He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past. – George Orwell
I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are. – George H.W. Bush
Universities commonly mirror what students have already endured. Public education reverses the age-old tradition of identifying a child’s innate and unique gifts. Indigenous cultures emphasized what the Romans called educare – to identify, encourage and welcome that which that already exists. Progressive educators such as John Pulliam acknowledge this:
The true purpose of education…is to study the principles operant within an activity in order to facilitate new questions and new answers. In essence, education requires an environment in which students are not asked questions for which the answers are known; if the questions involve predetermined conclusions, the process is training.
But America ignored educare and institutionalized instruere (to build into). The Yiddish word is more poetic: assuming that children enter the world with nothing in their heads, schooling schtups them full of information.
Much of that information has less to do with what to know than with how and even when to know. Everything became standardized. David Henkin writes:
As daily school attendance became a normative activity outside the southern US in the early 19th century, masses of schoolchildren learned early and often to expect certain regular activities (examinations, early recesses, special classes) to take place on the same day of the week.
Standardized testing converts natural curiosity into docility and narcissism and trains middle class students not in critical thinking but merely in how to take tests. For the rest, the cruel euphemism of “No Child Left Behind” relies on threats and punishment, imposes narrow agendas, overrules local control and punishes entire schools for the failures of the few. Finally, it ignores the impact of poverty, which leads to the familiar vicious circle of inadequate funding and migration to charter schools.
We can explain why white, suburban students perform so much better on the tests with the simple fact that their school systems spend far more per pupil than urban systems can. The reason is that the U.S., nearly unique in the world, requires local jurisdictions to fund education through local property taxes. And our national obsession with scapegoating, punishment and blaming the youthful victims of capitalism has produced a situation in which most states spend more on prisons than they do on education. California is the worst, investing $65,000 per prisoner compared to $11,500 per student. But to ask why they do that – and why we allow them to do it – is to question the most fundamental aspects of American myth.
“Zero tolerance” policies allow school administrators no leeway for interpretation. Examples are endless, if tragic. A valedictorian is charged with a felony and banned from her graduation for mistakenly leaving a kitchen knife in her car. A thirteen-year-old who brings a model rocket to show in class is suspended. An eleven-year-old is jailed for bringing a plastic knife in her lunch box. A ten-year-old girl is charged with sexual harassment and suspended for asking a boy if he liked her. Mall police turn away girl scouts for being “similarly dressed.” A third of the students of a Chicago high school are expelled because of zero tolerance. It began not through political correctness, but because governments that cannot enact real gun control for adults divert the spotlight onto children. And youths convicted of any drug offense permanently lose federal financial aid (over 130,000 when I wrote my book ten years ago), even if possession laws are later overturned.
We’re talking about public programs, but we’re also talking about those 25-35% of Americans who are evangelicals and who have strangleholds on state and federal budgets.
Ten percent of the sixty million students in the country attend private schools, three-quarters of which are religious. Large numbers of these 4.5 million students learn in atmospheres that are misogynist at best and racist at worst. Their parents are Trumpus’ base. According to Christian researcher Robert P. Jones,
…white Christians – including evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics – are nearly twice as likely as religiously unaffiliated whites to say the killings of Black men by police are isolated incidents rather than part of a pattern of how police treat African Americans…White Christians are also about 20% more likely to disagree with this statement: “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for Blacks to work their way out of the lower class.”
Thirty-seven states require that when schools offer sex education, they must discuss abstinence. In 2017, a third of the $300 million federal funding for teen sexual health education programs was for abstinence education. All told, the feds have spent well over $2 billion on it. However, claims researcher Laura Lindberg, “…it leaves our young people without the information and skills that they need…We fail our young people when we don’t provide them with complete and medically accurate information.”
