Barry’s Blog # 318: Affirmative Action for Whites, Part Four of Four

There goes the neighborhood – Old joke (or not).

The 1960s and 1970s: Three-fourths of the one million persons displaced from their homes by the Interstate Highway Program were black. A fifth of all African American housing in the nation was destroyed for highways. The government was reducing the housing stock for blacks at the same time it was expanding it for whites. In fact, since the highway program made “white flight” easier, we can even say that white middle-class housing access – affirmative action – was made possible because of the destruction of housing for African American and Latino communities. Tim Wise writes: 

The so-called ghetto was created and not accidentally. It was designed as a virtual holding pen—a concentration camp were we to insist upon honest language—within which impoverished persons of color would be contained. It was created by generations of housing discrimination, which limited where its residents could live. It was created by decade after decade of white riots against black people whenever they would move into white neighborhoods. It was created by deindustrialization and the flight of good-paying manufacturing jobs overseas.

White flight remains a reality to this day, as a recent study points out:

White flight eventually becomes more likely in middle-class neighborhoods when the presence of Hispanics and Asians exceeds 25 percent and 21 percent, respectively…This continuing trend has a number of consequences for an increasingly multicultural America, none of them positive…(as racial segregation has been) a key predictor of reduced life chances, across health, academic, and economic outcomes.

As the federal government finally acknowledged the elephant in the living room – the farcical “separate but equal” – and mandated desegregation in the schools, Southern leaders (soon to be uniformly Republican) faced the fear of race-mixing and solved the dilemma with a stroke of malevolent genius. If they couldn’t prevent black children from entering the best public schools, they could simply transfer their own children to private schools, de-fund the public ones, which were now primarily black and brown, and find ways to subsidize the private ones with public money. The Southern Education Foundation reports:

Race-and-Ethnicity_Changes-in-Private-School-Enrollment-1910-2012

From the mid-1960s to 1980, as public schools in the Deep South began to slowly desegregate through federal court orders, private school enrollment increased by more than 200,000 students across the region – with about two-thirds of that growth occurring in six states…What was once the South’s 11 percent share of the nation’s private school enrollment had reached 24 percent in 1980…The eleven Southern states of the old Confederacy enrolled between 675,000 and 750,000 white students in the early 1980s, and it is estimated that 65 to 75 percent of these students attended schools in which 90 percent or more of the student body was white.

Northerners have long criticized this situation in the South – and their hypocricy seems to be matched only their apparent ignorance. The anger of working class whites whose wages were stagnating and who perceived that blacks were getting ahead of them would eventually elect con men like Reagan, the Bushes and Trump. But, following the popularity of George Wallace, it erupted in Northern cities such as Boston, which produced one of the most iconic images of the 20th century:

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Now, the American school system (especially in Northern cities) is nearly as segregated as it was in 1960, with predictable implications for funding, testing, dropout rates, college placement and job preparation. Eighty percent of Latino students and 74% of black students attend schools that are majority nonwhite. The percentage of black students attending majority white schools has been in decline since 1988, and it is now at its lowest point in almost half a century. In 2003, 1/6 of all black students were educated in “apartheid schools” – schools in which students of color make up 99% of the population The achievement gap between minority and white students continues to widen. Minority high schoolers are performing at academic levels equal to or below those of three decades ago. 

1985-present: The War on Drugs has disenfranchised over six million people, two million of whom are black. This simple fact has utterly determined the course of recent history.

Let me say that again: This simple fact has utterly determined the course of history.

The more African Americans a state contains, the more likely it is to ban felons from voting. The average state disenfranchises 2.4% of its voting-age population but 8.4% of blacks. In fourteen states, the share of blacks stripped of the vote exceeds 10%, and in five states it exceeds twenty percent. While 75% of whites register, only 60% of blacks can. In any given Senate, over a dozen Republican senators owe their election to these laws.

Had felons been allowed to vote in 2000, Al Gore’s popular vote margin would have doubled to a million. If Florida had allowed just ex-felons to vote, he still would have carried the state by 30,000 votes and with it the presidency. Would Gore have invaded Iraq and Afghanistan? Would we all have had to endure a bogus war on terror that has cost trillions of dollars and killed several million people? Would the Supreme Court be on the verge of banning abortion? Would the government be leading the world in a race toward a petrochemically induced climate disaster? We can’t answer these questions, but we should continue to ask them.

In 2020 we also have to acknowledge the ongoing voter suppression, gerrymandering and computer fraud in over twenty states, all of which have contributed to Republican control of Congress, the Presidency and the Supreme Court.

And these conditions existed before the Court disemboweled the Voting Rights Act in 2013. After that decision, the 2016 election became the first in fifty years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. Again: it’s absolutely certain that without that Court decision, there would be no Trump presidency.

And while we’re at it, let’s take note of another fact: These numbers do not include Americans residing in Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands, all of whom are considered U.S. nationals, who are allowed to vote in primaries (did you know that Michael Bloomberg won his only Democratic delegates in American Samoa’s primary?). But since they are not considered citizens, they cannot vote in general elections. This is an aggregate population of nearly four million people – nearly all of them people of color. Imagine the results if they could vote for President and compare that to the privileges retained by the white supremacist governments from the Carolinas to Arkansas.

Those numbers are dwarfed by an even larger group, those citizens who for all reasons are ineligible to vote, including most prisoners as well as college students on campuses not in their home districts. The adult population is 245 million, and 220 million are eligible to vote (about half of whom actually do). This results in a staggering number: some fifteen to twenty million American adults – at least half of them people of color – are not permitted to vote.

Of course, due to the effort and sacrifices of the Civil Rights movement, most of the older patterns have disappeared, at least legally. But the long-term consequences of 275 years of discrimination remain as a cruel reality. Due to home equity inflation and resulting family inheritance, as well as the exclusion from Social Security and unequal access to capital, an average black family still has one eleventh of the wealth of a white family, even when they make the same income.

As I write in Chapters Six and Ten of my book, a striking aspect of our de-mythologized world is our literalization of the ancient myths of the sacrifice of the children. And one of the prices America pays for its obsession with innocence is the perpetuation of a particularly ironic form of generational cruelty.

It bears repeating that people over 75 years of age, widely celebrated as the “greatest generation,” themselves formerly the recipients of massive government welfare support, are now the demographic most resistant to the extension of those supports to young people and people of color.

Since 1996 nine states have banned affirmative action: California, Texas (subsequently reversed), Washington, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma. These bans have led to a 23% drop in the chance of college admission for minority students, compared with a 1% drop in other states, relative to non-minority students.

2008: Long-term patterns of government and private sector discrimination and outright fraud came to a head in the subprime mortgage crisis. During the period preceding the housing boom, 6.2% of whites with good credit scores received high-interest mortgages but 21.4% of blacks with similar scores received these same loans. It turned out that several of the major banks had been purposely giving people of color subprime mortgages, including borrowers who would have qualified for prime loans.

