One of the most interesting things in politics today is the ease with which Barack Obama seems to have convinced his followers that everything is going to be fine; that, for example, his critics are fools to think that the rising fiscal deficits portend some terrible outcome. Conservative commentators, politicians, and ordinary citizens are everywhere aghast at how the mainstream media goes along with the myth of Barack’s wisdom in spite of the overwhelming evidence that he is leading the nation down the path to ruin and despair. Why, they ask, can Barack’s supporters not see this? Why is the mainstream media silent?
We don’t have a satisfactory answer to this question. But we would like to offer an insight into the phenomenon that underlies it.
It comes in the form of a passage from Thomas Mann’s classic novel Doctor Faustus. The book deals with Germany’s descent into the madness of fascism and genocide during the period between the two wars. This particular passage finds the narrator of the story involved in a conversation among numerous educated Germans, “scientists, scholars, teachers,” who are discussing a disturbing new theory advanced by the political scientist Georges Sorel that truth no longer plays a significant part in political discussion; that the masses are moved not by truth but by political “myths, fables, insane visions, chimaeras,” that are formulated by evil men for the purposes of gaining dictatorial power.
The narrator of this scene is concerned with this development, but he is more concerned with the good nature with which these German’s intellectuals are discussing the impossibility of fighting myth with truth.
They amused themselves by imagining a legal process in which one of these mass myths was up for discussion in the service of the political drive for the undermining of the bourgeois social order . . . The fantastic thing was the mighty apparatus of scientific witness which was invoked — quite futilely — to prove that humbug was humbug and a scandalous affront to truth. For the dynamic, historically creative fiction, the so-called lie and falsification, in other words the community-forming belief, was simply inaccessible to this line of attack. Science strove, on the plane of decent, objective truth, to confute the dynamic lie; but arguments on that plane could only seem irrelevant to the champions of the dynamic, who merely smiled a superior smile. Science, truth — good God! The dramatic expositions of the group were possessed by the spirit and the accent of that ejaculation. They could scarcely contain their mirth at the desperate campaign waged by reason and criticism against wholly untouchable, wholly invulnerable belief. And with their united powers they knew how to set science in a light of such comic impotence that even the “beautiful princes,” in their childlike way, were brilliantly entertained. The happy board did not hesitate to prescribe to justice, which had to say the last word and pronounce the judgment, the same self-abnegation which they themselves practised. A jurisprudence that wished to rest on popular feeling and not to isolate itself from the community could not venture to espouse the point of view of theoretic, anti-communal, so-called truth; it had to prove itself modern as well as patriotic, patriotic in the most modern sense, by respecting the fruitful falsum, acquitting its apostles, and dismissing science with a flea in its ear.
Although I felt sick at my stomach, I would not play the spoilsport; I showed no repugnance, but rather joined as well as I could in the general mirth; particularly since this did not necessarily mean agreement but only, at least provisionally, a smiling, gratified intellectual recognition of what was or was to be. I did once suggest that “if we wanted to be serious for a moment,” we might consider whether a thinking man, to whom the extremity of our situation lay very much at heart, would not perhaps do better to make truth and not the community his goal, since the latter would indirectly and in the long run be better served by truth, even the bitter truth, than by a train of thought which proposed to serve it at the expense of truth, but actually, by such denial, destroyed from within in the most unnatural way the basis of genuine community.
Never in my life have I made a remark that fell more utterly and completely flat than this one. I admit that it was a tactless remark, unsuited to the prevailing intellectual climate, and permeated with an idealism of course well known, only too well known, well known to the point of being bad taste, and merely embarrassing to the new ideas. Much better was it for me to chime in with the others; to look at the new, to explore it, and instead of offering it futile and certainly boring opposition, to adapt my conceptions to the course of the discussion and in the frame of them to make myself a picture of the future and of a world even now, if unawares, in the throes of birth — and this no matter how I might be feeling in the pit of my stomach.