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.
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.)
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. 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.
Read Part Six here.