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Where There's Pain There's Cure

More than we think, we as adults generate our psychic sufferings. We don’t think we do, but we do. We’re immensely biased to believe our problems come from outside of us. Often, they come from the inside. Of course, external childhood and adulthood traumas are real and take root in the psyche. They dig in and can cause an endless cycle of problems and illnesses. But one day, we realize that what came from the outside is now inside and needs attention. Otherwise, everything is projected outward and becomes traumatic, emotional drama after drama playing out in our life like an onstage play. Fortunately, psychic pain always carries the seed of its own cure. 

We Have a Choice

Patients in depth psychotherapy are caught in a whirlwind of relational pain and hoped-for cure. Life hangs in the balance. Over time, individuals learn to turn within and reflect on themselves and their life. Insights often unearth dark energies that have stirred up life troubles and uncannily drawn bad situations and dysfunctional people their way. It seems like bad things just happen out of the blue. But, when we take time to learn from our feelings and dreams, we come to see that there’s a reason for them. Then, we’re ready to understand that we can do something about our predicament.

 Humanistic and phenomenological depth psychology teaches about the reality of self-empowerment. Even in horrid predicaments, we have a choice. In an online professional listserv with other psychologists today, we talked about the ability to choose. I related a saying that we have a good dog and a bad dog in us. Which one lives depends on which one we feed. We keep feeding the emotional drama by blaming others rather than stopping and looking closely at ourselves and our life.

 Begin Your Healing Process

Our ability to choose empowers us to begin our own healing and growth process. People look for a different locale or a partner to change things up for them—make them happier. It doesn’t work. Outer changes don’t automatically translate to inner changes. We have to start with coming to terms with the dark emotions and dreams on the inside, then we stand a good chance of changing the outside for the good.

 Slowly and painfully, patients listen to vital feeling states and dreams. Emotions and dream symbols open up vistas of experience that lead to a greater understanding of self and others. Off in the distance, a light starts to faintly glow at the end of a dark emotional and spiritual tunnel. Along the way, step by step, we deal with buried feelings, set our attitudes on course, and let go of dead-end relationships. Dream images guide us along the way, inch by inch through the dark tunnel. Then, the light at the end of the tunnel grows brighter. Light dawns only after sensitive and patient turning within, soul tending.

 Pain is There—Cure is There

A person I knew socially complained about not sleeping. He asked me what I thought. I remarked that sometimes we don’t sleep because we fear our dreams. We run from going down deep into the unconscious mind, the realm of sleeping and dreaming. He resisted going to bed, nervous behaviors keeping him up till all hours. Headaches developed. Other physical symptoms followed. Some weeks later, he said that what I told him kept coming back to him. Our meeting again was a sign, he said, that he needed to take my words to heart. I encouraged him once again to allow extra time for sleep and rest.

 The pain was there, so I knew the cure was also there. Resistance to inner truth generates physical and psychic pain. He finally succumbed to sleeping more regularly. Dreams followed. They detailed relationship conflicts he had refused to face, decisions needing to be made and followed through with.

 I’m not sure how things went for this man since I haven’t seen him for some time. But I do know that once dark realities are brought to light, the potential to heal is set in motion. Once we see what’s wrong, we can find some clarity about what we can do to set things right. It’s never easy, but the tough going of following through with necessary life changes is a hundred times better than the misery of staying stuck. We initiate our cure by understanding that psychic pain always carries the seed of its own cure.

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Part One

Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts…a thousand special causes…have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. – Alexis De Tocqueville

More than any other people on Earth, we bear burdens and accept risks unprecedented in their size and their duration, not for ourselves alone but for all who wish to be free. – John F. Kennedy

All modern people have long internalized and taken for granted the 5,000-year-old heritage of patriarchy, as well as the 3,000-year-old literalized thinking of the Judeo-Christian tradition. We live in what Joseph Campbell called a “de-mythologized world.” It is not that we no longer have myths, but that we are generally unaware of them, they no longer serve us, and our ignorance of them makes us dangerous.

Within the wider concentric circles of those older myths, by adolescence almost all white Americans incorporate the myth of innocence. Our educational, religious and political institutions still teach the values of individualism, consumerism, mobility, racist exclusion and competition – and underneath, the deeper legacy of Puritanism – that define us as Americans. Above all, the media have replaced priests and storytellers in the ancient function of telling us who we are: a nation without a shadow, existing to enlighten and redeem the world – if necessarily, through violence.

Our essence, they tell us, is free enterprise. Entering the world as blank slates, with neither baggage nor purpose, we are free to make our own destiny, on our own merits. We assume that everyone should – and does – have equal access to the resources needed to become anything they want to be, and that one’s responsibilities to the broader community are limited to its defense.

And when sceptics confront us with statistics or stories that question these assumptions, it is our characteristic shock, followed by denial and forgetting, that is the proof of the power of myth.

Myths speak of beginnings, how the world came into existence. We take for granted that the gods (or in our story, the forefathers, the founding fathers) have left us the means to aid the process of freely competing with each other, including a free market of ideas, products and services. th-3.jpg?w=321&h=239&profile=RESIZE_710x As a result, we believe that we live in an affluent society – the best in the world – that has resolved old racial problems, and that we were meant to do this. Again: our shocked response to regular evidence to the contrary shows how strongly our mythic narratives hold us.

The idea of American exceptionalism arises out of this contradictory tangle of ideals and realities.

Curiously, this collectivity of free and purposeless libertarians thinks of ourselves as a nation that is inherently different from other nations; that we are in fact superior to other nations; that we have a unique mission to transform the world, to spread opportunity and freedom everywhere.

However, anyone who has achieved some detachment from the myth can see that those rights and freedoms have rarely been available to most citizens. Indeed, Americans have won them only after decades of sacrifice; and many of them have been eroded in recent decades. But the fact remains that the myth of national purpose and innocence is so pervasive that even in those rare moments when the nation confronts bare reality, we quickly re-veil it. Recall the conservative refrain of the 1960’s: My country – right or wrong! Americans have developed a very old, unique and massive cognitive dissonance – if facts contradict the story, then it is the facts that must change.

Our academic and media intellectuals continually reframe information. This is not at all to take a conservative (more accurately, reactionary) position on the mainstream media as “fake news,” only to acknowledge how they set the terms of debate, frame all reporting in subtle but consistent ways, and rarely convey news or commentary that might be perceived as inconsistent with the main story. In other words, the “liberal establishment” has an essentially religious function, like the Inquisition: preventing, or at least marginalizing heresy. For more on this theme, please see these other essays of mine:

Academic Gatekeepers

Deconstructing a Gatekeeper

Funny Guys, Fake News and Gatekeepers

False Equivalencies

Americans really are unique in many ways, concluded historian Richard Hofstadter. Whereas other nations’ identities come from common ancestry, “It has been our fate…not to have ideologies, but to be one.” One cannot become un-English or un-French. “Being an American…” wrote Seymour Lipset, is “an ideological commitment. It is not a matter of birth. Those who reject American values are (considered to be) un-American.”

It is an eternal mystery: the world’s most materialistic culture, where consumerism and “lifestyles” were invented, where the predatory imagination has reached its apogee – is also the most religious country in Christendom, exhibiting greater acceptance of literal belief and higher levels of church attendance than other industrialized countries. Ninety-four percent of Americans express “faith in God,” as compared with 70% of Britons. Only 2% of Americans are atheists, as opposed to 19% in France.

Part Two

I’ve always believed that this blessed land was set apart in a special way. In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace. – Ronald Reagan

What I really found unspeakable about the man (Reagan) was his contempt, his brutal contempt, for the poor. – James Baldwin

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

Here is another curious contradiction. This is the nation that took radical individualism to extremes seen nowhere else. The United States is the only major nation with significant Libertarian ideologues (for more, see my article The Mythic Foundations of Libertarianism), even if most of them prove to be confused if not hypocritical. And yet, studies show that Americans are more willing to fight if their country goes to war.

This stems not only from our violent heritage and historical isolation from war’s effects, but also from our Protestant moralism and the myth of the Frontier. A majority of us tell pollsters that God is the moral guiding force of American democracy. Therefore, when Americans go to war, they generally define themselves as being on God’s side against evil incarnate. Wars are not simple political conflicts; they are crusades, and evil must be annihilated. Lipset writes, “We have always fought the ‘evil empire.’”th-2.jpg?w=327&h=190&profile=RESIZE_710x

Americans have a high sense of personal responsibility and independent initiative. Shared belief in the value of hard work, public education and equality of opportunity continues to influence attitudes toward progress. In 1991, close to three fourths of parents expected their offspring to do better than they, and (in 1996) a similar percentage expected to improve their standard of living, while only 40% of Europeans shared this optimism. Forty percent believed that there is a greater chance to move up from one social class to another than thirty years before. We still believe – deeply – in a nation of “self-made men” – and that poverty is our own fault, not that of the system. We still believe that we will continue to grow and progress toward fulfillment of our dreams, despite consistent evidence to the contrary.

But what are those dreams? Aren’t they equal part nightmare? For all of its enviably optimistic, pragmatic, “can-do” ways, from the beginning this nation has always carried a great bag of fear over its shoulder. At the root of things was a kind of theological fear: the constant anxiety of never really knowing if one is among the elect of God, which propelled the Puritan to work unceasingly.

Layered above that has been the unsettling dread of the guilty, colonial settler: the knowledge that one will never belong to this land as one’s Old World ancestors did to their land.dunbar_ortiz_bacons_rebellion_second_amendment_guns_settler_colonialism_850_593.jpg?w=302&h=210&profile=RESIZE_710x These anxieties, and the need to justify the theft of a continent and the enslavement of millions, led to the creation of the myth of American innocence. And this myth required a people who would perpetually live in fear of the unspeakably evil red men who might sweep down out of the forest at any moment to attack the innocent community, and of treacherous black men who might rise up from within the community to mix with their women.

Lipset reveals the characteristically liberal naiveté of our intellectual classes: “America has been a universalistic culture, slavery and the black situation apart” (my italics). Indeed.

Human bondage, institutionalized discrimination, mass murder of the natives and “free” land created the economic foundations for the very senses of optimism, moralism, affluence and idealism that, to Lipset, distinguish America from other countries. 1200-535984779-attempts-to-abolish-of-slavery.jpg?w=288&h=410&profile=RESIZE_710xHoward Zinn provides some needed balance: “There is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States.” Without the protracted, unresolved and unmourned crimes of genocide and slavery there would be no affluence, no optimism, no police brutality and no innocence in America. And no privilege.

Whoever uses statistics to argue about America is lost in a dream. Since most polls question likely voters, they ignore most poor people, most minorities and most young people. But this confusion provides us with a metaphor for one of the mythic factors in American exceptionalism: “white thinking.” The sense of privilege is so deeply engrained, so invisible that few whites notice or question it; this is why it has mythic power. Politicians and pundits take the perspective of the white male, speaking of “African-Americans,” or “Asian-Americans,” but never “European-Americans.” Their language reveals exactly who is a member of the polis and who isn’t. This inconsequential example points, however, to the significant.

We must begin with the most fundamental aspect of privilege: it is invisible to nearly all whites, and perfectly obvious to all people of color. It is the psychological advantage of having views that define the norm for everyone else. It allows one to view oneself as an individual. It allows liberals to claim that they don’t think of themselves as any color at all. Tim Wise writes, “To even say that our group status is irrelevant…is to suggest that one has enjoyed the privilege of experiencing the world that way (or rather, believing that one has.)”

Privilege allows working-class whites to deny that privilege itself does not exist. It allows them to vote against their economic interests in favor of other advantages. It allows them, even when dirt-poor, to cleave to an identity of white, male, Christian and heterosexual – as moral and clean – rather than as members of a socio-economic class. It allows them membership in the polis, even if they can’t afford to live within its walls.

White privilege allows one to not have to think about race every day. It is freedom to not be viewed as violent or hyper-sexual, not be racially profiled, not worry about being viewed with suspicion when buying a home, or not be denied a job interview. It is the freedom to avoid being stigmatized by the actions of others with the same skin color, and thus to regularly disprove negative stereotypes.

The invisible ocean of privilege lies at the core of both capitalism and innocence. Despite the grinding tensions and anxieties of modern life, it allows whites – including recent immigrants – to have a sense of place in the social hierarchy and to believe in upward mobility for their children. They can know who they are because, as un-hyphenated Americans, they are not the Other.

For much more, please see these essays of mine:

Privilege

Affirmative Action for Whites

Old World nations, for all their limitations on freedom, have known who they are because they have inhabited their land forever. But Americans, in the rush to define ourselves in terms of the Other have periodically been overwhelmed by the need to cleanse the polis through the violent rejection of the impure. Without our characteristically American Paranoid Imagination, we would not endure periodic inquisitions and tribunals running from the Salem witch craze through the Red Scare of 1919 through McCarthyism, the post-9-11 anxieties that keep the “war on terror” going, the Tea Party, and Trump.

Here is another surprising contradiction. Because American identity is so fragile, we have always been driven, more than anything, by fear. In 2015, Glenn Greenwald offered some recent quotes by politicians who have made their careers manipulating what is in fact our exceptional willingness to be immobilized by phobias and nightmares:

— Lindsey Graham: We have never seen more threats against our nation and its citizens than we do today.

 Dianne Feinstein: I have never seen a time of greater potential danger than right now.

— NSA chief Michael Rogers: The number of threats has never been greater.

— Canadian defense minister Jason Kenney: The threat of terrorism has never been greater.

— CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell: The ‘lone wolf’ terrorist threat to the United States has never been greater.

— U.K. Prime Minister Cameron: Britain faces the greatest and deepest terror threat in the country’s history.

— Rep. Mike McCaul: Something will detonate…I’ve never seen a greater threat in my lifetime.

— Anonymous EU counter-terrorism official: The threat of attacks has never been greater — not at the time of 9/11, not after the war in Iraq — never.

“Here we are,” continued Greenwald,

…14 years after 9/11, and it’s still always the worst threat ever in all of history, never been greater. If we always face the greatest threat ever, then one of two things is true: 1) fearmongers serially exaggerate the threat for self-interested reasons, or 2) they’re telling the truth — the threat is always getting more severe, year after year — which might mean we should evaluate the wisdom of “terrorism” policies that constantly make the problem worse. Whatever else is true, the people who should have the least credibility on the planet are the Lindsey Grahams and Dianne Feinsteins who have spent the last 15 years exploiting the terror threat in order to terrorize the American population into doing what they want.

Here are some other essays of mine on this subject:

The outside Agitator

The Mythic Sources of White Rage

Shock and Awe 

American Witch-Hunt

A vacation in Chaos

Why Are Americans So Freaking Crazy?

Part Three

America remains the indispensable nation…there are times when America, and only America, can make a difference between war and peace, between freedom and repression. – Bill Clinton

I laughed to myself…”Here we go. I’m starting a war under false pretenses.” – Admiral James Stockdale, on the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident

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

It is another colossal mystery, if not an outright contradiction. For the American economic and military empire to justify a constant state of war, with military bases in 160 countries, it has to do two things. It must rely on certain subsets of the exceptionalism myth.

Michael Ignatieff calls them “exemptionalism” (supporting treaties as long as U.S. citizens are exempt from them); “double standards” (criticizing “others for not heeding the findings of international human rights bodies, but ignoring what these organizations say of the United States”); and “legal isolationism” (the tendency of U.S. judges to ignore other jurisdictions). But such policies – absolutely the same under Democratic or Republican Presidents – rely, in turn, on both the belligerence and the ignorance of the public.

And it must rely on keeping its citizens – us – in a perpetual state of anxiety. If we were honest, we’d have to admit that our neurotic susceptibility to fear-mongering is a primary characteristic of American exceptionalism. Here are some others:

America is simultaneously the world’s most religious, patriotic – and materialistic – society. If we add that it is also the most racist, violent, punitive and aggressive of nations, we have the ingredients that require a myth of exceptional innocence. I offer the following statistics and comparisons not out of gratuitous America-bashing, but to put the yawning gap between myth and reality into a helpful perspective. These are a small sample of statistics I collected in 2008 for Chapter Nine of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence. Some point toward our profound, media-nourished ignorance; others reflect the fundamental themes that really do distinguish America from other societies.

Seymour Lipset’s innocent fascination with the bright side allows him to avoid the fact that America (with the sole exception, for a few years, of Nazi Germany) is the most violent society in history. Most of the realities that actually make America unique stem from the foundational facts of conquest and racism.

Our frontier mythology, individualism and inflated fear of the Other have prevented the gun-control measures common in almost all countries. Americans own 250 million legal and 25 million illegal firearms, approximately 1.7 guns per adult. Forty percent own guns. Our adult murder rate is seven times higher and our teen murder rate twelve times higher than in Britain, France, Italy, Australia, Canada and Germany. These nations together have 20 million teenagers; in 1990 a total of 300 were murdered. That same year, of America’s 17 million teens, 3,000 were murdered, while thirty of Japan’s ten million teens were murdered, a rate one-fiftieth of ours.

Annually, 15,000 Americans are murdered, 18,000 commit suicide and 1,500 die accidentally by guns. Twenty-four percent of us believe that it is acceptable to use violence to get what we want. Forty-two percent strongly agree that “under some conditions, war is necessary to obtain justice,” compared with just 11% of Europeans. In 2020 I hope that I don’t need to provide any statistics on the prevalence of police violence toward people of color, or of mass murders. But I will remind the reader that the vast majority of them are perpetrated by white men.white_killers.jpg?w=310&h=206&profile=RESIZE_710x

Our disdain for authority and love of guns contributes to the highest crime rate in the developed world. How we calculate the numbers, of course, reveals our prejudices toward “blue-collar” crime and the lack of political will to control “white-collar” crime, which is certainly far more influential. And there is a mythical component as well. Our fascination with TV and movie Mafioso indicates that many of us perceive organized crime to be an alternative mode of accessing the American Dream. Sociologist Daniel Bell writes that we see this kind of crime as a “natural by-product of American culture…one of the queer ladders of social mobility…”

But the fear of crime and the need for scapegoats results in over two million Americans in jail, more than in any other country except China, with five times the population. With 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 22% of the world’s prisoners. And the fact that few of our prisoners and ex-prisoners are allowed to vote is a major factor in the legalized voter suppression that keeps reactionaries in power in over two dozen states. For more on this, see my essay on the election of 2016, Trump: Madness, Machines, Migrations and Mythology. 

Traditionally, the fear of crime has also been bound up with the fear of miscegenation, or the mixing of the tainted blood of Black people and other undesirables with that of the pure, Anglo-Saxon blood of Whites, who first began calling themselves “native Americans” as early as the 1830s. Well before that point, the nation that was truly exceptional in the sense of being composed primarily of immigrants and their descendants had already been struggling with both legal and de facto definitions of just who would be accepted as full citizens. And this has never ended. The topic is too vast for this essay, but you can read much more here:

The Myth of Immigration

Who is an American? 

The United States has over a million lawyers, far more both in sheer numbers and per capita (twice as many as Britain, in second place) than the rest of the world. This in part reflects the fact that we have far higher rates of divorce and single parent families. But our teen pregnancy rate – twice that of any European nation – leads to questions of religion. American teenagers’ expressive individualism leads them to have early intercourse. But often their greater religiosity – and restricted access to sex education – undermines any attempts at a rational approach to birth control.

Despite the creed of separation of church and state, the Republican base continues to insist on the old, strict legislation of morality. While abortion and gay rights are non-issues in almost all European countries, puritan prejudices continue to infect our attitudes toward the body. Although we engage in more premarital sex than the British, we are far more likely to condemn promiscuity. One out of every four American men condemn premarital sex as “always wrong” – more than three times that of the British.

Between 45% and 60% tell pollsters that they believe in the literal, seven-day creation story, and 25% want it required teaching in public schools. Forty percent believe the world will end with the battle of Armageddon. Sixty-eight percent (including fifty-five percent of those with post-graduate degrees) believe in the literal existence of the Devil.

Part Four

Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom. This is the everlasting dream of America. – George W. Bush

I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. – Barack Obama

In fact, American exceptionalism is that we are exceptionally backward in about fifteen different categories, from education to infrastructure. – James Hillman

And yet, despite such emotionally laden issues, both civic participation and civic awareness continue to decline. Americans vote in lower percentages than in any other democracy. One hundred million eligible voters stayed home in November of 2016. Of those ineligible to vote, 4.7 million – a third of them Black men – are disenfranchised by felony convictions.

America has slipped from first to 17th in the world in high school graduation rates and 49th in literacy. Surveys regularly indicate just how “dumbed-down” we are: 60%, for example, know that Superman came from the planet Krypton, while 37% know that Mercury is the planet closest to our sun. Similarly, 74% know all three Stooges, while 42% can name the three branches of the U.S. government.

Millions of citizens completely misunderstand common political labels. Nearly 50% believe or are not sure that conservatives support gun control and affirmative action, and 19% think that conservatives oppose cutting taxes. Seventy percent cannot name their senators or their congressman. In 2000, twelve million Americans thought that George W. Bush was a liberal.

Studies indicate that social mobility – the opportunity to move up into a higher social class – has decreased significantly. But in a 2003 poll on the Bush tax plan, 56% of the blue-collar men who correctly perceived it as favoring the rich still supported it. The myth of the self-made man is so deeply engrained that our ignorance of the facts is equaled only by our optimism: in 2000 19% of respondents believed that they would “soon” be in the top one percent income bracket, and another 19% thought that they already were. Similarly, 50% think that most families have to pay the estate tax (only two percent do), and two-thirds think that they will one day have to pay it. Twenty years later, those numbers have certainly come down. But in America disillusionment can just as easily turn someone’s politics to right as to the left, as the 2016 election showed.

Our ignorance is both the cause and the result of our unique voting system. The Founding Fathers devised both our two-tiered legislature and the Electoral College fearing (pick one) “mob rule” or “genuine democracy.” The Electoral College prevents millions from having their voice heard in national elections. Three times, a presidential candidate has won 500,000 more votes than his opponent, only to lose the election. Senators from the 26 smallest states (representing 18% of the population) hold a majority in the Senate. Still, though most citizens are ignorant of these statistics, they are not stupid: majorities regularly favor dismantling the Electoral College.

But the system, designed to limit democratic participation, has succeeded. As fewer people believe that their votes matter, they lose interest in keeping track of events, and ignorance becomes reality. The contradiction becomes monumental when we periodically bond together to “bring democracy” elsewhere.

A vicious cycle develops: low turnout by the poor results in government that is far more conservative than the population; and politicians reaffirm their apathy by courting the middle class. Indeed, in countless subtle ways the process of voting in America is designed to restrict participation: voting on one work-day instead of weekends; massive voter suppression; computer fraud; and hostile right-wing operatives.

“Americanism” is a mix of contradictory images: competitive individualism balanced by paranoid conformism; an ideology of equality with a subtext of racial exclusion; and official church-state separation negated by the legislation of morality. These features come together in one truly exceptional symbol: the cult of the flag, which we literally worship. We have Flag Day, Flag etiquette and a unique national anthem dedicated to it that we sing, curiously, at sporting events. Twenty-seven states require school children to salute it daily.

But worship? Consider the Flag Code: “The flag represents a living country and is considered a living thing.” Indeed, religious minorities have refused to salute it specifically because they consider such action to be blasphemous. But dread of the Other and re-invigorated, manipulated support for the military creates religious fervor – and fearful politicians. All fifty state legislatures have urged Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to make defacing the flag a crime.

The myths of freedom and opportunity – two-thirds of us believe that success is within our control – meet the myth of the Puritan to form another exceptional characteristic. Since Puritans still perceive both morality and worldly success as evidence of their elect status, we are a nation in which the poor have no one to blame (and often to turn to) but themselves. By more than six to one, we believe that people who fail in life do so because of their own shortcomings, not because of social conditions.

We are exceptional among industrialized countries in failing to provide for pregnant and newly parenting workers; only two other countries do not mandate maternity leave. Reforms such as unemployment insurance came into effect in the U.S. thirty to fifty years after most European countries had introduced them. They remain highly popular there; but as low-income constituencies shrink, both Republicans and Democrats have felt free to erode them.

(Let me point out, by the way, that I compiled most of these statistics for my book prior to the economic meltdown of 2008 and long before the Depression of 2020.)

The results: Nearly four million children live with parents who had no jobs in the previous year. The U.S. is 22nd in child poverty, 24th in life expectancy, 24th in income inequality, 26th in infant mortality, 37th in overall health performance and 54th in fairness of health care. Even so, America’s health care system is the costliest in the world. We spend over $5,200 per person on health care, more than double what 29 other industrialized nations spent. This equals 15% of our GDP, compared to Britain’s 7.7%. We account for 50% of the world’s drug budget, and we were 28th in environmental performance, long before Trumpus (Trump = Us) trashed most of the nation’s regulatory agencies.

Americans naively consider themselves to be quite generous in helping poor nations. In fact, our Puritan judgment encompasses the whole world. We are 22nd in proportion of GDP devoted to foreign aid, and over half of it goes to client states in the Middle East. Indeed, nearly 80 % of USAID contracts and grants go directly to American companies. Nearly 70% of Europeans want their governments to give more aid to poor nations, while nearly half of Americans claim that rich nations are already giving too much.

By choice (the Puritan’s addiction of workaholism) or by necessity (the “McJobbing” of the economy), we work unceasingly. In 2003, Americans worked 200 to 350 hours – five to nine weeks – longer per year than Europeans. Indeed, this was four weeks longer than they themselves had in 1969. Vacations average two weeks; in Europe they average five to six weeks. We spend 40% less time with our children than we did in 1965. Europeans, who consistently choose more leisure over bigger paychecks, claim that they work to live, while Americans seem to live to work.

Even if we factor out economic issues, the Puritan residue remains. Just below the skin of consumer culture we judge ourselves by how hard we work, and we relax only when we have acquired the symbols of redemption. Even then, we keep working.

One reason we work so hard is to afford the national status symbol, the car. We own far more than other countries, both in total and per capita. The average household now has more cars than drivers. Consequently, America leads the world in greenhouse emissions, both absolutely – a quarter of the world’s total – and per capita. We spend ten hours per week driving. We park those cars next to houses that average more than twice the size of European homes.

But the shadow of radical individualism reveals itself in epidemics of loneliness and alienation. According to Jill Lepore, neuroscientists identify loneliness as “a state of hypervigilance” embedded in our nervous system, inherited from our prehistoric ancestors. In the past seventy years the percentage of American households consisting of only one person has risen from 9% to 25%. She concludes:

Living alone works best in nations with strong social supports. It works worst in places like the United States. It is best to have not only an Internet but a social safety net.

Loneliness makes us sick, and alienation – combined with unrealistic expectations of success –makes us exceptionally willing to shoot up a schoolyard or other public space. th.jpg?w=257&h=171&profile=RESIZE_710xFor an excellent Depth Psychological perspective on the mass shootings of the past twenty years, read Glen Slater’s article A Mythology of Bullets. 

Despite the talk show rhetoric, Americans have always been taxed at far lower rates than the rest of the developed world. Even before the Reagan years, taxes amounted to 31% of GDP, while most European countries were well over 40%. There are at least two primary results of these disparities. We provide far fewer social services, and economic inequality is far higher than in any other developed nation.

By 2000 one percent of us owned forty percent of the wealth. By 2020, the top one percent owned nearly as much as the entire middle class. We have entered a “new Gilded Age” of unregulated capitalism and conspicuous consumption, as I write in We Like to Watch: Being There With Trump. In the first three months of the Coronavirus pandemic, American billionaires saw their wealth increase by half a trillion dollars.

