Barry’s Blog # 275: Well, Don’t You Know? Part Two

In times like this I think of Sam Cooke’s great 1960 recording of “Chain Gang.”  I am always overwhelmed with deep feelings. sam-cooke-2 Then I notice a whole train of associations. First, the singer himself: possibly the sweetest, most soulful voice of the twentieth century, a great talent who was snuffed out at age 34.

I hear somethin’ sayin’

(hooh! aah!) (hooh! aah!)
(hooh! aah!) (hooh! aah!)

(well, don’t you know)
that’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang
that’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang
All day long they’re singin’
(hooh! aah!) (hooh! aah!)
(hooh! aah!) (hooh! aah!)
(well, don’t you know)
that’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang
that’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang
All day long they work so hard
till the sun is goin’ down
working on the highways and byways
and wearing, wearing a frown
you hear them moanin’ their lives away
then you hear somebody say
That’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang
that’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang
Can’t ya hear them singin’
mm, I’m goin’ home one of these days, I’m goin’ home,

see my woman whom I love so dear
but meanwhile I got to work right here
(well, don’t you know)
that’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang
that’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang
All day long they’re singin’, mm
my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my work is so hard
give me water, I’m thirsty
my work is so hard

Then I think of the terrible image of the chain gang itself, that astonishingly brutal system used throughout the South to punish rebellious Black men from the 1870s to the 1950s as part of the “Jim Crow” system of racial oppression. chain-gang-1 It perpetuated African-American servitude once the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution ended slavery outside of the context of punishment for a crime.

A chain gang was a group – sometimes a very long chain – of prisoners chained together at the ankles to perform “hard labor” such as repairing buildings, building roads, clearing land or even intrinsically pointless tasks (think “cruel and unusual punishment”) such as breaking up rocks to form gravel.

Falls could imperil several individuals at once. The effort required to avoid tripping while in leg irons was known as the convict shuffle. Convicts? Local police arrested very large numbers of these men for minor offenses, including “vagrancy,” and then contracted out their labor to private interests. Parchman_prison_convict_labor_1911 Some of the chains used in the Georgia system weighed 20 pounds. Prisoners suffered from ulcers and gangrene where the metal ground against their skin. Protests resulted in the end of system by the mid-1950s.

But then I remember – don’t you know? – that during the1990s a few states reintroduced it.  Alabama chain gang inmate Robert Ray (L ) takes a turn crushing limestone rocks with a ten pound sle.. Although lawsuits soon forced most of them to backtrack, the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio retained it in Arizona. Indeed, as recently as 2013, Arizona still had female chain gangs. maxresdefault The women were chained together at the ankles and carried out tasks such as weeding at the sides of highways and burying unclaimed bodies at a cemetery.

All this was happening before Donald Trump shamelessly instituted the cruel practices of separating Latino children from their parents and crowding them into cages. As I write in Chapter Ten of my book, this is how America continues to cling to its innocence: by scapegoating the Other, as minorities, as children, and most savagely, as the children of minorities.

You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves. And, furthermore, you give me a terrifying advantage. You never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me. Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. – James Baldwin

Our society continues to brutalize people of color through a police system that lacks all accountability. In the six months after Trayvon Martin was killed, police murdered over eighty African Americans. Kali Akuno of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement writes:

As we dug deeper, and more grieving family members came forward, we found that every 36 hours…another Black child, man or woman dies at the hands of the police, security guards or self-appointed vigilantes.

Eighty percent of the victims are unarmed. In 2012, police in the U.S. killed over a thousand people. They were responsible for 10% of firearm-related homicides, and they injured (to the point of hospitalization) nearly 55,000 others.  Very few were punished. As I write here (Do Black Lives Really Matter?): 

So here, sadly, is the ultimate answer to the question of Black lives mattering: of course they matter, in the value they offer to this upsurge of hatred. Every time a cop kills an unarmed Black person – especially when the crime is recorded – and goes unpunished, the message goes out to the haters (those who hate themselves so profoundly that they must transfer that hate onto the Other) that they, the haters, can go out and do something similar without fear of reprisal or punishment. Representatives of the National Security State, from local courtrooms to the White House, will protect them.

But the prison-industrial complex has determined that black lives are more valuable live than dead. As always, we follow the money. Cui Bono? 

Sam Cooke wanted us to pay attention, and having done that, to drop some of our innocence. Listen again to the song. Just before he sings the refrain, “That’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang…”, the bass man of his backup group sings, “Well don’t you know…” Musically, this is a statement that links the refrain to the stanzas, but it is much more than that. It is in fact a challenge to the listener: Are you asleep? Don’t you know what has been going on? Your soul, your moral well-being, your nation, your children all depend on this, on rising out of your ignorance, on becoming “woke.” You can no longer, says the bass man, pretend to be unaware of what the agents of authority claim to be doing in your name in order to maintain your own sense of innocence.