The government continues to throw money at these programs even though its own studies have shown that they have no effect on sexual behavior among youth. Worse, they generally withhold information about pregnancy and STD prevention. They don’t reduce pregnancy or STD rates, and they have no effect on adolescents delaying intercourse. However, when they do become active, many teens fail to use condoms, unlike their peers in other countries who have routine access to contraceptive education and counseling.
The final insult is that language used in abstinence-based curricula often reinforces gender stereotypes about female passivity and male aggressiveness – attitudes that often correlate with domestic violence. The cumulative result: It is likely in vast areas of the country for a girl who has been raped and impregnated by a relative to have no access to abortion (family rape is the source of 40% of teen pregnancies). She might run away with her child to escape the ongoing abuse, go on welfare (until the funds run out and the state takes the child) and become a homeless prostitute. She would be a sacrificial victim, no different in any respect from similar girls in the Middle East. But she would also carry the uniquely American, Puritan blame for her own suffering.
This entire issue of how our institutions function to dumb us down is part of something even larger than the myth of American Innocence. The myth of the killing of the children is the most fundamental narrative upon which all of Western patriarchal culture is founded. In Chapters Six and Ten of my book I discuss the immensely long story – beginning with Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to impress his god – in which fathers learned to invert ancient male initiation practices into the literal sacrifice of male children in the cauldron of war.
For the rest of us, beginning with mandatory public education and continuing with the spell of advertising and mass media, that ancient process has perpetuated conditions in which our innate intelligence – our ability to discriminate and think critically – has atrophied. As historian John Crossan writes,
It is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.
Indeed, even if we retain our belief in the value of public education, this process has produced a nasty feedback mechanism in which the most ethically-challenged and pathologically ambitious individuals rise to the highest corporate and political heights, and then we continue to elect them as they shamelessly, even proudly go about destroying that institution. Why? Because they work for people who know that if the rest of us really learned how the world works, we might rise up and throw them out.
History is the only field in which the more courses students take, the stupider they become. – James Loewen
Culture is an instrument wielded by professors to manufacture professors who, when their turn comes, will manufacture professors. – Simone Weil
I love the poorly educated. – Trumpus
Before college it’s mostly about textbooks, as James Loewen and Donald Yacovone have shown. Consider The American Pageant, a high school Advanced Placement history textbook assigned to over five million students annually. Its gross racism can be excused because it was first published in1956. Updated sixteen times, most recently in 2019 by Pulitzer Prize winner David Kennedy (Stanford), it has been described as “a patriotic work that celebrates American progress and the free enterprise system, while largely ignoring dissenting political viewpoints…”
Loewen, however, wrote, “It is likely that Houghton Mifflin (the publishers) took pains to avoid the subject (of slavery) lest some southern state textbook adoption board take offense.” Ibram X. Kendi notes that the 17th edition still contains false representations of slavery, for instance by referring to kidnapped and enslaved Africans as “immigrants” and stating that free people of mixed race were “usually the emancipated children of a white planter and his black mistress.” The N-word is not mentioned anywhere, but there is a list of racial terms used against poor white people.
If, on the sixteenth revision, this garbage is still in the book, we can only assume four possibilities: the esteemed Professor Kennedy is senile and hasn’t noticed it; he only lent his name to the title and hasn’t even read it; he thinks it is not insulting to People of Color; or he wants it to remain for more nefarious reasons.
Texas established a textbook committee in the early 1960s. It required that texts omit any references to Pete Seeger, Langston Hughes or anyone else attacked by the House Un-American Activities Committee; another proposal would require every public school teacher to swear to a belief in a supreme being.
Gatekeeping works through exclusion, as above, or through marginalization: As I noted in “False Equivalencies – How Media Gatekeepers Marginalize Alternative Voices”, only a few years ago liberal Harvard invoked a shady, right-wing “fact checker” and used false equivalencies to blacklist large swarths of progressive media. Conservative David Horowitz has taken the next logical step in book-burning, publishing his The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, claiming they are sympathetic to terrorists.
