The Fire This Time

by Mark Gordon

“When human groups divide and become fragmented, during a period of malaise and conflicts, they may come to a point where they are reconciled again at the expense of a victim. Observers nowadays realize without difficulty, unless they belong to the persecuting group, that this victim is not really responsible for what he or she is accused of doing. The accusing group, however, views the victim as guilty, by virtue of a contagion similar to what we find in scapegoat rituals. The members of this group accuse their ‘scapegoat’ with great fervor and sincerity. More often than not some incident, whether fantastic or trivial, has triggered a wave of opinion against this victim, a mild version of mimetic snowballing and the victim mechanism.” – Rene Girard, from “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning”

Driving through Watch Hill, a wealthy neighborhood perched atop a promontory that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean from the town of Westerly, Rhode Island, one might be forgiven for thinking that all is well in the Republic. Here, handsome families stroll the covered walkways of the village, past high-end realtors’ offices, upscale gift shops, and charming restaurants. Expensive sail and motor boats bob on their moorings in the cove, including one waterborne behemoth with an enormous, arching flybridge and a helicopter landing pad. In one corner of the main drag, children squeal as the Flying Horse Carousel stirs to life, the way it has thousands of times every summer since 1876. At the nearby St. Clair Annex, adults and kids alike wrestle with top-heavy ice cream cones beneath patriotic bunting. Around the corner from the Annex, on the private Watch Hill Beach, the privileged and their progeny luxuriate in the shade of canvas cabanas, splash about in the low surf, or sashay along the shore toward the mile-long dune of Napatree Point. A subdued sunlight lies warm on the skin. The skirls of seagulls and the muttering of well-tuned auto engines compete with gentle pipe organ melodies and the background hum of crashing waves. Every sense seems to confirm that Watch Hill and the world around it is a peaceful, orderly, and happy place.

But on this day storm clouds loom to the north, above the palatial homes and barbered lawns on the bluff.  As I pull into a parking spot on Bay St., a dark line of shadow moves across the promontory, past the elegant Ocean House, and races down the steep slope into the village. Just as the midday darkness envelopes the scene, a low drumroll of thunder sounds and a strong wind sweeps up the boulevard, rattling cafe umbrellas and upending baseball caps. At once, the happy faces disappear, replaced by disbelieving glances aimed at the traitorous sky. A moment later, when the first sharp crack of thunder announces the arrival of rain, those faces turn to worry, then frustration, and finally, anger. Within minutes, the lovely late summer scene has been swept away, as wind and rain batter the covered walks and expensive shops, egged on by heaving waves that have appeared in the cove.

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In America, the leading edge of a storm far worse than the one that inconvenienced those happy crowds in Watch Hill is now bearing down on us. The fast-moving shadows of the past thirty years - the accumulation of public and private debt, the overextension of empire, our addiction to oil and abuse of the planet – are giving way to the full cyclonic fury of collapse. In 2008, when the first shadows raced across the body politic, the face of America was painted with disbelief and worry, as one institution of American capitalism after another collapsed in a welter of mismanagement, criminal hubris, and outright fraud. Following a brief respite between the Election of 2008 and Inauguration Day 2009, frustration was etched on the face of America. The monumental Obama stimulus came and went, and still growth stalled while unemployment grew. A divisive debate on healthcare reform monopolized the national conversation last autumn, followed by another wrenching debate on financial reform this past spring and a slow-motion eco-disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, no one seemed to be paying any attention to the disappearing jobs and businesses of a confounded middle class. By the summer of 2010, with the nation teetering on the brink of a deflationary depression and zombified state and local governments lurching toward bankruptcy, the face of America turned from frustration to anger, and that anger may itself soon be transformed into an unfocused, irrational rage.

Despite what the acolytes of our national civil religion believe, the United States does not hold an exemption from history and human nature. Time and again, both here and elsewhere, conditions of national crisis have given rise to the scapegoating of marginal or minority populations. What Rene Girard has termed the “generative mimetic scapegoating mechanism” (GMSM) is awakened during periods of enormous social conflict. What it “generates” is a renewed social solidarity and personal righteousness based on violence aimed at those viewed as a common and potentially lethal enemy. It is mimetic in the sense that the rage is passed like a contagion from person to person at breakneck speed. It is a mechanism because it is a system oriented toward a definite purpose: the shedding of social frustration, anger and resentment. In archaic societies, the scapegoating event resulted in a sense of solidarity so powerful that it was experienced religiously as a manifestation of deep sacrality. Not surprisingly, these signal events then became the basis of tribal founding myths. When priests and shamans discovered that sacrificial reenactments of the original act of violence could yield the same sense of solidarity and righteousness first experienced by the community, such sacrifices became the basis of archaic religion and culture.

