March 22, 2008


"Every relationship of domination, of exploitation, of oppression, is by definition violent, whether or not the violence is expressed by drastic means. In such a relationship, dominator and dominated alike are reduced to things--the former by an excess of power, the latter by lack of it. And things cannot love...

Among the innumerable rights claimed by the dominating consciousness is the right to define violence, and to locate it. Oppressors never see themselves as violent."--Paulo Freire.

March 21, 2008


Image courtesy of wikipedia. Have you hugged a centaur today?

The theme lately at Goat Rope is the nature of myths. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts. You'll also find links and comments about current events.

One approach to understanding mythology is to see it as forming the basis of a given society. For sociology pioneer Emile Durkheim, myths and related rituals and symbols are an expression of social existence that represent the understandings, beliefs and practices of a group. They are in large measure the glue that holds a society together, continually renewing traditional understandings and norms.

In fact, Durkheim worried that such traditional understandings and practices were undermined in modern societies, which resulted in feelings of normlessness or anomie.

The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski expressed similar views of myths based on his fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands. He tended to see them as charters of social practices which promote the continuity of the social order.

Obviously, there is some merit in this approach, but it too has its limits. Even in modern societies such as our own, many people continue to study and appreciate the myths of ancient societies even though they are now divorced from our own rituals and practices.

Karl Marx tended to view myths both as a reflection of a given society and as part of the ideological system that supported existing social relations. Yet he was also aware of the continuing appeal of myths such as those of the Greeks. He gets the last word on the subject today (there will be more on myths here next week):

Is Achilles possible in a time of gunpowder and shot? Or is the Iliad possible in a time of the printing press or printing machine? Do not the necessary conditions of epic poetry, songs and legends and the muse, disappear with the coming of the printing-press handle?

But the difficulty does not lie in understanding how Greek art and epic poetry are linked to certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that they will still provide us with aesthetic pleasure and in certain respects serve as a standard and an unattainable ideal.

A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does not the naivete of the child give him enjoyment, and must he not himself strive for a higher level to reproduce the child's truth? Does not the nature of the child in every epoch represent the epoch in its natural truth? Why should not the historical childhood of humanity, where it had unfolded most beautifully in a stage that will never recur again, not exert an eternal charm? There are ill-bred children and precocious children. Many of the ancient peoples belong to this category. The Greeks were normal children. The charm their art has for us is not in conflict with the undeveloped stage of society on which it grew. Its charm is, rather, the result of the fact, with which it is rather inseparably linked, that the immature social conditions, under which it arose, and could only arise, can never recur again.

In other words, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes a myth is just a good Big Story and even if we can't live there the land of mythology is a nice place to visit.

1929? Here's Paul Krugman on the forgotten lessons of the crash.

EATING ONE'S HOUSE. From the Economic Policy Institute, here's a snapshot on how the housing slump may effect consumption and the overall economy.

PREDATORS. Also from EPI, here's a summary of a new report on how growing inequality has contributed to predatory lending practices and here's the full report.


ANTI-WAR EVENTS are occurring all around the nation and WV this week. Here's coverage from one such in Lewisburg.


March 20, 2008


The theme at Goat Rope lately is myths, what they are and what they mean. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts. You will also find links and comments about current events.

There are several different kinds of myths. Etiological myths explain why things are the way the are or how the world came into being. Creation stories are an example. Charter myths explain how institutions or rituals came into being.

In Greek mythology, for example, marriage as an institution came about as a promise the goddess Hera made an extremely amorous Zeus agree to before got to sleep with her. (Obviously, he didn't read the fine print...) Myths also can provide moral guidance or examples of good or bad behavior.

There are any number of theories of myths, some of which hold up better than others. Euhemerism is of ancient origin and gets its name from a Macedonian sage who believed that myths were basically exaggerated stories of real people that got more elaborate with the retelling or else were poetic descriptions of natural events. Goat Rope verdict: well yeah, there's some of that, but if that's all you see, you're missing out.

