“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?
These questions came up frequently as I read “Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past,” a collection published this month and edited by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, historians at Princeton. The book, which the editors describe as an “intervention” in long-running public discussions on American politics, economics and culture, is an authoritative and fitting contribution to the myth-busting genre — authoritative for the quality of the contributions and the scope of its enterprise, fitting because it captures in one volume the possibilities and pitfalls of the form. When you face down so many myths in quick succession, the values that underpin the effort grow sharper, even if the value of myths themselves grows murkier. All of our national delusions should be exposed, but I’m not sure all should be excised. Do not some myths serve a valid purpose?”
“. . . . . Zelizer writes that the notion of a revolutionary Reagan era did not emerge spontaneously but was “born out of an explicit political strategy” aimed at exaggerating both conservative strength and liberal weakness. This is another recurring conclusion of “Myth America” — that many of our national mythologies are not the product of good-faith misunderstandings or organically divergent viewpoints that become entrenched over time, but rather of deliberate efforts at mythmaking. The notions that free enterprise is inseparable from broader American freedoms, that voting fraud is ubiquitous, that the feminist movement is anti-family — in this telling, they are myths peddled or exaggerated, for nefarious purposes, by the right.”