American Myths

A quick review of how DeLuca’s article on “myth” fits in with our current “theme:” knowledge and truth. (These are brief summaries, not definitive reviews)…

  • Freire believes knowledge “emerges” in communication, dialogue, inquiry, interaction with others.
  • Nietzsche tells us that all knowledge and truth are only metaphors (arbitrary words that have become imperfect concepts) that humans have agreed to use.
  • DeLuca says we invent “myths” and then we forget that we created those stories and we treat those myths as absolute “truth” or “knowledge.” But he wants us to remember that all the cultural stories that we accept as “natural” are really “myths” humans created for social and political reasons.

Here are few more examples of VERY well-known or recognizable myths from U.S. culture.

Newsweek ran a story about “How American Myths Are Made.” The article mentions one familiar myth–the Triumph of the Common Person. Or in other words, the story we tell about how any old Joe or Jane can achieve greatness and accomplish extraordinary things if they just work and try hard enough. This myth explains why someone like the now infamous “Joe the Plumber” becomes such a big icon–he fits perfectly into the role of your everyday, hardworking guy with aspirations to buy a company and achieve something. This myth has positive aspects like encouraging people toward success, but it also can cause problems because it leads us to blame people for their “failures” when sometimes the odds are stacked against them. Not everyone who works hard will “make it.”

The Newsweek story also mentions the way we create myths about evil enemies and “others” when we need someone to blame or distrust. We saw this during the era of McCarthyism when the House Committee on Un-American Activities accused innocent folks of being communist. We saw this when the goverment rounded up Japanese Americans and put them in U.S. internment camps while many cultural messages portrayed any Asian American as untrustworthy and scary. We’ve seen another version of this enemy myth after 9/11 when anyone from the Middle East or any Muslim was suddenly a risky terrorist.

You might also want to check out this site about American Myths and their realities . It describes 10 myths that shape our lives such as “separation of church and state,” “no one is above the law,” and others.

Caution: We want to avoid dismissing myths as LIES or DECEPTIONS (that’s something Plato might do) … we’d call that attitude the standard view of communication because if we call myths FALSE LIES, then it implies that we should be using communication merely to describe and transmit the “truth” and nothing else.

The important thing is how we think about myths and how we recognize and realize the ways myths create reality. If we learn a rhetorical view of communication, we realize that most every cultural story is a “myth” (or all knowledge/truth is “metaphor” for Nietzsche … or every identity is a performance for Goffman). We pay attention to the many ways humans and human culture invent and re-shape those myths. And we realize that those myths all have social and political consquences. We can’t live without myths, but we can have a better understanding of how they shape our lives, our identities, and our world.

Here are a few other sites and a clip that provide interesting points to consider about myths in U.S. culture.

  • Here’s a post from another wordpress blogger about Myths: Ten American Myths 
  • Election rhetoric last fall played on a myth of small-town America as the real heart of America with hard-working, family-value oriented, folks. These qualities are not false, but they are not “natural” or “given” as this opinion piece points out: Yo, John McCain, while you’re in Pennsylvania
  • We create mythical heroes out of people like Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This site looks at the myth of Abraham Lincoln.

You might write about any of these examples or keep thinking about other examples of myths–the myth of the “traditional American family,” for example, or historical myths like the Boston Massacre or the way college admission materials construct myths about university life and the college experience.

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