Barry’s Blog # 269: The Singing Policeman, Part Two of Two

So of course, the right-wing response to the images of Colin Kaepernick and other (mostly Black) players taking a knee during the playing of the anthem is racist to the core, colin-kaepernick-2-ap especially in a sport many call a plantation of white owners and black players. The Trump crowd accuses them, quite wrongly, of disrespecting the troops. With him, as we should all know by now, it’s all about preaching to his chorus.

And yet, in a perverted way, there is more to this, and to the vitriol I occasionally received at Maples Pavilion. Isn’t the furious reaction to the feeling that something sacred is being violated? A ritual is being corrupted, especially in Pro Football, but apparently everywhere else Americans gather to watch organized sports.


At one level, that sacred thing is a contest played within clear boundaries and time restrictions (except for baseball), under clear rules, with recognized masters of ceremony (the refs). For normally productive adults to play, or even watch others playing, is a relatively brief and longed-for vacation from the actual, forty-hour per week, competitive, dog-eat-dog, rat race grind of useless, unfulfilling work that most of us call the “real world.” Another word for that escape that we used to use was carnival, and an even older word was Heaven.

But on a deeper level, this ritual of play, despite the recent popularity of women’s sports, is training in traditional masculine roles. It is symbolic rehearsal for war.

Of course, military men have long known, or imagined, or wished for, the connection between sports and warfare. The Duke of Wellington allegedly said that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. A hundred and fifty years later, Dwight Eisenhower admitted, “The true mission of American sports is to prepare young men for war.” It is not a substitute for war.

On July 1st, 1916, as the British army rose from its trenches on the Somme River, some of their officers kicked soccer balls in front of the advance. It was one way to motivate those young men, 60,000 of whom would be mowed down before evening. Everyone on both sides of that ceremony of child sacrifice understood the metaphor; the British were attempting to penetrate (from a Latin root related to “innermost part of a temple”) the German lines. Perhaps the Yiddish verb shtup (“to overfeed, annoy, or to fuck”) is more appropriate. Everyone understood the patriarchal connection between sports, war – and sex.

Consider the essentially phallic nature of almost all major sports, that the purpose, the definition of victory, the whole “point” of the game, the way one “scores” in football, basketball, soccer, hockey, volleyball, water polo, rugby, Irish football, lacrosse, golf, tennis, table tennis and badminton is to penetrate the opponent’s defenses and deposit a small object across his (let’s be honest, her) boundaries, into his/her sacred inner space. Ironically, the only major sports where this is not the goal are baseball and cricket, despite their famous use of phallic bats. Indeed, the goal of baseball is to square the circle and get “home,” as Robert Kelly writes. But I digress.

The war mongers have always claimed that this is training in our most fundamental value, the free competition between young, well bred, Anglo-Saxon men with equal opportunity to demonstrate the mental and spiritual characteristics attained by combining innate talent and dedicated work. It’s the essence of our myth of meritocracy. Such men forged a nation, conquered the “howling wilderness” of North America – and they perpetrated the Sand Creek and My Lai massacres and Abu Ghraib torture chambers, ran the Guantanamo concentration camp, joy-sticked the drone attacks and polluted the entire Earth.

This understanding that competitive team sports – as they evolved under patriarchy and later under capitalism – is a fundamental preparation for warfare implies another contradiction in our American myth. For all our insistence on the values of radical individualism (remember the Army’s TV ad with the slogan, “Be All You Can Be!”), the shadow of that national self-image is the extreme conformism and brutal response to dissent that we predictably fall into each time the warmongers decide to convince us to fear a new evil Other. Then, we jettison the individual heroics and civil liberties and send our children out to war as a group. And, with perverse if unconscious joy, we watch them entire the fires of the sacrifice.

But what about cooperation (another team characteristic)? Physical anthropologists agree that we humans share our violent competitiveness with other hominids, that this represents the primitive parts of our brains, and that what made us human was the development of our capacity for cooperation. This trait dominated for the vast majority of our history. Indeed, as Jeremy Lent writes, “…in virtually all hunter-gatherer societies, people join together to prevent powerful males from taking too much control.”

As students of culture and ritual, however, we interested in why some men are so pathologically driven to dominate others. Chapter Five of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence investigates the question of initiation and concludes that the crimes of patriarchy, colonialism, religious warfare and terrorism are perpetrated by uninitiated males. Patriarchy is not the rule of men. It is the rule of immature, privileged, uninitiated men. Here are some of my essays on initiation:

Male Initiation and the Mother in Greek Myth

The Hero Must Die

The Two Great Myths of the Twentieth Century 

And as mythologists, we try to tell new stories about ourselves, stories that could be true. This involves imagining what competition once meant, and what it might be again.

Consider three characteristics of modernity: first, polarization into extreme positions of right and wrong; second, the lack of true, initiated warriors and the elevation of the Hero to high status; and third, the loss of effective rituals of conflict. The paranoid imagination sees conflict as necessary to defend against, convert or eliminate the Other. To the predatory imagination, conflict is a fact of a life; kill or be killed; take what you can; and no apologies. Both accept any level of violence necessary to attain their goals, including genocide.

But what if conflict itself had a completely different function? Many tribal people that I’ve read about once believed that it existed neither to eliminate alternative voices nor as a tool for rape and plunder, but to bring people together. We see vestiges of this in the Gaelic language. One cannot say, “I am angry at you,” but only, “There is anger between us.” This wisdom is present in the word competition (communally petitioning the gods). Engagement can refer either to martial or to marital affairs. Animosity, with its connections to animal, animate, animation and anima, derives from the Latin for “breath of life.” If we follow animosity to its archetypal source, we find the one breath we all share.

Although Greek myth is full of horrific violence, it offers us a surprising image in the war god, Ares. He is called “killer of men,” a stereotyped murder machine. Zeus calls him, “most hateful to me…” But beyond the Iliad, he appears in few fully elaborated myths. Instead, writes (James) Hillman,

He presents himself in action rather than in telling…The god does not stand above or behind the scene directing what happens. He is what happens.