And that wealth is age-based. Excluding tiny enclaves like Switzerland, white American adults over age forty are the richest in the world. Even so, America has the highest rate of children living in families with incomes below poverty guidelines; this is the result of fewer public resources spent on children than in any industrialized nation.

Youths are by far our poorest age group. Mortality rates among children are also the highest, approaching Third World conditions. Yet even the wealth figures for the elderly reveal surprises. Most – some 35 million – are very well off. But twelve percent of them – again, the highest in the industrialized world – remain in poverty even after Social Security and Medicare.

With a shrinking economy, miniscule taxes on corporations, Puritan condemnation of poverty and the maintenance of empire, it is little wonder that so few resources remain for the poor. The U.S. spends more money on armaments than the rest of the world combined.

Even so, confidence in American institutions – government, religion and education – had been dropping every year since the early 1970’s – at least until 9/11/01. Here we return to mythic questions. A large and occasionally threatening population of Others is absolutely crucial to the perpetuation of the myth of American innocence. As long as the internal Black Other threatens to take one’s job (or one’s daughter), as long as one believes in the necessity of constantly striving in unsatisfying work to attain the symbols that serve as substitutes for a genuine erotic life, one will work unceasingly. In June of 2020, we can legitimately ask, Do Black Lives Really Matter? 

Part Five

Christian nation mythologists pump themselves up with narratives of American exceptionalism and Christian domination. But sooner or later even their most devoted followers should begin to see that also depicting it as vulnerable to non-existent threats undermines the myth itself. – Sarah Posner

Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart; for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. – James Baldwin

Our compliant workforce is another aspect of American exceptionalism. Why, alone among developed nations, do we have no established political party that agitates for the rights of working and poor people?

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Why have so many unionized, blue-collar, white men supported such obvious criminals, fakes and warmongers as Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes and Trumpus?

Over three centuries after Bacon’s Rebellion, when blacks and whites briefly united and nearly toppled the government of colonial Virginia,  scholars still wonder – innocently – why a strong socialist movement never developed in America, as it did, at least for a while, almost everywhere else.

Karl Marx believed that every society would eventually evolve out of old-world hierarchy into capitalism, and inevitably capitalism would yield to socialism. The more advanced a nation becomes in capitalism, the closer it must be to embracing socialism. But socialists were baffled by how the United States defied this rule. No nation was more capitalist, yet no nation showed less interest in becoming socialist.

Werner Sombart focused on material abundance: socialism, he complained, had foundered in America “on the shoals of roast beef and apple pie.” Leon Samson saw that the real enemy of socialism was exceptionalism itself, because Americans give “a solemn assent to a handful of final notions—democracy, liberty, opportunity, to all of which the American adheres rationalistically much as a socialist adheres to his socialism.” In other words, radical individualism had become an ideology that overwhelmed our natural inclination to cooperate with each other.

Actually, Marx and Sombart were wrong, writes Allen Guelzo:

There had been an American socialism; they were reluctant to recognize it as such because it came not in the form of a workers’ rebellion against capital but in the emergence of a plantation oligarchy in the slaveholding South. This “feudal socialism,” based on race, called into question all the premises of American exceptionalism, starting with the Declaration of Independence. Nor were slavery’s apologists shy about linking this oligarchy to European socialism, since, as George Fitzhugh asserted in 1854, “Slavery produces association of labor, and is one of the ends all Communists and Socialists desire.”

The institution of slavery became the model for a broader economic / financial system in which corporate welfare, or “socialism for the wealthy” would exist only because of taxes on the middle class and massive budget deficits.

Academics, however, rarely consider the overwhelming presence of the Black Other, the elephant in the living room of their theories about exceptionalism. It is a simple fact that no other nation combined irresistible myths of opportunity with rigid legal systems deliberately intended to divide natural allies.

Whiteness implies both purity (which demands removal of impurities) and privilege. No matter how impoverished a white, male American feels, he hears hundreds of subtle messages every day of his life that invite him to separate himself from the impure.

Without racial privilege the concept of whiteness is meaningless. From the Civil War, when tens of thousands of dirt-poor whites died for a system that offered them nothing economically, to the Tea Partiers supporting politicians who blatantly promise to destroy their social benefits, white Americans have often had nothing to call their own except their relative position in the American caste hierarchy. We can only conclude that for them, and only in America, privilege trumps the potential of class unity.

Throughout both the developed world and their colonial outposts, the elite classes and their servants perceived left-wing organizing as rational, even logical antagonism to their rule, and they responded accordingly. Only Americans, however, saw communists as so polluting of our essential innocence, so un-American, so absolutely, irrevocably evil that they would create a Committee on Un-American Activities. has such fear, born in the Indian wars, the Salem Witch trials and the slave patrols, produced a surprisingly widespread consensus that any violations of human rights whatsoever are justified in suppressing the Other. Only in America have people proclaimed that they would rather be “better dead than red.” 

Thirty years ago, the memory of our eighty-year crusade against Communism was fading quickly from memory – except among those who recognized its mythic and political benefits. But that residue of fear and hatred never disappeared, and – under a Democratic President – it soon reappeared as a series of narratives that blame every national problem on “the Russians.”

How ironic: nineteenth-century thinkers occasionally referred to American exceptionalism; but the first national leader to use it (in 1929) was Joseph Stalin, as a critique of American communists who argued that their political climate was unique, making it an “exception” to certain elements of Marxist theory.

The systematic manufacture of consent – based on terror of pollution by outsiders – is the ultimate meaning of American exceptionalism. The U.S. is unique among empires in convincing its own poor and working-class victims that they share in its bounty – and to pay for its expenses. “How skillful,” wrote Howard Zinn, “to tax the middle class to pay for the relief of the poor, building resentment on top of humiliation!” Noam Chomsky writes, “The empire is like every other part of social policy: it’s a way for the poor to pay off the rich in their own society.”

Chomsky adds, “… any state has a primary enemy: its own population.” But in the U.S., an efficient system of control, a “brainwashing under freedom,” has flourished like nowhere else. It combines free speech and press with patriotic indoctrination and marginalization of alternative voices, leaving the impression that society is really open. The system distributes just enough wealth and influence to limit dissent, while it isolates people from each other and turns them toward symbols that create loyalty. The real function of the media is “to keep people from understanding the world.”

By limiting debate to those who never challenge the assumptions of innocence and benevolence, it maintains the illusion that all share a common interest. When the boundaries of acceptable thought are clear, debate is not suppressed but permitted. But in this context, the loyal opposition legitimizes these unspoken limits by their very presence. The system exists precisely because of our traditional freedom of expression. Chomsky quotes a public relations manual from the 1920’s, (aptly titled Propaganda): “The conscious…manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is a central feature of a democratic system.”

We can criticize the national state from this anarchist perspective not necessarily out of a particular ideology – Caroline Casey suggests “believes nothing but entertain possibilities” – but because it is closest to a tribal perspective. Mass society as we know it is barely four centuries old. For most of human history we have lived in small communities in which individuals knew everyone else and experienced fulfilling relationships within a mythic and ritual framework. Human nature has never had time to adjust to the strife and alienation of modern and post-modern society. And it is precisely this disconnect that advertising and political propaganda take advantage of.

Compared to Americans, many Third World peasants are free in one respect: they have no myth of innocence. Their consent may be coerced, but the media cannot manufacture it for them. They, far more than our educated classes, can see. Where their history has not been completely destroyed, they can see that there has been essentially no difference in American foreign policy for over 150 years. It is perfectly obvious to them that the U.S. controls their resources and manipulates their markets, while protecting American companies from “market discipline.” They know more than we could ever know that talk of “free markets” is just talk.

They know that the only significant changes in First and Third World relationships have been in the resources themselves (first agricultural, then mineral, then human), and in the nature of the overseers (first European, then American, then local tyrants who serve the corporations.) To them, “globalization” is merely the latest top-down phrase that rationalizes such practices.

Ultimately, what makes us exceptional is this mix of overt propaganda, subtle repression of free thought and a deep strain of purposeful ignorance. We want to believe the story. Only in America has a historical collusion existed between national mythology and the facts of domination, between the greed of the elite and the naivety of the people, between fathers who kill their children instead of initiating them and youth who willingly give themselves up to the factories and the killing fields.

Our exceptionalism lies in the denial of our racist and imperial foundations and our continuing white privilege. Cornel West writes, “No other democratic nation revels so blatantly in such self-deceptive innocence, such self-paralyzing reluctance to confront the night-side of its own history.” And because our storytellers regularly remind us of how generous, idealistic, moral, divinely inspired and innocent of all sin we are, we can deny the realities of race, environment, empire – and death.

Part Six

America is not exceptional because it has long attempted to be a force for good in the world, it tries to be a force for good because it is exceptional. – Peggy Noonan

It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. – Vladimir Putin

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

Ernest Becker asked,

What are we to make of a creation in which the routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart…bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence…and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue. Everyone reaching out to incorporate others who are edible to him.

The indigenous world imagined the Great Mother as both sustainer and destroyer. But modern people can only respond to Becker’s questions in dualistic terms. Either we feel the terror and are immobilized, or we construct myths of religion, romance and domination to transcend our fear of mortality. He argued that all human behavior is motivated by the unconscious need to deny this most fundamental anxiety.

Becker regretted that “we must shrink from being fully alive,” because seeing the world “as it really is, is devastating and terrifying,” and results in madness. Mystics, however, describe this insight as devastating to the individual ego, and a necessary, initiatory prelude to the unitive vision that transcends duality. Ancient devotees of Dionysus, as well as modern practitioners of Eastern and African-based religions, actually strive to attain this state. But for those who lack the containers of community and ritual, the unconscious fear of death is a primary motivator.

To the uninitiated modern person, the death of the ego and the death of the physical body are one and the same. And in America, the loss of identity (white, patriarchal, masculine, Christian, productive, growing, gainfully-employed, segregated into racially conformist neighborhoods, or simply privileged) seems to be equivalent to death of the ego. Yet the prospect of ecstatic escape from the confines of that ego continually beckons to us, and we respond in all manner of unconscious ways.  Let’s try to understand yet another essential American myth, the denial of death.

Despite seeing great progress since the writings of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and Jessica Mitford, American culture continues to deny and avoid the reality of death more than any other society. This is particularly curious, given our high degree of (perhaps superficial) religiosity. The myth of innocence represents the attitude of the adolescent who expects to live forever. It provides no space for acknowledging that death is a part of life, rather than its opposite. Some call death the most repressed theme of the twentieth century, comparable to the sex taboo of the 19th century. We still view it as morbid, and commonly exclude children from discussion of it. Many adults have never seen a corpse other than in the stage-managed context of the funeral parlor.

Kubler-Ross argued that since few really believe suffering will be rewarded in Heaven, “then suffering becomes purposeless in itself,” and doctors typically sedate the dying to lessen their pain. They are rushed to hospitals, frequently unconscious and against their will, and most die there or in nursing homes. Then the corpse disappears, not to be seen again until it has been “primped up to appear…asleep.” Euphemisms complete the ritual of denial. The “deceased” has “passed on” or “gone to his maker.” “How peaceful he looks.”

The purpose of the ritual is to repress the anxieties that arise when tending to a terminally ill patient. Relatives collude with medical personnel in an elaborate series of lies, maintaining the fiction of probable recovery until the dying person reaches the point of death. Typically, a doctor, rather than a minister, presides over the deathbed, keeping displays of emotion to a minimum. Adults deprive both children and the dying persons themselves of the opportunity to confront death.

Ironically, write Anthropologists Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalf, “In America, the archetypal land of enterprise, self-made men are reduced to puppets.” Then the body is embalmed, restored, dressed and transformed from a rotting cadaver into “a beautiful memory picture.” Neither law nor religion nor sanitation requires this process, and nowhere else but in North America is it widely done. In the last view the deceased seems asleep in a casket (often made of metal).

The ritual achieves two results. First, it insulates mourners from the process of decomposition, the finality of death and their own fears. Second, it minimizes cathartic expressions of grief. The funeral director, writes Mitford, “has put on a well-oiled performance in which the concept of death has played no part…” Wakes are generally pleasant social events, and mourners soon return to work. The mystery of death invites mourners to enter an initiatory space, but it closes too abruptly and too soon for any authentic transition or resolution. A veil that had been briefly lifted drops again.

We claim to believe that Christianity represents a victory over death, yet estrangement from nature is its central theme. Thus, to Americans, death must be either part of God’s plan or a punishment. Arnold Toynbee joked that death was “un-American,” an infringement on the right to the pursuit of happiness. By contrast, Native American tribal religions almost universally produced people unafraid of death, wrote Vine Deloria: “…the integrity of communal life did not create an artificial sense of personal identity that had to be protected and preserved at all costs.”

West African shaman Malidoma Some´ observes our characteristic refusal to give in to grief: “A non-Westerner arriving in this country for the first time is struck by how…(Americans) pride themselves for not showing how they feel about anything.” To him, we typically carry great loads of unexpressed grief. And this leads to a corresponding inability to experience joy: “People who do not know how to weep together are people who cannot laugh together.” This is a succinct, tribal definition of alienation – exile from the worlds of nature, community and spirit.

If we cannot grieve or tolerate the vision of the dark goddess and her bloody, dismembered son, then we cannot experience ecstasy either. We learn to tolerate pale substitutes: romance novels, horror movies (in which characters often refuse to die), the spectacles of popular music and sports, New Age spirituality, Sunday church and happy endings. We learn early to emphasize the light (including “lite”) to the eventual exclusion of the dark.

So our characteristic American expectation of positive emotions and emotional growth makes feelings of sadness and despair more pathological in this culture than elsewhere. Christina Kotchemidova writes, “Since ‘cheerfulness’ and ‘depression’ are bound by opposition, the more one is normalized, the more negative the other will appear.”

Ronald Laing argued that the modern family functions “… to repress Eros, to induce a false consciousness of security…to promote a respect for ‘respectability.’” To be respectable is to produce, and to look cheerful. American obsession with feeling good (“pursuing happiness”) is enshrined as a fundamental principle of the consumer society. As Kotchemidova explains,

Our personal feelings are constantly encouraged or discouraged by the culture of emotions we have internalized, and any significant deviance from the societal emotional norms is perceived as emotional disorder that necessitates treatment.

The average American feels real pressure to present him/herself as cheerful in order to get a job. Once he/she is employed, putting on a ready- made smile is simply not enough. “Corporations expect their staff to actually feel good about the work they do in order to appear convincing to clients.”

She argues that twentieth century America took on cheerfulness as an identifying characteristic. The new consumer economy of the 1920s called for cheerful salespeople and an American etiquette that obliged “niceness” and excluded strong emotionality. Among the dozens of self-help cheerfulness manuals, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) sold more than fifteen million copies. In the 1950s, the media industry invented numerous ways, including the TV “laugh track,” to induce cheerfulness. In the 1980s, politicians discovered cheerfulness; all Presidents since Reagan smile in their official photos (none had done so before). The “smiley face” button sold over 50 million units at its peak in 1971 but remains one of our most recognizable icons.

It follows that depression has reached epidemic proportions in America – and that violence is so fundamental to our experience. Kubler-Ross wrote that our denial of death “has only increased our anxiety and contributed to our…aggressiveness – to kill in order to avoid the reality and facing of our own death.” Phillip Slater wrote of “our technologically strangled environment” in which impersonal forces impact us from remote, Apollonic distances and provoke us to “find a remote victim on which to wreck our vengeance.” This is one reason why Americans rarely protest the military’s mass killing of distant Third World people. Another reason, of course, is their ignorance of the news.

But America was characterized from the start by extreme violence. It was present in the “idea” of America – not the abstract ideals of the founding fathers, but the projection of darkness, instinct and lust onto the Other in the already demythologized world of the seventeenth century. By the Industrial Revolution of the 1840’s, Americans had been slaughtering Indians and enslaving Africans for over two centuries. Herman Melville took note of this and wrote that Indian hating had become a “metaphysic.” Technology certainly contributed to alienation, loneliness and the breakdown of extended families and father-son relationships. But as a seed of depression and long-distance violence, it fell on fertile soil that had been well prepared.

And history conspired. No one alive can recall the carnage of the Civil War; since then we have fought our wars across great oceanic expanses. With the ready availability of handguns, we slaughter each other in small-scale violence like no other people in history. Except for urban race riots, however, there had been no warfare on American territory for well over a century until the terrorist acts of 2001.

These factors all help to perpetuate the myths of innocence and exceptionalism. The final ingredient is the state of the media, in which news reporting, political spin and entertainment are now almost indistinguishable, when half of us get our news from social media or TV comedy “news” shows.

On the one hand, media colludes with our need to remain sheltered from the world and our impact upon it. “We are so desperate for this,” writes Michael Ventura, that we are willing to accept ignorance as a substitute for innocence.” On the other hand, even as violent programming perpetuates fear of crime and terrorism, television has desensitized three generations of Americans to the actual effects of violence.

We all know the statistics. We can theoretically take two populations of children and predict that, as young adults fifteen years later, those who watch more TV will be more violent than the group that watched less. Thus, there is a direct connection between the national denial of death in the abstract and America’s ferocious expression of literal violence. James Hillman concluded that death is “the ultimate repressed,” who returns “through the body’s shattered disarray,” an incursion “into awareness as ultimate truth.”american-exceptionalism2.jpg?w=357&h=226&profile=RESIZE_710x

We innocently observe, we are shocked, and we quickly forget. In book talks I’ve often posed a trick question – When did you lose your innocence? – followed by another one – When did you lose it again? When an exceptional sense of personal and national innocence is so ingrained as ours is, every time it is punctured by circumstances it feels like the first time. In Chapter Eight of my book, I wrote of this experience after the attacks on the World Trade Towers:

The next day, a second wave of commentators offered more nuanced interpretations. Rabbi Marc Gelman, asked if America would be changed by this event, responded, “Yes, we have lost our innocence. We now know there is radical evil in the world.” It was out there, and Americans, mysteriously, had never heard about it. Psychologist Robert Butterworth’s son had asked him, “Daddy, why do they hate us so?” Staring mutely and miserably at the camera, he really didn’t know. His non-response assumed that viewers didn’t either. Such laments could have followed the Oklahoma City bombing, 1993’s WTC bombing, the TWA airliner bombing, the bombings of the destroyer Cole and Lebanon barracks, or any of the recent college or high school shootings. America, we were told, had lost her innocence.

From the perspective of outsiders, or of older cultures, or of the Other, losing our innocence is an absolutely necessary step for white Americans to step out of our adolescence and join the human community. But from within the myth of exceptionalism, losing our innocence is simply a temporary stage that precedes falling back asleep.

Never having confronted death directly, we must find a way to see it, by condoning violence or personally inflicting it upon others. Preferring vengeance to mourning, we are still the only nation to use atomic weapons. Americans invented napalm, cluster bombs and “anti-personnel” mines. We are stunningly unmoved by news of torture at Guantanamo, rape of prisoners in Iraq or police murders of unarmed African Americans, because innocence always trumps awareness. The nation that watches and exports thousands of hours of electronic mayhem and has more handguns than citizens is shocked – shocked! – every time a teenager massacres his schoolmates or a cop drives his car into a crowd of peaceful protestors.

Octavio Paz contrasted his own Mexican culture, which has an intimate relationship to the dark side of existence, with ours: “A culture that begins by denying death will end by denying life.” Such a nation desperately needs someone to save it – distract it – from the black hole of death, and to vanquish, rather than to accommodate those forces of darkness. Such a nation needs heroes. And it will get the heroes that it deserves. On the other hand, writes Caitlin Johnstone,

The principles of individual healing apply to collective healing as well. I have learned that an individual can experience a sudden, drastic shift in consciousness. I see no reason the collective can’t also. Of course humanity is capable of a transformative leap into health and maturity…The only people who doubt this are those who haven’t yet made such a leap in their own lives.

Read more…

Part One

Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts…a thousand special causes…have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. – Alexis De Tocqueville

More than any other people on Earth, we bear burdens and accept risks unprecedented in their size and their duration, not for ourselves alone but for all who wish to be free. – John F. Kennedy

All modern people have long internalized and taken for granted the 5,000-year-old heritage of patriarchy, as well as the 3,000-year-old literalized thinking of the Judeo-Christian tradition. We live in what Joseph Campbell called a “de-mythologized world.” It is not that we no longer have myths, but that we are generally unaware of them, they no longer serve us, and our ignorance of them makes us dangerous.

Within the wider concentric circles of those older myths, by adolescence almost all white Americans incorporate the myth of innocence. Our educational, religious and political institutions still teach the values of individualism, consumerism, mobility, racist exclusion and competition – and underneath, the deeper legacy of Puritanism – that define us as Americans. Above all, the media have replaced priests and storytellers in the ancient function of telling us who we are: a nation without a shadow, existing to enlighten and redeem the world – if necessarily, through violence.

Our essence, they tell us, is free enterprise. Entering the world as blank slates, with neither baggage nor purpose, we are free to make our own destiny, on our own merits. We assume that everyone should – and does – have equal access to the resources needed to become anything they want to be, and that one’s responsibilities to the broader community are limited to its defense.

And when sceptics confront us with statistics or stories that question these assumptions, it is our characteristic shock, followed by denial and forgetting, that is the proof of the power of myth.

Myths speak of beginnings, how the world came into existence. We take for granted that the gods (or in our story, the forefathers, the founding fathers) have left us the means to aid the process of freely competing with each other, including a free market of ideas, products and services. th-3.jpg?w=321&h=239&profile=RESIZE_710x As a result, we believe that we live in an affluent society – the best in the world – that has resolved old racial problems, and that we were meant to do this. Again: our shocked response to regular evidence to the contrary shows how strongly our mythic narratives hold us.

The idea of American exceptionalism arises out of this contradictory tangle of ideals and realities.

Curiously, this collectivity of free and purposeless libertarians thinks of ourselves as a nation that is inherently different from other nations; that we are in fact superior to other nations; that we have a unique mission to transform the world, to spread opportunity and freedom everywhere.

However, anyone who has achieved some detachment from the myth can see that those rights and freedoms have rarely been available to most citizens. Indeed, Americans have won them only after decades of sacrifice; and many of them have been eroded in recent decades. But the fact remains that the myth of national purpose and innocence is so pervasive that even in those rare moments when the nation confronts bare reality, we quickly re-veil it. Recall the conservative refrain of the 1960’s: My country – right or wrong! Americans have developed a very old, unique and massive cognitive dissonance – if facts contradict the story, then it is the facts that must change.

Our academic and media intellectuals continually reframe information. This is not at all to take a conservative (more accurately, reactionary) position on the mainstream media as “fake news,” only to acknowledge how they set the terms of debate, frame all reporting in subtle but consistent ways, and rarely convey news or commentary that might be perceived as inconsistent with the main story. In other words, the “liberal establishment” has an essentially religious function, like the Inquisition: preventing, or at least marginalizing heresy. For more on this theme, please see these other essays of mine:

Academic Gatekeepers

Deconstructing a Gatekeeper

Funny Guys, Fake News and Gatekeepers

False Equivalencies

Americans really are unique in many ways, concluded historian Richard Hofstadter. Whereas other nations’ identities come from common ancestry, “It has been our fate…not to have ideologies, but to be one.” One cannot become un-English or un-French. “Being an American…” wrote Seymour Lipset, is “an ideological commitment. It is not a matter of birth. Those who reject American values are (considered to be) un-American.”

It is an eternal mystery: the world’s most materialistic culture, where consumerism and “lifestyles” were invented, where the predatory imagination has reached its apogee – is also the most religious country in Christendom, exhibiting greater acceptance of literal belief and higher levels of church attendance than other industrialized countries. Ninety-four percent of Americans express “faith in God,” as compared with 70% of Britons. Only 2% of Americans are atheists, as opposed to 19% in France.

Part Two

I’ve always believed that this blessed land was set apart in a special way. In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace. – Ronald Reagan

What I really found unspeakable about the man (Reagan) was his contempt, his brutal contempt, for the poor. – James Baldwin

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

Here is another curious contradiction. This is the nation that took radical individualism to extremes seen nowhere else. The United States is the only major nation with significant Libertarian ideologues (for more, see my article The Mythic Foundations of Libertarianism), even if most of them prove to be confused if not hypocritical. And yet, studies show that Americans are more willing to fight if their country goes to war.

This stems not only from our violent heritage and historical isolation from war’s effects, but also from our Protestant moralism and the myth of the Frontier. A majority of us tell pollsters that God is the moral guiding force of American democracy. Therefore, when Americans go to war, they generally define themselves as being on God’s side against evil incarnate. Wars are not simple political conflicts; they are crusades, and evil must be annihilated. Lipset writes, “We have always fought the ‘evil empire.’”

Americans have a high sense of personal responsibility and independent initiative. Shared belief in the value of hard work, public education and equality of opportunity continues to influence attitudes toward progress. In 1991, close to three fourths of parents expected their offspring to do better than they, and (in 1996) a similar percentage expected to improve their standard of living, while only 40% of Europeans shared this optimism. Forty percent believed that there is a greater chance to move up from one social class to another than thirty years before. We still believe – deeply – in a nation of “self-made men” – and that poverty is our own fault, not that of the system. We still believe that we will continue to grow and progress toward fulfillment of our dreams, despite consistent evidence to the contrary.

But what are those dreams? Aren’t they equal part nightmare? For all of its enviably optimistic, pragmatic, “can-do” ways, from the beginning this nation has always carried a great bag of fear over its shoulder. At the root of things was a kind of theological fear: the constant anxiety of never really knowing if one is among the elect of God, which propelled the Puritan to work unceasingly.

Layered above that has been the unsettling dread of the guilty, colonial settler: the knowledge that one will never belong to this land as one’s Old World ancestors did to their land.dunbar_ortiz_bacons_rebellion_second_amendment_guns_settler_colonialism_850_593.jpg?w=302&h=210&profile=RESIZE_710x These anxieties, and the need to justify the theft of a continent and the enslavement of millions, led to the creation of the myth of American innocence. And this myth required a people who would perpetually live in fear of the unspeakably evil red men who might sweep down out of the forest at any moment to attack the innocent community, and of treacherous black men who might rise up from within the community to mix with their women.

Lipset reveals the characteristically liberal naiveté of our intellectual classes: “America has been a universalistic culture, slavery and the black situation apart” (my italics). Indeed.

Human bondage, institutionalized discrimination, mass murder of the natives and “free” land created the economic foundations for the very senses of optimism, moralism, affluence and idealism that, to Lipset, distinguish America from other countries. 1200-535984779-attempts-to-abolish-of-slavery.jpg?w=288&h=410&profile=RESIZE_710xHoward Zinn provides some needed balance: “There is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States.” Without the protracted, unresolved and unmourned crimes of genocide and slavery there would be no affluence, no optimism, no police brutality and no innocence in America. And no privilege.

Whoever uses statistics to argue about America is lost in a dream. Since most polls question likely voters, they ignore most poor people, most minorities and most young people. But this confusion provides us with a metaphor for one of the mythic factors in American exceptionalism: “white thinking.” The sense of privilege is so deeply engrained, so invisible that few whites notice or question it; this is why it has mythic power. Politicians and pundits take the perspective of the white male, speaking of “African-Americans,” or “Asian-Americans,” but never “European-Americans.” Their language reveals exactly who is a member of the polis and who isn’t. This inconsequential example points, however, to the significant.

We must begin with the most fundamental aspect of privilege: it is invisible to nearly all whites, and perfectly obvious to all people of color. It is the psychological advantage of having views that define the norm for everyone else. It allows one to view oneself as an individual. It allows liberals to claim that they don’t think of themselves as any color at all. Tim Wise writes, “To even say that our group status is irrelevant…is to suggest that one has enjoyed the privilege of experiencing the world that way (or rather, believing that one has.)”

