Coffee Thoughts: Return of the gods, Hollywood and tribal morality

I don’t pay as much attention to pop culture (or politics) as I should, but even a pop culture hermit like myself has noticed a recent trend in the entertainment industry towards…well, towards personal violence (as opposed to impersonal ideological violence). The pendulum is swinging back towards tribal morality, and this is … frightening.

In other words, in the grand old modernist twentieth century, people fought and killed and died for ideals, for “the sake of humanity”, for (allegedly) universal principles. You shot and bled for Communism, for Socialism, for Democracy, for the Greater Good.

Personal violence is the opposite: you shoot and bleed not for some fancy-pants rational ideal, but because of my personal feelings. This is what you get for hurting my brother, insulting my grandpa,  or attacking my wife. This is what I’m doing for the sake of my own, my kin, my honor, my brother, my future grandkids. This is all about feelings, my feelings.

The previous nineteenth-century’s heyday in Nationalism & Imperialism was the bridge between the two…an awkward hybrid between moral tribalism and the strident universal ideologies of the twentieth century. Because (old fashioned) Nationalism is based on ethnicity, it boils down to kin-ship (real or imagined), and hence is an outgrowth of that ancient, pre-historic unit–the tribe.

In the tribe, there is “us” and “them”, and you know “us” personally, intimately, familially. You kill “them”. But it is for the sake of “us” who you care about, because they have faces you know and blood you share. It’s a personal bond. Its the world of trusting who you personally know, of “nepotism”, of family loyalty and family honor and family feuds. Government is local, it’s small scale, it’s not an impersonal bureacracy. Morality is personal too–its not some abstract impersonal set of legal technicalities. Of course I’ll let the niece of my neighbor off that speeding ticket, and appoint my second cousin as the new district attorney….because I know them. I know these people. I can trust them. Over here in the (post) Modernist West, we look (both across time and across place) at societies that still function this way, and see “corruption”. What? That professor made his students use the biology textbook his brother wrote? Corruption and nepotism! “No, he was good. He was helping his brother.” To modernist eyes, its all graft & corruption & nepotism. To them, its loyalty and family honor. One’s honorable duty.

But Nationalism bound together millions…you can’t make it that far on personal connections, and familial ties. It’s got to be something bigger–if only just an abstract ideal about your (purported) familial bonds from some aryan tribe wandering in brotherhood to the verdant shores of what would become your country’s capital, in 500 BC. And out of this came ideas of being loyal to something outside the tribe, or above the tribe.

That tension was always there. The tale of the Horatio brothers in Ancient Rome (illustrated by Jacques Louis David’s famous “Oath of Horatii” painting), the brother kills his sister’s lover for the sake of Rome. She cusses and cries, so he kills her too, “thus dies all Roman women who mourn for the enemy”. His daddy tells the Roman people, yup, my son did the right thing, let’s not execute him. He’s let off the hook, the tragic hero. Livy tells the tale in his first book of Roman History. It’s a tragedy all right, but a noble tragedy. Rome matters more than the tribe. Yeah, stabbing your sister is a bit dark, but there has to be sacrifices all the same. Sacrifice your personal feelings and personal connections for the sake of this Higher Good–ROME! So here begins the idea that ran through ideology after ideology, throughout history. Always, as with nineteenth-century Nationalism, there was some (however tenuous) connection to the tribe, if only the idea of it. Ultimately, it boiled down to something…well, something local. Local persons, local earth, local gods.

There is no universal mandate, universal principles. There is no universal human family–there is our family/tribe/clan/nation/empire and their family/tribe/clan/nation empire. Us and them. We all have to be loyal to our bit. (Recall, the ancient roman word for being good and religious was “pius”. It’s about loyalty.) Morality is local. I worship this goddess because she dwells in the tree by my house. She is my neighbor, so she cares for me. Why should I worship the god of the distant mountain? He is for the mountain people. Let us all go about our own business, and hold fast to our own.

Then universal morality burst on the scene. It started with some Semites in the Near East. It kinda had a way of catching on. Eventually most of Eurasia was covered in it, in its 3 main strains: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. There is only One God. One universal God. So there is only One Universal Human Family. That means… we all got to obey the same rules, folks. And I need to convert you, now.

Postmoderns today look wistfully back upon polytheistic societies, with their lack of moral absolutes, with their live and let live….with their thousands of different varying gods, mixed together in eclectic pantheons across the scattered villages. Ah, there was tolerance. There was a time when there was not one “right” and one “wrong”.  No Crusades, no Inquisitions, no Jihad….

