March 17, 2003
"Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."
America has undergone a radical change since the events of September 11th, and media trumpeters have hit the bulls-eye when they flooded the air and radio waves with the message, "everything has changed." We now have the broadened powers of the executive and his corps of compassionate conservatives who loot Social Security and countless social welfare programs for the ever-inflatable Department of Offense, take soft money from corporations like Enron to fuel their campaigns, and establish an Office of Homeland Security and the Citizen Corps to keep watch over "suspicious" persons in legislature reminiscent of the French Revolution's Law of Suspects.
How does our government get away with broadening its powers and restricting citizens' civil liberties? The answer appears more complex than the government-corporate sponsored dogma of the need for security in a chaotic and evil world, although they do not fall far from the mark. The answer lies in myth.
Political myth emerged in the nineteenth century out of the fruit of the Romantic era with its emphasis on emotion and sentiment over reason and critical thinking. Political myths illustrate how ideological delusions can be used to fortify power and maintain social control by pulling the heart-strings of a panicked public and bathing worries and fears in reductionism and deceit. They have a unique power to satisfy thirsts for immediate understanding where individuals can focus their energy and attention in the maintenance of psychological security in an increasingly turbulent and disconcerting world.
One need only examine the twentieth century to understand how political myths provided the cement for the twin pillars of authoritarianism of this century: fascism and communism. Each of these belief systems held a single-minded vision that human history could escape its barbaric, warlike track record and ascend into a state of utopian paradise. Of course to achieve this state of grace people needed to continue on in their barbaric, warlike manner for an undisclosed amount of time and depend entirely upon their deliverance by the insightful genius of their charismatic leader.
Marx's entire secular eschatology can be viewed as a political myth whose primary function was to provide an answer to the predicament of both the alienated, historically wounded individual and class of abused workers. And Hitler's National Socialism used the myth of the superior race to lend credence to a pathology of racial universalism. Nationalists in every society have used mythologies to construct boundaries, legitimate moral atrocities, and deny equal rights to their fellow countrymen.
Political myths rely primarily on memory. Repetition and recital transform events into rituals of memory that personalize abstractions and reduce them into parochial narratives that obfuscate deeper layers of truth. The public, saturated by the memory-ritual broadcast by the government and media, and growing more ignorant and self-centered every year, internalizes the message and tunes out conflicting messages as static. Those who espouse alternate interpretations become stigmatized as enemies of the state and are denounced by the government, media, and public in language as loaded as that used to condemn evil-doers.
Our postmodern global community emphasizes the individual and the plethora of choices that lay at his/her fingertips. This creates a sharp contrast, as in reality most individuals are frightened by any sense of autonomy. Individuals preach independent and critical thinking, but believe most anything authorities and experts tell them to; they yearn for soul-mates to complete them and quest for the approval of those they consider their betters; and they prefer tradition and security to social change and risk. The majority of Americans now look to their leader for deliverance from the evil lurking in their closet and in their neighbor's tool shed. Presented with a Manichean view of the world, the with us or against us bit, individuals can narrow their confusing and overwhelming choices to two; and the decision is as simple as when the Christian Church forced people to decide between sheep and heretic.
We are baffled at how the Russian and German people allowed their tyrants such broad power at the expense of their civil liberties and freedoms. But Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler utilized political myth and harnessed the emotional bronco of the ignorant and psychologically dependent people. Violence, suspicion, chauvinism, racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, and a general fear of the other speak to the world with a golden tongue. History has proven that the human animal is frightened of the unknown and distrustful of anything outside its narrow reality-tunnel. When paralyzed by fear and anxiety, they rally around the alpha male who can beat his chest and shout the loudest. The bravura of this message electrifies the animalistic crowd and acts as a salve for emotional trauma while stultifying inquiry and confounding the intellect.
The events of September 11th and the ongoing crises and imperialist wars have proven that overcoming the basic human needs of fear, envy, and hatred, still seem to be difficult tasks that everyone must work towards in this new millennium. And that to progress towards the construction of a better society for our children we need to remove our American flag blindfolds and begin to act as human beings: those that value pluralist democracy, civil liberty, and peace.
· · · · · ·
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Scott Orlovsky is a World History & Cultures, and an American History teacher at Clifton High School in New Jersey. He has a BA in History from the Johns Hopkins University and a MA in History from the University of Colorado. Orlovsky's writing has appeared in the Greenwich Village Gazette.
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