Privilege allows working-class whites to deny that privilege itself does not exist. It allows them to vote against their economic interests in favor of other advantages. It allows them, even when dirt-poor, to cleave to an identity of white, male, Christian and heterosexual – as moral and clean – rather than as members of a socio-economic class. It allows them membership in the polis, even if they can’t afford to live within its walls.

White privilege allows one to not have to think about race every day. It is freedom to not be viewed as violent or hyper-sexual, not be racially profiled, not worry about being viewed with suspicion when buying a home, or not be denied a job interview. It is the freedom to avoid being stigmatized by the actions of others with the same skin color, and thus to regularly disprove negative stereotypes.

The invisible ocean of privilege lies at the core of both capitalism and innocence. Despite the grinding tensions and anxieties of modern life, it allows whites – including recent immigrants – to have a sense of place in the social hierarchy and to believe in upward mobility for their children. They can know who they are because, as un-hyphenated Americans, they are not the Other.

For much more, please see these essays of mine:

Privilege

Affirmative Action for Whites

Old World nations, for all their limitations on freedom, have known who they are because they have inhabited their land forever. But Americans, in the rush to define ourselves in terms of the Other have periodically been overwhelmed by the need to cleanse the polis through the violent rejection of the impure. Without our characteristically American Paranoid Imagination, we would not endure periodic inquisitions and tribunals running from the Salem witch craze through the Red Scare of 1919 through McCarthyism, the post-9-11 anxieties that keep the “war on terror” going, the Tea Party, and Trump.

Here is another surprising contradiction. Because American identity is so fragile, we have always been driven, more than anything, by fear. In 2015, Glenn Greenwald offered some recent quotes by politicians who have made their careers manipulating what is in fact our exceptional willingness to be immobilized by phobias and nightmares:

— Lindsey Graham: We have never seen more threats against our nation and its citizens than we do today.

 Dianne Feinstein: I have never seen a time of greater potential danger than right now.

— NSA chief Michael Rogers: The number of threats has never been greater.

— Canadian defense minister Jason Kenney: The threat of terrorism has never been greater.

— CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell: The ‘lone wolf’ terrorist threat to the United States has never been greater.

— U.K. Prime Minister Cameron: Britain faces the greatest and deepest terror threat in the country’s history.

— Rep. Mike McCaul: Something will detonate…I’ve never seen a greater threat in my lifetime.

— Anonymous EU counter-terrorism official: The threat of attacks has never been greater — not at the time of 9/11, not after the war in Iraq — never.

“Here we are,” continued Greenwald,

…14 years after 9/11, and it’s still always the worst threat ever in all of history, never been greater. If we always face the greatest threat ever, then one of two things is true: 1) fearmongers serially exaggerate the threat for self-interested reasons, or 2) they’re telling the truth — the threat is always getting more severe, year after year — which might mean we should evaluate the wisdom of “terrorism” policies that constantly make the problem worse. Whatever else is true, the people who should have the least credibility on the planet are the Lindsey Grahams and Dianne Feinsteins who have spent the last 15 years exploiting the terror threat in order to terrorize the American population into doing what they want.

Here are some other essays of mine on this subject:

The outside Agitator

The Mythic Sources of White Rage

Shock and Awe 

American Witch-Hunt

A vacation in Chaos

Why Are Americans So Freaking Crazy?

Part Three

America remains the indispensable nation…there are times when America, and only America, can make a difference between war and peace, between freedom and repression. – Bill Clinton

I laughed to myself…”Here we go. I’m starting a war under false pretenses.” – Admiral James Stockdale, on the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident

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

It is another colossal mystery, if not an outright contradiction. For the American economic and military empire to justify a constant state of war, with military bases in 160 countries, it has to do two things. It must rely on certain subsets of the exceptionalism myth.

Michael Ignatieff calls them “exemptionalism” (supporting treaties as long as U.S. citizens are exempt from them); “double standards” (criticizing “others for not heeding the findings of international human rights bodies, but ignoring what these organizations say of the United States”); and “legal isolationism” (the tendency of U.S. judges to ignore other jurisdictions). But such policies – absolutely the same under Democratic or Republican Presidents – rely, in turn, on both the belligerence and the ignorance of the public.

And it must rely on keeping its citizens – us – in a perpetual state of anxiety. If we were honest, we’d have to admit that our neurotic susceptibility to fear-mongering is a primary characteristic of American exceptionalism. Here are some others:

America is simultaneously the world’s most religious, patriotic – and materialistic – society. If we add that it is also the most racist, violent, punitive and aggressive of nations, we have the ingredients that require a myth of exceptional innocence. I offer the following statistics and comparisons not out of gratuitous America-bashing, but to put the yawning gap between myth and reality into a helpful perspective. These are a small sample of statistics I collected in 2008 for Chapter Nine of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence. Some point toward our profound, media-nourished ignorance; others reflect the fundamental themes that really do distinguish America from other societies.

Seymour Lipset’s innocent fascination with the bright side allows him to avoid the fact that America (with the sole exception, for a few years, of Nazi Germany) is the most violent society in history. Most of the realities that actually make America unique stem from the foundational facts of conquest and racism.

Our frontier mythology, individualism and inflated fear of the Other have prevented the gun-control measures common in almost all countries. Americans own 250 million legal and 25 million illegal firearms, approximately 1.7 guns per adult. Forty percent own guns. Our adult murder rate is seven times higher and our teen murder rate twelve times higher than in Britain, France, Italy, Australia, Canada and Germany. These nations together have 20 million teenagers; in 1990 a total of 300 were murdered. That same year, of America’s 17 million teens, 3,000 were murdered, while thirty of Japan’s ten million teens were murdered, a rate one-fiftieth of ours.

Annually, 15,000 Americans are murdered, 18,000 commit suicide and 1,500 die accidentally by guns. Twenty-four percent of us believe that it is acceptable to use violence to get what we want. Forty-two percent strongly agree that “under some conditions, war is necessary to obtain justice,” compared with just 11% of Europeans. In 2020 I hope that I don’t need to provide any statistics on the prevalence of police violence toward people of color, or of mass murders. But I will remind the reader that the vast majority of them are perpetrated by white men.white_killers.jpg?w=310&h=206&profile=RESIZE_710x

Our disdain for authority and love of guns contributes to the highest crime rate in the developed world. How we calculate the numbers, of course, reveals our prejudices toward “blue-collar” crime and the lack of political will to control “white-collar” crime, which is certainly far more influential. And there is a mythical component as well. Our fascination with TV and movie Mafioso indicates that many of us perceive organized crime to be an alternative mode of accessing the American Dream. Sociologist Daniel Bell writes that we see this kind of crime as a “natural by-product of American culture…one of the queer ladders of social mobility…”

But the fear of crime and the need for scapegoats results in over two million Americans in jail, more than in any other country except China, with five times the population. With 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 22% of the world’s prisoners. And the fact that few of our prisoners and ex-prisoners are allowed to vote is a major factor in the legalized voter suppression that keeps reactionaries in power in over two dozen states. For more on this, see my essay on the election of 2016, Trump: Madness, Machines, Migrations and Mythology. 

Traditionally, the fear of crime has also been bound up with the fear of miscegenation, or the mixing of the tainted blood of Black people and other undesirables with that of the pure, Anglo-Saxon blood of Whites, who first began calling themselves “native Americans” as early as the 1830s. Well before that point, the nation that was truly exceptional in the sense of being composed primarily of immigrants and their descendants had already been struggling with both legal and de facto definitions of just who would be accepted as full citizens. And this has never ended. The topic is too vast for this essay, but you can read much more here:

The Myth of Immigration

Who is an American? 

The United States has over a million lawyers, far more both in sheer numbers and per capita (twice as many as Britain, in second place) than the rest of the world. This in part reflects the fact that we have far higher rates of divorce and single parent families. But our teen pregnancy rate – twice that of any European nation – leads to questions of religion. American teenagers’ expressive individualism leads them to have early intercourse. But often their greater religiosity – and restricted access to sex education – undermines any attempts at a rational approach to birth control.

Despite the creed of separation of church and state, the Republican base continues to insist on the old, strict legislation of morality. While abortion and gay rights are non-issues in almost all European countries, puritan prejudices continue to infect our attitudes toward the body. Although we engage in more premarital sex than the British, we are far more likely to condemn promiscuity. One out of every four American men condemn premarital sex as “always wrong” – more than three times that of the British.

Between 45% and 60% tell pollsters that they believe in the literal, seven-day creation story, and 25% want it required teaching in public schools. Forty percent believe the world will end with the battle of Armageddon. Sixty-eight percent (including fifty-five percent of those with post-graduate degrees) believe in the literal existence of the Devil.

Part Four

Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom. This is the everlasting dream of America. – George W. Bush

I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. – Barack Obama

In fact, American exceptionalism is that we are exceptionally backward in about fifteen different categories, from education to infrastructure. – James Hillman

And yet, despite such emotionally laden issues, both civic participation and civic awareness continue to decline. Americans vote in lower percentages than in any other democracy. One hundred million eligible voters stayed home in November of 2016. Of those ineligible to vote, 4.7 million – a third of them Black men – are disenfranchised by felony convictions.

America has slipped from first to 17th in the world in high school graduation rates and 49th in literacy. Surveys regularly indicate just how “dumbed-down” we are: 60%, for example, know that Superman came from the planet Krypton, while 37% know that Mercury is the planet closest to our sun. Similarly, 74% know all three Stooges, while 42% can name the three branches of the U.S. government.

Millions of citizens completely misunderstand common political labels. Nearly 50% believe or are not sure that conservatives support gun control and affirmative action, and 19% think that conservatives oppose cutting taxes. Seventy percent cannot name their senators or their congressman. In 2000, twelve million Americans thought that George W. Bush was a liberal.

Studies indicate that social mobility – the opportunity to move up into a higher social class – has decreased significantly. But in a 2003 poll on the Bush tax plan, 56% of the blue-collar men who correctly perceived it as favoring the rich still supported it. The myth of the self-made man is so deeply engrained that our ignorance of the facts is equaled only by our optimism: in 2000 19% of respondents believed that they would “soon” be in the top one percent income bracket, and another 19% thought that they already were. Similarly, 50% think that most families have to pay the estate tax (only two percent do), and two-thirds think that they will one day have to pay it. Twenty years later, those numbers have certainly come down. But in America disillusionment can just as easily turn someone’s politics to right as to the left, as the 2016 election showed.

Our ignorance is both the cause and the result of our unique voting system. The Founding Fathers devised both our two-tiered legislature and the Electoral College fearing (pick one) “mob rule” or “genuine democracy.” The Electoral College prevents millions from having their voice heard in national elections. Three times, a presidential candidate has won 500,000 more votes than his opponent, only to lose the election. Senators from the 26 smallest states (representing 18% of the population) hold a majority in the Senate. Still, though most citizens are ignorant of these statistics, they are not stupid: majorities regularly favor dismantling the Electoral College.

But the system, designed to limit democratic participation, has succeeded. As fewer people believe that their votes matter, they lose interest in keeping track of events, and ignorance becomes reality. The contradiction becomes monumental when we periodically bond together to “bring democracy” elsewhere.

A vicious cycle develops: low turnout by the poor results in government that is far more conservative than the population; and politicians reaffirm their apathy by courting the middle class. Indeed, in countless subtle ways the process of voting in America is designed to restrict participation: voting on one work-day instead of weekends; massive voter suppression; computer fraud; and hostile right-wing operatives.

“Americanism” is a mix of contradictory images: competitive individualism balanced by paranoid conformism; an ideology of equality with a subtext of racial exclusion; and official church-state separation negated by the legislation of morality. These features come together in one truly exceptional symbol: the cult of the flag, which we literally worship. We have Flag Day, Flag etiquette and a unique national anthem dedicated to it that we sing, curiously, at sporting events. Twenty-seven states require school children to salute it daily.

But worship? Consider the Flag Code: “The flag represents a living country and is considered a living thing.” Indeed, religious minorities have refused to salute it specifically because they consider such action to be blasphemous. But dread of the Other and re-invigorated, manipulated support for the military creates religious fervor – and fearful politicians. All fifty state legislatures have urged Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to make defacing the flag a crime.

The myths of freedom and opportunity – two-thirds of us believe that success is within our control – meet the myth of the Puritan to form another exceptional characteristic. Since Puritans still perceive both morality and worldly success as evidence of their elect status, we are a nation in which the poor have no one to blame (and often to turn to) but themselves. By more than six to one, we believe that people who fail in life do so because of their own shortcomings, not because of social conditions.

We are exceptional among industrialized countries in failing to provide for pregnant and newly parenting workers; only two other countries do not mandate maternity leave. Reforms such as unemployment insurance came into effect in the U.S. thirty to fifty years after most European countries had introduced them. They remain highly popular there; but as low-income constituencies shrink, both Republicans and Democrats have felt free to erode them.

(Let me point out, by the way, that I compiled most of these statistics for my book prior to the economic meltdown of 2008 and long before the Depression of 2020.)

The results: Nearly four million children live with parents who had no jobs in the previous year. The U.S. is 22nd in child poverty, 24th in life expectancy, 24th in income inequality, 26th in infant mortality, 37th in overall health performance and 54th in fairness of health care. Even so, America’s health care system is the costliest in the world. We spend over $5,200 per person on health care, more than double what 29 other industrialized nations spent. This equals 15% of our GDP, compared to Britain’s 7.7%. We account for 50% of the world’s drug budget, and we were 28th in environmental performance, long before Trumpus (Trump = Us) trashed most of the nation’s regulatory agencies.

Americans naively consider themselves to be quite generous in helping poor nations. In fact, our Puritan judgment encompasses the whole world. We are 22nd in proportion of GDP devoted to foreign aid, and over half of it goes to client states in the Middle East. Indeed, nearly 80 % of USAID contracts and grants go directly to American companies. Nearly 70% of Europeans want their governments to give more aid to poor nations, while nearly half of Americans claim that rich nations are already giving too much.

By choice (the Puritan’s addiction of workaholism) or by necessity (the “McJobbing” of the economy), we work unceasingly. In 2003, Americans worked 200 to 350 hours – five to nine weeks – longer per year than Europeans. Indeed, this was four weeks longer than they themselves had in 1969. Vacations average two weeks; in Europe they average five to six weeks. We spend 40% less time with our children than we did in 1965. Europeans, who consistently choose more leisure over bigger paychecks, claim that they work to live, while Americans seem to live to work.

Even if we factor out economic issues, the Puritan residue remains. Just below the skin of consumer culture we judge ourselves by how hard we work, and we relax only when we have acquired the symbols of redemption. Even then, we keep working.

One reason we work so hard is to afford the national status symbol, the car. We own far more than other countries, both in total and per capita. The average household now has more cars than drivers. Consequently, America leads the world in greenhouse emissions, both absolutely – a quarter of the world’s total – and per capita. We spend ten hours per week driving. We park those cars next to houses that average more than twice the size of European homes.

But the shadow of radical individualism reveals itself in epidemics of loneliness and alienation. According to Jill Lepore, neuroscientists identify loneliness as “a state of hypervigilance” embedded in our nervous system, inherited from our prehistoric ancestors. In the past seventy years the percentage of American households consisting of only one person has risen from 9% to 25%. She concludes:

Living alone works best in nations with strong social supports. It works worst in places like the United States. It is best to have not only an Internet but a social safety net.

Loneliness makes us sick, and alienation – combined with unrealistic expectations of success –makes us exceptionally willing to shoot up a schoolyard or other public space. th.jpg?w=257&h=171&profile=RESIZE_710xFor an excellent Depth Psychological perspective on the mass shootings of the past twenty years, read Glen Slater’s article A Mythology of Bullets. 

Despite the talk show rhetoric, Americans have always been taxed at far lower rates than the rest of the developed world. Even before the Reagan years, taxes amounted to 31% of GDP, while most European countries were well over 40%. There are at least two primary results of these disparities. We provide far fewer social services, and economic inequality is far higher than in any other developed nation.

By 2000 one percent of us owned forty percent of the wealth. By 2020, the top one percent owned nearly as much as the entire middle class. We have entered a “new Gilded Age” of unregulated capitalism and conspicuous consumption, as I write in We Like to Watch: Being There With Trump. In the first three months of the Coronavirus pandemic, American billionaires saw their wealth increase by half a trillion dollars.

And that wealth is age-based. Excluding tiny enclaves like Switzerland, white American adults over age forty are the richest in the world. Even so, America has the highest rate of children living in families with incomes below poverty guidelines; this is the result of fewer public resources spent on children than in any industrialized nation.

Youths are by far our poorest age group. Mortality rates among children are also the highest, approaching Third World conditions. Yet even the wealth figures for the elderly reveal surprises. Most – some 35 million – are very well off. But twelve percent of them – again, the highest in the industrialized world – remain in poverty even after Social Security and Medicare.

With a shrinking economy, miniscule taxes on corporations, Puritan condemnation of poverty and the maintenance of empire, it is little wonder that so few resources remain for the poor. The U.S. spends more money on armaments than the rest of the world combined.

Even so, confidence in American institutions – government, religion and education – had been dropping every year since the early 1970’s – at least until 9/11/01. Here we return to mythic questions. A large and occasionally threatening population of Others is absolutely crucial to the perpetuation of the myth of American innocence. As long as the internal Black Other threatens to take one’s job (or one’s daughter), as long as one believes in the necessity of constantly striving in unsatisfying work to attain the symbols that serve as substitutes for a genuine erotic life, one will work unceasingly. In June of 2020, we can legitimately ask, Do Black Lives Really Matter? 

Part Five

Christian nation mythologists pump themselves up with narratives of American exceptionalism and Christian domination. But sooner or later even their most devoted followers should begin to see that also depicting it as vulnerable to non-existent threats undermines the myth itself. – Sarah Posner

Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart; for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. – James Baldwin

Our compliant workforce is another aspect of American exceptionalism. Why, alone among developed nations, do we have no established political party that agitates for the rights of working and poor people?

2e1ax_origami_entry_tea-party-movement.jpg?w=640&profile=RESIZE_710x

Why have so many unionized, blue-collar, white men supported such obvious criminals, fakes and warmongers as Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes and Trumpus?

Over three centuries after Bacon’s Rebellion, when blacks and whites briefly united and nearly toppled the government of colonial Virginia,  scholars still wonder – innocently – why a strong socialist movement never developed in America, as it did, at least for a while, almost everywhere else.

Karl Marx believed that every society would eventually evolve out of old-world hierarchy into capitalism, and inevitably capitalism would yield to socialism. The more advanced a nation becomes in capitalism, the closer it must be to embracing socialism. But socialists were baffled by how the United States defied this rule. No nation was more capitalist, yet no nation showed less interest in becoming socialist.

Werner Sombart focused on material abundance: socialism, he complained, had foundered in America “on the shoals of roast beef and apple pie.” Leon Samson saw that the real enemy of socialism was exceptionalism itself, because Americans give “a solemn assent to a handful of final notions—democracy, liberty, opportunity, to all of which the American adheres rationalistically much as a socialist adheres to his socialism.” In other words, radical individualism had become an ideology that overwhelmed our natural inclination to cooperate with each other.

Actually, Marx and Sombart were wrong, writes Allen Guelzo:

There had been an American socialism; they were reluctant to recognize it as such because it came not in the form of a workers’ rebellion against capital but in the emergence of a plantation oligarchy in the slaveholding South. This “feudal socialism,” based on race, called into question all the premises of American exceptionalism, starting with the Declaration of Independence. Nor were slavery’s apologists shy about linking this oligarchy to European socialism, since, as George Fitzhugh asserted in 1854, “Slavery produces association of labor, and is one of the ends all Communists and Socialists desire.”

The institution of slavery became the model for a broader economic / financial system in which corporate welfare, or “socialism for the wealthy” would exist only because of taxes on the middle class and massive budget deficits.

Academics, however, rarely consider the overwhelming presence of the Black Other, the elephant in the living room of their theories about exceptionalism. It is a simple fact that no other nation combined irresistible myths of opportunity with rigid legal systems deliberately intended to divide natural allies.

Whiteness implies both purity (which demands removal of impurities) and privilege. No matter how impoverished a white, male American feels, he hears hundreds of subtle messages every day of his life that invite him to separate himself from the impure.

Without racial privilege the concept of whiteness is meaningless. From the Civil War, when tens of thousands of dirt-poor whites died for a system that offered them nothing economically, to the Tea Partiers supporting politicians who blatantly promise to destroy their social benefits, white Americans have often had nothing to call their own except their relative position in the American caste hierarchy. We can only conclude that for them, and only in America, privilege trumps the potential of class unity.

Throughout both the developed world and their colonial outposts, the elite classes and their servants perceived left-wing organizing as rational, even logical antagonism to their rule, and they responded accordingly. Only Americans, however, saw communists as so polluting of our essential innocence, so un-American, so absolutely, irrevocably evil that they would create a Committee on Un-American Activities. has such fear, born in the Indian wars, the Salem Witch trials and the slave patrols, produced a surprisingly widespread consensus that any violations of human rights whatsoever are justified in suppressing the Other. Only in America have people proclaimed that they would rather be “better dead than red.” 

Thirty years ago, the memory of our eighty-year crusade against Communism was fading quickly from memory – except among those who recognized its mythic and political benefits. But that residue of fear and hatred never disappeared, and – under a Democratic President – it soon reappeared as a series of narratives that blame every national problem on “the Russians.”

How ironic: nineteenth-century thinkers occasionally referred to American exceptionalism; but the first national leader to use it (in 1929) was Joseph Stalin, as a critique of American communists who argued that their political climate was unique, making it an “exception” to certain elements of Marxist theory.

The systematic manufacture of consent – based on terror of pollution by outsiders – is the ultimate meaning of American exceptionalism. The U.S. is unique among empires in convincing its own poor and working-class victims that they share in its bounty – and to pay for its expenses. “How skillful,” wrote Howard Zinn, “to tax the middle class to pay for the relief of the poor, building resentment on top of humiliation!” Noam Chomsky writes, “The empire is like every other part of social policy: it’s a way for the poor to pay off the rich in their own society.”

Chomsky adds, “… any state has a primary enemy: its own population.” But in the U.S., an efficient system of control, a “brainwashing under freedom,” has flourished like nowhere else. It combines free speech and press with patriotic indoctrination and marginalization of alternative voices, leaving the impression that society is really open. The system distributes just enough wealth and influence to limit dissent, while it isolates people from each other and turns them toward symbols that create loyalty. The real function of the media is “to keep people from understanding the world.”

By limiting debate to those who never challenge the assumptions of innocence and benevolence, it maintains the illusion that all share a common interest. When the boundaries of acceptable thought are clear, debate is not suppressed but permitted. But in this context, the loyal opposition legitimizes these unspoken limits by their very presence. The system exists precisely because of our traditional freedom of expression. Chomsky quotes a public relations manual from the 1920’s, (aptly titled Propaganda): “The conscious…manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is a central feature of a democratic system.”

We can criticize the national state from this anarchist perspective not necessarily out of a particular ideology – Caroline Casey suggests “believes nothing but entertain possibilities” – but because it is closest to a tribal perspective. Mass society as we know it is barely four centuries old. For most of human history we have lived in small communities in which individuals knew everyone else and experienced fulfilling relationships within a mythic and ritual framework. Human nature has never had time to adjust to the strife and alienation of modern and post-modern society. And it is precisely this disconnect that advertising and political propaganda take advantage of.

Compared to Americans, many Third World peasants are free in one respect: they have no myth of innocence. Their consent may be coerced, but the media cannot manufacture it for them. They, far more than our educated classes, can see. Where their history has not been completely destroyed, they can see that there has been essentially no difference in American foreign policy for over 150 years. It is perfectly obvious to them that the U.S. controls their resources and manipulates their markets, while protecting American companies from “market discipline.” They know more than we could ever know that talk of “free markets” is just talk.

They know that the only significant changes in First and Third World relationships have been in the resources themselves (first agricultural, then mineral, then human), and in the nature of the overseers (first European, then American, then local tyrants who serve the corporations.) To them, “globalization” is merely the latest top-down phrase that rationalizes such practices.

Ultimately, what makes us exceptional is this mix of overt propaganda, subtle repression of free thought and a deep strain of purposeful ignorance. We want to believe the story. Only in America has a historical collusion existed between national mythology and the facts of domination, between the greed of the elite and the naivety of the people, between fathers who kill their children instead of initiating them and youth who willingly give themselves up to the factories and the killing fields.

Our exceptionalism lies in the denial of our racist and imperial foundations and our continuing white privilege. Cornel West writes, “No other democratic nation revels so blatantly in such self-deceptive innocence, such self-paralyzing reluctance to confront the night-side of its own history.” And because our storytellers regularly remind us of how generous, idealistic, moral, divinely inspired and innocent of all sin we are, we can deny the realities of race, environment, empire – and death.

Part Six

America is not exceptional because it has long attempted to be a force for good in the world, it tries to be a force for good because it is exceptional. – Peggy Noonan

It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. – Vladimir Putin

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

Ernest Becker asked,

What are we to make of a creation in which the routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart…bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence…and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue. Everyone reaching out to incorporate others who are edible to him.

The indigenous world imagined the Great Mother as both sustainer and destroyer. But modern people can only respond to Becker’s questions in dualistic terms. Either we feel the terror and are immobilized, or we construct myths of religion, romance and domination to transcend our fear of mortality. He argued that all human behavior is motivated by the unconscious need to deny this most fundamental anxiety.

Becker regretted that “we must shrink from being fully alive,” because seeing the world “as it really is, is devastating and terrifying,” and results in madness. Mystics, however, describe this insight as devastating to the individual ego, and a necessary, initiatory prelude to the unitive vision that transcends duality. Ancient devotees of Dionysus, as well as modern practitioners of Eastern and African-based religions, actually strive to attain this state. But for those who lack the containers of community and ritual, the unconscious fear of death is a primary motivator.

To the uninitiated modern person, the death of the ego and the death of the physical body are one and the same. And in America, the loss of identity (white, patriarchal, masculine, Christian, productive, growing, gainfully-employed, segregated into racially conformist neighborhoods, or simply privileged) seems to be equivalent to death of the ego. Yet the prospect of ecstatic escape from the confines of that ego continually beckons to us, and we respond in all manner of unconscious ways.  Let’s try to understand yet another essential American myth, the denial of death.

Despite seeing great progress since the writings of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and Jessica Mitford, American culture continues to deny and avoid the reality of death more than any other society. This is particularly curious, given our high degree of (perhaps superficial) religiosity. The myth of innocence represents the attitude of the adolescent who expects to live forever. It provides no space for acknowledging that death is a part of life, rather than its opposite. Some call death the most repressed theme of the twentieth century, comparable to the sex taboo of the 19th century. We still view it as morbid, and commonly exclude children from discussion of it. Many adults have never seen a corpse other than in the stage-managed context of the funeral parlor.

Kubler-Ross argued that since few really believe suffering will be rewarded in Heaven, “then suffering becomes purposeless in itself,” and doctors typically sedate the dying to lessen their pain. They are rushed to hospitals, frequently unconscious and against their will, and most die there or in nursing homes. Then the corpse disappears, not to be seen again until it has been “primped up to appear…asleep.” Euphemisms complete the ritual of denial. The “deceased” has “passed on” or “gone to his maker.” “How peaceful he looks.”

The purpose of the ritual is to repress the anxieties that arise when tending to a terminally ill patient. Relatives collude with medical personnel in an elaborate series of lies, maintaining the fiction of probable recovery until the dying person reaches the point of death. Typically, a doctor, rather than a minister, presides over the deathbed, keeping displays of emotion to a minimum. Adults deprive both children and the dying persons themselves of the opportunity to confront death.

