Sunday, October 31, 2004

How We Contribute to the Problem

The main thing that four years of BushCo have demonstrated to me is that the Right only functions properly when it's marginalized. They did very well at bedeviling Clinton for eight years, but they're complete failures when they're actually required to lead the country. The "paranoid style" of the Right requires opposition and victimhood; it thrives when it's forced into the shadows, but in the sunlight it grows too quickly and collapses under its own weight. Also, it's weakened by increased contact with reality: it's one thing to believe in the machinations of the International Jew when you're an out-of-work steelworker or a fundamentalist preacher, but when you're governing a country, you need a fair working grasp of reality. Paranoia and mythomania lead to bad judgment, bad decisions, and bad results.

On the Left, we often wonder how x percent of the population can believe that there was a link behind Iraq and 9/11. We'd do far better to wonder why the Right understands and exploits mass psychology so much better than we do.

To my mind, the motive powers of the mainstream Right are Christian fundamentalism and racism. What I mean by this is that many secular and nonracist right-wingers will fight battles for both groups, using weapons borrowed from them, without understanding that they're doing it. For instance, "findings" about Black intelligence by racialist pseudoscientists like J. Philippe Rushton move easily into the mainstream Right, where they're parroted by people with no conscious racial animus.

Secularized versions of Conservative Christianity's apocalyptic beliefs are even more widespread; like racialist ideas, they're attractive to people whose self-esteem is low. What distinguishes a religious struggle from a secular struggle is that in the former there can be no compromise, no lasting peace, no respite from bug-eyed, white-knuckled hypervigilance; the winnowing of souls at God's throne represents the ultimate zero-sum game. The attraction of the Day of Judgment to the Christian Right is not merely its promise of a personal reward for righteousness; it's also the thought of being able to gloat over the damnation of others...being able to say "I told you so," from the shelter of God's own bosom, to heretics and scoffers. It's the mythopoeic version of a worker's fantasies about winning the lottery and telling his or her boss off.

This vision of a cosmic struggle in which the central prize is one's own sense of self-worth exists across the board on the Right. Conservative Christianity has always relied on the naming and dramatizing of enemies, and the granting of superhuman powers to them. The more powerful the enemy, after all, the greater personal glory there is in opposing that enemy. Among secular conservatives, that sense of spiritually pure opposition to dramatized enemies remains strong even in the absence of religious belief, as does the idea of an upcoming apocalyptic confrontation with Evil. This is one reason for the emotional symbiosis between Osama bin Laden and everyday citizens on the Right; while his brand of radical Islam remains a threat, they aren't ordinary people, but participants in a mythic struggle.

This kind of self-mythologizing is a typical reaction to threats against one's physical or psychological well-being. The psychologist Paul Pruyser says:

The human mind becomes automatically mythopoetic when it has to contend with threatened or actual attack upon a person's organismic integrity.

It's this quality of thinking that the Right understands far better than we do. And they've exploited it, to a great extent, with our help; by reacting negatively to religion per se, we confirm the Christian Right in its belief that it's struggling against implacable demons, and increase its psychological need to see us tossed wholesale into the Lake of Fire. By treating terrorism as a phenomenon with a temporal and not a mythopoeic cause, we appear to the secular Right as its cheerleaders. In both cases, we increase the mythopoeic mind's sense of meaning and destiny, by giving it more "evil" to oppose. When one has spent time in this heightened state, the reality-based community seems drab and uninviting; it's full of contradictions, and complex details that make one's head hurt, and disturbing implications about one's own place in the world.

In his book Naming the Antichrist, Robert Fuller explains the real danger of apocalyptic thinking to the larger concept of religion itself:
Rather than strengthening people's own sense of responsible action, as does the prophetic core of the Judeo-Christian witness, apocalyptic imagery exacerbates the very conditions of curtailed agency that predispose people to it in the first place. It turns them away from the revelations open to the human intellect, away from community with the whole of God's creation, and away from activity designed to promote peace or good will on earth.

