What Is A Myth?

first thanksgiving

“All of the debates that shape public life are, at the deepest level, debates about national myths and the interpretation of those myths.”
~Ira Chernas, “The Meaning of ‘Myth’ in the American Context

Those of us who want to fight for racial justice need to understand the concept of myth.

As we talked about before, racism is embedded in the very structures of our American society. So are our national myths. If we want to unravel one, we’ve got to understand the other.

I encourage everyone to read Chernas’ entire essay mentioned above to learn more about the concept of myth in general, and about American myths specifically.

Here are some of the essay’s key points:

  • Myths are narratives, told explicitly or implicitly.
  • Myths rely on vivid, evocative symbols to tell their story.
  • Myths provoke a powerful response from those who accept them. They affect our intellect and our emotions, both consciously and unconsciously.
  • Myths express something fundamental about our worldview, values, and lifestyle.
  • Myths create an idealized picture of life. They give a sense of coherence and meaning to the world, and so help us cope with life’s difficulties.
  • The myths that affect us most blend empirical truth with fiction. The more truth they contain, the more influence they have, and the harder they are to refute.
  • Myths turn literal truths into vehicles for symbolic meaning, thus creating pictures that are oversimplified, schematized, and therefore easier to grasp and respond to.
  • Two examples of American mythical symbols are the Pilgrims and Rosa Parks.
  • The specific components of each American myth are connected to the components of all other American myths, creating a network of interlocking myths, or a mythology.
  • Words like progress, exceptionalism, freedom, and abundance conjure up our complex American mythology.
  • When Americans share in the repetition of their myths, they reaffirm their connection with each other, as well as their difference from others.
  • There is a relatively fixed set of American myths.
  • Our mythology functions like a language—it sets limits to what can be said meaningfully in national debates on any issue.
  • Those in power largely control the myths.
  • Wealthy, white, Protestant men have historically wielded the most control over America’s myths.

What are some of our American myths? When you think of America, what stories, ideals, or symbols come to mind? What kind of emotional response do they evoke in you? Do any of our American myths produce internal dissonance? Societies often have designated “myth-tellers.” Who are our modern American myth-tellers?


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