The Power of Myth

Being in Washington D.C. around the Fourth of July makes me wonder what it’s like to be at the Vatican on Christmas, or in Mecca during the hajj.

In the neighborhoods around where I work, just a couple blocks from the Mall, you would be out of place if you didn’t have some combination of red, white and blue splattered on your clothing somewhere. The uglier the better. When the police escorts blare through, running some dignitary someplace or other or howitzers up to the Capitol steps, people stop and stare like they’ve never seen a police escort before, cameras out and at the ready, paparazzi for something hallowed and honored. And the lines at Jefferson Memorial, iPhones held up and forward and out like making an offering to the gods: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

The idea that the late Joseph Campbell liked to throw around was the Power of Myth, that, among other things, explained the commonality of myths and legends and stories that span language, culture and time. We all tell stories because they provide a framework, a scaffolding to understand the world and our place in it. And those stories are usually pretty egocentric, explaining the world based on the teller or the re-teller and how the universe appears based on his subjective and specific location in time and place.

(I may not be doing his idea complete justice, but this is the rough idea).

Stories and myths provide comfort and reassurance and explanation in the face of uncertainty and, if you really get into it, despair and hopelessness. On its face, this isn’t a bad thing. But in the service of providing comfort, critical elements are lost. Above all, factual reality. Inconvenient truths.

This commentary in the New Yorker toggled this idea. I had no idea that Francis Scott Key (author of one of the most forgettable national anthems) was related to and worked with the Supreme Court justice who authored one of the worst Supreme Court decision in U.S. history, then and now. Bombs bursting in air, gallantly streaming, rockets red glare, three-fifths of a citizen counted, Tenth Amendment states’ rights in the interest of slavery and apartheid.

It’s probably unfair to assume that the badly dressed, overweight, frappuccino-brandishing, iPhone-toting, God-fearing hordes tottering through Washington like cows put out to pasture have no knowledge of the fundamental inequality, racism and discrimination written into the U.S. mythology. Most probably remember something of it from 10th grade U.S. history class: Jefferson owned slaves? Check. (Dred Scott is easier  to remember than Korematsu). But the allure of myth, and the comfort it provides, easily pulls a person in its gauzy retelling; like a Disney fairy tale, sanitized of the uncomfortable details that would make for unpleasant reading.

You won’t find many teary-eyed patriots walking through the D.C. neighborhoods that house some of the worst legacies of 238 years of institutionalized inequality. You won’t find this tucked into the back pockets or shoulder bags, alongside museum pamphlets and National Park Service brochures.

It takes effort to go there and there’s no easy place for that in the mythology.