Saturday, July 31, 2004

The Power of Myth

Boy with Fruit BasketMyths are often regarded as quaint stories, perhaps relating a tale of morality or human folly, but otherwise embodying only entertainment or fantasy. In the current political season, however, they have assumed a surprising power and resonance.

Myths in and of themselves are neither inherently good nor bad. There is a wide spectrum, ranging from pure fantasy to caricature based in greater or lesser degree on fact. Ancient Greek and Roman myths - while perhaps believed to be factual by some - often served as lessons in morality or life, despite their grounding in pure human imagination. On the other hand, there is a certain amount of myth surrounding America's great leaders, such as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, largely based on their historical greatness, moral character, and accomplishments. The historical aspects of their lives and moral strengths are sometimes embellished with non-historical events to highlight their greatness. George Washington's cherry tree story exemplifies this mythical device, using a fictional story to depict his honesty. In such instances, myth serves a noble master.

Myth can also be a powerful force for evil. Consider the ultimate outcome of the myth that the Jews were responsible for Germany's defeat and humiliation after World War I, and that Germans were an inherently superior race. The resulting anti-semitism and the widespread cultural adoption of the Aryan mythology in Nazi Germany gave birth to some of the most unspeakable horrors in human history. Millions died and the untold suffering and carnage of WWII were unleashed as a result.

Myths have always played an important part in politics and political governance. They serve as an abstraction of ideas and ideals. In a highly complex society such as the United States, the details and intricacies of piloting such a great nation are beyond comprehension, even to the most enlightened and educated. It is important, then, to abstract one's philosophy, to create an overarching story, to thereby depict and communicate to millions a worldview. Myth plays an important role in this task.

One such attempt to create a myth is the portrayal of George W. Bush as a "war President". Although (surprisingly) disputed by some, we are in a war against militant Islam, a religious war, smoldering for several decades, but fully declared on September 11, 2001. And while controversies abound regarding its execution and priorities, George Bush has been President during this period, and has demonstrated decisive (although many would maintain, misguided or even despotic) leadership. But he is not in the mythic sense a "war President", such as an FDR or a Churchill, where an entire country is mobilized, significant sacrifices willingly made, with a unanimity of purpose and resolve standing behind a charismatic leader. This is due in part to the Bush leadership style and his communication shortcomings, but even more so by the nature of the war itself: an elusive, nebulous enemy not associated with a nation-state, where progress is most often made in secret and campaigns are by necessity clandestine, or tangential, such as Iraq. It may very well be a war upon which our survival depends, but it is also a devilishly difficult war to sustain and sell. Myth worked powerfully against Hitler and Tojo, who could be personalized and demonized, but in an instant-information media and web age, against a faceless cloaked enemy skilled at media manipulation, it is a difficult task indeed to to bring myth to bear in this war.

Unlike the "war President" myth, based fundamentally in truth but flawed in imagery, and therefore doomed to sway very few, the Democrats are awash in powerful myths which energize many, get heavy media attention with little objective scrutiny, and which are nearly entirely based on falsehoods. The litany is long: the "stolen 2000 election" (proved false by such biased neocon vote-counters as the NY Times, Washington Post, and Miami Herald); the "one million disenfranchised black voters" in Florida (the real number is in single digits, unless you count the military absentee votes); the attack on Max Cleland's patriotism (his legislative record, yes; his patriotism, never); the list is long indeed. Myth here serves a dishonest master, but this in no way diminishes its power.

Take, for example, one small instance in John Kerry's acceptance speech, in one of his "help is on the way" litanies:
What does it mean when twenty five percent of the children in Harlem have asthma because of air pollution?
The statement is based partly in truth: a recent study from Columbia University did demonstrate that about 1 in 4 children in Harlem have asthma, significantly higher than the general population, where about one in 15 have the disease. The power of the myth arises from both its context in a political speech and its false conclusion. The false conclusion is that air pollution is responsible for this health crisis. The facts are that air pollution, while a minor exacerbating factor, is trivial compared with environmental allergens such as insects, dust, and cigarette smoke - 50% of the homes with asthmatic children house smokers. Many of the children diagnosed were not previously known to have the disease - which means they had only minor (or no) symptoms. Air pollution is a bit player, relatively speaking, from a public health standpoint.

But from the standpoint of myth, it is powerful. It plays to stereotypes already well-established in the mythic realm: Republicans are the friends of Big Oil and other corporate polluters. They are for dirty water and air, preferring to spend billions on an illegal War for Oil rather than devote money for government programs to fight pollution. They are against The Children. And an epidemic of asthma in Harlem? Those racist Republicans are dancing on their yachts.

