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Shrinking the News

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Shrinking the News brings together Coline Covington's wide range of articles from her regular column in the online newspaper, The Week. The articles cover current events from October 2008 until December 2010, concluding with more recent articles from 2013.These articles form a fascinating psychoanalytic insight on crime, politics, the economy, sports and stardom, and the quirky, bizarre events and trends that make up our daily life. The widespread popularity of these articles is a testimony to the public's interest in a psychoanalytic view of the world around us and why people do the things they do.

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1 - Why Palin Appeals to Shell-Shocked Americans


She is the perfect leader for Americans eager to apportion blame for the Wall Street crisis

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, nearly every American house and apartment building flew the national flag, and US foreign policy became in some respects as nationalistic and isolationist as it had during the McCarthy era. This was the first attack that the US had suffered on home soil since Pearl Harbor, and Americans felt more vulnerable than ever before.

This vulnerability was only exacerbated by the fact that capturing Osama bin Laden and conquering the forces of al-Qaeda were simply not happening the way they were meant to.

In the past weeks, we have witnessed an even greater attack on the US in the form of the collapse of its financial markets. What were once considered “safe-as-houses” investments are now suddenly in the high-risk category. Humpty-Dumpty has indeed had a great fall.

As a result, the US is suffering from narcissistic shell-shock. When the over-confident individual suffers a life blow that is beyond his control, his first response is usually to attempt to regain an illusion of control by blaming the “other”, whomever that “other” might be. Then, as a consequence of projecting blame onto others, the individual becomes paranoid about anything “other” or foreign, and this in turn can be used to justify further attacks. Finally, he retrenches into the stronghold of narcissistic behaviour and its promise of safety in power.


2 - The Danger of a Banker with a Power Complex


The “do-something” culture of the financial world is ill-equipped to deal with panic

There is no petrol in the state of Tennessee. And for the first time in four years, the Dow Jones has fallen below the critical 10,000 mark. In London, too, shares fell yesterday to a four-year low. In short, panic has set in with the result that people are buying feverishly or not at all.

Our word “panic” comes from the Greek god Pan, the herdsman, who was famous for being able to inspire fear and disorder among people. The Olympian victory over the assault of the Titans was attributed to Pan's power to create a “panic”. Whoever falls under the spell of a “panic” is in serious trouble.

The collapse of the financial markets has created a worldwide panic with inevitable repercussions. Even those who may be relatively untouched by what is going on have cause to worry. Individuals and institutions express their panic in one of two ways, with strikingly similar effects. There is the lemming-like behaviour in which, pressed to survive, the individual will carry on regardless of the circumstances, continuing to be active until he has actually jumped off the cliff into the icy waters to reach the other side. A perilous decision but one that is, ironically, in keeping with the way many financial institutions are run. In retrospect, Lehman Brothers’ plummet seems to fall into just this kind of category.


3 - Frieze Art Fair: Artistic or Autistic?


Symptoms of autism among the Frieze artworks

Entering the huge Frieze Art Fair pavilion in Regent's Park, you hear the sound of trickling water, an installation by Pavel Bucher. This is the first clue that nature and the environment are going to feature as a noticeable theme this year. But what is surprising is the particular way in which the environment is perceived and portrayed.

There are numerous examples of actual environments that have been re-assembled into art installations. The most striking is the Icelandic exhibit of an art bar, Sirkus, taken lock, stock, and barrel from Reykjavik by the gallery Kling and Bang and re-assembled next to the Caprice food concession.

Sirkus is a bar run by artists that opened in 1987 and recently closed. The structure and its contents, including barman and performance artists, have been faithfully re-created, and there is a long queue of fair-goers waiting to go in. The gallery claims that it has managed to create the environment of the original bar but in a different context. Nevertheless, this bar is for sale at £350,000, not including transport or VAT.


