Adonis Diaries

Archive for May 15th, 2015



Still Trying To Make Sense Of The MOVE Bombing: Philly

Bomb dropped from a police helicopter

Talk to some of the folks who lived through the bombing of 62nd and Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia 30 years ago, and you’ll notice that they refer to the event by its full date. May 13, 1985.

That’s how Gerald Renfrow refers to it when we talk about the inferno.

His house is about 30 yards from the compound on which the bomb was dropped — practically ground zero.

He’d been living there since long before the bombing, and now he’s the block captain, trying to hold on to the home where he grew up and raised his own family.

That’s how Perry Moody refers to it, too. His house is on the north side of Pine Street.

On that day three decades ago, he had been evacuated from the block but watched as the houses on the other side of the street were swallowed up by flames.

Perry Moody outside his home at 6225 Pine St. in Philadelphia. April Saul for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption April Saul for NPR

Perry Moody outside his home at 6225 Pine St. in Philadelphia.

So does Ramona Africa. She was actually inside the targeted house at 6221 Osage as it was battered by police bullets and deluge guns and, eventually, brought down by a makeshift bomb dropped from a police helicopter. She managed to escape the burning building.

Her fellow members of MOVE, the radical organization to which she belonged that was standing off against the City of Philadelphia, were not as lucky.

The MOVE bombing was a cataclysm for my hometown, a part of the collective memories of Philadelphians of a certain age.

I grew up in South Philly, about a 20-minute drive from ground zero, but I was just 4 when it happened, too young to remember the actual day.

But as I got older, I would learn in bits and pieces about it, and the central role it played in the history of policing in my hometown.

Map of Philadelphia

I started revisiting the story of MOVE in earnest again last fall, when the issue of race and policing had started to become a regular feature of the news.

Almost every chord from that larger metastory — the mutual distrust between the police and black communities, the militarization of local law enforcement agencies, incidents of police brutality — seemed to resonate in the particular story of the bombing.

But in the case of MOVE, the volume was turned way up. City police had killed nearly a dozen people and, in the process, levelled an entire swath of a neighborhood full of middle-class black homeowners. Neither the mayor who approved the bombing nor the officers who carried it out faced any official repercussions.

Today, the narrow block sits eerily quiet; most of the houses that were built to replace the ones destroyed by the fire are now vacant, boarded up and padlocked. The remaining residents, like Renfrow, are in limbo.

Maybe the city will rehabilitate these buildings. Maybe it will raze them. But since most of the people responsible for the tragedy and the city have moved on to grappling with new dilemmas, it’s been pretty easy to forget 62nd and Osage altogether.

But a few residents never left the 6200 block of Osage Avenue, and they’re quick to recall what their neighborhood was like before the spring of 1985: a nice block right by the Cobbs Creek Park, part of a safe, close-knit community where folks barbecued together while their kids played in the street.

I wanted to talk to them, and others who lived through that day in Philadelphia, about what they remembered.

May 13, 1985: The Bombing

Here’s what my mother recalls about the bombing.

It was the Monday after Mother’s Day, and three days after her birthday. She took my twin sister and me to school before heading back to our South Philly apartment.

She was taking a personal day from work — a day of peace and quiet that was meant to be a belated birthday gift to herself. But when she got home and turned on the TV, she saw that Philly was not going to oblige her.

All of the local stations were reporting from a standoff in West Philly between the police and MOVE, a radical group that had turned a row house at 6221 Osage Ave. into a fortified compound.

She wasn’t exactly surprised by what she saw on the grainy live feed; everyone had known that day was coming for a while, as tensions between MOVE and the police — and between MOVE and their neighbors on that block — had been rising for years.

The neighborhood where the compound of the radical group MOVE was located. Peter Morgan/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Morgan/AP

The neighborhood where the compound of the radical group MOVE was located.


As the residents were evacuated from their homes ahead of the showdown, the police told them to take some clothes and toothbrushes. They should be back in their homes by the next day, the police said.

There were nearly 500 police officers gathered at the scene, ludicrously, ferociously well-armed — flak jackets, tear gas, SWAT gear, .50- and .60-caliber machine guns, and an anti-tank machine gun for good measure. Deluge guns were pointed from firetrucks.

The state police had sent a helicopter. The city had shut off the water and electricity for the entire block. And, we’d come to learn, there were explosives on hand.

The police had come with warrants for several people they believed to be in the compound at 6221. No one knew how many weapons the MOVE folks had, or even how many people were in the compound — the police guessed that there were six adults and possibly as many as 12 children inside. The MOVE members had built a bunker on the roof of the house, giving them a clear view of the police positions below.

The final warnings from the police started that morning, a little after 5:30. “Attention, MOVE … This is America,” Gregore Sambor, the police commissioner, yelled into his megaphone to the people in the compound. “You have to abide by the laws of the United States.”

