Does the USA need a new founding myth?

The U.S Constitutional Convention, 1789

A myth is not necessarily false.  It is a story that people tell about themselves.

The founding myth of the USA is the idea that we are a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

The American dilemma, as Gunnar Myrdal wrote in his classic 1944 book on race and racism in the USA, is the incompatibility of what he called the American creed with American reality.  The great sin of us contemporary white Americans as a group is the refusal to face up to this contradiction.

Most of us Americans like to think of the USA as the land of the free and the home of the brave, and don’t like to look at evidence that this isn’t so.  That’s why, for example, so many white Southerners insist that the Civil War was fought over state’s rights, not slavery.

As a boy, I was taught by my parents and teachers, including my Sunday school teachers, that everyone deserved equal rights regardless of race, creed or color, and that everyone, regardless of social standing, should be treated with courtesy and respect. I believed that being a good person and a good American were one and the same thing.

My core beliefs are still the same.  My opinions have changed radically over the course of my life, and especially within the past 10 or 20 years.  Like Albert Camus, I want to love justice and still love my country, and struggle to reconcile these loves.

But the USA as a nation is turning its back on the historic American creed even as an aspirational goal.

MAGA Republicans normalize voter suppression.  Woke Democrats normalize censorship.

We have normalized military aggression, torture, assassinations, bombing of civilians, corporate crime and imprisonment of dissidents and whistleblowers.

Although the American founding myth is fading, a new myth cannot be conjured up just by calling for one.  The power of a myth depends on believers thinking of it, not as a myth, but as just the way things are.

If you recognize a myth as a myth, it has no power over you, although the afterglow of your previous belief may persist for a time.

The most likely candidate for a new unifying myth is a patriotism based on American exceptionalism rather than historic American ideals.  During the past 20 years, we Americans have been called upon to take pride in the USA not because of our freedom and democracy, but our might and power.

Patriotism is defined as unconditional support for war and domination.  The military is our most respected institution.

The problem (aside from morality) is that its sustainability depends on continuing military supremacy.  What happens when U.S. global power collapses, and our manifest destiny proves an illusion?  Do we adjust to reality, or do we feel betrayed?  And what happens if we can’t adjust to no longer being Number One?

An alternative is the “woke” vision of the USA as a federation of sub-nationalisms, based on race, creed, ethnicity and gender.  Ideally we would all take pride in our separate identities and in being a nation where our various claims to autonomy are recognized.

The problem is that its sustainability depends of continuing prosperity, so that the desires of all the competing identity groups can be satisfied.   What happens if there is a crisis, and we have conflicting claims that can’t be reconciled?  Do we become like present-day Lebanon or the former Yugoslavia writ large?

Or maybe a new synthesis will emerge, something I can’t foresee and wouldn’t like, but will satisfy the people who believe in it.

Or maybe historic American ideals are not really dead, but only dormant.  The only thing I’m sure of is that things cannot go on as they are.

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2 Responses to “Does the USA need a new founding myth?”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    I don’t think we need a new “founding myth.” We need to view the “founding fathers” as humans who shared the biases of their times. They were doing what they believed to be noble and right and good. The history of the US has been slow and erratic progress towards those ideals of equality and liberty. They gave us a ladder and it is the duty of following generations to climb it. They were people of their times and did the best they could with what they had.

    That’s not a myth. It is exactly what they thought they were doing at the time. Racism is not specifically an American problem. It is a subset of “otherism” which is a very human problem.

    When I hear about a “new founding myth” what usually follows is an attempt to saddle “white” America with a political version of original sin. Not a big fan of original sin in any form. Let’s not forget that myths are all inherently religious.

    Remember the Plato’s Cave allegory? That’s the appropriate light in which to view the founding and any progress since then.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Vincent Says:

    You’ve made me think that one of the saddest things about America is the intrinsic assumption that it needs to bind its people together through a patriotic myth.

    I’m ready to accept that it’s not just an assumption but a real need, impossible to eradicate without some major catastrophe.

    Britain has myths galore, but no one thinks of them as a way to bind its citizens into brotherhood and patriotism. We are divided in every way imaginable, and our immigrants, legal or otherwise, are no longer encouraged or expected to integrate. The schools valiantly try to help their children find a place in society but it goes no further.

    But America is unique, it can have no equal or role model. What can be done? I lament the demise of the counter-culture and protest movements in the Sixties and Seventies—and the McCarthyism of the FIfties. Marxism is a ghastly thing but freedom to dream of a different world is needed.

    Not a one-size-fits-all Myth.

    Liked by 1 person

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