Sam Smith, 2006
Having been an anthropology major, I don’t get as riled up about mythology in public life as many in the media and politics. Myths can be helpful, benign, sad, or deadly but mostly they’re there to fill the empty places in reality.
Sometimes myths are carried on the backs of famous people because the reality isn’t powerful enough to do the job. A classic case involves the death of Dr Charles Drew, the famous black surgeon.
It is widely told that Drew, then 46, died in North Carolina in 1950 following a car accident for which he was unable to get treatment at a white hospital and had to be transported to a much more distant black hospital, wasting critical treatment time.
But the Annals of American Survey notes:
“The authoritative work by historian Spencie Love entitled, One Blood: The Death and Resurrection of Charles Drew, described how the myth has been cultivated because of the time and place of Dr. Drew’s death and serves as an unfortunate filler between living memory and written history. True enough, a 23-year-old black World War II veteran by the name Maltheus Avery was critically injured in an auto crash on December 1, 1950, exactly 8 months after Dr. Drew’s death. He was a student at North Carolina A&T, a husband, and a father of a small child. Like Dr. Drew, he was treated initially at Alamance General Hospital. He was transferred to Duke University Hospital and subsequently turned away because they had exhausted their supply of beds for black patients. Mr. Avery would die shortly after arrival at Lincoln Hospital, Durham, North Carolina’s black facility. Spencie Love’s book discusses how the story of the lesser-known Maltheus Avery confronted the circumstances of the death of the more prominent Dr. Drew, and thus a myth was born.”
Something similar was at work in the black response to the OJ Simpson case. To many blacks, Simpson was carrying the mythic weight of decades of ethnic abuse under the justice system. In a column at the time for Pacific News Service, a black journalist, Dennis Schatzman, outlined some of the black context for the Simpson trial:
Just last year, Olympic long jumper and track coach Al Joyner was handcuffed and harassed in a LAPD traffic incident. He has settled out of court for $250,000.
A few years earlier, former baseball Hall of Famer Joe Morgan was “handcuffed and arrested at the Los Angeles airport because police believed that Morgan ‘fit the profile of a drug dealer.'” He also got a settlement of $250,000.
Before that, former LA Laker forward Jamal Wilkes was stopped by the police, handcuffed and thrown to the pavement.
A black man was recently given a 25-year to life sentence for stealing a slice of pizza from a young white boy.
In 1992, a mentally troubled black man was shot and killed by LA sheriff’s deputies while causing a disturbance in front of his mother’s house. Neighbors say they saw a deputy plant a weapon by the body.
Simpson case detective Mark Fuhrman was accused of planting a weapon at the side of a robbery suspect back in 1988. The LAPD recently settled for an undisclosed amount.
In North Carolina, Daryl Hunt still languishes in jail for the 1984 rape and murder of a white newspaper reporter, even though DNA tests say it was not possible.
These examples would be rejected as irrelevant by the average lawyer or journalist but in fact OJ Simpson’s case served as the mythic translation of stories never allowed to be told. The stories that should have been on CNN but weren’t. Everything was true except the names, times and places. In Washington, they do something similar when stories can’t be told; they write a novel.
Something parallel took place around the same time when militia members imagined that the Bloods & Crips were being armed by the US government or when blacks believed the same thing about the militias. Or when the UN was thought to on the verge of invading the U.S.
Like urban blacks considering the justice system, the rural right saw things the elite would prefer to ignore. It observed correctly phenomena indicating loss of sovereignty for themselves, their states and their country. They saw treaties replaced by fast-track agreements and national powers surrendered to remote and unaccountable trade tribunals. And they saw a multi-decade assault by the federal government on the powers of states and localities.
Like urban blacks, they were not paranoid in these observations, merely perceptive. But because the story could not be told, could not become part of the national agenda, they turned, as people in trouble often do, to a myth — and, yes, sometimes a violent myth — that would carry the story.
We tend to get very self-righteous when dealing with other people’s myths but very tolerant about our own. Thus a conference dedicated to spreading doubt about the Holocaust is an outrage but a generation of teaching Americans fabrications about the economy in the name of robber baron capitalism is perfectly fine even if it has done infinitely more damage than an anti-Holocaust conference.
The Holocaust conference was a mythological alternative to doing what many participants would like to do but can’t: invade and destroy Israel. Defeat is a prime breeding ground of myth.
But even as the Washington Post was attacking the conference, it was slipping in its own myth, witness this report:
Even by the standards of Neturei Karta, these most ultra of ultra-orthodox Jewish Hasids took a step into the world of the very strange, if not the meshuga, or crazy, when they showed up as honored guests at a conference of Holocaust skeptics and deniers in Tehran. With a hug and a smile for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rabbi Aharon Cohen walked into a conference room with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, discredited academics, and more than a few white supremacists and served up a rousing welcome speech. . .
Neturei Karta is best understood within the confines and context of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which harbors the world’s largest ultra-orthodox Jewish shtetl, or community. Here the garb — black coats and hats for the men, wigs and demure dresses for the women — is that of the 18th century, Yiddish is the lingua franca and there is no deviation from the teachings of Torah and Talmud. The Satmar sect dominates this ghetto, and anti-Zionism is central to their identity. . .
Neturei Karta acknowledged never before having gone to a Holocaust deniers meeting but offered no apologies; they are practiced practitioners of the outrageous. Chaim Freimann used to hang around hotels in Washington during the 1992 Mideast peace talks, wearing a Palestinian flag in his lapel and giving old-comrade greetings to Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian spokeswoman.
The Post thus declared as outrageous the idea of a Jew being on friendly terms with a Palestinian. And what is a Jew doing at Mideast peace talks anyway?
