Understanding American Myths: Announcing the New Blog "MythicAmerica"



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" (Stanford, 2008).

The United States is a very real place, a political state full of very real land, people, things, resources, and much more. America is a mythic place -- the version and the vision of the United States that Americans conjure up in their minds when they imagine what their nation is, what it has been, what it could be; what its role in the world is, has been, and could be; what their own role in the nation is and might be; what it means to be an American.

Soon I’ll be launching MythicAmerica, a blog housed on HNN to to explore the mythic expressions that have pervaded, and still pervade, American life -- especially political life, shaping Americans’ responses to national events in more ways than we are likely to suspect, as well as to experiment with new myths that might shape American life in the future. To invite you into the MythicAmerica community, I offer here some preliminary reflections on myth and American life.

For a long time I avoided using the word myth because it means so many different things to different people. Academic experts on myth debate heatedly about what a myth is and how it functions in human life. In fact, with so many conflicting meanings and so much debate, some scholars have declared the word meaningless and abandoned it altogether.

But I have decided to write about myth because no other single word captures this absolutely essential aspect of our society, or any society. As I understand the term and use it here, a myth has several basic qualities. First, it is a a story, told either explicitly or implicitly.

Second, when a myth works or is alive -- that is, when some group of people accept it as valid and meaningful -- it provokes a powerful emotional response from those people, either consciously or unconsciously. Usually (though not always) it is emotionally powerful because it uses vivid, evocative images to tell the tale.

Third, a living myth expresses something fundamental about the worldview, values, and lifestyle of the people who accept it. A myth communicates what they assume to be true about:

  • how the world and human life really is (their worldview)
  • how people should live in the world (their values)
  • how people do in fact live in the world (their lifestyle)
  • how their worldview, values, and lifestyle ideally fit together. A myth says, in effect, “we live (or ought to live) the way we do because the world is the way it is. And because the world is the way it is, living as we do (or ought to) is uniquely satisfying and fulfilling.” (This formulation comes from the prominent anthropologist Clifford Geertz.)
  • Fourth, a living myth gives the people who accept it a way to cope with the difficulties of life. When a myth is working, it creates an idealized picture of whatever aspects of life it talks about. It gives an impression of human life and the world as relatively coherent, harmonious, sensible, and therefore meaningful, so that life seems worth living.

    Sometimes a myth denies that there is any conflict or contradiction in the world. Sometimes it accepts but explains conflicts, contradictions, and the suffering they cause. Sometimes it offers no explanation at all but gives a powerful sense that life is good and worthwhile despite the conflicts, the contradictions, and the suffering.

    When people compare (consciously or unconsciously) a myth’s idealized image with the empirical reality of their lives, they can easily ignore much of the reality, hold on to the ideal instead, and in that way find great intellectual as well as emotional satisfaction. The satisfaction comes in part from the conviction that, while life and the world are always changing, the myth is a story that seems never to change. It is always available to be retold, reenacted, relived. So the disturbing flux of the real is held in check by the bulwark of permanence -- a sort of timeless present -- enshrined in the myth.

    Myth, Lies, and Truth

    In our everyday English language, myth means a fiction or a lie. But as the definition above indicates, a myth communicates some very real truths to the people who accept it as a living myth. This is the sense in which most historians of religion have come to use the term. They say that myth has its own truth, a different kind of truth than science offers. But what about the relation between myth and empirical or scientific fact?

    Most often a myth is compounded of both fiction and empirically verifiable fact. (Zeus, for example, does not really throw lightning bolts down from Mt. Olympus, but powerful thunderstorms do regularly form on that particular mountaintop, generating plenty of very real lightning that strikes the earth.) Myths may generally have more fiction than fact, but sometimes the fact outweighs the fiction. There are even (perhaps rare) occasions when myths are completely factually true.

    American myths have been and still are nearly all influenced by the rationalist culture of the Enlightenment. So they usually have a larger component of truth than the myths of ancient cultures. Our national myths draw on empirical facts from all aspects of public life -- political, economic, cultural, moral, and more -- and create a complex interplay among them, creating a sense of the nation and its life as a unified, harmonious whole.

    To achieve the most satisfying sense of wholeness, though, a myth must reshape the elements of empirical truth contained in it. It exaggerates empirical truths that fit an idealized image while downplaying or ignoring those that might contradict the received ideal. It exaggerates truths that are most likely to evoke emotional response while downplaying or ignoring less evocative truths. Thus it creates a caricature of truth, a picture that is oversimplified, schematized, and therefore easier to grasp and respond to.

