The Extraordinary Lives Project — The Anything Goes Era

“Until philosophers are kings and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, cities will never have rest from evil.” –Plato

George Floyd

On May 25, 2020, a day that became a dividing line for people across America, an amiable 46-year-old African American walked into a convenience store around 8 p.m. and politely asked for a pack of cigarettes. George Floyd had recently lost his job and was recovering from Covid, explaining why he paid with a $20 counterfeit bill. As he tore open the pack, he could not have known he was living on borrowed time, and the last chapter of his unhappy life was about to end. The only thing standing between him and death was a rendezvous in the parking lot with Derek Chauvin. Sometimes those who fall the shortest distance hit the hardest.

Floyd’s rendezvous with destiny should never have happened. He certainly should never have been under Derek Chauvin’s knee but just as assuredly he didn’t need to be strung out on the sidewalk. In a country of unlimited wealth where city mayors waste billions of dollars on consultants that recycle the funds in the form of campaign donations, fixing his problem wasn’t easy but it was cheap by comparison to the carnage that followed. After his death, there was an outpouring of compassion and anger on social media, but those are constructs to express rage against the machine while we march to the beat of a different bummer.

When we lose a life like George Floyd’s, there are bound to be a wide set of reactions. Some see tragedy while others find opportunity. For example, political leaders dutifully mourn at the altar of Twitter and Facebook for fundraising and vote-getting potential. They will say or do anything to get on the right side of a meme. The rest of us do not have to fall for it. Instead, we should look for those who genuinely express grief privately and not let social media “influencers” take control of the narrative. Cogito ergo tweet (I think, therefore I tweet) is not a formula for a civilized society.

His was a different journey. Floyd was born in North Carolina on October 14, 1973. His parents divorced when he turned two, and Floyd’s mother took the boy to Houston, where they lived in public housing. He grew to 6'6" as he got older and became captain of his high school basketball team. After graduating, Floyd enrolled at Texas A&M where he was a star on the basketball court. the first family member to go to college. It looked like he was going places.

Whether he became restless or had other issues we can’t be sure, but shortly after his freshman year, he experienced what is called “freshman melt”. Kids drop out of college and wander around to places like Austin or San Francisco to find themselves but mostly end up in halfway houses or worse. Most want to return to college. In Floyd’s case, he tried his hand at becoming a hip-hop singer in 1995. There was no easy way out and had a mentor or parent been on hand things might have turned out differently.

Floyd headed straight downwards. Over the next twelve years, he was convicted of eight felony charges and sentenced to four years in prison in 2007. The crime was aggravated robbery. The details do not make for pleasant reading. He was arrested on the charge for which he would to go prison when he was 33 years old, according to the complaint filed. Floyd was one of several burglars who forced their way into the home of a woman, then he held a gun to her stomach before his accomplice hit her in the head as she screamed for help. Floyd went from

When he was released, Floyd moved to Minneapolis to start a new life. The gods of irony were on the opposing team, however, and the first play was when Floyd was detained by Minneapolis police in May 2019 while driving an unlicensed car. He became agitated and showed signs of mental instability. This time the police encouraged him to relax and called an ambulance. It demonstrates how random life can be. One day he got the treatment he deserved. The next wouldn’t go so well. It was a pilot episode of a crime show that would rerun one year later.

Floyd’s next move was a bouncer at the El Nuevo Rodeo club (where ironically, Derek Chauvin worked off-duty). When the pandemic hit Minnesota in 2020, he was looking for another job before contracting COVID-19 in April, about a month before the counterfeit money incident. Everything was going wrong, and he began to spiral into the final chapter of his life.

Trying to isolate contributing factors in life like Floyd’s is like tracing the origin of a soggy plank floating insistently downstream. We aren’t certain how it got here, but we know it belongs to someone. His tragedy started upstream long before the loss of a job and income, lack of community outreach, and the availability of opioids. These things are cumulative, which is why it is so hard to pinpoint a single factor, but most likely it began with the deterioration of his family.

