As if a global pandemic, a global climate crisis, and poisonously partisan politics weren’t bad enough, Americans unconsciously find themselves driven to deal with another problem: The myths that we have traditionally relied on to define who we are and where we are going are beginning to unravel.
One myth is the unspoken conviction that we need to get back to a fabled period when real men ruled, women knew their place, and “the law” came down to whoever was fastest on the draw. A corollary to this machismo is the contention promoted by several Republican governors, most notably Greg Abbott of Texas, that only sissies wear masks to avoid catching COVID-19 and vaccinations are optional. The mischief-prone governor is not alone in pushing a brand of masculinity rooted in illusions about America’s past, but he is unquestionably one of the most outspoken. It’s clear from the grin on his face that he enjoys making trouble not only when it comes to the pandemic but also when it comes to respecting civil rights and women’s rights.
An allied myth in current circulation suggests that America’s love of freedom means that anyone can do whatever they want regardless of the impact their actions might have on everyone else. A substantial segment of the population sees ignoring the pandemic as a right that they naturally enjoy as American citizens. After all, isn’t the freedom to remain unvaccinated and unmasked guaranteed by the US Constitution? The answer, of course, is NO! It isn’t. Public safety and the public good have always taken priority — in the past even more than today.
The trouble with the myth is that it not only promotes a highly inaccurate version of history, it also serves to convince us that the United States is in a state of inevitable decline.
In truth, despite the bravado of Abbott and other conservative governors, America’s past was often chaotic and brutal. That was certainly true in Texas. It has taken a century and a half to bring the Lone Star state at least part way up to speed with what purports to be the civilized world. The trouble with the myth of a brighter, freer past is that it not only promotes a highly inaccurate version of history but also serves to convince us that the United States is now in a state of inevitable decline. The present may not be great, but the past — with its racial and misogynistic oppression — was hardly better.
From its origin, the notion of American exceptionalism has been used as an excuse for America to override and bully others. As it’s currently understood, the term suggests that Americans are different from everyone else, and because America fought a revolution to guarantee democracy, freedom, the rule of law, and to promote “That all men are created equal,” we are entitled to tell the rest of the world what to do and how to live. The truth is that Americans are pretty much like everyone else, no better and — hopefully — not a lot worse.
In his 2021 State of the State address, Abbott listed “election integrity” as an “emergency item” in the legislative session and crucial to upholding one of the founding ideals of America: that all citizens are guaranteed life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In Texas’s gerrymandered Republican Legislature, however, there has been a desperate effort to restrict the vote of the “wrong people.” While Abbott stood to the side, they rammed through legislation enacting the country’s most aggressively restrictive voting laws. Of course, you can’t pass a law that explicitly keeps Black and brown people from voting, but you can limit the number of places where they can vote along with the time allotted to let them vote, and if that doesn’t work, you can empower your hand-picked voting commissions to throw out the ballots you don’t like. In short, everyone is equal in Texas, but as George Orwell pointed out in his fable of democracy lost, Animal Farm, some are more equal than others.
What is really at stake is the preservation of privilege in the face of disruptive change.
The idea that the United States was ever really united in the past is yet another myth that could use some reexamination. At the outbreak of the American Revolution, most white inhabitants of the original 13 colonies thought of themselves as British citizens or nationals of whichever country in Europe they had just left. Once independence had been achieved, a new national identity needed to be created from scratch. The Founding Fathers concocted a carefully constructed mythology to do just that. Their motives were fine. The execution was never perfect.
Although the goal has always been national unity, from the beginning, the colonies, soon to be states, were seriously divided. They began as a loose confederation, with each issuing a different currency and jealously insisting on its own independence.
The fact is that the messier aspects of our true history have often been papered over to maintain at least a semblance of national unity. What we really received from the Founding Fathers was a set of aspirations, not an accomplished fact or a description of reality as it existed in the past.
Joseph Campbell, who brilliantly analyzed the pros and cons of mythology in his landmark book The Power of Myth, noted that myths can be useful in steering and shaping society towards a desired objective, as well as explaining the unexplainable. Religion is a prime example. The ancients endowed the oceans, fire, and wind with human characteristics and thought of them as gods. Faith in the gods allowed a transfer of responsibility from the individual to a higher authority and also permitted an efficient structuring of society. Stories explained the vagaries of nature and what would happen to those who transgressed against the rules. The myths were woven into society’s structure and ultimately provided the glue that held it together.
Problems arose, as Campbell saw it, when contradictions inevitably appeared in the myths or when common sense indicated that the events described couldn’t possibly be real.