    Consider, for example, two classic American myths: the Pilgrims and Rosa Parks. Both stories, as told in elementary schools and known by most Americans, include elements of both fact and fiction. (*) But the Pilgrims’ economic status and motives are typically marginalized in or banished from the story, as are their internal disputes, while their religious commitments and desire for religious freedom take center stage. Similarly, Rosa Parks’s age and her socioeconomic status get center stage, while her careful training for civil disobedience and her (and her husband’s) very active work in the NAACP for years preceding her day of fame are largely forgotten.

    Ultimately, though, the relative amount of fact and fiction in any myth is not really important. Indeed, when a myth is working its factual truth is irrelevant, because the people for whom a myth is alive do not judge it by whether it can be proven factually true. Rather, the myth is the lens through which they see the world and judge what is true and false. It shapes their view of truth. It tells them what they can accept as factually true and what they must consider false. A living myth is what “everyone knows,” therefore it is not subject to interrogation, much less debate; it is, rather, the foundation for debate, the set of premises shared by all sides.

    Consider again the Pilgrims and Rosa Parks. Both are emotionally powerful stories, made up of details that are readily and vividly visualized, and both communicate similar messages: People from all over the world come to America because here victims of injustice can and should stand up for their rights. If they are courageous enough, they can find a new kind of freedom unavailable anywhere else in the world.

    What happens, then, if people suffering from injustice in other lands come to America, stand up for their rights, find themselves receiving no justice, and return to their native lands, perhaps even finding relatively more justice there? Or, if America is their native land, what happens if they give up the fight and accept a life of injustice? For the majority of Americans who hold the Pilgrims and Rosa Parks stories as living myths, there are two possibilities:

    1. Explain the anomalous events in terms of the myth: “they weren’t as courageous as the Pilgrims or Rosa Parks. They didn’t try hard enough. Or they didn’t go about it in the right way, the way charted by the Pilgrims and Parks. Or they didn’t recognize and understand the kind of justice America offered them. ”

    2. Simply ignore the anomalous events altogether. It is hard for most of us even to name people who actively tried to get more justice in the United States but failed in the long run. Their stories are rarely told, because the prevailing myths simply won’t allow them to be treated as real events.

    Something similar happened in 2003, when the prevailing myth insisted that Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, was building up a threatening arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. All the factual evidence to the contrary was largely ignored by the mass media because the myth did not allow that evidence to count as true fact. Even the most respected mass media sources refused to admit facts contrary to the myth.

    Eventually they recanted and apologized. But this was not simply because enough facts piled up to make the myth untenable. Myths can stay alive in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Rather, they recanted the WMD claim after the defeat of Saddam’s army, when Iraq no longer seemed to present any kind of threat. In effect, those highly respected news sources were admitting that the old myth of “dangerous Saddam” no longer worked, so new facts could now be “discovered.”

    Explicit and Implicit Myths

    Nearly every definition of myth begins with the statement that a myth is a story. Classic myths do almost always have a narrative form. They often begin with “Once upon a time.” Many American myths have this classic narrative form too: “Once upon a time there was a group of people in England called Pilgrims”; “Once upon a time there was an African American woman named Rosa Parks.” From there the stories unfold in simple narrative fashion. These are what scholars call explicit myths.

    But one need not recite the whole myth to communicate its full meaning and power, because every myth is made up of many discrete elements or component pieces. These are often called motifs, symbols, themes, memes, or (in an awkward scholarly neologism) “mythemes.” They are the building blocks of myth.

    The building blocks are usually words or visual images or a combination of the two. But any sensory stimulus can play this role. In American myth, it might be the first six notes of “the Star-Spangled Banner” or the first four notes of “America the Beautiful,” a hand placed over the heart or a body pulled to rigid attention as these notes are sounded, the taste of a hamburger or hot dog and French fries with all the fixings, the smell of a fresh apple or blueberry pie, the sound of firecrackers booming on the Fourth of July.

    For those who know a myth, any component piece of it can easily communicate the cognitive and emotional meaning of the whole. The two words “Plymouth Rock,” all by themselves, or a photo of the rock, will conjure up for most Americans the whole mythic tale of the Pilgrims. The two words “Rosa Parks,” or a photo of an elderly black woman sitting in the front of a bus surrounded by white people, will conjure up for most Americans the whole mythic tale of the Montgomery bus boycott. In such cases, when an entire myth is implied by one small piece of it, scholars call it an implicit myth.

    The same process can work with more abstract mythic stories too. If a speaker refers to “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” anyone even slightly familiar with American myths will immediately conjure up the whole story of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s role as mythic leader, the mythic links between the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence -- and therefore between the Civil War and the Revolutionary War, between Lincoln and George Washington -- and on and on.

