Barry’s Blog # 230: The Flag and the Hummer – How We Display Ourselves, Part Two of Two

Then came the Hummers (and improbably yet predictably, stretch limousines built out of Hummers), which finally won the status battle, being the largest, heaviest and most wasteful of all, with the bonus factor of having military associations. Indeed, the invasion of Iraq greatly boosted Hummer sales. Many of the Californians who elected the most macho of governors seemed quite proud of the fact that 0422-06 Arnold Schwartzenegger owned seven of them.

American myth is always about race. A Chrysler marketing manager admitted that the industry had designed the whole class of gas-guzzling SUVs to appeal to Americans’ fears of crime and other imagined threats:

SUV buyers want to be able to take on street gangs with their vehicles and run them down.

Another industry researcher and anthropologist observed that consumers understand logically that these vehicles are too high and not built for safety, but that their feelings seem to override their logic:

You feel secure because you are higher and dominate and look down. That you can look down is psychologically a very powerful notion.

Hummers, writes Colin McAdams, are a civilian version of the U.S. military vehicle known technically as the High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle, commonly as the “Humvee:”

Here’s the Hummer (original Model H1) on a city street: a swollen Jeep; an SUV with a bad thyroid and a bloated ego…Pedestrians and other drivers stare relentlessly, mouth their derision, (wondering) …How much steel goes into making these monstrosities; how much gas to make them move…how quickly can they stop? Outside the United States, Hummers are loathed for added reasons. They are the America of cars – a crass, overbearing, imperial presence on the road. They have a menacing wartime mien…My brother drives a Hummer. People spit on it as he goes by. Sometimes they hold their thumb and forefinger close together to suggest he has a small penis…Women, for the most part, are the least approving. Only little boys and a certain type of man will approach and say, “Can I see inside?”

But a Chrysler market researcher explains, “…people are looking for something that offers protection on the outside and comfort on the inside.” The second generation of Hummers, writes McAdams, were to be family vehicles:

The H2 is different. It is still gigantic, but it is built for comfort. It has a smooth suspension, a luxurious interior, can be endlessly accessorized, and celebrates immodesty in a more flamboyant manner. It can reach high speeds on the highway, which the H1 cannot. More women drive it than drive the H1, although most still frown at it. The H2 is too tall for commercial garages. Its fuel consumption is appalling (a fat man’s puff of twelve miles per gallon – and it does not run on diesel, like the H1).

In 2002 Keith Bradsher wrote the definitive expose of the SUV (High and Mighty: SUVs The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way) and asked, “Who has been buying SUVs since automakers turned them into family vehicles?” He concluded that

They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors or communities. No, that’s not a cynic talking – that’s the auto industry’s own market researchers…

Clearly, many consumers were willing to pay $75,000 (or twice that for the largest Hummers) to symbolize a complex mix of of individualism, power, security, family, machismo, patriotism and freedom. And the auto industry, slap-happy with greed, ignored all signs of impending environmental and financial doom as it remade itself into suppliers of these tanks.

Political freedom appeared to be identical with freedom of the road and freedom, or license, to behave without any concern for the consequences – the freedom of the child in the crib to soil himself, who knows that mother will be there to clean up. At a Hummer rally, writes McAdam, two men traded stories “…about how much people in their neighborhoods hated the sight of them.” The founder of a Hummer owners’ group boasted, apparently without irony, that his vehicle symbolized,

…what we all hold so dearly above all else, the fact (that) we have the freedom of choice, the freedom of happiness, the freedom of adventure and discovery, and the ultimate freedom of expression. Those who deface a Hummer in words or deed deface the American flag and what it stands for.

This sense of freedom as freedom from restraint on the natural enthusiasm of the radical individual is another fundamental aspect of American myth, as I wrote in Chapter Seven of my book:

Freedom became a holy term that meant all things to all people. Liberty (from a Roman epithet for Dionysus, Liber) implies release – the return of the repressed – and liberation, in both its Marxist and Buddhist meanings. Americans struggled for a while with the difference between positive liberty (the power and resources to act to fulfill one’s own potential), and negative liberty (freedom from restraint, what one didn’t have to do). Eventually, the two forms of liberty birthed a monster: freedom became entitlement to do what one wants, regardless of the needs of the community, the power to achieve it, and the privilege to take liberties with others (“to liberate” is military slang for looting). This interpretation of the pursuit of happiness led eventually to the liberties extended to non-human entities – corporations.

(This was) freedom without responsibility, but it had unexpected results, writes Historian John Hope Franklin. The passionate pursuit of liberty by some resulted in the “destruction of the rights of others to pursue the same ends…the freedom to destroy freedom.”

The white, fundamentalist, pickup-driving, emerging base of the Republican Party had been spoon-fed the language of freedom for decades as states rights, anti-tax, anti-Civil Rights, anti-Big Government, anti-East Coast liberal, anti-atheist and anti-abortion (yes, freedom to restrict access to abortion) rhetoric. The GOP, unlike the Democrats, was well versed (and well funded) in this mythological thinking, or, as George Lakoff writes, framing the debate.

A disturbingly large percentage of their target audiences had known quite well, at least since the Nixon years, that this kind of freedom meant We won’t give your hard-earned tax dollars to the Niggers. By the year 2001 was anyone surprised when George W. Bush used “freedom,” “free,” and “liberty” 49 times in his second inaugural address?

A few years later, with elegant and astounding disregard for the lives of the hundreds of soldiers dying to secure Iraq’s oil (do you remember that Operation Iraqi Freedom was originally called Operation Iraqi Liberation until someone in the White House realized the acronym?), the oaf at the Hummer rally proudly expressed the philosophy of those Americans who have no problem equating patriotism, freedom, status and denial in a grand and adolescent statement. As I conceived this essay I found myself behind yet another Hummer – an H1 – with a bumper sticker that read, “The more you disapprove, the more fun it is for me.” He had eloquently cast himself and his crowd as the Dionysian rebels and me and mine as prudish parental figures.

For a few years the Hummer was one of those deeply potent symbols in which the paranoid (irrational obsession with fear) and predatory (narcissistic exhibition of control) imaginations meet each other. In this new gilded age, public gestures now declare one’s membership in a particular tribe.

e6f112f75e21d707eb4f997c3da44e4eThat tribe, to invoke American myth – and religion – once again, is the tribe of the elect, those whom Providence has declared to be the winners in life. For at least 120 years, at least since the closing of the frontier, this has been a zero-sum story: for every winner, many, many losers.


Thus, to readers familiar with my writing, we have another fundamental, emblematic image for the new century. The first, of course, is the picture of the collapsing twin towers. I have suggested that the second is the woman in the burkha, as I wrote here.

The third image is the Hummer bedecked with the American flag. In my analogy to The Bacchae, I compared the towers to Pentheus’s palace in Thebes. The woman in the burkha evokes Dionysus and all of the Others of the world, from women to oppressed minorities to terrorists. And the flag-bedecked Hummer represents Pentheus, in all his defiant, adolescent, blustering, willful ignorance of his impending initiatory catastrophe (Greek: “to overturn, turn down, trample on,” which is indeed what the crazed women do to him, and what the economy would soon do to the Hummer). It is the ultimate symbol of both “Boy Psychology” and the myth of enduring innocence, as it taunts all of the Others of the world, in Bush’s words, to “Bring ‘em on!”

In 2008 the financial crisis hit and sales of all autos quickly plummeted by 18%. But sales of large pickups and SUVs collapsed by 55%. General Motors and Ford announced plans to close or suspend production at plants that made them, throwing thousands out of work. Chrysler, which had invested the most in these vehicles and the least in fuel-efficient ones, went begging to the federal government for a bailout. It was, like the banks that had caused the crisis, “too big to fail.”

One environmental writer saw some good in the disaster (Greek: “against the stars”) and predicted many public benefits in the demise of the SUV. Less gas would be burned. Drivers of all vehicles would be less likely to die in car crashes. Fewer children might be run over. There would more room on the road for everyone, perhaps less road construction and maybe even less road rage. Eventually, most people awoke from their omnipotent dreams, realized that hybrids and electric cars would be the transportation of the future and adjusted accordingly.

