Why does the US base its national narratives on myth rather than history?
Lately, some Americans have called the world’s attention, yet again, to our society’s shocking and relentless insistence on ahistoricism. Xenophobic, fear-mongering responses to the global refugee crisis from Republicans highlight their refusal to acknowledge America’s role in the crises that drive people to our shores, as well as their forgetfulness about their own backgrounds. After all, most white Americans are descendants of Europe’s underclass, who arrived in this country as immigrants themselves—poor, battered and beaten, and looking for a better life. My own parents like to remind me that we come from a “long line of Norwegian peasants.”
Watching our “leadership” respond to contemporary crises as though they emerged out of nowhere, free of historical roots that we might share responsibility for, is endlessly frustrating. But it is certainly not new. It is part of a deeply disturbing pattern of Americans disregarding history in favor of national mythology.
Last week’s celebrations of Thanksgiving offered as good of an opportunity as any to reflect on the dangers of national mythologies.
When I was a child in American public school, I was taught that Thanksgiving commemorated a feast that the Pilgrims hosted in 1621, in which they invited the local natives, the Wampanoag, to celebrate a successful harvest. At least until high school, there was never any mention of the ensuing extermination of said natives; that by 1900, the native population of what is now the United States of America would be reduced from an estimated 10 million to 300,000. Commemorating one act of generosity on the part of European settlers, in light of this context, feels sinister at best.
I do not mean to suggest that we should not celebrate Thanksgiving. After all, the holiday has taken on a meaning for Americans that goes far deeper than its historical origin. God knows we need all of the opportunities we can get to step back from our fast-paced, consumer-driven lives and take stock of what we are grateful for. I truly believe that many, if not most Americans make a point of doing that on Thanksgiving.
But the question is why can’t we base our national narratives, which contribute so much to our understandings of ourselves and where we come from, on history rather than myth?
Blind submission to national myths?
It was not until I read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in my high school US History class that I first remember fully engaging with the grim realities of my nation’s past. The fact that it took a curious learner with access to books, the Internet and a high quality public education 17 years to even begin to understand those realities is evidence of just how deeply entrenched our myths are.
When I finally came to a more honest understanding of American history as a young adult, I felt deeply confused by what had been ingrained in my mind in elementary school. Developing a more critical understanding of the history of my nation and my ancestors did not make me less proud of where I come from—just more committed to preventing future wrongdoing in the name of white supremacy and American exceptionalism.
Every society has its demons, and its darker chapters of history. But what good do we do our children by teaching them that America is, and always has been, morally correct? When they go out into the world, they are eventually going to learn otherwise. Does our pride in our country really hinge on our insistence of its unwavering moral correctness, past, present and future?
It seems that we would all have far more to learn from an honest, critical engagement with our past, from an early age, than from blind submission to national mythologies. Now that would be something to be proud.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.