These innocent people are trapped in a history they do not understand, and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. – James Baldwin

I realize this essay is beginning to sound preachy (perhaps to honor Sam’s and James’ origins in the church), but I can’t help but think that there’s going to be a reckoning. Is there such a thing as national karma? Will our descendants suffer for our sins?

Then it occurs to me: aren’t we already living in the reckoning time? Aren’t almost all of us experiencing a diminished, de-mythologized, de-potentiated life, swinging between the unsatisfying harbors of addictions, fundamentalism, media-driven consumerism, violent patriotism and – most of all – fear of the Other (as Muslim terrorists, immigrants or black men)?

I have always been struck, in America, by an emotional poverty so bottomless and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep, that virtually no American appears to be able to achieve any visible, organic connection between his public stance and his private life…This failure of the private life has always had the most devastating effect on American public conduct, and on black-white relations. If Americans were not so terrified of their private selves, they never would have become so dependent on what they call ‘the Negro problem’. This problem, which they invented in order to safeguard their purity, has made of them criminals and monsters, and it is destroying them; and this not from anything blacks may or may not be doing but because of the role a guilty and constricted white imagination has assigned to the blacks. – James Baldwin

Then again, I don’t know if Sam could allow himself to fall into despair. His very last recording was A Change Is Gonna Come. It was released at a very significant moment, in December 1963, four months after Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, just after the Kennedy assassination, and two months before the arrival of the Beatles. A year later he was dead.

Earlier, in January of that year, Sam had recorded a live album – “One Night Stand! Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963” – on which he sang “Chain Gang” with an upbeat, danceable, celebratory rhythm to a wildly appreciatory, sing along crowd that was almost certainly exclusively black. What was going on in that room? How could they seem to be enjoying such a sad song?

This event was a ritual, and the high priest was leading the assembly in the multi-generational confession of extreme pain and grief that, once expressed – and received, in community – turns into its opposite, where the “Ooh! Aah!” has a very different meaning. This is the secret of the Blues, something all indigenous people know, that – in community – one can reach profound, even ecstatic levels of unity once all aspects of the truth, especially the dark aspects, have been brought into the light.

This was Sam’s gift to us, and his challenge. Imagine such a world. Indeed, we really have no choice but to imagine such a world. And now we really do know…

Here are some other essays of mine on the subject of race in America;

Hands up, Don’t Shoot: The Sacrifice of American Dionysus


The Race Card 

The Civil Rights Movement in American Myth

Did the South Win the Civil War? 


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Barry’s Blog # 274: Well, Don’t You Know? Part One

June 2019. Netflix releases When They See Us, Ava DuVerney’s superb miniseries on the Central Park Five case.

In the first two weeks of the month, the seventh African-American transgender woman is murdered this year. Another, Layleen Polanco, is found dead at Rikers Island Prison. A study reveals that twenty percent of cops post racist comments on Facebook. A Vallejo, California investigation concludes that cops who shot a black man 55 times in 3.5 seconds “acted reasonably.” A new book describes long-term torture policies of the Chicago police. At several high school graduations across the country, principals and superintendents shut off the microphones of black valedictorians who try to speak about racial issues.

A sixth immigrant child dies in U.S. custody, and the Trump Administration decides to hold such victims in a former World War II concentration camp for Japanese-Americans. Yes, let’s stop using the phrase “detention camp” to describe the current insanity and, like the Los Angeles Times, use the more appropriate term “concentration camp.” It’s more accurate in terms of the cruel and unusual conditions, and it reminds us of how the prison-industrial complex has contributed to the concentration of wealth in America.

The U.S., with 5% of the world’s population, holds 25% of all inmates, over 2 ½ million, of which 56% are black or brown. It has the largest incarceration rate in the world: 762 per 100,000 residents (as opposed to 152 in the U.K. and 102 in Canada). Fifty percent are incarcerated for mostly non-violent drug convictions. State prisons hold African Americans at more than five times the rate of whites, and at least ten times the white rate in five states. Large numbers of them, like Layleen Polanco, are dying there.

Conditions in private, for-profit prisons are worse. Most states have signed agreements with them guaranteeing to fill a certain number of beds in jail at any given point. The most common rate is 90%, though some prisons have extracted 100% promises. Because of these contracts, states are often obligated to keep prisons almost full at all times or pay for the beds anyway, so the incentive is to incarcerate more people and for longer in order to fill the quotas. The profits of the largest such company, Corrections Corporation of America, have increased by more than 500% in the past 20 years. The three largest such corporations have spent more than $45 million on campaign donations and lobbyists.

Yes, there has been some good news. Bill De Blasio became mayor of New York City partially by promising to end its notorious “Stop-and-Frisk” program. The NYPD now reports about 10,000 stops per year, down from 700,000 (2,000 per day) in 2011, and crime in New York City has dropped significantly. 2018 recorded the lowest number of homicides in nearly 70 years. Still, young black and Latino males (five percent of the city’s population) make up 38% of reported stops, even though 93% result in no weapon being found. But let’s not quibble about good news.

