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 first step of inverted totalitarianism.

This post is part of a reading series of Democracy Incorporated by Sheldon S. Wolin. For quick access to all chapters, click here.

As in any book club, you are kindly invited to let the rest of us know what you think!

Disclaimer: Being the result of personal work, this chapter summary cannot and does not pretend to offer a detailed and accurate transcription 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.”, says Sheldon Wolin. This is why, for instance, the need to tally Iraqi civilian casualties was not even remotely felt like a necessity in mainstream media. Why Iraq, by the way? Well, why not? As the author points out, a myth presents “a narrative of exploits, not an argument or a demonstration. It does not make the world intelligible, only dramatic.” This chapter of Democracy Incorporated examines how the use of a myth is integral to the dystopia of a world disconnected from its own reality—that is to say, a world where good and bad are opposed in an absolute way.

Myth in the Making
George Orwell (1903 – 1950)

George Orwell laid out the same intuition in1984, a novel based on his experience, during the Spanish civil war of the 1930s, of the communist ideology totalitarian nature. Big Brother is not a far-fetched creation of his imagination. He simply foresaw 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. This is a symbolic evocation of how radical the domination on people’s minds can and must be, as opposed to the awkwardness of constant use of force. Words don’t have to mean anything anymore; the totalitarian state hands you the lengths through which you are supposed to look at the mythological reality it has concocted for you. This is not fiction but the reality of all and any form of totalitarian power. Only the protagonists of their respective good against evil mythological fight will change.

In the aftermath of 9/11, mainstream media knew almost instinctively what to do to fall in line with the new version of this mythology. 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.” On that last element of the story, the utter absence of any link between the Iraqi regime of the time and Al Qaeda is a straightforward illustration that a totalitarian state’s decisions are made neither from, by, or for the world of regular people.

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 delivering the whole picture. Through the use of a mythical grandstand, the mechanics at play were effectively totalitarian, not just corrupt and dictatorial. As Sheldon Wolin points out, “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.'” One was mirroring the other; the myth justified the expansion of powers which, in turn, seemed to prove the validity of the myth.

Myth in the Making

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 his administration’s “War on Terror” legitimacy, calling in particular for an increase of twenty thousand troops. The justification given was of truly Orwellian proportions: “[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.” That anyone with a minimum of intellectual honesty could see that the campaign in Iraq was producing exactly what the president was saying it would prevent did not matter; the myth had to prevail.

Following the same power logic, “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 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, moreover, 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” as the author puts it, it subsequently follows that “the greatest triumph of virtual reality is war, the great unexperienced reality.”

Myth in the Making

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 pamper the imagination of the public so that people can feel satisfied with being critically undemanding and politically demobilized.

Book Club Discussion: Does the mythological characterization of the then “War on Terror” seem obvious to you? How does it answer the logic of inverted totalitarianism?

Share your thoughts and build on what others say in the comment section below.


  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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