Monday, February 25, 2008

Misusing Myth, I

“Stereotypes are devices for saving a biased person the trouble of learning” ~ Anonymous

" ... the Cold War was not some naturally occurring phenomenon but was created by U.S. policymakers in large part for the purpose of keeping a lid on social change ... " ~ Robert Jensen

"The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which (political pundits and tabloid journalists) have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any monster or finished any labor." ~ Henry David Thoreau

The image above is what Japanese people looked like during World war II - at least if you read American comic books. Comic books were one of the worst offenders for racial stereotyping back then. Japanese had bright yellow-orange skin, long fangs and claws... and were usually being killed by handsome American heroes like Airboy (pilot of Birdie, the only plane that flapped her wings). Chinese looked similar, only without the fangs and with huge buck teeth. It wasn't just pictures: one story had Japanese agents recruiting circus freaks to their cause because "the Japs are a race of freaks themselves." But it's one thing to use demons to symbolize the evils of Nazism or Japanese imperialism and quite another to depict a people as demons. Heroes like Captain America, The Patriot, USA, Captain Flag, V( for Victory)-Man and their like were wonderful morale boosters for Americans, but drawing "Japs" as monsters didn't promote peaceful understanding... any more than cartoons of "camel jockeys" help it now.

Like anything empowering, myths and stories can be misused, even abused. One of the worst examples is when stories go from archetypes to stereotypes. The lazy, cowardly Black, the inscutable Oriental, the greedy Jew, the helpless heroine and the effeminate gay man pop up in a lot of War-era fiction and beyond in a vicious circle: the stereotypes appear because people believed them and the stories reinforce the belief. Modern versions that sound more positive, like the streetwise Black, the kung-fu Asian, the sensitive gay and the man-hating feminist are just as bad because they're stereotypes. They feed the delusion that all members of a social group are the same, not individuals, and this can lead to real evils from profiling to genocide.

Stereotyping is only one way myth can be misused. I've talked about how believing in myths literally leads to the kind of hatred preached by fundamentalist religions from evangelical Christians to Islamic Jihadists.

People can use myths wrongheadedly to promote their own causes. Detractors of Barack Obama who call him "two-faced" like "the Roman god Janus" or warn of his Islamic leanings because his name means the winged horse (El Buraq) that Mohammed rode to Heaven have unknowingly given him pretty solid symbolic endorsements. Janus, as the Presidential Geek Survey at points out, represented not forgetting the past while looking ahead to the future. And El Buraq was a winged steed who brought people to paradise. It even represents a healing of religious wounds: on his arrival Mohammed was blessed by Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses and Jesus, and welcomed as their equal. (1)

Bush supporters who tried to paint him as Frodo or the Lone Ranger miss the point so far that they're laughable. The Lone Ranger never answered an Indian raid by wiping out their tribe (or, as with Bush, the wrong tribe, because they had silver mines he wanted). IMHO Bush is more like Sauron than Frodo. There's a fascinating take on THE LORD OF THE RINGS and American politics at making the point that Frodo's real battle was with his own dark side tempted by the Ring than with Mordor. Which is what myths are really all about anyway.

There are also people who will create a mythology and perpetrate it. These include groups from politicians to UFO believers to tabloid journalists to so-called prophets. I used to teach a Wichita Free University course in UFOlogy, and many of these diverse groups use a lot of techniques in common. UFOlogists will be discussed here in more detail later, because their mythology borrows from stories in popular fiction. What were Iraq's weapons of mass destruction but a created myth? Tabloids live by feeding us myths of the rich and famous

I'll get more into "creative myth," UFOs and such in Misusing Myth II.

(1) And the latest in their line of prophets: which reminds my geek side of “Into each generation a slayer is born ... a Chosen One. One born with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires, to stop the spread of evil.”

No comments: