Myth, Folklore, History, and Nationalistic Pride

Recently the story of “Butch” O’Hare was recounted to a captivated audience.[1] As the tale of bravery came to an end and people reached to wipe their eyes, the thought came to my mind of the important role myth, folklore, and history play in creating nationalistic pride. Two hundred years ago, concerned with the changes technology and urbanization were having on society, two German brothers began to collect folktales. Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, like other romantics, believed that folktales “were essential for reinvigorating national literatures and saving these literatures from sterile intellectualism.”[2]In 1968, during the height of the revisionist movement, historian Thomas Baily wrote that if the pursuit of history were to “shatter all myths, our social structure would suffer a traumatic shock.” He went on to state, “Historical myths and legends are needful in establishing national identity and stimulating patriotic pride.” [3] During times of societal change and strife, the importance of mythology is heightened and people cling to the stories that make them feel good. Historical precision and factualism is of less importance and can be seen as unpatriotic. During the height of the Cold War, the importance of folklore became an issue of national security. In a heated debate over federal money being used to support the study of folklore, one historian wrote that attempts to stifle the study of folklore could “cripple the efforts of the free world to combat the communist states, who [knew] well how to reach the hidden millions with the shrewd manipulation of folklore, legend, and myth.”[4]

Clearly removing folklore and mythology from the study of history is dangerous to the social structure and unity of a nation. However, the reverse could also hold true. Removing ugly historical facts and social realities from the study of history could be just as dangerous. In a world where technology is creating new communities which ignore national borders and bring together people who were once separated by geography, the promotion of national myth rather than national reality can undermine the success of international efforts to tackle world problems. While not all patriotic, historical reminiscing would be detrimental to international cooperation, jingoistic versions of a nation’s history which clearly whitewash a nation’s less than noble past can harm the nation’s credibility and fuel the fires of hatred that seldom cease to exist in the world. Furthermore, the patriotic rhetoric and reminiscence of national grandeur and exceptionalism often “alienates” a nation’s friends.[5] Myth, folklore, and history can engender nationalistic pride, but it can also become the tool used by a nation’s enemies to rally support for terrorism, even homegrown terrorism. People do not like to be lied to and learning that the noble stories of a nation’s past are not always entirely factual leads to disillusionment. Therefore, a balance must be found wherein the myths, folklore, and history of a nation are all embraced and nationalistic pride is derived from that balance.

Endnotes

[1] Scott Simon, “He Gave His Life For The Nation And His Name To An Airport,” NPR.org, (May 24, 2014),  http://www.npr.org/2014/05/24/315259241/butch-ohare-the-heroic-namesake-of-chicagos-airport.

[2] Elliott Oring, Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1986), 5.

[3] Thomas A. Bailey, “The Mythmakers of American History,” The Journal of American History 55, no. 1 (1968): 5, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1894248.

[4] Richard M. Dorson, “Folklore and the National Defense Education Act,” The Journal of American Folklore 75, no. 296 (April 1962): 164, (accessed July 24, 2013), http://www.jstor.org/stable/538177.

[5] Joseph S. Nye, The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), xiv.

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