Despite all the commies he claims have taken over the teaching of History, the reality of course is quite different. In 1995, Loewen published Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, which reflected his lengthy survey of 12 leading high school textbooks. It revealed a dull Eurocentric history presented with a mix of bland optimism, blind patriotism and misinformation. He also polled thousands of undergraduates on their political views. Although 90% of the public assumed that college-educated persons were both more knowledgeable and more dovish,
Educated people disproportionately supported the Vietnam War…the grade-school-educated were always the most dovish…we must conclude that the more educated a person was, the more likely she/he was to be wrong about the war…education as socialization tells people what to think and how to act…the more traditional schooling in history that Americans have, the less they will understand Vietnam or any other historically based problem…education correlates with hawkishness.
This only happens in history education:
Education does not have this impact in other areas of study. People who have taken more mathematics courses are more proficient at math than those who have not. The same holds true for English, foreign languages and almost every other subject. Only in History is stupidity the result of more, not less, schooling.
Chomsky agrees: the most highly educated people are the most highly indoctrinated. At a certain level, the distinction between stupidity and ignorance slides into willful denial. For those privileged to attend the best universities and train to become the next generation of corporate, political and media leaders, “…you just don’t think certain things”. Others who display their psychopathic inability to feel empathy for others are channeled into the foreign service and learn the arts of manipulation. In a rare moment of candor, Henry Kissinger admits:
This (foreign policy) is not an honorable business conducted by honorable men in an honorable way. Don’t assume I’m that way and you shouldn’t be.
William Deresiewicz, formerly of Yale, echoes Chomsky’s views on gatekeeper training:
At Yale…the message is reinforced in embarrassingly literal terms. The physical form of the university – its quads and residential colleges, with their Gothic stone façades and wrought-iron portals – is constituted by the locked gate set into the encircling wall. Everyone carries around an ID card that determines which gates they can enter. The gate, in other words, is a kind of governing metaphor – because the social form of the university, as is true of every elite school, is constituted the same way. Elite colleges are walled domains guarded by locked gates, with admission granted only to the elect. The aptitude with which students absorb this lesson is demonstrated by the avidity with which they erect still more gates within those gates, special realms of ever-greater exclusivity – at Yale, the famous secret societies, or as they should probably be called, the open-secret societies, since true secrecy would defeat their purpose. There’s no point in excluding people unless they know they’ve been excluded.
Such “secret” societies reveal how modern culture has taken the universal desire among young men to be recognized and welcomed into mature adulthood by their elders and perverted it to serve the needs of capitalism. As I write in Chapter Five of my book,
Fraternity initiations can seem quite realistic. But they typically allow boys to remain boys while cementing future business and political unions. In these ceremonies of entitlement, their elite group identity excludes the vast majority of their own social class, let alone the rest of the polis.
…America is still deeply influenced by its heritage of Puritanism. This has left a residue of moralistic education – teaching and schooling through denial, both of the wisdom of the body as well as of the innate needs for initiation and purpose. It is more concerned with restrictions on behavior and speech than on hearing what may be emerging from a young person’s soul.
Since tribal societies valued all their young men, their initiations were communal and usually mandatory. The dangers were real, but all were encouraged to complete the transition. By contrast, the primary function of our advanced degrees, professional licensing exams and corporate promotion is to choose who will succeed, not to ensure that all will. In business, academics and sports, definitions of success and masculinity require the failure of others. Thus, money and consumer goods – rather than wisdom – mark successfully socialized men.
One of the great errors of an elite education, then, is that it teaches you to think that measures of intelligence and academic achievement are measures of value in some moral or metaphysical sense. But they’re not…As another friend, a third-generation Yalie, says, the purpose of Yale College is to manufacture Yale alumni…The disadvantage of an elite education is that it’s given us the elite we have, and the elite we’re going to have.
