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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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  • Why Are Americans So Confused?

    by Ira Chernus


    William Gropper: "Construction of a Dam" (1939) -- an example of New Deal-style populist murals.

    When I was back in junior high school, there was a civics teacher who put forth the proposition that democracy depends on one simple principle: People are rational. Give them free access to information, and they’ll think things through logically to figure out what policies are best not just for themselves but for the whole nation.

    The latest poll from the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation gives some support to that proposition. 67 percent of this sampling of 3,130 Americans understand that “there are many goods and services which would not be available to ordinary people without government intervention.” Only 29 percent disagree.

    As a group they are more worried about jobs and health costs than the federal deficit. 45 percent think Democratic economic policies help them; only 37 percent say that about the GOP.


  • In Search of New Mythology (Part Two)

    by Ira Chernus


    Martin Luther King, Jr. giving the "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington, 1963.

    In Part One of this series I explained why America needs new mythology and why it makes the most sense to build it upon the existing mythological tradition of “hope and change.” I set out a series of features that any new mythology must have if it is going to avoid the pitfalls of the current dominant mythologies and have a chance of widespread acceptance by the American public:

    -- a strong appeal to patriotism and national pride, including an assertion of something uniquely good about America

    -- continuity with the mythic past through deep roots in distinctively American traditions and a close connection with a figure from the pantheon of national heroes

    -- an affirmation of individual freedom as the highest value of all


  • In Search of New Mythology (Part One)

    by Ira Chernus


    American eagle and flag. Credt: Bubbels/Wikipedia.

    In “MythicAmerica: Essays” I have described two great American mythologies (that is, two large sets of mythic themes and traditions) that are most important for understanding American political culture today. I call them (using current terminology) the mythologies of “hope and change” and “homeland insecurity.” The mythology of hope and change casts America as a dynamic force constantly transforming both itself and world by expanding its frontiers, civilizing people who live in wilderness, and reshaping the world in the image of America’s highest ideals. The mythology of homeland security casts America as the protector of its own borders against alien threats and the protector of the whole world against those same threats.


  • The Mythic Paul Ryan Enters, Stage Right

    by Ira Chernus


    Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney in Norfolk, Virginia. Credit: Wikipedia.

    For those of us wondering what will be the defining story line of the 2012 presidential election, the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate makes it a whole new ball game. Maybe. Or maybe not.

    The story line so far has remained in flux. For a while the common wisdom said it all depended on the state of the economy; nothing else mattered. Then the conventional wisdom decided that the big story was the Obama campaign’s full-court advertising press to define Romney as a callous capitalist: Would it succeed or backfire?


  • Myth Versus Myth: Remembering Nagasaki

    by Ira Chernus


    Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance rally against nuclear weapons at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, April 6, 2011. Credit: Wikipedia.

    The sixty-seventh anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki prompts me to indulge in a bit of autobiography. My path to the study of mythic America began when I was young historian of religion, writing highly specialized studies of rabbinic Judaism, and in my spare time an antinuclear activist, protesting the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant near Boulder, Colorado, where I lived and worked. When I first realized that I could apply the tools of my trade -- the analysis of mythic and symbolic language -- to the nuclear issue, I was glad to bring my professional life into synch with my political and ethical commitments.


  • Why Do Married Women Vote Republican?

    by Ira Chernus


    Mitt Romney TV ad from the primary campaign featuring his wife Ann.

    An article in today’s New York Times takes on one of the enduring mysteries of recent American politics: Why do single women vote for Democrats in such greater numbers than married women? Single women, predictably, are suffering more than married women in this protracted recession. So if the election is essentially a referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy, as so many pundits tell us, then the polling should show singles more eager to reject the president. Yet most single women still say they’ll vote for Democrats, while married women trend more to the GOP.


  • The Secret Tie that Binds U.S. and Israel

    by Ira Chernus


    Israeli and American flags on a ship's mast on the Sea of Galilee. Credit: Wikipedia.

