Barry’s Blog # 262: Breathing Together, Part Three of Four

Who is he, who even were truth on his tongue, his way of speaking it would make truth almost as offensive as falsehood? – Melville

In America part of this heritage is channeled through our unique emphasis on individualism, and, I would add, our narcissism:  What is true for me, what saved my soul, is necessarily true for you as well, and it would save your soul as well. This is the potent, underlying assumption of all religious proselytizers, because it serves to cover up anxiety about their own beliefs. In other words, if they can convince you to accept Jesus (more likely, a very narrow understanding of Jesus), they have proof that their own choice was correct.

But, because, quoting Hillman, we are all psychologically Christian, this also explains the rigidity behind some of our secular disputes. The examples in middle class consumer culture are endless: clothing styles, therapy or exercise styles, doctors or healing modalities – and especially diet. What helped me with my problem would help you with your problem. Am I exaggerating? Consider your last Thanksgiving dinner conversation (or was it a frustrating monologue?) with a committed vegan you hadn’t seen in years, or if you prefer, an advocate of, say, the “caveman diet” (consider also the smirking sarcasm of your gatekeeping friend at the other end of the table).

Whatever the context, when believers insist that you would be better off converting to their way of thinking, this is known as fanaticism. It can only exist in a monotheistic universe where we assume only one correct way to be, and its logical conclusion is jihad, or crusade. According to Winston Churchill, a fanatic is someone who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. Ironically, fanatic derives from fanum (“temple, shrine, consecrated place”).

Let’s move from fanaticism to discrimination. Discriminate (v.):  1620s, “distinguish from something else or from each other, observe or mark the differences between,” from Latin discernere, “to separate, set apart, divide, distribute; distinguish, perceive,” from dis- “off, away” + cernere, “distinguish, sift”, from root kre, “to sieve,” possibly related to “incriminate” and thus to “crime”.

I’ve been suggesting that discrimination is the key. Not in the negative, American religio-mythic sense in which discrimination divides the chosen from the fallen, but discrimination in the Buddhist sense of clear comprehension of reality. So I’ve devised a somewhat poetic response to discrimination-challenged NACs:

1 – Admit that we are all gatekeepers. Way back in 2005, Stephen Colbert coined a new word, “truthiness.” He said, “We’re not talking about the truth; we’re talking about something that seems like truth — the truth we want to exist.” No matter how far out on the margins anyone is, there is always someone further out, and we each determine where the boundaries are. Behind the justifiable but still monotheistic hunger for Truth, we find a deeper but smaller truth, the Pagan wisdom that there is no Truth, only various truths. Or, as the great physicist Niels Bohr said: “The opposite of a correct statement is a falsehood, but the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”

2 – Believe nothing; entertain possibilities. Thanks to Caroline Casey for this insight. We are talking about stories that could be true, or not. Like all myths, they are stories we tell about other people but which in fact – always – are about ourselves. We project the stories we need to hear about ourselves onto celebrities (our substitutes for the pagan gods), or upon the shadow of celebrity, those who will not reveal their identities, or those who claim to have “knowledge” of the shadows, knowledge gained from (often quite undiscriminating) discrimination.

Only in our demythologized age, when myths no longer serve the deep needs of the soul, do stories about the “truth” result in affirmations of belief. Indigenous people who are still held in living mythologies and rituals, understand that stories are meant to provoke increasingly deeper questions, to drop us into the work of the soul, not to provide simplistic answers.  “That is how he grows,” says Rilke, “by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.” Stories are meant to entertain us. As I write in Chapter Ten:

Our primary leisure activity is entertainment, being 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 hold mutually exclusive concepts – the tension of the opposites – in a ritual container such as tragic drama, and suffer together. I suggest that the original meaning of entertainment was ritual renewal of the community though shared suffering. Athenian audiences did exactly that; viewing the clash of unbearable contradictions, they held that tension and wept together. They emerged spent but renewed, purged of their anxieties for a while.

3 – Follow the money. In searching for truths in America one’s first question must always be Cui bono?Who profits? Anchoring ourselves in this perspective, we automatically align ourselves with the masses of suffering humanity. Then it becomes easy to see that behind most so-called “populist” movements of the Right are some very wealthy families. Tea Party organizers, for example, make sure that their crowd photos include lots of overweight, scruffy, baseball hat-wearing, “working class” people. But, quite simply, there would be no Tea Party – and hence, no Trump presidency – without the massive infusions of money provided by the Koch brothers. To take their bait, once such sponsors are revealed, and still accept the proposition that the mega-rich have anything in common with these people besides their racism is to lack discrimination. And the only Deep State that Donald Trump is endeavoring to destroy are agencies that regulate his friends’ businesses. 

4 – Judge a tree by its fruit. Even if at this late date you still harbor notions that Trump is out to destroy the Deep State, all you need to do is look at the scoundrels he has always surrounded himself with, from his original mentor Roy Cohn to New York and Russian mobsters to the corrupt bankers and anti-regulators dedicated to serving Big Business. At the top of David Icke’s website I found a banner reading, “President Trump needs your help. Sign the petition to build the wall!”

To judge what the tree really thinks, look at what other trees think of it. During last year’s Gubernatorial campaign, the Republican (and, due to massive voter repression, eventual winner) Ron DeSantis made outrageous public statements. He denied their obvious racist nature in debates with the Democrat Andrew Gillum, who countered with:

…he’s got neo-Nazis helping him out in the state. He has spoken at racist conferences. He’s accepted a contribution and would not return it from someone who referred to the former president of the United States as a Muslim n-i-g-g-e-r. When asked to return that money, he said no. He’s using that money to now fund negative ads…Now, I’m not calling Mr. Desantis a racist. I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.

