Every generation occupies itself with interpreting Trickster anew.
America 2013 is a far cry from the days of Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty or give me death!”) and even the days of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. It’s a brave new world 30 years beyond Orwell’s imagined dystopia 1984 .
While we may have had the cathode ray tube then, the technology of the 1960s and 1970s had more in common with the slowness of media in the 18th century than it does with today’s media/surveillance reality. Daniel Ellsberg could not have imagined the internet and that a war could be entirely managed and operated within the confines of an alternate cyber universe. One of the first visions of today’s internet reality was notably published in 1984: William Gibson’s sci-fi classic Neuromancer.
Within this mind-boggling, ever-growing maze, it’s interesting to inject the time-honored archetype of the trickster, famous as edgy and playful figures in Norse and Native American myth. Lewis Hyde, author of Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art, puts it this way: “If the confidence man is one of America’s unacknowledged founding fathers, then instead of saying there are no modern tricksters one could argue the opposite: trickster is everywhere.” Caveat emptor — buyer beware.
We’re now told any technology operating with a computer chip can be hacked into and controlled from a remote spot — including cars. My reaction to that is: You gotta be kidding! We’re also informed there exists 300 types of drones, which are flying robots able to do things most of us can’t even imagine. Our soldiers (oops, I mean warriors) will soon be equipped with on-board computer glasses linked to command and intelligence support elements — that is, they’ll be armed humans a hiccup away from the cyborgs of science fiction.
A smart young veteran who had the identical job as Bradley Manning in Iraq once told me — a tech-ignorant, flesh-and-blood Vietnam veteran — the entire war in Iraq was recorded and tracked in cyberspace on the internet. “The whole war is secret!” he told me with an amazed chuckle.
It’s clear to many Americans the combination of post-911 fear, the militarization of sophisticated technology and a runaway regime of secrecy has led to a dangerous condition of permanent war in which our military is outrunning the capacity for responsible democratic decision-making. As outgoing President Eisenhower warned in 1961, the Military-Industrial Complex is now running the show, and the idea of citizen-based democracy is a feel-good myth incessantly flogged with the tools of Public Relations. Real democracy cannot exist in such a context.
The fact is, our military and its powerful civilian supporters deal with the American public and the rest of the world in two very distinct modes: Secrecy or Public Relations. Serious journalists and their critical sources — ie. Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden — work the no-man’s-land between these two distinct modes. We have now reached the point the government is seriously gunning for those working in this no-man’s-land.
The First Amendment was written to protect journalists, but we’ve learned that anything having to do with the Constitution, a document written in the 18th century, depends on what nine politicized men and women in black robes decide. The consensus on this level seems to be the days of the 18th century printing press are long gone. The halcyon days of Walter Chronkite are no more. As national security state fear grows and technological sophistication rises like a rocket, it’s becoming more and more challenging for simple human beings to ferret out reality in the secret realm.
One very human constant in life unaffected by technology is the realm of myth. The dilutions of cyborg-life aside, we remain human beings and all the truths of myth, while always fluid to a degree, still abide. Consider all the variants of The Warrior Myth now so popular with militarists. The same is true of things like The Trickster Myth. But instead of sitting around the campfire surrounded by darkness telling stories of hunting saber-toothed tigers, myth today is found in art and in the realm of public relations.
Money is the key to powerful public relations, something the War Machine makes clear, and something that has always been the Peace Movement’s shortcoming. Contrary to Bill O’Reilly’s and others’ contention that the Left is rolling in funding from fat cats like George Soros, the fact is, in that wonderful term from the Sixties, war mongers tend to have the lion’s share of the wealth. So any PR campaign on the Left would have to consider the cost-benefit issues to assure the most “bang for the buck.”
The Trickster as Disruptive Cultural Force
No one seems to embody the mythic archetype of the trickster versus the military behemoth more than Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. Certainly that’s true if they are put opposite the tiresome machismo of the National Security State. Hyde writes about the trickster taking on strength from his or her opponent. For instance, he sees Frederick Douglass as a trickster who “dwelt on the boundaries of plantation culture, and in that setting he became a cunning go-between, a thief of reapportionment who quit the periphery and moved to the center.” Hyde talks about “the raid Douglass makes on plantation culture.”