The reforms, however, came too late for the millions (literally) of black and brown youth caught up over twenty years in the city’s brutal, wasteful, unconstitutional and quite useless program. It certainly came too late for the Central Park Five (who now call themselves the Exonerated Five).

…one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain. – James Baldwin

Thirty years ago, the NYPD forced (some say tortured) these boys aged 14 to16 into confessing to the rape of a white, female jogger. None had legal representation. The city had a weak case against them, but the political climate dictated their fate as scapegoats for a blood-thirsty public egged on by Donald Trump, who had taken out full-page ads in several newspapers calling for their execution even before they were convicted.

They served between 7 and 13 years in prison under hideous conditions before the actual rapist confessed. They entered prison as children and left it as traumatized adults. Rochaun Meadows Fernandez writes:

There is immense power in DuVernay’s ability to tell a story that takes place during the period of boyhood…An obvious reason to tell the story that way is that they were young boys who were robbed of many of youth’s experiences by an anti-black and inherently corrupt criminal justice system. The other reason is to challenge the criminal justice dialogue. Black men are former black boys, and all too often they have that period of innocence stolen.

For me, that’s where much of the power of DuVernay’s depiction comes from. Each episode forces us to stop thinking of the abuses of the system as a black man’s problem, since doing so both desensitizes us and enables us to make excuses and place responsibility on the actions of an adult victim…Instead, we see a story told through the tear-filled eyes of five young black boys who were abused, coerced, and manipulated in a way that is unacceptable. They were children.

What exactly has changed in New York City? Lauren Cook writes:

While police are not allowed to use physical force during an interrogation, it is legal to deceive a person about the investigation. And if the tactic leads to a confession, it could be used as evidence in court…The use of deception during interrogations was a key factor in the Central Park Five… Since 1989, 365 people in the country have been exonerated through DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project. Of those cases, 70 % involved eyewitness misidentification and 42 percent of those cases included errors of cross-racial misidentification. Twenty-eight percent of the cases included false confessions, 33 percent of which were made by a person 18 years old or younger.

These children were used to propel certain powerful white people into positions of greater power, writes Margaret Kimberley:

 Trump was part of a very large and influential lynch mob. The tabloid media invented the phrase “wilding” and attached it to every black teenager in the country…the City of New York did not compensate the men until 2014, twelve years after they were exonerated…for the simple reason that mayor Michael Bloomberg…directed the city to delay and appeal and it was left to his successor to bring some measure of justice with a $41 million settlement. Bloomberg is as much a villain as Trump…Another unsung perpetrator is Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau (who was) lead prosecutor Linda Fairstein’s boss (and who) could have stopped the process at any time.

If Beale Street Could Talk, last year’s excellent film version of the James Baldwin novel, tells a similar story.

In Chapters Six and Ten of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence, I place our historical contempt for our own children into a broader, mythological context. Going all the way back to the story of Abraham and Isaac, the myth of the Sacrifice of the Children is the basic narrative underlying all of Western – and especially American – history and culture.

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

I suggest that, at some level, we are all aware of this historical trauma, because none of us have escaped its consequences. I submit further that almost all of our addictive, neurotic, distracting, self-serving, self-sabotaging and profoundly unsatisfying lifestyles, behavior patterns, religious views and political choices are nothing more than increasingly desperate attempts to remain innocent of what we all know. Don’t you know?

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Barry’s Blog # 273: The Myth of the Good War, Part Four of Four

A wonderful time – the War:

When money rolled in and blood rolled out.

But blood was far away from here –

Money was near.        – Langston Hughes

There is no doubt that America really did confront genuine evil, for once. But the shadow aspects of the war, from Prescott Bush’s financing of Hitler and the government’s refusal to admit Jewish refugees or bomb Auschwitz; to the completely unnecessary murders of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Dresden, Tokyo, Hamburg, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and countless other cities; to the fact that a half million (you read that correctly) American soldiers were sent home suffering from PTSD; to the fact that even before the war was over,


Werner Von Braun

the CIA planned to bring (ultimately) 1,600 German rocket scientists, some of whom were leading Nazis, to the U.S. for postwar military research; to the fact that the “liberal democracies” Britain and France went right back to suppressing anti-colonial movements in Africa, India and Indochina, were edited from the popular record.

With the exception of right wingers, we universally idolize FDR as one of our best presidents. He did immense good, and it’s hard to dispute the rightness of his intervention in the war, dishonest as it clearly was. But we should also consider the argument that, intended or not, the war (along with the reforms of the New Deal) saved capitalism. Cui Bono. Follow the money. To put things in perspective, this is a good time to remember this quote by Marine General Smedley Butler:

I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism…I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street.

