Sunday, January 30, 2011

On National Myths.

Since my first time in the United-States 25 years ago, I have been fascinated by how the French and the Americans keep using the same clichés about each other and how - despite our apparent similarities (both western countries and allies) and even in this communication and information age - there can sometimes be great misunderstanding between our peoples, including at government level, that cannot be resolved despite goodwill and endless discussions.

These misunderstandings can lie quietly under the surface or they can erupt like they did in 2003 between our two governments over the crisis leading to the war in Iraq (the “new” vs. the “old” world).

Whenever I talk about topics that typically French and Americans disagree on – the death penalty, the right to bear arms, religion, the role of government, economic laissez-faire, socialism, taxation, abortion, gay rights, or even less political subjects such as the meaning of success, pleasure, time, culture, etc… - I realize that there is only so much one can understand about where the other comes from. This is because it is nearly impossible to think outside the frame constructed by the narrative we grew up in and we are so used to. In other words, what is at stake in those discussions is actually not the topics themselves but their meaning as objects at the core of our identities and national experiences.

My long held theory is that one of the reasons that the French and the Americans tend to collide more on those issues than say, the Germans or the Brits is that both our nations are built on the myth that our values transcend nations and are universal values that everyone some will or should embrace – it be for instance ‘freedom’ or ‘human rights’. (The French often call their country “le pays des droits de l’homme” whereas the Americans love to say theirs is the “land of the free”).

The claim for universal values also comes from the fact that our modern nations were shaped by two revolutions with great universal assertion and appeal. Our revolutions were the first stories around which the “sacred narrative explaining the nation” was constituted. They are what I mean by “our national myths”. As a French person, it is a lot easier to study the national myths of others than my own precisely because I did not grow up (as much) with them.

Those myths have been shaped over the last two hundred years by a number of agents, more or less conscious of their role. Among those, schools, politics, and more recently television and movies have been the most powerful means of transmission of national myths but as a single person, it is the U.S. president who has the greatest impact on shaping the national narrative. He is the incarnation of national unity and his function at the head of the executive gives him the unique power to speak and be heard when he talks to and about the nation.

The use of national myths in presidential speech is the topic of my doctorate but I haven’t chosen this subject simply because I am interested in politics, political discourse or linguistics. It is mostly a means for bettering my understanding of the American people, and culture with the hope of eventually understanding my own national myths and be able to think outside the frame I find myself still today prisoner of. In other words, it is an attempt at freeing myself from the invisible bonds of my environment and be able to think a little more for myself and improve my critical understanding of the world.

This is why the topic of national myths fascinates me so much and also why it is likely to come on this blog more often in the future. I hope I can share my enthusiasm about this and show you how it is highly related to who we are and how we see ourselves and others.

This week, the big political news in the U.S. was of course, President Obama’s Sate of the Union Address last Tuesday. Whereas most commentators have been interested in the political aspect of President Obama’s speech, I, as you can imagine, saw his speech from a different angle – that of national myths. And this will be the topic of my next post.

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