The Telegraph reports that, though the inauguration of an African-American president may represent a civil rights milestone for many Americans and observers abroad, some segregatory practices are alive and well in Montgomery County, Georgia:
Kera Nobles’ senior prom should have been a high point of her life, as she celebrated graduation from her home town’s school system after 13 years of education.
But instead it has left the normally bubbly 17-year-old smouldering with anger. For, following a local tradition that seems extraordinary in a country which has elected its first black president, there was not just one formal dance for the 54 classmates who graduated from Montgomery County High, but two.
On the first night, a prom was held for the school’s white students; the following night came the celebration for Miss Nobles and the school’s other blacks.
“I don’t like segregated proms, there’s no need for it,” she said, her eyes still burning with hurt. “We went to school together and we all graduated at the same time. I feel like I’ve been deprived of something that was important to me.”
One concern I have as a U.S. Southerner is that people outside this region, and particularly outside this country, might reasonably acquire the impression that such flagrant racism is universal in this part of the world. This simply isn’t true. At the very least, it is today nowhere near as true as it once might have been.
My observation has been that racism here is largely a generational phenomenon—the twenty- and thirty-somethings of today are far less likely to harbor prejudicial attitudes than their parents and grandparents. Of course, this is not to say that racism is absent among young people, particularly since they are their parents’ children. Those young people who attend or have attended rural schools with small or non-existent African-American populations are much more likely to grow into virulent racism than their urban peers. I have seen it happen, too often.
That’s one reason why segregation, while it may make some comfortable in their ivory towers, is a very bad idea—today, tomorrow, and forever.
Do you know who invented the electric light bulb?
Did you know it wasn’t Thomas Edison?
It was an Englishman named Sir Joseph Swan (1828-1914), a physicist who received a British patent for a working lamp and publicly demonstrated it several months before Edison’s bulb first glowed.
Edison had been working with copies of Swan’s patent to make them more efficient, but Swan had already achieved this in some of his early prototypes and had begun installing lamps in private homes by 1881. If, like me, you never had an inkling that the light bulb was as thoroughly British an export as the Beatles, you’ve one man to thank—Edward Bernays.
Bernays, widely considered the father of modern public relations, was the Viennese-born nephew of Sigmund Freud. He opened for business in New York City in 1919, and became widely known—and lauded—for his innovative use of aspects of his famous uncle’s theories of the subconscious to manipulate mass opinion through the media. It was Bernays, more than any other individual, who defined the playing field and rules of propaganda in mass media culture. The book Propaganda (1928) is a straightforward instruction manual for selling everything from deodorant to political candidates, and goes so far as to elucidate the necessity of such manipulation in a democratic society:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society . . .
. . .In theory, every citizen may vote for whom he pleases . . .invisible government, in the shape of rudimentary political parties, arose almost overnight. Ever since then we have agreed, for the sake of simplicity and practicality, that party machines should narrow down the field of choice . . .
. . .In theory, every citizen makes up his mind on public questions and matters of private conduct. In practice, if all men had to study for themselves the abstruse economic, political, and ethical data involved in every question, they would find it impossible to come to a conclusion about anything.
So, then, according to the sensible and kindly-hearted Mr. Bernays—whom, Noam Chomsky has pointed out, was considered a perfectly fine Rooseveltian liberal—it would have been too demoralizing and confusing for Americans to have had to consider that the light bulb was not an American invention. Thomas Edison, as it so happened, agreed. A beautiful partnership was born. Later, Bernays was to express “shock” that his writings on the manipulation and distortion of information were found to be cornerstones of the library of Dr. Josef Goebbels.
We can point to any number of Bernays’ specific shenanigans—his diplomatically disastrous campaign with the United Fruit Company, or his show-biz drive to turn smoking into a feminist issue—and recognize the marks of both genius and sociopathy. Some of the techniques he pioneered, such as the multi-advertisement tie-in and bringing celebrities in to promote products, have clearly persisted into the present.
