Myth And Reality

Last night, the “rescue rangers” discovered an article entitled Pat Tillman And The Bush Cult. Susan G calls it “one of the best diaries I’ve read here in a long, long while.” I completely agree with that assessment. Indeed, I see this diary as a point of departure to understand not only our own political and cultural circumstances, but to tie that understanding to a more general understanding about the nature of society, culture, and politics — in all societies and for all of our history.

First let’s look at one of the “money quotes” — there are actually several.

How about an entire movement based on creating a fictional narrative?

And this is the key point in understanding the Bush Cult mindset. It is not that Bush Cultists are motivated by the desire to simply make Pat Tillman, or Jessica Lynch or any of the dozens of other stories they doctor, “look better.”

It is that they simply can’t tell the difference between fact and screenplay.

The Republican Movement of the past thirty years has not been driven by ideology, much as it might seem that way. It’s been driven by Hollywood Myth. This also explains that frothing obsession with the actual real world Hollywood that produced the very myths that define their reality. They hate Hollywood with such rabid and intense anger because Hollywood created them.

They have turned on their maker because to acknowledge the “maker” is to acknowledge that the myth was artificially created on sound stages and back-lots. With swelling orchestral music and Jimmy Stewart. With Auntie May cooking apple pie.

This is the myth the Republican Cult lives within. A myth built out of 1950s movies and T.V. that literally produced Ronald Reagan and continues to drive the entire mythos of their self-contained reality.

In other words, they didn’t “lie” about Pat Tillman at all. They simply hired a screenwriter to rewrite the story.

Rather than spend a lot of time rehashing WinSmith’s observations — really, go read the whole thing — I would like to take the next step — the one that liberates the progressive activist to start effectively dealing with the Republican myth machine.

That “next step” is simple. The world of “Hollywood myth” is nothing new. It is a fundamental human exercise. “Hollywood” didn’t invent this process, it has been going on since Egyptian priests invented the myth of the Pharoah-Gods, brothers to Isis and Osiris. WinSmith talks about people “participating” in this myth. As I read this description on this Sunday morning, what else could I think about but the millions of Catholics participating in the original salvation of fallen humanity.

Theater as a vehicle for social myths was invented by the ancient Greeks, who told and retold the same memes about flawed humans and their hubris — a story being replayed in the desert of Mesopotamia even as we speak. Shakespeare’s “histories” are well known instances of propaganda, written to legitimize the Tudors — complete with the demonization of Richard III, perhaps the most notorious “smear job” in English literature.

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamped, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them -
Why I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other;
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mewed up
About a prophecy which says that G
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.

Mythology is our collective consciousness. It tells people who they are, and where they fit into the cosmos — “cosmos” being the mythological picture of the whole of reality. Every society, and every culture, has a creation story. In our case, we have several operating at different levels. The “creation story” replayed in Hollywood in the early ’50′s is the one that tells of the birth of the late twentieth century America of middle class consumers. That myth is all about the heroic Americans, crossing the Atlantic to save the benighted Europeans from Hitler’s tyranny — and then graciously rebuilding our former enemies in our own image. For most middle class Americans, their knowledge of the history of America in the world begins and ends with that narrative. They know nothing of the imperialist history of America either before or after World War II.

The war in Iraq, and the war in Vietnam before it were simply stuffed into the same mythological mold — when in fact, they more properly belong in the “other” narrative, the imperialist narrative no one wants to hear about. As a matter of fact, elements of that “other” narrative are also present in the World War II story, but those elements are even harder to discover.

Now, let’s take the next step. You see, many of us in the “reality based community” indulge ourselves in yet another myth. That myth is precisely that we are “reality based.” This mythic narrative has a completely different collection of heroes with names like Galileo, Darwin, Freud, and Einstein. You can add to that list names like Descartes, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche. The entire dichotomy between “myth” and “reality” was invented by these guys. Before Galileo and Descartes, there was no conception of “mythology.” The myths were reality, as far as everybody was concerned, or at any rate, their own myths were. Other people’s myths were “heresy,” or “idolatry.” In fact, it was the religious wars and the underlying doctrinal controversies that led Descartes to the first critique of knowledge qua knowledge. He had the insight that everybody claimed that their own myths were “real,” and sought a method to figure out who was right. Our science was born of that effort.