Around 6 a.m., the members were told they had 15 minutes to come out. Instead, someone from the MOVE house began shooting at the police. The police returned fire in kind — over and over and over.

According to the official report on the event, the police fired 10,000 rounds of ammunition at the MOVE compound over the next 90 minutes; they eventually had to ask the police academy to send more bullets.

Meanwhile, SWAT teams tried to blast holes into the side of the compound via the adjoining row houses. It didn’t work.

On TV, reporters at the scene ducked for cover while filing their dispatches. Spectators and residents gathered at the barricades nearby to watch. Over the next few hours, police set off more explosions to try to gain access to the building. The cops couldn’t get inside, and the MOVE folks weren’t coming out.

It was chaos, and it went on like that all day — gunshots and explosions and well-tended homes nearby being shot up and blown apart.

In the afternoon, Mayor Wilson Goode held a press conference and told reporters that he wanted to “seize control of the house … by any means possible.”

In the afternoon, Goode made his fateful decision: The police got the go-ahead to drop a makeshift bomb on the MOVE compound in an attempt to destroy the bunker on its roof.

Here’s how Linn Washington, a journalism professor at Temple University who was covering the siege that day as a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, remembers what happened next.

He was standing at a police command post nearby, flipping through his notes. There was a helicopter in the parking lot, he said. “I see these three guys come out [of the building] — all of them with 9 millimeters [pistols] on; one of them had a submachine gun and one of them had a satchel,” he said. “And they said, ‘Hey, you gotta get outta here!’ ”

“So the helicopter took off, made a circle, came back and then the whole neighborhood shook,” Washington told me. “It sounded like a gas main had exploded — but some of the media members knew it was a bomb. And things just went down from there.”

Flames shoot skyward at the MOVE compound in West Philadelphia on May 13, 1985. J. Scott Applewhite/AP hide caption

itoggle caption J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Flames shoot skyward at the MOVE compound in West Philadelphia on May 13, 1985.


Everyone on the scene heard the explosion. Television viewers at home saw the moment of impact on TV, and they also saw that the rooftop bunker — the target the bomb was apparently meant to neutralize — was still standing.

But the roof had caught fire, and smoke began billowing over the tops of the row houses. The fire seemed to be getting bigger, but the firefighters were ordered by Sambor, the police commissioner, to stand down. (“I communicated … that I would like to let the fire burn,” he later told the city commission.)

Within 45 minutes, three more homes on the block were on fire, too. Then the roof of the MOVE house buckled under the flames and collapsed.

By the time the firefighters finally began fighting the fire in earnest, it was too late. Within 90 minutes, the entire north side of Osage Avenue was on fire.

Philadelphia’s streets are famously narrow, making it easy for the fire to leap from burning trees on the north side to more homes on the south side.

Then the flames spilled over to the homes behind 6221 Osage, to Pine Street.

By evening, three rows of homes were completely on fire, a conflagration so large that the flames could be seen from planes landing at Philadelphia International Airport, more than 6 miles away. Smoke could be seen from across the city.

“Drop a bomb on a residential area? I never in my life heard of that,” a neighborhood resident told a reporter that night.It’s like Vietnam.”

By the time the fire was finally under control, a little before midnight, 61 houses on that tidy block had been completely destroyed. Two hundred fifty people were suddenly, shockingly, without homes. It was the worst residential fire in the city’s history.

In the end, 11 people died in the fire. Five of them were children. It took weeks before the police were able to identify their remains.

MOVE member Ramona Africa is led out of Philadelphia City Hall on Feb. 9, 1986, after a jury found her guilty of two charges and acquitted her of 10 others in a case stemming from the fatal confrontation in May 1985 between police and the radical group.

The jury found Africa guilty of riot and conspiracy. Amy Sancetta/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Amy Sancetta/AP

MOVE member Ramona Africa is led out of Philadelphia City Hall on Feb. 9, 1986, after a jury found her guilty of two charges and acquitted her of 10 others in a case stemming from the fatal confrontation in May 1985 between police and the radical group. The jury found Africa guilty of riot and conspiracy.


How MOVE Landed On Osage Avenue

Only two people managed to make it out of the MOVE compound alive: a woman named Ramona Africa and a young boy named Birdie Africa.

Growing up, I’d seen Ramona Africa a few times on television being interviewed by reporters during her civil suit against the city. I remembered her as a sleepy-eyed woman with dreadlocks. In 1996, a jury ordered the city to pay her $500,000, ruling that the siege on the MOVE compound violated her constitutional rights.

I met Ramona Africa last week, in a Philly park near where she’d lived since she was released from prison in 1992. (She was the only person involved in the MOVE bombing to serve any time.) She wore a peach shirt, shorts and sandals. Her signature dreadlocks were now flecked with gray. Her arms and legs were covered in burns.

