Politics and Mythology by Sara Frykenberg


Sara FrykenbergThis semester I am teaching Myth, Religion and Culture, which is by far one of my favorite courses to teach. On the first day of class, I usually ask my students what they think is the purpose and importance of myth. I receive a wide variety of answers ranging from myth being rather unimportant or only important historically, to myth being necessary for teaching lessons (particularly to children) or even critical as a foundation for society and communication. I then, over the next several weeks, introduce students to many theories of mythology and its significance:

  • Myth as collective unconscious, working with Jungian thought and concepts from psychoanalysis;
  • The idea of myth as something false or fake;
  • Myth as a means by which society deals with the unknown or fills in gaps of human understanding;
  • Myth as historically and culturally significant story that cannot be connected directly to a particular or known author (though authors may have captured these cultural stories);
  • Myth as a means by which we create/ recreate social structure, including oppressive structure and epistemology;
  • Re-imagining myth as a means to disrupt kyriarchal ideology and its reproduction; and,
  • Myth as meaning-making story.

Early on in the semester we read a very interesting article by Dr. Ira Churnus called, “The Meaning of Myth in the American Context,” in which Churnus discusses the significance of myth for cultural identity, arguing that within the United State we have a somewhat finite and fixed set of national myths which help to establish what “can be said meaningfully” within our culture. Further, he suggests that political debates tend to revolve around divergent interpretations of the same national myths.

When looking at today’s adversarial political climate within the United States, it is sometimes hard to imagine that underneath the interpretations of particular ‘meaningful stories’ there is often a common adherence to the ‘same idea,’ at least, literally, in principle. It reminds me of a lesson I learned when studying English literature in my undergraduate years: the protagonist and antagonist are often mirror images of one another, a right-/left- handed reflection that “through the looking glass,” distorts the reality in which we think we live.

I asked my class to give me examples of such competing definitions. One issue we discussed was gun control. Arguments for the increased regulation of firearms, and alternatively, for greater accessibility to firearms, ironically, both use the language of safety, protection and freedom. I suspect that underneath these principles lies a mythical story about the United States being a ‘safe place where all people can find prosperity and opportunity.’

Please don’t mistake my meaning here. I am not asserting that as a country we commonly accept that the United States is a safe place or a place of equal opportunity. Many people (and most of my students) react negatively to this kind of mythology, rejecting its validity based upon personal and familial experience of institutional oppression and violence.

What I mean to say is that whether you believe the story or not, our political rhetoric is steeped in the myth of “The American Dream,” and to a great degree, necessarily so.  As Churnus’ article suggests, adherence in some way to this myth is necessary for the dissemination of our political messages in culturally meaningful ways. Some part of us buys into some part of our common mythology; hence, the importance of recognizing and interrogating the stories in which we (often unconsciously) participate.

In the spirit of a hermeneutic of suspicion of political mythology, my class and I considered a small portion of the presidential candidates’ speeches from the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention. While Hillary Clinton’s and Doland Trump’s addresses differed greatly in tone and socio-political ideology, they both relied heavily on religious myth, rhetoric of the American Dream and American exceptionalism, and allusions to historical purity. The following are just a few observations from the first ten minutes of each candidate’s speech:

Donald Trump’s Speech:

  • He uses the language of militarism and allusions to the president’s role as “commander and chief” a great deal, and frequent appropriates this “command” to assert that the Obama is “unfit” for duty, so to speak.
  • He emphasizes the idea of “coming back to” peace, prosperity, and safety (a myth of historical purity).
  • Referencing the idea that “facts” are “plain and honest,” Trump plays upon common depictions of American small towns and ‘good simple folk.’
  • Claiming to “honor the American people with the truth and nothing else,” he evokes the implicit myths of Justice built around the courtroom oath “to tell the truth and nothing but the truth.”
  • Stating that, “they are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities,” he uses insect plague metaphors (Exodus anyone) to characterize undocumented immigrants.
  • He describes a murdered teenage girl and her family with some detail, referencing many myths: that of the “all American girl,” the implicit racist myth of the man of color as a danger to “innocent white girls,” describing the victim, Sarah Root, as a sacrifice “on the alter of open borders,” he alludes to an abundance of religious mythology related to child sacrifice (which plays into myths of “good religion” vs. “bad religion,” as well as insiders and outsiders, and monster myths), and dualistic myths of good vs. evil.
  • Referencing common apocalyptic myths about the “destruction of our way of life,” Trump makes himself into the hero battling against all odds.