The most elite of the elite receive their initiations into the traditions of those secret societies, most notably Skull and Bones, which has nurtured William Howard Taft, Potter Stewart, William Bundy, McGeorge Bundy, William F. Buckley, Robert Taft, Henry Luce, Prescott Bush, G.H.W. Bush, G.W. Bush, John Kerry, David McCullough, Steven Mnuchin, Dana Milbank, J.J. Angleton and many other warriors for empire who have made their bones (and their fortunes) in the C.I.A. and the State Department.
After “The Vietnam War,” I’ll have to lie low. A lot of people will think I’m a Commie pinko, and a lot of people will think I’m a right-wing nutcase, and that’s sort of the way it goes…I want to bring everybody in. – Ken Burns
All governments suffer a recurring problem: power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible. – Frank Herbert
…and academics in offstage clothes who watch, say nothing, and think they know, because they do not drink wine in the ordinary bars. – Antonio Machado
Academic historians, of course, whether consensus gatekeepers or leftist revisionists not named Zinn, have little impact on anyone (outside of the future gatekeepers they instruct), because their books don’t sell much. They don’t dirty themselves in the world where politics, popular art and entertainment have become almost indistinguishable.
That’s mostly the job and privilege of biographers and creators of historical fiction – gifted and ambitious writers who speak directly to the people – to convey digestible versions of American myth to mass audiences. The novelist E.L. Doctorow wrote, “The historian will tell you what happened; the novelist will tell you what it felt like”. Vladimir Nabokov, however, wrote:
Can anybody be so naïve as to think he or she can learn anything about the past from those buxom best-sellers that are hawked around by book clubs under the heading of historical novels? Certainly not…The truth is that great novels are great fairy tales.
Another novelist, novelist Hilary Mantel, writes that “history is not the past – it is the method we’ve evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past.”
We also have the genre of “popular” historians who emphasize consensus narratives and heroic personalities. This group includes Bruce Catton, Stephen Ambrose, Jill Lepore, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, Ron Chernow (whose sanitized Alexander Hamilton has been criticized as simplistic hagiography) and “Lost Cause” popularizer Shelby Foote. Some academics have demeaned popular history as “a seductive and captivating distraction that opens the heart but castrates the mind.”
Two popular historians have attained the status of household name. For better or worse, Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln has sold over 2.2 million copies and spawned an entire series (Killing Kennedy, Killing Jesus, Killing Patton, Killing Reagan, Killing the Rising Sun). Each has sold over a million copies. Andrew Bacevich laments that O’Reilly Is America’s best-selling historian:
In effect, professional historians have ceded the field to a new group of bards and minstrels. So the bestselling “historian” in the United States today is Bill O’Reilly…Were Donald Trump given to reading books, he would likely find O’Reilly’s both accessible and agreeable. But O’Reilly is in the entertainment business.
I would argue that whenever history books (popular, fictional or academic) set out to confirm the basic premises of our national mythology, all it takes is a decent writing style to make them “entertaining.” We want – sometimes desperately – to have our myths confirmed.
Finally, we have Ken Burns, and his massively popular (and massively promoted) historical documentaries. Time Magazine called him “the master film chronicler of America’s past”. Stephen Ambrose has said that “more Americans get their history from Ken Burns than from any other source.” Since he is America’s most famous historian, we need to spend some time on him.
His vast field of interests and subjects have opened him to much criticism, that he has consistently minimized alternative voices in favor of a highly sanitized vision of American exceptionalism. His hugely popular and influential The Civil War claims that the war was caused not by slavery but by a failure to compromise, that the Confederacy fought for a noble cause. He gave Shelby Foote 45 minutes of screen time and allowed him to praise the brute Nathan Bedford Forrest and idolize the slaveowner Robert E. Lee. Irrelevant? A quick image search for the series reveals four types: romantic pictures of canons, iconic 19th-century photos, pictures of Burns and pictures of Foote.