Our need for family or social structure is nothing new. Even as far back as Victorian England, society made provisions for people down on their luck by sending them to the ‘poor house‘ and through direct private philanthropy. If they lived in your village it was your problem. The Victorians believed that providing structure to someone in trouble gave the best guarantee of success. Now instead of structure we offer “services.” When someone’s life is in freefall, accessing welfare services is like trying to take medication while riding a roller coaster.

The days that followed saw rioting and mayhem across the country while the key principals in Minneapolis and Washington D.C. spent their days in front of cameras raving about the police. It was a show trial. The mayor, attorney general, and city administration contributed to George Floyd’s death no less than other factors, although none were held accountable. They were responsible for recruiting and training police, lack of social services and counseling, and creating an environment where law enforcement and citizens fear each other so much they react violently.

What is still missing from the narrative is the real locus of the problem. It was a failure of imagination. Problems like Floyd’s do not respond to irritating restrictions and bureaucracy such as you get when in the grasp of social welfare. Those do nothing more than maintain civil servants’ pensions and benefits. When Floyd’s life came apart he lurched into a deep, dark hole from which he never recovered because there was no job, no training, no support system, no family to recover to. He needed a real big brother, not George Orwell’s big brother. It is why the social construct of a racist society does not hold up to reality. Although the America that watched Floyd’s last gasping moments is bitterly divided by racism it isn’t racist, just dystopian, a far more challenging circumstance.

This is not to be unsympathetic to the challenges of dysfunction. On the contrary, bad habits manifest themselves as survival skills. “I rob banks because that’s where the money is,” said Willy Loman, one of the greatest bank robbers in history. He robbed banks because he could not think of an alternative approach for his skills. When someone is a repeat offender as Floyd was, the end gets nearer every day. As Einstein said of insanity, “it’s doing the same thing and expecting different results.”

If we find ourselves in the middle of another tragedy like George Floyd’s, let’s assign responsibility more broadly, downstream as well as upstream. Chauvin had no business being a law enforcement officer and in his case justice has been served. But Floyd’s family, friends, and the Minneapolis mayor’s and district attorney’s office that oversee police recruitment, training, and culture, all bear some collective responsibility. Had they been more actively engaged in his life before he was a martyr — as they became after he was front-page news and a Gofundme magnet — George Floyd could have been a pro basketball player or rap artist, not a lost soul passing counterfeit bills.

photo: Lore Elisabeth massage post on Instagram

“We do not have to visit a madhouse to find disordered minds; our planet is the mental institution of the universe.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The consequences are not limited to African American men like George Floyd. It had a ripple effect on a young white female massage therapist. Lore Blumenthal was the daughter of a German scholar living a quiet, uneventful life in Philadelphia (literally the city of brotherly love) until her parents divorced when she was a teenager. She had skills that would suggest she had a great future but she too lost her way. Her father, Bernie, was the LaSalle University Foreign Languages department chairman for more than 40 years and a famous Goethe scholar. He died of cancer in 2012. We don’t know what effect the divorce had or if Bernie had been around to counsel her if things might have turned out differently.

“Never do anything you will regret for the rest of your life” — Spencer Tracy’s advice to a young actor

On May 30, 2020, five days after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, Blumenthal threw a Molotov Cocktail into a police car while participating in a street protest. The FBI tracked her down by observing an Instagram post that matched the peace tattoo on her arm. She was also wearing a famous Etsy shirt. Then they looked her up on LinkedIn. It was as if she was the poster child of online footprints.

Her action did nothing for the Floyd family, although it certainly changed her life and those close to her. Blumenthal was like First World War soldiers who became cannon fodder for the generals who sent them into battle to die by the millions. She acted without thinking, although she has plenty of time to do that now. She could be facing a sentence of twenty to thirty years in prison.

DOJA Photo of Lore Elisabeth Blumenthal from social media throwing a flaming object at a police cruiser in Philadelphia on May 30, 2020. (Photo: U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania)

“A person hears only what they understand.”

