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Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica


MythicAmerica explores the mythic dimension of American political culture, past, present, and future. The blogger, Ira Chernus, is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity.

His new “MythicAmerica: Essays” offer an online introduction to the study of American myths. Read about the blog and the author here.

To receive periodic email summaries of the blog, send an email to update@mythicamerica.us, with “Update” in the subject line. You can communicate directly with Ira at the same address.

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  • The Question Americans Can't Ask About Egypt and Syria

    by Ira Chernus


    Credit: Flickr.

    What does the Obama administration really want in Egypt and Syria? "To reduce the risk to U.S. interests," writes Washington Post blogger Max Fisher. The administration wants "to play the middle and to avoid any strong positions" because it values "above all, an aversion to risk." So "the White House tried [in Egypt], as in Syria, to manage it from the behind the scenes."

    The result has been bad for the U.S. and horrendous for the Egyptians and Syrians: "Bloody stalemate has become the status quo." But that status quo is "unsustainable."

    It's hard to argue with Fisher's observations. It's equally hard not to argue with his conclusion, a call for the U.S. to take charge: "Better to force a solution, however uncertain, than wait for things to combust on their own. Staving off catastrophe only works for so long."


  • Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Egypt: Compare and Contrast

    by Ira Chernus


    Police preparing to attack pro-Morsi protestors in Cairo. Credit: Flickr.

    The professor inside my head just handed out an essay assignment:

    Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Egypt: Compare and Contrast.

    The big difference leaps to my mind first: The crackdowns on Occupy Egypt (the movement in support of ousted president Mohamed Morsi) have been far more violent than the ones that dispersed the Occupy Wall Street encampments across the U.S. in 2011. In both cases definite numbers are almost impossible to come up with. But there seems to be not a single death clearly due to police action against an OWS site, though surely hundreds suffered injuries. In Egypt, of course, hundreds have been killed by uniformed agents as well as civilian supporters of the military government. Injuries run into the thousands.

    On the other hand, since the Egyptian authorities seem more intent on doing violence than arresting people, their arrest totals at the encampments may not equal the 7,762 arrests of OWS protesters in the U.S. recorded so far.


  • “Them Bad Russians” Still Haunt America

    by Ira Chernus


    Nikolai Bulganin, Dwight Eisenhower, Edgar Faure, and Anthony Eden at the 1955 Geneva Summit.

    “America it's them bad Russians. Them Russians them Russians. ... She wants to take our cars from out our garages. Her wants to grab Chicago. ...  Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. ...  America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set,” the poet Allen Ginsberg wrote. 

    But Ginsberg’s poem “America” was written in 1956, when Cold War fervor gripped the nation. We have come a long way since then -- haven’t we?

    Sure we have, Barack Obama assured us, when he lamented that “there have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality.  And what I consistently say to them [Russians], and what I say to President Putin, is that’s the past and we’ve got to think about the future, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to cooperate more effectively than we do.”


  • Bradley Manning Meets Woodrow Wilson: The Secret of the Espionage Act Revealed

    by Ira Chernus


    Credit: Wiki Commons/HNN staff.

    Military justice is to justice as military music is to music. In a civilian court, the judge explains the decision as soon as it’s handed down. In the military, the judge just announces the decision and passes sentence.

    In Bradley Manning’s case, Judge Denise Lind did say “she would issue findings later that would explain her ruling on each of the charges.” We don’t know how long “later” may be. All we know now is that Judge Lind does not think Manning was aiding the enemy.

    Which raises an interesting question: If you take classified documents, but you don’t do it to help some enemy, apparently you haven’t done any harm to the United States. So why is it a crime? Why does it count as “spying” at all? I always thought “spying” meant one side stealing secrets from the other side.


  • Walt Whitman: Dreaming of America, On the Road

    by Ira Chernus


    Credit: Wiki Commons.

