Virtually every country has a holiday celebrating its national identity. Each year when it rolls around, we have a special collective opportunity not only to take pride in the accomplishments of our national past, but also to reflect on who we now are, what our nation stands for these days, how we are measuring up against our ideals, and what we must do together to live up to them and build a better future. In that way, it is like New Year’s Day, only for our country. In light of developments in our country over the past several weeks, on this July 4th in particular we have a lot to think about.
Most national holidays fall into one of several categories, including anniversaries of independence from foreign powers, important military victories, socio-political revolutions (the USSR, Iran, also the abolition of slavery as in Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Mayotte), constitutional changes (India), the birthday or accession of a monarch (The Netherlands, Monaco), or the day of a national saint (Scotland, Wales, Hungary).
In the instances of struggles for independence and revolutions, as in the USA’s case, the original events of these struggles have become mythologized. For example, the actual facts of Paul Revere’s ride, the “Boston Massacre,” the Boston Tea Party were turned into myth, and many untrue stories grew up around the figure of George Washington (not to mention the painting of his apotheosis on the ceiling of the dome of our nation’s Capitol). Likewise in France with the storming of the Bastille. The Soviet Union on its national holiday, the anniversary of the October Revolution, fondly remembered the Bolsheviks’ storming of the Winter Palace (as depicted in many films), even though no such storming ever happened (it was a gradual infiltration through various entrances and windows of the Palace, which had been abandoned, as shown in my book on the history of St. Petersburg).
Beyond such events themselves, the ideals that we fight for and establish through such successful struggles also have a sacred quality about them to which we are emotionally attached, which makes them larger than real life. Most often, as in the American case, the ideals are worthy ones. Our collective task is to find a way to live up to them so that they are a reality, to make sure we are not just living an illusory myth.
In the case of independence struggles and revolutions there is always an enemy, whether foreign or domestic, who is defeated. In the process, the enemy is demonized, and the victors then write the histories of the events, which are in part myth driving from our projected image of the “other.” One of our national tasks must be to be aware of our collective shadow self, so as not to let it gain control over our thoughts and deeds. Otherwise we are operating based on illusions, myths. It has been over 200 years since Britain was an enemy, and we were able to align quickly with Germany and Japan some 70 years ago after a terrible war against them, but new perceived enemies, both foreign and domestic, seem to arise as quickly as the old ones disappear. In order to devise and implement workable policies and achieve a more perfect union we must first make sure our understanding and portrayal of both foreigners and of groups within our own population are free of myth, not a reflection of our collective shadow self.
Unfortunately, however, this problem exists and has become more acute, though in many cases it exists within particular demographic groups rather than being nationwide. Leaving aside perceived foreign enemies, just consider what we have seen over the past few weeks here at home:
- One myth, repeated daily by most Republican presidential candidates, is that our national identity and legal and political system is (or should be) based on the Bible and the Christian God, and that our legislation and court decisions must align with this religious understanding. A simple fact check of the Constitution, of course, shows that religion and God appear nowhere in it, except in Article 6 prohibiting religious prerequisites for holding public office and in the Establishment Clause which instructs that religion must be kept out of our government and laws (other than to ensure its free exercise).
- Donald Trump characterized Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists, a xenophobic appeal to another shadow element within a portion of our nation of former immigrants and their descendants.
- Another demographic lives the myth that allowing gay marriage as per last week’s Supreme Court decision will destroy our national social fabric and even provoke God’s wrath, although it has had no such effects in the many advanced democratic countries where it has been legal for years.
- Denial of the climate change that is destroying our nation’s environment is attaining mythic proportions, as the deniers refuse to examine the facts established by sound science that disprove their myth.
- The myth of another demographic insists that our national identity and security depends on our being legally entitled to buy and carry assault rifles, which identity would somehow be threatened if guns are regulated as in all other democratic countries. A quick fact check shows that the 2nd Amendment was intended to allow citizens to have muskets so that they could form a militia when needed, since in those days we had no standing army or even strong police forces. Now we have such armed forces, which possess tanks, drones, fighter jets, warships, and nuclear weapons; meanwhile, armed citizens shoot each other with weapons no longer needed to do a militia’s job.
- The myth of the shooter in Charleston was that African-Americans are somehow taking over the country, and that our national identity should somehow be realized under white supremacy and the Confederate flag
All these myths about our national identity are the product of collective shadows within the demographic communities that embrace them. A fundamental part of addressing them must entail examining and understanding the psychology that generates these myths in the first place, and engaging in a public dialogue about it.
We have much work to do in order to come to grips with our myths. Our ideas of our national identity and values should not be based on myths. We cannot get our minds around and solve difficult social and political issues based on myths. We should not be electing our President based on myths. We cannot let moneyed and other special interests help perpetuate these myths. Our nation’s original values should be remembered and used to help combat these myths. As we enter into the next election cycle this July 4th, we have plenty to think about. We must recognize and understand our myths when they appear.
I’ll write again tomorrow on Independence Day mythology, in connection with its goddess….
© Arthur George 2015