4 - The New Feminism: How Michelle Obama is Changing the Rules


Michelle Obama is a feminist success story: she is mother of two, she's graduated from two of the most prestigious universities in the US (Princeton and Harvard) and practises as a lawyer, she's a loyal, supportive wife who is also her husband's best advisor and critic, she speaks her mind and has moved the nation with her convention speech, and she is never away from home more than two nights running.

Even her wardrobe smacks of style and sense, preferring the relatively affordable chic of young American designers to haute couture—a political statement that is not lost on young American voters.

She is also African-American and her experience of racism—more than sexism—is undoubtedly an important link between her and her husband and their shared vision of a plural society.

She has been compared with Jackie Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, and Cherie Blaire, and yet there is something unmistakably different about her from any of her predecessors or European counterparts. She represents, particularly for the generation of young women in their twenties and thirties in the US who are starting careers and families, a role model that we have never seen before in the political arena.


5 - For Glamour Models, Sex is in the Eye of the Camera


Girls these days, according to writer Natasha Walter, are no longer looking for love. Casual sex is cool. As one sixth-form girl bragged, “I don't have boyfriends. I have sex with men, but I wouldn't call them boyfriends.” Natasha Walter has put her finger on the pulse in her new book, Living Dolls, to be published next month.

What is being heralded as the new feminism by some young women—being as free as men have been in the past to be promiscuous without social stigma—is being seen by others as simply a form of sexism that denigrates women under the guise of political correctness. In other words, what men can do, women can do. Fair is fair. But is the new promiscuity amongst young women really about sex or is it a lust for fame?

Leading the trend at the hard end are the glamour models. These are young women who pose semi-naked for men's magazines, fashion shows, sports events, corporate events, television chat shows, and the list goes on. They typically start their careers on the internet, posting suggestive photographs of themselves and citing talents in acting or music.


6 - Financial Failure is Simply the Final, Fatal Blow


Insurmountable anger, not losing millions, is often the determining factor in suicide cases linked to debt

How many more victims of the financial crisis will there be? The US, the UK, Japan, India, and Egypt have all reported growing concern over suicides linked to debt. They are wise to be worried: in Japan, the suicide rate increased by thirty-four per cent during the 1998 financial crisis.

On the face of it, it is hardly surprising that a sudden downturn in an individual's finances can precipitate depression and, in certain cases, suicide. But what is most striking about many of the suicides reported here and in the US in the last few months is their extreme rage. Men who have lost their fortunes kill themselves and sometimes their families as well; wives kill themselves when their husbands lose everything; men and women kill themselves as their houses are repossessed.

These suicides may appear to be fuelled by despair, helplessness, shame, and, in some cases, guilt, but in many cases the suicide note reveals overwhelming anger. One woman, facing foreclosure on her house, wrote to the mortgage company: “You have failed to protect me. You have broken your promise. You have destroyed my life.”


7 - Don't Bank on the Buffalo: Why we Need to Adapt or Die


The need for people to reinvent themselves has never been so great. But can we do it?

A patient of mine—an ex-banker—recently professed that he didn't know who to be any more because his long-term vision of being a successful, rich, powerful banker was no longer possible. He is not alone: many of his peers are having an identity crisis.

Gone are the days when it was possible to make it rich with a click of the fingers and when bonuses alone were enough for families of five to live on for years—the ideal many recent city recruits were striving for. Now, not only have the pots of gold gone into negative equity, but the phones barely ring any more. What do you do when the conditions for a form of “success”, for example making money, cease to exist? What happens to a culture?

In Radical Hope, a fascinating study of the demise of the Native American Crow tribe's way of life, Jonathan Lear examines what it takes to keep hope for the future alive. At the age of nine, the last great Crow chief, Plenty Coups, had a dream that there would be no more buffalo and that his people would fall to the ground and nothing more would happen.


8 - How can an Oxbridge Bishop Deny the Holocaust?


Bishop Williamson's Holocaust denial is a defence strategy whose target is his own weaknesses

Bishop Richard Williamson, averting his eyes from his interviewer, solemnly claimed: “I believe there were no gas chambers.”

