What is a myth? Is it just a story long dead people used to believe, but that we’ve moved past in our modern understanding of the world? When the ancient Greeks saw lightning in the sky and explained that it was Zeus throwing down thunderbolts, is that the kind of thing we’re talking about when we call something “mythical”, or is there something more to it? To those Greeks, that story about Zeus wasn’t just a quaint religious belief that we should dismiss as primitive today, that was one of the stories they told to explain a world they didn’t have a modern, scientific understanding of. When their children asked them about the lightning in the sky, this was the story they told, that it was the action of a god unleashing his power upon the earth. The idea that it was a discharge of static electricity caused by . . . well, you know, cloud stuff . . . was completely foreign to them; lightning was Zeus’ power displayed to the world, period.
But was that really the end of it? Was it just a story ancient Greeks told their children to get them to shut up about the stupid lightning and go back to bed, or does this explanation say much more than that? I think there is more to it, that the explanations people give for events they don’t understand say as much about the teller as they do about the phenomenon being explained. What kind of culture would produce a story like Greek myths about the actions of the gods of Olympus? The Greek gods were violent, lusty, capricious deities who played games with human lives, caused wars out of petty jealousies, and brought favour and destruction according to the devotion they were paid by their human playthings. The world as the Greeks experienced it was also violent, lusty and capricious, and the stories they told to explain their world reflected that way of life. Their gods acted like the men and women they saw every day, set on a cosmic scale; what the Olympians are more than anything is a magnified view of the culture that produced them, and we should view them as such. These are the stories they chose not only to explain their world to their children, but to express the heart of who they were as a people.
Make no mistake, we have our myths today and we use them exactly the same way the Greeks did thousands of years ago. George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and crossing the Delaware, the ’72 Summit Series, and Vimy Ridge; these are all myths people today use to explain their world and express who they are to their children and to themselves. One of the central myths of Canadian life is the history of the Stanley Cup, and the way we cherish stories about the Cup being forgotten by the side of the road by a player fixing a flat, chipping Rocket Richard’s front teeth, and all the dozens of misadventures the most well-travelled championship trophy on the planet has been through in its 119-year history. That Lord Stanley’s Cup rests firmly at the heart of this country’s identity says something about us, it says that even our most revered symbol of excellence is something we treat with a peculiar familiarity that is essentially Canadian in character. Those stories explain who we are as a people, a nation of robust people who enjoy a rough-and-tumble life and don’t take things too seriously, even the things our heroes spend their entire lives striving to attain. Our Cup has been filled with campaign, beer, urine and a player’s infant son. It has been kicked onto a frozen river, beaten out of and back into shape countless times, lost, stolen, found and paraded, it has been to war zones and hospitals, and has its permanent home in the shrine to our national sport, the Hockey Hall of Fame.
As I wrote the above paragraph, I felt a swelling of national pride, of love for my country and its traditions, and I hope you shared some of that as well. This kind of thing, these national myths, they are what tell us who we are; they are the stories we choose to explain ourselves to ourselves and to others. The type of myths that define a nation, however, are not a matter of happenstance, they are an expression of not just who we are, but who we aspire to be as a people. This is the power of myth, that they can steer a nation and define its character; this is also what makes them so very dangerous when we allow people in power to own and sell our mythology back to us.
In recent years, various groups have taken this idea to heart, and have hijacked the national narrative to bring the country around to their world view. For a preview of where this kind of thing leads, we Canadians have front row seats to where we’re heading just south of our border in the US. American mythology has been jacked up to such an extreme that it’s not difficult to picture some talking head on a cable news show coming out with stories of Founding Fathers turning water into wine and healing the blind with a touch of their hands (after the blind have presented their co-pay, of course). Rather than a group of affluent and influential men who gathered to raise a rebellion against the British Crown for myriad personal and philosophical reasons, the story going out today is one of pious, God-fearing men striking down the armies of an unjust tyrant in a holy crusade to bring freedom to the New World. Gone are the discussions of Enlightenment thinking inspiring Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and the rest. Gone is any acknowledgement to thinkers like Locke, Hobbes or Mill for their contributions to the founding of the United States, along with any other foreign influence.
