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.
To receive periodic email summaries of the blog, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, with “Update” in the subject line. You can communicate directly with Ira at the same address.
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.
Here’s one that comes from a little fragment of (perhaps previously unreported?) history that I just stumbled across, reported by Howard Kurtz, The Daily Beast and Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief. (Isn’t it telling that a once-serious magazine, now turned into a pop tabloid, would hire a very talented media -- especially TV -- critic as its Washington bureau chief?)
It seems that Mike McCurry, who was White House spokesman for Bill Clinton, told Kurtz this story:
In the summer of 1996, Clinton “had not crystallized his argument for reelection until he watched Dole deliver his acceptance speech,” which included the line “let me be the bridge to a time of tranquility, faith, and confidence in action.” In the hotel room, Clinton “slammed the desk and said, ‘No, that’s wrong. You’ve got to be a bridge to the future. That’s how I want to make my closing argument.’” “Obama is now building that argument,” Kurtz adds, speculating that this goes far to explain the September boost the president is getting in the polls.
There’s no way to prove it, of course. But we do know that Clinton is now up there in the pantheon of modern American political geniuses, alongside Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson. So his advice is always worth listening to. We also ought to know that Clinton’s famous piece of campaign advice from 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid," cannot, by itself, explain Obama’s standing in the polls.
So it’s worth considering the possibility that the Obama campaign’s focus on the future really has made a difference. The old slogan of “hope and change” has not been trotted out again. The media wrote its obituary long ago, so it would make too tempting a target for Republican scorn. But the idea is certainly there, front and center. Perhaps the “comeback kid” has revealed to the Obama campaign the secret of coming back from the brink of disaster.
When the campaign first settled on that one-word slogan, “Forward,” I laughed. It seemed not merely a sad cliché, but a flimsy one. Even less substance than “hope and change.” Who’s going to take it seriously, I wondered?
But as the contest has unfolded, a pattern is emerging. Romney, as the challenger, naturally focuses on what the incumbent has done wrong. Indeed the challenger has come in for some major criticism from media wonks like Kurtz because he has not been able to keep the media focus, or his own focus, on one simple message: Obama is ruining the economy.
But that still remains the best argument Romney can make. And it boils down to, “Voting for me is the only way to prevent disaster.” Romney would have us believe that Obama, the symbol of “big government” and “the crushing burden of federal debt,” is leading the invasion, destroying the tranquility that many voters imagine America enjoyed before the turmoil of “the ‘60s.” It’s not a message about making the future better but about preventing it from becoming much worse.
So Romney is following the script that we might expect from any presidential candidate. As Maureen Dowd once wrote, “Every election has the same narrative: Can the strong father protect the house from invaders?”
That kind of frightening narrative -- contrasting the peril we face with the safety we crave -- has indeed dominated American politics for a very long time (since the 1930s, I would argue.) Through this spring and summer, the Obama campaign continued that tradition, emphasizing a negative message about protecting our national house from an invader named Mitt Romney. That message worked well enough to prevent Romney from moving into the lead. But it didn’t give Obama a lead either.
During the Democratic convention, though, we saw a shift in tone. Clinton wowed the audience and media with a speech that largely accentuated the positive. When I read Obama’s acceptance speech with my best skeptical eye, even looking between the lines for an implied narrative of protecting American from threats and dangers, I must admit I had a hard time finding it. The speech really was almost all about a vision of a better future, with the candidate, of course, presenting himself and his party as the bridge to that future.
Now Obama may be opening up a lead by following the 1996 dictum of the “comeback kid” and giving us a kind of “hope and change” redux. If a positive focus on the future gives Obama victory and a second term, it will certainly be worth watching whether he uses that second term to try to fulfill the promise of his first campaign: to change the basic tone of American political discourse from fear to hope.
I wouldn’t bet much on it. The “protect us from invaders” them is so fundamental to American political life that challenging it in any significant way would be a massive, and politically risky, undertaking. Presidents win political victories most commonly by presenting their policies as the only way to ward off disaster.
Clinton himself is a good example. Though he may have campaigned on building a bridge to the future, he is best remembered as president for resisting putative threats like “welfare queens,” Slobodan Milosevich, and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.”
Obama certainly followed Clinton’s dictum during his first campaign, when he promised to move us to that politics of “hope and change.” In fact, though, Obama won mainly by using the “protect us from invaders” plot line so effectively (in this case, an invasion of economic disaster), as I argued in a recent article in the journal Political Theology. I also showed that his most important speeches during his first year in office were based on that negative theme.
I haven’t done careful research on the president's rhetoric since then, but my impression is that it shows a mix of positive messages -- “a future built to last” -- and negative messages about protecting us from dangers foreign and domestic (mostly China and the rising federal debt), both driven by political necessity.
A second term Obama is likely to focus on getting a few more landmark pieces of legislation through a Congress dominated by Republican obstructionists, as well as insuring another Democratic victory in 2016. And the best -- perhaps only -- way to achieve both goals is to lean heavily on the rhetoric of resisting threats to the nation, as history shows.
Still, it’s worth noting that a more positive message may very well turn out to be the key to victory for an incumbent whose chances, not long ago, looked rather uncertain. If Obama does win, the consequences are impossible to predict with any certainty. A political narrative, like a politician, always has a chance to be the next “comeback kid.”
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?
Then I asked myself, Why is this big news? Everyone knew what Netanyahu was going to say. Everyone knows that he’s been beating the war drum for years to build his political base at home. Meanwhile, as everyone knows, he’s alienating the rest of the world. Top U.S. political and military leaders, and many of Israel’s top leaders, want him to cut it out before he stumbles us into a war that no serious person (very possible not even Netanyahu) really wants. There’s nothing new here, though there is something really dangerous in giving these bellicose words top billing when they hardly deserve it.
When I got home I noticed that the NPR website was running the story as its lead. But it wasn’t just NPR. On the websites of the nation’s two most respected newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, the lead stories were “Netanyahu Sets a Time Frame for Stopping Iranian Bomb” and “Netanyahu: Iran Could be Nuclear by Next Summer.” Again I asked, Really, why is this big news?
It was WaPo columnist Alexandra Petri who put me on the track of an answer. She noted that a diagram Netanyahu had held up during his speech, supposedly showing Iran’s progress toward a bomb, was drawn in the crude shape of a cartoon bomb that her four-year-old might have produced using MS Paint.
“It violates this bomb’s contract that there are no train tracks or Looney Tunes characters visible in the shot,” Petri mocked, “and that it is surrounded by three-dimensional people in color. This is not even a Clip Art bomb. This is a Wingding.”
But she went on to explain why “everyone’s fixated on the graphic design” (and indeed, both of our great newspapers prominently featured a photo of Netanyahu holding up the Looney Tunes bomb): “When you have to critique a speech, there are two approaches: try to step back and see the whole thing, or alight on one moment that anyone who made it out of kindergarten intact can argue about.”
Most people take the latter route because it’s easier: “Forget close reading. Skip the text.” Just say, “It was all there in the bomb.” It was all there in the cartoon.
Netanyahu’s endless warnings about “the Iranian threat” are just as cartoonish as his bomb. That’s not meant as an insult; it’s simply a description. We all appreciate a good political cartoon. It communicates a clear, simple message that you can grasp in an instant, because it’s done with a few exaggerating strokes of the pen -- or a few exaggerating words. Drawing verbal cartoons is one of the skills we expect any political leader to have.
It’s also, I suppose, one of the skills that journalists in the mass media must have, since their work is measured so much by the size of the audience they draw. Even readers of our two great newspapers rarely flock to subtle, in-depth analysis. (Just check out their websites’ lists of “most viewed” articles.) Most people want their stories clear, simple, easy to grasp -- and, I suspect, exaggerated. It’s the exaggerations that make the news not only simple but emotionally engaging.
Now back to my original question: Why was Netanyahu’s speech big news? Mainly, I think, because it would bring in big audiences for the same reason cartoons do. It offered yet another chance to trot out a simplistic, immensely popular, decades-old cartoon: little Israel, our hero, bravely and cleverly fighting off the Muslim foe, much like Roadrunner fends off Wile E. Coyote every time.
But without the laughs. We are forbidden, by an unwritten but immutable cultural law, to laugh. We must take absolutely seriously Netanyahu’s umphteenth reiteration of his warning about “the greatest threat to the future of the world,” even when it’s illustrated with a laughable cartoon bomb. Because this childish story of absolute good against absolute evil (and isn’t that what most great cartoons provide?) wouldn’t be nearly as emotionally satisfying if everyone admitted how silly it is and had a good Looney-Tunes-style belly laugh. No, it has to be treated as a profound, stirring drama.
So we are supposed to take this cartoon with a totally straight face, the way most cultures have taken their myths. A myth is not a lie. It’s a story that expresses something fundamental about the worldview and the values of the people who tell it. In our culture, cartoonish political words often do the same.
There is a lot of similarity between myths and cartoons. Both mix fact and fiction. Both exaggerate facts to fit the fiction and to evoke emotional response. So both create a caricature of truth, a picture that is oversimplified, schematized, and therefore easier to grasp and respond to.
But some myths, like some cartoons, are higher quality than others. A good myth or cartoon tells something important about the society that produces it. It has some complexity, some subtlety, something than an interpreter can sink his or her intellectual and emotional teeth into, even if it’s only to reject the myth.
The stories that Barack Obama, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and the latest report from Israel’s Foreign Ministry tell about Iran’s nuclear program have some of the qualities of a good myth. Even if they are ultimately built on fictions, they have at least a bit of nuance and complexity. There’s something there you can push back against.
Netanyahu’s cartoonish tale, on the other hand, is about as simplistic as it gets: absolutely easy to understand in a moment, even for those who barely made it out of kindergarten. That, I conclude with no pleasure but with serious sorrow, is a large part of the reason it made such big news.
Netanyahu's full speech:
(PS: A few hours after I posted this piece I noticed that articles about Netanyahu's speech, complete with photos of the cartoon bomb, were number one on the most popular list of the Washington Post website, but only number five on the New York Times site.)
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?
And why shouldn’t it be just as true of Barack Obama in 2008, when he was captured on clandestine video talking to super-rich donors about industrial workers facing permanent unemployment: “It's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
We’ll never know if Obama really believes that, either. But there’s a good chance that he knew what story his audience wanted to hear. So both of these infamous video clips probably do tell us something significant about what elite liberals and conservative donors believe and the messages they send to their masses.
Taken together, they look like a pair of messages that have no connection with each other. Like skew lines in geometry, they can go on forever and never meet at a single point. So they reveal the huge failure to communicate that marks our current political discourse.
If I remember rightly, conservatives responded to Obama’s ’08 remarks with insulted outrage, as if to say, “This is absurd. You don’t know what you’re talking about. We won’t even dignify that nonsense with any effort to disprove it.” Liberals have offered a similar sense of insulted outrage in response to Romney’s recent remarks.
In neither case did the offended side say, “OK. Let’s take your narrative seriously, unearth the assumptions behind it, and use it as a springboard to identify the most important issues that divide us. Then we can discuss those issues on their merits and demerits. Let’s make that debate the central issue of this electoral contest.”
The comparison is not perfect, because liberal journalists have gone into great detail proving Romney’s facts wrong. Many non-income-taxpayers will not vote for Obama, and many income-taxpayers will. Romney will carry many states that get more from the federal government than they pay in, while Obama will carry many states that pay in more than they get back.
But those facts don’t refute the main thrust of the conservative narrative, which isn’t about amounts. It’s about attitudes: the purported “sense of entitlement” versus the equally purported “sense of responsibility.” And there’s no way to disprove that story, just as there’s no way to disprove the liberal story. They are both, in the philosophers’ terminology, non-falsifiable.