Smedley Butler

General Smedley Butler

I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

America, essentially undamaged by the war, was now the world’s strongest nation. However, the fact remains that only military spending ended the depression. As in the 1890s, many argued that further economic expansion (investing surplus capital in foreign markets) would prevent unrest. Elites, however, knew that the real roadblock to economic domination of the world was the Soviet Union, and that Stalin would be most valuable as the post-war face of the Other. This would require force and, for the first time, a permanent war economy.

Bacevich, who acknowledges FDR’s lies, still believes that they were necessary. Yet, he writes, because of the mass atrocities we engaged in, by no stretch of the imagination does the result qualify as a “Good War.”

The U.S. achieved the additional benefit of solidifying for generations to come the mythic image of the nation that always comes to the aid of friends around the world to defend freedom. A result of this narrative – seventy years of it, including dozens of movies – is that most Americans now make the simplistic assumption that America defeated the Nazis in Europe. Stone and Kuznick, however, make it quite clear that it was the Soviets who were both the primary victims and the primary military victors of the war, despite the Churchill’s refusal to open a second front in France for over a year. Harry Truman unashamedly explained this reasoning in 1941:

If we see that Germany is winning, we ought to help Russia. And if Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible.

A corollary of that narrative is that the invasion of Normandy was the turning point of the war. Who could watch The Longest Day, The Big Red One, Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan and disagree? In actuality, it was Stalingrad. On D-Day, 80% of German troops, some seven million men in 200 divisions, were on the Eastern Front vainly trying to resist the westward advance of the Soviets, and another half million were stuck in northern Italy. They had about ten divisions in France. Although horrific casualty numbers would certainly pile up in those last months, the war had been essentially decided before any Americans stepped onto those beaches.

But it’s a really good story, and we seem to need it. Especially in contrast to the tragedy of Viet Nam, the “the good war” remains as an icon of our imagination. Seventy years later, we remember its participants as “the greatest generation” (although their story is far more complicated than the mythmakers would like us to believe, as I write here. And when, once again, Americans are questioning capitalism itself, the mythic image of America as the savior of the world must be regularly re-invigorated.

However, the need to maintain and extend its economic influence required a perpetual military-industrial complex. This in turn required the deliberate fabrication of the Cold War and another half-century of anti-communist paranoia. It required a colossal series of lies to justify American intervention in Viet Nam, as I write here. Ultimately, it meant millions of deaths, trillions of dollars wasted and the destruction of democracy in at least thirty countries.

And, having dominated the world economy partially through extending its military to every part of the world (even today the U.S. has military bases in some 160 countries), America had to find a new “other” when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The new Other had become Muslim terrorism long before 9/11/2001. But, as my book argues, large holes in the fabric of American myth had also been appearing since the sixties. This is not the place to re-open those debates, other than to acknowledge that the time the Trump crowd is referring to when he speaks of “making America great again” is the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The gatekeepers, however, understood the necessity of repairing those gaps, and one of the ways to do that was to emphasize the narrative of the greatest generation (the same demographic, by the way, which was the strongest supporter of the Bush administration’s imperial foreign policies, and of Trump).

The government had been doing that since 1962, AP_USS2_DC_110417_31x13_992 when it opened the Memorial at Pearl Harbor itself, the wreck of the battleship Arizona. That spot, along with Arlington National Cemetery, rapidly became one of the places most sacred to the American civil religion. Two million people visit it annually.

Another way to do that was to build a World War Two Memorial 1200px-National_World_War_II_Memorial,_Washington_DC,_July_2017 on the National Mall, which opened in 2004. You can read my impression of it here.

Meanwhile, the old Other, Russia, despite the fact that it is now as capitalistic as we are, has re-emerged to re-inhabit our fever dreams of paranoia. Why? Because American military thinking has never advanced beyond preparing for another land war in Europe; because the weapon makers have never restrained their insatiable appetites for our dollars; because politicians of both major parties continue to distract us from much more critical issues; and because American myth still runs through our veins. Bacevich concludes:

Present-day Americans have become so imbued with this narrative as to be oblivious to its existence. Politicians endlessly recount it. Television shows, movies, magazines, and video games affirm it. Members of the public accept it as unquestionably true…Today the Good War narrative survives fully intact. For politicians and pundits eager to explain why it is incumbent upon the United States to lead or to come to the aid of those yearning to be free, it offers an ever-ready reference point…

In that sense, the persistence of the Good War narrative robs Americans of any capacity to think realistically about their nation’s role in the existing world. Instead, it’s always 1938, with appeasement the ultimate sin to be avoided at all costs. Or it’s 1941, when an innocent nation subjected to a dastardly attack from out of the blue is summoned to embark upon a new crusade to smite the evildoers. Or it’s 1945, with history calling upon the United States to remake the world in its own image.

Meanwhile, the crimes, misdemeanors, and miscalculations that U.S. policymakers have racked up then and since end (are) irrelevant…While World War II may have been necessary, it was not good. It was an epic tragedy from which Americans can learn much with relevance to the present day. But learning assumes a willingness to see beyond myths. Charles Beard shows us where to begin.