Ironically, write Anthropologists Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalf, “In America, the archetypal land of enterprise, self-made men are reduced to puppets.” Then the body is embalmed, restored, dressed and transformed from a rotting cadaver into “a beautiful memory picture.” Neither law nor religion nor sanitation requires this process, and nowhere else but in North America is it widely done. In the last view the deceased seems asleep in a casket (often made of metal).

The ritual achieves two results. First, it insulates mourners from the process of decomposition, the finality of death and their own fears. Second, it minimizes cathartic expressions of grief. The funeral director, writes Mitford, “has put on a well-oiled performance in which the concept of death has played no part…” Wakes are generally pleasant social events, and mourners soon return to work. The mystery of death invites mourners to enter an initiatory space, but it closes too abruptly and too soon for any authentic transition or resolution. A veil that had been briefly lifted drops again.

We claim to believe that Christianity represents a victory over death, yet estrangement from nature is its central theme. Thus, to Americans, death must be either part of God’s plan or a punishment. Arnold Toynbee joked that death was “un-American,” an infringement on the right to the pursuit of happiness. By contrast, Native American tribal religions almost universally produced people unafraid of death, wrote Vine Deloria: “…the integrity of communal life did not create an artificial sense of personal identity that had to be protected and preserved at all costs.”

West African shaman Malidoma Some´ observes our characteristic refusal to give in to grief: “A non-Westerner arriving in this country for the first time is struck by how…(Americans) pride themselves for not showing how they feel about anything.” To him, we typically carry great loads of unexpressed grief. And this leads to a corresponding inability to experience joy: “People who do not know how to weep together are people who cannot laugh together.” This is a succinct, tribal definition of alienation – exile from the worlds of nature, community and spirit.

If we cannot grieve or tolerate the vision of the dark goddess and her bloody, dismembered son, then we cannot experience ecstasy either. We learn to tolerate pale substitutes: romance novels, horror movies (in which characters often refuse to die), the spectacles of popular music and sports, New Age spirituality, Sunday church and happy endings. We learn early to emphasize the light (including “lite”) to the eventual exclusion of the dark.

So our characteristic American expectation of positive emotions and emotional growth makes feelings of sadness and despair more pathological in this culture than elsewhere. Christina Kotchemidova writes, “Since ‘cheerfulness’ and ‘depression’ are bound by opposition, the more one is normalized, the more negative the other will appear.”

Ronald Laing argued that the modern family functions “… to repress Eros, to induce a false consciousness of security…to promote a respect for ‘respectability.’” To be respectable is to produce, and to look cheerful. American obsession with feeling good (“pursuing happiness”) is enshrined as a fundamental principle of the consumer society. As Kotchemidova explains,

Our personal feelings are constantly encouraged or discouraged by the culture of emotions we have internalized, and any significant deviance from the societal emotional norms is perceived as emotional disorder that necessitates treatment.

The average American feels real pressure to present him/herself as cheerful in order to get a job. Once he/she is employed, putting on a ready- made smile is simply not enough. “Corporations expect their staff to actually feel good about the work they do in order to appear convincing to clients.”

She argues that twentieth century America took on cheerfulness as an identifying characteristic. The new consumer economy of the 1920s called for cheerful salespeople and an American etiquette that obliged “niceness” and excluded strong emotionality. Among the dozens of self-help cheerfulness manuals, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) sold more than fifteen million copies. In the 1950s, the media industry invented numerous ways, including the TV “laugh track,” to induce cheerfulness. In the 1980s, politicians discovered cheerfulness; all Presidents since Reagan smile in their official photos (none had done so before). The “smiley face” button sold over 50 million units at its peak in 1971 but remains one of our most recognizable icons.

It follows that depression has reached epidemic proportions in America – and that violence is so fundamental to our experience. Kubler-Ross wrote that our denial of death “has only increased our anxiety and contributed to our…aggressiveness – to kill in order to avoid the reality and facing of our own death.” Phillip Slater wrote of “our technologically strangled environment” in which impersonal forces impact us from remote, Apollonic distances and provoke us to “find a remote victim on which to wreck our vengeance.” This is one reason why Americans rarely protest the military’s mass killing of distant Third World people. Another reason, of course, is their ignorance of the news.

But America was characterized from the start by extreme violence. It was present in the “idea” of America – not the abstract ideals of the founding fathers, but the projection of darkness, instinct and lust onto the Other in the already demythologized world of the seventeenth century. By the Industrial Revolution of the 1840’s, Americans had been slaughtering Indians and enslaving Africans for over two centuries. Herman Melville took note of this and wrote that Indian hating had become a “metaphysic.” Technology certainly contributed to alienation, loneliness and the breakdown of extended families and father-son relationships. But as a seed of depression and long-distance violence, it fell on fertile soil that had been well prepared.

And history conspired. No one alive can recall the carnage of the Civil War; since then we have fought our wars across great oceanic expanses. With the ready availability of handguns, we slaughter each other in small-scale violence like no other people in history. Except for urban race riots, however, there had been no warfare on American territory for well over a century until the terrorist acts of 2001.

These factors all help to perpetuate the myths of innocence and exceptionalism. The final ingredient is the state of the media, in which news reporting, political spin and entertainment are now almost indistinguishable, when half of us get our news from social media or TV comedy “news” shows.

On the one hand, media colludes with our need to remain sheltered from the world and our impact upon it. “We are so desperate for this,” writes Michael Ventura, that we are willing to accept ignorance as a substitute for innocence.” On the other hand, even as violent programming perpetuates fear of crime and terrorism, television has desensitized three generations of Americans to the actual effects of violence.

We all know the statistics. We can theoretically take two populations of children and predict that, as young adults fifteen years later, those who watch more TV will be more violent than the group that watched less. Thus, there is a direct connection between the national denial of death in the abstract and America’s ferocious expression of literal violence. James Hillman concluded that death is “the ultimate repressed,” who returns “through the body’s shattered disarray,” an incursion “into awareness as ultimate truth.”american-exceptionalism2.jpg?w=357&h=226&profile=RESIZE_710x

We innocently observe, we are shocked, and we quickly forget. In book talks I’ve often posed a trick question – When did you lose your innocence? – followed by another one – When did you lose it again? When an exceptional sense of personal and national innocence is so ingrained as ours is, every time it is punctured by circumstances it feels like the first time. In Chapter Eight of my book, I wrote of this experience after the attacks on the World Trade Towers:

The next day, a second wave of commentators offered more nuanced interpretations. Rabbi Marc Gelman, asked if America would be changed by this event, responded, “Yes, we have lost our innocence. We now know there is radical evil in the world.” It was out there, and Americans, mysteriously, had never heard about it. Psychologist Robert Butterworth’s son had asked him, “Daddy, why do they hate us so?” Staring mutely and miserably at the camera, he really didn’t know. His non-response assumed that viewers didn’t either. Such laments could have followed the Oklahoma City bombing, 1993’s WTC bombing, the TWA airliner bombing, the bombings of the destroyer Cole and Lebanon barracks, or any of the recent college or high school shootings. America, we were told, had lost her innocence.

From the perspective of outsiders, or of older cultures, or of the Other, losing our innocence is an absolutely necessary step for white Americans to step out of our adolescence and join the human community. But from within the myth of exceptionalism, losing our innocence is simply a temporary stage that precedes falling back asleep.

Never having confronted death directly, we must find a way to see it, by condoning violence or personally inflicting it upon others. Preferring vengeance to mourning, we are still the only nation to use atomic weapons. Americans invented napalm, cluster bombs and “anti-personnel” mines. We are stunningly unmoved by news of torture at Guantanamo, rape of prisoners in Iraq or police murders of unarmed African Americans, because innocence always trumps awareness. The nation that watches and exports thousands of hours of electronic mayhem and has more handguns than citizens is shocked – shocked! – every time a teenager massacres his schoolmates or a cop drives his car into a crowd of peaceful protestors.

Octavio Paz contrasted his own Mexican culture, which has an intimate relationship to the dark side of existence, with ours: “A culture that begins by denying death will end by denying life.” Such a nation desperately needs someone to save it – distract it – from the black hole of death, and to vanquish, rather than to accommodate those forces of darkness. Such a nation needs heroes. And it will get the heroes that it deserves. On the other hand, writes Caitlin Johnstone,

The principles of individual healing apply to collective healing as well. I have learned that an individual can experience a sudden, drastic shift in consciousness. I see no reason the collective can’t also. Of course humanity is capable of a transformative leap into health and maturity…The only people who doubt this are those who haven’t yet made such a leap in their own lives.

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…this is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. FDR to Americans facing The Great Depression

Embedded in this famous quote is a story: The setting is the mythic wasteland, literally the Great Depression. Heroes, as always, are leaders when supported by the people. The enemy to be overcome initially is not poverty, but instead paralyzing fear. The plotline requires facing truths and acting with vigor so that the country will revive and prosper.

Today my country is experiencing a dual economic and health crisis. We are also in the midst of recognizing that achieving a positive outcome is up to leaders at every level: no one savior is out there who will rescue us from these crises or from ourselves. Thus, we all need to be leaders—as parents, neighbors, co-workers, educators, and those in positions of authority in every sector. A positive outcome requires us to utilize the power of story as FDR did, to help ourselves and others face tough realities without getting dragged down by the kind of fear that brings out our lesser angels—hoarding, advantaging ourselves and disadvantaging others, calling for saving the economy by sacrificing people seen as replaceable, or throwing “you can’t tell us what to do” tantrums.

Yet, at the same time, something wonderful has been happening, a story that must be told and retold. A global consensus of most people around the world has emerged, with substantial understanding that the only way through this is to care for one another, making needed personal sacrifices to do so. This reinforces the teachings in our major world religions that tell us that the secret to a healthy and happy life is to love one another. Now we are called to do so for the greater good, which is the only reliable way to ensure our own. And even with the breakdown of what has been our normal, new caring actions are becoming visible like flowers pushing up through the cracks in the sidewalk. We see this in how so many are helping those around us, whether in active helping, by simply remaining cloistered, or by doing whatever we can wherever we are.

The words of poet Theodore Roethke in In a Dark Time are resonating with me as I write this. The poem begins, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” So, what do we see in the dark? As  we follow coverage of this pandemic, we see our cultural shadow. The cost of income and wealth inequality is on full display for us to face, just as the clearing skies are reminding us that, yes, climate change is real. We have our work cut out for us as a people and as individuals, as the shadow of an unwillingness to face uncomfortable truths is within us all, even those of us calling for action on such issues.

Roethke’s poem then continues evoking a plotline: “My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,/Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?” In this dark time, is it our normal Ego consciousness that is needed, or should we listen to our deeper selves/souls? For many of us, our first understanding that there is also a deeper self comes when we look in the mirror and think, “If I keep doing this, I will lose my soul.” And what this deeper voice reminds us about is not only our values and morals, but also what our souls call us to do and be.

I believe that as leaders today, we are being called to ask ourselves, “Which I is I?” to answer our own emerging calls not just to restore the old normal, but rather to recreate our micro and macro worlds to reflect our better selves. And we need to sustain this for an uncertain period of time as this pandemic threatens to last. John F. Kennedy’s inspiring words from his inaugural address could have been about today: “Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’— a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”

My lifelong leadership work involves identifying archetypal (universally recurring) characters and stories that promote personal development and human evolution. These archetypes help any of us develop capacities that are needed to address such long-term challenges: the Idealist’s faith, the Realist’s fortitude in facing facts, the Caregiver’s compassion, the Warrior’s courage, the Seeker’s pioneering spirit, the Lover’s steadfast commitment, the Creator’s inventiveness, the Revolutionary’s sacrifice of lesser for better, the Ruler’s system savvy, the Magician’s ability to change consciousness at will, the Sage’s wisdom, and the Jester’s joy.

Any or all of these can be allies in finding and acting upon your own current leadership calling. You can even call up the one you need in yourself by an act of conscious will. Each also offers a storyline that can help you as a leader—at any level and in any setting—recognize what sort of story you must live and tell to be an authentic force for needed social healing and renewed prosperity in these times.

This work was originally published in Leadership for the Greater Good: Reflections on the 2020 Pandemic, a blog published by the International Leadership Association (www.ila-net.org).

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Part One

A dancer dies twice – once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful. – Martha Graham

The 2010 film Black Swan is a deeply wise and convincing psychological account of the inner journey required of the ballerina protagonist in order to fully embody the dual female lead roles in a production of Swan Lake.

In Tchaikovsky’s original 1877 ballet, an evil sorcerer has condemned Princess Odette to live as a white swan during the day. Only at night, by the side of an enchanted lake created from her mother’s tears, can she return to human form. The spell can only be broken if one who has never loved before swears to love her forever, and Prince Siegfried does just that. But at a costume ball in which Siegfried must choose a wife, the sorcerer arrives with his daughter, Odile (the black swan), whom he has transformed to look like Odette, and Siegfried chooses her. Realizing his mistake, Siegfried hurries back to the lake and apologizes. She forgives him, but his betrayal cannot be undone. Rather than remain a swan forever, Odette chooses to leap into the lake and die, as does Siegfried. Ascending to Heaven, they remain united in love.

Since the original performance there have been dozens of productions, with all kinds of different conclusions, from tragic to happy. A lake created from her mother’s tears! Doesn’t that image speak to us all in this time of pandemic and environmental collapse? The binary opposition of Odette-Odile / black-white evokes the polarity of conscious-unconscious, or persona-shadow. black-swan-natalie-portman.jpg?w=157&h=203&profile=RESIZE_710xOn the sociological level, it also evokes issues of race in America. (We find the dark or even projected other in many films. Gershon Reiter’s book The Shadow Self in Film addresses this theme. )

These opposites are in a dynamic tension in the form of extreme control of the body and its opposite, the need to abandon the ego and lose one’s self (mythologically, Apollo vs Dionysus, or perhaps Athena vs Aphrodite).

This is the psychic territory that Black Swan invites the viewer into. The plot revolves around a production of Swan Lake by a prestigious ballet company. It requires a ballerina to play the innocent and fragile White Swan, for which the emotionally cold Nina is a perfect fit, as well as the dark and sensual Black Swan, which are qualities better embodied by her earthy rival, Lily. While her delicate innocence and demeanor combined with technique and discipline are perfect for the White Swan, her challenge is to go beyond herself and undergo the metamorphosis into the Black Swan. She must be both/and rather than either/or.

Her quest is complicated by her relationship with her domineering mother, who long ago abandoned her own dreams of being a great ballerina, only to live her obsession through her daughter. Nina is 28 years old, the same age at which her mother had retired, but she lives emotionally as an innocent young girl, in a pink bedroom full of stuffed animals. “Nina” means “little girl” in Spanish. Her last name is Sayer (from which the story may well take us through “Say-er,” “Say her,” “Say her name,” and possibly all the way to “See-er” or “Seer.” We’ll see. Her mother seems to play the role of the sorcerer who keeps Nina trapped in the mother realm and unable to become whole.

Meanwhile, the name Lilly (rhyming with “Odile”) evokes the lily flower, which represents both chastity and the purity achieved through death. Dan Ross writes that Lilly

…is the familiar form of Lillith, the first woman who rejected Adam because she would not submit to a man. Lillith was considered evil because she was uninhibited and unrestrained, so she was banished (to shadow). This is a perfect description of Lilly who is all that Nina is not. It is not surprising that Nina fantasizes making love with Lilly.

The intense, competitive pressure and her obsessive perfectionism, combined with Nina’s desire to escape her mother’s spell causes her to lose her tenuous grip on reality and descend into hallucinations, suspicion, betrayal and apparent violence. Many reviewers focus on Black Swan’s depiction of madness. Yes, but to only perceive the film on this level is to miss its deeper significance for the viewer. Jadranka Skorin-Kapov writes,

…the film can be perceived as a poetic metaphor for the birth of an artist, that is, as a visual representation of Nina’s psychic odyssey toward achieving artistic perfection and of the price to be paid for it.

As progressives in 2020, nearly twenty years since the beginning of the “War on Terror”, when we are assaulted daily by the latest pronouncements of our pathologically narcissist leadership, we remember the words of Blaise Pascal: Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness. As archetypal psychologists, we know that that society prefers to label anyone who questions our consensus reality as mad. And as mythologists, we remember that the original meaning of the word “competition” is petitioning the gods together. In a Jungian fantasy of individuation (or better, as James Hillman would have argued, Psyche and Eros), there is no binary opposition between Nina and Lilly. They are co-conspirators (“conspiracy” – to breathe together) in the opus, or great work, the soul work of the loss of innocence.

Nina is constantly looking into or reflected by mirrors in rehearsal spaces, dressing rooms, bathrooms and train windows. natalie-portman-black-swan-mirror-image1.jpg?w=193&h=110&profile=RESIZE_710xClearly, she is encountering shadow aspects of herself, especially when Lilly appears as friend, rival and lover. black-swan-natalie-portman-3.jpg?w=177&h=118&profile=RESIZE_710x This psychological challenge mirrors Tchaikovsky’s own enchanted lake, which was created from the tears of Odette’s mother. Ultimately, as part of this dance of self-knowing, the two begin to battle in a dressing room during a break in the performance. Nina throws Lilly into the mirror and breaks it before (in her hallucination) stabbing her.

From a psychiatric point of view, Nina is “cracking up.” black-swan.jpg?w=119&h=175&profile=RESIZE_710xBut traditional wisdom would see this as an essential, if dangerous step in the breakdown of an ego, a constricted sense of identity, a fall out of the familiar into the liminal. Only then, as if she has incorporated Lilly’s essence, as if this scene was a metaphorical Eucharist, can she embody the black swan, which she does fully in the following act. Hillman places the movement toward black in an alchemical context:

Therefore, each moment of blackening is a harbinger of alteration, of invisible discovery, and of dissolution and of attachments to whatever has been taken as dogmatic truth and reality, solid fact, or dogmatic virtue. It darkens and sophisticates the eye so it can see through.

Nina’s soul opus moves in two seemingly opposite directions: towards incorporating her dark twin, and away from the suffocating grasp of her mother. But neither movement can happen without the simultaneous work of the other. Nina fully inhabits or embodies the Black Swan in performance, thus achieving her goal of perfection, only after she has broken from her mother, broken her dressing room mirror and broken Lilly’s (or perhaps her own) body.

Part Two

A man needs a little madness, or else he never dares cut the rope and be free! – Nikos Kazantzakis

What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance? – Theodore Roethke

 The quest to be perfect may well represent the quest to be whole, even if wholeness includes imperfection. See Marion Woodman’s book Addiction to Perfection. Beyond that, I can’t speculate on the feminine mysteries of escaping the grasp of the mother, partially because, traditionally, most women have had to wrestle with the reality of ultimately becoming mothers themselves. And, since the Greek myths were written down within a deeply patriarchal culture, the great majority of them describe the quests of the masculine, solar, heroic nature. Jungians have tended to resolve this tricky issue by arguing that these are stories of the individuation of the masculine principle within all people, regardless of gender. I don’t know if all women would agree.

We can interpret some of them as initiation stories that involve breaking out of the localized realm of the mother so as to emerge and return, acknowledged as adult men by the broader realm of the community. My essay “Initiation and the Mother” describes several distinct strategies described in myth. Some of these routes to the father are more successful than others, but it’s worth noting that the name of the hero Heracles means “the glory of Hera.” In another essay I consider “The Spell of the Mother.” 

Does Nina kill her dark twin or completely accept her in order to fully embody the dual roles of white and black swans?Does she go mad? Must she descend into madness in order to achieve the perfection of her art? Does she heal from the madness? What, after all, is madness? From the soul’s perspective, can madness have a 

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purpose? In an earlier essay I address madness in America: Why are Americans so Freaking Crazy? 

Let’s not forget that Black Swan, like any great work of art, is not only about the personal or internal; it’s also about society and the external.qmrg1hq.jpg?w=437&h=212&profile=RESIZE_710x

Misogynists and imperialists though they were, scientists that they would eventually become, the Greek mythmakers understood very well that this world contains a basic element beyond rationality. Their holy pantheon included a place for Dionysus, the god of madness. The classicist Walter Otto wrote, “A mad god exists only if there is a mad world which reveals itself through him.” And the Greeks also understood that madness could very well be a necessary stage in knowing oneself, as I write here and here.

Does Nina literally stab (and perhaps) kill herself, or is film action symbolic? What really matters, as in all listening to stories throughout time, is what is evoked in us. “Reality” – for both her and us – shifts regularly as she alternately conflicts with, makes love with and then kills her shadow double. Is it herself she kills, that she makes love with? In the end, does she die physically, or is this a symbol of initiation? As her life slips away from the fatal wound, Nina mutters, “I felt it. Perfect. I was perfect.” The final shot, rather than the traditional fade-to-black, is a fade-to-white, as if the white swan / childish / innocent / uninitiated “niña” has died, to be replaced by the black swan of experience.

Dan Ross concludes that

…her death is the price we pay when we give ourselves over to the archetypal completely without maintaining hold on the totality of our personality and its roots in the outer world…The risk in integration of the shadow is one can be consumed by it and overidentify with it and become psychotic. So Nina goes from one Swan to another but remains a swan, inflated, disconnected from the outer world, relationships, and in the end dies…She was unable to keep the two realms in tension, the swan realm and the human realm.

I disagree (although his assessment may well be more relevant in my discussion of a second film, in Part Six of this essay). In tragic drama, as in any dream, death is symbolic of what needs to die so that something greater, or deeper, may be born. Readers of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence may recall that there has been an ongoing academic dispute over the ending of Euripides’ play The Bacchae and its meaning. Do Cadmus and Agape make Pentheus whole again by reconstituting his dismembered body? Is that play about a successful initiation or a failed initiation? The rational mind may struggle with such questions, but the soul lives them, and does not require the easy escape of answers. As the director character in Black Swan says, Swan Lake’s Odette “…in death finds freedom.”

Part Three

Whoever isn’t busy being born is busy dying. – Bob Dylan

In mythology, swans (which we naturally assume to be white) are linked to Aphrodite, Artemis, Apollo, Brigid and the Virgin Mary. Solar gods such as Zeus and Brahma, White Buffalo Calf woman and the Celtic deities Belanus and Lugh descend from Heaven disguised as swans. Saraswati rides a swan. Various sources claim that swans symbolize purity, grace, beauty, loyalty (they mate for life), unity, love, hope and transformation (they migrate, and the Ugly Duckling transforms into one). As such, they are popular images on jewelry, T-shirts, tattoos, coffee mugs and every kind of souvenir. Above all, the white swan embodies the attributes of spirit.

In Chapter Two of my book I discuss the differences between spirit and soul:

Concepts, like Apollo, are detached; they neutralize our direct participation in the world, distancing us by relying on the eye’s passivity, assessing from safe distances. Percepts are involved, relying on the “secondary” senses (olfactory, tactile, acoustic.) We are “perceptive” when we penetrate to the core. However, each requires the other – what we might also call soul and spirit – for completion, since life will not be confined to a single mode of knowing. Spirit is transcendent and soul is immanent. Zen teacher John Tarrant writes:

“…where spirit is too dominant, we are greedy for pure things: clarity, certainty, and serenity… (but) soul in itself does not have enough of a center…If soul gives taste, touch, and habitation to the spirit, spirit’s contribution is to make soul lighter, able to escape its swampy authenticity, to enjoy the world without being gravely wounded by it.”

Historians portray Greek civilization as extremely rational. But the Greeks themselves imagined a balance between the brothers, which they enshrined at Delphi, their religious center. Apollo relinquished it to Dionysus for three months each year.

The history of religion is an unstable relationship between these opposites, with rebellious impulses periodically threatening patriarchal control. Perhaps all history oscillates between Apollonian order and Dionysian energy. Cultural stability, however, requires a dynamic, ever-shifting balance. Too much sunshine dries us up, while excess moisture rots us and drives us crazy. Extreme order leads to stagnation, dogma and authoritarianism; too much reliance on the intuitive soul brings chaos, anarchy and collapse. Emphasizing one extreme, we eventually endure the other as a correction. When society literalizes Apollo’s spiritual beauty into formal religion, correct behavior and rational science, then literalized – and potentially violent – Dionysian subcultures arise.

The black swan is a highly evocative image in its own right and often seems to invite the internal movement into the dark spaces of soul.

Well before this film appeared in 2010, we find many references in popular culture. The Black Swan was a 1942 Tyrone Power swashbuckler pirate film based on a 1932 novel of the same name by Rafael Sabatini. At least eleven other writers (including Thomas Mann) have published short stories or novels with Black Swan as title. There are at least three independent Black Swan bookstores, in California, Kentucky and Virginia. There’s a Black Swan brand of barbeque sauce, and a Black Swan home décor store in Connecticut. Black Swan Green is the name of an English village in the novel of the same name by David Mitchell. Singers and rock bands have recorded at least twelve separate songs, albums – and an opera – with Black Swan in the titles.

Black Swan Theory is a metaphor used by economists and financiers. Black swan events are characterized by their extreme rarity, their severe impact, and the widespread insistence they were obvious in hindsight. The term is based on an ancient assumption that actual black swans did not exist – until they were discovered in the wild.

The phrase “black swan” itself derives from the 2nd-century Roman poet Juvenal‘s characterization of something being “rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno” (“a rare bird in the lands and very much like a black swan”). Philosophers such as John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper have used the metaphor to describe the fragility of any system of thought. A set of conclusions is potentially undone once any of its fundamental postulates is disproved.

But by far the most common use of the term is in Australia, where “swan” almost always implies black swan. It is Australia’s coat_of_arms_of_western_australia.svg_.png?w=128&h=96&profile=RESIZE_710xonly native swan and is an official symbol for the state of Western Australia, as depicted on its flag and coat-of-arms. The symbol appears on Australian coins, postage stamps, australianstamp_1623.jpg?w=108&h=89&profile=RESIZE_710xlogos, mascots, sports teams, businesses, corporations, railways, universities, hospitals, mines, religious heraldic emblems, a literary magazine and several dozen place names including streets, towns, districts, rivers and islands.600px-flag_of_western_australia.svg_.png?w=126&h=63&profile=RESIZE_710x

 

So much for the swan as symbol of national pride, or as gang color, if you prefer. But more to our purposes, it seems that “black swan” may also indicate a grudging acceptance of the nation’s own dark side, its indigenous, Aboriginal people who long before had named most of those places with terms that translate as black swan. Indeed, in the 1920s anthropologists recorded a man known as the “last of the black swan group” of the Nyungar people, who claimed that their ancestors were once black swans who became men.

Part Four

Every act of creation is first an act of destruction. – Pablo Picasso

Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals precisely and inexorably what they do not know about themselves. – James Baldwin

As long as we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord. – Increase Mather

Cut loose from the earth’s soul, they insisted on purchase of its soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable. It was their destiny to chew up the world and spit out a horribleness that would destroy all primary peoples. – Toni Morrison, A Mercy

I’d like to imagine that the Australian stories of black swans who became men refer to times (as in Greek myth) when gods and mortals walked the Earth together in harmony, when soul and spirit, body and mind, male and female or nature and culture were not so terribly divided as they are in our post-modern language, religion, environment and politics.

For hundreds of years, these polarities have been most concretely symbolized by black and white, leading to definitions of “black” that include:

– Causing or marked by an atmosphere lacking in cheer

– Not conforming to a high moral standard;

– Being without light

– Unclean

Black: the Black Death, black shirts, black cats, black crows, Black Panthers, black leather, black holes, black magic, the black knight, the black inquisitor, the black-clothed Puritan, the chimney sweep, the witch, the magician, the Grim Reaper, the Heart of Darkness, and of course, Black people. Our mythologies and theologies create values that praise a “white” world. Hillman writes:

…the negative and privative definition of black promotes the moralization of the black-white pair. Black then is defined as non-white, and is deprived of all the virtues attributed to white. The contrast becomes opposition, even contradiction…(and) gives rise to our current Western mind-set, beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Age of Light, where God is identified with whiteness and purity, and black…becoming ever more strongly the color of evil.

