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Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica


MythicAmerica explores the mythic dimension of American political culture, past, present, and future. The blogger, Ira Chernus, is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity.

His new “MythicAmerica: Essays” offer an online introduction to the study of American myths. Read about the blog and the author here.

To receive periodic email summaries of the blog, send an email to update@mythicamerica.us, with “Update” in the subject line. You can communicate directly with Ira at the same address.

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  • The State of the Union and the State of the "Homeland"

    by Ira Chernus


    Claire Danes in "Homeland."

    In our home the State of the Union address was not followed by the Republican reply. We skipped Marco Rubio’s rebuttal in favor of watching a DVD of old “Homeland” episodes. We’re finally catching up on the first season of the “CIA versus terrorists” drama that everyone else has been watching and raving about for the past two years.

    The incongruity of watching the SOTU and “Homeland” in the same evening was a stark reminder of how much has changed in America in just a few years. “Homeland” would have made a wholly congruous nightcap to any SOTU speech by George W. Bush.

    That’s not to say Obama’s “war on terror” policies are so different from W.’s. The similarities as well as differences have been parsed at length by the pundits, and similarities there are a-plenty. But the tone of American life has changed so much now that we have a “hope and change” president instead of a “war president.” 


  • No, Prof. Meyer, Anti-Zionism is NOT Anti-Semitism

    by Ira Chernus


    Swedish B.D.S. poster. Credit: Wiki Commons.

    Andrew Meyer wants us to believe that anyone who opposes Zionism, for whatever reason, is inherently anti-Semitic. He starts from the premise that we should focus on historical effects rather than intentions. Perhaps he thinks that restriction works to the advantage of his argument.

    After all, it’s obvious that plenty of people have opposed Zionism with no anti-Semitic intent. Before World War II many Jews -- perhaps a majority of the world’s Jews, and certainly a vast number of devout Orthodox Jews -- opposed the Zionist project in principle. They surely had no anti-Semitic intentions. There are still plenty of Jews today who oppose Zionism. Some of them, especially in Israel, make a very thoughtful case that Zionism is ultimately harmful to the best interests of the Jewish people. Their intentions are obviously not anti-Semitic. So looking at intent certainly would undermine Prof. Meyer’s case.


  • The Imaginary World of the “War Against al-Qaeda”

    by Ira Chernus

    The on-again, off-again debate is on again: Does the executive branch of the United States government ever have the right to assassinate American citizens without due process of law? A brave soul, who hopefully will remain nameless, has leaked an internal Justice Department “White Paper” outlining the Obama administration's reasons for answering “Yes.” A chorus of critical voices answers, just as loudly, “No.”  

    But most of the critics agree with the administration and its supporters on one point: The question here is about the executive’s power in wartime.

    If that is indeed the question -- a big “if” -- history offers a certain kind of answer. Lincoln, Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt all pushed their constitutional authority to the limit during war -- and beyond the limit, critics in their own day and ever since contended. Yet the overreach of these three presidents (if overreach it was) did little to tarnish their reputations.


  • Kerry Admits It: “Foreign policy is Economic Policy.”

    by Ira Chernus


    John Kerry embraces John McCain at his recent confirmation hearings. Via Flickr/Glyn Lowe.

    At his confirmation hearing, the new Secretary of State, John Kerry, declared flatly:  “Foreign policy is economic policy.” Now them is fightin’ words if they’re spoken by a scholar of U.S. foreign policy. Scholars of the “revisionist” school have been attacked, reviled, and marginalized for decades simply for saying what Kerry seemed to say: Economic motives are the main drivers of foreign policy. So when revisionists hear a top government official say it out loud, it’s like discovering gold: It’s hard evidence that their view is correct.


  • Zero Dark Dirty: The "Good War" Lives

    by Ira Chernus

    I once heard a prominent expert on contemporary Islam say that Al Qaeda is not an organized group (and this was while Osama bin Laden was still alive). It isn’t even, primarily, a group of people at all. Al Qaeda is best understood as a body of discourse, a way of talking.

    How do you fight a body of discourse? With another body of discourse, of course. The United States government is doing that in all sorts of ways, spreading the gospel of democratic capitalism and the American way of life.

