Our National Mythology – the “American Dream” – is under assault
There is growing momentum to rethink the saga of our country. This “Revisionist History” is the reinterpretation of orthodox views on evidence, motivations, and actions surrounding past events. This development has both ardent proponents as well as harsh critics.
The process now seems to be devolving into “historical negationism” where events are interpreted (or even distorted) in ways that drastically disagree with the previous consensus view of the historical record. In part, this appears analogous to the so called “cancel culture” (the withdrawal of support for people, ideas or institutions by anyone who disagrees) that has begun to sweep our society.
Part of the problem is that such revisions affect not only our perception of past events, they implicitly confront our national mythology. This “epic saga” is the “inspiring narrative about the nation’s past. It serves as a collective symbol and affirmation of our national principles.” The story is what differentiates our “nation” (a cohesive group that is connected by history and culture) from the “state” (a sovereign territory with its own political system). A state is held together by the force of the government (e.g., the military). A nation is held together by shared values and beliefs. A nation without the political institutions of a state is generally powerless. A state without a coherent nation usually devolves into tyranny. A society that combines both into a “nation-state” is resilient and strong.
America’s binding national lore is founded on several ideas.
First, there is the notion of American Exceptionalism, that America is different than other countries. It was forged in a revolution against tyranny and based on an “ideal” that “all men were created equal.” “The U.S. is not just a bigger and more powerful country — but an exception. It is the bearer of freedom and liberty, and morally superior…”
Another component is the story of hardy pioneers arriving in an untamed land, escaping persecution to build better lives. This was poignantly stated by Cora Munro in the movie, Last of the Mohicans, “ They do not live their lives ‘by your leave!’ They hack it out of the wilderness with their own two hands, bearing their children along the way.” We were independent, resilient people who fought against nature and hostile inhabitants to build a civilization. Our dreams are achieved through sacrifice, risk-taking, and hard work, rather than by chance.
It was our “Manifest Destiny” – a people destined by God to dominate and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent.
We are also a “melting pot” of different immigrant groups and indigenous cultures. The strength of the American Dream is the “belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society where upward mobility is possible for everyone.” This required assimilation of language, traditions, and beliefs into the dominant culture. Ultimately, it required a loss of identity for some.
Truly there are numerous disadvantaged and oppressed peoples whose own stories do not mesh with the prevailing Anglo-European view. There are many inaccuracies and outright mistruths upon which the American story was built. The reality of our historical path does not match the “ideal,” hence the susceptibility to reinterpretation.
Yet, we must recognize that history is not “truth;” it is an after-the-fact interpretation of events of which we have but incomplete knowledge. Even firsthand accounts portray the events through a single lens filtered by the position and beliefs of a that person. It is never comprehensive and there is always a bias.
Further, we should understand that “national mythology” is related to, but not synonymous with, national history. Honestly, this is akin to saying that the “historical Jesus” doesn’t match the “biblical Jesus.” It misses the point. It is a story that transcends the details of everyday life. It tells of something sweeping that guides our way. It is the touchstone that defines our values and principles.
While our story is one of drawing ever closer to the ideals of equality and freedom, we still have a long way to go. The lack of perceived progress continues to drive protest and even violence. Change in our country has often come through conflict rather than compromise. Today is no exception.
The real question is whether it is possible to build a broader story (an updated national mythology) that maintains the core elements that have propelled progress for more than two centuries and incorporate the “other” stories, ones that have every bit as much relevance as the prevailing orthodoxy.
American Exceptionalism can only be maintained if we embrace changes that show the rest of the world that democracy and free markets work for all of our population, that regardless of past failings the ideals of our Founding Fathers are still relevant. We must be intentionally inclusive so we still have a melting pot rather than a cake with higher and lower layers, destined never to mix. The new American Dream must create equality of opportunity for all and not skew the playing field to advantage the few rather than all.
I pray that we can find a common ground. If we cannot pull ourselves together, I fear that simmering destructive forces will emerge and dominate. The collective vision of the American Dream will die. Our national mythology will cease to be one of coming together, believing in the future and aspiring to be all that God intended us to be. We will no longer want to individually strive for success, rather our story may become one in which everyone is a “victim” who believes they are owed something simply for being here. I don’t see how a country can survive, much less prosper, on such a basis