One of the most bizarre theories was that of the 19th century scholar Max Muller, who considered mythology "a disease of language." He also believed that all myths were basically solar in origin and were about the literal struggle between light and darkness. Whatever. It's hard to believe now that people took that seriously (but they did).

A stronger theory holds that myths are explanations of rituals. Both by nature are things that are repeated. Myths have been around as long as human speech and rituals have probably been practiced longer than that--in fact they can be seen as a vestige from the animal kingdom.

As Walter Burkert wrote in The Creation of the Sacred,

Religion may well be older than the kind of language we know, insofar as it is bound to ritual, which entails fixed behavioral patterns marked by exaggeration and repetition and often characterized by obsessive seriousness--patterns which are prominent even in the most modern varieties of religions communication. In principle, ritual reflects a preverbal state of communication, to be learned by imitation and to be understood by its function. It seems to be more primitive and may be more ancient than speech; it clearly has analogies in the behavior of animals.

Sir James Frazier, for example, developed the idea in The Golden Bough that myths remain long after the ritual has disappeared. He believed that many were based on the ritual of the killing of a sacred king and his replacement by a younger contender. Those views are no longer generally accepted but they did influence a group of scholars called the Cambridge ritualists.

No doubt they were onto something. Greek tragedy, for example, developed as part of the festival of Dionysus. Sometimes the connection is fairly easy to see. The Homeric hymn of Demeter, which recounts the abduction of Persephone by Hades, god of the underworld, may reflect ancient marriage rituals (the distinction between marriage and abduction being closer than we imagine today).

In other cases, however, the connection is harder to see and the insistence on the derivation of myth from ritual can become a restrictive dogma.

DELUSIONS OF COMPETENCE. In a recent speech defending the indefensible Iraq war, President Bush declared that "The world is better, and the United States of America is safer." But if you prefer something more reality based, here's Leonard Pitts Jr. on the subject.

RURAL AMERICA and stereotypes thereof are the subject of this item that originally appeared in Orion.

A BETTER WAY. This piece from the AFLCIO blog lays out an agenda for shared prosperity.

SPEAKING OF ECONOMICS, here's a conservative critique of market fundamentalism.



March 19, 2008


The theme at Goat Rope lately is myths and what they mean. You will also find links and comments about current events. If this is your first visit, please click on the week's earlier posts.

As discussed previously, myths are the Big Stories that convey deep meanings.

One interesting aspect of mythology is that most cultures don't recognize their own myths as myths. Rather, they are seen as stories that convey how things really are.

On this fifth anniversary of the Bush administration's unnecessary war in Iraq, I've been thinking about the myth used to justify it. It's a very old myth, one that theologian Walter Wink has called "the myth of redemptive violence," which underlies and tries to justify every system of domination. The myth, expressed in Babylonian mythology in the story of Marduk, who overcomes and kills Tiamat and creates the world from her body, involves the overcoming of primordial forces of chaos by an act of violence that establishes order.

Thus violence is seen as part of the natural order of things, the savior god that makes social life possible and which demands obedience.

According to Wink,

This Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today...

It is the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo. The gods favor those who conquer. Conversely, whoever conquers must have the favor of the gods. The common people exist to perpetuate the advantage that the gods have conferred upon the king, the aristocracy, and the priesthood. Religion exists to legitimate power and privilege. Life is combat. Any form of order is preferable to chaos, according to this myth. Ours is neither a perfect nor a perfectible world; it is a theater of perpetual conflict in which the prize goes to the strong. Peace through war; security through strength; these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion, and they form the solid bedrock on which the Domination System is founded in every society.

This myth was powerfully invoked by this administration in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to justify the invasion of a country which had nothing to do with the attacks and the results have been disastrous for the country and the world.

THE MYTH OF REDEMPTIVE VIOLENCE IN ACTION in Iraq is the theme of this review.


