Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Right-Wing Mythos and Star Trek: The Next Generation

Here's an interesting and unique essay. I'm not saying it's 100% correct and it certainly doesn't apply to everybody on the right, but I think it strikes a chord. I've taken the liberty of cutting out a lot of extraneous bits, but feel free to read the original yourselves.

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.”


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.


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 dakini 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 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...

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.
As an aside, I'm particularly optimistic about the Democrats' chances in 2008 because none of the likely nominees fit into the Carter archetype, as Kerry did so perfectly and Gore did if you didn't look too closely. Hillary is a lot of things, but she's no wimp, and there's no way Obama -- he of the baritone voice and incomparable gravitas -- is going to be painted as another liberal wuss. (Edwards is the only candidate with half a chance who could be. If you have any doubt as to the truth of this Reagan/Carter dynamic in the right-wing mythos, just look to the right-wing smears of Edwards as "the Breck girl" and "faggot.")


Anonymous said...

Ron Paul for president!

Kyle said...

Both conservatives and liberals have been obviously been reliving Vietnam through the Iraq conflict. It seems telling to me the way in which your quoted essayist has only just caught on.

Peter said...

Part of the reason why Neville Chamberlain seemed so willing to appease Hitler is that he was dying of cancer at the time (known to very few) and just didn't have much fight left in him.

Ezzie said...

I think this is both obvious and wrong at the same time.

Both sides love to look at only one facet and make it out to be a rule; both sides also aren't so stupid as to think that that rule is always true.

Lubab No More said...

Since this blog is for, and by, recovering frummies I would be remiss if I didn't mention:

"Resistance Is Futile. You Will Be Assimilated!"

Mordechai said...

Jewish Atheist,

Do you think that Edwards would have a better chance at winning a few southern states because of his southern heritage? I believe Bill Clinton won a few states in the south during his victories.

asher said...

Most importantly is that we must view the Democratic hopefuls not in what they say or what they do or even what they stand for but we percieve them to be. For example, Hillary is seen as a competent leader with strong ideas. Never mind that she tolerated a husband who was a serial cheater (some say even a rapist) never practiced as an attorney and spent her first term as senator denying she had any claim to running for president. We have to look at what she stands for and never ask her a hard question.

Then of course we have Obama. He is a unifyer who spent his childhood being raised by his white grandparents. Then again he did graduate Harvard Law School and never practiced law, and has no record in the senate (except for producing two books claiming how unique he is).

It's also awful how the lefties were calling Bush Hitler for the past few years cause of his war record and how Hillary and Obama have to admit the "surge" is working even though they claimed it didn't have a chance.

It's pragmatism. We have to believe in them cause we have to.

Stephen said...

Asher has a point, but I'd spin it a little differently.

The problem with electoral politics is the issue of media soundbites. (Hardly an original thought, I know.) Both the left and the right like to present archetypes rather than actual human beings. And of course they paint their opponents as archetypes of a negative sort.

I think the Republicans are both better and worse at it. Better, because they seem to know what archetypal buttons to push to get their candidate elected. They don't get distracted by the actual nuances of complex issues: they stay true to type.

Worse, because the Republicans actually appear to believe their own bullshit. George Bush seems to actually believe that he is Churchill redivivus. And an awful lot of righty pundits seem to actually believe that all Democrats are pussies.

So the blogger quoted by Jewish Atheist has a point, too.