Barry’s Blog # 321: All Shook Up, the American Dionysus, Part Two of Seven

In the previous quote James 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-coverand 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-ChicagoRiotHeadlineinvolving 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-1925indeed, “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


musical 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-653x1024Indeed, 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.

Read Part Three here.


Barry’s Blog # 364: Odyssey in Southeastern Mexico, 1989

¡Bienvenudo al Mundo Tercero! Driving south from Texas in a huge SUV with my friend Michael who is on his way to do anthropology field work in Belize. Me, I’m simply escaping an unbearable emotional crisis at home, the breakdown of my marriage and all I had ever thought of as normal. All is illusion, Maya.

We have great conversations as I grieve inwardly – Jazz on the tape deck – tiny, thatched huts – transition from desert to semi-tropics, from cacti to palm trees – cornfields, distant volcanoes – town drunks, – sixteenth-century churches, grinding poverty. Macho truck drivers passing each other on dangerous curves, challenging la muerte.

Our first night out, in our motel we are awakened at 4:00 AM by the screams of a pig being slaughtered outside our window – beach resorts – watching baseball games with chickens wandering through the outfield – flowering papaya trees – men on horses and burros – sugar cane – short, tired women with ubiquitous pregnant bellies – giant speed bumps (topes) at the entrance to each town force us to slow down, where we are quickly surrounded by kids begging or selling Chicklets. Colossal Olmec stone heads.

Burning cane fields: yellow flames, grey smoke, impossibly green grass, with brilliantly white egrets feasting on insects at the edge of each fire – fruit stands with huge bunches of bananas – shrines to the dead everywhere on the sides of the highway – open trucks full of farmworkers – pineapple plantations – everyone in the towns selling something – cantinas/whorehouses.

Faithful to one woman for eighteen years, I want to make a ritual gesture of separation. However, as The People’s Guide to Mexico says, “A visit to a brothel that caters to campesinos and local businessmen is funny and surrealistic rather than erotic.” The gesture will have to wait.

Oil towns – moneychangers – plastic “crafts” – campesinos walking in the dark near a VW dealership – a bridge next to the road, crossing nothing – pollo en mole con arroz – platanos fritos, pescados murrader (with the dreaded jabanero pepper known as “El Chernobilito”), liquados, corn on the cob stands on three-wheel bicycles – cattle ranches – RV caravans driven by fat Texans– a happy madness – passeos in the zocalos – theme from Exodus wafting out of a craft shop – local merchants patiently letting me try to bargain in primitive Spanish, then switching to English for the credit card transaction – swimming at a beautiful natural spring with friendly locals, then returning to the SUV with anti-gringo curses written in the dust caked on the vehicle – the exuberance and complexity of the visual/auditory/olfactory world competing with, almost mirroring, the loopy turmoil of my inner world.

A bizarre but common sight: local police or military standing with shotguns in front of every bank or public building in every town, no matter how small – guarding what? From whom? These peasants? Who is the freer, more advanced population? We Norteamericanos who (after eight years of Ronald Reagan) don’t need to have the dominant paradigms of power prominently displayed or shoved down our throats, because we have utterly internalized them – or these people, heirs to a living history of resistance? Indeed, a mere five years later, in towns not so far from here, the Zapatista rebellion would begin.

Sensory overload in the towns – heat and traffic in Tuxpan, smelly Tampico, Coatzacoalas, Cardenas, Olmec ruins at La Venta, Mayan ruins at Xpujil, Villa Hermosa, Escarcega – then the vast cultural complex and psychedelic Mecca of Palenque, with its hoards of tall, blonde European tourists, the young women dressed scandalously in this conservatively Catholic region – the further south we go, the more we see signs saying “Maya” this, “Maya” that, on every billboard or bus – the slanting facial profiles of the tiny, barefoot indigenas selling souvenirs exactly matching those on the ancient sculptures.

All along, we have been seeing gigantic trucks bearing “dichos” (mottos or proverbs) on their front fenders. Many are muy macho; others are self-mocking, sad or philosophical: Rambo, El Chillero, El Timido, Zorro, Casi un Angel, Corre Caminos (Road Runner), El Puma, Dios me Permitte Regresso, Cruz Azul, Christo Negro – Casi Siempre, Don Juan, No Vale la Pena, Super Galan, Angel Salvage – Vagabudo – Ama sin Dueno – Coronel Javiercito – En el Nombrese de Dios – Christo Rey, Comanche, Bonanza, Creo en Ti, Senor, Bandolero, Huevitos, Lo Siento por Ti, Quien como Dios? (For more, see Grant La Farge’s delightful book, Faith in God and Full Speed Ahead!: Fe En Dios Y Adelante : Dichos from the Trucks and Buses of Mexico and Latin America).

The SUV breaks down twice, but each time it restarts after cooling off. Approaching Vera Cruz, we encounter the gigantic Pemex petroleum refinery, stretching for vast distances along the highway, with dozens of 100-foot-tall steel towers and smokestacks, miles of interconnecting pipes, steam, noise – a surreal, futuristic scene, yet evoking images of Hindu temples, Spanish cathedrals, Cape Canaveral, sci-fi cityscapes, the place as much a shrine to the gods of technology as the other buildings are to theirs.

Then trouble: the SUV stalls out yet again. We pull over and open the hood, waiting for the engine to cool down again. I get out and take some photos of this bizarre scene directly across the highway from us, then return to the SUV. Soon, we see two jeep loads of soldiers approaching – to help us repair the truck? ¡Pero no! Turning to my right, I encounter the muzzles of two M-16 rifles inches from my face! I think this is rather funny, until Michael jabs me in the side with his elbow, informing me that my irreverence is somewhat inappropriate.

Courteously but firmly, the commanding officer informs us that we (did I mention that both of us are long-haired and unshaven?) look like terroristas, and that it is forbidden to photograph the oil refinery. After reviewing our identification, he demands my camera so as to expose my role of film (remember film?), when Michael explains in his excellent Spanish that he’s an anthropologist and that we’d only been photographing ruins and cultural sights (true enough) before seeing the refinery, the photos of which were at the end of the film roll.

El teniente is flattered, polite, if somewhat lax in security terms; he possesses that Hispanic quality of extreme honor and dignity known as pundonor. Taking us at our word, deciding that we are harmless, he gallantly exposes only the last pictures on the roll and hands it back to me with the remaining frames intact. He offers us his compliments, wishes us buen viaje, collects his troops and drives off – without offering any assistance with our SUV, which eventually starts up on its own. We depart from that mysterious place, unaware that 27 years later a massive explosion there will kill 24 workers.

A few hours later we stall yet again after gassing up at a rural gas station that has no services. We watch some more baseball for a while, but it still won’t restart. Eventually, some bored guys who’d been waiting for a bus approach us and offer to help. They tell us the local gasoline is muy malo and often clogs fuel filters, resulting in that double entendre, No hay tigre en el tanque.

We have extra filters, but no wrench to remove the old one. No problemo, they respond, and ask for a large screwdriver and a hammer, which we do have. One of them climbs onto the engine, whacks the screwdriver with the hammer, drives it all the way through the fuel filter, grabs both ends of the screwdriver and turns it until he has unscrewed and removed the filter! They call their method El estilo Mexicano: use whatever you have on hand to get the job done. They refuse cash payment but do accept several beers, which we share in the heat. The SUV starts up, we embrace our new friends and move on.

Vera Cruz on a weekend: thousands of partiers, soldiers, gringo tourists, police, children, musicians, Indians, food carts, teenagers and prostitutes. And, in front of every small mercado, postcard stands with five-cent pictures of the same Pemex refinery, from every angle, the same photos we’d almost been shot for taking! ¡El estilo Mexicano! ¡Como Mexico no hay dos!

More of my articles about Mexico:

Mexico’s Mother Goddess

Protest, Grief and Memory in Mexico

The Prince of Flowers

The Weeping Woman


Barry’s Blog # 363: Creative Etymology for a World Gone Mad, Part Three of Three

How powerful are the words we use? How have they influenced the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves? To really understand, we need to know how Christianity arose.

Only monotheistic thinking, with its simplistic dualisms, sees difference as a threat to be eliminated; whatever isn’t aligned with our god must necessarily follow his opposite. Here is a clue: if your people consider their story to be literally true and other people’s stories are “myths,” then you and your people are thinking mythically or literally. Other mono-words share the brittleness of one correct way: monopoly, monogamy, monolithic, monarchy, monotonous.

By the time of Jesus the idea that humans are alienated from God was firmly in place (Genesis 6: 5-6). And so was the idea that the children of light must forever confront the children of darkness. God forbade men to create “graven images,” which were central to indigenous spirituality. Later Christians would fight brutal wars over this question. This was the birth of monotheism’s assault upon the imagination.

Word One: Hamartia

Greek mythmakers had long told stories of tragic heroes. Aristotle used the word hamartia (“error” or “missing the mark,” a term from archery) to describe the hero’s inevitably fatal flaw, the wound that connected him to his potential. It was, paradoxically, the very thing that made him unique. In both the Greek and the Celtic worlds, if sin had any meaning at all, it meant “failure,” and – this is critical – potentially any failure can be reversed. Christians, however, interpreted hamartia as inherent and inescapable sinfulness, mankind’s literal inheritance from Adam’s original mythic transgression. From this thinking came the doctrine of original sin. Men needed discipline and moral purification to control their darker side.

The change in the meaning of hamartia is an historical marker that drags us into a fearsome new world in which every single person is tainted from birth with the mark of evil. By this logic, children are corrupt by nature and must be kept from polluting adults through baptism (“to dip, steep, dye, color”) very soon after birth. It was a toxic mimic of indigenous initiation ritual.

Word Two: Daimon

Another factor in the solidification of Christian dogma (originally, “opinion”) was the rational and ascetic Greek philosophical tradition. The Church turned Plato’s notion of a realm of pure ideas into the afterlife, which was a higher, better place than the sensual world. Another old word took on new meaning. Plato wrote that before birth each soul receives a unique soul-companion or daimon that selects a pattern for it to live on earth. James Hillman explains, “The daimon remembers what is in your image and belongs to your pattern, and…is the carrier of your destiny.” It was known as genius (related to gene, generate) by the Romans and jinn or genie by the Arabs.

Like hamartia, daimon was connected to the universal notion of purpose. Older traditions understood the vast complexity of the human soul, but Greek dualism marked a clear boundary between good from evil. In the second century B.C.E., the seventy men who translated the Hebrew Bible into a Greek book (the Septuagint) used daimonion to denote evil or unclean spirits.

Thus, with two linguistic shifts, western man gradually lost both his guiding spirits and his sense of his innate purpose in life. Eventually, one’s intuition, if it disputed church dogma, would express only the voice of the demonic, and the pagan gods, archetypal images of human and cosmic potential, became demons.

Changes in language signaled changes in cult practice. The breakdown of ritual eventually led to a condition in which human urges that were once hallowed to the gods became acts of evil. The church repressed them into the personal and collective unconscious and blamed all suffering upon human sinfulness. Orphism had taught that the soul (derived from Dionysus) was potentially good; but the body (from the ashes of the Titans) was its prison, where it remained until all guilt had been expiated. This led, writes E. R. Dodds, to “a horror of the body and a revulsion against the life of the senses.” The Orphics themselves had written: “Pleasure is in all circumstances bad; for we came here to be punished.”

As the age of mythological thinking neared its end, it became more difficult to think in terms of the symbolic processes of initiation and rebirth. The holy text that emerged out of this period omitted the few metaphors of the sacred Earth that had been allowed into Hebrew scripture. As a result, writes Paul Shepard, the New Testament is “one of the world’s most antiorganic and antisensuous masterpieces of abstract ideology.”

All these factors were rolled into the messianic tradition. Pagan cults had expressed a longing for the return of the king or the divine child who was reborn in the hearts of the initiates. But as mythological thinking declined, the Jews longed for a literal messiah (“the anointed”, Khristos in Greek). They witnessed the quick passing of many such figures, including the historic Jesus. After his death, however, he became “The Christ,” a concept, writes Arthur Evans, that was molded by traditions that had “…nothing to do with his life, applied by people who never knew him, recorded in a language he never used.”

Word Three: Apocalypse

At first, the Roman world welcomed the new god. Their cosmos was still marked by epiphany, the continual manifestation of spirit in the world. Paganism never needed to create structures of belief. Celebration of multiple divine images was one of its most essential characteristics.

But it was precisely this animating connection between cosmos, Earth and individual that Christianity sought to replace. Its transcendent god could only enter the world through revelation, which led to dogma and reduced a world of possibilities to one of dreadful certainties. This god was kept alive through belief, not through sacrifices. Saint John of Patmos interpreted his apocalyptic dream vision not as an internal initiation experience, a “lifting of the veils,” but as universal destruction. His Book of Revelation is ecstatic poetry. Interpreted literally, however, it is the very definition of – and a prescription for – madness. To Puritans obsessed with judgment and evil it became the Bible’s most important section. Later, they would invent the Antichrist to embody the world’s resistance to the Word, who “…became flesh and resided among us.”