    I was really excited when I saw an op-ed in the New York Times by Israel’s most important critic of his own government, Avraham Burg. He’s the most important critic because of his high political standing (he served as the speaker of Israel’s Knesset [parliament]) because he so persuasively condemns Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and because he focuses on such an important, but too often neglected, motive for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians: the mistaken belief that Israel is a weak nation, vulnerable to enemies who want to destroy it.


  • Pentagon Planning for War With China

    by Ira Chernus

     

    You usually have to dig a bit to find the mythic dimension in political discourse. But sometimes it is right there on the surface, staring you in the face.

    Latest example: A Washington Post report on “Air Sea Battle,” a Pentagon plan for war with China. They’ve gamed it all out, it seems, and, I’m happy to report, we win!  Here’s how it goes:

    The war games are set 20 years in the future and cast China as a hegemonic and aggressive enemy. Guided anti-ship missiles sink U.S. aircraft carriers and other surface ships. Simultaneous Chinese strikes destroy American air bases, making it impossible for the U.S. military to launch its fighter jets. The outnumbered American force fights back … Stealthy American bombers and submarines would knock out China’s long-range surveillance radar and precision missile systems located deep inside the country. The initial “blinding campaign” would be followed by a larger air and naval assault.


  • New York Times: “All the Fear That Fits, We Print”

    by Ira Chernus

     

    I know, the Times’ motto is really, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” No scandal, no sentiment, no sensationalism. Just straight, sober, boring facts. That’s why they call it “The Gray Lady,” right? Well the times they are apparently changin’. “The Gray Lady” ended the month of July with two lurid lead stories in a row, stoking fear in vivid technicolor.

    July 30 top headline: “Jihadists Taking A Growing Role In Syrian Revolt.” The lead: “Syrians involved in the armed struggle say it is becoming more radicalized: homegrown Muslim jihadists, as well as small groups of fighters from Al Qaeda, are taking a more prominent role.”

    July 31 top headline: “Militant Group Poses Risk of U.S. - Pakistan Rupture.” The lead: “Grinning for the camera, the suicide bomber fondly patted his truckload of explosives. ‘We will defeat these crusader pigs as they have invaded our land,’ he declared. ... The camera followed the truck to an American base in southern Afghanistan, where it exploded with a tangerine dust-framed fireball.”


  • The Olympics: New Model for Foreign Policy?

    by Ira Chernus

     

    Amid all the extravagant hoopla of the Olympics’ opening ceremony in London, one striking contrast caught my eye. Though some of the athletes parading into the stadium looked like they had come for a great party, many were obviously taking the occasion very seriously -- especially those from smaller and “less developed” nations. You could tell that being in the Olympics was the greatest occasion of their lives. But even those who looked most dignified were often smiling. Their big broad smiles made these beautiful young people look absolutely radiant. Even if they weren’t smiling, you could see the obvious pride and pure joy bursting out of them.

    Contrast that with the uniformed soldiers who were conscripted to perform in the ceremony. Maybe they were just as proud, perhaps even just as joyful. But their appointed role and the ethos of military culture combined to prevent them from showing it, or showing any emotion at all. They kept their faces stiff and blank, while they moved like life-sized robots.

    There’s nothing surprising in that rigid demeanor. It’s what we expect from military personnel performing military jobs. After all, the people in uniform are obligated, above all, to follow orders. They have largely given up their individual personalities to become merely extensions of the state apparatus that gives the commands.


  • Ignoring the Homeless is Un-American

    by Ira Chernus


    Homeless man in The Bowery, Manhattan. The advertisement is for luxury condos.

    The other day I read that homelessness in my small, typical, middle American city has jumped 39 percent in just one year. Still reeling from the shock, I wondered, “What would Thomas Jefferson say?” Jefferson spent long hours worrying whether the fledgling United States -- the first country based on the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- would survive. He wasn’t sure that ordinary people would be willing to contribute their hard work and tax dollars to support the common good and needs of the nation.

