America’s National Origin Myth

September 10, 2019 Category: American Culture

George Orwell noted that totalitarian regimes are not concerned with uncovering (that is: elucidating) actual history; they are solely concerned with creating (that is: fabricating and/or obfuscating) pseudo-history—usually, some sort of hyper-romanticized national origin myth—in order to suit their interests.  A gilded legacy—no matter how farcical—is employed to rationalize a glorious destiny (as defined by whatever ideological agenda proponents happen to be touting).  We encounter this phenomenon around the world; and across all of history.

In his classic “The Crowd”, Gustav Le Bon noted that “the masses have never thirsted after Truth.  They turn from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error if [that] error seduces them.  Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master.  Whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.”

One might re-word this as follows: The masses are unconcerned with objective truth.  They tend to reject any evidence that does not comport with their preferred worldview, opting instead to sanctify falsehoods that suit them.  Whoever supplies them with palatable illusions becomes their hero; anyone who debunks those illusions becomes the villain.

Niccolo Machiavelli—and Leo Strauss after him—did not see this as a necessarily bad thing; as they recognized it could be used to the advantage of those in power (that is: to serve a purpose).  This is about engineering a false consciousness; or, as Noam Chomsky phrased it, manufacturing consent.  It involves what Carl Jung dubbed a palliative “psychic epidemic” (whereby we are our own worst enemies).  Such collective psychosis (replete with mass mania and mass hysteria) is based on a delusive perception of ourselves and our place in the world; though one that satisfies certain needs.

False consciousness involves a widespread—one might say, collective—misapprehension; and it is often constructed en masse.  It is rarely arbitrary; and is often BY DESIGN.  The catch is that the masses are typically unwitting participants.  After all, for false consciousness to work, it cannot be SEEN AS false.  (This is especially true when it is COLLECTIVE false memory.)

The masses, then, must be kept in a state of (smug) obliviousness—that is: heedlessly immersed in chronic delusion.  After all, the point is to sustain gratification.  This is accomplished by deploying an array of psychogenic triggers (having to do with golden ages, glory days, and pending rewards).  Such triggers are conveyed via a memetic vehicle: a compelling narrative replete with flash-points—both etiological and eschatological.  When designed well, this memetic regime engenders a siege mentality…while instilling false pride (in a hallowed legacy) and false hope (in an enticing destiny).  The key is that such delusion is CHOREOGRAPHED.  The illusions offer that which the existentially disoriented crave: a sense of direction / purpose.  The appeal lies in the false certainty conferred by the (quasi-plausible) illusions being proffered.  The lesson: No more need to inquire; all the answers to your questions have already been figured out.

But what of the obduracy of the ideologue?  For those smitten with a sanctified narrative, sticking to one’s guns becomes a source of (false) pride; thereby serving a psychical purpose.  It is also a sign to one’s brethren that one is committed to the cause; thereby serving a social purpose.  To abandon one’s deeply held belief would not only lead to a bruised ego, it would come off as a kind of betrayal to fellow believers; thereby jeopardizing the in-group acceptance on which one has come to depend.  Hence committing to a narrative is not only a personal issue (saving face), it is a tribal issue (retaining a much-needed support network).

The utility of a sanctified narrative is also at stake; as it can be used to justify one’s favored worldview; and thus one’s political agenda.  So one will stick to one’s guns even in the face of an alluvion of countervailing evidence.  (The tendency to dig in our heals when certain dogmas are debunked is known as the “backfire effect”.)  Such obstinacy is made possible by the illusory truth effect, whereby the intensity with which one professes one’s beliefs seems to validate those beliefs.  Hence one will be snookered by one’s own biases; and so see only what one wants to see.  (We are often convinced that what we believe is true due to the ardor with which we believe it.)  We might recall that blinkered thinking does not announce itself as blinkered thinking—just as delusions aren’t recognized as delusions by those harboring them.  The point of an illusion is that it doesn’t SEEM to be an illusion.

Another way that illusion is sustained is by having a utility that people would much rather not do without.  In other words, the illusion serves an important purpose.  In such cases, utility is mistaken for veracity.  For right-wing ideologues, America’s national origin myth (that is: the proposition that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation) buttresses their current political agenda.  So they run with it.

To ensure the subsistence of sacrosanct dogmas, ideologues often peddle self-serving pseudo-histories. When the genesis of a nation is the issue, the ideology at stake is typically some form of national Exceptionalism with a theocratic bent.