The worst of the lot, Wells Fargo had provided a cash incentive for loan officers to aggressively market subprime mortgages in minority neighborhoods. Women of color were the most likely to receive subprime loans while white men were the least likely.

The results were predictable. Black homeowners were disproportionately affected by the foreclosure crisis, with more than 240,000 blacks losing homes they had owned. Black homeowners in the D.C. region were 20% more likely to lose their homes than whites with similar incomes and lifestyles. From 2005 to 2009, the net worth of black households declined by 53% while the net worth of white households declined by 16%.

Both conscious and unconscious biases remain, leading to findings that job-seekers with black-sounding names are 50% less likely to get a callback than those with white-sounding names, as proof that affirmative action is not obsolete.

In 2020 racial profiling remains a major factor. Police stop and search black and Latino drivers on the basis of less evidence than used in stopping white drivers, who are searched less often even though they are more likely to be found with illegal items.  The resultant fines, arrests, legal fees and time spent in court mean that people of color have even less disposable income relative to whites. In New York City alone, the stop-and-frisk program made over 100,000 stops per year between 2003 and 2013, with 686,000 stops at its height in 2011. Ninety percent of those stopped in 2017 were African-American or Latino. Even as recently as 2016, the NYPD made over 12,000 stops.

From the annoying to the most critical: police in the U.S. kill over a thousand people per year.  Black males are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than whites. For black women, the rate is 1.4 times more likely.   It is still true that every 28 hours, an African-American or Latino is shot dead by a police officer, a security guard or a self-appointed vigilante. Eighty percent of the victims are unarmed.

Here is the ultimate in affirmative action for whites: long-term evidence that their lives are worth more to the state than the lives of people of color. “Policing in this country” writes Salim Muwakkil, “has always had the dual purpose of maintaining social order and enforcing the racial hierarchy.” For my thoughts on the massive inequalities in sentencing and prison populations, read here and here.

The final indignity is that most of this vast accumulation of affirmative action for white people is not common knowledge, either in the news media, in politics or at any level of the educational system, including universities. This means that whites have been given free rein to wallow in their ignorance, and thus in their unacknowledged privilege. It means that, most whites have been able to live out their lives completely unaware of the long term, institutional factors that have kept people of color down – and themselves up. James Baldwin’s word said it fifty years ago:

…this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

In American theological terms, this means that large numbers of whites are still able to perceive their own relatively happy status as deserved, and the impoverished conditions of millions of black people as their own fault. And when whites feel that they are falling backwards in the rat race, the politicians have provided them with a ready-to-order scapegoat: affirmative action – “discrimination” in favor of those same undeserving, lazy minorities. And the growing realization that whites themselves will be actual minorities (as they are already are in California) soon is a source of terror.

It means that a majority of white people are privileged to believe that they are more often the victims of racism than black people.

Conclusion

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss – The Who

I first posted this essay in 2015, finishing with these words:

This has been a brief outline of our history of affirmative action for whites. Keep it in mind the next time some fool starts to rant about how minorities get all the breaks. You need to know the facts, and you need to know how they express the myth of American Innocence.

I had already suggested – correctly, I believe – that major power brokers had assigned Barack Obama the task of shoring up holes in the myth of American Innocence. Still, it was a time when I (and probably you) still labored under the misconception that learning the facts about our history and the themes of our mythic narratives would naturally lead people to more progressive politics, and that the power brokers would respond. How naïve I was.

In the spring of 2020 we’ve since had five more years of evidence that logic and reason will not penetrate the hard shell of denial. What I didn’t fully understand when I published my book in 2010 is that the sum total of racist, misogynist, nationalist, materialist, celebrity-worshipping – and for millions, religious – beliefs that fill the regions of the conservative mind compose a solid but extremely fragile identity that has been built up over many generations. Calling any one of its assumptions into question is to open up the possibility that the entire edifice will collapse. We are talking about identity.

The question “Who am I?” is not really meant to get an answer. The question “Who am I?” is meant to dissolve the questioner. – Ramana Maharshi

And now, in the time of plague, in a time when circumstances are offering everyone yet another initiatory moment, it’s clear that the response to the questioning of one’s identity is a terror so deep that most of us will follow any old white con man, one of whom promises to put the sheets back over our eyes, and the other who promises a return to “normalcy.”

And who can blame the Republican faithful for being skeptical about Medicare for all, real tax reform or the dangers of the coronavirus when, as Caitlin Johnstone writes, they’ve been subject to

…mainstream outlets who’ve sold the public lies about war after war, election after election, status quo-supporting narrative after status quo-supporting narrative?

And who can blame the Democratic faithful for absorbing the Russiagate narrative and the “CIA is our friend” narrative and the “defend Israel at all costs” narrative and the “electability” narrative when they’ve been subject for decades to that same media discourse? Looking in from outside the myth of American Innocence, now I can see that the only fundamental difference between reactionaries and conventional liberals is that the first group is angrier and the second is more naïve.

Still, as a mythologist, my work is to offer up historical fact, put it into the context of mythological truth, and use that truth to try to imagine ways to approach a new history of the future. We are better than who we think we are. May this plague finally open our eyes to what true progressives (and now, Bernie Sanders) have been arguing for well over a century – We’re all in this together. May it be so.

Questioner: How should we treat others?

Ramana Maharshi: There are no others.

 

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Barry’s Blog # 317: Affirmative Action for Whites, Part Three of Four

1930s: Franklin Roosevelt ‘s New Deal prohibited hiring discrimination in the Public Works Administration and the defense industry. And, as the Founding Fathers had done in 1776, it united northern liberals and southern conservatives. However, like them, Roosevelt had to maintain silence on the question of race, fearing that his coalition would disintegrate. Southern politicians, who defeated over 200 anti-lynching bills, supported Social Security only if it excluded agricultural laborers and domestic servants. This compromise deliberately kept some 65% of blacks outside of the protections of the welfare state, including minimum wages. In certain states, that number approached 80%.

In a decade when even large numbers of whites faced starvation, people of color received far less assistance from government than did white people. Far more white farmers than black were able to keep their farms. In addition, Black industrial workers in the North eventually discovered that Social Security itself was unfair, because it used money they contributed to pay benefits disproportionately to whites, who lived longer than most blacks. Ira Katznelson writes, “…each of the old age, social assistance, and unemployment provisions advanced by the Social Security Act was shaped to racist contours.” His book When Affirmative Action Was White is an excellent book-length treatment of this topic. For much of the twentieth century,

The federal government, though seemingly race-neutral, functioned as a commanding instrument of white privilege…The Democratic Party that fashioned and superintended the New Deal and Fair Deal combined two different political systems: one that was incorporating new groups and voters, who had arrived from overseas or had migrated from the South; the other still an authoritarian one-party system, still beholden to racial separation.

Since Southern politicians were privileged to not have to compete in a two-party system, their seniority was exaggerated. They were able to secure a disproportionate number of committee chairmanships that gave them special gatekeeping powers.

