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Reply To: The Air We Breathe


So many rich exchanges from everyone! I would love to respond to them all, though that’s hardly possible (nor desirable, given my tendency toward excessive verbosity).

One housekeeping note for everyone: when posting a link, please don’t post the raw URL (our site sometimes interprets raw URLs as bots posting spam, and then the post is held for approval). Instead, give your link a title (whether the title of an article, an internet page, or just saying “visit this link” or “here” or some such), then highlight that and click on the hyperlink icon in the menu at the top of your post (looks like a diagonal paperclip). Paste the URL into the field provided, and click on the gear icon at the end of that field, which gives you the option of opening your link open in a new window (please choose that option, so folks can open the link without navigating away from the forums).

Since, as admin, I do have some superpowers, I have tried to fix that when it happens, but I’d really rather not make changes to posts other than my own, so thanks in advance (there should be instructions as well in our FAQ, pinned to the top of every forum).

Also, please keep in mind the Forum Guidelines, which are pinned to the top of every forum as well – particularly #5:

Avoid Contemporary Politics – Given the volatile nature of contemporary political discourse, we ask that members steer clear of candidates or current political controversies. Forum members come from across the political spectrum. There are other fora across the internet for discussing myth and politics.”

Richard, I’d like to thank you for the care with which you have danced around this subject. I appreciated your article on differences between liberals and conservatives (though I’m a bit younger than you, I do remember when there were conservative Democrats, as well as a very vocal liberal wing within the Republican Party : e.g. New York Senators Jacob Javits and Kenneth Keating, Governor/Vice-president Nelson Rockefeller, Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith – who served from 1939 to 1973 – Congressman and New York Mayor John Lindsay, etc.). You delineate the differences well, which is fine as long as we exercise care to avoid the appearance of favoring one party over the other (again, I believe in general you carefully thread that needle).

Times have indeed changed. Tribalism (“my team, right or wrong”) does seem to be resurgent today, and not just in politics. Campbell believed this was inevitable on the way toward a more global society. Here are his thoughts on the subject, from a yet-to-be-published Q & A manuscript I’ve been working with:

We’re in a period, in terms of history, of the end of national and tribal consciousness. The only consciousness that is proper to contemporary life is global⁠. Nevertheless, all popular thinking is in terms of loyalties to the local communities to which all are members. Such thinking is now out of date.

What we face is a challenge to recognize one community on this earth, and what we find in the face of this challenge is everybody pulling back into his own in-group. I don’t want to name the in-groups, but we all know pretty well what they are. In our country we call them pressure groups. They are racial groups, class groups, religious groups, economic groups, and they are all tangling with each other⁠.

For any people to say, “We are it and the others are other”—these are dangerous people. And there are religions still doing this. The new thing that is very difficult  for people to realize is our society is the human race. And our little suburb is the globe. Spaceship Earth⁠.

Will we be able to surmount those obstacles, cross that bridge? For Campbell, the jury was still out. From the same manuscript:

Now the horizon is the planet⁠. The only question, and this is a big one, is whether this great new heritage of man will finally dissolve away as the building of the pyramids did when Egypt lost its power?  . . .

How long that next movement will endure is the question that arises out of what we’ve just been talking about. Is it going to be a phase that will disappear,  and then will all these separate cultures go back into their own little boxes again, or is it something that actually represents the beginning of a totally new age of man on the planet⁠?

In recent years, especially given the nature of politics discourse, there may seem little cause for optimism. We are even politicizing medical advice these days in the middle of a pandemic!

But that same global crisis may well prove a game-changer in the long run. We have plenty of evidence of transformation after sweeping catastrophes. Perhaps the most obvious is the Black Death. Society wasn’t “challenged to change,” and certainly there was no conscious intention to create a different world in its wake, no coming together as a human society to make a choice – but the plague created the conditions that gave rise to the Renaissance. Nevertheless, the Renaissance didn’t burst fully formed on the scene all at once at 4:32 a.m. on the first Thursday following the final death; rather, it’s a process that unfolded gradually over the course of a generation or so.

I sense the same dynamic in play today.

Sure, partisan and in-group attitudes are remaining the same for so many – but much of that is driven by my generation and older (the demographic for whom this coronavirus is most lethal). We were already on our way out, clearing the stage for succeeding generations. The pandemic is not only hastening that process for some, but underscoring the inadequacy of troglodyte attitudes in a variety of areas, including race relations, taking scientific evidence seriously, etc. It may take many more deaths before this touches everybody, but the most stubborn among us will bear the consequences (e.g. Herman Cain: Covid may have been the instrument that dealt the fatal blow, but his death appears directly attributable to his rejection of science.).

Covid has already changed the world – permanently – and will continue to do so, albeit in ways that aren’t immediately apparent in our day-to-day lives, and likely won’t be a fait accompli until long after my cohort is dead and buried. And it won’t appear a conscious choice: the UN isn’t going to hold a global vote where everyone agrees on a new direction – but, whether we consciously want to or not, I suspect humanity will move in that direction (which is not to say utopia lies dead ahead – there will be new problems, new crises, new forms of suffering, for that is the nature of our mortal existence).

I tend to agree with Campbell when he tells Emilios Bouratinos that he is “pessimistic with respect to the present or the day after tomorrow, but optimistic with respect to, let’s say, fifty-odd years from now.”

Perhaps we can find some comfort in this New Yorker article, which looks not just at the Bubonic Plague, but also the game-changing effects of pandemics throughout history: How Pandemics Wreak Havoc and Open Minds.