What's So Wrong with Myths?

In this week’s issue of The Economist, the Lexington columnist wrote an article titled “The Perils of Constitution-Worship,” with the summary, “One of the guiding principles of the tea-party movement is based on a myth.” After I recommended the article, a colleague at Brandeis asked, what’s so wrong with myths anyway? This is a question well-worth asking, and answering.

Myths are probably inescapable. We all believe myths, in the sense that we all use stories about the past that are more believed than proved as a means of explaining and arguing about the present. Society could scarcely function if there were not some myths held in common.

Though myths may be inescapable, it does not follow that all myths are equally true, nor that they are all equally useful. Some myths more closely align with what can be known about the past and present than others. To that extent, the more truthful a myth is, the more useful it is. For myths are useful because they make prominent certain features of the past, but in so doing they blur other features. In short, myths are vices that must confronted, not virtues to be lauded. The task of the historian is to reshape myths to conform as near as possible to the truth—to be a translator speaking for the past.

To take the case of the Tea Party, since that is the particular issue at hand, it seems clear to me that the myths the Tea Party tells are particularly pernicious, because they are particularly (and demonstrably) false. One might spend a great deal of time expositing exactly why they are false in the light of several generations of historical research, but I think theEconomistarticle, among others, does a good job of explaining this succinctly.

But there is another problem with myths, beyond their deviance from truth. The problem is that the past can never speak entirely for the present. The past can, and should, be made to speak to the issues of the present. But each generation must confront new situations. As Leonard Levy (formerly a professor at Brandeis University) observed, the framers of the Constitution spoke plainly to the issues they anticipated, but were silent on issues that they could not, including the most troubling issues of today. Or, as a statesmen but not a Founding Father pronounced in a time far worse than our own:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.