But the Hummer and its impersonators had already done their damage. They gave a whole generation of knuckleheads permission to further degrade the public realm by displaying even more self-destructive and/or bigoted gestures. The Republicans soon accepted that these people were also signaling their willingness to elect someone like Trump, the grandest symbol of waste, violence, hatred and comically transparent masculinity, and the grandest con man of them all. And he, master of the ignorant yet carefully framed public gesture, signaled his own sense of permission to let the dogs out of the kennel. It was another Dionysian moment.

In this story of ironic juxtapositions, perhaps the greatest of all is this 2015 admission by the Iraqi government: ISIS had captured huge caches of US-made weapons, including at least 2,300 Humvees, from Iraqi forces retreating from Mosul and had been using them against American

Of course, American men – young men especially – had been drag racing, running ”sideshows,” “ghost riding,” playing “chicken” and speeding through wet puddles and around curves on motorcycles while shooting at highway signs long before the SUV was invented, ever since cars themselves had been invented. And before them, generations of Good Old Boys had ridden their horses through markets and vegetable gardens, terrifying Indians, slaves and proper, church-going citizens.

All this behavior, some will say, was never anything more than the healthy expression of the essential, entrepreneurial, risk-taking, individualistic (restless and indomitable are the mythmakers’ preferred terms) American spirit that conquered the wilderness. To restrict or penalize such enthusiasm (Greek: filled with a god) is only to damp down the essence of what makes (or once made) America great, to throw out the angels along with the demons. There is wisdom in that view, as William James wrote in 1897:

Man’s chief difference from the brutes lies in the exuberant excess of his subjective propensities, his preeminence over them simply and solely in the number and in the fantastic and unnecessary character of his wants – physical, moral, aesthetic, and intellectual. Had his whole life not been a quest for the superfluous, he would never have established himself as inexpugnably as he has done in the necessary…Prune down his exuberance, sober him, and you undo him.

But such people, perhaps, have never sat in a funeral service for one of those wild young guys who in his unconscious search for initiation and meaning had run a car up a tree – and have to listen to some pastor intone that the driver was now in a “better place.” And that’s not to mention the kid he ran over before he killed himself, or the trees he knocked over. A shout of the spirit can also be a cry of the soul.

We must acknowledge that it is a cry of the soul, and indigenous people such as the Gisu people of Uganda always knew this. Michael Meade writes of their concept of litima:

Litima is the violent emotion peculiar to the masculine…source of quarrels, ruthless competition, possessiveness…and brutality, and that is also the source of independence, courage…and meaningful ideals…the willful emotional force that fuels the process of becoming an individual…source of the…aggression necessary to undergo radical change. But Litima is ambiguous…both the capacity to erupt in violence and the capacity to defend others, both the aggression that breaks things and the force that builds and protects.

For much more on this subject, see Chapter Five of my book. Here are a few relevant thoughts:

Litima poses a dilemma: how to transform those raging hormones from anti-social expression into something positive? This cannot be stated too strongly: uninitiated men cause universal suffering. Either they burn with creativity or they burn everything down. This biological issue transcends debates over gender socialization. Although patriarchal conditioning legitimates and perpetuates it, their nature drives young men to violent excess.

Rites of passage provide metaphor and symbol so that boys don’t have to act their inner urges out…Boys must be transformed into men; without deliberate intervention by elders, they remain boys.

Martin Prechtel, of the Guatemalan Tzutujil Mayans, writes that his people called adolescence the “holy illness.”…Mayan youths traditionally got captured in whirlwinds of emotion: “…the madness of their holy pollinating illness made them run directly toward death and ruin.”

Malidoma Somé of Burkina Faso observes: “…they say in the village that an unruly youth is asking in his own way for someone to guide him.” An archetypal hunger for renewal drives his self-destructive behavior. Something must die. The symbolic death of initiation, however, can substitute for actual death.

All this, of course, barely touches upon the subject of initiation. And what is the relationship between initiation and these yahoos who broadcast their thuggish unconcern for the environment or for the opinions of liberals? I suppose it’s all quite personal. But consider how far American life has come from this:

There was an African tribe in which the elders deliberately delayed the initiation rites, actually withholding this difficult yet necessary experience and privilege from the adolescent males, until those boys demonstrated the intensity of their desire to be seen and accepted as adults. How did they do this? By dancing continuously outside the elders’ hut without a break for days and nights at a time. Then the elders knew that they were serious.

Let’s imagine such a world. Before we can make one, we must be able to imagine it.


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Barry’s Blog # 229: The Flag and the Hummer – How We Display Ourselves, Part One of Two

Can you remember what public life was like in those first days and weeks after the tragedy of 9/11/2001? You know, back before the beginning of the longest war in American history. I’m thinking of how expression of our reactions and feelings seemed to follow a certain sequence. The first thing we saw, even as the ruins were still smoking, were spontaneous shrines on walls and fences, universal gestures of grief that anyone could understand.

Then, within only a few days, people began to display their American flags. The first ones available tended to be conventional ones erected on homes and lawns.

In a few weeks came flag decals applied directly to car and store windows. Soon, as American opportunism flowed seamlessly with patriotic sentiment, flag posters appeared on store windows everywhere. USA_American_Car_Flags_12_In_By_17_In__Only_25_Cents_Each Next came cloth flags tied to antennae and plastic flagpoles that attached to windshields.

Many of those cloth flags quickly deteriorated in the wind and weather. So, eventually, store-bought, pre-tattered flags, designed to look like they had returned from battle, appeared. 920x920 When a car sped by boasting one of them on its own, flexible pole, the intention seemed to be to remind viewers of a John Wayne cavalry charge.

But as memory of 9-11 faded, so did most of the flags. They re-appeared at the beginning of the Iraq invasion and faded away again, after George W. Bush’s flight-deck declaration of the end of hostilities in May 2003, with a brief spike after Saddam Hussein’s capture. By 2005 (and 1,700 dead Americans) they were rarely seen; they had been replaced by decals in the shape of yellow ribbons mysteriously exhorting passers-by to “support the troops.”

The questions of flag desecration and improper use of it on clothing, etc,  had been raging for quite some time. But traditional display of the flag had been disappearing from much of American life ever since the Viet Nam War.  Much of the nation had split between those who were ashamed of the genocide that the U.S. had been perpetrating and those who used the flag, its “Missing In Action” variants and a narrow appreciation of war veterans to symbolize the reactionary movements and the racist politics of the 1980s and the Gulf War of the early 1990s. How do we make sense of this iconic 1976 photo from Boston’s school desegregation protests?


This image inverts the iconic 1945 image of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima at the end of World War Two,  when America was attaining the apogee of its power and goodwill in the world. But in 1976 (the bicentennial year, and less than a year after the end of the Viet Nam War), the white man is planting his phallic staff in the fertile black soil of his opponent’s belly. How ironic that the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo is titled “The Soiling of Old Glory.” He is doing literal harm to the Other, and he is metaphorically attempting to re-establish that neo-colonial superiority that had been lost a mere 31 years after the first photo.

Perhaps we make sense of the Boston photo only by remembering what a critical part the Confederate flag has played 1435631743_070015z00-RebFlag-003_t1070_h183037b5ecfb4b96f9329f5c4294108a5ff82ee1 in our traditional military and conservative displays.

For a much deeper analysis of the flag’s traditional meaning in the context of nationalism and sacrifice of the young, see Blood Sacrifice and the Nation, by Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle. You can read a brief synopsis here.

The flag made another comeback in 2009, when the Defense Department (under Barack Obama) drastically increased its “sports marketing” outreach to professional sports, especially pro football, which promptly “encouraged” its players for the first time to stand for the playing of the National Anthem. Qui bono? Follow the money…nearly $5.4 million in taxpayer dollars was paid out to NFL teams between 2011 and 2014 alone to encourage these public displays and admonitions to patriotic sentiment and “support for the troops.” In 2016, after adverse publicity, the NFL announced that it would reimburse the government for some $723,000 of those funds.