Word Four: Pagan

For generations, the new belief (a word that has long lost its etymological connection to “love”) system was primarily urban. Everywhere across Europe, rural people were the last to be forcefully converted (some not until the 14th century), since they lived closer to the natural and still magical world that had been served by the older cults. Christians called them “country dwellers” (paganus). Eventually the term Pagan became so thoroughly defamed that today’s English language can barely describe it in value-neutral terms. Common dictionary definitions include “an irreligious or hedonistic person.” For millennia these people had gratefully accepted the mysterious bounty of the earth in the form of Dionysus’ wine and Demeter’s bread. The Eucharist (“thanksgiving, gratitude”) ritual eventually expressed this same mystery, after having removed both Dionysus and Demeter.

In the late fourth century the Church set the Christian canon (“measuring line, rule”), which excluded much writing that posed alternatives to the new orthodoxy (“right, true, straight”). It declared that Jesus had been born on December 25th. Now, his birth coincided with the rebirth of the sun, and the symbolism of his light conquering darkness matched a common theme in ancient hero myths. Other old beliefs, such as reincarnation, died slowly. Early theologians had embraced it, but eventually the church opposed it because it promoted the idea that men could find the truth for themselves, without intercession by religion. It wasn’t until 543, however, that they declared it anathema (“devoted to evil”).

Absolutely nothing attributed to Jesus in the Gospels suggested anything about his death as a sacrifice. Saint Paul, however, changed Christianity’s central image from the birth of the Divine Child to his death and resurrection. An invitation to immanence became an excuse for transcendence. A religion of love became an obsession with suffering. It taught that Christ’s sacrifice had occurred once, not as part of an unending cycle. Emphasis on this single event and the progression from creation to salvation solidified our concept of linear time and led to the invention of clocks, which eventually contributed to the regulation of social behavior for the purpose of production (the word “calendar” came from the Latin calends, the first day of the month, when business accounts had to be settled). The western world understood myth literally, as actual history. Jesus, unlike Dionysus, had died not to symbolize the cycle of creation but as a payment for humanity’s bad behavior.

In the indigenous world men had always understood the necessity of symbolically killing the child-nature in their boys to invite their full participation in the adult world. But the crushing of paganism produced a different narrative, the actual sacrifice of a child for the glory of his father. Fanatics emulated this god, and Europe feasted on the bodies of its young in constant warfare.

Word Five: Martyr

Jesus was now the suffering god, but not the ecstatic, bisexual destroyer of boundaries, and no longer a Prince of Peace. Worshipers beheld his stern figure, the Pantocrator (“ruler of all”), glaring down from church ceilings, amid horrifying scenes of the Last Judgment. “Because a monotheistic psychology must be dedicated to unity,” writes Hillman, “its psychopathology is intolerance of difference.” For centuries, white men would rape and pillage to hasten the coming of the Prince of Peace. The meaning of the word martyr gradually changed. Abraham’s knife became a soldier’s sword in Christian iconography. Dying as Christ (around 100AD) became dying for Christ (500), which became killing for Christ (1000).

Word Six: Breath

Dualistic thinking and misogyny were interlinked in language. Men identified with mind and spirit and associated women with nature and the body. We can follow the linguistic shift. The Old Testament Hebrew word ruah (spirit/breath) is feminine. Translated to Greek it became pneuma, which is neuter. But Saint Paul elevated pneuma to the Trinity as the Holy Ghost, which became the masculine spiritus in Latin. In a long, mysterious process, spirit would become an Alchemical term, a substance that unites the fixed and volatile elements of the philosopher’s stone, and eventually the essence of distilled alcohol.

Word Seven: Evil

As I mentioned in Part One, the Aramaic word used by Jesus and translated into Greek as diabolos and into English as “evil” actually means “unripe.” An unripe person is not evil; he is simply immature, or in ritual terms, uninitiated. His antisocial behavior may be nothing more than a cry for help. The classic Hero doesn’t overcome evil, not even an evil part of himself, but his own “unripeness.” Through the corruption of the term hamartia, however, the Church made it clear that no one was unripe; everyone was inherently evil.

Word Eight: Devil

The Holy Ghost required an evil twin. In Hebrew myth, Satan was originally an adversary of humans and enforcer of Jehovah’s will. His meaning gradually changed from “opponent” into a personality whose nature is to obstruct, a rebellious prince in eternal opposition to the divine will. The Septuagint used the Greek word diabolikos (accuser, slanderer, “to throw across”), which became the English “devil.” Hebrew myths of the fallen angel (Lucifer, or “light-bringer”) added to the image of this eternal opposition: “How thou art fallen, oh day-star…” (Isaiah 14:12).

This established the foundations for European racism. Light/white became synonymous with spirit/goodness, while dark/black represented the material and sensual world. The New Testament solidified the image; Barnabus described Satan as the “Black One.” Saint Jerome linked blackness with sex; the Devil’s strength was “in his loins.” Augustine (himself a North African) claimed that everyone is black until he accepts Christ.

The choice was now clear and unambiguous. If one wasn’t an observant Christian, he followed the dark prince. In this form, writes Jacob Needleman, the Devil becomes irredeemably evil: “All the truly terrifying images of the devil are in one way or another rooted in the diabolical.”

As early as the second century, Clement of Alexandria declared that the gods of all other religions were demons. Since their mere existence placed in doubt the belief in one true God, they could only be in league with Satan. The church now had an “Other” to justify its Catholic (“universally accepted”) self-perception – and justification for its genocidal crusades.

Scholars disagree as to how Satan received his popular image. Some claim that the earliest model was the lecherous goat-god Pan. Early Christians feared Pan because of his shameless sexuality and his association with the wilderness, where hostile spirits lay in wait. He caused panic. They depicted Satan with Pan’s hooves, oversized phallus and horns, which carry a potent ambiguity, writes historian Jeffrey Russell. They symbolize Satan’s power and evoke the “mysterious, frightening otherness of animals…not only fertility but also night, darkness and death.”

Some link Satan with the European Horned God, consort of many Goddesses, especially those worshipped on the island of Crete. These images evoked the ambiguous mix of fertility and death (not evil) that indigenous people still understand, but which the modern mind splits into two figures.

Others connected Satan with Hades, ruler of the underworld, but the Greeks also knew Hades as Pluto (“wealth,” root of “plutocrat”). Here is as sharp a divide as we can find between monotheism and Pagan thinking, which perceives a wealth of possibilities both under the ground and in the psychological underworld. The Western world would not begin to imagine these possibilities until the late 19th century, when Freud “discovered” the unconscious, although he admitted, “Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.”

Word Nine: Heretic

The paranoid imagination created enemies within to match those without. More dangerous than pagans were Satan’s followers who took the form of schismatics who divided the community with false doctrines, and heretics (“able to choose”).

Word Ten: Hell

When Christians assigned Satan a realm to administer, they named it after Hella, Nordic goddess of the underworld, sister of the wolf who threatens to emerge and wreck vengeance upon the gods of the upper world. Greece, however, has retained indigenous associations. There, the lord of Hell is still Charon, the ferryman of the river Styx (“the hateful”), and rural Greeks still place coins over a dead person’s eyes to pay for the journey. If Hades (as Pluto/wealth) is forgotten, his ferryman still makes a tidy profit.


Barry’s Blog # 154: Creative Etymology for a World Gone Mad, Part Two of Two


Part of the work of bringing soul back into the world is learning to address each other with beautiful, complex, multi-faceted, nuanced (slight difference, shade of color, mist, vapor, cloud) language (tongue; Spanish: lengua), and to know how our words have evolved over many centuries from their original Greek, Latin, Germanic or other meanings.

So here is a very incomplete list of English words with surprising (related to comprehend) roots, original meanings and connections to other common words.

I invite you to bookmark an etymology dictionary on your computer. Get into the habit of wondering, “Hey, what does that word mean? Is it related to this other one? Why?”

Adolescence             – Becoming adult; related to nourish, old

Adulate                      – To wag the tail

Aggravate                  – To make heavier; related to grief

Agony                         – A struggle for victory; related to protagonist, act, antagonize

Alcatraz                     – Large web-footed sea bird, related to albatross

Alcohol                       – To stain; related to kohl, powder used to darken the eyelids

Amateur                     – One who loves; related to amor

Ambition                    – A going around to solicit votes.

Ambivalent                – Both strengths; related to valiant

Amnesia                    – Loss of memory (the goddess Mnemosyne); related to mind

Analyze                      – From Dionysus “the Loosener”; related to catalyst, release, lose, solve

Anesthetic                 – Lack of sensation (to pleasure or pain), loss of beauty

Anger                         – Tight, painfully constricted, narrow, to squeeze; related to anxious

Animate                     – To give life to, from anima (“life, soul, breath”), related to animal

Anthology                  – Gathering of flowers

Anxiety                       – Tight, constricted; possibly from Ananke, goddess of Necessity

Apocalypse               – To lift the veil; related to Calypso

Apprentice                 – Someone learning; related to apprehend

Arena                         – Sandy place to soak up blood in Roman or Spanish amphitheaters

Arctic                          – The Bear constellation

Assassin                    – Related to hashish

Assist                         – To take a stand; related to resist

Asterisk                      – Little star

Astound                     – To thunder, deafen, related to astonish

Astronaut                   – Sailor of the stars

Atone                         – To be at one

Auspicious                 – Divination by observing the flight of birds; related to augur, auspices

Author                        – One who causes to grow; related to authority, augment

Average                     – Financial loss incurred through damage to goods in transit

Ballet                          – To throw one’s body; related to ball, diabolic, parable, devil, metabolize

Barbarian                  – Unintelligible speech of foreigners

Believe                       – Related to love, libido, lovely

Bible                           – From Byblos, the port that exported papyrus; related to bibliography

Bless                          – Blood sprinkling on pagan altars; possibly related to wound

Boil                             – Related to bull (Papal edict)

Book                           – A beechwood tablet on which runes were inscribed

Boulevard                  – Top surface of a military rampart; related to bulwark

Bowel                         – Sausage; related to botulism

Bugger                       – A Bulgarian

Caesar                       – Leader who has long hair; related to Kaiser, czar, caesarian

Calendar                    – Calends, the first day of the Roman month, when debts fell due

Canard                       – To half-sell ducks

Cancer                       – Crab-shaped; related to canker

Capital                       – Pertaining to the head; related to capitalism, capo (Mafia), decapitate

Capitol                       – From temple of Jupiter on Rome’s Capitoline Hill

Carnival                     – To temporarily stop eating meat; related to carnage, incarnation

Casino                       – Little house

Cataclysm                 – To wash down; related to cloaca

Catastrophe             – To turn downward

Catholic                     – Universally accepted; related to whole

Cereal                         – From the Roman Goddess of agriculture, Ceres (Greek: Demeter)

Chattel                       – Property, goods; related to cattle

Checkmate                – The King is dead

Chemical                   – From alchemy, that which is poured out

Chivalry                     – Horsemen; related to cavalier, cavalry

Chlorine                     – From the goddess Chloris/Chloe; related to chlorophyll, chloroplast

Chorus                       – A dance in a circle, enclosed dancing floor; related to choreography

Circle                          – Related to circus, circumstance, cycle, chakra, zodiac, Circe

Collude                      – To play with

Combat                     – To beat together; related to battle, batter

Comet                        – Long-haired star

Communicate           – To make common

Companion               – Bread mate; related to accompany

Compassion             – To suffer together

Compete                    – To petition the gods together; related to competent

Complain                   – To strike, beat the breast; related to plague

Complicate                – To fold together; related to complicit

Compost                    – To place together; related to compote, position, posit

Comrade                   – Sharing the same room or bed; related to camera, chamber

Condescend             – To go down together

Condolence             – To suffer together; related to doleful

Condom                     – A glove

Conflagration            – Burning together; related to flagrant, bleach (v.)

