Mythmaking 101: Why Millions Have Bought into 'Death Panel' Propaganda

Renowned scholar Joseph Campbell accounts for the ubiquity and power of myth by relating its capacity to clothe the infinite in the language of the finite. While this may be true in a certain context, Campbell’s approach doesn’t help us understand two basic truths about mythmaking in today’s America, namely that the health care reform legislation currently before Congress is heavily mythologized; and for at least some Americans, this mythology is far more engaging than the actual legislation.

As Sharon Begley points out in this week’s Newsweek, while there do exist “honest and principled objections to health care reforms,” the most common (and vehement) rebuttals heard in the public square in recent months are, at best, profoundly distorted “exaggerations,” and at worst outright fabrications. To cite but a handful of examples: where the actual health care reform bill calls for electronic fund transfers from insurers to doctors, critics fear that “the government will have electronic access to everyone’s bank account”; where databases in which those not covered by private or employer plans may locate medical providers are mandated, critics see commissioners and bureaucrats deciding what benefits and treatments are appropriate; where optional end-of-life counseling is available, critics decry “death panels” and forced euthanasia of the old and infirm.

Importantly, I do not believe that re-reading the proposed legislation, however closely, will resolve these differences. For the belief structures that Begley identifies are not necessarily the result of a lack of familiarity with the text, but of a particular way of thinking. In an attempt to unpack this way of thinking, I shall turn to the work of another 20th-century thinker, one who likewise worked to understand the role of mythmaking in popular culture.

France is a Great Empire

For philosopher Roland Barthes, working in the context of 1950s France, myth is what he calls a second-order language, one that is built upon linguistic “signs.” A sign, in layman’s terms, is a word plus its meaning. A mythological construct is generated when a linguistic sign is coded with new and additional meanings. When I give a rose to my lover (to use one of Barthes’ examples) this implies my passion and commitment, not simply my interest in botany.

In his seminal book, Mythologies, Barthes illustrates this progression from linguistic sign to myth using the example of a magazine cover image of a young man of African descent in a French military uniform, saluting with eyes uplifted. Simple enough. On the level of myth, though, much more is intended, namely:

that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any color discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this [young man] in serving his so-called oppressors.

How has this transition from sign to myth been accomplished? It is not simply a matter of adding meaning, according to Barthes—something must be taken away. In the case of the image of the youth, much of the specific detail regarding the young man is drained away: his name, his upbringing, his education. His goals, commitments, and life’s accomplishments—these are forgotten so that he might serve as the carrier for new mythological content. For Barthes, then, the mythical concept is not particularly trustworthy; it is “formless, unstable, nebulous.”

Everything You Do Not Want Your Government To Be Doing

While Barthes’ theory will not apply equally well to all forms of myth, it does help us understand the ways current health care legislation has been received. To begin with, in responses of the kind Begley discusses, much of the content of the proposed legislation is drained away. For many critics, the 1,107-page bill is reduced to the contents of a single page, or even a single passage. Secondly, new content is clearly imported into the legislation. Perhaps we could sum this new content up as, “everything you do not want your government to be doing.” Of course, this mythic construct displays considerable internal tension, since the imported content (e.g., death panels) is so entirely at odds with the drained-away content.

But Barthes shows us not only the structure of such mythmaking, but why these myths are experienced as compelling. For Barthes, myth represents a mode of communication defined not by the object signified, but by the intentions of the mythmaker. As such, myth does not relate facts, but values. It distorts and deforms objects such that they may serve as carriers for authorized values. Myth-hearers experience mythic speech as innocent and factual precisely because they do not perceive this transition. Health care myth is so much more compelling than actual health care legislation because the myth contains the values, hopes, goals, and projects of a given community cloaked in the guise of simple empirical observations.

I would argue that Barthesian dynamics are also evident in the discourse of those who support health care reform. Supporters such as myself, for instance, often claim with considerable confidence that current legislation will make high-quality health care available to everyone, bring medical costs under control, end unethical practices among insurers, and move American society toward a more humane position.

While not as vitriolic, I suspect a similar kind of mythmaking is at work here. We have drained away much of the specific language of the bill, and imported into it the things we value (e.g., a society that looks more like that of the Western European societies Michael Moore shows us in Sicko). Hence there exists some tension between our own mythological construct and the actual bill. Finally, we may be more interested in our own health care myths than in the stark realities of the actual health care system. Indeed, I found Sicko to be quite inspiring, and it is tempting to spend my energies contemplating my health care myths at the expense of health care legislation realities.

Writing in the late 1950s, just after the publication of Mythologies, psychoanalytic theorist André Green warns that what Barthes has shown us is our penchant for “group fantasies.” Perhaps by examining our own mythmaking, we can develop more helpful responses to that of others.

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