Of course political parties have been creating non-falsifiable narratives about their opponents throughout American history. The classic example is the first: In the 1790s, Federalists insisted that Republicans wanted to plunge the nation into the same kind of bloody revolutionary chaos that had engulfed France; Republicans insisted with equal fervor that Federalists wanted to turn the nation into an English-style monarchy.
Then, as now, these were claims about the supposedly deepest beliefs of the other side. Since nothing the other side said could effectively refute those claims, the two sides simply hurled their charges at each other. The substantive issues dividing them, which might have been effectively debated, never had a chance to dominate the public conversation. So there was too little genuine conversation and too much of the parties talking past each other.
In the 1790s, the analogy of two groups speaking different languages, with little interest in learning each other’s language, was not far from the truth. Nor is it today.
However there are a couple of very important differences between the infamous Obama and Romney remarks to donors.
Though Romney’s words in private were rather more blunt (“inelegant,” as he put it) than his words in public, there was little in the substance of his narrative that we haven’t heard from him in public settings. And that narrative elicits cheers and jeers from the GOP faithful every time it’s told again.
Obama’s private words of ‘08, on the other hand, have rarely if ever made it into the public arena. I suspect that’s because they aren’t very effective fodder for evoking cheers and jeers at public rallies, since they are not really an attack on conservatives.
Taken in context, they are a rather sorrowful explanation (from a liberal perspective, of course) of the roots of conservative attitudes. They cast the blame for the social attitudes of the conservative masses on the failed economic policies of conservative elites. They don’t do what Romney did: blame the victim.
The other great difference between the two infamous remarks is that many of Romney’s factual claims can easily be refuted, as we now know. Conversely, there is a substantial, academically respectable body of psychological data and social theory that tends to support (though not definitively prove) Obama’s claims.
The data show that conservatives, in general, tend to want predictable order and structure because they have trouble tolerating ambiguous situations. They are more inclined than liberals to follow norms and rules and to plan and organize their activities. So they feel more troubled than liberals by unstable systems, while they are less open to new (hence unpredictable and unstable) experiences.
One well-known explanation for all this data comes from the prominent conservative social theorist Peter Berger. He argued (to make a very long story far too short) that humans naturally treat their familiar cultural structures (such as “God and guns”) as immutable objective truths, because that’s the best way to make sense out of the constant flood of stimuli that would otherwise overwhelm and paralyze us. That may not be true of all people, but the data show that it’s significantly more true of conservatives than liberals.
If Barack Obama doesn’t know this combination of data and theory (and he very well might), someone in the West Wing surely does and could explain it to him quick enough. So it looks like Obama has missed a golden opportunity. He could tout his “God and guns” message very publicly and live up to the common caricature of him as a professorial lecturer. Yes, he would incur the wrath of conservatives, but probably no more than he has in any event. So there would be no appreciable political loss.
The political gain would be to create a new narrative on the liberal side, where there is now (let’s be honest) plenty of blaming the victim. The new narrative would disagree with the political and social values of conservatives but show compassion for the people who hold them and especially for their economic plight. Imagine how that would elevate the public discourse, change the political landscape, and perhaps help nudge undecided voters toward the Democratic side.
Obama has missed another opportunity too, at least so far. He could challenge Romney to back up his story about the 47% with facts and make the resulting debate the center of the campaign. No, the president could not disprove Romney’s main points. But it would give him another way to put the spotlight where he wants it to be: on the stark contrast between the candidates’ competing narratives. And it just might open the door to a real debate about the merits and drawbacks of their very different political stances.
Instead, so far, the president has merely echoed the liberal emotions of insult and outrage. He has perpetuated the failure to communicate. That’s a shame.
But hey, we still have three “debates” coming. Who knows? Maybe somewhere in there we will get a genuinely substantive debate, the stuff that democracy is supposed to be made of.
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.
For the headline writers, that’s a good enough story. And it’s a pretty satisfying story for a lot of Americans. Our prevailing national myth, the myth of homeland insecurity, requires that some foreigners be out to get us. At least since 9/11/01 Arabs (or is it Muslims?) have been the number one candidate for that role. The latest anti-American outbursts came on the anniversary of that tragic day, which is quite convenient, speaking in mythic terms. It allows the connections to be made so easily; the world seems to fit together, just as most myths aim to suggest.
And, as on 9/11/01, the story is about a new threat that we must all prepare to deal with for an indefinable, but surely lengthy, amount of time (or so we’re told). Even the Times, widely acclaimed as our most serious, in-depth, newspaper of record, is satisfied with the headline: “U.S. Is Preparing for a Long Siege of Arab Unrest.” The many readers who never get past that headline or the first few paragraphs of the story still won’t know how many Arab countries, or what percentage of population in those countries, we’re actually talking about here.
Imagine that a tiny group of Arabs made an movie critical of Jesus, which provoked anti-Muslim demonstrations among some right-wing Christians in the U.S. It’s easy enough to imagine a few thousand or even a few tens of thousands participating in those demonstrations. Some might even get out of hand for a while.
But if newspapers in Arab lands headlined that anti-Muslim “rage” now characterized the whole United States, most of us would laugh bemusedly at how badly those headline writers misunderstand us.
Yet so many Americans, and so many of our journalists, seem to be content with crude sweeping generalizations about “the Arabs” or even “the Muslims.” And many are not merely content but eager to purvey and consume these generalizations. They serve to confirm stereotypes that have been popular in American culture throughout the nation’s history, ever since the days of the Barbary pirates.
In fact these stereotypes are much older than the United States. The first Europeans who came to North America carried with them centuries-old pejorative images of Arabs and Muslims. Of course the Muslims were seen as “infidels”; literally, people without true faith (and Muslims repaid the compliment to Christians). At a deeper level, though, the Christian image of the Muslim could be traced back to the “civilized” Greek and Roman image of the “barbarian”: lazy, dirty, impulsive, unruly, unpredictable, and easily given to sudden outbursts of rage. It’s the same image, of course, that Americans of northern European descent have applied to a long list of other Americans who didn’t seem quite “civilized.”
What nearly all these pejorative images boil down to is a supposed lack of self-restraint. That’s the essence of the current Arab (or is it Muslim?) “unrest” that even the New York Times warns us we should be worrying about now.
So we’re caught, as a nation, in a conflict between our awareness that those age-old generalizations have become unacceptable form of prejudice and our unawareness (for the most part) that it can really feel good to give vent to prejudicial stereotypes every so often.
Ironically, there’s some evidence that a similar internal struggle between new and old cultural perspectives is playing out in the anti-U.S. demonstrations themselves. The anti-U.S. “rage” surely represents only a portion, and probably quite a small portion, of public sentiment in predominantly Arab and Muslim lands. It’s a pretty safe bet that this latest episode will pass and be forgotten in the U.S., just as the stir created by the Danish cartoons of Muhammad passed and were forgotten seven years ago.
But it’s an equally safe bet that in the future we will see other such episode blown out of proportion in the U.S. mass media, because they offer the perverse satisfaction of purveying the old mythic image of Arabs and Muslims as if they were fact.
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.
Will it be the speech about tax fairness, income inequality, everyone playing by the same rules, making hard work pay off, building the middle class, guaranteeing everyone a middle class life, building the nation’s infrastructure, finishing the job we started, keeping hope alive, Romney’s job-killing at Bain Capital, Obama understanding your problems, social justice for women and minorities? And there are surely a few I’ve missed.
Theoretically, all these speeches can be knit together into a logical whole. The problem is that in this age of instant communication, few of the swing voters who will decide the election have the patience, or the interest, to think through the logical connections.
But there is one elevator speech the president often mentions that can quickly sum up how all the others fit together: “Our destines are bound together. A freedom which only asks what’s in it for me [which is Romney’s kind of freedom], a freedom without love or charity, is unworthy of our founding ideals. … We travel together. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up,” as Obama put it in his acceptance speech in Charlotte.
In Ossawatamie, Kansas, last year he put it even more succinctly: Today’s Republican “philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules. I am here to say they are wrong. We’re greater together than we are on our own.”
That elevator speech is not about specific policies or what will happen in the next four years. It’s about two basic philosophies of human society that have been vying for dominance throughout the history of this country. Pick the one you believe in, and every other political and social view flows from it.
It’s not really a question of personal preference about how people should live, though. It’s a question of whether or not we’ll recognize how things really are. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it most memorably. Whether we like or not, we are in fact “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. This is the interrelated structure of all reality.”
Recognizing that truth should be “the fundamental rule of our national life,” Obama said at Ossawatamie: “In the long run, we shall go up or down together.” He was quoting another president who had spoken those words in the same place a century earlier -- a Republican, Theodore Roosevelt.
Obama could just as well have quoted the Democratic President Roosevelt, who said in his first inaugural address: “The basic thought that guides these specific means of national recovery is … the insistence, as a first consideration, upon the interdependence of the various elements in all parts of the United States … We now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other.”
It’s true that, for both Roosevelts, the theme of interdependence was only a small part of their rhetorical arsenal. TR’s elevator speech focused more on justice and personal morality. FDR’s focused on the social morality of keeping every person out of abject poverty. But they each followed the basic rule of politics that says a winning campaign is built on no more than two clear, simple, positive messages, repeated over and over.
Obama seems to want to have it all. He gives us both Roosevelts’ elevator speeches, along with a few themes of his own that differ from both TR and FDR, and he throws in a dash of MLK for good measure. The president may get re-elected, even though he’s defying that basic rule of politics. Then we’ll know who the next president is. But we won’t know exactly what message his victory sent.
However it doesn’t all depend on the president. The average American in the street does not have to parrot all of his many elevator speeches. As we talk about the election with everyone we meet, we are free to focus on whatever theme we want. We could choose to focus on the message of interdependence: “Our destines are bound together. … We’re greater together than we are on our own.”
If enough of us make that choice, the election would become a referendum not just on candidates or policies, but on the fundamental question of American political life: rugged individualism versus the common good, “you’re on your own” versus “we’re all in it together.”
Then, if Obama wins on Election Day, Dr. King’s vision of “a single garment of destiny” would be the clear winner too. The Republican’s “every man for himself” philosophy would go down in defeat. American political life -- indeed all of American life -- would turn a profound corner and might never be the same again.
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.”
The Obama campaign has done a pretty good job of creating the impression that Mitt Romney, having walked through that doorway, quickly slammed it behind him. No doubt Romney would protest that it just ain’t so, that he cares as much as any Democrat about reaching back and helping others succeed. And he might very well be telling the truth.
The crucial difference between the two candidates and the two parties is in how they see that metaphorical hand reaching back.
The Republicans see it primarily as an act of charity, a personal decision by individuals who get ahead to reach back and help individuals of their choosing who lag behind. Communities that vote overwhelmingly Republican are filled with churches, clubs, societies, and organizations whose main purpose is to help others. And they do help others, immensely, every day.
It’s a tradition that goes back to colonial times, when its prime motivation was rooted in religion -- as it still is for so many Republicans. Calvinist theology (in the version most popular among the colonists) taught the successful to see themselves as blessed by God and obliged by God to help others less blessed. But it also taught that success was a sign of being right with God, while lack of success showed some flaw in one’s relationship with God. In its cruder (but very popular) form, the message was that lack of success was a sign of sin. So charity was a way not only of giving the sinners a helping hand, but also of publicly reinforcing the message that they were, indeed, sinners.
That tradition continued to dominate the American view of the helping hand through the end of the nineteenth century.
By the early twentieth century, though, a revolution was occurring. The Progressive movement was on the rise, spreading a new message: Lack of success was a sign of failure not by the individual but by societal structures and institutions that limited the individual’s opportunities, no matter how hard he or she worked. That premise dramatically changed the view of the helping hand. Now it had to be not merely a personal decision to bestow charity, but a decision for structural change. Without that change, all the charity in the world would merely perpetuate the problems and insure that some people would lag behind, that they’d never get the help they needed to make it through the doorway of success.
