Barry’s Blog # 265-267: The Ritual of the Presidential Debates

Part One

Our first responsibility as mythological, archetypal thinkers is to take a step back from the dominant political and pop cultural issues to perceive the real stories that are being played out in our culture. The next step is to understand how we participate in those narratives through our own willing acceptance of their primary themes. How do we do this? One way is by being passive consumers of our national rituals. I’m not speaking about conscious, intentional, local, indigenous-based ritual, but mass, public ceremonies that reaffirm the nation-state and its (our) identity as savior of the world and Christ-like advocate for the good.

Public rituals enact and train us in our mythologies. The larger they are, the more influential they can be. Think of the Nuremberg rallies in Nazi Germany. But such rituals certainly don’t need to be so bellicose. In America, where we naively believe that we still have a functioning democracy, our public rituals, designed to reinforce our sense of innocence, are much subtler.

As I write in Chapter Five of my book (Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence), Joseph Campbell taught that a living myth refers past itself to the ineffable, serving four distinct functions.

First of all, the mystical function introduces the individual to that which underlies all names and forms. It awakens religious awe, humility and respect. Second, the cosmological function explains how the universe works. Third, the pedagogical function defines a moral life in terms of the particular culture.

Fourth – and most pervasive – the social function validates the social order and integrates individuals within the community. Originally, it oriented people to the mystery by presenting noble figures at the center of the realm – or psyche – who radiated the blessings that flowed through them from the other world. These figures served this order and showed that everyone carried such potential within. If people still revere royalty, it is from vestigial memory of what the sacred King once meant.

“It is this sociological function of myth that has taken over,” wrote Campbell, “…and it is out of date.” Myth, however, shapes our values, organizes our experience, brings emotion to our festivals, sets the boundaries of dissent, names the children, sends them off to war and justifies their sacrifice. It is the most compelling story we tell ourselves about who we are. And frequently it is the story of who we are not – the Other.

In this context, I strongly recommend Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag, by Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle. You can find the whole book here. Or read a short summary here.

They – and I – reject the notion of “patriotism” in favor of the much more relevant term “nationalism,” which for the past 150 years has supplanted mass religion in most advanced countries. But it retains much religious symbolism. The familiar Christian God has long been replaced by the group, which is symbolized in the totem fetish – the flag.

A fundamental aspect of America’s civil religion is our unique cult of the flag. Curiously, we display it in our churches as well as in many places of business, as if to reinforce the notion that in America there is little difference between them. We worship it by pledging allegiance, and occasionally by kneeling and kissing it. And we are horrified at the thought of its desecration, because, they write, it is “the ritual instrument of group cohesion…the god of nationalism.” Such rituals nearly equate God with America, writes Robert Bellah. Often “…the most jingoistic identity of nation and church has come not from our political leaders but from the churches themselves.” And the flag is embodied in the totem leader,the President.

In this view, the purpose of ritual at the level of the large, national state is to sustain the group by repeating, at various levels of intensity, the act of group creation. Participants in such rituals – especially in our culture of radical individualism – achieve a kind of communion and learn that their God demands human sacrifice. Not the sacrifice of the defeated, which implies the preparedness to kill for one’s country, but willing sacrifice,the willingness to die for it. Or at the very least, the willingness to send one’s children – the best of the best – to die for it.

This willingness, we recall, was established in the two most foundational myths of Western culture. In the first, Abraham was willing to sacrifice his own son to glorify his God. It makes no difference that the son was spared; it was the willingness that counted. In the second, that same God did sacrifice his only son (the son of a father with no mother) to redeem the world.

American mythology updated this legacy with the idea of regeneration through violence. We regenerate our culture not by killing millions of people of color (although we do that in every generation), but by sacrificing our own young – and not the dregs of society, but, like the Aztecs and Hawaiians, the very best.

In this demythologized world, where all large public events serve the sociological function of myth, rituals may be contrived or opportunistic. The most powerful rituals of nation-group solidarity, say Marvin and Ingle, are opportunistic responses, to the perception of group threat, such as war. But opportunistic rituals are unreliable in their occurrence and expensive in their prosecution. Their magic is great precisely because they are risky and costly.

Contrived or pre-planned, seasonal rituals fill in the intervals between opportunistic group-forging rituals by rehearsing the drama of sacrifice and regeneration. American presidential elections are prototypic contrived rituals of sacrifice and regeneration.

Every American President has two functions: He plays the symbolic role of king-figure, embodying the nation-state and all that the group considers good about it. But, like the last kings of Mexico and Hawaii, he is also the primary spokesperson – a salesman, essentially – for a dying empire.

As spokesman, he must continue at all times to amplify our paranoid fear of “The Other” so as to justify military intervention abroad and repression at home. In other words, he must manipulate the traditional white American sense of being the innocent victim, or at least the potential victim, of some dark (and dark-skinned), irrational, violent, predatory outsider.

As King-figure, however, his job is to absorb the idealistic projections of millions of people and convince them that his intentions (and ours) are noble, protective and altruistic. To do that, he must play the exact opposite of the victim, the Hero. He must reassure Americans of his – and our – ability to meet the threat and defeat it, while simultaneously bringing the Good Word of our compassion to those evil ones who would – for no apparent reason – harm us. This double-bind, by the way, has been described as a long-term prescription for schizophrenia.

Anyone who has survived the long, drawn-out vetting process of satisfying the power brokers and achieving major-party nomination has proven his or her willingness to play by these rules. They have made a career of playing both spokesman and potential King for the cameras. And they are perfectly aware of the penalties for straying too far from the role.

The Democratic Party’s nomination of George McGovern in 1972 was an anomaly, never to be repeated.

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Comment by Barry Spector on October 25, 2012 at 10:09am

Excellent article by Glen Greenwald submitted by Cliff Bostock that details the collusion by Democrats and Republicans. This shows the details of how the sausage is made. Political operatives serve the essentially religious function of gatekeepers to offer us all a ritual that helps to revive the myth of American innocence. 

Comment by Cliff Bostock on October 24, 2012 at 8:57pm
Great post. I thought I'd share this column by Glen Greenwald. We all know that the content of presidential debates is limited. But the degree to which that is so is pretty shocking.

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