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

Coda: The Myth of Growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Paradox of the Outsider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Delphi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Race Card

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

American Dualities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mobility

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Myth of Individualism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Barry’s Blog # 252: The Mythic Foundations of Libertarianism, Part One of Six

An earlier version of this essay was published in 2013 as the introductory chapter in Uncivil Liberties: Deconstructing Libertarianism, published by the Praxis Peace Institute.

You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself. – Ivan Boesky

This is America. If you’re not a winner, it’s your own fault. – Jerry Falwell

Free money makes the rich strong and wise, while it corrupts poor people, making them stupid and weak.– Lewis Lapham

COVER ONLY

In most parts of the world, the terms “libertarian” and “libertarianism” are synonymous with Left anarchism.  Noam Chomsky writes:

The term libertarian as used in the U.S. means something quite different from what it meant historically and still means in the rest of the world. Historically, the libertarian movement has been the anti-statist wing of the socialist movement. Socialist anarchism was libertarian socialism. In the US, which is a society much more dominated by business…it means eliminating or reducing state controls, mainly controls over private tyrannies. Libertarians in the US don’t say let’s get rid of corporations. It is a sort of ultra-rightism.

But political philosophy doesn’t fully explain why libertarianism as we know it has been popular in only one nation in the world – America. To go deeper, we need to ground ourselves in mythological thinking.

The myth of American innocence is a story we have been telling ourselves about ourselves for nearly four hundred years. The idea of a nation divinely ordained to save the world evolved so as to justify the original colonization effort. Later, in changing conditions, it helped account for America’s unique and rapid expansion and its worldwide economic and cultural domination.

This story still moves us deeply because it inverts the guilt of history. It instructs us that white colonizers were the actual victims of the westward expansion — attacked and massacred for no reason by evil savages emerging from the dark forests. Its subtext, of course, is our violent and racist history. But precisely because of this history, no other nation has gone to such lengths to define itself by excluding so many from full membership, while regularly congratulating itself with pervasive stories of freedom and opportunity. This is how we resolve the contradictions of this history, and how we live with ourselves, and with the cruel white supremacy that pervades our daily lives.

While white Americans across the entire political spectrum adhere to this myth in deep, often unconscious ways, libertarians exemplify it in its purest form. Their ideas of history, culture and the relationship between the individual and the community reveal an essentially American, almost childlike innocence that borders on willful ignorance. Or, as the old joke goes, Question: what’s the difference between ignorance and apathy? Answer: I don’t know and I don’t care!

First, let’s get the easy issues out of the way.

1 – Any teenager could quickly dismiss any politician who claims to favor “small government” with a quick examination of his or her positions on military spending, foreign policy, domestic surveillance, corporate welfare, abortion rights, immigration, gay marriage or medical marijuana – all of which assume a large, centralized government and mandate regular state intervention in private lives.

On the national scene, this leaves only Ron and Rand Paul, whose stated willingness to use the power of the federal government to outlaw abortion clearly contradicts their claims to be libertarians. As for their limited anti-war views, activist Tim Wise writes, “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.”

2 – Chomsky disposes of the magical notion that American prosperity was built upon free markets: “Genocide and slavery: try to imagine a more severe market distortion than that.” We are talking about an entire hemisphere conquered by military invasion and then distributed free to (very) selected populations, who then went on to make their fortunes. Indeed, almost all developed countries originally got rich not through free markets but through tariff protection and government-subsidized military conquest. 19th and early 20th century U.S. tariffs of 40 to 50 percent were the highest in the world. Later, the U.S. government paid for 50-70 % of the country’s total expenditures on research and development from the 1950s through the mid-1990s, usually under the cover of defense spending

3 – Americans are already taxed at far lower rates than other developed nations. This has resulted in miniscule social services and third-world levels of economic inequality. One cause of this situation is the tax code, which taxes ordinary income at up to thirty-five percent. The very rich, however, who receive most of their money from capital gains (“unearned income”), pay only fifteen percent. The situation was very different in the prosperous 1950’s, when they were taxed at up to ninety percent. In other contexts, “unearned income” is known as “welfare.”

As a mythologist, however, I am more interested in what we might call the mythic substrate of beliefs and attitudes that right-wing rhetoric engages so easily. Why are so many so willing to listen? Why, uniquely among nations, are we so stirred by hymns to freedom, riled up by rumors of government excess and enraged by the thought that one’s hard-earned, raised-by-the-bootstrap money might be taxed for some vague sense of the “common good?”

American Myth

 Our story describes a continent that was pure potential, the stuff of dreams. Since, in a European sense, the natives were not using the land productively, it was seen as “virgin” land, implicitly available for defloration and fertilization. As I write in Chapter Seven of my book, Sir Walter Raleigh made the analogy of land, woman and rape very clear: Guiana “hath yet her maydenhead.”

