Thursday, February 7, 2019

Refections on the "saviour" model in American culture

We hear much punditry these days accusing the American president of using fear to divide his nation. And while there is a load of evidence that trump uses fear to divide Americans, from other Americans, and more especially from various “targets” around the world that attract trump’s wrath, jealousy, anger and contempt, there is also a boat load of evidence that trump himself is wracked with fear, anxiety, neurosis and even psychosis.

Fear of immigrants, terrorists, Muslims, the Chinese government, socialism and socialists, blacks, Latinos, government institutions, regulations on capitalists, NATO (for using the U.S. without paying their fair share), the Mueller investigation, the media (enemy of the people), loss of control (refusing to divest from his business holdings)….and most especially fear of the exposure of agreed-upon facts….all of these characterize most, if not all, of the utterances that blurt from his twitter account, his press briefings, his “State of the Union” propaganda, and his off-hand remarks from the Oval Office.

And, after leaning heavily into, and pretending to identify with, the “common fears” of the ordinary “man” (as different from “human”….being exclusive to the masculine gender), trump trumpets himself as the “saviour” and “rescuer” and “paramedic” and “detective” and “surgeon” and “shaman” and “repository of absolute truth.” “I alone can fix this!” echoes in all of our minds and fears, having gushed from his larynx in the campaign in 2016.

Taking liberties with women, simply “because I am a star” and then dismissing the Access Hollywood tape as mere “locker-room talk” illustrates a kind of detachment from the reality of the rest of the world. No one, at least in a civilized society, could or would be able to sweep such attitudes and/or beliefs under the carpet.

Nevertheless, there are glaring models right in front of our faces in history, that illustrate the model of leadership, political power, influence, and dominance as “saviour” to a frightened, anxious, neurotic and even psychotic mass of people. Religions in both East and West are replete with saviour-leaders, even though the specifics of their narratives differ at the margins. The documenting of wars throughout history champions warrior-saviour leaders who won, and virtually ignored others who failed or lost. And there is also a historical pattern of a perceived crisis, including but not restricted to famine, economic depression, outright attack or the forecast of an attack, internal societal breakdown, a pandemic, a major shift in climate, or the breakdown of trust between a population and a leader….that can trigger the emergence of a saviour-leader. Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao, the Russian Czars, De Gaulle, Churchill, were able to present themselves as savior-leaders, all of them riding tides of insecurity, anxiety, neurosis, and even psychosis.

From historical/political theatre, there is considerable evidence of parallels within the individual person’s inner life: fraught with anxiety, fear, neurosis, and potentially even psychosis. Much of this fear, in a cosmic and universal perspective, comes from a perceived, imagined, dreamt, fantasized, and even “taught-and-learned” Sunday school curriculum that posits a holy, perfect and powerful “god” being displeased with the people. “Not being good enough” is a condition to which each of us is somehow deeply immersed. We have heard our parents and mentors, and even many clergy, repeat warnings of “arrogance” and of “sin” and “evil” and “failed reputations” and the “loss of eternal life” as the core fear, however expressed, against which we are simply incapable of either avoiding or conquering. “Grace” (and that of God, not of the human being) is the reward, at least in the Christian context, for surrendering our spirits to the will of God, however that will is conceptualized.

From the perspective of the psychological development of each human, as we grow and experience various challenges, supports, encouragements and defamations, acceptances and rejections, we all tend to integrate ourselves to the image of the “external” saviour as well as to the “internal locus of control”. These two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, although for many, a default position when under extreme duress seems to involve some form of the saviour-rescuer. The perceived need for immediacy, urgency and escape from the current horror (fear, anticipation, anxiety, nightmare, loss, grief, death) tend to focus the mind on being “saved,” “rescued,” “healed,” and “transformed.” In the midst of the psychic crisis, one is less focused on the nuanced differences between the external “saviour” and the “internal locus of control” otherwise depicted as personal, psychic and spiritual growth, development, maturation. Those reflections tend to come after a period of time separation from the immediate crisis.

Part of the “dependence” on the saviour model, naturally, accompanies a kind of preference on clarity of interpretation of rules, regulations, “right-and-wrongs,” and linking the preference for clarity (black and white interpretations of laws, regulations, and even religious laws including the Decalogue) to some authority figure who has already “learned” right from wrong, good actions and attitudes from evil attitudes and actions.

The church, as the embodiment of the perpetuation of a faith tradition, serves,  effectively and dysfunctionally, as agents in the inculcation of young people as well as families into a pathway that respects the boundaries of that faith tradition. Among the adult demographic, surprisingly, many adults continue to hold firm to a rigid framework of their “fear” of failure in God’s eyes, and especially of their fear of dying while being out of favour with God. Listen to one 90+ man from his hospital bed: “I know that I have not lived a life that is pleasing to God and I fear dying in that state!” Or hear a 70+ woman: “The only reason I am coming to church is to prepare for a respectable burial and death!”