    But how do you make a movie about a war between two bodies of discourse? If you want to win awards, pack the theaters, and turn a profit, you don’t. A good movie has to start with a mythic script.  And it’s awfully hard to find the myth in a war of discourse versus discourse.

    So you make a movie about a war of good guys against bad guys. That’s about as mythic as it gets. It’s the American war story that has been made in Hollywood a thousand times -- well, a thousand and one, now that we have Zero Dark Thirty. I’m finally getting around to writing about the film, after just about everyone else in the world has had their say, because I finally got around to seeing it. It turns out there was no reason to rush anyway.


  • Inauguration Shows President as Prime Minister and King

    by Ira Chernus


    Barack and Michelle Obama at his second inaugural. Credit: Flickr/Adam Fagen.

    There were passages in Barack Obama’s second inaugural address that sounded like a European prime minister from a Labor or Social Democrat party addressing his Parliament. Obama had a whole laundry list of progressive proposals. Some were explicit:

    “Care for the vulnerable and protect people from life's worst hazards and misfortune” through “Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security”; “respond to the threat of climate change”; make sure that “our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. … our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else … no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote”; “find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants.”

    Some of the progressive program was implicit:


  • Why Does a Hostage Crisis Fascinate America?

    by Ira Chernus


    Camels in the Sahara near In Aménas, the site of the hostage crisis. Credit: Flickr/albatros11.

    Barack Obama and his political advisors surely thought that gun control would dominate the headlines for days to come after the president announced his controversial proposals. But some armed men in a remote gas drilling site in the Sahara desert had other ideas.

    The pundits love to tell us that a president who focuses on domestic policy is inevitably frustrated, because there are bound to be unexpected crises abroad that demand his, and the nation’s, attention. But there’s really nothing inevitable about it. It’s a choice that the public, and the news media who must sell their wares to the public, make.  

    Certainly the lives of the people at risk in the Sahara are important. It’s a tragedy when anyone is killed. But let’s face it. A handful of American lives may be lost in Algeria; maybe not. Whatever the outcome, this incident will soon disappear down the American memory hole.    


  • “Ike” and the “Red Menace”: Some Myths Won’t Die

    by Ira Chernus


    Martin Luther King, Jr. with President Eisenhower in 1956.

    You probably know the mythic Dwight Eisenhower, the “great peacekeeper in a dangerous era,” who bravely withstood the communist threat while skillfully avoiding all-out war. The quote comes from Evan Thomas, the latest writer to make a mint by retelling the tale. It would hardly be worth noticing, except that pundits keep trotting out the mythic Ike by as a model for the current president to follow.  

    Latest example: the Washington Post’s influential foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius, a dependable megaphone for the centrist foreign policy establishment. He’s praising  Thomas’ book, Ike’s Bluff, for supposedly showing us how a great president deals with “continuing global threats … that require some way to project power.”


  • "Fix the Debt": Sheer Hypocrisy or a Myth Worth Debating?

    by Ira Chernus

    The New York Times has just published an expose on Fix the Debt, “a group of business executives and retired legislators who have become Washington’s most visible and best-financed advocates for reining in the federal deficit.” It turns out that “close to half of the members of Fix the Debt’s board and steering committee have ties to companies that have engaged in lobbying on taxes and spending, often to preserve tax breaks and other special treatment.” The Times gives plenty of examples to support that charge.

    I’m shocked. Shocked. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow’s Times reveals that there’s gambling going on in the back room at Rick’s Café Americain.


  • Fiscal Deal: And the Winning Myth Is ….

    by Ira Chernus


    Credit: Wiki Commons

    As Congress and the administration went through their tortured post-election wrangling (or was it a dance?) over fiscal policy, Americans never seemed quite sure what mythic lens was best suited to viewing the proceedings.

    Were we watching ourselves, all together, hurtling toward a cliff and trying desperately to avoid plunging over it? Or were we divided into two political and ideological camps, approaching a final showdown. I explored both the “cliff” and “showdown” metaphors in the run-up to the New Year’s denouement.

    Now that a deal has been done and we can watch the public reaction through the news media, which mythic metaphor is the winner?

