The primitive tribalism into which American culture-especially its intelligentsia-is tumbling may hold the key to understanding how “leaders” like Barack Obama are thrust to the fore.I have almost finished wading through a stack of World Lit Survey papers as my Spring Break ends. (Spring comes early down South.) One of the essay options I created deals with the shaman, a shadowy figure whose prominence in tribal cultures thrusts him into the center of many myths and legends. The shaman is a liminal (literally, “threshold”) character. Also known as the witch doctor, the medicine man, and the master of the hunt, he mediates between worlds: the corporal and spiritual worlds, the human and animal worlds, the rational and irrational worlds. He flits back and forth across the interface between what we can understand and what we cannot. He communes with departed souls and returns with prophetic knowledge, detects animal spirit-chatter and finds out where the herds have gone, contacts offended deities and placates the wrath that authors plagues and storms. He often wears hides or antlers to represent how his allegiance is divided between the human and the animal. He may even, in some cases, be a “she” intermittently. The Greek seer Teiresias was transformed into a woman for seven years, and the great Achilles was disguised as a maiden when Odysseus craftily enlisted him to join the expedition against Troy.
The shaman’s supernatural powers come at a cost, however. Often himself a descendant of the gods, he does not recognize and is not held to certain cultural rules-a dispensation which renders his relationship with the rest of the community very uneasy. For instance, the ancient Sumerian Gilgamesh is apparently violating both the marriage and the parental bond at the beginning of his sketchy epic baked into fragmented clay. His infractions are so severe that the gods must send along a second shaman-Enkidu-to protect Uruk. The Irish Cu Chulainn, once seized by the ecstasy of his murderous battle fury, must be pacified through a series of rituals that includes tribal maidens stripping bare before him so as to stir his shame. He also steals his bride Emer, murdering her father, and later kills his own son in combat (conceived by the daughter of the warrior/witch/prophetess Scathach). Herakles, the premier Greco-Roman shaman, has a colorful history of slaying or taming monstrous creatures that devastate the domain of culture; but in one of his “restful” moments, he succumbs to sudden dementia and slaughters his wife and children.
All three of these figures journey to the Other World (less obviously the Land of the Dead in Irish myth than in the two Mediterranean traditions). In fact, a subtle contradiction nestles deeply within shamanic legends. On the one hand, we see a wild, semi-divine berserker who can protect culture from nature’s predators precisely because he himself is part inhuman monster. He is a dynamo of fearsome aggression. On the other hand, we find a spiritual traveler who can reach normally imperceptible dimensions in a trance. This morph of the shaman plays an essentially passive role of drifting among spirits and receiving messages. Eventually, I believe, oral tribalism evolves into a more complicated socio-cultural state where the wild man is confined to legends about vanquishing ferocious beasts and overpowering hostile armies, while the Other World Traveler becomes a roving Sinbad the Sailor tossed upon one exotic shore after another. Homer’s Achilles takes no journey to the Underworld, and Homer’s Odysseus does not slay dozens or hundreds in raging combat. The distinction between epic and romance is born.
Why these comments in a space dedicated to contemporary American political and cultural life? Because myths never die. They are like some Saharan plant whose seeds remain dormant for years, then suddenly germinate after a downpour and launch a wondrous shoot through its whole life-cycle in two weeks. The seeds of myth lie sleeping within all of us. Whenever our culture’s sophisticated layers of insulation wear thin, timeless patterns of behavior suddenly blossom-and the flower can be very dark. This is evident, for example, in combat veterans who try to readjust to civilian life. The rules of “common decency” may suddenly strike them as absurd. They have dreams-nightmares-unknown to ordinary people. In extreme and terribly tragic cases, a few may kill family members before they take their own lives. Like the ancient shaman, they once protected society against the forces of brutal savagery, but they could only do so by becoming half-savage themselves. The Heraklean lion’s skin cannot simply be shucked off by signing a few papers.
I will go a step further. As I have ruminated over the shaman this past week, the notion has settled upon me that our ever less literate, more tribal culture has been trying for several decades to resurrect the medicine man. Specifically, the base of the Democrat Party has been engaged in this primitive dance whenever it selects presidential candidates. Here is my evidence.