She’s close to 60 now, but she was still on message. “What makes Nathan Hale a freedom fighter and Delbert Africa an urban terrorist?” she asked me, rhetorically.

“Either resisting wrong, resisting oppression [and] injustice despite legality is to be commended and celebrated, or it is to be penalized and never accepted. Can’t have it both ways.”

For some reason, I’d always remembered her from her TV interviews as erratic and raving. But as we talked in the park, I couldn’t figure out where or how I’d formed that impression. Aside from the specifics of what she was saying, she seemed like the kind of person who might go to church with my mom and aunt — full of conviction, sure, but amiable and chatty.

As we sat in the park, she retraced her own story and told me how she linked up with MOVE.

Ramona grew up in West Philly in a middle-class family, went to West Catholic High School, later to Temple University. She wanted to be a lawyer, she said, until she started working on community housing issues.

“You cannot be a housing worker and not become an activist,” she said. It was around this time, in the mid-1970s, when she started meeting members of MOVE, whom she would see in court. They were righteous, she thought.

I learned from other folks, though, that in those years, the MOVE organization enjoyed a weird reputation in the city, in part because no one could quite figure it out.

The group was formed by a man who went by the name of John Africa; all of his followers dropped their surnames and adopted “Africa” instead. Members of MOVE would protest outside the city zoo for animal rights. They ate raw food. They were against technology.

MOVE members hold sawed-off shotguns and automatic weapons as they stand in front of their barricaded headquarters on May 21, 1977. AP hide caption

itoggle caption AP

MOVE members hold sawed-off shotguns and automatic weapons as they stand in front of their barricaded headquarters on May 21, 1977.


“You had the vegetarianism and some aspects of Rastafarianism,” Robin Wagner-Pacifici, an author who has written about MOVE, told me. “I think they had their own conscious desire to be uncategorizable.”

In news accounts, they were often described as ideological kin of other black radical groups of the day, but Ramona told me that MOVE wasn’t a black nationalist group and that it always boasted some nonblack members.

Indeed, their antics and outspokenness often put them on the wrong side of many local and community groups they were lumped in with.

Washington, the former Philadelphia Daily News stringer, told me that MOVE members once vocally interrupted and derailed a meeting brokered by community leaders between two local gangs that were set to agree to a truce. “The liberals and progressives and the nationalists in the city were like, ‘Uhhh, what’s up with this crew?’ ” he said.

But Washington said they weren’t exactly outcasts, either. “There was this deference in terms of respecting rights,” he said. “And [other groups] were saying, we may not like them, but if it’s MOVE today, it’s us tomorrow, so we’ve got to stand up … and unpack the stuff they’ve gotten themselves into.”

Over time, though, the group’s reputation grew more menacing.

MOVE members began squatting in a home in Powelton Village, a neighborhood in West Philadelphia not far from the University of Pennsylvania. It was an area whose residents were known for being amenable to countercultural, nontraditional family arrangements.

But even there, it didn’t take long for MOVE to exhaust the patience of its neighbors. MOVE members would pace the roof of the house they occupied, dressed in fatigues and brandishing weapons.

In megaphoned harangues, often issued by a member named Delbert Africa, they would call for the release of imprisoned MOVE members and threaten city officials. Federal agents seized a cache of weapons from MOVE that included dozens of pipe bombs. At one point, the city barricaded several blocks surrounding the MOVE compound for 56 straight days.

In the summer of 1978, MOVE members reached a deal with the city: they would turn over their weapons and leave their building if the city would release several MOVE members from city jails. The city honored the deal, but MOVE didn’t leave.

On Aug. 8, 1978, the tension reached what seemed like its peak. Police tried to remove MOVE from the building with water cannons and battering rams and were met with gunfire from the building’s basement. An officer named James Ramp fell to the ground and died. Sixteen other police officers and firefighters were injured.

After several hours of holding out, the MOVE folks finally surrendered and began trickling out of the basement one at a time. But the cops were livid over Ramp’s killing. They went after Delbert Africa — the MOVE member who had been taunting them from the building — grabbed him by his dreadlocks and threw him to the ground.

Several officers joined in, kicking and stomping him. That moment was captured on film by a Philadelphia Daily News photographer, and for many people, the police beating an unarmed, half-naked man was the showdown’s lasting image.

Two years later, nine MOVE members were convicted of third-degree murder in Ramp’s death and sentenced to 30 to 100 years in prison — the MOVE 9, they were called.

After MOVE left Powelton Village, it set up a new base at 6221 Osage Ave., where one member’s sister lived, on a quiet, middle-class block in a black neighborhood.