    With the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s greatest speech approaching, I started wondering: Who has a dream anymore? Down toward the left end of the political spectrum, where I spend most of my time, there’s plenty of (usually quite accurate) complaining about the ills that plague our world and some talk about specific policies aiming to remedy one or more of those ills. But hardly anyone ever follows Dr. King’s example and publicly shares a vision of what a far better world would look like. It’s just “not done” these days. Perhaps it feels too naïve, too unrealistic, too embarrassing.  


  • What Ever Happened to American Regionalism?

    by Ira Chernus


    Soda vs. pop vs. coke vs. soft drink. American regionalism in a nutshell.

    I spent several hours last week driving around New York City. For a guy like myself from the wide open Rocky Mountain West, it was rather hellish. I plan to drive in NYC again approximately when hell is covered with a thick sheet of glacial ice.

    It could have been worse, I suppose. I’m not a native Westerner . I grew up in the suburbs of New York. So I had a good idea of what driving in “the City” might be like. I knew that, if you live in the tri-state area, “the City” (and indeed each of its boroughs) is a distinct region, far different from its suburbs.

    And I knew that my wife, a native Midwesterner, made a terrible linguistic faux pas when she told someone that she had business meetings “on” Manhattan and “in” Long Island. She got the prepositions exactly reversed. There’s no logic to it. It’s all just local knowledge.


  • Liberals Tolerate Ambiguity More Than Conservatives

    by Ira Chernus


    Image via IMDB.

    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.


  • Who Says Conservatives Are More Patriotic?

    by Ira Chernus

    As we got busy preparing for Fourth of July festivities, this question popped into my head: Are conservatives more patriotic than other Americans? If you were a foreigner spending some time in the USA, getting news from the mass media and just talking to people, you might easily get that impression -- especially around the Fourth, when conservatives seem to be the ones most likely to display those big American flags.

    In fact you might easily get that impression on any day of the year, when conservatives seem to be the ones most likely to put their love of country on display in all sorts of ways, aiming to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about their patriotism.

    But what’s the truth behind the display? Are conservatives really more patriotic than others? Well, it depends on what you mean by patriotism.

    And there lies the heart of the matter: Conservatives appear to be more patriotic because they have so much control over the very meaning of the term. Most of the time, when anyone uses the word “patriotism,” it turns out to mean what conservatives say it means.


  • On DOMA, Right-Wing Justices Got It Right -- and Wrong

    by Ira Chernus


    Antonin Scalia in 2010. Credit: Wiki Commons.

    (This post is dedicated to my son, Angel, and his spouse, Thomas, who had to leave their home state and go to another state simply to exercise the legal right of enshrining their love in the bonds of matrimony.)

    No one has ever accused Justice Antonin Scalia of timidity. So it’s not surprising that his opinion in United States v. Windsor, the case that struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), fairly screams: I’m not a bigot. I’m not. I’m not.

    “The majority says that the supporters of this Act acted with malice,” he claims in his dissent. And of course by dissenting he became a supporter of the act. So he must defend himself against the charge that he harbors malice toward gays and lesbians. “I am sure these accusations are quite untrue,” he retorts flatly. “To defend traditional marriage is not to condemn, demean, or humiliate those who would prefer other arrangements... To hurl such accusations so casually demeans this institution.” In other words, “It demeans me!”


  • Guns and the NSA Make Strange Bedfellows

    by Ira Chernus


    Image via Shutterstock.

    I was chatting with my local state legislator the other day about guns. He supported the gun control measures that passed in Colorado this year. But he took far more criticism (and lost far more campaign contributions) for those votes than any other he cast. Many of the critics are liberal on every other issue, he told me; they just won’t abide a law that limits them to “only” 15 rounds in a clip.

    The gun control issue brought conservatives, moderates, and even some liberals together. And it riled people up like nothing else in his district, where nearly all the voters live in cities and suburbs, though a few live in rural areas.