    Jefferson’s solution was that everyone should have a home of their own. Homeowners would be the most responsible, civic-minded citizens. They would realize that their own place would prosper best if the whole community prospered.


  • Toppling Dictators Can Be Dangerous, Even If You Are Exceptional

    by Ira Chernus


    Billboard of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, 2006. Credit: Wikipedia

    I can’t resist a brief comment on the debate about American exceptionalism that’s now the headline offering on History News Network. If you’re interested in the mythic dimension of American political life, exceptionalism is bound to be an important topic. Even if you just casually peruse the day’s news you are likely to meet it in one guise or another.

    Today you can meet it in its purest form, with no guise at all, in Mitt Romney’s speech to the VFW:  “Our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known. ... Throughout history our power has brought justice where there was tyranny, peace where there was conflict, and hope where there was affliction and despair. ... Our influence is needed as much now as ever.”


  • Fantasy of Absolute Safety is Killing Us, Even in Movie Theaters

    by Ira Chernus


    A group of handguns. Credit: Wikipedia

    My son was spending the night in Aurora, Colorado, when all hell broke loose just a few miles away. He wasn’t in the Century 16 theater. But he might have been; he loves those opening nights. And there wasn’t a thing I could do to protect him.

    I’m a professor at the University of Colorado (though not on the campus where James Holmes studied). I’ve surely had quiet students who were deeply troubled but, like Holmes, drew no attention to themselves. So there wasn’t a thing I could do to help protect them. 

    I’m active in a community organization trying to improve Colorado’s abysmal mental health services: The state ranks dead-last in per capita psychiatric hospital beds, and services of every kind have suffered drastic budget cuts. I’ve had more than one family member who needed help badly and got that help only after a long wait, persistent struggle, and nasty fights with insurance companies. Lots of folks don’t have decent insurance, or anyone to fight the woefully inadequate system on their behalf.


  • Obama’s Killing Problem -- Or Ours?

    by Ira Chernus


    Predator drone firing a missile. Credit: Wikipedia

    Esquire magazine has just brought out their new Fall Fashion Preview issue, and they somehow thought it made sense to include an article on “Obama’s Killing Problem.” You can see that title featured on the cover, just above “29 Reasons to Watch the Olympics.”

    Obama’s problem, if I understand author Tom Junod right, is that by relying so heavily on drones meting out targeted assassinations, he’s changing the face of war in ways neither he nor anyone else can predict. Whatever the U.S. does, the rest of the world is bound to follow, and those drones will probably some day come back to haunt us.

    This was also a major theme in American media in the first days after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: We are now vulnerable, too. It was true then, and it’s true now.


  • The War on Drugs and the Wars on Mexico

    by Ira Chernus


    Mexican troops in a gun battle, 2007. Credit: Wikipedia

    There’s a growing debate among policymakers about how to wage the war on drugs, the New York Times reports. No one doubts that the war must be waged, apparently. At least the article, in the nation’s most influential news source, doesn’t hint at any doubts. Like any mythic truth, the need to keep the war going is simply taken for granted.

    But how should we fight it? That’s the question now, it seems. In one corner is the traditional “stop the flow from abroad” approach. In the other corner, a new and rising view:


  • Slavery and “Big Government”: The Emancipation Proclamation’s Lessons 150 Years Later

    by Ira Chernus


    First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln, Francis Bicknell Carpenter, 1864.

    One hundred fifty years ago today, on July 13, 1862, Abraham Lincoln went out for a carriage ride with his Secretary of State, William Seward, and his Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles. Lincoln told them (as Welles recalled it) that he had “about come to the conclusion that it was a military necessity absolutely essential for the salvation of the Union, that we must free the slaves.” That was the seed of conception for the Emancipation Proclamation, which came to birth five and half months later, giving Lincoln his greatest legacy: “He freed the slaves.” It’s a story everyone knows.

