sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll) of university life that JWs object to, it’s the training in strong interpretations and critical thinking, along with the ethics of scholarship, that would be dangerous for them to condone in their followers. Independent thinking is against their religion.

Firpo Carr has written a fair number of books. Good for him for being so prolific! However, some supplemental reading might be helpful. Start with a selection from my page of reading recommendations for former JWs. To that, add:

Why? Because this latter list contains non-JW-influenced resources for understanding some aspects of the mindset that can lead people to be manipulated – and possibly continue the chain.

To stick to the topic at hand, though, readers should be aware that child abuse among Jehovah’s Witnesses is a systemic problem, one that is reinforced by setting unreachable standards of perfection, demonizing “worldly authorities,” defending questionable biblical interpretations with out-of-context snippets, defending the two-witness rule for any accusation of foul play, subordinating women, presenting an almost comical style of discourse and argument, hours of weekly meetings for repetition and reinforcement, the paucity of choices for a mate, the fear of disfellowshipping and abandonment by friends and family, the threat of demonic possession, the undermining of kindness, and the almost complete lack of pastoral care.

Firpo Carr can of course believe what he likes and project what he needs to – his path is none of my concern – but it’s a very odd position from which to deny or rationalize child abuse. Even more so now, I wish that I had followed my instincts while Michael was still alive. Michael Jackson describes some of the abuse he and his siblings suffered at the hands of his father in this video.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mc8HjdK7kJ8[/youtube]

Watch that, then read our discussion. Remember that Firpo Carr says he was Michael’s friend. I’m sorry, but I have serious doubts that Firpo Carr brought much of spiritual value to the friendship. Now he says that Michael Jackson took him aside and told him that he wished his children to be brought up as Jehovah’s Witnesses – and to have them study with Carr!

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnAhcHMgR_8[/youtube]

I wonder if Michael said that to anyone else, or (shall I be this cynical?) if he said it to anyone at all.

In related news – some new documentation on the Watchtower child sexual abuse settlement. It’s not hearsay – it’s signed, sealed with gag orders, wrapped up in lies, and delivered:

“Documents show that the church knew for years that some prominent members were sexually abusing children and did little.”

The Watchtower PR department issued a statement. “For the sake of the victims in these cases, we are pleased that a settlement has been reached.” Sigh. It’s not for the sake of the victims, or their policies would be different.

This is the way they protect known predators. Imagine how they handle psychological and physical child abuse, and then start Googling for the testimonies…

Here’s a sweet sad Monty Python/Michael Jackson mashup. Maybe it will start to express the inexpressible value of caring and kindness.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1Z04RssKWI[/youtube]

For a while, Michael was able to redefine and transform his experience. He created music that brought fun – and even joy – to people all over the world.

I will remember him that way.

Haunted by Buzzer

Haunted by Buzzer

I give up. I can’t get the song “Buzzer” out of my head. It’s been days now, and despite my attempts to put it out of my mind it’s affecting me at a deep emotional level. It’s not unusual for me to have a song running through my head now and again, but this one is a little different. I’m getting noodged (smile-out) to write about it, and it’s clear that I’m going to be haunted by this song until I do.

The song very obviously refers to Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment on authoritarianism, and is written from the perspective of a participant – one of the people who “pressed the buzzer” that appeared to give other people increasingly painful electrical shocks.

Controversy surrounded Stanley Milgram for much of his professional life as a result of a series of experiments on obedience to authority which he conducted at Yale University in 1961-1962. He found, surprisingly, that 65% of his subjects, ordinary residents of New Haven, were willing to give apparently harmful electric shocks-up to 450 volts-to a pitifully protesting victim, simply because a scientific authority commanded them to, and in spite of the fact that the victim did not do anything to deserve such punishment. The victim was, in reality, a good actor who did not actually receive shocks, and this fact was revealed to the subjects at the end of the experiment. But, during the experiment itself, the experience was a powerfully real and gripping one for most participants.

Below you can see a video and the lyrics to the song. A higher-quality version of the song is here at NPR, recorded live in concert from WXPN and Wiggins Park in Philadelphia on July 11, 2008. I would be surprised if Dar Williams doesn’t talk about “Buzzer” in the NPR interview, but I’m resisting listening to it until I’ve worked this through.

[youtube width=”400″ height=”343″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwvLzG51EWQ[/youtube]

Dar Williams, “Buzzer” (from “Promised Land”)

Sitting with the number eight platter at the restaurant,
Four twenty-nine for almost anything I want,
Add it up, it’s cheaper than the stuff I make myself,
I get by, I never needed anybody’s help,
And I tore out an ad and they told me that I
Would press the buzzer, press the buzzer,
At the graduate lab, they were doing some tests,
I pressed the buzzer, pressed the buzzer.

Ride the circle off of the highway.
Spiral into the driveway,
In the maze of old prefabs
They’ll be waiting at the lab.

