The Power of Myth
Pope Francis met with President Obama at the White House, and most significantly gave a speech to a joint session of Congress. He spoke softly and eloquently about caring for the poor, for immigrants, for the environment, for refugees from war, for ending the death penalty, and about the evils of capitalism. We can hope it didn't fall on deaf ears.
The pope's speech was one of the best I ever heard, touching on the critical issues we are all dealing with. I was very moved by this humble, soft-spoken but formidable man of faith, the faith I grew up with but left decades ago.
As powerful as his speech was, I felt no inclination to return to Catholicism. After 17 years of Catholic education I have too much experience of the Church as a corrupt institution, its clergy as terribly flawed, its liturgy as boring and tedious, and its theology as unconvincing and enforced by authoritarianism.
Years later I became a follower of an Indian guru, Swami Muktananda, and lived in ashrams - semi-monastic dwellings focused on meditation, chanting and study - in Ann Arbor, Houston, the Catskills, Honolulu and India. I felt more connected to the chanting and other rituals, the theology of Vedanta and Kashmir Shaivism, the Indian music and to the guru than I ever did with Catholicism.
I left that too. After eight years I grew tired of the dysfunction in the organization - "Siddha Yoga" - and convincing reports appeared alleging the guru was molesting a number of women, especially twelve-year-old girls. The allegations were consistent with anomalies I noticed when I was a staff plumber in the SYDA ashram in South Fallsburg, NY from 1981 to 1983. It was harder to give Siddha Yoga up than Catholicism, but I managed. I wrote about it here and here.
Joseph Campbell, especially through his interviews with Bill Moyers. Campbell explained that throughout human history societies have created mythologies - collections of stories and traditions that provide a basis of identity, origin, cosmology, and transcendence that hold societies together and give them meaning.
I found Campbell to be a fascinating and engaging explorer of the human psyche, and he has been one of the most influential people in my life. It took me a while to fully imbibe what he was saying, but over time I have become adept at recognizing the common mythological basis of not just religious groups, but allegiance to sports teams, political parties and movements, ethnic identities, places of employment, fraternities, the military, patriotic organizations, musical groups, movies, TV shows and really any way that people form into groups.
Such as fan identity with sports teams, most prominently where I live with the University of Wisconsin "Badgers" and the Green Bay "Packers" professional football team - a business. It can get pretty fanatical. All the local news providers devote much attention to the fortunes of the Badgers and Packers, and to a lesser degree to the Milwaukee "Brewers" baseball team. Most annoyingly, they also devote considerable time to the fortunes of stock car driver Matt Kenseth, because he is from nearby Cambridge, Wisconsin. You will reach new depths of boredom when you see an interview with Matt Kenseth. He apparently provides myth for some people.
University of Notre Dame (the "Fighting Irish") has its "Touchdown Jesus," a mural of the mythical son of God on a building behind one of the stadium's end zones.
Sacrilege and disrespect are common in team names, mascots and various creations by fans. A devoted fan of the Green Bay "Packers" dresses up in an imitation Catholic Bishop's vestments, complete with mitre hat that says "Saint Vince," with a picture of legendary "Packer" coach Vince Lombardi.
The Washington pro football team still calls itself "The Redskins," an insult identity with Native American fighters against the onslaught of European invaders in the centuries following "discovery" of the continent. The New Orleans football team is known as "The Saints." The team name for the College of Holy Cross football team is "The Crusaders." Here are some others, including my alma mater, St. Thomas.
People get into fights and sometimes kill each other over identities with various mythologies. A San Francisco "Giants" baseball fan was beaten nearly to death in 2011 by fans of the Los Angeles "Dodgers." Arrests for fighting are common at pro football games. When the "Packers" play the Chicago "Bears" it is a handy excuse for mayhem.
We can see how important myth and identity are in adding meaning to people's lives, and how the most trivial mythic identities can be life and death matters. In mass systems such as we have throughout most of the planet, the search for meaning can reach levels of desperation and fanaticism that are mind-boggling. As a result of the Bush criminal regime's invasions of "Afghanistan" and "Iraq," religious fanaticism has reached new depths throughout the Mideast and elsewhere. Some discredit should go to the Reagan and Bush I criminal regimes for organizing the insurgency in "Afghanistan," and for the first invasion of "Iraq."
The most alarming and dangerous mythological phenomenon on the planet, though, is what is known as "Conservatism." It consists of an unholy mixture of "Christian" religious fanatics, anti-government zealots, racists, xenophobes, gun nuts, climate change deniers, sociopathic capitalists, various media agitators, politicians and opportunists. There is a strong intersect among many of these various extremists, with some identifying with several or even all of the "right wing" opportunities.
The one thing they all have in common is reptilian brain predisposition - by the most ancient part of all human brains, related to instinctual behaviors, tribal identity, territoriality, aggression, dominance and ritual displays. When a person is most heavily controlled by the reptilian brain there isn't much difference between wearing a "St. Vince" mitre and a Ku Klux Klan hood. The identity state is the same, the difference being the object of identity.
This should be instructive for "leftists," but almost certainly won't be. They have their own myths and identities to contend with, and getting past the "us versus them" fixation of the reptilian brain is beyond the comprehension and willingness of almost everyone. The human species is stuck in binary identity: the "good guys" versus the "bad guys." Soldiers, police, and of course politicians routinely refer to chosen "others" as the "bad guys," whether they are bad or not.
It is supposedly counterproductive to keep showing pictures of threatened polar bears, but for me they serve as the hologram for our future. I could just as easily use the forest fires in California, hurricanes here and there, floods, tornadoes, blizzards, droughts, oil spills, befouled air, deteriorating reefs, and any number of other disasters, but the polar bears will do. We reptilians are on a path to ruin, and our likely response, based on past behavior, is to become even more reptilian. Go Badgers!
Here's some mythic music. Here's more. And this. This too. Can't forget this song. One more.
Here's some Indian mythical music from the movie Gandhi. Here's some more. This is a mantra we used to chant almost daily when I was involved with the Siddha Yoga cult.
For more videos of Joseph Campbell click here.
Here's something that might inspire some change. First we need some environmental myth.
An example of the exact wrong attitude towards the insurgent "right wing" mythology can be seen in today's Salon. If this is the best "leftists" can come up with we really are doomed.
Here are some more Bill Moyers interviews with Joseph Campbell.
Update, October 10: PBS aired a special with biologist E.O. Wilson this week, Of Ants and Men. He discusses social organization among ants and other species, including humans, and how the need for cooperation is what makes these societies work. He used the example of the University of Alabama football team as a metaphor for tribal identity.