But the most significant aspect of Bernays’ work and legacy is his given raison d’être, this rancid idea that propagandizing a population into submission is somehow necessary to the fundamental order of society. It is all very well to say that propaganda is an “important element of a democratic society,” but let’s not attempt to claim that it is necessary to democracy. It is only necessary to the subjugation of democracy to the interests of the wealthy and powerful, but not to a “smoothly functioning” society as a sine qua non, which is Bernays’ express sentiment. In the United States of America, and elsewhere as well, propaganda is the tool of a smoothly functioning plutarchist aristocracy.
Quite naïve are they who still would cling to the belief that centralized mass media outlets are not as much tools of oppression and coercion as of information; and it is upon this belief that any remiss insistence that the ballot box is adequate as the true venue of democracy must be predicated.
Apart from the less-than-strenuous reading regimen required of me as an undergrad, here are the books I’ve been chewing up over the past month or two. I’m listing them in hopes of piquing your interest, but also to lay a bit of groundwork for some of the things I’ll be writing about in the coming months.
Ernest Becker (1925-1974)
The Birth and Death of Meaning (The Free Press, 2nd ed., 1962, 1971). In this groundbreaking work subtitled An interdisciplinary perspective on the problem of man, Becker examines the largely fictitious nature of human culture as a whole, and of the individual worldviews that comprise it. Combining techniques of psychiatry, sociology, and anthropology, the author describes the advent of science as a new plot twist and potential antagonist in the paradox-rich struggle of mankind to come to terms with the strange, beautiful, and terrifying world in which each new generation finds itself thrust without mercy.
The Denial of Death (The Free Press, paperback ed., 1973, 1997). A follow-up to the previous book—and Becker’s swan song, for which he posthumously earned the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction—The Denial of Death is the culmination of Becker’s life’s work, and is more directly concerned with psychology than its predecessor. Whereas Freud sought the genesis of neurosis primarily in the sexual/familial confusions of infancy, Becker convincingly argues that the primal angst of man is existential in nature, underscored at all times by his terror of death. Far from ponderously morbid, The Denial of Death is an intensely luminous assay of human motivation.
Joseph Campbell (1904-1987)
The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Princeton Univ. Press/Bollingen, 2nd ed., 1949, 1968). Here Campbell, the venerable scholar of mythology whom a learned friend of mine describes as “everybody’s granddaddy,” delineates and examines what James Joyce termed the monomyth—the basic structure and materials out of which every great human story of adventure and discovery is fashioned. Drawing from a dizzying array of examples from the cultures of every clime and time, Campbell shows that, at least in terms of the underlying psychology/witchcraft, the various mythologies of the world have much more in common than may be superficially evident.
The Masks of God, Vol. I: Primitive Mythology (Penguin, 2nd ed., 1959, 1969). The Masks of God is a four-volume survey of the world’s mythologies. Campbell devotes this first book of the set to the examination of the earliest, most “primitive” epics and rites of some of the world’s most ancient hunter-gatherer and planter cultures. If The Hero is a view under the hood of the myth on a personal level, The Masks is a more sociological approach to the same. Campbell opens with a discourse in which he considers the imagery that underpins mythology as part of the genetic human endowment, homologous to Jung’s collective archetypes. It will take me quite a while to work through all four parts of the series, but the opening leg of the tour has been most promising.
A. Noam Chomsky (1928- )
On Language (The New Press, 1998). This is actually a compilation of two of Chomsky’s works in the familiar question-answer format: Reflections on Language (1975), and Language and Responsibility (1979). Since Chomsky is such a prominent and outspoken critic of geopolitical and economic hegemony in the contemporary world—of blatant and brutal colonialism in a world that is supposed to be post-colonial—it is easy to forget that he is also one of the most eminent and accomplished cognitive scientists the world has known. Taken together, these two works serve to make Chomsky’s theories on cognition and expression as accessible as possible to the layman. Language and Responsibility primarily discusses the origins of generative grammar, which represents a sort of Copernican paradigm shift in the study of linguistics conceived and executed largely by Chomsky long before he became known as a high-profile dissenter of the Vietnam War. It also delves into some tangential issues related to linguistic theory as it applies to philosophy and political theory. Reflections on Language is a more technical review of some of the outstanding problems in linguistics yet to be satisfactorily answered by science.
