I wrote recently about British and American mythology. I said some myths are harmless, but others do harm. Here are some more American myths that we need to correct, from the Wild West.
The mythology of the gun
There is a myth that the Wild West was dangerous and you survived only if you were quick on the draw. FACT: more people – far more – died of starvation in the Old West than died in gunfights. Life was hard and people had to battle the elements more than other people.
The mythology of the Indian Attacks
The westerns give the impression that Native Americans were always attacking white settlers, especially those on wagon-trains. FACT: A few violent acts by Native Americans got a disproportionate amount of publicity. Many tribes have disappeared, probably because white Americans perpetrated a lot of violence against them rather than vice versa. FACT: Native Americans seldom attacked wagon-trains. That is probably because a wagon-train comprised a lot of white people in one place (the trains were usually much bigger than we imagine) and they often had cavalry escorts. When Native Americans did resort to violence, they usually targeted isolated farms or ranches.
The mythology of the individual
When we think of the Wild West, we tend to think of brave individuals who solved all their own problems, and somehow all their individual achievements added up to the arrival of civilisation. FACT: the railway, which was a major corporate government-sponsored endeavour, was the biggest factor in the spread of civilisation.
Does the mythology matter?
It does. It misinforms the gun-control debate, encourages a belief in individualism, makes white Americans feel justified about their treatment of Native Americans in the past, and probably affects the way they look upon Native Americans today. As starvation was the big killer in the past, perhaps everyone should be more concerned about poverty and inequality today.
These myths are often about the formation of the nation or its fight for independence. I have enjoyed the recent series about American mythology presented by Lucy Worsley. The myths about the War of Independence were particularly interesting for a Briton. I remember reading some time ago that some Americans couldn’t understand why Independence Day wasn’t celebrated in the UK. Of course, I could think of few Brits who would like to celebrate it, but not for the same reason as the Americans!
To have lots of myths you need lots of history!
The Americans have to extract all their myths from history since 1776, whereas we in Britain go back forever. We’ve got King Arthur, Boudicca, Robin Hood, all before Columbus made his famous voyage. We’ve even got a story about a certain John Cabot finding America before Columbus and another about a Welsh Prince who sailed off somewhere to the West. Every village in Britain seems to have its local myth.
Do myths do any harm?
Usually not. They add a bit of local colour to history. They help us feel good about ourselves as a nation. But they can do harm. Lucy Worsley showed that the myths of the Old South made slavery seem respectable. All those contented, well-fed slaves; their charming, noble masters and mistresses. States rights sounded like an ideal concept, not just the right to keep slaves. It reminded me of the myth of Merrie England, where happy peasants danced around the maypole, bowing happily to benevolent lords and ladies, with their loyal, loving servants.
Myths do two types of harm
Firstly they make us feel the past was better than the present. They brush the poverty and injustice under the carpet.
Secondly, they encourage a national sense of superiority and a dislike of foreigners. We were always the Good Guys: no British war-crimes ever happened.
During the War (World War II, of course) it was probably useful to boost morale by exaggerating the extent to which we were all in it together, helping our neighbours, doing our bit. It was therefore justifiable to suppress information about the rise in crime, looting, black-marketing. But it’s been over for a long time. We need to grow up and face the facts.
I will write about some specific myths that I think need challenging, in my next few blogs.