Like all inhabitants of the polytheistic imagination, Ares is more complicated than he seems. An immortal, he is an image of the divine, and thus of the psyche. This tells us first that Greek culture understood that martial values are fundamentally human, not to be demonized and certainly not to be ignored. Second, some say that his elders taught Ares to dance before he learned the arts of war.

Third, he was Aphrodite’s lover. This most masculine god and this most feminine goddess birthed a daughter named Harmonia. Thus, in pagan thinking, the war god had a “harmonious” relationship with the feminine that balanced his destructiveness. There is sublime beauty in war, and there is conflict in love. Harmonia is the product of the Warrior in a balanced relationship with its complementary archetype, the Lover. Love and war (may) beget harmony, as Psyche and Eros beget Voluptus, or voluptuousness.

Soldiers entering battle invoked Ares, asking for strength and courage. But they also called upon him to prevent conflict from degenerating into uncontrollable violence, as in this 7th-century B.C.E. hymn:

Hear me, helper of mankind, dispenser of youth’s sweet courage, beam down…your gentle light on our lives…diminish that deceptive rush of my spirit, and restrain that shrill voice in my heart that provokes me to enter the chilling din of battle…let me linger in the safe laws of peace…

This poetry invites us to imagine a consciousness that loves conflict as a form of relationship, seeking restoration of harmony rather than domination. “Who would have imagined,” writes Hillman, “that restraint is what Ares offers?”

Our post-modern, demythologized world, however, offers us neither a model of a divine war god nor of the divine madness that Dionysus once symbolized. Lacking that mythological imagination, we search for initiation in all the wrong places, often as vicarious intensity, the excitement we feel when someone else (usually the image of someone else) confronts the edge of danger. 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, Christopher Hitchens, utterly insensitive to his own privileged safety, articulated the thrill experienced by the “Neocons” and others when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan:

…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.

This helps 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 these rituals of “com-petition.”

But some of us demand more of this vicarious intensity. For them, only the expectation of violence can penetrate their emotional armoring. Hence, along with the increasing militarization of society,  the increased popularity of football, hockey, pro wrestling and auto racing, where helmeted Christs suffer for us all. And some move easily from cheering our team and wearing its logo, to taunting opponents and brawling with their fans; from “Kill the umpire!” to “Kill the Jews!”

Vicarious intensity feeds upon literal violence that we once expressed symbolically under ritual conditions. But when we have not been initiated into a fundamentally spiritual identity, team spirit becomes war fever. As Jung wrote, then 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!’

Beyond the questions of male dominance, incomplete initiations, vicarious violence and tribalism (U.S.A! U.S.A!), what is this love of competition, really? We must admit that it’s there in a chess match, a child’s game of “Go Fish” or a scientific debate as much as in a match between Barcelona and Tottenham. Or in a jazz combo, or a poetry salon, where a solo performance is not meant to outdo an “opponent” but to challenge them to up the ante, dt.common.streams.StreamServer to commit themselves even deeper, to inspire them to do even better. This is the essence of what we try to do in Rumi’s Caravan.

It is also the essence of real competition at the highest levels of sport. Of course, competitors play to win; they devote their lives to this goal. But the post-game embraces between players who, moments before, had been bashing each other, are quite real; and sometimes we can identify something in their eyes that we can only call love. James_Signs_t715 Down at our level, any beer-league softball player who’s ever high-fived his opponent and told him “Good game!” knows what I’m talking about. And this, at the core, is “petitioning the gods together.” In this imagination of who we once were and who we might be again, to compete is to pray.

“Blah, blah. Chill out, man,” you might say, “it’s only entertainment!  Well, yes…and:

Michael Ventura writes that movies and the electronic media that came after have “usurped the public’s interest in the arts as a whole and in literature especially.” Whereas for thousands of years indigenous people had participated in their entertainment, Americans (except for social dancing) are mainly passive consumers of culture. The Western mind-body split, writes Ventura, 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.”

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.

Our primary leisure activity is entertainment, watching or listening as we are passively entertained. Certainly, we deserve relaxation and restoration. 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?

“Entertain” means “to hold together.” But what does “together” refer to – subject or object? Two or more subjects can hold something in common. Or, one subject could hold two or more objects. Finally, a community, several subjects, could potentially hold two or more mutually exclusive concepts – the tension of the opposites – in a ritual container such as tragic drama. Perhaps the original meaning of entertainment was ritual renewal of the community through shared suffering. Athenian audiences, watching tragic theater, did exactly that; viewing the clash of unbearable contradictions, they held that tension and they wept together unashamedly. They emerged spent but renewed, purged of their anxieties for a while.

This is why the satisfaction of entertainment is so fleeting. Often, we hold something (hero-worship or villain-hatred) together. But since we, in our darkened rooms,  rarely encounter authentic paradox or nuance, we miss out on 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.

We identify with either conventional, American redemption heroes who restore innocent Eden, or with an endless procession of cute, ironic, self-deprecating, sharp-witted, deathless or comic characters. Media entertainment satisfies nothing but our longing for innocence. These experiences give us so little nutrition for the soul, so little communitas, that sooner or later we succumb to the need for a scapegoat.

But competition can hold people – even enemies – together, as a glance at many Western movies produced in the 1930s and 1940s shows. So often, vicious bar fights, complete with chairs smashed over men’s shoulders, end with the antagonists dusting themselves off, staggering back to the bar and buying each other drinks. The cliché scene speaks to something much deeper.

Oh yeah, there’s nothing wrong with watching sports, live or on TV. But one of the lessons of the great cultural transition we are in is the necessity of making beauty, ourselves, in and as embodied beings.

As the myth of American innocence continues to unravel, we are all called to live with these massive cultural contradictions, to hold the tension of the opposites. So I refuse to reduce this discussion with a simple resolution. It’s Opening Day. Play ball!

For brilliant – and politically progressive – sports commentary, read or listen to Dave Zirin. 

