The ongoing debates over American mythologies make a lot of people — left, right, and center — insecure for a variety of reasons. On the one hand, the debates foster a sense of uncertainty, akin to the conservatives’ reaction to moral relativism. If we have no single mythology that we all agree on, what holds us together? If we have no shared foundation, what prevents our national life from spinning out of control? It might be natural to try to escape that anxiety by promoting a single national mythology as the only valid one and insisting that it is “truth, not just myth.”
But that runs smack into another source of insecurity. Americans across the political spectrum prize the ideal of individual freedom (though they express it in different ways). So many will worry about, and most will resist, any efforts to impose a particular mythology upon the whole nation.
There is really no reason to worry much about that danger. The likelihood of any single mythology being successfully imposed upon the whole nation is virtually zero. If one mythology does emerge by consensus — not by any compulsion — as clearly dominant over all others, so be it. But that seems extraordinarily unlikely. It seems far safer to predict that Americans will go on debating about their myths in the public realm forever.
This prospect of endless diversity will go on disturbing some number of Americans. Among them, some will be so plagued by anxiety about disunity that they will value conformity over freedom. So they will redouble their efforts to bind us all together under one mythology. Those efforts are almost sure to go on failing, leaving their supporters frustrated and therefore more anxious and insecure than ever. At the same time, those efforts are equally sure to raise more anxiety among others who fear losing their freedom.
So are we caught in a trap? Whether we stick with the two dominant mythologies or debate about new ones, it may seem that we’re bound to increase our insecurity and anxiety. Of course that’s just the opposite of what fruitful new mythologies should do. How, then, can we search for new mythologies without falling into that trap? It’s no easy task. There is no simple recipe. But a few observations here may be helpful.
A necessary first step, though it’s difficult for some, is to accept the diversity in our mythic life. And we need not accept it as merely an unfortunate, inevitable fact. We can embrace it as a gift that the diversity of America itself offers — a freedom to go on exploring the endless possibilities of imagination, to go on searching for, discussing, and debating alternative mythologies.
Another important step is to assure those who worry about their freedom that the process can, and almost surely will, go on forever. The goal of the search need not be — in fact should not be — to get one unanimously declared winner. One ruling mythology would stifle creativity and open the temptation to force conformity, counteracting values that are basic in American life — not only freedom, but hope and change. So we are not looking for “a new mythology” but for “new mythologies,” emphatically in the plural.
If there is no intention to produce a consensus, why should we expend the effort to search for new mythologies? Because the ongoing process is a valuable end in itself, for several reasons.
First, it can teach us to recognize consciously that our debates about public issues are not merely disagreements about facts or opinions or feelings. They are, at the most basic level, debates about mythology. We can learn how to understand myths on their own terms, as blends of fact and fiction, rather than mistaking them either for empirical truth or for lies that should be banished from public life. This lesson alone would go far to clarify our public discourse, bring less heat and more light, and thus make our disagreements far more productive.
As we learn this lesson, we can also learn more about myths: what role they play in our national life, why we need them, what good and what harm they can do, and what kind of myths can serve us best. More specifically, a debate about new mythologies can wean us away from the two historically dominant ones, with their unfortunate tendencies to heighten insecurity and anxiety.
Finally, the process of searching together for new mythologies can expand our view of what it can mean to be an American. We can share a wide variety of visions of the nation, its meaning, its future, and each individual’s role in national life. So we can open up the prospect of new American stories that make us more genuinely secure while keeping alive hope for a better future. One myth all Americans might some day agree on is the story of America as the place where we peacefully and constructively go on talking about ever new possibilities for a national mythology.
The process can go on forever because, in principle, the search for new mythologies has no boundaries. America, like every nation, is an imagined community, and imagination has no limits. We could (again, in principle) imagine American identity and America’s role in the world in any way we collectively choose. For those who want to indulge in fantasy, all options are open.
WHAT KIND OF NEW MYTHOLOGIES WOULD WORK?
For pragmatists, though, the question has to be put in more concrete political terms: What kinds of new mythologies would actually work? What would be effective in reshaping American culture and political life? What new national stories would win widespread support?
Here we are limited by the lessons of history. People are not very likely to totally abandon their most fundamental mythic structures and jump headlong into brand new structures. The new structures that become powerful and dominant will be adopted precisely because they retain some kind of continuity with the old.
So what are the minimum requirements for any new mythologies to have real success with the American public? An answer to that question can be no more than educated guesswork. But it seems likely that no mythology has a chance of meaningful impact unless it offers five elements that are basic to both of the great mythologies, elements that most Americans expect (whether they know it or not) from any national mythology:
- an assurance that there are eternal, universal truths and values, which are not merely human creations and thus provide an objective, unshakeable foundation for human life
- a narrative pitting those eternal values against their opposites — a moral drama of good versus evil — on a global scale
- a strong appeal to patriotism and national pride, based on the claim that American values are unique because they are eternally, universally true and good
- an affirmation of individual freedom as the highest value of all
- continuity with the mythic past through deep roots in distinctively American traditions and a close connection with figures from the pantheon of national heroes
This last criterion suggests that it would be most pragmatic to build new mythologies on the foundations of one of the two great existing mythologies, as expressed by a genuine American hero. Which of the two mythologies is a better candidate? The names of the two suggest an obvious answer.
“Homeland insecurity” has built into its very name the biggest problem that we must overcome; it can hardly be a springboard for any new mythology that would relieve America’s cultural foundation of insecurity. And since it inherently mitigates against fundamental change of any kind, it mitigates against a change in mythology, which is often the hardest aspect of any nation’s culture to change.
The other mythology has built into its name the possibility of change and the sense of hope for a better, more secure future. So it seems clearly the preferable candidate on which to build new mythology — if we could eliminate its traditional elements of threat and anxiety, which raise insecurity and evoke responses that cause harm to Americans and others.
A sense of threat and anxiety may seem to be inherent in the mythology of hope and change because it has always centered around the image of a frontier: a line dividing “us” from “them,” the know from the unknown, the safe from the dangerous. So all promises of progress toward a radically better future are inextricably bound up with fear of what the future might hold. The same mythology, in its traditional forms, has also created a frustrating confict between visions of future perfection and the disappointing realities of the present.
The only way to avoid these limitations is to develop new mythologies of hope that view even fundamental changes in American life as progress rather than threat. New mythologies would have to
- avoid any dualism of “us” against “them”
- avoid a division of humanity into the “virtuous” and the “evildoers”
- avoid pitting America against any enemies
- avoid fear of change
- avoid images of a perfect future that clash frustratingly with the reality of the present moment
- meet the five positive criteria for any successful mythology, listed above.
That’s certainly a tall order. It might seem impossible. But myth-making is an exercise of imagination. If we stretch our imaginations, we should be able to conjure up mythologies that fit all these requirements. In fact, it turns out to be not very difficult at all, because so much work has already been done by great, imaginative myth-makers of America’s past.
As a first example, let us consider the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.