Barry’s Blog # 259: A Vacation in Chaos, Part Two of Two

One reason why Americans long for their vacations in chaos is because we spend so little time taking conventional vacations. As I write in Chapter Nine,

We are the only industrialized country without a national health care system and the only one that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave. America is not among the sixty-five countries that offer paid paternity leave, the 145 countries that mandate paid sick leave, the 134 countries that limit the length of the workweek, or the 137 countries that have paid vacation laws. Half of working Americans receive less than a week of paid vacation, a quarter have no paid vacation or holidays, and nearly half of all private sector workers have no paid sick days…

“What do you mean there are no jobs? I have four of them!” The joke certainly describes conditions in a world where capitalism has clearly failed to provide a decent life for a large percentage of the population. But it’s an old joke, and it pre-dates the financial crises of the past ten years (as do these statistics). Whether by choice or by necessity, Americans have always labored unceasingly, because our mythology and our theology teach us that we, men especially, have no value outside of our productive capacity.

If we cannot be winners (or heroes) then we see ourselves as losers (or victims).  Furthermore, we are taught, consistently, from early childhood, that just as we succeed as individuals, when we fail we do so because of personal flaws, not flaws in the system.

This was true even when, in the 1950s, both liberals and conservatives shared the New Deal values of limiting the worst excesses of capitalism and taxing the wealthy.

That period lasted roughly forty years, from 1935 to 1975, or until the rage of privileged white males boiled over into a reaction against the Civil Rights movement. In simple terms, the idea of sharing the wealth was deeply popular – until black, brown and red people claimed their share of it. A reactionary period (much of its legislation passed, by the way, under Bill Clinton) set in that has lasted another forty years, and it has swept away most of the gains of the New Deal. Now, the notion that Europeans work to live while Americans live to work seems as applicable as it did three hundred years ago.

On average, Americans work nine weeks longer per year than Europeans. Our vacations average two weeks, compared to five to six weeks in Europe. Forty-three percent of us did not take a single week off in 2007, and only fourteen percent will take a vacation of two weeks or more this year. We spend forty percent less time with our children than we did in 1965. The American Dream emphasizes independence; yet only one working American in thirteen is self-employed, compared to one in eight in Western Europe. We relax only when we have acquired the symbols of redemption. Even then, we keep working.


Is it any wonder that as a nation we continue to perceive the poor (and people of color, who in our mythology, are the same, and immigrants) as being lazy, that we hold them in such contempt?

Or that we feel so attracted to their seemingly carefree lifestyles? The old word, popular in the 1920s, was “slumming.”

A digression: that projection accuses the poor of inability or disinterest in delaying gratification. To the Puritan consciousness, this is the greatest of sins, and it surfaces in odd circumstances, such as in accusations of “permissiveness.” The moral censors are particularly horrified when their own children threaten to pollute their “family values” by bringing bad habits back from Spring Break. In the 1960s and 1970s, conservatives blamed Dr. Benjamin Spock for the perceived disorderliness of young people, many of whose parents had been devotees of his book Baby and Child Care. They referred to the rebellious youth of that era as “the Spock generation,” and made sure that future educational standards would reverse that trend.

As I wrote above, below our fear and contempt for the Other lies envy and the desire to achieve authentic psychological integration. Ancient cultures knew this. For much more, see Barbara Ehrenreich’s excellent book, Dancing in the Streets.  That is why many of their seasonal festivals, especially those of winter solstice and early spring, such as the Greek Anthesteria celebration of Dionysus. Anthesteria From Chapter Four:

How does an entire society welcome this vengeful, unpredictable god in hopes that he won’t take vengeance? The Athenians were deeply aware of the seduction of the irrational. Every February, during the Anthesteria, they invoked him as purifier, rather than as destroyer. For over 1,000 years, this all-soul’s festival welcomed the spirits of the dead – and Dionysus, who brought with him the new wine – for three days of drinking, processions, insults and merry-making. But it was also a period of deep solemnity, because the people knew that they couldn’t go to one extreme without invoking its opposite.

Impersonated by a priest wearing a two-faced mask, Dionysus returned from Hades on a wheeled ship crowned with vine tendrils and pulled by panthers. dionysus-mosaicPeople masked themselves as ancestral spirits who had emerged from the wine casks and were roaming the city. “Wild laughter,” writes Walter Burkett, “is acted out against the backdrop of terror…”

In similar Egyptian, Babylonian and Roman New Year’s festivals ritual purification announced the end of one cosmic cycle and the beginning of another. Later, Christian Europe celebrated Carnival at this time, and the King and Queen still arrive on a wheeled ship. Dionysian revels are followed by the austerities of Lent, the grieving of Good Friday and Easter. Clearly, the Anthesteria was a model for this holiday.

Temporary inversion of the social order and breaking of taboos characterized carnival. Entire communities participated as temporary equals, with little distinction between performers and audience. In the “Feast of Fools” pent-up repression exploded in mock rituals and wild excess within churches, sometimes with clergy participating. Amid the merriment, we still observe the ancient theme of welcoming the masked spirits of the dead. Modernity, however, has reduced Carnival to the consumer spectacles of Mardi Gras, New Year’s, “spring break” and the Superbowl. But the Greek town of Monoklissia still celebrates the Gynaecocracy (“rule of women”) festival, when women and men trade roles for a day.

The Anthesteria was all this and more. The basilinna, wife of the religious leader, ritually copulated with Dionysus. While scholars consider this a fertility ritual that ensured good crops, she was also re-enacting the ancient hieros gamos marriage of goddess and consort, of the inner queen and king meeting in the sea – the deep Self. It recalled and evoked the unity behind all dualities. Indigenous knowledge was still alive: the proximity of decomposition and fertility, of pollution and the sacred, of death and new life.

We will never know exactly what occurred, or how people interpreted it. Who the basillina slept with, or whether they consummated literally, doesn’t matter. This does: the Other symbolically invaded the royal household and claimed her. Then the Athenians donned masks, got drunk, and ignored gender-roles and rules of fidelity. Master and slave briefly exchanged roles. Next morning, however, they symbolically fed the spirits, swept through the streets and chased them away for another year.

We have here a partial record of how an advanced urban civilization acknowledges the irrational. The rich certainly hoped these rituals would minimize the eruption of energies that could topple their palaces, that because of the attention they paid to the Lord of the Darkness there might not be a catastrophic return of the repressed, in the city or in their souls.

Clearly, the deep tensions in Athenian life could only be partially resolved by such festivals as the Anthesteria. Dionysus inhabited the center of this paradox, representing the return of the repressed needs of women and slaves, return of the non-rational part of the self, and return of the ancient connection to the living unity of nature.

The Anthesteria gave us both Carnival and Holy Week. Similarly, the Romans celebrated the Saturnalia around the winter solstice, and many historians suggest that from it Christianity evolved its Christmas traditions.

Can we modern people even conceive of a rational culture that institutionalized an annual event in which the entire population simultaneously partied to excess and also grieved their dead? Mexico, perhaps – another Catholic country.

Our ancestors (including our European ancestors) understood that these liminal periods offered ideal opportunities for symbolic re-integration of repressed aspects of both person (derived etymologically from persona, or mask) and culture.