They used three mechanisms. First, whenever the nature of the legislation permitted, they sought to leave out as many African Americans as they could…Second, they successfully insisted that the administration of these and other laws, including assistance to the poor and support for veterans, be placed in the hands of local officials who were deeply hostile to black aspirations. Third, they prevented Congress from attaching any sort of anti-discrimination provisions to aide an array of social welfare programs such as community health services, school lunches, and hospital construction grants…

Since blacks were now counted as full citizens in the census, their large presence combined with their frequent inability to vote allowed white citizens to gain representation in higher proportions than their population in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, these seventeen racially segregated states were able to veto any legislation they did not like.

When this power was deployed, as it was in matters of relief and social insurance, it seriously widened the racial gap. Federal social welfare policy operated, in short, not just as an instrument of racial discrimination but as a perverse formula for affirmative action.

Blacks who had migrated northward to escape the repression and take advantage of job prospects often found themselves victimized by the “last hired, first fired” principle. For more, read here.

And they were funneled into segregated housing, caused not only by racist landlords or paranoid communities, but also by redlining practices specifically encouraged by the federal government. The National Housing Act of 1934 established the Federal Housing Administration and the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, which created “residential security maps” for several cities to determine the safety of real estate investments in selected areas. Jamelle Bouie writes:

Existing black neighborhoods were lined as unsafe, and thus ineligible for financing. For prospective property owners, this was terrible: Absent cash on hand, there was no way to afford a home or a business in your area. What’s more, blacks were all but barred from entering white neighborhoods, if not by restrictive racial covenants (which forbid property sales to African Americans and other minorities) then by violence and intimidation. In Chicago, for instance, anti-black riots were a regular part of public life. Here’s Arnold Hirsch, author of Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940–1960:

“On July 28, 1957, a crowd of 6,000 to 7,000 whites attacked 100 black picnickers who occupied a portion of the park that had previously been “reserved” for whites. Though blacks had used the park in the past, they were customarily restricted to certain portions of it. More than 500 police were needed to calm the area after two days of disturbances. On the first day alone at least forty-seven persons were injured and sixty to seventy cars stoned. Rioters spilled out of the park, attacked police officers attempting arrests, and, eventually, placed the entire area between the nearby Trumbull Park Homes and Calumet Park in turmoil. Police squadrons had to form a “flying wedge” to break through the crowd to rescue blacks besieged in the park.” In the late 1940s, he writes, there was “one racially motivated bombing or arson” every twenty days.

Harlem_housing_complex_ap_img In 1937 the government began to build public housing in 1937, but It was actually designed primarily for working-class white families. Housing built for black people was segregated. In large cities like Chicago and Detroit, public housing became a black program – those horrible concrete high rises that came to be called “the projects” – and the FHA created a different program for whites, which was a single-family suburban program. Terrel Starr writes:

The Federal Housing Administration financed the construction of new single-family homes in suburban developments (and government money plotted and paved the roads to get there). The FHA and the Veteran’s Administration also guaranteed cheap mortgages for the families who moved there, making this new kind of owner-occupied housing often just as affordable as rents had been in public housing projects in the city. Like many of those original projects, though, the new homes were explicitly unavailable to blacks. The FHA required developers to use restrictive covenants barring blacks, and it denied black families the mortgages that allowed working-class whites to leave public housing.

As the white “barely poor” moved out — and as the strict criteria for who could live in public housing faded — the median incomes of the families there began to fall. In 1950, the median household in public housing earned about 57% of the national median income. That number fell to 41% by 1960, then 29% by 1970. By the 1990s, the median family in public housing made only about 17% what the median family in America made.

Relatively speaking, that means public-housing residents by the 1990s were about three times as poor as they had been in the 1950s.

World War Two: Participation in imperial wars is a dubious and difficult moral question. Should we be proud that women can now serve in combat? But it is true that the military – and, eventually, an integrated military – has long offered opportunities for working class Americans to enter the middle class. Kaznelson, however, insists that blacks were inducted at much lower rates than whites, received discriminatory treatment (including health care and training for higher status positions), and served in legally segregated units. He concludes:

…for most African American individuals, and certainly for the group as a whole, war service ended with a wider gap between whites and blacks, as white access to training and occupational advancement moved ahead at a much more vigorous rate.

In America, the fear and uncertainty of wartime always contributes to increased racial tension, and this period was no exception. Just as during the previous war, there were dozens of race riots, almost all of them perpetrated by whites, that primarily destroyed minority lives and property, such as the Zoot Suit riots of 1943.

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Post-World War Two: The G.I. Bill created the American middle class, but almost exclusively for whites. First of all, far lower percentages of blacks than whites had been allowed to serve, and thus to qualify for its benefits. Secondly, writes Kaznelson, Southern politicians made sure that “it was deliberately designed to accommodate Jim Crow,” and that it placed nearly impassible boundaries in front of black veterans. Because implementation, including unemployment insurance, loans and funding for college-level education, was left to all-white local officials, “the playing field was never level.”  Only one in twelve job training programs in the South admitted blacks, while the white working class received the training that opened further opportunities.

The G.I. Bill financed 90% of the 13 million houses constructed in the 1950s. However, those same Southern politicians made sure that 98% of those homes went to whites, even when home construction was in the North. Of 350,000 federally subsidized homes built in Northern California between 1946 and 1960, fewer than 100 went to blacks, as did none of the 82,000 homes built in Levittown, New York. People of color remained locked in the inner cities, their dwellings and businesses often torn down to make room for the interstates that would shuttle whites to the suburbs where only they could live.

This was the period when Southern Democratic congressman, many of whom had supported New Deal programs that improved labor rights, began to shift their allegiance to anti-union Republicans, eventually reversing the Democratic hold on the South. In the Southwest, Mexicans and Mexican Americans were enduring the effects of the Bracero Program and its aftermath, which I write about here.

When African Americans relocated to friendlier areas, they still had to confront the reality of  housing covenants. After the war, it was still common practice for developers and realtors – even in the liberal San Francisco Bay area – to bar non-whites from moving into their newly built homes, and to have such covenants enforced by law.  Although they are no longer legally binding, as recently as 2019, researchers found over 20,000 properties in the Seattle area with racial covenants in their deeds.

Read Part Four here.

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Barry’s Blog # 316: Affirmative Action for Whites, Part Two of Four

1830s:  Historians consider “Jacksonian Democracy” the period when the government increased political freedoms. But it did so for only for white men, while removing those freedoms from Native Americans. Race, rather than civilized behavior or Christian belief (both held in abundance by the Cherokees, one of the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes”), now determined citizenship. The tribes lost their land and were forced to endure the murderous Trail of Tears. As thousands of Native Americans died, thousands of whites bought up their developed land, including entire towns, for pennies on the dollar.  This was the fourth example of affirmative action for white people.