The revolution in science in the 19th century inevitably proved the impossibility of many previously accepted notions. Campbell pointed out that as the contradictions in a myth become glaringly apparent, the temptation is to reject the myth altogether rather than see it as a metaphor. When that happens, not only is the myth discarded but the philosophical glue holding society together also begins to disintegrate. That inevitably threatens disruption and chaos.
It is not too hard to see that happening in today’s America.
The evangelical Christian Right opted to support Donald Trump despite the fact that Trump’s actions and proclivities ran counter to nearly everything the movement claims to stand for. What the evangelicals ultimately wanted, it was clear, was social stability and to protect their privilege; they were prepared to sacrifice just about everything in order to have it.
Christian conservatives are hardly alone; Afghanistan’s Taliban and the Islamic extremists in the Middle East claim to care about Sharia, but what they seek is not so much the religious teachings of the Quran as a social organization that is firmly under their control. Like Abbott in Texas, they want a world wherein men act according to their vision of real men and where women know their place. In both cases, what is really at stake is the preservation of privilege in the face of disruptive change.
Thanks to the film industry, cable television, and social media, we are bombarded with a tempest of thousands of myths on an almost daily basis. Despite the variety, many present roughly similar arguments. When George Lucas produced the first Star Wars movie, he consulted Campbell, who introduced him to the concept of the “hero’s journey.” Star Wars is filled with lightsabers, Jedi knights, Imperial troopers, and robots, all engaged in an eternal struggle between the Force and the Dark Side. The central idea — the myth — has essentially the same structure as stories that have been told repeatedly since the ancient Greeks. The hero is tested and, despite challenges, wins in the end.
Sure, there is violence and mayhem in myth and legend, but in the end it all makes sense. Only, real life doesn’t often work that way. Sometimes it doesn’t make any sense at all, or at least not any kind of sense that human beings can understand.
The 9/11 attack against the World Trade Center in New York was a case in point. There is no question that the destruction of the towers was one of the worst tragedies in American history. I worked on a Frontline PBS documentary whose theme examined the religious implications of the disaster. A number of people I interviewed about the attack wanted to know how God could have permitted such a terrible thing to take place. Of course, God had nothing to do with it. The attack was the result of a collision of forces and beliefs that led to a diabolic act of terrorism. The people it hurt had little idea of how or why they had been attacked. They were collateral damage in a clash of ideologies and forces of which they were barely aware.
Nevertheless, it was difficult not to see surface similarities between the destruction of the World Trade Center and the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel. According to the Hebrew Bible, the tower was destroyed because God wanted to punish the arrogance of men who dared to build a tower reaching to heaven. While there was some architectural arrogance in the enormous height of the World Trade Center, the global financial networks extending their influence from inside the towers were what caught my attention. This elaborate financial structure earned billions for a select few while leaving most of the rest of the world to fend for itself. Anger and resentment from the disenfranchised were not surprising, yet hardly anyone in the immediate aftermath was able to see clearly what motivated the attack. They were understandably too immersed in their own grief to think of anything else.
I only questioned the motives behind the attack myself because a decade earlier I had interviewed Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. At the time, he was an important philosophical influence on Hezbollah, which had engaged in a number of atrocious acts of terrorism. I asked Fadlallah what he had hoped to gain from spreading mayhem. “We think you don’t really care about what happens [in the Middle East],” Fadlallah said, “but what you do as a country causes enormous pain. Some people feel that you will only understand that pain if you feel it yourself.”
After interviewing Fadlallah, I spent the next several years in the Middle East listening to the stories told by the different factions that populate the region: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and assorted variations. Each had its own set of myths. Many claimed that God was on their side and thereby justified whatever action they decided to engage in, no matter how horrible. The legends that justified their convictions were often the same. Everyone knew about the great flood, for example. It was their interpretation of the meaning of the past that often tended to be radically different. Virtually the only thing that all these religions held in common was an emphasis on keeping women in their place. Despite their differences, Abbott and the Taliban would have felt right at home.
I finally realized that we develop our myths according to our needs and the limits of our understanding. No myth corresponds exactly to reality. Each of us, to one degree or another, lives in our own alternate universe. To move forward, however, we need to push the myths aside and get back to the real world. Each of us needs to understand the past and then put it behind us so that we can take the most pragmatic way forward, dealing with the present as it actually exists. It is not easy, but it is the only way.
The cartoon above was created by DonkeyHotey for WhoWhatWhy from these images: Dan Patrick caricature (DonkeyHotey / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0), Greg Abbott face (World Travel & Tourism Council / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), Greg Abbott body (Joint Base San Antonio / Flickr), hat (Mike Mozart / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), and Alamo (Ed Uthman / Flickr – CC BY 2.0).