Indeed, well before the age of colonialism, it was obvious to Europeans that blackness lacked the virtues associated with whiteness. In 1488 it was nothing unusual for Pope Innocent (!) VIII to give African slaves as presents to his cardinals.

But depth psychology – and Black Swan – insist that the more we identify with white, the more seductive black becomes. Above all, however, black is terrifying because it threatens (or invites) the collapse of the whole house of cards. I quoted Hillman above:

Therefore, each moment of blackening is a harbinger of alteration, of invisible discovery, and of dissolution and of attachments to whatever has been taken as dogmatic truth and reality, solid fact, or dogmatic virtue. It darkens and sophisticates the eye so it can see through.

We are all well aware in our bones, in our indigenous roots, that the white imagination, white thinking and even white privilege are profoundly unsatisfying. At that level we all know that our fear and hatred of both the internal, Black Other and the external, Red Other (originally the Red Indian, and for most of the 20th century, the Red Communist) merely cover over our envy and our desire to make peace with them and ourselves. However, we are also well aware that our demythologized world no longer provides secure ritual containers for the painful work of remembering who we really are. D. H. Lawrence knew this a hundred years ago:

I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections.
and it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self,
and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance
long difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.

So, while black (as descent into darkness and as African-American culture) invites America to heal the world and heal itself, most of us still take the easier way out, into hatred and scapegoating.

Black Swan, for all its references to a classical art form, is an American film. It takes place entirely in America’s cultural center. We view it, regardless of our superficial idealisms and ideologies, as Americans. And not just as Americans, but as Christians. Hillman writes:

You may be Jew or Muslim, pay tribute to your god in Santeria fashion, join with other Wiccas, but wherever you are in the Western world you are psychologically Christian, indelibly marked with the sign of the cross in your mind and in the corpuscles of your habits. Christianism is all about us, in the words we speak, the curses we utter, the repressions we fortify, the numbing we seek, and the residues of religious murders in our history…Once you feel your own personal soul to be distinct from the world out there, and that consciousness and conscience are lodged in that soul (and not in the world out there) and that even the impersonal selfish gene is individualized in your person, you are, psychologically, Christian.

Elsewhere, he places mental illness within this context:

As long as we are caught in cycles of hoping against despair, each productive of the other, as long as our actions in regard to depression are resurrective, implying that being down and staying down is sin, we remain Christian in psychology…Yet through depression we enter depths and in depths find soul. Depression is essential to the tragic sense of life…It reminds of death. The true revolution begins in the individual who can be true to his or her depression.

So we speak of Black Swan in American language, where the fundamental symbolism of white and black has never relaxed its hold on our imaginations. Also a hundred years ago, Carl Jung wrote,

When the American opens a…door in his psychology, there is a dangerous open gap, dropping hundreds of feet…he will then be faced with an Indian or Negro shadow.

Linguistic research indicates that some languages have only one color distinction: black and white. In languages with a third color term, that term is invariably red. How ironic that over time, in a curious blend of history and archetype, the American soul projected itself in red, white and black images, as I describe in Chapter Seven of my book. White, of course, speaks to us of our national sense of innocence, while in our language and mythology, black and red came to represent the “Others” who threaten us from within and from without.

As early as the late seventeenth century, America’s primary model for class distinction (and class conflict) had become relations between white planters and black slaves, rather than between rich and poor. The new system, writes Theodore Allen (author of The Invention of the White Race), insisted on “the social distinction between the poorest member of the oppressor group and any member, however propertied, of the oppressed group.”

Consider that statement again. This our American heritage. In most parts of the country, for most of American history, despite the ideology of freedom and equality, absolutely everyone understood that white skin color conveyed infinite privileges over anyone with black skin, regardless of one’s economic status. And the brutal polarity of identity received religious confirmation. Since poverty equaled sinfulness (to the northern Puritan) and black equaled poor (to the southern Opportunist), then it became obvious that blackness equaled sin.

The process of exclusion and subordination required a massive lie about black inferiority that has been enshrined in our national narrative. “After all,” writes activist Tim Wise, “to accept that all men and women were truly equal, while still mightily oppressing large segments of that same national population on the basis of skin color, would be to lay bare the falsity of the American creed.” Similarly, the French philosopher Montesquieu wrote, “It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christian.”

The myth of the Old South, writes Orlando Patterson, stated that the presence of the Other, not a slavery-based economy, had caused its shameful defeat in the Civil War (or, the “War of Northern Aggression”). The ex-slave symbolized both violence and sin to an obsessed society. He was “obviously” enslaved to the flesh, and his skin invited a fusion of racial and religious symbolism. His “black” malignancy was to the body politic what Satan was to the soul. “The central ritual of this version of the Southern civil religion…was the human sacrifice of the lynch mob.

In 1899, before torturing him, ten thousand Texans paraded their black victim on a carnival float,450834550_640.jpg?w=353&h=203&profile=RESIZE_710xlike the King of Fools, like Dionysus in the Anthesteria, or like Christ at Calvary. Patterson writes, “…the burning cross distilled it all: sacrificed Negro joined by the torch with sacrificed Christ, burnt together and discarded…”

But in 2020 we continue to make a terrible mistake when we locate racism exclusively in the South, or exclusively among reactionaries, blatant racists or the uneducated. Prior to the Civil War, Northern mobs attacked abolitionists on over two hundred occasions.

Joel Kovel asserts that there are two kinds of racism. One is the obvious dominative racism that developed in close contact (including the privilege of rape) between master and slave. The second – aversive racism – arose from Puritan associations of blackness with filth. De Tocquevile wrote in Democracy in America that prejudice “appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.”

Indeed, New England had about 13,000 slaves in 1750.  In 1720, New York City’s population of seven thousand included 1,600 blacks, most of them slaves. And the two colonies with the strongest religious foundations – Massachusetts and Pennsylvania – were the ones that first outlawed “miscegenation.”

The terrible logic of “othering” – its logical conclusion – takes hatred beyond the requirements of capitalism, beyond the entertainment uses of race, all the way to genocide. Again, as recently as hundred years ago, twenty-seven states passed eugenics laws to sterilize “undesirables.” A 1911 Carnegie Foundation “Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population” recommended euthanasia of the mentally retarded through the use of gas chambers.

Gas chambers.

The solution was too controversial, but in 1927 the Supreme Court, in a ruling written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, allowed coercive sterilization, ultimately of 60,000 Americans.

The last of these laws were not struck down until the 1970s. But now, with the coronavirus pandemic throwing millions out of work and onto the streets, the most extreme forms of gratuitous cruelty are re-emerging, with several prominent Republicans hinting that it would be better to let thousands of elderly – and Black and Brown – people die rather than keep the economy (and Trumpus’ re-election chances) in prolonged jeopardy. I’ll speak more about euthanasia below.

For some three hundred years, the distinction between black and white, with all of its moral implications, has remained absolutely central to white, Christian identity. And especially in times of economic uncertainty, any factual or emotional arguments to the contrary – or gestures of black equality – continue to provoke immense anxiety in the white mind and justify the most reactionary politics. In 2020, ten years after Black Swan was released, whites in Georgia lynched a black man for the crime of jogging through their neighborhood.

Part Five

To become an American is essentially to divest oneself of a past identity, to make a radical break with the past. – Herman Melville

…the world’s fairest hope linked with man’s foulest crime. – Herman Melville

What is this standard of “whiteness” by which Europeans and Americans have defined themselves for so long? My book argues that American whiteness is actually a perceived “not-redness” and “not-blackness.” In other words, countless White people believe that they know who they are because they lack the characteristics of the Other: primitive, lazy, irrational, impulsive, violent, untrustworthy or promiscuous.

And let’s be crystal clear about this. These are all psychological projections through which White Europeans have perceived people of color throughout the Third World in order to justify the terrible crimes of colonialism and convince themselves of their own innocence. And for a thousand years they have sent their young men to rape, slaughter and die for God’s will to triumph, often perpetrating the most hideous atrocities upon the truly innocent “for their own good.”

Taking this moral disorder to its pathological extreme, Captain Ahab believes that the white whale that men call Moby Dick is the embodiment of pure evil. And let’s be clear about this as well: why does Ahab hate the whale with such malicious intensity? Because on a previous voyage, the whale had taken his leg in self-defense while Ahab was hunting him. In his personal (and national) madness, Ahab, lifelong butcher of whales, has convinced himself that Moby Dick had victimized him, and has taken on the role of the Old Testament god of vengeance. b7f10a1c1d0c4bd80cc2af2f82d41647.jpg?w=640&profile=RESIZE_710x

But why a white whale?

Chapter 42 (The Whiteness of The Whale) has been described as “…the heart of the entire work.” Melville begins it with the common ideas of whiteness symbolizing beauty, innocence and goodness. But then he addresses the mystery of identity that propels our hateful obsessions about the Other:

…there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood…which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds. Witness the white bear of the poles …that the irresponsible ferociousness of the creature stands invested in the fleece of celestial innocence and love; and hence, by bringing together two such opposite emotions in our minds, the Polar bear frightens us with so unnatural a contrast.

…even the king of terrors, when personified by the evangelist, rides on his pallid horse…it is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay, the very veil of the Christian’s Deity; and yet…the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind…Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation?…is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?…pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper…And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

Perhaps Melville was also acknowledging the chasm of meaningless that lies just below the surface of American identity and its assumptions about race and innocence. Interested readers should read Richard Slotkin’s great Regeneration Through Violence trilogy.

Gabrielle Bellot writes that just below the narrative of Moby Dick is the theme of race:

…it is a template for Melville’s, and our, America: a world populated as much with gestures towards racial equality as with casual racist assumptions…chasing Moby Dick, that avatar of whiteness, means fighting against the meaninglessness of the world, hoping that, through some bloody violence, life-purpose will bloom into existence. Ahab pursues the whale out of a manufactured anger, in a quest to give his life some vague value…

Six years after the publication of Moby Dick and three years before the Civil War, Melville completed his thinking about the white / red / black triad of American innocence, writing (in The Confidence-Man) of “Indian hating.” It was a unique dimension in which religious zeal, barbaric cruelty, capitalist land-grabbing and sacrificial ritual merged to create genocide. What Ahab had attempted to do to the white whale, his nation had been doing to its original inhabitants for 250 years. It was so ingrained in the national character that by Melville’s time, hatred of Indians had become a “metaphysic.”

Nearly a hundred and seventy years after Moby Dick, millions – perhaps tens of millions – of Americans continue to wrestle, knowingly or not, with the question of identity. Who the Hell are we? Are we nothing more than “not the Other”? Does our “manufactured anger” – or more accurately, displaced anger – give our lives “some vague value”? Is there still a positive definition of “American” that we can speak out loud without laughing or weeping? The good news is that countless good-hearted liberals have been offered the opportunity to awaken from their life-long trance of innocence and privilege. The bad news…well, you know the bad news. For more on the issue of white privilege, see my essays “Privilege” and “Affirmative Action For Whites.”

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

Part Six

Truth and reality in art do not arise until you no longer understand what you are doing and are capable of but nevertheless sense a power that grows in proportion to your resistance. – Henri Matisse

Why is art so expensive? Otherwise, no one would buy it. – “Max”

From a very famous, Oscar-winning (Best Picture and Best Actress) film to a film almost no one saw:

Quite by chance (?), the same week in 2010 that I first saw Black Swan in a theater, I also found the 2002 film Max on Netflix. It’s a speculative account of Adolf Hitler’s life during the fall and winter of 1918. This was just at the end of World War I, when Germany was destitute, and the impoverished veteran was wavering between his ambition to be a successful artist and the temptation of extremist politics. Indeed, Russia had recently had a revolution and all of Germany was vacillating between the far left and the far right.

Americans have only been able to imagine Germany’s condition at that time by seeing 1972’s Cabaret, the best-known film about Weimar Germany, which is set much later, in 1931, when the Nazis where on the verge of taking power. For a darker and probably more accurate presentation, see the recent German TV series Babylon Berlin, which takes place in 1929 (also on Netflix).

We think we’re familiar with the all-powerful Fuhrer, and for 75 years, from both right and left, we have universally cited his image as the embodiment of pure evil. However, that is an archetypal image, a projection from the collective unconscious, from us. As an archetype, it is a potential characteristic we all carry.

This energy was embodied most famously by one person, roughly from 1920 to 1945. Max is the only film that I’m aware of that has wondered how that archetype chose that particular man; it’s the only film that has attempted to depict his precarious psychological state before he became a public figure.

What was that state? Liminality – the condition of “betwixt-and-between”, when one has been torn loose from everything one once knew to be true, when one’s fate hangs in the balance. It’s the condition that traditional societies once recognized. Such societies provided the elders and bounded ritual conditions to guide their initiates through the terrible passage to adulthood. In the extreme, such a passage went through the territory of re-living old trauma.

Black Swan and Max deal with the same theme: the absolutely essential encounter with one’s early psychological wounds – what we have repressed and condemned to the “dark side” of consciousness – in order to access and offer our gifts to the world. This is a common, even clichéd theme these days, but both films had me asking myself, “What are we willing to pay attention to? Just how much of our personal and collective darkness are we willing to know, to welcome, to love? What are we willing to sacrifice? How much are we willing to pay in order to manifest a truly creative life?” As viewers know, the ballerina does enter the heart of darkness and does give the performance of a lifetime, but she pays a severe price.

Similarly, in this film, the fictional Jewish Munich art-dealer Max Rothman becomes a reluctant mentor to the 29-year old Adolf Hitler, despite the younger man’s anti-Semitism. He sees that, below the anger, Hitler has an “authentic voice” and encourages him to “go as deep as you possibly can” in order to create something truly valuable. They argue about the purpose of art. Rothman, contrasting the hesitant and insecure Hitler with the impassioned, left-wing artists Georg Grosz and Max Ernst (both historical figures), argues, “It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to be beautiful. It just has to be true.”

But there is a second mentor. The right-wing army captain Karl Mayr (also an actual historical figure), senses Adolf’s intellectual and oratorical potential, his untapped charisma, and an uninitiated, pathological self-hatred that can be very useful to the anti-democratic cause. He arranges for the army to pay Hitler’s living expenses while he masters the arts of propaganda and instigation of mob violence. Hitler goes on to begin his speaking career by invoking German innocence: Germany had been defeated because the good, pure, brave Germans had been “stabbed in the back” by Communists and the traditional Others, the Jews.

Adolf can go either way; he can still possibly inhabit his better self and reject his darker potential. But Max Rothman can only offer the enticements and mild satisfactions of the same kind of secular liberalism that so many of us would reject two generations later. Mayr offers him ritual. It may be ritual that has been twisted and deformed, but it is still ritual, something that our indigenous souls recognize inherently.

And he offers Adolf a place within a community (twisted as it is) of hate and scapegoating, something that the Teutonic mind has been familiar with for a thousand years. Hitler is on his way to becoming the latest in a long line of charismatic German personalities who have manipulated mass resentment of the rich and turned it against the weak. For more on this theme, read The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn.

The traumas of poverty and racism have condemned millions to lives that Thomas Hobbes described as “nasty, brutish and short.” Predictably, many men have arisen from these conditions to manifest their worst potentials, to go for power instead of love, to join their oppressors and participate in the perpetuation of these conditions, as so many police are doing right now all across the country.

But after thirty years in the Men’s Movement, I’ve been fortunate to have met many men (such as Louis Rodriguez) who survived the worst excesses of urban street life to become poets, teachers, musicians and activists. I recall reading the autobiographies of Malcom X and Claude Brown.  Although far more have not succeeded, these lives offer us models of how things could be, given the presence of authentic mentors at the right time. For so many others, we wonder, “What if?”

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Noah Taylor as young Hitler

Max is a “What if?” story. Though they never meet, the two angels of Hitler’s nature compete for his soul, and as no viewer of the film can miss, for the soul of the entire world. Rothman, a champion of the new Expressionism, tells him, “You’ve got to take all this pent-up stuff that you’re quivering with and hurl it onto the canvas…Get out of politics…If you put the same amount of energy into your art as you do into your speeches, you might have something going.” But Hitler’s attempt to tap into his pain and rage goes nowhere artistically. Are his wounds too strong, his discipline too weak, or his talent simply absent? Perhaps all three.

But there is an easier way out (one that Black Swan’s Nina does not take) – the lure of scapegoating others as a way to deny his pain. Mayr’s advice is superficially similar but more convincing: “You’ve got your own talent.” – which clearly has nothing to do with painting – “Just let it out!”

The difference between this fictional Hitler and fictional Nina is critical and instructive. Because she is both deeply talented and highly disciplined, she is able (at least for a while) to hold the almost unbearable tension between her angel and her demon. Some might say that because she symbolically kills the demon, she can’t hold that tension for long. But she does make great art – if only for a moment – and contributes a lasting gift to the dance world. Adolf, on the other hand, is at best a second-rate artist, and he simply cannot improve his technique or – more importantly – work the terrible nature of his soul.

But he does “go deeper,” and he begins to muster a particular discipline that will focus on the development of a charismatic personality (from persona, mask). Apparently having made his choice between art as art and art as propaganda, he tells Max,

Go deeper, you said. I went deep. Deeper than any artist has gone before! This is the new art! Politics is the new art!…Art and politics equals power!

Late in the film, Max realizes that Hitler’s art is “futuristic kitsch.” Nevertheless, he attempts to channel that ferocity into the art world, where it might be less harmful to society: “You finally found your voice – the future as a return to the past.” But Hitler, as we know, will succumb to the lure of that mythical past and potentially future greatness. The film ends on Christmas eve, 1918, as Max is murdered by thugs whom Hitler had provoked.

Though not portrayed in Max, less than two weeks later, leftists would go on general strike in the violent Spartacist uprising. Hitler’s fascist allies will prevail, and Germany will begin its spin into that future.

Here is both the contrast with the ballerina and the frightening commentary on our current culture and politics. Nina will crack the masks of Black and White in dramatic expression, while Hitler will retreat behind a different mask and inhabit it for an entire nation. With neither her talent, nor her commitment, nor an artistic community like hers – an authentic ritual container – he falls victim to his own darkness and the peculiar darkness of his culture (think Darth Vader here – “Vader” is German/Dutch for “father”). He succumbs to the easy lure of projection – hatred of the Other – and discovers – we discover – how hate can make its own community.

In doing so, Hitler becomes a conduit for the darkest forces of the psyche and the world. As we know, he will briefly succeed in restoring a sense of destiny – and wounded innocence – in an entire nation. Max was filmed in 2001, the same year as the beginning of the “War on Terror.” I doubt if its creators had the theme of American innocence in mind, but nearly twenty years later, we would be fools, wallowing in our own denial, not to see the parallels.

Part Seven

You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star. – Friedrich Nietzsche

Re-reading this essay seven years after I first posted it, it occurs to me that Trumpus (Trump = Us) was barely a blip on the national political radar screen, a comic, low-taste character on reality TV and World-Wide Wrestling. Even two years later, the notion of him running for President would evoke laughter among us sophisticated, bi-coastal types. More or less where the idea of Hitler becoming savior of Germany was in 1919, when, in his first recorded speech, he accused the Jews of producing “a racial tuberculosis among nations.”

Just prior to that year, as Max shows us, Hitler had been in crisis (crisis: decisive point in the progress of a disease…the point at which change must come, for better or worse). He’d been wavering on the cusp of an initiatory moment, potentially open to any direction or influence. More or less where we are right now. 

Hitler gave that speech just months after the end of the war, but also in the aftermath of the Spanish Flu pandemic, which he and other right-wingers blamed, predictably, on the Jews – exactly as their ancestors had done in the late fifteenth century during the Black Plague. Soon, Right-wing extremists won a greater share of the votes in those parts of Germany that suffered larger numbers of flu deaths. Researchers have found a correlation between flu deaths and right-wing extremist voting “in regions that had historically blamed minorities, particularly Jews, for medieval plagues.”

So let’s be clear about these parallels. Times of intense social change and economic uncertainty can potentially bring out the best in us. But this requires a personal courage (as Black Swan’s Nina musters) and a collective willingness to evoke, acknowledge, accept and perhaps even forgive that darkness. But the confrontation with the shadow is terrifying, and American history has provided far too many examples of precisely the opposite behavior. As I write in Chapter Eight of my book:

Between 1890 and 1920, the migration of eleven million rural people to the cities and the influx of twenty million immigrants resulted in new fears that the spiritual and physical Apollonian essence of America would be cheapened by this Dionysian element. Nativists responded by cranking up the machinery of propaganda once again. Scientists and intellectuals (including David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford) argued that moral character was inherited, that “inferior” southern and eastern Europeans polluted Anglo-Saxon racial purity. Woodrow Wilson, then President of Princeton, contrasted “the men of the sturdy stocks of the north” with “the more sordid and hopeless elements” of southern Europe, who had “neither skill nor quick intelligence.”

As a result, 27 states passed eugenics laws to sterilize “undesirables.” A 1911 Carnegie Foundation “Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population” recommended euthanasia of the mentally retarded through the use of gas chambers. The solution was too controversial, but in 1927 the Supreme Court, in a ruling written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, allowed coercive sterilization, ultimately of 60,000 Americans. The last of these laws were not struck down until the 1970s. 

Two years before that ruling, in Mein Kampf, Hitler praised American eugenic ideology and situated himself directly in that Anglo-Saxon (Saxony is a state in eastern Germany) tradition: “Neither Spain nor Britain should be models of German expansionism, but the Nordics of North America, who…ruthlessly pushed aside an inferior race…” After he took absolute power in 1934, Germany copied American racial and sterilization laws. After the war, at the Nuremberg trials, the surviving Nazis would quote Holmes’s words in their own defense.

I’ve speculated about the mythic and emotionally traumatic forces that created the Nazis in three other essays, The Two Great Myths of 20th Century, To Sacrifice Everything — A Hidden Life and Redeeming the world, where I write:

We don’t choose to “other” other people or groups. Othering chooses us. The need to do so seems to enter us quite early on, as parents and society gradually persuade us to identify as part of the larger tribe – to know ourselves, as the ancient Greeks implied – (but) only as we gain the absolute knowledge that we are not one of them, the others. In this modern world we are established in the first knowledge only because of the second.

I always try to make these parallels clear between mythic or historical themes and our current conditions, but it’s hard to keep up with Trumpus, who is constantly upping the ante of hate and ignorance. As I finish this re-write, he praises the “bloodline” of the eugenicist and racist Henry Ford,  threatens to enact absolute power against the media and encourages police violence against anti-racist protestors.

Circular craziness: American racists influenced Hitler’s thinking in 1920, and his life, despite what happened to Europe, became a model for our American fascists of 2020. For a clear summary of early eugenicist rantings and their influence on the “alt-right” Trumpus supporters and political provocateurs of today, read here.

Black swans and white vultures: I originally titled this essay, “A Black Swan and a White Madmen.” But it now seems that I need a more poetic counterpoint to “black swan” that includes all the fascist madmen of the past hundred years. Neither “eagle” nor “wolf” fits. So I settled on “vultures”, which circle above, out of danger, around dying animals – or cultures – and swoop down to eat them once they can no longer defend themselves.162502-004-3b45e1e7.jpg?w=215&h=173&profile=RESIZE_710x

Actual vultures may not be white, but their metaphorical human equals certainly were and are. It is the time of disaster capitalism, in which financial elites exploit national and international crises to further centralize wealth while citizens are too weak or distracted to resist. It’s the time of vulture funds, which prey on debtors in financial distress by purchasing cheap credit on secondary markets to make a large monetary gains and leave the debtors in a worse state. It’s the time of housing vultures, which sucker millions out of their homes for quick profit.  It’s the time of hedge fund managers like Martin Shkreli — the “Pharma Bro” — martin_shkreli.jpg?w=223&h=127&profile=RESIZE_710xwho buy the patents of critical drugs and raise their prices by factors of over fifty. It’s the time of the second Gilded Age, as I write here.

The year 2020 is not yet half finished. In three months, forty million have lost jobs and medical insurance (on top of those millions who had already given up searching for jobs and the forty million who already had no health insurance), and the nation’s billionaires have seen their collective wealth increase by nearly half a trillion dollars.

But we mythologists are always searching for the reframe. Otherwise, there is no point in studying myth. We’re always trying to imagine how a soul – or the soul of a culture – might behave in a world that provided real mythic narratives, genuine ritual containers and elders or mentors who could see the potential that can’t be seen on the ordinary surface of things. The poet Theodore Roethke wrote: “In a dark time the eye begins to see.” Nina’s struggle to become who she is supposed to be – and in the process, to integrate her shadow and make her art – offers us hope in this dark time. Toward the end of my book I write:

Now we are called to remember things we have never personally known, to remember what the land itself knows, that which has been concealed from us by our own mythologies. We have the opportunity to remember who we are, and how our ancestors remembered, through art and ritual…Our task is unique: inviting something new, yet familiar, to re-enter the soul of the world…

“Hope is reborn each time someone awakens to the genuine imagination of their own heart,” says Michael Meade…imagination builds a bridge between fate and destiny. We need to use sacred language, in the subjunctive mode: let’s pretend, perhaps, suppose, maybe, make believe, may it be so, what if – and play. This “willing suspension of disbelief” is what Coleridge called “poetic faith.”

What if Hitler had successfully channeled his trauma into art, as Nina does? What if some form of communitarian, egalitarian or anarchist organization of society had prevailed in 1920s Germany? What if such a society had provided a non-authoritarian alternative to Soviet collectivism? What if Americans had seen such activity as a positive model and rejected their heritage of fear of the Other, brutality toward the weak and hatred of their own bodies?

What if you were to add your own prayers for the possible right here and now?

What if we were to consider (consider: “with the stars”) the stories that the mega-rich have been telling themselves about themselves and invite them to re-imagine those stories? What if we remembered that actual vultures and similar scavenger birds are necessary for healthy ecosystems, doing the dirty work of cleaning up after death, helping to keep ecosystems healthy and preventing the spread of disease, all so that new, healthy life may emerge?

What if we imagined a culture that perceived every single human being in terms of what innate gifts they came into the world to offer? What if, despite the traumas of racism and gender stereotyping, all of us could become who we were meant to be?

To close, I invite you to watch an interview with an extraordinary person I briefly knew m19960502_0.jpg?w=127&h=197&profile=RESIZE_710xyears ago. His Name? Gryphon Blackswan.

 

 

 

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Have you had meaningful experiences with images or coincidences since losing a loved one in the last 6 to 12 months? Please consider participating in this study investigating the meaning of significant images, symbols, and coincidences in grieving experiences. This is a dissertation study conducted by Ashley Simons for a doctorate in psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute, supervised by Kesstan Blandin, PhD. Inclusion criteria: 1) 18 yrs. old or older; 2) loss of loved one 6 to 12 months ago; 3) basic understanding or familiarity of depth or Jungian psychology; 4) experience with a meaningful image, symbol, and/or coincidence related to loved one since the loss; 5) able and willing to work with potentially distressing emotional material. The study involves an interview of approximately 60 minutes conducted via videoconference (zoom, google meets). Interested participants can contact: Ashley J. Simons, MA, MAC, LMHC at 315-272-9726.

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Part Five

Historian Milton Viorst writes that the theme of the 1950s was “security: internal security (McCarthy), international security (massive retaliation), personal security (careerism). And yet no one felt secure.”mccarthy_cohn_ap_img.jpg?w=209&h=132&profile=RESIZE_710x Other factors would come later: Civil Rights and Viet Nam, which provided the focus for dissent; and the birth control pill, which allowed women independent sex lives.