1850-1890: Prior to the Civil War, in the 1857 Dred Scott decision, the Supreme affirmed that no person of African ancestry, including free blacks, could claim citizenship. Therefore, they had no legal standing to bring suit in a federal court and were powerless against whites who were exploiting them.

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Dred Scott

After the war, the definition of who was an American was turned on its head. For 175 years, with few exceptions, the notion of “freedom” had been synonymous with whiteness. Emancipation of the slaves ended this consensus and contributed to a great uneasiness about identity among whites, as well as a financial crisis among capitalists. This same uneasiness would reoccur after each of America’s major wars (see below) and would result in significant violence each time. “Freedom” was no longer one of the concepts that defined whiteness.

The postwar Southern economy required a legal system that kept blacks under de facto slave conditions, and it required compliant white working-class people who knew who they were – downtrodden, but superior to blacks and confidant that their relative status and prosperity would remain. For another 150 years they would be privileged to engage in all kinds of marginal behaviors without fearing the police. On the other hand, writes Nadra Kareem Nittle,  “It’s hard to understand why African-Americans are incarcerated at higher rates than other groups without knowing what the black codes were.”

In 1864 the 13th Amendment to the Constitution formally abolished slavery, but with this extraordinary qualification: “except as a punishment for crime.” In response, all the Southern states passed the Black Codes, the primary purpose of which was to restrict blacks’ labor and activity. The codes were enforced by all-white police and state militia forces which had descended from the earlier slave patrols and the more recent Confederate Army.

The codes included strict vagrancy and labor contract laws, as well as so-called “anti-enticement” measures designed to punish anyone who offered higher wages to a black laborer already under contract. Mississippi required blacks to have written evidence of employment for the coming year; if they left before the end of the contract, they would be forced to forfeit earlier wages and were subject to arrest. South Carolina prohibited blacks from holding any occupation other than farmer or servant unless they paid an annual tax.

Violation required offenders to pay fines. Inability to pay meant that county courts could hire them out to employers until they worked off their balances, usually in slavery-like environments and with high fatality rates. Because licenses were required for offenders to perform skilled labor, few did. With these restrictions, blacks had little chance to learn a trade and move up the economic ladder once their fines were settled. And they could not simply refuse to work off their debts, as that would lead to a vagrancy charge, resulting in more fees and forced labor. All African Americans, convicts or not, were subject to curfews set by their local governments, and their day-to-day movements were heavily restricted. Black farm workers were required to carry passes from their employers, and local officials oversaw all meetings blacks took part in, even in church. Blacks who wanted to live in towns required white sponsors.

Several states determined that there were certain crimes for which only blacks could be “duly convicted.” Therefore, the argument that the criminal justice system works differently for whites and blacks can be traced back to the 1860s, if not all the way back to the introduction of slave patrols. Most of the codes were repealed during Reconstruction and then re-instated with different language after it ended. From 1874 to 1877, Alabama’s prison population tripled. Ninety percent of new convicts were African American.

Even those blacks with the means to escape this repression found their options limited. Southern states passed laws that prevented most blacks from acquiring western land and kept them as de facto slaves in the South. Homesteading – the ability to acquire free land – became a privilege of whiteness, and another example of affirmative action for whites. In the southwest, similar systems targeted Latinos. No wonder our picture of the hardy “pioneers” is lily-white.

During this period (1882) Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was not to be fully repealed until 1965. Although anti-Asian sentiment had little direct impact on black people, I note it here to remind us that in the zero-sum world of capitalism, limitation of the rights or freedoms of any ethnic or sexual minorities always implied a corresponding expansion of white privileges and freedoms.

1890s: The phrase “Separate but Equal” had been a customary way to reject complaints about segregation for decades, even though in the Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Roger Taney had said that black people were “a subordinate and inferior class of beings,” with “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Now the Supreme Court itself asserted that segregation was not per se discrimination. SBE-Intro_rdax_333x500 If the statute did not prescribe unequal conditions, then, legally, conditions were not unequal. In reality, of course, this ruling institutionalized segregation in housing and transportation and poor schooling for Blacks and residential privilege for whites.

During that decade, Southern mobs lynched at least a thousand black men and terrorized the rest of the black population into submission. By the end of the century, the work of disenfranchisement was complete. There were 130,000 blacks registered to vote in Louisiana in 1896; in 1904, there were 1,342. In Virginia that year, the estimated black turnout in the Presidential election was zero. Soon, almost all Southern blacks lost their right to vote and were unable to prevent the establishment of the legal foundation for a public education system that, for the next 65 years, would discriminate against blacks and provide educational access and jobs for whites.

And even after that, white flight and de facto segregation would perpetuate those conditions. A significant contemporary version of this unequal world is the fact that the United States, practically unique among nations, still funds its schools primarily through property taxes, giving wealthy suburbs massive advantages over inner city neighborhoods.

affirmativeactionatyale-1 Meanwhile, a private education system modeled on that of Britain’s used legacy admissions to channel the sons of the upper classes, regardless of intelligence, talents or effort, through the prep school system, on to top-level universities and graduate schools and eventually to management positions in industry, politics, finance, diplomacy and espionage.

1910s: President Woodrow Wilson segregated federal jobs, once again giving whites privileged access to well-paid government work. Throughout these years, every time a person of color (in government or not) was denied a decent-paying job or educational position – and the long-term opportunities they might have provided – a white person almost certainly received it. We have to emphasize this point. Liberals are comfortable acknowledging the history of discrimination. But it takes a further leap of logic to realize something that is patently obvious to people of color. Discrimination is not a single-lane road. Each time a black or brown person is pushed to the back of the line, a white person steps to the front. This is the essence of privilege.

It’s a particularly outrageous irony of American history that, as Michael Kazin writes,

 …every major piece of legislation that…Wilson signed to regulate big business—from a major anti-trust act to an eight-hour day for railroad workers—was crafted by a Democrat from one of the states that barred most African Americans from voting.

World War One and the 1920s: We should also acknowledge at this point the vast but unquantifiable loss of equity sustained by every generation of black Americans due to white-on-black race riots, 25 of which occurred during after the “Red Summer” of 1919. The terror continued for several years in places such as  Tulsa, Oklahoma,  Elaine, Arkansas and Rosewood, Florida.

There can be no more obvious or gruesome example of how very significant numbers of black families that had struggled to acquire property and create middle-class businesses were thrown back in a single day into utter poverty – and how what was left of their assets was confiscated by the state and redistributed to whites. This category would also include property held in common, such as the hundreds of black churches burned down by white racists. All of these events – when they don’t happen to whites or white communities – contribute to the enrichment of whites relative to blacks.

The same situation has persisted in education. Wherever they lived, North or South, throughout the entire twentieth century, black children were channeled into substandard and segregated schools that prepared most of them only for agricultural or domestic work (see below), and later, for the military and the factories. Meanwhile, a minority of white children received educations that gave them the opportunity to rise into the middle class and thus to manage the millions who could not. Indeed, large numbers of whites-only American colleges had been built and serviced for generations by slaves and later by poor blacks.  For a more detailed discussion of the intentions of the American education system relative to traditional concepts of initiation, see Chapter Five of my book, or read Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, by John Taylor Gatto.