African slaves, Haitians and other Catholics brought this dark knowledge to New Orleans. Even now we can observe vestigial aspects of the old ways, including the tradition of the “Second Line.”  Another aspect is the devils 3327496784_b92d2aa55d_b and ghosts 013ea652ff476e2af71679a0a6238cb1--mardi-gras-ghosts (not the cute and harmless figures of Halloween) appearing everywhere as Mardi Gras masks, as well as the processions with their large floats, images which are direct (if unconscious) recreations of the ship on wheels upon which Dionysus entered Athens during the Anthesteria.

Those devils and ghosts once reminded us that the potential of reintegration calls forth the necessity of confronting all that we have repressed and condemned to the underworld of the unconscious. As Mahatma Ghandi wrote, one of the modern world’s “seven deadly sins” was religion without sacrifice. This is precisely what is lacking in our safe, contemporary vacations in chaos.

To paraphrase the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, a culture that begins by denying death will end up denying life. Or as Michael Meade puts it, those who deny death will end up inflicting it upon others.

Because America demands these Disneyfied versions of Carnival, where Death is scrubbed away (or projected, literally, with projectiles, onto targets throughout the Third World), our culture can only see both its potential and its misery among those people of color who must live – not temporarily – within the “inner cities” of our imagination. Even before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was known as the murder capital of America. For its African-American inhabitants, life there partook of the bittersweet totality of life, but it was and is no vacation.

I write extensively about rituals of grief in Chapter Twelve. The Dagara people of Burkina Faso in East Africa are particularly known for having kept alive the tradition of lengthy and cathartic funerals. A friend of mine who has spent much time with them tells of a woman he met. Asked why she seems so happy, she responded, “…because I cry so often.”

In recent years we’ve seen the rise of many new types of Carnival, from Burning Man to the countless Yogafests and Bhaktifests



that attract New Age crowds every summer. Although I haven’t attended any of these events, I’m glad to hear that Burning Man does have an annual Temple of Remembrance. But I doubt if any of the others acknowledge the dark side of existence (except as a Hell-like condition to rise above), and I’d be happy to hear from any readers who have been to them.

Sociologist Nicholas Powers suggests that there are three types of Carnival:

Status Quo: Living in hierarchy – the vacation in chaos is essentially a public ritual that by carefully containing transgression within time and place actually confirms the status of its participants.

Reactionary: Breaking the rules to re-assert old hierarchies. Think of Trump rallies and white supremacist events.

Revolutionary: Since these events are often spontaneous and not sanctioned by the state, they have the potential of transforming and even abolishing the hierarchy.

But even if most participants in the vacation in chaos do not expect or even consciously desire any real transformation, their indigenous souls understand the potential that exists in such spaces.

Thousands come to Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival for their vacations. But some local people remember its dark roots. Here is the translation of Sergio Mendes’ popular song Samba of the Blessing:

It’s better to be happy than sad 
Happiness is the best thing there is
It is like a light in the heart
But to make a samba with beauty
A bit of sadness is needed
If not the samba can’t be made

To make a samba is not like telling a joke
And who makes samba like this is worth nothing
The good samba is a kind of prayer
Because samba is the sadness that sways
And sadness is always hopeful
Of one day not being sad any more

Put a little love in the cadence
And you’ll see that in this world nobody wins
The beauty that a samba have
Because samba was born in Bahia
And if today it is white in it’s poetry
It is very black in its heart.

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Barry’s Blog # 258: A Vacation in Chaos, Part One of Two

To really understand our stubborn attachment to the myth of American Innocence, we must become familiar with our heritage of the paranoid imagination. It combines eternal vigilance, literalistic religion and constant anxiety with contempt for the erotic and a highly creative style of sadism. Why these last two features? Because what we will not allow ourselves to desire becomes a vector of judgment, fear and hatred of those whom we perceive as being willing to enact those desires. This results in obsessive voyeurism, as I write here. American life, politics and culture reveal an endless litany of fascination with the so-called violent and sexually unrestrained behavior of “the Other.” I describe the paranoid imagination in much greater detail in Chapter Seven of my book, Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence.

It may be that every curse has a corresponding blessing. Below our fear and contempt for the Other lies envy, and even deeper below is the universal drive to achieve authentic psychological integration. This is both the great longing and the worst terror of those millions of white Americans who still carry the formidable burden of our Puritan heritage.

To cover up their unacceptable fantasies – to condemn them, mythologically speaking, to the underworld – those white people who still prefer to see themselves as Apollonian, cultured, hardworking, peaceful, rational and progressive (not to mention innocent) are likely to project those desires onto people of color across the world, whom they still see as primitive, Dionysian, dangerously irrational and (this is the core of the projection) unable or unwilling to restrain their impulses.

Another fundamental aspect of American Innocence is the myth of progress (which I address in Chapter Nine). We believe that we must keep moving upwards and onwards, or risk re-gressing. Hence the appeal of periodically – if safely – trans-gressing conventional moral and behavioral standards. We see this theme in the common film trope (think Marx Brothers) of sticking it to our stuffed-up social superiors. This is clearly one of the attractions, by the way, of Trump rallies.

But the terrible personal and cultural strain of repressing one’s emotions and fantasies for an entire lifetime always threatens to burst out past our internal censors into consciousness and wreck havoc with our convention hopes and dreams. This is one reason why many traditional societies have institutionalized occasional periods of carnival, so as to literally blow off the excess steam before it causes an explosive “return of the repressed.” Chapter Ten goes into greater detail.

As I wrote here, for at least 250 years in New Orleans (one of the very few American cities, along with Santa Fe and San Francisco, that was originally settled by Catholics), Mardi Gras has served this function for an America whose value system has never fully allowed the mind to connect joyfully with the body. Because of this dilemma, Protestants in particular are filled with an intensity that rarely achieves even temporary satisfaction, except through fundamentalist religion – and vicarious violence.

This longing for intensity drives gambling fever, which is also an alternative expression of the drive to achieve salvation by attaining wealth. In this case, the Opportunist’s greed trumps the Puritan’s virtues of thrift, hard work and deferred gratification; now many believe success should come quickly and effortlessly. The anxiety associated with the risk yields to the greater American fantasy of winning. But the Puritan heritage remains robust among Trump’s most reliable supporters, those who insist on a strictly literal interpretation of a two-thousand-year old myth from the Middle East.

Many of those people are quite desperate for an escape, if only brief, from their constricted lifestyles. In the last sixty years, consumer culture has responded by providing an entire city way out in the desert where “anything goes,” and people can briefly drop their corporate or small-town lifestyles and moralities to safely enact the shadow of Puritanism. This has been described as a “vacation in chaos.” So a week in Las Vegas, America’s fastest growing city, has taken on the characteristics of a pilgrimage.  A protected environment – a sacred space – to engage in activity that approximates the conditions of liminality, where “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” – overeating, sleeping till noon, watching light-porn stage shows, whoring and throwing money away. How often do we hear a recent returnee bragging not about how much he won at the tables, but how much he lost?