In a democratic republic, structural change can never happen at the whim of one or even many separate individuals. It has to be initiated through the political process. So, in the Progressives’ view, the helping hand had to be extended by the body politic as a whole. And the obvious agent of the body politic is government.
That’s what Michelle Obama meant, of course, when she said, “You reach back”: We, the people, change our laws and policies to make sure everyone can get through that doorway.
Insofar as this election is a choice between those two visions of the helping hand (and that’s just a part, maybe even a small part, of what this election is about), it’s a choice that twenty-first century voters will make between nineteenth century and twenty-first century worldviews -- the stuff that myths are made of. It’s a useful reminder that when a myth is eclipsed, it doesn’t always die. Often it lives on in the shadows, just waiting for a chance to make its comeback.
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.”
The pundits ignored the patriotism that drenched Romney’s acceptance speech, just as they ignored the chants of “USA! USA!” that punctuated the speech and all those “We believe in America” signs decorating the GOP convention hall. They figured it was just the usual window-dressing required at any Republican convention -- or Democratic convention, for that matter. There will be just as much red-white-and-blue in Charlotte as in Tampa.
But Romney’s speechwriters and strategists are not likely to dismiss their patriotic flourishes as mere window-dressing. They’re not stupid. They’ve got to mobilize their conservative base while appealing to a crucial sliver of voters in the swing states. As the polls consistently show, both those target groups consist mainly of white married people and over-65’s. They’re the only demographics that can give Romney a victory. And they’re not the ones most affected by a weak economy.
The people suffering most from unemployment and underemployment are the young, single women, people of color. If the economy were really the only issue that mattered, and the common wisdom were accurate, Romney should be adding big chunks of these distressed voters to a very big chunk of his conservative base, giving him an easy victory. But the most distressed groups are overwhelmingly for Obama, which suggests that the common wisdom misses the mark.
Romney’s strategists know this. So they have to find some other issues to bring their target voters on board. The social issues of the so-called “culture war” are too dicey to stake a campaign on. Patriotism is absolutely safe. And for years now it has been GOP territory. “We believe in America” obviously implies the unspoken sequel: “And those others, who chose Barack Hussein Obama as their leader, do not.”
That’s not to say the Romneyites are appealing to racism or anti-Muslimism. No doubt they are happy enough to have such prejudice work in their favor. But there probably isn’t enough of it to swing the election.
What there is, in great abundance among Romney’s target demographics, is a strong feeling that the Democrats lost their patriotism back in the days of Vietnam war. When the Dems picked a vehement opponent of the war, George McGovern, as their presidential candidate, they lost their claim to truly believe in America and they’ve never regained it, as far as Romney’s target voters are concerned. Even the assassination of Osama bin Laden can’t erase that deep conviction, because Obama won’t say the sacred word that Marco Rubio fairly shouted out in introducing the GOP candidate: Romney “understands what makes America exceptional.”
To be sure, Romney did spend plenty of time in his speech harping on the weak economy. But he wasn’t appealing to people’s personal suffering. Most polls show that a majority of Americans say their own economic situation is OK or even good. When Romney asks Ronald Reagan’s classic question: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”, if the voters answer honestly based only on their own family’s situation, most would say “yes,” or at least “no worse off.” And that’s more likely to be true among Ronney than Obama supporters.
But Romney’s target voters are nervous about their future because they see the nation’s economy as a whole in bad shape. So when he asks that classic question, it’s a coded way of asking, “How do you think America is doing? Is the economy safe? Is America keeping you safe?” He’s raising the issue of national pride, the core of patriotism. And he’s probing the tenderest of political spots among his target voters, their deeply buried sense of national insecurity.
He’s also asking, “Do you think your family is safe?” The biggest applause line of his speech (according to the subjective applause meter in my ears) was his scoffing remark that “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet,” followed by the powerful punch line: “My promise is to help you and your family.” How can Democrats be patriotic when they care so much about the whole world?, Romney was asking. True patriots worry about taking care of business at home.
With that the GOP leader tied together the three key elements of his patriotic narrative: American exceptionalism, prosperity through unbridled capitalism, and the safety of the traditional nuclear family. That’s the holy trinity of “the America that we all know,” as Romney put it -- though he should have said, more accurately, the America that we Republicans imagine once existed and still long to believe in, the America we think any true patriot must believe in, too.
For many of Romney’s target voters, Obama symbolizes profound doubt whether the familiar America of their imagination exists any more or can ever exist again. Romney’s strategists surely understand the anxiety those voters feel about losing the America they belive in. Just as surely, the Romneyites want to raise that anxiety as high as they can between now and Election Day. Romney’s speech and all those “We Believe in America” signs were a strong start.
Obama and his strategists know this well enough. So we are likely to hear the president and other Democrats oozing a patriotism that will make some of their own base a bit queasy. That part of the Dem base has, in truth, been more or less skeptical about unbridled patriotism ever since it carried us into the horror of Vietnam.
But there’s an election to be won. It’s a simple rule of battle strategy: When your opponent rolls out a big gun, if you’ve got the same gun in your arsenal, you fire back with it every chance you get.
The two candidates’ visions of patriotism are hardly the same, though. In Obama’s rhetoric, the holy trinity is American leadership-in-partnership, prosperity through cooperation, and the safety of families of every kind, both traditional and not.
The real story of Election ‘12 may turn out to be not just a referendum on the economy nor a choice between two ideas about government’s role, but also -- perhaps most importantly -- a choice between two visions of what it means to be a patriotic American.
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.
In the past, America’s moral battles have typically caused a number of problems that any new mythology must avoid: killing, injuring, and in many ways harming others; creating insecurity for ourselves through fear of enemies and of future evils beyond our control; creating frustration by aiming for a future ideal that can never be attained in reality.
A mythology based on Dr. King’s words would include the moral drama of good combating evil yet avoid these troubling effects because we would enter the battle with the new attitude that is at the center of this mythology: viewing every person not as a separate unit, trying to figure out how to relate to others, but as a strand in the single garment of destiny, already related to others in myriad ways, with each of us affecting all others in one organic whole.
From this new perspective many of the old, familiar assumptions of both dominant American mythologies simply make no sense. We cannot claim to be purely good and innocent, as if we stood apart from those we oppose, and ascribe all evil to them, as if we had no role in contributing to the ills that plague us. Nor can we hope to heal those ills by imposing our control over others, as if we were some kind of Lone Ranger arriving from outside to right every wrong.
Once we recognize that we are all parts of an interactive network of mutuality encompassing all humanity, we realize that we can never stand outside that network. We are never passive victims of history, nor can we be isolated from the dynamics of history. And the hope of fully controlling people and events is a fantasy; every effort at control acts back upon us in unexpected, usually harmful, way. But we always influence what happens. So we each share some degree of responsibility for contributing to the ills of the system. The ills arise out of the pattern of relationships. They cannot be blamed on any one person or group of people and certainly not on “those people” across the border, since the border is itself a mode of relationship, a place where two groups meet and interact.
From this perspective, the enemy is no longer any particular person or group of people. It is the evil that has arisen from all of us. In a more abstract sense, the enemy is the fact of separation itself. Therefore, in this new mythology, Americans no longer see themselves as the “good” people dedicated to destroying the “evil.” America's mission is to overcome separation, to strengthen every thread in the garment of destiny threat by strengthening the interaction of each with all others. Every good American must have that same goal.
So America still has opponents, both abroad and at home -- those who appear to be increasing the separation in the world and blocking progress toward reconnection. We recognize them by the inequality they promote, the injustices they inflict, and the harm they do to others and themselves. But we oppose their actions, perhaps even label those actions “evil,” without viewing the people themselves as evil.
Instead, good Americans treat them the way we treat all people, as equally important threads in the single garment of destiny. We respect their inherent dignity and demand the same freedom and justice for them as for all others. If we resist their actions, it is only because we want the best for the whole society, including them. We aim to help our opponents fulfill their full potential, which in turn will help us do the same.
Since we and our opponents are parts of the same human family, we give them the same respect, empathy, and love we give our own family members even when we disagree with them. We handle conflict with them the way we handle conflicts with our own family members: asserting our own views, sometimes very strongly, only because we want the best for the whole family, including those we disagree with. The American way is guided by the principle of universal love, which means overcoming every separation, even between ourselves and our opponents.
So we try to see the world through our opponents’ eyes, “to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves.” (All quotations here are from Dr. King.) Only then can we have the fullest possible view of what is best for all.
However, when grave moral matters are at stake, good Americans take a firm stand and fight for it. Indeed, in this new mythology it is our patriotic duty to risk death, if we must, defending our nation’s highest values. But it is equally our duty never intentionally to inflict death in defense of those values. Killing or physically harming our opponents would only increase the separation we aim to overcome.
In other words, nonviolence is an intrinsic part of this new mythology of hope and change. But refraining from physical injury is only one part of the larger principle of nonviolence: to love all and want the best for all. That means we must never intend to do any harm to others; we must never try to gain advantage by imposing ourselves or our views in ways that will thwart the fulfillment of others.
Any intention to do any kind of harm creates conflict and separation, not only physically but psychologically. Hatred and anger lead us to depersonalize and dehumanize others, to treat them as an "It" rather than as "Thou." Because violent intentions as well as actions always perpetuate this dehumanizing, they can only “intensify the cleavage in a broken community.” In the end, violence “leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue.” It simply will not work to pursue the goal of community by means that drive people apart. Even when violence is used to promote a just cause, it destroys the very community it seeks to create.
When Americans are called to fight for our ideals nonviolently, we will stand firmly against others, but only temporarily, and only to help them in the long run to heal the rifts that set them apart from others. Responding to hate with love “is the only way to reestablish the broken community.”
This vision of nonviolence can serve as a basis for all relationships, from person-to-person all the way up to nation-to-nation. Just as parents and children are tied together even in the worst moments of conflict, just as the criminal and the victim are tied together, so the United States is tied to Iran, North Korea, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban. In world affairs, as in personal affairs, there are no winners and losers. Either everyone wins or everyone loses.
John Quincy Adams once said that “America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” From the viewpoint of nonviolence, there can never be any monsters. As soon as we start to imagine monsters and set out to destroy them, we destroy the global community and the chance of fulfilling our own highest potentials. So America, like every other nation, will flourish best if it shows “an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole.” America, like every nation, will preserve its own best values only by helping others enhance their own.
It’s easy enough to see that including nonviolence in a new mythology of hope and change avoids two of the major themes that have always marked this mythology: dividing the world into the “virtuous” and the “evildoers,” and pitting America against perceived enemies. Thus it removes the insecurity and anxiety these themes have bred. Of course it also removes the impetus to do harm to others, which has so often blown back in harm upon Americans.
Though it may be less obvious, nonviolence also avoids the other two major problems of the traditional mythology of hope and change: mixing the hope with a strong dose of fear of fundamental change, and promising a perfect future that clashes with the reality of the present moment. Nonviolence avoids these problems because it does not aim merely to create harmony in some far distant future. It uses means that are meant to bring people together at every step of the way in order to reach togetherness; its ends are fully present in its means.
When Americans go out to do nonviolent battle, we recognize from the beginning that we are always already connected with everyone, including our opponents. All our actions are guided by that awareness. So in the very act of resisting others we make the beloved community a present reality, in a partial and preliminary way. We realize that we may never have a perfect beloved community. But in every fragmentary experience of it we see the separation between present and future, real and ideal, being overcome. We experience the process of creating more unification. And that process of endless change toward greater harmony is the essence of the beloved community.
For Americans who live within the mythology of homeland security or the traditional myth of hope and change -- and are therefore prone to see major change as dangerous -- Dr. King, his words, and his example may still appear threatening. But for those who live, or aspire to live, within a mythology based on his words, major change of any kind is not inherently threatening. Every effort for change reinforces our awareness that we have no enemies and that there is no necessary clash between present and future, since the future we seek can always be realized, at least partially, in the present moment. No matter what obstacles we face, the way we face them demonstrates that our lives are changing for the better and thus gives us hope.
