The Power of Myths and Archetypes



Harry Callahan says, “Go ahead. Make my day.”

Author’s Note: This is another chapter that I inadvertently omitted from Namaste: If Not Now, When? I include it here because any honest recapitulation of our nation’s errors and omissions must necessarily include an analysis of the destructive myths and archetypes that have contributed to our national self-aggrandizement and obnoxious sense of entitlement. That behavior needs to stop, if we are to coexist in peace and harmony with other nations.

All of the previous chapters that have been presented are here and in my Diaries at Firedoglake/MyFDL.

A myth is “a traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the worldview of a people, as by explaining aspects of the natural world or delineating the psychology, customs, or ideals of society.” Myths are not necessarily limited to the past; they can and do frame and inform us about the present. Consider, for example, American exceptionalism. The Reverend John Winthrop told the Puritan colonists of Massachusetts Bay,

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken… we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world.

Alexis de Tocqueville described American exceptionalism in 1831:

The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.

American exceptionalism is a myth that Americans are hard working, morally superior, and more intelligent than anyone else in the world. It is intertwined with manifest destiny, an early 19th century belief that the United States was destined to expand across the North American continent to the Pacific Ocean.

During the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States relied on manifest destiny to justify the seizure of Spanish foreign colonies as colonies and protectorates of the United States.

President Woodrow Wilson later relied on manifest destiny and American exceptionalism as the basis for an American mission to promote and defend democracy throughout the world.

Relying on false intelligence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction as a justification for invading Iraq in violation of the international prohibition against initiating a war of aggression, President George W. Bush proclaimed his intent to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power to free the Iraqi people from oppression and introduce them to democracy. When the United States military did not find any weapons of mass destruction, President Bush casually brushed aside that inconvenient fact claiming in essence that the United States was above the law because its motives were pure and the Iraqi people were now free of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny.

To realize how presumptuous, insulting, and offensive these acts were, we need only consider them in light of the negative statement of the Golden Rule; namely, do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you. We would not abide such acts, if they were done to us.

Victims of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny, such as Native Americans and African American slaves during the 19th century, certainly viewed those myths with disfavor and sorrow.

Approximately 2.5 million Iraqi refugees who fled the sectarian violence unleashed in Iraq by the United States invasion and the Iraqis who survived it have little reason to thank the United States for anything because they are much worse off today than they were before the invasion. More than a million Iraqis were killed during the invasion and occupation of Iraq and the sectarian violence that the invasion unleashed continues to this day. If the dead could speak, I doubt any of them would have anything complimentary to say about the United States.

I doubt Iraqis and Afghans believe United States motives are pure or that Americans are “hard working, morally superior, and more intelligent than anyone else in the world.” Instead, they have good reason to believe Americans are scumbags and the United States government and the greedy corporations it serves are as evil as evil can be.

They know the truth. Despite the United States Government’s protestations to the contrary, it invaded their countries and slaughtered their brothers and sisters so that American corporations could rape and suck their lands dry of oil and natural gas through pipelines to the sea.

An archetype is the original pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations or copies. Carl Jung defined it as an inherited idea or mode of thought derived from the experience of the race and it is present in each person’s unconscious. Most characters, or gods and goddesses in myths are archetypes.

The rugged and tough individual is a male archetype that the actor John Wayne played in all of his films. Gary Cooper played him to perfection in High Noon and more recently, Clint Eastwood made a successful career out of playing that role starting out as the cowboy Rowdy Yates in the television series Rawhide, progressing to the man with no name in spaghetti westerns, followed by the hardnosed detective Dirty Harry menacingly snarling “Go ahead. Make my day, punk.” Marilyn Monroe personified the sex goddess archetype that the ancient Egyptians personified as Isis and the Romans as Venus.

Most Americans are unaware of the existence and important role of myths and archetypes in controlling how they think and act. The advertising industry knows the power of myths and archetypes and they exploit them all the time. The rugged independent hero sold Marlboros and the sex goddess sold perfume. When they hooked up and partied in bars, they drank lite beer because it was less filling and it cranked up their libidos to do the wild thing after the director hollered, “Cut.”

Myths and archetypes can become traps for the unwary who identify too strongly with them. The American who expects special consideration and treatment in a foreign country because he believes he is exceptional and entitled to such treatment personifies the Ugly American everyone loves to hate.

A warrior never becomes attached to a myth or archetype because he is impeccably living his own mythic story and has no reason to be anything except herself.

Cross-Posted at Firedoglake/MyFDL and the Smirking Chimp.

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2 Comments on “The Power of Myths and Archetypes”

  1. masonblue Says:

    To what extent, if at all, have you, or someone you know, been manipulated by unscrupulous people using myths and archetypes?

    How about smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol?

    If you are a male, have you suppressed your feelings in order to appear tough, like a “real” man?

    What is a “real” man?

    What is wrong with being ourselves?

    Why should that be not good enough?

    Who says?

    Should men suppress their feminine nature?

    What is “feminine nature?”

    Should women suppress their male nature?

    What is “male nature?”

    Women, what is a “real woman,” and to what extent, if at all, have you tried to become that?

  2. ed nelson Says:

    I just spent 10 minutes to get back to this diary/post/essay, which I like alot, It opens up a good new territory, (not new, but new… ).

    Of course pissants like Freud’s nephew a few ago, did make “their bones” on something. (Archetypes, the knowledge of which was cavalierly employed in greed, by a class of interloping “cosmopolitan” schmuck.

    I will put together some thoughts on it soon. You got me thinkin’ and that is another story. But… OK… bit OT … per se… but to tie this with another of your recent posts, The destruction of the mid class/ unions, means: Loss of the human component…. ( when juries of “peers” are assembled, that is to draw from a kind of yoeman class, people with some common frame of refference.

    America really is renowned for that middle brow, but reliable/ scource. There won’t be any “Ozzie and Harriets” to involk the good sence or much less the cushion of affluence to be independent in one’s expressed views on anything, there will be no cushion, when there are only Sultan and slave, And I don’t see how that can work either, so it seems to be a headlong jump to oblivion.


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