Changing Our Cultural Myths

In The Publisher, Alan Brinkley's new biography of publisher/editor Henry Luce (creator of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines), Brinkley notes that the world Luce promoted through those magazines was the one he believed in, not the one that necessarily was.

"In an era blighted by Depression, prejudice, social turmoil and the shadow of war," Brinkley writes, "Life offered the comforting image of a nation united behind a shared, if contrived, vision of the 'American Dream.' ... Part of his considerable achievement was his ability to provide an image of American life that helped a generation of readers believe in an alluring, consensual image of the nation's culture."

Cultural images and myths are nothing new, of course. Every culture has them. They provide a kind of glue that simultaneously helps to bond disparate people together into a unified whole and also helps explain and give order to a sometimes chaotic and confusing world. And Luce was hardly the first or only promoter of contrived or idealistic images.

The idealistic image of a "hero" goes as far back in time as civilization itself, because each civilization and culture needed role models to teach their young what they should aspire to become. During the Depression and World War II, Norman Rockwell's images of American home life -- and his "Four Freedoms" series in particular -- helped remind weary Americans what they were fighting to preserve -- and raised millions in war bonds.

Somewhere in my Semiotics background, I'm sure I learned why humans are so drawn to symbols and symbolic images and words, but few would dispute the notion that, whatever the reason, we are. Even when the symbols and images are idealized, contrived or manipulative. We often buy items based on some imagined notion of what they will do for us. And more than a few women have bought into the myth of some idealized "Prince Charming" as an automatic cure-all for loneliness, restlessness, and a lack of meaning or happiness. Not to mention the myth of the perfect, "Leave-It-To-Beaver" family.

Because of their ability to join people together in pursuit of a common goal, idealized images and cultural myths can serve a worthy end. But life is almost invariably messier and more complex than the myths or ideals portray it. Even Norman Rockwell didn't live the happiness he painted. His first marriage ended in divorce, and both he and his second wife ended up in psychiatric treatment later in life.

In and of itself, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Few of us ever achieve the ideals we shoot for, but the ideals give us an important aiming point. The problem arises when we get so attached to the myth that we become inconsolably unhappy with reality, or spend so much effort fighting to keep hold of the fantasy that we miss the gifts and opportunities the real world contains.

Myths and ideals can also outlive their times. Back in the day when women couldn't own or inherit property or hold fulfilling career jobs, the fantasy of being rescued by Prince Charming might have been the best option a woman could hope for. But in today's world, holding onto that fantasy can keep young women from far more fulfilling -- and far more realistic -- pursuits and choices.

By the same token, Luce's idealized image of American middle-class life was undoubtedly both alluring and comforting to a population faced with the double-barreled challenges of the Depression and World War II. It's likely that those images also formed particularly strong roots in people's psyches because they emerged at a time when movies, television, and post-war consumer advertising were growing into a juggernaut of mass media through which those images and myths could be propagated.

The problem is -- just as in the case of Prince Charming -- that world, which never really existed to begin with, has now receded beyond the limits of even our suspended disbelief.

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh reviewed several new books on the subject of race in America -- or, rather, the idea or myth of "white" culture and the ramifications of the changing demographics of America around it. Certainly the advent of DNA testing, which has revealed that far more of us are mixed race than our nominal skin color would indicate, has made the idea of a idealized white culture seem even more artificial than Sanneh's sources argue. But in the past, the exclusive "white" club also kept out many members admitted today, including Jewish, Irish, Italian, Polish, and other immigrant groups.

Today, of course, the "scary" growing immigrant class is Hispanic/Latino. Arizona's new law requiring identification papers for Latinos runs in stark contrast to Norman Rockwell's artistic cry for a nation committed to preserving "Freedom From Fear." On both sides. But what is it that we're really so afraid of?

The answer is clearly complex. There's been a lot of hue and cry about increased crime and problems from illegal immigrants, although a New York Times article Monday quoted "police officials" in Arizona as saying the illegals committed no more crimes than the rest of the population. There's concern about a burden on the health care and school systems, because illegals don't pay income or property tax -- although they do contribute to the local economy by purchasing goods and paying sales tax. There's a sense of unfairness and unaccountability because of the illegals' inherent breaking of the law, although many of the illegals point out that Americans are also happy about the cheap labor they provide, lowering the cost of everything from lawn care and child care to restaurant food and grocery store produce. About the only thing people seem to agree on is that illegal immigration is a problem -- and one that needs better solutions.

But somewhere in the mix is also a palpable sense of fear about being overrun by "the other," as well as a changing power and social milieux that is increasingly impossible to ignore. This also is not new in America. In 1862, an "uncounted" number of blacks were killed in New York's three-day-long "Draft Riots," a violent insurrection that was fueled in part by workers' fears that emancipated blacks would come north and take their job opportunities away.

And just as in 1862, part of that fear is justified -- at least in the sense of the social and power structure changing -- even without the issue of "illegal" immigration. As Sanneh says in her review, even if the idea of some idealized "white" culture is a social construct, "this artificial category has, over the years, come to life.... The history of human culture is the history of forgeries that become genuine, that people make and cannot simply unmake." Even if the DNA and historical facts say the truth was far more muddied, the social "white" culture in America has been a privileged, majority class that is and was secure in a way that the immigrant and minority groups were not. Membership had its privileges, even if you weren't in the aristocracy. So any changes in that demographic or attendant social/power structure take away some of that security.

But I suspect that part of the fear and distress people feel is also dissonance between the idealized mythical past of Luce and Rockwell and a new reality that is too far removed from those images to enable people to hang onto the soothing fantasies those constructs once allowed. Never mind that those images were "contrived," or that America was always a multicultural mess of new and old immigrants, rich, poor, strong and weak. Or that love, marriage, family and communities were always more complicated and conflict-ridden than those all the sunny suburban images portrayed. Those cultural myths gave a large percentage of the population comfort through some very rough times, and many people are loath to let them go.

But just as in the case of Prince Charming, the downside of clinging so fiercely to old myths is that we can lose sight of a more compelling and timely ideal. What would that new cultural myth look like? I'm not sure, exactly, but I think it would celebrate the rich diversity of a country that values its flexibility and enthusiasm about the future; that can innovate its way out of a jam and absorb changes in the world while keeping its collective mind, culture, and commitment to freedom and opportunity open and intact. Anybody can be afraid of change. It takes an exceptional culture to manage evolving and complex social problems and embrace a changing demographic face, future and all the new wonders that change might carry in its pockets.

I'm not sure how Rockwelll or Luce would illustrate that ideal. But even in our far more diffuse modern media culture, where it's harder for any one person or outlet to be heard, let alone have a significant impact on society's beliefs, I'm sure they'd come up with something.