Both parties use such myth and imagery, of course: hyperbole is the oxygen of politics. But the Democratic Party in the past few decades has become almost entirely a party of myth. Attempt to address any challenging social issue and you will encounter it. Reform Medicare or Social Security? You are driving seniors to eat cat food and live on the street. Reasonable restrictions on abortion, such as parental notification for minors? Look for women having back-alley abortions with coat hangers. Raise concerns about the effects of unrestricted sexual license on society? Look out for the morals police in your bedroom. Worried about non-traditional marriage and its effects on our children and culture? Hate is not a family value. And don't even try to have a discussion about problems in the black family or community, or another church will burn.

The fundamental dishonesty of each of these myths has been thoroughly established, but facts are of no use here. In the postmodern, Gnostic world of the liberalism and the Democratic Party, the Myth IS Truth. One can only hope that the American people have the wisdom to discern the difference, and reject the demagoguery with its vast potential for evil.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Intellectual Giants, Moral Midgets

SpiderwebsAmy Richard's article on her selective reduction in the NY Times Magazine (registration required) has recently been discussed on National Review Online (see also here) and elsewhere. It should be read by everyone with an interest in the abortion debate, or the general state of the culture wars in 21st century America.

At every level, Ms. Richard's story displays the moral vacuousness of the contemporary secular mindset. First, there is the impermanence of the relationships which will bear and raise children. She never indicates any consideration of marriage to her boyfriend, either while anticipating a pregnancy or after her child is born. Then there is the casual nature of the decision to have a child. She stops the pill because of hormone-driven moodiness, nobly deciding to keep the inevitable trophy child rather than suffer the agonies of monthly menstrual misery. She never once considers the implications for her child, or the society he will inhabit, inherent in her decision to raise him in an intrinsically unstable and uncommitted parental relationship. Finally there is the stunning reflex decision to terminate one or more of her unborn children when the serpent jaws of a self-gratifying lifestyle arise like the heads of Hydra. No thought of a moral or ethical dilemna ever crosses her mind as she clutches at the salvation of a potassium chloride syringe.

And let us not forget about the professional, clinically detached physician who delivers the death syringe to carefully selected unborns. The lifesaving miracle of high resolution ultrasound and fetal intervention selecting those twins whose crime was being one day too young.

Despite the high-minded rhetoric about "choice" in the abortion debate, at its heart abortion is about unfettered sex, or in the larger moral context, the pursuit of self-gratifying behavior while refusing to accept its inevitable consequences. Spiritual principles, much like the laws of physics, cannot be violated without consequences. No matter how fervently I believe I can fly, flapping my arms while jumping off tall buildings will always make me an undesirable client for my life insurance company. Violating spiritual laws results in even more pervasive effects, since the spiritual tsunamis roll not merely through our own lives, but those of everyone we touch, both near and far. Unlike the violation of physical laws, however, the consequences are far more easily denied, rationalized, and minimized when they are in the realm of the spirit.

In the secular mindset, sexual "freedom" trumps all; the death of the unborn fruits of this behavior is not considered too high a price to pay. Any moral qualms about the ghastly consequences to the child can be mitigated by redefining language - an unborn child becomes a "fetus", a "product of conception" - to move us a few steps farther away from the uncomfortable and convicting truth. Then we change the subject to a more defensible arena: abortion is about "freedom", and "choice", and "women's health", and "rights" - all straw-man targets far harder to attack than the crumbling and indefensible edifice at the core of the issue: snuffing out a unique, defenseless human being to promote and enable a self-centered, self-gratifying way of life. Amy Richards has given us a rare, inadvertently honest look into the dark soul of secularism. We should look long and hard, and never forget, what the inevitable outcome of contemporary secularism will produce: shallow, empty humanity, exterminating our young to preserve our shopping preferences.

Our culture is advanced beyond the wildest imaginations of those even a century ago. We clone sheep; take stunning pictures of Saturn from its rings; perform surgery robotically; retrieve information in seconds with web browsers that formerly took years to acquire, if ever. We as a society are intellectual giants in history. Yet as our knowledge increases exponentially, our wisdom withers: we are just as truly moral midgets.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Grace at Starbucks

StarbucksIt was late evening. I was headed for a meeting, at the end of a too-long day, and stopped into Starbucks for a fix. The store was empty except for a single barista. I ordered my coffee, and was stunned when told: "Your drink has been paid for by someone else." I looked around - no "someone else" here.

