Daily Archives: June 20, 2010

Frye’s “Closed Mythology” of Authoritarianism


Former Nixon aide John Dean talks about “proto-fascist tendencies” in the Bush administration and the Republican party

There is a lot of discussion these days among concerned old-school American conservatives about the “epistemic closure” that has become so apparent in the Rush Limbaugh-Fox News universe; that what now passes for conservatism in America is actually an antic form of nihilism that believes in nothing but obtaining and holding on to power at any cost.  Its chief weapons are the propagation of lies, confusion, fear, and resentment.  It is notable that two of the leading voices on the issue of epistemic closure are not American born and raised: one’s an ex-pat Brit, Andrew Sullivan, and the other an ex-pat Canadian, David Frum — both from countries with a strong, moderating Tory tradition.

I was a little disappointed to find that Frye evidently has nothing to say about Theodor Adorno and his notion of the “authoritarian personality,” but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least glance at how Adorno and his co-authors frame the issue. The traits of the authoritarian personality are common and readily identifiable.  Those traits are:  “conventionalism, authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, anti-intraception, superstition and stereotypy, power and “toughness,” destructiveness and cynicism, projectivity, and exaggerated concerns over sexuality (sexual repression).”  The authoritarian personality is therefore highly predisposed to follow the dictates of a strong leader and traditional, conventional values.

Does this really require much elaboration?  We see these symptoms being played out on the right every day, and the further right you go, the more pathological the behavior becomes.  Take just one example, “exaggerated concerns over sexuality (sexual repression).”  It has become part of our satirical lore over the last few years that, the more homophobic the Republican/conservative/evangelical leader is, the more likely he will be outed for engaging in closeted homosexual activity (nicely bringing the principle of “projectivity” into play).  The list is too long and the details too sad to bother lingering over.  But if you are somehow unaware of the phenomenon, here’s a short list of some of the more notorious figures: Rev. Ted Haggard, Sen. Larry Craig, Dr. and Rev. George Rekers.  They’ve added to our lexicon phrases such as “wide stance” and “long stroke.”  The case of Rekers, the most recent outing, is especially disturbing because he’s both a psychiatrist and a minister — as well as the co-founder of the repulsive Family Research Council — who for decades has claimed that homosexuality is a psychological disorder that can be treated and “cured.”  In May he was spotted returning from a ten day European vacation with a 20 year old male prostitute who confirmed sexual relations with Rekers.

The self-destructiveness of the authoritarian personality would be a matter of pity if it weren’t so devastating in its wider social implications.  The epistemic closure of the authoritarian mindset will collapse in on itself eventually — but, as demonstrated by the recent world-wide financial meltdown brought about by derivative instruments designed ultimately only to make money for the brokers, the wider public is not necessarily spared the consequences.

Frye has his own version of epistemic closure, which in The Modern Century he calls a “closed mythology”:

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Merton College, Oxford

On this date in 1214 The University of Oxford received its charter.

Frye attended Merton College (established 1264), completing his studies for an MA in the spring of 1939.  During the summer and fall of 1982 Frye was interviewed by Valerie Schatzker as part of an oral history of the University of Toronto.  Here he talks about his experience at Oxford.

Schaztker: How did [study there] compare with what you remember from the Honour Course [at Victoria College]?

Frye: It was very largely a repetition of what I’d done.  I read more intensively, but, as I said, my real reason for taking it was that I wanted to become fresher in the whole English area.  If you ask about instruction: of course it was tutorial, and my tutor was Edmund Blunden, who was a rather shy, diffident man.  For some bloody reason, which I’ve never figured out, he was pro-Nazi.  I didn’t know who was to blame for that.  But in any case, I seemed to meet fascists everywhere I turned at Oxford, so I was poltically and socially extremely unhappy for that time that I was there.  England’s morale seemed to be the lowest in its history.  If you read Howard K. Smith’s Last Train From Berlin (he’s a CBS announcer, and he was a classmate of mine at Oxford), the first chapter is about his experiences at Merton College and it will give you some idea of what I myself found extremely uncongenial about the place…

It may have been pure accident.  But if I found myself just meeting people casually, I seemed to keep running into fascist groups all the time.  I knew that the Labour group was the largest single group at Oxford, but the general feeling at Merton, certainly, and I think at several other colleges as well, was very much not to my liking…

I wouldn’t say that it was more politially active, but the undercurrents were beginning to swirl around and they were very ugly ones.  There was one man who had gone up to Merton on a scholarship which had been donated by Oswald Mosely [of the British Union of Fascists] and his job was to recruit people as far as he could.  I felt that if England had not been forced into an anti-Hitler position it would have gone in a very sinister direction or at least the intellectual leadership would have done so.

Schatzker: Did you find yourself ostracized?

Frye: No, I didn’t.  That’s too strong a word.  I didn’t find myself ostrasized.  And of course there were very intense left-wing people both in Merton College and elsewhere.  Howard Smith was one, and another was a tough egg from Yorkshire who came home drunk to his room and found four or five Fascists roughing it up.  So his head cleared and he went into action and pretty soon the air was thick with Fascists flying out of windows. (CW 24, 599-600)