Thursday, 8 September 2011

September 11 Reflections

Anniversaries are a good time to reflect, and so here in Australia and across much of the world there has been a remembering of the events of September 11, 2001. One of the main topics of interest is a kind of major event frozen-moment reflection: "Where were you when you heard about the attacks on America?" Much like for older people, "Where were you when man landed on the moon?"

I'm interested in symbolism, metaphor and the big picture as much as the small-scale and personal. I love the texture of narrative and people's stories of the day, and I listen to the grief and tragedy and the sheer monstrous horror of what happened; but when discussion remains on the level of the personal story, something is missing.

I had a picture in my mind 10 years ago that still feels relevant: the barbarians are at the gates of Rome. What does this mean? The United States, the most powerful nation on the planet, is the contemporary equivalent of classical Rome, the most powerful empire of its time. Rome, over-reaching itself militarily and economically, suffered a long decline that ended with devastation at the hands of Germanic invaders. America, over-reaching itself and dependent on gigantic military spending, is on a downward slope from which it might not recover.

The barbarians are at the gates. The demons emerge from America's long shadow and go on the attack. America's contribution to the world has been enormous and incredibly enervating in many ways - think of the symbolism of freedom ignited by its revolution and the far-reaching effects of its ideals; think of its key role in stopping Nazism and fascism in World War II; think of the potency of its culture, its music, its cutting-edge thought and research in my different areas. Yet as it has created, so it has also wrecked and destroyed. The shadow of America's elevation of the ideals of freedom and individual liberty has been its own narrow self-interest, love of power and vast over-inflation. Here's a telling example: 3000 people died in the 9/11 terror attacks, but at least 300,000 (according to some reports) as a result of America's mad invasion of Iraq. Add to that the millions who lost their lives in various conflicts in south-east Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa either directly at the hands of US forces or through bloody dictatorships supported and funded by Washington.

In many respects, the US stands for the past and what is no longer relevant or life-enhancing. In some parts of the world, individual liberty and freedom of expression are still goals for which people strive, yet there is an emerging paradigm that goes beyond that framework. We are seeing the slow dawning of a global civilization in which the notion of the self is expanded beyond the individual and what is good for me, my tribe, my country. Its central notion is that we are all one on this fragile, beautiful planet. Global climate change and the interconnection of economic and communications systems make such a broadening of human horizons seem inevitable. In the meantime there are questions about how the old powers, the old ways, will be transformed. Can the unleashing of forces at a time of great change be harnessed to the creation of the new order, or must the barbarians rush ever more violently to sack Rome?

Thursday, 1 September 2011

The Hero and the Tyrant

In recent months there have been plenty of news reports of the situation in Libya in which the rebels are described as "freedom fighters". What an emotionally loaded term - one that's best suited to propaganda than the complex reality of today's world.

The way someone is portrayed in the mass media becomes reality for the vast majority of people, and the particular portrayal extremely difficult to challenge. That's not to say there is no truth in the Libyan rebels being labelled freedom fighters or in the counter image of Muammar Gaddafi as the "evil dictator", only that propaganda is typically used in the service of the powerful and the full truth of the matter is usually a lot more nuanced. I would guess that in the years prior to the Libyan uprising, when Western governments were trying to court Colonel Gaddafi for access to his nation's large oil reserves, he would have usually been referred to in the media as the "Libyan leader". Now with Western opinion against him again, he is roundly the "Libyan dictator" or just "the dictator".

Why are simple picture images so powerful and why do they sway people so easily? The reason seems to be because picture language is the language of the psyche, the inner language of our mind. It's the language of dreams and the archetypes that appear in them. "The tyrant" and "the hero" have been with us for thousands of years and have helped shape the way we think and respond to our world - they have been an important part of culture and civilization.

A long parade of tyrants and heroes appears throughout Western history, myth and culture. Among the tyrants we can list King Minos of Crete (who fed the youths of Athens to the minotaur), Pharaoh who kept the Hebrews enslaved, Herod who tried to kill the baby Jesus, through to various kings, popes and feudal lords and in our time such people as Hitler, Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi. Tyrants represent illegitimate rule, power for its own sake - that is, in the service of private interests and not for the common good. Among the parade of heroes: Hercules, Moses, David, the Christian saints, George Washington, Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela and often these days various celebrities and sports stars. The hero is one who is able to bring a radiant new spark which lights up their community or transforms it in some way for the better - a leader who represents the best that every person is able to achieve in their own life. It is possible to differ on whether a historical figure is a hero or something else (for instance, Napoleon may be a hero or tyrant depending on your point of view), but it's hard to dispute the general power of archetypes or their deep influence on the human psyche.

To me there is an imperative that we understand the image language of our mind and identify when archetypes are being triggered or used. And it's not solely about being manipulated by politicians or the mass media. With the decline of organised religion, which once ordered and gave coherence to the energies of the psyche, the archetypes and their power has been pushed back into the unconscious. When there is no conscious relationship to them, their outward projection into the world can be destructive - just think of the devastating consequences of fascism in the 20th century. But the hope is that through awareness and through new myth and ritual relevant to our time, we can find ways of consciously holding and channelling their power to further the cause of life and compassion on our fragile planet.