MythicAmerica.us is a place to explore mythic themes -- the taken-for-granted narratives and assumptions -- basic to the political culture of the United States in the past, present, and future. You are cordially invited to join the conversation.
Let’s start with some definitions:
Myth: A myth is not a lie. A myth is a story, compounded of fact and fiction, that expresses something fundamental about the worldview and the values of the people who tell it: what they assume about how the world is and how people should and do live in it. The people who tell a myth do not judge it by whether it can be proven factually true. Rather, it shapes their view of truth; it tells them what they can accept as factually true and what they must consider false.
A mythic story can be told explicitly, or it can be merely implied by a few brief words or an image or action. Either way, a myth evokes powerful emotions because it expresses something essential about the identity of the group and its members, as they see it.
The United States: a very real place, a political state full of land, people, things, resources, and much more.
America: 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.
We can’t get inside people’s minds to know what they are imagining. But mythic America exists outside people’s minds, too, in the words, images, and actions they use to give tangible shape and expression to their imaginings. Those are the building blocks of mythic America. So “America” is the United States in its totality -- its people, its land, and all of its constituent elements -- as it has been, is, and might be represented in the words, images, and actions of Americans. “America” also includes all of the lands and people that have been imagined, at one time or another, as potential additions to the United States.
American: 1. noun: 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 the special usage it receives in MythicAmerica.us.
2. adj.: Speaking mythically, “American”can describe anything that is imagined to be uniquely or particularly characteristic of mythic America.
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Myths are constantly changing, and we are all free to create new mythic images of America. Yet we rarely do. Nearly all of us, nearly all of the time, use the building blocks we have inherited from the past. They form a relatively stable fund of words, images, and actions that give an enduring, familiar structure to mythic America.
MythicAmerica.us is a place to take a closer look at that inheritance and that enduring structure at work today, to explore the mythic expressions that pervade American political life and shape 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. Read more about myth here.
Who Speaks for Mythic America?
People have been living in the land we now call the United States, and telling myths in that land, for thousands of years. But white European men were the first to imagine and speak of a place called America. White men of European descent created the United States and called it America. White men -- especially wealthy white men -- have always dominated the mythic landscape and to a large extent still do, though they are gradually losing the total control they once had. Even though elite leadership is becoming more diverse, elites in political, economic, and media institutions still dominate the national discourse.
MythicAmerica.us certainly considers alternative mythic visions coming from the full spectrum of American voices. To understand the political events of the day, though, we must give special attention to the mythic traditions created and disseminated by elite leaders because they still exert so much control, especially over the mass media.
The mass media are the principal megaphones and projectors of mythic America. When it comes to imagining the nation, its meaning, and its role in the world, the mass media exert far more power over American life than any other agency. Therefore MythicAmerica.us puts a special focus on mythic expressions in the mass media.
To get a more detailed introduction to myth and the study of American mythologies, go to my “Mythic America: essays.”
To join the conversation about Mythic America, please comment on any blog post and “like” the site on Facebook.
To receive periodic summaries of the blog by email, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, with “Update” in the subject line and you’ll be added to the email list.
About the Author
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. For many years he has been studying American political culture from the perspective of an historian of religions, with a special emphasis on presidents, foreign policy, and issues of war and peace. He is the author of numerous books, including Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin; Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity; American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea; Dr. Strangegod: On the Symbolic Meaning of Nuclear Weapons. He is currently working on a book tentatively titled Something to Fear: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Origins of the National Insecurity State. Prof. Chernus has lectured widely throughout the United States as well as in Canada, Australia, Finland, and Lebanon. His academic website is http://spot.colorado.edu/~chernus.
In addition to his academic writing, Prof. Chernus has been a frequent contributor for many years to prominent news websites, including Huffington Post, Alternet, Tomdispatch, ReligionDispatches, Truthout, and Common dreams. His op-eds have also appeared in many major newspapers, including the Atlanta Constitution, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Miami Herald, and Houston Chronicle.
Since his graduate school days (Ph.D., Temple University, History of Judaism, 1975) Prof. Chernus has spoken and written widely in support of a just two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His recent writings on that subject are collected at http://chernus.wordpress.com.
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