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Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica


MythicAmerica explores the mythic dimension of American political culture, past, present, and future. The blogger, Ira Chernus, is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity.

His new “MythicAmerica: Essays” offer an online introduction to the study of American myths. Read about the blog and the author here.

To receive periodic email summaries of the blog, send an email to update@mythicamerica.us, with “Update” in the subject line. You can communicate directly with Ira at the same address.

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  • Social Security Cuts: More Than Money At Stake

    by Ira Chernus


    Image via Shutterstock.

    I’m old enough to remember when Social Security was the “third rail” of American politics -- too dangerous for even the most conservative politician to touch. You’re probably old enough to remember that, too. It wasn’t very long ago. As recently as the 2012 Republican primaries, Mitt Romney defended Social Security against attacks from other candidates (notably Rick Perry), and Romney emerged the GOP standard-bearer.


  • The Conspiracy to Kill MLK: Not a Theory but a Fact

    by Ira Chernus

    Should the United States government be allowed to assassinate its own citizens? That question was in the air briefly not long ago. April 4 is an excellent day to revive it: On April 4, 1968, the government was part of a successful conspiracy to assassinate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    That’s not just some wing-nut conspiracy theory. It’s not a theory at all. It is a fact, according to our legal system.

    In 1999, in Shelby County, Tennessee, Lloyd Jowers was tried before a jury of his peers (made up equally of white and black citizens, if it matters) on the charge of conspiring to kill Dr. King. The jury heard testimony for four full weeks.

    On the last day of the trial, the attorney for the King family (which brought suit against Jowers) concluded his summation by saying: “We're dealing in conspiracy with agents of the City of Memphis and the governments of the State of Tennessee and the United States of America. We ask you to find that conspiracy existed.”


  • The Myth of the All-Powerful President: A Very Brief History

    by Ira Chernus


    FDR with Ibn Saud, first king of Saudi Arabia, in February 1945.

    In a column I’ve just posted on Tomdispatch.com I summarized the tremendous task Barack Obama seemed to commit himself to, in his recent Middle East trip, as he once again took on the role of peacemaker:

    [He] must satisfy (or mollify) both the center-left and the right in Israel, strike an equally perfect balance between divergent Israeli and Palestinian demands, march with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu up to the edge of war with Iran yet keep Israel from plunging over that particular cliff, calibrate the ratcheting up of punishing sanctions and other acts in relation to Iran so finely that the Iranians will, in the end, yield to U.S. demands without triggering a war, prevent the Syrian civil war from spilling into Israel, which means controlling Lebanese politics too -- and do it all while maintaining his liberal base at home and fending off the inevitable assault from the right. 


  • The President, in Israel, Giveth and Taketh Away

    by Ira Chernus


    Barack Obama and John Kerry at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Credit: U.S. State Department.

    The real Barack Obama was clearly on display in his quick trip to Israel and Palestine. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, he always gives you something you want with one hand, while he takes away something equally important with the other hand.

    When Obama spoke in Jerusalem, I cheered as loudly as the audience of liberal Jewish students who shared my views, which the president voiced so eloquently: The occupation is really bad for Israel; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must lead his nation to a just peace with an independent, viable Palestinian state.

    I cheered most when I heard Obama say words that I never thought I’d hear an American president say in Israel: The occupation is not merely harmful to Israel’s national interests, it’s downright immoral: “It is not fair that a Palestinian child ... lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. ... It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands ... or to displace Palestinian families from their home.” Bravo!


  • North Korea as “Bad Guy”: A Multi-Layered Myth

    by Ira Chernus


    North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

    “The United States is taking the threat of a ballistic missile attack from North Korea very seriously,” Melissa Block informed us on NPR the other day, sounding very serious herself. To protect us from that threat, the U.S. will station 16 more anti-missiles missiles in Alaska.

    “The big questions, of course, are this,” NPR’s Tom Bowman explained: “Would North Korea actually launch a missile against the United States, and would these missile interceptors work? And frankly nobody knows for sure, but the Pentagon says, we have high confidence.”