These two anecdotes, of course, do not comprise a scientific sample representative of church congregations. And yet, underlying much of the conversation about faith, about God, about the meaning and purpose of life, there is a well-documented theme of loss, separation, alienation, and linked to these is a perception of inadequacy, failure, insufficiency, imperfection, impurity, and outright evil. As we have all committed acts that hurt others, especially loved ones, and also have failed to do what we ought to have done, also hurting others, none of us is immune from a conscious recognition of our own imperfection, inadequacy, insufficiency and outright failure. So there is no one alive, nor was there any living person in the past, who escaped the truth of his/her own dark side.

In the American culture, one that envisions itself as holding fast to the Christian model of ethics, morality, and “right living,” the potential for something we have come to call “zero tolerance” has surfaced as a high-minded, idealistic and even “holy” application of the expectations of the Christian church and faith. So, if and when a person is proven, by evidence from photos, writings, personal narratives, to have “sinned” (depending on the definition of “sin” that pertains at the moment), then, if that person is a public figure, there must be consequences, often including, but not restricted to loss of job, loss of income, public humiliation, character assassination and a kind of social and political excommunication. Here is another of the church models that have been integrated into the cultural traditions of public life.

The question of how to “deal” with or to process social evil, inappropriate behaviour, racism, sexism, ageism, bigotry, homophobia, is still one begging for some deep thought, profound research, philosophical exploration and a kind of temperance and temperate attitude that does not reduce each “failed” human being into another piece of social refuse. The “legal model” of gathering evidence, presenting that evidence before a “court” of a judge or a judge and jury, while appropriate in many deciding many serious crimes, would be simply overwhelmed with such cases. Nevertheless, with the deep and profound embedding of the legal model into the thinking of the American psyche, the media and all of the “detectives” and the advocates/enemies of the deviant person jump at the opportunity to “air” their conflicting positions, as if they were all participating in a public lynching, without having to own the responsibility for the implications of their “free speech”.

There can be little doubt that the current occupant of the Oval Office, the incarnation of such insouciance, indifference and arrogance about personal “inadequacies” (political, ethical, moral, racial, sexual, ethnic), while portraying himself as the “saviour” of the “ravaged” republic (another of his improvisations and mis-representations of current reality), brings the focus of public discourse on the most minute details of impropriety, mis-behaviour, illegality, immorality, and criminality. And that focus finds both large and miniscule deviance, almost without the benefit of a proportional lens. Public discourse, naturally, follows the latest “scandal” as the profiteering of the tabloids demonstrates the public’s insatiable appetite for the “sins” of the other.

The churches, themselves, have no voice in the public square, to mediate the impact of simplifying theological thought and tradition. The media, dependent on and even slave to the ratings-and-revenue addiction of their board executives and investors, have fallen so deeply into the trap of providing that “sugar-infested, fast food” of gossip, indiscretion, mis-behaviour, deviance, and immorality and illegality, that they are unlikely to emerge from that cave anytime soon.

Ironically and tragically paradoxically, while the nation scurries around multiple instances of personal failure/indiscretion/public sin, the Chief Executive rambles on through a State of the Union, and a flurry of tweets, firing back at all attempts to expose his immorality, indiscretions, public ethics violations and potential illegal and criminal transgressions. Posing as “saviour” in a culture reared on a religious structural model that includes a Pope, hundreds of thousands of bishops and archbishops of various faith communities, evangelists, both television and mega-church, who masquerade as pseudo-saviour, where millions pay undue regard and respect to the “saviour” model, necessarily magnetizes public attention especially on aberrant behaviour, whether deserved or not.

Whether named as “saviours” or as “rock-stars” or a “super-athletes” or a “mega-billionaires” or as “winners” or as “role models”….the very saturation of these models of cultural, political economic, athletic and scientific models breeds a degree of perhaps unconscious dependence on “the other” as a primary agent in the life of the individual. And while a degree of deference to the other seems both reasonable and necessary, exaggerated deference illustrates and breeds a degree of co-dependence that entraps both those attempting to fulfill the expectations of leadership and those in “followership” positions.

Cultural maturity, on the other hand, requires a degree and expression of moderation, modesty, humility, and even personal self-awareness, courage and independence that accepts the need for and the benefits of collaboration, compromise, ambiguity and uncertainty….

Escaping into a false certainty, a false security and a false sense of inadequacy (unworthiness, and potential evil) seems to be a national trap, into which many otherwise self-respecting citizens have fallen. And all hierarchical organizations, including the church, the military, the professional sports teams, the political and media culture would do well to examine their own insecurities, and the methods by which they recognize, acknowledge and mediate these vulnerabilities could shine a penetrating LED into the darkness of the American Shadow.


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