Most societies are built on myths — symbolic tales of the distant past that concern cosmogony and cosmology (the origin and nature of the universe), may be connected to belief systems or rituals, and may serve to direct social action and values. Our myths help tell us who we are and how we relate to the world around us. And, as Joseph Campbell wrote, when our myths are taken from us, when they begin to break down, the society structured around it begins to break down as well.
America (white America, in particular) is built on a myth. This myth is that this country was founded for the ideals of liberty and justice for all. These words are, after all, written into our founding documents. We believe that success is determined by hard work. If you work hard enough, you can accomplish anything. Our courts are fair, people are presumed innocent until proven guilty and, while there may be a few errors here and there in our criminal justice system, generally the outcomes of court proceedings are good and right. After all, the rites and rituals of the criminal justice system are also some of the rites and rituals that help us act out our belief in our story, in the American myth. Our nation is fair, because it was created by brilliant human beings (who in some cases we revere in ways close to reverence religions have for gods). The protectors of our myths (our priests) the police and judges and the military, have gone through tests to prove their worthiness, they are willing to sacrifice themselves in the name of our myth, and they can do no wrong.
The symbol for our myth is our flag, and when it is raised we praise it with promises of commitment (the pledge) and praise music (the national anthem). These have become (albeit recently) the rites and rituals of our myth, and to disrupt these rites and rituals disrespects the myth, and the priests, and scribes who attend to it.
Like the faithful who have never really had a prayer answered, there are many who are faithful to the myth of America who have never seen the fruits of the faith. There are many who have worked their fingers to the bone and yet don’t seem to get ahead, those who dream big dreams only to die poor and anonymous. But it is faith in the myth that keeps them pushing ahead, faith in the possibility that makes the hard work worth it, even if it may take generations.
It seems that there is a rather large racial divide in those who believe in the myth and those who don’t. To be sure, there are white people for whom the myth has proven to be empty, and people of color for whom the myth holds promise. But all in all, I would imagine that being born into a country that once saw your people as less than human (3/5 of a person), where your ancestors worked until they bled, and were beaten into working more, yet never saw anything come of that work but more work, would lead you to see the myth for what it is long before others might.
What I believe we are seeing now is a vociferous objection to this myth by those for whom the myth has never been seen as true and for those who have been listening to and learning from those who have not experienced liberty and justice. White people are hearing our brothers and sisters cry out that they have been working, working, working for generations only to see that it would take generations more work to catch up to the same amount of material wealth that white people have. Video recordings of police killing unarmed black people, of dogs being set on native people trying to protect what is theirs, are showing those of us who are white and willing to listen what our brothers and sisters of color have known for so long — the American myth is just that: a myth. It is a story we have told ourselves for generations both so that we might keep working towards an imaginary goal and so that we can blame those who do not reach their goal for their own personal failings. Believing in the myth ensures that those of us with power and privilege are not responsible for those who do not succeed. We are not complicit in the breaking down of the dream for another; it is their fault.
Yet there are others for whom this myth is so integral to the fabric of their being that to question the reality of the myth is to question reality itself, to question the core of one’s own being. If your life is inextricably tied to belief in this myth and this myth is being shattered, you have two choices: allow the myth to collapse and figure out a new story around which to find meaning, or fight like hell to keep the myth in place, facts and figures be damned. Many, many Americans are choosing the latter.
Myths are based in the past, not the future. They are creation stories and hero stories around which we guide the structures of our lives. We use them to guide our decisions, but always as a touch point in the past, not as a moment in the future towards which we aim.
The American myth is not a bad idea. To strive to be a nation that believes in justice and equality, that actually allows for everyone who works hard to get ahead is a wonderful goal. But it is that, a goal. It is not a reality, and it has never been. There is not point in the past to which we can point and say, “There! There is a time when the American myth was actually American reality!” And yet we gather around it as though it was. We focus our political and religious yearnings towards a time that never was, towards a myth that is as real as the stories of the Greek and Roman Gods. However, unlike the stories of the ancient Gods, this myth has potential. It is something we can strive towards if we are willing to let go of the myth and work towards it as a goal. If instead of looking to this point in the past (that does not actually exist) in which our nation was truly free for all, we work together towards a point in the future when this actually could be.
In order to do this, however, we need to find a new myth around which we can gather ourselves. We need to provide those for whom this myth is a defining life belief (those who have faith in this myth) another story. As it is, half of our nation is fighting the loss of this myth, fighting it with all their might. We have people absolutely irate at the perceived disrespect shows to our rites and rituals, to our priests and scribes.
We need to re-myth America.
These are just some things I have been thinking for which I have no statistical evidence. I am not an anthropologist or sociologist, I am a person who thinks a lot about myth and ritual. I am working this out. Feel free to add your own thoughts, we can all work this out together.