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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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  • Obama vs. Boehner: Who is the True Jeffersonian?

    by Ira Chernus


    Credit: Flickr/Wiki Commons/HNN staff.

    As the presidential race neared the finish line, I occasionally tried to resist my obsession with today’s politics by opening Peter Onuf’s Jefferson’s Empire. The more I read, though, the more I realize that studying Jefferson doesn’t take us out of the present at all. It merely reminds us that, as Faulkner said, the past isn’t even past.

    Onuf explains that Jefferson’s vision of America was profoundly shaped by his understanding of the British empire, where all power and wealth flowed from the periphery (especially the colonies) to the center, the great metropolis of London and its royal court. Jefferson insisted that the United States of America must be the opposite: a vast empire with no metropolitan center and thus no periphery to be oppressed by the center.

    This view became the framework for Jefferson’s understanding of American nationalism and thus (like so much else in Jefferson’s thought) a basic staple of the American political narrative for future generations.


  • “Hope and Change” Born Again: The New, Improved Version

    by Ira Chernus


    Credit: Twitter/BarackObama.

    I’ve waited eagerly for the day after Election Day, to see what the story of Election 2012 would be. Every presidential winner has a story attached to his name. Sometimes the story is not so memorable. (What was the day-after-victory story of Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush?). Often, though, the story told about an election outlives the direct influence of the president whose name is attached to it:

    1960: John F. Kennedy: Youth and vigor can meet any challenge.

    1968 and 1972: Richard Nixon: Law and order stem the tumult of “the ‘60s.”

    1980 and 1984: Ronald Reagan: It’s morning in America as we shrink big government.

    2004: George W. Bush: America must win the war on terror.

    What about 2008, when the name of Barack Obama was indelibly linked to the words “hope and change”? Had Obama lost in 2012, his story probably would have been as forgotten as Carter’s or Bush 41’s.

    But given Obama’s victory, the jury is still out, awaiting the verdict of history yet to be written.


  • From “Who Lost China?” to “Who Lost Libya?”

    by Ira Chernus


    Credit: HNN staff.

    “Who lost Libya?” Mitt Romney has not asked the question exactly that way. Neither has Paul Ryan, nor any prominent Republican politician or commentator, as far as I know. But anyone familiar with the history of U.S. foreign policy since the 1940s can hardly avoid hearing that question, between the lines, in the GOP assault on the Obama administration’s handling of the September 11 killings in Benghazi.

    The “Who lost … ?” pattern first emerged after the communist revolution transformed mainland China in 1949. Republicans angrily demanded, “Who lost China?” The taste of omnipotence coming out of World War II was still fresh in Americans’ mouths. It seemed like the U.S. had such immense power, we could control just about everything that happened everywhere outside the Soviet Union and its eastern European bloc.


  • What's Still the Matter With Kansas?

    by Ira Chernus


    Credit: Wikimedia Commons/HNN staff.

    Today I posted a long article on Truthout.org titled "What's Still the Matter With Kansas -- and With the Democrats?" The title refers to a popular 2005 book by Thomas Frank, exploring the puzzle of why so many people of middling economic means vote for Republicans whose policies so clearly favor the rich and do little to help people of middling economic means. Frank chose Kansas as the place to study a large number of voters who vote against their economic self-interest because he came from Kansas.

    In my article I use "Kansas" as a symbol for all those voters.  I argue that Democrats are losing this key demographic group, and maybe this election, because they're unwilling to support values issues dear to the heart of “Kansans” that they could very plausibly endorse.


  • Red vs. Blue: Causes Elude Us, but Effects Are Clear

    by Ira Chernus


    Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

    The prominent psychologist Steven Pinker has a long piece on the New York Times website, trying to explain why Republicans do so well in the South and the West but not in the rest of the country. It seems that it all comes down to how different regions have, historically, dealt with the eternal threat of societal anarchy. Harvard media stars rush in where careful historians usually fear to tread, or at best tread very lightly.

