Myths and Exceptionalism, By Uddin Ifeanyi
…a society is not destroyed by the myths it thrives on, only when the myth-makers understand what they are doing. When, however, myth-makers begin to use up their own myths, society starts to unravel.
Myths and feelings of exceptionalism have a chicken-and-egg quality to them. Nearly always, both of these concepts trace back to descriptions of how communities were founded. Especially in the choice of gods and the relationships between these, communities find expression in both of these concepts for how they differ from others and in most cases why they are superior to every non-other. Doubtless, in the evolution of mankind, these concepts must have played useful roles — especially through strengthening the bonds without which communities could not hold out against threats of all kinds.
Beyond certain levels of development, however, myths no longer suffice as threads with which communities may be sustainably bound together. Exceptionalism presents a different proposition along this line of thought, though. For where empiricism and science have helped to drive myths and their cultural products into museums, they have failed to put the genie behind cultural claims to exceptional statuses back into the bottle. Indeed, in today’s world, science is now and again rounded up to produce justifications for arguments for racial superiority.
If the latter is properly described as pseudo-science, are there also pseudo-myths? And are the latter not a contradiction in terms, even? Explaining the antecedents of the Biblical injunction against usury, Raghuram Rajan (“The Third Pillar”) argues that in “an age when the fate of the soul was more important than earthly existence, the fear of retribution in afterlife played an effective role ensuring the usury prohibition was respected.” In this reading, myths that satisfy societies’ utility functions may be characterised as positive. And the leftovers of each community’s portfolio of myths, especially those that persist in the light of factual evidence to the contrary, and which in the process have lost their power to bind or protect society, are not simply false. They are positively injurious.
Unfortunately, despite its strong fact-based credentials, our 21st century societies continue to produce the latter variety of myths. I leave aside, in this piece, the importance of the role of myths in the architecture of mankind. Instead, I look to how our new myths play on the way the societies they underpin are organised. Globally, the one upshot of the biggest failure of the last forty years — a narrow focus on how a more integrated global economy was driving global output growth and innovation, even as evidence mounted of a growing cohort of disadvantaged persons — has been the demonisation of the “expert”.
Beset by existential problems for much of its life as an independent state, Nigeria has had to weave the thread of exceptionalism through its fabric in an increasingly desperate bid to hold its centrifugal parts together.
The charge is not so much that experts and the policies they advocate resulted in so many people being left behind. The far stronger argument is that the experts’ policies required for so many to be left behind, in order that the “experts” and the other occupants of the many swamps they dwell in might wallow in filthy lucre.
Back here in Nigeria, this argument has stronger resonances. In part because the “expert” is nearly always a non-other — from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, or those many other places where people who know that a strong Nigeria could pose a threat to the established global order dwell. Largely, though, here, a different myth provides the stimulus with which the chamber (within which the global revolt against experts) echoes loudly. Beset by existential problems for much of its life as an independent state, Nigeria has had to weave the thread of exceptionalism through its fabric in an increasingly desperate bid to hold its centrifugal parts together.
Interestingly (and contradictorily, too), the elaboration of this exceptionalism has also had to conscript the Abrahamic God, who dutifully shows up to save the country’s blushes in all such instances where we seek success without having prepared for it. Bad (for it is far more narcotising than it sounds) as this meta-myth is, it is less injurious to the efforts at building a modern society than are two seemingly “new” ones.
At the monetary policy level, though, “economics” has simply been repudiated. True, General Ibrahim Babangida once argued that Nigeria is beyond the pale of the logic to which the study of economics lends itself. But in the new telling, “price” is no longer a function of the demand and supply of a good or service.
At the fiscal level, the first “new” myth is that we no longer need pay attention to the statistics on the economy’s health (or lack thereof) being churned out by the official bean counters — remember these are just as expert as the ones who led the global economy towards the rise of populism? Instead we are to look to government’s good intentions and the obvious happiness of the people — two facts that evidently the National Bureau of Statistics in its focus on esoterica like the “misery index” fails to capture. In a sense, this take on national affairs isn’t all that new. It simply reprises the tension between “rosy cheeks” and access to “waste bins”, which dominated the latter part of the Shehu Shagari presidency.
At the monetary policy level, though, “economics” has simply been repudiated. True, General Ibrahim Babangida once argued that Nigeria is beyond the pale of the logic to which the study of economics lends itself. But in the new telling, “price” is no longer a function of the demand and supply of a good or service. No. It is instead a thought construct which may be high when those doing the imagining are swamp-dwellers and their associated experts; and low when the folks thinking policy through are pro-poor.
If only those advocating these perspectives on key national questions paid attention to how perverse incentives, including warped logic, conduce to perverse responses, they would better understand the domestic structure of incentives that passes for Nigeria’s exceptional status. In other words, a society is not destroyed by the myths it thrives on, only when the myth-makers understand what they are doing. When, however, myth-makers begin to use up their own myths, society starts to unravel.