American Myths

One thing you’ll notice when discussing libertarianism with the unconverted is that their first protestations will likely pertain to a current political situation or the implications the philosophy has for interpreting past historical events.

Often unspoken among libertarians is the enormous ego/emotional investment someone has made in a certain perspective of history, specifically that of their own country. When it comes to Americans, it should be pointed out that we are unique among most nations of the world; we lack a true mythology. Ancient Greece had her gods, the Romans had their founding myth, courtesy of Virgil’s Aeneid. England has the tales of King Arthur. And so on.

Being such a young country, and at a time when civilization maintained written accounts of history, we know more or less what took place throughout the founding of America. So instead of investing myths or tales to compensate for a lack of a historical account, Americans since the 1800s have taken their actual history and turned it into myths. Since the advent of state-run education, these myths have a consistent theme or narrative; before the federal government was involved in something, there was chaos, but then they stepped in and brought order.

A small, rather harmless example of an American myth is Washington Irving’s tale of a young George Washington chopping down a cherry tree with an axe and then confessing it to his father because “I cannot tell a lie.”

Other myths are less innocuous. That the 13 colonies declared their independence as a single nation. That we always thought of ourselves as Americans first, when in actuality the colonies bickered and argued and were adamant about preserving their autonomy. That the Articles of Confederation was a failure because it didn’t delegate enough authority to the central government. That the “Wild” West was a scene of rampant killings and crime until government stepped in.

More modern myths is that of the “Good War,” the impacts of the Reagan Revolution, and the “terror” of the 1950s. I would add there are also mythical elements to the Civil Rights Era as well.

However, the most harmful, and perhaps the most fantastic, of all American myths is that of “Father” Abraham Lincoln and the War Between the States. It certainly helps that some of the most colorful, intelligent, charismatic, and defining individuals dominated the scene during that period. It is America’s Iliad; as told, the southern states seceded in an effort to preserve slavery (this part is true depending on the state) while the north undertook a military campaign to prevent the nation from being torn apart. Lincoln also argued what we have kids literally stand up and recite every morning across the country; that no state had a right to leave the Union. Of course, like any true Iliad, the South’s cause was immoral, but its side had tragically romantic heroes such as Stonewall Jackson, Longstreet, and of course Robert E. Lee. The Gettysburg Address is America’s Henry V speech; even libertarians concede that it is one of most beautifully written pieces of prose an American president has ever penned – nevermind that the actual statements made were utterly false.

There are plenty of other myths in American history, but I selected this one because it is probably the one most difficult for people to abandon if they are to take the libertarian red pill. They have to acknowledge that Lincoln destroyed the Constitution and transformed the compact between states into an empire. Today, we are feeling the effects of actions taken during those four short years.

I can personally attest that this is definitely not easily accepted, as it was one of the last vestiges of my former political beliefs which I had to let go in order to become a true libertarian. I had invested so much emotionally into this myth, starting from childhood where I read countless stories and history books and had it heavily impressed upon me how great of a leader he was. To learn that it was not the case was a huge blow to the belief that I had a firm grasp of history. It called into question everything else I had been told with equal fervor. What else had I been lied to about? What else would I have to give up?

These are the questions people will either consciously or subconsciously ask themselves when they recognize the truth about libertarianism but recoil in terror at the implications it has.

Remember, libertarianism doesn’t tell you what to do, it only tells you the truth. To quote Morpheus from The Matrix, I show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Once you’ve taken the red pill, so to speak, you easily recognize how American myths are used to justify the existence of the state; the moral to almost every story you’ll hear concerns its necessity. While some libertarians vehemently attack these myths every chance they get and point them out when they appear, I’ve come to accept them but only as myths. So when I watch a movie or read an old book that proclaims an American myth, I don’t take offense. I read it as if I were reading about King Arthur or Odysseus confronting the cyclops.

Libertarians can and should dismiss American myths as just that, myths, but they also need to recognize the immense impact these tales have on people’s perception of government, because to them they are not myths but deeply-cherished beliefs. This is why they will instinctively defend the legitimacy of the state, in particular the federal government, regardless of how rational, logical, or factual your argument is. You are not so much engaged in a fight against someone’s politics as you are against the years of ego-investment the person has made in the institution, starting from the first time they proclaimed “one nation, indivisible.”

As I said in my post about the libertarian red pill, to reject the state requires most people to reject a part of their identity as a person. You have to kill the statist inside you. In this sense, quite literally the political is the personal.

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5 Responses to American Myths

  1. D says:

    I agree, however I think in the short term perhaps the American Sniper/Lone Survivor myths are much more dangerous in the short term.

    Liked by 1 person

    • D says:

      That was repetitive, Why did I only reread it after I posted?

      Liked by 1 person

    • The Question says:

      That is a great example. I might even use that as a followup post topic. I try to explain to people who Chris Kyle really was and they don’t like it because it doesn’t square with the Bradley Cooper version. It’s ironic that Clint Eastwood made the film Unforgiven literally as a response to previous films that have promoted the mythical view of the Old West yet does exactly that with American Sniper by omitting facts that even Kyle himself admitted in his book.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Useful Myths | The Anarchist Notebook

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