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Barry’s Blog # 268: The Singing Policeman, Part One of Two

I’ve been a sports fan my whole life. As an adult I coached little league and played softball and volleyball for 25 years. I used to love to go to baseball games. I don’t anymore. I used to have very good season tickets to major college basketball. I’ve given them up.

Oh, I still watch the Warriors and Red Sox on TV. Fortunately, I can mute the commercials and those horrible network announcers who never stop yacking. But even if I could afford decent tickets, I can’t go to live games any more.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but for most of my life standing during the playing of the National Anthem was a rote ritual that never seemed to be anything other than an uncomfortable prelude to the real business of the day: re-creating the ancient experience of rooting for your tribe, identifying with your heroes, fantasizing about being a player yourself, and drinking beer in the sun. The announcer would ask everyone to “please stand for the playing of the national anthem,” and everyone would do so, fidgeting, looking around, munching their hot dogs, waiting for the actual ritual announcement: “Play ball!”

Later, watching basketball at Stanford’s Maples Pavilion, I could barely tolerate the noise level. The management had begun to play rock music during basketball timeouts, so loud that I couldn’t converse with the person next to me. The broader spectacle of entertainment had become more important than the game itself.

By those years, I had begun to remain in my seat during the national anthem, and I sometimes got in trouble for my refusal. To be honest, I enjoyed being a provocateur. Call me a curmudgeon, but I was there to watch sports, not for casual, sound-bite conversation – and certainly, as I sometimes had to explain, not to participate in nationalist rituals.

A few times, irritated Stanford alums would advise me to “show respect for the flag.” Had there been any break in the deafening music, I might have replied: “Show respect to whom? The flag, an inanimate object? To you? Show you that I’m a member of your tribe, so as to lower your discomfort?”

After 9/11/2001 those rituals became increasingly militaristic, as anyone who still endures the pre-game spectacles at pro football and basketball games – and the Superbowl – knows. 0-1 This is the period when the Defense Department was beginning to pay over $50 million to pro sports teams for patriotic displays and tributes to the troops.

Since that watershed event, as William Astore writes, “…sports and the military have become increasingly fused in this country:”

Professional athletes now consider it perfectly natural to don uniforms that feature camouflage patterns. (They do this, teams say, as a form of “military appreciation.”) Indeed, for only $39.99 you, too, can buy your own Major League Baseball-sanctioned camo cap at MLB’s official site. And then, of course, you can use that cap in any stadium to shade your eyes as you watch flyovers, parades, reunions of service members returning from our country’s war zones and their families, and a multitude of other increasingly militarized ceremonies that celebrate both veterans and troops in uniform at sports stadiums across what, in the post-9/11 years, has come to be known as “the homeland.” These days, you can hardly miss moments when, for instance, playing fields are covered with gigantic American flags, often unfurled and held either by scores of military personnel or civilian defense contractors.


By 2008 the Maples PA announcer had upped the ante with very specific instructions: “Please stand and remove your hats to honor America during the playing of the national anthem.” Dozens of people in the crowd would sing along, with hands over their hearts. This, mind you, was in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area, not in a conservative Red state. They were showing respect – to each other.

At that point the discomfort level overcame both my enjoyment and my mythologist’s detachment. Call me judgmental, oversensitive. I’m guilty as charged: I can no longer compartmentalize my feelings in the America of drone bombings, police murders, mass incarceration, homeless vets, voter suppression, lead-filled water pipes and incarcerated infants.

Some friends tell me that they honor “what the flag stands for.” My response: Bullshit. The flag now symbolizes nothing more than the national security state and the absolute necessity of periodically sacrificing both its scapegoats on the streets and its own children on battlefields, as I wrote here.

I can still enjoy watching on TV, thanks to that precious mute button and the ability to get up and do other things when even the silenced images are too disturbing. Really, man, I just want a little entertainment after a long day.

You might be surprised to know that the custom of playing the national anthem began only during World War Two. Actually, it’s been even longer – eighty years – that fans have been singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in the seventh inning.  images-3 Now that’s a happy custom, pure corn, with only the vaguest of nationalistic implications. (By the way, Americans, uniquely, call themselves “patriots” rather than “nationalists.” I prefer the more accurate term). People stood up and stretched because they wanted to, not because they didn’t want to look out of place. unknown-11

But, again, 9/11 served as a wakeup call – to the nation’s gatekeepers, who perceived the necessity of shoring up the cracks in the myth of American innocence wherever they might have been appearing, including sports venues. Some bastard had the bright idea of singing “America the Beautiful” in the first half of the seventh inning, ahead of “Take Me Out,” and he was copied everywhere.

Once a baseball tradition is modified, it is nearly impossible to remove the new addition. And so (for me) the seventh inning stretch has become as annoying as those “Please stand” directives, and implicitly an opportunity to go to the bathroom, or simply to stay home.

It’s all summed up in this post-9/11 phenomenon, which is rapidly being cemented as a permanent aspect of the baseball experience: images a uniformed policeman or service member, preferably disabled, singing the anthem. This is highly charged symbolic imagery, with multiple levels of meaning:

1 – First responders. Since 9/11 it has become customary to honor those public servants who do live up to their job titles, many of whom were themselves victims that day. These were true heroes who sacrificed themselves for the greater good in a time when neither politicians nor preachers seem trustworthy any more. And they continue to bear the brunt of that tragedy, as hundreds die early of toxic-induced diseases. And second responders: Thank you for your service, as we deny you decent health coverage.

2 – Public order and safety in a time of fear. For older generations, those most susceptible to the Republican fear-mongering, the police uniform is reassuring. And his singing talent humanizes him. He’s the old-fashioned (white) Irish-tenor beat cop – Officer O’Reilly – of a hundred films, who helps old ladies cross the street, brings cats down from tree limbs and never resorts to any weapon more lethal than his billy-club.