    The many “Who won? Who lost?” evaluations seem to support the “showdown” view. The widespread view that this is merely round one, with more battles between the two parties sure to follow, also seems to give the nod to the “showdown” metaphor. Or perhaps, instead of a single showdown, we’ll start talking about a long, drawn-out "war."


  • Gun Control: The New Abolitionism?

    by Ira Chernus

    Guns and violence are “a deep illness in our society,” columnist Frank Rich opines. “There's only one other malady that was so deeply embedded into the country's DNA at birth: slavery. We know how long it took us to shake those shackles. And so ... overthrowing America's gun-worship is not a project that will be cured in a legislative session; it's a struggle that's going to take decades.”

    I wonder if Rich is too pessimistic. He assumes that the gun-control issue is now where the slavery issue was in perhaps the 1820s, when the abolitionist movement was just beginning to gather steam as an organized Protestant reform effort. But that doesn’t seem a fair comparison.


  • America's Proud Individualism Helped Pull the Trigger

    by Ira Chernus


    Credit: Flickr.

    I know it’s foolish hubris to hear about a tragedy like the school shooting in Connecticut and then immediately start writing about it. But many of us who blog do it, at least in part, as a way to deal with feelings that otherwise might overwhelm us. It’s cathartic. And it’s our wager that, in the process, we’ll say something helpful to others who are trying to make a little bit of sense out of at least some corner of the tragedy

    Convincing explanations of any kind are ultimately bound to elude us. All one can do is try to shed a little light on a little piece of the immense calamity, from one’s own particular viewpoint. I naturally think about American mythic traditions that seem relevant in this situation.


  • Ain’t No "Cliff," Pardner; This Here’s a "Showdown"

    by Ira Chernus


    Solidarity poster from Poland in 1989 -- an effective use of the "showdown" myth in politics. Credit: Wiki Commons.

    Progressive groups are trying to rally their troops to stop any cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. They may wish they could turn out crowds large and noisy enough to make a media splash, the way the Tea Party did a couple of years ago. But their troops are all volunteers, and as far as I can tell not enough of them are showing up for duty to make that media splash.

    Barack Obama and his ax-wielding budget aides will draw the obvious conclusion: Most people say they oppose cuts to the big three “entitlements.” But they don’t care strongly enough to make any noise about it. Mostly what they want is to stop hearing about the dangers of the “fiscal cliff.”

    So Democrats can make cuts to the big three, satisfy the Republicans, end the “fiscal cliff” crisis, and pay a very small political price. In fact the Dems will probably come out with a higher rating in the polls because they’ll show that they can “make Washington work.”


  • Cheer Up, Rush: Dems Keep "Traditional America" Alive

    by Ira Chernus

    Dear Rush Limbaugh,

    The night President Obama was re-elected you went to bed thinking that Mitt Romney “put forth a great vision of traditional America, and it was rejected.” So “we’ve lost the country.” You explained to your audience that the voters had chosen a “Santa Claus” government over hard work as the way to get their needs met.

    Well, now that Santa is finishing up the last toys and getting the reindeer ready to fly, I want to bring you a season’s greeting full of good cheer. I want to cheer you up by telling you about the Christmas card I just got from the Obamas. It should ease your fears that your country, the one you call “traditional America,” is disappearing.

    All the Obamas signed the card, even their little dog Bo (who added his pawprint). In fact Bo is the star of the card; he’s the only one who got his picture on it. There he is romping through the snow on the Obamas’ lawn. Hey, Rush, what could be more traditionally American than that?


  • Why Are Dems Left Hanging on Edge of “Fiscal Cliff”?

    by Ira Chernus


    How the Dems could win the fiscal cliff debate: mobilize for the moral equivalent of war. Credit: Flickr/Library of Congress/StockMonkey.com/HNN staff.

    Where’s that surge of public outrage that’s supposed to force the Republicans to surrender in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations? The Democrats are still waiting for it ... and waiting ... and waiting, while they teeter on the edge of the cliff.

    The Dems are so busy scrutinizing the polls, they forgot to notice the impact of the little word “cliff.” Sure, it’s just a metaphor. But every metaphor tells a story. And the stories we tell (or, more commonly, take for granted, without ever spelling them out) shape the way we view things, which in turn determines the policies we’ll adopt or reject and the way we’ll live our lives.