The entire city is a shrine to the goddess of luck, Fortuna, and the god of intensity, Dionysus. Gambling corporations know this very well, and their casinos are designed to enhance the effects (total environments, constant sounds and flashing lights, no clocks, etc) of what are, in actuality, large public rituals,

“New York, New York” in Vegas

or more accurately, spectacles that attempt to blur the distinction between Heaven and Hell.

Now we have, in a superficial sense, more choices. We can have our safe vacation in chaos (knowing we can return to our normal lives whenever we want) for a week at Mardi Gras, or Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale, or a weekend at the Superbowl, or a memorable but confidential staff Christmas or New Year’s party. Or we can go any time of the year to Vegas.

But the vast majority of us still prefer to do it the easy way: we watch other people getting out of control on our electronic devices, and allow the fantasies to parade – briefly, safely and respectfully – across our minds, while we simultaneously condemn those who seem to be acting them out. I address this “vicarious intensity,” one of the ways that we unconsciously invite Dionysus into our lives, in Chapter Ten.

We think we can have it both ways, but in doing so, we have neither.





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Barry’s Blog # 257: The Mythic Foundations of Libertarianism, Part Six of Six

Coda: The Myth of Growth

The goal of Survivor, now in its 37th season, is to manipulate and scheme against other participants until only one winner is left. Its longevity exemplifies the American dogma of unlimited economic growth, which teaches that all must be free to achieve their potential through independent, meritorious (and if not, then creatively dishonest) action. cbs-Survivor_S28-Full-Image_GalleryBackground-en-US-1504651649565._RI_SX940_ Its relentless logic, however, turns nature into a resource and objectifies humans into individual rather than social animals. All motivation becomes self-interest, and – this is critical – no winners can exist without losers to compare themselves to.

For libertarians, simplistic faith in “the market” mirrors the fundamentalist’s faith in scriptural authority. In this story, the greatest sins are not violence but personal laziness (the crime of the Puritan) and social intrusion (the nightmare of the Opportunist.) Activist government, by taxing the privileged to sustain the needy, calls this faith into question: if everyone, even the poor, is entitled to basic human rights and dignity, then no one is automatically among the elect. If even the children of the homeless deserve care, nutrition and decent schooling, then students at the Georgetown Preparatory School are really not that special after all.

But we are talking about a belief system. Libertarianism is merely the extreme version of the creed of the individual who should be free to build, buy, steal or waste whatever he wants. True adherents of this theology then argue against all evidence that the “rising boat” of generalized wealth may possibly lift the less deserving along with the rich. On the other hand, as J.M. Keynes argued, capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men, for the nastiest of reasons, will somehow work for everyone’s benefit. And such beliefs inevitably lead to a world of euphemisms, such as terms like “productivity” hiding the truth of “increased unemployment.”

A hundred and fifty years before recent Supreme Court decisions, the myth of growth enshrined the idea that abstract concepts devoted solely to accumulating capital – corporations – have all the rights of persons, plus limited liability and the freedom to externalize costs. Who are the gods of this theology? Corporations are immortal. They can reside in many places simultaneously, transform themselves at will and do virtually whatever they choose, but they can’t be punished (or in practical terms, taxed).

Corporate headquarters, like medieval religious shrines, are housed in America’s tallest buildings. Americans express our aspiration to greatness through the metaphors of size, speed, height, expansion, acceleration and constant action. Our uniquely American term “manifest destiny” has always implied both territorial expansion and cultural influence. We outrun the competition and climb out of ignorance, up the rungs of the ladder of evolution. Great music “uplifts” us. The greater grows by “rising” out of the lesser. Many books on American history utilize this phallic language: The Rise of American Civilization, The Rise of the Common Man and The Rise of the City. Even in slang, both intoxication and euphoria are “highs,” psychologically depressed individuals are “down” and bad news is a “downer.”

Counter-arguments produce anxiety, because we perceive them as attacks upon the faith itself. If one grows from wet/dark/feminine to dry/light/masculine, then appeals to sustainability become entwined with threats to masculinity itself. Male identity converges with the imperative to grow; everything is bound up in “potential” and “potency.” Bigger is not simply better, but the only alternative to “smaller,” as “hero” is to “loser.” Jimmy Carter suggested mild limits to growth and was destroyed politically for the attempt. Studying his fate, Reagan, Clinton, both Bushes, Obama and Trump have promised to limits government, even as they increased its size.

The belief that the imperative of growth (as quarterly profits) trumps life itself underlies all corporate and most government policies and leads to the conservative mental gyrations of attacking big government while praising its responsibility to support the private sector through subsidies, infrastructure and military intervention – all forms of externalizing costs. The result is an economy, wrote James Hillman, that is “…the God we nourish with actual human blood.”

The holy text of this theology, the Gross Domestic Product, symbolizes the pathology of growth in four ways. First, it counts all economic activity as valuable, such as the $20 billion we annually spend on divorce lawyers, or cleaning up after a hurricane, and never distinguishes between textbooks and porn magazines. It includes every possible aspect of a person’s death from lung cancer – medical, hospital, pharmaceutical, legal and funereal – as well as the land purchasing, growing, transporting, packaging, marketing and eventual disposal of tobacco products, and the defense of their producers from class-action lawsuits. Increased gas expenditures add to the GDP without a corresponding subtraction for the toll fossil fuels take on the thermostatic and buffering functions of the atmosphere. Luxury buying by the rich covers up a lack of necessary buying by the poor.

So the GDP actually disguises suffering. The ultimate example is war: exceptionally costly, energy-intensive, requiring lengthy cleanup and long-term medical bills. By adding to the GDP, however, it builds an artificial sense of economic health. And for the last sixty years, preparation for war (the Defense Department and all related expenditures in the Energy Department and Homeland Security as well as veteran’s benefits and proportional percentages of interest payments of the national debt) has accounted for well over half of the nation’s annual budgets and similar percentages of the GDP.

Second, judging profitability on quarterly stock reports rather than on long-term sustainability leads to the maximization of short-term strategies (such as investing in the SUV rather than in energy-efficient cars) The Biggest Truck SUV at the cost of long-term losses. It also leads to outright, deliberate lying about those long-term effects, from “healthy” cigarettes and mercury-laden dental fillings to death-trap cars and global warming.

Third, the GDP is so wildly inaccurate – because it completely ignores the massive underground economy of drugs, prostitution, gambling and crime (blue- or white-collar) – that it has nothing really practical to indicate about the economy anyway.

Fourth, it discounts and ignores the actual, natural economy. As Robert F. Kennedy said, it “measures everything…except for that which makes life worthwhile.”  Most crucial life-supporting functions take place not through the market, but through social processes and voluntary activities (families and churches) or through completely natural processes (the cooling and cleansing functions of trees, etc). None register in the GDP until something damages them and people have to buy substitutes in the market. In this mad calculus, fuel conservation, stable marriages, children who exercise and eat healthy foods and world peace are threats to the economy.

Many “progressives” are also unaware of the pervasiveness of this story. Clearly, recession hurts the poor most. But we reveal ignorance of our myths when we demand larger shares of an ever-expanding economic pie, or lament “underdevelopment” in other nations. Growth, whether inequitable or sustainable, leads inevitably to the terrifying vision of seven billion people each driving their own SUV.

