Barry’s Blog # 40: The Ritual of the Presidential Debates

As I wrote in my last blog, our first responsibility as mythological, archetypal thinkers is to take a step back and perceive the real stories that are being played out in our culture. We must understand how we participate in those stories by our own willing acceptance of their primary themes. How do we do this? By being passive consumers of our national rituals. I’m not speaking about conscious, intentional, local, indigenous-based ritual (such as our upcoming Day of the Dead Ritual), but mass, public ceremonies that reaffirm the nation-state and its (our) identity as savior of the world and protector of our state of innocence.

In this context, I strongly recommend the book Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag, by Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle (Cambridge University Press, 1999). In the religion of American nationalism, they argue, the god is the group symbolized in the totem fetish (the flag), and embodied in the totem leader, the President. The mass media perform the same functions that sacred and priestly texts perform in other religious systems.

The purpose of ritual at the level of the large, national state is to sustain the group by repeating, at various levels of intensity, the act of group creation. Rituals may be contrived or opportunistic. The most powerful rituals of nation-group solidarity are opportunistic responses, such as war, to the perception of group threat. But opportunistic rituals are unreliable in their occurrence and expensive in their prosecution. Their magic is great precisely because they are risky and costly. Contrived or pre-planned seasonal rituals fill in the intervals between opportunistic group-forging rituals by rehearsing the drama of sacrifice and regeneration. American presidential elections are prototypical contrived rituals of sacrifice and regeneration.

The President has two functions: He is essentially a spokesperson for the empire, and he also plays the symbolic role of king-figure, embodying the nation-state and all that is good about it.

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

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

Anyone who has survived the long, drawn-out vetting process of satisfying the power brokers and achieving major-party nomination has proven his willingness to play by these rules. He has made a career of playing both spokesman and potential King. The nomination of George McGovern in 1972 was an anomaly, never to be repeated.

Viewing the Presidential debates from this perspective, we look first of all not at what they say, but how they look. And it’s not about who looks more relaxed, confidant, believable, folksy or personable. The intention is, simply, to look “presidential.” Their smiles and calm demeanor (even as they attack each other) and their friendly banter afterwards, tell us that they are qualified to carry the essential Protestant virtue of repressed emotion. As I have argued in my book, the greatest sin in Puritanism is the inability to control one’s impulses, and this is precisely where we can identify our national shadow that we can see only when we project it upon minorities and terrorists. By restraining themselves, they show us that they are not the Dionysian “Other.” They are part of the club. Each of them appears convincingly sincere; he has good intentions; he really cares about us; he could be a King.

Secondly, we observe their dual role of gatekeepers. We look at whom they agree to exclude from the debate – the third-party candidates. During the second debate, Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for President was actually shackled for eight hours to ensure that she wouldn’t barge in on the ritual.

Then, looking at what they say, we watch how they confine the terms of debate to the tiny range of opinion that their corporate handlers and focus-group research has shown to be of interest to the middle-of-the-road (white) voters that they are actually competing for. Watch how they compete to sound more willing to use military force – anywhere – to protect freedom. This, of course, is the ultimate gate-keeping role: to absolutely guarantee that any issues or persons that might call the function of the ritual – and therefore the function of our mythology – into question are safely confined to the margins, literally outside of the ritual space and by extension, outside of our awareness. And, by speaking only of the middle class and its concerns, they subtly convey the message that the nation is defined only by the middle class, which, because we are watching, is us. Therefore, we are not the “Other.”

We do not listen to their arguments in hopes of seeing any actual policy implemented, as much as they may promise. The Republican Ronald Reagan’s claims to reduce government were belied by a massively increased national debt, and the Democrat Bill Clinton proudly destroyed welfare. It is useless to speculate whether any candidate who rises to this level is interested in significant change of any kind. We can, of course, never know their actual feelings, nor do such feelings matter. Even if an American President were truly interested in significant, positive change, he wouldn’t have the power to make it happen. We listen only to understand the roles they are playing in the ritual.

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

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

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

We, dear readers, are the group.

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

For more details on the collusion between the two major parties, see Glenn Greenwald‘s article, “The lame rules for presidential debates: a perfect microcosm of US democracy.”

None of this is to advise you to stay home on Election Day. If you choose to support Barack Obama (in 2012), go ahead. But do so with eyes wide open, as a practical decision to support an admitted “centrist” over an outright reactionary.

Idealization says more about your own psychological projections than it does about him.

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

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4 Responses to Barry’s Blog # 40: The Ritual of the Presidential Debates

  1. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 96: Deconstructing a Gatekeeper | madnessatthegates

  2. chefjemichel says:

    Deeply appreciated! The collective psyche needs a mirror and by and large the world does not offer that. I’m inspired to take on mythological, archetypal thinking! I found your blog after adding to my first footnote here:

  3. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 185: Trump: Madness, Machines, Migrations and Mythology, Part Seven | madnessatthegates

  4. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 193: Stories We Tell Ourselves About Barack Obama, Part Four | madnessatthegates

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