Myth turns into enlightenment, and nature into mere objectivity. Men pay for the increase of their power with alienation from that over which they exercise their power. Enlightenment behaves towards things as a dictator towards men. He knows them in so far as he can manipulate them.
So wrote two German exiles living in New York in the early 1940s. Their names were Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, former members of Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. The Institute closed in 1934, and a number of its notable philosophers relocated to the United States to start the New School for Social Research. The quote above appeared in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, possibly the first book which grappled with how scientific reason, which strove to free man from his primeval superstitions, could possibly yield the horrors of a society like Nazi Germany.
Like all good European intellectuals of the time, Horkheimer and Adorno’s thought was influenced by Marx. (“Plus ça change,” snarls the talking head at the American Enterprise Institute.) Though they despaired at Marxism’s already apparent failures in the Soviet Union, they still viewed history through a dialectical framework: history as a struggle between opposites leading to a new resolution with its own inherent contradictions which again need to be worked out, and so on into infinity. The seeds of totalitarianism, they claimed, were inherent in the Enlightenment project. Reason which seeks to dominate nature finally ends up seeking to dominate mankind.
Jumping through 60 years to the present, it’s interesting how things have worked out. Fascism (reason gone mad) was clearly defeated by a global coalition which thereafter broke into two broad camps: Communists and the West. The conflict between the two could no longer be thought of as “reason versus myth”, but rather as a competition between two massive myth-making machines. These machines belched their tantalizing ideological (per)fumes across the globe, often nearly coming to blows over mesmerization rights in various corners of the world.
Those living within the machines became addicted to their own brand of product, so much so that when confronted by an alternate reality, they at first preferred not to believe it. Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye, Lenin is a good, if sentimental treatment of this phenomenon, as are any number of Russian accounts of the Glasnost period.
This is not to say that we in the West, and more specifically we in America, were not getting high on our own shit. Having grown up here in the 1980s, I was repeatedly struck by how wonderful life must have been during the 1950s. No drugs, no crime, no teenage pregnancies, (no blacks or hispanics either, coincidentally), sock hops, diners, big cars, drive-ins, stealing a kiss from Betty on the front porch after a date. This idyll was certainly perpetuated in popular culture, but I don’t recall it being deflated much in elementary school history books either. In shorthand, this antiseptic vision of “the good” is what it means to be free, what it means to reap the rewards of a market economy. Everyone has the chance to achieve this good, everyone is happy and fulfilled.
The collapse of the Soviet Union brought the end of a pervasive external threat to this myth. But even before then, people were wondering what had happened to the American dream. Why was Bobby getting high in the back yard, and why was Suzy on birth control? Who were these godless hippies who protested our efforts at mesmerization in Southeast Asia? Didn’t they see what they were betraying: the wife, the car, the white picket fence, the washer and dryer?
Bill Moyers, speaking at Harvard last month, quoted a Gallup poll claiming that one third of the American electorate believes the Bible is literally true. An even larger percentage, I’d wager, on some level believes in the 1950s idyll as well. And this larger percentage equates this myth with the idea of liberty, freedom, and market economy. The thing is that liberty, freedom, and market economies are in fact very good things. But mythologized as they are in the popular imagination is leading to troubling consequences. George W. Bush being elected twice is a testament to the new dominance of myth over the American popular conscience. As a senior advisor to the President quipped to journalist Ron Suskind in October of last year, “That’s not the world really works any more. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”
Yet as the dialectic would predict, the triumph of myth does not mean the complete vanquishment of reason. And while an argument can be made that the idealistic justifications for the invasion of Iraq were superior to the weak-kneed realpolitik all of a sudden being espoused by the pacifist left, mythology just doesn’t seem to be cutting it in the debate over Social Security reform. After a relentless barrage of facts and figures from the opposition, George W. Bush was forced to admit during the State of the Union that his privatization plan would not help solve the crisis of the impending baby boomer retirement (though it could be a good thing nonetheless).
Where does this leave us? Is this but a hiccup in myth’s long slog to re-establish its preeminence which it lost during the course of the past 400 or so years? Or will we witness a sea-change where myth is finally discarded as a formerly useful tool in favor of reasonable discussion grounded in reality yet informed by ideals and aspirations?
A version of this article appeared in the SAIS Observer, the student-run monthly newspaper of the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies.