The Myths That Guide Us

I recommend this article in WaPo by David Perry.

In early May, the white supremacist Jeremy Christian — who is accused of killing two men in Portland, Ore., on Friday — posted on Facebook, “Hail Vinland!!! Hail Victory!!!” “Victory” makes sense. Bigots feel empowered these days. But why “Vinland?” Why was this accused attacker talking about the short-lived Viking settlement in North America?

It turns out that white supremacy has gone fully medieval.

As the current contests over Confederate monuments exemplifies, Americans are accustomed to contested narratives about race and history fixating on the American South. Some of the most dangerous terrorists in the U.S., though, are looking much, much, farther north. Vinland was the name that a group of 10th-century Vikings, led by Leif Erikson, gave to a grapevine-rich island off what we believe is the coast of North America. For white supremacists, the concept of Vinland asserts a historical claim over North America, stretching especially from the Northeast coast to the Pacific Northwest. They use the myth of Vinland to position themselves as righteous defenders in the wars of race and religion they believe are coming.

Perry goes on to explain that the real Vikings of history weren’t as “whites only” as the white supremacists imagine, not to mention the fact that the Vinland colony was kind of a bust. But the Viking romanticism is interesting.

Having been raised in a whites-only community well stocked with people harboring racist beliefs, I noticed a long time ago that the worst white supremacists tend to be drearily ordinary. As a rule, they are not particularly bright, accomplished, educated, talented, successful or handsome. They are people who don’t stand out in any way except for the white supremacy thing.

And a long time ago it occurred to me that their very ordinariness was why they made such a Big Bleeping Deal about being white. It was the only attribute they had that made them special.

This is an entirely subjective opinion not backed up by scholarly studies, but I know my people. I sincerely believe a whole lot of these guys go down the white supremacy rabbit hole because they’ve come to live inside a myth that says their whiteness entitles them to greatness. In their own minds they are the heirs to a noble tradition of warrior-men who eventually will return in glory and re-assert their natural superiority over all those other people. And yeah, it’s nonsense, but it’s a fantasy that helps them avoid confronting how utterly banal they and their lives actually are.

We all go through our lives with an internal narrative in which we are the heroes, or at least the leading man or lady (or, if you are a bit warped, the martyr). People who are reasonably well-adjusted live with narratives that are, arguably, not completely divorced from objective reality. We may see ourselves as somewhat more charming or competent or better looking than others do, but as long as that doesn’t get in the way of interpersonal relationships, that’s probably harmless.

But when you see yourself as a noble elite warrior superior being, but you’re really a mediocre little nebbish with a beer gut, this is not healthy. Propping up your self-esteem is normal, but living inside a complete fantasy is not.

And yeah, the attachment to monuments that mythologize the Confederacy and the so-called Lost Cause is closely related to this same phenomenon. The romanticization of the Confederacy is another myth people use to make themselves feel they are part of something heroic, and we could do without it.

Sometimes the myths living in our hearts and subconscious really can elevate us, however. Perry continues,

Vinland wasn’t the only medieval presence at the Portland murders. Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche died fighting to protect the vulnerable people targeted by hate. Myrddin is the Welsh name for Merlin, the great wizard in the court of King Arthur. Taliesin was a 6th century Welsh poet who was later folded into the Arthurian legends. Their namesake died defending the vulnerable. His last words were, like a chivalric hero, to tell the people on the train that he loved them all.

I had recognized the names Taliesin and Myrddin, and as Perry is a Welsh surname, those names probably popped out to David Perry as they did to me. What a terrible waste.

History has never just been “the past.” As a historian, I study the way that groups have always tried to assert control over their story, seeking to mold legend, myth and reality into a useful narrative about identity and destiny. Stories like this have power, and we’d be foolish to ignore the threat.

Expanding this topic just a bit — it’s probably the case that people who have a normal amount of self-esteem, who are reasonably satisfied with their lives, and who feel connected to the communities they live in, are less likely to be sucked into Viking fantasy land than someone who feels alienated from himself and uncomfortable with the world.

“Religion and nationalism,” wrote the great philosopher/psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, “as well as any custom and any belief however absurd and degrading, if it only connects the individual with others, are refuges from what man most dreads: isolation.”

There always will be individuals who, for many reasons, never find a place for themselves in the world. But when people form movements based on their shared fantasies, and when they start slashing people on trains, or on London Bridge, it becomes a bigger problem. Young men especially seem vulnerable to losing themselves this way, but any sort of person could be vulnerable.