America sprung, fully formed, from the pages of the Bible, and woe befall any who would dare to question this Truth of her genesis upon the Earth. She is God’s Chosen Country, selected out of the rabble of unwashed nations to serve as a beacon of Christian virtue and industry. Especially industry. And lo, the virtues America possesses and exemplifies are a rugged self-reliance that eschews any and all outside influence or aid from government agency, a charitable nature that lifts up weak and failing titans of industry in their hour of need, and a strength of arms beyond the ken of mere mortal nations. This is the message of American Exceptionalism put in plain terms, and it is a message we would be wise to recognize when we see it, because there are people who would like to use mythology in a similar way up here.
Rather than stories about how magical and wise our Fathers of Confederation were (can you imagine Stephen Harper speaking in grand terms about how beneficent and pious Pierre Trudeau and Sir John A. MacDonald were?), we are being inundated with stories about how badly we need mega-prisons to house our criminals, about the evil terrorists lurking around every corner waiting to kill us as soon as we let our guard down, and how badly we’re served by our medical system. Set aside stories of blood, gods and glory, these are pale, anemic myths hardly worthy of the name, but there is a special kind of power in them that needs to be recognized and called out for what it is.
The myth of the lurking terrorist, who hates us simply because he has been trained from birth to think of us as infidels and enemies of his God; the welfare leech, who would rather stay home and smoke meth while her children starve; the lazy union medical workers who can’t be bothered to help your ailing grandparents because it’s not in their contract; these are our minotaur, our hydra, our kraken. These are the unreasoning enemy of all that is good in the world, the Good that is represented by Our Party, if only you would support us against the rising tide of darkness, we could strike them down and usher in a new Golden Age of Prosperity. These enemies are mythical, but in the pejorative sense, the way we use it to dismiss tales of Zeus and Hercules. They are simply not true, and they say much more about the person telling the story than the people the story is being told about.
There are no slathering hoards of radical Islamists out to get us. If you would care to look at a map, the places where armies are invading and killing people aren’t here in North America, they’re in the home countries of these supposedly violent extremists. Think about it from their perspective for a minute, and the absurdity leaps right out at you; we are the ones with military bases in their countries, it’s our planes dropping bombs on their homes, and yet they are the violent savages? Over ten years and countless casualties later, have we still not repaid the events of one day carried out by a handful of men from a country we still do regular business with?
And yes, absolutely there are people on welfare and other social programs who are gaming the system, who don’t really need anything but the will to get out of bed and find a job, but those people are the exception, not the rule. In terms of tax dollars, there are far larger welfare deadbeats among our corporate citizens than there are in our inner cities, but we don’t look at that, because that spending is somehow different.
Oh, and of course there are people who hide behind their union membership to keep from doing anything more than their contract requires, but these are once again the exceptions and not the rule. For every nurse sitting for 30 minutes on a 15 minute coffee break, how many executives are taking home in a year what most of us sweat and work a lifetime to earn? In what kind of crazy math do you convert sitting in an office and taking several weeks’ vacation in luxury every year to less of a drain than an extra 15 minutes of break time in a 12 hour shift?
The people selling us fear are the same people who sell us fighter jets and prisons, so what rational person would ever want to listen to them? My one wish for Canadians is that we would learn the lesson our friends to the south are struggling through right now. Please, let us view what’s going on in the American political system as a cautionary tale of woe and peril, and not as a blueprint for the next three years. We are not a people born of fear and distrust; we are a people who help one another out of snowdrifts. We are not a people who willingly trade our freedoms for the illusion of security; we are a people who band together and face the struggles we all share, and by doing so, overcome them. The enemy is not some foreign terrorist, it is not a welfare queen, a lazy union worker, or even that gay couple down the street from you that wants to get married, it is the people who would profit from making us afraid of one another, and we need to take back the reigns of our national mythology to banish them back to the wilderness they came from.