Thus we gain a sense of security that mythologies based on dualities -- “us” versus “them,” the present versus the future -- can never offer. More broadly, we gain all the advantages of a mythology of hope and change without the disadvantages that of the familiar expressions of hope and change that dominate our culture now.
This vision of a new mythology may all seem like idle utopian speculation. In light of our current American reality, it may very well seem impossible to imagine nonviolence becoming a central theme of the prevailing American mythology. But it’s worth remembering that nonviolence has been part of the nation’s political culture since before there was nation, when the Quakers made such a success of Pennsylvania in the seventeenth century. Nonviolence has been especially prominent in the fight for racial justice for nearly two centuries, its banner carried by such eminent figures as William Lloyd Garrison and Julia Ward Howe as well as, of course, Dr. King himself.
The movement for racial justice is a reminder of how long change can take. But it also proves that the basic assumptions of American life can change in ways once thought impossible. Racism was taken for granted throughout most of American history as an immutable fact. Though we still have a long way to go in improving race relations and equal opportunity, the level of racial integration and equality we have today was absolutely unthinkable to the vast majority of Americans as late as the 1940s.
In a similar way, lesser mythic themes can become dominant surprisingly quickly. In the mid-1930s, virtually no one could believe that American discourse would ever be dominated by a fear of foreign enemies invading the nation. It seemed unimaginable. By the 1950s it was not merely a reality but an apparently irreversible reality. If the nation’s mythology could be transformed so quickly in the direction of homeland insecurity, it seems equally possible, in principle, to transform it in the opposite direction.
One of the reasons (among many) for the rise of the “homeland insecurity” myth was the tremendous conscious effort that a lot of people put into making it happen. Staffers in the Eisenhower administration made elaborate plans, with the president’s approval, to accustom the populace to Cold War fear as what they called “the new normal.” They were merely speeding up a process that was already well underway, and they got the results they wanted. Americans became accustomed to what seemed impossible in the mid-‘30s: a life built on a constant, deep, underlying conviction that our national existence is constantly threatened. That conviction still dominates our national life in many ways.
If we are going to escape from the mythology of homeland insecurity, and from the negative consequences of the mythology of hope and change, it will take just as much conscious effort. This time, though, it’s not likely to happen at the highest levels of government. It will have to emerge the way the civil rights movement emerged, from deep thinking and wise planning at the grassroots of American life.
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.
To be fair, the group sampled was a bit more liberal than in most other polls. 34 percent identify as Democrats and only 25 percent as Republicans; 29 percent declared themselves liberal on most political matters, which is more than you see in most polls. They favor Obama over Romney by a solid margin, 50 percent to 43 percent.
On a number of questions, though, a majority of this seemingly left-tilting group sound like they are reading from Romney’s script. 55 percent want “smaller government with fewer services”; only 40 percent want more government services. 53 percent think budget cuts to reduce the federal deficit would help the economy. But not in the Pentagon. Only 45 percent would reduce military spending, while 51 percent oppose that.
Yet 63 percent agree with the Democrats that additional spending on roads, bridges, and other public works projects would help the economy; only 13 percent think it would hurt. No support for smaller government or budget cuts there.
And 65 percent support Obama’s plan to raise taxes on households with incomes of $250,000 per year or higher. Only 33 percent oppose it. But 51 percent say cutting personal income taxes would help the economy, and 53 percent support cutting taxes on businesses.
These people seem rather confused. So maybe it’s not surprising that when asked whether the economy would benefit more from increased spending or avoiding federal deficit, they deadlock at 48 percent to 48 percent.
They’ve got the same kind of confusion when it comes to broader principles. More think government regulation is helpful than think it’s harmful, by 49 percent to 44 percent. 52 percent say “the federal government should do everything possible to improve the standard of living”; only 44 percent say that is “not the government’s responsibility, each person should take care of themselves.” What happened to the majority who want smaller government with fewer services?
They show up again in the 60 percent who agree with the Romney-Ryan view that “government controls too much of our daily lives” and in the 65 percent who say, “Most people who don’t get ahead should not blame the system, they have only themselves to blame”; only 33 percent disagree. A whopping 75 percent say, “People should take responsibility for their own lives and economic well-being and not expect other people to help”; only 23 percent disagree. (Remember the 67 percent who said many goods and services would not be available to ordinary people without government intervention?)
However another whopping 70 percent endorse the view that “If people were treated more equally in this country we would have many fewer problems”; only 28 percent disagree. If people are not treated equally, how can they be blamed for their own troubles? In the very same poll, though, only 52 percent will agree that “one of the big problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance,” while fully 46 percent disagree.
With such confusion on basic principles, no wonder this group contradicts itself so much on economic policies. But if your head is spinning now, wait. There’s just a bit more.
Should we “be more tolerant of people who choose to live according to their own moral standards even if we think they are wrong”? A huge majority say yes, we should be more tolerant, 75 percent to 23 percent. But are “Americans are too tolerant and accepting of behaviors that in the past were considered immoral or wrong”? You guessed it. A large majority (61 percent) say that we are too tolerant; only 36 percent disagree,
Well, that’s how democracy works. Not by rigorous logical thinking, as we were taught in civics class. But not by cynical manipulation of the masses, either. There’s enough support for Democratic and even liberal views here to show that these are not passive victims of Fox News propaganda.
Should we conclude that people are hopelessly confused and leave it at that? No. I think there’s a way to make sense out of all this contradiction, if we look at one more question from this poll: “Do you think that people and groups that hold values similar to yours are gaining influence in American life in general these days, or do you think that they are losing influence”? 59 percent reply that they and their people are losing influence. Only 34 percent see themselves gaining.
To put it just a bit too bluntly, an awful lot of Americans feel like losers. They know that they are hard-working citizens who play by the rules. But they aren’t getting ahead and they don’t feel they’re getting a fair shake. It seems like the little guy just doesn’t stand a chance. That’s their story.
So they are ready to agree with the story Obama tells on the campaign trail: Inequality is a big problem. Ordinary folks deserve more help from the government to equalize things and help out the little guy. That means more government spending. The rich should pay a bigger share of the costs of to offset that. And a bit more tolerance all around will make us a better society.
But Obama can’t solve their biggest problem: How to explain why they are losing out. Someone must be to blame. Enter Romney and Ryan. They, like Ronald Reagan and lots of other Republicans, know who is to blame: the government. It’s a simplistic, wrong-headed answer. But if this poll is anywhere near accurate (and plenty of others polls get similar results), a majority of Americans find the R-crowd’s story pretty appealing.
They know that they are capable, responsible people who can make it on their own if given half a chance. So they figure everyone else can take care of themselves too. The problem must be the huge, impersonal government controlling our lives. Get it off the backs of ordinary people -- let everyone stand on their own two feet -- and those of us who are decent folks, who still live by the tried-and-true moral values of the past, will do fine. That’s how the Romney-Ryan story goes.
All presidential candidates dish up mythic narratives, wrapping their selective version of the facts in stories that give them meaning and emotional punch. But this poll suggests that in 2012, unlike some election years, the myths the two sides are telling have roughly equal appeal. The public as a whole just can’t make up its mind which story to take as its guide. That’s why the candidates are virtually tied in the polls, which have barely moved in months.
There’s a lesson here for progressives who wonder why their movement has so much trouble gaining political traction with the masses. Yes, the masses are manipulated, but not as much as many progressives think. The problem progressives ignore is that they still believe what they learned in civics class: Give the people the true facts and their minds will lead them to logical conclusions. What the civics teacher left out is the powerful, perhaps ineradicable, human tendency to look for meaning by thinking in (or by means of) mythic narratives.
This poll suggests that a majority of Americans are listening with a somewhat open mind to the traditional populist narrative: It’s the rich bosses against the little guy, and it’s government’s job to balance the scales.
Obama and his campaign strategists are betting that a “soft” version of this story, hedged with concessions to the Romney-Ryan tale of rugged individualism, will win at least 271 electoral votes. So they are giving the basic progressive story line a public hearing and respectability that it hasn’t had since the days of Lyndon B. Johnson, the last of the New Dealers.
That gives progressives something to build on, if they will forget what they learned in civics class and accept the fact that in politics, it’s myth against myth. A successful myth has to have deep roots in the past. The old populist story meets that test. From the 1890s to the 1930s, and then again in the 1960s, it had huge support in the political mainstream. There’s no reason it can’t be revived.
But other deep roots have to be included too, if a progressive myth is going to have political success: the American tradition of individual responsibility and self-help, along with some kind of respect for familiar, reassuring moral values and a strong dash of patriotism.
It’s a tough task to put all that together in an appealing story. But with some imaginative effort it certainly can be done. If you doubt that go back and read the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The populist myth was only part of King’s much broader message. But he can serve as an instructive and inspiring example because he was such a shrewd politician. He was able to win over much of the nation for radical change, despite massive opposition, in part because he had factual and moral truth on his side, but in part because he expressed that truth in such an emotionally powerful mythic narrative.
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
-- an assurance that there are eternal, universal truths and values, which are not merely human creations and thus provide an objective, unshakeable foundation for human life
-- a narrative pitting those eternal values against their opposites -- a moral drama of good versus evil -- on a global scale
The new mythology would also have to eliminate the most harmful features of the current mythology of hope and change, those that breed harm to others and insecurity to ourselves:
-- dividing the world into the “virtuous” and the “evildoers”
-- pitting America against perceived enemies
-- mixing the hope inherent in the ideal of progress with a strong dose of fear of fundamental change
-- promising a perfect future that clashes with the reality of the present moment
As I concluded in Part One, "That’s certainly a tall order. It might seem impossible. But myth-making is an exercise of imagination. Can we stretch our imaginations to conjure up a mythology that fits all these requirements? Perhaps the answer lies closer than we think."
I begin my search by thinking back to the great myth-makers of the nation’s history, those who have earned a place of great respect and admiration in the minds of most Americans. That’s a rather small group, and nearly all have offered up versions of the two great dominant mythologies that are so problematic. Very quickly, though, I come to one name that stands out not only for eminence and mythic imagination, but for meeting the requirements of a successful mythology while avoiding the dangerous pitfalls: the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
To call Dr. King a myth-maker is not to say that he offered up pure fiction. It is to say that he had a rare ability to tell the truth in emotionally powerful ways that could inspire dramatic political and cultural change. Like all great American myth-makers, he took a great number of empirical facts and wove them into a deeply moving narrative centered on the ideal of freedom. Unlike so many of the others, though, he included facts that were disturbing to most Americans, facts about the tragic denial of freedom in this land. So there is less of a gap between fact and myth in the national story that he created than in most others.
King also had a rare ability to root the radically new elements of his mythology deeply in the existing mythology of hope and change. He insisted that the dream he so famously had was nothing really new, that it demanded no novel ideals or values. He dreamed only that the nation would finally live up to the most basic values on which it was founded, the ones it declared as its reason for being on July 4, 1776: the inherent right of every person to equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Founding Fathers expected a nation living by these ideals to transform the world. Dr. King agreed.
It is already evident that his mythology meets the first three tests: patriotic appeal, continuity with the mythic past, and freedom as the highest ideal. King clearly met the fourth test -- an unshakeable foundation for our lives -- when he preached freedom and equality as eternal, objective truths that were granted not by any human entity but by God.
However King was quite aware that religious language, which was his native tongue, would not be meaningful to many Americans. So he carefully cast his mythology simultaneously in both religious and secular languages. Like the Founding Fathers, he presented the fundamental values as trans-human truths both by claiming a divine source for them and by arguing that they are self-evident to human reason. Here again he showed his continuity with the mythic past and stood with the pantheon of our earliest national heroes.