Eastern wisdom teaches that we can never satisfy the soul’s hunger with material food alone. Yet self-improvement and growth are such bedrock American values that, by the 1970s, they were, once again, models for the spiritual life. Hillman argued that the first assumption of the “therapeutic culture” is that emotional maturity entails a progressive differentiation of self from others, especially family. American psychology mirrors its economics: the heroic, isolated ego in a hostile world.

For a significant segment of the population, “inner growth” replaced the old ideal of the democratic citizen. Well-meaning people, more American than they knew, spoke of what they could get from life, rather than, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, what they could give to it. Spiritual growth became another version of the pursuit of happiness, now defined by “heightened awareness” and “peak” experiences. “Feeling good,” wrote psychologist Lesley Hazleton, became “no longer simply a right, but a social and personal duty.” And the economy offered the material symbols that gave evidence – proof, in Puritan terms – of spiritual “growth.”

This idea takes its energy from two older ones: life-long initiation, and biological maturation. But it has split off from the natural and indigenous worlds in its unexamined assumptions. All living things die and return to Earth, but a “growing” person, by definition, cannot. Initiation absolutely requires the death of something that has grown past its prime. And worse, since the myth of growth (material or spiritual) is essentially a personal story, it narcissistically assumes the unlimited objectification and exploitation of others for the ultimate aggrandizement of the Self.

Gary Snyder points out that we find unlimited growth in neither nature nor culture, but only in the cancer cell, which multiplies until it destroys its host. The miracle of reproduction serves death instead of life. Growth inevitably evokes its opposite. The body produces anti-bodies, which destroy the invasion of grandiosity. There is no more basic ecological rule. Natural growth only occurs within a broader cycle that also includes decay.

But when growth, potency, happiness, pressure to be in a good mood, to “have a nice day,” to be “high” are hopelessly intertwined with consumer goodies, not having them means a drop into shame and depression, from the Hero to the Victim. In the real world of limited resources, growth is a Ponzi scheme in which our great-grandchildren subsidize the childish and narcissistic fantasies of those who call themselves libertarians.


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Barry’s Blog # 256: The Mythic Foundations of Libertarianism, Part Five of Six

The Paradox of the Outsider

The redemption hero, like Christ, leaves once his work is done. He must leave; he came from somewhere else, and he must return. It should be clear by now how this mythology has had a very practical effect on the American family, especially on patterns of fathering. It is a very simple step from identifying (consciously or not) as a libertarian to minimizing and eventually denying one’s responsibility to the children of the poor, and eventually to one’s own children.

And it’s another series of simple and logical steps from choosing that libertarian identity to asserting one’s freedom from all duties to the community and government in any of its forms, to the position of rebel, and then on to the claim that law itself has no intrinsic hold on one, and then to the eventual assertion that one has the right to do anything at all, from child molestation to mass murder. One then finds oneself – proudly – in the position of the Other.

As I have suggested, innocent Eden is defined by the existence of the Other – the external Other of terrorism, and the internal Other of race. The Other is the outsider. Or: evil comes from outside. But so does redemption.

Riding off into the sunset, writes James Robertson, “…the cowboy hero never integrated himself with his society.” But he has quite a bit in common with his villainous adversary. Each rejects conventional authority, each despises democracy and, although they serve opposing ends (the classic pair is Ethan Edwards and Scar in The Searchers), their methods are similar. Searchers04

The hero often becomes an outlaw (think Rambo) to defeat evil, because legitimate, democratic means are ineffective. Richard Slotkin writes that as early as the 1820s, the standard frontier hero of literature rescued captives by fighting the Indian “in his own manner, becoming in the process a reflection or a double of his dark opponent.”

Eventually, the dual relationship in the mirror shatters and the villain must die, frequently in a duel. The one who can control his impulses defeats the one who cannot. In mythic terms, Apollo defeats Dionysus. (The Greeks, however, knew better. In myth, the hyper-rational god Apollo willingly left his shrine at Delphi for three months every year, so that his irrational, mad half-brother Dionysus could move in.)



Yet because he takes whatever he wants, has no responsibilities and transgresses all moral codes, the villain is exciting, and frankly attractive. Americans admire outlaws. Newspapers described an 1872 hold-up by Jesse James as “so diabolically daring and so utterly in contempt of fear that we are bound to admire it and revere its perpetrators.” For a time, this was a regular theme in cinema: in 1931 alone, Hollywood produced over fifty gangster movies in which the bad guys get away without being punished. It was said that when Al Capone took his seat at ballparks, people applauded. The Godfather is a regular candidate for the Great American Novel. In the era of capitalism’s greatest profits, millions identified with the criminal families depicted in The Sopranos and Growing Up Gotti.

The policeman and the criminal express contradictory impulses within American character. Puritan zeal for order clashes with its equal, the frenzied quest for wealth. Robert Warshow writes that the gangster is “what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become.”  For more on this topic, see George De Stefano’s An Offer We Can’t Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America.

Both share still another characteristic: the villain’s rage is a natural component of his pleasure in violating all boundaries, while the hero is also full of rage. Only by killing the villain, writes sociologist James Gibson, can the hero “release the rage accumulated from a life of emotional self-denial.”

Like the villain, the libertarian also loathes governmental limits on his quest for wealth. And, in rejecting religious constraints as well, he believes that he has the best of both worlds.

But what about the libertarian’s vaunted opposition to the military and its sworn duty to enact the extremes of empire? Looking back at that list of prominent, self-described “libertarians,” we notice plenty of men (Bob Barr, Gary Johnson, the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdoch, Rand Paul, Paul Singer, Peter Thiel, Bill Weld, etc) who have displayed little concern with this question. Granted, they are all obvious hypocrites, devoted to conning the rubes in the service of Wall Street. But perhaps we can judge the ideological tree by its strange fruit.

Though the hero rejects society’s rules, he is hardly alone; the desperado and the hedge fund CEO, whom we can’t resist admiring, join him, along with all the Others who have been pushed beyond the walls or down into the underworld (a term which was first used to describe organized crime in the 1920s). The mythic roots of crime in America, organized or not, are different from those in other countries. As I write in Chapter Nine of my book,

…when our assumptions of social mobility are revealed as fiction, the hero encounters his opposite – the victim – within himself, and we become what we really are (except for Nazi Germany), the most violent people in history. American crime is a natural by-product of our values, an alternative means of social mobility in a society where “anything goes” in the pursuit of success. “America,” says mythologist Glen Slater, “has little imagination for loss and failure. It only knows how to move forward.” We go ballistic when we can only imagine moving forward and that movement is blocked. Then guns become the purest expression of controlling one’s fate. As such, they are “the dark epitome of the self-made way of life.” We as a people may well dream bigger dreams than other peoples. With great possibilities, however, come great risks. Gaps between aspiration and reality – the lost dream – are also far higher here than anywhere else. When we don’t meet our expectations of success, when that gap gets too wide, violence often becomes the only option, the expression of a fantasy of ultimate individualism and control. In this sense, the Mafia is more American then Sicilian, and the lone, mass killer (almost all of whom have been white, middle class men with no criminal background) is an expression of social mobility gone bad.