David Harlan writes that “Burns is a traditional liberal, clinging to that narrow ledge of psychic landscape that lies between the capacity for doubt and the will to believe.” Since Burns seems to believe in the possibility of national redemption, he is willing to discount or completely ignore radical critiques of America. And, since he really wants us all to get along with each other, his typical stance is to situate himself right in the center and create false equivalencies. “In their ostentatious rejection of ideology,” writes Alex Shephard,
…they (Burns and his co-writers) have sneakily put forth their own: that these rival perspectives are of equal value…This is Burns’s reconciliation in action…the Confederates were just as human as the Union soldiers, and presented in the same sentimental light. The problem, as Charlottesville made abundantly clear, is that those divisions still define American life and keep roaring back.
Leon Litwack noted how the last episode jumps ahead to the gatherings of Union and Confederate veterans, at Gettysburg, in 1913 and 1938. The effect is “to underscore and celebrate national reunification and the birth of the modern American nation, while ignoring the brutality, violence, and racial repression on which that reconciliation rested.” Eric Foner, similarly, wrote that “Burns privileges a merely national concern over the great human drama of emancipation.”
Burns amplified his gatekeeping role in his series on the Vietnam war, which, writes Jeffrey Kimball,
…gathers testimony from over eighty people, including United States soldiers, intelligence officials, politicians, journalists, and an anti-war activist or two…In their zeal to reconcile these various factions, however, Burns and Novick handle division with kid gloves. They portray it, sure, but mournfully, as a kind of unavoidable, human tragedy. There’s a reluctance to assert that these divisions grow out of real forces that continue to influence American culture…While it can’t forgive the presidents who lied, it’s too forgiving of everyone else…It also betrays a flawed conception at the heart of Burns’s enterprise…a requiem for a time that never really existed – a period before the 1960s, when this country was supposedly unified.
His coverage of the antiwar movement has been described as “inaccurate, disjointed, incomplete, and fundamentally negative”. He never interviewed Zinn, Chomsky or any other radical historian. If he had, he might have heard Chomsky argue that America invaded Viet Nam, to prevent it “…from becoming a successful model of economic and social development…”
Burns completely ignored the questions of U.S. imperialism, the causes of the Cold War and capitalist economic motives in favor of the feel-good mythology of benign intentions and crusading idealism gone wrong. He portrayed this vast tragedy in exactly the same terms as any other centrist voice: We screwed up, but we meant well. His introductory statement – “It was begun in good faith by decent people…” – is the quintessential expression of the myth of American innocence.
The series on Country Music danced cynically around the issues of race. To not acknowledge the popularity of reactionary politicians from Tom Watson to George Wallace to Trumpus among Country fans was a sin of omission. Most recently, his series on Ernest Hemingway had plenty of time to address the writer’s lifelong leftist politics but chose instead to give excessive attention to his love life.
Burns’ work, while immensely entertaining, has established itself as a predictable, uncontroversial and much more palatable version of the MAGA narrative that surprised liberals, seemingly arising spontaneously in 2016. In fact, that narrative had been nurtured not only by right wing media and televangelists but also by centrist historians.
Meanwhile, even when those centrists get it right, they may still have to negotiate the real world of politics. In 1983 a coalition of academics warned that the U.S. was falling behind other nations and needed to define goals for history curricula. By 1994, however, a backlash deploring “political correctness” led to the U.S. Senate voting 99-1 for a resolution disavowing the proposed standards and demanding that any future guidelines show “a decent respect for the contributions of Western civilization”. Further pressure resulted in the Department of Education destroying 300,000 copies of a pamphlet, Helping Your Child Learn History.
