One of the myths of America can be situated in a cultural dialectic. The idea anyone can succeed by working hard, and even grow up to be president, is one mythical American storyline. On the other side is the idea of America as a melting pot, sustained by a unity of diverse people, working together for a common good. These are opposing ideas because one speaks to the goals of individualism while the other speaks to the social collective.
How do we see these stories working in history? Capitalism is an ideology of the individual and has been instrumental in the growth of American interests and wealth. An argument can be made that all business decisions are initiated by someone who wants to succeed and become wealthy. The pride of America, on the other hand, is that we go to work every day. Our immense economic growth was made possible by a varied workforce successfully manning large projects that created the American superpower.
How do we see these stories working now? What is good for one individual is not necessarily good for that same collective of people. Our current economic downfall points out the problem with greed, when the individual’s ability to get wealthy is allowed to run amok with disastrous consequences for others. The collective then develops it own seams. It is hard to be concerned with your neighbor when yourself or your family have unexpected crises.
But the beauty of myth is that it is dialectic. Our stories, contradictory and paradoxical, contain the truths allowing both to work together. In recent weeks, we have seen the success of Barack Obama as he became an unlikely president. And in the midst of our economic meltdown, we need to heed our historic President’s call to action: to stick together, to work together and to create change where it is needed. If we as a people accept smaller gains for ourselves when our neighbors are also gaining, we become the truth of our American myths.
As the famous mythologist Joseph Campbell once wrote, “Unless the myth can be understood – or felt – to be true in some such way as this, they lose their force.” For a renewed success of American values, we must understand our myths to be true. We must recognize that both myths oppose each other unless we ensure they come together in each individual. America’s success as a country should be judged by its strength in individuals that care for each other and strive together. When one wins, we can all truly win, as long as we actually believe it.