THE CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGE OF MYTHS ARISING FROM THE FACTS OF INJUSTICE
The U.S. Senate releases a report on the use of torture by the Central Intelligence Agency and we see division in the public response. Some react by wishing the Senate had not released it, as it will give our enemies reason to intensify their hatred and use it to paint the U.S. as evil. Some react by calling for prosecution of those involved. Some react with dismay that such a thing happened in and through our own government and country. I was proud of the statements by Senator McCain, a man who himself was tortured while a prisoner in North Vietnam. He seemed to get it right when he spoke of what should make us different as Americans. Myths are powerful things, whether for good or ill. I don’t use the word in the sense of “make believe” or fairy tale. I use it in the sense of identity, what we think about ourselves and others. When it comes to patriotism it is far more powerful when we have the idea that we are the “good guys,” than if our conflict with enemies was simply a contest between two moral equals. I cannot equivocate between radical Islamic terrorists and the U.S. government. Every time we as a nation or government do something stupid or evil, sometimes bordering on genocide, those taking the brunt of our nefarious actions build up reasons to create an all too plausible myth that we are the “Great Satan.” One of the problems of myth is that they are hardly ever completely true and that is because none of us are completely good, or completely evil. We are all bad enough and that is a shame, but as Americans it is not enough that it be “us” against “them” but that we be essentially “better” than those who are against us. I am an American and I grew up with certain myths that were very powerful for me. I happen to like those myths. I have always wanted to be on the side of the “good guys” and wear the white hat. I always thought it righteous to be a cowboy versus an Indian, or on the side of the cavalry when the bugle blows. Then I read history and realized “we” weren’t always the good guys; not in history nor in the eyes of Native Americans, African Americans, Africans, Latinos, Iranians, Arabs, etc., etc. But the negative myths about us that are held by the “other” side are just as erroneous, and also destructively inaccurate for our own self understanding and identity. The good thing about the Senate report is that we ourselves are doing the reporting, even if according to the CIA they didn’t get it completely correct. This is also part of the American record, we tell on ourselves, we criticize ourselves, we have often sought some kind of repentance, and reconciliation. Our record is that even when we have done evil there were those among us who stood for what was right, even at the cost of their lives, property, freedom, or reputation. Isn’t it so that when some Americans wanted all the Indians dead and all their land taken that some Christians campaigned for Native American rights and sought to protect them as people? Isn’t it so that when some called black people less than human and that they could be taken as property some Christians campaigned against the entire notion of slavery, and certainly against racial slavery, as “man stealing?” Isn’t it so that an awful lot of white boys died fighting to end slavery? Isn’t it so that when governments refused to give African Americans their civil rights there were white people who marched in the movement and even died in the struggle? Aren’t their white people marching in Ferguson? Aren’t there plenty of just and fair police officers? Yes, history is not all one thing, just ambiguous enough to make those who suffered (and their progeny) ambivalent about the holders of power and the majority culture’s claim of righteousness. The facts of evil dominate the myth for those who suffered and that is why it is so important as Americans that we fight hard not to repeat injustice, anytime, anywhere, in any of our actions. The danger of blind patriotism is to think that whatever we do is right if someone is opposing us. Even if one believes in overwhelming fire power to defeat our enemies it makes all the difference in the world if we know when and when not to apply it; when to shoot, when to use a choke hold, and when to restrain ourselves. Injustice and oppression always seem to have those who justify it, sometimes it is fear, sometimes naked avarice, sometimes false and pathetic theories about race, biology, gender, and religion. If we are a great nation, and I still believe that we are, we must always go back to our first principles and hold to them. This is almost impossible of course if cultural shifts in such things as truth and philosophy create only one absolute and that being self-interest. We are better because of what our founders believed, and we are only better if we keep believing it, and putting those principles into practice.