“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.
A Post-Racial America: It’s Better, and Worse, Than You Think
White Supremacy Thrives in System 1
Myths Define Truth: Why We Live in the Age of Fake News
Half Devil, Half Child: The World According to White Supremacy
America Before White Supremacy: Anglo-Saxonism in the North
Cavalier Mythology in the Antebellum South
How White Supremacy Took Shape: Violence, Money, Pseudoscience and Art
White Violence Defined the Threat Landscape
How Northern Industrialists Scuttled Reconstruction
Science in Service of White Empire
Artists Packaged White Supremacy
There’s No “Us” in “California”: A Glimpse At Post-Racial America
Wokeness Is Missing a “Theory of Us.” That’s OK.
Building Blocks of a Unifying Mythology
Hey Chris, I had an exchange with the editor at the Bulwark that led to your Elmhurst piece being linked in one of their newsletters.
That’s really cool. Thanks. I like those folks.
You’re welcome, happy to help
Can I join Dinsdale in asking for a drip feed and not a gusher
White Supremacy itself is a “greater” myth created by the foundational myths of “economic freedom” and “religious freedom”. Virginia was a Corporate State functioning under the laws of Great Britain. Massachusetts was a Theocratic State functioning under its own literally Puritanical Laws – shrugged off by Great Britain because who wants rightwing nuts around breaking shit anyway.
White Supremacy as a concept was created by a mixing of religious freedom and economic freedom. Slavery was an economic system, justified through the Bible’s literal acceptance of slavery. As slavery became based around race, White Supremacy became The Myth that the country as a whole accepted. Even in the North where slavery never really took hold due to the climate/land quality, non-whites were considered inferior due to their non-Christian origin and the economic “laziness” of African hunter-gatherer societies.
So if we’re attempting to replace White Supremacy with some other mythology, we probably need to build it on the ruins of economic and religious freedom. Something like, all Americans are economically secure when they are in charge of their future instead of some “established” corporation that gets to legislate commercial law while also existing essentially tax-free. That all Americans are socially free when they can practice any or no religions and be identified as whatever they say they are without traditional labels being applied to them by society itself.
In other words, just as the Spanish Conquistadors/Spanish Empire built Catholic Churches on the ruins of the natives’ shrines, a new “mythology” of US Americans should be built on the ruins of the previous shrines of White Supremacy held up by the pillars of “economic and religious freedom”. Only it will be social freedom and economic security.
I think that it’s being built semi-naturally now. Corporations are advocating for “social freedom” much to the chagrin of social conservatives. In other words, economic institutions are advocating for social freedom, yes because they are interested in profit, but also because they are interested in everyone being a customer.
And the culture is starting to adopt the concept that economic security, such as a “living wage” taking precedent over a “minimum wage”, that the 99% shouldn’t be fucked over for the benefit of the 1%. And even here, conservatives are starting to adopt “populist” stances that they used to oppose. Now, I’m not arguing that Republicans are going to be adopting and promulgating UBI and Democratic Socialism, but the tidbits that they do support because it would benefit them as an “in-group” will simply be adopted by the younger people/generations while the old-school racists die off. Hell, you can argue that what we’re witnessing right now by “essential workers” is a general strike, where instead of going to work for $7.25 an hour, they’ll just stay home and collect COVID benefits/UE and live with their parents.
I have absolutely no idea where you’re going with the new mythology angle, but I get it. It has to be something that Americans adopt as a myth about ourselves, both to unite us as a country, and as an aspiration to work towards. Ending one mythology and adopting a new mythology is always a tense and painful period, but if we know what we’re doing and why, we can (hopefully) avoid outright conflict between traditionalists (white supremacy created by economic and religious freedom of the white founders) and progressives (social freedoms and economic security for everyone).
Can’t wait to read more.
It’s impossible to feel much nostalgia for a “myth” that was always really more of a mental illness. At its foundation white supremacy is one race’s arrogation to itself the right to its own facts, at the expense of everyone else’s own reality and even at the expense of their own. It damaged what it touched. But its death rattle is just that; in our time it’s anti-empiricism generally that’s falling apart, with white supremacy as one causality of its extinction. Anti-science, anti-vaccines, anti-history, are all manifested by this thinking and they’re all failing every test everywhere they fight. It’s a failed currency, backed by myth, propelled by inertia and unmerited faith, with no takers anymore.
America has always been a test of anti-empiricism from the societal level down to the individual conscience. That’s our history, every day of it. The ones who faced it and chose the right side are remembered for sobriety, fairness, and the logic of their arguments: Franklin, Lincoln…it’s a long list of familiar names. The ones who opposed it are remembered (insofar as they’re remembered) for pretzel logic, self-delusion, rationalization, and the structural flaws on their blueprints that led to the collapse of what they built: Rutledge, Calhoun, Davis, Cobb, and their modern heirs, including those among us now.
The mythmaking is likely to be retroactive because this stories we need are already concluded in the actual tests. Practical thinking is so pervasive, proven, and useful that making up stories in the familiar formats about it isn’t necessary. The art about it happens at the lab bench in undergrad chemistry classes. The poetry is epic investigations into cold cases and anthropology using DNA.
Chris, if I was your editor/ agent, I would be begging you to release one piece every 2 or 3 days. Coredumping your opus will lead to many not reading it all, or able to absorb it all.