National origin myths are useful, as they imbue the consecrated ideology with a veneer of legitimacy.  The purpose of myth, after all, is not to explicate what literally happened; it is to notify the audience what it is supposed to believe happened…so that whatever they are exhorted to believe is given the appearance of justification for a wider audience.  When this is done successfully, the distinction between what is actually true and what people decide should be treated as “true” is often lost. {1}

The canard that “America was founded as a [Judeo-]Christian nation” is a case in point.  At first blush, this sounds plausible; yet those who make the claim are wildly off-base.  The claim is erroneous not only in terms of historical fact, but in terms of the basic principles of liberal democracy.

Alas.  This popular trope continues to enjoy prominence in American discourse amongst those who fashion it as a form of flattery.  The myth that the U.S. is a “Christian nation” (and that the Constitutional Republic was somehow based on Mosaic law) has become so fully ingrained in the American consciousness, it is now rather difficult to dislodge.

Many (most?) Americans are blissfully unaware of their own mythology.  So they proceed in errancy, deluded by the self-ingratiating—and intoxicating—illusion that their nation is some sort of “shining city upon a hill”, put on some sort of cosmic pedestal by divine ordinance.  This conceit has various implications in contemporary geo-politics—chief among them: a view of the exalted nation-State whereby it has no qualms arrogating to itself entitlements that it would never accord to anyone else.  Such nationalism entails that “our” nation-State, unlike all others, has been endowed, by Providence, with “manifest destiny”.  The belief is that it enjoys the imprimatur of the Creator of the Universe; and thus carte blanche to do whatever it sees fit (in order to promote its own interests).

What might be dubbed the “doing god’s work” syndrome is on full display with super-patriotism: an ersatz patriotism that is born of jingoism rather than civic-minded-ness.  Genuine patriotism lay in possibility.  It involves loving what one’s country COULD BE, not necessarily what is currently is.  It wants to make the object of its affection better; which requires (often brutally candid) critical self-assessment.  With genuine patriotism, there is no fetishism, no delusive thinking, no need to re-write history.

Super-patriotism rather different.  It is, as Samuel Johnson put it, the last refuge of scoundrels.  Johnson was not referring to ALL patriotism.  He was referring to the FAUX patriotism of those who sympathized with the monarchical ideal (to wit: the British crown).  Such super-patriotism, today as back then, operates in a pathologically hubristic manner.  The thinking is: Any malfeasance is to be tolerated—even lauded—so long as it was committed by those who were waving the flag with sufficient vigor, and proclaiming love of country with enough ardor.  In sum: Super-patriotism is about pageantry, not about principle.

There is an undeniable appeal in theocratic thinking; as one can get two authoritarian approaches to societal governance (a political system and a religious system) in a one-package deal.  It’s mentally lazy, yet stupendously convenient.  Two sanctified regimens in one!  Hence the Holy Roman Empire…as well as Nazism in Germany, Revisionist Zionism in Israel, Stalinism in Russia, Maoism in China, Juche in North Korea, Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, Khomeinism in Iran, and—yes—Christian Dominionism in the United States.  Hence the undeniable appeal of the delusion—so ardently touted by Christian Nationalists across America—that their Republic was founded as “a Christian nation”.

As is usually the case, Revisionists are captivated by–and so married to–a compelling narrative that serves their ideological agenda.  Consequently, when it comes to cultivating an understanding of the circumstances in which the vaunted “Founders” laid the groundwork for the American Republic, we find ourselves navigating a morass of obscurantism and confabulation.

In a letter to his friend (William Roscoe) in 1820, Thomas Jefferson noted that we mustn’t ever be “afraid to follow Truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error–so long as reason is left free to combat it.”  It is in this spirit–the spirit of open and free inquiry–that any worthwhile analysis proceeds.  Evaluate the evidence, and let the chips fall where they may.

The founding of the U.S. was not in any way predicated on Pauline Christology.  This fact is obvious to anyone who has a firm grasp of the relevant history.  However, the well-varnished myth of America’s [Judeo-]Christian founding is still taken seriously across large swaths of the country simply because it hits the right notes for its target audience.

Given the vested interest in sustaining this fiction, it is no surprise that True Believers become incensed when the historiography undergirding the claim is debunked.  How, then, shall we address this?

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