3 – The Hangman. Sadly, as I argued in my blog series Hands Up – Don’t Shoot: The Sacrifice of American Dionysus, he has become the sanctioned state executioner, given regular permission to terminate with extreme prejudice any African-American or Latino male he encounters. In dozens of Fergusons around the country he has been enacting the old rituals of human sacrifice.

Perhaps you think I exaggerate. Since I first wrote this series, I’ve come across two new links. If you choose to watch “Police Gone Wild: Domestic Terrorist Edition,” please understand that these men are enacting our myths for us. Then read “Whistleblower Cop: Fellow Officers Getting ‘Gang Tattoos’ To Celebrate Their Shooting Victims” and understand that they know full well how rarely we punish them, because we have asked them to behave the way they do.

Ask any African-American if this is something new. Ask yourself what sport in America is really about. Fifty-five years ago, in Soul On Ice, Eldridge Cleaver saw that when all Americans secretly subscribe to the notion of “every man for himself:”

…the weak are seen as the natural and just prey of the strong. But since this dark principle violates our democratic ideals…we force it underground …spectator 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.

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Barry’s Blog # 267: The Ritual of the Presidential Debates, Part Three of Three

The cumulative, intended effect of the ritual is to revive our belief in the good intentions of our entire political class, and of our own innocence. Just as they ensure that we won’t be disturbed by outliers, they assure us that innocent Eden is both safe and honorable. Together, they reaffirm our denial with the implied message that nothing is wrong, that our fear – which they exploit at every possible opportunity – is ungrounded.  “Whomever you vote for, the King will be here,” they seem to tell us, “…Everything is under control.” 103973007-AP_16271046857625.1910x1000 Thus, they invite us to share the fiction that, despite our fears, democracy will survive, and there will be a peaceful, cooperative transition when the next king-figure is anointed.

Is the system broken or has it been working quite well? This is not an “either-or” choice; it’s both. However, the fact that fewer and fewer of us have been willing to expect anything more than flowery phrases from these con-men  – only half of us vote at all, and many of the rest of us have been choosing the “lesser of two evils” our entire lives – is, I think, a source of concern to the kingmakers and gatekeepers. It indicates, in mythological terms, that the holes in the fabric of the myth of innocence are growing. All the more need, then, for them to create another opportunistic ritual: the next war to protect “freedom” in Iran or Venezuela.

Nicholas Maduro is only the latest in a long tradition of Third World leaders whom the U.S. has labeled as the face of evil. As I wrote in Chapter Eight of my book:

Around 1985, the Other became more personal when television identified many charismatic Third World villains. After the first generation (Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro) came Muammar Gadaffy, Idi Amin, Yasser Arafat, Ayatollah Khomeini, Manuel Noriega, Kim Il Sung, Slobodan Milosevic, Hugo Chavez, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden…

Note three themes here. First, U.S. propaganda attacks were often timed to impact (or obscure) domestic issues. Second, only Milosevic was white (but Slavic). Third, several of these men had previously worked for the U.S. Back in 1932, Roosevelt had said of Nicaragua’s Anastacio Somoza, “He’s an S.O.B., but he’s our S.O.B.!” It is as if the U.S. keeps them on ice, allowing them to quietly do their work until it needs to reveal them as the Devil’s latest incarnation. Then they become expendable, or, as with Bin Laden, even more valuable as fugitives, hiding in caves and bazaars, plotting more evil.

None of this is to advise you to stay home on Election Day 2020. If you choose to support the Democratic nominee, go ahead, especially if you live in a contested state. But do so with eyes wide open, as a practical decision to support the centrist (regardless of how he or she defines himself) over the outright fascist.

Idealization says more about our own psychological projections than it does about the candidates. When, after one of these debates, you hear yourself say (about either candidate), “He seems like a nice enough guy; I just don’t agree with his positions,” know that the ritual has been successful. The “nice guy” has proven that he can play the role if called upon; he has passed the audition.

That audition has been primarily for the edification of that part of the population that still holds to the naïve, liberal view that the debates might actually provide some input into a system with authentic choices. The Republican base, however, is not – and for a long time has not been – so innocent. They know perfectly well what scoundrels their leaders are, and they don’t care, as long as such leaders play the game of tweaking the noses of the east coast intelligentsia who have been telling them how to live. That Trump – He’s no racist, but he says what he means!

In 2016, Trump effectively reversed the “nice guy” rule. Apparently, quite a few people of the evangelical persuasion perceived quite correctly – they weren’t stupid – that he was a liar, braggart, misogynist and serial marriage cheat, and concluded that “He’s a bastard, but I agree with his policies.” For them, he passed the same audition, which had been defined primarily by fear, racism and xenophobia.

After two years of unparalleled corruption, scandals, contempt for the Constitution, war threats, climate denial, permission to hate, tax cuts for the mega-rich – and normalization by the media – they still support him. Indeed, in a mass epidemic of cognitive dissonance, many are convinced that he has been sent by God.

Is there any other explanation for their willingness to tolerate such a blatantly insincere gesture as his hugging of the sacred totem fetish? Trump hugs a U.S. flag as he comes onstage to rally with supporters in Tampa, Florida I mean, really, even this accomplished con-man couldn’t keep from smirking. Don’t matter none. He is their Divine King, and because of him, they – not unlike their liberal opponents with their Russiagate meta-narrative – can proclaim their innocence.

On the other hand, as Chomsky has said, “If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged.” Amanda Marcotte suggests another explanation for Trump’s enduring popularity among his base:

In truth, Republicans have been priming their voters for decades to accept, defend and even adore a shameless criminal in the White House…First, Republicans normalized the idea that all politicians are corrupt by electing a series of deeply corrupt politicians themselves. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have all been warm-up acts to Trump…Second, (they) trained their base to think of investigations as bad-faith political power grabs…They are now thoroughly primed to interpret the investigations into Trump’s very real corruption as nothing more than Democrats seeking revenge…

That’s why polls that measure whether Republican voters “believe” Trump is telling the truth are somewhat beside the point. The real problem is that they don’t believe it matters whether Trump is a criminal…if it helps their team win.

