Myth America

Today in the papers, both an op-ed about and a review of a new book called Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past, edited by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, published by Basic Books a few days ago. It’s an anthology of essays by various writers.

There are interesting points to be made from these, though I doubt I’ll buy or read the book. Consider this post a meta-review perhaps, a reaction to what others are saying about the book. It’s of interest to me because it relates to my running theme of how humans understand the world through stories, and how this plays out politically, why some are more attracted to stories than others.

The commentary is in today’s New York Times Sunday Opinion section, and was posted two days ago.

NYT, Carlos Lozada, 6 Jan 2023: I Looked Behind the Curtain of American History, and This Is What I Found. Lozada begins:

In the realm of folklore and ancient traditions, myths are tales forever retold for their wisdom and underlying truths. Their impossibility is part of their appeal; few would pause to debunk the physics of Icarus’s wings before warning against flying too close to the sun.

In the worlds of journalism and history, however, myths are viewed as pernicious creatures that obscure more than they illuminate. They must be hunted and destroyed so that the real story can assume its proper perch. Puncturing these myths is a matter of duty and an assertion of expertise. “Actually” becomes an honored adverb.

I can claim some experience in this effort, not as a debunker of myths but as a clearinghouse for them. When I served as the editor of The Washington Post’s Sunday Outlook section several years ago, I assigned and edited dozens of “5 Myths” articles in which experts tackled the most common fallacies surrounding subjects in the news. This regular exercise forced me to wrestle with the form’s basic challenges: How entrenched and widespread must a misconception be to count as an honest-to-badness myth? What is the difference between a conclusive debunking and a conflicting interpretation? And who is qualified to upend a myth or disqualified from doing so?

The writer then responds to the book, with many examples of the topics of individual essays. Myths of voter fraud, the US’ lack of imperial ambitions, the “America First” slogan and worldview.

Then it reaches a key point.

The editors note the existence of some bipartisan myths that transcend party or ideology, but overwhelmingly, the myths covered in “Myth America” originate or live on the right. In an analysis that spans 20 chapters, more than 300 pages and centuries of American history and public discourse, this emphasis is striking. Do left-wing activists and politicians in the United States never construct and propagate their own self-affirming versions of the American story? If such liberal innocence is real, let’s hear more about it. If not, it might require its own debunking.

Why is it conservatives tend toward myth-making that flatters themselves and their country’s history? We already know the answer to this.

Lozada goes on, discussing American exceptionalism, the “city on the hill,” the Reagan Revolution, and how some of these ideas aren’t so much myths as ideals of American aspiration. So not all the contributors to the book are cynical spoil-sports, it seems.


The review is in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, a paper I rarely have occasion to reference here, and which I subscribe to only because it’s the local paper.

SF Chronicle, Kevin Canfield, 30 Dec 2022: Review: Historians tackle our ongoing age of disinformation. (That is, it was posted on Dec 30th, even though it didn’t appear in print until today. That happens fairly often, especially with items like book reviews, even at the NYT.)

The reviewer’s take is mixed. His issues are, for one, who cares? Why not just let some of these myths, even falsehoods, be forgotten? (Example: just let’s forget about whatever Rick Santorum said.) His other point is that a book like this isn’t going to convince anyone of anything they don’t already believe. The conservative ideologues and MAGA fans who believe in some idealized American past aren’t going to be persuaded otherwise by some egghead university professors. His key points are in his first three paragraphs.

You’re not overreacting if you worry that bad-faith arguments and brazen lies are suffocating our democracy, according to Princeton University history professors Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer.

In their new book, “Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past,” the pair describe ours as “the age of disinformation,” a period in which increasingly bold B.S. threatens the workings of government — and our ability “to imagine futures that are substantially different.” They name two primary culprits: social media and the contemporary Republican Party. That this is an obvious diagnosis doesn’t make it any less dire.

Kruse and Zelizer believe they have a responsibility to combat these falsehoods. The book they’ve co-edited includes 20 essays by accomplished academics. These pieces figure to please center-left readers but cause nary a ripple in the ideological swamps of the far right, where political fictions have metastasized.

Social media and Republicans. No effect on the far right.

The reviewer goes on with examples of “myths” that probably don’t need rebutting, like the one involving Santorum. And concludes,

It’s tough to identify this book’s target audience. Progressives already agree with much of what’s written in these pages, and the Right, having embraced the identity politics it supposedly reviles, is apt to dismiss anything written by its contributors. An ideal reader might be a politically curious teen, a sturdy youth ready to learn a difficult truth: our beleaguered discourse gives prominence to lots of ignoramuses.

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