Trump, the consummate con-man, plays the spokesperson for a deliberately indefinable, populist extreme that draws its energy by pretending to attack an establishment that, they have been falsely taught, serves only undeserving minorities and immigrants. So far, the fact that all of his actual policies, like those of all his predecessors, consistently buttress that same establishment doesn’t matter to them. We are talking about rhetoric, not action; stories, not revealed truth. He doesn’t have to wink and nod; the racists know very well where he stands, at least on the issues of race, misogyny and white supremacy.

5 – Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Just as there is no overarching, grand Truth, no one is perfect except for the archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, and this is the source of the cult of celebrity which so characterizes our age. So we can’t expect our purveyors of information and speculation to precisely share our versions of some truths.

At the same time, a certain general consistency in philosophy ought to produce general consistency in specific views. Consider Ron Paul and his son Rand, who occasionally voice very perceptive criticisms of America’s imperial wars from the libertarian perspective, but who would also ban all abortions. Can someone favor banning a woman’s freedom of choice – choice! – and still claim that they love freedom? Or is that freedom simply freedom from taxes? Broken clocks.

Of course, the government had (at least) prior knowledge of the 9-11 attacks, but that doesn’t mean that they take their orders from Reptile people. The fact that Alex Jones quite rightly questions the official narrative – or that he, unlike absolutely any of centrist gatekeepers, gives Dr. Andrew Wakefield airtime opportunities to respond to his “debunkers” is no reason to accept his claim that the Moon landing footage was fake, or that Democrats and communists have plotted “white genocide” attacks.

Jones’ major product, like that of all right-wing conspiracy theorists from Limbaugh to Beck, is fear. And his major cures, like theirs, range from scapegoating Black people to nutritional supplements and gold investments. His show is very profitable (follow that money again). Maybe that’s the real difference between right and left-wingers, whose organizing is motivated toward inspiring people to act and make society more just, not more fearful.

6 – People do cruel things because they are cruel people, not as representatives of racial or ethnic groups. Of course, we are often victimized in the general sense, but we act as individuals, even if we are encouraged by politicians and other bad actors. Every mass shooter acts entirely on his own, even if the vast majority of them are white males with similar, right-wing views. This is all about white privilege. In my blog of the same title  I list fourteen characteristics. Here are two of them:

Privilege allows white people to universalize, to claim that “black people are also prejudiced,” to claim that racism is fluid, one day (or era) benefitting whites and another day benefitting blacks. While the notion of individualism declares that we all need to see each other as individuals (everyone is different), the privilege of universalism declares that we all need to see each other as human beings (everyone is the same) and subtly functions to deny the significance of race and the advantages of whiteness. Simultaneously, whites learn that they are individuals and not part of a racially socialized group.

Privilege allows whites to individualize, to view themselves as unique and original, unaffected by the relentless racial messages in the culture, able to distance themselves from other, “bad” whites. Seeing themselves as individuals outside of race frees whites from the psychic burden of race in a wholly racialized society. Race and racism become “their” problem, not “ours.” Whites are privileged to invoke these seemingly contradictory discourses – either we are all unique or we are all the same – interchangeably when it suits their purposes to do so.

At this point, more than one good-hearted friend may ask, “What about George Soros?” 0922-beckchart1  I’m afraid that they have been, knowingly or not, influenced by certain well-funded websites that tend to place Soros’s name at the center of their connect-the-dots charts, but which also clearly emphasize his Jewish identity first and his billionaire status second. My friends have probably never heard of Sheldon Adelson. Nor do they realize that the whole Soros narrative – and the huge uptick in worldwide anti-Semitism associated with it – was created by two long-time Republican (and, yes, Jewish) dirty tricksters.

7 – The Lyndon Johnson trick in reverse, as told by Hunter S. Thompson:

…(in) one of Lyndon Johnson’s early campaigns in Texas. The race was close and Johnson was getting worried.  Finally he told his campaign manager to start a massive rumor campaign about his opponent’s life-long habit of enjoying carnal knowledge of his own barnyard sows. “Christ, we can’t get a way calling him a pig-fucker,” the campaign manager protested.  “Nobody’s going to believe a thing like that.” “I know,” Johnson replied.  “But let’s make the sonofabitch deny it.”

 In reversing this tale, we recall the line from Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” I have no scientific proof here, but I don’t really think that truly non-racist people, whose actions usually speak well for themselves, ever have to deny accusations that they are racists.

Trump: “I’m the least racist person anybody is going to meet.”

David Icke: “I’m one of the least racist people on Earth…”

To be fair, we should note that Icke, unlike Trump, has consistently pointed out that he (like increasing numbers of American Jews) is an anti-Zionist. And this issue drops us back into the false equivalency muck, where Republicans – and, sadly, most well-known elected Democrats – accuse even pacifist critics of Israel of being anti-Semitic and continue attempting to demonize the BDS movement. So, referring back to Andrew Gillum’s statement (“I’m not calling Mr. Desantis a racist. I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist”), we can only ask whether admitted racists consider Icke an ally.

And would a committed and articulate anti-Zionist ever have anything whatsoever in common with such a pro-Israeli imperialist and spokesperson for genocide as Trump? The only thing that broken clocks have in common with each other are their brokenness and their willingness to con the gullible.

8 – It’s not my circus, not my monkey. We have to ask ourselves: Do I really need to spend any more time obsessing with the stuff? Is it doing me, my loved ones or the world any good at all? Why am I concerned with global (or inter-galactic) issues over which, admittedly, I have no control, when I could actually have some influence in local issues? This is not to patronize but to challenge those who cleave to meta-narratives that clearly no longer serve them. In the 20th century we have seen plenty of evidence that those who have done so often reached the depths of profound disillusionment. In archetypal terms, Hillman referred to this experience as betrayal, and he saw it as a prelude to soul-work. Or, as Rumi says:

When school or mosque, tower or minaret get torn down,

Then dervishes may begin their community.

