Wednesday, September 22, 2004

COLUMN -- American mythology a double-edged sword

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:13 AM |  

Pioneer Press
Aug. 25, 2004

Unlike the chilly wind of early morn that sent ominous clouds scuttling across a leaden sky, the mid-afternoon breeze blowing off the St. Croix River, sparkling in the sunlight, brushed a picture perfect setting for the arrival of President Bush in Hudson, Wis., last week. Gazing at the large raptors soaring above the Republican faithful (discounting the possibility they were turkey vultures), one imagined them eagles.

"If Norman Rockwell were to paint a picture of America today," extolled Wisconsin Rep. Kitty Rhoades, extending her arms toward the crowd, "this is what he would paint — my hometown."

Indeed, the faces that awaited Bush would not be out of place in a Rockwell painting — sitting down at Thanksgiving dinner, exercising the freedom to speak, bowing in worship or tucking their children into bed. Scouts that might have leaped from "I Will Do My Best" mingled with veterans right out of "War Stories." The rally was a family affair — "Old Glory" come to life.

It was a gathering of the keepers of American mythology.

"Myth" is misdefined by those who equate it with "falsehood." Actually, a myth is a means to greater truth that expands beyond mere fact. In professorial-speak, myths reveal the underlying meaning of universal concerns of all human beings.

American mythology, specifically, inspires significance, meaning and purpose in our existence as a nation. In plain-speak, our myths make us who we are.

It’s the heritage of American mythology contrasts the president's message, eagerly awaited by the crowd in Hudson, with the spiritually devoid and foreign message that government "help is on the way."

American mythology looks beyond the surmountable failures of a fallible mankind to a vision of an America where one can overcome the risk of failure, acquire freedom, self-esteem and even riches through one's own efforts without depriving others of the same. The alternative foreign message obsesses on the inevitability of human failure and teaches that one can feel free only by diminishing the liberty of others, gain self-esteem only by reducing others and feel rich only when others are poor.

But mythology is a double-edged sword that in the wrong hands can as easily self-inflict a wound as can a misplaced mortar round. Warns one writer, when "we're so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value, we (can) forget that inner value … is what it's all about."

And therein lies the challenge for conservative "keepers of American mythology."

In many ways, America jars in dissonance with the Rockwellesque gathering on the banks of the St. Croix River. In families across the land, it's not just white faces around the Thanksgiving table. Some people speak on behalf of causes that conservatives find morally reprehensible. Some choose not to worship.

Parents tucking in their children at night might be of the same gender. The war on terror is unlike any war we've ever waged.

Nonetheless, conservative entrenchment to protect comfortable "traditional" outer values is as dangerous to American mythology as open attacks on those self-same beliefs. The American myth is not just about the outer values that create happiness for denizens of the St. Croix Valley; it is about the inner values of freedom and liberty that enable the pursuit of happiness by all.

The American myth yields more than two-parent, two-gender, one-race families; it is the freedom to pursue the universal joy found in family whatever form a family might take. It does not coerce "moral" choice through the force of government; it recognizes the freedom to make bad choices, trusting that God, not government, can best judge those choices. It does not merely welcome the participation of all in America's abundance; it seeks and invites them.

Conservatives are at a crossroad. They can be the narrow and exclusive party their opponents paint them — or they can accept that the American palette creates many possible pictures. They can protect their values through the force of government — or they can preserve them by ensuring protection from government for the values of all. Out of fear, conservatives can betray the American myth — or with courage they can honor their heritage and defend it.

An election — and possibly the fate of American mythology — hangs in the balance.