WHY AND HOW TO STUDY AMERICAN MYTHS

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WHY STUDY MYTHS?

The first reason to study American myths — and for many people the most important reason — is simply to understand America better, to gain deeper insight into what people in the United States are doing and come closer to plausible interpretations of why they are doing it. Nobody who lives in the U.S. is free from the influence of the national myths (though some may be more influenced than others). That influence works at every level, from the individual up to the nation as a whole.

On the individual level, to take just one example, consider what happens to someone who feels depressed or hopeless for any length of time. American culture has been deeply pervaded by the myth of new beginnings: No matter how bad things get, anyone can, at any time, put the past behind them and make a fresh start. Anyone who denies all possibility of a better future is often chastised by others, perhaps labeled sick and rejected, because their attitude does not fit the cultural norms. It’s probably harder to be depressed and hopeless in America than in many other countries, where there are national myths that give positive meaning to prolonged bouts of pessimism.

American myths also have a profound impact on relations among family members. For example, the mid-twentieth century saw the triumph of an idealized image of the nuclear family: Mom, Dad, 2.3 children, and a dog, living in perfect contentment inside a tidy white house surrounded by a white picket fence that kept all the troubles of the world far away from the family’s harmonious life. No serious problems or conflicts can disturb their Edenic home life. This image is often the stuff of jokes. But it is still taken very seriously by millions of Americans as a norm against which their own family lives should be measured — and will often fall short.

At the next level of complexity we can look at the many national myths that address relations among neighbors and the idea of neighborhood. These, too, have roots in colonial times, when it was common for groups of white families to move west and establish new communities. They often depicted themselves as outposts of civilization surrounded by menacing wilderness. Therefore they developed stories about mutual interdependence: Whenever danger threatened any one family, all the families would (supposedly) band together to repulse it. This story became an important part of the myth of American “neighborliness” — though an equally important part was the assumption that good neighbors don’t meddle in each others’ private affairs. (“Stone fences make good neighbors.”)

Moving up the ladder of complexity we come to groups large enough to form political units: towns and cities, counties, and states. Myths that affect political policies have especially powerful influence, because political decisions often determine whether people live or die, flourish or suffer, prosper or languish in poverty. Here the thick web of myths surrounding the notion of democracy come into play. Some Americans may find a famous picture springing to mind, drawn by Norman Rockwell during World War II to illustrate “Freedom of Speech.” It depicts a working class man standing and voicing his opinions freely at a New England town hall meeting, presented as a prototype of the democratic process.

To other Americans, though, that mythic image may seem irrelevant. For them, political units are more likely to be the villains in a story of government oppressively interfering in their private lives, doing more harm than good. In these kinds of myths, law enforcement officers sometimes represent the government as a whole in an especially dramatic way.

All of these levels interact with each other in an immensely tangled, virtually endless web. And their influence begins at quite an early age. No one would be surprised to hear a second or third grader justify some antisocial act by insisting truculently, “It’s a free country.” Rudimentary lessons in American democracy can begin just as early, typically teaching (or at least implying) that this nation has the world’s most praiseworthy political system. At an even younger age many children are socialized into the ideals of middle-class American family life and neighborliness (with more or less success). And it’s not surprising to find a little toddler intently staring at a television screen — which functions something like a sacred shrine in the idealized family — unconsciously absorbing a vast network of national myths (many of them communicated most clearly in the commercials).

The influence of national myths is generally most obvious when they are enacted on the largest scale, the national scale: in policies of the federal government and major corporations, media with national reach, figures who act on the national stage, etc. At this level, the impact of America’s myths goes beyond America’s borders; decisions made in Washington and in America’s corporate boardrooms and media editorial rooms have profound effects on a global scale.

THE STUDY OF MYTH AND OTHER FIELDS OF STUDY

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 myth. 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. But we need not focus on such an extreme example. All public actions and public policies are just as deeply affected by the prevailing myths.

Other factors are certainly involved. Myth is not itself sufficient to understand any of these phenomena, from the individual up to the national levels. To get the fullest possible view, they must all be seen from many different perspectives: geographical, economic, sociological, etc. But an understanding of myth is equally necessary.

