In Search of New Mythology (Part Three)
Civil rights marchers in Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963. Credit: National Archives
In Part 2 of this series, I sketched out the foundations of an American mythology of hope and change based closely on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In this new patriotic vision, a good American believes in every person’s freedom to discover and fulfill their own unique potentials. Life is all about exploring new possibilities, and there is no end to that exploration. A good American also believes that all humanity, indeed all life, is woven together in a single garment of destiny. Freedom means fulfilling oneself by helping all others fulfill themselves.
America’s mission is to move toward the beloved community at home and abroad, to create a world where everyone acts lovingly to enhance the fulfillment of all and bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole. It is the patriotic duty, and privilege, of all Americans to fight against separation of every kind, especially against its most pernicious forms: inequality, injustice, oppression.
In the past, America’s moral battles have typically caused a number of problems that any new mythology must avoid: killing, injuring, and in many ways harming others; creating insecurity for ourselves through fear of enemies and of future evils beyond our control; creating frustration by aiming for a future ideal that can never be attained in reality.
A mythology based on Dr. King’s words would include the moral drama of good combating evil yet avoid these troubling effects because we would enter the battle with the new attitude that is at the center of this mythology: viewing every person not as a separate unit, trying to figure out how to relate to others, but as a strand in the single garment of destiny, already related to others in myriad ways, with each of us affecting all others in one organic whole.
From this new perspective many of the old, familiar assumptions of both dominant American mythologies simply make no sense. We cannot claim to be purely good and innocent, as if we stood apart from those we oppose, and ascribe all evil to them, as if we had no role in contributing to the ills that plague us. Nor can we hope to heal those ills by imposing our control over others, as if we were some kind of Lone Ranger arriving from outside to right every wrong.
Once we recognize that we are all parts of an interactive network of mutuality encompassing all humanity, we realize that we can never stand outside that network. We are never passive victims of history, nor can we be isolated from the dynamics of history. And the hope of fully controlling people and events is a fantasy; every effort at control acts back upon us in unexpected, usually harmful, way. But we always influence what happens. So we each share some degree of responsibility for contributing to the ills of the system. The ills arise out of the pattern of relationships. They cannot be blamed on any one person or group of people and certainly not on “those people” across the border, since the border is itself a mode of relationship, a place where two groups meet and interact.
From this perspective, the enemy is no longer any particular person or group of people. It is the evil that has arisen from all of us. In a more abstract sense, the enemy is the fact of separation itself. Therefore, in this new mythology, Americans no longer see themselves as the “good” people dedicated to destroying the “evil.” America's mission is to overcome separation, to strengthen every thread in the garment of destiny threat by strengthening the interaction of each with all others. Every good American must have that same goal.
So America still has opponents, both abroad and at home -- those who appear to be increasing the separation in the world and blocking progress toward reconnection. We recognize them by the inequality they promote, the injustices they inflict, and the harm they do to others and themselves. But we oppose their actions, perhaps even label those actions “evil,” without viewing the people themselves as evil.
Instead, good Americans treat them the way we treat all people, as equally important threads in the single garment of destiny. We respect their inherent dignity and demand the same freedom and justice for them as for all others. If we resist their actions, it is only because we want the best for the whole society, including them. We aim to help our opponents fulfill their full potential, which in turn will help us do the same.
Since we and our opponents are parts of the same human family, we give them the same respect, empathy, and love we give our own family members even when we disagree with them. We handle conflict with them the way we handle conflicts with our own family members: asserting our own views, sometimes very strongly, only because we want the best for the whole family, including those we disagree with. The American way is guided by the principle of universal love, which means overcoming every separation, even between ourselves and our opponents.
So we try to see the world through our opponents’ eyes, “to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves.” (All quotations here are from Dr. King.) Only then can we have the fullest possible view of what is best for all.
However, when grave moral matters are at stake, good Americans take a firm stand and fight for it. Indeed, in this new mythology it is our patriotic duty to risk death, if we must, defending our nation’s highest values. But it is equally our duty never intentionally to inflict death in defense of those values. Killing or physically harming our opponents would only increase the separation we aim to overcome.
In other words, nonviolence is an intrinsic part of this new mythology of hope and change. But refraining from physical injury is only one part of the larger principle of nonviolence: to love all and want the best for all. That means we must never intend to do any harm to others; we must never try to gain advantage by imposing ourselves or our views in ways that will thwart the fulfillment of others.
Any intention to do any kind of harm creates conflict and separation, not only physically but psychologically. Hatred and anger lead us to depersonalize and dehumanize others, to treat them as an "It" rather than as "Thou." Because violent intentions as well as actions always perpetuate this dehumanizing, they can only “intensify the cleavage in a broken community.” In the end, violence “leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue.” It simply will not work to pursue the goal of community by means that drive people apart. Even when violence is used to promote a just cause, it destroys the very community it seeks to create.
When Americans are called to fight for our ideals nonviolently, we will stand firmly against others, but only temporarily, and only to help them in the long run to heal the rifts that set them apart from others. Responding to hate with love “is the only way to reestablish the broken community.”