MASSEY ENERGY was cited in an incident related to the death of a coal miner in Kanawha County.

BE NOT ANXIOUS. It's often easier said than done, as this book review notes.



March 18, 2008


Botticelli's Birth of Venus.

The theme at Goat Rope this week is myth and what it means. If this is your first visit, please click on yesterday's post. You'll also find links and comments about current events.

My working definition of myth is a story that conveys deep meaning.

Throughout history, narrative has been the most common means of making sense of the world. We're all caught up in stories, even when we sleep. Myths in the sense of BIG STORIES were especially important in non literate societies where there weren't a lot of other ways of recording and storing information, but they are alive and well today, although ours probably aren't as cool as the old ones.

One reason why we may be mythologically challenged today is that we've inherited the relatively modern Western idea of the distinction between fact and fiction, with fiction have the connotation of falsity. The problem with that is that we can only make use of facts when they're part of a cognitive, emotive, and socio-linguistic process which organizes and interprets them.

In overvaluing "facts" at the expense of narrative, we've kind of become like Dickens' character Gradgrind in the novel Hard Times, who wanted to create “a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact.”

Stories, on the other hand, can convey truths that no shopping list of facts can do, which is why people like Jesus frequently conveyed teachings in parables.

Another fairly modern tendency that gets in the way of our understanding of myths and narrative is literalism. You can't really get a lot out of stories or myths if you take them all literally, which is one reason why fundamentalisms tend to be legalistic and spiritually impoverished.

My advice is to respect the world of facts but also to lighten up every so often and appreciate the truths in humanity's BIG STORIES. Don't myth out.

THE COST of the unnecessary war in Iraq is the theme of three items from The Nation. Here are articles on the war and the recession; war and the working class, and the economics of war and peace.

CLIMATE CHANGE AND SOCIAL CHANGE is the theme of this item by Bill McKibben.


RECESSION HITS THE STATES. Here's the NY Times on how many states are slashing services in the wake of the deepening economic downturn.


March 17, 2008


Nicolas-André Monsiau's The Twelve Olympians, courtesy of wikipedia.

El Cabrero thinks it's unfortunate that the word myth has come to mean something widely believed but untrue. Would that widely held beliefs were as cool as real myths...

The word, by the way, comes from the Greek term that means something like a spoken story. Classicist Elizabeth Vandiver defines myths as "traditional stories a society tells itself that encode or represent the world-view, beliefs, principles, and often fears of that society."

According to the scholar Walter Burkert, "Myth is a traditional tale with secondary, partial reference to something of collective importance."

Here's my shot at it: myths are stories that convey deep meaning.

Among human cultures, myth is about as universal as language, to which it is obviously intimately related. Humans seem to be hardwired for story or narrative and we construct them all the time, often unconsciously (which is literally the case when it comes to dreams). When I teach the occasional sociology class, I usually point out that humans have three main ways of making sense of the world: narrative, reasoning, and science, with narrative holding pride of place.

I don't think we can do without myths any more than rituals--when we don't have real ones, we seem pretty good at coming up with cheesy ones.

Some scholars separate myths from other kinds of traditional tales by suggesting that myths are mostly concerned with gods and religious rituals, while legends are traditional tales rooted in facts and folktales are entertaining narratives about things like unusual people or talking animals. In many and maybe most cases, they're pretty intertwined and hard to separate.

More on all this tomorrow.

UNHAPPY ANNIVERSARY. This week will mark the fifth year of the unnecessary war in Iraq. Here's Linda Bilmes with an op-ed on its mounting costs.

MICROLENDING and its limits are the subject of this New Yorker item by James Surowiecki.

THE END OF AN ERA? Let's hope so. Here's a piece that suggests the age of economist Milton Friedman is coming to an end.

DON'T PANIC is the theme of two recent books.

BACK TO THE ORIGINAL SUBJECT. Here's a nod to the uber-bard Homer from the Washington Post.