Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > In Search of New Mythology (Part One)

Aug 16, 2012

In Search of New Mythology (Part One)


American eagle and flag. Credt: Bubbels/Wikipedia.

In “MythicAmerica: Essays” I have described two great American mythologies (that is, two large sets of mythic themes and traditions) that are most important for understanding American political culture today. I call them (using current terminology) the mythologies of “hope and change” and “homeland insecurity.” The mythology of hope and change casts America as a dynamic force constantly transforming both itself and world by expanding its frontiers, civilizing people who live in wilderness, and reshaping the world in the image of America’s highest ideals. The mythology of homeland security casts America as the protector of its own borders against alien threats and the protector of the whole world against those same threats.

These two mythologies are so deeply rooted in American society, so completely dominant, and so overwhelmingly powerful -- especially when they work together to reinforce each other, despite the contradictions between them -- that it may be hard to imagine them ever being replaced by any new mythology. Of course that was once true of the mythologies that supported monarchy, slavery, patriarchy, and other institutions that seemed unchallengeable for centuries. Fundamental change does happen. But it’s very slow and arduous. The question is always: Is it worth the effort it takes to develop new mythologies and the much greater effort it takes to make them truly living, working mythologies that have a powerful impact on a nation’s life?

Another great American mythology, pragmatism, suggests that we should answer these questions by asking other questions: What are the practical results of living within the existing dominant mythologies? What might be the tangible results of replacing them with new mythologies? Would the benefits of the new mythologies outweigh the losses and justify the effort involved in creating and promoting them?

Some of the practical results of the two great mythologies are easy enough to see. Both have served to legitimate killing, injuring, and harmful acts of all kinds that have brought suffering to countless numbers of people. In some cases whole cultures and societies have been destroyed. For some Americans -- going back to the earliest Quaker immigrants to the New World -- any myths that legitimated harm to others have been, by definition, objectionable.

Of course most Americans have assumed that harm is acceptable in some cases, as long as it is a means to good ends and the harm is outweighed by the good. But that moral calculus is always computed from within the framework of the mythology that legitimates the action. One of the most basic functions of myth is to create the perspective from which we judge what is true and false or good and bad. So when any act is motivated and justified from within a particular mythic framework, its results are likely to appear, on balance, more constructive than destructive.

That leaves open the question of whether another mythic framework applied to the same situation might have mitigated or perhaps even avoided completely the harm done. So the death, injury, and suffering inflicted in the name of the dominant mythologies is perhaps the most obvious reason to search for alternatives.

There are other, less obvious, reasons, which I have discussed in my essays on the two great mythologies. I summarize them briefly here:

Myths are supposed to provide a dependable structure and sense of certainty, a firm foundation for a society’s sense of meaning. But the mythology of hope and change is riddled with internal paradoxes that undermine structure and certainty. It values progress above all -- pushing back the frontier both in geographical space and in time: To move west is to move into a better future. This vision of progress is rooted in the biblical story of history moving toward a utopian consummation, an era without any evil. Yet the hope for perfection requires the dynamism of constant internal improvement, which means constant change. The nation must go on improving, making progress, forever. So the ever-shifting real can never match the static ideal. 

Moreover, the very idea of a frontier implies some opposing force on the other side, which is typically viewed as an evil threat, creating an “us versus them” dualism. Moreover, evil must exist inside as well as outside the nation. How else could Americans demonstrate their ability to improve and purify their nation, which is an essential mark of progress within this mythology? So evil can never be fully overcome. The struggle to defeat it, and the fears that accompany the struggle, must go on forever.

Thus the mythology of hope and change demands pursuit of a perfection that can never be attained. The inevitable result is frustration, anxiety, and insecurity, which many historians have identified as a constant feature of American history. 

The mythology of homeland security has fewer internal contradictions because it has a simpler message: America will always be threatened by enemies bent on destroying it. To keep itself secure, America must be constantly prepared to defeat those enemies by any means necessary. The most effective way to maintain national security is to keep control of potentially threatening forces around the world, which means, in effect, controlling everything of consequence that happens anywhere in the world. This has the welcome side effect of making America the protector of the whole world against the menacing enemies.