Again, we must note that, as Lewis Lapham argues, “…material objects serve as testimonials to the desired states of immateriality – not what the money buys but what the money says about our…standing in the company of the saved.” These are the logical extremes to which libertarianism – either anarchy or a police state – would invite us, and the American psyche is too willing to follow.

The Race Card

Exploring further into American myth, we inevitably confront the deeply racist nature of our society. American innocence is built upon fear of the “Other” – Indians, Mexicans, Asians, Communists and terrorists, but always and primarily, African-Americans. The fact that, in our time, politicians and pundits regularly admonish progressives for playing the “race card” indicates the terrifying truth that, to a great extent, the subject remains taboo. And anthropology teaches us that what is taboo is sacred. Like the Hebrew god Jehovah, it is too holy to be named.

White supremacy (as fear, as white privilege and as the underpinning of our entire economy) is the great unspoken – and therefore sacred – basis of our very identity as Americans. White Americans know who they are because they are not the Other. In a culture built upon repression of the instincts, delayed gratification and a severe mind/body split, we have, for three centuries, defined the Other as those who cannot or will not restrain their impulses. And we continue to project those qualities upon Black and Brown people.

In this American context, the fear of government intrusion upon the individual too often serves as a euphemism for the concern that one’s personally hard-earned assets (despite the legacy of white privilege and corporate welfare) might be taken away and given to people who are too lazy to work for themselves.

These attitudes are essentially religious, even if articulated in secular terms. Underneath the clichés lies our still-powerful Puritan contempt for the poor. Surveys show that the majority of Americans deeply believe that losers are bad and morally corrupt. To fail economically is not simple failure but – in America – moral failure. And neither American myth nor American politics distinguishes between race and class.

Thus, the libertarian has a deeply religious argument for keeping all of his money. He rationalizes his greed with a secularized argument that subsidizing the poor will only encourage them in their laziness. If they suffer it is their own fault. That a Black child should be undernourished because her parents cannot find employment is irrelevant.

These themes have been played out with increasing effect since the end of the 1960s, when conservatives, far more literate in American myth than liberals, began to masquerade as rebels against the establishment. Their narrative took full advantage of the fact that American myth offers only these alternatives to the hero – the victim and the villain. They emphasized “values” over “interests,” redefining class war, again, in racial and cultural rather than economic terms. Although this fable was aimed at traditional, conservative men, undoubtedly many libertarians soaked up their own rhetoric, perceiving themselves as victims of greedy, inefficient, inappropriately compassionate bureaucrats.

Ronald Reagan’s genius was to articulate hate within the wider myth of American inclusiveness, appealing to white males by evoking both ends of the mythic spectrum. He told them, writes Robert Bellah, that they could have it both ways: “You can…get rich, and you can also have the traditional values…have everything and not pay any price for it…” They could be both Puritans and Opportunists. Reagan’s backlash against the perceived excesses of the 1960s resolved whites of responsibility and renewed their sense of innocence and privilege,

Ever since, Middle America has supported leaders whose policies continue to wreck both the affluence and the family values that they hold so dear. Indeed, Reagan managed the greatest shift of wealth in history, turning the world’s most affluent nation into its greatest debtor nation.

He presided over a time during which, in a thousand subtle ways, government announced that the 300-year old American social contract, the balance between freedom (the rights of the individual) and equality (the community’s needs) was broken. A major theme of his revolution was a return to small town values. But its subtext was greed, racism, contempt for the poor and narcissistic individualism. Reagan gave white men permission to circle the wagons, retreat within the pale (pale skin) and reduce the polis to a size that excluded most of its inhabitants, and all current Republican leaders learned the lesson well.

To the ancient Athenians, someone who wouldn’t participate in the welfare of the polis was an idiota. Reagan gave Americans permission to be idiots. Now they have elected one, or at least a man who plays one on TV.

Ironically, one could trace the recent roots of this socially libertarian yet fiscally conservative fashion to the radical individualism of the sixties. frederick-pearl-quote Fritz Perls, a founder of the Human Potential Movement, had coined the ubiquitous statement of detachment from the polis seen on every t-shirt in those days, sometimes known as the “Gestalt Prayer”:

I do my thing, and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations…you are not in this world to live up to mine…if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.

Carl Cederström, in The Happiness Fantasy, takes this idea further, arguing that counterculture values— liberation, freedom, and authenticity — were co-opted by corporations and advertisers, who used them to perpetuate a culture of consumption:

Happiness became increasingly about personal liberation and pursuing an authentic life. So happiness is seen as a uniquely individualist pursuit — it’s all about inner freedom and inner development…the advertising industry changed their tactics and vocabulary and effectively co-opted these countercultural trends. At the same time…Reagan and Margaret Thatcher…were advancing a very individualistic notion of happiness and consumerism, and all of this together had a huge impact on our culture and politics…these values have been co-opted and transformed and used to normalize a deeply unjust and undesirable situation.

I think that ends where we are now, with a culture of extreme individualism and extreme competitiveness and extreme isolation…a situation where people feel constantly anxious, alienated, and where bonds between people are being broken down, and any sense of solidarity is being crushed.

Meanwhile, an extremely well-funded conservative media barrage was taking advantage of the old tradition of anti-intellectualism. “Elite” now meant stuffy, superior, arrogant liberals who trivialized the concerns of ordinary people. Many retreated into religious fundamentalism. White males, oblivious to their privilege, identified as victims – not of the rich, but of the minorities who were competing with them, the women claiming equality with them, the gays who publicly questioned the value of their masculinity and the intellectuals who appeared to be telling them how to live. The investment paid off; by 2000, only a fifth of Americans would describe themselves as liberal, even though a clear majority have always held liberal values.

For others, radical individualism and the culture of consumption were replacing older forms of group solidarity. Indeed, the U.S. Libertarian Party had run its first presidential candidate in 1972, just as the reaction against the 1960s was gaining steam. Eventually, the streams ran together and produced some crazy combinations, such as the above-mentioned “libertarian” Rand Paul who opposes gun control but would ban abortion and same-sex marriage. And all, whether religious extremists or free-market true believers, would find easy targets to blame.

One of the primary objectives of the corporate media and our other mythic instructors is to distract Americans from identifying both the true spiritual and economic sources of their pain, and the actual opportunities for addressing them. Therefore, the victim who cannot be a hero will search for villains or scapegoats. This is one way to understand right-wing activism: deeply committed, emotionally intense, sustained effort under the identification as victim, their targets being precisely those categories (race and gender) whom they have been educated to perceive as questioning or contesting that privilege.

Hence, we have, and certainly not for the first time in our history, groups of relatively well-off people who actually perceive themselves to be the victims of people who have far less than they do. And not just the relatively well-off. For example, I used to know a 50-year-old man who did odd jobs for me. He lived with his mother and was usually broke. Once, he declared that things were going badly for middle-class people like him and me. Middle-class? He was a good man, but the only way he could identify as middle-class was to remain blind to his own white privilege (and the welfare he was receiving).