    But it’s not quite accurate. Only the slaves in the Confederate states were emancipated. Citizens of the Union could still own slaves.


  • If the U.S. Is The World's Fireman, Who Rebuilds The Burned-Out Neighborhoods?

    by Ira Chernus


    U.S. Air Force firefighters during a training exercise. Credit: Wikipedia

    One of the advantages of a mythic approach to political culture is that it gives us a chance to put the pieces of the puzzle together in new ways, opening up new, sometimes unexpected, perspectives. Today’s pieces are wildfires in the West and politics in the Middle East.

    When fire ravaged some 360 homes in Colorado Springs, federally-funded firefighters were quickly on the scene. Soon Barack Obama was there too, offering more federal aid. I expected the mayor of the Springs, a bastion of shrink-the-government conservatism, to declare indignantly that his people could take care of themselves perfectly well, thank you. In fact, local officials didn’t just take the money. They asked for it even before the president arrived.


  • Election 2012: What’s the Real Story Here?

    by Ira Chernus


    Changes in the Electoral College from 2008 to 2012. Credit: U.S. Census Bureau

    Come Election Day, we’ll learn two very important things: Who will be president for the next four years? What story will be told about the presidential election of 2012? I’m not sure which of those two is ultimately more important. Some presidential elections create stories that last longer than the presidents who get elected. Sometimes the stories may have even more impact than the presidents themselves.

    Richard Nixon, for example, went down in disgrace. But the popular story told about his two winning campaigns -- “The people want law and order, not abortion, acid, and amnesty” -- still strongly affects our political life. So does the story that was used to sum up Ronald Reagan’s two victories: “The people want big government off their backs.”

    So far, it seems like the story of 2012 will be a pretty predictable repeat of Bill Clinton's 1992 win: It’s the economy, stupid. If Obama wins, we’ll be told that most voters are optimistic; they believe the economy is generally on the upswing. If Romney wins, we’ll hear that most voters feel hopelessly mired in a seemingly endless recession.


  • U.S.-China Policy: Hiding the Military-Economic Link

    by Ira Chernus

    “For Clinton, an Effort to Rechannel the Rivalry With China.” Under that headline the New York Times’s Jane Perlez reports: “At a gathering of business executives in Cambodia this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to urge the expansion of American trade and investment across Asia, particularly in Southeast Asian nations on the periphery of China,”

    Perlez explains: “The extra attention devoted to economics is intended to send a message that Washington recognizes that it initially overemphasized the military component of its new focus on Asia, setting up more of a confrontation with China than some countries felt comfortable with. ... Both sides have an interest in channeling their rivalry into trade more than weaponry.”

    This story has two implicit punch lines: China poses some military threat; the only question is how much. And the Chinese military threat is essentially independent of economic issues.

    If Alfred Thayer Mahan can read the New York Times in his grave, he probably can’t decide whether to roll over or laugh -- or maybe both, considering what a howler Perlez offers from the perspective of U.S. foreign policy since Mahan’s time.


  • Medicaid and the Eurozone Crisis: Beware the Wages of Sin

    by Ira Chernus

    MythicAmerica.us is hereby launched, with special thanks to History News Network editor David Walsh, an excellent harbor pilot who has steered this new vessel out of its dock and headed us toward the deep waters of America’s mythic narratives. Now we’re free to explore wherever we like. Welcome aboard the maiden voyage.

    Most posts on MythicAmerica.us will begin with something in the news that jumps out at a myth-seeker, like this gem: The states should reject increased Medicaid funding from Washington, now that Chief Justice Roberts has given them that option. Why? because if the federal government spends more, “sooner or later you become Greece or Spain or Italy.” That explanation comes from Rich Galen, a Republican strategist who was Newt Gingrich’s press secretary when Gingrich was Speaker of the House.

    You don’t have to be an ultra-conservative to fear seeing America turn into one of those Mediterranean lands. No doubt it’s a prospect that disturbs plenty of Americans across much of the political spectrum. 

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