Addendum on National Myths

I've been away from here for a few days, but was glad to see Grim raising that topic of perennial importance: national myths. The highly successful (the Chinese have one of the most successful national myths in the world; and their beastly treatment of the Uighurs and Tibetans comes along with it), the once successful (for I can dimly remember a time when public schools in this country taught an American national myth, and I've read enough old things to know it was once very strong), and the decidedly troubled.

Now, what Grim's saying in these discussions, and especially in the second one, I entirely agree with. In fact, if I had to pick a single factor that really makes a recognizable "people," a national myth is that factor. A common language helps; a common government helps; a common religion helps; but it is the national myth (that may well be bound up with all these things) that really does the trick.

Michael Totten has two recent posts, highly apropos. To the first. In this and comments, he discusses Newt Gingrich's characterization of the Palestinians as an "invented" people. And he links to this article by Lee Smith, who opines:

"The real question, then, is not whether Palestinian nationalism is 'authentic,' but whether this particular national fiction is useful."

And I think he is on the right track. Smith however concludes that the Palestinian myth is not "strong enough" because their leadership is unwilling to accept a limited state that coexists with its Israeli neighbors. But I think that is not a sign of the myth's weakness, but simply its character. For better or worse, and mainly for worse, the Palestinians have indeed become a people because they have got a national myth. It's just a barren and ugly one. It is of recent vintage - that is the kernel of truth in Mr. Gingrich's statement (which I used to agree with) - but that doesn't invalidate it. All national myths have got to start somewhere.

In his post and especially in comments, Mr. Totten goes further in opposing the notion of the Arabs as a "people" - which Mr. Gingrich accepts in rejecting the Palestinians as an "invented" subset. And in my view, he's right there, insofar as the Pan-Arab ideologies (Ba'athism, and whatever-you-call-it that was supposed to create the overarching UAR) - didn't catch on; they were unsuccessful myths, and given the character of the regimes that used them, that is probably just as well. Mr. Totten, however, declares the idea not only pernicious ("National Socialism for Arabs") but simply false:
If Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese, etc, stopping viewing the Palestinians as part of some great Arab “mass,” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would instantly become localized and would eventually become solvable. The minute Lebanese people, etc, insist the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is somebody else’s problem, we’ll be 80 percent of the way to where we need to be...Arab nationalism is built on a lie and must die.
And there he misses the mark (as Mr. Smith does not) - the idea that the Arabs should see themselves, and attempt to act, as one people is simply a myth that didn't catch on. (And would, I suppose, have been as perniciously used as Panslavism, if it had.) The preamble to the current Iraqi Constitution is a deliberate effort to foster a national myth in that country - if Mr. Totten's reports in this book still hold, the Kurds are not buying it at all just now.

Anyway, it isn't hard to see that for a country with any kind of consensual government, a national myth is a precious possession - hence the second post, on Claire Berlinski's determination to violate a Turkish law by referring to the Armenian genocide as "genocide," and a French law by denying it was genocide. In these places, I think, and especially the first, the governments are trying to defend the national myths in their current forms, and are curtailing free speech to do it. (Which is what Ms. Berlinski is opposing, and by referring to a French figure of mythic proportions.)

What makes our own myth remarkable is the way it rests on ideas and laws, more than any race or religion. The complaints that led to independence for certain grew out of the British constitution, and its common-law way of developing rights. Let colonists vote for the assemblies that tax them, as Britons vote for the Parliament that taxes them, and they'll pick up the idea that they have a right to it - not in the civil-law sense that someone formally granted it, but in the common-law way, that the unifying theory is to be discerned from the actual decisions made. And our myth certainly relies on the idea of these things as rights - yet is blessedly detached from any continued racial identity. Our national identity is not weakened if we admit that Anglo-Saxons can commit beastly atrocities - the document that started it all is filled with such accusations. More remarkably, if we admit that the ideas are noble, and the men who made them law were doing noble acts, we can admit much more wihtout weakening the myth at all - that they carried flaws with their nobility, as true heroes always do, and that Americans have done many awful things since by not living up to those ideas.

(The Jewish "national myth" of the Old Testament shows some strong parallels - 1 Chronicles and 2 Chronicles recast, often with some pretty heavy shading, the history of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms as a matter of "We did well when we kept the commandments and we did very badly when we didn't.")

To the Turkish government, it seems, if you deny that "the Turkish people, as such, are too noble to have committed genocide," you're striking too hard at an idea bound up with their race and religion (for it certainly precedes their current constitution) that they believe holds them together.

P.S. - Yes, I know, I'm oversimplifying by writing as if there's one unchanging successful myth among each people. I oversimplify to be able to write at all.


Eric said...

And our myth certainly relies on the idea of these things as rights - yet is blessedly detached from any continued racial identity.

This point cannot be emphasized enough. I once had the pleasure of seeing it in action--I happened to be at a reenactment of the battle of Boundbrook, NJ, an action pretty much completely forgot about today, but before the reenactors went and shot off their muskets, there was some speechifying by local politicians. One of them happened to be the local state Representative, who also was an immigrant from India. So the assembled were treated to the spectacle of this guy lauding the commemoration of the events of the revolution at that place, which helped create a country and society where he, as an immigrant, could come and build a new life and run for public office and even get elected. That was the "National Myth" in action.

Grim said...

The two kinds of myths that have most often led to serious atrocity have been racial origin myths and class-based origin myths. You mention the blessed freedom from racialism, but note also the blessed freedom from classism: the American mythology is a sustained assault on the idea that class is a real or binding thing. Anyone coming from anywhere can aspire to any place in society they wish.

Those are real strengths of the form. There are some weaknesses, though. I've got one in mind, but before I throw it out there, I'd like to hear if there are any that are important to you. If we're going to take control of the process of myth-making, we have to think about what went wrong as well as what went right.

Joseph W. said...

Well, I suppose one weakness is that it doesn't co-opt the religious instinct. (Which probably exists precisely because it's very good at binding communities together.) But I don't see how anything can or should be done about that.

Grim said...

You're close to the ground I was thinking of myself, although I wasn't going to make an argument from religion particularly. I was thinking of a moral argument that exists in the myth sort of only by example -- Washington's example, say. The American myth is one of liberty, pursuit of happiness, and rights; it isn't one particularly of self-sacrifice, of willful service to the community, or duty.

That's why the assaults on Washington's character (chiefly built around his ownership of slaves) were necessary to the early stages of unraveling the American myth. Since the moral argument only exists in the American myth by example, if you can undermine the examples you can undermine the virtues. Without those virtues of duty, willful service, and self-sacrifice, the American project is unsustainable.