This is our creation myth of the American people, innocently arriving from diverse lands, charged with a holy mission to destroy evil, save souls, carve civilization out of the wilderness – and get rich. Professor R.W.B. Lewis wrote that this story saw the world:

…starting up again under fresh initiative, in a divinely granted second chance for the human race…(Americans were) emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry…Adam before the Fall.

The American dream-story was built up over four centuries of preaching, oratory, fiction, poetry, storytelling, popular songs, textbooks, advertisements, films and television. Its essence was that anything was possible.

In this land of opportunity, one’s greatness was limited only by his or her own desires. Americans like to believe in the tabula rasa, the “clean slate.” Even now, we happily consume TV commercials for the military that encourage us to “be all you can be.” The cliché moves us because it rests upon the old notion of human purpose. Americans, however, are constantly told that we can be anything we want to be. This is an adolescent misreading of the indigenous teaching that each person is born to be one thing only, and that the human challenge is to discover what it is.

By the late 18th century, Americans had developed a curious and contradictory mix of traditional Puritanism and modern Enlightenment values. Individuals were fallen and sinful; yet one could make of oneself whatever one might want. Indeed, in 1776 – for the first time in history – a nation proclaimed the “pursuit of happiness” as its primary reason for existence. American_progress

America redefined the word liberty. On the one hand, liberty (from the Latin liber, an epithet of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and madness) implies release, pointing toward liberation, in both its Marxist and Buddhist meanings. Liberty, however, has a continuum of meanings, including permission to do what one wants, the power to do what one likes and the privilege to “take liberties” with others. The Founding Fathers were apparently unconcerned with the obvious fact that the passionate, unregulated pursuit of liberty by some people inevitably results in the destruction of the rights of others. In practical terms, freedom outside of an ethical framework – freedom without responsibility – becomes license, and it is inseparable from simple criminality. It is also inseparable from unfettered capitalism.

Early white Americans experienced a heady mix of the puritan emphasis on personal salvation and the opportunistic disdain for class distinctions. For three centuries free land in the west served as a safety valve for the discontented; thus abject poverty was relatively uncommon. Most whites (prior to the mass immigrations of the late 19th century), to an extent unimaginable in Europe, became landowners.

But when extremes of wealth and poverty appeared, the rich felt little obligation to the poor. After all, declared Puritanism, poverty was proof of sin. Its belief in predestination survived into the 21st century as a Social Darwinism that has eviscerated the welfare state. And this thinking clearly underlies most libertarian pronouncements. When the poor are concerned, the idea of the tabula rasa recedes into the background.

To be a white American was to have the right to “make something of oneself.” If one failed, he had no one to blame but himself. America, in our myth, became a nation of purposeless, “self-made men,” each individually making his destiny.

But curiously, the nation itself had a unique purpose. The myth proclaimed that God had chosen this people to spread freedom and opportunity. Eventually, Americans extrapolated this idea onto world affairs. The nation of individualists became an individual among nations, shaping other societies to its image of the good life. All empires have rationalized conquest; but only Americans justified enslavement and genocide with myths of freedom, good intentions and manifest destiny. The Bush II administration carried this magical notion to its extreme, but it has always been the core of American policy, and Barack Obama restated it as recently as 2016.

The myth predicted inevitable progress toward the best of all possible worlds. Thus mobility became a major value, and history moved from east to west, allowing one to forget its lessons and continually exist in a “new” America. The ideal American was always moving towards something better; and he tended to look condescendingly upon those who held to the values of place. For those who believe in upwardly mobility, said James Hillman, to be is to be stuck.

The psychological implications are significant. Fifteen to twenty generations of restless Americans have come of age assuming that maturity implies freedom from all restraints, that family and community (and, for many men, all binding relationships) are constraints to be escaped from. Historian James Robertson writes, “The ritual American act of courage is the declaration of independence-rebellion-migration of the American adolescent.”

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Barry’s Blog # 251: False Equivalencies, Part Eight of Eight

Look, I won’t deny my strong opinions, and I invite conversations that don’t descend into ridicule. But I’ve only been focusing on vaccination because it’s so critical to understand how many progressives are allowing themselves to be diverted from important issues. “Russiagate” does exactly that. Here is the liberal logic:

A – The conventional wisdom is that the Russians hacked the 2016 election.

B – Trump says there was no collusion, etc.

C – Trump is bad.

D – Leftists assert that Trump won because of apathy, gerrymandering and voter suppression.

E – Therefore, leftists are all dupes of Putin, as bad as Trump.

When we stop questioning why liberals are allowed to marginalize leftists, it becomes easy to accept this drivel, from the WAPO: Poll: 60 percent disapprove of Trump, while clear majorities back Mueller and Sessions.

Now, not only are we happily hating on Trump, but we find a new meme injected into our spinning heads: the alleged savior, Mueller, is on the same side as the fascist Jeff Sessions, and we barely noticed.

Here’s a right-wing FE. This one requires cognitive dissonance:

A – Communists are bad and un-American.

B – Russia was communist.

C – Russia became capitalist 27 years ago.

D – Putin is bad.

E – Putin is Russian.

