Myth and the Making of America

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We love our myths. We need myth to survive. It’s our air, our water, our food, the fire that warms our hearts. Myths provide equilibrium, focus, ideological orientation, and a spiritual home. No wonder we prefer myth to reality.

Myth reinforces the authenticity of our lives. Myth assures me I’m right with the universe, that I identify with the brightest people on the planet, that God, if I’m inclined to believe in transcendental reality, smiles on my life. Myth makes me smarter than lesser mortals. If only more people believed what I believe, enlightenment and peace would flood the world.

Myth is easy. It doesn’t require any mental discipline or commitment to truth. A good myth saves me from isolating and evaluating facts, the nuts and bolts of history. I don’t have to decide which facts are true and which are false. Myth does that for me. President Trump kicked a thousand Muslims out of the country today? But of course he did. If it’s consistent with my myth, it must be true.

We were weaned on myth. Our first myths were about a fat bearded man in a red suit. Along with the Easter Bunny, these myths filled our childhoods with a sense of wonder. But they didn’t last. By grade school we suspected someone was jerking us around.

We didn’t suspect our school teachers were engaged in mythmaking of their own. They taught us about Columbus and the Age of Discovery, but they didn’t tell us that Columbus never set foot on American soil. They concealed information about the natives Columbus enslaved, the people he killed, the towns he massacred, and the fact that “the Pinta” meant “painted one,” signifying a prostitute.

George Washington never chopped down that cherry tree and he didn’t throw a rock across the Rappahannock River. Abraham Lincoln didn’t spend much time splitting rails and he probably never walked five miles to return small change. Those myths stem from the imagination of Parson Weems and Carl Sandburg.

The myths served a purpose, though: they reinforced a strong appreciation for the wonder of America. Our schooldays began with the Pledge of Allegiance. The myths we learned, as well as the truth, created within our hearts and minds a healthy appreciation for American history and achievements.

Revisionist historians are quick to point out myths, and their reclamation of history is commendable and necessary. But they pick and choose which myths are expendable. When it comes to the myth of the New Deal, they’re happy to hand down politically motivated myths as historical reality. They assume facts not in evidence. They ignore the numbers. They don’t vet their sources. They traffic in the myths that embellish every political narrative.

The Roosevelt Myth[1] begins with the idea that the sun came out on March 4, 1933, the first day of the FDR presidency. Roosevelt, the myth goes, did all the things Herbert Hoover refused to do. Hoover snubbed the vets; Roosevelt embraced them. Hoover refused to invest in American lives; FDR freely did so and miraculously stopped the Depression in its tracks. FDR was the Great Liberator of the economically depressed.

Every protagonist needs an antagonist. Rocky has Apollo Creed. Batman has the Joker.     Superman has Lex Luther. Luke Skywalker has Darth Vader. Dorothy has the Wicked Witch of the West. Seinfeld has Newman.

FDR has Hoover. One vanquishes the other as surely as spring follows winter. It’s an essential ingredient of myth making.

There were actually two depressions. The first hit on Black Thursday in November 1929. It was on Hoover’s watch. This depression lingered for the remainder of Hoover’s presidency and finally killed it. The historians who malign Hoover don’t mention that a Second Depression hit in 1938, six years after Roosevelt took office, as strong and determined as ever. The second one was on FDR’s watch and it’s usually ignored. It doesn’t fit the Roosevelt Myth.

Federal spending didn’t stop the Depression. It barely slowed it down. Unemployment averaged 20% in FDR’s first term, and about 17% throughout the 1930’s. Unemployment was high because businesses were closing, they weren’t opening new factories, jobs died out. FDR couldn’t stop it. Unemployment spiked to 19% in 1938 when eleven million Americans were still looking for work. Six years of doles and promises and we were right back where we started with no relief in sight. It’s a good thing World War 2 came along when it did. The war accomplished what the New Deal was impotent to do. Study the numbers. For the historian who wants to transform FDR into an economic wizard, these are inconvenient facts.

When it comes to FDR, the myths just keep coming. That’s because the myth fits a political narrative. FDR didn’t create a system of security for the aged and the infirm. He sat on the Social Security bill for two years. The Republicans chided him for his indolence in the 1934 midterms.  They don’t teach that in history class.

Follow the money. It doesn’t lie. FDR doled out tons of it, usually to his political constituents, and those he wanted to become political constituents. The Democrats called it progressive government. But they were just buying votes.