Only when faithfulness turns to betrayal and betrayal into trust

Can any human being become part of the truth.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Barry’s Blog # 261: Breathing Together, Part Two of Four

Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it. – Andre Gide

As both American history and American mythology have shown us, it is always easier to blame others – dark-skinned people or dark-web conspiracies – for our troubles than it is to admit our own complicity. Chapters seven and ten of my book (Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence) offers a lengthy introduction to what I call the Paranoid Imagination, tracing it backwards to the roots of Christianity and forward to the very beginning of the American Republic and its original fascination with the Illuminati:

The paranoid imagination seeks itself: it constantly projects its fantasies outward onto the Other and then proceeds to demonize it. Therefore, it finds conspiracies everywhere. In 1798, ministers whipped up hysteria about a tiny Masonic group. Anticipating McCarthyism by 150 years, one minister ranted: “I have now in my possession…authenticated list of names.” In 1835, future President John Tyler blamed abolitionism on “a reptile who had crawled from some of the sinks of Europe…to sow the seeds of discord among us.”

The classic text on our unique willingness to search for conspiracies is Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964), and most of our gatekeepers still quote it when pontificating about conspiracy theories. But critics of Hofstadter point out that “the tendency to conflate left-wing and right-wing populism, ignoring significant differences between the two, continues to be a significant long-term effect of Hofstadter’s work.” In other words, Hofstadter himself was a gatekeeper who encouraged the same kind of false equivalencies that I’ve been talking about.

We don’t need another study of conspiracy theories. We need a deeper understanding of who, why and how we or our institutions decide to be part of the gatekeeping process, and especially how we marginalize progressive thought. We also need to learn to discriminate. Indeed, we can learn much from some of the gatekeepers, some of whom offer brilliant analyses of right-wing conspiracism. (The problem is that, since they invariably express the anxiety of the Center, they cannot resist falsely equating right and left.) Steve Clarke and Brian Keeley offer a useful definition:

A theory that traces important events to a secret, nefarious cabal, and whose proponents consistently respond to contrary facts not by modifying their theory, but instead by insisting on the existence of ever-wider circles of high-level conspirators controlling most or all parts of society.

There may be a strong similarity to religious cults. Rachel Bernstein, a writer who specializes in recovery therapy, argues that there is no self-correction process within cults, since the self-reinforcing true believers are immune to fact-checking or conflicting opinions:

What a movement such as QAnon has going for it, and why it will catch on like wildfire, is that it makes people feel connected to something important that other people don’t yet know about…All cults will provide this feeling of being special…When people get involved in a movement, collectively, what they’re saying is they want to be connected to each other. They want to have exclusive access to secret information other people don’t have, information they believe the powers that be are keeping from the masses, because it makes them feel protected and empowered. They’re a step ahead of those in society who remain willfully blind. This creates a feeling similar to a drug—it’s its own high.

Jonathan Kay (Among the Truthers) writes:

In America…life’s losers have no one to blame but themselves. And so the conceit that they are up against some all-powerful corporate or governmental conspiracy comes as a relief: It removes the stigma of failure, and replaces it with the more psychologically manageable feeling of anger.

These observations make sense to me, even if they are quite patronizing. Using pop psychology to label and dismiss people from afar is one of the most common gatekeeping tools. To patronize is to set oneself up as an expert – smarter, better, more advanced than the other, and Kay excels in this tactic, peppering phrases such as “a sense of revitalization and adventure,” “quackery,” “satisfy his hunger for public attention,” “typing out manifestoes on basement card tables,” “something they fit in between video gaming and Facebook,” “college-educated Internet addicts,” “faculty-lounge guerillas,” and the almost comic false equivalency of “Glenn Beck and Michael Moore.”

Ultimately, such analysis tells us more about the experts than about their subjects.

So we find ourselves divided into perhaps four groups. First, there is an increasing, mostly progressive and activist, community who question many (but certainly not all, as willingness to consume the Russiagate narrative shows) of the fundamental aspects of the myth of American innocence. Then we have a tiny but vastly influential class of media gatekeepers (divided, I suppose, into the true believers and others who are clearly on the take) who still maintain the illusion of innocence and rationality for the great Center. Third, the true believers on the right download who, despite their white privilege and evangelical fervor, consider themselves victims of the Center, which they equate with the Left.

And finally, we have some who dream of an Aquarian Age heaven on Earth if only everyone would think positive thoughts,  but, because they cannot seem to perceive how they are manipulated, inhabit every zone of the margins without discriminating right from left, not to mention right from wrong. They are, truly, all over the map, like my Facebook friend who re-posts constantly, alternatingly from liberal and from ultra-right sources, denouncing Trump’s racism on the one hand and praising those who enforce it or profit from it on the other.

Psychology gets us only so far. I prefer a mythological or at least a religious-historical perspective.

This notion of overwhelming influence and control that is so characteristic of conspiracism is a form of literalistic thinking, an aspect of our de-mythologized world, in which the true believers have essentially eliminated the Old Testament Jehovah and substituted the Illuminati. But it is still monotheistic thinking.

The mythic figure who embodies this thinking is transcendent, distant, all-knowing, all-powerful and exclusively masculine. This thinking objectifies Nature and Woman. It invites misogyny, hierarchy and dogma. It rejects cyclical time for linear time, allowing for only a single creation myth and a single ending. It constricts the imagination, reducing mystery to simplistic dualisms such as ultimate good and ultimate evil or innocence and original sin.

Since it cannot include its opposite, it absolutely requires another mythic figure to do so, and therefore it is obsessed with both evil and temptation, and it leads inevitably to puritanism. Since it rejects paradox, diversity and ambiguity, it demands belief, which implies not merely a single set of truths but also the obligation to convert – or eliminate – those who question it.

