Mythologies are the stories we tell ourselves about our culture, our history, and our heroes. We seldom think of our stories as fiction, but they usually are. There may be a modicum of truth in them, but they can be contrived whole cloth.
“Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.”
“Something which everybody accepts as the gospel
truth is inevitably false.” – H.L. Mencken
Did Paul Revere actually make his famous ride? The short answer is, we don’t know. Somebody did.
“Only a few days ago an iconoclastic American said there never was a ride by Paul
Revere; that he started out with Colonel Dawes, an ancestor of the recent Director
of the Budget, to give the warning to ‘every Middlesex village and farm,’ but was
arrested, so it is said by a British sentry, and never made the ride. Suppose he did
not; somebody made the ride and stirred the minutemen in the colonies to fight
the battle of Lexington, which was the beginning of independence in the new
Republic in America. I love the story of Paul Revere, whether he rode or not.”
– Warren Harding, 1923
Whatever the case, Longfellow’s famous poem, quoted in part above, invents a bit here and there. For example, the lanterns in the church tower were for Revere’s benefit, not from him. Those who remember the story as it is in the poem are part of the myth making process.
Another myth involves Mormons and polygamy. Even during its height, most Mormons did not approve of polygamy and perhaps only 10% actually practiced it.
Myths are subtle. We believe in them, most of us, without realizing that they are myths and probably without being aware of the concept of our own storytelling. Just as the Hebrews believed that the great general Joshua fought and conquered Jericho, Americans believe that they were founded as a Christian Nation and that we have historically done nothing but good in the world. Words like hegemony and imperialism are not often used to describe the United States, and yet, they are valid. Even though our textbooks describe us that way, we don’t seem to retain what we’ve learned when we leave school.
After all, don’t we mean well? We want to prosper and then we want others to prosper by our hand. I’ve previously addressed urban legends and how “others” don’t want what we want and this, too, ties into our story of ourselves. The United States has indeed been a world leader, and we have a tendency to think that we still are, unaware that the world is passing us by. We’re last in health care among developed countries, and yet our story says that we have great health care. The American Dream seems to have developed cracks, so that the dream itself no longer shines and the reality of it recedes further every day.
Most of our beleaguered country is holding on tooth and toenail to what remains of their jobs and their lives and every effort to relieve the burden seems to have the reverse effect. Money thrown at the problem is quickly absorbed by the banks and none trickles into the job market or the housing market and still banks are collapsing. It seems that the noble idea of the government being a force for stability may also have been a myth.
About our Christian Nation, Daniel Dennet says that people don’t all believe, but rather, they believe that they should believe. They go through the motions of church attendance and prayer without ever thinking about the empty framework that supplies their false comfort. How many would remain believers if they ever gave serious thought to their belief? The Myth of Statistics tells us that X% of the people are Christians, X% are non-believers, and the numbers keep changing. But the reality is more likely to be that most of the faithful are not really believers, but are living the myth of belief – they think that they believe; they brush off their doubts; they count themselves as members and are duly counted by their churches even if they no longer attend. Statistics are useful, but only so far as limited data can be useful. As Paul Harvey is famous for saying, there’s the rest of the story, the other shoe waiting to drop.
Strange we are, humans all, that we wear a cushion of myth over our realities. It’s a lubrication that eases us through our daily burdens and makes it possible for use to feel good about ourselves or helps us to avoid fear. But there is always a danger in mythology that problems that could be solved will not be solved because we cannot see them. Perpetual wars to feed our economy may not save us from terrorism, and in fact might create more terrorists, thus feeding the war machine. But the real problem is that while our corporations feed off the public trough the real business of war is destruction, not peace. And the destruction is not limited to human life and property, but to the very hand that feeds it. The price of war is handed down from generation to generation and the checkbook is not limitless.
Predicting the future is a no-sum game because it’s so easy to fall into the trap of watching a number of factors to the exclusion of all others. History is a better guide than calculation, and history is not on our side at the moment. Republics fail. Paper money fails. And the United States is a modern version of Easter Island as we live for today and never look toward the future. We cannot fix everything, cannot cure everything, cannot always win – Viet Nam taught us that.
Rather than wonder why Obama seems to be following Bush’s policies, perhaps we should take the Chomsky-esque view and wonder how he could do anything else. Big governments do what big governments do, not what individuals deem right and proper. Who did we think was running the world, anyway? The Most Powerful Man in the World is really no more than a pawn of the political world in which he moves, and his power comes from the powerful. And the purpose of power is to be powerful. It should not surprise us when he makes decisions that seem the antithesis of his stated goals, because his goals were always second to the goals of those who made him the President. But that’s all right because we can continue feeling good that he’s there to help us. Who will write his poetry? Who will create his myth? We will.