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Jul 11, 2013

Liberals Tolerate Ambiguity More Than Conservatives

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In my little corner of the world it’s time for a celebration. A book -- an entire book -- has just been published devoted to my favorite subject: the role of myth in American history. That doesn’t happen very often.

Time No Longer, by Patrick Smith, is hardly the definitive book on the subject. (That will be written by a great historian of the future, one perhaps now still in grade school.) It’s a journalist’s energetic gallop through the history of the nation, full of the kind of sweeping generalizations, illustrated with anecdotes, that journalists so often love.

Some of Smith’s points are smart enough to deserve applause. Many are dubious, or debatable at best. But when debatable, or even dubious, claims are about important issues they are intellectually stimulating. Such claims show up often enough in this book to make it definitely worth a careful, critical read.

What I found most provocative is Smith’s basic argument: Myth and history are mutually exclusive ways of experiencing life because myth, by definition, takes place outside of time and history. The United States is a unique nation because its people have always opted, and still opt, for myth. Thus, while other nations remember their actual history and live in real history, grappling with its constantly changing challenges, Americans take refuge in a mythic past that allows them avoid facing the changes, and the demands for decision, that history brings. And that refusal to deal with the reality of history is the nation’s biggest problem, the source of our biggest mistakes, the one thing above all we have to change in our national life.

There’s some much here to think about and write about, one hardly knows where to begin.

For example, the claim that Americans have embraced their national myths much more strongly than other nations, so that myth plays a uniquely powerful role in American life. Europeans have been saying so for a long time, and Smith cites them as his authority. But perhaps that’s merely a way for the Europeans to validate their mythic images of their own nations.

Smith builds his case mainly by contrasting the intellectuals of other lands to the views of ordinary, average Americans. Don’t ordinary, average folks in France or Russia or China or anywhere else see their nation’s life through the lens of long-standing myths? That’s a question worth a lot more discussion than it usually gets here in the U.S.

And who says that “timelessness” or “ahistoricality” is the essential quality of myth? Smith got the idea, he tells us, from reading the works of Mircea Eliade, who was once the king of the academic study of religion. But that was about four decades ago. The king has long been dethroned, his work now read by scholars of religion mainly in graduate courses on the history of their discipline. There are so many other things to say about myth that are now considered more, or at least equally, important.

(It’s curious how often preeminent academic figures lose their standing in their own discipline, but go on for decades being cited as authorities by writers in other fields of study.)

Nevertheless, it’s true that the urge to “escape from time” and “live outside of time” does play, and has always played, an important role in American political culture, shaping the ways Americans relate to their past, present, and future. Even when there is public clamor for “change,” the most popular changes are typically the ones that seem to undo recent history and let us live once again in the past as we fondly imagine it, allowing us to nurture the illusion that time has not affected us. So the whole issue of time and timelessness in public life deserves far more attention than it usually gets. Any writer who brings it to our attention as forcefully as Smith does deserves our thanks.  

He deserves more thanks for digging so deeply into this issue and coming up with some really useful insights. The most useful, to me, is his observation that the writings of the earliest Europeans immigrants to the “new world” are filled with both anticipation and anxiety and that this makes perfect sense, because the uncertain future they faced was bound to evoke both moods.

Ever since, American culture has been shaped by the contrasting myths that I call “hope and change” and “homeland insecurity.” By Smith’s logic, this should be clear evidence that our culture has remained steeped in uncertainty about the future. Yet he argues that we are so steeped in myth precisely as a way to avoid and thus reduce uncertainty. If so, since we have been telling and living by our myths for all these centuries, we should have a much lower degree of uncertainty by now, and hence less need for the myths. Yet we keep on telling and living by the myths as much as ever.

There is an obvious solution to this only apparent paradox: The more we try to avoid uncertainty the more we foster it; what is repressed returns stronger than ever, just as Freud predicted. As uncertainty grows, so does the ambivalence of anticipation and anxiety that it brings. Smith does not articulate this conclusion explicitly, but it seems implied by his whole analysis.

(To take an example from a great American mythic drama: When Scarlett O’Hara concludes “Gone With the Wind” by saying “I’ll think about that tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day,” don’t we know that her hope is rather superficial, that tomorrow she will be even more anxious about the future than she is today?)

If Smith’s premises are thus both debatable and stimulating, his conclusion is more so, and more important:

On September 11, 2001, he writes, “America’s long mythological notion of itself crumbled along with the Manhattan towers....From those moments onward, America became part of history.” Americans had to face the naked fact of uncertainty because their mythic tools for evading that fact were gone.