This is the broader context behind Libertarianism. For at least the last thirty years, millions of Americans have described themselves as “liberal on social issues but fiscally responsible.” Factoring out the complex issues of tax policy, immigration, jobs, white-collar crime and the military, this translates as increasingly broad support for abortion rights, gay marriage, environmental protection, and de-criminalization of drugs on the one hand – and drastically lower taxes on the other. With most Americans wanting to have their cake (freedom plus government services) without having to pay for it, it hardly seems surprising that a minority would be attracted to Libertarianism, which is, after all, merely an extreme expression of that which makes us all – exceptionally – Americans.

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Barry’s Blog # 255: The Mythic Foundations of Libertarianism, Part Four of Six

Myth is conveyed – and consumed – in narratives and images. So it is important to understand our most fundamental mythic image. The American obsession with individualism has been built up and buttressed by three centuries of stories, repeated in thousands of variations, of the lone, violent hero.

All societies evolved versions of Joseph Campbell’s classic “monomyth” — except America. Whereas the classic hero is born in community, hears a call, ventures forth on his journey and returns sadder but wiser, the American hero comes from elsewhere, entering the community only to defend it from malevolent attacks. He is without flaw but also without depth. He is not re-integrated into society. Not knowing his own darkness, he cannot symbolize genuine renewal.

When confronted with the villain (his mirror-opposite), he never strikes first because, above all, he embodies the Puritan quality of self-control. This is what proves his superior character. And since his adversaries lack self-control, they embody the Dionysian Other. He is individualistic, lonely, extraordinarily powerful, selfless – and, like the Christ he is modeled upon, almost totally sexless. Classic heroes often wed beautiful maidens and produce many children. But the American hero (with few exceptions such as James Bond and comic antiheroes) doesn’t get – or even want – the girl.

Consider John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, Red River, The Searchers, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and The Horse Soldiers. In each of these films he portrays widowed, divorced or uninvolved loners. They symbolize the man who has failed – or never attempted – the initiatory confrontation with the feminine depths of his soul. He carries with him the myth of violent redemption.

Am I exaggerating? How common is this unattached American hero? Consider some others: Hawkeye, the Virginian, Josey Wales, Paladin, Sam Spade, Nick Danger, Mike Hammer, Phillip Marlowe, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Dirty Harry, SP-23384-dirty-harry-go-ahead-600x800 John Shaft, Indiana Jones, Robert Langdon, Mr. Spock, Rambo, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, the Man With No Name, the Hobbits, Gandalf, Mad Max, Superman, Green Lantern, Green Hornet, Spiderman, the Hulk, Iron Man, Human Torch, The Flash, Dr. Strange, Hellboy, Nick Fury, Swamp Thing, Aquaman, Daredevil, Lone Wolf McQuade, Sargent Rock, Braveheart, Conan the Barbarian, Jack Sparrow, Captains Kirk, Picard, Atom, Nemo, Phillips, Marvel and America, as well as the heroes of Death Wish, The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, Pale Rider, Unforgiven, Under Siege, Lethal Weapon, Blade, Casablanca, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, No Country for Old Men, Gran Torino, Walking Tall, Delta Force, Missing In Action, Avenger, Extreme Justice, The Equalizer, Terminator, The Exterminator, Rawhide, The Rifleman, Million Dollar Baby, Open Range, The Exorcist and countless other movies, novels and comic strips.

All are either single, divorced or (especially in Wayne’s films) widowers. Robert Jewett and John Lawrence write, “The purity of his motivations ensures moral infallibility,” but denies both the tragic complexity of the real world as well as the possibility of healing through merging with and incorporating the values of the Other.

In this mythology, women are merely excuses for the hero’s quest. I googled “prominent Libertarians” and discovered 17 women out of 194 (about 9%). Even the Senate has a higher percentage of women (23%). Again: the Libertarian’s allegiance, if he is honest (and he is usually a he), is to himself, whether he claims to be part of a family, a relationship, a business or a military unit.

The classic hero endures the initiatory torments in order to suffer into knowledge and renew the world. In this pagan and tragic vision, something must die for new life to grow. But the American hero cares only to redeem (“buy back”) others. Born in monotheism, he saves Eden by combining elements of the sacrificial Christ who dies for the sins of the world and his zealous, omnipotent father. The community begins and ends in innocence. And the Hero – absolutely unique in all the world’s mythologies – remains outside of that community.

Only in our salvation obsessed culture and the places our movies go does he appear. Then, he changes the lives of others without transforming them. This redemption hero has inherited an immensely long process of abstraction, alienation and splitting of the western psyche. He exemplifies that peculiar process upon which our civilization rests: dissociation. He is disconnected from both the feminine and the Other (psychologically, his own unacknowledged darkness), whom he has demonized into his mirror opposite, the irredeemably evil. Since he never laments the furious violence employed in destroying such evil, he reinforces our characteristic American denial of death.

Our monotheistic legacy of dissociation and our sense that we individuate by separating ourselves from the tangles of relationship and community merged long ago with the Puritan’s profound contempt for the poor. Together, they inform both the libertarian’s disinterest in social responsibility as well as his stunning ignorance of how centralized government built up his white privilege (oh, did I mention that there were few people of color in that list of prominent libertarians?)

The Hero’s appeal lies deep below rational thinking. He requires no nurturance, doesn’t grow in wisdom, creates nothing, and teaches only violent resolution of disputes. The regular repetition of his stories in the mass media clearly has a modeling effect on millions of adolescent males in each new generation. Defending democracy through fascist means, he renounces citizenship. He offers, writes Jewett and Lawrence, vigilantism without lawlessness, sexual repression without resultant perversion, and moral infallibility without intellect.

Unlike the universal hero who lifts the veil between the worlds to discover eternal values, the redemption hero pulls the veil back down, confirms our innocence, and puts everyone back to sleep.


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Barry’s Blog # 254: The Mythic Foundations of Libertarianism, Part Three of Six

American Dualities

All societies confront the perennial conflict between individual and community. America’s emphasis on individualism and its puritanical shadow produced a bewildering series of dualities that express, temporarily resolve and often cover up this tension.

Fear: For every story of heroic, optimistic, progressive, entrepreneurial, forward-thinking, frontier-crossing heroism, we have the background of fear and anxiety. Our stories have always focused that fear upon the inner and outer Others of our imagination. And I mean always, as Glenn Greenwald observes,  because a mythology built to justify empire and white supremacy absolutely requires a state of constant anxiety  to motivate people who, left to their own devices and traditional mythic worlds, would not tolerate such an unsatisfying life.

People, of course, can feel fear about many things, especially of loss. But in America this mythology gets condensed through the generations down into the loss of freedom, which expresses as the loss of opportunity and the loss of money. Just behind the libertarian’s obsession with freedom lies his fear of losing his hard-earned resources, which he believes he achieved entirely independently of a broader social network.

And in this zero-sum American mythology it is impossible to separate the fear of loss of resources from the fear of redistribution of those resources, and those racialized groups whom government would give them to.

