The Power of (Right Wing) Myth

Regarding Bush’s Vietnam speech and other manglings of history — Glenn Greenwald wrote last week:

On a different note, is the curriculum for history classes in some American states restricted to learning about Hitler and the Nazis and 1938 and Hitler and Germany? It must be, because there are many right-wing fanatics whose entire understanding of the world is reduced in every instance to that sole historical event — as though the world began in 1937, ended in 1945, and we just re-live that moment in time over and over and over:

Love war? You are Churchill, a noble warrior. Oppose war? You’re Chamberlain, a vile appeaser. And everyone else is Hitler. That, more or less, composes the full scope of “thought” among this strain on the right.

These words gave me an epiphany: The key to understanding right-wing rhetoric can be found in an episode of the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation.

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.

Thus, when they speak of Winston Churchill, they are not speaking of the real Winston Churchill. They are speaking of what Winston Churchill represents in their minds, which is the stubborn refusal to back down from a fight. In fact, the real Winston Churchill wrote a letter to Prime Minister David Lloyd George in 1922 advising him that British troops should abandon Iraq.

I think we should now put definitely, not only to Feisal but to the Constituent Assembly, the position that unless they beg us to stay and to stay on our own terms in regard to efficient control, we shall actually evacuate before the close of the financial year. I would put this issue in the most brutal way, and if they are not prepared to urge us to stay and to co-operate in every manner I would actually clear out. That at any rate would be a solution. … At present we are paying eight millions a year for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano out of which we are in no circumstances to get anything worth having.

But instead of actually studying the life and words of Churchill for understanding, righties simply evoke the man as an archetype of bulldog, never-give-up tenacity. I’ve read that Bush keeps a bust of Churchill in the oval office, for inspiration. And perhaps there’s something like tantric identity yoga going on here; Bush imagines himself to be the great Churchill, the wrathful Archangel of Stubbornness.

Very likely righties associate Churchill with his great oratory of World War II and know little else about him. They don’t stop to consider that in his “blood, sweat, and tears” speech Churchill was talking about a major military power capable of raining bombs on London (and, in fact, preparing to do so). Hitler’s Germany and today’s Iraq are in no way equivalent — except in the minds of righties, for whom “Hitler” has become the Demon Enemy whose spirit infests the bodies of all enemies, whoever they are and whatever their capabilities and intentions.

By the same token, Neville Chamberlain is the archetype of cowardly appeasement. Righties may know little else about the man except that he “appeased” Hitler — not an uncommon practice among right wingers of the 1930s, who considered Hitler and Mussolini to be swell guys who hated communism as much as they did.

In fact, former White House correspondent Lynne Olson argued awhile back that Bush was a lot more like the real Chamberlain than the real Churchill:

Like Bush, and unlike Churchill, Chamberlain came to office with almost no understanding of foreign affairs or experience in dealing with international leaders. None the less, he was convinced that he alone could bring Hitler and Mussolini to heel. He surrounded himself with like-minded advisers, and refused to heed anyone who told him otherwise. In the months leading up to war, Chamberlain and his men saw little need to build a strong coalition of European allies to confront Nazi Germany – ignoring appeals from Churchill and others to fashion a “grand alliance”.

Unlike Bush and Chamberlain, Churchill was never in favour of his country going it alone. Throughout the 1930s, while urging Britain to rearm, he strongly supported using the League of Nations – the forerunner of the United Nations – to provide smaller countries with one-for-all and all-for-one security. After the league failed to stop fascism’s march, Churchill was adamant that Britain must form a true partnership with France and even reach agreement with the despised Soviet Union, neither of which Chamberlain was willing to do.

Like Bush, Chamberlain laid claim to unprecedented executive authority, evading the checks and balances supposed to constrain the office of prime minister. He scorned dissenting views, inside and outside government. When Chamberlain arranged his face-to-face meetings with Hitler in 1938 that ended in the catastrophic Munich conference, he did so without consulting his cabinet. He also bypassed the House of Commons, leading Harold Macmillan, a future Tory prime minister and then an anti-appeasement MP, to complain that Chamberlain was treating parliament “like a Reichstag, to meet only to hear the orations and to register the decrees of the government”.

Olson goes on in this vein for a while — really, there are a number of startling parallels between Bush and Chamberlain, so do read the whole thing. About a year ago Keith Olbermann also made some Bush-Chamberlain comparisons on Countdown.

In the rightie mind, any attempt to avoid war is “appeasement.” In his new book A Tragic Legacy, Glenn Greenwald writes (p. 177) that when Ronald Reagan signed the INF treaty with the Soviet Union in 1988, rightie editorialists everywhere evoked Neville Chamberlain and accused Reagan of “appeasement.” Earlier, in 1984, Newt Gingrich scorned Reagan’s rapprochement with Gorbachev as “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolph Hitler met with Chamberlain in 1938 at Munich.”