So: in 2019-2020 we have a Republican base that isn’t simply unashamed but proud of its criminal leadership. We have a Democratic base that still thinks everyone is playing by the same rules, that logical argument will convince others. We have a Democratic leadership that participates in these rituals of innocence as long as the corporate money flow lasts. And we have the other fifty percent of the population who, like those Honduran peasants, don’t vote because they see no reason to. Finally, we have media – print and social – that serve the same wealthy class who fund these two political parties by marginalizing progressive voices.

In the next round of presidential debates – our seasonal, contrived rituals – watch as most Democrats studiously avoid any mention of the military budget and our imperial wars, especially in Venezuela and Palestine. For the time being, it will still be the children of other nations who are sacrificed. But the group – we – will remain vigilant, prepared for those conditions when the next opportunistic rituals of sacrifice and regeneration become necessary. Then, once again, it will be our children (well, not really ours, unless we live in the crossover states or in urban ghettos) who will be asked to enter the fire to glorify their parents.

Perhaps I’m being too cynical; I hope so. Perhaps it serves no purpose to simply point out our failures without offering an alternative vision. Perhaps it does serve a deeper purpose to point out that these are not failures; that the system continues to run smoothly for the one percent. And certainly, there has been much good news since the 2018 election, especially in the fact that Republicans are obsessed with demonizing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They just can’t stop talking about her, and the Green New Deal has become the kind of meme or positive frame that George Lakoff has been asking the Democrats to come up with for years.

But the fact that the Democratic leadership have dug in their heels to marginalize her, Bernie Sanders  and other progressives indicates that the fix is still in, that the next election cycle will conclude with more rituals of denial and self-congratulation. In other words, the great shift in mythological thinking that is necessary for a transition to a sustainable world has yet to manifest.

What will it take to change things? Really change things? Certainly, the passing of the Mitch McConnells of the world – and the Diane Feinsteins – is absolutely necessary. Could this millionaire warmonger have stated the generational divide – not just that, but her absolute contempt for children – any more clearly? Let’s thank her for clarifying that, in case anyone thinks she has anything worthwhile to offer.

Significant demographic changes are right around the corner. America is getting darker and younger, less individualistic, more communitarian, more critical of this death culture. Death culture? Is that too strong a phrase? As I wrote in Chapter Eight, nearly fifty years ago the social critic Phillip Slater was appalled by the carnage Americans were inflicting upon the Vietnamese:

…obsession with the body count, rather than control of territory, became an end in itself. General Westmoreland set the tone when he smugly dismissed civilian casualties: “It does deprive the enemy of the population, doesn’t it?” With this kind of permission coming from the top, massacres became commonplace, as they had been in Korea and would continue to be, wherever the U.S. would oppose dark-skinned people. Phillip Slater argues, “This transfer of killing from a means to an end in itself constitutes a practical definition of genocide.” He asks, “Do Americans hate life? Has there ever been a people who have destroyed so many living things?”

The three great Athenian playwrights – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – were, after Homer, the storytellers of their culture. Sophocles said that he wrote about how people might be, while Euripides (author of The Bacchae) wrote about how people really are.

I don’t think that a culture can rebirth itself until it has fully acknowledged what has no longer been serving it, and what needs to die. We will not be fully able to imagine new stories until enough of us realize – like alcoholics – that we have hit bottom. This is why I must continue to write about who we are and leave the imagination of who we might be to more optimistic voices.

It may still be possible for significant change to occur through elections – may it be so. But without addressing a much more profound level, the causes of our condition – the vast well of grief and self-contempt at the core of the white American psyche – we condemn ourselves, and the Earth, to more of the same.

The new story of Who We Are is waiting for enough of us to call it forth. We are capable of creating new public rituals that affirm the values of community without sacrificing our children. The old knowledge is still in our bones. Our indigenous souls remember. At this point in history, perhaps only poets can write about who we might be. It might be about remembering who we once were:

The Ancient Ones

From the beginning, we have been with you.
We are the ancient ones and we remember.

We remember the time when there was only Love,
The time when all breathing was one.
We remember the seed of your being
Planted in the belly of the vast, black night.
We remember the red cave of deep slumber.

The time of forgetting,

The sound of your breath, the pulse of your heart.
We remember the force of your longing for life,
The cries of your birth bringing you forth.

We are the Ancient Ones and we have waited and watched.

You say that you cannot remember that time
That you have no memory of us.
You say that you cannot hear our voices
That our touch no longer moves you.
You say there can be no return,
That something is lost, that there is only silence.

We say the time of waiting is over.
We say the silence has been broken.
We say there can be no forgetting now.
We say listen.

We are the bones of your grandmother’s grandmothers.
We have returned now.
We say you cannot forget us now
We say we are with you and you are us.

Remember. Remember.

— Patricia Reis

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Barry’s Blog # 266: The Ritual of the Presidential Debates, Part Two of Three

Viewing the Presidential debates – of any year – from this perspective, we look first not at what they say, but at how they look. It’s about who looks more relaxed, confidant, articulate, trustworthy, folksy or personable. But above all, their intention is, simply, to look “presidential.” Their smiles and calm demeanor (even as they attack each other) and their friendly banter afterwards, tell us that they are qualified to carry the essential Protestant virtue of repressed emotion. It’s about looking like the best example of a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Barack Obama, by the way, was, except for his color, the best example since George Bush the Elder.

As I have argued in my book, the greatest sin in Puritanism is the inability to control one’s impulses. And this is precisely where we can identify our national shadow, when we project that impulsivity upon minorities, immigrants and terrorists. But presidential candidates are different. By restraining themselves, they – even Donald Trump – show us that they are not the Dionysian “Other.” They, and by extension, we are part of the club.

As Americans we are especially subject to being conned. So, although we know we have been burned before, we are likely (they are counting on this) to convince ourselves of their good intentions. More than anything, each of them appears sincere; he really cares about us; he could be a King.

