Sunday, June 04, 2006

Slow motion train wrecks, mything the point

When myths about ourselves are too cherished to let reality in to our awareness, myths will collide with reality in horrible, repeating, predictable train wrecks.

Myth: America enjoys a uniquely decent culture and the pious and heterogeneous roots of that culture have made us more benign as individuals and as a society than other cultures, especially Arab cultures.
Reality: Marines from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division in Haditha, Iraq on November 19, 2005, react to the death of Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas in an IED explosion by going into nearby homes and killing unarmed noncombatants including women and children.

This is not the only reality. Reality is an unknowably large record of "what actually happened". Even my hopes rose momentarily when Iraqis really turned out to vote. But to deny that angry barbarity is a part of the reality of what Americans can do is to make all claims of objectivity suspect. Those who are surprised that such things happen or who are still in denial that they have happened are indirectly at the root of why they have happened at all. What war never got nasty? Do we send saints for soldiers or are they rather ordinary youths different from enemies they hunt only in their expensive fire power? Who, any more, thinks the Marines have landed to save some kind of Grenada-with-camels? Why is there any surprise or disbelief that an atrocity in Haditha, and who knows how many more such, have happened and will happen? A "war president" owes his citizens, particularly those who have been kept at arms length from reality, a few frank reminders of what war entails. The sad truth is that if you don't come right out and say "we have decided to shed some blood in a far away country", you are going to catch some people by surprise when corpses turn up. Really, that is what war is. If I were a well armed young man still shaking from the sight of my best friend blown full of holes by a car bomb planted by faceless assailants in a neighborhood I had come to disarm, would I be calm? Could I stay sane at all? Really, that is what war is. If you aren't there, you can't say what you would do. Our country puts young men in these situations and dreams nothing ugly will happen, nothing counter to our myths. But we are sending only human beings to war and war coarsens the combatants it does not kill. Any more optimistic view of war than that is a myth. As the myth slowly disintegrates against the reality, there will be more handwringing in myth-burdened America than in Iraq where some myths are just one more luxury events long ago shattered.
When Iraq finds itself, in pieces or in tact, on some far off anniversary of the departure of American troops...then it will have its own new set of myths about its people's durability and we will not be flattered.

Playing to myth, taking political advantage of the fond beliefs that we Americans are all for and all of motherhood, family values and apple pie has been a key Republican strategy. It is divisive because it casts the "reality based" constituencies as outsiders. It is a disservice to those flattered to be identified as insiders in the circle of good people because it disarms their critical faculties. The misuse of myth for political advantage is not exclusively a Republican folly but now that it has blown up in their face, let us examine briefly the operation of myths implicit or explicit in their campaigns.

I will posit a working definition of myth first. A myth is a story exemplifying character or an assertion about character that may have little factual basis yet is embraced and even protected from examination by many because it provides a powerful label and a succinct means for possessing a positive identity for ones self. Some myths are about glorious things "we" did and some deeper myths are about who "we" are. Most, upon examination, seem like a tattered gossamer sail puffed out with a gale of wishful patriotic hot air. If you identify yourself via a myth, you stop looking for what is really going on and what will really make things better. I am not saying "myth" and meaning "necessarily false", I am not one of those dreaded America hating liberals. I am a stupidity hating liberal and I am saying the price we pay for labels and intellectual shortcuts and crutches for our collective egos is too high. I am saying "myth" and meaning "beliefs we use without proof or examination".

If my despondency shows in my choice of words, I beg you note that I am still hopeful my country will come to its senses. It is only that just now, I am depressed by watching a train wreck in slow motion.

Some myths even I believe: American democracy as it has grown up from the fertile ground of the US Constitution has, for all the inequities of our history, been a better form of government for more people than most of the schemes of government the other nations of the world have produced.

Some myths I have grown doubtful of: unbridled free enterprise, if you strip away the contribution of plundered natural resources and technology per se, may not account for the entirety of the explosive advance of the American standard of living over the last two centuries. Are we still in front of the crowd in technology? Do we still have resources to burn? How is our prosperity trending NOW?