It was around this time that Ramona became MOVE’s “minister of information,” handling most of its interviews with the press, and changed her last name to Africa.

But on Osage Avenue, too, tensions rose: MOVE began boarding up the windows and doors to the home with wood and rail ties, turning the row house on the narrow street into a fortified bunker. The residents continued their diatribes over the loudspeaker.

Their new neighbors pleaded with them. Then the neighbors contacted the city. The police had a detail on MOVE and the new compound. There were warnings from the police, and counterwarnings from MOVE.

MOVE responded with more belligerence from the loudspeaker. On and on it went like that, until May 1985, when the city police and MOVE hunkered down for their fiery standoff.

Vote For Rizzo

Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode stands on the roof of a newly constructed home, Sept. 17, 1985, on the site of the deadly battle with the group MOVE.

Homeowners burned out as a result of the police siege of the MOVE headquarters watched the rebuilding process with skepticism. George Widman/AP hide caption

itoggle caption George Widman/AP

Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode stands on the roof of a newly constructed home, Sept. 17, 1985, on the site of the deadly battle with the group MOVE. Homeowners burned out as a result of the police siege of the MOVE headquarters watched the rebuilding process with skepticism.


I still vividly remember the first time I heard about MOVE and the bombing.

It was 1987, two years after it happened, and my mom was getting my sister and me ready for school in the morning. The morning news was on TV, and a political ad came on during a commercial break. In the ad, a caricature of Mayor Wilson Goode was sporting goggles and one of those leather World War II-era bomber pilot helmets.

An ominous voice, the kind you only hear in political ads, intoned: Wilson Goode dropped a bomb on a Philadelphia neighborhood. Do you want him running your city?

Then the ad urged viewers to vote for Goode’s challenger in the race, Frank Rizzo. I was only 6 years old, but I’d heard of Wilson Goode — he was the city’s first black mayor, and he was on the TV all the time, besides. I’d never heard of this Frank Rizzo, but I knew he wasn’t a bomber.

“Mom, you should vote for Frank Rizzo because the thing on the TV said that he firebombed some people’s houses,” I remember telling my mom.

Mom was not having it. “I’m voting for Wilson Goode.” Her tone signaled that she was not about to entertain any further questions. I got the message.

Philadelphia police commissioner Frank Rizzo at a press conference on Sept. 7, 1970. Warren M. Winterbottom/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Warren M. Winterbottom/AP

Philadelphia police commissioner Frank Rizzo at a press conference on Sept. 7, 1970.


My mother never talked to me much about the messy politics of the MOVE bombing. I don’t remember hearing about it from any other adults, or teachers I had.

Indeed, until college, I’d only heard passing references to the group. But when folks did bring it up, I always remembered them expressing a weird ambivalence — vague sympathy toward MOVE abutting vague disdain.

And every now and then as I was growing up, a MOVE member named Ramona Africa would appear on the local television news, usually because of some legal fight she was engaging in with the city related to the bombing. Sometimes there was B-roll of what seemed like an endless line of row houses that looked like ours, going up in flames.

The first time my mom and I really talked about the MOVE bombing and what she remembered was this spring. She didn’t recall me questioning her about Goode or Rizzo all those years ago, but she could imagine rolling her eyes at the idea of voting for Rizzo, even if it hadn’t come from a chatty 6-year-old.

Back in 1986, Rizzo had been running for mayor again; he’d already served two terms in the 1970s before running up against term limits. He tried to have those term limits overturned, openly appealing to white voters in the city to “vote white” regarding the ballot measure.

For a lot of black Philadelphians of a certain vintage, like my mother, the swaggering, profanity-spewing Rizzo, the city’s former police commissioner, was the face and brains of Philadelphia’s brutal, aggressive police force.

My mom recounted to me the time he arrested a group of Black Panthers, strip-searched them in public, and invited the press to cover the whole ordeal; photos of the naked, humiliated men were splashed across the pages of the local papers the next day.

And she told me about the time the police shot and killed her friend Ricky, who was a bystander during a shootout and had hidden beneath a nearby car for cover. There was the stuff she didn’t witness: the melee that ensued after Rizzo sent hundreds of nightstick-wielding police officers to break up a peaceful demonstration of black high school and junior high school students who were protesting at the Board of Education building.

(“Get their black asses!” he was widely quoted as saying during the fracas.)

Or the fact that Philly cops were infamous for “turf drops” — instead of taking black folks they’d arrested to jail, they’d leave them in hostile, white ethnic neighborhoods across town.

The enmity that black folks in Philly had for the police department was deep-rooted, and Rizzo had helped sow the seeds.

And during his mayoralty, he became even more emboldened. (“I’m gonna be so tough as mayor, I gonna make Attila the Hun look like a faggot,” Rizzo was famously quoted as saying.) He was the city’s mayor during the first MOVE siege in 1978; during his tenure, the Justice Department would file a lawsuit against the city’s police department for brutality.

