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September 09, 2008


Fellow Traveller

The French critic, Roland Barthes, dubbed this act of justifying the greatness of an institution by virtue of its flaws 'Operation Margarine' in an eponymous essay written during the mid 50s. He wrote:

"To instill in the Established Order the complacent portrayal of its drawbacks has nowadays become a paradoxical but incontrovertible means of exalting it. Here is the pattern of this new style demonstration: take the established value which you want to restore or develop, and first lavishly display its pettiness, the injustices which it produces, the vexations to which it gives rise, and plunge it into its natural imperfection; then, at the last moment, save it in spite of, or rather by the heavy curse of its blemishes.


Take the Army; show without disguise its chiefs as martinets, its discipline as narrow-minded and unfair, and into this stupid tyranny immerse an average human being, fallible but likable, the archetype of the spectator. And then, at the last moment, turn over the magical hat, and pull ou of it the image of an army, flags flying, triumphant, bewitching, to which, like Sganarelle's wife, one cannot but be faithful although beaten (From Here to Eternity).

...Finally the Church: speak with burning zeal about its self-righteousness, the narrow-mindedness of its bigots, indicate that all this can be murderous, hide none of the weaknesses of the faith. And then, in extremis, hint that the letter of the law, however unattractive, is a way to salvation for its very victims, and so justify moral austerity by the saintliness of those whom it crushes (The Living Room, by Graham Greene).

It is a kind of homeopathy: one cures doubts about the Church or the Army by the very ills of the Church and the Army. One inoculates the public with a contingent evil to prevent or cure an essential one."

Mythologies 1957

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