The coffee was free, but better yet: I had received a free life lesson on grace.

I was raised with the conviction that one should expect nothing in life for free, and that hard work will ultimately be rewarded. Perhaps as a result, I have always been uncomfortable with complements or gifts received in unexpected contexts. Such awkwardness with gifts or complements seems common in others as well, a discomfort I suspect comes from a deep-seated sense of unworthiness or shame. There is a reflex need to reciprocate, to depreciate oneself, or even to decline the gift itself. I suspect I'm hardly alone with this awkwardness.

But here, at Starbucks, I was left without the opportunity to justify, minimize, rationalize, or refuse the offered grace. The perpetrator was long gone. I was busted.

As a Christian of many years, with hours of Bible study, books and sermons under my belt, I have long believed that I possessed a good intellectual grasp of grace. Grace was unmerited favor, best exemplified by Christ's sacrifice on the cross. And of course, I understood that I was saved by grace and not by my own merit. Yet there is something deep within, at the level of instinct, which resists this notion with great ferocity. I believe I can bridge the gap between myself and God because I have minimized with wild abandon the vastness of this chasm. God saved me, and I pay Him back by living as moral and upright a life as possible. It's only fair, you know, gratitude and all. It's also utterly wrong.

A stranger left a few dollars at a Starbucks for someone he or she would never know nor meet, who could not thank them. There would be no reciprocal payback, no Thank You's, no praise for their generosity or acknowledgement of their kindness of spirit. Pure giving, with only the joy at anticipating that some unknown person would be blessed.

God's grace is given with His full knowledge of the unworthiness of its object. It is pure love: not intended to get something in return, but rather to change the very nature of the object of grace. The thief on the cross had nothing to give back to God, but his life was transformed moments before his death - and we are the recipients of the grace given to him. I do not serve God to pay Him back for His grace; I serve Him because His grace changes my very nature, into one who in some small measure is an instrument whereby He can pass His grace on to others.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Kerry's Choice

Persians YawningThe anticipation is over, the selection made: it's John Kerry and John Edwards. After all the media hyperventilation, the speculation about Hillary and surprise candidates who would add pizazz and dazzle to the Democratic ticket, flirting with McCain (who, while flaky, is not suicidal), the NSA-level secrecy, it's ... John Edwards?? ... Oh, well. It was fun while it lasted.

There were two VP candidates who could have made the race interesting and competitive: Hillary Clinton and Sam Nunn. Hillary wouldn't be caught dead with a dud at the top of her ticket, given her designs on the Whole Enchilada in 2008, so I would have been very surprised to see her selected - she's far too calculating. But Sam Nunn - now that would have been a horse race. Nunn, the retired Senator from Georgia who chaired the Armed Services Committee, has it all: a moderate Democrat from a Southern state with strong defense credentials and a smooth, non-abrasive manner, a real winner in every regard. He's a Democrat of the old school: principled, reasoned, and with a good perspective on the role of the U.S. in the world in the midst of a terror war. They don't make 'em like that anymore.

When George Bush the First chose Dan Quayle as VP, does anyone recall the media spin? Bush had chosen Quayle because, even though a lightweight, he was young, attractive, would help carry a key state (Indiana), and had sex appeal for women voters. I'm sure we'll see the same sort of analysis of Edwards - who is Quayle without the character - in the mainstream media, but don't hold your breath. One major difference between them, though - Quayle & Bush carried Indiana.

Kerry's choice is just another indicator of the empty shell which the Democratic Party has become since the Clinton years. Once a party of noble ideals and true (albeit often misguided) compassion, they sold their soul during the Clinton scandals to maintain power at all costs, dropping lockstep into increasingly vitriolic rhetoric while studiously emptying themselves of principle and integrity. The outcome is a party which cannot find anyone of greater substance and character for VP than John Edwards, whose sole attributes are his good looks, his domecile, and the deep pockets of his trial lawyer friends.

As a conservative, this development - at first seemingly attractive - is not a good thing. Character develops through struggle and resistance. As the Democratic Party devolves into Michael Moore hysteria, seeking policy directives from Barbra Streisand, Republicans morph into the growing void, becoming less principled, more dependent on big money, throwing entitlement bread and circuses at the increasingly restive and surly mobs.

It is for this reason more than any other that I hope for a Bush blowout in November, although I am not optimistic. If Democrats are competitive this Fall - or, God forbid, win the Presidency - it will only energize the influence of the postmodern psychosis which has taken posssesion of their party, to the ultimate detriment of our nation's political process.