241 years into the great experiment called America, in many ways the land of capitalism continues to sell its people a bill of goods.
By Christopher Mattox
History, by nature, is romantic. For example, Soldiers and leaders of suspect moral character are remembered as galant defenders of justice and liberty. Confederate soldiers are often portrayed as defenders of individual liberty as opposed to traitorous dehumanizers. Think of the paintings of military men that fill our museums. They’re often imaged atop beautiful steeds, staring an approaching enemy assault. History is often written by the victors or the influential. Hence these romantic biases. These same rose colored glasses have been applied to the myth of the United States of America. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are imbued with certain inalienable rights; among these are life, liberty and the pursuit happiness. This beautiful piece of prose was written by a slave owner, and in this beautiful sentiment lies the myth of America.
America, home of the brave. The land of opportunity for rugged individuals. A place where we’re industrious men and women threw off the shackles of colonialism and tyranny to establish a new system. A free land, where explorers and profiteers subdued the land and brought its natural resources to bear. However, we know the truth behind these romanticized musings. Those rugged individuals fled religious persecution in England and other parts of Europe in order to be free to persecute others under the auspices of religion. The rebel colonist didn’t first rebel in order to fight for the idea of democracy and rule by the people. They simply didn’t want to pay taxes or have to answer to Britain regarding economics. They conquered the land through the systemic erasure of indigenous peoples. Yet, despite most everyone understanding the truth behind the myth we seem to be hell-bent on believing the myth.
This is why it is so difficult to have honest conversations in our country. Colin Kaepernick’s protests gets mired in the mess of the myth. OMG! How could he protest our great flag and beautiful anthem? You mean the flag which proudly flew over the racist south and still flies high over cities where unarmed black men have been shot dead by police; and the anthem with the second verse proclaiming the virtues of slavery and punishment of slaves? The idea that people can’t understand that dichotomy is foolish. Of all the things we are, we are not a country of idiots and imbeciles.
It has been a long time since these competing versions of America have battled so visibly in the public square. Perceived prosperity and several paths of least resistance have papered over the fissures for years. Mainstream America, which includes Black people and people of color who are willing to accept the myth in exchange for acceptance and personal advancement, have proven they will go to the mattresses to defend the American fable. However, ignoring the realities in favor of the myth leaves things unresolved and simmering to a boil. In America we have 100-year floods, 25-year storms, and 15-to-20-year racial upheavals.
So the question is why are some so resistant to giving up the myth? I think it’s similar to the struggle some parents have about whether to tell their children the truth about Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. That argument is really about the loss of innocence; the introduction of youth to the harsh realities of capitalism and tooth decay. Yet, America lost her innocence a long time ago, so that can’t be the reason, can it? Rather, I believe it’s more about a desire to maintain the status quo, and that status quo is bolstered by the myth of America. It’s easier, or rather more comfortable, to maintain the status quo when it is sold as the byproduct of this grand American experiment. I hear echoes of this when people such as Ben Carson argue that even though slavery was bad, the silver lining is that those stolen away from Africa ended up here in the greatest country in the world.
I had hope in the millennial generation. They’re a generation that has grown up with a Black president, and theoretically with greater inclusion, diversity and progressive ideals. Then, Charlottesville happens on a progressive college campus. Then colleges and universities become the latest battlegrounds over free speech and hate speech. Then we read stories of teens attempting to hang an 8-year-old biracial boy. And so the myth lives; and so too does its dark reflection. The counter argument will say that those in Charlottesville or those crazy teens are just a small minority, and prior to the election of Donald Trump, I might have lent that idea some credence. The 2016 election saw many voices condemning Trump and his racially-tinged dog-whistle politics, yet he won. His campaign was built on the American myth, a return to a grander time when America was less tolerant, less progressive, and allegedly more prosperous. Enough Americans thought that image was appealing enough to vote for him. So, no I don’t believe we’re seeing a very vocal minority acting out. What we are seeing is a nationwide reaction to the deteriorating efficacy of the Myth of America.
When I began to look at these social issues through that lens, it led to some other realizations. I’ll never be a fan of Carson, but when I think about it now, I believe he is a staunch defender of the myth, and that is what irks me. He isn’t crazy or blind to the (tacit racism) he has aligned himself with. Instead, I think he decided the best path to a better future (for him) is not to upset the apple cart or disrupt the myth but rather to champion the myth until hopefully one day the country actually lives up to its lofty ideals. That was Dr. King’s one request, that the country live up to the myth it sold the world. And for the record, I love the Myth of America and I think people like Kaepernick do as well. In truth, I’m a patriot through and through. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, but I’m also keenly aware of how short we fall. It is the myth itself that empowers protests such as Kaepernick’s or when ESPN’s Jemele Hill calls the president a white supremacist. It’s the beauty of the myth that inspires this writing. For if only I could make enough sense to spark the shot heard round the world and lead my minuteman against the defilers of Camelot and win a victory for those who have been righteously awakened and lead them into a new era of peace and prosperity. … See, I told you I love the myth.