America is a fabric woven out of myth, narratives that serve as moral guides, directing both individuals and nations toward meaningful, purposeful lives. As writer and social critic Neil Postman said, “(narratives have) an aura of sacredness about them … they are a fixed figure or image to direct one’s mind to an idea, a story that tells of origins and envisions a future, a story that constructs ideals, prescribes rules of conduct, provides a source of authority and, above all else, gives a sense of continuity.”
When we believe our myths, our lives are centered and our future is secure. But if our narratives fail us, if we no longer see ourselves through the looking glass of myth, we find ourselves adrift. In the words of William Butler Yeats, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”
This is the current state of America.
Postman used the word god (with a small g) as a synonym for narrative. Our narratives are the gods that give us life as a nation. As a religious believer places her god at the center of her life, a moral beacon, an object of adoration, a cause of one’s very existence, so too the American nation, created out of the rational, secular principles of The Enlightenment has its “god” as well. Our god largely took form in Jefferson’s words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” One becomes an American in his heart by giving assent to these ideas. This is our sacred trust. This, we say, is who we are.
But beyond the Declaration of Independence there are other gods which contributed to our sense of self. The first was the subject of John Winthrop’s speech to his Puritan community aboard the Arbella as they approached Boston harbor in 1630. “We shall be as a city upon a hill,” he proclaimed. This simple metaphor was offered as a moral challenge, that we ought to be a virtuous people who can inspire goodness in all who look upon our endeavors. A second narrative is the frontier myth and the notion of “manifest destiny”, our admiration for rugged individualism and the belief that our God-given right was to advance our values and material interests across the continent.
For as much material good as these two myths have provided for us, they have also proved to be problematic, rationalizations for morally reckless behavior on the Plains and beyond. Out of their commingling rose our conception of American exceptionalism, a new myth nourished and fortified by our magnificent deeds during the 20th Century’s two world wars. Unfortunately, we perverted the myth into a dangerous notion that was later used to justify invasions of sovereign nations such as Vietnam and Iraq.
A third myth, one which has borne much fruit, is the story of the middle-class, the rise of the industrious, mechanically ingenious, determined, and future-oriented common man. The people who, we like to believe, built this nation. This most important of myths faces extinction.
What happens when our gods die? They sometimes do. In the early 1920’s a perceptive young writer named F. Scott Fitzgerald described his generation, ‘The Lost Generation”, the fractured and disillusioned young men returning from the gruesome insanity that was The Great War. He said they had “grown up to find all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.” He knew that America’s naïve, almost adolescent, crusade to redeem the Old World civilization which had given us birth cost us greatly in a physical, psychic and mythic sense.
It is not unreasonable to consider that America’s gods, our jointly held myths, have either died or are a in terminal condition. The evidence is all around us. The middle-class has lost sense of itself, blindsided by the combined forces of the digital revolution and the unchecked avarice of a capital class desperate to maximize profits through historically low wages, cheap, foreign labor and robots.
Wealth, once built through physical labor and the can-do spirit of the American worker, is today created transactionally by a small fraction of the workforce – the effortless buying and selling of perceived assets which are no more real than our capacity to dream on their future worth.
These developments have unbound and unraveled the fabric of our society, our earliest and most essential myths. Sadly, our elected leaders are neither perceptive enough nor courageous enough to speak to us truthfully about what has happened. (How cynical and cruel of a demagogue to tell a despairing, unemployed Appalachian workforce driven to opiod abuse and suicide that the dead god of prosperity through coal mining will be resurrected, while at the same time telling his financial and political backers, “I love the poorly educated”.)
Can new myths be created or are they the result of a synchronicity of events? Surely, one person will not be the answer and we ought to stop seeking him or her. Perhaps we need some form of bloodless revolution among the people. Nonetheless, if there is to be a future, there will be a narrative, a myth, a god at its center.