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The Myth
Last uploaded : Monday 5th Apr 2004 at 14:40
Contributed by : Anthony Patt

 


The Myth
Anthony Patt
April 2, 2004
Potsdam, Germany

George W. Bush? America is not particularly popular in Germany at the moment. As an American policy analyst working at a German research institute, friends and colleagues ask me almost daily to explain what is happening in the United States. Who will win the election, they ask? Most perplexing, they find, is the sudden and almost complete disappearance of Howard Dean from the political landscape.

The German press had covered Dean glowingly, and most believed that he would be the Democrat?s nominee. As a Dean supporter myself, I shared the disappointment, if not the surprise. To explain what happened, and to predict the election, I have developed the idea of the Myth.

Americans have a set of images of their country, which in the aggregate I call the Myth. The central message of these images is that America is culturally and morally the best, and that freedom rings loudest and economic opportunity holds strongest on American soil.

The Myth is reinforced through multiple story lines that are repeated in schools, television, radio, film, advertising, professional sporting events, and almost everywhere else in the nation?s popular culture. Most Americans do not see this as a story that has been told and retold over time to explain the world and to give the listeners a sense of meaning and comfort, but rather take it as reality.

America?s size and wealth make it possible for these people to live their lives without questioning its validity. The sources of the Myth are buried in the core of American history and too numerous to discuss here, although it is an interesting fact that the cities where it was respectively born and most recently popularized, Boston and Los Angeles, are also the breeding grounds for its most vocal critics.

More importantly, its existence has dominated American politics in the past, and is doing so today more than at any time in recent history.

On can see the Myth in daily operation. For example, among the central characters in many of the Myth?s story lines are the ?Founding Fathers?, all wise, knowing, and full of foresight. When politicians or justices need support for a particular argument, on issues from the death penalty to gay marriage, many of them turn to the Founding Fathers? words, as written in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Were it not for the Myth, they might instead be forced to consider those two documents as representing on the one hand a snapshot of European philosophical thought from the late 1700s, and on the other hand a political compromise between different Colonial factions. They would have to base their arguments on evolving philosophical and moral thought, both in the United States and abroad, from before 1776 and extending all the way to the present.

Those who do profess to judge contemporary issues in this longer and wider context are known in American politics as Liberals.

As with all dominant paradigms, events in the world can easily be interpreted to support the Myth. Anti-Americanism, for example, is interpreted to be the result of envy. More importantly, the Myth can be used to justify any policy (war, protectionism, deficit spending) that benefits American interests or those of the governing elite. This has been the discourse of the Republican Party, and it has used the Myth consistently and with clarity of purpose.

The Democrats, meanwhile, have long recognized that they depend for votes on Myth believers, and so have avoided challenging it. But it is hard to make serious changes to the United States or its policies without colliding against the Myth, its characters, or its story lines. And so the Democrats have always remained somewhat apologetic, which makes them appear weak, and lacking a clear and consistent message.

For a while in the late 1960s and ?70s, with the Kennedy and King assassinations and Vietnam and Watergate, the sense of national shame caused the Myth to drop out of sight from American politics, and in its absence some remarkably effective policy-making took place: civil rights legislation, national environmental regulation, and nuclear arms control.

As the shame was beginning to fade, Reagan was able to run on the Myth?s rejuvenation, Morning in America as he called it. George H.W. Bush carried on this tradition. Though not as skillful as Reagan in rhetoric, he did make one of the Myth?s storylines an explicit part of American politics: liberalism, the concept of basing decisions on reason, informed by a variety of sources, is something to be ashamed of.

Clinton was gifted enough to avoid the liberal label and to charm people into voting for him, even though he did not actively advocate the Myth. But a few missteps in his first year in office, trying to appoint active Myth detractors such as Lanie Guinier, or fighting for gays in the military, taught him to be extremely careful.

There are a few Americans, concentrated most densely on the two coasts, but also scattered throughout the country, who see the Myth as myth, namely as an oversimplification of the world, one that may have been more accurate fifty years ago than it is today. Its effects on policy-making, as these people see it, are almost uniformly negative in the post-Soviet world.

Until we are free of the Myth, they believe, the United States will never be a reliable player internationally, where now cooperation rather than domination on issues of the environment, globalization, and national security are crucial.

Until we are confident that future governments will not be able to exploit the Myth for short term political gain, they believe, policy measures requiring sustained commitment over time are probably futile. Look what happened, they can point, to Clinton?s most substantial political legacy: erasing the budget deficit. Finally, they fear that the Myth, if it continues to grow, could lead to events comparable to what gripped Germany in the 1930s and '40s.

Despite the Clinton years, the Myth has been building steam since Reagan, and has taken front center stage under George W. Bush, who references it almost every time he utters a word in public, most forcefully when he speaks about terrorism.