Some of us have long marveled that the left side of the aisle can be so righteously indignant when a Republican takes a mistress or keeps a secret project off the books, yet the same hard-core Democrats merely shrug, or even celebrate, when a Bill Clinton is caught lifting skirts or a Barack Obama trapped telling whoppers about Benghazi. How does that work-how is that fair? It’s fair because Republican candidates have no business even auditioning for the part of “medicine man”. The more they stress their rationality, their reverence for the rules, their fidelity to traditional marriage bonds, etc., etc., the more they demonstrate that they are not shamanic material. They are the village elders who always quote proverbs correctly and always sacrifice the right animal in the right season with the right prayer. That won’t save the tribe: that doesn’t give us a champion possessed of demonic powers. We need someone (screams the grass-roots Democrat in his or her paroxysm of impatience with reality) who will claim virgins as his due, who will grind the rules under his heels like a whirling dervish, who will rain thunderbolts from the sky without compunction. Our witch doctor must hear voices that do not speak to ordinary mortals. We will waive communal restrictions upon hallucinogens in his case because they lift him to places where we could never go. We will applaud him, in fact, for concealing his past, obscuring our collective future, and veiling the present in childish fabrications; for his ways are not our ways, and if we could understand the prophecies that swell his garlanded head, then they would clearly not contain a mystical roadmap.
Ed Muskie was no shaman, of course; neither was Michael Dukakis. George McGovern and Jesse Jackson-and Bobby Kennedy (whose end was a little too close for comfort to the ritual human sacrifices we have uncovered in northwestern European peat bogs)-drew much nearer to the margin. Yet they were, precisely, marginal: marginal to the party’s base, that is, which still contained significant numbers of Catholic factory-workers, Southern farmers, and World War Two vets. By the time Bill Clinton rose with the cream (or the scum, depending upon your assessment of the brew), the base’s forty-somethings had entirely changed. They had spent their college days enjoying free sex, smoking dope, relinquishing clothes, protesting final exams, and lobbying for content-free courses. The archway to their adulthood had been constructed of bricks minted from self-indulgence, contempt for convention, counter-conformity, irrationality, and narcissism. They were bright in their way, these votaries of the new Dionysus. Some were extremely so. They cut their intellectual teeth on crafting sophistical arguments that elevated chaos over order, hedonism over discipline, and lunacy over reason. You have to be pretty bright to prove that down is up (though convincing yourself as well as the audience of potheads probably justifies an intellectual downgrade).
And Bill was their guy, their High Priest. Everything about him was “edgy”. He looked less like his mentor William Fulbright than like Elvis. He was prettier than his wife, with his blue eyes, his curly golden hair, and his nose and mouth more suggestive of malleable clay than of mature bone and sinew. His dead-beat dad had abused his mother and hadn’t hung around to rear the kid, who ended up being the most improbable of Rhodes scholars and the most predictable of draft-dodgers. When the kid played the saxophone, one recalled troubling jests about the instrument’s possessing vaguely phallic qualities; and when the rumors about “eruptions” began to surface, one somehow reflected-in spite of oneself-that dogs can’t be blamed for howling at the moon.
Clinton was not “America’s first black president”: he was her first shaman-president. White America-or, to be exact, the Flower Children of the Democrat Party now turned into Ben and Jerry-associated the two. “Negritude”, to them, meant a crazed, inspired, and inspirational kind of spirituality-a connection with “otherness”. To be black, to them, was to enjoy instant and automatic escape from all the order, reason, system, discipline, self-interest, and self-sacrifice that had straitjacketed their parents’ generation (dubbed The Greatest Generation by a frivolous journalist who, on the eve of the 2008 election, murmured in delighted tingles at Charley Rose’s table, “We don’t really know who Barack Obama is”). Obama, the half-black man-the man whose black half had no American slave past-the quasi-Hawaiian who might have been born in Indonesia and whose all-Kenyan Muslim father had also deserted the family-would be the ultimate realization of this white-liberal blackness, in all its shamanic glory. By contrast, American blacks whose roots led straight back into slavery and the Jim Crow ordeal were not black at all if they studied, dressed, behaved, and spoke in the orthodox manner: Condoleeza Rice, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Alan Keyes. These were all “race traitors” to the white Ben-and-Jerry base.
In the interim-the Interregnum-Al Gore and John Kerry sought to assume the bison robe and the great eagle-feather headdress. Gore attempted to sell himself as Nature Man, not only by greening up every word that fell from his mouth but by delivering those words with inexplicable, almost maniacal bursts of warpath vocalization. He also employed academic priestess of the vagina Naomi Wolf (with her fox-tail tresses) to lend a further Bacchic tinge to his campaign. (Was Al’s name in Lakota, perhaps, Dances-With-Wolf?) It almost worked: it worked better, at any rate, than Kerry’s weak bid. Despite his very best efforts, Kerry always appeared too rational in his raving: his battle frenzy was too calculated, its Purple Hearts too tidily arranged. The sorceress in his life was a Catsup queen, and his mad prophecies either made too much sense or too clearly served his selfish interests in their folly. Beltway pundits called him an “insider”, unlike Clinton; but the real difference was that Clinton came across as genuinely libidinous, uncivilized, out-of-control, and hence god-like, whereas Kerry was all sarcasm and subterfuge-a malcontented sub-chieftain rather than a bonafide medicine man.