It is easy for me to pick apart Donald Trump’s speech because I am against his arrogant racist and sexist rhetoric and practice. He interprets myths differently than I do, so I can readily locate the interpretations that anger me. However, it is important to note that Hillary Clinton’s speech also relied upon many of the same myths.

Hillary Clinton’s Speech:

  • Clinton (and her daughter) make many references to the idea of the “good mother,” maternal femininity, and the contemporary myth that “a woman can have it all.”
  • She directly discusses the Revolutionary War, drawing upon myths of American spirit, determination, and the bravado of those willing to “stick it to the King.”
  • She references historical unity (again, a myth of historical purity).
  • Characterizing time as a “moment of reckoning,” she uses apocalyptic imagery of being “pulled apart.”
  • She describes Trump as taking the Republican Party “from morning in America to midnight in America,” playing on the deeply ingrained cultural and religious myth of light vs. darkness, a dualistic myth.
  • Referencing FDR and his famous statement “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Clinton draws again upon ideas of historical purity (America as the ‘good guy’ in WWII) and historical heroism.
  • Rather than play upon individual leadership myths, Clinton builds upon common ideas of social revolution, such as when she uses the phrase “rise together.”
  • Yet, Clinton also subtly depicts herself as hero wearing, uniquely, a white suit in front of the stars and stripes.

Considering this list, I find myself excited by some stories while reviling others. I am truly horrified by the racist myths found in all of Trump’s speeches. While I find myself drawn in by Clinton’s allusions to unity, I am also critical of the “whitewashing” of history necessary to paint these pictures and wary of the “light vs. dark” story she is telling with even her physical body.

An exercise in decoding political mythology, this list reminded me to be wary and listen. As a scholar of religion, I am especially wary of the religious mythology built into our political discourse—particularly the myths of apocalypse, which theologian Catherine Keller warns us, are ‘self-anihil-ating.’

Its election season in the United States and we’re going to be told a lot of stories about who we are and where we are going. It is important for us to ask which stories we’re apart of and do we like the roles we’ve been given? Do we like the stories we’re telling when we buy into a mythology that is all to familiar to us?

 

Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the Women’s Studies in Religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.

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Categories: General, Myth, Politics, power

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10 replies

  1. Excellent post! I am always aghast when so-called liberal or progressive leaders in the US assert the myth of American exceptionalism–that America is the best country in the world, a light shining on a hill, and so forth. Both Hillary and Obama subscribe to this view. Siggghhh. Robert Bellah called this the cornerstone of America’s civil religion.

    In his film Where to Invade Next Michael Moore challenges this myth, yet in the end he seems to reaffirm it when he suggests that all of the good things he found in other countries originated in the US.

    This idea is so dangerous because it leads us to think we don’t need to do any better on issues that still trouble our common life including racism, sexism, and poverty. It also leads to arrogance in our foreign policy which has caused so much suffering. And as you say it leads us to “white” wash the genocide and slavery on which our country’s so called “greatness” was built.

    Siggghhhhh

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    • Carol, I could not agree with you more. However, part of Trump’s popularity and message, the Make American Great Again, is based on this myth. When was the United States of America the greatest–have they forgotten slavery, the masses of poor–I could go on. It is considered heresy to say this sort of thing in the extremely conservative area in which I live. I even have a problem with calling this country America because there are many other countries that make of America. I do agree that the “ideal” on which the United States of America is based, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, is a great ideal but one which this country has never even come close to attaining. Has any country?

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  2. What a great post, Sara. I have found (and continue to find) that this concept–how mythology shapes our worldview–to be one of the most difficult concepts to get across to students. You explain it so well, using the two people aspiring to be our next president. Thank you.

