Monday, April 18, 2011

The Great American Myth ... Is It False?

After all the debunking of the posts last week, perhaps it's time to take a good look at the spark that has set people dreaming for centuries: the myth of the United States, some call it the American Dream.

Myths, like dreams, are neither true nor false, but simply wishful thinking.

Some are necessary for sanity and survival. If we didn't have ways to mentally soothe our aches and worries or to assure us of a golden horizon somewhere ahead, we would surely commit suicide, cease our labors, give up the struggle of living, we'd lose hope.

Of course, the best-known myths are religious. The cavorting Greek and Roman gods, the powerful Egyptian goddess Isis, Noah and the flood, the Jehovah and Moses of Exodus are all mythical. In my opinion, even the Galilean woodworker the Romans called Jesus was a mythical figure.

These myths all attempt to answer primal archetypal questions of human beings: What am I here for? Who is in charge? What am I supposed to do? How do I seek help against disaster? Who's to thank for my good fortune? And so on.

The lore about these gods and prophets and heroes is all of our own making. We find ways to explain things to ourselves that are soothing and, at least at first blush, satisfying. The reality that God or gods are profoundly unobservable doesn't stand in the way of elaborate systems of thought based on one version or another of the cult of the divine.

I like the take of Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz: "If you talk to God, you are praying. If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia."

Much the same can be said about 'murrica. Most of what Americans learn as children about their country is patently false, as I have modestly shown. This is true of almost any country in the world.

The 19th and 20th century nationalist idea invented the myth that the Earth is populated by people who are distinct by virtue of somehow belonging to a certain territory, speaking a certain language, idolizing the colors of a certain piece of cloth and singing a certain ancient hymn that is almost always literally absurd. Americans, Frenchmen, Australians, Germans, Russians, Brazilians, Chinese.

The peculiarity of the American Myth is its the way the United States is cast in roles soaked in bibliolatry: Messiah and beacon of the world, Promised Land, Land of Milk and Honey. It's the dream image of wishful immigrants who braved a perilous journey and years of sacrifice to reach the American Dream, which most never saw.

In "Sail Away," Randy Newman has even composed a slaver's myth for Africans about to be enslaved:
In America you'll get food to eat
Won't have to run through the jungle
And scuff up your feet
You'll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day
It's great to be an American
Isn't that just the way of that hussy Lady Liberty? She swings her hips seductively and with a wink she makes us think the fire in her torch is made of gold. Just like the cobblestones on the streets from California to Staten Island.

Sure it's all bunk. But why else would we get up every morning, rush through coffee, drive to a cubicle, then reverse it after 8 hours, if there wasn't a rainbow there somewhere?

Why would the least favored Americans leave their hollows and their slums to bleed and lose limbs for reasons no one since December 1941 has had the decency to explain in terms that make plain sense, if there wasn't the red, white and blue to cover up recruiters' lies?

When I read the august words of Thomas Jefferson, I don't read a slaveowners' yen to be his own king in a society where everything was trick-sprung to keep only his own ilk on top. No, when I read words, sometimes entire paragraphs, that he borrowed without attribution from John Locke, I don't see the work of a plagiarist.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights ..."
Hear the brass and the flute and the cymbals? Hear Aaron Copland and Jerry Goldsmith's musical paean to America?

That's the beguiling myth of America calling.
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