Where’s Rhett Butler when we really need him?

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Dr. Malcolm Cross
Dr. Malcolm Cross

Where’s Rhett Butler when we really need him?  I can think of no finer public policy analyst to guide us through the next year as we seek to elect the next President of the United States, and other federal, state, and local officials as well.  Let me explain.

In recent weeks, as America has debated the meaning of the Confederate battle flag, Gone With The Wind has been castigated for allegedly presenting an overly romantic picture of the Old South—“A land of cavaliers and cotton fields…[where] in this pretty world gallantry took its last bow…[a land] of knights and their ladies fair…no more than a dream remembered.”  The critics of both the book and its film version say that Margaret Mitchell’s story is nothing more than a myth, presenting a false picture of the South and its symbols, and thereby making rational debate more difficult.

Now, I love reading mythology.  Stories of gods and heroes, wars and quests—how cool are those?  Mythology can be a great escape from reality.  However, it is one thing to be captivated by myths, and another thing altogether to allow myths to captivate us to the point where we cannot think as rationally as we should.  Ironically, the hero of the mythic Gone With The Wind is as rational and willful an advocate of the need to value reality over mythology, at least when important political and military decisions must be made.

In an opening scene in the film, Rhett Butler, after listening to why the planters at Ashley Wilkes’s party believe that war with the North is to be welcomed with victory inevitable, tries to give them a lesson in Reality 101.  Explaining why a war with the North will doom the South, he says, “I’m saying very plainly that the Yankees are better equipped than we. They’ve got factories, shipyards, coal mines… and a fleet to bottle up our harbors and starve us to death. All we’ve got is cotton, and slaves and… arrogance.”  This is the best example of the character trait he admired most both in himself and in Scarlett O’Hara as well—the abilitity “To look things in the eyes as we call them by their right names.”  That’s the sort of thinking we need for the upcoming political campaigns especially given the questions engaging America today:

Will more guns make us more safe—or less?

Who are the villains, and who the victims, in the debate over gay marriage—same sex couples seeking to marry, or Christians who choose not to provide services to such marriages?

On college campuses, who are the real victims and villains—men who rape, or women who falsely cry rape?

And whom should we elect in the upcoming elections to deal with these issues, and more?

All too often we let myths about gun nuts, bigoted Christians, vindictive gays, sex-crazed fiends, and wicked temptresses shape our thoughts while crowding out rational analysis.  And the influence of myths in our decision making extends far beyond the culture wars. 

Consider, for example, the myths surrounding Social Security.  For decades, the federal government implied that the social security “contributions” paid by workers and their employers were being paid into trust funds from which benefits would be paid when the workers retired or became disabled.  In fact, under Social Security, workers and their employers pay taxes used to finance the benefits of retirees.  Nobody has a social security account in which he has ownership rights as if it were a checking, savings, or investment account.  My students who work are not paying into Social Security to finance their retirement.  They’re doing so to finance mine.  While Social Security is the federal government’s most expensive program, it is also one of its most popular.  But  I wonder what the public would think about Social Security if it better understood that Social Security does not help people save for their own retirement, but makes them pay for the retirement of others.  What shape would Social Security take then, assuming the public still allowed it to exist? 

Another example:  Tax cuts allegedly promote greater economic activity which, when taxed at lower rates nonetheless produces more revenue.  The most recent examples are the economic growth and revenue increases following the initial Reagan Era tax cuts.  But were these the products of the tax cuts—or were these caused by the increase in social security taxes and the easing of the Federal Reserve’s Carter Era austerity program?  So how do we really increase revenue for debt reduction and necessary program maintenance, while still growing our economy?  What policies would we adopt if we had a better understanding of these issues?  (Fun fact:  Today Republicans praise, and Democrats criticize, Ronald Reagan for his tax cuts; in 1980 Democrats said one reason to oppose Reagan’s election was because as Governor of California he supported tax increases which Reagan said were necessary to balance California’s budget).

Of course, neither we as individuals, nor society as a whole will ever be able to perfectly “Look things in the eyes as we call them by their right names.”  How each of us perceives reality is shaped by race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, class, upbringing, and geographical origin.  Yet knowing that none of us can ever perfectly grasp reality doesn’t mean we should give up.  But even if we are only partially successful in increasing our capacity for fact and analyis and diminishing our reliance on myth, we may be able to construct a better reality—one which is more rational, more humane, and less likely to drive us to escape into mythology.

So—where’s Rhett Butler when we really need him?

 Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987.  His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.


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