Down with National Myths!

Facebook is a wonderful place; I get to see lots of people being vocally liberal, lots of people being vocally right-wing and lots of people liking cat pictures or posting photos of their children. That's also why I tend to stay away from Facebook; discussing politics on social media is bad enough without having people you vaguely remember from school getting embroiled in arguments.

Thanks to right-wing acquaintances, I came across this piece in The Daily Beast by Todd Buchholz, whose title presents an epic clash between American history and the phantom of political correctness. I have to doff my hat to the sub-editors; while the actual article is a lot more muted and nuanced, they're masters of clickbait. The title is also evocative of rhetoric used in the UK; a couple of years ago, when Michael Gove was still merrily screwing up everyone's education, there was talk of distorting teaching of World War I such that Britain would be presented as the "good guys" and Germany as the "bad guys", and of how anything else was "political correctness".

(I really hope they haven't done that, by the way. Learning in gruesome detail about the horrors of war made me into a much better person.)

I'm also going to praise conservative takes published in The Daily Beast: from what I've seen, they're smart. Sure, I'm going to disagree with a lot of the arguments presented - and I disagree with a lot of Buchholz's arguments here - but there's something of substance to them in an age where most conservative talking points involve screaming "cuck" loudly over twitter. Put it this way: I'd be happy to sit down and have a reasoned conversation with these people, rather than just rolling my eyes and ignoring them like I do with the vast majority of conservative outrage.

The actual article, which I read and re-read all the way through, talks about American national myths and traditions - things like Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. I'm going to qualify this by saying that I'm not American - I was born in Israel (a very young country which fuses together a lot of traditions) and raised in Britain (a very old country where old traditions exist side-by-side with the traditions of different groups of people who come here, not always peacefully). Race relations, national myths and traditions work quite differently here - not that it's utopia, but it's quite different from the US. I also have embarrassingly little knowledge of American culture.

The central thesis of the article is that Americans (and more widely, any nation) need their national myths and traditions to instil virtue into the next generation. I would disagree with this on the grounds that virtue can be instilled in any number of ways, and doing this in a way that distorts and decontextualises history is probably not the best way to go about it; encouraging students to read and question is, to my mind, a better way of instilling virtue - getting people to really think about what they're doing and whether it's right. Then again, I hold seeking after truth and thinking independently in very high regard. Other people might think it's more important to instil values than to get people to find their own. Different worldviews.

One thing I really disliked was the constant appeal to authority - to Aristotle, to Plato, to Piaget, to so-called timeless truths of culture and biology. If these truths are so timeless and these men so wise, it shouldn't be hard to show that these things are true. If not, I don't respect anyone enough to take their word on something simply because they're important. That's a major part of why Buchholz didn't win me over.

By contrast, one thing I really liked was a call for national myths and traditions to be inclusive of immigrants. Even though I am a naturalised British citizen, I feel like there are some parts of my own country where I cannot go. This is partly because a lot of Britons are very xenophobic and partly because I come from a Jewish background, whereas Britain still has a Christian majority. There are lots of close-knit communities in small towns and quaint little villages, and that's great, but they all come with a catch: be a white British Christian or you're fucked. That's hardly inclusive and I would dearly love for that to change.

(By the way, whiteness works differently in the UK. It's perfectly possible to be the wrong kind of white. That's not to say that white privilege doesn't exist, but it is to say that there are different shades of white in a way that doesn't seem to exist in the US.)

The requirement to visit at least five different museums or landmarks is perhaps a little stringent (though I would happily swap the Life in the UK test for that), but visiting museums and landmarks is always good if you're there to learn.

One thing I found interesting was Buchholz using Pesach as an example of a patriotic myth. I've celebrated it and yes, it's been important to me, even though I haven't literally believed in the story of Pesach in...well...ever. It's been important to me because of family, and frankly it's been fine for me to celebrate it knowing it probably didn't happen.

If you're going to have national myths and traditions, this might be a good way to have them, I think: knowing that they almost certainly didn't happen the way the story-books tell you and knowing that the people involved were probably horribly bigoted, but also that the traditions themselves can be personal to you and the people you love.

There's no shame in deconstructing these myths and trying to piece together the truth: in fact, I think it's a big part of growing up. The truth is messy and people are products of their time. And that's okay. It's okay to question the national myths and traditions. It's okay to say that the mythical hero and the historical being are completely different people. It's okay to ask why the messy parts are completely glossed over and it's okay to acknowledge them.

The sky's not going to fall if you acknowledge that your national myths are just that - myths. The country will still continue. Communities will still help each other out. But people will learn and grow from questioning these things, and they'll find their own ways to be virtuous.

We don't need myths. We need truth. We need honesty. We need a thirst for questioning and trying to answer the question "how should I live?". We need to acknowledge mess and uncertainty. In a messy, uncertain world, that's the only way we'll ever get by.