A Mythologist Reads the Papers
December 20, 2015 § 8 Comments
I had an epiphany last Thursday while watching the Republican Party presidential debate on TV. It was that the fundamental political conflict of our times around the world is not the one between the supporters of big business and those of big government, or between the forces of conservatism and liberalism. It isn’t (as Sanders believes) between the rich and the 99 percent, or, taking a more global view, between democracy and autocracy, or even, as the Republican candidates claimed, between radical Islam and the rest of the civilized world. It is a war of extermination, fought with implacable fury, extreme prejudice and a diabolical, deliberate covertness by extremism against intellectualism. By intellectualism I mean scientific temper, historical even-handedness and compassionate moderation. By extremism, I mean the ideological opposition to intellectualism, from every corner of the political spectrum. It is a war for hearts and minds, and it is one that the extremists seem to be winning in most parts of the world.
This is the war described with brilliant clarity and clairvoyance in 1957, in Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. How is this war waged? When Barthes says, “the war on intelligence is always waged in the name of common sense”, he might have been talking about Donald Trump. Or Vladimir Putin. Or Marine Le Pen. Or al-Baghdadi, for that matter. Science, literature, and the nuances of history are waved away airily as a complicated hallucination of no significance, while they themselves, armed “with a divine innocence”, claim to cut straight through the clutter and arrive at the so-called essence of the matter with a single, shockingly blunt statement. This is a knack that their supporters adore them for, because it dispenses with the hard work necessary in sifting facts, verifying sources or evaluating theories from multiple angles. It means one can be lazy and yet be the equal of a scholar, that one need no longer be intimidated by those whose considered opinions were earned through years of study. We do not hide fearfully behind political correctness, they say; instead, they take pride in treating people as stereotypes. This is an ‘outbreak of essentialism‘, says Barthes, an epidemic that is ‘the basis of all mankind’s bourgeois mythology‘.
Barthes’ biggest insight is in recognizing the principles at play here. They are the same ones at the origin of ancient legends and mythologies. Myth reduces history into a simple narrative, after stripping reality of all ambiguity and regurgitating it as something purified, innocent and utterly lacking in contradictions and complications. While many of us are able to see how this process might have worked in the Trojan War or the Ramayana, Barthes is able to see the same processes take place all around us. He is an urban 20th century mythologist, who reads magazines, sees TV, pays attention to advertisements, and dissects the lazy thinking and devious myth-making inherent in them.
“Here I am, before the sea,” Barthes declares, “it is true that it bears no message. But on the beach, what material for semiology! Flags, slogans, signals, signboards, clothes, suntan even, which are so many messages for me!” He immerses himself in society and media, and it is little wonder therefore, that he remains as relevant today as when he wrote the book. Because social media is the primary weapon employed in this ruthless war against intellectualism today. Myths like “the dangerousness of all refugees”, “the merits of carrying guns as protection”, “the imminent threat to a nation’s existence”, or (on other sides) “the evil Wall Street banker”, “decadent Western civilization” or “foreign NGOs out to destabilize our nation” wend their way across the world on the wings of the internet; lazy and prejudiced opinions with sensationalist half-truths from dodgy sources are the lifeblood of clickbait sites and Facebook shares, and are soon accepted as indisputable common knowledge; as for Twitter, a medium that allows for no more than 144 characters to express an argument and in which success is defined by popularity rather than by quality, it is at the very forefront of this conflict.
Roland Barthes is difficult to read. It is necessary for the reader to put in effort, to follow him closely, to get something out of his book. He takes simple, everyday things, facts and words, and exposes a hidden world of hypocrisy and history inside each of them. Why is this so difficult to read? Because of the most powerful myth doing the rounds today: that smartness lies only in simplifying the complex; we are accustomed, not to thinking but to being spoonfed pre-digested simplicity. This is the seductive ideology behind ISIS recruitment campaigns, and the very basis of Trump’s appeal. Often intelligence lies in doing the exact opposite, in unearthing the complexity behind over-simplified presumptions. Behind every complex question of our time, there lies a simple solution that is intuitive, easy to communicate… and utterly wrong. In showing us this, Barthes is the ultimate anti-anti-intellectual.