    In fact, every one of the specific components of each American myth is ultimately connected to all the other building blocks of all other American myths in network of implied connections that is virtually endless. This is not to say that there is a single overarching or undergirding “monomyth.” Rather, there is a vast web of myths and mythic motifs, sometimes explicitly presented and sometimes only implied. This web in its totality forms the national mythology. To call it a national mythology does not mean that everyone in the nation embraces or affirms every piece of it. Rather, it is “national” in the sense that its messages speak (explicitly or implicitly) about the meaning of America, the relations of individual and groups to the nation, and the nation’s role in the world.

    Typically the full stories remain only implied, in such a deep or unconscious way that few of us could reconstruct them in their complete narrative form. The many, many elements of the national mythology form a huge reservoir that myth-makers and myth-tellers can draw on in mix-and-match fashion. Nevertheless, even a few mythic building blocks put together in almost any way can reinforce the power of the national mythology to shape our perceptions and understandings of the meaning of America, our place in it, and its place in the world.

    Mythology and National Identity

    The national mythology and each of its constituent myths have such power largely because they draw together so many facets of Americans’ experience and forge from them an idealized sense of a unified, organic whole; they make it seem that the pieces of the national puzzle all fit together. Each myth helps to create a sense of national identity, defining what it means to be an American. Each expresses something essential about the identity of the nation and its members, as many of them see it.

    When Americans share in the repetition of their myths, they create or reaffirm their connection with each other and their difference from other people who have other myths. Myth is like a social cement used to bond a group together and to build a wall between them and other groups -- which is one reason national myths evoke such powerful emotion and satisfaction.

    This is not to say that all Americans embrace every American myth, nor that all find the same meanings and values in any particular myth. On the contrary, there is always vigorous discussion and disagreement about those meanings and values. Much of the debate about specific policy issues is, at the deepest level, debate about myths and/or the meanings of myths.

    Different interpretations are inevitable, because myths and their component parts tend to be multivalent; that is, any given myth, or any specific element within a myth, is likely to express different and often conflicting meanings simultaneously. The richer, more potent, and more fundamental the myth, the more multivalent it is likely to be. Consider, for example, a statement as basic as “America is the land of the free.” This mythological axiom is used to justify both lower and higher tax rates on the rich; both more and less governmental regulation of land, labor, etc.; both more and less restriction on immigration and undocumented immigrants; and on and on. Could anyone ever catalogue all the interpretations that have been assigned to those few words, much less predict all the interpretations that will arise in the future?

    The full stock of American mythology, taken as a whole, is like a playing field on which conflicts over public issues and public meanings are constantly fought out. The component elements of the mythology are also the materials with which the conflict is fought or, one might say, the pieces with which the game is played. Since the meanings of myths are always being contested, the mythology is always open to change. There was a time, for example (in fact a very long time) when the idea of America as “a Christian nation” was taken for granted as an essential part of the national mythology. Now, of course, it is a hotly contested assertion.

    But such major changes in myths happen very slowly. At any given moment, there is a relatively fixed American mythology: a set of basic national myths, basic assumptions that lay out the boundaries of acceptable discussion, the rules of the game. In that sense the mythology is like a language. It sets limits to what can be said meaningfully in national debates on any issue. Just as an English speaker cannot say, “This man who has hair is bald,” so anyone who knows the rules of American mythology cannot say, “America is the land that denies individuals opportunity,” or “In America some people are chosen by God to rule over the rest of us.” Such statements are simply illegitimate or out of bounds; they carry no meaning.

    To be an American is to understand the nation’s mythological playing field, to know its materials and rules, to be able to use the myths effectively, to be able to combine and recombine the constituent elements of the national myths in ways that count as meaningful. In America (as in any other nation), to know the difference between meaningful and meaningless statements, as defined by the national mythology, is one of the key markers of national identity.

    Who Makes the Myths?

    Do ordinary Americans really have the power to work creatively with their mythology? Can they innovate new variants on the national myths, new interpretations, or even whole new myths of their own? Do they not merely repeat what they have been fed by elite leaders and the mass media? And are the mass media themselves not merely creating myths at the bidding of the elite leaders who control them?

    To be sure, there is some truth in this view. Wealthy white Protestant men have historically had more control than anyone else over America’s myths. Though they are gradually having to share that control more and more with women, people of color, and adherents of other religions (and no religious commitment at all), there is still an imbalance of power when it comes to controlling the myths.

    Nearly all Americans, nearly all of the time, draw on the elements of the national mythology when they feel moved to create words, actions, or images dealing with America, its role in the world, and what it means to be an American. (Presumably their thinking is constructed out of these mythic building blocks too, though we can never know that for sure since we cannot read other people’s minds.) So, the choices of voters and audience are constrained by the prevailing myths to a considerable degree. They are being deeply influenced -- though most may not know it -- by the legacy and continuing disproportionate influence of wealthy white men.

