Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mything the Point

Some folks were upset when they learned that the U.S. Navy SEALs used "Geronimo" as the code word for Osama bin Laden during their successful raid against the Al Qaeda leader.  In "Geronimo?  Really?" I tried to describe some of the reasons that American Indians might have been disappointed in the SEALs vocabulary, even though they were glad the mission had been successful. 

Link to the original panel, May 14, 2011.
However, I also imagine some young people were puzzled about the controversy.  Names such as "Geronimo" do not resonate with them so deeply, neither as iconic hero nor as iconic enemy.  They have not been conditioned to the national mythology of "Cowboys and Indians."  This idea was depicted recently by Jeff Mallet's comic strip Frazz.

While it is never good to be ignorant of history, it can be good to abandon some of the old stories.  I think the "Cowboys and Indians" story is fading as one of the foundational myths for the United States.  Perhaps that is for the best.

What do I mean by "myth"?  Not stories about the soap opera on Mount Olympus.  I do not mean "a story that isn't true."  I mean "a story that is culturally powerful."  Whether it is true or false does not matter.  If enough people believe it is true, then it might as well be true.  If enough people identify with its characters or events, then it influences their behavior as individuals and as a group.

A myth gains its power through repetition and by evoking symbols that its audience values highly.  The power of these stories cannot be underestimated.  Nations depend upon them.  The stories shared by a population can be one of the primary connections holding the otherwise diverse people together.  A group of people who in actuality have very little in common can share a set of stories, and through this sharing they can think of themselves as similar to each other.  Two women from opposite ends of a nation can have different styles of clothing and dress, but if they grew up with the same story from childhood, they can share their identification with the story's protagonist.  This gives people who have never met an experience they have shared vicariously.

This is especially powerful if the story in question purports to be about a shared past, a history they have in common.  Richard Slotkin described it this way:  "Myth is the primary language of historical memory: a body of traditional stories that have, over time, been used to summarize the course of our collective history and to assign ideological meanings to that history."

Illegal immigrants landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
The story of "Cowboys and Indians" is set in the Old West (a product of American history that is largely constructed from our imaginations rather than fact), but it is truly an extension of older story: The Pilgrims arriving at Plymouth Rock.  It is the story of Europeans conquering the continent of North America.  It is the story of their defeating both the natural environment they found and the people who lived there. 

Like so many stories, this one had Good Guys and Bad Guys.  The Europeans/Cowboys were the Good Guys.  Nature/Indians were the Bad Guys.  The story did evolve, as the Indians often times were replaced with Bad Guys who were white -- bank robbers, cattle rustlers, etc.  American citizens were intended to identify with those Pilgrims and those Cowboys. 

On CBS from 1959 to 1965.
This Old West story was told obsessively, in novels, on the radio, in Hollywood films, and on television.  I grew up watching television series such as Rawhide, Bonanza, Gunsmoke -- and pre-Westerns such as Davy Crockett.  I grew up watching John Wayne in Western movies on television.  It was intended for the audience to identify with the bravery, honesty, loyalty and other good qualities of these heroes.  It was intended for the audience to not think about the people being displaced by them, the men, women, and children who had lived here for thousands of years.  Or if the audience did think of those people, American Indians were to be understood as deserving or welcoming this displacement.

Decades later, when I ask my students who has seen a Western, only a few hands are raised.  When I ask who has seen a John Wayne movie, even fewer hands go up.  Times have changed.  Those Westerns no longer form the backbone of the American mythological machinery.

I do not know what has replaced them.

One quality of national mythologies tends to be pastness.  These stories almost always involve some key moment in the nation's history.  But I do not know what moments in American history attract the collective imagination of the 18-24 population.  When I think of what stories these young people might hear and tell obsessively, the way I dreamed of being Davy Crockett -- I come up blank.

X-Men marks the spot?
The stories they seem the most attracted to involve not American history but American fantasy: superheroes and vampires.

One function of stories is to supply its audience with models and examples to be called upon later in life.  Stories provide us heroes and villains that we can use later for comparison to real-life situations.  When times get tough in the future, when today's 18-24 generation has been elected to Congress or is raising families or is otherwise calling the shots, will its members ask themselves: What would Spider-Man or Batman do?  Which one of the X-men is most like me and what would he/she have done in a situation like this?  In this dilemma, which would be the most useful: the qualities of a vampire or the qualities of a werewolf?

My hero!
Or perhaps I am thinking of the wrong type of story.  Perhaps the story they have experienced the most often is told on a PlayStation or an Xbox.  What will their narrative templates be?  With whom do they identify most?  Mario?  Luigi?  The Master Chief from Halo?

I am not trying to be flippant about the issue.  I mean, I'm not trying to be ONLY flippant.  But when I wonder what stories this generation hears the most, thinks about the most, identifies with the most, I genuinely do not have much of an answer


  1. I'm hoping that 18-24 set answer the question because such knowledge is a prerequisite for anyone writing fiction for that demographic. I'm partial to Master Chief (I play Halo games WAY too much) in the meantime. After reading, I'm trying to think of GenX's myth(s). I'd say Zombies but then I can't pinpoint the metanarrative involved/invoked with/by zombie narratives. "If it bleeds, we can kill it." (Ahnold in Predator)? "Greed is good." (Wall St.)? "Get away from her you BITCH!" (Ripley in Aliens)? Those are too small of course, just lines from films not myths really. Was also trying to think of the role playing games we played as kids... we played "army" alot and that usually involved repelling alien invasions of the planet (we were hooked on "Creature Features" every Saturday morning). We "hunted" each other in the woods (we grew up in the mountains) but that's not getting me to a myth to pinpoint either. Intriguing topic.... how do you actually find a dominant myth?

  2. Interesting question, Scott. I don't know if it is fading. There are so many examples of college parties where the theme is "Cowboys and Indians." And you can still buy plastic dime store cowboy and Indian figures. And boy scout programs and summer camps where kids play Indian are still around. It is a good question, though, and definitely worth exploring.

  3. I think this is among your best work, actually. I need my daughter to come read this. She is 23 and I was actually surprised a year or two ago to realize that not only did she not watch John Wayne movies (a travesty), but had missed almost every WW2 movie ever made. I felt like an utter failure.

  4. Great food for thought--and for the Myth & Lit class I might be teaching...Thanks.