Secondly, we observe their dual role of gatekeepers. I first wrote this essay during the Obama / Romney campaign, romney-and-obama but it describes all “debates” that have followed. At that time, Glenn Greenwald and George Farah described “The lame rules for presidential debates: a perfect microcosm of US democracy”:

We have a private corporation that was created by the Republican and Democratic parties…Under this elaborate regime, the candidates aren’t permitted to ask each other questions, propose pledges to each other, or walk outside a predesignated area…the audience members posing questions aren’t allowed to ask follow-ups…every single question asked by the audience (must) be submitted in advance on an index card to the moderator, who can then throw out the ones he or she does not like…And this election cycle is the first time that the moderator herself is prohibited from asking follow-up questions…

… the Commission is run by lobbyists and funded by large corporations. Meanwhile, the moderators were selected to ensure that nothing unexpected is asked and that only the most staid and establishment views are heard.

In this context, the debate moderator (etymology: “modest, restrained,” past participle of moderari, “to regulate, mitigate, restrain, temper, set a measure, keep within measure”) – becomes a critical participant, quite literally the master of ceremonies. As such, he (usually it’s a he) must have a Television track record of appearing at least as restrained as the debaters in both demeanor and social views. Lester Holt, Anderson Cooper, Martha Raddatz, Chris Wallace, Jim Lehrer, Bob Schieffer, George Stephanopoulos, you get the picture. Greenwald and Farah continue:

In order to be considered as a candidate for moderator you have to be soaked in the sphere of consensus, likely to stay within the predictable inner rings of the sphere of legitimate controversy, and unlikely in the extreme to select any questions from the sphere of deviance.

Here then, within this one process of structuring the presidential debates, we have every active ingredient that typically defines, and degrades, U.S. democracy. The two parties collude in secret. The have the same interests and goals. Everything is done to ensure that the political process is completely scripted and devoid of any spontaneity or reality…All views that reside outside the narrow confines of the two parties are rigidly excluded. Anyone who might challenge or subvert the two-party duopoly is rendered invisible.

The media’s role is to keep the discourse as restrictive and unthreatening as possible while peddling the delusion that it’s all vibrant and free and independent and unrestrained…while wildly exaggerating the choices available to citizens and concealing the similarities between the two parties.

This last paragraph is a clear reference to Noam Chomsky’s insights into the role of the media in elections:

The public relations industry, which essentially runs the elections, is applying certain principles to undermine democracy which are the same as the principles that apply to undermine markets. The last thing that business wants is markets in the sense of economic theory. Take a course in economics, they tell you a market is based on informed consumers making rational choices. Anyone who’s ever looked at a TV ad knows that’s not true…The goal is to undermine markets by creating uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices…The same is true when the same industry, the PR industry, turns to undermining democracy. It wants to construct elections in which uninformed voters will make irrational choices…between the factions of the business party that amass sufficient support from concentrated private capital to enter the electoral arena, then to dominate campaign propaganda.

We fidget while the nominees confine their arguments to the thin range of opinion that their corporate handlers and focus-group research has shown to be of concern to the undecided (white) voters that they are actually competing for.

Watch them in a sea of American flags competing to be the one who is more willing to use military force – anywhere – to protect freedom. This, of course, is the ultimate gate-keeping role: to absolutely guarantee that any issues or persons that might call the function of the ritual – and therefore the function of our mythology – into question are safely confined to the margins, literally outside of the ritual space and outside of our awareness.

We notice whom they agree to exclude from the debate – the third-party candidates. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, was actually shackled for eight hours to ensure that she wouldn’t barge in on the ritual.

I’m afraid I have to point out, by the way, that had you been a peasant in Honduras or Somalia or the Philippines or a resident of Gaza watching the debates, you would have discerned almost no difference whatsoever between the candidates, or between Trump and Hilary Clinton four years later.

Part of the frustration that progressives feel when enduring these excuses for debates results from the fact that the vetting process is already over. It is an axiom of American political science that candidates typically attempt to motivate party activists during the primaries – people who are always more extreme in their views than the party insiders – and then “run to the center” after the (pre-)anointed one has won the nomination.

And, by speaking only of the white middle class and its concerns, they subtly reinforce the belief that the nation is defined only by these people, which, because we are watching, is us – those who read the New York Times and Washington Post, those who are already subject to the conservative to liberal version of the myth of American Innocence, the version which excludes all others.  Therefore, we are not the “Other.”

Still, events of the years since November 22nd, 1963 have made us quite cynical. Few of us remain so naïve as to listen to their arguments in hopes of seeing any actual policy implemented. The Republican Ronald Reagan’s promises to reduce government were belied by a massively increased national debt and police state, and the Democrat Bill Clinton proudly destroyed welfare, condemning thousands to life on the streets.

It is useless to speculate whether any candidate who rises to this level is interested in significant change of any kind. We can, of course, never know their actual feelings, nor do such feelings matter. Even if an American President were truly interested in significant, positive change, he wouldn’t have the power to make it happen. We watch only to view the roles they are playing in the ritual.

By not addressing global warming, the military-industrial complex, mass poverty, race, corporate welfare, the police state, voter suppression and outright, massive corruption of the voting process itself, they invite us to collude in the fiction that such issues are simply beyond the pale of acceptable discussion. After all, if they won’t talk about these things, perhaps we needn’t either.

Most importantly, they won’t (will not be allowed to) address the ongoing sacrifice of young people to the furnace of war, because as Marvin and Ingle write:

Body sacrifice lies at the core of nationalism. Warfare is the most powerful enactment of the ritual of blood sacrifice…The creation of sentiments strong enough to hold the group together periodically requires the death of a significant portion of its members. In short, society depends upon the death of sacrificial victims at the hands of the group.

We, dear readers, are the group. Well, not really, since our children won’t be among the sacrificed, those who will die for capitalism. But in the broader sense, who could argue that our generation has not condemned them all to a collapsing ecosystem and polluted bodies?

