A great many persons who manifest what Altemeyer has called the “right wing authoritarian” type of mindset will also, often enough, display some rather strikingly childish, if not downright infantile, traits with respect to basic cognition. In particular, among this group one will find many persons who will insist that the contemporary GOP retains its status as “the party of Lincoln,” or that the Nazis were “really socialists” because the word “sozialismus” appears in their name. In both instances there is nothing more than a name in common between the one thing (Lincoln did belong to what was then called the Republican party) and the other (today’s GOP is absolutely tarred by Trump and his blatant fascism.) The laughable rubes who make this association – often enough loudly and in public, with utter self-assurance not to be impinged upon by any shred of logic, principles, evidence, or facts – might otherwise be dismissed as merely uneducable and pathetic, were it not at least one aspect of their behavior that is worthy of note: their use of names, as exemplified above, is magical. And not “magical” in the benevolent sense of “charming,” “truly special,” or “delightful,” but magical in the primitive and pernicious sense of actual magic – specifically, “name magic.”
There is a connection between magical thinking and fascism, one that has been recognized for some time now. Ernst Cassirer addressed this connection in his important work, The Myth of the State.i Published at the end of WWII (and shortly after Cassirer himself died), Cassirer applied his enormous insights regarding symbolism and modes of thought (his three volume The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms remains an unparalleled intellectual achievement) to the forms of mythological thinking that were such a driving force behind nationalism and fascism. (Cassirer was Jewish and an eye witness to the rise of Nazism in Germany. Seeing the writing on the wall, he was able to escape with wife, going first to Sweden, then England, and finally the United States, where he wrote Myth of the State while working at Columbia University.) As such, it is also a valuable source of insight into our own Trumpistas, and their unflagging devotion to “Dear Leader.”
Some words are in order about what mythological thinking is not, and here a good comparison might be with metaphysical speculation, especially as many ancient philosophers turned to explicitly mythical imagery to advance their speculations. Plato is the standout example here: his use of imagery and story telling to convey his philosophical ideas, while occasionally imitated, has never been matched. (A cautionary note here: Cicero says that he considers Aristotle’s dialogs to be more beautiful than Plato’s, a claim we have no way of evaluating for ourselves, since none of Aristotle’s dialogs have survived the fires of time and zealotry.) Plato was constantly turning to myths and stories to create an image or idea in his readers’ minds. But it is important to note here that Plato was using mythical imagery to generate metaphors for concepts which themselves were still shadowy approximations in the author’s own mind.
Whitehead, among many others (Iris Murdock is another important example) understood this, and was quite explicit that thought at the far horizons of everyday dealings – such as speculative metaphysics must be, if it is to achieve its goal of broadening those horizons – must of necessity truck in metaphors and analogies, stretching ordinary words beyond their casually accepted meanings into intellectual territory as yet unblazed by previous thinkers. Despite the fact that such approaches to making sense – let’s call it “narrative intelligibility” – stand at the very beginning of Western philosophy, it has lost favor in the contemporary world for the two other primary modes of making sense, empirical adequacy and logical coherence. This is a pity, as it leaves us in the crushingly hobbled position of only being allowed to say that which “literally” means what it means. The people who point out that the very notion of “literal” that’s being brought into play is itself “literally” meaningless gets, in general, dismissed as mere “postmodernist” clap-trap. I’ll just mention here that, along with folks like Whitehead and Murdock (whom we cite in our book), my coauthor and I made our own little gestures at recovering narrative intelligibility into the modes of philosophical explanation in our book from which this blog takes its name.
But using a mythical image as an instrument is a very different sort of attitude toward the world from actually wallowing in magical thought. The first is a provisional tool used to advance inquiry; the second is a non-negotiable absolute that demands the termination of all inquiry. This is one reason why mythical/magical thinking is so favored by fascists.
From the “inside,” mythical/magical thinking is not a tool for generating symbols, metaphors, and analogies, it is rather the believer, the adherent, that is the tool being used by the symbol to advance a cause that will brook neither discussion nor critique. The name magic such people envelope themselves in is unburnished by any logic or evidence; the name IS the “thing,” and as such is not open to any dispute.
It is easy to see how such an attitude translates itself into unqualified hero worship. Any “cult of personality” will display such characteristics, since “The Hero’s” (or “Dear Leader’s”) name substitutes for the key to ultimate reality. We see this in Cassirer’s discussion (touching especially upon the “Great Man” theories of the 19th C.), in Robert Paxton’s discussion of the various “mobilizing passions” of fascism (including, “The superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason”), and of Altemeyer’s identification of right-wing thinking with the Authoritarians. The name of the “Hero,” the “Leader,” the “Authority,” is a direct connection to reality itself; whosoever possesses it, shall possess The Truth. To follow the Leader is set one’s feet upon the righteous path, and to prove one’s self to be a member of the Elect. Such a thing is not to be surrendered for anything so trivial as “the feeble lance of Reason.”ii
The nature of mythical thinking is such as to comprise a self-contained whole, what Cassirer referred to as a “symbolic form.” This form obviously exercises a powerful influence on human consciousness and emotion. This self-contained character is arguably one of the aspects of the authoritarian mind-set that makes what Altemeyer calls “compartmentalization” such a pronounced and overwhelming feature of the right-wing belief structures. It is this latter that enables persons with backgrounds in inquiry driven disciplines (doctors, engineers, technicians, etc.) to set those disciplines aside and swallow wholesale – literally without a first, much less a second thought – mythological twaddle that no thinking person could otherwise take seriously for even a moment.
And the power of mythological thinking vastly outstrips its “reason.” Thus, while it is a supposition to say so, it seems reasonable to suppose that a great deal of that power stems directly from the way in which mythology creates and reinforces community. It is certainly the case that a shared narrative – in some sense or other – is always at the base of our sense of self-in-community. And mythological thinking, being driven almost exclusively by narrative, is a tremendous source of such community building identity. It does not seem like that much of a stretch to imagine that this is why humans are so readily prone to being swept up in mythological thought: community was survival, and mythology built and strengthened community.
None of which alters the noxious effects that unreflectively embraced mythology and magical beliefs are having on our societies now. Because modern right-wing mythologies are all built around the demonization of “The Other,” and name-magic intolerance requires the extirpation of all differences. There can be only one Name, and if it is not yours then you are beyond the pale. Unfortunately, it is not clear how understanding such irrationalism helps us address or counter it.
– – – – – – – – –
iI’m on somewhat shaky ground here, as my copies of Cassirer’s books are all currently packed away in one of 55 boxes stored in a friend’s pole barn. In other words, I operating on memory here (wish me luck!)
iiA phrase Isaac Asimov used in referring to the same sorts of people and their imperviousness to logic and evidence.