Mythic America 1: American Political Dreams

A revised version of this piece is published in the journal e-International Relations

We are children of the dream. The dream lives when Dr. Martin Luther King tells a million followers on the Washington Mall, “I have a dream”. When Senator Ted Kennedy, after the death of his brother, the fallen American President, says that “The dream lives on: the dream shall never die”. When a young Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, writes of the “Dreams of My Father”.

The American dream is our dominant political narrative, our secular national religion. It interprets the meaning of our political lives. Our political identity lives in the dream.

The dream begins with a story of virgin birth of a great nation in a “new world”, a wilderness waiting to awaken at the touch of the redeemer. American heroes begin an epic journey, settling first the shores and then the interior of a great new continent. Explorers and colonists seek new lands. The Founding Fathers follow. They are the secular saints, the magic people of a new democracy.

Thomas Jefferson writes Declaration of Independence that tells us that we are citizens of a great nation, endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Declaration of Independence

The Founding Fathers craft the Constitution of political genius that embeds those rights in larger vision of institutional democracy. They bequeath to their less perfect political heirs the blessings of freedom.

Later generations shape a more perfect and extend the blessings of liberty. Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, recalls that “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He resolves that “this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln Memorial

The Statue of Liberty welcomes later refugees. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the inscribed Emma Lazarus poem exhorts, “The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me”

Statue of Liberty

The dream of America also extends a story of peace and prosperity to American foreign policy. The United States does not seek foreign adventures. George Washington in his farewell address famously warns against entangling alliances. And President Monroe’s doctrine extends American protection from foreign rulers to all of the Americas. The United States fights the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Spanish-American War against imperial Britain and Spain. US purchases of Louisiana and Alaska bring new lands into America from French and Russian sovereigns. The Mexican war pushes back against imperial ambitions, later articulated in the reign of Maximilian I of Austria.

Continue reading Mythic America 2: American Political Shadows


Mythic America 2: American Political Shadows

The American political dream is our searchlight. It illuminates the brightest political aspirations and successes of our best selves.  It is the warm story that we tell ourselves about the sunny uplands of our magnificent continent, America the beautiful.

 In the dream, we are children of light. Yet shadow stories tell us that we are also children of darkness. The light shows the beauty in our political lives, but also highlights the dark, cold valleys. It shows us the way, but also illuminates our failures. There are ugly hollows in our national political landscape where the world is not reborn anew, but the present and future repeat the cruel experiences of older worlds. Life is disrespected, liberty caged in, and the pursuit of happiness a mirage. If the dream exists, it is far and faint. Our best leaders and our best natures call us to the dream, and we may respond, but the dream itself does not always and everywhere answer back.

Sometimes we see ourselves as our dreams depict us; at other times, we see our darker, shadow selves. In Oliver Stone’s film Nixon, President Nixon, on the eve of his resignation, wanders around in the White House. He ends up in front of Kennedy’s portrait, remarks: “When they look at you, they see themselves how they’d like to be, and when they look at me, they see themselves as they are.”

The dream of American democracy begins in the self evident truths of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The shadow account of America reminds us that the new world was not terra nullia, an empty land without inhabitants. The dream world masks America’s dark origins in worlds of imperial exploration (Amerigo Vespucci and Columbus) and conquest (Conquistadores, Indian Wars). It neglects the way that manifest destiny and western expansion swept over earlier indigenous people, who were evicted, expropriated, and murdered.  It misses the transformation from a planter-dominated confederation into a modern capitalist and corporate, plutocratic and oligarchic society—America Inc.

The Founding Fathers are not huddled masses yearning to breathe free, but aristocratic landowners and merchants intent on securing their accrued privileges and liberties to themselves and their heirs. The lives, the fortunes, and the sacred honor which many of the signers pledge in the Declaration of Independence, are founded on slavery, indentured servitude, and forced labor—human pillars of the private mansions and plantations and the new republic formed to secure them. Numerous hopeful immigrants are turned back at Ellis Island. Many are called, but not all are chosen. Others allowed to pass through the entrance gates, do not find a land of milk and honey, streets paved with gold. Some perish or return to their earlier homelands, bitter and disappointed, overwhelmed by the lonely individualism and harsh competition for survival in the new hypercapitalist world.

The shadow storyline tells us that the state is born and consolidated in injustice and violence.  Lincoln, in his 2nd Inaugural Address, warns that, “if God wills that it (the war) continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’”.