Indeed, myth may have a reasonable claim to being the deepest and most important level of understanding, because it undergirds, encompasses, and ties together all the others. A myth is an overarching narrative that paints the big picture, claiming to show how all the discrete parts of any situation fit together, and expresses the meaning of the situation with emotional force. Without myths to interpret any situation, we would have only fragments of experience, seemingly random, chaotic, and empty of meaning. Moreover, our myths provide the ultimate justification — and, to some extent, the original motive — for public policies and actions.

Specialists could study the fragments relevant to their particular field. Each might claim to have the most comprehensive explanation, but that claim could always be challenged by specialists in other fields. If the study of myth is done well, though, it takes account of all the fragments and shows how people in the situation experience them as a coherent whole.

To study myth well means to analyze the workings of myth at every level from the individual on up to the national (and its global effects), as well as the interaction among those various levels. Although the myths are disseminated throughout the nation, they are interpreted by individuals and groups in many different ways. So they have many different effects. An important part of the study of myth is to understand, as precisely as possible, those different interpretations and effects, and how they interact with each other — again, in immensely tangled, virtually endless ways. The deeper we press into the meaning of public myths, the broader our understanding of public life becomes.

But there is no need to press any claim of special privilege for the study of myth. It is enough to make the case that this field of study is at least as important as any other. And that case needs to be made. American myths and their impact on people’s lives have been studied for many years. But they have not been studied nearly as carefully or thoroughly as most other aspects of American political culture. This disparity leaves the impression that topics like economics, institutions, bureaucratic structures, gender, political strategy, demographics, and a host of others are more important than myth in understanding political life.

One reason myths have been so little studied is that they are, by definition, interpretations of reality that are widely assumed to be true. They’re taken so much for granted that they are usually not even recognized as interpretations; they pass for common sense facts. One major goal of the study of myths is to “denaturalize” them; that is, to show that they are cultural constructions, not natural facts. Myths are the products of choices that huge numbers of people have made and continue to make. Of course when people make those choices they rarely recognize that they are contributing to the shaping or reshaping of public myths. But if we realize that myths are produced by human choices, we also realize that we are free to make different choices in the future.

MYTH AND THE NON-RATIONAL ELEMENT IN POLITICAL LIFE

Another reason myth has been neglected is that academic scholarship has its own mythology: a built-in bias toward the Enlightenment, its values, and its own mythic narrative. That same narrative has largely shape the view of democracy taught in schools and assumed in most American political discourse. The story is simple. It says that human beings are rational animals. Give them free access to information, let them discover the true facts, and then they’ll think things through logically to figure out what policies are best not just for themselves but for the whole nation.

But there is a growing body of evidence to show that when people make decisions about public issues they are far from perfectly rational.

Some of that evidence comes from public opinion polls. For years they’ve shown a striking paradox. On a number of issues the public favors policies that are generally seen as liberal: reduced military spending, increased environmental regulation, higher taxes on the rich, better Medicare benefits, etc. Yet it is difficult to get liberal policies enacted into law, because so many politicians who support them lose on election day. When Americans decide who to vote for, it seems they are moved by more than just their views on the issues. This paradox explains why leaders who espouse many unpopular policies, according to the polls, can be elected and re-elected. (Ronald Reagan was a particularly important example.)

A similar paradox is especially evident when it comes to economic and financial issues. A continuing flood of political commentary points out (and often complains) that many voters choose candidates who do not represent the voter’s own best financial interests. In many elections, the winner openly supports policies that favor people in the highest wealth brackets. Yet those winners gain office only by getting so many votes from people in lower wealth brackets.

Other evidence of irrationality comes from the study of political psychology. All sorts of factors influencing political life can be labeled under the general heading of “emotional” or “psychological.” A large body of experimental evidence shows that conservatives tend (in general) to be more well-organized and conscientious, live more orderly lives, and follow norms and rules more than liberals, because conservatives (in general) have more trouble than liberals tolerating unfamiliar or ambiguous situations, are more easily frightened, and so are more averse to risk than liberals. There is some evidence that people with different political views even have different brain processes.

All of the paradoxes and irrationalities so evident in political life call out for some other explanations beyond the classical idea of politics as rational choice-making. Myths are among the most important factors that can account for the non-logical dimension of public life, especially political life. Myths have tremendous unseen power to shape perceptions, understandings, interpretations, values, and therefore ultimately behavior. The powerful, perhaps ineradicable, human tendency to make sense out of our experience by thinking in (or by means of) mythic narratives will often trump the force of facts and logic. And those non-rational forces are a crucial dimension of public life that has been far too little understood.