Another factor had always existed: the need to identify as an initiatory group, to go through the rites of passage not as individuals but together. America was poised unstably between its Puritan heritage and the hedonism of the consumer lifestyles.

Imagine America entering the liminal period of 1953-1955. Imagine it as a time during which the empire reached its apogee (the current madness being merely a last gasp), when the seeds of its collapse first sprouted. The U.S. had a position of security unparalleled in history, controlling the Western Hemisphere and both oceans. Its economy and culture dominated the world. And yet anticommunist hysteria was running wild.

In April 1953, President Eisenhower barred gays from all federal jobs. In June, the government executed the Rosenbergs. The Korean War ended in July, just as the Cuban revolution began. 301px-waroftheworlds_poster.jpg?w=165&h=257&profile=RESIZE_710xIn August, the C.I.A. overthrew Iran’s government. Kinsey’s book on female sexuality appeared in the fall. The film War of the Worlds left viewers staring fearfully at the stars, while Shane presented the lone Hero literally riding off into the sunset. In December Playboy’s first issue, featuring Marilyn Monroe, arrived.

In May 1954, the French surrendered at Dien Bien Phu in northern Viet Nam. Ten days later, the Supreme Court decided Brown vs Board of Education. In June, Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, and the C.I.A. overthrew the Guatemalan government. Three days later, Viet Nam was officially divided. In August, as the C.I.A. defeated the insurrection in the Philippines, Congress banned membership in the Communist Party.

Rebel Without A Cause opened in early 1955. In July, “In God We Trust” became mandatory on all currency. The Soviets detonated their first H-bomb in August. Allen Ginsburg first recited Howl in October. In December, shortly after Emmett Till’s murderers were acquitted, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white person.

And one other thing: in July 1954, Elvis Presley released his first record.

America was entering a period of continuous change from which it has never recovered. The spark that set things off occurred when southern whites first blended country music and blues, just as the civil rights movement was making its move and all Americans were scrambling to acquire televisions. Most critically, Elvis emerged from the darkness of the deep South.

Soon, television was showing white men performing like blacks, men who were comfortable in their bodies and defiantly, humorously, ambiguously sexual, men who challenged John Wayne’s code of masculinity. Stephen Diggs calls this the blues revolution: “Dionysus is inciting the instinctual maenads to pull Pentheus from the treetop back down to earth and then tear his detached vision to bits.” To Michael Ventura this was “… one of the most important moments in modern history.” Eldridge Cleaver wrote,

… contact, however fleeting, had been made with the lost sovereignty – the Body had made contact with its mind – and the shock…sent an electric current throughout this nation.

It was the incursion of the Dionysian mode into a culture that had long been ruled by a poor version of the Apollonian. In contrast to “containment,” the theme that dominated so much of public life, youth became enthusiastic (“en-theos,” taken over by the god of ecstasy). Quickly, the nature of western dance and performance changed. And along with the released energies came much more.

The music sparked a collective flame; within a very few months the youth market exploded. More importantly, a youth movement began to spread across the world. For perhaps the first time, an entire generation saw the world in fundamentally different terms from its parents and chose to define itself as separate. Unknown to them, the only models for this phenomenon in all of history had been the groups of young men going into the liminal madness of initiation together. There are accounts of African boys dancing before the elders’ huts, demanding to be initiated. Now white girls (who individually might have been timid and obedient) were forming mobs, breaking through police lines to approach their Dionysian priests, trying to “dismember” them as the Maenads had done with Pentheus. One of Elvis’s musicians recalled:

I heard feet like a thundering herd, and the next thing I knew I heard this voice from the shower area…several hundred (girls) must have crawled in…Elvis was on top of one of the showers…his shirt was shredded and his coat was torn to pieces…he was up there with nothing but his pants on and they were trying to pull at them up on the shower.

Chapter Four of my book takes a long look at the idea known as the “return of the repressed,” from both psychological and mythological perspectives, and it projects it outwardly toward the cultural and the political. By now, you shouldn’t be surprised that the mythic figure who mediated this process for hundreds if not thousands of years was Dionysus. Every night, in taverns across the world, people (mostly men) participate in a certain kind of eucharist, taking the god into their bodies in the form of Lusios, the Loosener, often with the conscious intention that he will facilitate conviviality (from convivere “to carouse together, live together”) and honest conversation (to turn together).

But the god, they all know, is fickle. Imbibing too much may provoke a deeper, unintentional honesty and even the violence we normally associate only with the Other. But in America, Dionysus is the Other, and when he returns from long years in the realm of the repressed, he may not be so convivial.

In the 1950s the madness broke out as the return of both erotic excitement as well as (in a few years) profound rage, signaling the opening of the gates through which all of the culture’s repressed energies would flow. But there were few elders to guide and welcome the young bacchants, because now it was the elders themselves against whom the youth were rebelling. The result was – for fifteen years, and perhaps for the first time in history – an international community more or less in agreement about a broad number of issues, the most central of which was a mythological insight. This world was no longer being ruled by Ouranos, but by his son Kronos. This was a world of fathers who were killing their children.

In 1960, well before the antiwar protests began, 50,000 Americans demonstrated for civil rights, with 3,600 arrests. For white students, this activism marked their first connection to the Other as well as the direct (if temporary) experience of otherness. Many felt more commonality with young black and brown people than with their parents. Children of the slaves were mixing with children of the masters.

That summer “the Twist” burst upon the scene, “a guided missile,” wrote Cleaver, “launched from the ghetto into the very heart of suburbia,” succeeding as politics couldn’t do in helping whites reclaim their bodies. 50s-youth.png?w=325&h=250&profile=RESIZE_710xGetting up and dancing individually or in groups broke down the traditional Western barrier between performer and immobile audience. It meant a revival of a participatory process rooted ultimately in ecstatic, pagan religion that had been repressed for centuries. And, since dancers stopped holding hands, it meant that girls didn’t have to follow anymore. 

16716741_304.jpg?w=312&h=176&profile=RESIZE_710x

The same collective urge that gave rise to the Twist also propelled John Kennedy into office and evoked new idealism for millions. Consequently, youth took his death particularly hard. It is no coincidence that a new form of maenadism – “Beatlemania” – erupted only two months later. Barbara Ehrenreich writes, “At no time during their U.S. tours was the group audible above the shrieking.”Susan Douglas argues that the resonance between Kennedy and the Beatles allowed for “a powerful and collective transfer of hope.”

Part Six

…our fire, our elemental fire

so that it rushes up in a huge blaze like a phallus into hollow space

and fecundates the zenith and the nadir

and sends off millions of sparks of new atoms

and singes us, and burns the house down. – D. H. Lawrence (“Fire”)

 

What makes the engine go?

Desire, desire, desire.

The longing for the dance stirs in the buried life.

One season only, and it’s done. – Stanley Kunitz (“Touch Me”)

Yes, their – our – parents had plenty of needs and wants, which they believed they were satisfying by buying, accumulating, getting ahead (that most characteristic description of the American ideal of progress) – and moving up: 16437186859_8981bd2d7c_z.jpg?w=316&h=185&profile=RESIZE_710xfrom the assembly line to the corner office, from the Baptists to the Episcopalians, and of course from the apartments to the split-level houses, where they could show off (in those huge, energy-leaking, suburban front windows, with those new gas-guzzler cars freshly washed, parked in the driveways rather than the garages).

But desires? The culture of consumption was displacing the Puritan heritage and the Paranoid Imagination, but only in the most superficial manor. What they had and were repressing was destined to emerge among their children.

Someone dancing inside us has learned only a few steps:
The “Do-Your-Work” in 4/4 time, the “What-Do-You-Expect” Waltz.
He hasn’t noticed yet the woman standing away from the lamp.
The one with black eyes who knows the rumba
And strange steps in jumpy rhythms
From the mountains of Bulgaria.
If they dance together, something unexpected will happen;
if they don’t, the next world will be a lot like this one.
– Bill Holm (“Advice”)

The ecstatic experience of dancing to rock music, with or without chemical stimulation, evoked a desire for other non-material ways of knowing. It helped to define this community of initiates, celebrate.jpg?w=232&h=166&profile=RESIZE_710xwho soon shared a fascination with both the introspection offered by psychedelics and the easy, if fleeting, access that drugs provided to communitas. For a few years, millions of young people commonly distinguished between those who opposed the war, got high, listened to rock, wore long hair and rejected the Puritan Ethic, and those who didn’t. Or: between Dionysian ecstasy and Apollonian rationality. Or: between authentic and contrived innocence.

Many attempted to reclaim that innocence in rural communes. Whether it was in those pastoral images or in urban circuses like Haight-Ashbury, the rebellion drew its power from its negation of the bland conformism of suburbia. But the phrase, “Don’t trust anyone over the age of thirty!” revealed a profound grief about the loss of elderhood. Adults could not initiate youth into a meaningful world because they had never been initiated themselves.

But, said Bob Dylan, the sensation of first hearing Elvis as a teenager was “like busting out of jail.” All the issues repressed by the culture for so long erupted into the open. Millions marched against the war, not merely because it was a mistake bred of good intentions (as even liberal apologists still contend), but because it was nothing other than mad, imperialist genocide.

The parents, blinded by their mythologies, could not see what was obvious to their children. vietnam-war-protest-e1587851465503.jpg?w=640&profile=RESIZE_710xThe generation that had survived the Depression, saved Europe from the Nazis and gratefully consumed the myth of American innocence could only sputter, “My country, right or wrong!” The youth, however, who always see the mythic issues more clearly, responded: “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”

Civil rights agitation sparked movements for the liberation of women, Latinos, farm workers, Indians, gays, prisoners, the disabled, the environment, the body – and the soul. Thousands discovered that psychedelics hinted at spiritual realms that conventional religious leaders could never understand and indeed were staunchly opposed to. Eventually, millions would investigate natural foods, the human potential movement and Eastern religion.

Then the reaction set in, as I write in Chapter Eight of my book:

By 1970, the white middle class was exhausted, disenchanted and vulnerable to backlash. Hollywood responded with vigilante movies starring Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood in which lone redeemer-heroes cleaned up the urban chaos.

Working-class whites had struggled so hard to achieve their Dream, only to hear radicals condemning their patriotism and materialistic lifestyles. They retreated into willful ignorance and innocence. Forty-nine percent of the public simply refused to believe that the shameful massacre at My Lai (not to mention dozens of other such events) had occurred. If American boys actually acted in this manner, then once again America was no different from any other nation.

…When the National Guard exploded at Kent State in 1970, writes (Milton) Viorst, many local people were outraged at the students, not the killers, and rejoiced that, “…the act had been done at last… the students deserved what they got.”

“The act” was mythic, ritual sacrifice of the children. So many youth had rejected American values so completely that they had seemingly become Other. Although America had been slaughtering children in Viet Nam and in the ghettoes for years, the message was unmistakable: You will be like the fathers or die. 212.jpg?w=174&h=278&profile=RESIZE_710xShortly after Kent State, as students struck on 450 campuses, thugs attacked demonstrators and police watched approvingly. Years later, after exonerating the students, Kent State commissioned a monument. However, it rejected sculptor George Segal’s model of Abraham poised with a knife over Isaac. It would not accept the mythic implications of the murders.

The myth of American innocence had weathered many shocks, but its stereotype of the internal Other had survived. By this point, the paranoid white imagination no longer saw African Americans as long-suffering, non-violent citizen-saints. They were now dashiki-wearing, afro-haired, foul-mouthed terrorists, “black panthers” who ruled the city at night (curiously, in Greek iconography, the panther was one of Dionysus’ animals).

The projection of American Dionysus was nearly back where whites needed it, but not quite. In the next ten years, the F.B.I. would make sure that most black, red and brown activists were discredited, imprisoned or (in over two dozen cases) dead. Black rage turned inward, in drug addiction and gang violence. In 1981, Hollywood bestowed its cultural approval by releasing Fort Apache the Bronx. The film’s title acknowledged a hideous mix of mythic and racial stereotypes. A beleaguered police station stood as a small outpost of civilized values within a wilderness of black and brown savagery.

With the end of the Viet Nam War, the central focus for activism disappeared. “The music died,” as Don McLean sang. Culturally and politically, the tenuous connection between rebellion and pleasure began to open up. Perhaps, since rock (unlike its parent, the blues) is the musical expression of uninitiated young men, this was inevitable. The coalition broke up into its constituent parts: a few violent revolutionaries; apolitical mystics; and minority activists.

As idealism collapsed into consumerism, the youth movement receded back into the youth market. Critics now debate whether commercial youth culture is deliberately created in order to separate youth from their families, recreating them as vulnerable consumers, or whether, as Simon Frith writes, their real needs “– to make sense of their situation, to overcome their isolation – are dissolved in a transitory emotional moment.”

From a pagan or indigenous perspective, youth do indeed have innate needs. Each generation needs to briefly separate out and endure the initiatory fires under the capable guidance of elders, to return, to be welcomed back, and then to re-imagine the world. But as they aged, millions succumbed to narcissistic self-absorption, cynicism or fundamentalism. The youth market, now controlled almost completely by a few mega-corporations, exists only to exploit and channel the occasional eruptions of Dionysian energy. The counterculture ended, writes Ehrenreich, “by affirming the… materialistic culture it had set out to refute.” Rock and its descendants are now little more than the background music to new frenzies of consumerism — and nationalism. “The sixties,” writes Camille Paglia, “never completed its search for new structures of social affiliation…‘do your own thing’ encouraged individualism but produced fragmentation.”

Decades later, musical preference still expresses identity. But now it distinguishes between youth populations, rather than defining a community separated from their parents by a generation gap. Ronald Reagan co-opted Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” Beer and car companies sponsor tours by musicians; loudspeakers in Afghanistan played “We will rock you!” as the bombers took off; CIA torturers blasted Heavy Metal into prisons to disorient prisoners; Jimmie Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” is played at boot-camp initiations; skinheads sell racist rock over the Internet; and misogyny drives much of Hip Hop. The volume increases as civic involvement declines.

Meanwhile, observes sociologist Orlando Patterson, America’s image of the Other has expanded to include aspects of which whites are now admittedly, nervously envious: “The Afro-American male body – as superathlete, as irresistible entertainer…as sexual outlaw, as gangster.” Black athletes and entertainers attract a mainstream culture that is over-balanced toward Apollonian demands. In this context, he says that African-American images have become a “Dionysian counterweight” unstably balanced with the discipline required of those who must tolerate the conditions of the modern workplace. Dionysus has free reign in the inner cities, where he remains safely contained, “…until the instinctual need for release from the Apollonian pressures…calls for its tethered, darkened presence.”

Blacks now provide much of the cultural container that allows white, male youth (who purchase seventy percent of Hip-Hop) to act out some mild rebellion between their suburban school years and the corporate life they must eventually submit to. All learn to suppress their innate grandiosity of soul and project it onto celebrities. Instead of living creative lives as involved citizens, we consume the cultural products, including Dionysus, that the media offer us.

Generally, however, we watch the Dionysian experience, like Pentheus in his tree spying on the maenads.  Popular culture apparently assumes that blacks have a certain license to behave in ways the culture as a whole chooses to repress. Some blacks play along for profit while others, writes historian Gerald Early, resent “the entrapment of sensuality we are forced to wear as a mask for the white imagination.”

Meanwhile, Hip-Hop subculture reflects our most fundamental myth, the sacrifice of the children, back toward the wider culture. pants12n-1-web.jpg?w=220&h=158&profile=RESIZE_710xIt displays anger and self-confidence in the lyrics, but grief and depression in the imagery: baggy pants, drooping below the waste; everything collapsed. Adolescents, especially minorities, are well aware of being forced to carry the weight of the world that their parents will not.

However, the memory of that tentative healing of the mind-body split survives, and Americans now commonly acknowledge a desire for authenticity that was birthed in the 1960s. Whether they search for it in rock or gospel music, meditation, hiking, gardening or cocaine is, to an extent, irrelevant. The genie is out of the bottle; even commercials commonly hint that we are capable of so much more. Despite their implication that only “stuff” will satisfy their longing, many baby boomers and their children still carry an idealism that counters the prevailing cynicism and fear. And the energy, the desperate, if unconscious craving for initiation, is as strong as ever. The creative imagination openly opposes the culture of innocent violence and violent innocence.

Whether through the calm attention of Yoga, natural foods and body therapies or through the ecstatic release of popular music and the discipline of fitness programs, Americans have begun the long pilgrimage back into the body. It is no coincidence that these revolutions have occurred simultaneously with the emergence of blacks and gays out of the national underworld. Slowly, painfully and generously, people of color and unconventional sexuality have offered white America the opportunity to pull back its projections from the Other. Coming down out of our heads and remembering the body’s demands, we encounter the needs of the soul. We encounter desire.

The madness is still at the gates. Michael Ventura, in another essay, argues that, for better or for worse, successive generations of youth have spontaneously produced “…forms – music, fashions, behaviors – that prolong the initiatory moment.” A period that in the tribal world lasted only a few weeks has now been extended into decades. The pace of change has kept millions in a state of ongoing liminality throughout our entire lives.

But if we reduce such phenomena to psychology or see only eternal adolescents duped by consumer culture, we are missing the point. We have all become initiates, without being welcomed home, stuck in the middle of a great transition. In some parts of the Third World, literally half the population is composed of teenagers, crying out to be seen. This is tragic, but it is also our best hope for renewal. “Hence their demand – inchoate, unreasonable and irresistible – is that history initiate them.”

Yes, but what about Elvis?

Part Seven

Elvis Presley is the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century. – Leonard Bernstein

But what about Elvis? How do we understand that 32 years after his death (when I did the research for my book), 44 countries were hosting some 525 fan clubs, and an Elvis search engine had 330 sites with over 500 books, or that fans continue to refer, humorously or not, to an “Elvis religion”? We cannot explain this away, because we are in the realm of mystery, where images are our only guides and questions are more important than answers.

Would someone else have created the same reactions? Of course, there had been and were countless talented black performers, and later, many whites. Some of these artists were and are carriers – channelers – of the most profound energies of the Earth, of duende. But it was Elvis. All we can say is that the soul of the world needed someone like him at that particular moment, an “animus man,” in Pinkola-Estes’ words, “one who acts out the unrealized soulfulness of others.” anthesteria.jpg?w=238&h=173&profile=RESIZE_710xThe collective consciousness dreamed up his image to carry a positive projection of Dionysus to counter the long centuries of marginalization. As in the ancient Athenian festival of the Anthesteria, the god was finally being invited to enter the gates of the city.

His art had roots in Africa, where everything originates in ritual. Although colonialism and oppression had broken down and denatured those forms, a physical energy and a wisdom that questioned the assumptions of western culture still came through. Segregationists rightly perceived that this “Devil’s music” would corrupt their children. What were they so afraid of? The simple answer is the threat of miscegenation.

On a deeper level, Elvis was questioning the image of the black American Dionysus, first among Americans and then, via television and movies, across the world. If a white man could carry such archetypal energy, then anyone could. Now consider what a threat he was. If anyone could claim this heritage of our “indigenous mind” – a mind that has reconciled with the body – then America no longer needed to demonize that mind, no longer needed to project it upon black people. And if that were to happen, then the whole edifice of American myth and American capitalism might collapse of its own foul mass of contradictions.

But the work of the soul is to move past contradiction into true paradox, to hold the tension of the opposites. Elvis reveled in paradox. His images, writes Erika Doss, were “a tangled hybrid of fact and desire.” His voice dissolved racial boundaries, and his obvious bodily comfort questioned gender norms. He was, wrote critic Marc Feeney, “astonishingly beautiful.” He had charisma (“favor, divine gift” Charis was the name of one of the three attendants of Aphrodite).

Perhaps more importantly, a man (at least a white man) had never seemed so loose. He wore mascara and wild clothes in wilder colors to exaggerate this ambiguity, and he drove a pink Cadillac. elvis-pink-cadillac.jpg?w=197&h=262&profile=RESIZE_710xOne critic described his onscreen persona as “aggressively bisexual in appeal.” Another placed the “orgasmic gyrations” of the title dance sequence in (the film) Jailhouse Rock within a lineage of cinematic musical numbers that offer a “spectacular eroticization, if not homoeroticization, of the male image.” A third wrote that he was “an ambivalent figure who articulated a peculiar feminized, objectifying version of white working-class masculinity as aggressive sexual display.”

Offstage he was exceedingly polite; onstage he was sullen, defiant and self-mocking. Singing both rock and gospel, he straddled the boundaries of sacred and profane music. He combined small-town values and an astonishing, urban energy. In a sense, he was both mortal and immortal, like Dionysus and the other suffering gods before him. Tim Riley writes that compared with John Wayne’s image of masculinity, Elvis was “…more complex, more open to change, less fixed on a single idea or attitude.” He personified liberation and transgression, and his clear affront to the bourgeois world gave teenagers permission to follow. Like Johnny Appleseed, wrote Cleaver, he “sow[ed] seeds…in the white souls of the white youth.”

But he also embodied transformation. As such, from his position at the border between the worlds, he beckoned especially to women, inviting them into Dionysian ritual – the madness, the pharmakon – that is both cause and cure of itself. This archetypal energy has the potential to transform the individual, the community and the nation into who or what we actually came into this world to be – but only, as in his myths, by dismembering one’s entire conception of what or who one is. As Karl Marx said, “all solid melts into air.” Elvis was the first to propose the great transformation.

1_wsjly9jcweswhf6ahsqqxq.jpg?w=180&h=284&profile=RESIZE_710x The publishers of a 1998 translation of The Bacchae made this insight abundantly clear by putting Elvis’ photo, rather than a classical image, on the cover. And it wasn’t just any picture of him; it was his army induction photo. As in the play, Dionysus was (temporarily) in prison.

What are the other mythic images here? James Hillman taught that in classical myth, the gods rarely appear alone; their stories interweave:

Each cosmos which each god brings does not exclude another; neither the archetypal structures of consciousness nor their ways of being in the world are mutually exclusive. Rather, they require one another, as the gods call upon one another for help.

Commentators in the 1960s insisted on the Oedipal sources of the generation gap. But if young people dreamed of patricide, it was directed against Kronos’ insatiable appetite for his own children, and it was driven by a sense of betrayal. After all, hadn’t oracles warned Ouranos, Kronos and Zeus that their children would overthrow them? Isn’t that fear at the root of the patriarch’s reign of terror? Two myths intersected in the 1960s. The universal dream of the hero’s journey collided with a nightmare, the refusal to anoint the new kings and queens of the world. Youths demanded initiation and meaning, while elders offered the false choice of either stultifying conformity or literal sacrifice.

Americans were enacting other myths as well. In one story, the craftsman god Hephaestus vented his rage against Hera by imprisoning her in a golden chair. Perhaps he had been confining women on the “pedestal” of patriarchy? Only Dionysus could loosen him up, getting the lame god drunk and teaching him to dance, after which Hephaestus released Hera and married Aphrodite. Aphrodite! The madness of Dionysus brought the cure. Pentheus, by contrast, retreated into a masculinity so brittle that Dionysus could effortlessly crack it and release the repressed feminine energies that eventually overwhelmed him. For more on this theme, see my blog series “Male Initiation and the Mother in Greek Myth.”

This is Elvis’ mythic significance. A unique combination of talent, ambition and overdue cultural changes waiting to be sparked created an icon. He became both a gatekeeper and a role model who loosened the boundaries of the American ego. Perhaps it would be better to speak of “the” Elvis – like “the” Christ – since his personal life is far less important than the role he embodied. One writer has argued that Jim Morrison was a conscious, thus more appropriate, carrier of the Dionysian role in America. But he appeared ten years after Elvis had already broken down the walls.

Archetypes demand to appear in their fullness, especially when we avert our gaze from their darker sides. Perhaps without Christ’s advent as a pure god of love, there would have been little need for the Western world to imagine Satan. Similarly, because millions projected only the savior image upon Elvis, he had to live out both sides of the old story. Within the Christian framework of American myth, many saw his death as a sacrifice for the world rather than as enacting renewal of the world. As with the Catholic saints, his devotees give ritual attention to his death date, not to his birthday.

Elvis, writes Pinkola-Estes, became the focus of the cultus of the dying god, “a drama in which a dried out culture requires the blood sacrifice of the king in order to…rebuild itself.” In the symbolic world, he joined the eternal scapegoats Osiris, Dionysus and Jesus. s-l1600.jpg?w=149&h=225&profile=RESIZE_710xAnother book cover shows a man wearing an Elvis tattoo with the words “He Died For Our Sins.”

(Religious literalists please take note: the pagan imagination encourages humor. It makes absolutely no difference to his fans if such gestures are serious or tongue-in-cheek.) In this context, his suffering, his drug-addict death and his failure to find happiness made him even more attractive to his fans. He was, so to speak, one of us.

Many of his fellow “looseners” (James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, Morrison, Janis Joplin) died before Elvis; yet the mold had been cast in his image in 1955. Since then, many others who couldn’t hold the fullness of the archetype have followed him to the underworld. Allen Ginzburg, Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey played the loosener role with somewhat more balance. Still others (Jim Jones, Charles Manson and David Koresh) literalized the darkest of Dionysus’s masked roles, leading crazed maenads on murderous rampages.

Nevertheless, Elvis has achieved immortality; in 2007 his estate earned $40 million. He remains as popular in death as in life because he served in a very real sense as America’s initiator. Ventura concludes, “It is not too much to say that, for a short time, Elvis was our ‘Teacher’ in the most profound, Eastern sense of that word.”

Religion is much more complex than we can imagine. Humorous “Elvis churches” thinly mask the inarticulate but broad conviction that some god descended and resided briefly among us. Doss argues that Americans mix and match their beliefs and practices, that his veneration is a “strong historical form of American religiosity.” Consider the vast array of relics at and pilgrimages to his sacred shrine. After the White House, Graceland remains the most popular house tour in the country, drawing over 750,000 visitors yearly. In 1997, on the twentieth anniversary of his death, 60,000 fans came, and 10,000 stood all night at his grave. Consider the many Elvis “sightings,” as if he never died — or that he had returned.

Finally, consider the thousands of impersonators who, as in the Imitatio Christi, 800px-elvis_impersonators_record-1.jpg?w=326&h=216&profile=RESIZE_710xdevote their lives to him every night in nightclubs (his ritual containers) in almost every country.  According to Gael Sweeney, “true” impersonators believe that they are “chosen” by The King himself to continue his work and judge themselves and each other by their “authenticity” and ability to “channel” his essence. Several radio stations feature Elvis impersonator material exclusively. In 2014, 37 years after his death, 895 impersonators gathered at a North Carolina resort to pay tribute.

Let’s take this one step deeper and imagine a story that begins to move an entire culture. The Bacchae tells us that Dionysus descended to Hades and raised his mother Semele to the divine community of Heaven. Similarly, let’s imagine that while the spirit of feminism was veiled in America, young Elvis descended to its underworld, Memphis’s black ghetto, where he discovered the blues.

The blues had power (and danger) because it tapped into the soul’s depth, where extremes of joy and grief meet each other. Hillman writes:

In Dionysus, borders join that which we usually believe to be separated by borders…He rules the borderlands of our psychic geography. There, the Dionysian dance take place; neither this nor that, an ambivalence – which also suggests that, wherever ambivalence appears, there is a possibility for Dionysian consciousness.

Elvis become a conduit for that terrible beauty. Was there some kind of terrible initiation? What did the black musicians of Memphis see in him? (We recall that Jerry Lee Lewis and televangelist Jimmy Swaggart are cousins). Then he emerged into the light (the spotlight) precisely at America’s initiatory moment.

