The Myth of Equivalency, Part One
January 26th, 2013 – NBC Political Director and chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd ridiculed election machine critics at a conference of vote-counters, saying that critics must be paranoid to fear that anyone would deliberately alter election results. Earlier he had tweeted: “The voting machine conspiracies belong in the same category as the Trump birther garbage.” Todd received applause from his audience of state secretaries of state and sales reps for voting machine and software companies. (http://www.opednews.com/articles/NBC-s-Todd-Mocks-Election-by-Andrew-Kreig-130129-725.html)
Late February: Readers of daily newspapers saw a series of “Doonesbury” comic strips:
For several days, Doonesbury made fun of right-wing conspiracies. Then he completed the theme with this strip:
What’s going on here? By including a very widely held left-wing political theory in the same category as these right-wing ideas, Doonesbury was defining them all as conspiracy theories. He was doing exactly the same thing (granted, with more humor) from a liberal perspective that Todd was doing from the conservative side.
This is the narrative of equivalency. It conveys the essence of what I’m calling the myth of equivalency, which instructs Americans that any notions differing from mainstream understandings of reality – no matter how popular – are equally worthless. Here’s the logic: A is silly. We mention B next to A. Therefore, B is silly.
Indeed, there are countless websites and books devoted to this narrative, typically making lists of “loony” theories, often lumping them together at random and offering psychological explanations of the unconscious motivations of conspiracy theorists, be they fascists or progressives.
Such sources are well within one of two very old American traditions of gatekeeping. One is to lie outright about American history. Here’s the logic: A is a story. There is no B. Therefore, A is the only story.
As I wrote in a previous blog (Barry’s Blog # 34: Academic Gatekeepers):
The “Dunning School” of racist historians dominated the writing of post-Civil War history well into the 1950s. William Dunning, founder of the American Historical Association, taught Columbia students that blacks were incapable of self-government. Yale’s Ulrich Phillips defended slaveholders and claimed they did much to civilize the slaves. Henry Commager and (Harvard’s) Samuel Morison’s The Growth of the American Republic, read by generations of college freshmen, perpetuated the myth of the plantation and claimed that slaves “suffered less than any other class in the South…The majority…were apparently happy.” Daniel Boorstin’s The Americans: The Colonial Experience doesn’t mention slavery at all. Similarly, Arthur Schlesinger’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Jackson never mentions the Trail of Tears.
The process of initiation into higher education (and the careers it opens one to) nearly guarantees that those admitted within the pale are already thinking within very narrow boundaries. Noam Chomsky writes that it is a system of imposed ignorance in which the most highly educated people are the most highly indoctrinated. “A good education instills in you the intuitive comprehension – it becomes unconscious and reflexive – that you just don’t think certain things…that are threatening to power interests.” Over the years, polls clearly indicate the results: the higher one’s education, the more one is likely to unquestioningly support America’s wars of aggression – and the reverse is also true.
The other tradition is to ridicule any political positions further out on the spectrum (left or right) often enough so as to deprive it of legitimacy and, by contrast, manufacture the legitimacy of the “center.” Here’s the logic: A is too far out in one direction. B is too far in the other direction. C lies in between them. Therefore, C is legitimate.
The use of the term “conspiracy theory” is one of the main ways that our corporate-owned media banish any legitimate criticism to the realm of the truly illegitimate. The intent is insidious, even if sometimes sincere. The only position that “reasonable people” could hold is the only one left, the consensual center. Done often enough (and it is; even progressives use the phrase “conspiracy theory” to de-legitimize ideas further out on the spectrum than they are comfortable with), enough people hold to that center so as to reaffirm their sense of American Innocence.
Note the mythic implication here: Apollo is the god of fine arts, truth and reasonable discourse. By contrast, Dionysus, the archetypal “Other,” is ecstatic, raving, physical, irrational, emotional and unreasonable. He is the mythological foundation of American innocence. For 400 years, the white American psyche has repressed its Dionysian nature and projected it onto the scapegoated Others of our history. Gatekeepers know this. To deliberately equate, for example, 9-11 skeptics (by calling them “truthers”) with paranoids who label Barack Obama as a Muslim, non-citizen socialist is not simply to delegitimize both; it is to imply that both are equally irrational and Dionysian. “We,” by contrast, are safely, acceptably Apollonian.
This is the process of identity-formation in our demythologized world. We know who we are as Americans because we “know” that we are not the Other. I prefer to imagine that in other times and places people knew who they were because they had endured the process of initiation. They were nobles. The word “noble” comes from the same root as gnosis, or knowledge. A noble is someone who knows who he is, not who he isn’t.
Gatekeepers, whether academics or media puppets, delight in the power to subtly determine boundaries, to let everyone know exactly who is “beyond the pale.” The word “pale” refers to the pointed wooden poles that once were used in fortifications. Think “Fort Apache.” Anyone who threatened the innocent community within risked being impaled on the sharp stakes of irrefutable “argument,” or worse.