Over two millenia, the efficacy of the GMSM has been attenuated to some degree by the influence of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, and especially the Christian Gospel, which inculcates an inescapable sense of identification with victims of mob violence. One interpretation of Jesus’s words, “I come not to bring peace, but a sword,” holds that the “sword” refers to the progressive inability of societies influenced by the Gospel to resolve conflict and restore social solidarity by means of the GMSM. According to Rene Girard, the Jewish and Christian scriptures, culminating in the death of Christ at the hands of an angry mob, constitute a divine deconstruction of the primitive sacrality produced by the GMSM. And yet, as Western history sadly shows, even saturation in the Christian ethos has not diminished the ubiquity of sinfulness in general, or of this sinful human response to social crisis in particular. In fact, even vestigial expressions of the GMSM, when augmented by modern technology and ideology, can produce human suffering on a monumental scale. For evidence, one need look no further than Auschwitz or the killing fields of Cambodia. And the nominal Christianity of a nation has little to do with the relative resilience of the GMSM. The two great European killing grounds of the 2oth Century – Russia and Germany – had been nominally Christian for 1,000 and 1,200 years, respectively, when they detoured into the madness of mechanized mass murder. 

In the United States, periods of great social dislocation have long given rise to racist and nativist movements. If, for the purposes of this discussion, we set aside the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans and the 250-year enslavement of Africans, which had different ideo-theological sources, we can easily detect the distinctive working of the GMSM at three critical and chaotic junctures in American history: the post-Civil War Reconstruction period in the South; the Progressive and post-Progressive Era of the early 20th Century, following an unprecendented wave of foreign immigration; and the 1950′s and 60′s, when the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, following hot on the heels of the Red Scare, upended comfortable American assumptions about race, rights, and civic obligation. It is no accident that these periods in American history correspond perfectly to the life-cycle of such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan, which was born in the Reconstruction South, revived in the 1920′s and 30′s, when it claimed over 4 million members, and revived again in the post-WWII era. Because of its Southern origins, the Klan is most often associated with violence against African-Americans, but for most of its history the organization has cast a wider scapegoating net. In addition to blacks, and along with allied organizations such as the German-American Bund and the John Birch Society, the Klan has distributed its rage among Catholics (the Jesuits, Papal domination), Jews (Masonry, the Illuminati, the Bilderbergers, and the Trilateral Commission), Hispanics (illegal immigration), and ideological minorities, real or imagined (Socialism!).

In his landmark 1964 Harper’s Magazine article, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” social scientist Richard Hofstadter noted that scapegoating and conspiracy thinking are the product of a profound sense of dispossession, a feeling that the social and moral bedrock of a people has been or is being undermined. Here is his précis of the paranoid catalogue of evils in 1964. Note how closely it parallels the same complaints heard today:  ”The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power.”

It is said that sometimes even paranoids have real enemies. And there is no question that wrenching social change is a constant feature of the dynamism that makes a nation like the United States a nation like the United States! The perception of dispossession, of the loss of old ways and moral certainties, is not a chimera. The United States in the 1920′s was, in fact, a radically different country than it had been in 1880, before massive waves of European immigration.  In the 1960′s there was a great dispossession, especially of the Southern middle class, as federal law was deployed to break a system of apartheid that had prevailed for 100 years.  Today, concerns about employment and debt, about illegal immigration and the growth of government, are wholly legitimate (and, I might add, shared by all). Clearly, we are living in a time of converging national and global crises.  But the answer to those crises is not the cultivation of conspiratorial fantasies about their origin, nor, worse, the sacrificial measures some are proposing as remedies.

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In the past few months, we’ve witnessed the video mugging of Shirley Sherrod; the Manchurian Baby ravings of Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX); the spectacle of US Senators proposing a change to the 14th Amendment that would deny citizenship to selected (read: people with Mexican parents) persons born in the United States; Dr. Laura Schlesinger gleefully repeating the word “nigger” again and again in conversation with an African-American caller; Sarah Palin “tweeting” her support for Dr. Laura, writing “don’t retreat … reload,” whatever that means; a GOP candidate for New York governor proposing “prison dorms” for the poor; claims by agitators like Glenn Beck that the unemployed are mere slackers milking the public teat; the demonization, egged on by Newt Gingrich and others, of American citizens over plans to build an Islamic cultural center near the former World Trade Center site; an evangelical church in Florida planning a mass Koran burning to commemorate September 11; and now, news that one-fifth of Americans believe President Obama is secretly a Muslim, including a member of the Republican National Committeewoman who insists that the President inadvertently revealed his true identity during his Egypt trip in June 2009.  And, in the background, there is the growing though underreported national phenomenon of violence directed against Mexicans (or those taken for Mexicans).