So—what is the synthesis of all of this? Well, that remains to be seen. But these few volumes, which were chosen off of bookshelves almost at random, are fitting together serendipitously to paint a panoramic mosaic of the human condition encompassing all sorts of perspectives and incorporating numerous disciplines. I’m beginning to see the forest now, and I hope to be able to write on these topics sooner rather than later.
Paul Graham, a notable computer programming pioneer and essayist, published in 2003 an insightful piece on the phenomenon of the nerd. It’s a part-memoir, part-sociological treatise through which Graham explores the deceptively simple question: Why aren’t nerds popular?
Alberti, arguably the archetype of the Renaissance Man, writes that “no art, however minor, demands less than total dedication if you want to excel in it.” I wonder if anyone in the world works harder at anything than American school kids work at popularity. Navy SEALs and neurosurgery residents seem slackers by comparison. They occasionally take vacations; some even have hobbies. An American teenager may work at being popular every waking hour, 365 days a year.
I don’t mean to suggest they do this consciously. Some of them truly are little Machiavellis, but what I really mean here is that teenagers are always on duty as conformists.
For example, teenage kids pay a great deal of attention to clothes. They don’t consciously dress to be popular. They dress to look good. But to who? To the other kids. Other kids’ opinions become their definition of right, not just for clothes, but for almost everything they do, right down to the way they walk. And so every effort they make to do things “right” is also, consciously or not, an effort to be more popular.
Nerds don’t realize this. They don’t realize that it takes work to be popular. In general, people outside some very demanding field don’t realize the extent to which success depends on constant (though often unconscious) effort. For example, most people seem to consider the ability to draw as some kind of innate quality, like being tall. In fact, most people who “can draw” like drawing, and have spent many hours doing it; that’s why they’re good at it. Likewise, popular isn’t just something you are or you aren’t, but something you make yourself.
The main reason nerds are unpopular is that they have other things to think about. Their attention is drawn to books or the natural world, not fashions and parties. They’re like someone trying to play soccer while balancing a glass of water on his head. Other players who can focus their whole attention on the game beat them effortlessly, and wonder why they seem so incapable.
I felt that the essay was eloquently and authoritatively written and that it was well worth my time—of course, I am a nerd.
The word “mythology” is derived from the Greek words mythos (μυθος, “story”) and logos (λογος, “speech, word”) and so etymologically means something like “storytelling.” Mythologies exhibit numerous qualities and fulfill various purposes among different cultures. They can be cosmological, describing the origins and nature of the universe and the role of humanity within it; they are frequently eschatological, foretelling the ultimate fate of man and the surrounding world; and, most characteristically, they are aetiological, explaining the customs and values of a culture in such a way as to immortalize them, or at least to link them with something greater and more cosmic than the community itself.
One can cite multitudinous differences between the stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition and those of the indigenous Australians. With a bit of insight, one also may discover striking and instructive similarities between different myths. The obedient submission of Jesus to the crucifix, wrote the venerable mythologist Joseph Campbell, is functionally the same moment as the dutiful descent of the Buddha from the perfect bliss of the Immovable Spot, coming to selflessly share his enlightenment with the world.
Borrowing a term from James Joyce, Campbell in his fascinating survey The Hero With a Thousand Faces describes the architecture of the “monomyth,” a sort of template set of images and plot elements from which all of the culture-defining hero stories of the world can be derived. There are characteristics shared between mythologies as a result of cultural exchange—the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism is ancient and complex, and Christianity is historically understood as a dialect of Judaism heavily influenced by Roman, Egyptian, and Persian mythologies. But because myth is a metaphor for human experience used to transmit cultural values and identity, we can expect to see profound commonalities between the myths of even disparate, noncontiguous cultures. These shared traits are reflective of those aspects of life that are pancultural. In every human life there is the cycle of birth and death and the uncertainty and mystery of the void beyond; there are hunger and thirst, marvel at the unrelenting procession of the heavens, the need for strength and ingenuity in the overcoming of physical and psychological obstacles, and such motifs are woven into the tapestry of mythology wherever it is found.
Religion Campbell described as “misinterpreted mythology.” The word “religion” is from the Latin for “to rejoin, rebind.” The connotation is somber and accusatory, suggesting the radiant and supremely holy reunification of fallible mankind with ultimate truth and implying a synapse between the human and the divine which only the religion itself can bridge. If mythology is the story-as-metaphor, then religion is the myth-as-truth. I posit that the two behave quite differently, that one yields direction and the other disease.
Each culture characteristically interprets its own mythology as religion in this sense, as a priori truth (or, perhaps more accurately in the case of the revelatory faiths, as truth that should be a priori but is necessarily bestowed upon frail humanity a posteriori because of its own imperfection, hence the need for religion as the Right Path.) This outlook is generally representative of the culture as a whole, and is also an interesting phenomenon at the level of the individual. So long as the life experience—the a posteriori—of the individual and the broader experience of the culture or community do not come into conflict with the myth, the totem retains its effectiveness as a vehicle of culture and as a social cohesive. But when tension erupts between assumptive beliefs and experiential knowledge, the myth degenerates from the pure and buoyant symbolism of metaphor; it must thenceforth swim to get anywhere, or must don the mind-numbing, empty mantras of fideism merely to stay afloat. One of the earliest challenges to the mythology of a given culture is, of course, the interaction of that culture with another which does not share its beliefs. Scientific discovery and the empirical development of the cultural body of knowledge pose a different kind of confrontation. But even in the context of the individual human, life experience itself can disclose, or at least imply, the fiction of myth. Well, is this the end of its value? Not necessarily.
Through experiential knowledge, if not through explicit revelation, the child outgrows the fairy tale of Santa Claus. This is an expected rite of passage throughout much of the pertinent culture. The Germanic myth of Yuletide karma is a metaphorical representation of the ethic of the Golden Rule, preached by Christ and Kung Fu-tzu among many others. Even when the myth is exposed as fable, the child is expected to retain the moral value and is indeed likely to propagate the myth among his or her own children. The fable of Father Christmas is aetiological in a very limited sense—it explains that good behavior begets rewards, yet does not speak to the value of such behavior in any less deterministic terms—but it is not cosmological and certainly not eschatological in scope. Furthermore, it is driven by economic factors and by its circumstantial association with the celebration of the birth of Christ (which is itself rooted in the midwinter festival of Mithras, deity of the Roman sun cult). The effects of passage through this particular myth are interesting psychologically; but of far greater importance is the emergence of the culture and of the individual from the grip of the greater myth which defines the accepted conceptions of the natural and social orders.
History amply illustrates that the growing body of experiential knowledge of a culture will inevitably conflict with its religion, its a priori myth-as-truth. The individual in modern society accesses this knowledge through education, whereby he or she is presented with a choice: to recognize that religion is mythology and to embrace it for its literary and cultural value as metaphor, or to continue to believe in mythology as ultimate truth, in which case all experiential knowledge which conflicts with religion must be reconciled against it and conformed to it using any number of various logical (or illogical) devices. This is ironic since, in many cultures, institutions of education have been themselves administered by a religious body—an important component of such education, then, is invariably the absorption of the rhetoric necessary to perform the intellectually backwards task of reconciliation of the contents of firmware and software, to borrow an analogy from computer science. That the firmware of the human being is itself programmable—that the individual is by virtue of his or her very existence already yoked irrevocably to the “truth” towards which the religion presents itself as a unique channel—is a secret which direly threatens the psychological totem of the social order for which the mythology serves as foundation and vehicle.