    But scholars who study myths in small communities usually discover that no one person or group of people is ever in full control of the myths. There are often people officially charged with reciting myths; they are akin to our own elite leaders and mass media journalists. Yet close observation reveals all sorts of pressures coming from all sorts of places that lead the official myth-tellers to change their stories, even if ever so slightly, over time. The change reflects a constant, often subtle and even unconscious, process of negotiation between the myth-tellers and the other members of the society as well as all the other forces impinging on the society’s life.

    In a nation of over 300 million people the process must be far more complex. Elite political leaders and the mass media must respond to the demands that each makes on the other, for example. And both must respond to the demands of wealthy capitalists. Within each elite group there are (sometimes fierce) debates about policy. And these conflicting policy views are ultimately shaped by conflicting view about which myths should take priority and how they should be interpreted. There is rarely any monolithic opinion among the “power elite.”

    Moreover, elite capitalist leaders must respond to the demands of consumers as well as investors, suppliers, political leaders, and the mass media. Political leaders must respond to some degree to the will (or whims) of the voters. The mass media must respond to the will (or whims) of the audience, too. Elites and the media plant seeds, but the prevailing myths are the ground that makes them grow -- the common people’s assumptions, which allow those seeds to be accepted as true and meaningful.

    As I have listened to the voices of Americans across the political and educational spectrum, I have heard them draw very heavily on the common stock of mythic building blocks, sometimes in what sounds like rote repetition. But I’ve also heard them -- even the most conservative, even the least educated -- put those building blocks together in their own way and sometimes add pieces that are not part of the general stock of myths at all.

    So American myths are never fully in anyone’s control. myths are constantly being renegotiated because every American affects the myths and their changing shapes to some degree. We all live in the web of multivalent mythic meanings, which creates a field of conflicting interpretations and conflicting views on public issues at every level.

    The notion of the American people being simply manipulated by “the powers that be” pulling the strings is not only overly simplistic. It also undermines the very possibility of democracy. It suggests that 99 percent of us are powerless in the face of the manipulations of the 1 percent. If so, why bother trying to understand, much less change, public life at all? It is more encouraging as well as more true to the facts to believe that we are all involved -- and can all become more involved, if we make the effort -- in the process of making and remaking our national myths.

    Though the endless processes of negotiation mean that American myths are always changing and new myths are always emerging, the changes occur and the new myths emerge very slowly, making them difficult to see. Since hardly anyone is studying them closely, they are even more difficult to see. This is surely unfortunate, since American myths have immense influence -- including tragic death and suffering -- both at home and around the world. To take the most extreme example, it is hard to imagine virtually anyone killing another human being in war without some myth, explicit or implicit, to justify the killing and make sense out of it. Other factors are certainly involved; myth is not itself sufficient, but it is necessary.

    We need not look at such an extreme case, though. Every action undertaken in the public arena in the name of society at large is undergirded by some part (or perhaps all) of the web of mythology. All of the debates that shape public life -- debates about economic policy, foreign policy, the environment, social behavior, and so much else -- are at some level (the deepest level, it seems to me) debates about national myths and the interpretation of those myths. That’s the most important point about American myths and the most important reason for observing them more closely: They have such tremendous unseen power to shape perceptions, understandings, interpretations, values, and therefore ultimately behavior.

    Some of us may not like some or all of the prevailing myths. Some of us may wish they were very different. If enough people share that wish, very slowly the myths can change. But changing national myths is rather like crossing the Rocky Mountains: We may wish the mountains were not there; the trip would go so much more quickly and smoothly without them. but they are facts that cannot be simply wished away, and the trip is bound to be a slow one. To make the journey most efficiently we have to know the lay of the land very precisely and use it to our best advantage. New myths have the best chance of prevailing in the future if mythmakers take careful account of and make the best use of the dominant myths of the past and present.

    With the great physical diseases of our time under such close scrutiny and new remedies constantly being developed -- all funded by billions of research dollars -- one wonders why those myths of past and present, and the possibilities for new myths, do not receive the same urgent scholarly study. The MythicAmerica blog will be a gathering place for anyone who wants to share in that study. Watch for its launch soon.

    (*) speaking mythically, an American is anyone who identifies (or has identified) as a member of the United States community in political, social, and/or cultural terms. This usage may offend inhabitants of other Western hemisphere lands who, quite understandably, resent seeing the United States take sole possession of the term “American.” However as a mythic reality the term as defined here has such a long history and so much global impact that it deserves this special usage. Similarly, speaking mythically, “American” describes anything that is imagined to be uniquely or particularly characteristic of mythic America.

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