Read Part Three here.

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Barry’s Blog # 315: A Vacation in Chaos, Part Five of Five

We need our vacations in chaos that might temporarily relieve the crushing burden of life under late capitalism.

Even now (March 2020), as authorities ask millions of us to “social distance” or “shelter in place”, a “stay-cation” in chaos may be the antidote to the pandemic of fear that sweeps over us. As always, follow the money to understand what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism.”

But let’s get back to our broader theme, and to a broader and older imagination. 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. This is why many Greek seasonal festivals, especially those of winter solstice and early spring, were celebrations of Dionysus. He was the god who presided over the great competitions of tragic drama, as well as the Anthesteria.

The Athenians were deeply aware of the seduction of the irrational. Every February, for over a thousand 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 many 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 Anthesteria-7 a wheeled ship crowned with vine tendrils and pulled by panthers. dionysus-mosaic People masked themselves as (sometimes angry) 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.

Carnival was characterized by temporary inversion of the social order and breaking of taboos. 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.

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, hieros-gamos-v she was also re-enacting the ancient hieros gamos marriage of goddess and consort, of the inner queen and king meeting in the sea – a universal symbol for 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 all the rules, with master and slave, men and women briefly exchanging 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 gradually transformed into both Carnival and Holy Week. Similarly, the Romans celebrated the winter Saturnalia, which clearly influenced Christmas traditions.

Can we sophisticated, modern people even conceive of a rational culture with an annual event in which the entire population simultaneously partied to excess and grieved their dead? Mexico, perhaps – another Catholic, non-Puritan country. It is comforting to know that our 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.” second_line_funeral_casket Other aspects include the devils and ghosts (not the cute and harmless figures of Halloween) appearing everywhere as Mardi Gras masks; the processions with their large floats that recreate the ship on wheels of Dionysus; and the 8c620aa6-2019supersunday032-1280x957tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians.

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 Gandi 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. Without an intentional approach to sacrifice, loss and grief, our vacations in chaos amount to nothing more than entertainment.

———–

Entertain means “to hold together.” Novelist Michael Chabon suggests that this implies “…mutual support through intertwining, like a pair of trees grown together, interwoven, each sustaining and bearing up the other.” He insists that the transmission from writer to reader must involve pleasure, a notion that clearly remains suspect to all Puritans. Indeed, James Hillman taught that the mythical daughter of Psyche (Soul) and Eros is Voluptas, or Pleasure incarnate. The end of soul work is pleasure, not escape from the body.

Chabon continues:

…entertainment – as I define it, pleasure and all – remains the only sure means we have of bridging, or at least feeling as if we have bridged, the gulf of consciousness that separates each of us from everybody else.

But reading is an active behavior. It requires people to create images in the mind that are suggested by the words they are reading. I’m thinking of something far more common, and far more passive.

The American middle class traditionally divides the day into eight hours of sleep, eight of work and eight of rest. Of course, it doesn’t work out quite so simply. But once we’ve returned home from work, had dinner, washed the dishes and put the kids to bed, the primary activity (or inactivity) we anticipate is entertainment, especially on weekends. Family-watching-TV-1960s-840x504 Typically, this implies the experience of sitting back, snacking and being passively entertained by someone else, usually by the electronic image of someone else. It implies machines that create images and inject them directly into our minds. Certainly, we deserve to relax and restore ourselves. But why does it seem so unrewarding; and despite this, why do we constantly repeat the experience, as if something might change and our longing be fulfilled?

To go deeper, let’s go back to this idea of “holding together”. What does “together” refer to, subject or object? I see three possibilities. Two or more subjects can agree to hold one object, objective or idea in common, as people commonly do in Church, or in Trumpus rallies. Or one subject can hold two or more objects.

Finally, two or more subjects – a community – could hold mutually exclusive concepts. Jung argued that this ability to “hold the tension of the opposites” is a characteristic of someone who is comfortable with metaphor, poetry and myth. Our world of either-or thinking rarely rewards this. But our ancestors understood that communities needed ritual containers for such deep introspection and debate. Athenians had the Anthesteria, and they had tragic drama, as I explain in Chapter Three.

So I’m imagining that the original meaning of entertainment was ritual renewal of the community though shared suffering. 28326_ae.elektra.pica Audiences in the Theater of Dionysus  did exactly that. Yes, they sat passively while people on stage enacted their oldest – and most confounding – myths. But these stories forced them to contemplate the clash of unbearable contradictions, to hold that tension without resolving it, and ultimately to weep together. They emerged spent but renewed, purged of their anxieties for a while.

The lack of such ritual containers explains why the satisfaction of passive entertainment is so fleeting. Certainly, we hold some things together, such as hero-worship, villain-hatred, team identification or lust for the commodities constantly tempting us. But since we (in our darkened rooms) rarely encounter authentic paradox or nuance, we miss the shared grief and joy that can actually unite people. Instead of embracing the mysterious and tragic coexistence of opposites, we release the tension by watching it being resolved, either violently or comically.

Because America demands or only receives Disneyfied versions of Carnival, where Death is scrubbed away (or projected, literally, with projectiles, onto targets throughout the Third World), we remain insulated from unvarnished reality. So we force it upon those people 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 (which survive in a different form in New Orleans). One American I know who has spent much time in that country recalls a woman he met there. Asked why she seemed 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 large New Age crowds every summer.

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Bhaktifest!

Although I haven’t attended any of these events, I’m glad to hear that Burning Man does feature an annual Temple, an all-purpose sacred space that is generally but not exclusively used for remembering the departed. (Note: As of 2019, the Burning Man organizers are honoring the requests of the local Native Americans, the North/South Paiute and Goshutes, that no human remains be brought to the playa.) But I doubt if any of the New Age events acknowledge the dark side of existence (except as something 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 modern 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 Trumpus rallies and white supremacist events.

Revolutionary: Such events, especially when they are spontaneous and not sanctioned by the state, 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.

In 1956 Allen Ginsberg asked:

America when will you be angelic?

When will you take off your clothes?

When will you look at yourself through the grave?

Someday, American culture – may it be so – will open itself up to this kind of indigenous wisdom. Until then, we have Comic Con, where “…an aspiring psychotherapist…gesturing to the crowds” told Michael Schulman:

“There are three needs that all people have: they want to be seen, they want to be heard, and they want to be valued.” That he was dressed as SpongeBob SquarePants did not dilute the insight.

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Barry’s Blog # 314: A Vacation in Chaos, Part Four of Five

It’s easy enough to criticize social trends and the self-defeating behaviors of other people. This also puts one into the familiar role of the grumpy old (white) guy complaining about how much better things used to be (and it’s uncomfortably close to the idea that we can “make America great again”). Indeed, many mythological traditions did exactly that. The ancient Greek notion of the Five Ages of Man, for example, lamented that in each stage, humanity had devolved further and further from its nearly divine original state.

