May 2011 Newsletter: Cry the Beloved Country

Cry the Beloved Country

Judith Schmidt, PhD

I am concerned for my beloved country.  There are things I see that frighten me, that I believe are potentially threatening to our democracy.  Being a culture focused on the cult of personality, we tend to look at our leaders as individual personalities.  There are times, however, when we might better understand our leaders if we view them not just as individual human beings with particular personalities but rather as archetypes; as figures who take on larger than life proportions, whose personal makeup coalesces with powerful forces that are moving through the collective psyche of society.

The conjunction of individual and archetypal forces is particularly marked during unstable historical times when people feel their sense of economic and national security threatened.  At such times, a powerful leader is sought who promises to restore both stability and security. The fulfillment of hopes and dreams arising out of collective despair and fear are projected upon the one who appears on the scene to lead in a heroic manner. That leader becomes an archetypal figure, containing forces that are mythic rather than simply human. President Franklin Roosevelt was such an archetypal figure, projecting strength of character equal to fulfilling the promise of change.

Roosevelt lived the archetype of the wounded healer, a crippled man who knew what ailed his land and how to heal it.  I recall how, as a child with my family huddling around the radio, listening to Roosevelt’s fireside chats, we were touched in a most intimate way by an aura of compassion and authority. We were carried by his presence through both the Depression and the World War. Even when Roosevelt might not have wanted to commit to certain difficult stands, because he was seen through the mythic lens as some towering force moving the country forward, he himself was often carried along on and shaped by the wave of Hero that was projected upon him.  He was asked to live up to the healing archetype needed by the nation and in doing so became a better human person.  A person able to be shaped by a potent positive archetype was desperately needed and made all the difference in the face of archetypal evil unleashed by Adolph Hitler who was indeed a larger than life force promising a humiliated Germany a renewed sense of grandeur. Throughout time, we can see how archetypal forces exist in polarity, Roosevelt and Hitler being a prime example.  These universal patterns, unleashed during times of cataclysmic change, appear as a clash of opposites, calling upon leaders and people everywhere to make choices as to what forces they will serve.

In our current time, things are nothing if not difficult: we are involved in two wars, in daunting economic crisis, and live under the threat of another 9/11. President Obama can be seen as a man formed by his personal history.  A recent New York Times magazine article described how he spent his formative years living in Indonesia where a black boy was an unusual presence and where difference was ridiculed. According to that article, his mother trained her son to adhere to the social mores of his host country:  to control rather than to show his feelings, to speak only when necessary and then with emotional restraint. We can see the stamp of Obama’s early training in his even tempered bearing in the most emotionally charged circumstances.  He is famously seen as ‘Mr. Cool’ in situations in which most anyone else would ‘lose their cool’.

In his position of leadership, President Obama is not only an individual. He is also an archetypal symbol.  Archetypes are imprints of energies that have been with us since the dawn of human kind. We know we are in their presence when aware of intense positive or negative feelings in the presence of such a person.  Not all leaders possess archetypal energies but those who do tend to be called to meet the needs of a particular historical moment of social unrest.  Obama can be seen as carrying a universal collective force of prudence and equanimity, aiming toward balancing conflicts and seeking consensus.  During his campaign, Obama also projected the archetypal power of the Man of Hope on a Hero’s Journey, the Community Organizer who, like Parsifal coming to a kingdom that had lost its way,  will find out what ails the land and will know what questions to ask and will fight the good fight to restore health to the kingdom.

Once a powerful archetypal presence such as Obama appears on the collective stage, we are also met with the opposing force. This is the way archetypes work, each constellating its opposite.  The good mother calls forth the witch; the wise old man or woman calls forth the fool.   And so a Donald Trump appears. Trump is a man with a particular history but, in the context of our historical and social situation, he also represents an archetypal movement of particular collective energies.

Trump appears as a counterpart to Obama’s Mr. Cool by bringing on to the stage an archetype of the all-powerful Godfather.  Mr. Boss in opposition to Mr. Cool. Rather than the forces of balance and self-control held by Obama, in Trump we see the powerful energies and values of aggression, emotionality, and conquest. Trump appears to have the Midas touch, making anything he touches turn to gold.  He is someone who people in free-fall can take hold of in the hope that he will do for them what he did for himself and his empire.  In the face of such power, President Obama’s equanimity can seem like weakness.  It is no longer Trump the man and Obama the man we need be concerned about.  If Trump leaves the stage, it is likely that someone else will take up the presumptive trump card. It is the timeless interplay of these opposing forces and the challenge they present for creative resolution that hold the course of our future.