Neither the Civil War nor Reconstruction, the exhaustion of westward expansion at the continent’s Pacific Rim nor the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, dissolve the American dilemma of continuing violence and injustice in the shadow of American democracy. Lynching of blacks continues in the American South well into the 20th century. The pain of the lynched is counterbalanced by the satisfaction of the lynchers. The violent death of young black men upholds the political order of domination and dominated.

Strange Fruit: Lynching, August, 1930

Even as lynching dies out, Southern police force continues to support the segregated Southern racial order. Again, black humiliation is counterbalanced by white satisfaction. The South has moved away from actual physical lynching, but it still gags as it swallows integrated lunch.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Montgomery, Alabama, 1958

The dream of American democracy goes together with the dream of peace. Domestic freedom and equality coexist within splendid continental isolation, and without entangling international alliances. The shadow narrative of American foreign policy tells a different tale. The United States evolves from an inland, continental empire into a global one. From a weak confederation of independent colonies, the United States morphs into Superpower, engaged in constant and permanent war. Early armed conflicts against the Northeastern Indian tribes grow into continued Western expansion and the Mexican-American War that continue military operations against hemispheric populations. American military expeditions during World Wars I and II and the Cold War return to the older world and beyond as The United States projects its military reach from North America to an all-encompassing global scale Iconic engagement of  US Marine “devil dog” Brigade routing terrified German forces.

U.S.Marines: Belleau Wood, June, 1918

In the 20th century, American nuclear weapons and counter-insurgency reach ever more deeply into the nooks and crannies of distant lands. United States atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 6 and 9, 1945 is the final reply to the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and a fitting revenge for young American boys savagely cut down on Pacific islands and beaches and brutal Japanese atrocities against civilian populations. It ends the war in the Pacific without the horror of a bloody invasion of the Japanese homeland. The war ends, not with a whimper, but a big bang. If the Japanese suffer greatly, it is because they have greatly transgressed. Like other dark skinned objects of our wrath, they deserve what they get.

Japanese Nuclear War Victims: 1945

In the 21st century, the United States projects its democratic values through a muscular foreign policy in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Girls Just Want to Have Fun: Abu Ghraib

 If there are human costs in destroyed and shattered lives, these are emblems of heroism and souvenirs of adventure travel that echo in the dark night of the soul.

Home From The War (

American globalization begins in the dream of universal freedom and harmony and evolves into the permanent global war on terror. The dream of America, its divine mission, exceptionalism and greatness, expresses America’s a drive to extend the highest ambitions of its best self. But, from its dark corners, American globalization hides a deep drive for dominance. The shadow narrative reminds us that America is strongly in touch with its dark side and casts a global political shadow on the rest of the world. American globalization is a triumph of national marketing and public relations. The American dream is a hard power softener, the velvet glove around the iron fist of the American shadow. Together, the dream and the shadow provide a mythic frame that makes the world safe and comfortable for Americans.

Continue reading Mythic America 3: Mythic America

Mythic America 3: Mythic America

American dreams and shadows are the good, the good, the bad, and the ugly narratives of America. The American dream is America’s soul. It sets out the myth of democracy, justice, and peace. It describes morning in America, a sunny vision of American reality and American society. The shadow of America is the nightmare twin of the American dream. Beyond the happy talk lurks a darker vision. In place of comforting romantic language, the shadow narrative presents images of continuing savage cruelty, pornographies of violence. Some of the violence is justified by the dream; sometimes it exists for its own sake. The shadow story is taboo, yet widely known — unpatriotic, yet accepted.  The shadow is repressed and censored, but it emerges nonetheless. It is in plain sight, but we avert our eyes. The shadow knows what the dreamer does not know. The shadow sees a deep lie, or at least a deep hole, in the heart of the dream. The dream is a story of American identity as we should like it to be. The shadow is an alternate persona that is also part of America as it really is.

The dreams and shadows are parts of Mythic America, a larger mythspace. They are billows in the clouds of myths that surround us.  Mythic America is a virtual domain where stories live and die. It contains all our collective dreams and shadows. It also includes our mythistories, narratives interpreting centuries of national experience that evolve over time.

Mythic America evolves over space and time as new characters and events emerge. The dreams, shadows, and mythistories of today are vastly different from what they were

When Columbus and Hudson sailed;

When the Founding Fathers created their revolution and constitution;

When Abraham Lincoln asked whether a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal… or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure”;

When Franklin Roosevelt saw “tens of millions of its citizens—a substantial part of its whole population—who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life… millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day…”;

When John Kennedy declared “that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage–and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world”;

When Ronald Reagan declared that it was “morning in America.”

