Myths and Lies

This article at Salon.com is one of many dozens out there right now working to dismantle the “Myth of American Exceptionalism.”

I have absolutely no quarrel with any of the information or most of the opinions in it. I believe it’s absolutely necessary to come to terms with the massive systemic injustice, cruelty and extreme inequality in America right now, and to be honest with ourselves, personally, collectively, and institutionally, about our history and our current problems.

It seems like, at least on the left, “debunking” has been an immensely popular pastime in recent years, with ever-growing intensity and fervor. Columbus was a genocidal sociopath. The first Thanksgiving never actually happened. Most of the founding fathers were slave-owning misogynists. There was no cherry tree.

All of these things can be true, and it can be valuable to know the truth when contemplating the character and formative influences of this nation. And at the same time, there is a cost, an impact, when a foundational set of myths is demolished.

I was among perhaps the last generation of elementary school students that innocently and cluelessly talked about Pilgrims sitting down with Indians at the first Thanksgiving, before that became definitely Not Okay. And however deeply, flagrantly untrue those stories were and are, their purpose was to instill a set of values, to teach lessons about what it meant to be American. The Thanksgiving Myth, perhaps, was about people with some food security (the Native Americans) deciding to generously help out some strangers who needed help. These stories were perhaps all as fictional as Aesop’s Fables, the Canterbury Tales or Dante’s Inferno, but the documentary veracity of the events was less the point, I think, than the myth value itself.

Myths are all fictions, probably, but they’re more than mere tall tales – they’re fictions that people collectively choose to believe because they serve some purpose – for educating children, for embodying a set of beliefs, values, ideals; as a template for how to live in the world.

Myths create a foundation for collective identity, as something We (whoever “we” is) can all believe in and share. And if the myths are taken away and not replaced with… something… then collective identity is compromised in far-reaching, generational ways.

When self-identified “Tea Party Patriots” rally in tri-cornered hats, and Civil War re-enacters do their thing, and people passionately defend their love of the Confederate flag, it’s ridiculous and offensive to so many people, including me. But I do understand the impulse, which is never quite clearly articulated: specifically to defend and protect a mythology that feels important and necessary to the identity of those angry people.

The fact that it’s false, fictional, made-up, and offensive to huge swathes of the American population is not the point. There’s a deeply felt need, for them, to hold onto a mythology about who they are and what that means, and they are ragingly upset at the thought of it being taken away. A thoughtful, reasonable, enlightened liberal mind can scoff at the cognitive dissonance required to choose to believe something that is demonstrably false – choosing to completely disregard the real power of the myth for that person. But that doesn’t resolve anything, it merely reinforces the uncrossable gulf between the two positions.

If we take away any positive sense of American Mythology without replacing it, our narrative shifts definitively to a national legacy of horror, genocide, cruelty, slavery, intolerance, awful suffering. That’s what we have left. And perhaps it’s all true, and perhaps we’re really monsters. And perhaps that can be said of practically any institution or society. Perhaps all of history is a global churn of sociopathic predators and traumatized victims, from Babylon through Egypt, Greece and Rome, to the last few millenia of Christians and crusades and witch-burning.

Maybe that’s the real truth, and everything else is lies. But that doesn’t give us a lot to work with, a great reason to get out of bed in the morning. It’s hard to raise kids, I imagine, by telling them that the world has always been full of horror and that we’re probably headed down the same road of depravity and exploitation that has afflicted all documented civilizations.

I doubt that anyone is trying to raise their kids that way, to expect nothing but injustice, suffering and hardship, then death. A myth, or a fairytale, is at least an attempt at a positive story, with heroes and villains, on some level instructional. Columbus was brave and charismatic, convinced these sailors to take a big scary risk because he was curious. It’s good to be both curious and brave, even when you don’t know how things will turn out! That’s, maybe, the value of that particular myth. Not rocket science, but powerful in its simplicity. If he turns out to be a genocidal monster… okay. Is there another candidate for brave and curious American hero? Who didn’t kill or steal or disrespect women? Can we get more excited about Lewis and Clark? Were they any better?

Myths are powerful, and I believe they’re necessary to any kind of coherent society. That power can be dangerous because it can twist the truth too far, at the expense of, for instance, Native Americans, or African Americans, or women. But I don’t think the solution is to get rid of American mythology altogether. If we keep on debunking without rebuilding, without providing a new narrative that makes sense in some kind of positive way, it’ll be impossible for society to cohere in any way going forward. Maybe coherence is overrated, maybe everything just needs to fall apart and that’s inevitable at this point.

But I think it’s worth at least considering, as part of the discussion of myths and lies, that perhaps the main difference today between progressives and conservatives is not that one group is right and the other group is wrong. Conservatives are trying to conserve the old stories, the old myths of America, because they believe that those myths are what hold America together, however messed up it may be. Progressives, seeking greater truth, justice and equality, are doing a great job of tearing those myths apart, but without new, meaningful, effective myths coming from somewhere to replace them… I think we’re all in trouble.

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