Myth-Making in the Modern Age: A Primer

Most people, I believe, think that the age of myth-making lies in the past. Myths are the things that Ovid wrote about, or Robert Graves cataloged. Their home is in the ancient world, primarily. They live on today mostly in books or in quips. Jack Worthing, in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, provides a good illustration of the latter when he exclaims that Lady Bracknell is a Gorgon and then admits that “I don’t really know what a Gorgon is like, but I am quite sure that Lady Bracknell is one. In any case, she is a monster, without being a myth.”  

Nevertheless, in school, if we went to an artsy one, we learned that myths were important. They told us not about what happened in the world, precisely. Rather, they told us interesting stories about character, motivation, and the dialectic of hubris and nemesis, crime and punishment. 

All of that is true, but I submit that the impulse to myth-making, if atavistic in origin, remains a potent force and one, moreover, that has been folded into the metabolism of partisan politics. 

An illuminating example from the recent past is the public understanding of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. Kennedy was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, a communist radical who had adulated the Soviet Union and Fidel Castro. The bullets had barely left Oswald’s rifle before this was known. But the truth about the identity of Kennedy’s assassin was quickly overtaken and enveloped by a partisan myth, assiduously massaged and circulated by Kennedy’s widow, the media, and the political establishment. 

In brief, the myth about Kennedy’s assassin downplayed Oswald’s communist affiliation and insisted that Kennedy was killed not (as he in fact was) by a lone gunman by rather a generalized “spirit of madness and hate.” 

That phrase dripped from the pen of James Reston, one of America’s star columnists whose post at the New York Times amplified and legitimated his opinions nationwide. (The Times was still a respected newspaper in 1963.)

The process of substituting a “climate of hate” for Oswald’s index finger started almost immediately. In Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism, James Piereson notes that on the trip back from Dallas, Lady Bird Johnson and others asked if Jackie Kennedy wanted to change out of her blood-spattered clothes. “No,” the grieving widow would always reply, “I want them to see what they have done.” 

Who, Piereson asks, is “they”? Camelot and the Cultural Revoution traces the rapid process of myth-making that greeted the assassination of Kennedy. It was a transformation or “metamorphosis” as dramatic as anything Ovid described. Kennedy was killed by a wacko communist radical sent round the bend by America’s vendetta against Castro. Within days, Oswald, the lone communist, had been replaced or transformed into a dispensable persona of a mythic “far-Right.” Piereson quotes Drew Pearson, another influential  columnist (for The Washington Post*), who argued that American presidents who had been assassinated were killed not by “the fanaticism of one man” but by “powerful influence molders” who “preached disrespect for the authority of the government and the man in the White House who symbolized government.” 

Sound familiar? From there it was but a small step for demands that the government tamp down on what Grayson Kirk, the president of Columbia University, called the “sin” of “prejudice.” The state, Kirk said, needed to exert “more energy against extremists and their poison.” It may go without saying that he did not mean communist extremists. 

Is there anything that could have been done to intervene in that exercise of myth-making that surrounded the Kennedy assassination? Anything that could have short-circuited the metamorphosis of the criminal action of a single deranged communist into the group responsibility of nebulous “haters” and “extremists” throughout the country? 

I do not know the answer to that. But the same question has come around again with respect to the events of January 6, 2021 and, more generally, with respect to support for Donald Trump. 

Here we can witness in real time the effort to enact another myth—the myth that the events at the Capitol on January 6, constituted an “insurrection” as deadly as Oklahoma City, as 9/11, as Pearl Harbor, even (if you are to believe Joe Biden) the “Civil War.” You could see that narrative, that process of mythopoeia, begin to take place even before the protestors withdrew from the Capitol. It was all nonsense. But it has been pursued assiduously by the left-wing political apparatus in the government and their megaphones in the media.  

Nearly year out now, we can see phase two of the operation take shape, as globalist think tanks like the Niskanen Center send around fundraising newsletters warning that “the majority of the Republican party promotes an authoritarian narrative, purges GOP dissenters, and encourages anti-democratic legislation,” i.e., legislation that aims to check the woke progressivism of the globalist Left. Send money now! 

Then we have Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) calling for a “full program of events” and “solemn observance” to mark the anniversary of theinsurrection event. If only she can cadge official recognition for the event, perhaps she can inscribe it on the national conscience as a Democratic talking point. 

She will have plenty of support from academia. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, has just announced “The Shock of January 6: First Annual Conference on America’s First Attempted Coup Since 1865.” Will it be a perpetual event? The event will stream live on Twelfth Night, January 6, so those not celebrating Epiphany can tune in to watch Jim Acosta, Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Jonathan Karl, and other, similarly qualified figures weigh in on “extremists,” Trump sympathizers, and other threats to the equanimity of the regime. 

I have no doubt that there are many other initiatives of mythopoetic endeavor, from the preposterous and illegally formed January 6 Commission on down. But the new myth has not yet gelled. There are too many dissenting voices, too many accounts of what actually happened that day that conflict with the regime narrative. 

The trick now is to magnify those alternative accounts, disseminate them as broadly and as authoritatively as possible. There is no reason that Nancy Pelosi or Jim Acosta or Joe Biden or Merrick Garland should be allowed to define the reality of what happened on January 6. The work of writers like Julie Kelly at American Greatness and Darren Beattie at Revolver News needs to be echoed and extended as vigorously as possible. Myths can be pernicious as well as illuminating or entertaining. The myth that what happened on January 6 was an insurrection that aimed to “overthrow the government” or “overturn the election” must not be allowed to stand and gain credence. The time to counter that Big Lie is now. 

  • * The original version of this essay identified Drew Pearson as a columnist for The New York Times.  In fact, he worked for The Washington Post.

 

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