The Myth of the Powerless

November 1, 2009

McCormack_Ken_opinionby Ken McCormack

When they dismiss myth as merely a lie, scientists display enormous ignorance. Myth, as students of literature know, is the ultimate framework of consciousness. It is Meta-Fact — the arena wherein thought takes place — and an expression of the collective mind.

Most of world literature is mythical; and it’s a dead-end exercise to apply myth to science or vice versa, as is often done. Though the Bible is a kind of literature, profound and meaningful as such, it is not science; and the question for myth is not whether it is true or false, but what myth are you living, or rather, what myth is living through you. From this perspective, science itself is a myth, a modern one, which has had a major effect in altering the mainstream consciousness, but in some ways it is still barely hanging on. After all, about five times more people in the United States believe in angels than in evolution.

By Any Other Name

is the Fisher Still King?

The myth that has been living through Western civilization for thousands of years primarily places a male hero at its center. Originally, the hero was the Fisher King. All the good in life — health, fertility, peace and prosperity — depended on the health of this godlike being. When he grew sick, fields fell fallow and enemies and disease plagued the masses. The solution, of course, was to get a new king — and then prosperity returned. We still believe this.

When pundits claimed the reason President Clinton was re-elected, for instance, was because of the economy — they were acknowledging the president as the mythic Fisher King who — rather than the millions of citizens — gets credit for the fertility of the land. Myth is so powerful because it is largely unconscious. Yet its expression is visible nearly everywhere. And today, after many of us voted, we sat back waiting for Obama to ride in, rescue us and set the world straight.

The pleasure of myth is in its repetition. Millions of our stories, even today, tell how some great hero rides into town and rescues us commoners from a band of villains who are killing the innocent and robbing the honest. This entertaining super-human figure of the generic western or cop thriller may appear as John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, or James Bond or Jack Bauer, but the story is fundamentally the same — and has been for thousands of years. Most significantly, the common townspeople in the story are depicted as an inept, cowardly and nearly irrelevant backdrop to the great liberation brought about by knights in shining armor.

The King is Changing, but

What About the Rest of Us?

The reason myth is so powerful is that people buy into it. The only way a tiny, powerful elite can dominate the rest of us is through our willing cooperation. But myths are challenged and change constantly. The communism and equality of early Christianity, for instance, challenged the Roman myth of dominance through violence. Other major challenges came about with science and the rise of democracy — though usually, the challenges have been simply adapted to and corrupted by the mainstream. “Co-opted” is the word.

The most exciting challenge in my life came from the hippies and rebels of the 1960s. That awakening altered our largely unconscious racism and sexism to the point that the choice for King last year was essentially between a woman and an African-American. As the definition of hero becomes more inclusive, there is, to be sure, more democracy. Sexual relationships, for instance, are far more democratic than they were, but still we rely largely on the King, and the majority still remains largely powerless. There is, for example, no democracy at the workplace where we spend so much of our lives, and — truth be told — very little democracy and equality in our government.

The myth of the Fisher King endures. There are rumblings on the horizon, however: the huge environmental movement, the worldwide protests against NAFTA and the invasion of Iraq, not to mention the nonviolent overthrow of several tyrants in South America. These are signs that the myth of our powerlessness is eroding. For those who are challenging this myth of powerlessness in their lives and changing it, I am most grateful. Φ

Ken McCormack, a retired journalist, is a member of OPW’s Board of Directors and serves as The PeaceWorker’s Associate Editor.

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