I don’t know how everybody makes it through the daily drill,
Paint their nails, walk a dog, pay every bill,
I’m feeling sorry for this guy that I press to shock,
He gets the answers wrong, I have to up the watts
And he begged me to stop, but they told me to go,
I press the buzzer, I press the buzzer.
So get out of my head, just give me my line.
I press the buzzer, I press the buzzer.

Ride the circle off of the highway,
Spiral into the driveway,
In the maze of old prefabs
They’ll be waiting at the lab.

They called me back to the lab to discuss the test,
I put my earrings on, found my heels, wore a dress.
Right away I knew, it was like I’d failed a quiz
The man said “Do you know what a fascist is?”
I said, “Yeah, it’s when you do things you’re not proud of,
But you’re scraping by, taking orders from above.”
I get it now, I’m the face, I’m the cause of war
We don’t have to blame white-coated men anymore.

When I knew it was wrong, I played it just like a game,
I pressed the buzzer, I pressed the buzzer,
Here’s your seventy bucks, now everything’s changed,
I press the buzzer, I press the buzzer
But tell me where are your stocks, would you do this again?
I press the buzzer,
And tell me who made your clothes, was it children or men?
I press the buzzer.

Ride the circle off of the highway,
Spiral into the driveway,
In the maze of old prefabs
They’ll be waiting at the lab.

The opening of the song evokes the character of the singer, a self-reliant northeastern woman of the early sixties. She’s focused on the details of getting through each day, cutting corners, trying to be a responsible person. Seventy dollars for her participation would have been decent pay.

Right from the first chorus, there is something sinister about the people “waiting at the lab,” especially since they are surrounded by all the spirals and mazes in the chorus. The words are reinforced by the melody and the way the sound slows and expands, and the image of the people waiting in the middle of the maze is the last echoing image of the song.

She’s not without compassion. She’s not a sadist. She feels sorry, in a distant sort of way, for the man that she thinks she is training, or punishing, or torturing. His inability to get the answers right is associated structurally with a failure to meet everyday stresses and challenges; an implied judgment is yoked to a certain kind of empathy.

When he begs her to stop, she is told by an authority figure (one of the white-coated men, no doubt) to go on. And she does, without much further comment except the repetition of “I press the buzzer” throughout the rest of the song.

She would have been one of the majority who continued to press the buzzer (the button, the shocker) up to the limits of the experiment. I wonder if this song drew from the testimony of one of the actual participants. Imagine how horrible it would be to realize that you were capable of doing something like this, and not even under any dire choice or extraordinary sense of necessity, but just because there was an authority figure that told you it was all right and released you from attaching any sense of personal ethics and responsibility to your actions.

What a setup. What a perfect, horrifying setup.

It’s no big surprise that the Milgram experiment was controversial. It was a terrible thing to do to people, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some people were affected by it for the rest of their lives. I would be devastated to learn such an ugly truth about myself. But there were some, later, that were thankful for the experience; they learned a deep-down lesson.

62% wouldn’t refuse to continue? The results shocked the world. For many, it seemed to explain how Hitler could have transformed the “good Germans” into a nation that could condone and participate in the events of World War II.

I have always wondered what I would have done. The experiment itself has a high heuristic function, so once you know about it you can never really be sure what you would have done if you had not known about it. I think I would have protested, and then refused to continue – but I have never been totally and absolutely sure. That faint uncertainty in the background adds to my horror and sadness about the experiment – and probably makes the song more emotionally resonant and powerful. Milgram’s study of obedience to authority brought many insights that have been used for good – and for evil – in the years since.


For me, the song centers on the line “we don’t have to blame white-coated men anymore.” It comes after the realization of what has really happened here. Standing there, having failed the life quiz, dressed up in heels and a dress, to realize… But there is a bit of cognitive dissonance here. Yes, she admits it – “I get it now, I’m the face of war” but that doesn’t let off the “white-coated men” at all. Not at all. Mengele did experiments. The U.S. government has done some fairly awful experiments too. And there is a lot of debate in scientific circles about utilizing the results of experiments when human suffering has been involved. Even when the results are valid, it makes one complicit in what was done to achieve those results.

There is a vague undercurrent of anti-intellectualism in the song, which I understand because it strikes back at judgment. “You think you’re so much better than me? You think you’re so ethical. You’re not any better than me. You’d do the same, you people waiting at the lab.” There is a challenge here. “If I’m the fascist,” she seems to be saying, “then as I ask myself, ask yourself too: In what ways are you doing the same? Tell me about your stock portfolio, tell me about who makes your clothes, children or men! Have you stopped to consider all the many compromises we make in our lives every day, the ones that support human suffering under authoritarian power? I’m guilty, but you won’t even think about how you are part of the same system, how you shunt off the responsibility of it.”

An aspect of the Milgram experiment that has always bothered me is how Milgram staged it. Obviously, he couldn’t have Gestapo-uniformed people as the authority figures. I always thought it was an interesting choice to select scientists, people who looked like doctors, maybe. That’s a comment on the scientific community, and on the medical profession – isn’t it? – that they can be switched out for Nazis so easily.

