The Meanings of America: Myths of National and Personal Identity (CUL 310)

The Meanings of America: Myths of National and Personal Identity

CUL 310 Course Learning Outcomes (CLOs)

Students will be able to:

1. Analyze and describe the nature and function of mythology.

2. Identify and categorize disciplinary approaches to analyzing mythology, specifically, anthropology, psychology, sociology, political science, philosophy, religious studies, literature, and film.

3. Describe and compare the exercise of mythology in the public sphere (e.g, politics, religion, the arts, education, literature) and the private sphere (gender, individuality, religion, the imagination, personal development).

4. Evaluate how American mythology emerged, changed, and functions.

5. Formulate and express a logically sound argument about what constitutes the appropriate use, or the abuse, of mythologies in the American public sphere.

6. Produce an interdisciplinary analysis of the meanings of America in a particular setting and evaluate it by proposing an integrated solution to a research problem.

7. Demonstrate appropriate-level scholarly writing skills; specifically, use scholarly writing conventions, make a clear and warranted argument, use evidence appropriately and persuasively, use appropriate and correct grammar and punctuation.

8. Demonstrate appropriate-level research skills, specifically, cites, evaluates, and documents appropriate sources.

Meanings of America

Jasper Johns, 1930-, Three Flags, 1958

Greg Salyer, Ph.D.
President
University of Philosophical Research

Module 1: The Native Nation

Before there was “America,” there was a continent of more than 500 nations and cultures varying widely in language, religion, and social structure. They practiced sophisticated land management, created a vast network of roads, and constructed large cities rivaling those of Europe. When the Europeans invaded, these 500 nations became one in the new American imagination, los indios or “the Indians.” The name arose from a mistake in navigation and remained as a mistake of the imagination to this day. Despite a calculated and prolonged genocide by Euro-Americans, Native people remain on the continent and survive through their ceremonies and humor.

Module 2: The Religious Nation

America’s creation myth is about religious freedom from a Europe still bleeding from its religious wars that were tied to state-sponsored religion. Members of the Plymouth Colony landed in Massachusetts in 1620 and provided a religious counterpart to the Virginia Company that had settled in Jamestown in 1607. The Plymouth Colony’s “freedom from” religion of the state and “freedom to” practice their own beliefs remains a pivotal tension at the heart of the America as a religious nation. The First Amendment of the Constitution articulates this paradox: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .”

Module 3: The Immigrant Nation

The meaning of America has been articulated since its beginning in the Latin phrase e pluribus unum, out of many, one. The many, of course, are immigrants. The one is harder to imagine and realize. This three-word myth assumes an America that is open and secure, diverse and unified, and constantly changing and fundamentally stable. That is an idealistic and perhaps impossible goal for a community, much less a nation of this size. A symbol that is usually associated with this myth is the melting pot, which appears instructive on the surface until we begin to ask questions of it. Who is doing the melting, and what is the result? What is lost and what is gained in the melting? Is it language, culture, identity? Such questions are more pressing than ever as the myth of the immigrant nation undergoes unique challenges and revisions.

Module 4: The Destined Nation

It has been argued that the myth of the American West is the longest-lived of the American myths. Expansion to the Pacific Ocean represented a culmination of the colonization of the continent and finalized the nation-building that began with contact. In fact, Frederick Jackson Turner called the settling of the frontier the second founding of the republic, and this consummation of the myth of destiny did not end at the western ocean. Instead, it continued to grow into the nation’s first foreign policy doctrine of Manifest Destiny, a mythologically loaded phrase if there ever was one. Less of a consensus than the melting pot, Manifest Destiny nevertheless provided an ideology of American colonization and war that found particular expression around the globe.

Module 5: The Self-Reliant Nation

Mythologies have heroes, and the American mythology has a hero at its center. That hero is you, the American. This hero myth is not reserved for noble ones or founders of cities, as in ancient mythology. Part of the American mythology is that the hero myth is available to all by their birthright as Americans. The myth connects to the nerve centers of the American mythos: individualism (and new spaces and resources in which to practice it), self-reliance, rags to riches, the American dream, and American exceptionalism. Moreover, the hero myth finds a home in everything from the American farmer to the American philosopher. Even those who had been excluded from the American dream by previous bigotry can (mythologically at least) become an American hero.

Module 6: The Capitalist Nation

There is a good chance that any time a concept is presented as natural, self-evident, or inevitable we are talking about a myth. As Roland Barthes noted, “Myth transforms history into nature.” This observation is uniquely true of capitalism in America. The American Dream is a “self-evident” capitalist dream, thanks especially to popular novels of the nineteenth-century young adult writer Horatio Alger’s and his rags to riches myth. Any myth, however, must interface with other myths in the whole mythology. How does capitalism fare in this scheme? Surprisingly well, actually. In this lecture/discussion we will see just how and why capitalism is woven into the meanings of America.

Module 7: The Anti-Intellectual Nation

Like their Hebrew mythological forebears, the founders of America used the concept of the chosen nation to define themselves against the “others.” Among these others are Europeans, and a primary feature of European mythologies is what has been described as a certain intellectual elitism. Never mind that it was such intellectualism that conceived and inaugurated America in the beginning. The emergent and still-present myth of the “plain-spoken” and “simple” American has been plied into political power repeatedly and effectively. Why should a nation value anti-intellectualism and how does it play into the meanings of America? The answers may be surprising and revealing.

Module 8: The Violent Nation

Violence is the ritual practice of American myth. Given the belief that America was a “wilderness” that needed to be subdued, especially in regard to its Native people, violence becomes a sacrament of nation building and mythological regeneration. Congruent with the value of violence is the value of its tools, that is, arms. That America is and has been one of the most violent countries in history is directly related to the meaning and use of violence as establishing and renewing the meaning of America.

Module 9: The Innocent Nation

While all nations avoid admitting complicity in nefarious acts, America has a unique approach to innocence that is drawn directly from the other meanings of America that we have been studying. Innocence is also related to another prominent meaning of America, that is, exceptional. Innocence and exceptionalism make for a powerful mythological identity that allows for Manifest Destiny and other mythologies to proceed without critique, or at least a critique that is recognized and accounted for. As such, it is a self-sustaining myth and also an extremely dangerous one both for citizens and the nation’s others.

Module 10: The Future Nation

Given the meanings of America that we have explored, it is clear that American mythology is uniquely oriented toward the future. Even as the Pilgrims looked back over their shoulders at the religious wars they left behind, they looked forward to establishing themselves in this new “Promised Land.” The open frontier continued to fuel this myth, and when the frontier was “closed,” the future took on the contours of capitalism and eventually space exploration. Add in innocence and exceptionalism and we have a recipe for the future that is uniquely mythological and American. Even the world acknowledges (or used to) that the future is American, for better or for worse.

css.php