— Goethe

Like many in her demographic, Lore-Elisabeth Blumenthal was angry, but the fatal question was how she chose to express herself. In this regard, she failed to see other options, nor did she apparently understand how clumsy her efforts at concealment would look.

According to U.S. Attorney records, the 33-year-old massage therapist planned out her caper wearing flame-retardant gloves and protective goggles that the FBI suggests were an “intent to engage” in activities that could potentially cause grave pain and suffering. Her methodical planning is likely to result in a very stiff criminal sentence, reputed to be as much as 80 years.

Authorities wrote that they witnessed a feed from a news helicopter covering the destruction of the police vehicles. “A white female, in a blue T-shirt and jeans, was wearing a brown-green backpack, grey gloves, a multi-colored mask, and black boots.”

Next, they identified the Etsy store that sold the T-shirt. Then, the FBI noticed that a user had written a five-star review stating, “fast shipping, thanks very much.” That led to a profile called Alleycatlore, which returned a Poshmark page with a display named “Lore-Elisabeth.”

That led to a LinkedIn page for Lore Elisabeth that said she was employed as a massage therapist with a company that provides massage therapy services. That company had posted multiple massage therapy videos that included a woman who appeared to match Blumenthal's driver’s license photo. The tattoo was observed.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” — William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming, 1919

The FBI used Blumenthal’s social media to help identify her, and they traced her Etsy T-shirt to the store where she bought it, according to United States Attorney William M. McSwain.

“Masses of people took to the streets of Philadelphia on May 3. But, unfortunately, sprinkled among the crowd were agitators whose sole purpose was to commit crimes and cause chaos. We at the U.S. Attorney’s Office fully support the First Amendment right of the people to assemble peaceably. But torching a police car has nothing to do with peaceful protest.

U.S. Attorney McSwain added, “Anybody who engaged in such acts can stand by to put your hands behind your back and head to federal prison. We are coming for you.”

If convicted, Blumenthal “faces a maximum possible sentence of 80 years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, and a fine of up to $500,000.”

In some respects, social media’s irony is that it sets a trap for victims and perpetrators. As the FBI agent noted, “Such acts hijacked the message of the demonstrators, whose calls for change were obscured for a time by the smoke from all those fires.”

Coda

The Blumenthal story suggests that social media has taken on the role of mentor and parent for some. This is dangerous ground, subject to coercive manipulation by politicians at the least, and rogue organizations most probably. Lore Blumenthal took the fatal decision to throw a Molotov cocktail into an empty police car. The occasion may have inspired her passion but unfortunately not her reason. Her digital footprint brought the FBI to her door, and she faces a long stretch in prison. Her fate sounds a great deal like John Brown’s of the raid of Harpers Ferry. Abraham Lincoln had something to say about this brand of hyper enthusiasm: “An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people until he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt, which ends in little else than his own execution.”

What Causes Fatal Meltdowns?

As Mary Eberstadt writes in the Claremont Review, rogue social movements are culminating “in a millennial “Storm” — more accurately described as a cult or an all-encompassing belief system.”

As James Madison wrote in Federalist №10, “Factions are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens.” These factions, which we refer to as networks today and almost always powered by social media, “bustle with energy, online buzz, constant updates, branches in other countries, and fascinating, albeit byzantine, storylines, and generate robust merchandising revenues.” They offer a perfect business model, in other words.

To inflame and support them further lies an army of professionals, some well-meaning others in it for the buck from social workers to activists to therapists. They create a safe, welcoming, and tolerant space for the depressed, forlorn, looking for a quick cure, immediate popularity, and a higher social ranking. The latter is the most pernicious element of all.

Females In Particular

With adolescent females, a latent psychological concern about their identity serves as an example of the kind of movement that transforms behavior and relationships. “Before 2012, there was no scientific literature on girls ages eleven to twenty-one having developed identity issues.” Now, for the first time, they are the majority of patients. In Britain, for example, the National Health Service reports 2,500 referrals in 2018–19, a 25x increase in the last decade.

