If myths do more for social progress than facts — then why worry?
Well aside from “If you like your doctor you can keep your doctor,” or blanket amnesty that is and is not lawful for a president to grant, there is a special category of progressive mythology. Or rather a particular cast of “truth tellers,” victims, supposed whistle blowers, and popular liberal icons who spin tales for a supposedly higher good, on the premise that untruth for a cause makes it sort of true.
From the details of Rigoberta Menchú’s memoir, to Tawana Brawley’s supposed rape, to the O. J. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” myth, to the open-and-shut case of the hate-crime crucifixion of Matthew Shepard by savage homophobes, to Dan Rather’s fake but accurate National Guard memo, to the Duke lacrosse team’s supposed racist raping, to Barack Obama’s autobiographic interludes with his girlfriend, to Scott Beauchamp’s “true” stories of American military atrocities in Iraq, to Lena Dunham’s purported right-wing sexual assaulter at Oberlin College (home of the 2013 epidemic of pseudo-racist graffiti), to the pack of University of Virginia fraternity rapists on the loose, to “Hands up, don’t shoot,” we have come to appreciate that facts and truth are not that important, if myths can better serve social progress or the careers of those on the correct side of history.
The new generation of progressive mythmaking has taken up where prior generations left off. In the old progressive mythology, Alger Hiss never passed on U.S. secrets. Instead, he was a tortured idealist, intent on preventing the descent of America into dangerous know-nothing McCarthyism. The Rosenbergs really did not spy for the Soviet Union — or if they did, it was to help a wartime ally with a similar anti-fascist agenda. JFK and RFK were gunned down by right-wing conspirators, fueled by a larger culture of reactionary hatred. Rigoberta Menchú wrote her own factual autobiography — or at least wanted to.
Why is there this overarching need to fabricate iconic race, class, gender, and political victims when Western capitalist society supposedly should offer enough pathologies without having to invent any? Many reasons come to mind.
One, 21st-century America is not quite the racial cauldron of the 1960s. It is not the 1930s Depression-era world of Steinbeck. And it is not the 1950s straitjacket of housewives all but jailed in tiny suburban boxes. In 2014, the enemy is too much food, not too little, as obesity, not malnutrition and a dearth of calories, is the far more deadly killer of the underclass. More women now graduate from college than do men. Looting an Apple Store or stealing Air Jordans is more common during rioting than carrying off sacks of rice and beans from Costco.
Having an Hispanic last name or being half-African-American is valuable enough in terms of college admission for a middle-class suburbanite to outweigh the dangers of institutionalized racism. Mayor de Blasio’s son, as an African-American male youth, is, in statistical terms, 30 times more likely to die at the hands of an African-American male youth than at the hands of a trigger-happy racist law-enforcement officer. In terms of homicide rates, whites usually murder other whites, as blacks murder other blacks. But in the latter case, 13 percent of the population accounts for over 50 percent of both U.S. murder victims and murder offenders.
A so-called Obamaphone has more computing and entertainment power than the billionaire’s laptop of 20 years ago. In such a diverse, wealthy, and leisured society, it is harder now to find Oliver Twists, Joads, and Nat Turners. With material and social advancement, however, comes not greater appreciation of positive progress, but even more anger at its perceived slow pace, in the march from the desire for equality of opportunity to the demand for government-sanctioned equality of outcome. To paraphrase Tocqueville, most would prefer to be equal and unfree than to be free and unequal. In such a landscape, the perception of relative inequality is a far greater catalyst for anger than the former reality of abject poverty. In other words, the victim status of the past is harder to obtain and thus requires far more creative and fictive methods. What does not exist with enough frequency can at least be invented.
Two, in the most reductionist sense, there is no downside to lying, if the lie is considered useful for a noble liberal cause. It was the Duke lacrosse players whose lives were ruined, not the professors who wrote public letters condemning them as likely racist rapists. We should expect that if there is something like a Duke baseball scandal at some future date, the same professors would write the same false indictments for the same reasons as they did in the lacrosse case — because there is no liability in weaving a particular sort of tale.
Al Sharpton did not have his business burned down in Ferguson, so why should he worry that he simply turns myths into catalysts for violence? I doubt whether the president of the University of Virginia will be censured for all but equating campus fraternities with endemic rape. It is not as if she said something of the sort that cost Larry Summers his job.
