I’ve been thinking a lot about the convergence of history and myth lately. Modern people like to believe we have left myth behind, but that is not true. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, many of us have a whole lot of mythology clanking around in our heads that define us, as individuals and as citizens and as a lot of other things. See, for example, The Myths That Guide Us from 2017 and The Last Hurrah of the Lost Cause from a couple of days ago.
Timothy Egan wrote in today’s New York Times that “No country can last long without a shared narrative.” That may be true, and it’s very possible that a big part of our current divisiveness is that we as a nation have been divided by narrative, and by that I mean narratives that tell us who we are as Americans and what the U.S.A. is supposed to be.
For example, we all may share some part of the history of the Revolutionary War as part of our internal narrative. But it’s striking how much the Right so often falls back on the imagery and symbols of the Revolution, as if they owned them, in support of causes that would baffle the original revolutionaries.
Let’s take taxes. The real founders, of course, were not opposed to taxes, but to taxes without representation. President George Washington himself put on his army uniform and led federalized militia against the big tax revolt of his day, the Whiskey Rebellion, in 1794.
Or let’s take guns. The framers of the Constitution did not write the 2nd Amendment so that Americans could own any damnfool weapon they wanted to be ready to revolt against the U.S. govrnment whenever they got pissed off enough, as gun-rights activists insist. (See Garrett Epps at The Atlantic for background; I don’t have the strength to wade back into gun rights again.) So we see that today’s political Right is using a highly mythologized version of our founding history as part of their internalized narrative about what America is supposed to be, and it’s doing a lot of harm.
When the founders got around to forming a government, including the second one under the current Constitution, they were very careful not to put too much power into the hands of one person but to spread power around among various parts and levels of government. Today, the Right wants all power to flow to Donald Trump, and anyone considered disloyal must be part of the evil “deep state.” That’s more Orwellian than Jeffersonian, my dears.
The Revolution was supposed to be about freedom. But I wrote back in 2005 that the Right had stripped the word freedom of all meaning and rendered it into nothing but a tribal totem. The people who fetishize about freedom are too often the same ones who want to jail protesters, make excuses for police brutality, and approve of putting children in cages at the border. Oh, and let’s not even start on reproductive rights. Freedom for me, but not for thee.
The Revolution was about people shaking off the rule of a distant power so that they could form their own government with their own elected representatives, with some restrictions on that government written into the Bill of Rights. This was the liberty they fought for, not license to do whatever I want whenever I want to do it, and the hell with everyone else.
See also The Pandemic, the Constitution, and Civil Liberties. The notion that mandatory quarantines or mask wearing is government tyranny that Our Forefathers wouldn’t have approved of just doesn’t hold up. And those who are outraged that bars or hair salons are closed to get the damn pandemic under control are not people I personally want to pledge my life, fortune (such as it is) and sacred honor with, to tell you the truth. I would be concerned that on the day we are called to do our utmost for the nation, they’d be getting their nails done. (I do wonder if a lot of the people who think only “sheeple” wear masks are the same ones who adamantly refuse to grasp the concept of herd immunity and vaccinations, but that’s another rant.)
By now most of us are grappling with the fact that much of our national mythology has been all about white people. This is dysfunctional. We will not be a more perfect union until we are a more inclusive union. Timothy Egan’s column begins:
As baffling as it is to find statues of traitors, slaveholders and killers of Union soldiers ensconced in many a prominent square, consider the historical discordance of Custer County, S.D.
The hard beauty of the Black Hills, sacred land to Native Americans, overshadows the county, the main town and the state park, all named for George Armstrong Custer. The hard history was shaped by the slayer of those native people. Custer’s willful trespass into territory promised by treaty to the Sioux set the stage for the last violent encounters between New World and Old.
Just under 20 miles from Custer is Mount Rushmore, which President Trump plans to visit this Fourth of July weekend. A mere seven miles from Custer is the Native American Rushmore — a still unfinished carving of the Oglala Sioux leader Crazy Horse, 641 feet long and 563 feet high.
Here is the American paradox in a grid of stark geology.
As you know, Trump plans to get his picture taken with fireworks over Mount Rushmore in front of a maskless and not socially distanced crowd this weekend, in spite of the real danger of forest fire and coronavirus spread. The President of the Oglala Sioux Nation, Julian Bear Runner, says that the land around Mount Rushmore belongs to the Oglala Sioux by treaty, and that Trump doesn’t have permission to go there, but of course that’s going to be ignored.
We absolutely must stop treating Native Americans as some relic of past history and bring them into full inclusion of the more perfect union, treaties and all.
Today the Disney Plus channel is beginning to stream the musical Hamilton. I got to see it on Broadway a couple of years ago, I think it was; it’s wonderful. Of course, part of the genius of Hamilton is that it claims the story of the Revolution as one belonging to Americans of color just as much as whites. It’s adjusting our founding story to be more inclusive.
Back in 2016, when a casting call for non-white actors went out for the touring company, righties howled in outrage! But the mostly nonwhite cast is part of the deeply embedded message — this belongs to us, too. The only white character, of course, is King George. And that creates all kinds of subliminal messages about the nature of us and them. Who is us? Who isn’t? It’s long past time to clarify that point.
Recently Leslie Odom, who played Aaron Burr in the original cast, spoke about the tension and dissonance in the piece. Most of the historical figures depicted in the musical were slave owners, after all, and yet here were nonwhite actors recreating this bit of history as their story.
It’s really the first question that needs to be asked is, okay, whose history is this? …
… Lin, he started with, he started the conversation of, “Well, this is the history that we’ve all agreed on, right?” Okay, so these are the facts: as you’ve told them to me again and again. Okay, great. The first step is, now we’re going to take them and we’re going to tell the story in our own words. Are you okay with that?
I might ask here, why do we assume the story automatically belongs to white people? Especially white people whose ancestors got here long after the Revolution?
Odom recalls a young woman telling him, “So my friends and I talk about Hamilton a lot. And we feel like this show actually isn’t revolutionary at all. It’s just a bunch of People Of Color standing on the stage telling White people stories. What do you think about that?”
And all I could say to this young girl, this young revolutionary, was: Lin wrote the show that was on his heart to write. There is no doubt in my mind that in some time, someone is going to write the show that makes Hamilton look quaint. I have no doubt in my mind. I hope I live long enough to see that show. I said to her, “It’s your job.”
Someday, maybe we won’t see this bit of history as “white people stories.”
Along those lines, please do see this video of young people, descendants of Frederick Douglass, reading Douglass’s speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” This is part of our heritage. Not just African-American heritage; all American heritage.
I very much hope that we’re living through a lot of last hurrahs, and not just of the Lost Cause. I want to see the end of white supremacy, and the end of conservative Christians being allowed to write policy that favors their religious beliefs over all others; and the end of the notion that ordinary people shouldn’t expect government to do anything for them. It’s our government. That was what the Revolution was about. We can do with it as we want.
Maybe this is the darkness before the dawn. Let’s hope. But we seriously need to update out national mythology to one that is both a more accurate reflection of real history and that makes us all equally visible and equally valuable. Otherwise our descendants will be refighting the same old wars.