By Carol S. Pearson
“And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder. . . .
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . And one fine morning -
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.''
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Introduction: About Our Dreams and Shadows as Individuals. Walking in the light of day, especially in sunlight, we all cast a shadow, but generally do not notice it. To do so, we have to stretch around to see the dark outline of ourselves. The shadow in psychology and in culture is like that. Various factors affect why it is that some aspects of our psyches reside in our unconscious minds, so that we can see them only with effort. Our conscious minds focus on who and what we think we are and want to be. In that way, the conscious mind creates the unconscious by what it decides is not you or me.
The Undertow of Socialization and Habit. Think about your own life. You may come up with a great plan or idea and then face the undertow of socialization from your family, everything that seems normal in the world around you, including what kind of person does what, daily messages from the media, and so on. This undertow gets swallowed by your unconscious mind, including what you have concluded you can and should do.You likely have developed a set of ways of being and acting that fit different circumstances, all of which portray you in some manner you think of as right about you or even, sometimes, just what is expected of you or will get you what you want. You may then also be oblivious to ways you come across that reflect a different you, or you may even get embarrassed by some part of you that peeks out against your will that is not who you want to be.
This Country’s Chosen Identity and Its Shadow
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The U.S. Declaration of Independence
The shadow of a culture is more complicated because it is similarly created by what its country says it is and what it dreams of being. Everything that does not fit that image, then, gets shoved into the social basement: the cultural unconscious.
The Stowaway. Our country’s founders were all affluent white males, almost all descended from English settlers, and believed it was their God-given right to conquer the “New World”and its inhabitants and exploit the land for profit. On the ships leaving Europe for the American colonies, the settlers inwardly carried stowaway notions of the superiority of their background, their gender, their class. In the 16th century, a relatively new idea entered the picture: the concept of the superiority of whiteness, created to join formerly battling European immigrants into one people, and the inferiority of blackness to justify slavery.
Yes, it seems bizarre looking back at how they could affirm equality while legally enslaving human beings in some states and conducting a genocide against the native population, and lead a society where women had virtually no rights, the poor just quietly died at home from illness or starvation, and only the rich had access to quality education, or any education at all. But our founders were men of their own times.
Our current political culture war reflects a Republican belief that our nation is a republic, with an interesting populist twist that paradoxically continues to support the rich, and a Democratic emphasis on moving toward greater democracy and equality, yet that also gets a bit snobbish about being on the cutting edge of thinking. At the time of our nation’s founding, the great mass of Americans were uneducated; only wealthy white males had the benefit of higher education, and more basic education was conducted, if at all, by local communities that made decisions on who had access and who learned what depending upon their expected social roles.
Structures like the Senate and the Electoral College were put in place to reassure states, including slave states, of their power, as they also helped make sure that those in positions of power had control over laws to counter the potential tyranny of the masses in the House of Representatives and in elections. However, over the course of our history, and even now, after the institution of universal public education, these structures have had the opposite effect, as many media figures and politicians have sought to heighten their followers’ prejudices rather than pursue the country’s dream. And, while 21st century jobs often require high levels of education, some work to dumb down our schools so that old prejudices will not be challenged.
The Call and Response: Evolve Ourselves and Our Country or Escape Into Denial
“Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution—a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.”
Barack Obama, "A More Perfect Union," National Constitution Center, Philadelphia, PA, March 18, 2008
While over time there has been much progress toward equality, in every generation there are those who advocate reactionary views. This is natural. In fact, conservatives always tend to be nostalgic about the past, just as liberals and progressives feel pulled by images of what could be in the future. That means that conservatives are slow to change and progressives, particularly, are eager to celebrate the next new thing or insight. This divide could, theoretically, at least, lead to protecting what is best about the past while changing with the times. The truth, however, is that our history has always been two steps forward, one step back, as progress tends to go.
Even today, many who benefit from inequality argue that equality only means freedom of opportunity, and obviously those who are at the bottom of the social order are there because they are inferior or did not work hard enough. Many of those who recognize systemic bias and its power blame others for being racist, sexist, and so on, and try to level the playing field. More and more of us today, however, are able to reach down to recognize that America’s unconscious shadow is in us, too. Many Americans now take on the task of weeding the garden of their psyches to rid themselves of the discriminatory invasive species that have taken root there.
Recognizing Psychological/Cultural Progress. Many today, especially the young, vilify our history. Given a contemporary consciousness, it is clear to them that much in our past was not only harmful and wrong then, but still affects people and our society as a whole in the present. At the same time, others are infuriated by any suggestion that our history was not always wonderful, deriding such ideas as unpatriotic. We all love our country, but differently.