    This semester I came across a short TED talk by Devdutt Pattanaik. He speaks eloquently about mythology and how it “works.” http://www.ted.com/talks/devdutt_pattanaik

    Students seemed to appreciate this talk.

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    • Esther — I think your students’ difficulty with the concepts of myth are a part of American mythology. It starts in the Judaic and Christian traditions, but has been taken over into our secular mythologies as well. In many parts of Judiaism and Christianity, the Bible was seen as “fact” or “history,” not mythology, and that was true in almost all threads of Christianity until well into the 20th century. So…in our culture, we are indirectly taught that we don’t have any religious myths (except for the false kind). American positivistic, empiricist, and pragmatic philosophy — which until recently was a given in American understandings, especially in non-academic settings — underscored the same belief (I would call it a myth of mythless-ness): that authentic knowledge can only come from gathering observable, empirical, and measurable evidence, subject to specific principles of reasoning, i.e. we shouldn’t have any myths. In a similar vein, “objectivity” became the philosophical basis of journalism.

      I’m so glad that those of you who are teaching at universities are taking on this lack of understanding when it comes to myths. I think that believing that we have no myths makes the American people much easier to mislead and manipulate. So good for you, Esther and Sara!

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  3. Excellent post. Many thanks for writing so clearly about myth.

    The “great” that Trump is referring to in “make America great again” seems in fact to be the mythology pretty much invented by Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM in the 1940s and 50s, when nearly all his movies showed small-town, patriarchal, patriotic, white citizens (nearly all the black people were servants). And they sang a lot. Example–Meet Me in St. Louis. The Andy Hardy movies. In the days before TV, people went to the movies more than any other form of entertainment. They were washed in Mayer’s values. Soaked in them. And TV carried them on. Lucy. Leave It to Beaver. Ozzie and Harriet. The Mickey Mouse Club. And we pretty much still are washed by Mayer’s mythology………well, at least some of us still are. Yes, indeed, mythology still rules our unconscious and our social structure.

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  4. I’m wondering how the handlers for each politician participate in myth building in order to fulfill an agenda. For example, “Clinton (and her daughter) make many references to the idea of the “good mother,” maternal femininity, and the contemporary myth that “a woman can have it all.” The injection of motherhood into the campaign was not evident in her 2008 run. Leslie Stahl (60 minutes reporter) stated she needed to speak more about her role as grandmother in order to win over a particular demographic. Never have I heard or read the need of a male politician to be a good father/grandfather.

    When Hillary appeared in her white pant suit I thought of purity, and of course her handlers and what they wanted to project onto our psyche–followed by a feminist critique that never would we analyzing what Trump was wearing.

    So my point? Not surprising sexism is built into myth making and is used to capture our allegiance. Separating “truth” from “myth” demands so much more of us.

    Excellent and thoughtful post!

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  5. I remember well the myths of my youth in the USA. The “gun that won the west”, and all that entails. We were the good “guys” fighting the evils of communism. It was a great time for a takeover by the Corporations.

    I’ve been in Canada 40 years and have a healthy skepticism about such stories like: “We are peacemakers – not like the US” or such things that we don’t like about the US but don’t acknowledge in our own mythology. It’s interesting how some Canadians see themselves only in relationship to another Country rather than as a independent entity – seems to me very immature, and annoying! What did you say about “left hand/right hand” Sara!

    This coming Sunday’s readings in the Roman Catholic liturgy are also a good study. The “hero/saviour” who saves people even when they anger god, etc. who is a god in our image of vengeance and retribution but who can change if we do the correct thing. Then the reading from Luke 15 – No wonder Jesus was killed. It’s dangerous to challenge the foundational myths.

    Thanks for your very thought-provoking post Sara. Lucky students! It sounds like a dynamic course.

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  6. Great post, Sara, and wonderful discussion, everyone. This post on FAR makes me want to get back to my writing on mythology. When my editors stop bugging me with what seems unimportant final changes to my book _The World is Your Oracle_, I will do exactly that!

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  7. What a thought-provoking post, and so important, especially during this political season. Thanks, Sara!

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