#BaltimoreUprising and the Politics of “Myths That Deform Us”

They know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, they know everything they need to know. And whatever else they say is a lie….The American idea of progress, when Americans talk about progress, they mean how fast I become white. And it’s a trick bag because they know perfectly well I can never become white….

James Baldwin, 15 January 1979

Politics in the U.S. is carefully and meticulously restrained, walled off as mere partisan politics, the manufactured and mostly illusion of choice (hence, of democracy) between Republicans and Democrats—both of which are in the service of capitalism, commercialism, and consumerism.

As such, Republicans and Democrats are different sides of the same economic coin, both depending on the false threat of socialism and both fostering the narrow and distorted gaze always on economics. The U.S. has no capacity for looking away from the coin and toward what the coin represents: Power.

Not to be too simplistic, but the system is irrelevant because the powerful few will always work that system to maintain power, and thus to keep the vast majority subservient. In that respect, the former USSR serves well to show that so-called communism works in many of the same ways as capitalism to serve the few.

Capitalism, communism, socialism, and even democracy, then, are not really economic or political systems as much as they are stories, mythologies—ways of framing the world to serve the needs of the powerful at the expense of the powerless.

Made popular by Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell spent his career seeking ways to bring a better understanding of comparative religion studies and mythology into pop culture. Campbell explained that “[m]yth basically serve four functions”: mystical, cosmological, sociological, and pedagogical.

The third function, sociological, “[supports] and [validates] a certain social order”:

And here’s where the myths vary enormously from place to place. You can have a whole mythology for polygamy, a whole mythology for monogamy. Either one’s okay. It depends on where you are. It is this sociological function of myth that has taken over the world—and it is out of date. (p. 31)

As a powerful example, Moyers and Campbell discussed the representation of serpents/snakes in myths, starting with the Christian Garden of Eden myth, but also highlighting the parallel Bassari legend. “It’s very much the same story,” Campbell explained (p. 45).

And from this, Campbell noted where the sociological functions vary regarding serpents/snakes: “Now the snake in most cultures is given a positive interpretation,” he added (p. 47). However, the Christian framing is uniquely negative:

Moyers: In the Christian story the serpent is the seducer.

Campbell: That amounts to a refusal to affirm life. In the biblical tradition we have inherited, life is corrupt, and every natural impulse is sinful unless it has been circumcised or baptized. The serpent was the one who brought sin into the world. And the woman was the one who handed the apple to the man. The identification of the woman with sin, of the serpent with sin, and thus of life with sin, is the twist that has been given to the whole story in the biblical myth and doctrine of the Fall.

Moyers: Does the idea of woman as sinner appear in other mythologies?

Campbell: No, I don’t know of it elsewhere. (p. 47)

In its sociological function, the myth of the Fall serves men, the power and purity of men by imposing sin onto serpents/snakes and women.

Paulo Freire confronts the power of myth:

To the extent that I become clearer about my choices and my dreams, which are substantively political and attributively pedagogical, and to the extent that I recognize that though an educator I am also a political agent, I can better understand why I fear and realize how far we still have to go to improve our democracy. I also understand that as we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against the myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology. (p. 41)

#BaltimoreUprising and the Politics of “Myths That Deform Us”

The abrupt shooting of Tamir Rice offered a horrifying moment to confront the “myths that deform us,” as Stacey Patton explained, placing Rice’s shooting within the historical context of Emmitt Till.

As well, Rice’s shooting has been informed by research showing that black children are mis-seen as being older, even by people in authority (such as police officers, teachers).

The relentless string of highly publicized shootings of black males has now exploded in Baltimore, a perverse real-world allegory of the consequences of the sociological function of “myths that deform us.”

Placing as we should all of the incidences from Trayvon Martin until today (since memory in the U.S. is brief, ahistorical), we must acknowledge that blacks live daily under the “myths that deform us,” often myths ascribed to the power of Church and God: biblical arguments for slavery, biblical arguments against inter-racial marriage, biblical arguments for beating children (and parallel marginalizing and dehumanizing women with the Word of God).

The Western/Christian iconography and symbolism preaches black is evil and white is pure: the corrupt that must be purified and the pristine that must be preserved.

These “myths that deform us” have also been given the veneer of science—IQ and decades of standardized tests that serve the interests of white, affluent males, keeping people of color, the poor, and women behind the wall of not measuring up.

Watching #BaltimoreUprising requires that we listen to and look at carefully in order to confront the Thug Myth being used to maintain with perpetual surveillance a culture of compliance shaped by and for white privilege.

Race itself is a myth, a human construction, not a biological fact. The associations (prejudices, stereotypes) with race (young black males are thugs, looters, rioters) are no more true than snakes are evil.

Those who control the myths (that deform us) have fashioned these stories in their honor, for their gain.

As Baltimore rises, those who deny racism continue to have an evidence problem, one that must serve to crumble their “myths that deform us.”

#BaltimoreUprising exposes that white privilege cares more about private property than human life—even as a black man sits in the White House.

We must tear down the wall.

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