And unknowingly, he brought guests with him – the Goddess, and the beginning of the long memory. His eroticism, writes Doss, encouraged girls “to cross the line from voyeur to participant…from gazing at a body they desired to being that body.” Abandoning control – screaming and fainting, and eventually choosing to be sexual on their own terms – was the beginning of their revolution, long before feminism became a political movement. She quotes one woman: Elvis “…made it OK for women of my generation to be sexual beings.”

This was not the first time that American girls had gone crazy about a male singer. Ten years before Elvis, thousands of them, according to Time Magazine, had been in “a squealing ecstasy” at a Frank Sinatra concert.  But Sinatra was not one to swivel his hips; he was a crooner, not a rocker. And besides, the war was still raging. The time simply hadn’t been right.

Ten years later, it became apparent that millions of girls had both deep longings and deep pockets. Quickly, the music industry responded with “girl groups.” By the early sixties, this was the one area in popular culture that gave voice to their contradictory experiences of oppression and possibility. It encouraged girls to become active agents in their own love lives. By allying themselves romantically and morally with rebel heroes, they could proclaim their independence from society’s expectations about their inevitable domestication. And even when the lyrics spoke of heartbreak and victimization, the beat and euphoria of the music contradicted them.

And the music was made by groups of girls. It was, writes Susan Douglas, “a pop culture harbinger in which girl groups, however innocent and commercial, anticipate women’s groups, and girl talk anticipates a future kind of women’s talk.” If young women could define their own sexual sensibility through popular music, couldn’t they define themselves in other areas of life? Another woman claims, “Rock provided…women with a channel for saying ‘want’…that was a useful step for liberation.” Douglas argues that “…singing certain songs with a group of friends at the top of your lungs sometimes helps you say things, later, at the top of your heart.”

The limping Hepheastus released Hera from the golden chair, with the help of Dionysus. One might argue that in the 1970s, men (unaware of their own limps) released women from the pedestal of ideal womanhood. In fact, women destroyed that golden prison themselves. Clearly, feminist demands for autonomy, equality, safety and choice were long overdue. But American women were also the first to elucidate the new (or remember the old) thinking that may inspire fundamental change at the mythic level, even if such changes happen with glacial slowness.

Cynthia Eller writes that feminism began asking why little girls had to wear pink and big girls had to wear high heels, but it “…segued naturally into one that asked why God was a man and women’s religious experiences went unnoticed.”

The women’s spirituality and pagan movements – and later, the men’s mythopoetic movement – were all outgrowths of secular feminism, which in turn had been catalyzed in that 1954 initiatory moment. Catalyze: from cata (downward) + lyein (to loosen, also the root of Lusios, Dionysus the Loosener).

Is it a stretch to suggest that this moment — some 437 years after Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of a German Cathedral and began the Protestant Reformation, some 213 years after Jonathan Edwards proclaimed the First Great Awakening — was the beginning of a religious movement that might eventually usher in a new story to replace the Myth of American Innocence? Leonard Bernstein claimed that Elvis was the greatest cultural force of the twentieth century. Did Elvis lead us to the re-awakening that may re-animate and re-sacralize the world?

Perhaps that is a bit grandiose. But Dionysus asks us just how much reasonable, dispassionate discourse has achieved. “You have tried prudent planning for long enough,” says Rumi. “This is not the age of information,” writes poet David Whyte,

This is the age of loaves and fishes,

People are hungry,

And one good word is bread

For a thousand.

Here are my other essays on race in America:

 The Mythic Sources of White Rage

— Privilege

 Affirmative Action for Whites 

— The Race Card

 The Sandy Hook Murders, Innocence and Race in America 

 Hands up, Don’t shoot – The Sacrifice of American Dionysus

 Do Black Lives Really Matter? 

— Did the South Win the Civil War? 

— The Election of 2016

 The Dionysian Moment – Trump Lets the Dogs Out

Read more…

Part One

For where there is dance, there also is the Devil.  – St. John Chrysostom

Bobo-malay, shushu maya (Lord, make this body dance!) – Dagara, West Africa

The Greek word xenos means both “stranger” (as in xenophobia) and “guest.” This etymological twist lies at the root of a profound mystery. As Carl Jung taught us, the repressed or marginalized parts of our souls and our culture desire to return home – and they warn of the long-term consequences of not being welcomed back out of the shadows into the light. This is Depth Psychology’s most fundamental insight, and it invites us into the mystery of healing, both personal and collective: unconsciously, those within the pale also long for that moment of completion, because the body understands what the mind represses.

Xenos appears in the fifth century B.C. as the word that the tragic playwrights, especially Euripides dionysus-11.jpg?w=183&h=140&profile=RESIZE_710xin his play The Bacchae, used to describe Dionysus – the god of wine, of madness, of drumming and ecstatic dance, the ultimate outsider from the mountains, the Other. Throughout Greek myth, Dionysus is contrasted with his rational, heroic half-brother Apollo, k5.9apollon.jpg?w=175&h=158&profile=RESIZE_710xrelated to the sun, counsellor to Zeus, god of the ruling elites, of calming music, the ultimate insider. Apollo could send healing from the sky, but he could also send death on his heavenly arrows. And unlike Dionysus, he never married.

These ancient stories are neither untruths, in our conventional use of the word “myth,” nor, by being very old, are they irrelevant to modern culture and politics. We are talking about race relations in America.

All white people who take their sense of identity from the myth of American innocence know deep in their bones, below their prejudices and naïve idealisms, that the road to healing involves transforming xenos from stranger to guest. After visiting the United States, Jung observed,

When the (white) American opens a…door in his psychology, there is a dangerous open gap, dropping hundreds of feet…he will then be faced with an Indian or Negro shadow.

Our American narratives – the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – have inherited the European divorce of consciousness from flesh that began in Biblical times and metastasized in the Protestant Reformation and the industrial revolution. They maximize individualism, conflict, materialism and competition, while minimizing aesthetic, sensual and ecological interrelationships. They speak of a god (with no wife) and his son who love humanity yet remain aloof, except for their furious judgement of our limitations.

Whether they appear to originate in religion, economics, science, nationalism, consumerism or the culture of celebrity, these stories of detached, rational, progressive, productive, masculine, heroic consciousness arise from a mind that has discarded large parts of itself and condemned them to the shadow worlds. Psychologist James Hillman called this thinking Apollonic: …like its name sake…it kills from a distance (its distance kills).” Claiming objectivity, “it never merges with or ‘marries’ its material…” It defines our “very notion of consciousness itself.”

Since Colonial times, white Americans, like the ancient Athenians they modeled themselves upon, have seen themselves as Apollonian, hardworking, rational, competitive, progressive, individualistic lovers of freedom. Below the dominant stories, however, our Dionysian shadow, the “Other,” appeared in a form the Greeks would have recognized but burdened with a Christian sinfulness that would have been unfamiliar to them.

The descendants of African slaves, in both their stereotyped, earthy physicality and the implied threat of their vengeance, have always been America’s dark incarnation of Dionysus, its collectively repressed memory and imagination. Since, however, whites desperately needed to project him, to see him, they created exactly those conditions – segregation and discrimination – that dehumanized him and fostered behavior that whites could then proceed to demonize without guilt. And their Puritan heritage justified this process by turning the old beliefs about original sin into an explanation of the causes of suffering. One suffered because one deserved to suffer.

slave3.jpg?w=133&h=201&profile=RESIZE_710x

The process of projection through which the ego or the dominant elements in a society create their image of the Other is not logical. As with archetypes, when we constellate one pole of a stereotype, we also conjure its opposite. Since whites needed to believe that blacks were slow, dumb and happy, many blacks learned to act that way. Whites created fictional characters – from Jim Crow to Gone With the Wind’s Mammy: loveable and loyal, yet lacking any concern for intellect or freedom.

A second aspect of the Other in the racist mind contradicted the first. Even as many whites perceived blacks as lazy (a terrible offense to our Puritan heritage), they also perceived them as unable to control their desires (an even worse transgression). Again, since whites needed to see their projection of this intensely sexual and aggressive Other in the world, their gatekeepers in business, religion and government created precisely the conditions that would manifest it: a segregated, hierarchical economy, highly limited opportunities for employment, proliferation of both guns and drugs, and a school-to-prison pipeline.

Since the beginning of large-scale (this is to say, mandatory) public education in the 1890’s, all Americans have learned to be unquestioning cogs in capitalism’s machine. And simultaneously, our religious instructors have presented images of both a meek and desexualized Christ and his furiously vengeful father. Quite naturally, the mind desires to revolt against such a diminished imagination. But when such thoughts are unacceptable, they fall back into the personal and collective unconscious. And when opportunistic politicians offer whites such polar-opposite stereotypes of blacks as laziness and aggressiveness, they find fertile – and familiar – soil in the American imagination. As I write in Chapter Four of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence:

Othering is inconsistent. Europeans projected opposing images upon Jews: “id” figures who would sexually pollute Christian blood, and stingy, “superego” bankers, unwilling to assimilate…Richard Nixon warned of both “the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy…” During the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Clarence Thomas, right-wing senators alternatively accused Anita Hill as being either a spurned woman – or a lesbian. Such discourse doesn’t care whether the terms of othering are logical or not. Any demonizing narrative will do.

The psychological truth that fear, hatred and envy are very close to each other is most evident in the gruesome rituals that Southern racists perpetrated for 200 years. In 1966 African American sociologist Calvin Hernton wrote that the image of the black sexual beast was so extreme in their minds that they had to eradicate it, yet so powerful that they worshipped it:

In taking the Black man’s genitals, the hooded men in white are amputating that portion of themselves which they secretly consider vile, filthy, and most of all, inadequate…(they) hope to acquire the grotesque powers they have assigned to the Negro phallus, which they symbolically extol by the act of destroying it.

These attitudes have never characterized only the lower classes. Those being vetted to become their managers and those born into even higher privilege also had to be indoctrinated. It was necessary for everyone’s innate social conscience and human solidarity to be eradicated, and gatekeepers in higher education made sure of this.

William Dunning, founder of the American Historical Association, taught Columbia students that blacks were incapable of self-government. Yale’s Ulrich Phillips claimed that slaveholders did much to civilize the slaves. Henry Commager and (Harvard’s) Samuel Morison’s The Growth of the American Republic, read by generations of college freshmen, claimed that slaves “suffered less than any other class in the South…The majority…were apparently happy.” In 1915 Woodrow Wilson, formerly President of Princeton, showed Birth of a Nation at the White House, giving semi-official sanction to the movies’ first mega-hit. By depicting heroic white men saving young women from their drooling black abductors, it led immediately to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

In America, the mind/body division coincided with the racial gulf, and this distinction became so sacred, if unnatural, that it required the construction and perpetuation of an elaborate myth of white innocence and national exceptionalism. The Puritan heritage determined that whites were repulsed by the body’s needs and feared that they might be judged by how well they controlled them. Their hatred of the black Other revealed the envy that lay just below the surface, and their unconscious desire to be healed of this deadly burden. Here is a clue to slavery’s appeal that extends beyond economics. This terror, writes journalist Michael Ventura in his brilliant essay Hear That Long Snake Moan, “…was compacted into a tension that gave Western man the need to control every body he found.”

James Baldwin concluded,

We would never, never allow Negroes to starve, to grow bitter, and to die in ghettos all over the country if we were not driven by some nameless fear that has nothing to do with Negroes…most white people imagine that (what) they can salvage from the storm of life is really, in sum, their innocence. 

Part Two

In slavery, writes Ventura, “the body could be both reviled and controlled.” Baldwin was describing what I call the myth of American innocence, the collection of narratives and images that have allowed most of us to live with the realities of race and empire and yet believe that America has a divinely inspired mission to bring freedom and opportunity to the whole world. Yet, strangely, it is possible that the unforgivable enslavement of millions of black people actually initiated a profound, if exceedingly slow, healing process. Compounding this colossal irony, the individuals most responsible came from America’s most bigoted region.

Southern whites reacted with extraordinary violence (committing well over 4,000 lynchings between 1890 and 1930) when blacks attempted to move into the mainstream of life. Shameful as this period was, however, it brought out both our most feared contradictions as well as the seeds of renewal. For all its sorrows, the twentieth century saw several brief periods when forms of Dionysian madness seized the Apollonian mind in its flight from the body and pulled it back to Earth. These periods fundamentally altered America and began to clean out the festering wounds underlying Puritanism, materialism and our national obsession with violence. What did this? African American music.

Throughout the Jim Crow era, the spirit of Africa survived in such folk traditions as Hoodoo hoodoo-shrines-and-altars-cover.jpg?w=131&h=202&profile=RESIZE_710xand the Haitian influence in New Orleans, but primarily in the black church. Even though many of its members absorbed the conservative social values of their former masters, there was no mind-body split in the practice of their religion. But this created a bind that Southerners, both white and black, have been in for generations, writes Michael Ventura: “A doctrine that denied the body, preached by a practice that excited the body, would eventually drive the body into fulfilling itself elsewhere.” The call-and-response chanting and rhythmic bodily movement typical of southern preachers absolutely contradict their moralistic sermons. This contributes to “the terrible tension that drives their unchecked paranoias” (to which I would add their unchecked sex scandals).

Music, whether sacred or secular, held rural communities together by providing a safety valve from the stifling pressure of rigid conformism. Those who most exemplified this paradox were the traveling singers who mediated between the community’s sentimentalized idea of itself and the forbidden temptations of the outside world.

Were these men mere entertainers, or did they serve a necessary role as messengers from the unknown? In The Spell of the Sensuous, Philosopher David Abram observes that in tribal cultures, shamans rarely dwell within their communities. They live at the periphery, the boundary between the village and the “larger community of beings upon which the village depends for its…sustenance.” In terms of indigenous spirituality, these intermediaries ensure an appropriate energy flow between humans on the one hand, and ancestors, spirits, plants and animals, or (to reduce things to psychology) unconscious aspects of the personality, on the other.

The Greeks imagined that the boundaries were the realms of Hermes — and of Dionysus. Hillman writes,

In Dionysus, borders join that which we usually believe to be separated by borders…He rules the borderlands of our psychic geography.

In 1920, the South was still a primarily rural society with a living folklore that extended back to Ireland, Scotland, Haiti, Jamaica and especially Africa. For this reason, and despite all its feudal horrors, its people retained a vestigial memory of the permeable boundaries between the worlds; and it was the singers, preachers and storytellers who mediated the edge.

By contrast, the urban North was characterized by the crowded, dirty, noisy, mechanized life of factories and tenements (for the poor) and the unrelenting drive for money and status powered by the Protestant Ethic (for the middle-class and rich), and they paid a considerable price in alienation from the natural world. Modern life, writes Greil Marcus, “…had set men free by making them strangers.” Existence in the urban factories had diminished human passions in favor of a reserved, cynical, blasé attitude. This had created a compensatory craving for excitement and sensation, which for some was partially satisfied by city life. But others needed something more extreme, more Dionysian, to make them feel alive.

This damage to the soul occurred along with the most rapid technological changes in history. The all-encompassing verities and authority of religion had been, to a great extent, replaced by nationalism. One Frenchman fated to die in the first weeks of the Great War observed that the world had changed more since he had been in school than it had since the Romans. In the thirty years between 1884 and 1914, humanity had encountered mass electrification, automobiles, radio, movies, airplanes, submarines, elevators, refrigeration, radioactivity, feminism, Darwin, Marx (who wrote, “All that is solid melts into air”), Picasso – and Freud.

What irony: just as the modern world was learning of the unconscious, it was about to embody the ancient myths of the sacrifice of the children. The pace of technological change simply exceeded humanity’s capacity to understand it, and the pressure upon the soul of the world exploded into world war. For four years in Europe, between seven and ten thousand people, mostly young men, were killed or died of starvation, every single day. And then the Spanish Flu decimated millions. Even though the violence did not reach American soil, the pandemic and the grief certainly did. We can never know the extent of trauma this generation experienced.

After the Great War, the anxieties and economic pressures of the new century threatened to overwhelm the small-town values of self-denial, strict moral conduct and racial exclusion in the South. Great political rifts were growing that would eventually explode in the 1960s. Thousands of black veterans returned, mostly to the South, and women were about to achieve the right to vote, just as city dwellers were becoming the majority of the population. 1919 – “Red Summer” – saw 3,600 strikes red-summer-chicagoriotheadline.jpg?w=242&h=136&profile=RESIZE_710xinvolving over four million workers. But it also saw over 25 race riots (all of them white-on-black), the Palmer Raids (dedicated to destroying the Red “Outer Other”) and the resurgent Klan (obsessed with the black “inner Other”).

And something completely new arose. The average age of the onset of puberty was decreasing while the average age at marriage was increasing.  Adolescents began to find themselves in a prolonged period of dependence upon their parents, who first used the word “teenage” around 1920.

As the pace of change led to drinking rates that have not been equaled since, religious reactionaries compelled the government to declare Prohibition. Until 1933, it would be illegal to sell or transport intoxicating beverages. America, alone among industrialized nations, declared that the celebration of Dionysus (whom the Greeks knew as Lusios, “the Loosener”) in even this most literal form was unacceptable. But the repressed quickly returned; sixty percent of the public continuously violated the law. “Dionysus,” wrote psychologist Raphael Lopez-Pedraza, “took his revenge in bootlegging, gangsters and violence.” The word  “underworld” now referred to organized crime, rather than the abode of the ancestors. It still served as a mirror of the upper world, but now of its rapacious capitalism. Instead of a revival of Protestant asceticism, America experienced the “roaring twenties.”

Politically and economically, African Americans remained on the periphery of the American story. But something else new – and critical – arose. New technology brought their culture into the mainstream. In a sense, technology, easily accessible (in the form of records and sheet music) and even free (in the form of radio), gave American culture a permission it had not had before, except through alcohol and violence. Soon, everyone was dancing; tfc3-042-3_charleston-competition_st-louis-1925.jpg?w=198&h=115&profile=RESIZE_710xindeed, “the Charleston” dance craze was actually a West African ancestor dance. People (at least urban people) began to speak openly about sex, gender and the body’s demands for pleasure. And everyone watched movie images of other people’s bodies experiencing pleasure in this period before the introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code.

There were signs that the white ego was loosening up. Psychologist Stephen Diggs writes that this “alchemical process” melded western individual consciousness with tribal orality: “Where the Northern soul, from shaman to Christian priest, operates dissociatively, leaving the body to travel the spirit world, the African priest, the Hoodoo conjurer, and the bluesman ask the loa to enter bodies and possess them”.

Still, the Klan claimed four million members. In 1921, whites destroyed the black section of Tulsa, killing 300 blacks. In 1923, they destroyed the black town of Rosewood, Florida, killing dozens. It was a particularly cruel irony. Even as whites were experimenting with tentative rejection of their ancient hatred of the body, they were – savagely – punishing people who (to them) seemed to exemplify natural comfort in that body. But Blacks were now in a uniquely influential position. Even as they suffered continued segregation and repression, their music (at least watered-down versions of it) was challenging the white majority’s most fundamental beliefs.

Students of myth will recall that (in The Bacchae, by Euripides) the young King Pentheus was both revolted by and attracted to his cousin Dionysus. This story reminds us that fascination always lies just beneath hatred of the Other, because the Other is an unrecognized part of the Self. America played out much of its love-hate relationship with its Dionysian shadow throughout the twentieth century on the field of popular music.

This process has moved in a dialectical series of cultural statements, an insight first proposed by LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) in his seminal book Blues People: Negro Music in White America.  To simplify: blacks merge western techniques with indigenous African traditions to create new musical styles. Whites (such as Paul Whiteman) copy it, dilute its intensity and proceed to reap  most of the profits. Then younger blacks create a revitalized

paul-whiteman-image-lg.jpg?w=113&h=148&profile=RESIZE_710xmusical expression, but this time with the intention of restoring black identity, as a conscious choice to remain outside.

The message, “We are not like you” is a statement about otherness, for once, by the Other, which prefers exclusion if the result is the survival of authenticity. In a culture that elevates the dry, masculine, Apollonian virtues of spirit over the wet, feminine and Dionysian, blacks would begin to use the word soul in 1946 to define their music in contrast to the dominant national values. Eventually other terms – soul brother (1957), soul patch (1950s), soul food (1957) soul music (1961) and soul sister (1967) – would arise in proud contrast to the dominant national values.

Again, white adults copy the new forms, removing their most Dionysian elements to make them more acceptable. But white youth typically prefer the real thing, inviting xenos, the stranger, to become the guest. From Dixieland to Hip-Hop, the cycle has repeated itself for nearly a century.

Xenos. In this twisted yet profoundly important dialogue, whites have consistently feared contamination by the stranger (black people), yet they desperately long for the emotional and bodily freedom offered by the guest (black culture). This is an essential aspect of whiteness itself. “The white itch to affect blackness,” writes Kevin Phinney, “is an ineffable part of the American experience.” mistrels-a-poster-from-1907-shows-the-al-g.-field-minstrels-caucasian-men-who-performed-in-blackface-653x1024-1.jpg?w=213&h=334&profile=RESIZE_710xIndeed, blackface minstrelsy had been America’s primary form of entertainment throughout much of the nineteenth century. Forms of it (Amos ‘n Andy, originally voiced for radio by two white actors) would survive into the 1950s, tutoring millions in racist stereotyping. But it provided something else: by watching other whites impersonating blacks, whites could briefly inhabit their own bodies.

But popular thinking still remains polarized along racial lines: civilized vs. primitive, abstinence vs. promiscuity and sobriety vs. intoxication, all forming the opposition between composure and impulsivity (mythologically, Apollo and Dionysus). For generations, power elites have manipulated the fear that those who cannot control their desires will tempt the majority to follow them, that no one might resist temptation. In the white collective unconscious, the black man is America’s Dionysus, coming to liberate the women, to lead them to the mountains so that they might dance, free of patriarchal control.

And in this liberating, loosening, archetypal (yet terrifying) role, the mad god offers men two choices. The first is to accept these changes, drop your own stiff, heroic, detached consciousness and dance with us.

Every child has known God,
Not the God of names, not the God of don’ts,
Not the God who ever does anything weird,
But the God who knows only four words
And keeps repeating them, saying:
“Come Dance with Me.” Come Dance. — Hafiz

Or, like King Pentheus, who refuses the invitation, be torn apart.

Part Three

Just as Prohibition ended, Hollywood agreed to censor itself and suppress the erotic. Walt Disney attained huge popularity with his sanitized, asexual cartoons. In his movies, write Robert Jewett and John Lawrence, “Sex had become sufficiently innocent, trivial…that every family knew it could trust itself to go to the movies.”  It was a kind of mass compromise between Puritanism and opportunism. America traded away one mild manifestation of the Pagan sensibility (Aphrodite in the movies) to get another (Dionysus) back in his literalized form as alcohol.

The period before World War Two marked the transition to the consumer culture. After the war, the bulk of industrial activity became the manufacture of “goods.” Rather suddenly, as youth became an ideal, advertising suggested that things people bought would make and keep them young. Prior to this time, elders almost everywhere had enjoyed the highest respect, while adolescence had been a brief period of intense preparation for adulthood.

A society that was in some ways diminishing the possibilities of life for millions of young people declared that it was best, like Peter Pan, 9142475282?profile=original to never grow up. Maturity implies transcending innocence and confronting memory. family_of_african_american_slaves_on_smiths_plantation_beaufort_south_carolina-crop-473x375-1.jpg?w=166&h=132&profile=RESIZE_710xIn 1930, former slaves and survivors of the Wounded Knee massacre were still alive. There was much to remember and much to deny. Staying young is a way of “killing time” (the god Kronos). But in doing so, we leave little to the next generation. We trade experience for innocence.

And we fall back upon one-dimensional images of what it means to be a man. After the war, John Wayne modeled a powerful yet restrained and sexually detached masculinity. As a primary figure in the cult of celebrity, Wayne’s stereotyped roles merged with his public persona and his political statements. His image would be overwhelmingly present in the psyches of three generations of American men. Robert Bly once joked that the only images of masculinity available to young men in the 1960s were Wayne and his reverse-image, the “wimpy” Woody Allen.

In many of his films (Sands of Iwo Jima, Red River, The Searchers, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Horse Soldiers), his characters are widowed, unrequited in love, divorced or loners who reject any erotic relationships. They symbolize the man who has failed or never even attempted the initiatory confrontation with the feminine depths of his own soul.

The classic heroes of myth often find beautiful maidens, enact the sacred wedding (hieros gamos) and produce many children. But many heroes of popular culture (with exceptions such as James Bond and comic antiheroes) don’t get or even want the girl. Even Bond remains a bachelor. Often the hero must choose between an attractive sexual partner and duty to his mission. Some (Batman, the Lone Ranger, etc) prefer male “sidekicks.” Hawkeye, the Virginian, Superman, Green Lantern, Spiderman, Rambo, Sam Spade, Indiana Jones, Robert Langdon, John Shaft, Captains Kirk, America and Marvel: all are single. Their sexual purity (or at least their avoidance of committed relationship) seems to ensure their moral infallibility, but it also denies both complexity and the possibility of healing.

This hero has inherited an immensely long process of abstraction, alienation and splitting of the western psyche. He exemplifies, wrote Hillman, “…that peculiar process upon which our civilization rests: dissociation.” He refuses any relationship with the Other, demonizing it into his mirror opposite, the irredeemably evil. He requires no nurturance, doesn’t grow in wisdom, creates nothing, and teaches only violent resolution of disputes, which reinforces our own denial of death. His renunciation justifies his furious vengeance upon those who cannot control their appetites for power or sex. He defends democracy through fascist means. He offers, write Jewett and Lawrence, “vigilantism without lawlessness, sexual repression without resultant perversion, and moral infallibility without… intellect.”

Post-war optimism created a large shadow that Noir films expressed. Men had won the war; shouldn’t they be happy? Wayne’s cowboy movies were allegories with clear social overtones. Tim Riley writes, “It was as if the cold-war curtain came down both across Europe and across some imaginary field in the American male psyche…” To Clarissa Pinkola-Estes, the war created “a culture turned back on itself… one that had become dry from much loss of blood.”  In On The Road, Jack Kerouac spoke for many men: “…wishing I were Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.”

Women, millions of whom lost their jobs to the returning soldiers, were also in a bind. Betty Friedan described a deep sense of depression, frustration and resentment. Magazines that had encouraged women to go to work before the war now praised “homemakers,” with “a single purpose… to sell a vast array of new products…”

Here is where we have to take a step or two away from history or even psychology into a more poetic imagination. Both resisting and longing to heal the mind-body split so perfectly represented by John Wayne, America dreamed up a moistening archetypal presence, at least one living soul who might enact the needed mysteries. Years later, John Lennon would sum up the situation: “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”

Part Four

Despite the anxiety of the nuclear age, peacetime unleashed a torrent of energy and domestic production. Large-scale government programs such as the G.I. Bill lifted millions out of poverty and into the suburbs. Yet something was missing. Television hinted at what it might be with its low-key sexualization of commodities. Advertisers discovered that nothing sells so well as when it is subtly associated with the female body, even if it has no individual essence.

Ownership of mass-produced products created a placeless community of consumers. mass-production-3415078.jpg?w=259&h=182&profile=RESIZE_710x“Men who never saw or knew one another,” wrote Daniel Boorstin,  “were held together by their common use of objects so similar that they could not be distinguished even by their owners.” Never before had so many people determined their identity in such a thin and artificial way.

White children born after the war were the first in history to grow up in such relative affluence, the first to be raised under Dr. Spock’s permissive ideas, the first to expect an extended adolescence in college — and the first to deeply question the values and motives of their parents.