Conflict                      – To strike together; related to afflict

Confound                  – To pour together

Congregate               – To collect in a flock, related to gregarious, aggregate

Conjugal                    – To yoke together, related to jugular, conjugate

Conjure                      – With the law

Conspire                    – To breathe together

Consider                    – With the stars; related to desire

Conscious                 – To be mutually aware; related to conscience, science

Constipate                 – To pack or cram together; related to stiff

Contagion                  – Touch closely; related to contact

Converse                   – To turn about with

Convince                   – Related to conquer, victory, invincible

Cosmetic                   – Good order; related to cosmos, cosmic

Courage                    – Heart; related to discord, record

Create                        – Arise, grow; related to crescent

Crisis                          – Turning point in a disease, indicating recovery or death

Culture                       – Tend, guard, cultivate; related to colony

Cure                           – Take care of; related to curate, accurate, curious

Curfew                       – Ringing of a bell in the evening hour; signal to cover the fires

Currency                    – Value of herd animals that run; related to car, career, cargo

Custom                      – Related to costume

Cynic                         – Dog-faced; related to canine, canary

Damn                         – Damage, harm; loss, injury; a penalty; related to indemnity

Danger                       – Power of a lord or master; related to domain, dominate, domestic

Decadent                   – To fall apart; related to accident, cadaver, casualty

Decimate                   – Killing one prisoner in ten at random

Delight                       – Related to dilettante, delicious

Debate                       – To beat down

Decrepit                     – To crack, creak; related to raven

Dilapidate                  – To throw stones at; related to lapidary

Deliberate                  – To weigh in scales; related to Libra

Deluded                     – Out of the game

Demon                       – Related to daemon, jinn, genie (genius)

Deprecate                 – To pray against; related to postulate, prayer, precarious

Desire                        – Await what the stars will bring; related to consider

Despair                      – To lose hope (French: espoir), related to desperate, desperado

Destroy                      – Un-build; related to structure

Diabolic                      – To throw across; related to ballistic, devil, ball, ballet, ballad

Dilettante                   – Related to delight

Dinosaur                    – Terrible lizard (from Deinos, son of Ares), related to dire

Disaster                     – Against the stars

Discourse                  – A running about

Divide                         – Related to widow, with

Doctor                        – Make to appear right; related to decent

Economy                   – Ordering of the household

Educate                     – To bring forth what is within, to lead; related to Duke

Electric                       – Resembling amber

Elude                         – Out of the game

Emotion                     – To move out, remove, agitate

Empathy                    – Feeling suffering, related to pathos, pathetic, empathic, sympathy

Employ                       – Entangle, enfold; related to implicate, ply, imply, deploy

Encyclopedia            – Training in a circle

Entertain                    – To hold together

Enthusiastic             – Filled with a god

Epidemic                   – Among the people

Eskimo                       – Eater of raw meat, or snowshoe-netter

Excruciating              – Related to crucify, cross

Exhilarate                  – To make cheerful; related to hilarious

Exonerate                  – To remove a burden; related to onus, onerous

Experiment                – Try, risk; related to experience, peril

Explain                       – To flatten or limit

Explore                      – To weep, cry out; related to deplore

Extort                         – To twist or wrench out; related to torque

Extravagant             – To wander outside

Exuberant                  – Overflowing; related to udder

Family                        – Servants of a household

Fan                             – Inspired by a god (fanatic); related to feast, fancy, festival

Fascinate                  – Amulet in the form of a phallus

Fate                            – Spoken by the gods; related to fame, fable

Fatal Flaw                 – To miss the mark in archery

Feminine                   – She who suckles; related to fecund, affiliate, fennel, fetus, fawn

Flesh                          – From German fleisch (pork, bacon)

Forest                         – Outside; related to foreign, door

Fornicate                   – Arch, vaulted chamber or opening; related to furnacethermal

Fortune                      – From Roman goddess of luck Fortuna

Fragment                   – A piece broken off; related to fraction

Gamble                      – Related to game, gamey

Gargoyle                    – Waterspout, from French for throat, related to gargle

Gasket                       – Young girl; whore, harlot, concubine; related to garcon

Genius                       – Guardian deity watching over one from birth; related to genie, genial

Gentle                        – High-born; related to gentry, gentrify, gentleman, genus, genteel

Ghetto                        – The iron foundry (getto) in Venice where the Jews had to live

Glamor                       – Female enchantment, occult knowledge; related to grammar

Glaucoma                  – Owl, “Gray-eyed Athena”, related to glaucous

Grotesque                 – Of a cave; related to grotto

Grow                          – Related to grass, green

Guru                           – Heavy, weighty; related to grave

Happy                        – Good luck, prosperous; related to happen

Harmony                    – Means of joining; Harmonia, daughter of Ares and Aphrodite

Hell                             – Norse goddess, one who covers up or hides something

Heretic                       – One who is able to choose freely

Hermetic                    – Dealing with the occult; from Greek god Hermes

Hierarchy                   – Rule by a high priest

Host                            – Related to hospitality, hospital

Humiliate                   – Related to humus, humor, humble, human, humid, posthumous

Hypnotic                    – From Hypnos, Greek god of sleep

Hypocrite                   – Stage actor; deciding under; related to crisis

Hysterical                  – Of the womb, related to hysterectomy

Idiot                            – One who will not participate in public affairs

Illusion                       – In the game, to play with; related to ludicrous

Imbue                         – To keep wet; to soak, saturate; related to imbibe

Immolate                   – To sprinkle with corn meal as sacrifice; to grind; related to mallet

Impeccable               – Not capable of sin

Impetuous                 – Done or given with a rush of force; related to impetus, petition

Impudent                   – Unashamed; related to pudenda

Inaugurate                 – To divine the future, related to augur, augment, contemplate

Incense                      – That which is burnt; related to incendiary

Infantry                      – Unable to speak; related to infant, infantile

Infatuate                    – To make a fool of

Infinity                        – Not ending; related to finish, fix

Ink                               – To burn in; related to caustic

Inspire                        – Fill the heart with grace; related to spirit (breath of a god)

Initiate                        – To begin, enter

Innocent                    – Related to noxious

Instruct                       – To pile on, related to construct, structure

Intelligence                – To choose, read; related to lecture

Inter                            – Into the earth, related to territory, turmeric, Mediterranean

Interested                  – To be between

Intrigue                      – To entangle; related to intricate

Investigate                – Related to footprint

Jumbo                        – Elephant (Bantu)

King                            – Leader of the people; related to kin, kind, child, kindergarten

Laconic                      – To speak concisely, as did the Laconians (Spartans)

Laxative                     – Loosen; related to lax

Left (side)                  – Related to sinister

Liberty                        – From Liber (Dionysus), related to liberate, liberal

Library                        – The inner bark of trees; related to leaf

Limit                           – Threshold; related to liminal, preliminary, eliminate

Lucifer                        – Light carrier; related to lucid, infer, transfer, refer

Lunacy                       – Insanity, triggered by the moon’s cycle

Magic                         – Of the learned and priestly caste (Magi)

Malaria                       – Bad air

Mania                         – Related to mind and maenad (a female follower of Dionysus)

Manure                      – Work with the hands, cultivate; related to maneuver, manage

Masturbate                – To defile/stupefy by hand; related to manual, stupid

Materialism               – From mater (“mother”)

Melancholy                – An excess of black bile; related to cholera

Mellifluous                 – Honey flowing; related to fluent, fluid

Menstruate                – Monthly; related to moon, measure, metric

Mentor                        – Athena in disguise; one who thinks; related to mind, mania

Mercury                     – Roman god of tradesmen Mercurius; related to market, mercy

Metaphor                   – To carry over, to bear children

Migrate                       – Related to mutate

Mile                             – 1,000 double paces

Miracle                       – Smiling

Monster                     – Divine omen, portent; to warn; related to mental, mind, mantra

Morphine                   – From Morpheus, the Roman god of dreams

Move                          – Related to moment, momentum

Muscle                       – Little mouse

Museum                     – Shrine of the Muses; related to amuse, bemuse

Mystery                      – To close, shut; related to mute

Narcissism                – Related to narcissus and narcotic

Negotiate                   – To clear a hedge, fence, or obstacle on horseback; related to deny

Noble                         – One who knows him- or herself; related to Gnosticism, narrate

Nice                            – Ignorant, unaware

Nomad                       – Wandering with flocks; related to nemesis, numerical, nimble

Normal                       – Made from a carpenter’s square

Nostalgia                   – Longing for another place (not time); desire for homecoming

Nuanced                    – Slight difference, shade of color, mist, vapor, cloud

Number                      – Related to nemesis

Nun                            – A term of address to elderly persons; related to nanny.

Obey                          – Listen to, pay attention, related to audience

Oblivion                     – Rubbed smooth, ground down; related to obliterate

Opportunity               – Entrance or passage through, related to port, pore, report

Orchid                        – Testicle

Orgy                           – A secret rite, dedicated originally to Dionysus

Ostracize                  – To banish by voting with pottery fragments; related to bone

Pagan                        – Country dweller

Panacea                    – Cure-all; related to iatrogenic (illness caused in a hospital)

Pandemonium          – Related to pancreas, panorama, pantheist, pantheon, pantomime

Panic                          – Of the god Pan, who caused frightening sounds in the woods

Panzer tank               – Armor for the belly; related to paunch

Parable                      – Comparison, throwing beside; related to parley, parlance

Paradise                    – A walled garden

Paraphernalia           – A woman’s property besides her dowry

Passion                      – Suffering, enduring; related to patience

Pastor                        – Shepherd (of souls); related to pasture, pastoral

Pardon                       – To give wholeheartedly; related to donate

Peculiar                      – Property in cattle; related to pecuniary

Penetrate                  – To access the innermost part of a temple or store of food

Perfume                     – To smoke through; related to fume, fumigate

Personality                – From persona, to speak through a theatrical mask

Pharmacist                – Related to scapegoat, the drug that cures what it caused

Philadelphia             – City of brotherly love (“from the same womb”)

Philosophy                – Love of knowledge

Photograph               – Light-writing

Planet                         – Wandering star

Plutocracy                 – Rule by the wealthy (Pluto, god of wealth), overflowing

Pneumatic                – Of spirit, spiritual

Politics                       – Citizens, city

Pomegranate            – Apple with seeds, Pomona (Goddess of fruit); related to grenade

Pompous                   – Solemn procession (Hermes psychopomp, guide to the underworld)

Pontiff                         – To make a bridge; related to pontificate, pontoon, punt

Posse                         – Body of men, power; related to potent

Preposterous            – Before-behind

Privilege                     – Law applying to one person, related to private

Problem                     – Thing put forward, thrown; related to ballistics, dance

Profane                      – Out in front of the temple

Profound                    – Proceeding from the bottom or floor; related to fund

Promethean              – To see or think ahead

Propaganda             – Doing Catholic missionary work; related to propagate.

Providence                – Foreknowledge; related to provide

Provoke                     – To call forth; related to vocation, vocal, voice, evoke, invoke

Prurient                      – Itching

Psyche                       – Invisible animating principle; Greek for “butterfly”

Pudendum                – Thing to be ashamed of

Pumpernickel            – To break wind

Pundit                         – A learned Hindu

Quarantine                – Forty days and nights

Radical                       – Root part of a word; related to radish

Rape                          – To be carried away, related to rapid, raptor, ravish and rapture

Reconcile                  – To make friendly again; related to council

Record                       – To learn by heart; related to courage

Redeem                     – To buy back

Regret                        – To weep

Rehearse                  – To rake over; related to hearse, hirsute

Religion                     – To bind fast, related to rely; or: to read again, related to lecture

Remember                – To be mindful of; related to memoir, mourn

Remorse                    – To bite back; related to mordant

Renegade                 – Christian turned Muslim; related to renege

Repent                       – Related to penal, penalty, Pentheus (“man of sorrow”)

Resilience                 – To jump again

Respiration                – To breathe again, from spiritus (breath of a god)

Respect                     – To look at again

Rhapsody                  – To stitch songs together

Rhythm                      – To flow; related to rheumatism, maelstrom, diarrhea

Ritual                          – A counting; related to arithmetic, rite

Rosemary                  – Dew of the sea

Royal                         – To move or direct in a straight line

Sabbatical                 – Seventh year, for resting – related to Sabbath

Sabotage                   – To throw a wooden shoe (sabot) into the machinery

Sacred                       – Related to sanctify, sacrosanct, saint, sacrilege, sanctimonious

Sacrifice                     – To make sacred

Sacrum                      – Sacred bone (the one offered in sacrifice)

Sad                             – Related to sated, satiated

Salary                         – Soldier’s allowance for the purchase of salt

Sarcasm                    – To strip off the flesh; related to sarcoma, sarcophagus

Savage                      – Forest dweller

Scene                         – Wooden stage for actors; tent or booth; giving shade

Science                      – To cut; related to conscious, schism, schizophrenia, shit, scat,

Scrutinize                  – To search through trash; related to shred, inscrutable

Serendipity                – Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island

Shampoo                   – To press, knead the muscles

Silly                             – Blessed, happy, blissful

Stagnate                    – To seep, drip; related to stalactite

Slave                         – A Slavic person

Sniper                        – A marksman who can hit a tiny snipe bird

Soldier                       – One who has been paid in gold coins (solidus); related to solid

Solstice                      – The sun stands still

Soul                            – Coming from the sea, the stopping place between birth and death

Source                       – To rise, as a spring; related to resource, resurgent

Spirits                         – That which can unite the elements of the philosopher’s stone.

Superfluous             – Overflowing, related to fluent

Surveil                        – Related to vigil

Suture                        – Stitch together; related to couture, sew, seam, suture and souvlaki

Symbol                       – That which is thrown together; related to ballistic, dance, emblem

Symptom                   – To fall together with

Talent                         – Balance, weight; sum of money

Tenor                         – To hold (one’s voice), related to tenet

Territory                     – Where people are warned off; related to terrible, terrific

Testify                        – Swear on one’s testicles (?)

Text                            – A thing woven

Therapy                     – Attend, do service, take care of

Think                          – Cause to appear to oneself; related to thought, thank

Theory                       – Looking at, viewing; related to theater

Thesaurus                 – Related to treasure

Toxic                          – Pertaining to arrows, bows, archery

Torment                     – Twisted cord, sling for hurling stones; related to torque.

Touch                         – To knock, strike; related to touché

Tragedy                     – Goat song (originally to Dionysus)

Trophy                       – To turn; related to apostrophe, atrophy, tropical, trope, troubadour

Uncanny                    – Not knowing wise or cunning

Utopia                        – No place

Vaccine                      – Pertaining to cows

Vagabond                  – Related to vague, vagus

Value                          – To be strong; related to valiant

Vanilla                        – Little pod; related to vagina

Venereal                    – Related to Venus, goddess of love

Vengeance                – To set free; related to vindicate

Virtue                         – Man; related to virile, world, werewolf

Vote                            – A promise to a god; related to vow

Vulgar                        – Of the common people; related to Vulgate

Vulnerable                 – Capable of wounding; related to Valhalla (hall of the battle-slain)

Wander                      – Related to wind

Weird                         – Fate, to turn, bend; related to wrong, versus, version, diverge

Whiskey                     – Water of life

Whole                         – Uninjured; related to heal, health, holistic

Xenophobia             – Fear of the stranger – or of the guest

Yes                             – To be

Yoga                           – Union, to join; related to jugular, yoke, junction, joint, conjugate

Zero                            – Empty place, desert; related to cipher, sunyata (“emptiness”)

Read Part Three Here


Barry’s Blog # 153: Creative Etymology for a World Gone Mad, Part One of Two


Call the world… “The vale of Soul-making.” – John Keats

To be born is to be weighed down with strange gifts of the soul, with enigmas and an inextinguishable sense of exile.  – Ben Okri

Remember, and failing that, invent. – Monique Wittig

As a mythologist I am neither objective nor dispassionate, but interested (to “be between”) in complication (“folding together”). Although I do regret not taking Latin in high school or Greek in college, I proudly admit to being an amateur (from amare, “to love”). I love words and I love stories. I’m neither a scientist nor a theologian but a reckless dilettante (“to take delight”). I’m interested in what Utah Phillips called the Long Memory:

 … the long memory is the most radical idea in this country. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we’re going, but where we want to go.

The Long Memory is about who we were before our imagination became so diminished; how our ancestors communicated deeper truths than we know how to grasp now; deeper because they had language that could acknowledge the ambiguities and nuances (sometimes painful and sometimes joyful) of life. It’s complicated. That’s why we turn to mythological thinking and speaking — poetry — in our quest to bring soul back into the world, to re-animate the world.

Plato wrote that in the afterworld each soul picks a new incarnation best suited to its needs. Then it drinks from a spring called Lethe (“forgetfulness”) and remembers nothing of what it has learned! Similarly, Jewish tradition tells that when a soul is ready to be born, the angel Lailah places a finger over the soul’s lips, gesturing “Shhhh!”, thereby forming the cleft found below its nose, and the newborn soul remembers nothing. In West Africa it is said that each soul forms an agreement with a pair of divine twins regarding their purpose in the next life. Heading toward birth, however, they embrace the tree of forgetfulness and again remember nothing.

Perhaps it is human nature to literalize our mythic images. There is an actual tree of forgetfulness near the “Gateway of No Return” at the old slave trading fort of Ouidah in Benin, West Africa. Before newly enslaved people were loaded onto the ships, they were made to walk around this tree. Men had to go round it nine times, women and children seven. This experience, they were told, would make them forget everything – their names, their family, and the life they had once had. They did not forget their language, however, and many African words found their way into American English. Michael Ventura, in his remarkable essay Hear That Long Snake Moan  writes:

…some of our most common terms – terms often associated with the music – are from African languages…funky is from the Ki-Kongo lufuki, meaning “positive sweat.” Mojo… is Ki-Kongo for “soul.” Our boogie comes from the Ki-Kongon mbugi, meaning…“devilishly good.” Juke, as in our jukebox…is the Mande-kan word for “bad.” Jazz and jism likely derive from the Ki-Kongo dinza, which means “to ejaculate.” And the use of the concept “cool” among the Yoruba people of Africa is precisely the same as its use as popularized by jazz musicians…Sidney Bechet, the great New Orleans reed player…called his music “the remembering song.”

Such myths imply that life is an effort to fulfill forgotten obligations – a series of surprises, disappointments and initiations that shock the soul into remembering. The soul returns to the truth it once already knew but forgot. The return is a process of un-forgetting (a-lethe-ia) that requires re-crossing that same river of forgetfulness. Truth is remembering. In a Mayan dialect, “remember” means “to feed.” From this perspective our inevitable family wounds don’t necessarily limit us. What does limit us is our capacity to imagine. The Spanish word for “remember” is recordar, which translates as “pass through the heart (corazone), comes from the Latin for “heart” (cor) and relates to “courage.” It takes courage to remember who we really are, and to speak the truth with beautiful language.

This is why myth and poetry utilize metaphor (“a carrying over”), which allows us to leap the chasm between thoughts and transmit multiple levels of meaning. Unlike fantasy, which is self-centered, imagination implies dialogue (“to speak across”). Indeed, some languages including Russian and certain Mayan dialects actually lack the verb “to be.” Speakers in these places must communicate indirectly, tolerate ambiguity and endure the tension between opposites rather than settling for “either-or” resolution. Consequently, their ordinary speech is full of beautiful imagery.

And they acknowledge that no one being is isolated but always defined by relationship. Consider that in Gaelic you cannot say, “I am angry at you.” You have to say it this way: “There is anger between us.”

When we reduce memory to literalized data storage, we forget how to make images and weave new meaning. The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hassidism, said, “In remembrance is the beginning of redemption.” Truth – aletheia – is memory; and myth is truth precisely because it refuses to reduce the world to one single perspective.

Indeed, the word mnemonic, something that aids memory, comes from Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, the mother of the nine Muses, who serve her by rendering her essence – history – into art.

The work of re-imagining the world (or re-membering it) involves the use of etymology and imaginative approaches to language in order to approach insight. For example, “forget” is the opposite of “remember.” But the opposite of “re-member” (putting something back together) could also be “dis-member,” which is exactly what Dionysus does to Pentheus in the Greek tragedy The Bacchae. A soul – or a world – that willfully refuses to remember who we are at the universal core of our identity invites an outside force – the stranger – to dismember it.

Here is the fundamental message of The Bacchae. At a crucial point in the play, Pentheus orders his men to “provoke” (from vocare, to call) Dionysus. This is marvelously appropriate, because (as in the Gaelic) the two characters are in relationship. At some level Pentheus can choose. He can invoke or evoke his own Dionysian nature, or he can innocently project it outwards, provoking its expression somewhere else, with tragic consequences. My book  applies this thinking to American history, and at no time since the book was published over ten years ago has this basic insight been more relevant. How ironic that our media commonly uses an acronym (Greek: “name at the top”) for “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” that becomes ISIS, an ancient goddess who shared much of her symbolism with Semele, the mother of Dionysus.

Dionysus was the enigmatic, demonized stranger who brought King Pentheus down. “Stranger” (or “foreigner”) comes from the Greek xenos. However, the Greeks interpreted this word xenos differently based upon the context. It could indicate simply that someone was not a member of the community. But it also could mean “guest” in the elaborate ritual of hospitality, xenia (“guest-friendship). The Greeks deliberately used this ambiguity because strangers could be gods or goddesses in disguise (as in the myth of Baucus and Philemon). So they emphasized kindness and respect toward strangers, and hospitality was critically important to Zeus himself. Even today, tourists can book their stay at Hotel Philos-Xenia (“love of the guest/stranger”). Sadly, the English language has diminished this notion, using only the “stranger” side of the ambiguity in the fever of xenophobia that periodically sweeps us up in immigrant-hating.

So looking to the original meanings of words can help us to think metaphorically. Some mysteries, however, continue to evade our understanding. Why does “cleave” have two opposite meanings (“adhere to” and “cut”)? Why does “engage” have both a marital implication as well as a martial one? Why do we have to pay attention?

And how about entertain (to hold together)? What does “together” refer to – subject or object? Two or more subjects can hold something in common. Or one subject could hold two or more objects. Finally, a community, several subjects, could hold mutually exclusive concepts – the tension of the opposites – in a ritual container such as tragic drama, and suffer together. Perhaps the original meaning of entertainment was ritual renewal of the community though shared suffering, just as compete (“strive after something together”) may well have meant “to petition the gods together” in its original context.

We also need to see past uninspired translation. First-century Jews spoke in the Aramaic language. The word used by Jesus and translated into Greek as diabolos and into English as “evil” actually means “unripe.” What if we used “unripe” instead of “evil?” Unripe persons are simply immature, or in ritual terms, uninitiated. The indigenous world understood that communities are responsible for helping such people “ripen,” rather than punishing or eradicating them, because each person’s gift was unique and indispensable. This is critical: if we can’t imagine a sym-bolic (“throwing together”) world, then we are left with a dia-bolic world.

Even diabolic (related to “dance”), originally implied communication between adversaries. Unimaginative language, says James Hillman, “displaces the metaphorical drive from its appropriate display in poetry and rhetoric…into direct action. The body becomes the place for the soul’s metaphors.” In other words, if we can’t make images in art, music or beautiful speech, we get sick.

I’ve begun to compile a list of English words with surprising roots and connections, and I welcome further additions. Part Two of this essay will list them.

Part of the work of bringing soul back into the world is learning to address this world – and each other – with beautiful, complex, multi-faceted, nuanced (slight difference, shade of color, mist, vapor, cloud) language (tongue; Spanish: lengua), and to know how our words have evolved over many centuries from their original Greek, Latin, Germanic or other meanings. English in particular is a mish-mash (mash: to mix with hot water, reduce to a soft pulpy consistency) of influences, because English history itself is the story of regular invasion by different language groups. It is indeed ironic that the English themselves invaded so many other countries that the language acquired countless words from other places. But that is another story.

So here is a very incomplete list of English words with surprising (related to comprehend) roots, original meanings and connections to other common words.

I invite you to bookmark an etymology dictionary on your computer. Get into the habit of wondering, “Hey, what does that word mean? Is it related to this other one? Why?” And please send me any interesting (to be between) additions.


Barry’s Blog # 228: The Civil Rights Movement in American Myth, Part Four of Four

Fifty Years Later

Martin Luther King’s assassination in April of 1968 marked the end of the Civil Rights movement. What has changed since then? Few would deny that significant, fundamental transformation has occurred in American race relations over these decades. Discrimination is illegal everywhere and blacks can theoretically vote if they want to. A black middle class has developed, and a few have become truly rich. Hundreds of blacks and other minorities have attained elective office and some have achieved real influence in the centers of power. And of course Barack Obama was President.

According to this narrative, the agonizingly long process of acknowledging the Other as part of the polis has concluded. And if the American story is about anything, it is about progress. The Civil Rights movement succeeded! Obama was proof that we had completed the transition to a “post-racial” society. Republicans (who had viciously resisted the movement at every single step while it was happening) now adore this narrative, because it allows them to justify slashing funds for welfare and other aspects of the New Deal. Democrats love it because it allows them to ignore or co-opt the minorities who make up their actual base.

Part of this narrative involves creating a new variant on the myth of perpetual American progress that moves in a straight line from exclusion of the Other to inclusion. It involves valorizing Dr. King while covering up the history of the true radical and outspoken anti-war activist who would have been bitterly disappointed by Obama’s subservience to the American empire. It involves denying how the liberal establishment hated him in his last year. 

And it means that reactionaries (it’s no longer accurate or appropriate to use the word “conservative”) in government and media have been able to justify all manner of cruel legislation and new forms of voter suppression with the absurd notion that since discrimination is now illegal, special voter protections are only longer needed. Do I exaggerate? In 2013 the Supreme Court struck down the central features of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 using exactly this language, and the decision quickly resulted in Trumpus’ election. 

These things are obvious to African Americans. White Americans, however, have proven over and over that their perceptions about race are hopelessly out of line, both with those of blacks as well as with the statistics.

African Americans know that much of their economic and social progress has stalled or even reversed; that the war on drugs killed tens of thousands of their people; that hundreds of thousands are in prison; that literally millions of them have lost the right to vote; that school segregation is worse than it was twenty tears ago; that the financial crisis of 2008 impacted blacks disproportionately, and that the banks had deliberately targeted them; that 2020 replicated those conditions; that black mothers in New York City are twelve times as likely to die in childbirth as white mothers; that despite the Black Lives Matter movement, police continue to murder large numbers of unarmed black people without fear of reprisal; that the idea of white privilege finally entered the lexicon, but with little effect; that 87% of blacks believed that Trayvon Martin’s murder was unjustified, while only 33% of whites did; that 30% of whites over 65 still disapprove of interracial marriage; that blacks and whites are still worlds apart when polled on how well things are going ; that arsonists torched some fifty black churches between 1990 and 2017; that the media still regularly portray blacks negatively; that mortgage lenders still discriminate against them; that race (as voter suppression, gerrymandering, computer fraud, voter I.D. laws, new forms of the poll tax and massive, fundamentalist backlash) turned what everyone expected to be a Democratic landslide in 2016 into a social, financial and environmental disaster; and that tens of millions of whites now openly, unashamedly, support blatantly racist politicians.

2016 was what I called a “Dionysian Moment” in which the old Puritan values of self-restraint and the polite hypocrisies of coded rhetoric were finally ejected for someone who “says just what he means,” a man who, from the center of the culture, encouraged every vile hate to come out from the shadows, to be  pardoned in advance.