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 the myths of past and present, and the possibilities for new myths, do not receive the same urgent study.

But it is important to make some careful distinctions here. The study of myth is not itself a branch of psychology. Even though myths have powerful emotional and psychological effects, which account for their non-rational impact, they are themselves cultural, not psychological, processes. Take just one example: Whenever an American dies in war, he or she is bound to be praised as a hero and a martyr who made the ultimate sacrifice to defend our freedom, preserving liberty not only for Americans but for all humanity. Many thousands of American parents whose children have been killed in wars have found consolation in this myth. However there have also been plenty of parents who did not find the myth consoling. Some even found that it made them angry; perhaps they were angered by the clash between what the myth suggested they should experience and what they actually experienced.

Yet those psychological effects are not open to study the way the myths themselves are. Emotions and other psychological processes cannot be directly observed; they are “inside” people, as we say. Myths, on the other hand, are publicly observable artifacts. So we can study the myths that legitimate a soldier’s death without knowing or predicting anything for sure about the parents’ internal psychological processes.

Another example: In the years following the 9/11 attack, large numbers of Americans told pollsters that they feared or expected another attack on the U.S. Though the number who express such opinions is declining, it remains substantial. Their sense of insecurity is enshrined in a central narrative in American life, which says that we must build a large, powerful, expensive “homeland security” apparatus because there are “terrorists” who are busy plotting to attack and, if they can, destroy our nation.

Yet few of the people who express that insecurity to pollsters are likely to feel the physical effects of anxiety, like sweating palms or a faster pulse rate, at the moment they are interviewed, much less all the time. The insecurity that they carry around all the time is not an emotion. It is a judgment about their situation — a belief, an attitude, a point of view.

Although everyone is ultimately free to form their own judgments, views on large societal issues like national security and insecurity are hugely influenced by the cultures and subcultures in which we live. They are shaped by visual images, behaviors, and public policies. Above all, they are shaped by, expressed in, and sustained by language, especially by the explicit and implicit myths that are taken for granted in public discourse. So the widespread sense of insecurity in our nation is not primarily a personal feeling. It is primarily a cultural, societal artifact: a worldview instigated, symbolized, legitimated, and reinforced by the prevailing mythology.

MYTHS AND BELIEFS

Studying myths is not the same thing as studying psychology; nor is it the same as studying beliefs. What people believe, like what they feel, is “inside” them and not available as public fact. Studying myths is also different from studying beliefs (and ideologies, which are sets of related beliefs) because we typically ask whether beliefs and ideologies are empirically true and logically consistent. We do not expect myths to meet those tests. So, for example, we can study the myths that legitimate a soldier’s death in great detail without ever asking whether the claims made by the myth are literally true.

That’s not to say the questions about psychological effect and literal truth should be dismissed. They are certainly important and worth pursuing. But they go beyond the limits of the actual study of myth.

When there is a great deal at stake, as in the example of wartime death, it may be especially tempting to say that the question of literal truth is the only one that really matters. If a war is not actually promoting freedom, then the dead soldiers did not sacrifice themselves for the sake of freedom. That seems something vital to know. As John Kerry famously asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

However there is value to imposing a strict methodological limitation, excluding the question of truth from the study of myth. A myth has a life of its own and exerts huge influence on public life apart from its empirical and logical truth or falsehood. We are less likely to understand that independent power of myth once we introduce the question of truth, because the search for truth — which quickly becomes the urge to find falsehood — is likely to take over the entire enterprise. Then we will fail to understand the life of the myth itself, which goes far to explain the non-rational aspects of American public life, especially political life, that loom so large.

Eventually, of course, questions about truth should be asked and answered. But if we want to understand the public life of the nation as fully as possible, there is value in keeping the study of myth and the study of facts separate, at least for a while, until we have a substantial understanding of the role that the myth plays. Then we can bring that understanding into conversation with findings about truth, to get the fullest possible picture of what is going on in our national life.