However this mythology has its down side, too, in its one overwhelming paradox. Though it posits security as the nation’s highest goal, it also assumes that threat is a permanent fact of life, creating a permanent state of national insecurity. The insecurity is typically expressed as fear of evil beyond the nation’s borders. When the effort to control the world inevitably provokes resistance in some places, the mythology interprets it as confirmation of its premise that there will always be a threat to fend off.

This mythology also conflates space and time. So it breeds equal, or perhaps greater, fear of whatever lies beyond the border separating the present from the future. Every kind of fundamental change comes to look like a threat from the future invading the safely bounded present. The natural response is to protect the status quo, which becomes the mythic equivalent of protecting the nation. Of course change is inevitable. So the peril of uncertainty becomes the basic foundation of the nation’s life.

Despite their profound differences, then, the two great mythologies meet in their ultimate result: a society pervaded by a sense of constant threat, insecurity, anxiety, and frustration. For those who would rather not live in such a society, the most pragmatic course is to search for new mythologies that avoid these pitfalls.

In principle, that search has no boundaries. America, like every nation, is an imagined community, and imagination has no limits. We could (again, in principle) imagine American identity and America’s role in the world in any way we collectively choose. For those who want to indulge in fantasy, all options are open.

For pragmatists, though, the question has to be put in more concrete political terms: What kinds of new mythologies would actually work? What would be effective in reshaping American political culture? Here we are limited by the lessons of history: People are not very likely to totally abandon their most fundamental mythic structures and jump headlong into brand new structures. The new structures that become powerful and dominant are adopted precisely because they retain some kind of continuity with the old.

So what are the minimum requirements for a mythology to have real success with the American public of the early twenty-first century? Any answer to that question can be no more than educated guesswork; all I can do is offer my own best guess. I’d say no mythology has a chance of meaningful impact unless it offers five basic elements that most Americans expect (whether they know it or not) from their national mythology:

-- a strong appeal to patriotism and national pride, including an assertion of something uniquely good about America

-- an assurance that there are eternal, universal truths and values, which are not merely human creations and thus provide an objective, unshakeable foundation for human life  

-- a narrative pitting those eternal values against their opposites -- a moral drama of good versus evil -- on a global scale

-- an affirmation of individual freedom as the highest value of all

-- continuity with the mythic past through deep roots in distinctively American traditions and a close connection with a figure from the pantheon of national heroes

This last criterion suggests that it would be most pragmatic to build a new mythology on the foundations of one of the two great existing mythologies. Which of the two is a better candidate? The very names of the two suggest an obvious answer. 

“Homeland insecurity” has built into its very name the biggest problem that we must overcome.  And since it inherently mitigates against fundamental change of any kind, it mitigates against a change in mythology, which is often the hardest aspect of any nation’s culture to change.

The other mythology has built into its name the possibility of change of all kinds and the sense of hope for a better future. So it seems clearly the better candidate on which to build new mythology -- if there is a way to eliminate from it the perception of threat, which breeds anxiety and evokes responses that cause harm to Americans and others.

Perception of threat may seem to be inherent in the mythology of hope and change because that mythology has always centered around the image of a frontier: a line dividing “us” from “them,” the know from the unknown, the safe from the dangerous. So all promises of progress toward a radically better future are inextricably bound up with fear of what that future might hold.

The only way to avoid this paradox is to develop a new mythology of hope unmixed with terror, one that views even fundamental changes in American life as progress rather than threat. This mythology would have to avoid pitting America against any enemies; avoid a division of the world into the “virtuous” and the “evildoers”; avoid images of a perfect future that clashes with the reality of the present moment. It would also have to meet the five criteria for any successful mythology, listed above.  

That’s certainly a tall order. It might seem impossible. But myth-making is an exercise of imagination. Can we stretch our imaginations to conjure up a mythology that fits all these requirements? Perhaps the answer lies closer than we think.

(This is the first installment in a series. Stay tuned for Part Two.) 

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