Myth in the Making

Corporate efforts to own and subvert American democracy found in 9/11 the opportunity to create a specific “War on Terror” mythology. The advent of Big Brother in Uncle Sam’s homeland?

This post belongs to a reading series of Democracy Incorporated by Sheldon S. Wolin. For quick access to all chapters, please click here. On smartphones, share links are at the bottom of the screen.

Disclaimer: This chapter summary is personal work and an invitation to read the book itself for a detailed view of all the author’s ideas.

“In the aftermath of September 11 the American citizen was propelled into the realm of mythology, a new and different dimension of being, unworldly, where occult forces were bent on destroying a world that had been created for the children of light.” This chapter of Democracy Incorporated examines how the use of a myth is integral to the political dystopia of a world where good and bad are opposed in an absolute way. A world where invading Mexico would have made as much sense as invading Iraq to uproot the terrorist networks that committed the attack on the twin towers, and where the subsequent need to tally Iraqi civilian casualties was not even remotely felt like a necessity in mainstream media. Facts, reason, and human consideration do not matter. A myth, as the author points out, presents “a narrative of exploits, not an argument or a demonstration. It does not make the world intelligible, only dramatic.”

George Orwell and totalitarianism today
George Orwell (1903-1950)

George Orwell’s laid out the political use of mythology in1984, a novel based on his experience of the Spanish civil war during the 1930s. Big Brother did not happen to be a far-fetched creation of his imagination; it simply was the evocation of the communist party telling all citizens what they have to believe and, to better achieve that end, banning all recourses to facts and logic thanks to a heavily inquisitive surveillance apparatus. In the novel, this project has at its core to rewrite the dictionary. Big Brother is, in that sense, the symbolic representation of how radical the domination of people’s minds can and must be in a totalitarian state. Where fascists resorted to violence along with aestheticized propaganda, the communist party was using its same usual linguistic tropes to prove one thing and its contrary from one day to the next. The party, Big Brother, hands citizens the lens through which they are supposed to look at the mythological reality concocted for them. Only those who belong to the inner circle of power know who they will decree to be on the right or wrong side of the mythological fight between good and bad.

Sheldon Wolin’s argument is that the United States government is using this same mythological dimension to rule through fear and ignorance rather than transparency and accountability. This was most notable during the heydays of the so-called “War on Terror.” In the aftermath of 9/11, mainstream media knew almost instinctively what to do to fall in line and deliver the mythological narrative expected from them. Making the iconography of terror obsessive enough, “[They] then announced, disingenuously, that “9/11 had forever been printed on the national consciousness.” Which is to say, “the date was enshrined and readied, not merely to justify but to sanctify the power of those pledged to be its avengers.”1 Any critical approach concerning the exact circumstances and deeper causes of what had happened was to be ignored: “September 11 became that rare phenomenon in contemporary life, an unambiguous truth, one that dissolved contradictions, the ambiguities of politics, the claims and counterclaims of political ideologies and pundits. Critics transformed themselves into penitents defending a preventive war as just and celebrating a constitution sufficiently flexible to be suspended at the pleasure of the chief executive.”

From a practical standpoint, this allowed for a permanent state of high alert under which an authoritative form of government could take shape. “The nation was immediately declared to be at war against an enemy whose nature, number, and location were largely unknown. Nonetheless, “enemy aliens” were rounded up and held under constitutionally dubious conditions. The nation’s population was periodically placed on a state of alert. The powers of government were expanded and made more intrusive, while simultaneously its social welfare functions were radically scaled back. . . . New enemy states were identified, not as hostile or enemy but as “evil,” and threatened. The notion of preemptive war was embraced and put into practice against Iraq.”

One could argue that George W. Bush was the mere servant of his big oil and armament corporate masters. While certainly valid, this assertion is nevertheless far from revealing the whole picture. Bush or no Bush, the use of a mythical grandstand was to be used to force the world into the war on terror dystopia. “The general effect of this expansion of powers created a new world where everything became larger-than-life, strange, filled with huge powers locked in a contest that would determine the fate of the world: ‘Axis of Evil,’ ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ ‘civilization against barbarism.'” In truly Orwellian fashion, the myth justified the expansion of powers which, in turn, seemed to prove the validity of the myth.

