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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Life and Death by Myths, Stories, and Traditions

Man Crying

Man Crying

David E. DeCosse

AP Photo - John Locher

David E. DeCosse is the director of Campus Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.

We live by myths, stories, and traditions--and we can die by them, too. I think this way of putting things points to an overlooked moral factor in the rash of mass shootings in the last years in the United States—most of which have been carried out by white men: The breakdown of the myth of the free, self-reliant American man.

There are numerous causes of these murderous sprees: The legal availability of military-grade weapons; a culture inflamed with dehumanizing speech, with the president often stoking the fire; online radicalization that incubates contempt for others in a virtual moral vacuum far from the real-world faces of those marked for hate; and more. The break-down of the myth of the free, self-reliant American man complements these causes; it doesn’t replace them.

The myth has many looks that circle back to a central core that animates a whole pattern of behavior: That the ideal American white man is free, independent, self-made, taking orders from no one, and capable of heroism, creativity, action. We can see the myth as a constant presence in American literature—Melville, Twain, Hemingway, and many more. And we can see the myth as a constant presence in popular American culture, too—the cowboys of the American West, Dirty Harry, the Marlboro Man. Sociologist Evelyn Nakano-Glenn described two traditions that helped inform the myth in the early years of the country. They first emerged from civic republicanism and emphasized the ideal of a white man who was independent on account of the ownership of property and who served the public good in a spirit of civic virtue. The other tradition arose out of classical liberal political economy and featured a white man with property in his own person, free from being owned by anybody else, and free to do business – or not – with anyone, too. At its best, the myth offered a ready-made, can-do ethically upright role for generations of American men to reject tyranny, care for family, and create prosperity.

But there was always a dark side to the myth. The late Toni Morrison showed how, from the start, the idea of the free, white American man was inextricably linked to American slavery. As a matter of culture, white Americans projected onto slaves the dark side of the myth of freedom: the possibilities of loss, defeat, loneliness, and the self-destruction that comes from the abject cruelty of enslaving others. As a practical matter, the prized independence at the heart of American male freedom was often only possible because of the forced labor of millions of slaves; the bloody displacement of native peoples; or the work of women compelled to stay at home.

Now the myth is facing new, structural challenges. Economic globalization has laid waste to once-thriving factory cities. The work of Angus Deaton and Anne Case has shown the shocking rise in these communities of “deaths of despair” among middle-aged white men. Economic forces have transformed the dignity of work into the wasteland of being expendable or into the chronic, seeping bitterness of working at a job for a lot less money than your father or even your grandfather did.

Politically, too, an old world is passing away and a new one is groaning into birth. Political theorist Danielle Allen has said of the present times: “The simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority and where political equality, social equality and economies that empower all have been achieved. We are engaged in a fight over whether to work together to build such a world….This fight is different than our earlier ones because this time everyone begins from the psychological position of fearing to be a member of a vulnerable minority. Experiences of uncertainty, anxiety and endangerment are widely spread. Out of such soil grows the poison plant of extremism.” Here the once singular freedom of the white American male fearfully meets the rightful claims of equal freedom from the unprecedentedly pluralistic American people.

Whether from the truth-telling of critics like Morrison or from powerful economic and political forces, the myth of the free, self-reliant American male is breaking down. One way of approaching this breakdown is to see what was always the case: That this freedom was always dependent on others for its flourishing. But, for now, another manner of appropriation has insidiously taken hold as threatened white American men choose to revert to the darkest forces present in the myth and heroically defend their fear and isolation and wild wish for the domination of others by murdering defenseless men, women, and children.

Aug 19, 2019

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