    High confidence that the missile defense will work or that the North Koreans would attack the U.S.? No doubt Bowman meant the former (though “the testing has been a bit spotty,” as he tactfully put it).

    But the whole project, with all its ballyhoo and its $1 billion price tag, makes no sense unless the Pentagon also has high confidence that North Korea might indeed attack the United States.


  • “Debt Crisis”: The Myth Behind the Myth

    by Ira Chernus


    Image via Shutterstock.

    While the two major parties plot strategy for the next battle in the federal debt-reduction war, another war rages among economists over the question, “Is debt really the federal government's biggest problem?” Some insist that unless Washington cuts spending substantially to reduce the debt quickly, we are headed for disaster. Others insist with equal fervor that growth is the number one priority: Aggressive pro-growth policies will reduce the debt in the long run with far less pain.

    If the pro-growth economists could gain public support they would give liberal Democrats a powerful weapon to resist the Republican’s budget-slashing ax. But the pro-growth faction makes little headway in the public arena because the political wind is blowing so strongly against it. Why should the wind blow that way?


  • “Yellow Peril” Morphs into Chinese Borg

    by Ira Chernus

    You remember those Chinese hackers, the ones we are all supposed to be so terribly worried about just a few days ago? They’ve disappeared from the headlines; apparently we’re not supposed to worry about them any more, at least for now. But they’re bound to be back back in the headlines sooner or later, and probably sooner. So we ought to take a close look at the story.

    The joke is on the hackers, says Washington Post wonk blogger Ezra Klein. They’ve been suckered in by a great myth -- the myth that there’s some secret plan hidden somewhere in Washington, the script for everything that the American government and American corporations do. The Chinese think that if they hack enough computers, somewhere buried in that mountain of data they’ll find the master key that unlocks the plan.


  • “War on Terror”: The Ticking Time Bomb

    by Ira Chernus


    Dick Cheney in 2011, and the infamous Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Doomsday Clock.

    I saw Zero Dark Thirty a few weeks ago and then consumed the whole first season of “Homeland.” Don’t tell me what happens in season two. I love the suspense.

    I also love those brave (fictional) CIA analysts, Maya and Carrie. They see a huge danger ahead that everyone else is blind to, and they insist on crying out a warning, regardless of the risk -- just like the biblical prophets. What’s not to love? 


  • The State of the Union and the State of the "Homeland"

    by Ira Chernus


    Claire Danes in "Homeland."

    In our home the State of the Union address was not followed by the Republican reply. We skipped Marco Rubio’s rebuttal in favor of watching a DVD of old “Homeland” episodes. We’re finally catching up on the first season of the “CIA versus terrorists” drama that everyone else has been watching and raving about for the past two years.

    The incongruity of watching the SOTU and “Homeland” in the same evening was a stark reminder of how much has changed in America in just a few years. “Homeland” would have made a wholly congruous nightcap to any SOTU speech by George W. Bush.

    That’s not to say Obama’s “war on terror” policies are so different from W.’s. The similarities as well as differences have been parsed at length by the pundits, and similarities there are a-plenty. But the tone of American life has changed so much now that we have a “hope and change” president instead of a “war president.” 


  • No, Prof. Meyer, Anti-Zionism is NOT Anti-Semitism

    by Ira Chernus


    Swedish B.D.S. poster. Credit: Wiki Commons.

    Andrew Meyer wants us to believe that anyone who opposes Zionism, for whatever reason, is inherently anti-Semitic. He starts from the premise that we should focus on historical effects rather than intentions. Perhaps he thinks that restriction works to the advantage of his argument.

    After all, it’s obvious that plenty of people have opposed Zionism with no anti-Semitic intent. Before World War II many Jews -- perhaps a majority of the world’s Jews, and certainly a vast number of devout Orthodox Jews -- opposed the Zionist project in principle. They surely had no anti-Semitic intentions. There are still plenty of Jews today who oppose Zionism. Some of them, especially in Israel, make a very thoughtful case that Zionism is ultimately harmful to the best interests of the Jewish people. Their intentions are obviously not anti-Semitic. So looking at intent certainly would undermine Prof. Meyer’s case.