Despite the evidence of progress, one major cultural difference between the America of 1955 and our current condition is this. Then it was possible to shame whites (or enough of them) into behaving themselves; that is, to at least consider acting as if their uniquely professed values of freedom and equality for all were real. Then only a few people felt comfortable enough to voice their bigotry. Now, after several decades of TV saturation, normalization of cruelty, dumbing down of education – and now social media algorithms designed to confirm social biases – it seems to me that the most accurate pejorative we can use to describe Trumpus and his believers is “shameless.”

I’ve written many essays on race in America and on Obama in particular (these are noted at the end), so I’m trying not to repeat myself here. To conclude this one, I want to add an observation that is consistent with my argument in Part Three that in the 1960s Southern whites could not bear the tension of observing an “Other” with whom (in terms of behavior) they might well be identical.

Obama experienced a unique dilemma beginning well before his election. From the right, there was plenty of the predictable (and some not so predictable) racist nonsense. Some critics on the left, however, complained that in attempting to appeal to the middle he simply wasn’t acting “black” enough. Then there were the really loony allegations: he was not an American citizen, he was a secret Muslim, he was a socialist, etc. He wasn’t white enough. It was a branding problem that his handlers struggled with throughout his eight years in office. But at the time, I wrote that like any other candidate hoping to attract major funding, he had been carefully vetted by the Deep State and tasked with the work of shoring up the glaring holes in the fabric of American exceptionalism. Eight years later, I think I was right. 

In regard to that brand, Obama, despite his modest family roots, was clearly a well-mannered, rational, dispassionate, Ivy-League educated, cultured, articulate, even brilliant card-carrying member of the upper middle class, and so was his wife. Their children were talented and beautiful; they were the most photogenic Presidential family since the Kennedy Camelot of the early 1960s. They had no scandals, sexual or otherwise. The “darker brother,” in Langston Hughes’ words, had finally arrived “at the table” and “They’ll see how beautiful I am – And be ashamed.”

 This created a profound dilemma for countless working-class whites; the old poem was too accurate in its prediction. Throughout their adult lives, they had been subjected to a daily, unending barrage of hysterical fear mongering about the racialized Other that was far more intense than anything their parents had seen in the fifties and sixties. And they experienced eight years of war, job loss caused allegedly by affirmative action (an absolute lie of course, but much easier to digest than the fact that the politicians they’d elected were screwing them) and countless examples in the media of assaults on their sense of white masculine potential; all of which led to an opiate epidemic that by 2016 would kill 50,000 of them per year. Is it any surprise that it was white males who perpetrated almost every one of the 336 mass murders in 2017? That’s right: almost one per day, and almost always white males.

Ironically, the fact that Obama was continuing the financial and military policies of his Republican predecessor seems to have mattered little to the Tea Partiers, Alt-Rightists and Christian extremists who would eventually become Trumpus’ foot soldiers. What mattered to them was branding, symbol, imagery, victimization and race.

To millions of white people, the constant sight of this, yes, privileged family in the seat of power was a daily reminder of how low they had sunk, and that (quite inaccurately, of course) 350 years of injustice were being rectified: the Other was at the table – their table. The shock-jocks seemed to be right. Blacks were replacing them at that table. Polls indicated that white people now actually perceived themselves as more discriminated against than blacks. 

Plenty of political writers have analyzed this subject. But I insist on the psychological and mythological approaches, because when we look through these lenses, we can see that little has changed since 1955:

The whites, “crackers” or middle-class, are facing a profound dilemma. They can’t project self-contempt for their sexuality, their bodily connection to the old pagan gods, to Dionysus, onto the blacks. Forced to contemplate people just as self-controlled as themselves, and quite often more so, they face an Other with whom they are identical.

Their perception of Obama – and of the possibility of true racial healing – seems to have been determined on three levels. On one level, the constant media barrage (with massive funding from the Koch brothers and friends) was successful. The shock-jocks and the televangelists repeated the old con, converting disillusionment with the system itself into racial animosity and hatred of immigrants.

But on another level, their spokesmen were, in a sense, unsuccessful. None of the venomous and very thinly veiled racism of Fox News or Republican politicians could incite Obama into retaliating in anger, to re-inhabit that psychic space of the Other, to act like a dangerous, angry black man. By contrast, what they got was a leader who seemed comfortable weeping at the thought of dead (American, not Muslim) children. 

…so that they, the whites, could be free of the oppressive weight of awareness…If the Other was everything that the citizen of the polis was not, and the Other was self-controlled – or beautiful – what did that make the citizen?

Hate grew on a third level, out of frustration and denial. I think the dynamic was and is the same as in 1960: we hate them because they’re lazy and dangerous. And we hate them more when they prove that they aren’t.

Trumpus didn’t create any of this. But as a long-time con man and Reality TV star, he was simply smart enough to perceive it and run with it – directly, proudly, arrogantly, with no shame and using only the thinnest of euphemisms – in a way that the Republican establishment had never dared to. Joshua Zeitz writes:

…Trump has also, arguably more than any other candidate for president in the past hundred years (excepting third-party outliers like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace), played to the purely psychological benefits of being white. From his racially laden exhortations about black crime in Chicago and Latino gangs seemingly everywhere, to his attacks on an American-born federal judge of Mexican parentage and on Muslim gold star parents, he has paid the white majority with redemption…Trump might be increasing economic inequality, but at least the working-class whites feel like they belong in Trump’s America.

The other Republican candidates attacked him in the primaries not because he was a racist thug and a bully – they had been doing precisely the same ever since the days of Nixon, only with more restrained hints and innuendo (“urban”, “gang violence”, “welfare queens”, etc) – but more for his style. By comparison, their brands were higher-class, more restrained, in that old Puritan style.

But of course they quickly rallied around their useful idiot when he won, because they sensed the possibility of achieving the reactionary legislation that their corporate sponsors had always demanded.  Once in office, he quickly became, as Charles Derber writes, a “fig leaf for the GOP’s Horrific Policies.”  And within six months, his public support dwindled down to that base of angry and fundamentalist whites. Why? Because they were the only crowd with an imagination impoverished enough to value race hatred over their own economic self-interest.

And, in an ironic 2021 version of the “return of the repressed,” this crowd remains angry and powerful enough to intimidate most Republican politicians into defending the ex-President against impeachment.

Many analysts predicted that these people would eventually figure out exactly how and where Trumpus and the Republicans had been sticking it to them and move back to the center or even the left. But they failed, and still fail to understand how the perception of white privilege is self-interest. A blogger known as “Forsetti” who grew up among fundamentalists, explains why they won’t:  

When you have a belief system that is built on fundamentalism, it isn’t open to outside criticism…Christian, white Americans…are racists…people who deep down in their heart of hearts truly believe they are superior because they are white. Their white God made them in his image and everyone else is a less-than-perfect version, flawed and cursed.

The religion in which I was raised taught this…Non-whites are the color they are because of their sins, or at least the sins of their ancestors. Blacks don’t have dark skin because of where they lived and evolution; they have dark skin because they are cursed. God cursed them for a reason. If God cursed them, treating them as equals would be going against God’s will.

Since facts and reality don’t matter, nothing you say to them will alter their beliefs. “President Obama was born in Kenya, is a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood who hates white Americans and is going to take away their guns.” I feel ridiculous even writing this, it is so absurd, but it is gospel across large swaths of rural America.

A significant number of rural Americans believe President Obama was in charge when the financial crisis started. An even higher number believe the mortgage crisis was the result of the government forcing banks to give loans to unqualified minorities. It doesn’t matter how untrue both of these are, they are gospel in rural America. Why reevaluate your beliefs and voting patterns when scapegoats are available?

Some have claimed that southern evangelicals first entered the political world after the nation made abortion legal. Randall Balmer, however, shows that the issue that actually aroused them was the same one that had motivated their ancestors to sacrifice themselves by the hundreds in the Civil War: race. Then, and for a hundred years, the issue was “race mixing.” For the next fifty years it was and has continued to be the issue of desegregation allegedly mandated by liberals.

Three years before the attack on the Capitol, half of all white southerners believed that white people were under attack, while 55% of all whites believed that discrimination exists against them.  These figures are not mere statistics; they are indications of how deeply ingrained in the American psyche is the idea of victimization. They indicate the enduring strength of American myth.

By the way, if it isn’t perfectly obvious to you that religion is a mere fig leaf concealing their racism (and the fear that lies below it), simply recall that black evangelicals have never shared their opinions or voted with them.

This is what a demythologized world looks like. Our politics and our religion are so utterly corrupted that millions of under-educated people continue to support billionaire con-men who are fleecing them blind but offering a refuge in othering, while millions of other, well-educated people take refuge in another narrative, “Russiagate”,  that offers a different kind of refuge: denial.

My articles on Race in General:

The Mythic Sources of White Rage


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? 

A Mythologist Looks at the Election of 2016

The Dionysian Moment: Trump lets the Dogs out 

My articles on Obama:

The Presidential Dilemma

Obama and the Myth of Innocence

The Con Man: An American Archetype

Obama’s Tears

Grading the President

Stories We Tell Each Other About Barack Obama


Barry’s Blog # 227: The Civil Rights Movement in American Myth, Part Three of Four

Conflicting Images of the Other in the South

Q: What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy?

A: I don’t know and I don’t care!

The old joke comes close to explaining the stunning combination of racial animosity and innocent ignorance that white Americans accepted as reality in the early 1960s. Only about 6% approved of interracial marriage, while 84% were convinced that blacks had equal educational opportunity. 

Even though anti-segregation protests had been happening for years, most whites had been unaware of a national movement for racial freedom until most acquired televisions. Rather abruptly, it seemed that by sitting in at lunch counters across the South, the Other was stepping in from his and her internal exile, demanding to sit at the same the table as the master. Insisting that neither freedom nor equality was possible without the other, the Civil Rights Movement defined freedom in terms of inclusion. But for Southern whites (and later for Northern whites as well), inclusion meant something that absolutely threatened their myth of innocence: meeting the Other on equal terms.

Are you old enough to remember those “black-and-white” photos and newsreel films of the demonstrations and attempts to desegregate schools? Find some videos online and notice several things. First: the dignity, determination, religious fervor and conservative attire of the African Americans. Second: the presence of northern whites accompanying them. Then, as the camera pans back, we comprehend the broader context: hundreds of local whites, brought to the scene by the possibility of seeing or participating in violence – with fury or fear on their faces.

Civil rights

We see the burning crosses, the police dogs and the fire hoses.  

But we also see leather-clad toughs and housewives in high heels taunting the marchers with astonishing profanity.


What we don’t see is the 350-year legacy of fear that turned working-class whites and blacks into adversaries. We don’t see the religious conditioning that divided whites internally, against their own bodies. We don’t see the heritage of alienation that required the construction of an entire race of scapegoats so that whites could cling to their privilege and their innocence. 

Still, the demonstrators are merely sitting quietly, singing or marching in silence. Why is there such rage on the white faces? Certainly, blacks are demanding equality and whites fear some economic loss. But furious, violent, out-of-control rage?

Perhaps it is because the blacks aren’t “shuffling and jiving,” lowering their heads or stepping off the sidewalks to let them pass. Perhaps because they are no longer presenting the false persona of childish or contented servant. Perhaps it is because some are looking the whites directly in the eye for the first time in anyone’s memory, refusing to call them “sir.”

I propose that then (and, sadly, 60 years later) the whites, whether “crackers” or prosperous shopkeepers, were facing a profound dilemma. They could no longer successfully project self-contempt for their sexuality, their bodily connection to the old pagan gods, to Dionysus, onto the blacks. Forced to contemplate people just as self-controlled as themselves, and quite often more so, they faced an Other who was themselves.

In another context, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote:

…and they searched his prison

but could only see themselves in chains.

White violence wasn’t merely intended to disrupt the marches. Here is the secret: the whites were trying to incite the blacks into retaliating in anger, to move their bodies, to dance, or at least to lower their heads. They were hoping to provoke them into re-inhabiting the psychic space of the Other, so that they, the whites, could be free of the oppressive weight of self-awareness. Whites were desperate to remove it from their own shoulders and place it back where it belonged.

But how could they do that when (a few years later) blacks were chanting, “Black is beautiful?” If the Other was everything that the citizen of the polis was not, and the Other was self-controlled – or beautiful – what did that make the citizen? And if the citizen has his innocent persona stripped away, what then rises to the surface? How could it not be self-hatred? Rather than facing it, Americans have long learned to channel their darkness into religion, substance abuse, consumerism, race hatred and a unique capacity to seek out and enjoy vicarious violence.

The miracle of the early 1960s is not the legal freedoms and voting rights won by African-Americans, but the fact that they could hold so much hope amid such hatred without retaliating. The movement eventually failed when they could no longer restrain their own rage within the ritual container of pacifist religion and finally struck back.

Langston Hughes wrote,

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

So much had been promised – even poor families now had TV and could see what the Good Life appeared to be – and so little was delivered. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty failed because his other war against Vietnam was bankrupting the nation. Historian Milton Viorst wrote, “…rising expectations prevalent in the mid-1960’s had transformed everyday discontent into an angry rejection of the status quo.”


After the Watts riots of 1965 a phrase that perfectly articulated the return of the repressed – Black Power! – first appeared.   In 1967 (ironically the same year that the Supreme Court finally struck down the last Southern laws prohibiting interracial marriage) blacks rioted in 23 cities, leaving scores dead and thousands arrested.

