Messiahs & Monomyths

One of the most interesting pre-election interviews I saw was of arch-conservative Bill Kristol with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show just a few days before the 4th. One of the striking things Kristol said was that “I don’t think [Obama] would be a very radical president. I think he’ll disappoint a lot of people on the left, because he’ll be a conventionally liberal president.” I’ve thought a lot about this quote, especially as Obama’s picked his staff and proven Kristol exactly right so far. But I’m unsure just how “radical” anybody on the left ever expected him to be (we had Nader, Klein, Chomsky, et al to keep our expectations low).

However, whenever I stumble upon the lunatic fringe of the far-right (say, WorldNetDaily or FreeRepublic for example) I’m sometimes surprised at how often they try to paint Barack Obama as the left’s “Messiah.” It’s unclear, of course, who actually believes this. In reality, Republicans are far more obsessed with Obama’s supposed messiahship than liberals are. There’s no doubt that a number of people have said nutty things, among them Louis Farrakhan and, to a lesser extent, Oprah Winfrey, but there’s not much evidence that most people see Obama as anything other than an inspiring figure. Obama’s election team have admitted that McCain’s “celebrity” ads over the summer had them most worried — but being a celebrity is far different than being a messiah.

In other words, this is a straw man. The people who most talk about this are conservatives, like Wesley Pruden at The Washington Times who penned some eight columns before the election on Obama’s messiahship (often with variations on “Hyde Park messiah”). Fox News, predictably, had both Michelle Malkin and Cal Thomas on to talk about this, with Thomas referring to Obama supporters as “disciples” and Obama’s two bestsellers as their “holy books.”

It’s unclear whether the far-right actually believes this stuff is just peddling specious caricatures of the 60+ million of us who voted for Obama. Furthermore, I’m not sure Obamania is really all that unprecedented. McCain doesn’t seem to inspire people in the same way, but Sarah Palin certainly does. I think historical research would bear out presidential adulation as a fairly common affliction of the American people. Morton Keller, for example, writes this of William Jennings Bryan: “At one meeting, the lights were arranged to cast a halo over his head. Crowds often surged forward to touch his clothes.”

The message of “change,” too, is fairly predictable. It has served as the slogan for just about every election — at least for one party; we got lucky this year to have two parties peddling the reform mantra. I think a lot of this comes down to typical American hero-worship and our common need to fit our presidents into the category of superman.

Joseph Campbell describes the hero in the classical monomyth:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

In contrast to this, Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence describe the American monomyth:

A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil: normal insitutions fail to contend with this threat: a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task: aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisal condition: the superhero then recedes into obscurity.

Look at the public’s reaction to our Wall Street crises this Fall: Americans voted for the person who could be our selfless superhero to redeem our financial institutions and restore unto us our beloved bull market. Yet we haven’t seen a lot of Obama in action yet — the contemporary person who most fits the American monomyth is George W. Bush.

Jewett & Lawrence wrote almost 25 years before Bush came into office, but their writing (in American Monomyth) is prescient. In the aftermath of 9/11 we heavily depended on the “escapist fantasy” of the American monomyth. We as a nation looked to Bush as “the zealous crusader who destroys evil,” whose intervention is required because our “impotent democratic institutions” have failed to fully protect us. Our peculiar twist on the monomyth has two alarming traits:

1. Its deep antipathy toward the democratic process — “The effect of this monomythic copout is to encourage the very centralization of power that democratic theorists have considered to be the greatest potential danger to the political order.” Given the impossible task of restoring paradise, the superhero is given powers to “make and enforce the laws as they see fit…without waiting for the cumbersome voice of a democratic majority.”

2. Its perpetual hostility to reason & intelligence — “…One of [the monomyth’s] most durable conventions is to use ‘brains’ as a distinguishing trait of evil persons.” The hero embodies strength and power, on the other hand, and already possesses all the wisdom he needs to act. “In the excercise of redemptive power, purity of intention suffices,” even if that excercise involves extralegal means where our hero must “evade due process of law… and command brutal powers of coercion.”

I won’t overload you with more quotes, but there’s a lot that eerily resembles the kinds of things we witnessed/allowed post-9/11. I think Jewett & Lawrence are right to note how our shared monomyth destroys personal responsibility. It also foists an impossible expectation onto our heroes, for expecting either Bush or Obama to restore a non-existent paradisical American society is asking far too much.


Postscript: By the way, in researching this the one person I found who did claim to be the messiah wasn’t Obama, but a guy named Wayne Bent, leader of an apocalyptic cult in New Mexica. Also, apparently, a pedophile.

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