This heritage is perhaps three thousand years old. Or, if we were to take a feminist perspective, we could say that its antecedents extend another three thousand years further back, to the origins of patriarchy itself. But by the beginning of the Christian era, it had solidified into the thinking that ultimately led to the mentality of the crusader. Norman Cohn, in his classic study The Pursuit of the Millennium, wrote:

The elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted and yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary…systematized misinterpretations, always gross and often grotesque…ruthlessness directed towards…a total and final solution…The world is dominated by an evil, tyrannous power of boundless destructiveness – a power moreover which is imagined not simply as human but as demonic. The tyranny of that power will become more and more outrageous, the sufferings of its victims more and more intolerable until suddenly the hour will strike when the Saints of God are able to rise up and overthrow it. Then the saints themselves, the chosen, holy people who hitherto have groaned under the oppressor’s heel, shall in their turn inherit the earth. This will be the culmination of history; the kingdom of the saints will not only surpass in glory all previous kingdoms, it will have no successors.

But what happens when, after a thousand years, that narrative, that sense of meaning begins to break down? Or, as I’ve argued in my book, when an entire mythology – a metanarrative such as the myth of American innocence – collapses?

As we all know, religion as a system holding the mass of society together has been essentially dead since the early 19th century, when a new way of knowing, the scientific method, replaced it and modernity was born. Very quickly, by the middle of the century, a new meta-narrative, nationalism, arose. Germany, Italy and Japan, for example, did not constitute themselves as nation-states until the 1860s. And one could certainly argue that this was also true for the United States. This new thinking was ideological, and in the sense that people were willing to die for an idea, it had clear religious qualities. A meta-narrative, it gave people meaning in a world in which science had taken that meaning away from religion.

All nations certainly continued, and do continue to give lip service to religion, but in reality they utilized religion, as they had for centuries, to justify the new, nationalistic order. Modernity provided only two alternatives, the scientific method that had helped de-throne religion, and political ideology. By the late 20th century, science too had lost its capacity to provide meaning, as Huston Smith wrote:

I am thinking of frontier thinkers who chart the course that others follow. These thinkers have ceased to be modern because they have seen through the so-called scientific worldview, recognizing it to be not scientific but scientistic. They continue to honor science for what it tells us about nature, but as that is not all that exists, science cannot provide us with a worldview ― not a valid one. The most it can show us is half of the world, the half where normative and intrinsic values, existential and ultimate meanings, teleologies, qualities, immaterial realities, and beings that are superior to us do not appear…Where, then, do we now turn for an inclusive worldview? Postmodernism hasn’t a clue. And this is its deepest definition…“incredulity toward metanarratives”. Having deserted revelation for science, the West has now abandoned the scientif­ic worldview as well, leaving it without replacement.

When myths that bind us together in worlds of meaning die, the soul – and the soul of the culture – search for substitutes. All political ideologies, like the religions they emerged from, are monotheistic, since they allow no alternative viewpoints. Ideologies force us to think the same idea, as Michael Meade has said, while myth invites us to have our own ideas about the same thing.

From what I can see, many NACs cling neither to conventional religion nor to any simplistic kind of nationalist ideology. What they do seem to cling to is the pseudo-community that characterizes the Internet, where they can freely share meta-narratives but can experience neither the risks nor the support of authentic community. What options has post-modernity offered them? Consumer culture, addiction, workaholism, vicarious intensity (see Chapter 10 of my book) – or, simply, the opportunity to connect the dots and explain everything, and in so doing, reduce their levels of anxiety?

Connecting the dots – finding alleged correlation and attributing direct causality – may well be a new way of countering the terror of finding oneself in an economy and a political system that is broken or a climate that is out of control, in which a god of evil seems to have replaced a god of good. It’s difficult to confront the possibility that this good god may not really be concerned with our welfare (a truly pagan perspective), or that he may never have existed at all. Americans still believe in that good god at much higher rates than Europeans – but 57% of American adults also believe in the existence of Satan, or in the hazy figure of the Antichrist.

Although he can’t resist throwing in a false equivalency, Kay accurately observes:

Conspiracism is attractive to the Doomsayer because it organizes all of the world’s menacing threats into one monolithic force – allowing him to reconcile the bewildering complexities of our secular world with the good-versus-evil narrative contained in the Book of Revelation and other religious texts…(he) vigilantly scans the news for signs that the world is moving toward some final apocalyptic confrontation between good and evil…so saturated is American culture with the imagery of Christian eschatology that it has been widely co-opted…Once you strip away their jargon, radicalized Marxists also can be classified as Evangelical Doomsayers…unfailingly compresses many random evils into a single, identifiable point-source of malign power…This psychic need to impute all evil to a lone, omnipotent source inevitably requires the conspiracist to create larger and larger meta-conspiracies that sweep together seemingly unconnected power centers.

…Both of them (conspiracism and millenarianism) go together: Both of them put the fact of human suffering at the center of the human condition. Conspiracism is a strategy for explaining the origin of that suffering. Millenarianism is a strategy for forging meaning from it…a generalized nostalgia for America’s past.

Let’s be clear about this: No one in our culture fully escapes this legacy, since, as James Hillman said, “We are each children of the Biblical God…(it is) the essential American fact.”

Here is a clue: if your people consider their story to be literally true and other people’s stories are “myths,” then you and your people are thinking mythically or literally. Other mono-words share the brittleness of one correct way: monopoly, monogamy, monolithic, monarchy, monotonous. If solutions to our great social and environmental crises emerge, they will originate outside of the monoculture’s arrogantly monocular view, from people on the edges, or at least those who can discriminate.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Barry’s Blog # 260: Breathing Together, Part One of Four

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. – Yeats

In a previous blog series I offered my perspective on how the gatekeepers of our culture deliberately exclude and demonize much progressive thought by associating it in the reader’s mind with excessively bizarre right-wing claims, thereby delegitimizing both:

There are countless websites and books devoted to narratives that marginalize those who question the dominant paradigms of the culture. They typically do this by offering lists of “loony” theories from the perspective of the “rational center.” In almost every case, such gatekeepers lump all of the questioners together. Then with patronizing, pseudo-psychology, they explore the unconscious motivations of conspiracy theorists, be they fascists or anarchists, Christians or Pagans, oligarchs or street people.