Fifty years ago the scapegoats were intellectuals, communists and Jews. One hundred years ago they were Catholics, Jews, and blacks.  Today, Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans, and the poor are increasingly the substitutionary victims of choice – the scapegoats – in a nation where the combination of unemployment and underemployment is reaching to 25% and where those who remain employed feel the hot breath of layoffs or business failure on their necks. It matters not that these communities had little or nothing to do with the crisis in which we find ourselves. As Rene Girard has show, the actual innocence or guilt of victims is always beside the point. It is the structural, or narrative, guilt of the scapegoat that counts because that narrative is the fuel that stirs the generative mimetic scapegoating mechanism (GMSM) to life.

The real source of victim substitutions is the appetite for violence that awakens in people when anger seizes them and when the true object of their anger is untouchable. The range of objects capable of satisfying the appetite for violence enlarges proportionally to the intensity of the anger.” -Rene Girard, “I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning”

So, who or what is the “true object” of the anger welling up from the American body politic in the late summer of 2010? What “untouchable” figure or force is responsible for our dire predicament?  My answer would be similar to that offered by G.K. Chesterton when the Times of London sponsored an essay contest on the question, “What is wrong with the world?” Chesterton’s brief, two-word essay read simply, “I am.”

We are.

The United States is now a zombie nation not because of something that Muslims, Mexicans, African-Americans, or the poor have done, but because it is filled with 310 million zombies, spiritual corpses who give the appearance of life, but are filled with “dead men’s bones and every kind of impurity.”

This is the most disconcerting answer of them all, and the real reason why the “true object of [our] anger is untouchable.” In our pride and sinfulness we spurn the truth about ourselves and our country. As a result, the one thing we refuse to do at all costs is examine ourselves, each of us, and question our contributions to the disintegration we see around us. That was true in the bellum omnium contra omnes – the war of all against all - in primitive societies, and it is true today. And yet we – all of us – are the source of our present discontent and the collapse that may be upon us. 

We are ones who intoned the pious litanies of personal responsibility while piling up mountains of personal and public debt.

It was we who bought into the destructive ideology of finance capitalism that is now drilling out the marrow of our middle and working classes.

We threw family farmers off their land. We shuttered factories across the Midwest and sent those jobs overseas.

We erected the global military empire that is now crumbling beneath our feet.

We were the ones who marched into country after country, killing hundreds of thousands, all the while congratulating ourselves as a peaceloving nation.

We are the ones who loudly insisted on our commitment to the dignity of human life while aborting our children, engaging in pre-emptive war, torturing our enemies and punishing lethal violence with lethal violence.

We made a mockery out of marriage, fidelity, love and self-restraint.

We flocked to preachers and gurus who tickled our ears and told us that the only life worth living is one defined by personal enrichment and self-fulfillment, even at the expense of others.

We abused the earth and refused to accept limits on our consumptive lifestyles.

We elected and re-elected those who would give us what we want and demand nothing in return.

We are the ones who export pornography and weapons of death to the rest of the world and receive resentment and hatred in return.

It was we who declared our great love of God but abandoned our poor, our elderly, and our young to the streets or to the tender mercies of the bureaucratic state.

But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come. For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away! – II Timothy 3: 1-5

So what is the answer? We know who to blame …  and who not to blame. But what do we do about it? Do we sit on the beach like some Pacific cargo cult, lighting pyres, hoping to lure Ronald Reagan back over the horizon with a boatload of Morning in America? God forbid. Do we retreat into armed enclaves and gated communites, ready to fend off the intruder, the outsider? No. That would only mean doubling down on what we’ve been doing already. Do we abandon the idea of personal liberty and turn our fate over to the National Security State, the Nanny State or the Corporate State?  We’ve already been down that road.

No, the solution to our problems can be found in one word: conversion. Conversion will not improve the GDP, put people back to work, or protect us from terrorism, but conversion will save us as a people. And that will be the topic of my next post.