I shall offer a sketch of a mythology based on King’s words as I read them (with occasional quotations). I rely only on King’s secular words, since any mythology has the greatest chance of success when it can appeal to the widest range of people. Many Americans will want to translate this story into the religious language that King so commonly used. He made that translation surprisingly easy, which is one more good reason to use his words as a springboard for a new myth. (A summary of King’s views my book American Nonviolence shows how effectively he intertwined religious and secular language.)
I do not suggest that King’s mythology is the one-and-only cure-all for the nation’s ills. I present it merely as a springboard for imagination, an example of what a search for new mythology could look like. Like any mythology, it can be developed in endless ways.
The basic story line begins with the Founding Fathers creating something brand new and extraordinary: A nation-state based on the eternal truths that are self-evident to any reasonable person. It is obvious that every human being feels a need to be free. Everyone, if allowed basic freedom, feels that they are intrinsically worthy and valuable. Everyone wants equality -- to be treated with justice -- because of their inherent desire for freedom and sense of their intrinsic value.
The Founding Fathers emphasized certain kinds of freedom -- to speak openly, vote in elections, and own property -- because they saw humanity as essentially a collection of separate individuals, all free to compete with each other for life’s rewards. In fact, though, freedom means much more. It means “the opportunity to fulfill my total capacity untrammeled by any artificial barrier.” It means the ability of each person to choose their own way to actualize their own unique potentials to the fullest.
But no one can reach their full potential on their own. Sooner or later (and usually sooner rather than later) we all need some kind of help from others. That’s why “my personality can be fulfilled only in the context of community…the mutually cooperative and voluntary venture of man to assume a semblance of responsibility for his brother." To be fully free, we must recognize that we are all members of a single human family. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. This is the interrelated structure of all reality. You can never be what you ought to be until I become what I ought to be” -- and vice versa. What happens to one happens to all.
Most importantly, if one person’s freedom to pursue their own fulfillment is abridged, then everyone suffers. Since that one person cannot contribute fully to the fulfillment of others, all suffer a loss of their fullest freedom. It is in everyone’s self-interest, then, that no one interfere with the freedom of anyone else. Certainly the Founding Fathers understood that.
But full freedom requires a more positive approach. It requires each of us to actively support all others in fulfilling themselves. That’s the only way we can totally fulfill our own potentials. This active support is the deepest meaning of love. We must not merely tolerate everyone else; we must love all members of the human family equally. We must care about what happens to every person, respond to the unique needs of each, and thus help all fulfill their highest potentials.
For some this may be a religiously or morally motivated altruism. For others, though, it need only be a matter of common sense. We need others to fulfill ourselves. The more optimally others are functioning, the more they can give to us. We must live in whatever kind of community we create. The happier and healthier the community, the happier and healthier our own lives. For all these reasons, when we help others we are also serving ourselves: “We are in the fortunate position of having our deepest sense of morality coalesce with our self-interest.”
If everyone acted upon this common-sense insight, we would be living in “the beloved community.” This is a particular interpretation of the utopian or millennial goal that has been such an essential part of the mythology of hope and change throughout American history. In the beloved community, everyone would recognize the truth that we all are, always have been, and always will be interdependent. And everyone would act upon that truth. The ideal is active interdependence and mutual loving service, not individual self-reliance and competition. Therefore there would be no hierarchies, no irresolvable conflicts, no oppression.
The beloved community would be one of perfect unity but not strict uniformity. Diversity would be fully valued, because the distinctive qualities and potentials of every individual would be fully valued. The unity would come from each one appreciating and enhancing the qualities that make every other one different and unique.
At first sight it seems that this millennial ideal creates the same gap between the real and the ideal that all other millennial visions have created, breeding the same frustration and anxiety, since it is hard to believe it could ever be attained in this world. This new mythology openly acknowledges the radical difference between real and ideal. Obviously, in today’s real world many people are selfish and unjust; many ignore or actively thwart the needs of others, especially the need for freedom; inequality is far too widespread; societal problems fester and are exacerbated every day.
At the deepest root of all these problems is the tragic fact of separation (or, in religious language, sin). This is readily apparent in our own nation’s life. Americans have learned from their earliest beginnings to see themselves essentially as separate individuals who have a terribly difficult time figuring out how to relate to other individuals. That difficulty is reflected in the many separations between groups: genders, nations, ethnicities, races, religions, etc. As soon as there is separation there is likely to be a contest for domination between the two opposing sides. This is ultimate source of all inequality, which brings with it oppression, injustice, and all too often violence.
In the modern world, we also find growing separation between our own competing values: some toward ethical/spiritual ideals, others toward material acquisition. And the material side seems increasingly to be dominating. The urge to materialist domination is a major cause of the environmental perils we face. But the only reason we can even think about dominating nature is our deep cultural tradition of treating humans as separate from the rest of the natural environment. In all these ways, separation is the source of humanity’s ills.
However, separation is not the final word. There is a countervailing reality, “some creative force that works for togetherness, a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.” For many people, not all of them formally religious, the existence of this force is another objective truth that can serve as a reassuring foundation for life. We can see this force at work most easily in natural environments unspoiled by human interference: an organic system of endless interactions, all contributing to an overarching harmony.
It is harder to see the same togetherness in human life. Though we are all threads interwoven in the single garment of destiny, the many separations we experience make the weave ragged and torn, sometimes leaving gaping holes.
Thus there are two forces contending for dominance in our world and our daily lives: one for togetherness and one for separation, one toward the beloved community and one away from it, one an “arc of the universe that bends toward justice” and one thwarting that arc. The conflict between these two is the kind of moral drama -- a battle between good and evil -- that seems to be necessary for any mythology to gain dominant influence in American life.
Each one of us is called to choose sides in this conflict. We can create more rips and holes in the garment of destiny, or we can help to mend the weave and bring it closer to the harmonious blend it is meant to be. If we enter into this moral drama and fight for good against evil, we become menders. We resist every form of inequality, injustice, oppression, and violence. We move our nation, and ultimately the world, toward the beloved community.
But resistance means doing battle. It might even be called a form of war, although one of the greatest ills to be fought against is war of the traditional, military kind, which brings the cruelest separations of all.
This moral dualism is perfectly consonant with the dominant American tradition of the mythology of hope and change. It is, in a sense, the familiar call to go out to the frontier and defeat the evil enemy; to promote the march of civilization; to take a stand on the cutting edge of progress, where the present meets the future, and bravely face the unknown. So it might seem to keep us trapped in the sources of insecurity this mythology has always created: fear of enemies, of the unknown, of evils beyond our control, and of a future where the real can never match the ideal.
But the fundamental innovation of this mythology -- viewing all humanity as one family, tied together in a single garment of destiny -- points a way out of this dilemma, as we shall see in the next installment.
(This is Part Two in a series. Read Part One here. Stay tuned for Part Three.)
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.
These two mythologies are so deeply rooted in American society, so completely dominant, and so overwhelmingly powerful -- especially when they work together to reinforce each other, despite the contradictions between them -- that it may be hard to imagine them ever being replaced by any new mythology. Of course that was once true of the mythologies that supported monarchy, slavery, patriarchy, and other institutions that seemed unchallengeable for centuries. Fundamental change does happen. But it’s very slow and arduous. The question is always: Is it worth the effort it takes to develop new mythologies and the much greater effort it takes to make them truly living, working mythologies that have a powerful impact on a nation’s life?
Another great American mythology, pragmatism, suggests that we should answer these questions by asking other questions: What are the practical results of living within the existing dominant mythologies? What might be the tangible results of replacing them with new mythologies? Would the benefits of the new mythologies outweigh the losses and justify the effort involved in creating and promoting them?
Some of the practical results of the two great mythologies are easy enough to see. Both have served to legitimate killing, injuring, and harmful acts of all kinds that have brought suffering to countless numbers of people. In some cases whole cultures and societies have been destroyed. For some Americans -- going back to the earliest Quaker immigrants to the New World -- any myths that legitimated harm to others have been, by definition, objectionable.
Of course most Americans have assumed that harm is acceptable in some cases, as long as it is a means to good ends and the harm is outweighed by the good. But that moral calculus is always computed from within the framework of the mythology that legitimates the action. One of the most basic functions of myth is to create the perspective from which we judge what is true and false or good and bad. So when any act is motivated and justified from within a particular mythic framework, its results are likely to appear, on balance, more constructive than destructive.
That leaves open the question of whether another mythic framework applied to the same situation might have mitigated or perhaps even avoided completely the harm done. So the death, injury, and suffering inflicted in the name of the dominant mythologies is perhaps the most obvious reason to search for alternatives.
There are other, less obvious, reasons, which I have discussed in my essays on the two great mythologies. I summarize them briefly here:
Myths are supposed to provide a dependable structure and sense of certainty, a firm foundation for a society’s sense of meaning. But the mythology of hope and change is riddled with internal paradoxes that undermine structure and certainty. It values progress above all -- pushing back the frontier both in geographical space and in time: To move west is to move into a better future. This vision of progress is rooted in the biblical story of history moving toward a utopian consummation, an era without any evil. Yet the hope for perfection requires the dynamism of constant internal improvement, which means constant change. The nation must go on improving, making progress, forever. So the ever-shifting real can never match the static ideal.
Moreover, the very idea of a frontier implies some opposing force on the other side, which is typically viewed as an evil threat, creating an “us versus them” dualism. Moreover, evil must exist inside as well as outside the nation. How else could Americans demonstrate their ability to improve and purify their nation, which is an essential mark of progress within this mythology? So evil can never be fully overcome. The struggle to defeat it, and the fears that accompany the struggle, must go on forever.
Thus the mythology of hope and change demands pursuit of a perfection that can never be attained. The inevitable result is frustration, anxiety, and insecurity, which many historians have identified as a constant feature of American history.
The mythology of homeland security has fewer internal contradictions because it has a simpler message: America will always be threatened by enemies bent on destroying it. To keep itself secure, America must be constantly prepared to defeat those enemies by any means necessary. The most effective way to maintain national security is to keep control of potentially threatening forces around the world, which means, in effect, controlling everything of consequence that happens anywhere in the world. This has the welcome side effect of making America the protector of the whole world against the menacing enemies.
However this mythology has its down side, too, in its one overwhelming paradox. Though it posits security as the nation’s highest goal, it also assumes that threat is a permanent fact of life, creating a permanent state of national insecurity. The insecurity is typically expressed as fear of evil beyond the nation’s borders. When the effort to control the world inevitably provokes resistance in some places, the mythology interprets it as confirmation of its premise that there will always be a threat to fend off.
This mythology also conflates space and time. So it breeds equal, or perhaps greater, fear of whatever lies beyond the border separating the present from the future. Every kind of fundamental change comes to look like a threat from the future invading the safely bounded present. The natural response is to protect the status quo, which becomes the mythic equivalent of protecting the nation. Of course change is inevitable. So the peril of uncertainty becomes the basic foundation of the nation’s life.
Despite their profound differences, then, the two great mythologies meet in their ultimate result: a society pervaded by a sense of constant threat, insecurity, anxiety, and frustration. For those who would rather not live in such a society, the most pragmatic course is to search for new mythologies that avoid these pitfalls.
In principle, that search has no boundaries. America, like every nation, is an imagined community, and imagination has no limits. We could (again, in principle) imagine American identity and America’s role in the world in any way we collectively choose. For those who want to indulge in fantasy, all options are open.
For pragmatists, though, the question has to be put in more concrete political terms: What kinds of new mythologies would actually work? What would be effective in reshaping American political culture? Here we are limited by the lessons of history: People are not very likely to totally abandon their most fundamental mythic structures and jump headlong into brand new structures. The new structures that become powerful and dominant are adopted precisely because they retain some kind of continuity with the old.