As mythology trumps facts, Academia reflects politics. Despite the common notion that university history departments are filled with younger progressives, those gatekeepers who have proudly proclaimed their conservative prejudices have continued to dominate intellectual discourse around empire, white supremacy and American innocence. The great majority have attended or taught at Ivy League universities: George Kennan (Princeton), Gil Troy (Harvard), Robert Tucker (Johns Hopkins), Robert Maddox (Penn. State), Bruce Catton (Oberlin), Victor Hanson (Stanford), Michel Oren (Harvard), Donald Kagan (Brown), Daniel Boorstin (Harvard), Daniel Yergin (Yale), C.V. Woodward (Yale), Niall Ferguson (Harvard), Oscar Handlin (Harvard), Timothy Snyder (Harvard, Yale), Kimberly Kagan (Yale), Fred Kagan (Yale), George Nash (Harvard), Richard Pipes (Harvard), Daniel Pipes (Harvard), Paul Gottfried (Yale), Walter Lord (Yale), Herbert Feis (Harvard) and Sean Willentz (Yale).
Ivy League historians such as these have instructed fifteen U.S. Presidents; all but one of the current Supreme Court Justices; six of Biden’s fifteen Cabinet members; politicians Ted Cruz (Princeton, Harvard), Elise Stefanik (Harvard), J.D.Vance (Yale), Josh Hawley (Yale), Ben Sasse (Harvard), Mitt Romney (Harvard), Amy Klobuchar (Yale), Kirstin Gillibrand (Dartmouth), Chuck Schumer (Harvard) and Tom Cotton (Harvard); and notable warmongers Madeleine Albright (Columbia), William Colby (Princeton), Zbigniew Brzezinski (Harvard), Dick Cheney (Yale), both George Bush’s (Yale), Prescott Bush (Yale), Donald Rumsfeld (Princeton), Anthony Blinken (Harvard), Max Boot (Yale), Michael Novak (Harvard), Nathan Glazer (Harvard), Steve Bannon (Harvard), Norman Podhoretz (Columbia), George Schulz (Princeton), Jeane Kirkpatrick (Columbia), Richard Perle (Princeton), Bill Kristol (Harvard), Charles Krauthammer (Harvard), Laura Ingraham (Dartmouth), David Horowitz (Columbia), Dinesh D’Souza (Dartmouth), Ann Coulter (Cornell), Pat Buchanan (Columbia), William F. Buckley (Yale), Elliot Abrams (Harvard), Robert Kagan (Harvard, Yale), Scooter Libby (Yale), John Ashcroft (Yale), John Bolton (Yale), Steve Forbes (Princeton), Victoria Nuland (Brown), Jake Sullivan (Yale), David Frum (Harvard, Yale), George Will (Princeton), Francis Fukuyama (Harvard), Paul Wolfowitz (Cornell), James Baker (Princeton), Michael Bloomberg (Harvard), Dick Cheney (Yale), Michael Walzer (Harvard), Robert Gates (Georgetown) and Lawrence Summers (Harvard). This is how prospective leaders and servants of empire are formed.
Please note that nowhere in this essay do I blame teachers, thousands of whom understand exactly what I’m talking about and persist within the system to educate – rather than instruct – their students. But in our demythologized world, we can only offer one of two possibilities about the institution of American education. Either it, like all our institutions, is collapsing as the myth of innocence itself loses potency; or that system, like all the others, was specifically designed to bring out the worst in us, not the best, and it’s working quite well.
We need to imagine something better. We need to re-imagine the telling of history itself.
Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them. – Albert Einstein
The visionary is the only true realist. – Federico Fellini
Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire. – W.B. Yeats
In remembrance is the beginning of redemption. – The Baal Shem Tov
Poetry is something more scientific and serious than history. – Aristotle
We are at the end of an age. We exist uncomfortably between those years when our historian gatekeepers provided stories about ourselves with a sense of shared meaning, and some unknown future when new stories might arise to express what we might become.
American culture raises sociopaths and psychopaths to the highest levels. As long as we prioritize stories of heroism, innocence, good intentions and exceptionalism (and still refuse to address the darker stories of white supremacy, empire, brutality and alienation below them), we will always have intellectuals who will be willing to police the boundaries of memory and acceptable thinking. Some of them will rise to become primary gatekeepers because they will enjoy manipulating other people; some for the rewards they will receive; and others because they will have been so well educated as to actually share those beliefs. This third group has always been the more persuasive. We need to imagine something better.