I’m talking about people who want us to forget about radical change because – they tell us – some of its adherents and some of their proposals are as laughably, preposterously unacceptable as are those on the other extreme.

The use of the term “conspiracy theory” is one of the main ways in which they banish any legitimate criticism of those in power to the realm of the truly illegitimate. The intent is insidious, even if often sincere. The only position that reasonable people could hold is the only one that remains, C – the consensual center that ranges between “not as crazy as A” to “not as crazy as B.” When they hear it often enough, people hold to that center so as to reaffirm their sense of American Innocence.

I’ve read much by those who claim to objectively analyze conspiracy theories, and they all, left or right, serve that gatekeeping function. Most of what they say applies primarily to the right-wing loonies, but they consistently associate the same faulty thinking with people further to the left, and that is precisely their intention.

But here is something new. In this age of fake news and high-resolution film and internet, when any image can be manipulated, some right wingers have become very skilled at offering theories with superficially progressive themes, but which, upon closer inspection, reveal reactionary, or at the very least, pro-capitalist agendas. They rely on the inability or unwillingness of countless good-hearted people who consume their well-funded rants to actually discriminate the former from the latter. For lack of a better phrase, I’m going to call such people “New Age Conspiracists,” or NACs.

The wild popularity among young people of the 2011 film Thrive  is a sobering example. In it, Foster Gamble interviewed many progressive thinkers but hid his own libertarian and anti-regulatory views. Once they learned about those views, ten of the participants publicly denounced the film, claiming that Gamble had misrepresented his intentions. For more on that, see my blog # 252, “The Mythic Foundations of Libertarianism.”  or Ben Boyce’s essay,  in which he acknowledges “…how a skillfully edited documentary, backed with a big budget, can draw new adherents to a long-discredited political doctrine.”

Let’s get a few things straight. Of course, there are conspiracies in which powerful people or classes discuss their shared goals and strategies away from the public eye. After all, to con-spire is merely to “breathe together.” Call it the Committee of 300, the Illuminati, the British Royal Family, the Rothschilds or the Khazarian Mafia, or just call it late capitalism and neo-colonialism. Such people would be crazy not to get together periodically so as to shape national policies and international trends in their interests. And for my money, in this kind of a world, Donald Trump is a minor mob thug and a useful idiot, while George H.W. Bush was Capo di Tutti I Capi of the Deep State.

The “Deep State” is a phrase that can mean anything to anyone, and it seems that NACs especially use it too loosely. So I’ll try to define it from three perspectives:

1 – From the Center: The Deep State is the entrenched status quo that (in public perception) gets nothing done, whose members, lazy career bureaucrats and unmotivated administrators, care only to protect their own positions and retirement benefits.

2 – From the Right: The Deep State is “Big Government,” ideologically devoted to piling up infinite numbers of regulations that are deliberately intended to crush initiative and redistribute the national wealth to the undeserving poor. As Ronald Reagan said, “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Note the mythological assumptions: only in America, with its aggrandizement of radical individualism, is poverty considered the fault of the individual, just as people appear to accumulate vast wealth without the benefits of inheritance or the assistance of that same State.

3 – From the Left: The Deep State is what we used to call the Military-Industrial Complex. Now it is more accurate to describe it as the Military / National Security / Intelligence / Corporate / Petrochemical / Big Pharma / Big Banking / Big Agriculture State. From this perspective, government is not inherently bad at all, but it has been so utterly corrupted by capitalism that the State itself creates and maintains a culture of fear that generates a perpetual state of war. It crushes the imagination and redistributes more and more of the national wealth to the undeserving rich. Note the mythological assumption: nothing in our 400-year history has so deeply held our attention and limited our natural kindness as fear of the Other.

Of course, more than one person conspired to killed John F. Kennedy (and probably his brother). Even the U.S. Senate found this to be likely.  Of course, elements of the government conspired in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Indeed, this is a legal fact.  Obviously, elements within the Bush administration had at least some degree of foreknowledge of the 9-11 attacks and did nothing to prevent them.

But it also appears that many people who have rejected these official narratives, who clearly understand that the mainstream media have shaped a false picture of the world (and of American innocence) for decades, also seem to be getting caught up in some really wacky, paranoid, misogynistic and certainly racist stuff. It appears that once you define the center as illegitimate and the mainstream media as mendacious and then locate yourself as a maverick out on the margins, you naturally become wide open to hearing other opinions from other margins. When everything we’ve been taught is wrong, then any alternatives may well be right.

a0fdc-img_3950

Not too long ago, most so-called conspiracy theories were clearly divided between right (Obama “Truthers”) and left (assassinations, CIA drug dealing). Gradually, many people have come to muddy the distinctions (if with very different conclusions), beginning with health issues such as fluoridation and the vaccine controversy, with the right mistrusting the government for intruding on their liberties (and their pocketbooks), many on the left mistrusting Big Pharma’s control of regulatory agencies, and the liberal, rational center – the abode of almost all of the gatekeepers – desperately holding to a naïve trust in a “science” that is not only objective but utterly incorruptible, a political process that still works, and a foreign policy that would never support dictators. The obvious lie of the official 9-11 narrative brought right and left together, if again with different conclusions.