What to do when at odds about what it would mean to form a more perfect union? Pretend you have done so already, becoming inflated with pretense?
Moral Inflation. Conservative leaders still hype our conscious commitment to “liberty and justice for all” as a sign of our superiority as a nation, sometimes even asserting—without a hint of embarrassment or sarcasm—moral exceptionalism, meaning that we are so virtuous that we do not have to follow the international rules or even our own. That’s how, after the terrorists attacks of 9/11, the U.S. government justified torturing Islamic prisoners. Many of all parties agreed with President Ronald Reagan’s casting the U.S. as “shining city on a hill” that should inspire other nations. Yet, when masses drawn here by such messages show up at our shores and borders, the far right demonizes them as invaders, while others struggle to figure out how to help them find their way and assimilate when there are so many.
National power Inflation. It is necessary that countries, like individuals and organizations, have a sense of identity, ideally an authentic one, even though it means opposing impulses will then be exiled into the unconscious. This becomes more serious when a nation and its leaders become inflated with their power. After being successful in two world wars, the U.S. became the leader of the free world and a self-proclaimed force for spreading democracy and protecting human rights, enacting the Marshall Plan to help rebuild not only our friends but also our enemies. And, when the Soviet Union fell, our country patted itself on the back for winning the Cold War, but we were a bit like a very successful man at midlife who has no clue what is in store. Global interdependence is real. What happens any where affects us where we sit, as our current issues with supply chains, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and our vulnerability to price changes in the international oil market demonstrate.
Inflated Warrior. In the wake of World War II, American leaders believed that we were a great Warrior nation, even though we failed repeatedly in military action in small countries, especially in Vietnam. Since then, many have essentially declared that “liberty and justice for all” had been achieved and rebranded the U.S. as being the best nation on earth, measured not by its values but by having enough military and financial might to get our way in the international arena, rather than its authentic purpose. On the right, energy moved to focusing on our interests only, and on the left to using sanctions instead of violence to stop tyranny and violations of the international order.
At a deeper level, we are beginning to understand that our weapons cannot save us or anyone else. Moreover, the weapons of mass destruction that saved the day in WWII have evolved to be even more deadly, and are available all over the world. For that reason, the Warrior archetype needs to evolve in how humans experience it—or else. Even the threat of climate change is a result of a Warrior desire to conquer the earth and use it for our benefit. Change is scary to all of us, particularly when it feels this out of control. Some of us escape into conspiracy theories, a belief that they will be raptured up, or that a politician who says he will can save them. Others escape into blaming those who are resisting policies that actually might save us, so defeating the other side in a culture “war” gets more attention than the deeper threats that, at some level, scare us all, whether at a conscious or unconscious level.
Monetary inflation. Monetary inflation at this time is caused by supply chain issues resulting from a worldwide pandemic, fuel shortages resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, corporations taking advantage of both to increase profits, and billionaires making out like bandits. So what gets blamed by those pulled under by our country’s unconscious biases? Social programs to help the most vulnerable survive and efforts to provide a living wage so that some of our citizens do not have to work two or three jobs to feed their families.
Inflated/Deflated Ruler. Given our nation’s power in the world and our challenges at home, we need a consistently effective government. This is especially true if we are to maximize our country’s prestige and power for good in the larger world, while also realizing our founding dreams at home. However, our founders’ fear of government, based on their experience as a colony, still haunts us. One of our major parties consistently runs against the federal government, and citizens of both parties have an unconscious tendency to fear it. Our current president (Biden) prioritizes strengthening government’s abilities to meet current needs (like addressing climate change, wars and threats of wars in the context of nuclear proliferation, and the growing income gap), which makes him suspect in many quarters.
As the Republican party inveighs against government, we run the risk of having a nation dominated by global corporations by default, yet their primary motivation is profit. That simple fact makes them put their factories where they can get the cheapest labor, thereby creating a crisis in many American communities that, ironically,then turns their citizens against government. However, it is only the federal government that can be powerful enough to regulate industry so that it serves the quality of life in these United States. The liberal embrace of globalism, however well intended, along with the anti-government stance of conservatives, and sometimes others, also increased the power of global corporations. This then has resulted in the loss of good paying jobs for many Americans, breeding hardship and resentment.
Cultural Narcissism. The election of our previous president (Trump) may have been a signal from our cultural unconscious to watch out. Many psychologists, even before he won election, have argued and written books warning that Trump showed all the symptoms of having a narcissistic personality character disorder. Whether or not this diagnosis is accurate for Trump, it may be for our country. We do see this in Trump’s behavior, as these experts noted that narcissists compensate for an inability to connect with an authentic sense of self by seeking constant attention and praise while turning desperate and mean and acting out when not receiving it. Is he still getting such media attention because something in our national psyche needs to recognize the waysthat he is us? The unconscious mind of our culture was warning us that our unconscious values were taking many of us over, and that we need to avoid inflation and return to recognizing the archetypal soul of our country: the Pioneer/Seeker, the Settler/Lover, and our belief in democracy as a way of realizing the promise of “liberty and justice for all.”
