Proteus, Glaucus and Scylla, Painting
"Glaucus and Scylla" by Jacques Dumont dit Le Romain. Oil on canvas circa 1720~178. Photo credit: Oursmili / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Despite the paralysis of partisanship, Americans are more adaptable than they admit. It’s in their nature.

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In a time of deep partisan division, it’s easy to forget what the dispute is really about. The American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton offers an intriguing answer to that question in The Protean Self, a book that hit the New York Times best-seller list back in 1993 and is even more relevant to the situation we face today than it was then. 

Lifton saw the growing partisan divide in America as a natural reaction to accelerating and destabilizing change. While a large segment of the population was struggling to adapt to change and to face the future, another equally large segment was likely to reject it. 

Lifton was writing his book two decades after the US had decided to declare victory and cut its losses in Vietnam, a pointless war that resulted in the death of nearly 60,000 American soldiers, more than a million North Vietnamese soldiers, and an estimated two million civilians. The divisions in American society over whether to continue fighting or admit that the US had made a tragic mistake were even louder and more violent than today’s partisan divide. 

Lifton, who spent his long career studying violence as well as the difference between the public’s professed intentions and its actual behavior, tried to make sense of the social chaos following a defeat that many Americans still refused to acknowledge. 

Retreat from Vietnam was followed by a period in which new technologies disrupted nearly every American industry and globalization shifted most manufacturing to developing countries where labor was cheap. Advances in automation and artificial intelligence made factories as well as many American workers suddenly obsolete. Americans still flew the flag on the 4th of July, but chances were that those flags were manufactured in China — everything else was. Despite these challenges, Lifton remained guardedly optimistic. What would steer Americans through the storm, he felt, was the “protean” personality of many Americans.  

Proteus, the mythological creature who caught Lifton’s attention, was a shape-shifting, ancient Greek god of the sea. Like the waters over which he ruled, the Proteus of legend could change his form to fit the circumstances of the moment. As Lifton saw it, the Protean personality in many Americans proved surprisingly able to adapt to new situations, while retaining those aspects of American values and culture which remained valid in spite of a changing environment. 

The United States might not have been the only country confronting change, but Lifton felt that most Americans had an advantage and were better prepared to deal with change than people in most other countries. The reason was that just about every American’s family history included a story of immigration at one time or another. The parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents of virtually everyone who was not a Native American had at some time in the past been part of a totally different culture, whether that culture was European, Middle Eastern, Asian, or African. 

Coming to America had meant adapting to a culture that was totally new. From that perspective, the concept of what it means to be an American had to be created virtually from scratch as the United States gradually defined itself. The rest of the world might also be experiencing the trauma of accelerated change, but as Lifton saw it, America had been there first. 

Ironically, Lifton suggests that the most resilient Protean personalities of all may be the African Americans. They were not only torn from their original cultures but were then re-enslaved through sharecropping and the oppressive apparatus of Jim Crow laws, and finally uprooted from family networks by the great migration of the mid-20th century, when hundreds of thousands of African Americans went north in search of jobs and to escape racism. Despite daunting challenges, African Americans managed not only to survive, but to thrive and make a major contribution to American identity.  

Stick with the old myths and we lose our capacity to deal with the world as it actually is. With increasing threats from Climate Change, food shortages, and the possibility of warfare that can easily escalate into nuclear holocaust, a world filled with mythology and illusion is a dangerous place to be.

Of course, not everyone has a Protean self. While a surprising percentage of the population exhibits a Protean ability to adapt to modern circumstances, there is always a segment that can’t. In this case, Lifton felt, the reaction to change expresses itself as a retreat into fundamentalism. 

On a global basis, that may explain the sudden rise of Islamic extremist movements such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the currently floundering Taliban in Afghanistan. It appeared to be the motivating force behind Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian Revolution. Followers of these movements claimed to be animated by religious conservatism (returning to a “purer” Islam of earlier days), but what really motivated them was their rejection of a rapidly changing world, mixed with a desire for political power to arrest those changes.

In the US, the fundamentalist reaction against change has expressed itself most noticeably in the Christian Right and various Evangelical offshoots and in the pro-Trump majority of the Republican Party. Like the Taliban, these groups seem obsessed with controlling women’s bodies — most notably in denying women access to birth control and abortion — while refusing to accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions. 

The problem with the fundamentalist approach is that it inevitably leads to a dead end. In an increasingly globalized world, change is going to happen, whether one likes it or not. The Taliban may be isolated and left to their own devices in Afghanistan, but Afghanistan’s role was always to serve as a buffer, a no-man’s land. A country as large and important as the United States cannot afford to be locked in the past. In any case, fundamentalism eventually collapses as its inconsistencies become increasingly clear. 

As Joseph Campbell, who spent his career studying mythology, pointed out, the ancient tribes believed that the sun chased the moon across the sky, but nobody believes that now. The Catholic Church once believed that the world was flat, and that the sun revolved around the earth. Do we still believe that? The chances of landing a rocket on Mars while proceeding from false premises about astronomy are slim at best. A literal interpretation of the Bible would fix the age of the earth at only 60,000 years. We know that that is not true. The Bible says that God created man on the seventh day. We know now that there was plenty of life on earth before humans finally evolved. 

Stick with the old myths and we lose our capacity to deal with the world as it actually is. With increasing threats from climate change, food shortages, and the possibility of warfare that can easily escalate into nuclear holocaust, a world filled with mythology and illusion is a dangerous place to be. Of course, there will always be some for whom illusion is preferable to reality. The Trump presidency spent four years trying to foist alternative realities on the American public and more than a few of his followers would like to continue in that direction. 

But the fact is that change is inevitable, even if it makes us feel uneasy. Campbell cautioned that as we discount the mythology of the past, we tend to forget that that mythology — particularly when it comes to religion — provided the social glue that holds everything together. 

As we abandon the mythology, there is always the danger that society as we once knew it may fall apart. The poet William Butler Yeats expressed this eloquently in his poem “The Second Coming,” which was published in 1920 and presaged the social changes resulting in World War II. Yeats observed that “things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” 

Luckily, as Lifton points out, this is not the first time Americans have experienced unsettling change and the threat of chaos. As the British geneticist Adam Rutherford notes in his book, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, the fact that you are alive today means that you are the survivor of a struggle that has taken place over tens of thousands of years. In short, the Protean self is far more resilient than many of us realize. It has worked so far; one hopes that it will continue to do so.  



  • William Dowell

    William Dowell is WhoWhatWhy's editor for international coverage. He previously worked for NBC and ABC News in Paris before signing on as a staff correspondent for TIME Magazine based in Cairo, Egypt. He has reported from five continents--most notably the War in Vietnam, The Revolution in Iran, the Civil War in Beirut, Operation Desert Storm, and Afghanistan. He also taught a seminar on the Literature of Journalism at New York University.

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