Another debate we don’t need to re-open here is the question of whether the Bush administration had foreknowledge of the 9-11 attacks. But we do know that in 1997 the right-wing think tank “Project for the New American Century” (which included John Bolton, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney) published an influential paper entitled “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” that lobbied for increased military spending with this famous statement:

… the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.

Less than a year after he took office, George W. Bush’s popularity had fallen to a historic low by early September. And we know that, two days after the attacks, weirdly replicating FDR’s experience, he had both the highest popularity in history and a mandate to invade Afghanistan.

The Good War is both legend and cliché. On May Day, 2019, as I finish this essay,  my newspaper’s sports page reads: “Kentucky Derby favorite is Omaha Beach at 4-1.”

Remember the Alamo. Remember Custer. Remember the Maine. Remember the Lusitania. Remember Pearl Harbor. Remember the Gulf of Tonkin. Remember the World Trade Center. What will the gatekeepers tell us to remember next? Wendell Berry writes,

When they want you to buy something, they will call you.

When they want you to die for profit, they will let you know.

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Barry’s Blog # 272: The Myth of the Good War, Part Three of Four

The chicken or the egg? Which comes first, history or myth? Joseph Campbell taught that a living myth refers past itself to the ineffable, serving four distinct functions. First of all, the mystical function introduces the individual to that which underlies all names and forms. It awakens religious awe, humility and respect. Second, the cosmological function explains how the universe works. Third, the pedagogical function defines a moral life in terms of the particular culture.

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

In our modern, de-mythologized world, however, the social function of myth is to reconcile the gulf between ideals and realities. It temporarily resolves ambivalence, links us spontaneously to the priorities of the state – even as those priorities change –  and determines our reactions when someone questions our unexamined habits and beliefs.

In simple terms, this type of myth equals ideology plus narrative. Stories help us digest the ideology. Myths determine perception, like the lenses of a pair of glasses. They are not what we see, but what we see with. We can’t see outside our bubble (but outsiders can see us.) We give our attention to one set of possibilities rather than another, and our intentions and dreams follow. So, myth creates fact. Indeed, myth trumps fact.

We draw stories from our past and abstract them into evocative icons (Plymouth Rock, the Alamo, and especially Pearl Harbor) big_thumb that contain the essential elements of our worldview. They are so obvious that they never have to be “explained.” They transform history into sacred legends that describe reality to us and prescribe our choices and behavior within acceptable limits. “Myth,” writes Richard Slotkin, “is history successfully disguised as archetype.”

Curiously, if we add Custer’s Last Stand, the sinking of The Maine and 9-11 and to that list, we find that many of those iconic images are of our most famous defeats. On one level, this reflects the complex interweaving between the American Hero (or winner) and his shadow, the victim (or loser), that our mythology has been dreaming for four hundred years. The innocent nation, once again, finds itself victimized, under attack by absolute evil – as G. W. Bush said, they hate us for our freedoms – and so it is justified in responding with Biblical ferocity.

On another level, perhaps it points us toward a deeper insight, that the Hero must die in order to transform into something more mature. This is an insight that our entire political, economic, educational and religious systems continue to deny and resist.  Can we even imagine a system, a culture or a masculinity in which defeat leads to deflation, introspection, self-assessment, grief, acknowledgement of responsibility, determination to act more ethically and apology rather than vindictiveness?

Indigenous myths, the dreams of entire cultures, emerge from the land itself and from the infinite depths of the past; no one “creates” them. Myths speak of origins, of the divine figures present at the beginning, of how the sacred breaks through into the material world. By contrast, mythic literature is created by specific individuals out of oral traditions, as Homer utilized stories that Greek bards had told for centuries. Our modern myths of American innocence and exceptionalism take this notion of mythic (primarily Biblical) literature into the secular realm and mixes it with stories and legends of confrontation with the evil Others of our imagination. My book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence elaborates on these questions.

From the very beginning, history and myth intersect throughout the story of America. If we were honest with ourselves, we’d admit that it is almost impossible to tease out the differences. But let’s be clear about this: we’re not simply talking about lies, distortions, omissions and propaganda. That’s “myth” in the lesser meaning of the term. We are talking about why we frame our stories about ourselves in the way we do, and why we are – increasingly – desperate to believe them, to use them to re-stabilize the crumbling building blocks of our self-image.

Myth and history are about what happened. The “why” it happened is a secondary question. When we read history in the same way that we look at myth, we discover something very interesting – motive is less important than results. An example would be the story of Oedipus. To the ancient Greeks as well as to Freud, who based his entire psychology upon this story, and to Oedipus himself (in Sophocles’ version), it didn’t matter that Oedipus was unaware that he had killed his father and was marrying his mother. It simply mattered, since he did do those things, that he was guilty. Mythology is about action, what happens. Psychology is about motivation.

