3. The Perversion of Myth in America-Destructive Myths
In the last post we considered some of the major myths designed to guide people toward living a purposeful life in Western Civilization. In this post we will consider a number of myths in what is now the United States. They took us in a darker direction and still have an effect on our civilization from the earliest days to the present time.
Karen Armstrong in her book, A Brief History of Myth, stated that “we need myths that will help us identify with all our fellow beings, not simply with those who belong to our ethnic, national, or ideological tribe. We need myths that help us to venerate the earth as sacred once again, instead of merely using it as a resource.” Such lofty ideals are not always appreciated, including the principles discussed by our Founding Fathers (no mothers included.) Instead the main focus was on wealthy male landowners.
One unfortunate myth in the North was the preoccupation with witches, paralleling hysteria about witchcraft in Europe. The Reverend Parris, a trader in the Caribbean, brought home with him a slave couple. The wife ended up spending a fair amount of time with the Parris girls, often focused on stories of the islands including those involving Voodoo lore and practices.
The rest of the story is not entirely clear. It appears that the girls started telling fortunes and having “fits.” Suspected witches were brought before the girls. If the presence of the suspects was followed be the girls having fits, this was taken as a sure sign that the suspects were witches. Although all this appeared to start with child’s play, it took a deadly turn to the point that one hundred forty one “witches” were arrested and nineteen hanged.
In the nineteenth century, President James Polk championed the theory (myth) of Manifest Destiny. This belief or doctrine held “that the expansion of the United States throughout the American Continent was both justifiable and inevitable” according to the compendium, Oxford Languages.
Long before the term Manifest Destiny was invented, the early northern European settlers viewed what was to became America as ripe for the taking despite centuries of civilization on the part of the native peoples who were living here long before Europeans even knew that this land existed. The history of the United States includes pushing the native people out of the way. Although there were some attempts to negotiate with them, for the most part these people were seen as an obstacle and an inconvenience. They first were pushed to the western areas of the continent and eventually confined to reservations. Even then, reservations were consolidated and reservation land was minimized as the lands they were given came to be seen as ripe for development or appropriating natural resources. Manifest destiny was considered to apply only to “white” citizens. Manifest destiny of course was a myth to justify expansion throughout the land. There was no legal or moral justification for it but as a self serving “truth.”
Although the idea of white supremacy seems to be of our making, or imagining, it was alive and well in Europe before the first Northern European settlers reached America. They viewed the American territories as meant for them as superior people to the exclusion of Irish, Italian, Asian or African people, unless they were brought in as servants and slaves. Slavery existed from the early days of America. It was taken into account in our Constitution in order to make southern states feel comfortable being part of the American experiment.
Slavery in itself was not a myth but rather a stark practice associated with the myth of white superiority. Struggles over the institution of slavery continued throughout the early days of our nation, ending ultimately in the Civil War which banned slavery but did not end racism which continues to divide us even today. Racism is not in itself a myth either but again depends on racial superiority for its justification. People kidnapped and brought to this country were viewed as having no more rights than livestock. The most equality Blacks in the South were able to manage up to the Civil War was to have each counted as three fifths of a person which benefitted Southern White landowners in their representation in Congress but did not benefit Black people at all. There were free black people in the North. When I visited Charleston, I learned that there were some free Black slave owners.
Black people after the civil war started making some progress during the years of reconstruction which eventually came to an end, giving way to the Jim Crow era, the remnants of which linger until today. Great strides have been made toward racial equality over the years, but significant pockets of racism continue to pervade our society in accordance with the myth of white superiority. Educational and job opportunities, housing opportunities and police protection to name a few are still much more readily available to whites than to people of color including Native American people, Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians as well as anyone else not considered white enough thrown into the less desirable basket.
One final myth remains to be discussed which now threatens the very existence of our democracy, that of Trumpism. We will address this in the next post.