About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Deconstruction of Falling Stars


Over the last few months I have been re-watching the late 90's TV series Babylon 5.  In the process, I have again realized that it is probably one of the most significant works of modern philosophy, wrapped up in science fiction drag.  It beautifully addresses issues of life and death, morality and ethics, sociality and culture, history and myth.  And one of the more striking episodes is titled, "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars."  On the surface, it just seems to skim through events as viewed through a filter of varying time frames, and as such, seems to be almost a throwaway episode.  On deeper reflection though, it examines how we view historical characters, and the process by which we deconstruct and rebuild them.  Because of this, I realize that this one episode is one of the most important in the entire series.

The stages of deconstruction are; heroism, villainization, propaganda tool, legend and myth.  Not every historic character goes through all of the stages, and sometimes the stages get inverted, but this is the typical path that prominent figures go though.  In a way, the path is similar to the stages of grief, where you do not always follow the exact same course, but you typically hit all of the stages at some point. 

The first stage the figure goes through is a period of being the hero.  Typically this begins immediately after they have accomplished something great or notable.  Ronald Regan closing down the cold war, Lyndon Johnson getting civil rights enshrined into law, F.D.R. winning World War 2 and ending the Great Depression, the founding fathers building the nation.  This period can last for a long or short time, depending on the magnitude of their achievement and the level of hatred of their opposition.

An interesting phenomenon of the 24 hour news cycle is that this "honeymoon" period seems to be getting shorter and shorter, especially with media made heroes.  A perfect example of this is the man with the golden voice.  You may remember him from last year; he was the former DJ turned homeless man that was discovered by a news reporter, and his video went viral.  He was lionized for a short period of time, then he was quickly deconstructed into someone less noble but far more human.  Shortly after that, he disappeared in a fog of negative press.

This man was never destined for long term fame, he was an example of Andy Warhol's 15 minutes, but he is a good model for how the hero becomes a villain in today's media environment.  Another example is President Obama, who was the savior for all of about two months, and then, when he couldn't give us instant gratification salvation, he was termed a failure by many, especially on the right.  However, given that they wanted him to fail from before day one, the villainization could be said to have begun concurrently with the heroism.

After heroism comes villainization.  This is where we tear the person down to the lowest level possible, blaming them for things that were out of their control, for things that were acceptable at the time, or frankly just revising history to fit a new narrative.  I do want to say here, some people do actually deserve demonization; history is littered with actual villains who deserve to be reviled for the rest of eternity.  This, however, is again different from the phenomenon that I am charting here.

This process of tearing down the hero is done to discredit what they stood for.  A perfect example of this is the relatively recent development of claiming that F.D.R. made the Great Depression deeper and longer than it would have been under a second Hoover term.  F.D.R. was credited by most economists, even very conservative ones like Milton Freeman, with pulling the country out of the Depression.  The downtick, or double dip, that occurred later in the 30's can be directly tied to a reduction of stimulus and a pullback from the New Deal.  It can be traced to an increasingly oppositional congress, not to any fault of F.D.R.  And yet, he is being painted as the villain here to invalidate the entirety of Keynesian economics.

It is also happening to many of the icons of half a century ago.  Kennedy and Martin Luther King are having their adultery thrown around to discredit them as heroes, Truman's use of the bomb to end the Second World War is being referred to as a war crime, J Edgar Hoover was a transvestite and a homosexual, Lyndon Johnson was complicit in Kennedy's assassination and so on and so on.

The thing is, each of these people stood for things that other people disagree with, therefore they must be destroyed.  The cycle is even faster now, with each of the last three presidents being villainized by their opposition while still in office, even in the midst of trying to accomplish their goals.  I should say here, that everyone considers it villainization when it is someone they agree with, and an expose when it is someone they hate. 

I am not immune to this, I cannot believe the lies being made up about Clinton and Obama, and am enraged by what the right is doing to them.  However, I cheered each negative revelation about the two Bushes and Regan.  The process of villainization is very partisan, especially in today's partisan world.

But in many cases, it works, even with people on the same end of the political spectrum.  Even Democrats are embarrassed by Kennedy's sexual adventures, and the shine is wearing off Camelot for everyone.  People may still respect Kennedy, but he is not the abject hero/martyr that he was even a decade ago.

After villainization, the person becomes a propaganda tool, either to promote a viewpoint or destroy a viewpoint, depending on how successful the villainization was.  If the person comes out the other end as flawed but still respected, they become a proxy promoter, if they come out completely discredited, they can be used as a weapon to destroy a movement.  Sometimes, when the views are diametrically opposed, the person can be used as propaganda by both sides at the same time.

The positive propaganda tool can be seen in the Tea Party's use of the Founding Fathers, who came through their bad times as still respected figures.  We have come to terms with them owning slaves, and while we don't like that aspect, we still respect their ideals.  And because of that, the Tea Party throws them in everyone's collective faces as propaganda proving the country is on the wrong track.  The Right constantly evokes the Founders as the definitive proof of their position, whether or not they would actually agree with any Tea Party position.  The propaganda is more "true" than actual truth.

The negative can be found in Karl Marx.  Even though he never proposed anything remotely like the Soviet Union, and was in fact an opponent of government in general, let alone totalitarianism, he was tarred with the horror of the U.S.S.R. and permanently discredited.  He is now the poster boy of why communism is vile and doomed.  To call somebody a Marxist essentially implies that they are a bad person.

