“We’ve got a long way to go, and a short time to get there”
East Bound and Down – Jerry Reed.
We have a very dangerous problem. The mythology that has held the nation together since Reconstruction is failing. Nothing is readily at hand to take its place.
The good news is that white supremacy is dying. That’s also the bad news.
Myth is the alchemy that converts a bunch of people who live near one another into a nation, an “us.” People will perform marvelous acts of selfless cooperation for “us.” Those same people will unleash horrors on a perceived “them.” Nations form around a shared mythology, the stories, heroes, fables, songs and symbols that forge a subconscious emotional bond, the foundations of cooperation beyond family and close friends.
At the root of Americans’ shared identity is a myth of race, and the supreme position of a mythical white race. Our nationalism, white nationalism, was built on that mythology. White nationalism cannot survive without white supremacy. Without white nationalism, Americans at present share no national ideal strong enough to hold us together, to call forth that powerful, unifying sense of “us.”
The myth of white supremacy has failed. That doesn’t mean we don’t have racists. That doesn’t mean there aren’t millions of Americans passionately committed to that myth in all its forms. That doesn’t suggest that white supremacy is anything less than the animating force behind much of the country’s remaining political activity. There were millions of Soviet citizens in 1991, perhaps even a majority, who remained emotionally invested in Communism. It still failed.
White supremacy, as a unifying mythology, has died in the sense that it no longer works. It no longer performs its mythological function as the glue holding a critical mass of Americans together in a shared sense of belonging, a sense of identity, a commitment to shared sacrifice, goals and a future.
A claim that white supremacy is ending will inspire heated challenge at the end of the Trump Era, as a wave of white supremacist violence builds at our margins. But here’s the thing: You don’t need panicked public outbursts to support a thriving mythology. The heat and noise around white supremacy is evidence of its collapse.
White supremacy failed in part because we fought so hard for generations to destroy it. We fought against it because it was cruel and stupid, unable to encompass the “us” Americans aspired to include. It was a mythology that distorted everything we tried to achieve, poisoning our best intentions with violence, blunting our scientific, technological and economic progress.
As difficult as it was to reach this point, the most challenging task still looms before us: replacing white supremacy. The bloated corpse of this myth now poisons our shared water supply. All the energy we mustered to defeat this mythology must be converted toward building something new, and we aren’t ready. It is easier to destroy a myth than to replace it.
Can there be an America that isn’t defined by its commitment to the supremacy of white people? When asked that question on the Colbert Show in 2017, Ta Nehisi Coates said no. There’s reason to think he’s right. You don’t just send out a software update overnight to strip away the troublesome bugs in a nation’s unifying myth. We don’t know what takes the place of whiteness as America’s definition of “us.” However, civilization here was not always organized around white supremacy. Though racial slavery was with us from the earliest beginnings of America, there were alternatives to white supremacy which came and went, and the American project survived. We can survive this transition too.
Up to now, all the focus of those opposed to white supremacy and white nationalism has been on naming, and then killing that beast. Like the fall of the Berlin Wall, that event has landed on us suddenly, finding us unprepared. We have a very narrow window of time in which to reimagine a unifying American mythology, stripped of the power and poison of white supremacy. Fail, and the US faces a fate similar to the Soviet Union, likely enabled by the kleptocratic regime that rose from Soviet rubble.
Absent a shared mythology, a definition of us, people living in proximity to one another start manufacturing “thems” at a rapid, dangerous pace. That is where we find ourselves at the end of the Trump Era, with no sense of us and malignant thems sprouting in unlikely places, like poisoned mushrooms after a rain.
Why do we need new myths, and new sense of us? People won’t pay their taxes, serve on a jury or even put their grocery cart in the return stall without a sense of shared identity. Don’t expect people to perform acts as simple as wearing a mask at the grocery store to preserve their own lives or the lives of people they love, without the animating spirit of a shared mythology.
It’s not an accident that the US response to the pandemic has been among the world’s worst. It’s not an accident that our closest allies in NATO, nations dependent on US institutions for many critical functions, shared our miserable fate in this crisis. It’s not an accident that Britain, the nation who gave birth to our national project, poisoned by a very similar white nationalism, recently voted to destroy itself. We are not alone in the collapse of our unifying mythology.
America’s white nationalism is failing at the same time as many other ethnic nationalisms, and for many of the same reasons. Continued evolutionary adaptation requires the development of new mythologies to keep pace with changing needs. An economy built on data has different needs from an economy based on natural resources and manufacturing. Ethnic nationalism is no longer large enough or broad enough to hold together the democracies at the cutting edge of human progress. If you think our dilemma is daunting, wait till the pressure of these evolutionary demands reaches critical mass in hyper-homogenous states like China and Japan.
Shelley insisted that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Artists were the architects of 19th century nationalism, quickly building the foundations of that mythology out of cultural artifacts, knitting older myths into new heroes, stories and ideals. In 1850, a German nation was a laughably impossible idea. Just twenty years later it defeated the French and captured Paris. Germany was fashioned by poets and artists. Politicians built nations on artists’ mythological foundations.
The courage, shared interest and sacrifice that inspire human beings to join forces into something truly powerful begins with a mythological vision. Those mythological visions begin with artists. Mythmaking usually takes time. We don’t have a lot of time.
Nothing ruins a good myth like talking about it. Go on TV to discuss the mythology of Santa Claus and you’ll get angry letters. Speak openly of the myth of Jesus’ resurrection and you’ll get death threats. Openly discussing the role of white supremacy as a unifying mythology for a white nationalist republic will be unpopular, but powerful. Just speaking of it openly is a step toward its destruction.