Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Myth of the Eternal Return

I've been thinking a lot lately about Barbara, the Mahablog’s, brilliant essay on mythic thinking on the far right. In that essay she argued that the key to understanding the rigid thinking of the Bush years lay in an old Star Trek episode.
In “Darmok” (originally aired 1991) the crew of the Enterprise encounters the Tamarians, a people with an incomprehensible language. “We come in peace,” say the Enterprise crew. “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra,” reply the Tamarians. “Temba, his arms wide.” The Next Generationers are baffled.

But then Captain Picard and Dathon the Tamarian have an adventure together battling an invisible beast, and during this adventure Picard has a “Helen Keller at the water pump” moment and realizes that Tamarians speak in metaphors taken from stories. For example, “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra” refers to two enemies, Darmok and Jalad, who became allies at Tenagra. As a phrase, it means “Let’s put aside our differences and be friends.” So after much suspense and drama and the death of the unfortunate Dathon, by the end of the episode Picard knows enough Tamarian to say, “Bye. It’s been real.”

When I saw this episode I wondered how a people who speak only in metaphors could develop technology. I imagined them trying to fix plumbing, saying “Toona and the floods of Wippawop” to mean “who’s got the basin wrench?” It seems cumbersome. But let’s worry about that some other time. The point I want to make here is that when righties talk about history, they are not talking about what actually happened in the past. Instead, they are evoking historical persons and events as archetype and allegory.

Barbara explores the ways in which "Churchill" was continually evoked not to understand the role of the actual war time leader in his actual time but simply as the "wrathful dakini of stubbornness" always opposed, imaginatively, to his binary opposite "Neville the Appeaser" or (she doesn't say this but I will) "the demon of weak willed public pacifism".

I’ve been thinking a lot about this essay as I’ve watched the right wing struggle for ways to turn Bush’s 8 years into an archetype of all presidential periods. Thus we have the insistence that this or that “moment” is “Obama’s Katrina” or “Obama’s Pet Goat Moment.” In fact, every moment seems to be Obama's “Katrina” moment as they desperately use the phrase “Katrina” not to stand for massive failure but only for “being late” or “being insensitive.”

Underlying that is a kind of implicit understanding that every Presidential period follows a certain mythic logic. This has all happened before and it will all happen again. The job of pundits and followers is simply to identify the key tropes and examples.

They do this to shift the public’s anger away from the uniquely incompetent Bush and onto Obama. Obama is no better than Bush, and perhaps worse because he appears to be an incompetent shadow of an incompetent shadow. But they are also doing it because they can, because on some level we do look at each President and his period in power as an instance of a certain kind of political game, always structured the same way, with the same pitfalls, goals, and problems. Its why the pundits talk so rigidly about the “mid term elections” and “the base” instead of treating each one as a unique configuration at a unique moment in time. We're all guilty of it. Its not just a right wing thing--Obama as FDR and Obama as Jimmy Carter are all shorthand shortcuts to the problem of understanding this particular, fallible, human being struggling with this set of difficult and interlinked national problems.

This leads me to a related point. In the run up to the House Health Care Vote we saw a struggle between factions in this country over how the vote would go and whose ox would be gored. David Waldman's brilliant account and others make clear that the groups that fell the hardest for the myth of Obama and Pelosi as brilliant strategists with some kind of master plan and serious progressive goals were taken the hardest. (I'd also argue that Obama and Pelosi, too, fell for the myth that some kind of compromise or detente position could be hammered out with people like Stupak and the Republicans or the Bishops).

The groups marshalled and whipped by outsiders, like Jane Hamsher and MoveOn--the ones who didn't take the orders to stand down and leave the politicking to the grown ups, at least managed to get part of what they wanted in the final House Bill. Maybe they just introduced more myths, or more mythic archetypes into their account-- the "veal pen" and the "DFH's." But for whatever reason the angry, uncontrollable, fringe left got a little more of what it wanted from the House Bill than the nice progressive ladies groups.

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