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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  • The New “New Normal”: Saving Ourselves From the Cliff

    by Ira Chernus

    Are you worried about the looming “fiscal cliff”? Well if it’s your only worry about the American economy, you’re not worried nearly enough. There are plenty of other economic cliffs out there, just waiting for you.

    That’s the lead story on the front page of this past Sunday’s Washington Post. “Even if Washington somehow finds a way to avoid the fiscal cliff -- the automatic tax hikes and federal spending cuts that threaten to plunge the nation back into a recession --” Zachary A. Goldfarb warns us, “the economy could suffer a stiff blow next year.”

    Tax hikes and spending cuts could take billions of dollars out of the economy. But if we extend tax cuts and cancel spending cuts, we’ll increase the federal debt, bringing new and unpredictable economic suffering. So we’re trapped.


  • Obama’s Other Debate Failure: No Narrative

    by Ira Chernus


    Teddy Roosevelt knew how to string a narrative together.

    Everyone is talking about Barack Obama’s flat performance in the first debate, and with good reason. The debates are essentially television shows. Like any theatrical contest, the performer who is most entertaining and charismatic wins. The other guy loses.

    But Obama also failed in another very important way. He failed to tell a good story. He didn’t offer any persuasive narrative that would tie together all his talking points. If he had, it might have compensated for his poor performance and softened the blow he suffered that night.

    The funny and sad thing is that the Obama campaign has the makings of a consistent and powerful narrative, one that contrasts sharply with that of the Republicans. The president laid it out clearly last December at Ossawatamie, Kansas: “We’re greater together than we are on our own. ... In the long run, we shall go up or down together.”


  • The Presidential Debate: Myth versus Myth

    by Ira Chernus

     

    I wrote this before the Obama-Romney debate:

    The debate that will pit the two candidates against each other will also show us two fundamentally different ideas of government going head to head. I don’t mean the Republican versus Democrat ideas. I mean something much bigger than that.

    We have debates because we have a long tradition of democracy as an exercise of reason. The people learn the facts, analyze them thoughtfully, and then draw rational conclusions about which policies will benefit them and their community most. That’s the myth of democracy -- myth not as a lie, but a story we tell ourselves to express our most fundamental assumptions about what life is like and how it should be lived.

    This myth of democracy requires candidates to present facts and logical arguments to the people and then let the people decide on the basis of their own logic. To help that process along, candidates should engage in classical debates, the kind we learned about in high school: each side presents a sustained, coherent argument based on facts and rational analysis. Then each side gets to pick apart the other side’s facts and reasoning systematically, point by point.


  • “Hope and Change”: The “Comeback Kid” of Political Narratives?

    by Ira Chernus


    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.


  • Israel Versus Iran: Netanyahu's Cartoon Version

    by Ira Chernus


    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?


  • GOP vs. Dems: The Failure to Communicate

    by Ira Chernus


    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?


  • The Myth of Arab (Or Is It Muslim?) Rage

    by Ira Chernus


    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.


  • The Simple Message Dems Are Missing

    by Ira Chernus


    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.


  • Michelle Challenges Nineteenth-Century Myth

    by Ira Chernus


    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.”


  • For GOP, It’s the Patriotism, Stupid

    by Ira Chernus


    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.”


  • In Search of New Mythology (Part Three)

    by Ira Chernus


    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.


  • Why Are Americans So Confused?

    by Ira Chernus


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

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

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

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


  • In Search of New Mythology (Part Two)

    by Ira Chernus


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

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

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

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

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


  • In Search of New Mythology (Part One)

    by Ira Chernus


    American eagle and flag. Credt: Bubbels/Wikipedia.

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


  • The Mythic Paul Ryan Enters, Stage Right

    by Ira Chernus


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

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

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


  • Myth Versus Myth: Remembering Nagasaki

    by Ira Chernus


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

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


  • Why Do Married Women Vote Republican?

    by Ira Chernus


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

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


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

    by Ira Chernus


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

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


  • Pentagon Planning for War With China

    by Ira Chernus

     

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

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

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


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

    by Ira Chernus

     

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

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

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

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