A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I created this list of “American Myths” 25 years ago thinking that some significant part of the people would begin to understand them over time. What seems to be happening is that the country is dividing into those who cling with increasing aggression to these myths as others realize the falseness of them.
1) The American continents were empty environments discovered by European explorers and then filled by European immigrants.
Truth: There were between 20 and 100 million people in North America alone before the Europeans came. In the hundred years between first contact and the beginning of serious examination (c.1500-c.1600) the whole continent was racked with devastating epidemics killing millions, destroying social systems and complex cultures arranged in coalitions of commerce from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the Arctic to South America.
2) The American political system was created to offer opportunity for egalitarian democracy.
Truth: The goal was economic protection for the wealthy classes. The genius of the founding fathers was recognizing the need for stability at other levels of society to reduce the danger of tyranny generally.
3) Americans presently enjoying the positive consequences of past inequity and crimes have no responsibility to those who presently suffer from the continuing negative consequences of those inequities and crimes.
Truth: That the country was built on the backs of slaves, indentured servants and the poor is too quickly forgotten as the greatest benefits of that building have been produced and divided up—the largest shares going to those who claim rights of property. We today still benefit from the theft of land and theft of labor; to deny it is disingenuous. This is not lingering guilt, just a truth easily forgotten by the “winners” and present daily in the lives of the “losers.”
4) The nation is a classless meritocracy in which wealth (material, social or intellectual) is earned, and properly and fully assignable to the owner.
Truth: No one gains in a vacuum. The kind of meritocracy that functions in this country favors the rich because the rich have structured it that way. Those who gain the most should give back the most since they have taken the greatest advantage of the public wealth.
5) Advancement in social position is accomplished by material accumulations. More is better.
Truth: This is the most recent assertion presented primarily by advertising that equates material accumulations with wealth and self-worth. Even those who question this ethos are susceptible to its siren song.
6) America is either the only country or, if not only, the best country, to offer advancement both materially and socially with hard work and talent; it offers the most freedom of expression and opportunity in the world.
Truth: This hasn’t been accurate for a long time. Several other countries offer the possibility of advancement by hard work and freedom of expression equal to or better than that of the U.S., such as Germany, Sweden, and Canada. For many sorts of people America does not offer very much. For others, it has become a place where people from the poorest countries can at least find some minimum wage work—if they’re lucky.
7) America’s is the most honest and most fair economic system.
Truth: American capitalism is exploitative. While capitalism may be tolerable for many domestically, it often functions far more aggressively abroad, especially in poor nations. But the increasing assignment of U.S. workers to the category of “labor costs,” together with vast inequities between the richest few and the poorest many, indicate systemic problems of growing severity domestically.
8) America has the best educational, health care, and social services system in the world–not necessarily the most extensive, but the best in recognition of true human nature.
Truth: This is a matter of familiarity, i.e. Americans are comfortable with what they know. By all objective measures we are more often between 10th and 20th among developed nations on these measures.
9) America is the most charitable nation in the world, giving with foreign aid and with the talent and energy of its people to the rest of the world more than any other nation.
Truth: The U.S. does give a lot in aid and many American people give much of their effort and talent to the world, but in percentage terms we give only about one-half as much as of our GDP as most other industrialized countries.
10) America has built itself into a world economic and military power by its own efforts, talents and superior national character—pulling itself up by its bootstraps from humble beginnings.
Truth: The people who settled in America were people of energy and talent–there is no question. But this country had incredible wealth in minerals, energy, fertile soil and other biological wealth without which little would have been possible. Then American business, often with the help of government, forcefully, even brutally, took the wealth of other countries at pennies on the dollar of true costs. Indeed, one of our talents both at home and abroad has been ruthlessness.
11) America’s form of government, religious liberality and ultimate correctness, and commitment to justice and freedom account for our economic success and military dominance.
Truth: See (10.) above.
12) There has been a progressive improvement in government and human relations throughout history culminating in the United States.
Truth: There is no question that two movements have been progressive throughout history: increases in population and increases in material/technical knowledge. There are strong arguments that much of our “improvements” in how we treat others have had to do with not needing to mistreat them to get what we want. We have also, by the power of communication, become more aware of others.
But human progress remains elusive. It was only 70 years ago that two dominant nations, Germany and the USSR, killed 30 or 40 million people by direct and considered action. The U.S. killed three million Indochinese during the Vietnam War. The U.S. today has vastly more of its citizens in jail than any other industrial country and is presently working toward world military domination. Is this progress?
13) Economic growth and pure capitalist economics will solve the problems created by our ignorance and the excesses that our demands might place on the environment.
Truth: To the extent that capitalism depends on economic growth, which is considerable, and is a closed economic model, it is destructive. Aspects of capitalism–what I would call “generous capitalism,” the rewarding of initiative, controlled profit and the recognition of a broad basis for value in society–needs to be integrated in a broad social political structure.
14) Science and technology will discover processes and materials that will continue to support economic growth, and protect against and correct damage done by our growing numbers and previous technological activities.
Truth: New ways of doing things will be recognized; new energy sources, materials, processes will become practical. Yet it is typical of these new technologies that they enhance wealthy nations while having little positive and often actual negative effects on poor countries. Ultimately these technological advancements and improvements have served to control people, designing their lives around the technologies. Also, fully half the world’s people today are less well-off than people ever have been in the history of the world; 3 billion people constantly in nutritional stress or actually starving. This number is growing, not getting smaller, despite food surpluses elsewhere.
15) The appropriate future for the world is to emulate America’s economics, government, society and religion. There is a clear statement of principles for right behavior represented by common American values that would beneficially apply to all peoples and all places. This is especially true for matters of economic exchange and should deny anyone the right to reject economic exchange on American terms. This principle is to be enforced by the American military when expedient.
Truth: This is a typical reaction of a country that has become powerful and attempts to stamp the world with its impression.
16) Wealth is not subject to the physical laws; it can be created by common consensus.
Truth: This is a complex issue. Too often, economics is very narrowly conceived and fails to consider environmental costs and future costs. If these are considered, wealth becomes a part of material and energy use and is subject to the physical laws of thermodynamics. Failing such considerations, even mainstream economics becomes a Ponzi scheme that threatens to blow up in the faces of our children and grandchildren.
17) Humans are too tiny an influence to modify in any substantive way the processes of the earth. Thus we are free to act in any way that suits our cultural and economic interests.
Truth: Another seemingly complex situation, but only made so by the sophism of the vested interests, especially extractive industries. Humans have been ruining land and water for thousands of years when they overpopulate and overuse an area. Nothing could be more unambiguous. With enough people doing enough stuff, the polluting effects become worldwide with consequences unpredictable in detail, but completely predictable in general terms.
18) Every person is a free agent both capable of all possible actions and responsible for those actions.
Truth: This is especially appealing to elites who by effort or luck have come into possession of great power. All the research over the last hundred years and all the anecdotal evidence of writers and philosophers for 3000 years makes clear that people are powerfully affected by circumstance and expectation at the psychological level, and that there are powerful barriers of several sorts tending to guide people into separate classes or lock them there.
It does an individual little good to believe themselves limited as pertains to matters of self-improvement, but the rest of us are done no good by believing that they are not limited as a matter of simple fact–except possibly as an excuse to abide inequity.
James Keye is the nom de plume of a biologist and psychologist who after discovering a mismatch between academe and himself went into private business for many years. His whole post-pubescent life has been focused on understanding at both the intellectual and personal levels what it is to be of the human species; he claims some success.
First published in The Contrary Perspective. Reprinted by permission.