    There are plenty of holes in Pinker’s speculative framework big enough to drive most any vehicle you can think of through. For starters, if the North is indeed historically accustomed to counting on government to tame anarchy, as he argues, how to explain the Republican strength in New Hampshire, or in the non-urbanized areas of northern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois? And if the West (which one assumes includes the “red” Great Plains states) is so accustomed to rejecting government as the tamer of anarchy, how explain the great political success of Progressivism and farmer-labor coalitions in those states in the days of William Jennings Bryan?


  • Political Symbolism Is Political Reality: The Case of Wisconsin

    by Ira Chernus


    Tammy Baldwin in 2010. Credit: Flickr/Center for American Progress.

    In case anyone doubts the power of myth and symbol in American politics:  In the dead-heat race for the Senate in Wisconsin, one issue now towers over all others, the Washington Post reports. It’s not health care or education or energy or immigration. No, it’s Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin’s 2006 vote against a purely symbolic bill to continue recognizing September 11 as a national day of remembrance and mourning.  

    Baldwin voted against the bill because it included a clause endorsing the Patriot Act and a host of other post-9/11 legislation, which few people had read completely and even fewer understood thoroughly.  


  • In Memoriam: George McGovern and Liberal Politics

    by Ira Chernus


    McGovern vs. Nixon campaign pamphlet, 1972. Credit: Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.

    George McGovern was the first presidential candidate I actively campaigned for. Like many baby boomers, I stood on the street corner handing out “Vote for McGovern” handbills. The fifty-year-old Democrat was so unique among politicians, we gave him a special exception to our first commandment: Never trust anyone over thirty.

    Under thirty? Sure. We knew we could trust each other. Or so we thought.

    But the day before George McGovern died, I stumbled across a little known fact that took me back those forty years and made me wonder whether my trust was misplaced.

    Assuming that we can trust the data compiled by American National Election Studies, it seems that on Election Day 1972, of my fellow under-thirty, baby-boomer voters, only 47 percent marked their ballots for McGovern. 53 percent voted for Richard Nixon.


  • The Second Debate: “They Were So Good Being at Each Other’s Face”

    by Ira Chernus


    Credit: Flickr/Obama for America.

    Did you think the second presidential debate was too nasty, that it was sad to see the two lead actors portray such a polarized image of American politics? The third performer up on the stage, moderator Candy Crowley, didn’t think so.

    “They were talking to their bases who want to see them stand up to each other,” Crowley said on CNN after the debate. “They were so good being at each other’s face, and I thought this was a debate, so I let it go. … It was so good.”

    The woman with the only front row seat didn’t seem to be interested in the content of the candidates’ arguments, much less their logical coherence. She cared about the show. And as long as they were at each other’s face, “it was so good.”

    A long-time TV professional, who has made television her life, naturally judges the debate by the same criteria she would judge any television show. And appropriately so, since the debate is above all television entertainment.


  • Fact-checking the Candidates: A Sacred Ritual

    by Ira Chernus


    Romney as Pagliacci -- acting out the theater state. Credit: Flickr/HNN staff.

    There’s an old theory that people perform religious rituals as a way of acting out their sacred myths. Scholars of religion don’t take this old theory very seriously any more. It’s far too simplistic and misses too many aspects of the meaning of function of ritual. Sometimes, though, this theory still sheds interesting light on rituals. It’s especially useful when a ritual does pretty obviously act out a myth and the people performing the ritual tell you that they are reenacting one of their myths.

    A fine example is the Christian ritual of Eucharist: eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ. In the Gospel story of the Last Supper, Jesus explicitly tells his disciples to keep on eating bread and drinking wine after he is gone, because those consumables are his body and blood. When you ask Christians who believe that the consumables literally become the body and blood why they are doing the ritual, they’ll tell you that they are obeying Jesus’s command and doing exactly what the disciples did. They are acting out their sacred myth.


  • The New “New Normal”: Saving Ourselves From the Cliff

    by Ira Chernus

    Are you worried about the looming “fiscal cliff”? Well if it’s your only worry about the American economy, you’re not worried nearly enough. There are plenty of other economic cliffs out there, just waiting for you.