Smith grieves for the tragic way it happened, but he concludes that this outcome is ultimately all for the good, because a nation living in myth does bad things -- as he demonstrates in lengthy chapters on the Spanish-American war, the cold war, and the “war on terror.” A nation finally forced to face and take responsibility for its history will be, he contends, a better land and a better citizen of the world.

It’s a fine story, as we would expect from an experienced journalist whose professional skill is writing news stories. In fact it’s a pretty good myth. The narrative has broad explanatory power. It endows a historical event with a trans-historical meaning that embraces the past, present, and future of a whole nation and has profound implications for the whole world. A story that rich is bound to pack a powerful emotional punch, as this one does if you take it seriously.

But how seriously should we take it? As a description of what actually happened in post-9/11 America, to call it dubious is an understatement -- as Smith himself makes clear. His concluding chapter, on the response to the 9/11 disaster, shows that the mythological structure did not crumble at all. On the contrary, he demonstrates in vivid detail how 9/11 revived and intensified the power of our national myths and how those myths profoundly shaped the response to the disaster.   

What Smith really means, it turns out, is that America’s mythological notion of itself should have crumbled along with the Manhattan towers, that after 9/11 America should become part of history, that we can no longer afford the luxury of avoiding history and the difficult decisions it imposes on us, that we should now be living by his story: a nation that has abandoned myth to enter into real history.

A fine story, as I say. But again, how seriously should we take it? Smith wants us to be realistic. But is his call to live without myth realistic?

Living without myth is a dream that goes back to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Though America’s Founding Fathers were deeply influenced by the Enlightenment, they also handed on to posterity (that means us) a legacy of national myth, as Smith argues in some detail.

Nevertheless they also passed on an Enlightenment legacy, which has always played a powerful part in American intellectual culture -- and even in popular culture, where perhaps its preeminent representative was Sergeant Joe Friday, the mythic detective so beloved for demanding, “the facts, ma’am, just the facts.” We might say that Smith wants all Americans, and certainly all historians, to emulate the good Sergeant’s model.

But it seems rather late in the day to be chasing what Peter Novick called “that noble dream” of perfect objectivity. Hasn’t Smith heard of Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” or Jake Gittes in “Chinatown,” those mythic detectives so beloved in more modern (and post-modern) circles of American intellectual culture? It was their job to gather facts, and they got plenty of them. But the more facts they collected, the less they really knew. They learned the hard way that the facts themselves can never reveal the truths of human life, for the facts always come filtered through interpretation, wrapped in a story. In the end, even the biggest pile of facts amounts to no more than someone’s -- or some nation’s -- story.

There is an ongoing tension in intellectual culture about the possibility of living in world of pure facts, without mythic narratives to give meaning to those facts. Intellectual fashions may ebb and flow on this question. But I think there is little doubt that the long-term trend is to dilute, and perhaps eventually wash away, the influence of the “Sergeant Friday” school of thought and its fantasy of life without myth.

That same tension gets played out in the political arena, where it’s likely to be with us a lot longer. And it makes strange bedfellows: From the left there is a chorus (which Smith now joins) calling for Americans to drop their myths and face the empirical, indisputable facts; from the right, there is a rather louder chorus calling for Americans to reject the Sam Spades and Jake Gittes among us and take a stand on bedrock certainties. The sharp differences between the two sides make it easy to overlook this rather abstract common ground.

Both also share an antipathy toward the policies, and often the person, of Barack Obama. That’s hardly surprising if, as James Kloppenberg claims, the premise of Obama’s political life is a rejection of all claims to absolute truth. At the least, anyone who has read Obama’s Dreams from My Father knows that he has a fine novelist’s sensitivity to the power of interpretation, subjectivity, and storytelling in people’s lives. And anyone who has heard his campaign speeches knows that he has an equally fine politician’s sensitivity to the power of mythic narrative in a nation’s life.

As far as I can tell, the Sergeant Fridays of the left who demand “just the facts” are not yet making any powerful headway in the race for political power. That race, for now at least, is between the Sergeant Fridays of the right and the liberal adherents of the “Jake Gittes” school. Let’s hope the right-wing devotees of certainty, and the whole nation, don’t have to suffer as much as Mr. Gittes did to learn that life without myth may be a noble dream, but it isn’t likely ever to be encountered in reality. 

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