Myth and Countermyth


Today David Brooks tells us about the American foundational myth depicted on the dome of the Library of Congress.

It starts with a figure representing Egypt (written records) and then continues through Judea (religion), Greece (philosophy), Islam (physics), Italy (the fine arts), Germany (printing), Spain (discovery), England (literature), France (emancipation) and it culminates with America (science).

In that story, America is placed at the vanguard of the great human march of progress. America is the grateful inheritor of other people’s gifts. It has a spiritual connection to all people in all places, but also an exceptional role. America culminates history. It advances a way of life and a democratic model that will provide people everywhere with dignity. The things Americans do are not for themselves only, but for all mankind.

“But now,” he continues,

the myth has been battered. It’s been bruised by an educational system that doesn’t teach civilizational history or real American history but instead a shapeless multiculturalism. It’s been bruised by an intellectual culture that can’t imagine providence. It’s been bruised by people on the left who are uncomfortable with patriotism and people on the right who are uncomfortable with the federal government that is necessary to lead our project.

The myth has been bruised, too, by the humiliations of Iraq and the financial crisis. By a cultural elite that ignored the plight of the working class and thus broke faith with the basic solidarity that binds a nation.

And so along come men like Donald Trump and Stephen Bannon with a countermyth. Their myth is an alien myth, frankly a Russian myth. It holds, as Russian reactionaries hold, that deep in the heartland are the pure folk who embody the pure soul of the country — who endure the suffering and make the bread. But the pure peasant soul is threatened. It is threatened by the cosmopolitan elites and by the corruption of foreign influence.

Brooks concludes with rhetorical flourish and rhetorical questions:

We can argue about immigration and trade and foreign policy, but nothing will be right until we restore and revive the meaning of America. Are we still the purpose-driven experiment Lincoln described and Emma Lazarus wrote about: assigned by providence to spread democracy and prosperity; to welcome the stranger; to be brother and sister to the whole human race; and to look after one another because we are all important in this common project?

Or are we just another nation, hunkered down in a fearful world?

These are good questions, to which Aardvark begs leave to respond.

When Aardvark was a child, he spake as a child, he understood has a child, he thought as a child: but when Aardvark became a man, he put away childish things.

Aardvark learned of the horrors of slavery, and of his ancestors’ part in that story over three centuries. He learned of his great-great-grandfather’s black half sister (as now revealed through genetic testing of him and his African-American relatives). He learned of the ethnic cleansing inflicted on his Cherokee ancestors by the man on the twenty dollar bill.

Aardvark learned that America’s story is profoundly ambiguous, grand and tragic at the same time.

Noble myths will not put Humpty Dumpty together again. Only amelioration of economic injustice and economic insecurity will drain the Bannon swamp. In the meantime, we need to understand the Trump base, which is not monolithic, and chip away at the looser parts of it. More on that in due course, probably tomorrow.