The BLM protests are the perfect Dionysiac moment
The Greek god revelled in the primal wildness of the mob
This week, Macy’s in New York began a series of what it describes as several ‘unannounced’ Fourth of July firework displays. To counteract the infection risk of pre-announced fireworks drawing mass crowds, the department store wasn’t running its usual huge fireworks display but something more like a series of flash mobs.
This led one wag to remark on Twitter that ‘this isn’t fireworks, it’s high-level mortar fire’. Doubtless Macy’s will do everything possible to ensure the fireworks take place without injuring anyone, but the story left me with a sense of a boundaries collapsing, between fun and something darker, that feels important in what Ed West last week called the ‘age of unreality’.
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Concurrent with Macy’s flash-mob fireworks, the Bronx is conducting its own user-generated pyrotechnic displays. Fireworks have recently been let off so loudly and frequently that conspiracy theories are emerging about how it’s a government psyop. Meanwhile, disturbing footage emerged in Baltimore showing young men shooting fireworks into a car to flush out the man hiding inside it, who was then pelted at short range with Roman candles.
There’s been much discussion in recent weeks of the political demands emerging from worldwide protests. Less has been said, though, about their primal wildness: the sense that, politics and justice aside, some of the chaos is happening because smashing things is fun.
In Euripedes’ play The Bacchae, written in 405 BC, the Theban king Pentheus is visited by Dionysus, the god of drunkenness, insanity, and desire. Because Pentheus has denied the divinity of Dionysus, in punishment the god drives all the women of the city mad. The king attempts to have the god executed, so in retaliation Dionysus first razes the palace, and then finally tempts Pentheus to disguise himself as a woman and join the throng of Bacchae — Dionysus-worshippers — celebrating his rites in the mountain. Dionysus then causes the Bacchae to turn on Pentheus, who tear him to pieces. His own mother returns to Thebes triumphantly bearing his bloody, severed head.
We’re watching something analogous take place in real time in our public square this summer. The line between entertainment, politics and violence no longer seems clear-cut, as rioters bring sound systems, raves turn violent, and both merge seamlessly under the banner of political protest. In this sobering video, a Somali-American from Minneapolis describes fearing for his children’s lives as they faced several thousand chaos-maddened rioters ‘there was no way of controlling’. The destruction, he reports, died down every day and began again at sunset. It’s hard not to see something Dionysiac in the rioting: an exuberance that’s impossible to separate from the horror, suffering and destruction that comes with it.
The irony is that this primal wildness is emerging at the heart of the progressive project, the core of which is that human nature is infinitely amenable to improvement by the application of reason. The idea that madness, violence, chaos and brutality can be eliminated from the world by reorganising society along rational lines is central to the contemporary call to ‘defund the police’ in favour of better social support and therapeutic mechanisms.
The Ancient Greeks understood, though, that this amounts to denying the divinity of Dionysus. Perhaps it’s no wonder that the pursuit of rational heaven on earth is ground zero for the re-emergence of everything repressed by the forces of reason.
And how would Mary like it if these Dionysiac revellers turned up at her house or business, threatening all manner of violence? Somewhat amusing, the risible Mayoress of Seattle did not order CHAZ/CHOP to be cleared out by the police until the ‘protestors’ turned up at her house. She cares only for herself, not for normal law abiding residents and businesses.
Well I wouldn’t call looting, burning and shooting people – often in cold blood – Dionysiac. Since they took over part of Seattle, BLM have contrive to kill two people. Both of them, needless to say, were black. And a number of black business owners were killed in the riots. Just a couple of days ago, they simply shot someone who had accidentally driven into the vicinity of one their ‘protests’. A protesters who had been been excluded by the BLM organisers for being too mad even by their standards shot into the protesters and killed a photographer.
A more accurate comparison would be with Dostoevsky’s ‘Devils’, which I happen to have read not long before it all ‘kicked off’.
No, it’s definitely Pure Dionysian in it’s shocking abrupt nature. The Greeks knew all about violence and realised its dualistic nature, to appeal and to disgust.
There is also sex at play here. Young people turn up at these events because they hope there’s a quickie in it for them. Also, lets face it, violence / danger is a turn on for a lot of people – women included I’m told.
What on Earth has this to with Euripides, and his posthumous play The Bacchae?
Is this salacious view of the Ancient World a gross distortion?Or an obsession driven by the sexuality neurotic world of manic monotheistic Semitic tradition, dignified as religion?
Somehow I don’t think Mr. Bailey’s comment goes to the point being made here. For one thing, Googling his reference, I find nobody saying that “BLM” has “killed” anyone. The “autonomous zone” has a problem with night-time security, with armed people moving about, but it’s not been confirmed that these people are BLM or anyone in particular. More likely, they are Boogaloo, since Boogaloo bois are armed, which BLM people typically are not, and the bois go around at night to preserve their anonymity. But that’s just a dollop of distraction Mr. Bailey managed to insert here.
The interesting question is whether the BLM demos are representing also a kind of primal urge to group, demonstrate and celebrate socially binding inspirational experiences. Crowds do this generally and people love them; football and baseball stadiums are erected in honor of this. The more interesting question is what this Dionysian element signifies for understanding the BLM movement. Perhaps there’s a bit of covid cabin fever contributing to this rush to the streets, as well as frustration with the presidential campaign, all crystallizing around Floyd’s murder much as the Arab Spring crystallized in Tunisia around the self-immolation of a street vendor. Veterans of epic moments like this are both pleased and cautious, watching this one, as we know they mostly tend to dissipate when it rains too hard or some discouraging thing happens or when a token victory is made. Or simply when people have to get back to work. The exodus of leftists from Nicaragua after the Triumph was striking, leaving only the Christian activists to stick out the unglamorous job of actual governing a wrecked society in a crippled economy. (Disclosure: I’m not Christian.)
But there’s also the question of whether Dionysian impulses are a problem in themselves. I think not. The lesson from the Greeks was that you deny the God at your peril. Bacchanals are sacred because they express something essential and precious about the world and about human experience in it. The stuffy, the repressive, the straight-laced and tied up, the sexually repressive, the “authorities” who ban dancing, singing and music, the anti-human movements among human society are all committing a crime against the gods and will pay. Perhaps this applies to the elder white Fox News viewers who are all sniffy about BLM and scenes of what they see as mayhem, just as it applied when they sniffed at “hippies” in the 60s.
To me it seems the anti-human movements are emanating from BLM and its supporters. Have you not noticed who is doing the censoring, the silencing, the closures and the firings? The ones imposing weird sexual ideologies on us and our children? It’s certainly not elderly Fox News viewers. There is nothing celebratory about looting, rioting, and race-baiting.
In a weird turnaround it’s the conservatives who have become countercultural and ‘liberal’. Woke culture is a social disease perpetuated by adults who are driven, not by an internal set of values, but by Twitter likes and manufactured outrage. They are ghoulish narcissists who will cannibalize anyone who holds a mirror up to their sordid behavior.
This is nothing like the Bacchanal celebrations of Ancient Greece. This is more like Al-Qaida destroying cultural artifacts because they are offended by them and punishing people because they are not pure or ‘woke’ enough.
“Googling his reference”
That could be your problem Virginia. Google is not a reliable or honest source.
There were four murders at the Seattle “summer of love” as well as numerous rapes, sexual and general assaults. Whether they were largely or solely by BLM affiliates we will probably never know. There were many activists, some reasonable folk caught up in the madness of the moment as well as some so seriously deranged they were there solely for the mayhem.
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