Whereas President Obama alluded in a slanted way to Trump as a side-show at the carnival, I find what Trump represents to be potentially dangerous rather than merely a carnival diversion. His unrelenting bullying pressure upon Obama to produce his birth certificate has an under belly that needs to be named:  Obama is the quintessential outsider: the illegal alien, the one who does not belong here, the one who can be frisked to show his papers, the one who must be gotten rid of. When the birth certificate is produced, the Boss takes credit; his power is further inflated.   The President is then deigned as incapable of having legitimately been accepted to an ivy- league college such as Harvard.  After all, black people only make it by affirmative action. What is most dangerous about this is that the messages are not explicit; they are hidden in the sub-text of the drama in which the powerful Godfather challenges the inferior weak Black Man. Being a Jewish person whose people were first seen as and eventually eradicated as vermin, I am sensitive to the slow and subtle and insidious exposure of selected people as unworthy human beings.

Although Trump has left the race, the force of the archetype has been unleashed and has been applauded by many people. If not Trump, there are many others waiting in the wings.  History teaches us that during difficult times, particularly when a nation has suffered some sort of humiliation, there is a need in that nation for a powerful and aggressive leader to take vengeance upon the one who caused humiliation.  Bush became that restorer when, twenty-one days after 9-11, he ordered the attack upon Iraq, even though there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

We as a country could not bear the gaping hole at ground zero.  We could not bear the pain of grief or the sense of fear and smallness.  We were not allowed to have the time to be humans bearing our grief, looking one another in the eyes as we passed on the street, being tender with one another, joined in our broken heartedness. We were quickly given the band-aid of revenge.  Bush became the archetype of power that raised our national psyche out of the ashes. Toppling the statue of Sadaam Hussein became the iconic symbol of our rising above the traumatic humiliation of 9-11.  What would have happened if we as a people had been guided by our leaders to shape a policy that allowed a period of mourning and did not follow the talion princple of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?  What might that have looked like?  What can it still look like?

When the people of a country are threatened either by outside attack, or by internal economic threat, or by losing face in the international community, there is a tendency to find others to target and diminish, thereby restoring esteem to self and nation.  When Germany was defeated in war and suffering economic decline, the Germans found the Jews and the Gypsies and the gays to target as unworthy of being human. In Hitler they found a strong man with a loud voice.  It took six years of hate mongering for Kristalnacht to light the fires of the Holocaust.  In Rwanda, with Belgium being forced to retire its colonial hold on the country, it took a shorter time for the land poor Hutus of the countryside to be incited to hate and kill the Tutsis in another unimaginable genocide.  In both instances, neighbors who knew one another for years and often lived next door to one another became unworthy of being human and were destroyed in unthinkable ways.

And here we are now in America, our image as a world power in decline, our economy in shambles,  and our national soul traumatized by 9-11. President Obama put forth the promise of hope.  Hope for what?  Certainly for a better economy and an end to our endless wars. But not hope at the cost of losing the spirit of our democratic core.  Obama, like Roosevelt, seems to possess the personal character and commitment to carry forth the archetype of a strength that is balanced and thoughtful and committed to the best of being human.  Can Obama hold fast to the values of his personal being and to an archetypal power rooted in being far and fair seeing, sailing a steady moral ship in the face of incredible upheaval? If Obama cannot live up to the archetypal reality of hope that he has engendered in people, then someone else will fill that place because the energies of hope have already been tapped and someone will come to carry them even if they seem to lie dormant at this moment of time. Obama may betray the movement of hope in having to prove him self by meting out the justice of those showing how  mighty they are.  He may have already done this by having Osama bin Laden killed rather than brought to trial and justice before a world court.

If so, to what other lengths will we go to restore and consolidate our national pride?  Who will become the less than human ones?  Will it be our immigrant population?  Will it be the poor and the old who aren’t deserving of medical care? Will it be our poverty army sent off and sacrificed to fight yet another war? The challenge of our time is to find another way out of the cycle of humiliation and revenge.  We have lived in this archetypal reality of brother destroying brother at least since Cain and Abel. The upheavals of our time challenge us to create a third way out of these clashing forces.

Archetypal forces challenge people to take hold these energies with the reins of ethical and spiritual awareness and to bring them into human form lest the dark shadow of negative archetypes prevail.  I recall the civil rights movement as such a time when ‘ordinary human beings’ formed a great wave that changed history; a wave that lifted up President Johnson and carried him before the nation to finally declare, “we shall overcome”.  We are told that at that moment, a silent tear ran down the face of Reverend King. Only days later, King was assassinated by powerful archetypal countercurrents.  Today, we are seeing this wave of transformation taking place in the Arab Spring, in the awesome surge of human longing for freedom confronting the forces of dehumanization.

At this time, we the people need to ask questions: what kind of nation are we to be and what kind of leaders do we want to have and how will we preserve a sense of I and Thou, of humanity, in our national and international dialogues? We need to be aware of the enormous impersonal and personal drama we are living through. We need to be conscious of what we are about and what we want to be about as a people. We need to be able to cry for how our beloved country may lose its way. We need to be fierce in voicing our passionate conviction that we will not let that happen.  We need our human voices.

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