Books: Man Against Myth (Barrows Dunham)

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-11-16 12:00:00 No comments


In 1995 I lived in Manhattan in a grotty little walkup with my wife, about twenty minutes' walk from the Strand Bookstore on Broadway. Sunday mornings after breakfast I'd head down there,  and inevitably walk out with armloads of stuff . On one such trip, late in the year, I saw a spine on one shelf that read MAN AGAINST MYTH, by one Barrows Dunham. Such a title evoked a number of possibilities for me, all appealing, and so I brought it home and read it all in one sitting that night. I kept it through three changes of address. It has helped me retain my sanity these past four years. It now sits on a shelf immediately to the left of my desk, where I keep the books that I know I will read and refer to until the day I die.

Man Against Myth classifies best as a work of popular philosophy, in the sense that it brings philosophy to the layperson and not in the sense that it vulgarizes its subject. It is essentially a catalog of fallacies, but examined from the way those things manifest as social forces or justifications, and not as mere logical exercises. When we say "words can never hurt me", or "you can only look out for yourself", or "there are two sides to every problem", you may not be conscious of how you are committing fallacious reasoning -- and it might not matter, since how those defective lines of thought harm us in entirely concrete ways are far more worth talking about. Dunham is not writing for fellow philosophers so much as he is the man who sits across from him at the table, who may well be a fellow philosopher but is more likely just someone trying to get through his day -- someone whom Dunham evinces far more compassion for than most of his peers, because it's the ordinary guy who often ends up getting the worst of it from bad thinking.

Dunham devotes a chapter to each myth, but not closed-endedly: he roams freely within each chapter to encompass what else he must to make his case. The opening chapter ("Myths And The Philosophers") hints at how Dunham approaches his subject with intellectual rigor and strong awareness of the history of the thoughts he traces, but also with engagement: this isn't an exercise, but a defense of humanity generally. If that isn't enough to tip you off about his direction, the first of the myths challenges is "That You Can't Change Human Nature".

As with each of the myths that follows, one of Dunham's tests for this myth is: Who benefits from the propagation of such an idea, all of us or just a few of us? And if only a few of us, which few and to what end? Who is served best by the idea that human nature is immutable? Chiefly those who hold power malignantly, and those who have a vested interest in propagating the belief that humanity is too lazy or weak for its own good. Human nature is not a fixed proposition; it has changed over the centuries. With each new system of social organization, arisen out of need and necessity, comes a new kind of man. "The essence of social man is change," Dunham says. "The evil is not that you cannot change human nature. The evil is that human nature cannot change you."

Dunham arrives at this conclusion here, and at the conclusions bruited in other chapters, by way of wresting with both the most vulgar and refined incarnations of the idea. The limitations of humanity he doesn't leave solely to the likes of Congressmen and yellow-press journalists to describe. He engages with what were at the time some of the most respected minds of the period -- e.g., Walter Lippmann, taking the defeatist stance that even at its most developed, collective human wisdom is inadequate to solve our problems. This idea requires us not to understand (as Dunham puts it) that science, human understanding, is something that belongs not to any one of us alone but all of us.

Dunham is equally meticulous and rigorous for each of his successive points of attack. To say "the rich are fit and the poor unfit" is only possible for a highly selective definition of fitness, one Darwin himself repudiated. (This chapter is a fine resource for exemplifying how fascism has misused Darwinism, among many other sciences, for its own ends.) Ditto "there are superior and inferior races", a canard I am not happy to say is still being tossed around in 2020.

Over time Dunham moves to myths that are more explicitly intellectual in origin, but which still have nasty consequences in the real world when embraced without question. The idea that "there are two sides to every question" (a line that rings especially ugly in the age of "very fine people on both sides"), or that "thinking makes it so", or "all problems are merely verbal", or "words will never hurt me" -- all these sound nice and abstract on paper, and then turn into oppressive social policies or split skulls in the street in the real world.

Dunham wrote the book while the ashes of World War II were still cooling. Many of his examples are informed by the behavior of the fascists, still horribly fresh in the minds of millions. What he found most repugnant about fascism was not just the way it used powerful, vulgar rhetoric to sweep others along into its mission of killing, but the way allegedly respectable thinkers gave it cover -- maybe not altogether, but there and there, piecemeal, never enough to be accused of fascist fellow-traveling but just enough to muddy things in favor of the killers of reason. A man who says "There is no such thing as 'truth'. There is no such thing as 'social justice'" (Bernard Chase) gives leverage to someone who can tell us what those things are as they see fit. Ditto the man (again, Chase) who tries to tell us the term "fascism" only has a local meaning, not a general one. When you cannot call an enemy by their own chosen name, you have one less way of fighting them.

One wretched aspect of the cultural legacies of the past few decades is how we can look back on many artifacts from that time, or before, and still find them prescient -- not only because many of them were clear-sighted, but because we have regressed in so many ways. Much of what Dunham describes in the book is chilling because it all sounds terribly familiar -- e.g., the way the dishonest have weaponized the public sphere to give indefensible lies the same footing as fact under the guise of "balance." "Most of us would grant that the man of honest mistakes deserves to be heard," writes Dunham. "But, other than the liars themselves, who would care to maintain that liars deserve a hearing?"

What impresses me most about the book is something that fell out of favor in the disaffection of the post-WWII world: the idea that the human race is in fact something worth fighting for. If we cannot stand up for ourselves, no one will -- after all, who else is there? If our reason and compassion aren't enough, what will be? But over time cynicism won: it became unhip to speak for humanity, especially when it demonstrated how it could be such a bad actor. Maybe because the avant-garde stance was to try and look past humanity, to whatever might crawl out of us once the human seed bloomed. Why talk of the merely human when the post-human made for better discussion?

But the post-human, if it is to come at all, can only come from the currently human. A human race that has undisguised contempt for itself is not likely to have respect for much of anything else. It will make all of the worst mistakes of its predecessor, just in horrible new ways. It will be unable to, in the words of Lester Bangs, "begin thinking in terms of heroes again, of love instead of hate, of energy instead of violence, of strength instead of cruelty, of action instead of reaction." Maybe what we call "post-human" is nothing more than the sense that we can and should do better, and that we have all the tools at our disposal to do so: the willingness to use our powers of reasoning to defend ourselves against our own enemies. Chiefly those who want to weaponize reason and the social contracts, two of our greatest social innovations, to paralyze us and make us succumb to the worst of choices.

"To be humane is to love mankind," Dunham writes in "There Are Two Sides To Every Question." "To love mankind, I think, is to destroy its enemies." Those words had particular resonance in 1947, and they have a different, but no less powerful one, in 2020. This book is both a sword and a shield for most any age against the enemies that come, dismayingly, in the guise of wisdom.


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