SHAPING THE FUTURE

Karl Marx wrote: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways: the point, however, is to change it.” You don’t have to be a Marxist to see the wisdom in this famous quote, which can be applied to students of American mythology just as well as to philosophers. Much of what goes on in the public sphere — actions by governments and non-governmental groups alike — cause all sorts of harm. And behind all those actions are myths motivating and legitimating them. Anyone who wants to change the conditions of American society would do well to begin by trying to change the prevailing myths. (Read more about why we need new mythologies here.)

There are already plenty of Americans who do not like some or all of the prevailing myths. Many assume that the best thing they can do is work to abolish myth from the public sphere altogether, to allow only facts and logical analysis to shape public life. Perhaps such a radical transformation may come to pass in some distant future. It’s fine to have people who believe in it working for that goal.

But they are taking a big gamble. All the evidence of human history suggests that myth is a basic constituent of every society and is unlikely to disappear from any society. Even the rigid rationalists embrace the Enlightenment myth with the same kind of passion that others embrace their own very different myths. So, rather than trying to abolish myth, people who want societal change would probably be better off creating, disseminating, and promoting new, more constructive myths.

That is a very difficult job. Although myths can be viewed usefully as tools for creating change, they are also tools for resisting change. Since the prevailing myths are widely taken for granted as self-evident truth, any challenge to them is a challenge to the foundations of society. That will frighten a lot of people, and they will resist strenuously. Nevertheless, the history of our national myths shows that they have changed in past — sometimes very substantially — which shows that they can change again in the future. Most often, perhaps, the changes have been largely unplanned and unintentional. But they have been the result of many people making many individual choices.

Now we are more conscious of the role of myth, and that makes the process of change easier. If enough people decide that they want the dominant myths to change, very gradually the myths can and will change. That’s one important reason to show that myths are cultural constructions. When we realize that they were created and developed by specific choices that people made, we also realize that people can make different choices in future.

This raises again the question of who make the myths. As noted in the essay on “The Meaning of ‘Myth’,” some people do have more control than others over the myths, in America as in any society. But everyone has some input into the process, whether it is to sustain the existing myths or to challenge them with new ones. The claim that the masses are mere victims or dupes of elite control is simplistic and misleading.

Moreover, the notion of the American people being controlled by “the powers that be” also undermines the very possibility of democracy. It suggests that 99% of us are powerless to resist the manipulations of the 1%. 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 in the process of making and remaking our national myths. And we can all become more involved, if we make the effort.

Changing myths will never easy, to be sure. And it can be a very discouraging endeavor. The constant competition among myths often leads to the new ones gaining power over the old. In fact, new myths are always emerging. However the changes occur and the new myths emerge very slowly, which makes them difficult to see; sometimes it is almost like trying to see glaciers moving. Since so few people are studying the myths and their changes closely, they are even more difficult to see.

The prevailing myths, and the people who support them, are not easily moved.  Since efforts to change myths are bound to provoke resistance, they are bound to be very slow. The process 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. Yet they are facts that cannot be simply wished away, and they are bound to slow down our journey. To make that 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 the dominant myths of the past and present.

First they must forget what they learned in civics class about the rule of reason and accept the fact that in politics, it’s myth against myth. Then they can think and plan strategically for the contest they hope to win.

To develop effective strategies, advocates of change must understand how myths work so that they can create new myths to undergird the new policies they want to promote. They must learn about the internal structure and logic of myths, how they can be developed creatively and made flexible, to adapt to new situations, etc. To gain broad support for their new myths, and thus their new policies, advocates of change must understand what makes myths appealing to large sectors of the population. The best way — perhaps the only way — to learn all this is careful study of the dominant myths of the past and present.

Moreover, new myths are most likely to gain widespread influence if they are built on, or have some continuity with, the familiar existing myths. People are generally more amenable to gradual change than abrupt and radical change. Again, advocates of change must understand the myths of past and present if they hope to develop winning strategies to promote different myths for different future.

Of course those who want to prevent change can also develop more effective strategies of resistance by understanding how myths work, why and how the prevailing myths attained their dominant role, and how those myths might be adapted to meet new challenges. So both sides in the contest of myth versus myth are well advised to give careful study to American myths.

2 comments

  1. Hi Ira–Nice work–Frank Beer

  2. Excellent essay! You have given my understanding of our national cultural ills words that I did not have before and now a new approach. Thank You!

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