The cause isn’t nature or nurture. The personalities of young females have not changed radically in the past ten years. It is recruitment, coercion, or competition for attention by the forces that benefit, subsidize, and feast off the movement. The results established that girls are responding to a social contagion more than anything. One critic believes the changes are recent, “none met the diagnostic criteria from childhood.” Rather, more than half of their friends had also come out, seventy times the rate in the adult population.

What stimulates the growth of these social pathologies?

They are protected and enforced by punitive reprisals, especially on social media. Like any good policy, online intimidation serves a multiplicity of purposes.

Another common denominator is the “aha!” moment when the old world falls away, and the new one is revealed to the believer in all its reality. In social movements, this transcendent awareness happens only after extraordinary time is spent online, learning the liturgy and rites of the e-community.

Repeatedly, researchers mention the centrality of internet rabbit holes among those caught in the craze. After enough time in the ether, “The world opened up in Technicolor for me,” a self-described “meme queen” told the New York Times. “It was like the Matrix — everything just started to download.” Subjects in Irreversible Damage describe similar moments of epiphany (or “red-pilling”) leading up to full-fledged communal membership.

In both cases, red-pilling comes with another benefit: instant, often massive online acclaim. “And then something magical happened. Helena’s followers skyrocketed. Her online “friends” enthused over her decision. She was freer online than she had ever been in real life. Moreover, social media offered the possibility of an edited persona, only showing the best of herself — and only when she wanted to.

Dementoring

A process called ‘dementoring’ takes place in which online influencers — today’s equivalent of teen idols — promise that leaving your old life and family will be replaced by new families that are more supportive. Support is a word one hears over and over in this generation. It means support for ‘anything goes.”

Young females in this cohort are explicit about severing family ties if they do not receive 100% sympathy and support, even if they are deluded. “Deceiving parents and doctors is justified if it helps.” Such sleight of hand is ubiquitous. Some schools have further developed protocols to help minor students change without parents knowing it.

Two great tragedies occur from online community recruitment. The first is the guidance and boundaries set by mentors and relationships are rejected. The second is that what finally unites online cult members is that the alienation from friends and family leaves them with no other choice.

“Times have changed. In olden days, a glimpse of stocking Was looked on as something shocking, But now, God knows, Anything goes. If driving fast cars you like, If bare limbs you like, If Mae West you like, Or me undressed you like, Why, nobody will oppose. Anything goes.”

— Cole Porter, 1934 musical

With George Floyd and Lore Blumenthal, lost lives were brought together by a shared moment of tragedy. Our research uncovered an attitude that the rules don’t apply, at least not to them. The title of an old Cole Porter musical describes their belief system, “anything goes.”

The problem occurs in high achievers towards the climax of their careers and the wannabes in the early stages. Lore was the latter, and in some respects, Floyd was headed to some stardom before he took a fateful leap into the abyss. Like a bolt from the heavens, in both cases, the law of averages caught up.

The risk of flying too close to the sun was recognized as long as 2,000 years ago by the Greek historian Diodorus who wrote the story of Icarus in 30 B.C.E. As everyone remembers, it is the story of an over ambitious boy who crashes and dies after the wax on his wings melts from the sun’s heat.

You wanted immortality, buddy? You got it

Mind The Gap

Warren Buffett ‘takes the water out of play’ when it comes to big risks. His approach is based on the zero multiplier effect or ZME. You may remember this from fifth grade when a teacher wrote a long string of numbers on the blackboard (whiteboard to the younger generation) and multiplied them by zero. The answer came to zero. Children looked on in disbelief and said, “Can’t be true.” Leading a successful life, even one that can be extraordinary, is partially talent and ambition and finding a smart way to cross the ‘success gap’ between where you are and where you want to be. Those who jump too far or too quickly find they just multiplied their lives by zero.

Professor of Leadership. Extraordinary Lives Project. Author “Be Somebody” (2021); 2019 Telly Award IconicVoices.tv; ex-publisher Forbes