From what I have seen of radical, militant Islam, the most extreme versions especially, it is less about religious devotion than it is about alienated people living in a fantasy about their own ethnic and cultural entitlements, and resentments, combined with myths of past glory and future destiny. That the fantasy is packaged in Islam speaks to the way Islam dominates history and cultural identity in some parts of the world, but Islam isn’t the primary cause. I propose that Islamic terrorism basically stems from the same syndrome that inspires Jeremy Christian to live in a Viking fantasy.

And I don’t necessarily think this is “crazy.” I’ve heard nothing to make me thing Jeremy Christian is psychotic, as in hearing voices or seeing things that aren’t there. I’m not sure how a psychiatric professional would classify this, but seems to me it’s more of a social or cultural pathology than a “mental illness.”

And as we’re still sometimes having the argument about whether outreach to the white working class requires betraying racial equality, consider that racism is a common refuge for alienated white guys. And currently we’ve got a generation of white guys whose fathers had steady union jobs with good wages and benefits that are now long gone. If racism is growing in this population, the way to combat that is not to yell at them, but to come up with ways to help them feel connected to a more progressive vision. Martin Longman has some thoughts on this.

And it’s likely that “getting tough” and dropping bombs will have little impact on terrorism in the Muslim world, except maybe to make it grow.

And we must tackle the myths, head on. For example, tear down the Confederate monuments that mythologize the Confederacy; replace the myths with the actual history of the Confederacy and the brutality of slavery. We’ve let the “Lost Cause” nonsense fester far too long. The play-pretend Vikings may be a little harder to reach. But David Perry writes,

American white supremacists want to make Vinland great again, laying out an imagined past in which Vikings are the rightful conquerors of North America, locked in eternal battle with the Skraelings, the Viking slur for indigenous people. We must inoculate ourselves against this hate by telling a better story, one that recognizes the many errors of our past, but also lays out a vision for a more inclusive future.

That last part is most important, I think.

8 thoughts on “The Myths That Guide Us

  1. I just finished “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari. The early parts of the book had some insights about unifying myths that resonate with this post. As with so many inspiring books, it is not so much the argument or the insights, but, the questions that they compel you to open.

    Coincidently, at cocktail hour, we were talking about how the “Lost Cause Movement” was an example of where “alternative facts” were particularly successful in supplanting a more accurate concept of history. Like the multiple lie, alternative facts exhaust the energy and resources of those who would throw them off to see the world more truly.

    “We must tackle the myths head on.” Yes, I think you’ve got it right. D’accord!

  2. The truth will set you free, but for too many a fine set of myths will give you freedom or an adequate illusion thereof.  The paths to these rabbit holes and wonderlands abound, and guides are everywhere.  The white supremacist path is but one of them, and the rabbit hole is deep the return trip unlikely.  A few steps on the path, a little suspension of disbelief, some relief from alienation, and the primitive emotional rush from a well inspired hate frenzy and you are on your way.  It is easy.  Nothing is too complicated,  You get a few code words that you have to learn but they are odd but easy to learn.  The teachers do not mind repetition, they enjoy the audience.  

    It is but one of the many alternative worlds that abound.  All manner of belief systems from Moonies to Methodists, some who sell door to door.  The dying world of broadcast radio will provide access around the clock to this and many more wonderlands.  Some will mix belief systems with politics, some just mix emotional frenzy with fuzzy political rhetoric.  You can enter the world of space aliens, or start on a path to fame and riches in real estate,  They all have several  common elements, myth, simplicity, ease of entry and at times free shipping. If you have cable TV the possibilities multiply like rabbits and the rabbit holes with them.  

    So what is the point? What idea took a two paragraph setup?  No twitter brain will ever get this far.  The point is this and it takes more thought and time than a twitter brain can muster anyway.  Have we reached the point where the United States people are unable, incapable, otherwise too occupied, too decedent, too fragmented, or a combination of this and more to be world leaders anymore?  The truth will set you free but the truth is hard to learn and elusive.  Being a world leader takes people who can see an overview which takes much knowledge. Are we at a point where not enough care to do the huge amount of work and endure the burden of change and development of new tolerances?  Are we just ready to drop out?  Have we not opted for this path in the last election?  

    Charles Blow and I share may share a common myth that many still have.  His lead today in the NYT states it well:  

    “My whole life I have taken for granted America’s leadership in the world. America’s might and majesty were cornerstones of international relations, cooperation and diplomacy. We were a beacon and balance to the world. America has been imperfect — sometimes disastrously so — but it always seemed to me bent toward the belief that America and the world could be made more perfect.”

    My personal hope is that this idea is not a myth but an enduring truth.  

    Goatherd references Sapiens, a book I want to read.  I must finish The Knowledge Illusion first, which seems similar but from a cognitive psychology approach.  

    One thing is quite evident from my point of view.  With our current leadership and course there is little chance of the United States to maintain world leader status.  I am beginning to doubt we have enough people outside of rabbit holes with the ability or will to correct our path.  I hope this notion is a myth.  

  3. We, as a country and society, already do a damn fine job of alienating and isolating minorities – nothing to be boastful of, to be sure…
    “Oh, be careful. That’s the ‘blah’/gay/Beaner/etc., part of town…”
    (Basically, any people except white Protestant men and women are subect to it, and those people have to figure out the basic inherent prejudice and bigotry, and fight through them in order to succeed – if that’s what we define as ‘success’).

    But these white “supremacists” basically alienate and isolate themselves and their familes, and then bitch and bitch about how they feel they’re alienated and isolated by others.

    I gotta admit, I don’t get it.
    I’m first generation American, so my family has no ties with anything or anyone in this country, prior to 1950, when my Aunt – my mother’s sister – came here with the express purpose to get a job, and pay for the rest of her family to come over here.
    Ditto my father, who’s brother did the same for him and his family.
    My parents met over here, at a dance in NY City.

    Why tell you this – which if you’ve been a reader of comments here for the last decade, already know?
    Well, I didn’t speak English until I went to Kindergarten.
    And so, I naturally gravitated towards the other kids for whom English was not their primary language once they went home: Yiddish, Korean, Chinese, Italian, German, etc…
    If you look at my Grade School class pictures from 1963 to 1969, at P.S.13, in Elmhurst, Queens, NY City, we look like a United Nations for children.

    The point being, if I was going to isolate myself, it would not have been an easy thing to do. And so, I got along with all of these other kids of varying national origins, religions, etc…

    And that’s the difference between city mice and country mice. Urban mice bump shoulders with other urban mice every day, all day.
    The country mice live in their own little world. A homogenized, mono-chromatic, English speaking, largely Protestant world.
    And they hate going to “the big city,” because they’re not the masters of those cities, like they are their own towns.
    They “feel” different, there in the big city. They don’t want to mix. And so, they go back home, where they know the rules – largely because they and their ancestors set them.

    I don’t know how to fix these problems. Well, short of some sort of enforced mixing. But then, that’s “Affirmative Action,” and the enforcing becomes its own problem.

    I wish I had some more proactive things to propose, but I don’t…

  4. Maybe our time of leadership is over. We gave it a pretty good spin, but, our current division could be interpreted as result of a divergences of founding myths. As I have mentioned, most of the people who surround us live in an imagined Biblical drama. We live in an imagined world of progress directed by science and art. (It makes you think of Auguste Comte.) You could make the analogy of a single celled animal like an amoeba on the verge of dividing into two, except that instead two nearly identical creatures, you would have matter and anti-matter amoebae eager to do each other in. If we are extraordinarily lucky it might not come to that, or we might just sputter and spit at each other for several decades.

    An interesting thing about myths of origin is that they can be pasted together from themes used elsewhere. Look at both Sargon of Akkhad and Moses floating downstream and the flood myths. The important things are that a myth binds people together in a common origin or series of heroic acts, and that those same people accept it as their common story. Truth doesn’t really come into it. A thing can be in a literal sense, completely untrue, and yet be figuratively and spiritually true.

    To cut through the excess verbiage, We could be in big trouble.

  5. I think we have a male identity crisis. White men are unhappy that they are not automatically on top anymore, they have to compete with everybody and can’t handle it. They are not adept at adapting. Black men are in jail in too high numbers and in many areas such as Chicago despair reigns. Muslim men whether in the west or in the muslim countries are not adapting to their hegemony being threatened by western values.modern life does not give men the narrative they crave for themselves.

  6. AJ, you’re too right, and it’s dangerous. New Wonder Woman movie (go see it!) has a great line about what men are or are not “necessary” for, sexually. I’ve long joked that women invented us men to move heavy objects & kill things; but the spread of automation means that male strength is less & less important. “Excess” males with no big rocks to move will kill things – often each other. Societies organize this into large-scale competitions called “wars”.


    • “I’ve long joked that women invented us men to move heavy objects & kill things.” You figured us out, eh?

  7. Excellent post, Maha. Your observations accord with my own, for what that’s worth, from here in the 13th Congressional District of Texas – national champ in its Trump percentage last November, 87% or so. Vis-a-vis the Confederate hangover/myth, I recommend most highly the recent remarks from Mayor Landrieu of New Orleans, on the occasion of the removal of the Confed statuary there. A striking mix of courage, historical intelligence and hopefulness.

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