People such as David Icke (one of the few people interviewed in Thrive who has not repudiated the film) seem to be positing a world in which vast conglomerations of maliciously powerful and manipulative groups utterly control the destiny of the entire world. Then we have the hugely popular and unique “QAnon,” as described in the New York Times by Michelle Goldberg.  Yes, the NYT is the great gatekeeper of the liberal Center. But, going on the theory (see Part Four) that even a broken clock is right twice a day, this seems to make sense to me:

Some elements of the QAnon conspiracy theory — secret elites, kidnapped children — are classic, even archetypical. “In all Western culture, you can argue that all conspiracy theories, no matter how diverse, come from the idea of the Jews abducting children,” (says) Chip Berlet, the co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. Stories about globalists stealing children for sex aren’t that far removed from stories about Jews stealing children to use their blood making matzo.

One twist, however, makes QAnon unusual. Conspiracy theories are usually about evil cabals manipulating world events. QAnon, by contrast, is a conspiracy theory in which the good guys — in this case, Trump and his allies — are in charge. It’s a dream of power rather than a bitter alibi for victimhood. It seems designed to cope with the cognitive dissonance caused by the gap between Trump as his faithful followers like to imagine him, and Trump as he is.

Yes, there is a Deep State, and a discriminating mind will observe two things here: It is composed of the intelligence community (described by someone as neither intelligent nor a community), not 12-foot tall Jewish reptile child molesters from another planet. And high-ranking members of the military and CIA would be the very last persons to challenge it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Barry’s Blog # 259: A Vacation in Chaos, Part Two of Two

One reason why Americans long for their vacations in chaos is because we spend so little time taking conventional vacations. As I write in Chapter Nine,

We are the only industrialized country without a national health care system and the only one that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave. America is not among the sixty-five countries that offer paid paternity leave, the 145 countries that mandate paid sick leave, the 134 countries that limit the length of the workweek, or the 137 countries that have paid vacation laws. Half of working Americans receive less than a week of paid vacation, a quarter have no paid vacation or holidays, and nearly half of all private sector workers have no paid sick days…

“What do you mean there are no jobs? I have four of them!” The joke certainly describes conditions in a world where capitalism has clearly failed to provide a decent life for a large percentage of the population. But it’s an old joke, and it pre-dates the financial crises of the past ten years (as do these statistics). Whether by choice or by necessity, Americans have always labored unceasingly, because our mythology and our theology teach us that we, men especially, have no value outside of our productive capacity.

If we cannot be winners (or heroes) then we see ourselves as losers (or victims).  Furthermore, we are taught, consistently, from early childhood, that just as we succeed as individuals, when we fail we do so because of personal flaws, not flaws in the system.

This was true even when, in the 1950s, both liberals and conservatives shared the New Deal values of limiting the worst excesses of capitalism and taxing the wealthy.

That period lasted roughly forty years, from 1935 to 1975, or until the rage of privileged white males boiled over into a reaction against the Civil Rights movement. In simple terms, the idea of sharing the wealth was deeply popular – until black, brown and red people claimed their share of it. A reactionary period (much of its legislation passed, by the way, under Bill Clinton) set in that has lasted another forty years, and it has swept away most of the gains of the New Deal. Now, the notion that Europeans work to live while Americans live to work seems as applicable as it did three hundred years ago.

On average, Americans work nine weeks longer per year than Europeans. Our vacations average two weeks, compared to five to six weeks in Europe. Forty-three percent of us did not take a single week off in 2007, and only fourteen percent will take a vacation of two weeks or more this year. We spend forty percent less time with our children than we did in 1965. The American Dream emphasizes independence; yet only one working American in thirteen is self-employed, compared to one in eight in Western Europe. We relax only when we have acquired the symbols of redemption. Even then, we keep working.

chartoftheday_15005_statutory_minimum_paid_leave_and_public_holidays_n

Is it any wonder that as a nation we continue to perceive the poor (and people of color, who in our mythology, are the same, and immigrants) as being lazy, that we hold them in such contempt?

Or that we feel so attracted to their seemingly carefree lifestyles? The old word, popular in the 1920s, was “slumming.”

A digression: that projection accuses the poor of inability or disinterest in delaying gratification. To the Puritan consciousness, this is the greatest of sins, and it surfaces in odd circumstances, such as in accusations of “permissiveness.” The moral censors are particularly horrified when their own children threaten to pollute their “family values” by bringing bad habits back from Spring Break. In the 1960s and 1970s, conservatives blamed Dr. Benjamin Spock for the perceived disorderliness of young people, many of whose parents had been devotees of his book Baby and Child Care. They referred to the rebellious youth of that era as “the Spock generation,” and made sure that future educational standards would reverse that trend.

As I wrote above, below our fear and contempt for the Other lies envy and the desire to achieve authentic psychological integration. Ancient cultures knew this. For much more, see Barbara Ehrenreich’s excellent book, Dancing in the Streets.  That is why many of their seasonal festivals, especially those of winter solstice and early spring, such as the Greek Anthesteria celebration of Dionysus. Anthesteria From Chapter Four:

How does an entire society welcome this vengeful, unpredictable god in hopes that he won’t take vengeance? The Athenians were deeply aware of the seduction of the irrational. Every February, during the Anthesteria, they invoked him as purifier, rather than as destroyer. For over 1,000 years, this all-soul’s festival welcomed the spirits of the dead – and Dionysus, who brought with him the new wine – for three days of drinking, processions, insults and merry-making. But it was also a period of deep solemnity, because the people knew that they couldn’t go to one extreme without invoking its opposite.

Impersonated by a priest wearing a two-faced mask, Dionysus returned from Hades on a wheeled ship crowned with vine tendrils and pulled by panthers. dionysus-mosaicPeople masked themselves as ancestral spirits who had emerged from the wine casks and were roaming the city. “Wild laughter,” writes Walter Burkett, “is acted out against the backdrop of terror…”

In similar Egyptian, Babylonian and Roman New Year’s festivals ritual purification announced the end of one cosmic cycle and the beginning of another. Later, Christian Europe celebrated Carnival at this time, and the King and Queen still arrive on a wheeled ship. Dionysian revels are followed by the austerities of Lent, the grieving of Good Friday and Easter. Clearly, the Anthesteria was a model for this holiday.

