Friday, October 13, 2017

American Mythology

How our Heroes Define and Divide Us 

I don’t like to post political stuff. While I believe that there is a profound need for open and intelligent political discourse, I get frustrated with the sheer number of people who “just want to add their two cents,” and through blogs and social media are able to give voice to their opinions in the most thoughtless, blunt, and belligerent ways, with little desire to add to meaningful discussion. Needless to say, however, recent events have weighed heavily on my mind, and I have been trying to sort through my thoughts the only way I know how.

The last few weeks have been heartbreaking. While historically it has been the tendency for Americans to come together in times of tragedy, I feel like those periods of unity are becoming shorter and shorter, the time of healing abruptly ending while different sides bicker about how we are supposed to unite and what to unite behind. Frankly, the divisions in this country are disconcerting and discouraging, and since the election last November I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out what happened and how we got here.

At some point a couple of weeks ago, during the window between Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico and the mass shooting in Las Vegas, I saw a video posted to Facebook in which Bill Maher broke down our cultural rifts succinctly by evoking the old Aesop fable “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” declaring that the divisions in America are not north and south, not red state and blue state, but urban and rural. To an extent I agreed, and frankly, it’s tough when I find myself agreeing with Bill Maher. He’s just so smug and self-righteous that it pains me a little to take his side. There are many in this country that view liberals as elitist and he does absolutely nothing to dispel this notion, even when he’s right.

So here he tried to explain his urban/rural schism hypothesis: “Something happens to you when you live in a city,” Maher asserted, adding that in an urban setting one has “a multicultural experience. Cities are places with diversity and theatre and museums and other gay stuff.”

Evidently he’s trying to needle liberals too. At least he’s being even-handed, even if it was smarmy and predictable. However, what followed was largely a tirade condemning country folk for being a bunch of unsophisticated rubes who were too dumb to realize that they were being conned by an egocentric, petty charlatan, concluding by admonishing that “you didn’t make America great again, you enrolled in Trump University.”

Way to get people on your side, Bill.

Still, again, I begrudgingly agree with Maher, but it is not as simple as he says (to be fair a stand-up monologue is not a dissertation and subtlety often gets in the way of laughs). The schisms in America are numerous, and in addition to the “rural vs. urban” divide, I will also suggest that the other main divisions are “instinct vs. reason,” and “individualistic vs. systemic.” Unfortunately, I do find that many of these divisions appear to fall along similar lines, a perfect recipe for an “us and them” society.

It’s as if we have polar opposite ideas of what it means to be an American.  We have different mythologies, different origin stories.

Essentially, we worship at different temples. One side worships at the altar of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and Daniel Boone. These were men who explored dangerous territories beyond established settlements, who got along with their wits alone against the worst odds, and in the process, created the America we know, under beautiful, spacious skies. Rugged, individualistic, and cunning, these men epitomize the ideal of America as a land of opportunity, a land of endless bounty for those who work, who strive, and who dare. In short, it was the pioneer spirit.

One the other alter stands men such as George Washington, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. Men who balanced action and reason, they built a new nation based on ideas and ideals, freedoms and civic responsibilities, and believed that we were all created equal, in spite of the fact that many of them did not express their full faith in the creator (many were deists, who believed that a “watchmaker God” created the universe, but took no interest in it thereafter , not unlike Kurt Vonnegut’s “Church of God the Utterly Indifferent”). These were the men of the age that was dubbed “The American Enlightenment.”

As with most mythology, both of these are gross simplifications (i.e. bullshit). The most that can be said is that each represents a worldview, but both romantically misrepresent and simplify the realities of the times and environments. Still, they epitomize the diverging archetypes that Americans revere today, and I would argue that they are a significant root for the basic schisms in American culture.

A nation is created by a bunch of guys in leggings
We deify the founding fathers to such an extent that their human frailties and blatant hypocrisies become difficult, if not impossible to reconcile. They strove for a “more perfect union,” but ultimately tabled the conversation of equality (i.e. emancipation) until they themselves could no longer profit from the free labor that slavery provided (Washington and Jefferson included provisions in their wills to free some of their slaves). Still, the Constitution they created has become so venerated that, in spite of the fact that it was designed to be elastic and evolving (or amendable, so to speak), it now carries with it an air of ancient wisdom, making necessary fundamental changes to the laws of this country extremely difficult and unlikely. Even today, people refer to liberties addressed in the Bill of Rights as “God given,” even if they don’t know the specifics. "I think there are at least two constitutions of the United States," wrote constitutional law scholar and Harvard Law professor, Laurence Tribe. "There is a kind of mythic constitution that reflects widely held beliefs, slogans. And then there is the one that starts with a piece of paper at the Archives and has an extensive history."

As for our pioneer forefathers? While we can admire their grit and determination, we are talking about men who were largely uneducated, temperamental, and had, shall we say, strained relationships with the indigenous people of the continent. Some may idealize their relationship to nature, but I would argue that, for the most part, even that relationship was antagonistic. They battled the elements; They conquered the west. They lived in the wild, but I would argue, inharmoniously. The anthropologist Gregory Bateson would describe the dominant post-Industrial Revolution attitudes and relationship with nature by delineating a number of false precepts. These include that it is the individual above all else that matters, that we can and should seek to control our environments, and that the frontier is infinite (and infinitely exploitable). In his paper “The Roots of Ecological Crisis,” Bateson would emphatically state that: “The creature that wins against its environment destroys itself.”