    That’s the lead story on the front page of this past Sunday’s Washington Post. “Even if Washington somehow finds a way to avoid the fiscal cliff -- the automatic tax hikes and federal spending cuts that threaten to plunge the nation back into a recession --” Zachary A. Goldfarb warns us, “the economy could suffer a stiff blow next year.”

    Tax hikes and spending cuts could take billions of dollars out of the economy. But if we extend tax cuts and cancel spending cuts, we’ll increase the federal debt, bringing new and unpredictable economic suffering. So we’re trapped.


  • Obama’s Other Debate Failure: No Narrative

    by Ira Chernus


    Teddy Roosevelt knew how to string a narrative together.

    Everyone is talking about Barack Obama’s flat performance in the first debate, and with good reason. The debates are essentially television shows. Like any theatrical contest, the performer who is most entertaining and charismatic wins. The other guy loses.

    But Obama also failed in another very important way. He failed to tell a good story. He didn’t offer any persuasive narrative that would tie together all his talking points. If he had, it might have compensated for his poor performance and softened the blow he suffered that night.

    The funny and sad thing is that the Obama campaign has the makings of a consistent and powerful narrative, one that contrasts sharply with that of the Republicans. The president laid it out clearly last December at Ossawatamie, Kansas: “We’re greater together than we are on our own. ... In the long run, we shall go up or down together.”


  • The Presidential Debate: Myth versus Myth

    by Ira Chernus

     

    I wrote this before the Obama-Romney debate:

    The debate that will pit the two candidates against each other will also show us two fundamentally different ideas of government going head to head. I don’t mean the Republican versus Democrat ideas. I mean something much bigger than that.

    We have debates because we have a long tradition of democracy as an exercise of reason. The people learn the facts, analyze them thoughtfully, and then draw rational conclusions about which policies will benefit them and their community most. That’s the myth of democracy -- myth not as a lie, but a story we tell ourselves to express our most fundamental assumptions about what life is like and how it should be lived.

    This myth of democracy requires candidates to present facts and logical arguments to the people and then let the people decide on the basis of their own logic. To help that process along, candidates should engage in classical debates, the kind we learned about in high school: each side presents a sustained, coherent argument based on facts and rational analysis. Then each side gets to pick apart the other side’s facts and reasoning systematically, point by point.


  • “Hope and Change”: The “Comeback Kid” of Political Narratives?

    by Ira Chernus


    Obama campaign graphic.

    On the eve of the “great debate,” the presidential election narrative in the mass media is moving toward “Obama’s widening lead.” That may or may not be true, depending on how seriously you take the polling process. But in politics, as in so much of life, the story will trump the facts nearly every time.

    If Obama is indeed widening his lead, the change is most evident in the battleground states, where voters are inundated with advertising, robocalls, and candidate appearances as portrayed on the TV news. Why are Obama’s numbers improving, slightly but steadily? Theories abound.


  • Israel Versus Iran: Netanyahu's Cartoon Version

    by Ira Chernus


    Still from Netanyahu's speech. Credit: C-SPAN.

    I was driving home listening to NPR when the top-of-the-hour headlines came on. First item: Just moments earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing the UN General Assembly, “warned that by next summer Iran could have weapons-grade nuclear material.” Then a clip of Netanyahu, trying to sound chilling: “At stake is the future of the world. Nothing could imperil our common future more than the arming of Iran with nuclear weapons.” 

    "Nothing?," I wondered. Not even the melting of the polar ice caps, or a huge spike in global food prices, or an accidental launch of one of the many nukes that the U.S. and Russia still keep on hair-trigger alert?


  • GOP vs. Dems: The Failure to Communicate

    by Ira Chernus


    What we've got here is a ... well, you know. Photo credit: Flickr/HNN staff.

    There’s a common view that the clandestine video of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” speech revealed “the real Mitt.” But why should we assume that? How can we know? We can never read someone else’s mind.