Once Blacks refused to submit, two things resulted. First, many others – students, women, Native Americans, Latinos, prisoners, disabled people, environmentalists and gays – also rose up. 1968 was a surreal explosion of televised war carnage, anti-draft demonstrations, political assassinations, ferocious riots and mayhem at the Chicago convention.

Secondly, public opinion, which had solidly favored civil rights, began to change. TV showed not only the rage but also ecstatic images of blacks looting only blocks from the White House. Violence was familiar, but this was new: the internal Other would no longer serve as primary victim of American violence. The white middle class was losing jobs and feeling disenchanted, exhausted, victimized and vulnerable to reactionary backlash.

Hollywood saw the opening and responded with vigilante movies (starring Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood and Chuck Norris) in which solitary redeemer-heroes, in an old mythic format, took matters into their own hands and cleaned up the urban chaos with brutal violence. Everyone knew what “urban” meant. And everyone was familiar with the mythic themes that the film Fort Apache, the Bronx invoked.

Conservatives, also seeing an opening, were quick to perceive class differences between white anti-war activists and returning soldiers, as well as the police they were fighting. When the National Guard exploded in violence at Kent State in 1970 (few even noticed the black students killed a week later by state police at Jackson State College in Mississippi), the public was outraged at the students, not their killers. Viorst writes that many rejoiced that, “…the act had been done at last…the students deserved what they got.”

“The act” was the murder of the children – white, educated – in a nationally televised, ritual sacrifice of a new scapegoat. Enough youth had rejected American values so completely that, to the shocked elders, it seemed that they had become the Other. They were acting “just like blacks,” and this, finally, was unacceptable.

Although America had been killing the children in Vietnam for years and in the ghettoes for generations, here was an unmistakable response from their elders: Your purpose is to be like the fathers, or to die. Shortly after Kent State, while students were striking at 450 campuses, thugs attacked peaceful demonstrators while New York City police watched.


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.

The myth of innocence had weathered a series of terrible shocks, but its image of the internal Other had survived. Whites no longer perceived blacks as discreet, religious, non-violent saints who were shaming America into remembering its values. They were now dashiki-wearing, long-haired, foul-mouthed terrorists who ruled the city streets at night – “Black Panthers.” And the panther was Dionysus’ animal. The Black man once again carried the projection of America’s Dionysus. And one could well ask, Did the South actually win the Civil War? 

Read Part Four here.


Barry’s Blog # 226: The Civil Rights Movement in American Myth, Part Two of Four

Red, White and Black

It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

The genocide of the Native Americans (“the outer Other”) created two problems for the white imagination, for its politicians and for its businessmen. First, it literally didn’t leave enough survivors for them to identify as a threat that could motivate white fear. Second, it didn’t leave enough laborers for their plantations. Colonial whites required someone to act both roles. So they uprooted millions of Africans to form the foundation of the Southern economy, and eventually of the Northern economy as well. Much later, despite a long tradition of anti-immigrant hostility, they also imported millions of Latinos to work the jobs that whites would not accept.

As I have written in Chapter Eight of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence, neither “blackness” nor “whiteness” firmly established themselves in the American mind until the defeat of Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 in Virginia, when indentured servants of both races challenged the landowners. This was a watershed moment, as historian Theodore Allen wrote:

…laboring-class African-Americans and European-Americans fought side by side for the abolition of slavery…If the plan had succeeded, the history of…America might have taken a much different path.

Previously, there had been little distinction between dark- and light-skinned laborers. Afterwards, Virginia codified its bondage system. In the first of what would be many examples of affirmative action for whites, it replaced the terms “Christian” or “free” with “white,” gave new privileges to Caucasians, removed rights from free blacks and banned interracial marriage. Other laws contributed to what Allen calls the “absolutely unique American form of male supremacism” – the right of any Euro-American to rape any African American without fear of reprisal.

The new allegiance to a narrative of whiteness eliminated most class competition and provided a sub-class of poor whites to intimidate slaves and suppress rebellion. This is how the first American police forces developed – as slave patrols. Copied everywhere, the pattern merged with the myth of racial war: America’s primary model for class distinction (and class conflict) became relations between white planters and black slaves, rather than between rich and poor.

The new system, wrote Allen, insisted on “the social distinction between the poorest member of the oppressor group and any member, however propertied, of the oppressed group.” Eventually, southern class discrimination merged with northern religious stereotyping. Since poverty equaled sinfulness (to Northern Puritans) and black equaled poor (to Southern opportunists), then it became obvious that blackness itself equaled sin.

By 1700, white Americans had a story that evolved into a neo-Calvinistic myth, and the myth told them that their affluence and their privileges were no accident. It told them that their work ethic, enterprising spirit and ability to defer gratification brought them the good things in life, and that the brutal conditions that both black slaves and poor whites lived under were proof of exactly the opposite.

But there was always that shadow, that dark side of the myth of innocence. Regardless of their economic status, whites were motivated to pledge their allegiance to a state that was defined by the perpetual threat of what Freud would later call the “return of the repressed.” In social terms this took the form of slave rebellions and Indian attacks. At the psychological level, it appeared as that constant temptation to reject the Protestant Ethic and dance.  

The predatory imagination found the secret to perpetuating itself – as it would in the1870s, 1890s, 1930s, 1950s, 1980s and today – by manipulating the paranoid imagination. There was always the red shadow of the native warrior (later, the red communist) who might swoop down upon the innocent community with no warning, and for no apparent reason. And the black shadow of the hateful slave lurked within that same community.

The ideas of Red, White and Black were born together in the American soul.

Three and a half centuries after Bacon’s Rebellion, scholars still wonder why a strong socialist movement never developed here, as it did in almost every other developed country. One reason is the profoundly influential ideology (again rooted ultimately in Puritanism) of radical individualism. This created, for whites at least, the expectation of perpetual growth, in both spiritual and material terms. As John Steinbeck wrote,

Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

A second factor is the overwhelming presence of the Other. Only Americans combined irresistible myths of opportunity and universal freedom – stories that spoke deeply to the soul – with rigid legal systems deliberately intended to divide natural allies. Every time those allies made common cause, opportunistic politicians played the race card. “No other democratic nation,” writes Cornell West, “revels so blatantly in such self-deceptive innocence, such self-paralyzing reluctance to confront the night-side of its own history.

In this thinking, whiteness implies both purity (which demands removal of impurities) and privilege. From 1680 to 2020, no matter how impoverished a white, male American may have felt, he has still heard dozens of subtle messages every day of his life that divide him from the impure. Without racial privilege the concept of whiteness is meaningless. With it, so is working class unity. Throughout American history, white men often have had nothing to call their own except their privilege, yet they have clung to it and supported those whose coded rhetoric has promised to maintain it. The only new addition that Donald Trump (hereafter referred to as “Trumpus”) brought to this story has been to drop the codes. 

The process of exclusion and subordination required a massive lie about black inferiority that has been enshrined in our national narrative. “After all,” writes 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.

Three hundred years earlier, 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.

So we have to address the question of religion again. White Southern evangelicals are Trumpus’ essential base, the only sizable group in the country who supported him to the end. In Chapter Eight of my book I wrote:

How did Puritanism continue to grow there long after it had been greatly transformed into the capitalist impulse in the North? As free land became scarce in the east, most immigrants (including thousands of Scots-Irish Presbyterians) headed toward southern and western frontier areas. There, they fought savage wars with the Indians long after New England’s indigenous population had been decimated.

In the Deep South in particular they lived side-by-side with millions of blacks and the constant fear of both race war and sexual predation. In addition, one can imagine that they felt guilt, conscious or not, for participating directly in the systematic dehumanization of the slaves. This meant that rural Southerners, far more than Northerners, were obsessed with evil in their daily lives.

The Bible occupied a prominent place on the frontier. With few educated clergy around, people were often unaware of its symbolic context. It was venerated more than it was read and read more than it was understood. The Bible was often the only book in the house (this situation still prevails in many American homes). The result was a dogmatism and anti-intellectual literalism that became characteristic of this part of the country.

So, while urban Northerners transmuted their self-abnegation into the sense of deferred gratification required to amass wealth, rural Southerners built up their fear of the Other to such a fever pitch that the Devil – and their own sense of sinfulness – remained as constant presences. Belief in predestination died out, but assumptions about Original Sin remained. This meant fear of judgment, repressed sexuality, longing for Apocalypse and an older sense of deferred gratification, not to wealth but to the next life. Obsession with the other world meant dismissal of this one and contempt for political participation. As a result, most fundamentalists didn’t vote until the 1970s.

That situation would not change until Republicans, realizing that they had no real future without bringing in new voters, deliberately motivated evangelicals with the old tactics of racial fear. And fear, we have learned over and over, trumps moral concerns. Since then, the “Solid South” has simply changed its allegiance from Democrat to Republican, with enough electoral votes to prevent or water down any progressive legislation, but now with the addition of millions of fundamentalists who had previously never voted.

Yes, recent demographic changes in Virginia and Georgia have brought political change, but for the most part we can still ask ourselves if the South actually won the Civil War. 

Consider the intersection of narratives centering on southern plantations before the 150 years before 1860: the myth of free markets; the myth of the pastoral plantation, with everyone cheerfully playing their role, protected by benevolent masters and Protestant ministers; the myth of pure Southern Womanhood; and the complex images of the slaves, gratefully serving the planters. These stories about the essential goodness of southern culture would go on to provide the background for a post-war myth that has survived for over another 150 years. The myth of the “Lost Cause” warns us that the South will rise again, because it was a tragic mistake of history that it was defeated.

The North itself long held to yet another story, that racial discrimination occurred only in the South. In reality, Northern mobs attacked abolitionists on over two hundred occasions prior to the outbreak of the War.

Psychologist 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 and sin. By 1825 Alexis De Tocquevile wrote 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. Not until 1664 (22 years after Massachusetts) did Maryland declare that all blacks held in the colony and all those imported in the future would serve for life, as would their offspring. And the two colonies with the strongest religious foundations – Massachusetts and Pennsylvania – were the ones that first outlawed “miscegenation.”

When northern states expanded the voting franchise for whites in the 1830s, most of them explicitly abolished it for blacks. Later, several states including Indiana and Illinois literally banned all blacks from entering. Oregon (1859), however, was the only free state admitted to the Union with a racial exclusion clause in its constitution. The ban remained in place until 1927. Well into the 1950s (as any black entertainer, athlete or travelling businessman could attest), thousands of “sundown towns” in thirty states prevented blacks from residing overnight on pain of arrest or worse.

But let’s return our focus to the South. As whiteness took on increasing significance, so did the fear of “mongrelization.” Below the fear, however, was envy. And below that was the desire to achieve real healing and authentic psychological integration. To cover up such unacceptable fantasies, whites projected their desires onto blacks. Even the great humanist (and, we have learned, willing race mongrelizer) Thomas Jefferson apparently felt that black men had a preference for white women over black women “as uniformly…as the preference of the Oran-utan for the black woman over those of his own species.” Indeed.

As the Native American population (the Outer Other) east of the Appalachian Mountains shrunk into relative insignificance, due to genocide and ethnic cleansing, African Americans assumed the role of the Inner Other. What (in the white mind) were their characteristics? First, they were childish, lazy and unreliable – the shadow of the Protestant Ethic. It was necessary to force them to be productive. White performers began to wear blackface in the 1840s. LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) wrote,

… the only consistent way of justifying what had been done to him – now that he had reached what can be called a post-bestial stage – was to demonstrate the ridiculousness of his inability to act as a “normal” human being.

Whites needed to believe that blacks were slow, dumb and happy, so many blacks assumed the persona and acted 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. Blackface minstrelsy was America’s primary form of entertainment throughout the nineteenth century. Forms of it (Amos ‘n Andy) survived into the 1950s, tutoring millions in racist stereotyping. But it provided something else. By vicariously impersonating blacks, as Michael Ventura has written, “white Americans could briefly inhabit their own bodies.” 

A second aspect of the story contradicted the first, but no one noticed, since othering is not logical. This Other was intensely sexual and aggressive. Like Dionysus, he might sneak in and corrupt the children. Class society assigns the mind to the masters and the body to the servants. In racially homogeneous societies, where the leaders racially resemble the followers, these images are not mutually exclusive. The poor can potentially join the elite. But in racial caste systems masters are physically different from servants, and the images are mutually exclusive. In America the old mind/body division coincided with the racial gulf, and this distinction became sacred.

It took abstraction to new levels. Countless whites, inheritors of the Puritan imagination, hated the body’s needs and feared that they might be judged by how well they controlled them. Here is a clue to slavery’s appeal that goes beyond economics and questions of privilege. This terror, writes Ventura, “…was compacted into a tension that gave Western man the need to control every body he found.” In slavery, “the body could be both reviled and controlled.” 

Third, it was necessary to confine this Black Other of the South, unlike the external, Red Other (now exiled primarily west of the Mississippi River), within the gates of the innocent community. Whites could savagely defend their women from him, but they couldn’t afford to exterminate or isolate him in concentration camps (otherwise known as reservations), because he was critical to economic prosperity. Slavery fit the model of an internal Other that had appeared earlier in the Witch craze. White Europeans had long been used to these stereotypes: for hundreds of years before the discovery of the New World, they had seen Jews as the internal Other and Muslims as the external Other.