The schlemiel is an archetypal character of Yiddish tradition, in that sense a trickster of Eastern European derivation. According to Ruth R. Wisse in The Schlemiel As Modern Hero, the schlemiel was a quite resilient character who suffered “vicious, unrelenting harassment” but “whose continuing ability to experience frustration without yielding to desperation or defeatism may be reason enough for winning our interest.”
Jewish tradition, according to Wisse, contains an amazing assortment of mythic and literary fools. Two of them are often used in comparison. The schlemiel is distinguished from the schlimazl this way: “the former spills the soup, the latter is the one into whose lap it falls.” Thus, we might see Bradley Manning as the schlemiel and The New York Times as the schlimazl. The schlemiel/trickster is an active force “in confrontation with reality” notorious for the disruption of authority. As such s/he is a cleansing and positive force vis-a-vis abusive and overweening authority.
Menachem Feuer, a comparative literature and philosophy professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, defines a schlemiel as “a dreamer whose dreams don’t match up with reality. … S/he is not a hero in the typical sense; s/he is a hero in the moral sense.” For a gold mine of writing on the schlemiel, go to Feuer’s rich blog The Home Of Schlemiel Theory.
Many Jews, of course, have moved on from the spirit of the schlemiel as hero. With Israel as a model, there’s a drive to be tougher and more cold-blooded than their oppressors of old. This is manifested in a reliance on militarism, something that was once a bitter foe. Where once militarism threatened home and hearth, it now protects it.
That does not, however, discount the powerful archetype of the Yiddish schlemiel vis-a-vis militarism. And in this vein, the schlemiel fits nicely with the resilient characteristics and spirit of the American Peace Movement. As a proud member of this beleaguered institution, I can attest that, in a political sense we have suffered, and are suffering, quite “vicious, unrelenting harassment.”
“The schlemiel is neither saintly nor pure, but only weak,” observes Professor Wisse. “The sleight of hand of his comedy is intended to persuade us that this weakness is strength.” The schlemiel works his/her magic as a Yiddish-based form of ju-jitsu, employing the strength of the opponent — in our case, the cruel absurdity of our national security state — as narrative leverage against itself in a public relations dominated world of competing narratives.
The Manning and Snowden personas seem ripe for this kind of understanding. Manning’s trial is over and he awaits sentencing. Then there will be the appeals. Snowden has a year in Russia to work out a future. For both, the court of public opinion is still in session and very much alive. And in that court, there is plenty of room for public storytelling in the form of a PR/advertising campaign to elevate these Americans to a level of understanding more appropriate to the realities of modern civilian life.
Is this subversive? Of courses it is. So was the entire adult life of Frederick Douglass. And while Hyde distinguishes a real person’s life from the archetypal lives of characters in art and myth, he emphasizes how much someone like Douglass shares with the archetype of the trickster. Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden may not be the toughest hombres to stride through the realm of warrior culture, but tough is a relative word, as are courage, bravery and honor. We can’t allow the forces of militarization in America to steal this from these men.
Throughout his ordeal, young Bradley Manning has carried himself with mature grace and a gentle smile. Many Americans agree he has done important service in the pursuit of a more decent, more open America like many of us want to live in. The New York Times and The Washington Post and others used his material on a regular basis to better inform the American people.
Manning’s sexual orientation may put some people off, but who he loves is no more relevant than it is for a great American poet like Walt Whitman or any other life-oriented person standing in opposition to death-oriented personalities and institutions. Too much of our current militarized culture is obsessed with this latter realm, which late in his career Freud wrote about as “the death instinct.” Instead of appreciating the rich complexities of life and encouraging tolerance and openness (damnit, the word is love) — we too often foment hate and focus on the simple-mindedness of us-versus-them and good-guys-versus-bad-guys, too quickly employing violence and death as arbiters of disagreements.
Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are ideal everymen to showcase as a counter to the militaristic propaganda. The many rich manifestations of the trickster archetype can help in such an effort by emphasizing the mythic power of the peace movement vis-à-vis the national security state. The Trickster versus the Warrior. It can make the struggle more compelling and even entertaining, because in the process of causing disruption, the trickster is also a glorious clown.
My fantasy is a huge campaign with billboards, magazine ads and TV ads across the land. Like it says in The Holy Bible, the meek shall inherit the Earth. So what are we waiting for?
Tricksters of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.