So what are the minimum requirements for a mythology to have real success with the American public of the early twenty-first century? Any answer to that question can be no more than educated guesswork; all I can do is offer my own best guess. I’d say no mythology has a chance of meaningful impact unless it offers five basic elements that most Americans expect (whether they know it or not) from their national mythology:
-- a strong appeal to patriotism and national pride, including an assertion of something uniquely good about America
-- an assurance that there are eternal, universal truths and values, which are not merely human creations and thus provide an objective, unshakeable foundation for human life
-- a narrative pitting those eternal values against their opposites -- a moral drama of good versus evil -- on a global scale
-- an affirmation of individual freedom as the highest value of all
-- 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
This last criterion suggests that it would be most pragmatic to build a new mythology on the foundations of one of the two great existing mythologies. Which of the two is a better candidate? The very names of the two suggest an obvious answer.
“Homeland insecurity” has built into its very name the biggest problem that we must overcome. And since it inherently mitigates against fundamental change of any kind, it mitigates against a change in mythology, which is often the hardest aspect of any nation’s culture to change.
The other mythology has built into its name the possibility of change of all kinds and the sense of hope for a better future. So it seems clearly the better candidate on which to build new mythology -- if there is a way to eliminate from it the perception of threat, which breeds anxiety and evokes responses that cause harm to Americans and others.
Perception of threat may seem to be inherent in the mythology of hope and change because that mythology has always centered around the image of a frontier: a line dividing “us” from “them,” the know from the unknown, the safe from the dangerous. So all promises of progress toward a radically better future are inextricably bound up with fear of what that future might hold.
The only way to avoid this paradox is to develop a new mythology of hope unmixed with terror, one that views even fundamental changes in American life as progress rather than threat. This mythology would have to avoid pitting America against any enemies; avoid a division of the world into the “virtuous” and the “evildoers”; avoid images of a perfect future that clashes with the reality of the present moment. It would also have to meet the five criteria for any successful mythology, listed above.
That’s certainly a tall order. It might seem impossible. But myth-making is an exercise of imagination. Can we stretch our imaginations to conjure up a mythology that fits all these requirements? Perhaps the answer lies closer than we think.
(This is the first installment in a series. Stay tuned for Part Two.)
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?
Now, most of the pundits tell us, the Ryan pick really is a game-changer. That view is summed up in two columns on the op-ed page of today’s New York Times: “Let the Real Debate Begin,” says Joe Nocera: “With Paul Ryan on the Republican ticket, Americans can have a much needed discussion about the size and role of the federal government.” Roger Cohen agrees that we are finally going to get down to substantive issues: “Romney's choice of Ryan has the merit of opening a serious debate about the debt undermining America.”
If they’re right, then Americans will finally get what both candidates say they’ve wanted all along: A clear-cut choice between competing philosophies of political economy. Frank Bruni writes on the same Times op-ed page:
Right after Romney announced Ryan, who has positioned himself as the wonk prince of the Republican Party, there was some barbed commentary that Romney had outsourced the policy for his campaign, answering the question of what he really stood for by standing with Ryan.
Then Bruni adds another perspective: “Romney outsourced the emotion, the charisma and the narrative as well.” “What Paul Ryan can give Mitt Romney is a tutorial in political myth-making,” says the teaser for Bruni’s column. Read the whole piece and you’ll find this spot-on assertion: “Modern politics demands some myth-making.”
But the mythic narrative that Bruni sees Ryan bringing to the GOP ticket has little if anything to do with political philosophy or economic first principles. It’s all about personal image: Ryan’s striking ability to turn himself into the outsized hero of a compelling life story.
Bruni explains that there’s
a nonstop chorus of Republican allies urging [Romney] to talk more about his Mormonism or his Massachusetts years or Ann Romney’s struggle with multiple sclerosis. They want him to show some skin. They want him to show some soul. Ryan does that so deftly that the contradictions, holes and hooey in his story recede. ... He has fine-tuned the most valuable oxymoron in political life: he’s utterly slick in his projection of genuineness.
(It seems to me I’ve heard that oxymoron applied to Ronald Reagan, both as praise and as blame, more than once or twice.)
I lift up Frank Bruni’s column for two reasons. First, it’s a rare example of a house writer for a prestigious newspaper focusing on the power of myth. Bruni replaced Frank Rich in the culture-critic-turned-political-pundit niche on the Times op-ed page. So it’s not surprising that he would see politics as a competition between dramatic narratives where the characters are not principles or concepts but real flesh-and-blood people playing mythic roles.
Second, his column is a useful reminder that the storm of punditry whipped up by the Ryan pick may pass as quickly as the summer thunderstorms out here in the Colorado Rockies.
In the end, the decisive story may not be about political principles or the economy, stupid. It may be about what some experts think every election is about: The candidates themselves as characters acting out implied, vaguely defined, yet emotionally powerful narratives.
When the nation’s most eminent leaders cajoled and flattered a reluctant George Washington into coming out of retirement to be the first president of the United States, they weren’t especially interested in Washington’s political or economic principles. Future Republicans as well as future Federalists added their imploring voices. They were all convinced that no one else embodied the emotion, the charisma and the narrative needed to hold the fledgling nation together.
The mythic meaning of the presidency has always rested, more or less, on the mythic stature of the person holding the office. Presidential elections have always been understood, more or less, as contests between contending mythic heroes. Whether this election will be remembered as more or less in that regard is a crucial question. It won’t be finally answered until some time after Election Day.
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.
It seemed obvious to me at the time that the object of my new study should be my political foes: the Bomb and the millions of my fellow citizens who saw it as an acceptable, even laudable, part of American life. From any moral or practical viewpoint their attitudes seemed to me as inexplicable as they were objectionable. So I wrote a book, Dr. Strangegod: On the Symbolic Meaning of Nuclear Weapons, analyzing those attitudes as modern expressions of very old mythic-symbolic traditions.
It only dawned on me very gradually that the same approach could be applied to my side of the political conflict. The first awareness came one year as I stood on August 9 (or maybe it was August 6) at the entrance to Rocky Flats, along with a huge throng of antinuclear activists, in the annual protest/vigil. Some had walked the nine long, uphill miles from Bouder, as they did every year, led by a Buddhist monk chanting and drumming. Some sang the same old familiar songs. Some carried the same old familiar protest signs. Some held hands and bowed their heads in silent meditation. A few probably climbed through the barbed wire fence and waited to see if they would be arrested. I don’t remember exactly.
But I do remember that I thought to myself, These four days, from the 6th to the 9th, are the high point of the antinuclear year. This is our most solemn occasion, our annual pilgrimage, our High Holy Days. At the time I took it for granted that I’d be observing this sacred holiday every year for the rest of my life.
Well, times change. By the time Rocky Flats was closed down as a bomb-making factory, in 1989, the nuclear movement had already faded to a shadow of its once-powerful self. I was beginning to tire of studying mass destruction. So I turned to the meaning of peace in U.S. history. But I quickly realized that war and peace were so intertwined that I would have to study the whole history of U.S. foreign policy, though still using the same tools.
Eventually, just as I’d recognized a quasi-religious ritual in the antinuclear movement, I recognized that the movement was also steeped in mythic language and symbolic imagery of its own. It was too simple to say that we, the good guys in the peace movement, were seeing the world objectively, paying attention only to the facts, while those evil warmakers and their millions of supporters were warped by mythic thinking.
As I taught my students about William Lloyd Garrison and Thoreau, Gandhi and King, Jane Addams and Dorothy Day, I realized that those gifted writers and orators had tapped into the roots of imagination as much as any Strangelovian nuclear strategist. Their power to move people and change history came precisely from their immense talent for blending fact and imagery in the service of humane values. The challenge to the peace movement was not to transcend myth but to create new myths, as our great heroes had done.
That offered me another way to understand the scholarly history I was studying. It’s certainly not original to suggest that academic history, especially when it’s done in the old-fashioned narrative way, is a form of storytelling that inevitably has its own mythic dimension. But it might touch a few raw nerves to read the competing histories of the decision to drop the Bomb on Nagasaki that way.
If we had any doubt that the history of that event was a touchy subject, they were erased by the firestorm surrounding the Smithsonian’s exhibit on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary. The main issue then was whether the Japanese narrative should, or could, be allowed into the halls of America’s one great national museum.
The fire came from those who would permit no doubt to be cast on what Stanley Kutler calls today’s “common wisdom[:] that Truman had only two simple, stark choices: to use the Bomb or invade and suffer a million casualties.” A narrative being treated as “common wisdom” is a hallmark of myth -- in this case, the myth that the bombing of both cities was perhaps tragic but ultimately necessary in the service of a morally good cause.
My friends in the peace movement were appalled by that firestorm of right-wing fury. But it’s easy to imagine them reacting with some anger of their own if I stick to my view of myth, which sees every myth as a blend of fact and fiction, and put forth two related propositions:
First, there is some truth in the popular narrative that Truman was compelled to use the Bomb twice. The history books that tell the story according to the “common wisdom” perpetuate that myth. But the best of those books were written by competent historians who have some accurate facts embedded in their accounts. Their conclusion is certainly wrong, in my opinion. But they are not spinning totally fictional yarns.
Second, the peace movement’s counter-narratives are themselves myths. Two myths predominate among those of us who condemn Truman’s decision. One is that the bombing of Hiroshima, and certainly of Nagasaki, was unnecessary because Japan would have surrendered in any event, obviating the need for an American invasion. The other myth says that Truman was moved to bomb perhaps Hiroshima and certainly Nagasaki by his (and his advisors’) desire to demonstrate America’s unprecedented might to the new enemy on the horizon, the Soviet Union.
There are plenty of facts to back up both of those myths. But the facts are not so absolutely compelling as to eliminate all competing views. Historians are still free to choose how to put the facts together and how to tell the story. It is, and no doubt will remain, myth versus myth.
That’s not a bad thing. The peace movement would be all the stronger if it recognized that its political influence depends largely on the strength of its myths. No political movement ever succeeded without a powerful narrative. The history of the American peace movement itself teaches us that lesson.
And there’s danger in relying solely on the persuasive power of historically verifiable facts. In any political struggle, the other side will never concede that its facts are totally flawed. The contest of fact against fact will go on forever. Most historians accept that as a given. It’s our lifeblood.
If a political movement waits until its narrative is absolutely, indisputably proven by facts that all historians agree on, it will wait forever. A successful movement gathers what facts it has, weaves them into an effective mythic narrative, and moves ahead with its work, recognizing that political life will always be myth versus myth.
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 Times’s reporter Shaila Dawan ends up theorizing that single women assume they’ll go on getting the short end of the economic stick regardless of who is president, so they make up their minds based on social issues, where Obama’s more liberal views are more appealing to them. Perhaps. But Dawan’s evidence is nothing more than a few comments she heard from a few single women.
Another view comes from an acknowledged expert on the subject, pollster Celinda Lake. She quite rightly looks to the “symbols and images of politics” for an answer. More specifically, she looks to the photos of picture-perfect (usually perfectly white) families, with smiling wives and 2.3 children, that Republican candidates rely on to symbolize the order and domestic tranquility that they hope voters will prize above all else. Mitt Romney is certainly following that well worn path.
One journalist summed up Lake’s view of why this symbolism falls flat with the unmarried: “If you’re a single mom in Alabama struggling to work and take care of a kid alone, it can be grating to have to take in three generations of Romney perfection. ‘That's not the lives of these women,’ Lake says. ‘They are economically marginal, they are short of time, they are juggling, and hoping that one of the balls doesn't fall on their head at any given time.’”
The “grating Romneys” argument is a bit of a stretch, since it’s hard to beat the Obama PR machine for a steady stream of absolutely charming photos of a picture-perfect (though perfectly African-American) family. But Lake is surely right to focus on symbolic images. As political psychologists have shown in so many ways, when most voters of both genders they cast their ballots are usually moved more by such images than by rational analysis of issues.
