Myths. Legends. They are part of our self-awareness, our sense of place, our sense of being. The ancients looked at the stars and came up with a series of stories and tales that explained that which they could not understand. Every nation has its creation myth, its story of what makes it special or unique. We still grasp onto shards of a mythical past. They are part of our tribes, our sense of place. But in our modern world, these myths create a real challenge to our ability to work together and solve problems. Buffeted by climate change, pandemics, massive migration, and rising militarism, sometimes the stories we share prevent us from speaking to each other.
Anyone who grows up in the US and goes to high school will stumble on the concept of American exceptionalism.
From manifest destiny to putting a man on the moon, this is the belief that the United States is inherently different from all other countries. American history texts tell us that from the American Revolution on, the US emerged as a “new nation" with new ideas. How often do we hear that this is “the greatest country on earth?” But what cost does that come at? How much does belief in that ideal hold us back?
In communications one can argue that every nation is exceptional in one way or another, and that we are indeed citizens of one planet — and we will either suffer or succeed together. China, for example, was one of the earliest points of civilization. China has the world’s longest continuous civilization and by 2030 China may be the world's largest economy. The ancient Romans had the largest city in the ancient world, built a system of roads that criss crossed the Mediterranean, and built an empire that lasted into the 15th century, more than 2,000 years.
As a person of Portuguese heritage, I have another set of myths. Portugal's first king was told by the Divine that he would find a great nation, one that would grow and explore. That at the hand of the Divine, civilization led to a path of exploration, the legend tells us, but it was a path that was also painted with colonialism, slavery and war.
So, while old tales of manifest destiny and exceptional people can make us feel good about the past, they can also blind our judgment of the future. A good example is the myth of critical race theory in schools. This academic concept has falsely been grafted into modern history teaching and demonized by a radical right. Systemic racism exists, and remains a major theme in US history — that is not a theory. Teaching the truth about history not only engages students, it helps them to think about solutions. But now, many states, like New Hampshire, are trying to
push “happy history.” The idea is that history needs to return to the concept of American exceptionalism. That the past is remade to foster nationalism, and conveniently forget about slavery, the labor movement, racism, and women’s rights. But that fairy tale approach tends to disenfranchise the majority of Americans, who don't see themselves in their nation’s past. This is the mentality of authoritarianism, not a democracy. It is dangerous to brand
teachers as “disloyal” or dangerous to the nation.
The past plays a role in everything. Close to 800,000 Americans have died of COVID, and many of those deaths could have been avoided. The myth of American exceptionalism plays here to a tragic result. An ill informed, unfocused nation torn by misinformation and outright lies about the pandemic has led to a society living as if nothing is wrong, refusing to take the most basic precautions. And that cost lives every single day, deaths that could have been avoided.
Which brings me back to my heritage? Just like the United State, Portugal struggles with its own myths and fireside tales for an imagined past. The difference— aside from an additional 600 years of history — is still a recent memory of fascism. I know my father was born into a nation where there was no free speech, where most people had a blocked path to education, a place mired in an endless war, and living in a society where the elite controlled the economy. The history books my father learned from told the type of feel good, fairy tale myths that some want to see made as common curriculum in the US. Portuguese history ended with the Republic in the 1930s ended with Antonio Salazar rising to power, and saying “I know what I want, and where I am going.” Perhaps with that dark memory still fresh, the Portuguese are happy to get vaccinated, unburdened to wear a mask. It is nothing exceptional, but rather believing in a common society, and knowing that your neighbor has your back.