After emancipation, racism remained the foundation of a political economy predicated upon fear, the constant threat (and temptation) of violence, division of the working class and further refinements of whiteness. The law long assumed that blacks were persons with any African ancestry. The “one-drop rule,” used by no other nation, made one a black person. “Octoroons,” who had seven white great-grandparents out of eight, were considered to be black.

Curiously, in the case of Native American admixture with whites, courts enforced the one-drop rule more selectively. They recognized the “Pocahontas exception” because many influential Virginia families claimed descent from Pocahontas, a fundamental and positive character in America’s origin myth. To avoid classifying them as non-white the Assembly declared that a person could be considered white as long as they had no more than one-sixteenth Indian blood.

For decades, despite many exceptions, one of the primary characteristics of whiteness across large swaths of the country was the simple fact of legal freedom. This changed quickly after 1865. So new laws were enacted that prevented most blacks from acquiring western land, thus keeping them as de facto slaves in the south. Homesteading became a privilege reserved for white people, another example of affirmative action. In the southwest, similar systems targeted Latinos. No wonder our picture of the hardy “pioneers” who settled the west is lily-white.

When poor whites and blacks again threatened to unite, the Jim Crow system arose, held in place by the threat of large-scale, domestic terrorism. Between 1868 and 1871, the Ku Klux Klan murdered over two thousand Americans and intimidated countless others. In the 1890s, when workers and farmers organized the Populist Movement, there were 200 lynchings per year. The dream of unity collapsed (as it would again in the 1970s) under the fear and the temptation to identify as white. This systemic violence might have provoked more outrage but for a rationale that silenced criticism. Sexuality was a means of reasserting both white control over blacks and male domination of women, even though fewer than a quarter of lynchings resulted from allegations of sexual assault.

When agriculture mechanized and the South no longer required so many cheap agricultural workers, many blacks left, only to be confined within northern ghettoes, where nearly equally severe conditions resulted in the poverty and violence that whites associated them with. By 1900 the mythmakers had succeeded: whites commonly believed that blacks hadn’t been ready for freedom because, like Dionysus, they couldn’t “sacrifice their lusts.”

Like the ancient Athenians, Victorian Americans saw themselves as Apollonian, hardworking, rational and progressive. Meanwhile, they had enshrined the Other in a form the Greeks would have recognized but burdened with Christian sinfulness. “Enshrined” seems to be the proper term here: there was (and is) simply no possibility of worshipping such a deeply corrupted version of the Christ without imagining an equally corrupt, “evil twin.” For more on this question, see Chapter Nine of my book.

There was no place for him within the pure American psyche, and to a great extent, the economy, but it was still necessary to keep him close. To several generations of white immigrants, the descendants of the slaves, in both their stereotyped, earthy physicality and the implied threat of their vengeance became America’s dark incarnation of Dionysus, our collectively repressed memory and imagination. Since 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 demonize.

White Americans filled their imaginary underworld with monsters: the outer, Red Other (now transformed from Indians to communists) and the inner, Black Other. In 1960, 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.

Read Part Three here.

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Barry’s Blog # 225: The Civil Rights Movement in American Myth, Part One of Four

Part One: The Mythological and Psychological Background 

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees…  — Abel Meeropol

Myths are the stories people tell about themselves about themselves that help them to make sense of the great contradictions in life. Often, even stories that seem to be about other people turn out to be really about those people (or nations) who are privileged to tell the stories. The story of America is, to a great extent, one of idealistic people, innocent of all sin, who sought out new land to live in freedom and opportunity, and of how they gradually extended those blessings to the world. It’s a story about white people, and it has a large shadow. 

The great majority of African Americans, those who have been forced to bear the projection of the white unconscious, understand that the subtext of almost all of our domestic issues – and much of our foreign policies – is America’s original sin, its fatal flaw, race. For sixty years, polls have consistently shown that most white people do not share this view. 

As a writer on social issues, let me state my opinion as clearly as I can: from the perspective of the myth of American innocence, any social, economic or political commentary that does not begin by acknowledging this fact is either hopelessly ignorant or deliberately complicit with the aims of the empire and with assumptions of white supremacy.

When we speak of American exceptionalism, we have to understand that America remains at heart a puritan nation, and that the worst of all sins to the Puritan is lack of self-control. Even though studies consistently show that similar percentages of whites and blacks engage in sex, drugs and violence, large numbers of whites still believe the old stereotypes that blacks are more susceptible to such “vices.” This allows whites, wrote Ralph Ellison, “…to be at home in the vast unknown world of America.”

America has had countless scapegoats, but why are we periodically compelled to lynch only one of them?  After 350 years of mythic instruction, popular thinking among white people remains polarized along racial lines: civilized vs. primitive, abstinence vs. promiscuity and sobriety vs. intoxication. These pairs of opposites are all forms of a more fundamental opposition between composure and impulsivity (or in mythic imagery, between the ancient Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus). Whiteness, as the civilized, the abstinent, the sober and the composed, is the baseline definition of the innocent community, and blackness, as all those opposites, is the Other. 

Othering is not logical. As with archetypes, when one pole of a stereotype is activated, so is its opposite. Even as they perceive blacks as unable to control their desires, large majorities of whites still accuse them of the Puritan’s second worst sin, laziness. Two thirds of white people still tell pollsters that the problems suffered by blacks are due to their preference for welfare over work. This is an odd claim, writes Tim Wise, “…seeing as how five out of six blacks don’t receive any.” 

When mythic narratives collapse, when large numbers of people stop believing, they can replace archetypes with stereotypes in their search for something new to believe in. The next step in scapegoating is to manipulate the fear that those who can’t control their desires – or are too lazy to be productive – will entice everyone else to emulate them, that middle-class whites might not be able to resist temptation.

What does this fear of temptation say about white people? It implies that their carefully constructed veneers of innocence, progress, racial superiority, masculinity and self-control are eggshell-thin. At a deeper level, however, it implies envy of those whom the dominant culture, for its own purposes, has designated as more childlike and more in touch with the needs of their bodies.

And envy points toward something even deeper, the unconscious desire for healing. But healing, as something beyond simplistic notions of regeneration, as initiation into self-knowledge, implies the death of what no longer works. The soul desires this more than anything, and the ego fears this more than anything. As James Baldwin wrote,

Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.

And this is precisely why, all across the world, the indigenous imagination has given us stories about mythic figures such as Dionysus, the god of wine and madness, the god who called all those values of respectability, sobriety and decorum into question. And the more a culture holds to those values, the more it is likely to call up a Dionysian figure from its own national unconscious as compensation.

The Black man is America’s modern Dionysus. Like the enigmatic outsider of Euripides’ 4th-century B.C. play The Bacchae, he comes from beyond the gates to liberate the women, to lead them to the mountains to dance among themselves, free of patriarchal control. And in the fever dreams of the white supremacist, he threatens to lead the children away like another outsider, the Pied Piper.

Whites project the stereotyped characteristics of American Dionysus upon blacks because the heritage of Puritanism does not allow them to fully embody those characteristics themselves. But – we must say this repeatedly – just below the negative judgments and hatred of the Other lies envy of those who appear to be comfortable in their bodies and unrestrained in their desires. In a culture that elevates the dry, masculine, Apollonian virtues of spirit over the wet, feminine and Dionysian, African Americans proudly use the word soul to define their music and culture in contrast to the dominant religious and cultural values.

Read Part Two here.


Barry’s Blog # 362: A Mythologist Looks at the 2020 Election, Part Twenty-Three

Conclusion with Three Questions

First Question: Why was Joe Biden nominated?

Long before the primaries it was clear that Biden had no charisma, no base of voters, and no chance of beating Trumpus. But as I argued throughout this essay, the corporate Democrats feared their own left wing (even as the public favored it) more than it feared any Republicans. It feared the insurance companies more than the 69% of the public who supported Medicare For All. In Part Three I showed how they manipulated the primary results to steal the nomination from Bernie Sanders, just as they had done in 2016. As Johnstone writes, “There’s no point telling the Democratic establishment that Bernie would have won. They know Bernie would have won. That’s why they stopped him.”

Second Question: Why did Biden win (or Trumpus lose)?

1 – With the most profoundly unpopular and deeply reviled president in U.S. history, it still took a pandemic with 300,000 dead (by the election) and an economic depression with forty million unemployed. With no pandemic, Trumpus would be in his second term. Here is a study confirming this.

2 – A second major factor is that 108 million people voted early, nearly 70% of all votes cast. Those early ballots (and millions of other votes cast in voting booths on election day) were all paper ballots that could not be compromised or flipped by corrupted machines (as they certainly were in many states).

Certainly, an astonishingly large number of people still preferred Trumpus. But he didn’t receive 74 million votes. The official number was greatly swelled (and Biden’s greatly reduced) by those same corrupted machines (see below) in the 26 states ruled by Republicans. We will never know the actual numbers, but it’s clear that Biden won by even more than the official numbers. However, this leads to a deeper question:

Third Question: Why did the Democrats perform so badly in the House and Senate?

Why didn’t the biggest turnout in history sweep the Republicans away? Why didn’t the Democrats clobber this buffoon and his allies in massive landslides at every level? What happened to the expected “blue wave”? Why (once again) were the polls so wrong? Why did millions of people apparently split their ballots, rejecting Trumpus but re-electing Republicans who supported his policies?

Despite the heroic efforts of Tracey Abrams and countless others, voter suppression was still a major factor. The biggest turnout in history was still much smaller than the numbers of people who actually wanted to vote or thought that their votes had been counted. We know for example that over 300,000 ballots were checked into the mail system but not checked out of it. As Palast reminds us, 22% of all mail-in votes never get counted.

And there were other factors.

1 – Fraud: Can any reasonable person believe that over a million Floridians voted for raising the minimum wage but also supported Trumpus over Biden? In Kentucky, as I showed in Part Twenty, McConnellhad under 40% approval on election day, but beat Amy McGrath (who received more votes than Biden in in 119 of 120 counties) by 19 points. And, we are told, McConnell won by landslides in heavily Democratic areas, most of them using the easily hackable ES&S machines. In South Carolina, Lindsay Graham won in the same dubious manner. The pattern was repeated in Maine, Texas, Iowa, Florida and other states.

I think we can say that election commissioners in most of those 26 Republican-controlled states gamed the electronic voting machines to flip five percent of the votes. If we were to subtract 5% of Trumpus’ national totals – perhaps four million – and add them back into the other column we might have a clearer idea of Biden’s victory. And we’d have a clearer sense of what happened in the Senate and House.

Going forward, there have been two unanticipated result of Trumpus’ constant predictions – and then claims – of voter fraud. One is that millions of right wingers have been confirmed in their sense of victimhood. They have a new “Lost Cause” to organize around. The second is that once again, liberals find themselves on the defensive and have been forced to insist that there was no fraud, thus repressing, once again, the issue of the massive crimes that actually did occur and will occur next time.

2 – Apathy and voters’ distaste for moderate Dems. About 67% of eligible voters cast ballots, but that still means a third – eighty million adults – did not. A majority of these non-voters believe it makes no difference who is elected president and that things will go on just as they did before. They also, as I wrote throughout the campaign, tend to be Latino. Only 52% of Latinos surveyed said they were registered to vote, compared to 80% of whites and 78% of Blacks.

A strong endorsement of Medicare For All would have made a major difference. As mentioned before, progressives won almost all their races, while many of the Dem losses were by moderates and freshman congresspeople in essentially blue districts. And there was much vote-splitting, in which people voted against Trumpus (rather than for Biden) and left the rest of their ballots empty. Susan Collins, for example, won by 55,000 votes. But 50,000 voters who voted for the top of the ticket failed to cast a vote in that Senate race. Early in the Georgia (pre-runoff) count, Jon Ossoff trailed David Perdue by 90,000 votes. But 98,000 voters who voted for President failed to vote in this race.“Hidden Trumpers”? Nope. I dealt with that issue in Part Twelve.

3 – Ignorance: The government provided enhanced unemployment benefits and stimulus checks (even if it provided for no taxes to pay for them) to millions of households. Partially as a result, 40% of polled voters thought they were better off financially than they were four years ago and apparently saw little reason to vote for change.

4 – Fear: The Dems allowed the Repubs to reframe the BLM protests and the “defund the police” issue into the old standby of “law and order.” As a result, Trumpus won a higher percentage of white women than he did in 2016. And although 55% of registered young voters turned out, a much higher number – 65% – of elderly people responded to the fearmongering and chose to vote for policies that might protect their investments and privileges but would most deprive their own grandchildren of a future. Once again, we find ourselves in the realm of mythology – the killing of the children.

The Inauguration: The King is Dead. Long Live the King!

So where does this whole election cycle – and the $14 billion that was spent on it – fit into our understanding of myth? The most basic narrative at the base of the American story is that of the killing of the children. What lies on top of that within our psyches is American innocence. So at the end, I refer back to the questions I ask in interviews: When did you lose your innocenceand When did you lose it again?