Perhaps, then, Republicans (with or without family photos) symbolize something that is more valuable to married than to single women. Scholar June Carbone, who has studied the demographic patterns of red and blue voters, suggests that we should ask: “Who's most anxious about family values?” Her answer (in 2010): The most anxious voters are “in Sarah Palin's America,” where divorce and unwed pregnancy rates are the highest.
If images, not issues, sway voters the most, I’d phrase the question a bit differently: “Who’s most anxious about the difficulty of holding on to images of enduring values and lifestyle patterns, or anything constant, in American life?” But I, too, would look for those worried folks in (to update the imagery) Mitt Romney’s America.
It’s not Romney’s family photos, but Romney himself and all that he symbolizes, that create a reassuring image of constancy, which is what conservatives crave. They got their name precisely because they want to conserve, right? Romney serves them the way all those Currier & Ives prints of rural America used to serve urban and suburban dwellers, who were one or two (or more) generations removed from rural life but hung the prints on their walls to try to mitigate (or perhaps deny) the impact of the change the nation had gone through.
Might this explain why married women vote Republican so much more often than single women? Regardless of the state of the economy, perhaps married women have more of a stake in trying to maintain the status quo -- to ward off change symbolically, when they have little control over it in any practical way.
It wouldn’t be surprising if the most crucial change they hope to ward off is the loss of their married status. Women who suddenly find themselves single typically find themselves in worse financial straits. That can be a huge challenge even in good economic times, and red state women see it happening around them at higher rates than in blue states.
Given the times economic we live in now, divorce can be terrifying for women. So when we’re looking at female voters, if we ask “Who’s most anxious?” as a way of predicting who’s most likely to vote Republican, it wouldn’t be surprising if the answer is: married women.
This is a speculative conclusion, I know. I’d love to see some real research on it. For now, I offer it mainly to point out that when election time rolls around, and we want to understand what’s going on, there’s real value in looking at the kinds of symbolic images that myths are made of. They can often help us unravel electoral puzzles when the more conventional kind of analysis, focused on issues and material interests, just leaves us bafffled.
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.
In his most influential book, The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From its Ashes, Burg argued that it’s dangerous for Jews as well as Palestinians when Israel views its political opponents as if they were Nazis. They’re not, and the huge difference is crucial if Israel is ever to have a realistic security policy that will realize bring its people security.
Yet that mistaken equation, Palestinians (or Arabs) equal Nazis, is what Israel’s quite popular prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, promotes at every opportunity. On his recent trip to Israel Mitt Romney embraced Netanyahu, making it clear that, if he becomes president, Romney will base U.S. Mideast policy on the same wrong-headed, fear-based ideology.
Of course Obama as well as Romney justify their pro-right-wing-Israel tilt by claiming that there’s a “special relationship” between Israel and the U.S., that there’s “no daylight” between the two governments on basic policy issues. And the “special relationship” goes beyond geopolitical interests, we’re always told. It’s a matter of fundamental values.
What exactly are those values? That’s just the question Avraham Burg said he intended to address his op-ed. In the 1950s, he began, the crucial ties were a common commitment to “democracy, human rights, respect for other nations and human solidarity.” Now the two nations are bound by “a new set of mutual interests: war, bombs, threats, fear and trauma.”
Right on target!, I thought. The most important message anyone can bring about U.S.-Israel relations, delivered by a former top-ranking Israeli leader on America’s most prestigious op-ed page.
Unfortunately, Burg’s column did not go on to address the crucial issues his opening paragraphs raised. He wrote eloquently about the gradual disappearance of democracy in Israel, as religious intolerance and ethnic chauvinism become the norm -- an important subject, to be sure. But he said nothing about the deeper insight of his book: the way unjustified fears and feelings of victimization warp Israeli Jewish life and give rise to anti-democratic, anti-humanistic trends.
Even more unfortunately, he said nothing more about the strikingly similar trends in American political culture. No, we did not endure a Holocaust. But the fear of a German invasion of the U.S. homeland was very real in the early 1940s. And Franklin D. Roosevelt did everything he could to fan the sparks of that fear into an anti-German fire. It was a crucial part of his strategy to build political support for his program of supporting the British war effort with everything short of sending U.S. troops to Europe. That was before December 7, 1941.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the fear for the homeland that Roosevelt had created was immediately, seemingly effortlessly, extended from Germany to Japan. Resistance to war, which had been strong enough to remain Roosevelt’s number one political concern, evaporated as a politically significant force overnight.
Roosevelt did not realize the staying power of the worldview he created for the American people, based on the warning that we must always be watching out for enemies who want to destroy us. That warning had played little role in American life since the 1840s (some historians would say since 1815), except for the brief U.S. engagement in World War I.
World War II changed all that. Once the Axis was defeated, the “red menace” of communism took its place, to be followed by “terrorists,” “Islamofascism,” and now “the Iranian bomb.” Next year the enemy might have some other name. Who knows?
Israel has gone through a similar revolving door of enemies. Once it was “the Arabs,” then particular Arab nations, then “the Palestinians,” then “the PLO,” now “Hamas terrorists” and “the Iranian bomb.” Next year Israel’s enemy might have some other name too.
For now, Israel and the U.S. agree that Iran is bogeyman number one. They differ only on tactics for combating the purported threat. And the agreement is not only among top political leaders. There seems to be as much support for anti-Iranian policies among Americans as Israeli Jews.
Israel’s myth of insecurity and Americans’ myth of homeland insecurity foster the fear of Iran. Indeed the myths demand the fear: Someone has to play the threatening enemy to make the myths believable.
A myth of insecurity, with the sense of vulnerability and victimization that it breeds, is the most fundamental tie that binds the two nations. Both peoples learned long ago to base their national identity and sense of patriotism on fighting off enemies who are, they believe, bent on destroying their nations. Both are deeply committed to and shaped by these myths.
In both countries there are dissenters who say that their own people are being warped by their myths. These minorities see the peril as well as the foolishness of a fear-based worldview. But in both countries the minorities are as yet small enough that they have little influence on policy.
This is what I hoped Avraham Burg would write about: the shared values that so clearly bind the U.S. and Israel yet remains undiscussed, virtually unnoticed, as hidden as any secret. What a chance Burg had to lay the secret out in the open, to try to wake Americans up, just as his book tried (and in some cases succeeded) in waking Jews up.
It’s a message that Americans need to hear, too. If it were delivered in their most prestigious newspaper, at least the relatively well-educated and elite readers of that newspaper might begin to ponder it. It would be secret no longer.
Here’s hoping Avraham Burg will return to the op-ed pages of influential American newspapers with his full message another day. Then we could begin to have a public debate not only about the U.S. relationship with Israel but about our relationship with our own understanding of security.
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.
This reminds me of the nuclear war scenarios that were popular in the late 1940s and early 1950s. My favorite was a cartoon spread in Life Magazine that sketched out an American - Soviet war. Of course the Soviets start it. Rockets fly and there is mass devastation on both sides. The last cartoon shows Manhattan reduced to rubble, except for the 42nd Street Library’s guardian lions, which remain standing in all their nobility. Underneath, the unexplained (and inexplicable) caption reads simply: “The United States wins.”
Of course that was for public consumption, to whip up cold war fervor among the masses. But similarly fantastic story lines were used in the Pentagon’s secret “games” back then, too. President Dwight Eisenhower ordered plans for winning a nuclear war -- and for (in his words) “digging ourselves out of the ashes” after it was over.
In 1958, as the size of the nuclear arsenals and the estimates of casualties spiraled beyond imagining, Ike demanded “a basis for further planning which is in the range of something reasonable… manageable or useable.”
Notes from one planning session read:
The President observed that he had asserted many times that if we assumed too much damage there would be little point in planning, since everything would be in ashes. An earlier presentation had estimated that some areas would not be useable for 30 years after an attack; of course planning on this basis is impossible. While we don’t get off scot free in case of an attack, we should make assumptions which describe a realm in which humans can operate.
So Eisenhower officially directed his National Security Council to keep “assumptions as to the extent of damage within limits which provide a basis for feasible planning.”
The WaPo article does not suggest that President Obama or anyone close to him ordered the recent war game scenario with China. It’s the brainchild of Andrew Marshall, who at 91 years old is still doing what he’s done for decades: sitting in his Pentagon office, dreaming up worst-case scenarios, and (with enthusiastic help from the military-industrial complex) persuading lots of people to take them seriously.
So far the battle, like any fantasy, is all in the mind. Marshall worries, says the WaPo, that China might some day supplant the United States’ position as the world’s sole superpower. One of his supporters, a senior Navy official, explains: “We want to put enough uncertainty in the minds of Chinese military planners that they would not want to take us on. … Air-Sea Battle is all about convincing the Chinese that we will win this competition.” It sounds like an Olympic champion plotting to psych out the challengers, doesn’t it?
The nuclear arms race of the cold war era reached such fantastic proportions for much the same reason: Each side was so good at imagining what the other side might possibly, conceivably, some day, be able to do, and each side was determined to gain the psychological edge.
Of course such mental fantasies have a nasty habit of become self-fulfilling prophecies played out in all-too-physical reality.The WaPo notes that a U.S. attack would result in “incalculable human and economic destruction,” according to an internal assessment prepared for the Marine Corps commandant. Some defense analysts “warn that an assault on the Chinese mainland carries potentially catastrophic risks and could quickly escalate to nuclear armageddon.”
But “the war games elided these concerns. Instead they focused on how U.S. forces would weather the initial Chinese missile salvo and attack.”
“Elided.” Such an elegant word. Eliding the real world keeps everything in the mind, where myth and fantasy flourish. I suppose if Dwight Eisenhower had known the word he would have been proud to say that he elided the actual estimates of death and destruction in his war planning, too.
Some critics of Marshall’s war planning decry not only his “eliding” but the very premise of his project: “It is absolutely fraudulent,” said Jonathan D. Pollack, a senior fellow at Brookings. “What is the imaginable context or scenario for this attack?”
But for people like Andrew Marshall (and there are lots of them), raised among staunch cold warriors who saw worst-case scenarios as the only scenarios worth considering, imagining a scenario for this attack is no challenge at all. “We tend to look at not very happy futures,” Marshall says, with wry understatement. When your mental world is shaped by the myth of homeland insecurity, there are monsters all around. It’s easy enough to pick out the scariest one and invent fantasies of the next battle.
Will all this planning make war more likely? I can easily imagine Andrew Marshall’s eliding that most crucial issue by answering: “That’s not my department.”
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.”
Even the well-educated, well-to-do movers and shakers who make up a significant share of the Times’ readership (which is why it’s so influential) might have found their worst fears for our national security confirmed. With hearts pounding and adrenalin pumping, many probably didn’t bother to read the whole stories, where they would find some facts to confirm their fears but others to calm them. The truth, it seems, is more complicated than the scary headlines.
Symbols of jihadi and Salafi (strict traditionalist) Islam are growing among Syrians fighting to overthrow their government. But “both fighters and analysts said not all the jihadist symbols could be taken at face value. ... there tends to be more Salafi guys in the way the groups portray themselves than in the groups on the ground.” Why? The fighters desperately need money, and most of it now come “from religious donors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region whose generosity hinges on Salafi teaching.”
The old image of a single well-organized monster called “Al Qaeda,” sending its cadres around the world, has long been debunked, even by the Congressional Research Service. In fact, says the Times article, “there is, as yet, no significant presence of foreign combatants of any stripe in Syria,” and “not all foreign fighters are jihadists, either.” But the story’s first paragraph, which is where many readers stop, reinforces the false outdated image of a unified bloc of armed “Muslim radicals” spreading its tentacles ever closer to American shores.
The other story, from Pakistan, identifies the suicide bomber as a member of the Haqqani network. U.S. mass media have been focusing on that group for many months as the mainstream Taliban were moving toward negotiations, which remove them from the list of suitable monsters to feature in the headlines. Someone in Afghanistan has to fill that bill, as long as we have soldiers fighting there.