Those revisionists (from Beard to Zinn and beyond) who began to tell the truth about American history (from Columbus to Viet Nam and beyond) provided the first necessary step in a long process of waking up. Zinn wrote that memory
…can liberate us when the present seems an irrevocable fact of nature. Memory can remind us of possibilities that we have forgotten, and history can suggest to us alternatives that we would never otherwise consider…the past suggests what can be, not what must be. It shows not all of what is necessary, but some of what is possible…The only way to compensate for the bullying nature of history is to behave as if we are freer than our “rational” calculations tell us we are.
So here is something for us to do: we can begin the withdrawal of allegiance from the state and its machines of war, from business and its ferocious drive for profit, from all states…all dogmas. We can begin to suggest, and to act out, alternative ways of living with one another. It is possible…that we can be a cause of change, that coming generations will have a new history.
Now it is possible, despite all the censoring, de-platforming and marginalizing that still continues and is actually increasing, to read the texts and know the dark truth of who we actually are as a nation and how the story of welcoming the Other into the Polis continues its agonizingly slow process.
But a second step is equally necessary.
Our task is to do more than simply deconstruct outmoded belief systems. They hold us not merely because of generations of indoctrination, but because of their mythic content. They grab us, as all myths do, because they refer to profound truths at the core of things. Although those truths have been corrupted to serve a culture of death, they still remain truths, and they remain accessible through the creative imagination. The methods for doing so are ritual, art and seeing through – de-literalizing. It means telling the same stories but reframing them until we discover their essence. In Native American terms, we will need to search for our original medicine.
America provides a unique challenge in the study of myth because, except for Native stories, our myths do not arise from this ground, nor do they easily invite us to the work of the soul. Still, they have no less a hold on us because they are only ten or fifteen generations old. Understanding their contradictions will not make them go away. But if we assume telos – purpose – we must imagine that even the myths of American innocence and violent redemption can lead us to the universal archetypes. If we can hold the tension of these opposites (the myths and the realities) perhaps we can begin to re-articulate meaning in a world that is descending alternately into chaos and fascism. If we cannot disengage from our myths, then we need to look deeper into them.
To speculate on the deeper meaning of our civil religion is to risk falling into a morass of cliché. For 400 years, apologists from preachers and dime novelists to Radio Free Europe and Tucker Carlson have presented an America divinely ordained to defend freedom (or: assassinations and military coups), nurture democracy (repress self-determination), spread prosperity (steal resources) and inspire opportunity (enforce oppression). But this mythic language tugs at our emotions. Even when we know better, we want America to be what it claims to be – we want to believe – or disappointed, we become cynical and disengaged.
But what if America were born so that freedom could spread everywhere some day? What if our uniquely good fortune has been the container for a story that has not yet been told? Why not look at history from the perspective of mythology, archetypal psychology and indigenous wisdom? What if we were to move from history to mystery?
My kind of history tries to seek out the mythic patterns that underlie events and ideas in areas as diverse as Psychology, Literature, Religion, Sociology, Anthropology, Economics, American Studies and Popular Culture. The writers I like proudly admit to being amateurs (Latin: amare, “to love”); we love stories. We aren’t scientists or theologians, but like Heinrich Zimmer, reckless dilettantes (“to take delight”). He writes:
The moment we abandon this dilettante attitude toward the images…to feel certain about their proper interpretation…we deprive ourselves of the quickening contact, the demonic and inspiring assault…What characterizes the dilettante is his delight in the always preliminary nature of his never-to-be-culminated understanding…We can never exhaust the depths – of that we may be certain…a cupped handful of the fresh waters of life is sweeter than a whole reservoir of dogma…
Our American cosmogony begins, as all do, with the original “deities” (the Pilgrims and founding fathers) who created a world out of “nothing.” Taking a radical perspective, we acknowledge that from the start, their “city on a hill” functioned to steal, concentrate and perpetuate wealth. American history becomes a series of conquests, painful expansions of freedom and counter-measures to protect privilege, culminating in today’s bleak realities. The rich vs. the poor, or the predatory and paranoid imaginations vs. the return of the repressed.
