The Contemporary Monomyth
A culture, to participants within it, consists of nothing so much as the stories we tell one another about ourselves. The literal truth of these stories isn’t particularly important, although their power derives from a cultural convention that they are, at some meaningful level, truth. Those who have felt the intellectual thrill of Joseph Campbell’s writings recognize such a story as the very definition of a myth. 1 In such a definition, a myth is a good thing, something essential to a culture. Indeed, one might suggest that a sufficiently powerful myth for a culture is the culture.
One of America’s great myths tells the story of a hero so iconic that we need no longer know the details of his story at all to know what the story stands for. Indeed, we have forgotten that the name “Horatio Alger” was not the hero of the story, but rather its author — Mr. Alger wrote dozens of books with essential the same rags-to-riches story, aimed at enriching the author by way of inspiring young boys. Alger’s name has become a standalone phrase for the concept that an American who zealously and diligently works will sooner or later dramatically elevate his economic and social circumstances, which in turns implies the concept that the culture and polity of America will allow such a thing to happen to anyone who deserves it. 2
I’m not certain that people broadly believe in the Horatio Alger myth anymore. This myth debatably motivated America from the end of the Civil War to the Second World War and its immediate aftermath: it is a myth seemingly calculated to motivate and inform rapid economic expansion, and in turn derive mass acceptance of its truth from the energy of that expansion. Today, I perceive that people are more willing to embrace the notion of generational economic stasis once associated with the economic class stratification of Britain: most people I interact with seem to accept the notion that “I will be roughly as wealthy as my parents were, and my children will be roughly as wealthy as me.”
So if I’m right that we’ve largely walked away from Horatio Alger, what is the national myth of the United States, and by extension, the America-influenced West? According to Virginia Postrel, our current national myth is one of Desperate Entrenchment. That which made our nation great in the past is under siege: it is being subverted from within and eroded from without. The “conservative,” or more accurately “nationalist,” version of this myth is that we have lost our national greatness to political correctness, an unwillingness to embrace our European and Christian heritage, and a pursuit of redistributive economic policies; we are simultaneously beset by economic refugees from Spanish-speaking nations to our south and Arabic-speaking terrorists seeking to do violence upon us in the name of Allah. This is the American Red Tribe’s Myth of Desperate Entrenchment, a myth of a large and still-pure, but steadily dwindling and besieged, group of pure and morally good people.
Postrel elides, though, that there is another myth in circulation now, reactive to the nationalist myth of entrenchment — and it is that myth’s mirror image. I admit a bit of partiality to this myth. On that side of the coin, America has abdicated its noble past of commitment to liberalism, democracy, and freedom; it has abdicated its place of leadership in the world. A poorly-educated segment of the electorate, and the ill-informed, malignly-motivated, and anti-intellectual leaders who have taken cynical advantage of those gullible voters, created this dangerously self-destructive state of affairs, and they must be fought and purged from power internally if America is to regain her strength and vitality as a nation. The American Blue Tribe, you see, really does have its own version of the Myth of Desperate Entrenchment and at one level, it really isn’t that different from the Red Tribe’s.
In both the nationalist and the liberal sides of this myth, America the once-great is now teetering on the edge of economic, military, and most of all moral collapse. And the Other Tribe is to blame. This is our myth, and I submit that it matters not whether one sympathizes with the Blue Tribe or the Red Tribe, we all buy into this myth to at least some degree. Note further, if you will, that the pathway to survival for the Desperately Entrenched is through achieving a greater purity of That Which Makes Us Good. It is most certainly not Finding Common Ground With The Others.
Postrel goes further and points out that this doesn’t necessarily have to be our myth. We have examples, perhaps grim, of unity and togetherness and kindness and a common identity and all sorts of other civic and moral virtues. But these are not the stories that we like to tell each other. These are not the stories we see in the media and in particular due to the polarizing effect of instantaneous communication, the reason for that is that the media finds that stories which gain purchase with the audience are those which generate economic reward. Thus, as consumers of ideas, we have chosen the Myth of Desperate Entrenchment as our cultural emblem.
With this in mind, I took time in the wake of the latest report of appalling terrorism in London to listen to Tom Holland’s 2015 Hay Festival lecture:
Dr. Holland’s central argument is predicated upon the assumption that Muslim-Arabic culture, in broad strokes, looks to the aggregated stories in the Koran, the hadith, and the sharia, as their source material for their mythology. Perhaps this seems so basic that he does not feel the need to elucidate this foundational notion. He does make explicit, during Q&A after his prepared remarks, that just as the Bible offers Christians a great amount of source material from which they might extract the stories which are employed as myths, so too do Muslims.
Now, Holland is a Westerner, from a traditionally Christian culture, and an academic. So in one sense he isn’t telling his story. I looked to a Muslim writer to offer a perspective that is more of an “insider’s.” I turned to Shadi Hamid’s Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World, published a few months after Dr. Holland’s lecture. Hamid’s argument so closely parallels Holland’s that they might as well have been prepared collaboratively. In a very condensed version of his book prepared for The Atlantic, Hamid points out that what we are seeing play out in Islamic political circles is a generation’s-remove from an academic argument among Muslim scholars called “Salafism,” which hearkens back to looking at the lives and actions of the Salafi, the first Muslims who personally knew and interacted with Mohammed, and their immediate descendants.