In either case though, when a historical figure is used as propaganda, their actual positions and ideas are twisted to fit the current narrative.  I strongly suspect, given the Founding Fathers' distrust of corporations, that they would have been appalled by the Citizen's United decision.  (They tried to write limits on corporations into the U.S. Constitution.  The only reason they didn't was every state had it in their constitution, and it was deemed an unnecessary addition.)

Even though the people who wrote the constitution would likely have been opposed to Citizen's United, the Right is claiming that this court decision was vindication of the Framer's intent.  The actual views of the real historical figures no longer matter, all that matters at this point is the common narrative of what the propaganda machine spews forth.

And this is what happens at this stage, the actual views of any historical figure no longer matter, what matters is the story that is put forth.  Grant wanted to crush the South, the Founding Fathers hated government, Darwin was an atheist, Jefferson Davis was a patriot, etc.  Even though those filters are provably false, whatever can be tied to a propaganda tool and swallowed by the general public is fair game for a figure in this stage of their deconstruction.

Next comes legend.  This happens when only the common narrative of propaganda remains, and the actual facts are lost, or at least minimized.  A perfect example of this is Robin Hood, who is one of the legendary figures of English history.  Everyone knows he stole from the rich to give to the poor.  This is probably a perfect example of a twelfth century P.R. campaign.  It is almost certain he'd rob the rich, they were the only targets in his time.  Serfs would have had nothing of value, so if you are going to steal, you would only have the rich as a target.

He also likely did give to the poor, but probably not out of altruism.  He probably gave some share of his spoils to the peasants to shut them up.  Their lords gave them nothing, Robin Hood gave them something, and they were not likely to cut off the gravy train.  In the meantime, I suspect Robin Hood grew enormously wealthy, at least wealthy enough to hire a medieval spin doctor.

And this is what happens in the legend stage, the person becomes essentially a tool of meta-propaganda.  They no longer reinforce an idea, they become the idea itself.  You hear about a modern day Robin Hood, and it conveys an entire belief system.  The legendary figure is a historical metaphor for a current condition or situation.  Lady Godiva, Joan of Arc, Jaques DeMolay, Charlemagne, Constantine, most of the Catholic saints, the list goes on and on.  The only requirement to be on the list is that we can't know too much about the person, but enough that we can create a story around them to fit our ends.

The final deconstruction is to move into the mythic.  At this point, even the legends have become conflated with each other, and any actual facts are gone.  These people typically have little or no actual record of their existence, except for the impact of their lives.  For the mythic persona, faith in their existence supplants and becomes a substitute for proof of their existence.  Some legendary figures are shadowy, but typically can be grounded in an actual person; a mythic figure does not need grounding, they have taken on a religious or quasi-religious existence.  In most cases, the mythic person is also touched by deity. 

I should point out here, for people who have not read my previous post on myths, that myth does not imply falsehood.  Myth simply refers to a story that examines a truth beyond proof, and helps people fit themselves into the fabric of existence.  For a more detailed examination, read this post.

The most familiar example of the mythic persona is Jesus.  It no longer matters if there was a real person named Yeshua (the Hebrew root of Jesus) because he has achieved mythic status.  He is considered to be the foundation, not only of Western religion, but of the entirety of Western society.

I would also like to note, he is a figure that can trace the entire deconstruction, in order, and therefore is a perfect case study for the sequence.  He was a hero to the disciples and his other followers, calling out a corrupt priesthood, and giving focus and meaning to their lives.  This in turn made him a figure that the authorities had to destroy, because he challenged the status quo.  They villainized him, bringing him down, trying and crucifying him.  He became an example of everything that was wrong about Messianic Judaism.  His downfall was probably used to end the entire movement.

As he was further deconstructed, he became a propaganda tool for both sides; he was the ideal to which all of his followers should aspire, and he was the ultimate rebellious villain to the Roman Empire.  He was the reason people should become "Christians," and he was the justification for Nero using "Christians" as garden torches.

He passed into legend fairly quickly after that.  Since society was minimally literate, within the first century after his death, there were few, if any, first hand accounts of him left, and what remained were written copies of oral histories, that reduced him to primary messages and parables.  The "Legendary" Christ is probably best exemplified and recorded by the Gnostics, who rejected the direct divinity of Christ, and considered him the prime example of the Divinity that lies in us all.

By the second century, he had become an almost mythic figure, which was fully codified by the Council of Nicea, which edited his "humanity" out of the Bible, leaving only a fully Divine Christ.  At this point his deconstruction was complete; all reference to the actual person at the core had been removed, and only the story was left.

There are many other figures that have devolved into myth, King Arthur, Pythagoras, Conchobar mac Nessa, Zoroaster, but each one is the focus of an ideology.  That ideology may not be a comprehensive as the one tied to Jesus, but all of them are rallying points for various cultures and peoples.

And this is how all great people are deconstructed.  Bit by bit, the actual person ceases to exist, and bit by bit, an image of that person is built up.  That image is crafted to fit a need in society, and as such, the deconstruction of falling stars is a necessary process.  By the time a person reaches the mythic stage, they embody entire philosophies.

But in the end, never confuse the image with the actual.  The actual will never live up to the story, no matter how the story ends.

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