  • The Imaginary World of the “War Against al-Qaeda”

    by Ira Chernus

    The on-again, off-again debate is on again: Does the executive branch of the United States government ever have the right to assassinate American citizens without due process of law? A brave soul, who hopefully will remain nameless, has leaked an internal Justice Department “White Paper” outlining the Obama administration's reasons for answering “Yes.” A chorus of critical voices answers, just as loudly, “No.”  

    But most of the critics agree with the administration and its supporters on one point: The question here is about the executive’s power in wartime.

    If that is indeed the question -- a big “if” -- history offers a certain kind of answer. Lincoln, Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt all pushed their constitutional authority to the limit during war -- and beyond the limit, critics in their own day and ever since contended. Yet the overreach of these three presidents (if overreach it was) did little to tarnish their reputations.


  • Kerry Admits It: “Foreign policy is Economic Policy.”

    by Ira Chernus


    John Kerry embraces John McCain at his recent confirmation hearings. Via Flickr/Glyn Lowe.

    At his confirmation hearing, the new Secretary of State, John Kerry, declared flatly:  “Foreign policy is economic policy.” Now them is fightin’ words if they’re spoken by a scholar of U.S. foreign policy. Scholars of the “revisionist” school have been attacked, reviled, and marginalized for decades simply for saying what Kerry seemed to say: Economic motives are the main drivers of foreign policy. So when revisionists hear a top government official say it out loud, it’s like discovering gold: It’s hard evidence that their view is correct.


  • Zero Dark Dirty: The "Good War" Lives

    by Ira Chernus

    I once heard a prominent expert on contemporary Islam say that Al Qaeda is not an organized group (and this was while Osama bin Laden was still alive). It isn’t even, primarily, a group of people at all. Al Qaeda is best understood as a body of discourse, a way of talking.

    How do you fight a body of discourse? With another body of discourse, of course. The United States government is doing that in all sorts of ways, spreading the gospel of democratic capitalism and the American way of life.

    But how do you make a movie about a war between two bodies of discourse? If you want to win awards, pack the theaters, and turn a profit, you don’t. A good movie has to start with a mythic script.  And it’s awfully hard to find the myth in a war of discourse versus discourse.

    So you make a movie about a war of good guys against bad guys. That’s about as mythic as it gets. It’s the American war story that has been made in Hollywood a thousand times -- well, a thousand and one, now that we have Zero Dark Thirty. I’m finally getting around to writing about the film, after just about everyone else in the world has had their say, because I finally got around to seeing it. It turns out there was no reason to rush anyway.


  • Inauguration Shows President as Prime Minister and King

    by Ira Chernus


    Barack and Michelle Obama at his second inaugural. Credit: Flickr/Adam Fagen.

    There were passages in Barack Obama’s second inaugural address that sounded like a European prime minister from a Labor or Social Democrat party addressing his Parliament. Obama had a whole laundry list of progressive proposals. Some were explicit:

    “Care for the vulnerable and protect people from life's worst hazards and misfortune” through “Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security”; “respond to the threat of climate change”; make sure that “our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. … our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else … no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote”; “find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants.”

    Some of the progressive program was implicit:


  • Why Does a Hostage Crisis Fascinate America?

    by Ira Chernus


    Camels in the Sahara near In Aménas, the site of the hostage crisis. Credit: Flickr/albatros11.

    Barack Obama and his political advisors surely thought that gun control would dominate the headlines for days to come after the president announced his controversial proposals. But some armed men in a remote gas drilling site in the Sahara desert had other ideas.

    The pundits love to tell us that a president who focuses on domestic policy is inevitably frustrated, because there are bound to be unexpected crises abroad that demand his, and the nation’s, attention. But there’s really nothing inevitable about it. It’s a choice that the public, and the news media who must sell their wares to the public, make.  