Strategic decisions have unintended consequences. From this perspective, it doesn’t really matter if FDR’s intention to provoke the human disaster (which means “against the stars”) at Pearl Harbor for the greater good of defeating Hitler were primarily altruistic. This is what matters: by gearing up to massively standardized, subsidized, centralized, corporate-based production, the U.S. triumphed, finishing the war as the greatest economic and neocolonial engine in world history, with all European nations indebted to it, with almost no damage to its civilian population. It had primary influence in the oil-producing countries of the Middle East. It had become banker to the world.

It quickly resumed its old confrontation with the U.S.S.R. that, with the exception of these war years, had been boiling since 1918. It had an institutionalized military economy, a mass propaganda system (including Hollywood) and a model call-up system, a draft, that it would use in future wars. It had a G.I. Bill that soon catapulted most, or at least most white Americans into the middle class and provided mass markets for a new consumer economy.

It quickly found itself at war in Korea. And it turned its attention to Indochina, to support the French in keeping her colonies and to defeat the nationalistic revolution. By the time of the final French defeat in 1954, U.S. aid was running at over $1 billion a year (over seven billion in current dollars) and paying some 78% of the French war costs. That year the French left and the U.S. took over 100% of the costs – and the casualties – establishing itself in that quagmire for another twenty years, or thirty years after the end of World War Two.


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Barry’s Blog # 271: The Myth of the Good War, Part Two of Four

America is the exceptional nation, chosen by Divine Providence to defend freedom and redeem the entire world. To those outside our mythic bubble, however, this is a story that we regularly tell ourselves about ourselves in order to convince ourselves – to still our doubts – that our long-term patterns of long-distance murder and denying of self-determination to other people have moral meaning.

But if we were honest with ourselves, most Americans – at least most white Americans – would still admit some adherence to this story, of which WW II is our most shining example. And studies have shown (despite popular impressions of the youth revolt of the 1960s) that the more educated we are, the more likely we are to hold such opinions.

This helps explain why our gatekeepers – historians and journalists – speak with nearly one voice (as they do now, concerning Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning) to condemn anyone who might question any aspect of our myths, regardless of their popularity or stature in their profession. I’ve written about Howard Zinn, who blurbed my book, in this context.


Howard Zinn, bombardier

But Zinn (who was a bombardier in World War Two, and became a pacifist afterwards) taught and published in more forgiving times. To really understand what the the gatekeepers can do, we have to learn about  what happened to Charles Beard.

Beard was the only scholar to ever serve as president of both the American Historical Association and the American Political Science Association. Andrew Bacevich, an historian and retired officer, writes:

For several decades prior to World War II, Beard stood alone at the pinnacle of his profession. As a historian and public intellectual, he was prolific, influential, fiercely independent, and equally adept at writing for scholarly audiences or for the general public.

Beard wrote primarily outside the university context, disdaining the tenure track. So he didn’t have to toe the line of official dogma. Perhaps for that reason his books were both enormously popular and highly opinionated.


Charles Beard

In 1947 the National Institute of Arts and Letters awarded him their gold medal for the best historical work published in the preceding decade.

But that same year he published President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941: Appearances and Realities, which blamed FDR for lying to the American people and tricking them into war. He also revealed (in an article entitled “Who’s to Write the History of the War?”) that the Rockefeller Foundation had generously subsidized the writing of an official history of how the war had come about. Yes, writes Gary North, Gary North,

…the victors always write the history books, but when the historians are actually policy-setting participants in the war, the words “court history” take on new meaning.

Indeed, those who did write such histories all attained high government positions, and many of them – including the above-mentioned Samuel Morison – savagely attacked Beard as at best an “isolationist” and at worst a senile old fool. They quickly and permanently destroyed his reputation because he had committed the grave sin – to this gatekeeping community – of questioning their heroic “Good War” narrative, or in current terms, of promoting a conspiracy theory.

Beard died in 1949. His book on Roosevelt went out of print almost immediately and was not reprinted until 2003. Today the public has forgotten him and his controversial charges. Even Zinn’s People’s History and the wildly popular Untold History of the United States, by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick (book and TV series), tiptoe delicately around the Pearl Harbor story. Within the profession, however, Beard remains a reviled and discredited figure. North writes:

This is why there are no tenured World War II revisionists who write in this still-taboo and well-policed field. The guild screened them out, beginning in the early 1950′s…What the guild did to…Beard (and others) posted a warning sign: Dead End.

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Barry’s Blog # 270: The Myth of the Good War, Part One of Four

I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars. – Franklin D. Roosevelt, 10/30/1940

In spite of the risk involved, however, in letting the Japanese fire the first shot, we realized that in order to have the full support of the American people it was desirable to make sure that the Japanese were the ones to do this so that there should remain no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who were the aggressors. – Henry Stimson, Secretary of War under Roosevelt

If we see that Germany is winning, we ought to help Russia. And if Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible. – Harry Truman

I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are.  – George H.W. Bush

This is a dangerous time of increased racism and militarism, demonization of immigrants, surveillance of private citizens and renewed warmongering against Russia. The government is provoking a military coup in Venezuela and threatening once again to attack Iran. Nazis actually march among us — why bother even calling them Neo-Nazis?  So it is important to take another look at both the willingness of politicians and the media to distort the truth as well as our uniquely American, innocent capacity to believe their lies. Myth is what holds it all together.