All of this, it seems to me, can be applied easily to the modern secular Right. Indeed, as Fuller's book demonstrates, the secular Right's hatreds, its supervillains, its well-nursed gripes and grievances, can mostly be traced back to historical dislocations visited upon premillennial Christians by modernists of one stripe and another. I'm afraid this is not something we can overcome by harping on rationality and truth and statistics; instead, perhaps there needs to be some form of syncretism, in which a new mythopoeic "story" gradually overlays these ideas. I don't have a clue how this might happen, but I'm convinced it's something we'll have to think about in coming months, because after the Right loses temporal power in this election, its mythopoeic power and sense of mission will surely increase.


Ralph Dratman said...

I don't know what syncretism is, but I've been thinking along the same lines.

Okay, I look it up:
syncretism -- the union (or attempted fusion) of different systems of thought or belief (especially in religion or philosophy); "a syncretism of material and immaterial theories" (from WordNet).

So that's something like a hybrid of two or more belief systems. But the mythopoetic systems you refer to always have some kind of tried-and-true unity. It's difficult, though of course not impossible, to create robust new ones (cults are another story). Joseph Smith and Bill W(ilson) both managed it, as did Martin Luther, Siddhartha Gautama and Jesus, for that matter. But I don't think such new systems can be ordered up hot and piping to take out, so to speak.

Sorry, I'm being flip. I really did enjoy your post.

I've wondered how it would be possible to infuse the pragmatic, cross-cultural thought system of the urban intelligentsia with some kind of "spiritual" core.

I suspect the synthesis will arrive only when it has become absolutely essential for us to find one, that is, when our survival is seriously encroached upon.

With oil resources beginning their slow but inevitable decline, and worldwide ocean fish stocks now badly depleted, I suspect we will learn the answer sooner than anyone really wants to.

Thers said...

On the subject of paranoid mythopoetics, I'm always impressed by the True W Believers' capacity to hate The Government even when their Heroes control all three branches of it.

On the subject of eschatology, I'm always impressed by the cohabitation of a lust for the End Times with a fervent desire to reelect the Godly Shrub. I mean, if you really wanted to bring on the apocalypse, why not vote for Satan's Vicar in the form of the Dark Lord, John Kerry (I fear his red-rimmed, horny eyes!) and his Manservant Hecubus (whoops, I meant to say John Edwards)?

Phila said...

I suspect the synthesis will arrive only when it has become absolutely essential for us to find one, that is, when our survival is seriously encroached upon.I suspect you're right, in the context you have. This post of mine is really pretty muddled (any time I write in that too-academic tone, it's a clue that I'm feeling pretty tentative and haven't quite sorted my feelings out).

But I'm thinking that what I meant by "syncretism" had less to do with religion than with how one views citizenship...turning people from narrow party-before-country tribalism towards a broader view of cooperative civic responsibility. That tradition already exists to some degree, and I think it's a matter of reorienting people towards it. We don't need a new religious viewpoint so much as a new (or reclaimed) definition of patriotic action. It could still be mythopoetic, in the same way an Amish barn-raising might be. It just needs to be constructive. I think it's basically the same idea as in my "Reclaiming Public Insanity" post notion is that powerlessness corrupts, so we need to increase people's constructive power somehow. I hope that makes some kind of sense...

Anonymous said...

I don't know if you will see this comment, as I'm working backward through your blog after the first post I read. That's a very observant post, and it really appears to be what turned the election. As a SoCal transplant originally from OH, I have talked to a few astute observers in the buckeye state who say that the whole thing indeed did turn on the gay rights issue. Another "epic battle," just one that we didn't think would be so effective. I laughed when the Repubs first broke the gay marriage thing out as a strategy, but that was the thing that won it for them. Shrewd. I should have known never to laugh at any opponent. A friend said to me "a well-oiled, years-in-the-making political machine barely beat something that wasn't all that coherent and was thrown together in the past year." This tells me that if we were to really follow the bottom-up strategy and sell citizenship to people (love the barn-raising imagery, that's a good mythology right there) there would be an actual opposition party in this country.