POLITICS IN THE TIME
OF MYTH

Sam Smith

 

Although America's politics is increasingly being driven by myth - witness the stunning decline in those who believe that global temperatures are rising - the media, academia and political activists tend to act primarily with dismay and disgust or to satisfy themselves by labeling the myth followers wing nuts. Serious consideration of this huge factor in American life is largely absent.

Little time is spent on how to educate people on a complex or scientific matter, to help them deal with probabilities as well as certainties, or how best to convince rather than merely to condemn.

Here's a thought for starters: Bring together journalists, philosophers, pollsters, historians, anthropologists and activists to put the matter on the table. Begin with the premise that myth is normal in any culture; it even has important healthy functions. But what happens when, as now, myth gets out of hand? What causes this? How do we stop myth from being self destructive? How, metaphorically, do we return safely from Jonestown to the First Baptist Church down the street?

If there were such a conference - or, better, a series of conferences - here are some of potential topics:

What causes myth to change its role in the same culture?

How important are different segments of the culture in this: education, religion, media, political campaigns etc?

How does this shift reflect a failure to understand basic things like the variations in a multi-year chart of global temperatures? What can be done about this?

How do we raise the understanding of probability in dealing with such matters? For example, I often use the poker analogy in dealing with the environment, emphasizing such points as considering the stakes as well as the odds.

What is the best response to cynically created mythology such as the idea in the recent Maine campaign that gay marriage would damage heterosexual marriage or endanger children?

What is the media's responsibility in handling such issues and how could it do it better?

What are effective ways to move someone from myth to reality?

To what extent does the over-complexity of solutions (or of their administration) - i.e. the healthcare bills - contribute to mythology? Is the lesson that we should more often break such solutions into smaller, more comprehensible parts?

To what extent does burying questionable items in a complex solution - i.e again the healthcare bills - contribute to mythology and undermine support?

To what extent does the establishment's tendency to say "Case closed" on matters with continuing doubt work against reality and spur myth? For example, the World Trade Center attack was certainly not likely the creation of George Bush, but that doesn't eliminate unanswered questions about what happened in government before the attack or about the construction of the towers. To act as though it does seems to encourage, rather than eliminate, myth. This happens over and over, often because the government wants to put a matter aside and the media is too willing to help.

How can we teach honor for unanswered questions without embellishing them with unsupported theoretical conclusions?

The government often has a two track goal: solve a problem and appear that it is solving it. Often, the latter effort - as in the case of swine flu - can work against the former. You can test this out by trying to discover precisely how many people have died after taking the vaccine. I could find only one report, a minute number in a Chinese sample. But government public relations types don't think like that. The want everything to appear far more rosy and far more certain than it may actually be. How do we deal with this?

What do history and anthropology tell us about myth and how it helps and damages a culture?

And that's just for starters. The important thing is to start, to recognize that myth is not something you change by name calling but by dealing with it as a force as real and important in its own way as climate change. And something that may severely damage our approach to such issues as climate change because we forget in this scientific and technological age that not everything that matters can be easily measured.

 

11/10/2009