Temporary inversion of the social order and breaking of taboos characterized carnival. Entire communities participated as temporary equals, with little distinction between performers and audience. In the “Feast of Fools” pent-up repression exploded in mock rituals and wild excess within churches, sometimes with clergy participating. Amid the merriment, we still observe the ancient theme of welcoming the masked spirits of the dead. Modernity, however, has reduced Carnival to the consumer spectacles of Mardi Gras, New Year’s, “spring break” and the Superbowl. But the Greek town of Monoklissia still celebrates the Gynaecocracy (“rule of women”) festival, when women and men trade roles for a day.

The Anthesteria was all this and more. The basilinna, wife of the religious leader, ritually copulated with Dionysus. While scholars consider this a fertility ritual that ensured good crops, she was also re-enacting the ancient hieros gamos marriage of goddess and consort, of the inner queen and king meeting in the sea – the deep Self. It recalled and evoked the unity behind all dualities. Indigenous knowledge was still alive: the proximity of decomposition and fertility, of pollution and the sacred, of death and new life.

We will never know exactly what occurred, or how people interpreted it. Who the basillina slept with, or whether they consummated literally, doesn’t matter. This does: the Other symbolically invaded the royal household and claimed her. Then the Athenians donned masks, got drunk, and ignored gender-roles and rules of fidelity. Master and slave briefly exchanged roles. Next morning, however, they symbolically fed the spirits, swept through the streets and chased them away for another year.

We have here a partial record of how an advanced urban civilization acknowledges the irrational. The rich certainly hoped these rituals would minimize the eruption of energies that could topple their palaces, that because of the attention they paid to the Lord of the Darkness there might not be a catastrophic return of the repressed, in the city or in their souls.

Clearly, the deep tensions in Athenian life could only be partially resolved by such festivals as the Anthesteria. Dionysus inhabited the center of this paradox, representing the return of the repressed needs of women and slaves, return of the non-rational part of the self, and return of the ancient connection to the living unity of nature.

The Anthesteria gave us both Carnival and Holy Week. Similarly, the Romans celebrated the Saturnalia around the winter solstice, and many historians suggest that from it Christianity evolved its Christmas traditions.

Can we modern people even conceive of a rational culture that institutionalized an annual event in which the entire population simultaneously partied to excess and also grieved their dead? Mexico, perhaps – another Catholic country.

Our ancestors (including our European ancestors) understood that these liminal periods offered ideal opportunities for symbolic re-integration of repressed aspects of both person (derived etymologically from persona, or mask) and culture.

African slaves, Haitians and other Catholics brought this dark knowledge to New Orleans. Even now we can observe vestigial aspects of the old ways, including the tradition of the “Second Line.”  Another aspect is the devils 3327496784_b92d2aa55d_b and ghosts 013ea652ff476e2af71679a0a6238cb1--mardi-gras-ghosts (not the cute and harmless figures of Halloween) appearing everywhere as Mardi Gras masks, as well as the processions with their large floats, images which are direct (if unconscious) recreations of the ship on wheels upon which Dionysus entered Athens during the Anthesteria.

Those devils and ghosts once reminded us that the potential of reintegration calls forth the necessity of confronting all that we have repressed and condemned to the underworld of the unconscious. As Mahatma Ghandi wrote, one of the modern world’s “seven deadly sins” was religion without sacrifice. This is precisely what is lacking in our safe, contemporary vacations in chaos.

To paraphrase the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, a culture that begins by denying death will end up denying life. Or as Michael Meade puts it, those who deny death will end up inflicting it upon others.

Because America demands these Disneyfied versions of Carnival, where Death is scrubbed away (or projected, literally, with projectiles, onto targets throughout the Third World), our culture can only see both its potential and its misery among those people of color who must live – not temporarily – within the “inner cities” of our imagination. Even before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was known as the murder capital of America. For its African-American inhabitants, life there partook of the bittersweet totality of life, but it was and is no vacation.

I write extensively about rituals of grief in Chapter Twelve. The Dagara people of Burkina Faso in East Africa are particularly known for having kept alive the tradition of lengthy and cathartic funerals. A friend of mine who has spent much time with them tells of a woman he met. Asked why she seems so happy, she responded, “…because I cry so often.”

In recent years we’ve seen the rise of many new types of Carnival, from Burning Man to the countless Yogafests and Bhaktifests

19264395_1318547244919217_2708014973512038884_o

Bhaktifest!

that attract New Age crowds every summer. Although I haven’t attended any of these events, I’m glad to hear that Burning Man does have an annual Temple of Remembrance. But I doubt if any of the others acknowledge the dark side of existence (except as a Hell-like condition to rise above), and I’d be happy to hear from any readers who have been to them.

Sociologist Nicholas Powers suggests that there are three types of Carnival:

Status Quo: Living in hierarchy – the vacation in chaos is essentially a public ritual that by carefully containing transgression within time and place actually confirms the status of its participants.

Reactionary: Breaking the rules to re-assert old hierarchies. Think of Trump rallies and white supremacist events.

Revolutionary: Since these events are often spontaneous and not sanctioned by the state, they have the potential of transforming and even abolishing the hierarchy.

But even if most participants in the vacation in chaos do not expect or even consciously desire any real transformation, their indigenous souls understand the potential that exists in such spaces.