Early white fear and hatred of the dangerous, Indian Other created mythic opposites: the hero and the captive. Both our history and our psychology waver between the viewpoints of the helpless, innocent victim of pure evil, and the redeemer/hunter/hero, who vanquishes it and saves innocent Eden. By 1700, America’s first coherent myth-literature appeared: potent tales of people — usually women — who’d survived capture by the Indians.

The heroes of the western expansion became the stock characters of the second theme in American myth. The greatest, Daniel Boone, moved further west as 9780439020206_mres civilization encroached, complaining, I had not been two years at the licks before a d—d Yankee came, and settled down within an hundred miles of me!

Whether Boone actually said that is irrelevant; Americans needed him to. The myth of the frontier contrasted Apollonian Cities with the Dionysian Wilderness (hence, three hundred years later, the spatial center of libertarianism in our Western states). The frontier was a safety valve of free western land when urban conditions became unmanageable, linking militarism with civilization’s moral progress. Since society must grow or perish, it insisted on the racial basis of class difference and taught that such progress required the subjugation or extermination of both wild nature and savage races.

These themes had deep resonance, because they superficially resembled ancient hero myths. Both the hunter (willingly) and the captive (unwillingly) entered a primal world. If they could maintain their racial/cultural integrity there, they might incorporate its power, defeat its demons and return to morally renew their community (even if they rarely did so). It was initiation – and redemption – through violence.

The opposition of Puritan obsessions and the opportunists’ predatory mania led to a division in the psyche that remains with us today. We regularly confront the opposing values of freedom and equality, framed as individualism vs. conformism. To modern Puritans, all are equally sinful, requiring eternal vigilance to prevent infection. But descendants of the opportunists, from robber barons to anti-tax crusaders, sexual hedonists and libertarians, venerate the sacred right to ignore community standards.

Conservatives (more appropriately: reactionaries) often intertwine these values, because one of the privileges of whiteness is to pick and choose among seemingly contradictory positions. Hence, we have the curious phenomena of gay Republicans who overlook their party’s hatred of sexuality; proponents of increased police presence who oppose gun control; others who oppose abortion rights but support capital punishment; and demagogues like Richard Nixon, who terrorized Middle America with warnings of both “the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy” in the same speech.

The pendulum has swung back and forth. But wherever one of these values predominates, its shadow soon constellates. The conflict emerges in the tension between libertarian hedonism and wartime conformism – often in the voices of the same persons.

Another example is equal opportunity vs. the meritocratic values of our institutions – and the old-boy networks that actually ensure continued WASP dominance. Two outstanding examples are the C-grade high school student George W. Bush who was the ultimate “legacy” admission at Yale, and the equally under-achieving Jared Kushner, whose father pledged $2.5 million to Harvard shortly before Jared was admitted there. (The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges – and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates)

The consensus on the issue of equality is that all Americans have – or at least now have – equal access to jobs, education and housing. This bogus reasoning gave the Supreme Court its excuse to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act in 2015. Assuming that all start on a “level playing field,” we proclaim May the best man win. The winners are those who “try hardest,” applying the Protestant values of discipline and delayed gratification. Theologically speaking, they show by their success that they are among the elect of God — and exempt, by the way, from the Christian obligation to help the poor.

Conflicts in the myth can emerge in terms of fairness vs. cheating. The notion of fairness promises that all who play by the rules will prosper. Cheating breaks the rules, but it also reveals our core, capitalist, individualist values. This explains our moral indignation about steroid abuse and rule violation in sports, one of the few areas in modern life, a ritual space perhaps, in which we claim to honor truth and fairness. But Eldridge Cleaver saw that when we all secretly subscribe to…“every man for himself,” we really do perceive the weak as the prey of the strong.

But since this dark principle violates our democratic ideals… we force it underground… sports are geared to disguise, while affording expression to, the acting out in elaborate pageantry of the myth of the fittest in the process of surviving.

This is a deeply mythic story not necessarily because it is untrue, but because its pervasiveness and its unexamined assumptions produce a consensus reality. It is a container of multiple and inconsistent meanings; its very ambiguity gives it the energy that motivates us.

It allows the privileged to select either one of the two polar ideals to justify themselves. For example, segregation – “separate but equal” – was legal for sixty years. Libertarians invoke equality to reject affirmative action, calling it reverse discrimination. Assistance to minorities only encourages idleness (let us not forget that in Puritan theology there is no greater sin than laziness). Though the argument is false, it has potency because it contains some truth: since individuals have occasionally succeeded on their own, then, claim conservatives, everyone should be able to. If others cannot, then it is their own fault.

(Few libertarians, with their permissive attitudes around sexuality, would admit to being part of any organized religion, especially anything puritanical. But we are talking about “boy psychology,” the characteristic expression of uninitiated young men, where one’s rebelliousness is merely the mirror-opposite of the father’s authoritarianism.)

Conservatives attack progressive legislation by invoking the ideal of individualism, terrorizing working-class white males with the prospect of lost jobs and, paradoxically, suburban homogeneity. “Freedom” reverts to the right to accumulate and invest wealth without government regulation.

Marketing exploits both sides. As early as the 1830’s, De Tocqueville noticed the tendency toward conformity that resulted from an ideology of equality in a materialistic society. Now, we purchase identical sunglasses, cigarettes, leather jackets and motorcycles because they symbolize rebellion against conformity. Fashion is a simultaneous declaration of freedom and membership: we present a unique self to the world while looking like selected others. “Individualists” often look and think, for the most part, within narrow parameters.

Military recruiters offer romantic images of individualistic warriors while simultaneously emphasizing the joys of dissolving oneself into the group. be-all-you-can-be-u-s-army They seduce young men with images of noble knights in heroic, solo combat, conquering dragons in video games so as to entrain them in the automatic responses of large, anonymous armies.

Each contains the seed of its shadow. The conservative ideal of shrinking government inevitably produces restrictions on personal freedom and a prison-industrial complex.

Here is the essence of our story: both the Puritan and the Opportunist perceived freedom in autonomy and material possessions rather than in social relatedness. Eventually, both figures became somewhat interchangeable, as history transformed the aesthetic, religious notion of predestination into Social Darwinism and the secular culture of consumerism.

The grand product of this mix was the American: enthusiastic, confident, practical, optimistic, extraverted, competitive and classless. But to those who endured his excesses, he was arrogant, childish, narcissistic and belligerent, the “Ugly American,” innocently trampling tradition, making fine distinctions between the elect and the damned, or gleefully crushing the weak with astonishing cruelty.

Generally, a unique if superficial balance has ruled; the land of freedom and equality remains profoundly attractive to the world. Philosopher Jacob Needleman suggests the American ideal poses the ancient question of “what man is as opposed to what he can become.”

And yet, we have a Bill of Rights but no Bill of Responsibilities. Radical critics find the source of this paradox of freedom and equality in unexamined definitions of just who is a member of the community, the polis. When only a small percentage of the population is admitted to that rarified atmosphere and all “Others” are excluded, then both the contradiction in the rhetoric and the sense of denial and innocence are heightened.