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Barry’s Blog # 265: The Ritual of the Presidential Debates, Part One of Three

Our first responsibility as mythological, archetypal thinkers is to take a step back from the dominant political and pop cultural issues to perceive the real stories that are being played out in our culture. The next step is to understand how we participate in those narratives through our own willing acceptance of their primary themes. How do we do this? One way is by being passive consumers of our national rituals. I’m not speaking about conscious, intentional, local, indigenous-based ritual, but mass, public ceremonies that reaffirm the nation-state and its (our) identity as savior of the world and Christ-like advocate for the good.

Public rituals enact and train us in our mythologies. The larger they are, the more influential they can be. nuremberg_nazipartyrally10 Think of the Nuremberg rallies in Nazi Germany. But such rituals certainly don’t need to be so bellicose. In America, where we naively believe that we still have a functioning democracy, our public rituals, designed to reinforce our sense of innocence, are much subtler.

As I write in Chapter Five of my book (Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence), Joseph Campbell taught that a living myth refers past itself to the ineffable, serving four distinct functions.

First of all, the mystical function introduces the individual to that which underlies all names and forms. It awakens religious awe, humility and respect. Second, the cosmological function explains how the universe works. Third, the pedagogical function defines a moral life in terms of the particular culture.

Fourth – and most pervasive – the social function validates the social order and integrates individuals within the community. Originally, it oriented people to the mystery by presenting noble figures at the center of the realm – or psyche – who radiated the blessings that flowed through them from the other world. These figures served this order and showed that everyone carried such potential within. If people still revere royalty, it is from vestigial memory of what the sacred King once meant.

“It is this sociological function of myth that has taken over,” wrote Campbell, “…and it is out of date.” Myth, however, shapes our values, organizes our experience, brings emotion to our festivals, sets the boundaries of dissent, names the children, sends them off to war and justifies their sacrifice. It is the most compelling story we tell ourselves about who we are. And frequently it is the story of who we are not – the Other.

In this context, I strongly recommend Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag, by Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle. You can find the whole book here. Or read a short summary here.

They – and I – reject the notion of “patriotism” in favor of the much more relevant term “nationalism,” which for the past 150 years has supplanted mass religion in most advanced countries. But it retains much religious symbolism. The familiar Christian God has long been replaced by the group, which is symbolized in the totem fetish – the flag.

A fundamental aspect of America’s civil religion is our unique cult of the flag. Curiously, we display it in our churches as well as in many places of business, as if to reinforce the notion that in America there is little difference between them. We worship it by pledging allegiance, and occasionally by kneeling and kissing it. And we are horrified at the thought of its desecration, because, they write, it is “the ritual instrument of group cohesion…the god of nationalism.” Such rituals nearly equate God with America, writes Robert Bellah. Often “…the most jingoistic identity of nation and church has come not from our political leaders but from the churches themselves.” And the flag is embodied in the totem leader, the President.

In this view, the purpose of ritual at the level of the large, national state is to sustain the group by repeating, at various levels of intensity, the act of group creation. Participants in such rituals – especially in our culture of radical individualism – achieve a kind of communion and learn that their God demands human sacrifice. Not the sacrifice of the defeated, which implies the preparedness to kill for one’s country, but willing sacrifice, the willingness to die for it. Or at the very least, the willingness to send one’s children – the best of the best – to die for it.

This willingness, we recall, was established in the two most foundational myths of Western culture. In the first, Abraham was willing to sacrifice his own son to glorify his God. It makes no difference that the son was spared; it was the willingness that counted. In the second, that same God did sacrifice his only son (the son of a father with no mother) to redeem the world.

American mythology updated this legacy with the idea of regeneration through violence.  We regenerate our culture not by killing millions of people of color (although we do that in every generation), but by sacrificing our own young – and not the dregs of society, but, like the Aztecs and Hawaiians, the very best.

In this demythologized world, where all large public events serve the sociological function of myth, rituals may be contrived or opportunistic. The most powerful rituals of nation-group solidarity, say Marvin and Ingle, are opportunistic responses, to the perception of group threat, such as war. But opportunistic rituals are unreliable in their occurrence and expensive in their prosecution. Their magic is great precisely because they are risky and costly.

Contrived or pre-planned, seasonal rituals fill in the intervals between opportunistic group-forging rituals by rehearsing the drama of sacrifice and regeneration. American presidential elections are prototypic contrived rituals of sacrifice and regeneration.

Every American President has two functions: He plays the symbolic role of king-figure, embodying the nation-state and all that the group considers good about it. But, like the last kings of Mexico and Hawaii, he is also the primary spokesperson – a salesman, essentially – for a dying empire.

As spokesman, he must continue at all times to amplify our paranoid fear of “The Other” so as to justify military intervention abroad and repression at home. In other words, he must manipulate the traditional white American sense of being the innocent victim, or at least the potential victim, of some dark (and dark-skinned), irrational, violent, predatory outsider.

As King-figure, however, his job is to absorb the idealistic projections of millions of people and convince them that his intentions (and ours) are noble, protective and altruistic. To do that, he must play the exact opposite of the victim, the Hero. He must reassure Americans of his – and our – ability to meet the threat and defeat it, while simultaneously bringing the Good Word of our compassion to those evil ones who would – for no apparent reason – harm us. This double-bind, by the way, has been described as a long-term prescription for schizophrenia.

Anyone who has survived the long, drawn-out vetting process of satisfying the power brokers and achieving major-party nomination has proven his or her willingness to play by these rules. They have made a career of playing both spokesman and potential King for the cameras. And they are perfectly aware of the penalties for straying too far from the role.

The Democratic Party’s nomination of George McGovern in 1972 was an anomaly, never to be repeated.

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The 2019 Redwood Men’s Conference:

The Next Step — Finding Wholeness in a Broken World

May 24-27, Memorial Day Weekend, Mendocino Woodlands Camp

Welcome to our 29th annual conference!

