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”:

A closed mythology forms a body of major premises superior in authority to scholarship and art.  A closed myth already contains all the answers, at least potentially: whatever scholarship or art produce has to be treated deductively, as reconcilable with the mythology, or, if irreconcilable, suppressed…

In the democracies there are many who would like to see a closed myth take over.  Some are hysterical, like the John Birch Society, who want a myth of the American way of life, as they understand it, imposed on everything, or like the maudlin Teutonism which a generation ago welcomed the formulating of the Nazi closed myth in Alfred Rosenberg’s Myth of the Twentieth Century.  It may be significant that the book which actually bears that title should be one of the most foolish and mischievous books of our time.  Some are nostalgic intellectuals, usually with a strong religious bias, who are bemused by the “unity” of medieval culture and would like to see some kind of “return” to it.  Some are people who can readily imagine themselves as belonging to the kind of elite that a closed myth would produce.  Some are sincere believers in democracy who feel that democracy is at a disadvantage in not having a clear and unquestioned program of its beliefs.  But democracy can hardly function with a closed myth, and books of the type I have mentioned as contributions to our mythology, however illuminating and helpful, cannot, in a free society, be given any authority beyond what they earn by their own merits.  That is, an open mythology has no canon.  Similarly, there can be no general elite in a democratic society: in a democracy everybody belongs to some kind of elite, which derives from its social function a particular knowledge or skill that no other group has. (CW 11. 66-7)

I hope you’ll agree that this is not only quite stirring but shockingly apt to describe the anti-democratic forces assiduously at work in society now.  What used to be fringe beliefs and behavior have in short order become part of the “conservative” mainstream and are channelled directly into the public discourse by entities like Fox News.  The richest of the rich now live in a world so rarefied and remote from the rest of us that Citigroup in an infamous 2005 memo gave a new name to it: plutonomy.  And whether they deliberately intend it or not, the richest minority of the population are using the instruments of democracy to put a social, political and economic stranglehold on the rest of us.  As I mentioned yesterday, the top 1% of the population already possesses more wealth than the “bottom” 80% — and that’s a direct result of a conservative economic policy that began with Reagan and represented the greatest transfer of wealth upward in history.  The fact that it ended in the collapse of financial markets two years ago doesn’t seem to have made much difference — yet.  But it certainly does explain the clamorous anti-liberal hysteria on the right, in which Obama (who, frankly, more and more looks like a pleasant version of an old-style pre-Nixon Republican) is simultaneously rendered a Muslim, a fiery black Christian fundamentalist, a Kenyan, a fascist, a communist, an ineffectual wimp who can’t plug an oil leak in the Gulf, and an insufferable bully who wants to put people in re-education camps.  It’s all the same.  The anger and the accusation are all that matter.  The facts have nothing to do with anything.  And the reason is simple: the public must not be allowed to consider any alternative to the closed mythology and the interests of those it best represents.  Crass opportunists like Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, who oversee the ensuing chaos for their own personal profit, can therefore be fairly described as what Frye calls (I’m doing this one from memory) “parasites of democracy.”  That goes also for those in Canada who declare that what Canada needs is its own Fox News.  Nobody needs Fox News.  Not anywhere.  Not ever.

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