The Curious Mythology of American Moral Courage
American history is a fantastical blend of revisionist storytelling, heroic mythology, and glamorized nostalgia that endeavors to glorify moral courage but fails to achieve moral triumph.
By David Todd McCarty | Saturday, August 29, 2020
“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”John F. Kennedy, Commencement Address at Yale University, June 11, 1962
Most Americans learn what little history they do know in primary school, from storybooks designed to glorify our past, and yet almost none of it is remotely true. Columbus was a brave explorer. The Pilgrims were peaceful. Washington couldn’t tell a lie and had wooden teeth. Reagan was a great President. Americans won World War II.
American history, as it has been told since the beginning, is nothing more than a murky soup of heroic mythology, revisionist narratives and romanticized nostalgia, all designed to present our transgressions in a heroic light and diminish the ugly truth of our checkered past. We claim to be the heroes in our mythology, as all successful societies do, but our sins are so egregious as to have stained the very fabric of our nation with its blood.
America’s identity is the product of a romanticized mythology that we invented for ourselves, through our desire to expand the country, and in the process, sell a few newspapers, magazines and books. We invented the ideal American Cowboy, out of whole cloth, through fictional stories about Daniel Boone, Wyatt Earp and Billy The Kid. We created the image of the fiercely independent, honorable, dependable, loyal, honest, and courageous army of one. A cowboy, upon his horse with a sidearm, fighting for justice.
We rewrote our own early history to make it palatable for young people to taking slave owning, aristocratic slum lords and bestow upon them enough honor and integrity to make them seem like gods, or at least royalty. We even took a marauding, dishonest, greedy privateer and claimed he discovered a country he never visited, full of people who were clearly already here, and then failed to mention that he cheated his benefactors, lied about his findings, slaughtered millions, and delivered ships full of slaves as payment when he couldn’t find the gold that he sought. For all this and more, we named entire cities, universities and even our own capitol after a cruel, degenerate European who never set eyes on North America and died at the age of 54 in an apartment in Spain.
The comedian Jerry Seinfeld has a bit where he talks about the American male’s desire to be a superhero, often evidenced by the man you see driving down the road, a mattress tied to the roof of his car. He has one hand on the wheel, the other on the mattress, in a futile attempt at somehow keeping it from flying off. He is in essence saying, “I got this.”
As we are always the central character of our own heroic tale, we have defined the American character over the years in ways that are simply unrealistic. We have at various times described what we believe to be the quintessential American character virtues as Independent, brave, honest, moral, reliable, loyal, self-reliant and just. We might be merely working the register in lane five of the Home Depot, but in our minds, we are Gene Autry or Clint Eastwood.
We have the reckless charm of Randle McMurphy, the uncompromising integrity of George Bailey and the moral courage of Atticus Finch. We are both gentleman and rebel, sage and everyman, poet and patriot. We are the honest renegade, riding alone in an untamed land, with only our horse for company and our pistol for security, dispensing justice and righting wrongs.
Of course, as far as narrative genres go, nothing is more quintessentially American than the Western. A stoic, lone hero, is pitted against a harsh landscape, filled with terrors and lawlessness, and fights his way to justice using nothing more than honor, sacrifice, courage, and a few sidearms. The sheer force of will that this requires, the moral courage to seek justice in a land of criminals and savages, the self reliance to go it alone, the moxie to do it with style, and the integrity to do with grace, is what makes an American hero. With superior aim and a trusty horse, he wears a white hat and dispenses justice against those who do him harm, in a harsh environment where no quarter is asked, and none is given.
The reality is we built a country on the backs of millions of stolen Africans, massacred the peaceful inhabitants and took their land. Along the way towards manifest destiny and world domination, we participated in countless wars, including one amongst ourselves, imprisoned an entire race of Americans just because of their ancestry, imprisoned and blacklisted those whose opinions we disagreed with, and dropped not one, but two, nuclear bombs on civilian populations (the only country to ever do so). That is not the work of a hero, but of a villain.
You can’t see into the future through the lens of the past, but this is precisely what Americans try to do when they look to the past and mourn what they feel we have lost. We have attempted to use nostalgia, rather than real history, to guide us forward. We often don’t see a future we want to be a part of, so we hold onto to a past we invented.
In the movie True Romance, Vincenzo Coccotti, the emissary of Blue Lou Boyle, tells Clifford Worley a man who he has just punched in the those, “That smarts, doesn’t it? Getting slammed in the nose. Fucks you all up. You get that pain shootin’ through your brain, your eyes fill up with water. That ain’t any kind of fun, but what I have to offer you, that’s as good as it’s gonna get. And it won’t ever get that good again.”
That’s the current Republican strategy for America, despite what they claim. This might not be good, they seem to say, but this is as good as it’s going to ever get and it won’t ever get this good again, so let’s get what we can and then burn it all down.
We are not all or nothing in America. There is not a finite amount of freedom to be had. It’s not pie. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “It is part of the American character to consider nothing as desperate.” That part is worthy of Americans. We are strangely optimistic, despite our best efforts at self-sabotage.
We do not have to lie to ourselves about our past, just to consider ourselves good people today. We must forgive ourselves, but admit to our horrendous past. We like second chances in America. Stories of redemption. Wouldn’t it be something if America rose from the ashes of our current existential crisis and actually realized the dream of equality and opportunity for all?
As Seinfeld might say, “We got this.”
Follow David Todd McCarty on Twitter @davidtmccarty and The Standard @capemaystandard