Some myths I do not buy at all. Bush campaign speeches dripped with them, were hewn from them, were just a Bush/Cheney bumper sticker pasted on top of them. This is a Rovian form of persuasion in which Rove promises the media on the eve of the 2000 campaign:
Well, we're going to have to run a campaign that's based upon the issues. We're going to have to lay out a bold agenda to the American people, which we have been doing. I mean, every delegate is leaving here tonight with a 476- page book of the governor's policy speeches and white papers. We're going to run a campaign on the issues, these five big issues that we talked about a moment ago: Education, Social Security, Medicare, defense, poverty, and tax cuts. And we're going to be talking about that endlessly for the next 12 weeks.

But his boy Dubya plays to our myths thusly:
Its a Christian country or at least a country with theocratic leanings and that means we want "faith" to take over some jobs more typically considered as roles for government. From a Bush campaign speech in August 2000:
I'll work to triple the amount of money available for character education, expand the after-school programs that will encourage the involvement of faith-based programs and charitable organizations, all aimed at teaching children the difference between right and wrong; all aimed at mentoring children that says somebody cares for you, somebody loves you in society.
The American dream has some mysterious connection to "values" What did he mean when he said:
...making sure every child has a chance to access the American dream. You see, this American dream shouldn't be limited to a few. The ability to own your own business, the ability to raise a family in a safe neighborhood; the ability to grow up in a place where values are taught -- it shouldn't be limited to a few.
I too once held with some pride the notion that this was as good a country as any in which to aspire to financial success but its seriously tarnished these days.

The terrorism of 9/11 changed everything. In a campaign speech of Oct 20 2004, Bush milks fear before an audience that is suffering far more from economic conditions than terrorism. [mostly what has changed is how much the neocons think they can now get away with]
This is America's first presidential election since Sept. 11, 2001. The security of our country is at risk in ways different from any we have before faced.

We are in the midst of a global war against a well-trained, highly motivated enemy, an enemy who hates America for the very freedoms and values we cherish most.

The next commander-in-chief must lead us to victory in this war, and you cannot win a war when you don't believe you're fighting one. (Applause) Sen. Kerry was recently asked how Sept. 11 had changed him. He replied, "it didn't change me much at all."

And this unchanged world-view becomes obvious when he calls the war against terror primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation, rather than what I believe: A war which requires the full use of American power to keep us secure.

All of America's wars are great and just struggles for freedom, fought by selfless heroes. Addressing the American Legion on the eve of the 2004 Republican convention, Bush said:
In Afghanistan and Iraq and other fronts in the war on terror today, service men and women are carrying on your legacy of selfless service and courage under fire.

I know you share America's pride in them. They are serving our country with pride and they are bringing honor to the uniform.

Our fighting men and women are serving America under a proud flag, and that flag should be cherished and protected.

When John [McCain] and your national adjutant general, Bob, have come by the Oval Office, they always remind me about the Citizens Flag Alliance. I appreciate your leadership in that important alliance.

Like you, I support a constitutional amendment to protect the flag from desecration.

I admit to a bit of quote mining there. Anyone doubting Bush did not shamelessly promote jingoism as an alternative to intelligent defense measures can call me on would double the length of this post just to sample his more blatant appeals to emotional myths about American military goodness. The shame of it is that we really do have brave soldiers but, almost peculiar to the role of the soldier, they do not operate with the independence of conscience most liberals could demonstrate any day of the week. By the way, the Bush league have scored a major victory in making an independent conscience a dangerous thing for a government employee to exercise. I used this quote because I wanted to capture the shameful irony of that particular speech. He went on at length about how the administration had supported and was going to support veterans. Six months later, it was the ruckus raised by an embattled Sen. Byrd that actually restored almost a billion dollars the administration had cut from VA benefit programs. That is another, particularly sick American myth: we love our veterans...I think it is only true for about a week after the parades when they return from duty and it depends on whether we won the war or not...that short and conditional attention span is humiliating to me. The flag thing also underscores the political ploy, very similar to myth-milking, of substituting symbol for substance to forge political will.

I prefer the more factual if pedantic persuasion of someone like Gore.

Are there any objectively measurable differences between the use of myth by the left and by the right? Oh yes.

Google provides 15,700 pages if you query "liberal myths". The first screenful of links was material all about as thoughtful and informed as this sample from an article by Ray Thomas titled "Liberal Myths Part 3":
Why do the liberals fail at everything they try? Because they operate on a completely wrong premise. They think Americans are stupid, and that only they, the "elites" of the world, know what's good for us.