Dried mud These days we hear the word “broken” everywhere – broken hearts, broken promises, broken treaties, broken vows and broken rules. We know what it means to be breaking up, breaking down or breaking out. We commonly lament that the political system, or democracy itself, even the environment is broken and beyond repair. In this wealthy nation many are too broke to afford a roof over their heads. We ask each man, young, middle and older aged:

How are you broken?
How do you hide your brokenness?
How has your brokenness helped you?  Cubist
How have you broken through?

Each generation is challenged to confront, perhaps facilitate, the breakdown of old systems that no longer serve, to find or create something new and more relevant. In doing so, we speak of breaking through; breaking the curse; breaking the spell; and breaking the silence.

There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in. – Leonard Cohen

Men are now called to acknowledge that “going it alone” no longer works and that our narratives of heroic isolation have led directly to our broken condition. Indigenous wisdom offers some comfort in realizing that we’ve been here before. Consider the Ojibwey chant:

Grandfathers, Grandmothers: look at our brokenness.


Such an appeal is not only an urge to be seen and held but also a sign of our willingness, as Greg Kimura says, to:  Sit with the pain in your heart. Hold it there like a sacred wine in a golden cup.


Click here for more information about the conference and the Redwood Men’s Center.

Conference Leaders

Gregory Guss: LCSW, Psychotherapist and Community Organizer

Jay Jackson: mountain biker, solar guru, drummer, artist, father.

Conrad Larkin: LCSW, Psychotherapist for Elders and their families

Hari Meyers: Author, Teacher, Storyteller, and Literary-Mentor

Richard Naegle: Therapist, teacher, leader of the Noah Project

Gordon Pugh: Craftsman, Improv Artist and Life Coach

Barry Spector: Author of Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence 

Help us spread the word! Download a printable version of this announcement and distribute it in your town.

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Barry’s Blog # 263: Breathing Together, Part Four of Four

…he is constantly being squeezed between the world and his idea of the world. Better to have a broken head – why surrender his corner on the truth? Better just to go crazy. – Stephen Dobyns

All things depend on each other. Everything breathes together. – Plotinus

When we encounter betrayal or disillusionment and refuse to see the opportunity for soul work, we can easily leap from devotion to disgust, as our love-hate relationship with celebrities reveals. But then we are likely to search for a new devotion. I’ve heard it said that there are no more virulent anti-communists than former leftists,  or more vocal  anti-Catholics than former Catholics. Michael Meade, among others, has referred to himself as a “recovering Catholic.” And if another ideology doesn’t fill the void, substance abuse can be an overwhelming attraction, as I wrote about here.

If we pay attention – if we can discriminate – we may see that life always presents the need and the opportunity to reframe our obsessions. How do we do that? By looking past the literal to the symbolic. If we survive the era of Trump, we may well discover a new meta-narrative. Perhaps it will have something to do with the return of the Goddess, or the Whole Earth as an object for our devotion.

But to do that, we need to accelerate the return from monotheistic back to pagan thinking. Rather than connecting the dots to justify our helplessness in a grand narrative of control, we may well need to pursue mini-narratives in the form of questions, such as: What have I been called to do? What gift must I manifest, without which the world would be less for? What god or goddess do I serve? What is my responsibility to the other world, and to those who come after me?

What if we were to cook the word “conspire” down to its essence – to breathe together – and then reframe it further, into the Hawaiian ritual of Ha? This is a mutual greeting that recognizes and welcomes the other into one’s personal space. Two persons press the bridges of their noses together and inhale, thus exchanging the breath of life. To ancient Hawaiians the breath was the key to good health and possessed mana (spiritual power). On their deathbed, elderly persons often passed down wisdom to their chosen successors with this ritual.

And we can also reframe the idea of gatekeeper, from one who figuratively stands at the entrance – the threshold – to the world of acceptable discourse,  charged with the responsibility of maintaining its borders and deciding who is pure enough to be admitted.

By contrast, in the indigenous world there are often people who straddle two worlds and mediate between them. Such people, comfortable in liminality, serve the community by guiding those who are in transition from one state to another. Many Native Americans use the term “two-spirit” to describe persons of unconventional sexual or gender orientation, while in West Africa words describing them actually translate as “gatekeeper.” Sobonfu Some´ of the Dagara people explains:

Without gatekeepers, there is no access to other worlds…They are mediators between the two genders…There are many gates that link a village to other worlds. The only people who have access to all these gates are the gatekeepers…They have one foot in all the other worlds and other foot here…Without them, the gates to the other world would be shut. On the other side of these gates lies the spirit world or other dimensions. Gatekeepers are in constant communication with beings who live there, who have the ability to teach us how to deal with ritual. And gatekeepers have the capacity to take other people to those places…a person doesn’t become a gatekeeper out of a desire for power or even because of sexual orientation…Gatekeeping is part of one’s life purpose, announced before birth and developed through rigorous initiatory training to ensure that its power is not misused. A gatekeeper is responsible for a whole village, a whole tribe.

So let’s imagine a culture that invites a return to a ritual relationship with the Earth, with ancestors, with Spirit, with strangers. Imagine a culture that perceives the other not as a threat but as one who arrives bearing gifts. Imagine a culture than respects the hard-earned wisdom of the past but also understands that the young – and those on the margins – must be heard from. Imagine some people being called from birth – from before birth – to heal the divide between worlds so as to welcome the potential of each person, including the potential to re-imagine the world, rather than to exclude those who question inherited Truths.

Let’s imagine a world not dominated by the Western, monotheistic urge to enforce those Truths on others, but one that appreciates these Pagan insights from the far East:

Since everything is but an apparition,

Perfect in being what it is, having nothing

to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection,

One may well burst out in laughter.  Long Chen Pa


Since water flows, though we cut it with swords.

And sorrow returns, though we drown it with wine,

Since the world can in no way satisfy our cravings,

Let us loosen our hair tomorrow and go fishing.  Li-Po


If you love the sacred and despise the ordinary, you are still bobbing on the ocean of delusion.  Lin-Chi


Leave your front door and your back door open.

Allow your thoughts to come and go.

Just don’t serve them tea. Shunryu Suzuki


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