When innocence is the foundation of a belief system, when a culture refuses to offer its young people the initiatory rituals that affirm their unique gifts and permanently erase their childhood innocence, people have little choice but to live lives of denial and perpetual childishness. When the inevitable tears in the fabric of the myth of innocence appear, it quickly closes back up, and each loss of innocence, no matter how old we are or how often it happens, feels like the first time. So only the most naïve among us should be surprised to see that Nancy Pelosi’s initial statement about the Capitol insurrection was: We’ve really lost our innocence.

Conclusion: Auguries

After five years of non-stop lies, insults, boasts, threats, buffoonery, misogyny, racism and gratuitous cruelty, Trumpus had so alienated so many of us that exhaustion, massive anxiety and a collective PTSD had set in even before the insurrection at the Capitol. Brand Trumpus was so toxic to all but the legions who had turned him into a cult leader that it actually had the effect of building up Brand Biden. By inauguration day, liberal America had conjured up an image of a kindly, religious, poetry-spouting, emotionally accessible – yet determined, laser-focused, purposeful leader. A public servant and “a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief,” whom the San Francisco Chronicle called our “mourner in chief.”

The sentiment was authentic, even as we know (or should know) his deepest allegiances. We know of course that the Empire will abide. We know that the military-industrial complex was happy with either candidate. We know that the incomprehensively expensive and cruel “War on Terror” will continue. We know Biden’s long history of facilitating mass incarceration. We know that 24 hours after presiding over a memorial to the victims of the pandemic, the new administration announced that it will continue Trumpus’ murderous policies in Palestine and Venezuela. We know that one of the invited guests listening to Biden’s denunciation of fascist violence was Carlos Vecchio, who in 2014 had fled to the United States to escape “incitement of violence” charges in Venezuela. And we remember Noam Chomsky’s quote: If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged.

But – for one moment at least – having left his stuttering and self-sabotaging behind him, Biden stepped into the role of Sacred King, or at least a guy you might actually want to have a beer with.

The word inaugurate (“induction into an office with suitable ceremonies”) comes from the same root as augury. An augur was a religious official in ancient Rome who foretold events by observing and interpreting signs and omens. The deeper root may be avis (bird), since the flights, singing, and feeding of birds were important objects of divination, leading to words such as auspicious. One of ancient Greece’s greatest mythmakers, Aeschylus, said of another one, Euripides, “He shows people who they are, and I show them who they might be.” The essence of the ritual imagination may well be the willingness to hold the tension of the opposites while still imagining a positive outcome. May it be so.

The end of this election cycle leaves us exhausted, fearful, sick and broke, yet relieved to put Trumpus (if not the conditions that led to him) behind us. We know we felt this way when Clinton replaced one Bush and Obama replaced another. We know that they manipulated our innocent expectations of a happy ending. Looking back, we know that they served the Empire just as their predecessors had. And we know that we have no choice at this point but to imagine something better. May the birds return and show us the signs.


Barry’s Blog # 361: A Mythologist Looks at the 2020 Election, Part Twenty-Two

Welcome to 2021, or 2020.2

Be there, be wild! – Trumpus

I beat the socialist! – Joe Biden

This election will not be over until the Bidens move into the White House. Prior to that event, with its possibility of bringing some degree of calm, two main events occurred. The first showed us who we might be, while the second reminded us of who we are.

Georgia: A victory over racism

Trumpus brazenly tried to force Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to flip the election results. Was Trumpus, knowing that the conversation was being recorded, unconsciously attempting once again to destroy himself? In another example of a broken clock being right twice a day, Raffensperger refused, instantly becoming a hero to liberals. Greg Palast, however, reminds us that Raffensperger had been at the very center of massive voter suppression, “misleading a federal court to keep 198,000 Georgians from voting” in the run-off. Palast also points out that the Georgia Repubs were working directly with provocateur extremists who went on to lead the riot in Washington.

But the faithful found themselves in a bind (one that Black people are very familiar with): if the other side had stolen their democracy, was there any point in voting? Trumpus helped out (“We’re all victims here.”) The night before the election he told a Georgia crowd, “The deck’s stacked against you. They’re cheating and stealing it. Go vote anyway.” Marjorie Taylor Greene, congresswoman for Northwest Georgia and noted QAnon sympathizer, was equally vocal about the “fix.” The result? Her heavily Republican area became the worst-performing area of the entire state. Perhaps there is a God.

Once again, people of color saved the day. But there was a deeper issue to be learned from this madness. Throughout the campaign, Biden and most the leading Dems had steered clear of any possible accusations of “socialism.” Then came December and the debate over pandemic stimulus checks. Keaton Weiss writes:

Enough voters realized that, because House Democrats backed Trump’s $2,000 proposal and Mitch McConnell didn’t, that they would need to elect Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock if they hoped to see more stimulus money…Then, as election day drew nearer, Democrats made their promise of $2,000 payments central to their closing argument…The GOP incumbents held a small but steady lead until it was made entirely clear to Georgians that they would receive more government assistance if they voted blue.

The lesson? Just as in the general election, when moderate Dems usually lost and almost all progressive Dems won, people get excited when politicians listen to people’s needs and promise to redistribute the wealth for the greater good. It’s called democratic socialism.

The real winners? My inner idealist says: Stacey Abrams, Kamala Harris and the people of Georgia, of course. My inner cynic says: Joe Manchin. You haven’t heard of him? He’s the most conservative Democrat in the Senate. Sensing the moment, he came out against the proposed $2,000 stimulus checks to his own suffering people in West Fucking Virginia. This was a personal message to Biden: You are going to have to come through me to get anything passed in the Senate. As the swing vote in a perfectly divided body, he will be the new Mitch McConnell.

Washington: A victory for racism

Let’s be clear about what, several days later, still isn’t obvious to the mainstream media.

First: This was a riot of white supremacists led by members of well-known hate groups who, compared to almost any BLM activists, enjoyed the privilege of gentle treatment by law enforcement (82 arrests as opposed to hundreds).

Indeed, many of the participants were off-duty police and military who flashed their badges and ID cards as they entered the Capitol building. The mob included at least six Republican officeholders, one of whom later claimed to have no regrets for having attacked the Capitol. Another resigned after posting video of himself.

Second: Responses by the various security agencies in this most-surveilled city in the world were shamefully slow. This was despite the fact that right wing websites had publicized their plans for the event long before Trumpus incited the crowd and retired to his tent party to watch it on TV. Afterwards, with hundreds of videos available, the FBI, in an insult to the entire nation, claimed to require public assistance in identifying them.

The Metropolitan Police Department claimed to have had “no intelligence” suggesting “there would be a breach of the US Capitol.” The Capitol Police knew about the threat days before it took place, but reportedly rejected offers of help. Officials explained that they wanted to avoid using federal force against Americans! Mayor Muriel Bowser requested support before the rally, but the Pentagon limited the local National Guard to managing traffic. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan tried repeatedly to send his state’s National Guard, but the Pentagon would not authorize it. When the Capitol Police finally requested aid early Wednesday afternoon, Defense officials held back the Guard for about three hours before ordering it in.

I suppose it’s possible that some of the leadership were truly naïve about the intentions of the fascist leaders, well-publicized as they were. But more likely, both their lack of preparedness and their tepid response are evidence of a deeper problem that some of us have been noting for two decades: the infiltration of police departments by white nationalists. No centralized recruitment process or set of national standards exists for the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States. Since at least as far back as 2006 the FBI has been aware of the term “ghost skins,” used among white supremacists to describe “those who avoid overt displays of their beliefs to blend into society and covertly advance white supremacist causes.” It has also known that skinhead groups have encouraged ghost skins to seek employment with law enforcement agencies.

It’s much worse when leadership shares their values. “You don’t get to ransack the Capitol for hours, then calmly walk away, unless law enforcement and its command share your views,” wrote Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America. “What we saw yesterday was tacit approval of the rioters.”

Who exactly was responsible? Federal officials who still supported Trumpus, or local officials (a few blocks away) who knew very well how tenuous their control over their own racist cops actually was? Or were even these leaders complicit? Consider for example New York City’s profoundly racist Police Benevolent Association with its 24,000 members and its leader who endorsed Trumpus.

Third: Most of the day was performative rather than goal-oriented. Yes, many people were hurt and five died (including a woman carrying a “Don’t tread on me” flag who was trampled to death). But once the cops allowed the crowd into the building the violence dissipated. Then it quickly became clear that almost no one had any political agenda other than Confederate flag-waving, petty theft, vandalism, posing in outrageous costumes for journalists, smearing of graffiti and feces, exploring of government computer screens, selfie-taking (in at least one case, with a cop), racist slogan-shouting and live-streaming of their exploits. Supporters of Israel displayed anti-Semitic T-shirts. “Blue Lives Matter” fans pissed on symbols of authority. It appeared to be a party atmosphere reminiscent of tourists at Mardi Gras, frat boys at Spring Beak, live action role-playing games, or a twisted version of Burning Man.

From a psychological perspective, this release of inhibitions was an example of Freud’s phrase, “the return of the repressed.” Mythologically, it was an expression of what Robert Johnson called “low-quality Dionysus.” For much more on this issue, see Chapters Four and Ten of my book, or my essay, The Dionysian Moment. Trump Lets the Dogs OutThere is a profound, and profoundly dark potential in this story, as I acknowledge in Part Seven:  

Here I must confess to a certain naiveté. In much of my writing I’ve tended to see the return of the repressed as a good thing, as in liberated sexuality, as the return of the Goddess or as political revolution. And I still think that way – in the long run. But perhaps I’ve been ignoring my own text: What was a human impulse can become monstrous.

And one of the most welcome – and most dangerous – characteristics of demagogues from Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler to Reagan to the architects of the Rwandan and Armenian holocausts to Trump has been their ability to “lift the burden of individual responsibility” from their followers, to dissolve their isolated egos. It is to grant them permission to let out the dogs of their most repressed, violent fantasies that had previously been held in control by superficial notions such as goodness, fair play, tolerance, rationality, justice – and democracy.

But curiously, it was Trumpus who helped out again, this time by inciting the riot in the first place and making it easy (once the danger passed) for even thugs like Lindsay Graham to emerge from their thick cocoons of hypocrisy and denounce him. This ensured that the Presidential confirmation vote would flow smoothly – precisely what the mob had been trying to stop.

Fourteen Republican senators had announced they would object to counting the certified votes; in the evening count the number dropped to six, most notably Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley. But in the House, 138 Republicans, more than half the Republican caucus, doubled down and stuck with Trumpus, even after the riot.

For five years the Repubs and their corporate owners have allowed Trumpus to serve their interests by letting the dogs out, but they may have painted themselves into a corner. Now it appears that they are divided into two groups. One is composed of true believers in various versions of the Trumpus / QAnon narrative – none of whom hold any real power in the party.

The second, the great majority, are absolutely non-ideological, lying con men who have utilized the first group as their useful idiots. Here’s a rule of thumb: the higher the visibility and influence, the less sincere their rhetoric. This group includes several Senators and Congresspersons vying to lead the last-ditch effort to derail the election results. It is obvious that none of them give a damn about Trumpus. Aside from the money they continue to fleece the true believers out of, this has been nothing other than a PR stunt (one that resulted in five deaths). Their only motivation is in building brands that might identify them as inheritors of his base. Trumpus has taught them well – their first principle is how can I take advantage of this?

Even if Trumpus keeps his own candidacy alive (to grab more money), each of them wants to be the best-known right-wing loony when and if the boss retires (or goes to jail). This has nothing to do with 2020 and everything to do with tactics regarding 2024. Some of those tactics involve low comedy. Cruz tweeted that Biden was not working hard enough to “bring us together or promote healing” and that “vicious partisan rhetoric only tears our country apart.”

Others took the opportunity to claim the high road and denounce Trumpus. Some (including the rulers of Facebook and Twitter ) waited as long as possible to drop off his money-raising tit, as did Elaine Chao and Betsy DeVos, who resigned from the Cabinet (possibly to avoid having to vote on deposing him under the 25th Amendment).

Speaking of con men (and women), most Evangelical leaders, watching which way the winds were blowing, initially kept quiet. Eventually, most expressed mild condemnation of the riot, without acknowledging their own complicity in creating the conditions that led to it. Some put out false equivalencies about BLM events. Most avoided linking Trumpus to the attack or criticizing him personally. By the end of the week, with the political winds becoming clearer, they, like many of the GOP leaders, began to distance themselves from him.

At this point, absolutely anything that any Repub official has to say, whether pro-Trumpus or anti-Trumpus, is about 2024. One poll indicates that 45% of Republicans approve of the storming of the Capitol. Another poll claims that Trumpus is the most admired person in America. And regardless of Democratic talk of impeachment, he still has ten days – and beyond – to lurch through our nightmares like Frankenstein’s monster. And it’s a serious question whether his thugs will go away once he does. As Richard Seymour writes,

Trumpism is not an aberration, but a mass phenomenon. Trump greatly expanded his base between 2016 and 2020, adding more than 10 million votes to its total. He expanded into places and demographic constituencies thought to be closed to him. No other Republican presidential candidate could have done this. And it was achieved precisely through the same means that led to the spectacle in the Capitol. To hope that Joe Biden can defuse this by restoring civility and bipartisanship to Washington would be unforgivably complacent.

First as farce, then as tragedy. But this week let’s remember Georgia.

Read Part Twenty-three here.