The “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra” post from last week drew a lot of attention, and I’m glad to see someone else make a similar point. Gary Kamiya (who is very sharp, btw; I’m always impressed with what he writes) leaves out the Star Trek reference but writes that George Bush’s entire presidency is based on myth:
Bush’s entire presidency has been propped up by the War Myth. By aggressively presenting himself as a war leader, by wrapping himself in the sacred robes of patriotism, the military and national honor, Bush has taken refuge in the holy of holies, the ultimate sanctuary in American life. He has made criticism of his policies tantamount to criticism of the one institution in American life that is untouchable: the military. He uses the almost 4,000 new crosses in military cemeteries as a talisman against his opponents — notwithstanding the fact that he is wholly responsible for those crosses. …
… What is crucial to understand is that the War Myth can be effective even when reality utterly undercuts it. Myths appeal to transcendental values, shared sacred beliefs. Once we have entered the realm of myth, taboos replace rational discourse.
That irrational power explains the Democrats’ recent humiliating collapse on Bush’s intelligence surveillance bill. It explains why Republican politicians, whose ideology is steeped in the War Myth, have failed to rebel against a doomed war that could cost them their jobs. And it is why the American political establishment is waiting hat in hand for Gen. Petraeus’ predictable report, in which he will say the surge is working and ask for more time.
“Myths appeal to transcendental values, shared sacred beliefs. Once we have entered the realm of myth, taboos replace rational discourse.” A few people who read the “Darmok” post argued that lefties are just as bad about mythical thinking as righties. But I’m not sure these people understood what I was saying. A “myth” isn’t just a made-up story. Myths, whether religious or political, create a context in which we understand ourselves and others. People who are deeply steeped in mythos interpret everything in that context. For example, someone whose understanding of liberals is that they hate America will interpret everything liberals do or say through that filter. It doesn’t matter what liberals might do to prove they are patriots; it will be interpreted as phony. Because, you know, liberals hate America.
For example, yesterday Digby posted some right-wing comments published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
Could’ve been a dead body on the stage and no delegate or speaker would have called attention, so desperate are they to appear mainstream. These are folks who think hiding their beliefs is necessary, because you wouldn’t like them if you found out.
Translation: The Democrats are not saying what the writer’s mythos tells him Democrats believe. Therefore, the Dems are hiding their beliefs.
This is the George McGovern anti-war party. Omega Lamont of Peachtree City calls it the “Botox convention.” Any cosmetic to dress up Kerry and his band of ’60s peaceniks as a party that can be trusted to lead in a world in which fanatics are determined to destroy us.
Translation: The George McGovern myth informs the writer that Democrats are “peaceniks” who will not defend America. I’ve written before that the McGovern myth is based on a gross distortion of history. See, for example, “Don’t Blame McGovern” and “Don’t Blame McGovern II.” But the important point here is the writer doesn’t feel a need to justify his claim that Democrats can’t be trusted to handle national security. He just evokes McGovern.
Once we have entered the realm of myth, taboos replace rational discourse. In this case, the “taboo” is entertaining the possibility that a Democrat might want to defend America from enemies and be as “tough” on national security as anyone else. This is in spite of the fact that two Democratic presidents led the nation in World War II, and another saw us through the Cuban Missile Crisis. The McGovern myth overrides all. Democrats are pansies, by virtue of being Democrats. The McGovern myth says so.
Elements of the far Left are not immune to mythic thinking. Alexander Cockburn explains,
These days a dwindling number of leftists learn their political economy from Marx via the small, mostly Trotskyist groupuscules. Into the theoretical and strategic void has crept a diffuse, peripatic conspiracist view of the world that tends to locate ruling class devilry not in the crises of capital accumulation, or the falling rate of profit, or inter-imperial competition, but in locale (the Bohemian Grove, Bilderberg, Ditchley, Davos) or supposedly “rogue” agencies, with the CIA still at the head of the list. The 9/11 “conspiracy”, or “inside job”, is the Summa of all this foolishness.
However, what I think of as mainstream lefties — which includes pretty much all of the leftie blogosphere and the more progressive parts of the Democratic Party — were never Marxists to begin with and barely pay attention to the truthers, except to ban them from our blogs for being tiresome.
But our counterparts on the Right live in the land of myth. And, as Gary Kamiya says, plenty of Democrats are hemmed in by rightie myths, either because they believe them or they think it’s political suicide to argue with them.
When Bush trotted out his highly imaginative version of Vietnam history last week, I realized that the facts of Vietnam were not the point of the speech. He was speaking of what Vietnam represents to the Right, emotionally and mythically. Gary Kamiya continues,
But for Bush, Vietnam’s real relevance to Iraq isn’t the early withdrawal issue — it’s the “stab in the back.”