But it’s also true that we live in the age of the cult of celebrity. Along with total war, literalistic fundamentalism and consumerism, this is one of the most flagrant examples of what Joseph Campbell called our demythologized world. Michael Schulman notes that we have many earlier examples of celebrity worship dating as far back as the 1840s. But it began in earnest with the astonishingly rapid rise of the movies, and it essentially defined the entire course of 20th popular culture. I write about it in three essays, here,  here and here:

The losses of meaningful stories, effective ritual and divine images have resulted in our cult of celebrity. Instead of developing relationships with Aphrodite or Zeus, we adore each in a succession of actresses, athletes or politicians, who inevitably betray us by proving to be all too human…If we only knew: The soul grows through an endlessly repeating cycle of innocence, projection, disillusionment, grief and expanded awareness, followed inevitably by new innocence or denial. In that process, those who cannot acknowledge or manifest their own creativity or nobility are likely to perceive those features in public personalities. We personify a grand, transcendent cause – the cosmos itself – as the King.

“Fan”, of course, is short for “fanatic,” a term which long ago was associated with orgiastic rites and demonic possession. This may explain why we often describe fan behavior in religious terms, such as “worship” and “idol.”

For several generations we have idolized stage, film and TV actors, a few politicians and plenty of Rock musicians. For a detailed discussion of Elvis and his mythic implications, see Chapter Eleven of my book. We all grew up with the cult of celebrity as the ongoing background of our daily lives and our nighttime dreams. stlv18_marriageProposalBut, as William Shatner told the Star Trek conventioneers in a Saturday Night Live skit way back in 1986,

Get a life, will you, people? I mean, for crying out loud, it’s just a TV show!…You, you must be almost 30. Have you ever kissed a girl?…When I was your age, I didn’t watch television…I lived. So, move out of your parents’ basements and get your own apartments—and grow the hell up!

At least the Trekkers (who at the time could actually afford to rent their own apartments) were getting out of the house and interacting. And so were the crowds attending Comic-Con International, cosplayers-attend-2019-comic-con-international-on-july-18-news-photo-1162859781-1563732560which had begun in 1970, with 300 attendees (it’s now a four-day bonanza attracting 135,000 fans, many of whom wear elaborate cosplay costumes).

By 2005, teenagers were being exposed to over 3,000 advertisements daily, and ten million by the age of eighteen. Very soon, however, smart phone technology drove the cult of celebrity in ways no one could have foreseen. Now, the dominant influence on all our lives is screens, and the screens direct us inevitably toward the rich and famous. 

Schulman’s article “Superfans: A Love Story” is essential reading on this subject. He begins by recounting how a music writer who tweeted some mild criticism of rapper Nicki Minaj received startlingly nasty tweets and texts within two hours from hundreds of Minaj’s twenty-one million Twitter followers. Schulman continues:

Like most music idols, Minaj has a hardcore fan base with a collective name, the Barbz; Beyoncé has the Beyhive, Justin Bieber the Beliebers, and Lady Gaga the Little Monsters. The most fervent among them are called “stans.” The term derives from a 2000 track by Eminem, in which he raps about a fictitious fan named Stan (short for “stalker fan”), who becomes so furious that Eminem hasn’t responded to his letters that he drives himself off a bridge with his pregnant girlfriend in the trunk. Unlike regular fans, stans see themselves as crusaders, pledging loyalty and rushing to their idol’s defense against dissenters…A glance around the pop-culture landscape gives the impression that fans have gone mad. In May, viewers of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” revolted against the show’s final two episodes…More than 1.7 million people signed a petition on Change.org to “remake Game of Thrones Season 8 with competent writers.”

The language evolves quickly. Another term – “shippers” – refers to fans who, often disregarding narrative logic, advocate for certain characters to couple up. Schulman lists other examples of the current madness, such as a lawsuit against the producers of a documentary about Michael Jackson, which

…gets at the heart of modern fandom: an attack against a celebrity or a beloved character is an attack against the fans, and it is their duty to retaliate…(and) nerd culture has become mainstream. Now that couch potatoes have social media, they have risen up and become active, opinionated participants. As a result, movie studios and TV showrunners have to cater to subsets of diehard devotees, who expect to have a say in how their favorite properties are handled. The producer I spoke to said, “The question we always ask ourselves in the room is: Is the fan base so strong and such an important part of the box office that we have to change something to keep them happy?”

This business has long preceded smart phones. Schulman gives an example from 1893, when Arthur Conan Doyle, sick of writing Sherlock Holmes stories, finally killed him off in a magazine story. However, when thousands of readers cancelled their subscriptions and formed “Let’s Keep Holmes Alive” clubs, Conan Doyle was forced to resurrect him.

Another aspect of the new landscape is that fan disputes are nearly indistinguishable from partisan politics, and both have thrived in the new technological landscape. Schulman writes that the rise of Trumpus (my term), “…who was a pop-culture icon before he was a politician, neatly overlaps with the rise of toxic fandom…” It’s well known that his most enthusiastic fans – white supremacists and gun crazies – have organized over the same Facebook/Twitterverse that he manipulates.

But here, we mythologists have to ask what new order might be trying to be born out of this particular vacation in chaos. We can begin to reframe the current loony environment by observing that technology now allows fans, for better or for worse, to (figuratively) rise up off their couches and get involved. Henry Jenkins, a self-described “Aca-fan” (part academic, part fan) and author of Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, one of the founding texts of fan studies, seems to be our best guide. Early on, he was struck by…

…how impoverished the academic framework for thinking about media spectatorship was – basically, though everyone framed it differently, consumers were assumed to be passive, brainless, inarticulate, and brainwashed. None of this jelled well with my own robust experience of being a fan of popular culture.

He sees fandom as

…a source of creativity and expression for massive numbers of people who would be otherwise excluded from the commercial sector…(it) is born out of a mix of fascination and frustration. If you weren’t drawn to it on some level, you wouldn’t be a fan. But, if it fully satisfies you, you wouldn’t need to rewrite it, remake it, re-perform it.

Jenkins introduced the concept of “poaching,” the idea that fans construct their own culture – fiction, artwork, costumes, music and videos – from content appropriated from the mass media and reshape it to serve their own needs and interests. Now, he points out, surveys indicate that over 60% of American teens have produced some forms of media, and large numbers of them have distributed that media content online. He proposes a “Civic Imagination”:

We believe that imaginative acts shape many elements of our understanding of the political realm helping us to: model what a better world might look like; identify ourselves as civic agents, map the process for change; build solidarity with others within our imagined/imagining community; develop empathy with those whose experiences differ from our own, and for the oppressed, imagine equality and freedom before we directly experience it.

This is mythological language; may it be so. For more on his ideas and related concepts, read about Participatory culture, the Fan Studies NetworkArchive of Our Own, (which hosts more than 33,000 fan communities), Transformative Works and Cultures,  New Media Literacies, Civic Imagination, and Mark Duffett.

