The most popular idea for an alternative today is to get rid of mythology altogether, to live only with objective facts and logical conclusions drawn from those facts. That’s an old idea. We can find traces of it in some ancient cultures and in some later movements that kept those traces alive. But they never had very wide influence until the eighteenth-century, when the European Enlightenment gave birth to the modern dream of living without myth. That dream gradually extended its influence around the world — first and most importantly to the British colonies of North America.
America’s Founding Fathers were deeply influenced by the Enlightenment. So they passed on to us a legacy of hope for a public life based solely on facts and strict rationality. Their legacy has always played a powerful part in American political culture — and even in popular culture, with film and TV figures like Sergeant Joe Friday, the mythic detective who always demanded “the facts, ma’am, just the facts.” America’s Founding Fathers also handed on to us a rich legacy of national mythology, encompassing both hopes and fears. But today many Americans would have us forget the mythic side and focus solely on the Enlightenment vision of public life without myth.
The calls to abolish myth come most strongly from the two ends of the political spectrum. (Here, as so often, politics does make strange bedfellows). From the left there is a loud chorus insisting that the only way to make life better in the U.S. (and thus around the world) is to debunk all the myths and give everyone the true facts about every political, economic, and social situation. Then we can depend on the people to draw the correct conclusions and demand radical change. Of course these voices on the left insist that their own journalists and media are the only dependable sources for true facts.
On the right, there is equal insistence that only right-wing sources can be depended on for true facts. But, while conservatives are concerned about political and economic facts, they are usually most passionate about moral facts. The great danger to the nation, they claim, is relativism — the rising tendency to see moral truths (and, some intellectuals would say, all truths) as merely socially constructed points of view, each one representing the subjective biases of a particular culture. The loudest call from the right is for America to embrace objective, indisputable truths in the realm of morals and ethics, so that we can have some absolute certainty as a secure foundation for our lives. That firm foundation is no myth, they say. It is simply the truth — or, as many would put it, God’s honest truth.
Both sides admonish us to be sensible and reasonable. When we are, we discover that they both face formidable obstacles.
The right faces an obvious fact: People around the world, and even within the United States, follow many different moral codes and ethical beliefs. If only one code or set of beliefs is correct, who gets to decide which one? And how will that decision be enforced?
The issue gets especially tricky when we realize how many people’s perception of truth, especially in the moral realm, is entangled with religion. Would we limit freedom of religion to enforce a specific view of the truth as the one and only objectively correct view? Would conservatives, especially, who prize individual freedom so much, really want to limit the freedom of others so much? If we ever do start down that road, the people in charge of defining truth and setting limits today may find that they are the ones being defined and limited by others tomorrow. It’s a very slippery slope.
Of course Americans have been quarreling about such issues, both in and out of court, for a very long time. There’s no reason to think those quarrels will ever end. Which is another way of saying that the people as a whole are never likely to embrace one single view of truth on any issue of genuine importance. Opinion, perspective, and point of view will always play a role.
That fact of history causes plenty of insecurity and anxiety in American life — especially, but not solely, on the right. If there are no absolute truths that everyone agrees on, it can easily seem that everything is rather unstable, unpredictable, and thus out of control. If the whole nation’s life feels out of control, whose individual life can feel safe and secure? Who wants to live that way? Yet there is no escaping the fact that there are so many diverse views on morality. So the insecurity can easily feel inescapable, too.
CHALLENGES ON THE LEFT
The advocates of life without myth on the left face some similar problems and some unique problems of their own. They are generally content to allow people to choose their own moral and ethical paths. So they don’t get anxious about the growing trend of relativism in private life. They do have moral standards that they want to see applied consistently by everyone on issues of public policy, especially when it comes to economic justice and war and peace. But they rarely say that the nation’s big problem is diversity of moral views. Instead they blame most problems on a lack of access to true facts and a failure to think logically.
Left-leaning activists and movements have been staking their political fortunes on the “facts and logic” approach for decades. In terms of national political power, it’s hard to say that they have very much to show for it. Apparently facts and logic are not enough to build a really potent political force. This is a source of huge frustration on the left.
What’s missing on the left, more than anything else, is an appreciation of the nature of and need for mythology. There is great fear of myth on the left because myth is so widely misunderstood. It’s almost universally equated simply with falsehood and lies, especially the lies foisted upon us by the right and the powers that be. Few understand myths as stories composed of fact and symbolic fiction, stories that are true in the sense that they truly express the basic worldview and values of the people who tell them. (Of course this same misunderstanding is equally common across the American political spectrum.)
The left equally misunderstands, and therefore ignores, the need for mythology. The demand from the right for a universal moral code is just one of many examples that most people will not rest content with mere facts and logic. It takes more to make a satisfying human life. The public wants its facts, even in political life, wrapped in appealing myths. It has always been so; there’s no reason to think the desire for myth will disappear.
Facts speak to our reasoning faculty. We might call them the prose of life. The myths in which we set the facts supply the poetry. Myths give a chance for imagination and aesthetic pleasure to come into play. They let us find meaning and emotional satisfaction in the facts. Until the left appreciates the need to convey its facts and reasoning in the language of myth, it is likely to remain a frustrated minority voice in the public arena.
Since so many on the left do not understand the nature of myth or accept its political power, all they see is vast numbers of Americans denying or ignoring inarguable truths amid a mass of lies and obfuscations. That perception also leaves them frustrated and produces plenty of anxiety. So, in a sense, both left and right share a similar source of insecurity: It looks like too many opinions are swirling around where objective truth should reign supreme.
The left must also deal with an internal debate on this issue. Within America’s rather small left-wing circles there is an even smaller group — composed mainly of intellectuals — who reject the “facts and logic” approach, or any claim to a single truth, because they contend that all truth claims are subjective, socially constructed points of view.
The whole idea of “objective facts” is politically dangerous, these intellectuals argue, for one simple reason: Someone must have the power to decide which facts are objectively true and which are false. And that power is political power; indeed, it’s the highest form of political power, especially in a society that is so often told “You can’t argue with the facts.” Our freedom is much safer, they say, in a society where no one is claiming that their facts alone are the objective truth, where everyone agrees that every fact is just a point of view.
The same kind of debate goes on among historians. Some still pursue the facts: “how it actually happened,” as one famous phrase puts it. But many have given up what historian Peter Novick called “that noble dream” of perfect objectivity in the study of history. They consider every historical study merely one interpretation among many.
These historians have learned, by first-hand experience, a truth that a growing numbers of Americans in every walk of life are admitting: The more facts they collect, the less they really know. The facts themselves can never reveal the most important truths of human life, for the facts always come filtered through interpretation, wrapped in a story. Every new fact opens up new possibilities for interpretation. In the end, even the biggest pile of facts amounts to no more than someone’s — or some nation’s — story.
Life without myth may be a noble dream, but it isn’t likely ever to be encountered in reality. We are much more likely to go on forever demanding national myths and debating about those myths. So the question is not how to live without myth. The question is how to find national mythologies that can provide us with genuine security and hope for a better future.