Outside the United States, especially in Europe, Bush's open and constant use of the Myth appears not only childlike on the one hand and offensive on the other, but also reminds people of other leaders in history who legitimated their actions so shamelessly on national pride. This comes closest to home in Germany, where indeed Justice Minister Herta D?ubler-Gmelin was forced to resign after she allegedly compared Bush to Hitler.

Inside the United States, those who see the Myth as myth feel an equally guttural disgust. The near complete reliance on the Myth under the Bush administration has opened the political fault lines, between those who either believe in or benefit from the Myth, and those who see it as a lie. More than at any time in recent history, the latter group has donated time and money to Democratic candidates. The other side, many of them industry and media giants, has responded with equal vigor, and even superior financial backing. The majority of the population, who haven?t fully realized what this is all about, feel caught in the middle of a war, fought in thirty-second skirmishes on their television sets.

The initial leader in the anti-Myth movement was Howard Dean, the first credible presidential candidate to have suggested that Democrats could actually win by running against the Myth. ?You can't beat Bush with Bush Lite,? he said. Southern white guys driving pickups with Confederate flags, Myth believers of the highest order, should be voting for Democrats because they need health insurance, he claimed. He proposed a presidential race as a grand battle pitting the Myth against Reality. Being a doctor, rather than a lawyer or a businessperson, he had the confidence in the power of evidence-based diagnoses to believe that Reality would win.

For the few hundred thousand Americans who see the Myth as myth and were paying attention, Dean was the first candidate in memory to make sense, and they flocked to his campaign with credit card numbers typed on their computer screens. Word of his truth telling and his enthusiastic following spread to the larger voting public. In the months before the primaries the rumors alone brought him to the top of the telephone polls, which present very weak opinions as if they were strong. But in the weeks and days before the caucuses and primaries, the rest of the voting public started hearing not just about Dean?s reputation, but his actual message in speeches and sound bites not all of his choosing, and it was a truth they did not want to hear. To really believe Dean at his word, people had to let go of the Myth. Instead, most of them decided he was crazy.

Clark, Kerry, and Edwards responded quickly. They learned from Dean that it was acceptable to attack Bush forcefully, but they avoided raising the Myth itself as an issue, in the Clinton tradition. Of the three of them, Kerry had the most convincing personal history to make this message, inherently apologetic and contradictory, credible as a winnable strategy.
Medals from Vietnam proved his patriotism, meaning that his later protest against the war could be seen as leadership instead of cowardice. This in turn gave weight to his claim that his stance against Bush was in the highest American tradition of duty, honor, and courage. His campaign imagery has supported this: wearing a leather bomber jacket on the Tonight Show, riding his Harley around on weekends, and retreating to his vacation home in the rough mountains of Idaho.

Kerry is a smart man, who has demonstrated that he knows how to stay on message to win elections, as he did defeating the popular Massachusetts Governor William Weld to hold on to his Senate seat.

Indeed, Kerry's strategy, bolstered by his Vietnam history, may be the only thing that can win the White House this election cycle. The people who see the Myth as myth will vote for him, knowing that his policies, if not his rhetoric, make good sense. They hope that he can pull off a victory, fearful that the Republicans will successfully use his association with Massachusetts and his pragmatic record in the Senate to vilify him as a non-believer.

But after Dean showed what political rhetoric could be, they worry openly that Kerry, even if he wins, will leave the Myth intact, and any changes he creates will be temporary window dressing, his legacy as un-monumental as Carter?s and Clinton?s.

But a remarkable new phenomenon is emerging that could change everything: this is the first election where the Democrats will converge on the battle for Washington from multiple fronts. Campaigning in broad daylight from one side is Kerry.

Operating out of the shadowy rules governing political action committees are Democracy for America, MoveOn.org, the Media Fund, and other public advocacy groups not connected in any formal way with the Democratic Party. They are battling primarily against George W. Bush, but they are also not afraid to attack the Myth itself. They get their intellectual and creative support from people like Paul Krugman and Michael Moore, and financial backing from George Soros and half of Hollywood.

Importantly, election financing laws enacted in the last four years mean that these groups can cash far larger checks than the $2,000 per person limit that Kerry faces, and they indeed may prove to be the more important and effective fighters.

It is possible that candidate Kerry, embracing the Myth in rhetoric but not in the core of his ideas, will win the election, but that the well-funded advocacy coalition willing to attack the Myth head-on will be have been responsible for tipping the scales. If that happens, 2005 could usher in a new, uncharted, and likely strenuous era in American politics, as these groups hold Kerry accountable, and force him to lead the country in a national debate about the Myth and its proper place in American politics and culture. If the Republicans win, on the other hand, then the battle lines will be already drawn for 2008, the stakes for which both sides are fighting will become even greater and more urgent, and the political bloodshed will intensify. That is a story nobody wants to tell in advance.

Anthony Patt is Boston University Assistant Professor of Environmental Policy; Visiting Scientist, Potsdam Insitute for Climate Impact Research.
All opinions and errors therein are those of the author.

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