Tectonic Tremors, Ghost Dancing, and the Certification Riots

by Bill Benzon

Elizabeth from Knoxville

We haven’t yet settled on a name for the event. I do see “1/6” being used here and there, a formation parallel to “9/11.” However reference to 9/11 is common, well understood, and routine, while the use “1/6” is sporadic. But then the bombing of the World Trade Center is almost two decades old while the certification riots happened only yesterday. We’ve not had time to understand and assimilate them.

We don’t even know what to call them. I just used the word “riot”, but is that what they were? What does that word imply? What about “protest”, “insurrection”, “putsch”, or as Elizabeth from Knoxville said (see the video clip above), “revolution”? One might answer, “semantics, mere semantics, we all know what you’re referring to.” Well, yes, we’ve got the reference. But figuring out just what those events were, that’s not a matter of mere semantics. The legal and institutional implications of those words are quite different. Riots happen all the time, as do protests, insurrection is quite different, no?

Nor do we know just what happened. We’ve seen the videos, we recognize some of the people – how could we forget the Q-Shaman, with his skins, buffalo horns, and face paint? – and we know that five people died. But all those people and events have connections. How far do those connections reach? Who planned to storm the Capitol ahead of time with specific objectives in view and who just went along with the flow? Who talked with whom? Do any of those communication chains reach into Congress or the White House? What did Donald Trump know and when did he know it? What did he intend?

We have a nation divided against itself.

The tectonic plates are shifting

How deep and wide is the schism? Where do the connections end? The economist Glenn Loury recently remarked to John McWhorter, “large forces are at play in American democracy. The tectonic plates are shifting.” Think about that metaphor. In geology tectonics refers the physical structure of the earth’s crust; it’s the ground beneath our feet. What’s that mean in socio-political terms?

Listen to this short clip by Loury’s political economist colleague, Mark Blyth.

The clip is from four years ago as was pointed at Brexit, but Blyth quickly point out:

It’s not really about that. This is global phenomenon.

This is a revolt against technocracy and elites telling everybody else what to do. At the end of the day, for the past 20 years, 80% of the people have been told 80% of the time by the top 20% what to do, what to think, and what’s good for them. Guess what – they figured it out.

The 20% needs to listen, ‘cause if they don’t they’re gonna find something out. The Hamptons is not a defensible position.

Let’s step back in American history and come at this a bit differently.

Ghost Dancing

No, I’m not going to talk about the Civil War, though it’s been mentioned often enough in discussion of the current polarization of the American body politic. I want to go back to northern Nevada in 1889. A young Paiute Indian named Wovoka fell ill with a fever and, in his delirium, visited heaven. While there he talked with God and saw that all the Indians who had died were now young and happy doing the things they had done before the White Man had come upon them. News of the new messiah spread rapidly among the remnants of the Indian tribes. If they danced the right dances, sang the right songs, and wore their consecrated Ghost Shirts, not only would they be immune to the White Man’s bullets, but their loved ones would return to them, the White Man would vanish from the face of the earth, and the buffalo would once again be plentiful. Their fervor and belief were not rewarded and the Ghost Dance, as this last wave of revivals came to be known, soon passed into history.

Anthropologists and historians have told such stories hundreds if not thousands of times. It is the story of a people’s last desperate attempt to retain symbolic control over their world. Such revivals occur when a way of life has become impossible, for whatever reason, but the people themselves continue to live. Once again they resort to myth and magic to remake the world in terms they understand, to preserve identity and community in the face of unyielding events.

The Ghost Dancing that concerns me is not that of Stone Age people displaced and conquered by iron-mongering and coal-burning industrialists. Ghost Dancing has become a major force in contemporary cultural and political life, not only in America but broadly throughout the world.

Ghost Dancing in D.C., Wall Street, Main Street, All the Streets

It is easy to cast the 1/6 rioters-protesters-insurrectionists, even revolutionaries, in the role of the displaced Indians. After all they persisted in believing that Trump had won the election despite the absence evidence, and despite Trump losing over 80 lawsuits about the election. And then we have the prevalence of conspiracy theories, with QAnon perhaps being the most bizarre.

Out of touch with reality, yes, but the Trumpists are not the only ones, not at all. What about the financial wizards who brought about the financial crisis of 2007-2008? Did they really think that they could keep building out their rat’s nest of financial instruments forever? When reality finally tested those instruments and found them wanting, the whole thing collapsed. However, since wizards held considerable power, they were able to make a sweet bargain with the United States Government. In return for sacrificing Lehman Brothers, the government agreed to rescue these would-be Masters of the Greed-is-Good Universe.

In the end they’d succeeded. They gambled with the people’s money – much of the money sluicing through those conduits came from pension funds – lost it, but were made whole though taxes collected from those same people. It’s a clever game, one the wizards won, not through financial skill, but through political power. It’s still Ghost Dancing.

But financial manipulation is only once source of economic pain. Industrial and manufacturing jobs have done overseas to be replaced by service jobs and high tech jobs. Many service and high tech jobs follow the steel industry to Asia and elsewhere while artificial intelligence swallows more and more jobs.

The civil rights movement also forced major change. The struggle between liberty and racism is deep in the American soul, deeper than we can as yet comprehend. The civil rights movement changed America’s political culture in ways both good and unfortunate, and helped catalyze a wide range of social and cultural transformations that we too easily summarize as “the sixties.”

Finally, there is the collapse of the Soviet empire. During the Cold War Americans were encouraged to lavish animosity and hatred on the Soviets, their allies, and their clients. When that enemy dissolved, the animosity had to be redirected. I suspect that some of it was channeled into the War on Drugs, and, more generally, into the so-called Culture Wars. That is to say, we have been devoting more time and effort to fearing our immediate neighbors rather our distant enemies.

What Now?

The upshot of these events is injury to the beliefs and attitudes of many Americans as deep as that forced on many of the world’s peoples through conquest and colonialism.

The world is changing in ways we cannot control, for reasons we do not grasp, and there seems little hope for a future filled with the familiar comforts of home. It is thus not surprising that we are retreating behind revivalisms of various kinds. That is what societies do when their lifeways collapse.

It is not at all clear that America has the economic, political, social and cultural reserves needed to stop the retreat and once again to face the future with imagination and a realistic optimism. Our response to the bombing of the World Trade Center was deeply misguided. We set out to fight a vaguely defined enemy – terrorism – of unbounded scope and magnitude that quickly broadened from Iraq to Afghanistan and more recently to a vaguely defined conflict with The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

These actions and inactions – and a host more – are those of a sclerotic political establishment that is Ghost Dancing into the future with its eyes fixed firmly on the past, and a largely imaginary past at that. It is possible that, in the manner of an alcoholic who must “hit bottom” before he can cure himself, this establishment will simply continue on this path until even the most vigorous Ghost Dancing looses all plausibility.

When a lame duck President urges his followers to march on the Capitol (and then retreats into the White House to watch them on television), that’s as low as the country’s been in a very long time. Have we hit bottom? Probably not. It could have been worse.

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Note: I’ve been banging this drum for some time. I lifted parts of this essay from an essay I’d published here in August 2017. That was in turn updated and expanded from one I’d published in March of 2005 in a now defunct webzine, Buffalo Report.