By William Irwin Thompson
“We Irish think otherwise.” Bishop Berkeley
February 19, 2010
Dionysian and Apollonian Political Archetypes
* I am indebted to Karen at Oddity Journal for this wonderful image of the tesseract.
“America is the greatest country on Earth! Why do you think all those foreigners are trying to get a Green Card? If you don’t believe that, then you should go back to wherever you came from. Love it, or leave it!”
How many times have we all heard that invocation, whether on a stool in a bar, in a chair in a barbershop, or in a mental recliner, watching emotional manipulations on TV?
The problem is that every country thinks roughly the same of itself, especially those that are feeling slighted or intolerably embarrassed at their own failures and immoral actions. The worse we become, the louder we get. Germany, humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles, grew loudest of all, but Mussolini’s Italy and Tojo’s Japan were not far behind, and even British restraint was no protection against the jingoism of the Boer War.
The closest parallel to the almost religion-like quality of American patriotism seems to me to be the patriotism of Nazi Germany. Our spectacles of exaltation in Super Bowls, World Series, and Presidential Campaigns were pioneered by Leni Riefenstahl with her film The Triumph of the Will. In such a state of exaltation, the patriot emotionally cannot tolerate any criticism of the object of his adoration. Nazi Germans would insist on their cultural and racial superiority, and if told about the camps and the Holocaust during the war, they would dismiss such talk and insist that it was aiding the enemy by passing on his propaganda. Today Fox News would call any criticism of American foreign policy “Liberal America-Bashing” and insist it was aiding the terrorists.
T. S. Eliot observed in his poem “East Coker” that “In my beginning is my end.” Now at the end of “The American Century” we can look back to the beginning of the American Empire and hear again the voice of William James as he exclaimed in disgust at the atrocities of the Spanish American War, “God damn the U.S. for its vile conduct in the Philippines!”
Patriotism is not a propositional system of logic in which we seek to determine the truth. It is a consensual delusion in which we give permission to one another to lie in order to strengthen our sense of belonging and emotional security. Japan will not admit to “the rape of Nanking,” nor will Turkey to the Armenian genocide. Israel denies what it is doing to the Palestinians, and we Americans insist that we are always and only “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Since history is written by winners, history books lie “for the sake of the school children.” As Voltaire, said: “History is the lie commonly agreed upon.”
Lying is more than human and one can find its origins in the behavior of the higher primates. Like the primates, we humans are social animals and we need others to provide us with a sense of identity, so if patriotism is not of a sufficiently satisfying intensity, we will create more intimate and exclusive systems of identification with our local sports teams or neighborhood gangs. To maintain identity humans will happily lie. St. John may have maintained, “The truth will set you free,” but in doing so it sets you free of the group to which you used to belong.
War seems to be as intimate a form of contact as sex, and like sex there is a diploid exchange of traits. The Irish mystic and poet A.E. watched the Irish Troubles and the struggle for the liberation of Ireland turn dark as Republicans became terrorists and the British Black and Tans and secret services became torturers. In A.E.’s words in the twenties, “We become what we hate.”
The United States, having defeated Nazi Germany, now seems intent on imitating the Gestapo in affirmation of torture and the suspension of the Geneva Convention. When one looks at the snarling countenance of Cheney and the relaxed but reflective smile of Obama, one sees two archetypal political gods overlighting their avatars. Following the descriptions of Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, we can identify these two gods as Dionysus and Apollo. The former is the god of ecstatic transfiguration and dismemberment, the latter the god of reason and harmonic proportion.
Working alongside Cheney, the Evangelical Right is now following the lead of Nazi Germany by seeking to rewrite American history to insist that the Founding Fathers wanted to create a Christian theocracy with no separation of Church and State. They won’t stop until they have created a Christian version of Iran for America ruled over by Christian Mullahs like Pat Robertson. Aided by the Neocons and the Israeli lobby, Americans will be encouraged in OpEd essays in the New York Times and Washington Post to “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.”
In his very Apollonian book of common sense, Engaging the Muslim World, Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan and famous blogger of Informed Comment, has challenged the American Christian theocrats by giving us a piece of real American history.
As early as 1797, the U.S. Senate (in which several Founding Fathers sat) and the Adams administration approved a peace treaty with Tripoli (now Libya) that noted:
As the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries. (Juan Cole, Engaging the Muslim World, Palgrave/Macmillan: New York, 2009, p. 239)
Iran, as the reincarnation of the civilization of ancient Persia, ideally, should be the civilized leader of the Middle East; and America as the polity born of the Enlightenment should be the civilized leader of the West. Unfortunately, the reality of American behavior with its CIA and oil companies deposing the popularly elected Mossadegh and installing the military dictator of the Pahlevi Shah has been anything but enlightened and ideal. And equally un-ideal has been the Iranian Revolution , which like the French Revolution before it, has consumed its own children and replaced liberation with tyranny. Now two evil theocracies inside Iran and America are becoming caricatures of republics and are heading for war. Sunni Osama bin Laden in his hatred for the United States and the Shia will clap his hands and sing and louder sing for every tatter in our mortal dress.
Politics is not based upon reason or reasoning, but emotions and identity; its seat in the brain is the amygdala and not the frontal neocortex. We like to think that when there are political problems, there are political solutions, but our tragic predicament is that there is no simple solution to the emotional dynamics of human culture, because as the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has pointed out, emotions are necessary and empower our sense of values and good judgment. The brain is not a digital information-processing computer, so we cannot achieve wisdom by stripping ourselves of emotions and values. We have to learn how to deal with complexity and ambiguity, and for this process a sense of humor and compassion for one’s opposite or opponent is better than ideological zealotry.
The American government is now broken and dysfunctional, because it is blocked by the patriotic excesses of ideological politics and not motivated by problem-solving and governance. Human culture is also broken and dysfunctional, because it is about excess in our numbers and consumptive behavior and excess in our emotions and seizures of identity, and not about the pursuit of wisdom and enlightenment. Even in communities devoted to the pursuit of wisdom and enlightenment—the spiritual communes and ashrams of the seventies–the primate politics of the alpha male there too took over and gurus and cult leaders sexually and financially abused their followers. Our species has been tried, but the tragic truth is that we have failed. Exeunt omnes may very well be the stage directions for the end of the human drama.
The Evolution of life first manifested in cells, then multi-cellular forms, then organisms, then the meta-organism of the planetary biosphere that James Lovelock called Gaia and that Peter Ward now calls Medea. Humans seem about to lose their biblical dominion over the Earth as a new biosphere self-organizes around scenarios of our extinction.
Had we had what Jonas Salk called “the Survival of the Wisest,” we might have found that other forms of biospheres already exist on the moons of Jupiter and other solar systems. In extremis, I pray that the dead and floating spirit of Mankind may drift in a bardo meditation through the stellar nebulae and having learned its lessons of Earth will try again on the evolving debris of some other broken-hearted star to unfold the mystery of what Dante called “l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.“
Cultural Historian William Irwin Thompson writes regularly for Wild River Review