Alternatively, we can take a philosophical approach. Jacob Needleman insisted that the founding fathers were adherents of a timeless wisdom who created a system to “allow men and women to seek their own higher principles within themselves.” The nation was formed of unique ideals and potentials, not from ethnicity; and this explains its universal appeal, even if those ideals have been perverted into their opposites. The American Dream vs. the nightmare of dreams deferred.
Or we can muse poetically about what is approaching, if we could only recognize its song. Time (Kronos) vs. Memory (Mnemosyne). From this perspective, we could read our history as a baffling, painful, contraction- and contradiction-filled birth passage in which the literal has always hinted at the symbolic.
An unveiled look at American history reveals an enormous catalogue of injustice. As painful as it is to contemplate, knowing the truth enables us to see how the dominant myths of innocence and good intentions were constructed to serve the privileged few. But we can also use history as a springboard for imagining the story that has yet to manifest. In two profound essays, Psychologist Stephen Diggs and journalist Michael Ventura do that. Diggs (“Alchemy of the Blues”) proposes
…two histories of America: one is conscious and economic, the other unconscious and alchemical. Nowhere is this experienced more than in race. Africans were stolen into American slavery to satisfy the conscious economic desire to create wealth but also to satisfy the unconscious alchemical desire for psychological transformation…saving the Western soul from its psychotic flight from the body.
This story describes and predicts America’s slow process of transformation and descent from the Apollonian heights of the heroic, isolated ego and the abstract, distanced killing of life. It tells of America’s return to its body, to the communal experience of shared joy and suffering – through the unique forms of music created on this continent.
Every true work of culture is a work of resurrection, a work of remembrance that creates the remembered moment anew and blends it with the present moment to create the possibilities of the future…(This) is the story of how the American sense of the body changed and deepened in the twentieth century – how Americans began the slow, painful process, still barely started now, of transcending the mind-body split they’d inherited from European culture.
This was the first necessary step in a process of healing that has been taking place at the deepest levels of our culture ever since, and that continues its difficult way…It is the great strength of this music that it has been able both to reveal the disease and further its healing. And the disease, again and again, whether manifesting itself as racism or an armaments race, is the Western divorce of consciousness from flesh.
The history of America is, as much as it is anything, the history of the American body as it sought to unite with its spirit, with its consciousness, to heal itself and to stand against the enormous forces that work to destroy a Westerner’s relationship to his, to her, own flesh. This music, largely unaware of itself; carried forward through the momentum of deeply rooted instinct; contradicting itself in many places; perverting its own purposes in many instances; sinking many times under the weight of its own intensity…and trivializing its own meanings at many a crucial turn – this music yet rushed and rushes through every area of this country’s life in an aural “great awakening” all its own, to quicken the body and excite the spirit, and, quite literally, to waken the dead.
That’s my kind of history. Here is some more:
When geometric diagrams and digits
Are no longer the keys to living things,
When people who go about singing or kissing
Know deeper things than the great scholars,
When society is returned once moreTo unimprisoned life, and to the universe,
And when light and darkness mate
Once more and make something entirely transparent,
And people see in poems and fairy tales
The true history of the world,
Then our entire twisted nature will turn
And run when a single secret word is spoken. –Novalis (Trans. Robert Bly)
This is not the age of information. This is not the age of information. Forget the news, and the radio, and the blurred screen. This is the time of loaves and fishes. People are hungry and one good word is bread for a thousand. — David Whyte