This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. Go here to listen to the author discuss "us versus them" and "us with them" myths.
When I try to figure out why we are still in Afghanistan, though every ounce of logic says we ought to get out, an unexpected conversation I had last year haunts me. Doing neighborhood political canvassing, I knocked on the door of a cheerful man who was just about to tune in to his favorite radio show: Rush Limbaugh. He was kind enough to let me stay and we talked.
Conservatives are often the nicest people—that’s what I told him—the ones you’d like to have as neighbors. Then I said: I bet you’re always willing to help your neighbors when they need it. Absolutely, he replied.
So why, I asked, don’t you want to help out people across town who have the same needs, even if they’re strangers? His answer came instantly: because I know my neighbors work hard and do all they can to take care of themselves. I don’t know about those people across town.
He didn’t have to say more (though he did). I knew the rest of the story: Why should I give my hard-earned money to the government so they can hand it out to strangers who, for all I know, are good-for-nothing loafers and mooches? I want to be free to decide what to do with my dough, and I’ll give it to responsible people who believe in taking care of themselves and their families, just like me. I’ll give my money to the government only to protect us from strangers in distant lands who don’t believe in the sacred rights of the individual and aim to take my freedom and money away.
What a story it is—a tale of mythic proportions! As an historian of religions, I was trained to appreciate, even marvel at the myths people tell to make sense out of the chaos of their lives. So I can’t help admiring the conservative myth: so simple yet all encompassing, offering clear and easy-to-grasp answers that cut through the everyday complexities besetting us all.
Of course, the answers are far too simplistic, as stupid (in my opinion) as they are dangerous. But I was also trained to be nonjudgmental and to admire the power of a myth even when I find it morally abhorrent. And this one is impressive, with its classic good-guys-versus-bad-guys plot line turned into a stark political tale of freedom versus slavery.
White Americans, going back to early colonial times, generally assigned the role of "bad guys" to "savages" lurking in the wilderness beyond the borders of our civilized land. Whether they were redskins, commies, terrorists, or the Taliban, the plot has always remained the same.
Call it the myth of national security—or, more accurately, national insecurity, since it always tells us who and what to fear. It’s been a mighty (and mighty effective) myth exactly because it lays out with such clarity not just what Americans are against, but also what we are for, what we want to keep safe and secure: the freedom of the individual, especially the freedom to make and keep money.