    Certainly the lives of the people at risk in the Sahara are important. It’s a tragedy when anyone is killed. But let’s face it. A handful of American lives may be lost in Algeria; maybe not. Whatever the outcome, this incident will soon disappear down the American memory hole.    


  • “Ike” and the “Red Menace”: Some Myths Won’t Die

    by Ira Chernus


    Martin Luther King, Jr. with President Eisenhower in 1956.

    You probably know the mythic Dwight Eisenhower, the “great peacekeeper in a dangerous era,” who bravely withstood the communist threat while skillfully avoiding all-out war. The quote comes from Evan Thomas, the latest writer to make a mint by retelling the tale. It would hardly be worth noticing, except that pundits keep trotting out the mythic Ike by as a model for the current president to follow.  

    Latest example: the Washington Post’s influential foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius, a dependable megaphone for the centrist foreign policy establishment. He’s praising  Thomas’ book, Ike’s Bluff, for supposedly showing us how a great president deals with “continuing global threats … that require some way to project power.”


  • "Fix the Debt": Sheer Hypocrisy or a Myth Worth Debating?

    by Ira Chernus

    The New York Times has just published an expose on Fix the Debt, “a group of business executives and retired legislators who have become Washington’s most visible and best-financed advocates for reining in the federal deficit.” It turns out that “close to half of the members of Fix the Debt’s board and steering committee have ties to companies that have engaged in lobbying on taxes and spending, often to preserve tax breaks and other special treatment.” The Times gives plenty of examples to support that charge.

    I’m shocked. Shocked. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow’s Times reveals that there’s gambling going on in the back room at Rick’s Café Americain.


  • Fiscal Deal: And the Winning Myth Is ….

    by Ira Chernus


    Credit: Wiki Commons

    As Congress and the administration went through their tortured post-election wrangling (or was it a dance?) over fiscal policy, Americans never seemed quite sure what mythic lens was best suited to viewing the proceedings.

    Were we watching ourselves, all together, hurtling toward a cliff and trying desperately to avoid plunging over it? Or were we divided into two political and ideological camps, approaching a final showdown. I explored both the “cliff” and “showdown” metaphors in the run-up to the New Year’s denouement.

    Now that a deal has been done and we can watch the public reaction through the news media, which mythic metaphor is the winner?

    The many “Who won? Who lost?” evaluations seem to support the “showdown” view. The widespread view that this is merely round one, with more battles between the two parties sure to follow, also seems to give the nod to the “showdown” metaphor. Or perhaps, instead of a single showdown, we’ll start talking about a long, drawn-out "war."


  • Gun Control: The New Abolitionism?

    by Ira Chernus

    Guns and violence are “a deep illness in our society,” columnist Frank Rich opines. “There's only one other malady that was so deeply embedded into the country's DNA at birth: slavery. We know how long it took us to shake those shackles. And so ... overthrowing America's gun-worship is not a project that will be cured in a legislative session; it's a struggle that's going to take decades.”

    I wonder if Rich is too pessimistic. He assumes that the gun-control issue is now where the slavery issue was in perhaps the 1820s, when the abolitionist movement was just beginning to gather steam as an organized Protestant reform effort. But that doesn’t seem a fair comparison.


  • America's Proud Individualism Helped Pull the Trigger

    by Ira Chernus


    Credit: Flickr.

    I know it’s foolish hubris to hear about a tragedy like the school shooting in Connecticut and then immediately start writing about it. But many of us who blog do it, at least in part, as a way to deal with feelings that otherwise might overwhelm us. It’s cathartic. And it’s our wager that, in the process, we’ll say something helpful to others who are trying to make a little bit of sense out of at least some corner of the tragedy

    Convincing explanations of any kind are ultimately bound to elude us. All one can do is try to shed a little light on a little piece of the immense calamity, from one’s own particular viewpoint. I naturally think about American mythic traditions that seem relevant in this situation.

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