Not quite all roses and nonviolence though. The tribe has no claims on universalist dominion–yeah, you don’t fight and kill for the Universal Ideal, but polytheistic tribal morality has plenty of claims on personal violence. True, the local morality of polytheism (this “tribal morality”) is not as ‘intolerant’ as the universal morality of monotheism. But that is a knife that cuts both ways. As an undergrad sitting in an African Studies class at an Ivy League University, I heard my professor explain, “we hear of African tribes massacring old grandmas, and think they are immoral. They aren’t! They would never kill their own grandma, or a grandma in their tribe. They are just as moral as us. It is just that their tribe has a ‘local’ morality, not a ‘universal’ kind.”

The idea that, say, “killing civilians or geriatric female humans is always evil” is…. after all, a very universal, absolute moral claim.

So monotheism/modernism/universal morality slowly eliminates the blood feud…. and replaces it with the world war. And Western Christianity’s bastard baby, Communism (ever a strident universal moral ideology if there was one)  has caused 100-200 million dead. So…. is that where all fancy talk and idealism leads? Is that what modernism, with its earnest desire to save the world, brings?

Post-modernists seem to have their answer. We were burned by communism, we know it now. Its fatal flaw is that…despite its materialism and humanism…it is fundamentally (implicitly) monotheist, fundamentally universal. We can’t have moral absolutes, universal morality. Look where it leads. Now is the time for the return of polytheism, the return of no absolutes, of parallel and equally valid (or invalid?) “moralities”…. there are no hard and fast rules. And for gods’ sakes, lets try to get along. But beware any who insist theirs is the only right way. Then we’ll just get another killer, another bloody century of world wars. The damn arrogance of thinking you are right, are “correct”, and that other people have to listen to your ‘correct’ ideas!

Conservative Americans (myself included) look across the Atlantic and shake our heads, at those liberal, refined Europeans. Wimps, we think. Despairing wimps. Can’t they believe in anything and fight for it, can’t they stand up for something and try to save the world?

Our historical memory is a bit too short. Behind their cynical shrug and the sigh are blood soaked battlefields, hundreds of millions dead. Heroes all, dead for Causes, ideological causes, universal moral causes. First, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they fought them for Religion, as Protestants and Catholics hacked eachother to pieces and burned and hanged eachother, for the sake of their universal God. Then they dropped religion, when all that heroic violence sickened the stomaches of the grandchildren. But they didn’t give up on universal morality, on absolute claims, on proselytizing and saving the world, just yet. We won’t kill for the sake of the universal God, but we’ll fight and struggle and kill for the sake of the universal Good, for the sake of humanity. Enter, the enlightenment, the French Revolution, Progress and Humanity, Napoleon… Finally Nazism and Communism, with millions upon millions of bright-eyed idealists transformed into killers, rapists, and corpses through the world wars.

Oh, Europe tried, tried perhaps harder than ever America did. They’ve been there, done that.

We are still younger, not quite as disillusioned yet. Or are we?

Even America, that uber-ideological nation of the principled misfits and foolhardy castoffs from Europe, appears to be coming around to this liberal, European, post-modern view.

I’m beginning to think the writing was on the wall from 2008. Something very seismic happened with the American people’s rejection of the Bush Administration and all that it stood for.

George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror” was really a crusade for spreading Democracy about the world, with the same universalist, proselytizing fervour of the old twentieth century communists (and anti-communists).

By and large, we’ve rejected that. Let sleeping dogs lie. Don’t interfere in a quarrel that has nothing to do with you. Let those foreigners kill eachother off, it is none of our business. Not that we don’t care about them, but…what could we do anyway. Besides, we’d be arrogant imperialists if we insisted on an absolute moral code, on One Right Way, that they ‘had’ to do. Let them do their own thing, dictatorship or mayhem, it is sad the way it is, but whatever.

So we are chill postmoderns now, huh?

But is this new polytheism, this Post-Modernism… truly a rejection of war and violence? Is this going to be different from the old polytheistic morality? Can we somehow, with this new polytheism, escape the old tribal morality of blood feuds and vengeance?

I’m afraid we aren’t.  Especially in the past few decades, it is disturbing to see how many movies and videogames and books…have been pushing violence, celebrating violence. Celebrating it far more than our old World War veterans ever did.

Tribal morality is coming back, subtly now, but increasingly made obvious in recent pop culture trends. And when the gods return, it is not only the gods of the field and fertility and the crops that return. There were other ancient gods… gods of sacrifice, the gods of bloodshed, and the gods of war.

To be continued in the next post.

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