And a further thing. I’ve never been completely satisfied with the explanations given about why a majority of the people continued to administer the shocks. There may be a very small minority who are sadists. Then there are the people who would start to feel uncomfortable. At what point would each person need to be urged to continue? And WHY would they continue? Really why? In his 1974 article, “The Perils of Obedience,” Milgram said:

The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

The participants were not urged with persuasion. Only these statements were used, and in this order:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

The experiment was halted if the participant expressed a desire to stop after all 4 statements. Otherwise, it was continued to the maximum of three 450-volt shocks. Other scientists have confirmed the consistency of the results: 61–66 percent, regardless of time or place, will continue.

How is this to be explained? Really?

What we have are theories, and despite the evidence I see – even from the pseudo-religious right and the flag-wavers and all of those groups who hand over their critical faculties to an outside authority, I’m not entirely convinced by either the conformity theory or the agentic state theory.

The theory of conformism comes from the work of Soloman Asch. It says that someone who has neither the ability nor the expertise to make decisions will let their in-group’s hierarchical authorities make the decisions. I call this the theory of the follower. It is everywhere around us, but it runs counter to what I see as America’s attempt to create a society of free individuals.

The agentic state theory is where Milgram went, and it says that under uncritical obedience an individual starts to view him/herself as the instrument for carrying out someone else’s wishes (an authority – a person, a group, an ideology, a god) and therefore no longer sees himself as responsible for his actions. It does make sense to me that once such a fundamental viewpoint change has happened, everything essentially bad about simple obedience to authority follows.

Both of these are descriptive. They don’t provide much on how to counteract some of the negative aspects of complicance with perceived authority. We desperately need some insights on how to break these tendencies. They tried to do it in the late sixties – there were some who really tried. It was a failure, ultimately.

I’ve sometimes wondered if the participants might have been frightened for themselves. In a context where someone was being hurt, the leverage of intimidation might have been under-analyzed. “Better him than me,” right? There is a subtle threatening aspect to certain forms of authority. Could a quick cost-benefit speculation figure into this at all? Did they feel that they could be punished in some way if they did not obey, if they were not compliant? Or are the majority of people really that easily manipulated?

This song can’t help but remind me of the mechanisms of social control at work in America today.

We often assume that there is some kind of ubiquitous “They” who determine what the “right thing to do” might be. “They” are rarely identified…

We’ve already allowed so much, but our fanaticism in various realms of ideology have been, and will continue to be, so very destructive. In college, I thought the theories that talked about “control of the masses” were quaint. That only seemed to apply to crazy places like the USSR. (I was young….)

Preachers of the past might have said that we are losing our souls, but some of the powerful reconstructionists and literalistic bible-thumpers and last-days people and others among the pseudoreligious right are among the most hurtful and powerful authoritarians that we have. They’re no help at all. And we worship Money – the circulation of capital leaving a a slash and burn zone whose results we are just beginning to harvest. And we have dehumanized other citizens of Earth as though they were some demonic Other to ourselves.

Education was my hope. Let’s just say that I’m not as optimistic about that anymore.

We have already nodded to torture and illegal surveillance and oppression and grandiose imperial ambitions and seizure of natural resources and so on and so on and so on. Our crimes are immense. We’re just trying to get through the day. Other people are in control, and it’s up to them. Many of us don’t even bother to find out about the issues. We haven’t thought about the results very much until it hit our pocketbooks. I wonder if anyone will ever describe us as the “good Americans.” What Milgram proved is that the Germans weren’t any worse than us.

We press the buzzer.

(Addendum after the first posting: Dar Williams did talk about “Buzzer” in the NPR interview. She described the experiment, and said that she has thought about it often over the years since she first found out about it in college. Later, she accidentally rear-ended a woman in a traffic accident and, because the woman was from New Haven, it reminded her about the Milgram experiment. Talking to her gave Dar Williams the outline of the character in the song. She felt that she was being responsible by doing what “she was supposed to do.” Then, having realized what that really meant, the woman was sensitized to that dynamic and wouldn’t participate in it again. It was transformative.)

JW Door-to-Door Mindset

JW Door-to-Door Mindset

Stumbled across a fictional service call that gives a more honest view of the mentality of that Jehovah’s Witness at your door.

A little sample:

Witness: Well, God’s going to kill you. And … well, I can see from the toys in your yard that you have children. Am I right?

Householder: Yes.

Witness: Well, God’s going to kill them, too. And it’ll be your fault. There. You’ve been warned. I’ve just discharged my own responsibility, so the bloodguilt is yours now. When God kills your kids, it’ll be all your fault. So you better take these magazines.

Householder: But we pray to God every night. We even pray together, as a family! My wife and my daughter and I kneel every evening before we tuck her in, and she folds her hands and prays for us and for her dolls and for Rover, her puppy …

Witness: That’s cute and all, but I’m afraid it isn’t enough.

Householder: So my daughter …

Witness: Dead.

Householder: And my wife …

Witness: Dead …

Householder: What about Rover?

Witness: Dead. Dead dead dead dead dead. Look, are you going to take the magazines or not?

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