The Fire This Time (Revisited)

The Fire This Time (Revisited) May 11, 2016
Il Tintoretto, 1518 – 1594. Oil on canvas. Image is in the public domain.
Il Tintoretto, 1518 – 1594. Oil on canvas. Image is in the public domain.

This essay is adapted from the original which appeared at Vox Nova on August 23, 2011.

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.

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-five 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 full cyclonic fury. 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 social crisis have given rise to violence against marginal or minority populations.

“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”

Rene Girard’s mimetic theory provides rich insights into the conditions that incubate scapegoating and other manifestations of individual and group violence. Very briefly, Girard finds mimesis, or imitation, at the heart of human motivation and behavior, and especially the mystery of violence. Mimesis manifests most intensely in the imitation of desire. The classic example is a child placed alone in a room full of toys. The child will invariably play with one, then another, then another, without any particular attachment to or passion for any of them. But place a second child in the room, and the toy that child picks up, even half-heartedly, will become an object of intense desire for the first child, which will in turn awaken an inexplicable desire for the toy in the child holding it. The result is a contagion of rivalry and conflict. Examples like this one, both prosaic and profound, saturate the literature and history of humankind (not to mention clinical texts). This ubiquity has led Girard to conclude that the mimetic contagion is a fundamental anthropological and psychological constant. We “catch” desire from one another.

The acquisitive gesture, rooted in mimetic desire – “MINE!” – doesn’t occur only in a child’s playroom, of course. It can be detected at every level of human interaction, from the intensely personal to the macrosocial. And yet, without some means of modulating or at least channeling imitative desire, the human race would have long ago destroyed itself in a rivalrous bellum omnium contra omnes.  It turns out that the acquisitive gesture has a correlate that is equally powerful and subject to mimetic contagion: The accusatory gesture: “HIM!” Girard has shown that in conditions of widespread social conflict and violence, an accusatory gesture aimed at a representative third party can shift the direction and momentum of mimetic contagion at breakneck speed. When the “MINE!” becomes a “HIM!” the Hobbesian war of all against all is nearly instantly transformed into a war of all against one. Suddenly, all the rivalry and division that had hitherto threatened the survival of the social unit is dissolved into a state of “unanimity minus one.” All the frustration, guilt, sin and violent energy of the group is poured out on the hapless victim, the scapegoat,  in what Robert Hamerton-Kelly has termed the “generative mimetic scapegoating mechanism” (GMSM).

What the GMSM “generates” is a renewed social solidarity, purpose and even personal righteousness. It is mimetic in the sense that the accusatory rage is passed like a contagion from person to person at breakneck speed. It is a mechanism because it is a system composed on multiple parts orientated toward a definite purpose: the shedding of social frustration, anger and resentment. Girard has shown that in archaic societies, scapegoating events resulted in a sense of social harmony so powerful and transformative that they were experienced religiously. Not surprisingly, these signal events then became the basis of most tribal founding myths, complete with the transfiguration of human victims into monsters, animals, even competing gods. And when priests and shamans discovered that sacrificial reenactments of the original act of violence could yield the same sacral solidarity first experienced by the community, those reenactments became the basis of archaic religion and human culture.

Over two millennia, the efficacy of the GMSM has been attenuated to some degree by the influence of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, and especially the Christian gospels. The GMSM is efficient only in the degree to which the innocence of its victims is occluded by myth or, in modern application, ideology. But the gospels undermine that efficiency by inculcating an inescapable sense of identification with victims. Jesus, the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world,” is a type of all the innocent victims of mob violence. His crucifixion appears, at least on the surface, to be just another in a long line of scapegoating events. In fact, it’s intended to be just that, or as Caiaphas says while plotting Christ’s death, “it is better than one man should die than that the whole people perish.” But Jesus is not like other victims. In addition to the structural innocence he shares with them, Jesus possesses an actual innocence, a divine goodness, so profound and transparent that the Roman soldier, seeing Christ being taken down from the cross, is moved to confess that “truly, this was an innocent man.” Girard demonstrates that this realization is an utterly unique cultural event. Even if one accepts the gospels as literature only (which was Girard’s position when he made this discovery), there is no question that the implications for conventional human culture and religion are fundamental.