How can a Cambridge-educated Bishop, conversant with the ways of the world, deny that Jews were killed in gas chambers during the Holocaust?

Bishop Richard Williamson, ex-communicated along with three other Roman Catholic bishops twenty years ago for belonging to the ultra-conservative Society of St Pius X, which challenged the liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council, did just this in an interview on Swedish television last month.

He also reduced the figure of six million Jews killed in the camps to “at most 300,000”. It takes only a small amount of research to find out where the Bishop got his “facts” from—countless fringe historians offer alternative Holocaust accounts on the internet. But what is puzzling is why a man in such a position would give precedence to these “facts” when the overwhelming evidence tells a very different story.


9 - Roman Abramovich and Chelsea: It's All Dad's Fault


The Chelsea owner appears to be motivated in business dealings by feelings of abandonment

Another Chelsea Football manager bites the dust under the reign of Roman Abramovich. First, there was Claudio Ranieri, then Jose Mourinho, then Avram Grant, and now Luiz Felipe Scolari, each of them an expensive mistake.

The Russian billionaire has spent roughly £600 million on Chelsea since he acquired it in 2003. Why is he pouring all this money into a football club—and why can't any of the managers get it right, at least in the eyes of Abramovich?

His other spending habits—building an art collection with works by Bacon, Freud, and Giacometti, and helping his twenty-six-year-old girlfriend Dasha Zhukova open her contemporary art gallery in Moscow—suggest a midlife crisis. Or is there something more complex going on?

A snapshot biography of Abramovich reveals that his mother died when he was one and his father was killed when he was three. Terrible losses for a small child to endure.

He was then taken care of by two uncles and his grandmother in various households, not doing particularly well in school but finding his feet as an entrepreneur when he married his first wife, Olga, in 1987 and invested her parents’ wedding present in black-market goods. This investment tripled in value.


10 - Why Tzipi Livni Craved the Danger of a Spy's Double Life


The Israeli prime ministerial wannabe saw parallels with the double lives her parents led

Working for Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, was like “living constantly in two worlds”. These were Tzipi Livni's words to describe her life as a twenty-two-year-old working undercover in a chic quarter of Paris in the early 1980s at the height of Israel's war with Lebanon.

In an interview circulated last week by Yediot Aharanot, originally published in a censored version fourteen years ago, Livni explains, “You're loaded up all the time with adrenaline. Most of the time I was doing strange things normal people never do. I lost all my spontaneity. You must be focused and calculated all the time. Even when I went to the newsagent I would check to see if I had a tail.”

Livni only lasted a few years in Mossad before she left in 1984, when she married and launched her dazzling career in politics. Now aged fifty, negotiating to form a coalition that would make her Israel's first female prime minister since Golda Meir, her patriotic past with Mossad has been conveniently revisited in what looks like an effort to boost her reputation.


11 - Why Josef Fritzl Thought Rape was a “Lovely Idea”


By keeping his daughter in a dungeon, Fritzl was exercising the control denied to him by his mother

“Light out. Rape. Light on. Mould. Rape. In front of the children. The Uncertainty. Birth. Death. Rape.” This is the mantra that kept Elisabeth Fritzl sane for twenty-four years locked up in her father's cellar.

Above ground, everything seemed normal. Below ground, it was a horror story. At the opening of Josef Fritzl's trial this week, Christiane Burkheiser, the state prosecutor, passed around a shoebox to the jury containing objects taken from the cellar. Whatever was in the shoebox, the jurors reacted with disgust.

There is a curious symmetry about Josef Fritzl's two families. Fritzl lived upstairs with his wife, Rosemarie, where they had raised seven children and subsequently adopted three grandchildren. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to his family upstairs, Fritzl also lived downstairs in the cellar with his daughter, Elisabeth, where she gave birth to seven children after being raped continuously by her father.