Got that? All “enemies” are Hitler (whatever you think of Gorbachev, he’s hardly Hitler). So much as meeting with “enemies” is Chamberlain and Hitler at Munich. So how do we deal with nations whose interests don’t harmonize with ours? Rightie mythos leaves us with no option but war.

Speaking of Reagan — this past January, conservative Ron Dreher spoke on NPR about why he became a Republican:

My first real political memory came in 1979. It was listening to Jimmy Carter tell the nation about the failed hostage rescue mission. I hated him for that. I hated him for the whole Iran mess, shaming America before our enemies with weakness and incompetence.

When Ronald Reagan was elected president the next year, I stayed up late to hear his victory speech. America was saved. I was 13 years old, and I was a Reaganite from that moment on.

My generation came of age politically under Reagan. To me, he was strong and confident. Democrats were weak and depressed. Like so many other Gen-X’ers, I disliked people I thought of as hippies, those blame America first liberals so hung up on Vietnam. They surrendered to the communists back then, just like they want to do that. Republicans were winners, Democrats defeatists. What more did you need to know?

The point of Dreher’s essay is that the Iraq War caused him to realize, suddenly and painfully, that the dirty bleeping hippies (whose spirits infest the dark nightmares of righties, who still fear them, even though I haven’t spotted a live one since about 1974) had reasons to be opposed to the Vietnam War. This, apparently, had never dawned on him before. Dreher seems to have believed that hippies oppose war for the same reason swallows return to Capistrano — it’s just the nature of the beast.

I call today’s righties the “Reagan generation” because so many of them are Gen-X’ers whose first memories of politics and national events involved Carter and Reagan. They weren’t so much taught politics as imprinted with the Reagan mythos. For them, all Democrats are Jimmy Carter, an archetype of wimpy passivity. Reagan represents confidence, action, sunniness. The two of them together represent opposing forces that tell the entire story of American politics. Nothing more needs to be understood or thought through. Democrats bad, Republicans good, end of argument.

The actual persons Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan are/were far more complicated than the Carter and Reagan archetypes, of course, and they both have/had their virtues and flaws. Today’s righties have forgotten the “Reagan and Gorbachev sign the INF treaty” story, and it has passed out of rightie mythos. They also persistently overlook Reagan’s raising of taxes after he lowered them and his quick skedaddle out of Lebanon after the Marine barracks tragedy. What’s important to them is not what Reagan actually did as President, but what he represents emotionally and mythically.

In fact, the mythical Carter/Reagan dichotomy — Carter as murky, depressed, weak, passive and Reagan as clear, sunny, strong, and active — is exactly the yin/yang dichotomy. I could write a whole ‘nother post on gender politics and the many associations of liberalism with femininity and conservatism with masculinity, never mind reality. In fact, I did write that post awhile back. But for now, I just want to point to this as another layer of the right-wing subconscious and postulate that men with gender insecurity are more likely to lean right than left.

So yesterday, after years of denying historical comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, President Bush delivered a speech comparing Iraq to Vietnam. To which much of America responded, WTF? Today America’s newspapers are peppered with complaints from historians that Bush’s speech distorted the facts of the Vietnam War. But of course; what actually happened during and after the war was not the point. He was speaking to those still inclined to support the war, and to them, Vietnam represents national disgrace. It also represents allowing the forces of darkness to scamper unhindered over the land. When Bush spoke of “killing fields,” for example, rightie listeners could relate. There was a movie about that, after all, never mind that the killing fields of Cambodia didn’t happen because America withdrew from Vietnam, but because we were bleeping there.

“It is undoubtedly true that America’s failure in Vietnam led to catastrophic consequences in the region, especially in Cambodia,” said David C. Hendrickson, a specialist on the history of American foreign policy at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

“But there are a couple of further points that need weighing,” he added. “One is that the Khmer Rouge would never have come to power in the absence of the war in Vietnam — this dark force arose out of the circumstances of the war, was in a deep sense created by the war. The same thing has happened in the Middle East today. Foreign occupation of Iraq has created far more terrorists than it has deterred.”

Ah, but let us not bother with facts. Facts are for wonks and women. Real men, heroic men, listen to their hearts, or perhaps something else located along the lower part of the brain stem. We need not fear actual consequences of our actions. Our quest is to re-enter the heart of darkness and slay the demon therein, even though he is probably us. And if we fail, the failure will not be ours, but will be the Democratic Party’s. Win/win.

We lefties sometimes persist in trying to reason with righties. I’ve given up, mind you, but there are those who still try. But I say this is futile. As with the encounter between the Enterprise and the Tamarians, we don’t understand each others words. “We want what’s best for America,” we say. “Chamberlain and Hitler at Munich!” they cry. “Sam Waterson and John Malkovich in Phnom Penh! FDR at Yalta!” Perhaps they would listen to us if we convinced them we were channeling the spirit of John Wayne at Iwo Jima.