This vision of nonviolence can serve as a basis for all relationships, from person-to-person all the way up to nation-to-nation. Just as parents and children are tied together even in the worst moments of conflict, just as the criminal and the victim are tied together, so the United States is tied to Iran, North Korea, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban. In world affairs, as in personal affairs, there are no winners and losers. Either everyone wins or everyone loses.
John Quincy Adams once said that “America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” From the viewpoint of nonviolence, there can never be any monsters. As soon as we start to imagine monsters and set out to destroy them, we destroy the global community and the chance of fulfilling our own highest potentials. So America, like every other nation, will flourish best if it shows “an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole.” America, like every nation, will preserve its own best values only by helping others enhance their own.
It’s easy enough to see that including nonviolence in a new mythology of hope and change avoids two of the major themes that have always marked this mythology: dividing the world into the “virtuous” and the “evildoers,” and pitting America against perceived enemies. Thus it removes the insecurity and anxiety these themes have bred. Of course it also removes the impetus to do harm to others, which has so often blown back in harm upon Americans.
Though it may be less obvious, nonviolence also avoids the other two major problems of the traditional mythology of hope and change: mixing the hope with a strong dose of fear of fundamental change, and promising a perfect future that clashes with the reality of the present moment. Nonviolence avoids these problems because it does not aim merely to create harmony in some far distant future. It uses means that are meant to bring people together at every step of the way in order to reach togetherness; its ends are fully present in its means.
When Americans go out to do nonviolent battle, we recognize from the beginning that we are always already connected with everyone, including our opponents. All our actions are guided by that awareness. So in the very act of resisting others we make the beloved community a present reality, in a partial and preliminary way. We realize that we may never have a perfect beloved community. But in every fragmentary experience of it we see the separation between present and future, real and ideal, being overcome. We experience the process of creating more unification. And that process of endless change toward greater harmony is the essence of the beloved community.
For Americans who live within the mythology of homeland security or the traditional myth of hope and change -- and are therefore prone to see major change as dangerous -- Dr. King, his words, and his example may still appear threatening. But for those who live, or aspire to live, within a mythology based on his words, major change of any kind is not inherently threatening. Every effort for change reinforces our awareness that we have no enemies and that there is no necessary clash between present and future, since the future we seek can always be realized, at least partially, in the present moment. No matter what obstacles we face, the way we face them demonstrates that our lives are changing for the better and thus gives us hope.
Thus we gain a sense of security that mythologies based on dualities -- “us” versus “them,” the present versus the future -- can never offer. More broadly, we gain all the advantages of a mythology of hope and change without the disadvantages that of the familiar expressions of hope and change that dominate our culture now.
This vision of a new mythology may all seem like idle utopian speculation. In light of our current American reality, it may very well seem impossible to imagine nonviolence becoming a central theme of the prevailing American mythology. But it’s worth remembering that nonviolence has been part of the nation’s political culture since before there was nation, when the Quakers made such a success of Pennsylvania in the seventeenth century. Nonviolence has been especially prominent in the fight for racial justice for nearly two centuries, its banner carried by such eminent figures as William Lloyd Garrison and Julia Ward Howe as well as, of course, Dr. King himself.
The movement for racial justice is a reminder of how long change can take. But it also proves that the basic assumptions of American life can change in ways once thought impossible. Racism was taken for granted throughout most of American history as an immutable fact. Though we still have a long way to go in improving race relations and equal opportunity, the level of racial integration and equality we have today was absolutely unthinkable to the vast majority of Americans as late as the 1940s.
In a similar way, lesser mythic themes can become dominant surprisingly quickly. In the mid-1930s, virtually no one could believe that American discourse would ever be dominated by a fear of foreign enemies invading the nation. It seemed unimaginable. By the 1950s it was not merely a reality but an apparently irreversible reality. If the nation’s mythology could be transformed so quickly in the direction of homeland insecurity, it seems equally possible, in principle, to transform it in the opposite direction.
One of the reasons (among many) for the rise of the “homeland insecurity” myth was the tremendous conscious effort that a lot of people put into making it happen. Staffers in the Eisenhower administration made elaborate plans, with the president’s approval, to accustom the populace to Cold War fear as what they called “the new normal.” They were merely speeding up a process that was already well underway, and they got the results they wanted. Americans became accustomed to what seemed impossible in the mid-‘30s: a life built on a constant, deep, underlying conviction that our national existence is constantly threatened. That conviction still dominates our national life in many ways.
If we are going to escape from the mythology of homeland insecurity, and from the negative consequences of the mythology of hope and change, it will take just as much conscious effort. This time, though, it’s not likely to happen at the highest levels of government. It will have to emerge the way the civil rights movement emerged, from deep thinking and wise planning at the grassroots of American life.
comments powered by Disqus
- Five Things You Need to Know to be a Better Digital Preservationist
- Book on Losing British Generals Wins American History Prize
- Stanford scholar explores civil rights revolution's positive impact on the South's economy
- Harvard Historian Nancy Koehn on Amazon's Tentacular Reach
- Q&A with historian and author Nick Turse