  • A New "New Cold War" in the Mideast?

    by Ira Chernus


    Credit: HNN staff.

    Just when we thought it was safe for Americans to go out in a democratizing Middle East ... Well, I guess we stopped thinking that a while ago. But now a lead story on the front page of the New York Times makes it official. Far from boosting our security, the Arab Spring has given us more to be afraid of.

    Gone are the days when all we had to worry about was fanatical Shi’ite Islam. Now a new Sunni “axis” is emerging, the Times informs us -- using a word that should send chills up the spine of anyone who knows anything about World War II -- with Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar playing the role once filled by Germany, Japan, and Italy.

    All three Mideast nations are governed by Sunni Muslim parties. So are Libya and Tunisia. More ominously, according to the Times, Hamas is allying with the “axis.” And if the Syrian rebels win their civil war, they’ll take Syria out of the Iranian orbit and into the new “axis” too.


  • “Lincoln”: Jesus Christ! God Almighty! What a (Biblical) Movie!

    by Ira Chernus

    About three score and a couple of years ago my sister was a research librarian in Hollywood, working for an outfit that dug up information needed by moviemakers. One day she called me and said, “You’ve got a PhD in the history of Judaism. So what are the facts about the lost ark, the one that was in the Jerusalem Temple in biblical times?”  “There are no facts,” I quickly replied. “It’s all just legend. Why do you want to know, anyway?”

    “Steven Spielberg is making a movie about the lost ark, and he wants us to get him the facts.” “A movie about the lost ark?”, I asked incredulously. “Is he crazy? Does he think anyone is going to pay money to see that?”

    Obviously, I may know something about history but not much at all about the movies. I suppose that alone might disqualify me from making any comment on Spielberg’s latest epic, Lincoln.

    But when America’s greatest living mythmaker takes on America’s most mythicized president, how can the author of a blog called MythicAmerica remain silent? If it’s not my obligation to say something, at least it’s an irresistible temptation.


  • Nineteenth-Century Nationalism Still Alive, and Deadly, in Mideast

    by Ira Chernus


    IDF brass in a briefing about the conflict in Gaza, November 17, 2012. Credit: Flickr.

    Ask most Americans why Israel went to war in Gaza again and they’ll give you a simple answer: Palestinians were shooting rockets into Israel, and, as President Obama said, “there’s no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.”

    To name those rockets as the root cause of the war is like saying my fever caused my flu. But why shouldn’t the public identify a symptom as the cause of the conflict? They hear and read the same misleading explanation in their news media over and over again. So they see no reason to dig any deeper.


  • Class: The Missing Link in the Story of Election 2012.

    by Ira Chernus

    On Election Day we learned who will be president for the next four years. In the days after Election Day we learned something almost as important: the story that will be told about the election of 2012. The popular story of any election takes on a life of its own, and it can shape the political landscape for years to come.

    We can now safely project the winner of this year’s election story contest: Republicans self-destructed by moving too far to the right on issues that matter to women (especially unmarried women), newly empowered Latinos, and still empowered African-Americans.

    Among liberal pollsters this pro-Obama coalition (plus the under-30s) is often called “the rising American electorate” (RAE). They are the future, the story goes. The Republicans must face that fact, make the necessary changes, or get ready to become history. Race, ethnicity, and gender are destiny.


  • The “Fiscal Cliff” and THE SCANDAL

    by Ira Chernus


    David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell in 2011. Credit: Flickr/U.S. Navy.

    Robert Rubin, former secretary of the Treasury, writes in the New York Times: “Now that the election is over, Washington’s attention is consumed by the looming combination of automatic spending cuts and tax increases known as ‘the fiscal cliff.’” 

    “Consumed”?  Excuse me, but I just checked the websites of the Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN, Fox News, CBS, NBC, and ABC. Every one of them had the same lead story -- and it was not “the fiscal cliff.” 

    By now, of course, you know what it was. Everybody knows: THE SCANDAL WIDENS! 

    If Robert Rubin had written that some people in Washington are giving some attention to the “the looming ‘fiscal cliff,’” he might have been correct. In Washington they’re sort of forced to deal with such wonkish stuff, at least part of the time.

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