My mother had grown up in Rizzo’s Philadelphia, and when we talked this spring she told me that he was essentially the reason I got The Talk when I was growing up, why she always freaked out during my teenage years if I was out late at night and hadn’t called to check in. That’s why she could never have considered voting for Rizzo, even if it meant supporting the incumbent mayor who had firebombed a black neighborhood.

Goode won in 1986, but by the slimmest of margins: 51 percent for him, and 49 percent for Rizzo.

Clearly, my mom wasn’t the only black Philadelphian with a weird ambivalence toward MOVE. I remember picking up on that sentiment from other adults as a kid: On the one hand, there were the older folks who outright called the group dirty and weird. But then you’d also see signs reading “Free The MOVE 9” at any big-enough black cultural festival in the city.

Some of that ambivalence was certainly due to MOVE’s own slow re-branding in the years after the bombing, an attempt to make the organization seem less antagonistic.

But I suspect it also stemmed from a feeling held by a lot of black folks in Philly, then and now: While MOVE folks were crazy troublemakers whom they wouldn’t want as neighbors, the police could be much, much worse.

In Philadelphia’s Clark Park, MOVE members Pam Africa (left) and Ramona Africa. April Saul for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption April Saul for NPR

In Philadelphia's Clark Park, MOVE members Pam Africa (left) and Ramona Africa.


‘Why Would I Want To Go Back There?’

Here’s how Ramona Africa, the only adult survivor of the bombing, remembered that day from inside the MOVE house.

She and the other MOVE members inside the house were listening to the events as they unfolded on the radio — events that they, of course, were at the center of.

“We finally got the impression that they had their plans all laid out and they were ready to attack us — and kill us,” she said.

They decided to hunker down in the basement, which they thought was the safest part of the house. There was gunfire during the day and smoke from tear gas. Then, in the afternoon, the house rocked. “Initially we didn’t know that they had dropped a bomb,” she said. “I mean, why would it even enter our minds that they had dropped a bomb on our home?”

Over the years, Africa has maintained that when MOVE members tried to escape the burning building to surrender, the police opened fire on them and they were forced back inside. The police have steadfastly denied this.

After the bombing, Birdie Africa, the 13-year-old boy who escaped with her, was taken into his father’s custody. He later changed his name back to Michael Moses Ward. The night of the bombing would be the last time either he or Ramona ever saw or spoke to each other. (Ward died suddenly at the age of 41 in 2013.)

I told Ramona I was going to talk to the folks over on 62nd and Osage and asked her about the last time she’d been there. She told me she had never been back, not since that day.

“Why would I want to go back there?” she asked. “I don’t need to go there to remember and I don’t want to go back there. I have feelings. What John Africa taught MOVE is that we are living beings. We are alive. We have feelings. … I see no reason to put myself in a position to be hurt.”

She said that MOVE is still around today, although she declined to say how many members it had. As we said goodbye, Ramona motioned to a young woman who looked to be in her 20s who was coming to meet her. Ramona said the woman, who was with several small children, was a MOVE member.

As they chatted, a tall young man jogged by where we were standing, with some younger kids trailing him. “On the move!” the man said, raising his fist in the air to Ramona as he ran. The little boys did the same.

Ramona and the young woman wrapped up their conversation, and said goodbye. “On the move,” she said to Ramona as she turned away.

“On the move,” Ramona replied.

With additional reporting from Walter Ray Watson and Jeff Brady

Philadelphia native Gene Demby was 4 years old when city police dropped a bomb on a house of black activists in his hometown.
Thirty years later, he’s still trying to…


Origins of Pleasure

I’m going to talk today about the pleasures of everyday life.

But I want to begin with a story of an unusual and terrible man. This is Hermann Goering.

Goering was Hitler’s second in command in World War II, his designated successor. And like Hitler, Goering fancied himself a collector of art. He went through Europe, through World War II, stealing, extorting and occasionally buying various paintings for his collection.

And what he really wanted was something by Vermeer. Hitler had two of them, and he didn’t have any. So he finally found an art dealer, a Dutch art dealer named Han van Meegeren, who sold him a wonderful Vermeer for the cost of what would now be 10 million dollars. And it was his favorite artwork ever.

0:56 World War II came to an end, and Goering was captured, tried at Nuremberg and ultimately sentenced to death.

Then the Allied forces went through his collections and found the paintings and went after the people who sold it to him.

And at some point the Dutch police came into Amsterdam and arrested Van Meegeren. Van Meegeren was charged with the crime of treason, which is itself punishable by death.

Six weeks into his prison sentence, van Meegeren confessed. But he didn’t confess to treason. He said,

“I did not sell a great masterpiece to that Nazi. I painted it myself; I’m a forger.” Now nobody believed him.