    There is one thing we can know, though: Politicians tend to tell audiences what they want to hear. A good politician’s stock-in-trade is a knack for summing up an audience’s shared narrative more effectively than the folks in the audience themselves can do it. Why shouldn’t that be just as true of Romney at a small gathering of super-rich donors as a huge crowd of gun owners or Tea Partiers or teachers?


  • The Myth of Arab (Or Is It Muslim?) Rage

    by Ira Chernus


    Newsweek cashes in on Muslim rage.

    I’m on a brief vacation, from writing this blog and from almost everything else -- traveling to both coasts, seeing friends, museums, and oceans -- which means I don’t get to know very much about the news: just brief snatches of headlines caught from newspaper racks, TVs in public places running CNN, and an occasional glance at the New York Times website.

    That’s actually a very revealing way for a writer on mythic America to get the news, because that’s the way most Americans get their news. Headline writers don’t have time or space for details or, often, facts. They just need to grab attention with some emotionally punchy words, the kind of words that good myths are made of.

    So I know that mobs are venting anti-American rage throughout the Arab world. Or is it the Muslim world? I’m not quite sure. And how many Arabs, or Muslims? What percentage of the population in predominantly Arab or Muslim nations? I have no idea. Like most Americans, I know only that “those Arabs” -- or maybe it’s “those Muslims” -- are raging against us. Oh, and I know that they’re creating a big new headache for the Obama and Romney campaigns.


  • The Simple Message Dems Are Missing

    by Ira Chernus


    Barack Obama needs to refine his elevator speech game. Photo credit: Pete Souza.

    Barack Obama needs a good elevator speech. So does every political activist. It’s the quick little speech you give a stranger you meet on an elevator about your group’s goal, why it matters, and why that stranger should support you. You don’t know which floor the stranger will get off on, so you have to convey your whole message clearly in just a few words.

    If you get on an elevator at the first floor with Mitt Romney, you know what you’ll get: “Barack Obama is destroying our economy because he lets the government take your money and give it to other people, who probably don’t deserve it. We Republicans will build prosperity by letting you decide what to do with your hard-earned money.” Second floor, speech over, all out.

    But suppose you get on the elevator at the first floor with the president. Which speech will you get? You might be on floor 20 or 30, still trying to figure it out.


  • Michelle Challenges Nineteenth-Century Myth

    by Ira Chernus


    Official White House portrait of Michelle Obama, 2009.

    I’m an unabashed Michelle Obama fan, and my wife is even more so. It’s not just Michelle’s extraordinary set of talents. It’s the way she carries them so gracefully. If her air of humility and naivete is not genuine, then in addition to all those other talents she’s the greatest actress of our time. So as we watched her speech to the Democratic National Convention we ooh-ed and aah-ed over her delivery and her magnetic presence.

    But to be honest there was not much interesting substance in the speech beyond the expected, politically necessary words. There was just one sentence that made my wife exclaim, “Good line!”, and I had to agree: “When you've worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”


  • For GOP, It’s the Patriotism, Stupid

    by Ira Chernus


    Mitt and Ann Romney on Super Tuesday, 2012. Credit: Flickr.

    When an incumbent president is running for re-election and the economy is in the doldrums, what’s a challenger to do? All the pundits and political analysts agree: Focus like a laser on just one issue: the economy, stupid. It worked for Bill Clinton, the last challenger to run against an incumbent during a recession. Any other strategy would indeed be stupid, the common wisdom says.

    But there are millions of Americans who don’t know the common wisdom. They tuned into the campaign for the first time when they tuned in to watch Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech, or perhaps earlier bits of the Republican Convention. And they’re not likely to think that Romney's campaign is guided by the famous mantra of Clinton’s 1992 campaign. They probably came away assuming that there’s a very different sign posted in Romney’s campaign headquarters: “It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s the patriotism.”


  • In Search of New Mythology (Part Three)

    by Ira Chernus


    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.

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