At least FDR was capable of evaluating the role of government honestly. In his annual message to Congress on January 4, 1935, FDR admitted that permanent relief programs would become “a narcotic, a subtle destroyer to the national fiber.” Don’t take my word for it. Read the record yourself. “The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber.” That doesn’t sound like a man sold out to the benefits of welfare. It sounds more like Hoover.

It’s right there in the history books, if you have the stomach to study them. Here’s more vintage FDR: “It’s inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It’s in violation of the traditions of America. Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers.” FDR actually said that. He never meant to transform American into a welfare state. It was just a Band-Aid, something to help until the economy recovered.

Let the man speak for himself. What he said is too important to entrust it to the agenda of leftist historians and economists:

“The Federal Government must and shall quit this business of relief. I am not willing that the vitality of our people be further sapped by the giving of cash, of market baskets, of a few hours of weekly work cutting grass, raking leaves or picking up papers in the public parks. We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination.”

Had Barack Obama been a better historian, or a better political theorist, we might be in better economic shape today. Politics, like religion, begins with the creation of a narrative. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. People will believe what they want to believe. The politician merely gives them what they want.

That’s why it’s hard to take Democrats and Republicans seriously about the economy. They bend the numbers to feed their narratives. The national debt has grown under Republican and Democratic administrations. The Republicans slowed it down but didn’t stop it. In spite of trillions of dollars of government spending, millions still lost their jobs. They couldn’t find decent full-time work to feed their families, so they threw in the towel, defeated, dejected, bloodied, without an economic lifeline. All the Republicans and Democrats in Washington can’t fix the problem. They just keep playing tug-of-war and dig us in deeper.

So we cling to our myths. Myth provides a handy narrative, and we all need narratives. We invent news. We cast doubt over legitimate election results. We disseminate lies, distort the truth, discombobulate the facts, create false narratives, and call it leadership. Credibility is no longer the ideal. We pick and choose our narratives like puppies at the pet store.

What FDR learned after two years of economic reality, Alexis De Tocqueville predicted 100 years before it happened. In 1835 Tocqueville saw the future of paternal government. “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” That’s as prophetic as you can get.  The man knew something about human nature.

He knew something about political theory, too. “It may be asserted that the older a democratic community is, the more centralized will its government become.” Tocqueville understood the dangers of paternalism. He believed intrusive government kept citizens in “perpetual childhood.”   Big government does everything for its people. He also said:

“It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and divides their inheritances.  Why should it not entirely relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the trouble of living?”

That’s a high price to pay for milk and cookies. All of that from Democracy in America, Volume 2, pages 666-667. Tocqueville appreciated the liberties of Americans but understood the dangers hiding in the bushes.

Political narratives ignore the facts. Primary sources demand critical thinking. Secondary sources, the kind our professors feed us, demand servility. Bend over and the prof will stick whatever he wants inside of you. You’ll end up going through life thinking other people’s thoughts, like those Hollywood airbags who read scripts for a living.

Pick your narrative. Which one feeds your ego? We choose sides as easily as we choose a pair of pants, and with less rationality. Anything to dress up our lives. We’re born into this. We’re forever slaves to our parents, our professors, our colleagues, our childhood, and our religions. We can’t see beyond our past.

Narratives feed competition and competition feeds the soul. So it’s East vs. West. North vs. South. Michigan vs. Ohio State. Dogs vs. Cats. Lions vs. Bears. Liberal vs. conservative. Protestant vs. Catholic. Republican vs. Democrat. On and on and on, until we rot from the inside out.

Is there no viable third way? There better be. The old narratives are eating us alive, zapping our national strength, drowning us in debt.

But there’s hope if you can see beyond the quagmire, the politics, the stale approaches that feed myths but accomplish nothing. If you have the insight to understand we’re going nowhere, and the imagination to see a world where freedom dictates policy and law and the government understands its limited role. If so, perhaps there’s a future for America. In the words of another nineteenth century writer:

“Come, my friends. ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

Ulysses, Alfred, Lord Tennyson

[1] On “the Roosevelt myth” see John T. Flynn, The Roosevelt Myth (1948), Jim Powell, FDR’s Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression (2003), and Burton Folsom, Jr., New Deal or Raw Deal: How FDR’s Economic Legacy has Damaged America (2008).

* Ronald Ruark is an attorney in private practice in the Detroit area where he lives with his wife Nancy.

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