Political and cultural reactionaries seem to be motivated by the fear that their long-cultivated identities may be in question. But should we be surprised that such anxiety actually masks its opposite? Deeper down, the hunger we feel is not simply to be entertained (see below), but to be drawn out of ourselves, and this includes our notions of gender.

An early and profoundly important version of participatory culture began in the 1950s. The Elvis craze and Beatlemania crystallized the image of the “screaming teen” stereotype, which has often inspired a certain contempt, a way of policing adolescent-female libido. But Duffett has suggested that “fan screaming may be a form of ‘affective citizenship,’” a communal defiance of ladylike behavior.

We are back in the realm of myth and ritual. I have heard accounts of African boys dancing before the huts of their elders, demanding to be initiated. Similarly, perhaps, young white girls (who might have been timid and obedient as individuals) formed mobs, breaking through police lines to approach their Dionysian priests, and sometimes to “dismember” them as the Maenads had done with Pentheus. One of Elvis’ bandmembers

…heard feet like a thundering herd, and the next thing I knew I heard this voice from the shower area…by the time we got there several hundred must have crawled in…Elvis was on top of one of the showers…his shirt was shredded and his coat was torn to pieces. Somebody had even gotten the belt and his socks…he was up there with nothing but his pants on and they were trying to pull at them up on the shower.

Elvis beckoned to women, inviting them into Dionysian ritual – the madness, the pharmakon – that is both cause and cure of itself (later, the publishers of a 1998 translation of The Bacchae would acknowledge the connection by putting a mug shot of Elvis in his army uniform on the cover), as I write in Chapter Eleven:

Recall that Dionysus descended to Hades and raised Semele to Heaven. Similarly, while the spirit of feminism was veiled in America’s collective unconscious, young Elvis descended to America’s underworld, Memphis’s black ghetto. The blues had power (and danger) because it tapped into the soul’s depth, where extremes of joy and grief meet each other. Having become a conduit for that dark and terrible beauty, he emerged into the light – the national spotlight of show business – precisely at America’s initiatory moment. And in some profound yet inarticulate way, he brought guests with him – the Goddess and the beginning of the long memory. His eroticism, writes Doss, encouraged girls “to cross the line from voyeur to participant…from gazing at a body they desired to being that body.” Abandoning control – screaming and fainting, and eventually choosing to be sexual on their own terms, to desire their own orgasms – was the beginning of their revolution. One woman writes that Elvis “made it OK for women of my generation to be sexual beings.”

It became apparent that millions of girls had deep longings and deep pockets. Quickly, the music industry responded with “girl groups.” By the early sixties, this music was the one area in popular culture that gave voice to their contradictory experiences of oppression and possibility. It encouraged girls to become active agents in their own love lives. By allying themselves romantically and morally with rebel heroes, they could proclaim their independence from society’s expectations about their inevitable domestication. And even when the lyrics spoke of heartbreak and victimization, the beat and euphoria of the music contradicted them.

And the music was made by groups of girls. It was, writes Susan Douglas, “a pop culture harbinger in which girl groups, however innocent and commercial, anticipate women’s groups, and girl talk anticipates a future kind of women’s talk.”  If young women could define their own sexual sensibility through popular music, couldn’t they define themselves in other areas of life? Another woman claims, “Rock provided…women with a channel for saying ‘want’…that was a useful step for liberation. Eventually, their desires crystallized as the quest for the authentic in all areas. Decades later, Douglas argues that “…singing certain songs with a group of friends at the top of your lungs sometimes helps you say things, later, at the top of your heart”…Cynthia Eller writes that feminism began by asking why little girls had to wear pink and big girls had to wear high heels, but it “…segued naturally into one that asked why God was a man and women’s religious experiences went unnoticed.”

Continue to Part Five of this essay here.

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Barry’s Blog # 313: A Vacation in Chaos, Part Three of Five

So thousands, perhaps millions of us go to Vegas, Mexico, Amsterdam, Southern Spain, Spring Break, football games, Rolling Stones concerts and countless other places to get our “hit” (a term originally referring to drug use) of liminality or communitas.

But the vast majority of us do it the easy way, on an electronic device. As we watch people getting out of control, we allow the fantasies to parade – safely, for as long or as briefly as we want – across our minds, even as many of us condemn those who seem to be acting them out in real life. This is “vicarious intensity,” one of the ways that we unconsciously invite Dionysus into our lives. Often, it’s the excitement we feel when someone else (usually the image of someone else) confronts the edge of danger.

The hope of encountering communitas explains why we prefer to watch major sports events among friends. “Fans” (Latin: fanaticus, mad, divinely inspired, originally pertaining to a temple) make up an emotionally engaged community holding the container for rituals of “com-petition”, a word that originally meant “petitioning the gods together”. Shared interest and experience forge our identity. We take this same longing for communal ecstasy into rock concerts and dance clubs. Often, sexually ambiguous (long-haired but clean-shaven) young men enact the ritual on stage and provide our minimum requirement of Dionysian experience.

Watching sports, however, we’re never really satisfied. We demand more vicarious intensity, and often only the expectation of violence can penetrate our emotional armoring. Hence the increased popularity of football, hockey, pro wrestling and auto racing, where helmeted Christs suffer for us all. And even if we watch alone at home, we know that we are part of a virtual community of fans. We belong.

There were times, however, when societies channeled their aggression into ritual, thus containing and minimizing much of it. In Chapter Six I give many examples of symbolic violence. But in America, war and sports, especially football, are so closely linked that they share many of the same metaphors. My essay “Military Madness” offers a long list of the military metaphors we use in our daily speech.

Team spirit has archetypal roots, of course: we all share a deep and ancient longing to relax the hold of the isolated ego and submerge our identity into clan or tribe. But when we have not been initiated into a fundamentally spiritual identity, team spirit becomes war fever. Jung wrote that people become “…sick of that banal life…they want sensation…when there is a war: they say, ‘Thank heaven, now something is going to happen – something bigger than ourselves!’”

Super Bowl: There were times when organic, ecstatic and somewhat unpredictable festivals took people out of their individual selves and truly connected them to each other. national-socialism-nazism-nuremberg-rallies-reichsparteitag-der-freiheit-bhd8ht But by the late-nineteenth century, nationalism replaced religion as the dominant organizing force in society, and governments everywhere began to present spectacles for audiences to passively consume. 187165360-sa-personnel-farewell-to-yesterday-sturmabteilung-nuremberg-rally-premises Spectacles are scripted in nearly every detail. They connect people not to each other but to the state. Hence the genuine horror so many puritan viewers experienced when Janet Jackson had her infamous “equipment malfunction” during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004.

When not watching sports, the young watch the fictionalized experience of danger in Superhero action movies. But older people watch it in TV crime shows, which ironically feed their paranoia about people of color and the inner cities.