One must not suppose that this circumstance is unique to the post-Copernican world, for even the thinkers of classical Greece and Rome, and almost certainly those of civilizations prior and parallel, recognized that the story-as-metaphor can survive a posteriori scrutiny and can even guide and inspire education to new heights of achievement, whereas the myth-as-truth, because of its inflexible form, can but play a restrictive, antagonistic role outside of a certain frame of no greater than Santa-like proportions. But the technology of the printing press, the propagation of the scientific method as a common-sense procedure for gaining at least one species of knowledge of the self and the world, and the eruption of intolerance for the iniquities of feudalism and the corruption of the Church violently unseated the state from its throne of religion and gradually emancipated the men and women of the West to reason without mortified fear of the contempt of the priestly-royal caste.
The divine right government, whether of pharaonic Egypt, Qing China, or Bourbon France, established its authority upon the association of the figurehead with the sacred. Thus the monarchical possession of great wealth and power was justified as a reflection of the right order of the universe, and the forceful, bloody, coldly mercantile expansion of the empire was painted as benign evangelism along the lines of Old Testament precedent. The subject’s fear of and obedience to the monarch were theoretically based in the divine command, but were in reality enforced through social stratification at the point of the spear or sword, as the indigenous peoples of five continents quickly discovered at the hands of various overlords. The emancipation from myth-as-truth engendered awareness of the realpolitik of the existing social order and paved the way for revolution and the rise of the Republic.
But the American Republic, as an example, is itself rooted in its own utilitarian version of the monomyth which is characterized sometimes as the “American Dream.” The hero journeys from his politically turbulent homeland to the wide open spaces of the new continent of plenty, where, solely by the grace of providence and the skill of his own hand, he participates in the most equitable and virtuous society in the history of Earth, a society completely free of the despotic and plutocratic ways of the Old World, a society of such great virtue and such sound structure that it is logically incapable of persistent error, that its youthfully aggressive might and zeal cannot possibly be interpreted as a modified recursion of the murderous imperialism upon which it was in fact built. In this mythical America, wealth is not gained by cutthroat exploitation of the weak but by hard work and honesty. The bureaucracy of this mythical America is not self-interested, self-perpetuating, and self-apologizing, but is wholly benevolent, truly just, and serenely competent. It is “the freest country on Earth,” a golden nation which will never be improved except by further delineation of its blindingly wholesome core principles. Its actions on the world stage are regally appropriate beyond reproach, much like the gritty dispensation of hands-on justice by the mythic self-proclaimed lawmen of its Wild West. In God it trusts, and clearly God trusts in it. The mythology represented by Versailles has been supplanted by the mythology of the Statue of Liberty. Divine sanction is still the charter of the state in legend if not by decree.
One of many contradictions which emerge from this picture concerns the role of education in the modern Republic. It is compulsory and is provided by the state; even when not provided by the state, it is answerable to certain state criteria. That the state provides its citizenry access to learning as a gesture of equal opportunity is an admirable achievement at face value. But what is being taught—free-thinking rationalism, or unquestioning subservience? Does the state impart to its youth the capacity to improve upon the social order, or does it provide in Spartan tradition merely the tools necessary to perpetuate it?
The answer lies not in the substantive content of education so much as in the social subtext. Formal education is largely a passive, collective, industrial conditioning process—not an active and organic adventure of individual growth and empowerment. Just as religious-administered education tends to serve its own interests, so education in the Republic nurtures obsequious participation in the secular twin religions of participatory democracy and benevolent capitalism. To look beyond is radical, heretical. In this regard, we really have not progressed far past the Athenian government which condemned Socrates to death for teaching the nobility of post-conventional thought. The democracy of the information age is only more sophisticated in that it suavely executes the thought and not the thinker, and this propensity for intellectual intolerance is not characteristic solely of one political wing or the other, but of the extremes of each. As Chomsky has written, “Propaganda is to the democracy what the bludgeon is to the totalitarian state.”
