Or, Why the Old Myths and Magic Don’t Work Anymore
I published this in Buffalo Report fifteen years ago on 1 March 2005 (the URL now belongs to someone else and the old Buffalo Report is defunct). It’s about the collapse of the symbol systems that made the nation a coherent political body. As such, it remains relevant. Consider it as both precursor to and follower of The King's Phallus: Gold or Lead? and War and America's National Psyche.
In 1889 a young Paiute Indian named Wovoka fell ill with a fever and, in his delirium, visited heaven. While there he talked with God and saw that all the Indians who had died were now young and happy doing the things they had done before the White Man had come upon them. News of the new messiah spread rapidly among the remnants of the Indian tribes. If they danced the right dances, sang the right songs, and wore their consecrated Ghost Shirts, not only would they be immune to the White Man’s bullets, but their loved ones would return to them, the White Man would vanish from the face of the earth, and the buffalo would once again be plentiful. Their fervor and belief were not rewarded and the Ghost Dance, as this last wave of revivals came to be known, soon passed into history.
That, however, is not the Ghost Dancing that concerns me. I mention it only to provide some comparative perspective. Anthropologists and historians have told that story hundreds if not thousands of times. It is the story of a people’s last desperate attempt to retain symbolic control over their world. Such revivals occur when a way of life has become impossible, for whatever reason, but the people themselves continue to live. In desperation they resort to magic to remake the world in terms they understand.
The Ghost Dancing that concerns me is not that of Stone Age people displaced and conquered by iron-mongering and coal-burning industrialists. My concern is the Ghost Dancing that has become a major force in contemporary American cultural and political life. Widespread belief in the impending Rapture – when all good Christians will be taken to heaven and all unbelievers consigned to hell – is the most obvious manifestation of the contemporary Ghost Dance. But it is hardly the only manifestation. Refusal to accept evidence of global warning is another symptom, as is refusal to attend to ground intelligence in conducting the war and reconstruction in Iraq.
For that matter, belief that the so-called Singularity is at hand – when computers will surpass humans in intelligence – is Ghost Dancing as well. This type of Ghost Dancing may seem rather geekish and harmless, for there aren’t all that many of these particular believers. Belief in the Singularity, however, is close kin to continued belief in the feasibility of the Star Wars anti-missile defense systems, in the Pentagon’s desire to develop a highly robotized military where the machines do the riskiest jobs, and in a more general belief that technology will fix everything.
Contemporary American Ghost Dancing has not, of course, been occasioned by colonialism or conquest. The modern American way of life has not been destroyed by external enemies. America has become and remains the mightiest nation on earth. Our vulnerability has subtler sources.
The American way of life has indeed suffered grievously in the past half-century. Perhaps the most substantial assault has been to our economy, with industrial and manufacturing jobs going overseas to be replaced by service jobs and high tech jobs. That has set off rolling economic displacement that will continue for the foreseeable future as many service and high tech jobs follow the steel industry to Asia and elsewhere.
The civil rights movement also forced major change. The struggle between liberty and racism is deep in the American soul, deeper than we can as yet comprehend. The civil rights movement changed America’s political culture in ways both good and unfortunate, and helped catalyze a wide range of social and cultural transformations that we too easily summarize as “the sixties.”
Finally, there is the collapse of the Soviet empire. During the Cold War Americans were encouraged to lavish animosity and hatred on the Soviets, their allies, and their clients. When that enemy dissolved, the animosity had to be redirected. I suspect that some of it was channeled into the War on Drugs, and, more generally, into the so-called Culture Wars. That is to say, we devoted more time and effort to fearing our immediate neighbors rather our distant enemies.
The upshot of these events is injury to the beliefs and attitudes of many Americans as deep as that forced on many of the world’s peoples through conquest and colonialism. The world is changing in ways most Americans cannot control, for reasons they cannot grasp, and there seems little hope for a future filled with the familiar comforts of home. It is thus not surprising that we are retreating behind revivalisms of various kinds. That is what societies do when their lifeways collapse.
It is not at all clear that America has the economic, political, social and cultural reserves needed to stop the retreat and once again to face the future with imagination and a realistic optimism. Our response to the bombing of the World Trade Center does not auger well. We have set out to fight a vaguely defined enemy – terrorism – of unbounded scope and magnitude while doing little of substance to address the vulnerability of our airlines, our borders, and our ports. These actions and inactions – and a host more – are those of an administration that is Ghost Dancing into the future with its eyes fixed firmly on the past, and a largely imaginary past at that. It is possible that, in the manner of an alcoholic who must “hit bottom” before he can cure himself, this administration, and perhaps its anointed successors, will simply continue on this path until even the most vigorous Ghost Dancing looses all plausibility.
When that happens, what form will “hitting bottom” take? Who will remain to pick up the pieces? Will the Europeans and the Chinese formulate a twenty-first century Marshall Plan for the rehabilitation of the United States? Is it possible that, the sooner we admit to hitting bottom, the sooner we can join the rest of the world and move forward together?