Circumstances were preparing the ground for the emergence of the youth culture. The early 1950s witnessed a convergence of unique factors, starting with the baby boom. From 1947 until 1980, the population of thirteen to thirty-year-olds would increase every year. By 1956, thirteen million teens would be spending $7 billion/year. They had no memory of the Depression or the war. But they were aware that nuclear war might instantly negate everything, and they had no instinct to save money. At a deeper level, however, their bodies were about to explode in the universal, if inchoate, cry for initiation. By 1960, three-quarters of movie audiences would be teenagers, prompting a Hollywood executive to complain, “It’s getting so show business is one big puberty rite.”

Rural America’s population declined steeply. Between 1945 and 1970, 25 million people would leave the farms forever. Advertising and cheap mortgages (for whites) made possible by the G.I. Bill convinced everyone that cars were a necessity. But the new mobility contributed to the breakdown of urban, ethnic communities. In previous migrations, large, multi-generational groups had moved together, following two persistent themes of American myth: cities were no good; and one could always make a new start by settling the wilderness. the_honeymooners.jpg?w=229&h=129&profile=RESIZE_710xIndeed, by the mid-1950s, city life in the popular imagination was encapsulated by Ralph Kramden’s cramped apartment in The Honeymooners TV show. Meanwhile, Father Knows Best, Ozzie And Harriet, etc, presented suburbia as the Promised Land.

Suburban whites attempted to live within cocoons of unexamined privilege, rarely encountering an African- or Mexican-American except as a servant. b8bc70ee14a69656cab9bf74d1b3d5cf.jpg?w=148&h=171&profile=RESIZE_710xThis isolation perpetuated racist beliefs and kept white cultural norms invisible. In 1963, two out of three whites would tell pollsters that blacks were treated equally, and ninety percent believed that black children had equal educational opportunity.

But this escape from the inner cities had a different intention and a different result. Countless young couples left the ethnic accents and recipes of their parents behind. They were no longer “hyphenated Americans,” but simply Americans. As this happened, a generation of children grew up missing the experience of living with extended families. They lost connection to elders, who were being exiled to retirement communities or nursing homes. The nuclear family was essentially little more than an isolated consuming unit. And yet the new emphasis on individualism was negated by relentless advertising pressure that channeled most personal choices toward conformism.

“Organization men” gave their allegiance to corporations and uprooted their families from one suburb to another whenever their jobs changed. William Whyte wrote that they “left home spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life.” IBM executives would joke that the initials of their company stood for “I’ve been moved.”

Something else was disappearing – the oral tradition. Previous generations had learned their myths (and their history, which were often the same thing) by listening repeatedly to storytellers. And as the unmediated, oral transmission of culture was dying out, technology was making it easier for white youths to encounter the cultural creations of the Other. By 1955, three-quarters of households would have TV. Sales of transistor radios would rise from 100,000 units in 1955 to 5,000,000 by the end of 1958. By 1960, American companies would sell ten million portable record players a year.

As for their parents, the images in their heads had been delivered in two main ways: over the radio, into their private living rooms (at least radio allowed them to imagine); or from watching movies, the one experience that most Americans now had in common. Movies, writes Ventura, had “usurped the public’s interest in the arts as a whole and in literature especially”. Whereas indigenous people had participated in their entertainment, Americans (except for dancing) were passive consumers of culture. The Western mind-body split comes to its extreme in the concept of an audience. It “… has no body… all attention, all in its heads, while something on a screen or a stage enacts its body.”

Television added a new dimension; it portrayed events far away as they happened. By showing how others lived, especially the contented middle class, it raised expectations among the poor and had an immediate impact on politics. And it showed teenagers dancing. Ultimately, though, TV turned Americans into “couch potatoes.” When they were not in their cars, enjoying the freedom of the open road, they were generally at home, glued to the tube.

Soon, the tube would be on six to eight hours per day, as millions ritually asked, “What’s on tonight?” consumerism.jpg?w=224&h=141&profile=RESIZE_710xConsuming their junk-food snacks along with the myths of post-war America, they witnessed happy, white, suburban families, with either benevolent patriarchs (Robert Young) or irrelevant but lovable Dads (William Bendix). And they observed, over and over, the righteous hero confronting the Other, who appeared as commie, gangster, redskin or space alien. But all dilemmas, comic or serious, resolved themselves just before the final commercial.

Commercials. Americans came to expect regular interruptions to hear that redemption could be achieved through purchasing the latest products. hqdefault.jpg?w=207&h=155&profile=RESIZE_710x The 300-year-old Puritan heritage of delayed gratification was being pushed underground, like the pagan gods themselves, not to re-emerge for thirty years. Even before the end of the war, economist Victor Lebow had pronounced without irony that the economy

…demands that we make consumption a way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals…We need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.

Having endured a generation of depression and war, adults were claiming their reward. But they also sacrificed something. Instead of ancestors and spirits, they worshipped entertainers, athletes and name brands. Remnants of ancient clan competition still existed, but now it was between Ford and Chevy, Budweiser and Miller or Cheer and Tide. And few asked the old questions anymore: What is my purpose in this life? Whom do I serve? What do I owe to those who came before me and those who come after me?

One could certainly make a case against this last statement. Millions of Americans who had survived depression and war scrimped and saved so their children might have the material advantages they had never had themselves. Yet, when the baby boomers articulated their rebellion, they commonly lamented the commercialized, dangerous, polluted, banal and meaningless world of their parents. The fathers, especially, were simply not present. Psychologist Joseph Pleck notes that Freud and Jung had seen the father as critically important in the child’s psychological development, but now he was “a dominating figure, not by his presence, but by his absence.”

Students of myth may recognize this figure as a modern version of the ancient Greek Ouranos, as I write here:

The Titan Ouranos, first ruler of the universe, heard a prophecy that a son would overthrow him. So he pushed his children back into the body of Mother Earth. One son, Kronos, escaped and then castrated and deposed him. Fearing a similar prophecy, Kronos ate his children. His Roman equivalent Saturn eventually came to personify Father Time, which devours all things…For 4000 years, or 200 generations, Ouranos and Kronos, the original patriarchs, have been our models for two extreme patterns of fathering. Ouranos is the classic absent father: gone, drunk, uninvolved, hidden behind the newspaper, brushing off needy children with, “Ask your mother.” By contrast, Kronos is overly involved: tyrannical, judgmental, abusive. Ouranos neglects the children, but Kronos kills them with his unreasonable and unquestionable expectations.

By the mid-1960s, American youth would intuitively understand that Kronos had overthrown his father and was eating his children. But for now, Dad and his values were simply irrelevant.

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Individual, Private + Secure Online + Phone Support for Critical Care Nurses  

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MOT ©™ is pleased to announce the opening, registration and wait list for 12 nurses providing COVID-19 critical care during this pandemic.  

This 2 year service commitment with 3 month terms:

  • 2020 - May to July; August to Oct; Nov, Dec to Jan 2021
  • 2021 - Feb to April, May to July, Aug to Oct 
  • 2022 - Nov 2021 to Jan 2022  

Service Offerings: 3 month terms:

  • On-Call Individual 1:1 phone crisis debriefing, decompression
  • 24/7 Private, Secure Asynchronous Online Text Support
  • Assistance with self-regulation of stressors, building up internal + external resources
  • Acute, accumulative traumatic shock, trauma response, bereavement work 

Availability: Linda available 1000 to 2000 MT [except Thursdays day off]                                                                  

Note: If line keeps ringing, Linda in session and will return your call ASAP

         [registered phone number will show up on call display].

Nurses can request, negotiate for additional 3 month terms, PRN

Care for caregivers is essential service !  

Contact:   lakthompson@matrixoftrauma.com

* If anonymity required, participants can use an alias during phone and/or email posts.

Warmly with you in recovery + healing

MOT Director Special Project 

Linda AK Thompson, PhD 

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9142473481?profile=original Images of new coronavirus just released

By Yasemin Saplakoglu - Staff Writer February 13, 2020

This scanning electron microscope image shows the new coronavirus (yellow) among human cells (blue, pink and purple). (Color has been added to the image to better show the virus and its environment.) (Image credit: NIAID-RML).  Published in livescience.com

Matrix of Trauma/MOT is pleased to announce that Linda in Alberta, Canada and Darlene on Big Island, Hawaii will co-lead a private, closed small group [8 members], front-line helping professionals who individually / collectively determine the kind of support they want and need.

SMALL GROUP COVID-19 SUPPORT for FRONTLINE

PROFESSIONALS

If anonymity is required, participants can use an alias.

Who:  Registration for 8 frontline COVID-19 pandemic helping professionals, service providers. 

What: Matrix of Trauma [MOT©™]in a secure, private, closed small group setting will provide compassionate emotional care / support:  

  1. VAST Group Teleconference: bi-weekly, weekly or monthly [dependent upon need] - 60 minute sessions [audio recorded with consent],  suggesting 4 members per conference call for participants to be able to debrief, decompress: tell your story.  Individual Donation $40.00 Canadian/per call.
  2. Free Private Email Small Group - 24/7 asynchronous online peer support and inspiration.

Where: Apply by emailing contact information to lakthompson@matrixoftrauma.com  sharing your current phone number, email address + front-line service position. 

             Let us know what your current support, care needs are!

When: Registration and waitlist opened March 23, 2020 to March 23, 2022.

Why: Linda heard the call for nurses to come out of retirement: Linda &  Darlene’s service offering.

Warmly with you in healing, 

Linda AK Thompson, PhD [CV pdf available upon request] 

Darlene B Viggiano, PhD [CV available upon request]



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Feel the Hope

As a psychologist in training, I remember a deeply nourishing exchange with a supervisor that kindled my understanding of hope and healing. “Healing calls for hope. As a therapist, you’ve got to feel it for the patient. If you don’t, it would be best to refer them to someone you feel might be better for them. Maybe they simply would benefit from medication or need a neurological workup. Not everyone is ready for or needs therapy. But, if they come your way, check in with your feeling of hope. Is it there? Do you feel it for them? If so, then there’s potential for healing. Move forward and do your best, and they’re likely to find healing.”

 William James, father of American depth psychology, wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience “let . . . hope be the atmosphere which man breathes in . . . and his days pass by with zest.” There are those who shield themselves from hope. It takes exertion of self to hope. You put yourself into it, the vital emotion of it requiring energy, an investment of self. People are afraid. I understand, but I also get it that to retreat into negativism, cynicism, and despair ends up at the end of a very dark and go-no-where back alley. It helps nothing and no one.

 But when hope is the real deal, you feel it from your core. It’s not concocted. It’s not a fly-by feeling—a wisp of sentiment or superficial thought. No, genuine hope comes from the gut, it grabs hold and digs in then looks to you to give it expression. When we take the step to feel the hope, then it blooms. It provides energy, gray and black clouds lift. We can do things and move ahead.

 A patient walked into my office, their countenance dark, and their attitude dismal. They were in the grip of despair. They reported this dream: “I was at the edge of a cliff, a black abyss down below. Instead of stepping back, which I should have done, I stepped off and went down. When I woke up I felt depressed.” We explored the power of the symbolism. They were at the edge and the dream said they had a choice—to step off or not. Off they went. “It’s always been easier to go down the tube for me. I just let go and don’t try. I step off the cliff instead of taking the energy to move back and away.”

 What a compelling psychic scenario this dream painted. The patient was more empowered than they had admitted to themselves. They became conscious of their ability to exercise greater control over attitude and self-empowerment. Generative feeling states can be nurtured. Again, they’re not whipped up, they’re not inflated self-talk that comes from baseless notions. No, they spring from genuine inspiration. The soul whispers, You can deal with this. Move on it!

 I noticed when that patient stepped into the consultation office, my hope did not waver. I knew and felt to my core that despite how bad they looked, hope and the potential for healing was present. I felt it deep inside. By the session’s end, the clouds had lifted, their mood lighter. They left feeling self-empowered and that they could fix what they had messed up. So, word for the day is—keep the hope, nourish the hope, and the hope will heal and transform your life and your soul.

http://www.drpauldeblassieiii.com/soulcare/2020/4/12/feel-the-hope

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This is the second of two blogs that address the coronavirus pandemic.

I’m going out very little during the coronavirus pandemic, while also taking time to stay connected—at a distance—with family, friends, and colleagues. It is so important in these times that people are not isolated. Simultaneously, I am working to use this quiet time for reflection rather than giving in to worry or annoyance. I’m sheltering in place, while grateful for all the people in the medical fields, those getting food and medicine to people, and those packing up and delivering goods to the increasing numbers who are ordering food and medicine online. Yet, whether in lockdown at home or doing busy and stressful work, people can feel happier and more energized if they see a connection between their actions, what they love, and what can help others—hence this blog.

Putting together strategies from archetypal and positive psychology, I realize that taking time for reflection when I can also helps me to stay focused and positive when I’m working flat out. One strategy that allows me to remain authentic and positive is to keep current with what I love to do and why. To this end, I need to differentiate such efforts from what I think I should do or I’m used to doing. I can also stay open to new opportunities when I reflect on my daydreams and begin to get a sense of what is calling to me. Even when I’m feeling stressed and driven, I can stop and recognize that I love what I’m doing and I do it because I care about others and the fate of the world. Often, then, the love I notice that I’m experiencing shifts my attention to a more positive focus and I feel better. 

So, here’s a list I use that might help you. Each of the 12 items identifies an archetypal character that loves what it does and makes us feel good about how these actions benefit others, the environment, or the larger world. As you go through the list, select one or more archetypal characters who love what you do and the good feelings you get from making a difference. If you want to get fancy and more completely catch up with yourself, you can also identify:

  • one that you have come to believe you should be like, 
  • one that you used to be like, but not so much now, and 
  • one that you wish were true, which then is likely calling you.

Archetypal Characters Within

Your Possible Idealist: You love life and the world around you and have faith in your values and vision for its betterment. You feel good when your faith, goodness, and optimism have picked someone up, given them hope, or allowed them to feel gratitude for what they have.

Your Possible Realist: You love the way that being realistic frees you from unnecessary disappointment. You feel good when you know that by anticipating and avoiding problems or facing current ones in proven ways, you’ve helped others by preventing breakdowns. 

Your Possible Caregiver: You love to be helpful to others, noticing their needs and seeking ways to solve their problems and then doing so. You feel good when you know that your compassion and competence have made a difference to others, especially if you take time to also care for yourself.

Your Possible Warrior: You love a good fight, to win, and to rescue others from danger or difficulty. You feel good when you have proven your ability and competence, especially in competition, and when your strength and courage has helped to protect others.

Your Possible Seeker: You love the call of the open road, new experiences, and inviting new possibilities and potentials. You feel good when you are on an adventure that is broadening your horizons and that helps you be the pioneer who maps new territory for others to follow.

Your Possible Lover: You love being in relationship—in romance, friendship, teamwork, and possibly in feeling one with nature or the world. You feel good when you have felt close to another or others, accepted by them, and have been relaxed, just being yourself. 

Your Possible Revolutionary: You love to shake things up and get energized when you see what is wrong that needs to change to make things better. You feel good when you have helped others to understand this need and have begun the process of eliminating what is not working.

You Possible Creator: You love to imagine a new reality and carefully craft it into artful and tangible form. You feel good during such creative endeavors when the ideas flow, and deeply satisfied when your vision is realized in ways that bring people pleasure, insight, or ease. 

Your Possible Ruler: You love to take on responsibilities when things are in disarray and to get things organized so that they work more effectively. You feel good when you succeed and the people and parts involved work together, order is restored, and chaos is averted.

Your Possible Jester: You love to lighten things up and make people laugh, have fun, and not take themselves too seriously. You feel happy when you are entertaining people or helping them to throw down their cares and smile, so that they can enjoy the moment.

Your Possible Sage: You love to feel curious, the process of discovery and learning, and the joy of sharing wisdom with others. You feel happy when you have found the answer you seek, when you recognize your growing expertise, and when others benefit from learning from you.  

Your Possible Magician: You love to heal people and unify groups by engaging with knowledge that is little known and that develops the ability to shift reality by shifting consciousness. You feel good when you know you have used this knowledge to heal yourself and then others.

Now is the time to apply this knowledge from your selections to your life, by identifying one or more of the above that help you express your love and thus make you feel good. Then remember the following:

  • You can activate your love by living the story your current inner characters want to live.
  •  You can avoid an inner drag on your energy by minimizing how much time you spend living your “shoulds” and the stories that used to energize you (even though others continue to pressure you to live them and your own acculturation and habits do, too). 
  • You can stay open to what calls next by recognizing the characters you identify with in your daydreams. 
  • Even in times of great pressure, you can also shift your attention from related anxieties and stress to feeling the love that is motivating your actions and how much you care about helping the people who benefit from your efforts.   
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This is the first of two blogs that address the coronavirus pandemic.

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

W. H. Auden, September 1, 1939

Jesus said we must love one another as ourselves and that would be the doorway into experiencing the kingdom of God—also known as heaven—right here on earth. The Romans took over this religion with a Ruler/Warrior archetype fusion and turned it into a justification for killing the infidels and the heretics and addressed their own out-of-control orgies by demonizing sex. Similar distortions of the injunction to love have happened throughout patriarchy when viewed through a Warrior/Ruler lens. The commandment to love our neighbors has long been included in the teachings of Judaism and Islam (especially in its Sufi forms) and in most indigenous religions as well. I was once invited to attend a workshop conducted by a Hawaiian volcano priestess (who, I was told, could walk on hot lava and be unscathed). She closed her day-long seminar by summing up all the teachings she had given us, saying, love yourself, love one another, that is what it all comes down to. My incredulous response was: I learned that in Sunday school!

W.H. Auden is said to have hated the stanza of the poem this blog begins with and eventually omitted it. I imagine this was the way any of us can loathe the thought we have that is too true to bear. But Auden’s lines fit our time very well. We currently are in a situation where we need to love one another or potentially many of us will die, taking our economy and prosperity with them. Paradoxically, we need to stay home, go inward, and face ourselves. And we need to do this to protect both ourselves and others, since even if we are young and in optimal health and likely will not suffer much from this illness, we undoubtedly will share the virus with others, some of whom will die if we remain out and about (unless doing essential tasks).  

We need to stay away from others to save them and us. Otherwise, there is no way to slow the progress of this disease, because the hospitals will be overwhelmed and people will die unnecessarily because they do not receive treatment.  

If we trust synchronicity, we can realize that this is a time to go inward and reconsider the lives we are living and their consequences. The antidote to the virus is not just about the virus itself, but about a cultural virus of selfishness, greed, and willfulness. Together, these result in our so polluting the earth that we are changing our climate, while we also turn a blind eye to how many children and adults are going hungry as billionaires build underground shelters to escape the growing likelihood of nuclear war or climate disasters. The fear of seeing the reality of that plight has led to fake news, conspiracy theories about who is to blame, and a generalized denial of facts and the deeper truths behind them.

On the surface of things, the coronavirus threat requires us to wash our hands, disinfect our bodies and our immediate environments, and thus wipe away the virus that could make us sick. Those of us who apply depth psychology to our lives can decode this, so we know that it is true as well for our psyches. Those hoarding disinfectants, cleaning wipes, and toilet paper are missing the message that we need to love one another as we do ourselves, and also the symbolic message that it is time to disinfect ourselves, our shadowy, greedy, selfish sides, let them go and wipe the residue away. The act of washing our hands can become a ritual for cleansing and healing not just our hands, but ourselves and our world.

Collectively, we need to face the impact of our lifestyles on our earth, our environment, on the air we breathe, the water we drink, and our weather. With this lockdown, we can see that the environment is beginning to have a chance to heal, with pollution abating and clear skies where previously there were none. 

Countries that have been under stringent lockdowns to stop the spread of the coronavirus have experienced an unintended benefit. The outbreak has, at least in part, contributed to a noticeable drop in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in some countries.

Although grim, it's something scientists said could offer tough lessons for how to prepare—and ideally avoid—the most destructive impacts of climate change. 

https://www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/coronavirus-shutdowns-have-unintended-climate-benefits-n1161921

Water: The Threat, the Antidote

Rebekah Lovejoy, in her blog “Frozen II: Disney’s Response to Social Isolation in a Time of Coronavirus,” tells us that “The coronavirus travels through our saliva, landing on surfaces and hands, and transferring to those around us. It is billions of molecules of water that will make us sick, and spread throughout our societies and bodies, linking us and also possibly killing us.” She urges us to understand the message of Frozen II and how damming our water but also polluting it is at the root of our cultural sickness.  

In depth psychology, the archetypal element of water is associated with the unconscious and with human emotions that can carry us away. Considering only the boundary of our skins, we may feel separate from one another, but all humans are composed of up to 60 percent water; the brain and heart are composed of 73 percent water, and the lungs are about 83 percent. This means we are walking pools of water, confined within skin and held up by bones that are watery too, though less so. In this way, we are alike, all one species. The element of water as an archetype relates to feelings and the unconscious mind, which can sweep us into being overwhelmed by fear and our shadowy lesser selves, or, alternatively, infuse us with cleansing faith in our futures and love for this earth, one another, and our lives. 

The Buddhist symbol of enlightenment is the lotus flower, which grows out of the mud and through the water toward the sky. Any yoga practice, even at your nearby Y, will similarly draw you inward so that you can connect with wisdom deeper than your rational mind and also learn to practice loving kindness, both to yourself and to others. Jungian psychology tells us that we visit the mud in our shadows to learn from it, starting from what needs to be transformed and then moving to the gold we might also find there. We can begin by noticing who we hate or blame and what that tells us about ourselves—often that we have some of what we judge in others within us that we do not want to see.  Yet, consciousness can disinfect that mud, if we can get past the rush of feelings that a confrontation with our own shadows often unleashes.   We do this by

  • having compassion for parts of ourselves that do not measure up to our desired self-image; 
  • revisiting times we were mistreated or traumatized and learning from them, even though they are experiences we would prefer to forget; and 
  • processing experiences that were repressed because they occurred when we were not yet capable of doing so. 

When the mud in the shadow is washed by the water of our forgiveness and love for ourselves, the seeds in it begin to grow, moving through cleaner and cleaner water toward the air of the conscious mind. The resulting organic growth results in a blossoming of consciousness, so we can express forgiveness and love for those around us, including even some who may have harmed us. 

Beyond the needed focus on keeping social distance, so that more of us can just survive, is the possibility that we can use this time to evolve personally. We can start by recognizing that in so many ways—from this or another pandemic, from nuclear war, or from climate change—Auden was right: We must love one another or die. Maybe not every one of us, but many. Yet, if love does win, there is just the chance that we will achieve a healthier and happier world.

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9142471496?profile=original

Wanted to share some of the learnings that have been coming up in Doorway sessions with my clients about the covid19 pandemic... I made a little 5 minute video of the ways my clients (and all of us) are being tested by the Deep Creative. We're clearly being asked to shift into our true power now. Here's the link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aBH4YZC8lGI&feature=youtu.be

By the way, my next online experiential event starts April 10th. Please join us!  Click here for info: http://www.depthpsychologyalliance.com/events/your-vibration-matters-claiming-your-strength-power-and-intuitive

Kim Hermanson, PhD. is an author, healer, coach and faculty at Pacifica Graduate Institute. She is known for her skill in quickly shifting people out of spiritual and psychological difficulties into a place of profound beauty, healing and creative flow. She has been core faculty at Meridian University and adjunct faculty at Sophia Center at Holy Names University, University of California Berkeley, the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology and the Esalen Institute. Her books include Getting Messy: A guide to taking risks and opening the imagination and Sky's the limit, which received an Independent Publisher Book Award. Kim worked as a corporate computer scientist in the field of artificial intelligence before a series of mystical experiences changed the course of her life and launched her calling to expand our human ways of learning and knowing. Her PhD is from the University of Chicago.

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Last fall was the first time I heard it.

A very clear, calm, inner voice said, “Don’t worry Kim, you’re going to be fine.”

I have heard that voice every day since. And although I work with the Other side, at first I had no idea WHY I was being constantly reassured.

Of course, now I know why I heard the voice.

And because this voice had been so consistent and relentless, when Covid 19 first broke out in China, I knew it was serious. I realized immediately that I needed to take extra precautions… and I didn’t travel.

You may not hear inner voices, your inner guidance may come to you in different ways.

But here is what’s true: Your deep knowing MATTERS.

So I hope you’ll join me for a special teleclass Your Deep Knowing Matters: Claiming Your Strength, Power and Intuition.

There’s Something bigger that’s happening here, Something that our very brilliant minds can’t figure it out. We need another way of knowing. A way of knowing that makes us look in a much different direction…to a much different kind of intelligence. An inner, non-verbal, heart-based intelligence.

More information and the link to register are below. I hope you will join us.

 

Your Deep Knowing Matters:

Claiming Your Strength, Power and Intuition

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER

In times of crisis, we humans tend to push for answers and solutions, when we really need to deepen, drop below the surface, and connect with what’s real.

When faced with fear, disruptions and the unknown, it can be too easy to forget what we know is true:

Something below the surface is begging for our attention.

In this special teleclass you will regain peace, productivity, and healthy alignment with your intuitive knowing.

Collectively, we’ll rest into Something greater than ourselves… and witness It work through us.

  • Claim your wholeness, power, courage and creative fire.
  • Align with your inner Source of abundance & well-being.
  • Use your time, resources, attention & energy wisely.
  • Spend your days connected to Spirit, fully present to your inner knowing.
  • Experience natural strength, discipline, healthy boundaries, and focus.

When you’re in your right form, the Universe can work with you.

Don’t miss this unique opportunity.

Note: This is a tele-class, so you can live anywhere in the world and participate.

Early Bird Price: $85 until March 29th, $99 after that

includes audios, handouts & a personal reading with Kim

GROUP CALLS: 3 Fridays April 10th, 17th & 24th

10 am – 12 pm PST

* If you can’t attend live, these calls will be recorded.

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER

 Kim Hermanson, PhD. is an award-winning author, healer, coach, and faculty at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Kim's books include Getting Messy and Sky's the Limit, which received an Independent Publisher Book Award. She has also co-authored articles and book chapters with Mihaly CsikszentmihalyiNew York Times bestselling author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Kim is known for her skill in quickly shifting people out of spiritual and psychological difficulties into a place of profound beauty, healing and creative flow. Her PhD is from the University of Chicago. www.kimhermanson.com

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9142474253?profile=originalA common and compelling component of both shamanism and Jungian or depth psychology is that each seeks to treat soul loss by retrieving and reintegrating vital essence that is missing. This must occur through direct experience; therefore, the underworld journey to retrieve the soul is one of necessity and initiation.

Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung believed symptoms of soul loss, such as disorientation, lack of focus, or feelings of powerlessness, exist because a portion of psychic energy that is normally available to the ego has vanished into the unconscious; becoming lost to the underworld. However, Jung realized when there is a depletion of libido, that life energy is not irrevocably gone; it continues to exist in the unconscious, awaiting the opportunity to resurface. The energy, equally powerful in the underworld as in our conscious life, continues to be busy as it manifests in images and symbols, the language of soul (Ryan, 2002).

The solution, Jung insisted, is for us to descend into the unconscious to engage with the missing libido through symbolic thought. This is what the shaman does when he or she journeys to other realms to...

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The C.G. Jung Club of Orange County is extremely sorry to have to cancel the Michael Meade conference Awakening the Soul which was previously announced for March 28, 2020. Michael lives in the Seattle area, not far from Kirkland, the current epicenter of coronavirus cases in the US. Out of caution for all involved, Michael has made the difficult decision to postpone all travel and event plans through June. This decision follows the recommendations from King County Public Health to limit unnecessary travel by residents of the affected area. We hope to reschedule the workshop to a time when everyone can gather with a feeling of freedom and safety. Michael wishes everyone protection, well-being and all blessings.

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