F – Therefore Putin is communist.

G – To believe F, one must ignore C (this is cognitive dissonance).

super-communist

But my concerns go very far beyond this one issue. I am talking about a post-9/11 era in which our freedoms, including freedom of privacy and freedom of choice, have been disappearing gradually and almost without our notice. It is only our bred-in-the-bones sense of innocence that keeps us from noticing that the pot is boiling, that we are all being cooked; it is only our constantly manipulated fear of the Other that can still, reliably, distract us from far more important issues.

Both the left and the right (at least those with stock in Big Pharma) are probably already celebrating the gathering momentum to mandate vaccinations for all Americans, young or old. Perhaps you agree. But please spare me your argument about “personal freedoms” in which you compare “anti-vaxxers” to people who would ignore traffic signals and endanger everyone else in their community in their libertarian selfishness. Because I will respond: any way you parse it, in our quickening slide toward American Fascism, you are condoning yet another loss of freedom in yet another dispute where all of the money is on one side of the issue. Cui bono?

Let me repeat that: all of the money is on one side of the issue.

Think about it. Consider the significant political debates in our lifetimes or anyone else’s. Every single time – with the sole exception of the fight to unionize – the vast majority of money spent has been by the military-industrial complex, the churches, the lobbyists, the corporations seeking deregulation, the AMA, the NRA, Big Agriculture, Big Lumber, Big Mining, Big Chemical, Big Tobacco, Big Banks, Big Auto, Big Cancer Research, Big Oil, Big Fracking, Big Coal, Big Soda, Big Voter Suppression, Big Internet, Private Prisons, the anti-immigration industry. Even the “family values” debates: it was and remains the ultra-rich who have subsidized the segregationists, the Tea Party, the anti-union, anti-birth control, anti-abortion, anti-medical marijuana and anti-gay marriage movements.

All except for the vaccination dispute, which has a consumer protection movement begun by aggrieved parents and some libertarians on one side, and a trillion-dollar industry on the other hand, one that spends $150 million/year lobbying Congress and $5 billion/year on advertising, one that generates so much profit that it can annually absorb billion-dollar fines for corruption and bad science without scaring its stockholders.

And who supports this side? A legion of “Quackwatch”- type gatekeepers of dubious reputation and secretive funding – and a volunteer legion of Lefties armed with FEs. This includes the manager of KPFA, Berkeley’s Pacifica radio station, who last month abruptly cancelled the popular show “Guns and Butter” and deleted its sixteen years of archives. It also includes one of your and my favorite progressive commedians, John Oliver, using Trump himself as an example of a loony vaccine skeptic. Now that is professional FEing: Trump over there, along with those anti-vaxxers; us smart people over here.

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I hope you’ve noticed that I am not advocating anything but simply trying to put things in perspective. If I’ve raised any doubts in your mind – or perhaps more important, if I’ve provoked a strong negative response – I’m hoping that at least you’ll open some of the above links, as well as your mind. Though I welcome a good argument, I avoid ideological absolutes. That is a language to which I am trying to offer an alternative, the language of mythological thinking. I am not talking about compromise. I’m trying to move from a dualistic world of “two” (polar opposites, right or wrong) to a world of “three” – holding the tension of those opposites, resisting the temptation to resolve that tension by believing only one side until something greater – a third element – appears. This is the essence of the Creative Imagination.

But I can’t avoid this one: there is simply no political conflict in which progressives should find themselves aligned so indisputably, so arrogantly, so unconsciously with the interests of Big Business, and indeed of one of the most corrupt of them all, Big Pharma. Forgive me, but I have to say this a third time: all of the money is on one side of the issue.

And let me say this again as well: it’s not about a war on science. It’s about how science is the religion of the secular world. It’s about becoming conscious of how late capitalism and the pathological drive for profits has so corrupted science that it would collude in poisoning three generations of children. It’s about the myth of the killing of the children. It’s about no longer referring to scientists as arbiters until they clean up their act and regain our trust. I’m talking about science that can prove it isn’t bought up by Big Business, science that can be replicated regularly.

This permission to demonize from the left may well be one of the greatest scams of all. They’ve got some of us shilling for them, on a very slippery slope. They’ve turned some us into FOX wannabes, more and more comfortable with their nasty, divisive language. And when we start using their language we are no longer speaking from our creative imagination, but from our paranoid imagination.

The present hysteria (whatever it is as you read this) will end soon, because they all do. That is the most characteristic aspect of our American predisposition to fall from fear into crusades. It’s not about the fear-du-jour; it’s about our willingness to go there.

Once the legislation mandating universal vaccination becomes law, will you or I be able to save ourselves (as at Salem, as during the Red Scare, as during McCarthyism and the bogus “war on terror,” as during the Mueller probe) by naming names? You can count on this: the next hysteria is already planned, and those who will profit from it expect to count on some of us to use false equivalencies in the service of marginalizing alternative thinking. When the call to join the next witch-hunt is sounded, will you have your pitchfork and torch ready?

 

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