    The rural vs. urban/suburban divide struck him as a key to the issue. The main arguments he heard against gun control centered on self-protection: If you’re alone and attacked, you’d better have plenty of ammo. That argument might make sense, he opined, in rural areas where you’ve got to wait a long time for the police to show up if there’s trouble. But they make little sense in urban/suburban areas where “the law” is just minutes away.


  • The Neverending Morality Play of the Deficit Hawks

    by Ira Chernus


    Credit: Wiki Commons.

    When I returned from a long stay abroad, my first blog post noted how much the new news at home looked like the old news, as if I’d never left. I assumed that new, important events had unfolded. They just didn’t make the headlines. Sure enough, I had barely returned to my news junkie habits when Paul Krugman confirmed that I was right.

    For years, he wrote, he and other liberal economists have been fighting “the policy elite's damaging obsession with budget deficits, an obsession that led governments to cut investment when they should have been raising it, to destroy jobs when job creation should have been their priority.”

    The big news: “That fight seems largely won -- in fact, I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like the sudden intellectual collapse of austerity economics as a policy doctrine.”


  • MythicAmerica Returns to Meet the New News, Same as the Old News

    by Ira Chernus


    Protesters in Taksim Square. Credit: Wiki Commons

    When I left the country back in April for an extended sojourn in Europe I made myself a promise and a prediction. I promised that I would not look at a newspaper or any news source -- cold turkey, for a news junkie like me. I predicted that when I got home and fell back into my old junkie ways, the news would be very much the same as when I left home. It’s a lot like a soap opera: You can skip the news for weeks at a time, and when you turn it back on you feel like you’re picking up right where you left off; you’ve haven’t missed anything important at all.

    Keeping the pledge to abstain was easy. I enjoyed the vacation from the news so much that I extended it nearly two weeks after I got home, with only one exception. Having spent ten days in Istanbul, I had to follow the protests in Taksim Square, a place I’d visited several times during my stay there.


  • Social Security Cuts: More Than Money At Stake

    by Ira Chernus


    Image via Shutterstock.

    I’m old enough to remember when Social Security was the “third rail” of American politics -- too dangerous for even the most conservative politician to touch. You’re probably old enough to remember that, too. It wasn’t very long ago. As recently as the 2012 Republican primaries, Mitt Romney defended Social Security against attacks from other candidates (notably Rick Perry), and Romney emerged the GOP standard-bearer.


  • The Conspiracy to Kill MLK: Not a Theory but a Fact

    by Ira Chernus

    Should the United States government be allowed to assassinate its own citizens? That question was in the air briefly not long ago. April 4 is an excellent day to revive it: On April 4, 1968, the government was part of a successful conspiracy to assassinate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    That’s not just some wing-nut conspiracy theory. It’s not a theory at all. It is a fact, according to our legal system.

    In 1999, in Shelby County, Tennessee, Lloyd Jowers was tried before a jury of his peers (made up equally of white and black citizens, if it matters) on the charge of conspiring to kill Dr. King. The jury heard testimony for four full weeks.

    On the last day of the trial, the attorney for the King family (which brought suit against Jowers) concluded his summation by saying: “We're dealing in conspiracy with agents of the City of Memphis and the governments of the State of Tennessee and the United States of America. We ask you to find that conspiracy existed.”


  • The Myth of the All-Powerful President: A Very Brief History

    by Ira Chernus


    FDR with Ibn Saud, first king of Saudi Arabia, in February 1945.

    In a column I’ve just posted on Tomdispatch.com I summarized the tremendous task Barack Obama seemed to commit himself to, in his recent Middle East trip, as he once again took on the role of peacemaker:

    [He] must satisfy (or mollify) both the center-left and the right in Israel, strike an equally perfect balance between divergent Israeli and Palestinian demands, march with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu up to the edge of war with Iran yet keep Israel from plunging over that particular cliff, calibrate the ratcheting up of punishing sanctions and other acts in relation to Iran so finely that the Iranians will, in the end, yield to U.S. demands without triggering a war, prevent the Syrian civil war from spilling into Israel, which means controlling Lebanese politics too -- and do it all while maintaining his liberal base at home and fending off the inevitable assault from the right. 


