Michael Lind writes about mythological politics and the tea partiers, saying,
This is the key to understanding the otherwise inexplicable accusations by the populist right that Barack Obama is a socialist or fascist or whatever, as well as fantasies about a global secular humanist conspiracy. We are dealing with a mythological mentality, based on simple and powerful archetypes. Contemporary figures and current events are plugged into a framework that never changes. “King Charles (or King George) is threatening the rights of Englishmen” becomes “Barack Obama is promoting socialism” â€” or fascism, or monarchism, or daylight saving time.
As in other cases of mythological politics, like messianic Marxism, this kind of thinking is resistant to argument. If you disagree, then that simply proves that you are part of the conspiracy. Inconvenient facts can be explained away by the true believers. It’s hard to come up with arguments that would persuade people who think that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are totalitarians to change their mind.
This is something I’ve written about in the past. It’s important to understand that the political “thinking” of the True Believers on the Right is a thick soup of myth, allegory, and archetype. Stuff like, you know, facts, are irrelevant to them.
Lind traces the major themes of rightie mythology back to 18th century Britain, but in some ways I think you have to go back even further. The ur-myth that under-girds all the other myths is the old Zoroastrian struggle between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil. However, [with righties] “good” and “evil” are matters of intrinsic identity, not actions.
I remember Sunday School literature from the 1950s that showed images of Lenin, Stalin, and Khrushchev standing with Satan, while Jesus bestrode the United States, his arms wrapped protectively around a couple of innocent white American children. Even many who aren’t old enough (or Bible Belt enough) to have seen images like that have been influenced by the mythology such images represented.
If one believes America the Pure and Righteous is protected by Jesus, and America’s enemies are minions of Satan, then a great many other assumptions flow from that. Among these is the belief that public display of religious totems like Ten Commandments monuments is essential to keeping America “strong,” e.g., armored against demon enemies.
It also explains why the Christian Right wants obeisance to Jesus to be made compulsory. For them, religion is not about personal devotion or worship; it’s war. And you’re either with ’em or agin’ ’em.
Further, as I’ve said, “good” and “evil” are understood to be intrinsic qualities that reside in certain individuals and groups regardless of what they do. One chooses to take the side of “good” by being loyal to the “good” tribe, a.k.a., “us.”
An example of the importance of archetypes in rightie thought can be found in the blogosphere’s reaction to homicides allegedly (she hasn’t been tried yet) committed by Alabama University professor Amy Bishop. Like most leftie bloggers I haven’t written about Bishop because, to me, it’s a crime story, and I rarely comment on crime stories.
But a number of rightie bloggers have blown Bishop up into a Big Bleeping Political Deal, pointedly calling her a “leftist” or a “socialist.” How so? Apparently someone called Bishop a “socialist” on her RateMyProfessors page, so it must be true. Also, she went to Harvard.
In other words, we in Rational World have no way to know anything about Bishop’s political beliefs, or even if she has any. Further, there is nothing about the homicides that suggests a political motive, so a rational person wouldn’t think of the homicides in political terms. Some are claiming a racial motive, because the three individuals killed were non-white, but one of the people she shot who survived is very obviously white. Since these were people Bishop knew, it’s not unreasonable to assume her motives were personal.
But bloggers who have pointed out there is no obvious political component to the Bishop homicides, notably Steve M and Steven Taylor, have been subject to vile counter-attacks from the Right for suggesting the homicides were not political.
The weird truth is, I don’t think the rightie bloggers calling Bishop a “leftist” have said she had a political motive. So why are rightie bloggers making such a Big Bleeping Deal about her alleged politics? Because it so neatly fits the mythological archetype of “leftist” and “socialist” that lives in their heads, that’s why. As the “American Power” blogger explained, “I have never hypothesized on Bishop’s motives. It’s enough fascination at the simple truth of a Harvard leftist in league with some of our worst criminal murderers and jihadi terrorists.”
Criminal murderers and jihadi terrorists? She went to Harvard. What more do you need to know? People who go to Harvard are like that. And there need be no political motives, or any motives at all, for a “leftist” to be a violent, murdering criminal, because that’s just the way “leftists” are. See how it works?
In fact, suggesting any motivation at all to Bishop, even an evil and irrational motive, seems to enrage some righties, who equate understanding motive with making excuses for the murders. Rational people don’t think that way, of course, but we’re not talking about rational people. We’re talking about people whose worldview is entirely shaped by myth and archetype, not by reason.
Which brings me to why Sarah Palin is a goddess. By that I don’t mean she has actual godlike powers. I’m talking about her role in the rightie mythological cosmos, and why pointing out her obvious shortcomings will put no dents in the tea partiers’ loyalty to her.
By “goddess” I mean a goddess in something like (but not exactly) the tantric sense, in which a deity becomes an archetype for one’s own deepest nature. Palin, by contrast, is a near-perfect embodiment of an ideal. She is (to a rightie) beautiful, sexual, and maternal; she is powerful enough that the Evil Ones who live in Washington and who speak seditious things on the Teevee must kowtow to her. Through her folksy speech and shooting skills she evokes other American archetypes from more wholesome, earlier times, like Daniel Boone. But she also wears modern clothes and has a Facebook page.
Like most tantric deities, Palin has has both benevolent and wrathful aspects. As a wrathful goddess she gives voice to her followers’ deepest fears and hates and resentments. But she also has a bright smile and sometimes carries a baby, showing a benevolent side. Her followers both love her and identify with her; she is an archetype representing their own deepest selves, or at least the selves they’d like to be.
She’s a goddess, I tell you. And because she is a goddess is makes no difference to her devotees that she has few real accomplishments, no coherent ideas, and probably doesn’t know Bern from Budapest. It does not matter if she writes crib notes on her hand and needs several months to think of a name of a newspaper she actually reads. In fact, it does not matter to them if she reads at all. Whatever she does is exactly right, because it is her doing it, and she is a goddess.
It’s important to understand this, because it shows us why it’s futile to treat Palin as just another politician or media star. It was pointless to make fun of the crib notes, for example. I doubt anyone could bring Palin down but Palin herself. If she somehow grossly and blatantly violated the ideal she represents, her followers could turn on her. But until she does that, she is invincible in the eyes of the devoted.
There’s a long analysis of the tea party movement in today’s New York Times that’s worth a read. Essentially, the “movement” is a collection of fearful people grasping at incoherent ideas the way drowning people grasp at lifebuoys. It brings to mind what Eric Hoffer wrote in The True Believer (pp. 59-60)–
The power of a mass movement stems from the propensity of its followers for united action and self-sacrifice. … whether or not [organizations] develop into mass movements depends less on the doctrine they preach and the program they project than on the degree of their preoccupation with unity and the readiness for self-sacrifice. … Such diverse phenomena as a deprecation of the present, a facility for make-believe, a proneness to hate, a readiness to imitate, credulity, a readiness to attempt the impossible, and many others which crowd the minds of the intensely frustrated are, as we shall see, unifying agents and prompters of recklessness.
Because the incoherent ideas the tea partiers grasp are plucked from the American psyche, those ideas can be traced back through earlier times in American history, as Lind says. But the ideas themselves are not the point, and so I disagree with Lind that understanding where ideas come from is key to understanding the tea party movement. What unifies the tea partiers is something primitive, pre-cognitive. As Hoffer says elsewhere in The True Believer, fearful people give up individual autonomy to become part of a movement, and within the movement they find the freedom to hate, bully, torment, and torture with impunity — and with the blessings of the goddess Sarah.