Lena Dunham will probably not be sued, or at least sued in any manner that would deter her from future feminist mythographies. Indeed, she could easily write a sequel at 40 with the same sort of made-up stereotyped conservative villains. Who is going to indict Dorian Johnson for offering false testimony about the death of Michael Brown, or dare tell the Black Caucus that their “Hands up, don’t shoot” theatrics were based on lies? Massaging helpful facts pays; demanding proof for fantasies does not. We live in an age where plagiarism — ask Fareed Zakaria or Doris Kearns Goodwin — is of two sorts: the traditional deliberate theft of someone else’s work for one’s own aggrandizement, and the “problematic” sort, when progressives overwhelmed with data as they strive to give voice to the liberal cause make an inadvertent slip.
Three, postmodernism, the bastard child of modernism, attacks the entire idea of objective truth. We supposedly live in a relativist world cloaked by the lie of objective truth. Facts are merely the authoritative narratives of the powerful, who craft them to protect their own privilege. An establishment rigs up “rules of evidence,” and in that way declares its own stories “true” because they serve the larger power purposes of the elite. We should not necessarily be bound by forensic evidence or videos, nor should we check sources or ask the accused their version of the story or check footnotes — or much of anything else other than ascertaining the degree of privilege associated with any particular narrative.
What does it matter if there were not really identifiable University of Virginia fraternity rapists, as Rolling Stone swore? Does anyone doubt that fraternities have treated women poorly in the past? That is the real “truth,” which merely needs a particular “vehicle” to give it currency. Reactionaries call such narratives “fake,” but they are in fact “accurate” in suggesting scenarios of oppression that can in fact happen.
So “truth” is what is deemed socially useful. After the Rolling Stone essay, perhaps frat boys might not be so cavalier about their sexism in the future. The fact that Dan Rather fell for a fake memo is immaterial. If his purpose was to get a regressive like George W. Bush out of the White House, then the means necessary to do that are irrelevant. Maybe Michael Brown did not have his hands up in a gesture of surrender, or then again maybe he did. But who is to rule out that he could have had them up and that the cause of young black males can benefit from assuming that he did? Grand juries worry about irrelevancies like whether bullets hit Brown from the front or the back or whether a particular store owner caught him on tape supposedly stealing; the people, in contrast, deal with the greater “truth” that there are millions of Michael Browns who are victimized by a racist white police architecture.
Four, liberal lies are cheap. They by intent turn attention to easy icons rather than the more difficult and complex paradoxes of the human condition that defy easy sloganeering or cookie-cutter big-government solutions. By iconizing Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin, the black political elite avoids the intractable problem of the violent death of over 6,000 black youths per year, the vast majority killed by other blacks. Blaming stereotyped white racist cops for less than 200 deaths per year serves as an exculpatory salve for not having a clue how to stop the near-genocidal shooting of inner-city young black males. Rich white kids march and scream at police barricades about law enforcement’s supposed racism, but they do not march into the inner city to protest the mass killings of young blacks, or for that matter go into the inner city much at all. What could they do or say, within their own political world views, to help prevent the epidemic of violent death unleashed on young black males?
Al Sharpton can get rich shaking down the establishment with the always implied message that the alternative to his own de facto protection racket is burning stores in Ferguson. Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan have no clue how to restore the black family, create an urban entrepreneurial class, or reduce black illegitimacy and crime rates to the levels of other minority groups. In exasperation, it is simply far easier — and more lucrative — to scream about an impending race war or suggest the grand jury is little more than a Jim Crow–era lynch mob.
The same goes for members of the Obama administration. Eric Holder apparently surmises that if he goes after a local police department, he does not have to investigate the conditions under which Michael Brown thinks he has a right to strongarm a store, slug a policeman, or walk down the center of a highway under the influence. If Holder went to St. Louis to investigate a spate of hate crimes against Bosnian immigrants, or to learn why youths of color are far more likely to commit than to suffer from interracial crime, he would face existential challenges. Not so if he flies in, cites police racism, and flies out. That gesture becomes penance for an impotence in dealing with the foundational causes of the black underclass — from inordinately high rates of unemployment and incarceration to dismally low rates of graduation and legitimacy.
For these reasons and more, either liberal mythography is not seen as lying, or it is at least more advantageous and more lucrative than the truth. And so we will see more of it.