  • The President, in Israel, Giveth and Taketh Away

    by Ira Chernus


    Barack Obama and John Kerry at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Credit: U.S. State Department.

    The real Barack Obama was clearly on display in his quick trip to Israel and Palestine. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, he always gives you something you want with one hand, while he takes away something equally important with the other hand.

    When Obama spoke in Jerusalem, I cheered as loudly as the audience of liberal Jewish students who shared my views, which the president voiced so eloquently: The occupation is really bad for Israel; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must lead his nation to a just peace with an independent, viable Palestinian state.

    I cheered most when I heard Obama say words that I never thought I’d hear an American president say in Israel: The occupation is not merely harmful to Israel’s national interests, it’s downright immoral: “It is not fair that a Palestinian child ... lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. ... It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands ... or to displace Palestinian families from their home.” Bravo!


  • North Korea as “Bad Guy”: A Multi-Layered Myth

    by Ira Chernus


    North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

    “The United States is taking the threat of a ballistic missile attack from North Korea very seriously,” Melissa Block informed us on NPR the other day, sounding very serious herself. To protect us from that threat, the U.S. will station 16 more anti-missiles missiles in Alaska.

    “The big questions, of course, are this,” NPR’s Tom Bowman explained: “Would North Korea actually launch a missile against the United States, and would these missile interceptors work? And frankly nobody knows for sure, but the Pentagon says, we have high confidence.”

    High confidence that the missile defense will work or that the North Koreans would attack the U.S.? No doubt Bowman meant the former (though “the testing has been a bit spotty,” as he tactfully put it).

    But the whole project, with all its ballyhoo and its $1 billion price tag, makes no sense unless the Pentagon also has high confidence that North Korea might indeed attack the United States.


  • “Debt Crisis”: The Myth Behind the Myth

    by Ira Chernus


    Image via Shutterstock.

    While the two major parties plot strategy for the next battle in the federal debt-reduction war, another war rages among economists over the question, “Is debt really the federal government's biggest problem?” Some insist that unless Washington cuts spending substantially to reduce the debt quickly, we are headed for disaster. Others insist with equal fervor that growth is the number one priority: Aggressive pro-growth policies will reduce the debt in the long run with far less pain.

    If the pro-growth economists could gain public support they would give liberal Democrats a powerful weapon to resist the Republican’s budget-slashing ax. But the pro-growth faction makes little headway in the public arena because the political wind is blowing so strongly against it. Why should the wind blow that way?


  • “Yellow Peril” Morphs into Chinese Borg

    by Ira Chernus

    You remember those Chinese hackers, the ones we are all supposed to be so terribly worried about just a few days ago? They’ve disappeared from the headlines; apparently we’re not supposed to worry about them any more, at least for now. But they’re bound to be back back in the headlines sooner or later, and probably sooner. So we ought to take a close look at the story.

    The joke is on the hackers, says Washington Post wonk blogger Ezra Klein. They’ve been suckered in by a great myth -- the myth that there’s some secret plan hidden somewhere in Washington, the script for everything that the American government and American corporations do. The Chinese think that if they hack enough computers, somewhere buried in that mountain of data they’ll find the master key that unlocks the plan.


  • “War on Terror”: The Ticking Time Bomb

    by Ira Chernus


    Dick Cheney in 2011, and the infamous Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Doomsday Clock.

    I saw Zero Dark Thirty a few weeks ago and then consumed the whole first season of “Homeland.” Don’t tell me what happens in season two. I love the suspense.

    I also love those brave (fictional) CIA analysts, Maya and Carrie. They see a huge danger ahead that everyone else is blind to, and they insist on crying out a warning, regardless of the risk -- just like the biblical prophets. What’s not to love? 

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