12 - How Jade Goody Became the New Princess Diana


The victimhood and very public deaths of Jade Goody and the People's Princess have much in common

Jade Goody and Princess Diana had much in common, not least the psychological roots of their stratospheric popularity. Like Jade, Diana was portrayed as a victim of the press, right up to the ravening presence of the paparazzi at her moment of death. Like Jade, Diana portrayed herself as a victim, in Diana's case of the royal family.

The story line is archetypal: the heroine sins, repents by claiming she was a victim of her circumstances, and attains love through her suffering. It is the universal story of the innocent woman who has been tainted by external forces and redeems herself through sacrifice—ultimately through death. She is the willing scapegoat, or in Goody's words, “escape goat”, who sacrifices herself to purify the sins of others and to maintain the established order. This is the masochist's revenge against a world that has caused her harm.

This is something that that master of popular psychology, Max Clifford, had acutely realised. Under his tutelage, Jade managed to transform herself from a figure of scandal and ridicule to an icon of heroic suffering. Clifford told us how Jade came to him for help when her career was at rock bottom: “I knew her well enough to know that she was more sinned against than sinning.”


13 - Nicholas Hughes was Killed by Sylvia Plath, his Envious Mother


Tortured by the ghost of his envious mother, Nicholas Hughes's suicide was inevitable

Nicholas Hughes had a nightmare start in life. His mother, Sylvia Plath, had a history of fighting her own inner demons that must have made it especially difficult for her to be there in her mind for her two children, Frieda and Nicholas—born a year apart.

Her husband, Ted Hughes, separated from Sylvia before Nicholas's first birthday, and only months later Sylvia committed suicide. As a small infant, Nicholas would have been extremely sensitive to his mother's depression, and this would leave an indelible fault line in his own personality. Forty-six years after his mother committed suicide, Nicholas has followed suit by hanging himself at his home in Alaska.

Children whose parents have committed suicide—at no matter what age—tend to feel not only responsible for their parents’ depression and ultimate suicide, but also profoundly rejected by them.

In short, the parent who kills herself is perceived by the child as not loving him enough to want to live. Any close relationships that might arise subsequently are fraught with trauma, insecurity, and dread.


14 - Inside this Head: How Paranoia Turned Phil Spector into a Killer


The term “paranoia” originates from the Greek meaning madness or disorder of the mind. It is a chronic psychosis that is characterised by systems of delusion that nevertheless leave the intellect functioning. Most typically, the paranoid personality suffers from delusions of persecution. Throughout Phil Spector's arrest and subsequent trials for murder, he has insisted on his innocence, claiming that Lana Clarkson committed suicide because her career was at rock bottom.

Spector then went a step further, expressing his fury that Clarkson had done this to him. A transcript of Spector's statement at the time of his arrest records him describing Clarkson as “a piece of shit. And I don't know what her fucking problem was, but she certainly had no right to come to my fucking castle, blow her fucking head and (indecipherable) a murder.” During his trial, Spector was shown photographs of Clarkson's blasted head and looked off into the distance, absorbed in himself, without showing any feeling.

The prosecutor in Phil Spector's retrial described him as a “very dangerous man who had a history of playing Russian roulette with women”. Five women who had dated Spector—going back to the 1970s—testified that he had pulled weapons on them when they had refused his advances. Ronnie Spector, Phil's first wife until 1972, claimed that he threatened to kill her if she ever left him. John Lennon and Leonard Cohen, both produced by Spector, also had guns drawn on them.


15 - Why Britain's Got Talent's Susan Boyle Makes People Weep


Unassuming yet quietly confident, the astonishing rise by the Scottish singing spinster is a tale of two egos

Several patients—both women and men—have told me about the moving success story of [Britain's Got Talent singer] Susan Boyle with tears pouring down their cheeks. As one patient put it: “I've spent most of my life trying to be so good, to do the right thing, to be perfect and it's been such a waste of time, a waste of life. Susan Boyle has broken through all that stuff and has gone ahead and done what she's wanted to do. She doesn't have to be somebody she's not.”