In 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt was already aiding Great Britain with materials and loans. But he was determined that the United States should fully enter the war in Europe. Why? I’m sure he had a combination of motives, perhaps including these:

1 – Countering Nazi racism and defending its aggression against the “liberal democracies” of Great Britain and France? But both countries were still colonial powers that had no intention of offering any freedom to their African and Asian possessions. Howard Zinn, in Chapter 16 of A People’s History of the United States, shows how the U.S. made it clear to both of them early in the war that it expected to restore their empires. It fought with a segregated army and incarcerated thousands of its own citizens.

2 – Protecting the Jews of Europe? I don’t think so. His government turned away thousands and refused to bomb Auschwitz.

3 – The New Deal economic reforms of the 1930s had been only marginally effective in putting Americans back to work. Millions were questioning both capitalism and the American Dream. Perhaps he reasoned that only military mobilization could pull the country out of the Great Depression.

4 – It was a clash of empires and colonial aggressors. Looking farther ahead, he may have been concerned with other economic/political issues related to American influence in a post-war world, including confronting the Soviet Union and grabbing oil resources in the Middle East. When we discuss history, we are also talking about myth. And in the context of capitalism, as in all of our inquiries, we will have to ask Cui bono? Who profits?

However, since 88% of Americans (down from 95% in the previous year) were still opposed to entering the war, Roosevelt needed to resort to subterfuge. On September 27, 1940 Germany inadvertently gave him a great gift. Hitler made a colossal mistake (second only to his decision to attack the USSR) when he signed a mutual defense treaty with Japan and Italy, promising to defend each other if any one of them was attacked by an outside party.

Roosevelt quickly saw his opportunity. Within two weeks, he set into motion a series of major policies designed to provoke Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor. The notion that he would do such a thing has remained a hugely contentious point of debate among historians, but journalist Robert Stinnett argues:

The latter question was answered in the affirmative on October 30, 2000, when President Bill Clinton signed into law…the National Defense Authorization Act…(which) reverses the findings of nine previous Pearl Harbor investigations and finds that both (Navy and Army commanders) Kimmel and Short were denied crucial military intelligence that tracked the Japanese forces toward Hawaii and obtained by the Roosevelt Administration in the weeks before the attack.

Events quickly fell into alignment after the December 7th attack. p17_12070181 The declaration of war against Japan triggered the Axis mutual defense treaty and forced Germany to declare war on the U.S. Roosevelt now had his European war. His price was a Pacific war. And in a scenario eerily similar to the 9-11 story, he quickly attained enormous public support. Eventually, the conflict became, in Zinn’s words, “the most popular war the United States had ever fought,” with the highest proportion of citizen participation – some 18 million men and women.

In this sense, the story of Pearl Harbor is less about Japan and more about Adolf Hitler. Indeed, it is more about our willingness to consume narratives that reinforce our American sense of innocence, good intentions and unique destiny. The good nation had been attacked by the minions of absolute evil, with no warning, for no reason.

Remember Pearl Harbor became both the war cry of American forces and the excuse to force all Japanese-Americans on the west coast into concentration camps (known in popular culture as internment camps) for the duration of the war. Overnight, these people became the new internal Other. Curiously, the military interned neither Italian-Americans nor German-Americans. Nor did it confine thousands of Japanese-Americans in Hawaii – physically much closer to Japan itself – since they were vital to the economy. It’s difficult to avoid concluding that the shameful treatment of the Japanese-Americans was about racial prejudice and little else.

Americans, once again, were told that they had been attacked for no reason. But this was a mythic motif as old as the nation, indeed much older. Pearl Harbor became the latest and greatest (until 2001) in a long line of iconic events in which Americans were told that they have been attacked without provocation by “the Other” (Indians, slaves, Barbary Pirates, Mexicans, Spanish, Cubans, Germans, Latin Americans, North Koreans, Chinese, North Vietnamese, Lebanese, Grenadians and, eventually, Muslims from a dozen countries).

Stinnett’s book Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor is an exhaustively-researched study of how Roosevelt provoked the Japanese. It proves conclusively that the U.S. had broken their military codes, knew of the impending attack and deliberately kept the military leadership in Hawaii unaware so as to maximize both the damage and the propaganda value. Stinnett also summarizes a half-century in which “revisionist” (a somewhat derogatory term) historians have argued against the orthodoxy.

But this is clear: the U.S. fought a race war in the Pacific. Mendacious posters of ape-like “Japs” raping white women helped mobilize bellicosity and led to a savagery by American soldiers against the Japanese that they rarely exhibited against the Germans. This behavior resulted from official policy. Years later, Robert McNamara, Defense Secretary during the Viet Nam War, spoke of his time during WW II when he had helped Curtis LeMay plan the firebombing of Tokyo. He admitted, “He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals.”

