Saturday, September 8, 2012


I read the headline: "Republicans Or Democrats: The Choice Comes Down To Competing Myths," and my brain immediately settled on a definition of "myth" that neither of the parties was intending: "a person or thing" (or, in this case, a version of the United States) "having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence." I understand that there are a lot of myths in America - from the Founding Fathers' commitment to the idea that "all men are created equal" to the idea that other nations can't be trusted to bring lawsuits against American citizens without using them as a way of grinding political axes. And while many American myths are cherished parts of a cultural narrative, the majority, like young George Washington and the cherry tree, seem to be comforting falsehoods, rather than historical truths.

And this is the problem with myth. No matter what happens, the reality of the situation can never really measure up. And so in mythologizing history, we oftentimes end up falsifying it as well. Which makes it difficult to then look back at our history and learn from it. Just as with science our understanding of history is often entangled with our values. And to the degree that we want our values to be objective mandates, rather than choices adopted out of personal utility, we look for historical anecdotes that support our values, and regard objective facts that disagree as direct attacks.

The hard way to resolve this tension is to create a reality that lives up to our values and ideas - in other words to make _living_ them as important as talking about them. The easy way is to free our value judgments of any deontological baggage, and treat them as decisions, freely reached because they work for us, and we'd like to see them spread. But then that tasks us with their defense, rather than being able to point to history as proving them correct. And so we are likely stuck with a status quo that relies on pseudo-history, freighted with our own self-justifications.

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