Mythic America is part of our past history and our interpretation of it. Yet it is also powerfully present every day, projected through modern communication. The mythspace flourishes in mainstream and alternative media, television and the internet, Facebook and Twitter. Mythic America holds us firmly in its hypnagogic grip, persuading us that the stories are true. It is the dreamweaver that guides us as we sleepwalk.

Even though we chase our dreams, and many believe that, when you wish upon a star, dreams can come true, Mythic America does not contain final, permanent truths; it does not contain the unknown and unknowable unknowns. The myths are instead folk tales that present a rhetoric of truth. They present truth claims and scripts for action. We may trust the dream, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice, that one day we shall all be free at last. Or, more skeptically, we may believe that there is a continuing predatory hierarchy of dominance and submission. That power never retreats on its own. That power, as John Quincy Adams said, always thinks that it has a great soul. Sometimes we are the tiger. Sometimes we are not . Sometimes we ride it, sometimes we shoot it, sometimes it eats us.

Mythic America not only tells stories. It also makes truth claims. It tells us stories, and it tells us that the stories are true. But they are not the truth. They are stories reflecting commonplace traditions. They are beliefs held by particular political communities, standing in place of the truth, as the truth, but they are not the truth with a capital T. They are not the God’s eye view. The wider truth is not “either /or” but “both/and”; it includes the dream and shadow stories that we have told, and all the other possible accounts of American political experience. The  truth value of the partial stories varies with their persuasive power over time and space, individuals and issues. These many stories inhabit parallel worlds, with parallel patterns, connecting parallel facts. All our stories live together, simultaneously in real space and time. The full, absolute truth is more inaccessible than any dream or any shadow story could represent.  There is always more to any single story; and there are always more stories.

In the absence of truth, as seen by God’s eye, is Mythic America populated by political myths of dreams, shadows, and shadows of shadows. Our myths, our common narratives, create the known world. They create the preconditions that make political communication and culture, discussion and rhetoric, and the accumulation of knowledge possible. None of the individual myths are true in an absolute sense, but they help us collectively describe different facets of our political experience and pragmatically guide political action. Our myths are also ethical fictions that persuade different people to act in different ways in different situations. In history and in real time, heroes and villains act out dream and shadow stories.

Continue reading Mythic America 4: MythWorld

Mythic America 4: MythWorld

In a globalizing world, Mythic America does not exist in splendid isolation. Mythic America is a part of MythWorld, a global theme park that holds all the dreams and shadows of the world’s people. We hope that the American self and the American dream will illuminate the way for others who desire peace and justice, freedom and democracy. At the same time, the American shadow can blight the dreams of others, for example, in situations where the United States directly supports regimes that are far from democratic or peaceful. The American shadow—American interests, neocolonial patterns of indirect rule, corporate penetration of foreign economies, imperial overreach, and military force—is also part of American globalization.

Americans project their own myths into MythWorld, but must also adapt to the myths of multiple others. American myths mix with different voices, various stories in MythWorld. Sometimes, as in the case of the United Nations, diverse national political myths mingle peacefully in the corridors of global power. At other times, there can be an explosive clash of dreams and shadows. In the airline attacks of 9/11, when the planes met the TwinTowers, competing political myths collided with explosive consequences.

Beyond American shores, there are dreams and shadows in other parts of MythWorld. The dreams of Mythic Israel, for example, focus on surviving the Holocaust, the long hoped-for return to the Holy Land, and the realization of “next year in Jerusalem.” Israelis talk less about their shadows–continuing expropriation, exploitation, and exclusion of native Palestinians. Mythic Palestine, in turn, has its own Holocaust, the Nakba. Palestinians mourn their dead. They regret their lost shops and orchards. They would wish repatriation to the lands from which they were expelled, compensation, and their own state. No more than the Israelis do they wish to discuss the shadows of violence and death that live beside the peace process. Myths are a form of power–soft power. Both sides would speak truth to the power of the other. Each side would also speak hard military power to uphold its own truths and gladly crush the truths and existence of non-believers.

Mythworld’s clouds glide across our blue planet, enveloping us in billows of dreams and shadows that wrap and trap us. Mythic America floats through global mythspace. We believe ourselves to be heroes, exceptional, a beacon to the world. But we encounter others like us, with their own mythspaces, who also believe that they are heroes, with billions of faces. We find that heroes—we and they—may be villains as well. Sometimes Mythic America basks in the bright dreaming sunlight of freedom, justice, and peace. Sometimes it wrestles with others’ threatening shadows. And sometimes America must also recognize the dark side of its own repression and violence. In various times and places, America must decide whether to restrain or embrace its shadow in service of the dream, or its dream in service of the shadow.