From the Japanese-American perspective, the war was bounded by two enormous lies. One was the Pearl Harbor narrative and their lost liberties, and the other was the atomic bomb attacks that ended the war. Although most historians and practically all politicians claim to believe that they were necessary, we do have this quote from Supreme Commander in Europe and future President Dwight Eisenhower: “…the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”

Many scholars now agree that the attacks were meant primarily to threaten the Soviets, that Hiroshima was the opening salvo of the Cold War. Indeed, that city was destroyed (with a uranium weapon) only two days before the Soviets were planning to declare war on Japan, and Nagasaki was hit (with a plutonium bomb) the next day, for no apparent reason. Zinn, however, asks, “Were the dead and irradiated of Nagasaki victims of a scientific experiment?”

By the way, the George H.W. Bush quote at the top of this essay reminds us that the Union Bank controlled by his father Prescott – as well as Ford and General Motors – continued to do business with Hitler long after the U.S. entered the war. Nearly a year after Pearl Harbor, the government finally seized the bank’s assets under the “Trading With the Enemies Act.” But after the war GM had the gall to sue the U.S. for having bombed one of their German factories, and actually collected damages. For much more on the multi-generational crimes of the Bush family, see Family of Secrets, by Russ Baker.

We are talking about history. But to really understand the mythic issues, we have to understand how many of the greatest names in the History profession have served as gatekeepers of the official stories of who we are. In Chapter Seven I write:

The “Dunning School” of racist historians dominated the writing of post-Civil War history well into the 1950s. William Dunning, founder of the American Historical Association, taught Columbia students that blacks were incapable of self-government. Yale’s Ulrich Phillips defended slaveholders and claimed they did much to civilize the slaves. Henry Commager and (Harvard’s) Samuel Morison’s The Growth of the American Republic, read by generations of college freshmen, perpetuated the myth of the plantation and claimed that slaves “suffered less than any other class in the South…The majority…were apparently happy.” Daniel Boorstin’s The Americans: The Colonial Experience doesn’t mention slavery at all. Similarly, Arthur Schlesinger’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Jackson never mentions the Trail of Tears.

But we are talking here about another one of our most deep-seated narratives about ourselves, how we as a nation never start wars but always come to the aid of deserving people, always with the most altruistic of motives. The nation of extreme individualism is an individual among nations, the exceptional one, chosen by Divine Providence to redeem the entire world. If we were honest with ourselves, most of us would still admit some adherence to this story, of which WW II is our most shining example. And studies have shown (despite popular impressions of the youth revolt of the 1960s) that the more educated we are, the more likely we are to hold such opinions.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Male Initiation and the Mother in Greek Myth

The Hero Must Die

The Two Great Myths of the Twentieth Century 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our post-modern, demythologized world, however, offers us neither a model of a divine war god nor of the divine madness that Dionysus once symbolized. Lacking that mythological imagination, we search for initiation in all the wrong places, often as vicarious intensity, the excitement we feel when someone else (usually the image of someone else) confronts the edge of danger. And, as the young and poor experience the actual danger, we – especially our intellectuals – enjoy the spectacle from a safe distance. After the 9/11 attacks, Christopher Hitchens, utterly insensitive to his own privileged safety, articulated the thrill experienced by the “Neocons” and others when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan:

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

This helps explains why we prefer to watch major sports events among friends. “Fans” (Latin: fanaticus, mad, divinely inspired, originally pertaining to a temple) make up an emotionally engaged community holding the container for these rituals of “com-petition.”

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

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

…sick of that banal life…they want sensation…when there is a war: they say, ‘Thank heaven, now something is going to happen – something bigger than ourselves!’

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

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

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

Michael Ventura writes that movies and the electronic media that came after have “usurped the public’s interest in the arts as a whole and in literature especially.” Whereas for thousands of years indigenous people had participated in their entertainment, Americans (except for social dancing) are mainly passive consumers of culture. The Western mind-body split, writes Ventura, comes to its extreme in the concept of an audience. It “… has no body… all attention, all in its heads, while something on a screen or a stage enacts its body.”

Vicarious, voyeuristic intensity meets electronic spectacle in our recent wars. We see without being seen, writes Marita Sturken:

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

Our primary leisure activity is entertainment, watching or listening as we are passively entertained. Certainly, we deserve relaxation and restoration. But why does it seem so unrewarding; and despite this, why do we constantly repeat the experience, as if something might change and our longing be fulfilled?

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

This is why the satisfaction of entertainment is so fleeting. Often, we hold something (hero-worship or villain-hatred) together. But since we, in our darkened rooms,  rarely encounter authentic paradox or nuance, we miss out on the shared grief and joy that can actually unite people. Instead of embracing the mysterious and tragic coexistence of opposites, we release the tension by watching it being resolved, either violently or comically.

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

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

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

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

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

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