Haqqani is the top candidate. “Inside the [Obama] administration,” the Times reports, “it is a commonly held view that the United States is ‘one major [Haqqani] attack’ away from unilateral action against Pakistan -- diplomatically or perhaps even militarily.”
But just as Times readers were absorbing this frightening picture of Pakistan as a hot-bed of anti-American instability, U.S. and Pakistani diplomats were signing an agreement that will allow NATO convoys to move across Pakistan to Afghanistan at least until the end of 2015 and maybe longer. “The pact seems to close, for now, one of the most contentious chapters in the long-turbulent relationship between Washington and Islamabad,” the Washington Post reported. Perhaps the Times was exaggerating the danger to U.S. - Pakistan relations just a bit.
And exagggerating the danger of the Haqqani, too. That group has claimed credit for a few high-profile attacks in Afghanistan, leading both the House and the Senate to pass bills that urge Secretary of State Clinton to designate the Haqqani network a “foreign terrorist organization.” But “the headlines created by such violence are disproportionate to their military significance,” as the Times article itself notes; “Haqqani operations account for one-tenth of the attacks” on NATO troops, “and perhaps 15 percent of casualties.”
Is the Times shaping its headlines and lead paragraphs in such unnecessarily fear-mongering ways to influence policy? When it exaggerates the Haqqani threat -- and adds that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency “is covertly aiding the insurgents,” according to unnamed “American officials” -- is it encouraging a tougher administration stance against the ISI, just as that agency’s new head arrives for talks in Washington? Is it trying to push the administration to give more money to the Syrian fighters, so that they won’t have to turn to conservative Muslims for their funding?
Or is the Times just to trying to gain more readers? Most people turn to the news less for factual truth and more for emotionally satisfying mythic narratives. Myths are not simply lies. They are, typically, a complex blend of fiction and truth, with the fiction taking the lead and bending the empirical facts to fit the story. In other words, myths do just what these New York Times front-page stories do.
And myths drive policy. The “war on terror” industry has been able to keep its massive federal funding, while other programs are drastically cut, because the myth of homeland insecurity has taken such deep root in American political culture. The New York Times is doing its part, at least this week, to keep that myth alive.
[PS: I've got a new article up on Alternet, Mitt Romney Disses Palestinian, Mexicans -- Who's Next? Please take a look.]
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.
Of course the Olympic athletes are extensions of their home nations and their governments too, most obviously in the opening parade of nations. The athletes are at least as highly trained as the soldiers, at least as disciplined in perfecting their skills -- probably even more so -- and at least as dedicated to winning for their nations on all three counts.
But athletes don’t represent their nations by fighting and killing. They represent their nations by playing games. Can anyone imagine Queen Elizabeth saying, “I declare open these Olympic wars?”
The media do often tell us that the athletes are “battling” for the gold medal and, more often, that countries are “battling” for the lead in the medal count. Once the games begin, the competition and desire to win can fairly be called “deadly” serious. But everyone knows that those are just metaphors drawn from the realm of war, where the words are meant quite literally.
It doesn’t work the other way around, though. No one ever says, even metaphoricaly, that U.S. troops in Afghanistan are “playing” war. No one call the war a “game.” (There are “war games.” But everyone knows that they are just pretend, that no one risks getting killed, except in the rare accident).
So we have two starkly contrasting models of international competition, creating two equally different images of patriotic service to the homeland: the robotic soldiers fighting deadly wars and the joyous athletes playing games.
The two have not always been so different, however. In medieval jousting tournaments (as in bullfights even more recently), men did get killed playing athletic game. Conversely, when those medieval knights went out to war, they were in a real sense playing a game. It was much like what we call a sporting event. The same has been true of warfare in many other cultures around the world.
When war was play, the contestants were all expected to observe elaborate rules and codes of conduct. War, like sports, was highly ritualized. And though the results were often gruesomely horrific, the death tolls were suprisingly small compared to what we are accustomed to now.
That’s because (according to one theory, at least) the goal was to display superiority, but not to destroy the enemy completely. In fact it was necessary to let most of the enemy forces survive so that both sides could return to the playing field to renew the game another day. It was the process, not the outcome, that mattered most.
We still have an echo of that medieval heritage in the word “sportsmanlike,” defined in one dictionary as “qualities highly regarded in sport, such as fairness, generosity, observance of the rules, and good humour when losing”; in another dictionary the qualities are “fairness, courtesy, good temper, etc.” And we still occasionally hear that old, once popular, saying: “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.”
Of course now we’re more likely to hear the much more popular saying, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” The widespread currency of that saying is a sign of how much we’ve turned our athletics into war and, more importantly, given up the old idea of war as sport.
How that transformation of war occurred is a very complicated story, still debated by historians of warfare. There’s general agreement that the Napoleonic wars were a decisive turning point. For the first time, war was waged not by small professional armies but by huge conscripted forces. Entire nations were mobilized to support those forces. Every citizen was encouraged to see him- or herself as part of the war effort.
The result was a sense that the nation’s very existence depended on victory. Governments eagerly promoted that view: If all citizens saw the prospect of defeat as a prospect of annihilation, they were more likely to sacrifice all to support the war. If annihilation was the only alternative to victory, the logical response was to try to annihilate the enemy. Thus war became a zero-sum game, which meant, in effect, no longer a game at all.
The old idea of war as a game -- where the rules of honorable conduct were as important as, perhaps more important than, victory -- lasted longest among the most elite military leaders. One sign of the death of this ethos at the highest level came in 1945, on the day Germany admitted defeat in the European war. The Allied commander, Dwight Eisenhower, refused to shake the hand of the surrendering German commander, a ritual that military tradition had always required.
In his war memoir, Crusade in Europe (1948), Eisenhower explained both that refusal and the book’s title in the same sentence: “Because only by the utter destruction of the Axis was a decent world possible, the war became for me a crusade in the traditional sense of that often misused word.” The representative of pure good could acknowledge no hint of comradeship with the representative of pure evil, Ike implied, because that would imply some kind of equality, as if both were players in the same game.
There is good reason to believe that Eisenhower was offering an ex post facto explanation, trying to prove his credentials as a crusading cold warrior. During the war he had given little indication of concern about, or even understanding of, fascism as a political system or ideology. His memoir was published in the same year that official Washington fully committed itself to mobilizing the nation in an anti-communist crusade, a crusade made all the more convincing by conflating Nazis and communists in an image of “red fascism.” It was the cold war, even more than World War II, that vanished the last trace of sportstmanlike conduct in war.
The Olympic Games have such broad appeal, I suspect, in part because they offer a rare chance to regain at least a glimpse of that old-fashioned idea of international competition as a sporting event. The Olympic Games also have broad appeal because we watch athletes doing things we might imagine, but can scarcely believe are possible in reality.
Danny Boyle’s production for the opening ceremony was certainly an extravagant indulgence in pure fantasy. So it got my imagination going in some pretty extreme ways. I imagined for a while what war would be like if we went back to the medieval tradition of battle as ritual contest.
Then I took a bigger leap and imagined what U.S. foreign policy would be like if we thought of it in the same way. We would compete earnestly with other nations for wealth, power, and influence over world events. Policy debates and decisions would still be deadly serious. But we would not think, even for a moment, of destroying the nations and groups we were competing with. We would understand that the whole point is to keep the game going.
So the most urgent question of foreign policy would not be “Who won?”, but “How did we play the game?” The most important goal would be to make sure that we acted in the international arena with fairness, courtesy, observance of the rules, generosity, and good humour when losing.
And if we lost one round in the contest, we would shake hands with our opponents, congratulating them on a contest well played. Then we would go back to the drawing board, figure out how to do better next time, and prepare to play better another day.
My fantasy is not totally beyond the realm of possibility. It is, in some respects, how kings conducted their foreign policy in days of old, when knights were bold. Since the Olympic Games inspire us all by seeing people achieve feats we never dreamed possible, why not dream of a new mythology for foreign policy: picking up where those kings left off but going even further, making foreign policy in every respect a serious, strenuous, but ultimately playful game?
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.
That’s a fundamental pillar of the myth of Jeffersonian democracy,which has been such a central thread in American life. In the nineteenth century the federal government gave away homesteads to make sure that the frontier would be settled by responsible homeowners committed to building strong communities. We get tax deductions for mortgages because the government still wants to promote home ownership.
Of course plenty of us can’t afford to buy homes. When government provides subsidies for renters, the principle is the same: People can fulfill their personal potential, and thus contribute most to the community, if they have a place of their own.
That’s not to say the homeless don’t contribute. Over 40 percent of homeless adults have jobs, many of them full-time. Homeless people take care of their communities, whether in shelters or on the streets. But so much human potential is wasted when people must spend a good part of each day figuring out how they’ll get through the night -- and get through it safely, if they are lucky.
In the current recession, as homelessness skyrockets, the resources of government to help the homeless wane. Housing subsidies are much harder to come by, though home owners still get generous tax deductions on their mortgage interest. Our society divides further between haves and have-nots -- precisely the danger Jefferson foresaw if everyone did not have a place of their own to live.
There’s another great American myth: “We shall be as a city on a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” Ronald Reagan loved that line. But he left out the rest of what John Winthrop told the first Puritans headed for America: “We must be knit together in this work as one man. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other's necessities.” That doesn’t sound like the kind of society that would let homelessness rise 39 percent in a single year.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King gave new life to Winthrop’s vision when he proclaimed: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
King did not say we “should” be tied together. He was not telling us how we should live our lives. He was telling us what the world is like. We are in fact tied together, the richest and the poorest, those who live in mansions and those who live on the streets. Whatever happens to the homeless affects all of us, even if it’s so indirect that the homeless remain largely invisible to most of us.
Jefferson understood what John Winthrop and Martin Luther King were talking about. He understood that democracy means we are, in fact, all tied together in the single garment of our community’s destiny. We must all contribute. Most of the homeless already contribute what they can. But they could give so much more if they had the stability that a home provides.
Sadly, many homeless can’t contribute a lot because of mental and physical disabilities that go untreated. Here, too, our society has failed to recognize that we’re all in this together, that treating those who need help is a crucial way to help all of us live better lives.
Responding to the growing epidemic of homelessness is not simply an act of charity. It’s an essential way to live out our most traditional myths of what it means to be a good American. To ignore the homeless, and the skyrocketing rate of homelessness, is more than a moral lapse. It’s positively un-American.
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.”
Romney’s words are likely to find receptive ears across America, especially among those who hear the news of Syrian warplanes dropping bombs on Syrians in Aleppo, the nation’s largest city. It’s getting mighty grim over there. It’s hard to resist the feeling that someone really ought to stop that slaughter, by any means necessary. It will be a nasty job, but if we don’t bring justice where there is now tyranny, who will?
That’s exactly what they’re starting to say in the White House, too, according to the New York Times. “We’re looking at the controlled demolition of the Assad regime,” as a Syria expert at a Washington think tank put it. But the Times thought it helpful to add that expert’s word of warning: “Like any controlled demolition, anything can go wrong.”
If you are wondering what might go wrong when American wields its power, the Washington Post offered one answer just a day after that Times story appeared, in a story headlined, “In Syria, U.S. Intelligence Gaps.” The United States, it seems, “is struggling to develop a clear understanding of opposition forces inside the country, according to U.S. officials who said that intelligence gaps have impeded efforts to support the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.” U.S. spy agencies “are still largely confined to monitoring intercepted communications and observing the conflict from a distance, officials said.”
“The lack of intelligence,” the WaPo explained, “has complicated the Obama administration’s ability to navigate a crisis that presents an opportunity to remove a longtime U.S. adversary but carries the risk of bolstering insurgents sympathetic to al-Qaeda or militant Islam.”
Complicated, indeed. Supposedly controlled demolitions often turn out to be a lot less controlled than the controllers expect, especially when they are relatively clueless about what’s really going on. As the man said, anything can go wrong -- no matter how exceptional the demolition crew may be.