Max Clifford, the publicist, points out that the “magical moments which we as a nation love” are those that challenge our assumptions and prejudices. Boyle has challenged the stereotype of what it takes to be a successful woman—Cinderella has not been transformed into a Princess, she has been a Princess all along, but without the material trappings of one.

I dreamed a dream in time gone by, when hope was high and life worth living.” These are the opening—and extraordinarily apt—lyrics of Susan Boyle's astonishing and unexpected rave performance last week on Britain's Got Talent. A dumpy, forty-seven-year-old single Scottish woman, Boyle is the epitome of the old maid who has long gone past her sell-by date. She lives alone with her cat, Pebbles, openly professes that she has never been kissed, is unemployed, and has spent most of her adult life doing charitable work and, more recently, caring for her mother, who died in 2007.


16 - Torturing Terrorists is Bad for your Health


The pain suffered by individuals and states when they use “enhanced interrogation techniques”

A patient of mine, in a fit of rage, cried out, “Two can play at this game. I'm going to torture my brother just like he has tortured me all these years. I've been terrified of him and if I don't fight back, he'll wipe me out. It's the only way to stop him!” There was a depressed silence and he then said, “The only thing that stops me is that I know if I did this, he would just hit back even harder. It wouldn't stop him—in fact, it's exactly what he wants me to do so the game will go on forever—we'll forever be locked in battle. It's like a terminal bond. And at the end of the day, I would hate myself even more than I hate him. I'd be no different than him. He'd really win then.”

What my patient said encapsulates much of the dynamics of the torturer and the tortured. My patient has for many years been terrorised by a psychopathic brother who has been intent on destroying him. He has felt helpless, frightened, and trapped. He has also felt murderous.


17 - The Psychological Trauma behind Surrogate Pregnancies


Why Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick opted for a surrogate pregnancy

Life imitates fiction. What is more appropriate than Sarah Jessica Parker, star of Sex and the City, having twins via a surrogate mother with her actor husband, Matthew Broderick?

The women in Sex and the City want all the things that men want—and more. They want to be rich and powerful, free in their sexual relations, able to have babies and carry on as if nothing has happened, and believe that anything is possible if there is enough money to pay for it.

The reality is that it doesn't work like that. Even with surrogate motherhood, an increasingly popular solution to infertility or the incapacity to have a baby, there are psychological hazards beneath the surface.

While Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, who already have a six-year-old son but have been unable to conceive since, are not imitations of the characters in Sex and the City, their announcement that they have employed a surrogate mother, due to give birth this summer, raises questions not only about morality but about the psychology of prospective parents who choose this option. The baby represents a magical phallus that can be created at will without effort.


18 - Farrah Fawcett in Denial as she Films Cancer Battle


There can be no happy ending to Farrah's Story, despite the Charlie's Angel actress's attempts to transform her death by documenting her suffering

Ryan O'Neal turns to Farrah Fawcett, lying emaciated on her death bed, and says, “We did very well last night.” She says, “What were the numbers?” They are not talking about a re-make of Love Story, this is Farrah's Story, the ninety-minute documentary aired on NBC last week of Fawcett's fight against cancer—a fight she is losing rapidly. Fawcett's showbiz joke about ratings has a double edge in this case as it is undoubtedly her final performance. And the on-again/off-again love affair between O'Neal and Fawcett has never been stronger.

Fawcett, now aged sixty-two, discovered she had cancer of the bowel in 2006 and has been fighting ever since. After chemotherapy failed, she was told by her doctors that she would have to undergo major surgery and that she would be required to wear a permanent colostomy bag. Instead of following her doctors’ advice, Fawcett turned to two German specialists who offered her a “less drastic” treatment called chemoembolisation—chemicals injected directly into the affected organs—at a cost of £3,500 a session. After a cocktail of further vitamins and chemical treatment, Fawcett was assured she was cured, and the doctors claimed it was “a miracle”. The truth was painfully revealed a few weeks later when Fawcett's scan showed that the cancer had spread to her liver.


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