But that challenge is not without cost. By revealing the innocence of victims, the gospel robs society of its ability to efficiently restore social harmony swiftly and efficiently through the GMSM: “I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” As Gil Bailie, one of Girard’s most important and original interpreters, has written:

“The gospel revelation could not overturn conventional culture abruptly, and mercifully it has not … Attempts to destroy the sacrificial or scapegoating structures of culture always proceed in a scapegoating and sacrificial manner. To put it in New Testament terms, Satan is always casting our Satan. The gospel revelation, on the contrary, undermines these structures by deconstructing their justifying myths and awakening a concern for their victims that gradually renders these structures morally unacceptable and socially counterproductive … Those [societies] living closer to the gospel’s epicenter – beginning with Christianity itself – are more likely to experience its cultural destabilizing effects than those at a greater distance from it.”

Saturation in the Christian ethos doesn’t diminish either the ubiquity of sinfulness in general or of sinful recourse to the GMSM in particular. For evidence, look no further than the two great European killing grounds of the 20th Century –Russia and Germany– which had been Christian for 1,000 and 1,200 years, respectively, when they detoured into the madness of mechanized mass murder.

But proximity to the Christian ethos does change the character of the GMSM, and that is a danger we must be particularly alert to now that we are entering a period of profound social dislocation in the United States. In the myths of archaic religion, original acts of violence were often presented as a defense of the people against overt assaults by a monsters, demons, or gods. In a nominally Christian context, the GMSM requires different kinds of myths, myths that justify violence in terms of retributive justice, often against an enemy who is perceived to have already caused grievous injury to society, often surreptitiously. The accusatory gesture is often refashioned as a sword of justice, and the result is the victimization of those perceived to be victimizers.

In the United States, periods of great social dislocation have long given rise to racist and nativist movements that cast accusatory gestures at groups purported to have “caused” contemporaneous social and economic problems. 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 ideological and even 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 Era, when the nation was faced with a massive influx of immigrants and the Great Migration of two million southern blacks into northern cities; 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 net. In addition to blacks, and along with allied organizations such as the German-American Bund and the John Birch Society, the Klan 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 migration and immigration.  In the 1950’s and 60′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, debt, resource scarcity, climate change, illegal immigration and international conflict are wholly legitimate.  But the answer to these problems is not the cultivation of conspiratorial fantasies about their origin, nor, worse, the sacrificial measures some imply as remedies.

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, underemployment and abandonment of the labor market 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 shown, the actual innocence or guilt of victims is always beside the point. It is their narrative guilt that counts because narrative is the fuel that stirs the accusatory gesture, and by extension the 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 2011? 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.”

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 350 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. And it starts with me.

I am the one who intoned the pious litanies of personal responsibility while piling up mountains of personal and public debt.

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

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

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

I am the one who marched into country after country, killing hundreds of thousands, all the while congratulating myself that the United States is a peace-loving nation.

I am the one who loudly insisted on my commitment to the dignity of human life while aborting my children, engaging in pre-emptive war, torturing my enemies and punishing lethal violence with lethal violence.

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

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

I abused the earth and refused to accept limits on my consumptive lifestyle.

I elected and re-elected those who would give me what I want and demand nothing in return.

I am the one who exports pornography and weapons of death to the rest of the world and receives resentment and hatred in return.

It was me who declared my great love of God but abandoned the poor, the elderly, and the young to the street or 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 or FDR back over the horizon with a boatload of Morning in America? God forbid. Do we retreat into armed enclaves and gated communities, 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 nuclear terrorism, but conversion will save us as a people.


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