Bush's counterproductive war on terror

This logic of power was on full display during President Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address. Having suffered a clear defeat in the midterm election of 2006—due in no small part to the growing popular opposition to the war in Iraq—, he defiantly doubled down on the legitimacy of his administration’s “War on Terror,” calling in particular for an increase of twenty thousand troops. The justification, in the president’s own words, was that “[T]he Iraqi government would [otherwise] be overrun by extremists on all sides. We could expect an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran and Sunni extremists aided by Al Qaeda and supporters of the old regime. A contagion of violence could spill out across the country, and in time the entire region could be drawn into the conflict. For America this is a nightmare scenario. For the enemy, this is the objective. Chaos is their greatest ally in this struggle. And out of chaos in Iraq, would emerge an emboldened enemy with new safe havens, new recruits, new resources and an even greater determination to harm America.” Anyone with a minimum of intellectual honesty could see at the time that the campaign in Iraq was producing exactly what the president was saying it would prevent. That could nevertheless hardly matter to an administration bent on selling its self-made mythology.

“The president then presented his contribution to the structure of inverted totalitarianism and in the process demonstrated that even when all of the main elements of a “free society” are in place—free elections, free media, functioning Congress, and the Bill of Rights—they can be ignored by an aggrandizing executive.” Repudiating calls for reason and the general popular sentiment, he emphasized that the battle against chaos had no discernable end, then announced that he would seek authorization from Congress to increase the army and Marine Corps by ninety-two thousand over five years, and finally pressed Congress to assist in devising “a volunteer Civilian Reserve Corps” that, says Sheldon Wolin, “would, in effect, function as a private army.”

Still, how can a myth such as the “War on Terror” operate so well in an age of high scientific achievements and at a time when cynicism is almost a badge of courage? To Sheldon Wolin, this is essentially due to “the imagery world continuously being created and re-created by contemporary advertising” that is “rendered virtually escape-proof by the enveloping culture of the modern media.” Although it seems at first glance resolutely secular and materialistic, modern advertising reinforces the belief in some outer world holding the promise to change one’s life thanks to products that will make us more beautiful, cleaner, more sexually alluring, and more successful. The decisive aspect, here, is that these experiences are not actually lived but fantasized. For Americans, “the chosen people of advertising, technology, capitalist orthodoxy, and religious faith,” it subsequently follows that “the greatest triumph of virtual reality is war, the great unexperienced reality.”

As a matter of fact, “Ever since the Civil War Americans have fought wars at a distance: in Cuba, the Philippines, France, on almost every other continent in World War II, then in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East. War is an action game, played in the living room, or a spectacle on a screen, but, in either case, not actually experienced. . . . After 9/11 terrorism becomes another virtual reality, experienced only through its re-created images, its destructiveness (= wonders) absorbed through the spectacle of the occasional and hapless terrorist or captive journalist put on public display. In contrast, official policy decrees that the coffins of dead soldiers are not to be seen by the public.”

“Additionally, when myth emerges, not in a prescientific or pretechnological world, but in a power-jaded world accustomed to scientific revolutions and technological marvels (cloning, man on the moon), and, at the same time, credulous—for such an audience myth has to portray prodigies of power that are both familiar and uncanny. Not space aliens armed with the weaponry of a more advanced civilization, an ‘above world’, but their opposite: primitive, satanic, invisible denizens of an ‘underworld’ who (through devious money-laundering schemes) are able to purchase and operate contemporary technology.” The trick is to properly feed the imagination of the public so that it can feel satisfied by being critically undemanding and politically demobilized. Disconnecting the masses’ brains from reality is what Big Brother was for in George Orwell’s novel.


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  1. At the memorial service commemorating the second anniversary of those killed at the Pentagon, the director of the FBI read this from Ephesians 6:12–18: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over the present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Quoted in New York Times, September 12, 2003, A-19.

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Corporate efforts to own and subvert American democracy found in 9/11 the opportunity to create a specific “War on Terror” mythology. The advent of Bi
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