Who would you say has mythed the point in that typical passage, the author or his target? It was page after page of the same thing. The nearest approach to decent debate was a piece by Bruce Bartlett complaining that liberals think money for raised minimum wages must come from the tooth fairy. Lately the stingy gentleman has had to face the fact that dear leader was the guy who has been kiting checks on the tooth fairy's account.

The most interesting piece among the right wing debunking squad was by Fred Hutchinson. He tries to examine political myth making on his way to trashing Moore's sloppy "Farhenheit 9/11". Along with an imaginative description of the "myth making process of the left", Hutchinson provides one of the most tragically confused paragraphs the English language has ever had to bear:

Good Myths and Bad

The creation of myths and the delight in myths is a human trait. Myths can be good or bad. They can be good if they embody high ideals, give moral guidance, or tell essential truths about the nature of life. Myths can be evil if they call evil good and call good evil. Myths are evil when they tell lies, or put forward an image of life which is essentially false. Myths, like those told by Karl Marx and Hitler, are destructive because they breed devotion to wrong-headed causes leading to wars and revolutions and promote the rise of dictatorships. But the crowds cheered for the myths put forward by Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao.
No, Fred, its not quite like that. Read the newspapers. We are playing out policies and suffering the reality-gaps for those "good" myths about our high ideals. NO myth is good if it lets you stop thinking. Fred Hutchinson does not know me or, apparently, anyone like me.
  • Our family's yearly check to the IRS exceeds the median household income in our state,
  • I grew up Republican,
  • I have written a fair amount of software for the defense contractors,
  • I demand a damn good reason for taking up arms,
  • I want my vote to count as much as Ken Lay's [when he could vote],
  • I balance my checkbook every month and I don't think my government should be less fiscally accountable,
  • I have no debt,
  • I am actually capable of recognizing, without a preachers help, my interdependence with the rich and the poor, near and far who share this world with me while simultaneously being proud of and manifestly capable of taking care of myself and my family with no help from anyone else.
...and I cannot express how much I loath being lumped in with some failed dictators by a Republican paper pecker just because I don't buy Republican slogans. It is bone headed to speak as if anybody ever sold a "wrong headed cause" via wrong headed myths! Wars are always sold to us by appeal to the positive myths about ourselves.

Googling "conservative myths" only brought up 591 hits, the first of which cited more statistics and factual support than any of the conservative attacks except for a congressional memo. It might be subject for another post to analyze the difference in tone and content of right and left on the web...there do seem to be differences and I doubt that the radically larger amount of comparable right wing rhetoric reflects the difference in, say, voter registration between democrats and republicans. Red necks type faster? Astrosurf? I'll get back to you on that.

I cite these Googlings to illustrate what I am not talking about: myth as a code word for the other guy's lies, a propagandist's rhetoric. I am talking about ideas we all share more often than not and examine less often than we should...even the myth that there are "conservatives" and "liberals".

The seed for this post was my suspicion that conservatives
are far more likely to be swayed by appeal to myths. Anyone who, for some combination of emotional and intellectual befuddlement, thinks nothing is broken or that we have to return to a time when things were not broken, has already got one leg firmly planted on a cloud of myth. I figured I was not the first to reach such a conclusion and that the problem is not particularly modern. Not that there aren't abundant contemporary examples of myths the conservatives favor, or even author. But I was a little surprised at just how unoriginal that thought is. The connection between myth and conservatism was identified 2400 years ago when Plato imagined the "Statesman" as a herder of people. Attempts to bring that connection out of the philosophy departments and into the light have not been great political or commercial successes. And, of course, attacking our political follies at their mythic roots is an abusable enterprise. I would pick less Jungian, less academic myths, and dismantle the everyday myths about ourselves because our politicians desperately need to liberalize our world views before we all kill each other.

Resistance to myth and manipulation is an obligation of citizenship.

People I know and care about are on that train.


Davo said...

Ah.. myths are engine room of the vatican an Madison Avenue.

GreenSmile said...

Engine room. Yes, Davo, pretty much.

Know anybody who is making what you might consider a morally acceptable use of myths?...I'm still looking.