Ecologically unsustainable, but it makes a great movie
Many still consider Bateson’s statements to be an affront to the American pioneer spirit, and in a sense they are. I know many who still believe in the myth of the wild west, and would suggest that I am somehow less American, perhaps less masculine, and generally a “snowflake” for questioning the sustainability of frontier principles. I get it. It sucks to find out there’s no Santa Claus.

So we see that in both cases the real history doesn’t quite live up to the myth, but it never really does. Still, it seems that we are stuck with these origin stories, and to whichever one a person gravitates appears to hugely influence how one relates to one’s surroundings and fellow citizens.

I’m not saying that all who live in rural areas exemplify the rugged individualism of the frontiersmen, nor do I suggest that that attitude precludes those in small towns from a sense of community. In fact, this sense is often intensified by virtue of the sparse population. However, I do believe that there is a mentality in rural life that values its isolation, that still views America as frontier territory, and has a wariness, and often an antagonism for those outside of their immediate families or communities. I kept reading last year that the Midwestern states voted red in order to “stick it those folks in the cities who make all the decisions, but they don’t know us.”

It’s true that city folk aren’t necessarily kinder or more hospitable people. In fact, cities have a higher concentration of assholes per square mile. That’s just plain math. While at best, living in a place in which there is such a multiplicity of cultures, races, and economic classes can make the empathetic or open-minded person realize that one must think about interests outside of one’s own immediate concerns, oftentimes the population density results in resentment and irritation. In my observation, even the most sage-like and best intentioned New Yorkers vacillate between empathy and urban rage numerous times in the course of a single day. Still, in many ways cities are microcosms of society in general, illustrating its vastness and interconnectivity. At the end of the day, the systemic nature of society is more observable in the urban world if one chooses to see it. When you live and work so closely to millions of other people, one doesn’t need to be an altruist to see the value of better public health and education.

I am not sure that that mindset flourishes in rural areas. I have met many kind people from the Midwest, but whenever I ask them to see the bigger picture, either socially or ecologically, they always say things to me like: “That’s too much for me to think about. All I can think about is what’s best for me and my family.” That expression seems to sum up so much of the conservative mindset. Empathy that ends with your bloodline is not empathy.

Beyond empathy, beyond charity, however, I believe one either understands how one’s own well-being is dependent on the well-being of those around us, as well as the overall health and efficacy of the systems in which we live (ecological, economic, etc.), or one doesn’t. And this, to me is the most difficult divide to address.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to teach a person to think systemically, and even more so if the person does not want to be taught. In this case, the “reason vs. instinct” divide is made evident by attitudes towards education. On one side there are those that put a premium on education, and on the other there are those who value “good old fashioned common sense.”

The Founding Fathers had a strong belief in education as a paramount necessity to participation in democracy. Washington stressed that  “it is essential that public opinion be enlightened,” while Jefferson warned that “[i]f a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

UVA album Boyd Tinsley of the Dave Matthews Band
Jefferson, of course, would found the University of Virginia, with the aim that it be “so broad & liberal & modern, as to be worth patronizing with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other states to come, and drink of the cup of knowledge & fraternize with us."

As far as I know there were no universities established by Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone. Now, I admit that I know little about the intellectual acumen of those two men. However, it cannot be denied that a negative attitude towards formal education that would fester in the American frontier that they helped to settle and develop. In his seminal book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hoffstadter wrote of the frontier society as one “of courage and character, of endurance and practical cunning, but it was not a society likely to produce poets or artists or savants.”

Furthermore, he wrote, that the seeds for the refutation of the virtues of education were being sown as “men and women living under the conditions of poverty and exacting toil, facing the hazards of Indian raids, fevers, and agues, and raised on whisky and brawling, could not afford education and culture; and they found it easier to reject what they could not have than to admit the lack of it as a deficiency in themselves."

The effects of these attitudes still linger, and there are still pockets in America in which state and local authorities seek to undermine scientific education in favor of thinly veiled religious dogma, and teach history that downplays the atrocities of American slavery. I am not so naïve to think that local history and community values will not have some bearing on the education that a child will receive, and to  which texts he or she will be exposed, but if we are functioning within the same democracy should there not be some significant overlap from one community or state to the next? How are we supposed to have a meaningful discussion if we are literally not on the same page?

I could go on and find a myriad of other things that divide us. I haven’t even touched on the “religious vs. secular” issue, I have avoided specifically discussing the gun control debate, and the issue of race is largely beyond the scope of these ramblings. Frankly, finding and detailing more cultural rifts becomes tiresome and discouraging. If anyone reading this believes I have not been even handed enough, frankly, it’s because I haven’t tried to be. I do have a side in this debate, but at least I like to think that I am tryng to be as thoughtful as possible in stating my hypotheses. Believe me, exploring the depths of the divisions in this nation brings me no comfort. The fact is that these schisms are so profound on an existential level, going so far back into our history and mythology, that bridging the gap seems impossible.

And sadly, maybe it is. As long as different sides remain fixated on their own ideas of the essential character of this country to the exclusion of all others, there will be no bridging the gap. As long as we remain defined by our myths, and view our history through rose-colored glasses, there will be no moving forward. And as long as we remain “us and them,” we will never form that more perfect union of which our forefathers dreamed. 

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