And he said, “I’ll prove it. Bring me a canvas and some paint, and I will paint a Vermeer much better than I sold that disgusting Nazi. I also need alcohol and morphine, because it’s the only way I can work.” (Laughter) So they brought him in.

He painted a beautiful Vermeer. And then the charges of treason were dropped. He had a lesser charge of forgery, got a year sentence and died a hero to the Dutch people. There’s a lot more to be said about van Meegeren, but I want to turn now to Goering, who’s pictured here being interrogated at Nuremberg.

2:15 Now Goering was, by all accounts, a terrible man. Even for a Nazi, he was a terrible man.

His American interrogators described him as an amicable psychopath. But you could feel sympathy for the reaction he had when he was told that his favorite painting was actually a forgery.

According to his biographer, “He looked as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world.” (Laughter) And he killed himself soon afterwards. He had discovered after all that the painting he thought was this was actually that. It looked the same, but it had a different origin, it was a different artwork.

2:56 It wasn’t just him who was in for a shock.

Once van Meegeren was on trial, he couldn’t stop talking. And he boasted about all the great masterpieces that he himself had painted that were attributed to other artists.

In particular, “The Supper at Emmaus” which was viewed as Vermeer’s finest masterpiece, his best work — people would come [from] all over the world to see it — was actually a forgery.

It was not that painting, but that painting. And when that was discovered, it lost all its value and was taken away from the museum.

3:24 Why does this matter? I’m a psychologists — why do origins matter so much?

Why do we respond so much to our knowledge of where something comes from?

Well there’s an answer that many people would give. Many sociologists like Veblen and Wolfe would argue that the reason why we take origins so seriously is because we’re snobs, because we’re focused on status.

Among other things, if you want to show off how rich you are, how powerful you are, it’s always better to own an original than a forgery because there’s always going to be fewer originals than forgeries.

I don’t doubt that that plays some role, but what I want to convince you of today is that there’s something else going on. I want to convince you that humans are, to some extent, natural born essentialists.

What I mean by this is we don’t just respond to things as we see them, or feel them, or hear them. Rather, our response is conditioned on our beliefs, about what they really are, what they came from, what they’re made of, what their hidden nature is.

I want to suggest that this is true, not just for how we think about things, but how we react to things.

4:27 So I want to suggest that pleasure is deep — and that this isn’t true just for higher level pleasures like art, but even the most seemingly simple pleasures are affected by our beliefs about hidden essences.

So take food. Would you eat this? Well, a good answer is, “It depends. What is it?” Some of you would eat it if it’s pork, but not beef. Some of you would eat it if it’s beef, but not pork. Few of you would eat it if it’s a rat or a human. Some of you would eat it only if it’s a strangely colored piece of tofu. That’s not so surprising.

5:02 But what’s more interesting is how it tastes to you will depend critically on what you think you’re eating.

So one demonstration of this was done with young children. How do you make children not just be more likely to eat carrots and drink milk, but to get more pleasure from eating carrots and drinking milk — to think they taste better? It’s simple, you tell them they’re from McDonald’s. They believe McDonald’s food is tastier, and it leads them to experience it as tastier.

5:30 How do you get adults to really enjoy wine? It’s very simple: pour it from an expensive bottle.

There are now dozens, perhaps hundreds of studies showing that if you believe you’re drinking the expensive stuff, it tastes better to you. This was recently done with a neuroscientific twist. They get people into a fMRI scanner, and while they’re lying there, through a tube, they get to sip wine.

In front of them on a screen is information about the wine. Everybody, of course, drinks exactly the same wine. But if you believe you’re drinking expensive stuff, parts of the brain associated with pleasure and reward light up like a Christmas tree.

It’s not just that you say it’s more pleasurable, you say you like it more, you really experience it in a different way.

 Or take sex.

These are stimuli I’ve used in some of my studies. And if you simply show people these pictures, they’ll say these are fairly attractive people.

But how attractive you find them, how sexually or romantically moved you are by them, rests critically on who you think you’re looking at.

You probably think the picture on the left is male, the one on the right is female. If that belief turns out to be mistaken, it will make a difference. (Laughter)

It will make a difference if they turn out to be much younger or much older than you think they are. It will make a difference if you were to discover that the person you’re looking at with lust is actually a disguised version of your son or daughter, your mother or father.

Knowing somebody’s your kin typically kills the libido.  (A new western taboo? or we are lying through our teeth when we brag about our kin?)

Maybe one of the most heartening findings from the psychology of pleasure is there’s more to looking good than your physical appearance.

If you like somebody, they look better to you. This is why spouses in happy marriages tend to think that their husband or wife looks much better than anyone else thinks that they do.

