Functional countries need positive, collective story lines true to history, justice, and aspirations
What a strange paradox that “myth” invokes two, almost contrary meanings? How can it be that “myth” in common parlance refers to false, trumped-up, “propagandistic” assertions that contradict reality—that the earth is flat, or 5,000 years old, that Obama was not born in Hawaii or Hunter Biden’s laptop covers up dramatic secrets relevant to his father? Or the Big Lie myth that certified elections must be rigged against the loser? Or that Trump, the “least racist person” anywhere, is innocent in advance of any imaginable indictments, solely enacted by mean-spirited witch hunters? Or that “trickle-down” economics—and the fantasy “free market”—spread big-time wealth to everyone below?
On the other hand, cultural historians talk about all-important, value-laden myths that inform a group’s core, positive identity, defining what the best of America stands for. Virtuous, accepted myths are especially critical when unifying diverse tribes, the story lines that tie the binds. When no such myths rule, the dark side of racism, intolerance and secession rear their heads, crudely splitting red from irreconcilable blue states, as if regional geography resolves all questions. When a culture abandons its maps, and agreed on destinations, mayhem ensues.
If for example honoring majority rule is not an enforced majority value, what alternative remains but the authoritarian boot wherein might makes right? America is breaking down because two increasingly separate camps (and each with its own splits) can’t agree on the core American story lines that define proper laws, fairness, justice, equity and the destination for our democracy.
Bad myths not only tend to lack all justification. They undermine the co-operative, tolerant angels of our nature, to wit this whopper:
1) The fabrication after the fact that America was founded as a Christian (Protestant) promised land, the divine deliverance from the corrupt, war-torn, far too Catholic/ Anglo-Catholic Old World. The overall pioneer settlements (aside from Native Americans) were not Puritan “pure,” quickly augmented in Virginia by wide ranging populations. This noxious myth serves today’s Christian Nationalist zealotry that demands the primacy of their sectarian, “faith alone” certainty above all other voices—especially secular, “ungodly schemers,” however equally endowed to challenge scripture-driven demands. Inevitably in an ex-slave heartland, equally indefensible, militant white supremacists (deluded by unscientific racial hierarchies) buttress Christian nationalism.
2) The destructive, contradictory myth that majority rule in a Constitutional democracy is optional, merely a “nice-to-have” electoral determinant. As if majority rule itself is forever on the ballot, and this scam nullifies the core proposition of sovereignty by and for the people. For the faith alone crowd (along with Trumpist authoritarians), the legitimacy of majority rule—and legal processes (like accurately tabulating votes)—must bow to the political primacy of undemocratic true believers. Especially when the “wrong non-whites,” presumably a less divinely ordained majority, “wrongly decide” elections, the aggrieved must rise up with violence and correct this “rigged fraud.” That both debunks majority rule and the reality that voting must be a zero sum contest by which the winner takes power and the frustrated loser goes home without discord.
3) The widespread mythic belief that politics is a hot war between us (take your pick) vs. a dangerous, disruptive, predatory foe, even for Trumpers the vicious “enemy.” That’s how judicial selections become overtly politicized (re the WI Supreme Court tug of war) or that anything goes when MAGA mucky-mucks (Greene, Boebert, Gaetz types) belligerently confront “woke” abuses. Though hardly free of excesses when realizing the seriousness of authoritarian threats, the left so far eschews the same parade of violence. When politics undermines what American history portrays as functional—as an instrument of compromise—then it descends to gridlock, and desperate losers revel in disorder, defamation and outlandish conspiracies.
4) The suspect myth that fixated, fabricated “populist” dogma trumps scientific findings, methodology, health expertise, the equality of men and women, gender rights, even well tested law, traditions, and functional governance. This obvious scam asserts that gut instinct by the entitled (immune from verification) better depicts “reality” than logic, consensual, secular knowledge or professional, data-driven research. In alignment is the Biblical belief that this “fallen world,” flush with literal, tantalizing devils, is but testing ground for the true reality—eternal prospects of salvation (or hellish horrors). That mindset aligns with Trumpist fear/hatred of entrenched (covert, deep state) elites, predatory institutions, and super-rich tycoons (complicated by a love/hate take on being rich). These suspect projections are rife with contradiction—either finding worldly success a sign of being among God’s elect or a sign of sleazy, selfish exploiters who abuse and oppress those below.
Inconvenient truths on both sides
During hard times, whether true or perceived, devotees of these myths will not abandon such comfort-food convictions. Even bad myths answer to “real” emotional needs for stories that offset anxiety. Only when the stories break down, or turn out false, do the needy welcome more productive myths. Though lacking scientific basis, nearly all of us accept the myth of “free will,” providing a model of personal responsibility and, further, for humanists with links to values of freedom, order and justice. Without high trust in traffic signals, driving would be a treacherous, life-testing gamble. Trusting expertise on vaccines accepts the statistically tiny personal risks against massive, universal gains. Mythic romantic love, especially linked to marriage (high divorce rates aside), reflects not divine authority but wide confirmation that intimacy beats isolation.
America still boasts “good myths” that unify the majority—the U.S. as an immigrant nation and the mythic “melting pot” does produce extraordinary, co-operative, life-affirming partnerships. Few oppose the relative leap of faith that the state should not only be forbidden to impose religion but must protect wide religious liberty. Likewise, we hold free speech as a paramount value protected by the state and endure the inevitable downsides (propaganda, hate speech, slander). Overarching myths turned into law specify that all born on American territory are granted full, equitable citizenship, whatever the awful, real-world deviations.
Promoted bad myths can drive out good ones
All these historic American narratives sustain what unity remains, providing collective purpose and belonging to a knowable whole. Despite huge gaps in execution, America has not rescinded the notion of equality before the law, or the mythic assertion all are “created equal.” Many Yanks still promote the diminishing truth that America is the land of opportunity where the American Dream beckons, independent of creed or background. A related myth, that “hard work” and fire-in-the-belly inform the core commitment to material success, continues but reality correlates achievement to one’s early resources and family heft. Only education (or winning the lottery) lifts those from hard poverty, and less so the quantity of back-breaking, physical work.
Aspirational myths, like working together towards a “more perfect union,” persist, even when current impasses suggest regression to inauspicious negativity. Another civil war would likely reify imperfections. Thanks to its renewal by Lincoln’s addresses, the mission of government to advance “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” gained prominence, but the trio is a bit vague and presumptuous to be self-evident. Right-wing story lines disdain government “intervention” while the left envisions government as a force for good and a trigger for equality and greater opportunity. History is now a battleground between “bad myths” that divide, even destroy, vs the “good myths” that speak to the grandeur of the American experiment to unify a nation of immigrants, most of whom honestly want to get ahead and get along with their neighbors.