The “stab in the back” holds that America was only defeated in Vietnam because we lost the will to fight. And those who sapped our will, those who betrayed our fighting men, were cowardly protesters and craven politicians. As Bush told “Meet the Press'” Tim Russert in 2004, “The thing about the Vietnam War that troubles me as I look back was it was a political war. We had politicians making military decisions, and it is lessons that any president must learn, and that is to set the goal and the objective and allow the military to come up with the plans to achieve that objective. And those are essential lessons to be learned from the Vietnam War.”
As Kevin Baker noted in an in-depth analysis in Harper’s, the “stab in the back” thesis is the ur-right-wing credo. It brings together two keystone beliefs: the idea that America is omnipotent and incapable of defeat, and that any war the U.S. engages in must be noble and heroic. Therefore, if America is defeated, traitorous elites — craven politicians, un-American punks, degenerates, longhairs, pinkos and agitators, and the cowardly elite media — must be to blame. Nixon and Agnew’s demonizing of “nattering nabobs of negativism” and Reagan’s claims that war protesters were giving “comfort and aid” to the enemy sprang from this belief.
I’ve written several posts that cite the Kevin Baker article, several of which are archived here; see this post in particular. Baker argues persuasively that in the postwar years Republicans saved themselves from irrelevancy by propagating the “FDR and Stalin at Yalta” myth. He wrote,
A growing chorus of right-wing voices now began to excoriate our wartime diplomacy. Their most powerful charge, one that would firmly establish the Yalta myth in the American political psyche, was the accusation that our delegation had given over Eastern Europe to the Soviets. According to “How We Won the War and Lost the Peace,” an essay written for Life magazine shortly before the 1948 election by William Bullitt—a former diplomat who had been dismissed by Roosevelt for outing a gay rival in the State Department—FDR and his chief adviser, Harry Hopkins, were guilty of “wishful appeasement” of Stalin at Yalta, handing the peoples of Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Baltic states over to the Soviet dictator.
Please do read the Kevin Baker article if you haven’t already. The basic point is that the Vietnam myth and the McGovern myth are really just add-ons to the Yalta myth. And when you’re discussing Iraq with someone whose understanding of American defense policy is entirely steeped in the Yalta-Vietnam-McGovern mythos, you might as well be talking to a tree stump. And a nasty little bugger of a tree stump at that; one who thinks the only reason anyone would want to end the war is to stab America in the back.
Gary Kamiya thinks that most of America is no longer buying the “Bush the War President” myth.
The inescapable truth is that Bush’s war of choice has destroyed an entire nation — and there is no way for the United States or anyone else to control what happens next. The increasingly shaky plight of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shows just how unstable Iraq’s cobbled-together political system is. U.S. dreams of replacing him with a secular strongman like Ayad Allawi are delusional. The war is not winnable, and there is thus only one possible rationale for continuing it, the one Bush raised: preventing an even more apocalyptic blood bath than we have already caused.
If we knew that by staying we could avert such a blood bath, we would owe it to the Iraqi people, whom we have harmed so grievously, to remain. But the fact is that no one can really predict whether our departure will cause such a blood bath. Moreover, it is now obvious that the political and sectarian schisms that could lead to it will not heal themselves. As Gen. Petraeus has admitted, it might take a decade to achieve real stability in Iraq. In other words, Bush is asking the U.S. to keep troops in Iraq, possibly indefinitely, in an attempt to forestall an outcome that might never happen — precisely what he argues we should have done in Vietnam.
This is not a scenario that Congress or the American people are going to accept. We are now approaching an endgame in Iraq that has its own inexorable logic, which not even Bush’s appeals to the War Myth will be able to stop.
However, Bush’s “Vietnam” speech may serve other purposes.
In some part of his brain, Bush knows this — which explains his other motivation for invoking Vietnam and attacking war critics as defeatists. As a partisan Republican, still dreaming of Karl Rove’s permanent Republican majority, he wants to ensure that the Democrats take the blame in the coming argument over “who lost Iraq?” By defiantly insisting, contrary to all evidence, that victory is within grasp, he is planting the seeds of a resentful revisionism, a stab in the back II, which he hopes will come to fruition in the future.
But Bush has little credibility with most Americans. “Bush’s attempt to claim he was stabbed in the back is certain to meet the same fate. That notion will live on only where it always has, in the danker corners of the extreme right wing.”
I do believe that we lefties need to create and promote some narratives of our own to counter the Right’s narratives, but I don’t want to copy them and demonize the entire Republican Party, including moderates. I just want the darker corners of the extreme right wing to release its grip on Washington and mass media. Let the wingnuts take their myths and go home.