Campbell is quite correct that the myth, the story-as-metaphor, is indispensable to human experience. It is naïve to assert that the myth has no place in the world of scientific understanding—for, apart from impressive (and sometimes fearsome) practical accomplishments, what does science reveal except ever more mystery? But it is equally naïve to expect the harmonization of religion (myth-as-truth) and science (accumulated experience-as-truth) save through the neurotic compartmentalization of supposedly universal knowledge. If the myth is the ultimate truth, then only it can answer to the mysteries of the cosmos without and within. Hence the monotheistic God is a jealous one.
If the God of Abraham is omniscient in transcendence of his own creation, then he must have placed the forbidden fruit in full knowledge that it would be plucked. Whatever our reasoning, we must not revile the mythical Serpent merely for stating the obvious. The devolution of religion into mythology is inevitable and imparts to the individual and to the culture an awesome responsibility from which it shirks at its peril. As the Lord Himself boomed to Job:
Gird up thy loins now like a man; I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me. Wilt thou also disannul my judgment? Wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayst be righteous? Hast thou an arm like God? Or canst thou thunder with a voice like him? Deck thyself now with majesty and excellency; and array thyself with glory and beauty. Cast abroad the rage of thy wrath: and behold every one that is proud, and bring him low; and tread down the wicked in their place. Hide them in the dust together; and bind their faces in secret. Then I will also confess to thee that thine own hand can save thee.
The beliefs of the atheist and of the theist are starkly opposite in silhouette only. The deep substance of each belief is simply committal to an a priori truth that is immovable: the one takes the existence of a specific and certain divinity as the starting point, the other the specific and certain nonexistence of any such divinity.
The story-as-metaphor points to those universal aspects of human existence which are as close as our convergent and divergent experiences can bring us to any such a priori truth. It cannot itself live as truth, because the mystery of existence is ineffable, the blind spot of the worldview common to all humans and possibly to all whom exist, Campbell’s “germinal secret of the father,” Carroll’s dream of the Red King. It is not entirely unthinkable that we should one day evolve our way out of this stupor, or that the cultures of other suns, should we be so fortunate as to discover them or they us, might shed a little light on this greatest of riddles. What is clear is that we will not force our way into understanding. Like Candide’s garden, the metaphor of myth can be humbly planted and harvested in abundance and to great satisfaction for generations on end. It is the stuff of literature, and he who thinks he has nothing to learn from fiction is vain indeed. But to present one mythology as literal truth and to deprecate all others as “storytelling” is to render myth a dead thing whose only lifeblood is the wheezing, uneasy credo. With all due respect, the strangely palatable absurdity of literal belief in the superhuman holiness of an obviously human-penned text is beyond the scope of this post.
Unfortunately, the myth-as-truth is the underpinning of practically the entirety of modern civilization as a collection of competing nation-states dominated by the lust for property and wealth. It remains a prominent obstacle in the path of the organic development of a peaceful and harmonious global community because it is the basis for the most enduring pretexts for human selfishness and self-righteousness.
A famous Native American proverb says that we do not inherit the world from our ancestors—we borrow it from our descendants. This seems to be a responsible way to live. Perhaps we should concern ourselves less with the history of “creation” and more with the world we are creating. Perhaps the story-as-metaphor our age requires is that of the hero-child from a dark tomorrow braving a perilous and self-immolating journey to the past so that he may warn us, his ancestors, of what he has seen.
As technology continues to shrink the distances between cultures and individuals, it becomes ever more crucial to accept that the thing we have most in common with one another is how very, very little we know—and that we desire to learn more together.
“If we believe absurdities, we will commit atrocities.”
– François Marie Arouet (Voltaire)