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.