Thousands come to Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival for their vacations. But some local people remember its dark roots. Here is the translation of Sergio Mendes’ popular song Samba of the Blessing:

It’s better to be happy than sad 
Happiness is the best thing there is
It is like a light in the heart
But to make a samba with beauty
A bit of sadness is needed
If not the samba can’t be made

To make a samba is not like telling a joke
And who makes samba like this is worth nothing
The good samba is a kind of prayer
Because samba is the sadness that sways
And sadness is always hopeful
Of one day not being sad any more

Put a little love in the cadence
And you’ll see that in this world nobody wins
The beauty that a samba have
Because samba was born in Bahia
And if today it is white in it’s poetry
It is very black in its heart.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Barry’s Blog # 258: A Vacation in Chaos, Part One of Two

To really understand our stubborn attachment to the myth of American Innocence, we must become familiar with our heritage of the paranoid imagination. It combines eternal vigilance, literalistic religion and constant anxiety with contempt for the erotic and a highly creative style of sadism. Why these last two features? Because what we will not allow ourselves to desire becomes a vector of judgment, fear and hatred of those whom we perceive as being willing to enact those desires. This results in obsessive voyeurism, as I write here. American life, politics and culture reveal an endless litany of fascination with the so-called violent and sexually unrestrained behavior of “the Other.” I describe the paranoid imagination in much greater detail in Chapter Seven of my book, Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence.

It may be that every curse has a corresponding blessing. Below our fear and contempt for the Other lies envy, and even deeper below is the universal drive to achieve authentic psychological integration. This is both the great longing and the worst terror of those millions of white Americans who still carry the formidable burden of our Puritan heritage.

To cover up their unacceptable fantasies – to condemn them, mythologically speaking, to the underworld – those white people who still prefer to see themselves as Apollonian, cultured, hardworking, peaceful, rational and progressive (not to mention innocent) are likely to project those desires onto people of color across the world, whom they still see as primitive, Dionysian, dangerously irrational and (this is the core of the projection) unable or unwilling to restrain their impulses.

Another fundamental aspect of American Innocence is the myth of progress (which I address in Chapter Nine). We believe that we must keep moving upwards and onwards, or risk re-gressing. Hence the appeal of periodically – if safely – trans-gressing conventional moral and behavioral standards. We see this theme in the common film trope (think Marx Brothers) of sticking it to our stuffed-up social superiors. This is clearly one of the attractions, by the way, of Trump rallies.

But the terrible personal and cultural strain of repressing one’s emotions and fantasies for an entire lifetime always threatens to burst out past our internal censors into consciousness and wreck havoc with our convention hopes and dreams. This is one reason why many traditional societies have institutionalized occasional periods of carnival, so as to literally blow off the excess steam before it causes an explosive “return of the repressed.” Chapter Ten goes into greater detail.

As I wrote here, for at least 250 years in New Orleans (one of the very few American cities, along with Santa Fe and San Francisco, that was originally settled by Catholics), Mardi Gras has served this function for an America whose value system has never fully allowed the mind to connect joyfully with the body. Because of this dilemma, Protestants in particular are filled with an intensity that rarely achieves even temporary satisfaction, except through fundamentalist religion – and vicarious violence.

This longing for intensity drives gambling fever, which is also an alternative expression of the drive to achieve salvation by attaining wealth. In this case, the Opportunist’s greed trumps the Puritan’s virtues of thrift, hard work and deferred gratification; now many believe success should come quickly and effortlessly. The anxiety associated with the risk yields to the greater American fantasy of winning. But the Puritan heritage remains robust among Trump’s most reliable supporters, those who insist on a strictly literal interpretation of a two-thousand-year old myth from the Middle East.

Many of those people are quite desperate for an escape, if only brief, from their constricted lifestyles. In the last sixty years, consumer culture has responded by providing an entire city way out in the desert where “anything goes,” and people can briefly drop their corporate or small-town lifestyles and moralities to safely enact the shadow of Puritanism. This has been described as a “vacation in chaos.” So a week in Las Vegas, America’s fastest growing city, has taken on the characteristics of a pilgrimage.  A protected environment – a sacred space – to engage in activity that approximates the conditions of liminality, where “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” – overeating, sleeping till noon, watching light-porn stage shows, whoring and throwing money away. How often do we hear a recent returnee bragging not about how much he won at the tables, but how much he lost?

The entire city is a shrine to the goddess of luck, Fortuna, and the god of intensity, Dionysus. Gambling corporations know this very well, and their casinos are designed to enhance the effects (total environments, constant sounds and flashing lights, no clocks, etc) of what are, in actuality, large public rituals,

“New York, New York” in Vegas

or more accurately, spectacles that attempt to blur the distinction between Heaven and Hell.

Now we have, in a superficial sense, more choices. We can have our safe vacation in chaos (knowing we can return to our normal lives whenever we want) for a week at Mardi Gras, or Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale, or a weekend at the Superbowl, or a memorable but confidential staff Christmas or New Year’s party. Or we can go any time of the year to Vegas.

But the vast majority of us still prefer to do it the easy way: we watch other people getting out of control on our electronic devices, and allow the fantasies to parade – briefly, safely and respectfully – across our minds, while we simultaneously condemn those who seem to be acting them out. I address this “vicarious intensity,” one of the ways that we unconsciously invite Dionysus into our lives, in Chapter Ten.

We think we can have it both ways, but in doing so, we have neither.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

Coda: The Myth of Growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

The Paradox of the Outsider

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

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

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

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

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

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

W1siZiIsInVwbG9hZHMvcGxhY2VfaW1hZ2VzL2VmOGI4NjI4YTdiMTJhN2ZhY19UaGUgVGVtcGxlIG9mIEFwb2xsbywgRGVscGhpLCB2aWEgY29tbW9ucy53aWtpbWVkaWEub3JnLmpwZyJdLFsicCIsInRodW1iIiwieDM5MD4iXSxbInAiLCJjb2

Delphi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Race Card

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment