Sunday, August 1, 2010

Myths of America

Earlier I talked about how various mythical ideas of Africa shape our experience of African and African Diaspora religions. But how do our native myths and images color our vision of magic? What indigenous myths do American practitioners bring to the table? What propagandas and spectacles have shaped our vision of magic and the world? And how do they influence our interactions with non-American practitioners?

Vodou teaches reverence for the ancestors: we cannot understand a branch without knowing the tree.  The most important thing your forebears leave you is their way of looking at the world.  We may treasure it or throw it away, but we must engage with it. And so I thought I'd talk more about my culture's mythology for a change. Fellow Americans are free to chime in and I welcome questions and comments from my readers from abroad too! (And definitely check out John Michael Greer's excellent commentary on the American myth of Progress in his Archdruid Report).

One of the great American demigods is "Equality." According to this view, all men should be held as equally important in our society.  People who have committed comparable crimes should receive comparable sentences, without regard to race, ethnicity, and social or financial status.  People with comparable intelligence, drive and education should make comparable salaries.  We recognize that our reality often falls short of the ideal, but we are moving forward toward it. Indeed, some say we have already reached our goal and that "special interests" are trying to hold us back.

One of our great mythological battles has been our confrontation with the demon of "Race." Since the Civil Rights movement we have come a long way toward addressing some of the darker parts of our history. By recognizing these and making the appropriate public confessions, we hope to seal this demon in the brass jar of history, to be brought out only as a reminder of the Bad Old Days before we received the Truth that Equality should be extended to non-white people as well.

But in all our effort to vanquish Race, we have paid much less attention to another old demon - Class. We are a country of "one person, one vote:" we are a place where anyone can rise to the top with enough persistence and ability. (Don't believe me? Just ask Horatio Alger, Napoleon Hill or Anthony Robbins).  This feeds into one of our Major Gods, the Free Market.  To serve the Free Market, one tries to legislate as little as possible: the goal is that famous "level playing field" we sought for our darker-skinned brethren. As Janny Scott and David Leonhardt said in an excellent New York Times piece on class in America:
Mobility is the promise that lies at the heart of the American dream. It is supposed to take the sting out of the widening gulf between the have-mores and the have-nots. There are poor and rich in the United States, of course, the argument goes; but as long as one can become the other, as long as there is something close to equality of opportunity, the differences between them do not add up to class barriers.
Again, this is not to say that we have achieved those myths. Nobody would say that we have. What is important is that we have internalized them.  We believe the world would be a better place if everyone had the opportunity to actualize themselves without fear of Oppression (from diabolical conspiracies like Communism, Fascism and latterly Islam).  If everyone cherished our ideals of Freedom, Democracy and Equal Opportunity, the world would be a better place. We may protest the current state of things, but it is because they fail to live up to these standards: we fancy ourselves orthodox against their heresies.