In “The Battle for God,” Karen Armstrong illuminates a slightly different, though related, difference, contrasting the modalities of mythos and logos. As Armstrong explains, logos is concerned with the practical understanding of how things work in the world, while mythos is concerned with ultimate meaning. Either modality can be used by liberals and conservatives alike in their everyday lives. But macro-historically, there’s been a distinct bias—and weird twist on top of it—at least since the dawn of the modern era. That’s when logos began becoming so all-pervasive that it seemed destined to dislodge mythos, and some defenders of mythos (now commonly known as fundamentalists) fought back paradoxically by assuming the framework of logos, and arguing that their mythos was literally true—a move that true traditionalists would have found to be deeply in error, because it devalued the essential purpose of mythos.
The congruence with Mooney’s argument is obvious: There’s a clear kinship between logos and the Enlightenment model of reason on the one hand, and mythos and persuasion on the other. If conservatives under George W. Bush once again proved themselves incompetent in the logos of governing, liberals under Obama proved themselves incompetent in its mythos.
Paul Rosenberg has a couple of long pieces in Salon that support my argument in "The Silicon Valley Flood" posted the other day. The first is with George Lakoff, whose work is important and to which I plan to return when I start developing the semiotic themes that I've been dancing around lately. The second is with David Dunning. The first interests me because I want to talk more about the theological implications of how language structures our world; the second, because it focuses on how language is used in two fundamentally different modes as 'Mythos' and 'Logos'. Logos is about the 'what' the facts, seeing the world as clearly as possible and working in it as competently and effectively as possible. Mythos provides the meaning infrastructure that shapes the way we think.
Mythos is more foundational because it's where the meaning and the purpose lie. It's what orients Gordon Gecko to work in the world in the way he does or Mother Teresa to work the way she does. The Wall Street Mythos is every bit as much a mythos as the Christian one is. But the point is that both mythos and logos interact in important ways--one's mythos creates a filter through which the 'facts' are perceived--even when the data is shared, mythos connects the dots in patterns that look different and mean very different things depending on which mythos works as your meaning infrastructure.
Mythos is in that sense foundational: everybody has a foundational mythos whether he or she is conscious of it or not. And in the end, a la William James, the test of the truth of your mythos is directly related to whether it allows you to work with the Real effectively or ineffectively, whether it broadens and enriches your experience of the Real, or whether it narrows and impoverishes it. Both Fundamentalism and Scientism provide narrow, impoverished mythic narratives. I believe the Judaeo-Christian mythos has depths and riches that have yet to be explored.
Competency in your work in the world requires a mythos that is suited to the reality that you are working with. If your mythos leads you to make persistent, disastrous mistakes, or if things just aren't working right, then clearly your mythos is misaligned with the Real, and adjustments are necessary. Gorbachev tried to effect these adjustments to the Soviet mythos in the 80s, and every sane person in the U.S. hoped that Obama would effect similar adjustments to the hybrid neoliberal/neoconservative mythos that proved itself disastrously misaligned with reality during the Cheney Bush years. Obama failed because he didn't understand that he had to deal with the foundational problem--the mythos problem--before he could deal with practical or logos problems. He made the fundamental Liberal mistake of overvaluing logos, to think that being reasonable and practical was enough, when instead he should have been trying to change the fundamental story. I think the country was ready for a different story. Obama as campaigner showed himself capable of telling that story; Obama as government bureaucrat has proved himself incapable.
The Liberal mythos, as I argued the other day, values competence but is grounded in what I describe as soft nihilistic metaphysics that by definition rejects as delusional any mythos that affirms ultimate purposes. And Rosenberg, quoting John Jost, points out that Liberals just don't have what it takes when it comes to a street fight:
True, we find some support for the traditional “rigidity-of-the-right” hypothesis, but it is also true that liberals could be characterized on the basis of our overall profile as relatively disorganized, indecisive and perhaps overly drawn to ambiguity — all of which may be liabilities in mass politics and other public and professional domains.
A worldview that embraces competency, a logos mythos, so to say, cancels itself out and loses to a worldview that embraces ultimate purposes almost every time. Marxism succeeded to the degree that it did because it affirmed ultimate purposes, even if its ultimate purposes were misguided or delusional. Reality has a feedback mechanism that sooner or later lets you know if your ideas are delusional, but as we've seen in this country, the disasters of the Iraq War and the 2007 economic meltdown didn't provide evidence enough that the mythos that guides the GOP or neoliberal Democrats is delusional, so Americans keep sending Republicans to Washington.
I think they do this for reasons somewhat different from Tom Frank's explanation: they do it because Republicans give the appearance of standing for something and Democrats just don't. Republican policies might be toxic and delusional, but Republicans present themselves as being committed to "ultimate" values that Americans care deeply about. Democrats look more like our worst stereotype of what a politician is: the weak-kneed hypocrites who stand for nothing but the advancement of their own careers. I believe that the country would back progressive politicians who stand for core American values. That's why Jim Webb's candidacy intrigues me.
So that's a part of it: When a particular mythos has captured the collective imagination of a group, it is virtually impossible to argue against it on a logos level. This is what people mean when they talk about cognitive divides or conservatives and liberals working with different epistemologies--one's epistemology follows from one's metaphysics, and one's metaphysics follows from one's Mythos, whether that mythos is consciously or unconsciously affecting one's thinking. One's mythos will not be given up until disaster proves conclusively that it is misaligned with the Real. Or it can be given up when an alternative mythos that shares its foundations with the reality-misaligned mythos emerges that proves itself better adapted to the Real.
The latter is to be preferred to the former. When the old mythos collapses as it did in the Soviet Union in the 80s or Germany after WWI, it's usually replaced with an even more primitive and regressive mythos that has to run its course toward yet other disasters. These primitive myths have more in common with the primordial flood that pushes us from behind than with grace and freedom that call us into the future.
More Americans have chosen Republicans in congressional elections (Presidential elections are different) because Democrats don't offer a robust enough alternative mythos that would motivate people to care enough to vote for them. So I'm arguing that secular progressives will continue to fail in the political and economic spheres, no matter how competent or practical their policy prescriptions, so long as their mythos is grounded in a soft nihilistic metaphysics/mythos no matter how humanistic and well intentioned. The Weimar Republic was humanistic and well intentioned in that Liberal sense.
So the answer for progressives does not lie in adopting an expedient Noble Lie that competes with the mythos of cultural Right. Such a contrived mythos will have as much staying power as the reality-misaligned mythos of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat'. A mythos that works has to be grounded in the Real--the spiritual Real, the Real that comes to us from the Absolute Future, and that's why secular progressives will never be able to give us what the country and world needs if they are to move forward into a truly progressive future. But such a mythos cannot be developed out of thin air--that't the Jacobin fallacy--it has to grow out of the tradition, and in the Western world that means the Judaeo-Christian tradition.
Those of us who believe that the Judaeo-Christian tradition is deeply aligned with the Real must find a way of presenting it as a robust alternative mythos that might actually help to move us into a the more deeply human future we all of us most deeply long for.