American Exceptionalism and the Myth of the Frontiers – 12: Evolution of Myth

The Table summarizes how the Myth evolved in each stage of American history. It shows how the “us” was defined and evolved over time— from Puritans to Englishmen to Christians to White, and so forth. The Frontier was both a geographical location in any given period and also a set of alien cultures to combat, including both those located outside the Frontier and various “internal others” such as slaves, former slaves, defeated Native Americans, non-White populations acquired by annexation, and immigrants. 

In the table, the two columns on the rationalization show both kinds: the overtly selfish reasons cited such as expanding commerce or bringing “security” from dangerous savages; and the pretence of altruism to “save” humanity, or make “progress” or “civilize” others in the name of God or Providence or History. 

The final column shows that there has always existed a counterculture of protest within America, similar to the hippies of the 1960s. But these served as Good Cops who would get overruled by the Bad Cops or get convinced by them and join them, or would simply die out and fade away in defeat. This is sobering evidence of the challenges facing the small intellectual voice today that is truly attempting sweeping changes. 

The Power of Myth 

Salman Rushdie calls a myth the family album or storehouse of a culture’s childhood, containing [its] . . . future, codified as tales that are both poems and oracles(Rushdie 2000, p. 83). Culture is an enactment of myth, and the two support and nourish each other. In order to understand a specific culture one must know the myths which serve as the implied context for experience. Naturally, myths are not static but evolve and compete with other myths in a mythic space. They must be adaptable to new imperatives. Hence the plasticity and elasticity of competing myths will determine which ones dominate by providing greater coherence and thereby surviving as the most viable and robust. Bruce Lincoln explains how myths are constantly reshaped by narrators and audiences: 

Myths are not snapshot representations of stable taxonomies and hierarchies . . . Rather, the relation between social order and the stories told about it is much looser and—as a result—considerably more dynamic, for this loose fit creates possibilities for rival narrators, who modify aspects of the established order as depicted in prior variants, with consequences that can be far-reaching if and when audiences come to perceive these innovative representations as reality. (Lincoln 1999, p. 150) 

In inter-civilizational competitive situations, understanding the other side’s myths become a critical factor in one’s ability to negotiate for domination or collaboration. The mythic representation of the other side drives one’s ability to engage that side, and this can become a powerful weapon or a cataclysmic liability. For instance, the Aztec ruler, Montezuma, lost his entire kingdom to the Spanish conquistador, Cortez, because Montezuma’s own myth made him imagine Cortez to be a mythic god. Cortez’s Eurocentric myth did not bestow a similar prestige and glory upon Montezuma. On the contrary, the cunning Cortez played his role as per Montezuma’s mythic expectations. A very tiny and vastly out- numbered ragtag army of Cortez killed Montezuma in the cruelest manner, in the watershed event that led Europeans to conquer the vast South American kingdoms. One might say that Europe had the more effective myth in this clash of civilizational myths. 


the British in India mastered the study of India’s myths for the purpose of colonial manipulation, and this was the explicit motive for starting Indology in British universities—and now a major reason for U.S.-based South Asian Studies. The British spun myths of their own superiority that were installed in the minds of ambitious Indians. But Indians had no representation system of the British in Indian epistemic and mythic terms. The mythic battle was won by the British. 

Given the mythic and functional power of modern science, a myth may masquerade as historical fact with reinforcement from major scholars, institutions and media.

Levi-Strauss remarked that “in our own societies history has replaced mythology and fulfils the same function . . .” (Levi-Strauss n. d., pp. 42–43). Often the strategy to be credible involves approximating the truth sufficiently to be seen as truth.

The lie that is closest to the truth is the most dangerous lie.

For instance, J. M. Blaut explains that moderate racism is, today, a more serious problem in the world of scholars than is classical racism, because it is mainly an implicit theory (Blaut 1993, p. 65). Thus a myth may remain partly submerged in the subconscious in order to stay below the radar of critical inquiry. The West does not want to recognize its own narratives as myths, but as logos/reason, while depicting worldviews of all others as myths. Derrida wrote, “The white man takes his own mythology . . . for the universal form of that he must still wish to call Reason” (Derrida 1982, p. 213). 

J. M. Blaut wrote that American mythic superiority

“seems to be rooted in an implicit theory that combines a belief that Christian peoples make history with a belief that White peoples make history, the whole becoming a theory that it is natural for Europeans to innovate and progress and for non-Europeans to remain stagnant and unchanging (‘traditional’), until, like Sleeping Beauty, they are awakened by the Prince. This view still, in the main, prevails, although racism has been discarded and non- Europe is no longer considered to have been absolutely stagnant and traditional” (Blaut 1993, p. 6).

He goes on to write: 

Eurocentrism is the colonizer’s model of the world in a very literal sense: it is not merely a set of beliefs, a bundle of beliefs. It has evolved, through time, into a very finely sculpted model, a structured whole; in fact a single theory; in fact a super theory, a general framework for many smaller theories, historical, geographical, psychological, socio- logical, and philosophical. (Blaut 1993, pp. 10–11) 

Besides helping to defeat the other cultures, the dominant culture’s myths also serve as master-narratives into which others can be appropriated, often in ways that make it seem very attractive to the others. The captured “others” get mapped into mythic roles assigned to them in inferior positions, their knowledge gets mapped as belonging to the dominant culture, and their symbols become ornaments, as Native American symbolism has been used.

Robert Young explains the Enlightenment support for such mythic appropriation: 

Hegel articulates a philosophical structure of the appropriation of the other as a form of knowledge which uncannily simulates the project of nineteenth-century imperialism; the construction of knowledge which all operate through forms of expropriation and incorporation of the other mimics at a conceptual level the geographical and economic absorption of the non-European world by the West. Marxism’s standing Hegel on his head may have reversed his idealism, but it did not change the mode of operation of a conceptual system which remains collusively Eurocentric . . . The appropriation of the other as a form of knowledge within a totalizing system can thus be set alongside the history (if not the project) of European imperialism, and the constitution of the other as “other” alongside racism and sexism.

(Young 1990, pp. 3–4)

IK Masters Series Article concludes. Part 13 Notes and Bibliography.

Rajiv Malhotra
Rajiv Malhotra

Rajiv Malhotra is an Indian American researcher, author, speaker, thinker and public intellectual on contemporary issues as they relate to civilization, cross-cultural encounters, spirituality, and science.

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