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The Myths We Tell Matter

Archetypal representations of the ideal American identity reveal to posterity the wisdom and virtues of our nation.

Since I decided to pick up and move out east last October, I’ve tried to make a point to visit the homes of our nation’s founding fathers. I spent the morning of the Fourth of July at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, which I’d been to many times prior, and last weekend visited Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello for the first time. Next up: James Madison’s Montpelier.

Thankfully, our founding fathers receive much better treatment in the museum exhibits of their homesteads than they do on university campuses, and even some of the Smithsonians. Obviously, the predominant source of controversy is that some of the founding fathers owned slaves. I think Mount Vernon treads this line exceptionally well. It has an extensive exhibit about the lives of slaves at Mount Vernon presented alongside Washington’s increasing economic and moral criticisms of the slave trade dating back to the early days of the American Revolution. Mount Vernon’s museum also addresses some of the myths that have been told about our first president throughout our nation’s history, such as the legend of a young George Washington and the cherry tree.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the story, but when I heard the story for the first time when I was just a tot, I believed it was true. Many of you probably did as well. Then, we headed off to grade school and continued to learn about Washington, but this time, that snotty, know-it-all kid in the front of the class interrupted our teachers to inform the rest of the class that the story of young George and the Cherry Tree was just a myth! We were all taken aback. Why would the adults lie to us about a story that teaches us good Americans tell the truth?

We continued living and learning, and eventually came to find the important role this mythology plays in our lives. We learned classical history, where historical events are taught side by side with mythology and legend, and that it’s very difficult for historians to parse out what exactly is fact or fiction—even in some of the most well-read accounts of Greek or Roman history. However, classical historians don’t just throw out these great stories of antiquity simply because they can’t verify every nitty-gritty detail. Rather, they embrace teaching the fable and folklore of such great ancient civilizations precisely because these dramatized accounts reveal something profound about the society from which it came.

In other words, the myths we tell ourselves as a nation, and teach our children, matter. Stories like that of Washington and the cherry tree, archetypal representations of the ideal American identity, reveal to posterity the wisdom and virtues of our nation—the very people who have toiled to keep this republic for us. Today, malevolent forces are attempting to erase these stories and dismantle our national inheritance to rewrite it for themselves. And, some who claim to be on the right, are helping them do just that.

Resentment for America, the West, Christianity, and tradition is now being pushed on our students in K-12 education, and has become a flashpoint in American politics over the past year because of critical race theory’s proliferation in K-12 schooling in response to 2020’s “summer of love.” Some journalists,  such as Christopher Rufo, have done extraordinary work exposing critical race theory, often packaged and sold as teaching tolerance and empathy, for what it truly is: a framework to view every social movement, even personal interactions, in terms of race to facilitate radical societal change.

Critical race theory defenders chalk up any criticisms of using critical race theory as the lens through which we teach our children as, at best, whitewashing history, and at worst, white supremacy. Of course, it’s a ridiculous straw man of the anti-critical race theory position. The purveyors of critical race theory don’t particularly care about a full and accurate telling of American history.

As is their modus operandi, right liberals used their alleged position within the “conservative” movement to affirm the framing of the debate over critical race theory of those who peddle and profiteer off of it. They predictably served their familiar purpose of politely asking the left to go about its radicalism a little more discreetly, and defanging the right from responding by making grand appeals to choice. Schools should be free to choose what they teach children! If you don’t like it, send your children to a different, or private, school! Teach them the right version of American history at home! Just move!

If you don’t have the means to send your child to a private school, have the option to teach your kid the right version of American history because you and your spouse both have to work, or uproot yourselves from your community and move, that’s too bad. You should push your state legislature to pass more school-choice laws. In the meantime, learn to tolerate having your kid indoctrinated with an ideology that ascribes guilt based on race!

By no means am I shaming school choice policy. I don’t think a child’s zip code should be determinative of the educational opportunities available to them, although conservatives should recognize these policy choices can harm those who have paid large amounts in property taxes to provide resources for a good public school; but, that’s besides the point. The point is the continued obsequiousness of right-liberals to the left ultimately brings about the destruction of things they claim to hold dear.

It’s not just right-liberals who often find themselves falling into left-wing plots to bring about the country’s demise. There’s a good number of folks on the right who have bought into a kind of scientism in their politics. Conservative pundit and author Ben Shapiro’s slogan, “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” summarizes the ethos of these individuals quite well. On the surface, this seems fairly obvious, especially when you’re Shapiro, who is often addressing college-aged students who feel eminently passionately about a certain political issue, but are blatantly ignorant of the facts. If you dive a little deeper, reducing what is good and true to purely that of facts crowds out values, traditions, and narratives from having their proper place in politics. I don’t mean this as a swipe at Shapiro. He’d certainly agree with the sentiment that human reason can’t deliver the ends we desire on its own, because he wrote a book about it.

Nonetheless, some people who call themselves conservatives do the bidding of our enemies by accepting the more dogmatic version of “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” In doing so, they crowd out the cultural—what our nation’s great myths are meant to preserve—and reduce our national heritage to a materialism that can be found in facts and figures (like our GDP). Their failure to actively defend what our forebears fought to preserve is also acquiescence in the left’s attempt to get rid of the great myths of George Washington and replace them with myths of George Floyd.

So, become proactive defenders of our national heritage, including its myths, for they have more wisdom than any university humanities department could ever hope to hold.

about the author

Bradley Devlin is a Staff Reporter for The American Conservative. Previously, he was an Analysis Reporter for the Daily Caller, and has been published in the Daily Wire and the Daily Signal, among other publications that don't include the word "Daily." He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in Political Economy. You can follow Bradley on Twitter @bradleydevlin.

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