7:19 A particularly dramatic example of this comes from a neurological disorder known as Capgras syndrome.

So Capgras syndrome is a disorder where you get a specific delusion. Sufferers of Capgras syndrome believe that the people they love most in the world have been replaced by perfect duplicates. Now often, a result of Capgras syndrome is tragic.

People have murdered those that they loved, believing that they were murdering an imposter. But there’s at least one case where Capgras syndrome had a happy ending. This was recorded in 1931. “Research described a woman with Capgras syndrome who complained about her poorly endowed and sexually inadequate lover.” But that was before she got Capgras syndrome. After she got it, “She was happy to report that she has discovered that he possessed a double who was rich, virile, handsome and aristocratic.” Of course, it was the same man, but she was seeing him in different ways.

8:10 As a third example, consider consumer products.

So one reason why you might like something is its utility. You can put shoes on your feet; you can play golf with golf clubs; and chewed up bubble gum doesn’t do anything at all for you. But each of these three objects has value above and beyond what it can do for you based on its history.

The golf clubs were owned by John F. Kennedy and sold for three-quarters of a million dollars at auction. The bubble gum was chewed up by pop star Britney Spears and sold for several hundreds of dollars. And in fact, there’s a thriving market in the partially eaten food of beloved people. (Laughter)

The shoes are perhaps the most valuable of all. According to an unconfirmed report, a Saudi millionaire offered 10 million dollars for this pair of shoes. They were the ones thrown at George Bush at an Iraqi press conference several years ago.


9:03 Now this attraction to objects doesn’t just work for celebrity objects.

Each one of us, most people, have something in our life that’s literally irreplaceable, in that it has value because of its history — maybe your wedding ring, maybe your child’s baby shoes — so that if it was lost, you couldn’t get it back.

You could get something that looked like it or felt like it, but you couldn’t get the same object back. With my colleagues George Newman and Gil Diesendruck, we’ve looked to see what sort of factors, what sort of history, matters for the objects that people like. So in one of our experiments, we asked people to name a famous person who they adored, a living person they adored.

9:41 So one answer was George Clooney. Then we asked them, “How much would you pay for George Clooney’s sweater?” And the answer is a fair amount — more than you would pay for a brand new sweater or a sweater owned by somebody who you didn’t adore.

Then we asked other groups of subjects — we gave them different restrictions and different conditions. So for instance, we told some people, Look, you can buy the sweater, but you can’t tell anybody you own it, and you can’t resell it.” That drops the value of it, suggesting that that’s one reason why we like it. But what really causes an effect is you tell people, “Look, you could resell it, you could boast about it, but before it gets to you, it’s thoroughly washed.” That causes a huge drop in the value. As my wife put it, “You’ve washed away the Clooney cooties.”

10:29 (Laughter)

10:31 So let’s go back to art. I would love a Chagall. I love the work of Chagall.

If people want to get me something at the end of the conference, you could buy me a Chagall. But I don’t want a duplicate, even if I can’t tell the difference.

That’s not because, or it’s not simply because, I’m a snob and want to boast about having an original. Rather, it’s because I want something that has a specific history. In the case of artwork, the history is special indeed.

The philosopher Denis Dutton in his wonderful book “The Art Instinct makes the case that, “The value of an artwork is rooted in assumptions about the human performance underlying its creation.”  (It is not the performance: it is the idea of doing this as a talented person)

And that could explain the difference between an original and a forgery. They may look alike, but they have a different history. The original is typically the product of a creative act, the forgery isn’t. I think this approach can explain differences in people’s taste in art.

11:20 This is a work by Jackson Pollock. Who here likes the work of Jackson Pollock? Okay. Who here, it does nothing for them? They just don’t like it. I’m not going to make a claim about who’s right, but I will make an empirical claim about people’s intuitions, which is that, if you like the work of Jackson Pollock, you’ll tend more so than the people who don’t like it to believe that these works are difficult to create, that they require a lot of time and energy and creative energy.

I use Jackson Pollock on purpose as an example because there’s a young American artist who paints very much in the style of Jackson Pollock, and her work was worth many tens of thousands of dollars — in large part because she’s a very young artist.

12:02 This is Marla Olmstead who did most of her work when she was 3 years old.

The interesting thing about Marla Olmstead is her family made the mistake of inviting the television program 60 Minutes II into their house to film her painting. And they then reported that her father was coaching her. When this came out on television, the value of her art dropped to nothing.

It was the same art, physically, but the history had changed.

12:29 I’ve been focusing now on the visual arts, but I want to give two examples from music.

This is Joshua Bell, a very famous violinist. And the Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten decided to enlist him for an audacious experiment. The question is: How much would people like Joshua Bell, the music of Joshua Bell, if they didn’t know they were listening to Joshua Bell?