During wartime, we quickly forget the civil liberties that the nation was founded upon. Terrorized by the Other – or being told this – we almost unanimously ignore or condone the grossest violations of the right to dissent. As the mid-term elections of 2018 approach, and keeping in mind the history of various “October Surprises,” we would do well to recall that on September 10th, 2001, G.W. Bush was the most unpopular president in our history, and that on the 12th, he had a 90 percent approval rating.

This is Tocqueville’s tyranny of the majority. For all their emphasis on individual rights, Americans had put so much emphasis on equality rather than upon diversity that they became intolerant of the very freedom to be different. He wrote, “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.”

Over time, unrestrained capitalism provokes responses such as the New Deal. Franklin D. Roosevelt reframed freedom: of speech, of religion, from want and from fear. But after FDR’s death, Harry Truman dropped the last two, replacing them with freedom of enterprise.

More fundamental to American myth than ideals of freedom or equality, the unrestrained quest for wealth trumps them both. And yet, as noted above, during the Eisenhower administration, the rich paid extremely high income taxes, because (until the Reagan years) the consensus of social compassion still existed. Still, even now, corporate welfare, federal subsidies and regressive taxation prop up big business and big agriculture; both they and their “small government” libertarian spokespersons would be horrified at the notion of a truly free market.

Yet the myth retains its pervasiveness, as middle class resistance to increased taxation on the super-wealthy indicates. Americans characteristically dream of becoming wealthy. Our sacred expectation of social mobility – the opportunity to move up into a higher social class – has been decreasing significantly for many years. But as recently as 2003, in a poll on the Bush tax-cut plan, 56% of the blue-collar men who correctly perceived it as favoring the rich still supported it.

The myth of the self-made man is so deeply engrained in our national psyche that our ignorance of the facts is equaled only by our optimism: in 2000 19% of respondents believed that they would “soon” be in the top one percent income bracket, and another 19% thought that they already were. And it certainly wouldn’t be difficult to find similar thinking among Trump supporters today.

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Barry’s Blog # 253: The Mythic Foundations of Libertarianism, Part Two of Six


Our sacred notion of mobility — the freedom to move — evokes one of our most enduring themes: the New Start. Always, one could pull up stakes, move on, start a new church, change one’s name, dream a new American dream and start over. Mobility also implies expansion: geographic, economic and spiritual. Americans from the start have taken for granted the imperative to constantly expand and grow – and the internalized judgment of those who are not upwardly mobile. shutterstock_319833890

This leads to wildly divergent yet surprisingly similar ideals – both the infinitely expanding consumer economy and “personal growth.” New Age spirituality could not be more American. Consider the book, The Secret (30 million copies in 50 languages), by Rhonda Byrne. In the film version, a series of self-help teachers promote positive thinking, primarily toward the goal of acquiring consumer goods and a great love life. This tradition extends back to the New Thought teachers of early 19th-century America. The film ignores the values of community almost totally. For more on the myths of progress and growth, see Chapter Nine of my book.

A mere half century after the revolution, Alexis De Toqueville observed of American preachers,

…it is often difficult to be sure when listening to them whether the main object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the next world or prosperity in this.

Eventually, religion and the mentality of business merged as they did nowhere else. Without a state religion and with Protestant churches constantly splitting in schisms, each individual preacher was forced to become an entrepreneur of souls, a salesman, in order to distinguish his church from other churches. Consequently, a business-growth mentality grew within American Protestantism, and its philosophy of optimistic self-improvement merged with the capitalist ideology of greed and perpetual growth.

“New Start” also implies another old idea. In the tribal world, initiation removes youths from their community before returning them with their sense of purpose revitalized. It is a point in time rooted within space. But America inverted this ancient truth; since one could simply leave his community to acquire a new identity, initiation became a point in space rooted in time. As early as 1600, America symbolized the New Start for the entire western world. This aspect of the myth remains nearly as strong today. And it tells us that we rise up not as members of an ethnic group or social class, but as individuals. static1.squarespace

The Myth of Individualism

In an odd reversal of initiation motifs, the American heroic son “kills” his father symbolically – if he has one – by individuating, moving away and repudiating everything the father stands for. In truth, we perceive family as at best a necessary evil, something to leave, so that one may get on with the pursuit of happiness. In America, progress happens through separation.

In terms of child-raising, Americans generally consider infants to be so fused with their mothers that we make every effort to encourage autonomy as early as possible. We hold and carry babies less than most nations do, very early admonishing them to be “big boys.” The Japanese, by contrast, consider the infant to be utterly alien, from some strange, other world. Like most traditional people, they make every effort to enfold it within community as early as possible. Neither view of the child is right or wrong, said James Hillman; both are myths, because they are “lived unconsciously, collectively as truths, performed unwaveringly as rituals.”

In the story of modernity, which is essentially an American story, unlike anything that came before, we have convinced ourselves that purpose can be divorced from community. But in a culture of consumerism, the desire to be seen as special produces a quest for expensive symbols – a quest that is ultimately futile, wrote sociologist Philip Slater, “…since it is individualism itself that produces uniformity.”

Paradoxically, our American obsession with individualism produces persons who “cannot recognize the nature of their distress.” This results in a desire to relinquish responsibility for control and decision-making to the images provided by the media. Here lies a great paradox of American life: our emphasis on the needs of the individual always constellates its shadow of cultural and political conformism.

But conformism and rebellious individualism should not be our only choices. In the indigenous world, community exists in order to identify and nurture the individuality of each of its members, who are, in turn, necessary for the community to thrive and reproduce its values. Malidoma Somé writes that in West Africa, “Individuality is synonymous with uniqueness. This means that a person and his or her unique gifts are irreplaceable… A healthy community not only supports diversity, it requires diversity.”

Americans – when not involved in our periodic moral crusades – valued the individual over the community more than any society in history. The opportunist argued for individual responsibility against the suffocating presence of big government. Determined on success, he was in a perpetual state of rebellion against authority (while ignoring the cavalry that protected his property, massive subsidies to the railroads that carried his goods, and later, a military-industrial complex that ensured his oil supply and markets for his products).

His wealth was proof that he lived in God’s grace – and his neighbor’s poverty indicated the opposite. But there was a price, writes Historian Greil Marcus:

To be an American is to feel the promise as a birthright, and to feel alone and haunted when the promise fails. No failure in America, whether of love or money, is ever simple; it is always a kind of betrayal.

Whether in the relentless drive for wealth or in his obsession to know God’s plan, the American, like no one before him, strove for self-improvement. Inside the word “improve,” however, is the anxiety of one who can never positively know if he is saved. Thus he must continually “prove” his worth. He does so, he believes, only on his own merits. And he proves this worth only in relation to those who have less, those who (according to Puritanism) deserve less.

Mythmakers continually emphasize the individual over the collective. Most notably, Horatio Alger’s nineteenth century dime-novel melodramas affirmed the Protestant virtues of frugality, hard work and delayed gratification. His young heroes “pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.” These immensely popular stories of personal success counteracted populist agitation in a time when socialist ideas from Europe were questioning the mythic narrative.

In the 1880s they were already well-established in the American narrative. And for the last 140 years they have only grown stronger. So many of us, born on third base, think we hit a triple.


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