Once again, proof that it’s a lot easier to explode the other guy’s myth than to examine one’s own.
America’s view of the Holocaust, for example, is filled with its own myths. Such as the one that redefines Nazism and the European conflict primarily by its anti-Semitic manifestations, safely exempting us from considering the changes in German governance that led to these manifestations, changes that are becoming uncomfortably familiar in America.
And it is missing important stories, stories like the one Richard Rubenstein tells in the Cunning of History about a Hungarian Jewish emissary meeting with Lord Moyne, the British High Commissioner in Egypt in 1944 and suggesting that the Nazis might be willing to save one million Hungarian Jews in return for military supplies. Lord Moyne’s reply: “What shall I do with those million Jews? Where shall I put them?” Writes Rubenstein: “The British government was by no means adverse to the ‘final solution’ as long as the Germans did most of the work. ” For both countries, it had become a bureaucratic problem, one that Rubenstein suggests we understand “as the expression of some of the most profound tendencies of Western civilization in the 20th century.”
And this one from the Village Voice:
The infamous Auschwitz tattoo began as an IBM number. And now it’s been revealed that IBM machines were actually based at the infamous concentration-camp complex. . . The new revelation of IBM technology in the Auschwitz area constitutes a final link in the chain of documentation surrounding Big Blue’s vast enterprise in Nazi-occupied Poland, supervised at first directly from its New York headquarters, and later through its Geneva office. . . IBM spokesman Carol Makovich didn’t respond to repeated telephone calls. In the past, when asked about IBM’s Polish subsidiary’s involvement with the Nazis, Makovich has said, “IBM does not have much information about this period.” When a Reuters reporter asked about Poland, Makovich said, “We are a technology company, we are not historians.”
Similarly, in a mythology obsessed with Israel, the American story of secular Judaism has all but disappeared. Last century’s great immigration of European Jews brought with it many rebels who had rejected Zionism if not religion. As I wrote in Why Bother: “They became part of a Jewish tradition that profoundly shaped the politics, social conscience, and cultural course of 20th century America. It helped to create the organizations, causes, and values that built this country’s social democracy. While Protestants and Irish Catholics controlled the institutions of politics, the ideas of modern social democracy disproportionately came from native populists and immigrant socialists. It is certainly impossible to imagine liberalism, the civil rights movement, or the Vietnam protests without the Jewish left. There is, in fact, no greater parable of the potential power of a conscious, conscientious minority than the influence of secular Jews on 20th century modern American politics.”
These stories make the Holocaust more complex than we would like it to be.
Elsewhere in Why Bother, I discussed a less contentious example of myths at work:
Consider, for example, the Ojibwa, described by Brian Morris in Anthropology of the Self. These Indians, a group of nomadic hunters and fishers living east of Lake Winnipeg, “do not make any categorical or sharply defined differentiation between myth and reality, or between dreaming and the waking state; neither can any hard or fast line be drawn between humans and animals. . . . A bear is an animal which unlike humans hibernates during the winter, but in specific circumstances it may be interpreted as a human sorcerer. . . . The four winds are thought of not only as animate by the Ojibwa, but are categorized as persons.”
Not only may a culture define the four winds as persons under certain circumstances, it may also define a slave or someone from another tribe as not a person at all. Nonetheless the slave or the outsider really exist so at some level are treated as a person anyway. Hence people in such societies may trade goods with the stranger or attempt to convert the slave to Christianity even though they are not considered human. Or the society may try to quantify such anomalies as Americans did when they declared a black legally equal to three-fifths of a white person. Or it may create a hierarchy as Aristotle did when he confidently declared that “the deliberative faculty in the soul is not present at all in a slave: in a female is present but ineffective, in a child present but undeveloped.” Or it may declare that “all men are created equal” but really mean only white male property owners. Or it may fight a revolution for liberty but leave women as chattel. Or the culture can painfully change such values over two centuries and still have to go repeatedly to court to fight over what was really meant by the change. . .
Here is how anthropologist Morris describes his own western culture: “It is individualistic, and has a relatively inflated concern with the self which in extremes gives rise to anxiety, to a sense that there is a loss of meaning in contemporary life, to a state of narcissism, and to an emphasis in popular psychology on ‘self actualization.’ ”
Bad as this sounds, though, you will probably get along better in New York or Chicago with a loss of meaning, state of narcissism, or overflowing self-actualization than if you try to escape your angst by acting like the Ojibwa. In the Big Apple, to lack a sharply defined differentiation between myth and reality, between dreaming and the waking state; or between humans and animals, risks not only ridicule but actual legal sanctions. Even in a culture that celebrates the power of the individual, the restraints on that individualism are substantial and we, like peoples everywhere, go about our daily business regarding them as largely normal.”
Mythology soars when a culture is under threat or in great isolation. Might the fact that the U.S. hasn’t talked with Iran for 27 years have anything to do with the latter’s current treatment of the Holocaust?
And what changes this? I have argued that if you want to bring peace in the Israeli-Palestine conflict you just put a few Wal-Marts. Thus you would rid the area of both feuding cultures and replace them with Wal-Mart customers.
The theory behind this is more serious than it appears. People get on better when there is something more important going on than what it is that divides them. Thus, despite all the talk about cultural diversity in liberal circles and on campuses, the places where you are most likely to find people of different ethnic backgrounds mixing well include shopping malls, the military, sports teams and ethnic restaurants. Key to the relationship is the fact that everyone thinks they’re getting something out of the deal.
The same principle would work in foreign policy. The best way to deal with a harmful myth is to eliminate the anger, isolation and other problems that caused it to thrive in the first place. You replace them with a deal that works well for everyone.
These myths are not the problem; they are just good warning signs of the problem. Solve the problem and you’ll get much better myths.