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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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  • Cheer Up, Rush: Dems Keep "Traditional America" Alive

    by Ira Chernus

    Dear Rush Limbaugh,

    The night President Obama was re-elected you went to bed thinking that Mitt Romney “put forth a great vision of traditional America, and it was rejected.” So “we’ve lost the country.” You explained to your audience that the voters had chosen a “Santa Claus” government over hard work as the way to get their needs met.

    Well, now that Santa is finishing up the last toys and getting the reindeer ready to fly, I want to bring you a season’s greeting full of good cheer. I want to cheer you up by telling you about the Christmas card I just got from the Obamas. It should ease your fears that your country, the one you call “traditional America,” is disappearing.

    All the Obamas signed the card, even their little dog Bo (who added his pawprint). In fact Bo is the star of the card; he’s the only one who got his picture on it. There he is romping through the snow on the Obamas’ lawn. Hey, Rush, what could be more traditionally American than that?


  • Why Are Dems Left Hanging on Edge of “Fiscal Cliff”?

    by Ira Chernus


    How the Dems could win the fiscal cliff debate: mobilize for the moral equivalent of war. Credit: Flickr/Library of Congress/StockMonkey.com/HNN staff.

    Where’s that surge of public outrage that’s supposed to force the Republicans to surrender in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations? The Democrats are still waiting for it ... and waiting ... and waiting, while they teeter on the edge of the cliff.

    The Dems are so busy scrutinizing the polls, they forgot to notice the impact of the little word “cliff.” Sure, it’s just a metaphor. But every metaphor tells a story. And the stories we tell (or, more commonly, take for granted, without ever spelling them out) shape the way we view things, which in turn determines the policies we’ll adopt or reject and the way we’ll live our lives.


  • A New "New Cold War" in the Mideast?

    by Ira Chernus


    Credit: HNN staff.

    Just when we thought it was safe for Americans to go out in a democratizing Middle East ... Well, I guess we stopped thinking that a while ago. But now a lead story on the front page of the New York Times makes it official. Far from boosting our security, the Arab Spring has given us more to be afraid of.

    Gone are the days when all we had to worry about was fanatical Shi’ite Islam. Now a new Sunni “axis” is emerging, the Times informs us -- using a word that should send chills up the spine of anyone who knows anything about World War II -- with Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar playing the role once filled by Germany, Japan, and Italy.

    All three Mideast nations are governed by Sunni Muslim parties. So are Libya and Tunisia. More ominously, according to the Times, Hamas is allying with the “axis.” And if the Syrian rebels win their civil war, they’ll take Syria out of the Iranian orbit and into the new “axis” too.


  • “Lincoln”: Jesus Christ! God Almighty! What a (Biblical) Movie!

    by Ira Chernus

    About three score and a couple of years ago my sister was a research librarian in Hollywood, working for an outfit that dug up information needed by moviemakers. One day she called me and said, “You’ve got a PhD in the history of Judaism. So what are the facts about the lost ark, the one that was in the Jerusalem Temple in biblical times?”  “There are no facts,” I quickly replied. “It’s all just legend. Why do you want to know, anyway?”

    “Steven Spielberg is making a movie about the lost ark, and he wants us to get him the facts.” “A movie about the lost ark?”, I asked incredulously. “Is he crazy? Does he think anyone is going to pay money to see that?”

    Obviously, I may know something about history but not much at all about the movies. I suppose that alone might disqualify me from making any comment on Spielberg’s latest epic, Lincoln.

    But when America’s greatest living mythmaker takes on America’s most mythicized president, how can the author of a blog called MythicAmerica remain silent? If it’s not my obligation to say something, at least it’s an irresistible temptation.


  • Nineteenth-Century Nationalism Still Alive, and Deadly, in Mideast

    by Ira Chernus


    IDF brass in a briefing about the conflict in Gaza, November 17, 2012. Credit: Flickr.

    Ask most Americans why Israel went to war in Gaza again and they’ll give you a simple answer: Palestinians were shooting rockets into Israel, and, as President Obama said, “there’s no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.”

    To name those rockets as the root cause of the war is like saying my fever caused my flu. But why shouldn’t the public identify a symptom as the cause of the conflict? They hear and read the same misleading explanation in their news media over and over again. So they see no reason to dig any deeper.


  • Class: The Missing Link in the Story of Election 2012.

    by Ira Chernus

    On Election Day we learned who will be president for the next four years. In the days after Election Day we learned something almost as important: the story that will be told about the election of 2012. The popular story of any election takes on a life of its own, and it can shape the political landscape for years to come.

    We can now safely project the winner of this year’s election story contest: Republicans self-destructed by moving too far to the right on issues that matter to women (especially unmarried women), newly empowered Latinos, and still empowered African-Americans.

    Among liberal pollsters this pro-Obama coalition (plus the under-30s) is often called “the rising American electorate” (RAE). They are the future, the story goes. The Republicans must face that fact, make the necessary changes, or get ready to become history. Race, ethnicity, and gender are destiny.


  • The “Fiscal Cliff” and THE SCANDAL

    by Ira Chernus


    David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell in 2011. Credit: Flickr/U.S. Navy.

    Robert Rubin, former secretary of the Treasury, writes in the New York Times: “Now that the election is over, Washington’s attention is consumed by the looming combination of automatic spending cuts and tax increases known as ‘the fiscal cliff.’” 

    “Consumed”?  Excuse me, but I just checked the websites of the Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN, Fox News, CBS, NBC, and ABC. Every one of them had the same lead story -- and it was not “the fiscal cliff.” 

    By now, of course, you know what it was. Everybody knows: THE SCANDAL WIDENS! 

    If Robert Rubin had written that some people in Washington are giving some attention to the “the looming ‘fiscal cliff,’” he might have been correct. In Washington they’re sort of forced to deal with such wonkish stuff, at least part of the time.


  • 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.

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