The grand spectacle of the Superbowl, and eventually most championship games in most major sports, pro or college, eventually included gigantic flags  that covered entire playing fields.151104-vet-flag-jets-football-344p_d061554c7660126d7d598f470ae01fe4.nbcnews-ux-2880-1000

And fans (Latin: mad, enthusiastic, inspired by a god, originally, pertaining to a temple), aided once again by opportunistic businessmen, could now broadcast their tribal membership with team flags on their cars.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What were people saying with the displays on their cars? One could only imagine what messages were implied. And that’s my point. One might assume that these gestures were expressing nationalistic, even belligerent feelings, but could one be sure? Were they saying less about the sentiments and more about the drivers themselves?

And what about the decals that appeared next, the ones that read “God Bless America”? God-Bless-America-Decal-Sticker-Eagle-Flag-Black-Vinyl  Was this a declarative statement about fact (as in God most certainly does bless America, and more than other countries!)? Was it a demand, in the imperative mood (God: bless America, right now!)? Or was it a subjunctive plea, or a prayer (God, please Bless America! She really needs it!)? For some, it may have implied grief for the victims or solidarity with the firefighters and soldiers, or even shame for the nation. For others it meant rallying around the flag, the traditional gesture of identifying with the nation under the stress of war, silencing its shadow of self-doubt and marginalizing the anti-war movement. lna277-900x700 Or maybe it was simply a fashion statement.

All this points to one of the characteristics of what Joseph Campbell called the “de-mythologized world” – the fact that, along with the myths that once bound us together, we have lost most of the ritual gestures we once shared in common, such as wearing black in public to indicate mourning, and many of the public processions – weddings, funerals, second lines – that told the world: we have been changed forever.

Similarly, just as there were public gestures that people understood, there were words and tones of voice that polite people didn’t say, at least in public. The middle class and much of the working class had long subscribed to notions of propriety, decorum, modesty, respectability and decency, at least until the Age of Trump.

On some cars, the increasingly larger pickups and SUVs (Sport Utility Vehicle), it seemed that the flags really bespoke a kind of vicarious (and non-risky) heroism, a smirking defiance intended for any terrorists who might be lurking in the neighborhood. It was a game in which people (well, men, really) were displaying their gang colors. Perhaps the sentiment was also directed at liberals, with their smaller, more economic, slightly effeminate and perhaps a bit preachy cars (years later, some wag was the first to call the Prius, the Pius.

These gestures seemed to be saying, “They can attack us and hurt us, but we still have the biggest, the best, the most, and the most wasteful, of everything. Even if we die, we do so with the most toys.” Or simply: “We can afford to waste gas money!” After all, President Bush had told the nation to show the world – by going out and shopping – that America stood tall and united. Meanwhile, despite the slow economy, the Ford Truck Plant in Wayne, Michigan (at least until 2008) was still running three shifts per day, turning out the “Expedition,” Ford’s largest S.U.V. These were, perhaps, the gestures of the people driving the largest of the SUV’s, with the largest of the flags. How ironic that many of these patriotic behemoths had been built in other countries.

This idiocy was nothing new. The hardware was contemporary, but the ostentatious contempt for the natural world was deeply embedded in American myth. As I relate in Chapter Eight of my book, an association of Texas cattlemen bragged in 1898:

Resolved, that none of us know, or care to know, anything about grasses…outside of the fact that for the present there are lots of them… and we are after getting the most out of them while they last.


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Barry’s Blog # 228: The Civil Rights Movement in American Myth, Part Four of Four

Part Four: Fifty Years Later

Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April of 1968 marked the end of the Civil Rights movement. What has changed since then? Few would deny that significant, fundamental transformation has occurred in American race relations over these decades, especially since 1960. Discrimination is illegal and blacks can theoretically vote everywhere. A black middle class has developed, and a few have become truly rich. Hundreds of blacks and other minorities have attained elective office and some have achieved real influence in the centers of power. And of course Barack Obama was President.

According to this narrative, the agonizingly long process of welcoming the Other into the polis has concluded. And if the American story is about anything, it is about progress. The Civil Rights movement succeeded! Obama was proof that we had completed the transition to a “post-racial” society. Republicans (who had viciously resisted the movement at every single step while it was happening) now adore this narrative, because it allows them to justify slashing funds for welfare. Democrats love it, because it allows them to ignore or co-opt the minorities who make up their actual base. Part of this narrative is valorizing Martin Luther King Jr. and covering up the history of the true radical and outspoken anti-war activist who would have been nauseated by Obama’s subservience to the empire.

But we can only ask African Americans these questions. Whites have proven over and over that their perceptions about race are hopelessly out of line, both with those of blacks as well as with the statistics.

Many African Americans will remind us that the war on drugs killed and imprisoned tens of thousands of black people; that hundreds of thousands are in prison; that literally millions of them have lost the right to vote; that school segregation is worse than it was twenty tears ago; that the financial crisis of 2008 impacted blacks disproportionately, and that the banks had deliberately targeted them; that black mothers in New York City are twelve times as likely to die in childbirth as white mothers; that the “Black Lives Matter” movement arose, but police continue to murder large numbers of unarmed black people; that the idea of white privilege finally entered the lexicon, but with little effect; that 87% of blacks believed that Trayvon Martin’s murder was unjustified, while only 33% of whites did; that 11% of Americans (30% of those over 65) still disapprove of black-white marriage; that blacks and whites are still worlds apart when polled on how well things are going; that arsonists torched some fifty black churches between 1990 and 2017; that the media still portray blacks negatively; and that race (as voter suppression, gerrymandering, computer fraud, voter I.D. laws, new forms of the poll tax and massive, fundamentalist backlash) turned what everyone expected to be a Democratic landslide in 2016 into a social, financial and environmental disaster. At this moment an unashamed, flagrant racist is President. So much for progress.

I’ve written many essays on race in America and on Obama in particular (these are noted at the end), so I’m trying not to repeat myself here. To conclude this one, I want to add an observation that is consistent with my argument in Part Three that in the 1960s Southern whites could not bear the tension of observing an “Other” with whom (in terms of behavior) they might well be identical.

Obama experienced a unique dilemma beginning well before his election. From the right, there was plenty of the predictable racist nonsense. Some critics on the left, however, complained that in attempting to appeal to the middle he simply wasn’t acting “black” enough. Then there were the really loony allegations: he was not an American citizen, he was a secret Muslim, he was a socialist. He wasn’t white enough. It was a branding problem that his handlers struggled with throughout his eight years in office. At the time, I wrote that he had been carefully vetted by the Deep State and tasked with the work of shoring up the glaring tears in the fabric of American exceptionalism. Eight years later, I think I was right. But it was complicated…

In regard to that brand, Obama, despite his modest family roots, was clearly a well-mannered, rational, dispassionate, Ivy-League educated, cultured, articulate, even brilliant card-carrying member of the upper middle class, and so was his wife. Their children were talented and beautiful. It was the most photogenic family in the White House since the Kennedy Camelot of the early 1960s. They had no scandals, sexual or otherwise. The “darker brother,” in Langston Hughes’ words, had finally arrived “at the table” and “They’ll see how beautiful I am – And be ashamed.”

This created a profound dilemma for countless working-class whites; the old poem was too accurate in its prediction. Throughout their adult lives, they had been subjected to a daily, unending barrage of hysterical fear-mongering about the racialized Other that was far more intense than anything their parents had seen in the fifties and sixties. And they experienced eight years of war, job loss caused by affirmative action (an absolute lie of course, but much easier to digest than the fact that the politicians they’d elected were screwing them) and countless examples in the media of assaults on their sense of white masculine potential; all of which led to an opiate epidemic that by 2016 would kill 50,000 of them per year. Is it any surprise that it was white males who perpetrated almost all of the 336 mass murders in 2017? That’s right: almost one per day.

