Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Did Bannon and Mercer Game the Whole System but Finally Play Themselves?


theatlantic |  Taboo and sacredness are among the most important words needed to understand Charlottesville and its aftermath. Taboo refers to things that are forbidden for religious or supernatural reasons. All traditional societies have such prohibitions—things you must not do, touch, or eat, not because they are bad for you directly, but because doing so is an abomination, which may bring divine retribution. But every society also makes some things sacred, rallying around a few deeply revered values, people, or places, which bind all members together and make them willing to sacrifice for the common good. The past week brought violent conflict over symbols and values held sacred—and saw President Trump commit an act of sacrilege by violating one of our society’s strongest taboos.

The “Unite the Right” rally was an effort to mobilize and energize a subset of the far-right around its own sacred symbols—including swastikas and confederate flags—by marching to another symbol that is its members believed was under attack, a statue of Robert E. Lee. The psychological logic of the rally was to bind white people together with shared hatred of Jews, African Americans, and others, under a banner and narrative of racial victimhood and racial purity. Marching and chanting in unison has been shown to intensify feelings of oneness and social cohesion. The psychology of sacredness and its function in binding groups together is essential for understanding the method and the motives of the marchers.

Taboo violations are contagious. They render the transgressor “polluted,” in the language of anthropology, and the moral stain rubs off on those who physically touch the transgressor, as well as on those who fail to distance themselves from the transgressor. When people march with Nazis and Klansmen, even if they keep their mouths closed when others are chanting, and even if they don’t personally carry swastika or Klan flags, they acquire the full moral stain of Nazis and Klansmen. By saying that some of these men were “very fine people,” the president has taken that stain upon himself.

You can’t just apologize for breaking a taboo, especially a taboo as deep as the one on Nazis and the KKK. Many religions offer methods of atonement, sometimes involving fasting, self-flagellation, and temporary separation from the community. But even if an anthropologically sophisticated chief of staff could devise a secular form of atonement, Trump would not undergo it. He does not believe he has done anything wrong.

So the stain, the moral pollution, the taint, will linger on him and his administration for the rest of his term. Business leaders have quit his panels and projects; artists who were due to receive honors from the president have changed their plans. Pollution travels most rapidly by physical touch, so be on the lookout for numerous awkward moments in the coming months when people refuse to shake the president’s hand or stand next to him. It is unclear how far the contagion will spread, but it will surely make it more difficult to attract talented people into government service for as long as Trump is the president.