Years ago, observing this, critic Michael Wilmington coined the phrase that I’ve used to title this essay. Such viewing patterns are particularly appealing, he wrote, because, once the villains have been punished, they offer a comforting sense of “moral order restored after a holiday in chaos.” We like to visit Dionysus’ neighborhood, but we don’t want to live there.

As early as a hundred years ago, writes Michael Ventura, movies “usurped the public’s interest in the arts as a whole and in literature especially.” Whereas indigenous people had participated in their entertainment, Americans (except for dancing) had very quickly become passive consumers of culture. He argues that he Western mind-body split comes to its extreme in the concept of an audience. It “… has no body… all attention, all in its heads, while something on a screen or a stage enacts its body.”

Sociologist Christina Kotchemidova writes that media foster an experience of emotion that is controlled, predictable, and undemanding without impinging on our rational lifestyles. Thus, “We can engage in mass-mediated emotions to the full while retaining control over our emotion experience and avoiding the risks of personal communication.”

But one of the prices we pay for constantly watching images of other people experiencing liminality is our willingness to dissolve another boundary, between religion and nationalism. Vicarious, voyeuristic intensity meets electronic spectacle in our recent wars. We see without being seen, writes Marita Sturken:

This tension of immediacy, sadism, and a slight tinge of complicity was thus integral to the pleasures of spectatorship. We saw, we were ‘there,’ yet the technology kept us…at a safe distance.”

Suddenly submerged in a great communal cause, we anticipate holy vengeance and hope that a sacred King will allay our anxieties and bring us all together. Every time the politicians and the media drive the nation toward the next war, our most well-known religious figures can be counted upon to sacralize it. And, as the young and poor experience the actual danger, we – especially our intellectuals – enjoy the spectacle from a safe distance. After the 9/11 attacks, the formerly liberal writer Christopher Hitchens, utterly insensitive to his own privilege, articulated the thrill that he and other “Neocons” — almost none of whom had actually served in the military – experienced:

…another sensation was contending for mastery…to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out to be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy…if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.

Continue to Part Four of this Essay here.

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Barry’s Blog # 312: To Sacrifice Everything — A Hidden Life, Part Four of Four

Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it. – Andre Gide

Slowly I would get to pen and paper, make my poems for others unseen and unborn. – Muriel Rukeyser

I don’t like to say this, but I have to admit that pretty much everything is more complicated than it seems. There are so many ways to look at anything. They are all valid, and  perhaps we need them all. As historians we have to be literal, and so we ask, what actually happened? As psychologists we are concerned with relationships (internal or external), so we ask, why did it happen? Could it have happened differently? James Hillman insisted on a polytheistic psychology that can reflect the polytheistic nature of our souls and the fact that we are all multiple personalities. So as mythologists we ask where am I – right now – in this story that constantly repeats itself? What part of it – what specific image – is roiling my emotions right now?

Do we admire Franz Jägerstätter’s self-sacrifice? Depending on our perspective – that is to say, depending perhaps on the emotional issues that drive us – we may well observe that he was sacrificing more – much more – than his own life, and we will react accordingly. Regardless, if we pay attention to how our own souls move, we realize that A Hidden Life, like any great work of art, has thrown us into an emotional turmoil that can only be resolved not with answers but with more questions.

Questions like: Who am I? By what circles of relationship do I define myself? What would I do for a cause, for an abstract ideal? For what reason – or which people – would I lay down my own life? For what cause or which people would I step into the fire of sacrifice, aware that my act might well be an utter waste? Do I have any faith that such an act might well have impact on others unknown and even unborn?

Or: What part of my own consciousness, what belief systems, what identity have I yet to sacrifice in order to die into a greater self, the self that my ancestors have been waiting for me to manifest? Why exactly have I entered this world? What unperformed sacrifices would I regret if I were to die today?

We are right where we need to be – in the realm of profound mysteries, where as physicist Niels Bohr wrote,

The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.

As I mentioned above, no member of any of the thousands of indigenous religious systems that existed prior to the advent of monotheism could ever support this willingness to sacrifice one’s body for an idea – to literally, physically die. Of course, I can’t prove such a statement, but everything I’ve ever read or learned from living representatives of such cultures reinforces it. And here is another level of mystery: much of these oldest wisdom in the world coincides with the 20th-century insights of Archetypal Psychology. I remember a scene at a men’s conference about 25 years ago. Malidoma Somé spoke at length about the traditions of his Dagara people, especially in terms of the symbolic death of the childlike or heroic ego that is necessary during initiation. When he finished, Hillman rose to say, “This is exactly what I have been trying to say for years!”

In these times when this beautiful world is in such terrible danger, we all need to grow – to remember what we all once knew – the capacity to think mythologically. Then, as I write in Chapter One of my book,

…We perceive meaning on several levels simultaneously, aware that the literal, psychological and symbolic dimensions of reality complement and interpenetrate each other to make a greater whole…There is no reason to assume that indigenous people cannot do this. Actually, it is we who have, by and large, lost this capacity. The curses of modernity – alienation, environmental collapse, totalitarianism, consumerism, addiction and world war – are the results…

For tribal people, to explain is not a matter of presenting literal facts, but to tell a story, which is judged, writes David Abram, by “whether it makes sense… to enliven the senses” to multiple levels of meaning…and myth is truth precisely because it refuses to reduce the world to one single perspective.

So in a sense we are back where we started. Of course, self-sacrifice amounts to nothing more than suicide – on one level.

And again, we must take note of the synchronicities. I mentioned above that the Gestapo executed Otto and Elise Hampel on April 4th, 1943 (another source says they died on the 8th). That same week, Franz was nearby, in another Berlin prison. On the 2nd of the month, Bulgaria informed the Germans that its 25,000 Jews would not be turned over to German control. On the 5th, the Gestapo arrested war resister and Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (he was executed shortly before the end of the war). On the 9th, the S.S. murdered 2,300 Jews in the Ukrainian Ghetto of Zbrow.

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Sophie Scholl of the White Rose

Fred Korematsu’s court appeal was pending. In Budapest, Oskar Schindler was in contact with the Jewish resistance. On the 17th, Hungary refused (temporarily, it turned out) to deliver its 800,000 Jews to the Germans. On the 19th, the Gestapo executed fourteen Germans associated with the White Rose anti-Nazi resistance (in February they had showered the atrium of Munich University with anti-Nazi leaflets). On the same day, the Belgian resistance liberated 233 Jews from an Auschwitz-bound train. On the 19th, the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto began their famous uprising.

Were the sacrificial acts of the Hampels and Franz Jägerstätter emblematic of a great turning point in the war? Is it possible that their deaths did not occur in a moral vacuum? Speaking of turning points, biochemist Albert Hofmann accidentally ingested LSD for the first time on April 16th, 1943.

This quote from George Elliot appears in the last frame of A Hidden Life:

…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

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Angels with symbols of martyrdom on the portal of Sant Andrea della Valle Church in Rome.

 

 

 

 

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