Amidst the continuing devolution of American political discourse into a hyperpartisan Tower of Babble, Michael Meade, in a podcast series called Living Myth, cuts through the rhetoric and superficial events to the heart of the matter. He reminds us that facts don’t tell the whole story. They never have. Our habitual reversion to a rational understanding of an inconceivably complex world is never fully satisfying (no matter how hard we try) —nor does it tell the whole truth of any given moment.
Those who rely on a material view may be satisfied to reduce complex issues, such as the persuasion of climate deniers, into easily digestible smart-ass sound bites like “the vast majority of scientists agree….” while the retort is an equally smart-ass, “No one really knows…” or “God is in the only One in charge.” Both statements may be true, but neither is the whole story. Thus, relying on them at moments of discord becomes a combination of conscious and unconscious ideological extremism, i.e. self-imposed blindness.
Likewise, those who are embedded in the cradle of faith, systems of thought not reliant on (or responsive to) repeatable experiments (whether hyper-self interested Hobbesian economists, Calvinist Christians or some combination of the two) are equally impoverished. For Meade, the presence of myth in everyday discourse is critical. “Myths are lies that tell the truth,” he says. They explain things that are otherwise impossible to comprehend. They undermine a natural tendency to reify reality, to imagine that we can remain comfortable in our conclusions (that America can be great again) when in fact-since we all share this human and non-human world-there is no such thing as arriving. The presence and influence of metaphor, a story unfolding in its own indeterminate way (we do retain free will), has withered. The grandeur of imagination, of being perpetually in-formation, is missing from both sides, but for different reasons.
There is increasing argument about what is a fact, what is the truth, what is the rational understanding of the moment. The rationalists say “alternate facts” are an attack on truth itself, deliberately undermining our confidence in our own senses as well as in the landmarks, norms and institutions of our political geography. In the alt-fact world, the trail ahead becomes blurred, which presents a great opportunity for those (like the Orange Julius and his friends) with designs on capturing power by dismantling the structures of democracy. The ideological extremists and faith-based fundamentalists argue they are entitled to believe a different set of facts. And they do, indeed. Of what use is it, then, to take refuge deeper in the laboratories of logic?
The macrocosmic story about the evolution of the cosmos and biological evolution on our whirling speck of planetary dust is one great story of our time. It tells us about global warming, for example, the transition of humans from being subject to the forces of nature and the cosmos, partially explained by indigenous cosmologies and religious myth, to one of becoming a geological force in our own right. We have become the principal actors driving the outcome. We now weather each other.
For the fundamentalists, both economic and religious, including those whose economic philosophy has become a twisted version of Christianity (wealth = moral virtue), the only macro story is the Bible, in which humans are not part of nature, but given dominion over it. How ironic that two opposing views now face each other? Voila! Humans, now being in both the religious and the technological drivers seat, are definitely steering nature, all right. Except that one group is driven by the urge to dominate (entitlement to assault). And many of the wealthy, regardless of their religious philosophy, have been only too willing to jump on that bandwagon because it’s already heading in the Right direction.
For Meade, our common humanity connects every person to the great dance, rising out of the deep roots of the human soul, the one endowed upon each of us by Grace or Chance, whichever you prefer, like sprouts growing out of the humus on the forest floor. If you believe in an eternal soul, we are each living out the individual story emerging as we grow.
If I am living out the story of my life according to the genius that was planted in me (whether by an awakening evolutionary consciousness of Gaia Herself or by an omnipotent deity Himself) then I am unfolding unique gifts on behalf of the entire human story, bringing benefit to the whole through living the unique genius of my small part. In so doing, I become an agent of ongoing creation and re-creation. The very idea of ongoing creation, however, sounds suspiciously like evolution and might fly in the face of Christian orthodoxy.
To paraphrase Meade further, as the world gets darker, it’s as if we are living in the series of storms—even more literally nowadays. How do we find the eye of the storm–the still place from which to witness the whole? To hold this truth is to say no single person, no single idea, no single ideology can save us. But again, this flies in the face of religious dogma, which says unequivocally that everything lies in the hands of God.
So when the newly confirmed head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, asserts that carbon dioxide is not the cause of global warming, he’s not rendering a scientific opinion. He’s expressing a religious opinion congruent with his entitlement to assault (the earth). He’s expressing his personal mythology—Christian authoritarianism—which, by seeding deniers and fossil fuel crocodiles throughout the swamp, now ushers in a new era (nasty, brutish and short?) of “carbon autocracy.” This is the same ideology at the heart of the current sadistic conservative attack on the very concept of health insurance (“Don’t expect any help from me. You’re on your own!”).
Thus, to respond to Pruitt’s declaration with an even more urgent reiteration of scientific dogma is useless, or worse, counterproductive. It might also be useful to remember that in certain religious circles, lying is condoned if it hastens the Kingdom of God. How convenient, and how useful to the oligarchs, that a serial unrepentant liar has been installed in the most powerful position in the world. But for those who disagree with him to become ensnared in responding to every inconsistency or contradictory declaration on the topic of climate change is to remain a hopeless (and ineffectual) reactionary.
Logic is assaulted as the Randian libertarian, zero-sum, soulless and selfish authoritarians become the dogs tearing at the fabric of the world, sneering at experts and education and denying the very existence of “society” (collectivism). Despair, exhaustion and hopelessness are inevitable, and necessary, because the world has been falling apart for as long as memory itself. Yes, we must despair and cry out and fall into hopelessness because our grief is the womb of art. It is the searing crucible of creativity. It is where we will find Meade’s “remnant of an unraveled world,” the part we each take up and begin to re-weave again.
Habitually dividing events into extremes, good and bad, right and wrong, even as I can’t resist doing here, is a neuro-linguistic trap. Every time I do it, I’ve know I’ve been had. I become the reactionary that I deplore. Addressing the myth behind the facts requires that we look beyond the binary. Pruitt isn’t a climate skeptic. He’s just being selfish. And he, like other authoritarian “Christians,” will say anything to get his way, the resurrection of white capitalism in all its rapacious glory.
The rest of us could (as Meade would say) begin by exercising our “God-given” free will to embody our response, a unique and unheard of, audacious, resonant, inspired re-weaving of the world into a connecting, life-affirming, anti-authoritarian universe of wild possibility–the ignition of imagination–especially when it bends toward collective action.
What collective action, you may ask?