We never learned in any final or absolute sense, how to discern “reality.” In the 140 years between Descartes’ meditations and Kant’s first critique, we came to understand something that very few people have ever fully grasped or come to terms with. We do not, and more importantly, we cannot ever know reality “in itself.” Our minds do not encompass the entire universe in all of its complexity. Our minds are only capable — and only ever will be capable — of making representations of reality, representations that will always be incomplete, and inadequate to fully account for the reality that gives rise to them. And what is “representation” except another word for “myth.”

It isn’t just conservatives who are slaves to their myths. We all are. What is an “electron?” It is a mathematical equation that is able to approximate — and therefore predict — physical phenomena. Not only do we not know what an electron “really” is, the day may come when our physicists decide that “electrons” don’t exist at all. They may come up with a different theory for how the universe is organized — “theory” being another word for “myth” — and look back on our current mythology of “electrons” with the same bemused condescension that we view medieval notions of the “humours.”

This does not mean, as some purported “postmodernists” would have it, that “there is no objective reality.” To anyone who adopts such a position, I have only to challenge him to step in front of an onrushing Mack truck. A renewed appreciation for the objective nature of the momentum of massive objects should be the last thing he realizes — right before his lights go out. But he already knows that, and accordingly will decline to accept the challenge. This does not mean that the apparent “solidity” of Mack trucks is “absolute” in any sense. Objects are “solid,” but only relative to certain sufficiently dense objects, composed of particles that have the requisite electrical properties, and at certain electromagnetic frequencies. Neutrinos aren’t even slowed down by Mack trucks. Radio waves on one of the spectrum, and gamma rays on the other, pass right through them. What is objective, and therefore “real” about Mack trucks — and other physical object — is that it’s nature is the same relative to any other similarly situated object. Mack trucks may be invisible to neutrino’s and highly destructive to human flesh — but they are universally invisible to all neutrinos and universally destructive to all humans. In other words, they have a nature, that nature is independent of our opinions, and it is possible for us to get a glimpse of that nature, even if it is impossible for us to ever fully comprehend a Mack truck in all of it’s infinite aspects or in every possible frame of reference.

As for Hollywood myths and the politics they generate, you should now have a better understanding of your role as an activist dealing in a world of people who carry around heads full of mythology. The first insight is that you’re no different. Your myths may not be the same, but you have them. Some of your myths may be better grounded in the real nature of things, then again they not be — especially if you have made the same egregious mistake made by so many humans in the past, namely assuming that your own myths are “real,” and that mythology is something that affects only fools.

Here is what that means, as a practical matter. If you want to be effective as an activist, you simply must get over your own mythologies, even as you learn how to deal with other people’s mythologies. The fact is that the vast majority of Americans are walking around with heads full of Hollywood mythology, the pernicious of which is the myth of “heroic America.” They are stuck in 1948. They think we just beat the Nazi’s and passed the Marshall Plan last week. They know nothing — or almost nothing — of our history in the larger world since then. More to the point, powerful interests are deadset on keeping them that way.

In order for you to deal with that reality, you have one simple task. Get over your own highmindedness. We are not a nation of physics professors. Mr. Spock doesn’t vote in our elections. Your next door neighbor, who goes to church on Sunday, watches American Idol Tuesday Night, plays Bingo on Wednesday night, and eats at the Piccadilly Cafeteria on Friday, does vote. There are a lot more of her, than there are of you. She is a fundamentally decent human being, perfectly capable of making intelligent decisions, if she is given sufficient information, framed in a way that she can readily comprehend. She’s not going to come to you. You have to go to her. That’s not to say that she isn’t fully capable of grasping the insights of the Critique of Pure Reason. She doesn’t grasp those, and she is never going to, because she’d rather play Bingo.

Does that neighbor of yours have a head full of myths that you don’t believe? SO WHAT??? You have a head full of myths, too — and you might wind up being as full of shit as she is. So quit worrying about it. She is not a scientist, and you are not seeking theoretical consensus. It doesn’t matter how she frames things in her mind. What matters is what decision she makes, based on those myths, memes, and frames. If a quote from Jesus, or John Wayne will bring her around to making the same decision as you, use it. In the end we don’t need everyone to believe the same things. But there are certain things that need to be DONE, and that people with all manner of beliefs, myths, and conceptual frames can agree on. In the end, what leaders do is not build consensus on the myths. They build consensus on action. They get that consensus anyway they can.

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