Salafism is, as Hamid describes, usually associated with “ultraconservative literalism, theocratic rule, and religious violence.” But Hamid tells a story that is a bit more complicated than this: The movement looks to the example of the al-Salaf al-Salih, the first two or three generations of Muslims, the ones who knew Mohammed personally, or who took guidance from those who knew Mohammed personally. Still, this description suggests a backwards-looking, historically-focused emphasis, which Hamid rejects: “the purity and purification of Islam mean[s] moving away from bland imitation and literalism, not toward it,” because authors of successive generations of sharia grew more and more technical and removed from the realities of everyday life, not to mention subject to the vagaries of day-to-day political influence. At the same time, uneducated Muslims fell prey to “superficial and superstitious understandings of Islam,” as well as a vision of “the inferiority of Islamic civilization.” Thus, they reacted to the tanzimat, an effort by the failing Ottoman Empire to mold the sharia into creating a religious duty to support the state, and a competing school of thought that Muslims should emulate the West’s adherence to public secularism so as to join Europe’s power and prosperity.
Salafism more or less won the war for Muslim hearts and minds — meaning that it became the dominant myth of that culture. And whether it expresses itself in peaceful theological study or violent terrorism, it too has become the Myth of Desperate Entrenchment. When Muslims apply the Quran to their lives, they prosper and succeed; when they stray into mysticism (as had the Sufi) the loss of moral rectitude led to a loss of temporal power and a reversion to a less civilized state of existence. Salafism’s original authors portrayed Islam as allied with science and reason, sneering at the Christian Bible that does not mention reason, and instead relies upon secondhand accounts of purported miracles. Universities, therefore, should teach science and technology rather than airy theology; such theology as was taught should reconcile Islam to reason and logic.
The facet of Islam that seems pressingly important to those of us in the West who look with horror at Daesh and other acts of violence perpetrated in various permutations of association with Islam, is the use of the concepts of jihad, war, and violence. As described by Hamid, the original cast of Salafism was opposed to the concept of jihad as the focus of temporal power and territorial war. Instead, to the Salafist of the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, jihad is a “struggle,” and to the extent that it has a temporal, military dimension, it is defensive. The original writings describe ideas that Christians would recognize as closely congruent with their own “just war theory.” In this way, the Salafists sought to adapt direct Koranic verses and early concepts of Muslim life to a modern world dominated by nation-states and scientific sophistication.
Those in the West who yearn for Islam to undergo a Reformation as did Christianity and thus transform itself into a force aimed at peace and growth ignore a frightening truth: Islam is in the midst of such a reformation right now. Dr. Holland uses another rather scary analogy to, strangely, offer long-term hope — the Thirty Years War. It took a generation-long struggle consuming an entire continent, with the underlying theological issues never fully resolved, before Christendom became Europe and its people developed a durable weariness for engaging in religious violence. Such reformations, he suggests, come with both internally-directed and externally-directed war.
So what happened? It is tempting to say that another school of thought, Wahhabism, came along and corrupted the Salafi religious reformation, But in fact, the scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab died in the middle of the eighteenth century and his school of back-to-basics Islam, and its arms-length wary co-existence with the House of Saud, preceded the emergence of the Salafists. While it is true that the Wahhabi differ from the Salafi with respect to the issue of whether it is possible to use persuasion on a non-Muslim, the problem was not a bellicose lens of Islam as an expansionary force, but rather something more fundamental. Al-Wahhab, after all, would have been much more concerned with the religious practices of other Muslims rather than with things that Christians or Jews were doing, given the political circumstances in which he and his movement emerged.
What happened was the emergence of a school of thought that the key to finding power, prosperity, and public success is a return to the basic ideas of Islam, adapted to the modern world. The issue is not that Muslims seek to expand the scope of sharia law, it is that those Muslims who seek to expand their temporal power eschew nearly a millennium of sharia as spiritually untrustworthy. Blend that with the obvious truth that the Western world asserted its grip on political power globally during the age of European imperalism and remains the dominant political and economic force of the planet. It is unsurprising that a group of people who feel a lack of relative power should succumb to the seductive appeal of the Myth of the Desperate Entrenchment. It is with this lens that Islam’s storytellers today mine the early hadith for the traditions of the Salafi. It is with this lens that those who invoke Allah’s greatness as they engage in appalling acts of violence justify their actions, if only to themselves.
Holland cautions, and Hamid offers no emotional succor against, the notion that if the myths of one’s culture are stories of violence and the gaining or loss of political supremacy in pursuit of some sort of spiritual purity, it should be no surprise that the behaviors of people who grow up within that culture produce people who use violence to gain political control. Until Muslims start telling each other stories about themselves that point in a different direction, they will instead tell their own version of the Myth of Desperate Entrenchment — just as those of us in the West have the option to use a cultural super-narrative of inclusiveness or progress (or both) but instead adopt our own Myth of Desperate Entrenchment, which guides us to a cultural place of violence.
Every day, it seems, the news reinforces this grand narrative of Desperate Entrenchment more and more. We do ourselves a disservice to suggest that differences in religion are the root of the problem: the problem is that two trans-national cultures have adopted mirror images of the same myth.
I sure hope we can start telling each other different stories.
Image by btaroli
- I shall continue to use the word “myth” here as I find the phrase both elegant and expressive, but you may substitute other phrases like “philosophical superstructure” or “intellectual interpretive lens” if you prefer, to describe the concept of a common notion and understanding of how the world works expressed in a narrative or quasi-narrative fashion. Note, though, that as used in this essay, the word “myth” should not include any connotation of deception; it is neutral as to the concept of objective, factual truth.
- Note that this myth displaced a previous myth, a myth of humanistic progress that was the intellectual emblem of the Era of the European Enlightenment, which in turn displaced an even earlier myth pervasive through the Medieval Eras, a myth that taught that worldly experiences were spiritual preparation for the afterlife.