The Party was ready for the real thing, a genuine stark-raving mad “transformative figure”. It hefted Barack Obama out of his mid-life mediocrity, therefore, wrapped him in the shaggy mantle, and fitted him with antlers. Nobody knew anything about him? So much the better: Jason wandered into Corinth fatefully wearing a single sandal. He might not even have been born an American? So much the better: Cu Chulainn was born to a mother chased into exile, and Enkidu ran wild among the antelope after his creation. His true father was known to be a West-hating socialist from a nation recently subjugated by Great Britain? So much the better: the volatile divinities who sired Gilgamesh, Cu Chulainn, and Herakles all receded back into the gray heavens after filling a mortal woman’s womb.
In fact, every “criticism” of candidate Obama raised by his adversaries-the weed-smoking of his high school days, the hate-speech in his chosen church of twenty years, his friendships with known subversives and criminals, his instruction at the hands of sociopathic chaos-worshipers (half-man, half-beast cave-dwellers like the centaur Cheiron who tutored Achilles)… all of it simply pushed the Mysterious Stranger farther into the margin, where he appeared more and more convincing as The One Who Communes with Spirits. His very name sounded so like Osama that the late Teddy Kennedy struggled to separate the two. Odysseus’s name, too-The Hated One-had once exploited its apotropaic qualities to smuggle its owner into and out of deadly spaces. This man who almost bore the name of America’s most hated enemy was said by his promoters to be the one, the only one, capable of mediating between opposed powers. He would do it with his strong medicine, with his charms and spells. He didn’t have a plan, and he didn’t need one. Plans are rational, and hence forever doomed to failure. This No Man would blind the Cyclops with heady drink and a fiery thyrsus.
In a way, I pity Barack Obama. From the beginning, he has been caught up in incredibly dynamic and unruly forces of whose dangers he has no inkling. The most primitive version of the shaman never finds a happy ending. While the Other World Traveler returns safe from the Far Side with rare new knowledge, the Berserker is always consumed in the fire of his own meteoric transit. Obama’s Achilles half has begun, since the last election, to overpower his Odysseus half, especially in his hubristic gun-grab and in his quest to command the planet through drones. The myths tell us what happens next, and the myths don’t lie. For thousands of years, they have dictated the same ending. People who have rejected rule by their basic passions in favor of rule by reason and higher morality may hope to cheat the devil… but the crowd surrounding this puny man-who-would-be-king is not cut of that cloth.
The more pressing question to me concerns the identity of that very crowd. Who are these people-what, precisely is the Democrat Party’s base these days? Why do its members, though superficially well educated, behave like chanting, milling, pipe-smoking ritualists in tribal paint? Has the follow-the-leader indoctrination of sex and drugs to which they were incessantly submitted throughout their college years really sunk such deep roots? One must conclude that it has. After all, Charles Manson’s girls were similarly indoctrinated-and we saw to what lengths they were capable of being led.
So the final question, for me (and I hope I am not alone in asking it), is this: who is the Devil behind the indoctrination? Who is the new Charles Manson? Who is distributing all these ghost-shirts on our campuses? Is there an evil genius pulling the strings-a Doomsday clique consisting of people like George Soros, Saul Alinsky, and late initiates like Bill Gates? Or is chaos simply the raw-natural state of human affairs, self-sustaining whenever weeds run riot through civilization’s garden? Isn’t sex pleasant enough in itself that young people will surrender their lives to it without much need of manipulation? Isn’t the self-disgust that follows a wholly carnal lifestyle agonizing enough that it will drive sufferers to escapist drugs without any further trickery? Are we being hazed into the slaughterhouse, or are we merely slaughtering ourselves? Is there a Mahdi ordering his people into the conflagration, or is a populace in love with fire arbitrarily selecting a Mahdi to preside over its mass-suicide?
The myths say that Troy burned to the ground, Atlantis sank into the sea, and Croesus was executed upon the gilded ruins of his kingdom. We may utterly vanish, too. Soros and Gates will vanish with us-the myths are clear about that, and the image of their crew in one of Dante’s pitchy bolgias holds a little comfort. As we wait to see, however, into what abyss these mad revelers of the Left will carry us, lofting their clueless Voodoo Prince on their shoulders at every step, let us not entirely forget the true god who redeemed us from the mythic cycle of hubris and tragedy. Let us call the Old Man by his real name and recognize that the line between right and wrong grows clearer every day.