The Norman Rockwell-style American Thanksgiving is a feast of mythology about pilgrims and Indians sitting down like buddies giving thanks to the Christian god for a successful harvest. Add the picture of the perfect American family, every member home for the holiday, sitting down together feeling blessed by their Maker for the over-eating opportunity their country has provided.
Whatever its real, less-fanciful history — and however dysfunctional family get-togethers really are — Thanksgiving is the perfect day to remind us of the fact that nations promote myths that sustain them.
In the field of religious studies, identifying a mythology is not a comment on the historical accuracy of the stories in question. History happened back then, but a myth is a story that says something meaningful to someone today.
A myth can be historically accurate (or not), but its power and meaning is that it informs, directs, justifies, and touches emotions about framing the present. And all countries have myths that teach from childhood what loyal citizens of the nation are supposed to believe about what it means to be American, French, Chinese, Egyptian, or whomever.
National myths sanctify ideals that the powers of the state want represented as part of national identity. They’re taught by schools and others so incessantly that they become unquestionably so.
Whether or not George Washington ever really chopped down any cherry tree, we’re to understand that honesty is American, while those who teach it might be as dishonest as it takes for them to maintain their privileged societal positions.
The power of these dominant myths can obscure their historical inaccuracy. And if so, they can teach what is good for enforcing the way things are, with the current powers, prejudices, and expectations in place.
They discourage as hopeless the chances of anyone who wants to change the system and its power structure. And doubters and questioners are suspect of something like treason.
LGBT people, people of color, and others who’ve missed out on mainstream privileges, know the dominant myths about their communities that support prejudice. They stumble over them regularly — running into those who have accepted myths about them without question and hearing them repeated in the media.
How fitting, then, when celebrating this season of Americana, to remember two of the big myths that keep people disempowered. Myths that a deep reading of American history — not the official history of our schools — proves are historically false. Myths that if exploded will no longer keep everyday people from believing that they can change things.
Myth 1: The salvation of this country is in electing great leaders who will solve our problems. Presidents and other big heroes are responsible for America’s progress.
There are people who expected a young, Illinois senator to be this special savior. So they thought that just supporting the right person would produce progress.
They didn’t want to believe that he was already a part of an established system. They wanted to believe that he would be different enough in economic and political policies to somehow change the old ways that transcend the two entrenched political parties, including the party in which he was skillful enough to climb to the top.
The historical reality is that this is not how progressive change has ever taken place in the U.S. no matter how much we think the solution would be the election of another Lincoln or FDR.
It’s the social movements of the everyday people that moved our leaders. When so moved, they then took credit for what was accomplished as a result: “There go the people, let me get out in front of them and look like I’m leading.”
American historian Howard Zinn concludes from his exhaustive study that American mythology downplays or omits the importance of everyday people’s social movements and thus — “a fundamental principle of democracy is undermined: the principle that it is the citizenry, rather than the government, that is the ultimate source of power and the locomotive that pulls the train of government in the direction of equality and justice.”
Myth 2: The wars we have entered are forced on us by the needs of the American people but ended because of the heroics of great leaders. Yes, there might have been a few “bad” wars, but they were necessary.
Historically, it’s the exact opposite. Zinn shows that war “is manufactured by political leaders, who then must make a tremendous effort — by enticement, by propaganda, by coercion — to mobilize a normally reluctant population to go to war.”
In 1917 the government sent 75,000 lecturers around the country to give 750,000 lectures to persuade the people that it was right to enter World War I. Thousands of people were put on trial and imprisoned to suppress opposition.
FDR, as James Polk before him for the Mexican War and Lyndon Johnson after him for the Vietnam War, had to lie to the American people to convince them to support entrance into World War II. Historian Thomas Bailey, puts this in what he thinks is a positive light: “Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly deceived the American people during the period before Pearl Harbor like a physician who must tell the patient lies for the patient’s own good… because the masses are notoriously shortsighted and generally cannot see danger until it is at their throats.”
Wars begin for business reasons and end when the people have had enough. Everyday people and their movements force an end when they rise up, realize their power, and demand change.
The fact that these myths are untrue is a reminder that, yes, we can make change, that it’s not hopeless if we choose to act in hope and don’t wait for the right leader, Democrat or Republican, to do the right thing.
Zinn: “No pitifully small picket line, no poorly attended meeting, no tossing out of an idea to an audience or even to an individual should be scorned as insignificant.”
The holidays are a good time to reread the history beneath the myths. How about Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present?
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.