So he got Joshua Bell to take his million dollar violin down to a Washington D.C. subway station and stand in the corner and see how much money he would make. And here’s a brief clip of this. (Violin music)

After being there for three-quarters of an hour, he made 32 dollars. Not bad. It’s also not good. Apparently to really enjoy the music of Joshua Bell, you have to know you’re listening to Joshua Bell. He actually made 20 dollars more than that, but he didn’t count it. Because this woman comes up — you see at the end of the video — she comes up. She had heard him at the Library of Congress a few weeks before at this extravagant black-tie affair. So she’s stunned that he’s standing in a subway station. So she’s struck with pity. She reaches into her purse and hands him a 20.


13:44 The second example from music is from John Cage’s modernist composition, “4’33”.” As many of you know, this is the composition where the pianist sits at a bench, opens up the piano and sits and does nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds — that period of silence. And people have different views on this. But what I want to point out is you can buy this from iTunes. (Laughter) For a dollar 99, you can listen to that silence, which is different than other forms of silence.

14:16 (Laughter)

14:18 Now I’ve been talking so far about pleasure, but what I want to suggest is that everything I’ve said applies as well to pain.

And how you think about what you’re experiencing, your beliefs about the essence of it, affect how it hurts.

One lovely experiment was done by Kurt Gray and Dan Wegner.

What they did was they hooked up Harvard undergraduates to an electric shock machine. And they gave them a series of painful electric shocks. So it was a series of five painful shocks. Half of them are told that they’re being given the shocks by somebody in another room, but the person in the other room doesn’t know they’re giving them shocks. There’s no malevolence, they’re just pressing a button.

The first shock is recorded as very painful. The second shock feels less painful, because you get a bit used to it. The third drops, the fourth, the fifth. The pain gets less.

In the other condition, they’re told that the person in the next room is shocking them on purpose — knows they’re shocking them. The first shock hurts like hell. The second shock hurts just as much, and the third and the fourth and the fifth. It hurts more if you believe somebody is doing it to you on purpose.

15:24 The most extreme example of this is that in some cases, pain under the right circumstances can transform into pleasure.

Humans have this extraordinarily interesting property that will often seek out low-level doses of pain in controlled circumstances and take pleasure from it as in the eating of hot chili peppers and roller coaster rides.

The point was nicely summarized by the poet John Milton who wrote, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

Patsy Z and TEDxSKE shared a link.
Why do we like an original painting better than a forgery?
Psychologist Paul Bloom argues that human beings are essentialists — that our beliefs about the history of an object change how we experience it, not simply as an illusion, but as a deep…|By Paul Bloom

Stand By Me: Nepal

Sabine Choucair shared this link 

Claire Davidson and I will be leaving Nepal tomorrow after three weeks here that we will never forget. Talk about bittersweet.

We arrived on the afternoon of April 24th.

The next day, as we were exploring the ancient capital of Bakhtapur with Ajay Uprety, the earthquake hit.

We were almost crushed by a falling building, and spent the rest of that day sprinting through Bakhtapur’s narrow streets, running from square to square through the destroyed 800-year-old city, to escape the recurring terror of the aftershocks.

We walked for several hours and eventually made our way back to our hotel, which had partially collapsed, and set up camp.

We immediately started mobilizing International Medical Corps‘ response with the help of a handful of strangers-come-friends who shared our campsite and who wanted to help.

Over the days that followed, more staff and volunteers arrived, and our response scaled up.

We chartered helicopters to reach the most remote villages, and we worked to bring safe water and sanitation facilities to displaced persons living in camps in Kathmandu and in destroyed villages around the epicentre.

Our team and our reach grew before our eyes as the global Facebook community generously contributed to our efforts.

On May 12th, we experienced yet another earthquake.

I was in Gorkha District with Ivy Caballes Registered Nurse, Remi Drozd, Lara Phillips and our team running a mobile medical unit when the building we were in partially collapsed and the hills around us started sliding away.

We flew back to Kathmandu with Tara Yip-Bannicq and linked up with Claire and other colleagues to immediately start assessments – going first to Bakhtapur, where Claire, Ajay and I were the day of the first earthquake.

We worked late into that evening, setting up a field post-op unit close to one of the hospitals we are supporting in Kathmandu.

Claire and I came to Nepal on vacation.

Actually, April 25th was the start of her two-month sabbatical! We certainly didn’t have the experience we expected, but we’re both grateful that we had this time here, and that we were able to contribute in some small way.

We’re leaving Nepal with heavy hearts, as there is still an enormous amount of work to be done.

But we’re leaving our work in good hands, and we will continue to stand by Nepal from afar. We look forward to coming back under better circumstances, and to once again experiencing the beauty and kindness of this country.

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Tracy performs the classic Ben E. King song.




May 2015

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