Our multiple signs of inflation make us like a balloon—empty except for the hot air of angry rhetoric.
Cultural Archetypes That Influence Human Motivation in Shadow Form
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Preamble to the U.S. Constitution
The Preamble to the Constitution highlights defense and the general welfare as major functions of government, efforts promoted by the Warrior and Caregiver archetypal motivations. However, beginning with the Cold War and the Army-McCarthy hearings in the 1950s, conservatives, even religious ones who claim to believe we should “love our neighbors,” went all-out Warrior. In practice, they exiled the Caregiver from the federal government to its unconscious because they saw a caring government as Communist, as some do even now. Liberals continued to balance the Warrior with the Caregiver in promoting the “general welfare,” including healthcare and education. However, when Democrats try to compromise with Republicans, the welfare of citizens typically is sacrificed, while Warrior “common defence” and economic competition with other nations, or our ability to bully them, is supported.
As a result, many other developed countries are way ahead of us in addressing the health and welfare of their citizens. Americans with an inflated view of our country believe we are leading in practically everything. They hold on to a view of our superiority even as the wealth/income gap is intensifying in ways that also reinforce aristocratic forms of social hierarchies (an anachronistic Ruler social system). At the same time, systemic inequality remains present, even as liberation movements have helped to make us aware of the many ways different groups are disadvantaged.
Capitalism, the Warrior, and Meritocracy. Capitalism, mainly in the form of tobacco farming and slave trading, came to America early in the colonization process, and was viewed positively as providing a way that people could advance based on their abilities and hard work. It was also a means for replacing war with economic competition, thus evolving the Warrior archetype, ideally internationally as well as at home, just as the ballot box replaced violent insurrections. In the 1950s, capitalism was viewed as a way of making the U.S. a meritocracy, which presumably would enhance equal opportunity, with merit defined as IQ + effort. However,the unconscious shadow often holds within it side effects of positive intentions that reveal themselves over time.
Now, people are lionized for being rich, powerful, and/or famous as well as talented, learned, or exceptionally virtuous, and their accomplishments are worthy. However, many today are motivated to achieve one or more of these, leading them to live driven lives, feeling they are never enough. And those with shaky social networks and economic prospects struggle to avoid their opposites: being dirt poor, powerless, a nobody, useless, ignorant,or sinfully bad. Two fairly recent presidential candidates were caught on camera calling supporters of their opponents losers or deplorables, respectively—and both lost.
Well-meaning attempts to help our country redress the wrongs of the past fail to address this sense of vulnerability in so many of our citizens. Many people feel shamed by equity efforts, as they are called racists, sexists, or other “ists” because of their opposition—charges to which they respond with rage and denial. At the same time, others feel ashamed that their country has not yet fulfilled its promise. Both are counting on the nation to provide them with a sense of high self-esteem.
The shadow forms of our country’s founding archetypes also are visible in our own time: The Pioneer/Seeker’s view of liberty as doing whatever you want has turned into doing what you want even if it harms others or the environment, as with not wearing masks in a pandemic. And the Settler/Lover tendency to form cliques—my people, the good ones—when linked with the Warrior has resulted in loving people like yourself or who agree with you and deriding or even fearing or hating those who seem different or who have different views: that is, what keeps us locked in our culture war.
An Archetypal Energy Crisis? In the current situation, our country is also running on the archetypal energies of Warrior possession. This rather shadowy version of the archetype is fueling a self-destructive political war, citizen against citizen, that is devolving into violence. Some also remain at war with the federal government and mistrusted Ruler energy. Without good, clear Ruler energy, our federal government could soon be so weakened that it cannot lead the free world by finding solutions to the problems of our time. Yes, on January 6, 2022, people who saw themselves as patriots stormed the Capitol to try to overturn the presidential election result, and many now continue to spread the disinformation that is undercutting democracy. At the same time, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine threatens the world order. Predicted climate change disasters are already upon us, and our parties are so bogged down fighting one another that we cannot even come together to strengthen our government in order to save ourselves from real, not invented, dangers.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.''
Endnote: Blog 5 of this America series explores how we as Americans can find the gold in our culture’s shadow and evolve its threats to our futures so that we can be fulfilled and happy as individuals and come together as a nation. This blog will be available soon, after the midterm elections.