Ironically, the fact that Obama was continuing the domestic, financial and military policies of his Republican predecessor seems to have mattered little to the Tea Partiers, Alt-Rightists and Christian extremists who would eventually become Trump’s foot soldiers. What mattered to them was branding, symbol, imagery and race.

To many, perhaps millions of them, the constant sight of this, yes, privileged family in the seat of power was a daily reminder of how low they had sunk, and that (quite inaccurately, of course) three hundred years of injustice was being rectified: the Other was at the table – their table – and the shock-jocks were right. Polls indicated that white people now actually perceived themselves as more discriminated against than blacks.

There has been plenty of analysis by liberal writers on this subject. But I insist on the psychological and mythological approaches, because in these terms, little has changed since 1960:

The whites, “crackers” or middle-class, are facing a profound dilemma. They can’t project self-contempt for their sexuality, their bodily connection to the old pagan gods, to Dionysus, onto the blacks. Forced to contemplate people just as self-controlled as themselves, and quite often more so, they face an Other with whom they are identical.

Their perception of Obama – and of the possibility of true racial healing – seems to have been determined on three levels. On one level, the constant media barrage (with massive funding from the Koch brothers and friends) was successful, as racial animosity and hatred of immigrants grew everywhere.

But on another level, their spokesmen were, in a sense, unsuccessful. None of the venomous and very thinly-veiled racism of Fox News or Republican politicians could incite Obama into retaliating in anger, to re-inhabit that psychic space of the Other, to act like a dangerous, angry black man. By contrast, what they got was a leader who seemed comfortable weeping at the thought of dead (American) children.

…so that they, the whites, could be free of the oppressive weight of awareness…If the Other was everything that the citizen of the polis was not, and the Other was self-controlled – or beautiful – what did that make the citizen?

So hate grew on a third level, out of frustration and denial. I think the dynamic was and is the same as in 1960: we hate them because they’re lazy and dangerous. And we hate them more when they prove that they aren’t.

Trump didn’t create any of this. As an old TV con-man and Reality star, he was simply smart enough to perceive it and run with it – directly, proudly, arrogantly, with no shame Donald Trump Visits Church In Las Vegas and using only the thinnest of euphemisms – in a way that even the Republican establishment had not dared to. Joshua Zeitz writes:


…Trump has also, arguably more than any other candidate for president in the past hundred years (excepting third-party outliers like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace), played to the purely psychological benefits of being white. From his racially laden exhortations about black crime in Chicago and Latino gangs seemingly everywhere, to his attacks on an American-born federal judge of Mexican parentage and on Muslim gold star parents, he has paid the white majority with redemption…Trump might be increasing economic inequality, but at least the working-class whites feel like they belong in Trump’s America. He urged them to privilege race over class when they entered their polling stations.

The other Republican candidates attacked him in the primaries not because he was a racist thug and a bully – they had been doing precisely the same ever since the days of Nixon, with more restrained hints and innuendo (“urban”, “gang violence”, “welfare queens”, etc) – but more for his style. By comparison, their brands were higher-class.

But of course they quickly rallied around him when he won, because they sensed the possibility of achieving the reactionary legislation that their corporate sponsors had always demanded. Once in office, he quickly became, as Charles Derber writes, a “fig leaf for the GOP’s Horrific Policies.” And within six months, his public support dwindled down to that base of angry and fundamentalist whites. Why? Because they were the only crowd to value race hatred over their own economic self-interest.

Many analysts predict that these people will eventually figure out exactly how and where Trump and the Republicans have been sticking it to them and move back to the center or even the left. May it be so. But a blogger who calls himself “Forsetti” and grew up among fundamentalists, explains why they won’t, in a brilliant article that I recommend you read fully:

When you have a belief system that is built on fundamentalism, it isn’t open to outside criticism…Christian, white Americans…are racists…people who deep down in their heart of hearts truly believe they are superior because they are white. Their white God made them in his image and everyone else is a less-than-perfect version, flawed and cursed.

The religion in which I was raised taught this. Even though they’ve backtracked on some of their more racist declarations, many still believe the original claims. Non-whites are the color they are because of their sins, or at least the sins of their ancestors. Blacks don’t have dark skin because of where they lived and evolution; they have dark skin because they are cursed. God cursed them for a reason. If God cursed them, treating them as equals would be going against God’s will.

Since facts and reality don’t matter, nothing you say to them will alter their beliefs. “President Obama was born in Kenya, is a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood who hates white Americans and is going to take away their guns.” I feel ridiculous even writing this, it is so absurd, but it is gospel across large swaths of rural America.

A significant number of rural Americans believe President Obama was in charge when the financial crisis started. An even higher number believe the mortgage crisis was the result of the government forcing banks to give loans to unqualified minorities. It doesn’t matter how untrue both of these are, they are gospel in rural America. Why reevaluate your beliefs and voting patterns when scapegoats are available?

A popular narrative claims that millions of evangelicals first entered the political world after the nation made abortion legal. Randall Balmer, however, makes it quite clear that the issue that actually aroused them was the same one that had motivated their southern ancestors to sacrifice themselves by the hundreds in the Civil War: race. Then, and for a hundred years, the issue was “race mixing.” For the next fifty years it would be the issue of desegregation.

If it isn’t perfectly obvious to you that religion white-evangelicals is a mere fig leaf concealing their racism (and the fear that lies below it), simply recall that black evangelicals have never shared their opinions or voted with them.

This is what a demythologized world looks like. Our politics and our religion are so utterly corrupted that millions of under-educated people are supporting billionaire con-men because they offer a refuge in othering; and millions of other, well-educated liberals are taking refuge in another narrative that offers a different kind of refuge: denial.

Denial of this: Ever since Jimmy Carter, the Democratic leadership has abandoned their traditional working-class base, moving further and further to the “center” in a frequently unsuccessful attempt to curry favor among suburban moderates and corporate donations. If any of these people are serious about social change, they must understand two facts:

1 – From the point of view of the 100 million Americans who do not vote at all – who have never voted – there is simply no difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. This is not a “radical” idea. It’s a practical one.

2 – The Democrats will never inspire the white, rural vote. And they should stop trying.

Granted, in the recent Alabama election, Doug Jones beat Roy Moore (who, despite his slimy reputation received 80% of the white, evangelical vote). Jones is no radical, but he won not by, or at least not entirely by pandering to the middle, but by inspiring the left – black women in particular. If the DNC has a shred of uncorrupted essence left in 2018, it will follow this example. Don’t hold your breath.

My articles on Race in General:

— The Mythic Sources of White Rage:

— Privilege:

— Affirmative Action for Whites:

— The Real Affirmative Action:

— The Race Card:

— The Sandy Hook Murders, Innocence and Race in America:

— Hands up, Don’t shoot – The Sacrifice of American Dionysus:

— Do Black Lives Really Matter?

— Did the South Win the Civil War?

— The Election of 2016:

The Dionysian Moment – Trump Lets the Dogs Out:

My articles on Obama:

— The Presidential Dilemma:

— Obama and the Myth of Innocence:

— The Con Man: An American Archetype:

— Obama’s Tears:

— Grading the President:

— Stories We Tell Each Other About Barack Obama:

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Barry’s Blog # 227: The Civil Rights Movement in American Myth, Part Three of Four

Part Three: Conflicting Images of the Other in the South

Q: What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy?

A: I don’t know and I don’t care!

The old joke comes close to explaining the stunning combination of racial animosity and innocent ignorance that white Americans accepted as reality in the early 1960s. Only about 6% approved of interracial marriage, while 84% were convinced that blacks had equal educational opportunity. 

Even though anti-segregation protests had been happening for years, most whites had been unaware of a national movement for racial freedom. Rather abruptly, it seemed that by sitting in at lunch counters across the South, the Other was stepping in from his and her internal exile, demanding to sit at the same the table as the master. The Civil Rights Movement insisted that neither freedom nor equality was possible without the other. They defined freedom in terms of inclusion; but for whites inclusion meant something that threatened their myth of innocence, a confrontation on equal terms with the Other.

Do you remember those “black-and-white” photos and newsreel films of the demonstrations? We notice several things. First: the dignity, religious fervor and no-nonsense, even formal attire of the African-Americans. 22754010045_bcfd12dc69_c Second: the presence of northern whites accompanying them. Then, the camera pans back, and we comprehend the broader context: hundreds – and occasionally thousands – of local whites, ff550ac8b0989e04ce6b7e57700c7fc6  brought to the scene by the possibility of violence – with deep hatred and sometimes fear on their faces.

We see the burning crosses, the police dogs and the fire hoses. 3fa7aa2fcd1f5620c09ce94f6ea6ee7d Civil rights

But we also see leather-clad toughs and housewives in high heels taunting the marchers with astonishing profanity.


What we don’t see is the 350-year legacy of fear that turned working-class whites and blacks into adversaries. We don’t see the religious conditioning that divided whites internally, against their own bodies. We don’t see the heritage of alienation that required the construction of an entire race of scapegoats so that whites could cling to their privilege and their innocence. 660cfe378ff2771182ec515625b8057c

Still, the demonstrators are merely sitting quietly, singing or marching in silence. Why is there such rage on the white faces? Certainly, blacks are demanding equality and whites fear some economic loss. But furious, violent, out-of-control rage?

Perhaps it is because the blacks aren’t “shuffling and jiving,” lowering their heads or stepping off the sidewalks to let them pass. Perhaps because they are no longer presenting the false persona of childish or contented servant. Perhaps it is because some are looking the whites directly in the eye for the first time in anyone’s memory, refusing to call them “sir.”

I would propose that then (and, sadly, now) the whites, “crackers” or middle-class, were facing a profound dilemma. They could no longer successfully project self-contempt for their sexuality, their bodily connection to the old pagan gods, to Dionysus, onto the blacks. Forced to contemplate people just as self-controlled as themselves, and quite often more so, they faced an Other who was themselves.

In another context, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote:

…and they searched his prison

but could only see themselves in chains.

White violence wasn’t merely intended to disrupt the marches. Here is the secret: the whites were trying to incite the blacks into retaliating in anger, to move their bodies, to dance, or at least to lower their heads. They were hoping to provoke them into re-inhabiting the psychic space of the Other, so that they, the whites, could be free of the oppressive weight of awareness.

Whites were desperate to remove it from their own shoulders and place it back where it belonged. But how could they do that when (a few years later) blacks were chanting, “Black is beautiful?” If the Other was everything that the citizen of the polis was not, and the Other was self-controlled – or beautiful – what did that make the citizen? And if the citizen has his persona of innocent non-Other stripped away, what then rises to the surface?

The miracle of the early 1960s is not the legal freedoms and voting rights won by African-Americans, but the fact that they could hold so much hope amid such hatred without retaliating. The movement eventually failed when they could no longer restrain their own rage within the ritual container of pacifist religion and finally struck back. So much had been promised – even poor families now had TV and could see what the Good Life appeared to be – and so little was delivered. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty failed because his other war against Vietnam was bankrupting the nation. Historian Milton Viorst wrote, “…rising expectations prevalent in the mid-1960’s had transformed everyday discontent into an angry rejection of the status quo.”

After the Watts riots of 1965 a phrase that perfectly articulated the return of the repressed – Black Power! – first appeared. stokely-carmichael_051111  In 1967 (ironically the same year that the Supreme Court finally struck down the last Southern laws prohibiting interracial marriage) blacks rioted in 23 cities, leaving scores dead and thousands arrested.

Once Blacks refused to submit, two things resulted. First, many others – students, women, Native Americans, Latinos, prisoners, disabled people, environmentalists and gays – also rose up. 1968 was a surreal explosion of televised war carnage, anti-draft demonstrations, political assassinations, ferocious riots and mayhem at the Chicago convention.

Secondly, public opinion, which had solidly favored civil rights, began to change. TV showed not only the rage but also ecstatic images of blacks looting only blocks from the White House. Violence was familiar, but this was new: the internal Other would no longer serve as primary victim of American violence. The white middle class was losing jobs and feeling disenchanted, exhausted, victimized and vulnerable to reactionary backlash.

Hollywood saw the opening and responded with urban vigilante movies in the 1970’s and 1980’s (starring Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood) in which lone redeemer-heroes cleaned up the urban chaos with brutal violence. Everyone knew what “urban” meant.

Conservatives were quick to perceive class difference between the activists and the soldiers – as well as the police they were fighting. When the National Guard exploded at Kent State in 1970, writes Viorst, the public was outraged at the students, not their killers.     Kent_State_massacreMany rejoiced that, “…the act had been done at last… the students deserved what they got.”

“The act” was the murder of the children – white, educated – in a nationally televised, ritual sacrifice of a new scapegoat. Enough youth had rejected American values so completely that, to the shocked elders, it seemed that they had become the Other. They were acting “just like blacks,” and this, finally, was unacceptable.

Although America had been killing the children in Vietnam for years and in the ghettoes for generations, here was an unmistakable response from their elders: Your purpose is to be like the fathers, or to die. Shortly after Kent State, while students were striking at 450 campuses, thugs attacked peaceful demonstrators while New York City police watched.

Years later, after exonerating the students, Kent State commissioned a monument. However, it rejected sculptor George Segal’s model of Abraham OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA poised with a knife over Isaac.

The myth of innocence had weathered a series of terrible shocks, but its image of the internal Other had survived. Whites no longer perceived blacks as discreet, religious, non-violent saints who were shaming America into remembering its values. They were now dashiki-wearing, long-haired, foul-mouthed terrorists who ruled the city streets at night – “Black Panthers.” And the panther was Dionysus’ animal. The Black man once again carried the projection of America’s Dionysus. And one could well ask, Did the South actually win the Civil War? 

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Barry’s Blog # 226: The Civil Rights Movement in American Myth, Part Two of Four

Part Two: Red, White and Black

Genocide of the Native Americans (the outer Other) created two problems for the white imagination, and for its economy: it didn’t leave enough survivors to be identified as Other, and it didn’t leave enough laborers. Whites required someone to act both roles. So they uprooted millions of Africans to form the foundation of the Southern economy.

As I have written in Chapter Eight of my book, neither “blackness” nor “whiteness” firmly established themselves in the American mind until the defeat of Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, when indentured servants of both races challenged the landowners. This was a watershed moment. Historian Theodore Allen writes:

…laboring-class African-Americans and European-Americans fought side by side for the abolition of slavery…If the plan had succeeded, the history of…America might have taken a much different path.

Previously, there had been little distinction between dark- and light-skinned laborers. Afterwards, Virginia codified its bondage system. In the first example of “affirmative action,” it replaced the terms “Christian” or “free” with “white,” gave new privileges to Caucasians, removed rights from free blacks and banned interracial marriage. Other laws contributed to what Allen calls the “absolutely unique American form of male supremacism” – the right of any Euro-American to rape any African-American without fear of reprisal.

This new allegiance to whiteness eliminated class competition and provided a sub-class of poor whites to intimidate slaves and suppress rebellion. This is how the first American police forces developed – as slave patrols. Copied everywhere, the pattern merged with the myth of racial war: America’s primary model for class distinction (and class conflict) became relations between white planters and black slaves, rather than between rich and poor.

The new system, writes Allen, insisted on “the social distinction between the poorest member of the oppressor group and any member, however propertied, of the oppressed group.” Eventually, southern class discrimination merged with northern religious stereotyping. Since poverty equaled sinfulness (to Northern Puritans) and black equaled poor (to Southern opportunists), then it became obvious that blackness equaled sin.

Regardless of their economic status, whites pledged allegiance to a state that was defined by the perpetual threat of the return of the repressed. The predatory imagination found the secret to perpetuating itself – as it would in the1870s, 1890s, 1930s, 1950s, 1980s and today – by manipulating the paranoid imagination.

Red, White and Black were born together in the American soul. Psychologically speaking, this was America’s “birth trauma” – the events that formed our essential character, our fatal flaw.

Over three centuries after Bacon’s Rebellion, scholars still wonder why a strong socialist movement never developed in America, as it did almost everywhere else. Characteristically, they rarely consider the overwhelming presence of the Other: no other nation combined irresistible myths of opportunity with rigid legal systems deliberately intended to divide natural allies.

Whiteness implies both purity (which demands removal of impurities) and privilege. No matter how impoverished a white, male American feels, he hears hundreds of subtle messages every day that divide him from the impure. Without racial privilege the concept of whiteness is meaningless. Often, Americans have had nothing to call their own except white privilege, yet they cling to it and support those whose coded rhetoric promises to maintain it.

The process of exclusion and subordination required a massive lie about black inferiority that has been enshrined in our national narrative. “After all,” writes Tim Wise,

…to accept that all men and women were truly equal, while still mightily oppressing large segments of that same national population on the basis of skin color, would be to lay bare the falsity of the American creed.

Similarly, the French philosopher Montesquieu wrote, “It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christian.”

This brings up the question of religion. This is certainly no mere academic one. White evangelicals are now Trump’s essential base, the only sizable  group in the country who still support him. In Chapter Eight of my book I wrote:

How did Puritanism continue to grow there (in the South) long after it had been greatly transformed into the capitalist impulse in the North? As free land became scarce in the east, most immigrants (including thousands of Scots-Irish Presbyterians) headed toward southern and western frontier areas. There, they fought savage wars with the Indians long after New England’s indigenous population had been decimated.

In the Deep South in particular they lived side-by-side with millions of blacks and the constant fear of both race war and sexual predation. In addition, one can imagine that they felt guilt, conscious or not, for participating directly in the systematic dehumanization of the slaves. This meant that rural Southerners, far more than Northerners, were obsessed with evil in their daily lives.

The Bible occupied a prominent place on the frontier. With few educated clergy around, people were often unaware of its symbolic context. It was venerated more than it was read, and read more than it was understood. The Bible was often the only book in the house (this situation still prevails in many American homes). The result was a dogmatism and anti-intellectual literalism that became characteristic of this part of the country.

So, while urban Northerners transmuted their self-abnegation into the sense of deferred gratification required to amass wealth, rural Southerners built up their fear of the Other to such a fever pitch that the Devil – and their own sense of sinfulness – remained as constant presences. Belief in predestination died out, but Original Sin remained. This meant fear of judgment, repressed sexuality, longing for Apocalypse and an older sense of deferred gratification, not to wealth but to the next life. Obsession with the other world meant dismissal of this one and contempt for political participation. As a result, most fundamentalists didn’t vote until the 1970s.

That situation changed only when the Republicans deliberately sought their votes with the old tactics of racial fear. And fear, we have learned yet again, trumps moral concerns. Since then, the “solid South” has simply changed its allegiance from Democrat to Republican, with enough votes to wreck or water down any progressive legislation, but now with the addition of millions of fundamentalists who had previously not voted.

Consider the intersection of myths centering on Southern plantations before the Civil War: the myth of free markets; the myth of the pastoral plantation, with everyone happily playing their role, protected by benevolent masters and Protestant ministers; the myth of pure Southern Womanhood; and the complex images of the slaves themselves. Indeed, the North long held to yet another myth, that discrimination occurred only in the South. In reality, Northern mobs attacked abolitionists on over two hundred occasions.

Joel Kovel asserts that there are two kinds of racism. One is the obvious dominative racism that developed in close contact (including the privilege of rape) between master and slave. The second – aversive racism – arose from Puritan associations of blackness with filth. De Tocquevile noticed that prejudice “appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.”

Indeed, New England had about 13,000 slaves in 1750. In 1720, New York City’s population of seven thousand included 1,600 blacks, most of them slaves. Not until 1664 (22 years after Massachusetts) did Maryland declare that all blacks held in the colony and all those imported in the future would serve for life, as would their offspring. And the two colonies with the strongest religious foundations – Massachusetts and Pennsylvania – were the ones that first outlawed “miscegenation.”

When northern states expanded the voting franchise for whites in the 1830s, they explicitly abolished it for blacks. Later, several states including Indiana and Illinois literally banned all blacks from entering. Oregon (1859), however, was the only free state admitted to the Union with a racial exclusion clause in its constitution. The ban remained in place until 1927. Well into the 1950s (as any black entertainer, athlete or travelling businessman can attest), thousands of “sundown towns” in thirty states prevented blacks from residing overnight.

But we are focusing on the South. As whiteness took on increasing significance, so did the fear of “mongrelization.” Below the fear, however, was envy and below that was the desire to achieve real healing and authentic psychological integration. To cover up such unacceptable fantasies, whites projected their desires onto blacks. Even the great humanist (and, we have learned, willing miscegenationist) Jefferson apparently felt that black men had a preference for white women over black women “as uniformly…as the preference of the Oran-utan for the black woman over those of his own species.”

As the Native American population east of the Appalachian Mountains shrunk into relative insignificance, African-Americans assumed the role of the Other. What (in the white mind) were their characteristics? First, they were childish, lazy and unreliable – the shadow of the Protestant Ethic. It was necessary to force them to be productive.

White performers began to wear blackface in the 1840s. LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) writes,

… the only consistent way of justifying what had been done to him – now that he had reached what can be called a post-bestial stage – was to demonstrate the ridiculousness of his inability to act as a “normal” human being.

Whites needed to believe that blacks were slow, dumb and happy, so blacks acted that way. Whites created fictional characters – from Jim Crow to Gone With the Wind’s Mammy: loveable and loyal, yet lacking any concern for intellect or freedom. Blackface minstrelsy was America’s primary form of entertainment throughout the nineteenth century. 18361

Forms of it (Amos ‘n Andy) survived into the 1950s, tutoring millions in racist stereotyping. But it provided something else: impersonating blacks, whites could briefly inhabit their own bodies.

A second aspect contradicted the first, but no one cared. This Other was intensely sexual and aggressive. 55b9043c82426ab20438cad3056ab2a6 Like Dionysus, he might sneak in and corrupt the children. Class society assigns the mind to the masters and the body to the servants. In racially homogeneous societies, where leaders racially resemble followers, these images are not mutually exclusive. The poor can potentially join the elite. But in racial caste systems masters are physically different from servants, and the images are mutually exclusive. The mind/body division coincides with the racial gulf, and this distinction becomes sacred.

It took abstraction to new levels. Whites hated the body’s needs and feared that they might be judged by how well they controlled them. Here is a clue to slavery’s appeal. This terror, writes Michael Ventura, “…was compacted into a tension that gave Western man the need to control every body he found.” In slavery, “the body could be both reviled and controlled.”

Third, it was necessary to confine this Black Other of the South, unlike the external, Red Other (now primarily west of the Mississippi River), within the gates of the innocent community. Whites could savagely defend their women from him, but they couldn’t exterminate or isolate him in concentration camps (otherwise known as reservations), because he was critical to economic prosperity. Slavery fit the model of an internal Other that had appeared earlier in the Witch craze.

After emancipation, racism remained the foundation of a political economy predicated upon fear, the constant threat of violence, division of the working class and further refinements of whiteness. The law long assumed that blacks were persons with any African ancestry. The “one-drop rule,” used by no other nation, made one a black person. “Octoroons,” who had seven white great-grandparents out of eight, were considered to be black.

Curiously (and ironically, in 2017 as Trump insults Elizabeth Warren), in the case of Native American admixture with whites, courts enforced the one-drop rule more selectively. The “Pocahontas exception” existed because many influential Virginia families claimed descent from Pocahontas. To avoid classifying them as non-white the Assembly declared that a person could be considered white as long as they had no more than one-sixteenth Indian blood.

After 1865, “freedom” no longer defined whiteness. So new laws prevented most blacks from acquiring western land and kept them de facto slaves in the south. Homesteading became a privilege of whiteness, another example of affirmative action . In the southwest, similar systems targeted Latinos. No wonder our picture of the hardy “pioneers” is lily-white.

When poor whites and blacks again threatened to unite, the Jim Crow system arose, held in place by the threat of terrorism. Between 1868 and 1871, the Ku Klux Klan murdered 20,000 Americans. In the 1890s, when workers and farmers organized the Populist Movement, there were 200 lynchings per year. The dream of unity collapsed (as it would again in the 1970s) under the fear and the temptation to identify as white.

This systemic violence might have provoked more outrage but for a rationale that silenced criticism. Sexuality was a means of reasserting both white control over blacks and male domination of women, even though fewer than a quarter of lynchings resulted from allegations of sexual assault. When agriculture mechanized and the South no longer required them, many blacks left, only to be confined within northern ghettoes, where many black women could find work only as prostitutes. By 1900 the mythmakers had succeeded: most whites believed that blacks hadn’t been ready for freedom because, like Dionysus, they couldn’t “sacrifice their lusts.”

Like ancient Athenians, Victorian Americans saw themselves as Apollonian, hardworking, rational and progressive. Meanwhile, they had enshrined the Other in a form the Greeks would have recognized, but burdened with Christian sinfulness. “Enshrined” seems to be the proper term here: there was (and is) simply no possibility of worshipping such a deeply corrupted version of the Christ without imagining an equally corrupt, “evil twin.” For more on this question, see Chapter Nine of my book.

There was no place for him or her within the pure American psyche, but it was necessary to keep them close. The descendants of the slaves, in both their stereotyped, earthy physicality and the implied threat of their vengeance became America’s dark incarnation of Dionysus, our collectively repressed memory and imagination. Since whites desperately needed to project him, to see him, they created exactly those conditions – segregation and discrimination – that dehumanized him and fostered behavior that whites could demonize.

White Americans filled their imaginary underworld with monsters: the outer, Red Other and the inner, Black Other. In 1960, novelist James Baldwin concluded,

We would never, never allow Negroes to starve, to grow bitter, and to die in ghettos all over the country if we were not driven by some nameless fear that has nothing to do with Negroes…most white people imagine that (what) they can salvage from the storm of life is really, in sum, their innocence.


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Barry’s Blog # 225: The Civil Rights Movement in American Myth, Part One of Four

Part One: The Mythological and Psychological Background 

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees…   – Billy Holiday

From the perspective of those who have been forced to bear the projection of American Dionysus, the subtext of almost all of our pressing domestic issues is America’s original sin, its fatal flaw – race. Let me state my opinion as clearly as I can: from the perspective of the myth of American innocence, any social, economic or political commentary that does not begin by acknowledging this fact upfront is either hopelessly ignorant or deliberately complicit with the aims of the empire.

America has had countless scapegoats, but why are we periodically compelled to lynch only one of them?  After 350 years of mythic instruction, popular thinking among white people remains polarized along racial lines: civilized vs. primitive, abstinence vs. promiscuity and sobriety vs. intoxication. These pairs of opposites are all forms of a more fundamental opposition between composure and impulsivity (or mythologically, between Apollo and Dionysus).

The worst of all sins to the Puritan is lack of self-control. Even though studies consistently show that similar percentages of whites and blacks engage in sex, drugs and violence, whites still believe the old stereotypes that blacks are more susceptible to such “vices.” This allows whites, wrote Ralph Ellison, “…to be at home in the vast unknown world of America.”

Othering is not logical. As with archetypes, when one pole of a stereotype is active, so is its opposite. Even as they perceive blacks as unable to control their desires, large majorities of whites still accuse them of the Puritan’s second worst sin, laziness. Two thirds say that the problems suffered by blacks are due to their preference for welfare over work. This is an odd claim, writes Tim Wise, “…seeing as how five out of six blacks don’t receive any.”

As always, our mythic narratives (which include such stereotypes) are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. The next step in scapegoating is manipulating the fear that those who can’t control their desires will tempt us to follow them, that we (middle-class whites) might not be able to resist temptation.

What does this fear of temptation say about white people? It implies that our carefully constructed veneers of innocence, progress, racial superiority, masculinity and self-control are eggshell-thin. At a deeper level, it implies envy of those whom the dominant culture has designated as more childlike and more in touch with the needs of their bodies. And envy points toward something even deeper, the unconscious desire for healing.

But healing, as something beyond simplistic notions of regeneration, as initiation into self-knowledge, implies the death of what no longer works. The soul desires this more than anything; and the soul fears this more than anything. And this is precisely why, all across the world, the indigenous imagination has given us stories about figures such as Dionysus.

The black man is America’s modern Dionysus. Like the enigmatic outsider of The Bacchae, he comes from beyond the gates to liberate the women, to lead them to the mountains to dance among themselves, free of patriarchal control. Like that other outsider, the Pied Piper, he threatens to lead the children away…

Whites project the stereotyped characteristics of American Dionysus upon blacks because the heritage of Puritanism does not allow them to fully embody those characteristics themselves. But – we must say this repeatedly – just below the negative judgments and hatred lies envy of those who appear to be comfortable in their bodies and unrestrained in their desires.

In a culture that elevates the dry, masculine, Apollonian virtues of spirit over the wet, feminine and Dionysian, African Americans proudly use the word soul to define their music and culture in contrast to the dominant religious and cultural values. For several generations, white youth have understood the term instinctively. And their parents have reacted accordingly, with fear and discipline.

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Barry’s Blog # 224: The Hero Must Die, Part Four of Four


The redemption hero, like the Christ, always comes from outside the community. And like the Christ, he leaves once his work is done. He must leave; redemption mythology requires that since he came from somewhere else, he must return. But this leads to a paradox. The innocent community defines itself by what it is not – the external Other of terrorism, and the internal Other of race. We know who we are because we are not them, the others. The Other is the evil, threatening outsider. Or: evil (that which is not-Eden) comes from the outside – but so does redemption.

By riding off into the sunset, writes James Robertson, “…the cowboy hero never integrated himself with his society.” This hero has much in common with his villainous antagonists. Each rejects social comforts and conventional rules of law to further his aims or serve his cause.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the birth of the national security state coincided precisely with the peak of the Western in film and TV. Our classic example of the outsider hero who leaves once his work is done is Shane, which was produced in the same year (1953) that the CIA overthrew Iran’s democratic government. And our classic examples of the unity of hero and villain Searchers04 are John Wayne’s character “Ethan Edwards” and his enemy “Scar” in The Searchers (1956).  Although Edwards and Scar serve opposite ends of the moral spectrum, their methods are surprisingly similar.

Here is the final scene of Shane:

Ultimately, a characteristic of the American hero is his willingness to become an outlaw in order to defeat evil. Richard Slotkin, in Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600 -1860  writes that as early as the 1820’s the standard, fictional frontier hero was rescuing white captives by fighting the Indian “on his own terms and in his own manner, becoming in the process a reflection or a double of his dark opponent.

To this day the public often admires the outlaw nearly as much as the lawman (queue Trump again). Jesse James pulled off an 1872 bank hold-up so skillfully that the local newspaper described the exploit as “…so diabolically daring and so utterly in contempt of fear that we are bound to admire it and revere its perpetrators.” Perhaps more so: Al Capone received standing ovations when he appeared at ball games, and gangsters from the fictional Tony Soprano to the actual John Gotti (who had his own TV show) were idolized in the press. For more on this, An Offer We Can’t Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America, by George De Stefano.

Robert Warshow writes that the gangster is “what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become.” Both share still another characteristic: the villain’s rage is a natural component of his pleasure in violating all boundaries, while the hero is also full of rage. Only by killing the villain, writes William Gibson, can he “release the rage accumulated from a life of emotional self-denial.”

The Puritan zeal for order always clashes with our equally mythic desire to accumulate wealth through any means necessary, and the American psyche has long had to hold both of these themes together in a very unstable mixture. Thus, writes Joel Kovel, “The law enforcer and the law-breaker express contradictory impulses which have been joined in the American character.”

Lewis Lapham suspected that G. W. Bush (and, I would add, Trump) owed his popularity to our inclination to romanticize criminals:

Whether cast as the hero or the villain of the tale, the man at ease with violence bends the rules to fit the circumstance…Bush (feels) entitled to his cocksure swagger by virtue of his having stolen his election to the presidency. The robbery…admits (him) to the long line of America’s criminal ancestry.

Though the hero chooses a life outside of society, he is hardly alone; the desperado and the corporate raider whom we can’t resist admiring are out there too. And, curiously, they are joined by all of the assorted Others – Indians, blacks, Asians, Latinos, youth, gays, Vietnam veterans, terrorists, the disabled and the homeless – those who have been exiled, pushed beyond the walls or into the underworld, into the territory of the repressed. Indeed, the term “underworld” was first used to describe organized crime in the 1920’s, just as the movies were establishing themselves as the prime purveyors of American culture, and alcohol (liquid Dionysus) was being banned.

But America’s re-telling of Biblical redemption stops short of the profound truth conveyed in Euripides’ The Bacchae: the “evil other” and the redeemer, the “good other,” are one and the same, existing together in the mythic figure of Dionysus. In the original Greek, Xenos (root of xenophobia) means both “stranger” and “guest,” depending on the context.

Such a polytheistic culture could hold the tension of these opposites, but monotheism cannot. Christianity had to split Dionysus into two antagonistic images, Christ (himself both mortal and immortal) and the Devil. American myth turned them into the hero and the villain, and American capitalism turned them into the winner and the loser.

From the perspective of authentic initiation, we can see the destructive element that religious, economic or political fundamentalists perceive as evil is actually the revival of long-repressed energies, arriving now as the symbolic death, the redemption, necessary for rebirth to occur. Older figures like Dionysus and Osiris died and were reborn repeatedly, personifying the masculine aspect of the changing, natural, organic world. They were the original dying gods who preceded Jesus. For much more on this theme, see The Jesus Mysteries, by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy.

But in monotheism, the savior dies only once, not as the world but as a sacrifice for the world. In the context of patriarchy the redemption of the fallen world requires no death into greater life, but only the sacrifice of a child for the benefit of the father. Or: the child’s death equals the redemption of the father’s world.

The empty tomb implies that Christ has returned to the ultimate abstraction, pure spirit. He refuses (or his father won’t allow him) to stay in the ground, in relation to mater, matter, the mother, relationship, Earth.

Certainly, the tradition of tragic literature has offered us some protagonists, such as Hamlet, who actually die. Such heroes typically gain some self-knowledge, so their deaths can have symbolic and initiatory meaning.

But that tradition has its roots in a pre-Christian world, unlike the American Western hero, who emerged out of monotheism. This hero is willing to die in order to save the innocent community, but he rarely does. John Wayne’s characters, for example, die in seven of his 156 films, usually after having saved his comrades from danger. Are these deaths conceived as sacrifices, and to what? Or are they simply a return to the spirit world, the realm of the distant father gods?

Again, we are speaking about a demythologized world, where we are left with the “toxic mimics” of authentic myth and ritual, the loss of which gives us the cult of celebrity. In this diminished imagination, the mythmakers of public relations turn even the actual dead into symbols. First we had Davy Crockett’s death at the Alamo. But our primary example is the genocidal egomaniac George Armstrong Custer, disunion-custer-articleInline who soon after his death became a massively popular icon of the innocent and Christ-like sacrifice for progress and the nation. For much more on this theme see Richard Slotkin’s books and my blog Evolution of a Song.

Hollywood kept the Custer-as-sacrifice theme going well into the second half of the twentieth century and gave us Wayne’s heroic Sergeant Striker dying at the end of the battle for Mt. Suribachi in Sands of Iwo Jima.

We have learned over the generations that the sacrifice, fictional or real, is for the nation and its purported values of progress, democracy and freedom. Whereas Christ died for all of humanity, these men died for you and me. The next step was the memorialization of the Iraq and Afghanistan dead on patriotic internet sites as  sacrifice, rather than as simple loss. In the tragic world, loss is loss; and loss can be grieved. But in the Judeo-Christian tradition loss must have meaning, so it can be celebrated. And celebration leads to celebrity.

In this demythologized world, however, we are likely to confuse archetypes: the Hero (the immature version of the Warrior) and the King. In living mythologies, the Warrior serves the King. But the cult of celebrity mixes them up, and we get Bush on the aircraft carrier or, as mentioned above, fictional presidents who personally save the world from alien invasions.

In this demythologized world, however, we are likely to confuse archetypes: the Hero (the immature version of the Warrior) and the King. In living mythologies, the Warrior serves the King. But the cult of celebrity mixes them up, and we get Bush on the aircraft carrier or, as mentioned above, fictional presidents who personally save the world from alien invasions.

And we also get to project our inner royalty upon a never-ending series of celebrity actor, athletic and political celebrities. It is never-ending because the people behind those masks can’t possibly hold those projections indefinitely. When they inevitably fall from grace, our disillusionment often turns quickly into rage, rather than into grief. We long for them to hold those projections, and we hate them for turning out to be mere humans. Then we celebrate the next celebrity and call out, The King is dead. Long live the King. 

So the Western hero dies sometimes. But more often, after restoring innocence to Eden, he rides off into the sunset, leaving the feminine community. Either way, he chooses union with the father over the anxiety or tedium of life among the women and children. Or: dying to the world and attempting to unite with his distant father, he becomes an alcoholic, chasing after “spirits.”

He may leave by conscious choice (in much tribal lore the sunset in the west is the land of the dead), or by his father’s choice (“fate”). No wonder that American funerals are so unemotional. Why cry for someone who has gone to a “better place” than this one?

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

In literal terms, the real danger is that he may well be forcing us all (think North Korea and nuclear weapons) to join him in returning to that “better place” of pure abstraction and pure oblivion.

But we must always remember that both traditional hero myths and traditional initiation rituals require that something must be sacrificed – the interior identity of the adolescent macho hero – in the course of the hero’s journey. Even though he must leave it for a while, he is bound both to his community and to the Earth, the actual place of that community.

Redemption mythology does get one thing right: the hero must die before he can become the archetypal warrior, who is native to, lover of and defender of the realm. But without the return to that realm, to community, to relationship with the feminine, his initiation remains incomplete, and his tendency toward heroic action – whether literal or vicarious – becomes addictive, and thus repetitive. Such heroes (and their vicarious admirers) long to die into something greater, so they compulsively challenge the world to give them that literal death, in Bush’s words, to “bring it on.”

The tragic tradition says: the hero must die so that he can grow into deeper knowledge. Tribal initiation says: the boy/hero must die so that a real man may return to his community. Psychology says: the hero must die so that the child in the background may finally be put to rest and space can be made for the archetypal Warrior to emerge. Religion says that the Redemption hero must die so that so that the world can have a new imagination of heroes who live for the world instead of heroes who die for it. History says that the idea of the American hero must die so that women and oppressed peoples everywhere can have their full rights in the human community.

The final chapter of my book includes these words:

Heroes certainly won’t disappear; the earth needs real heroes like never before, but we will prefer “peace heroes” to “war heroes.” As we support ritual containers for initiation…we will feel the hero’s journey within ourselves. We will no longer be fascinated by men who risk their lives crushing the Other to restore the peace of denial. We will applaud those who commit to the hard work of relationship with the feminine, men who don’t ride off into the sunset…Rebirth will hinge upon replacing Rambo with Odysseus, who leaves home a hero but returns transformed by his initiations at the feet (and in the beds) of goddesses. Having encountered many small deaths, he returns as the saved rather than the savior. As they say in Africa, when the big death finds him, it will find him alive.

May this nation learn, before it is too late, to see this challenge in symbolic terms and to awaken from this dream of separation.

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