A “myth,” as I have tried to consistently use the term, is a story with powerful emotional or social resonance, and for which the objective truth of its content is irrelevant and generally questionable. President Obama recited a myth the other day addressing the Congressional Hispanic Caucus: “Long before America was even an idea, this land of plenty was home to many peoples. The British and French, the Dutch and Spanish, to Mexicans, to countless Indian tribes. We all shared the same land,” the President said.
Well, no, Mr. President, that’s not true so much as objectively wrong in every facet of the remark. “America” is an idea that has been around since 1507, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller released a painted wall map called Universalis Cosmographia naming the New World “America” after Amerigo Vespucci of Florence. The “countless Indian tribes” included many who are not within the group of indigenous North Americans referred to by the wildly incorrect name “Indians” (their pre-Columbian ancestors were predominantly from east Asia, areas today identified as Siberia and Mongolia) and while some were peaceful, others were warlike and perhaps no better counter-example to the pastoral scene of mutual harmony can be thought of than the Aztecs, who created a sophisticated empire on the backs of bloody, brutal conquest, massive enslavement of their neighbors, and (like many of the nearby cultures they conquered) a state-sponsored religious cult prominently incorporating human sacrifice as a ritual. When European settlers came, they hardly shared the land in peace, either with the indigenous peoples they found here, or with each other. While the concept of “Mexico” as a geographic region came early, politically the U.S.A. declared and won its independence from its European mother country a generation before Mexico did.
The reality of pre-independence New World history includes substantial amounts of violence, intolerance, xenophobia, inadvertent but fatal exchange of pathogens, and fighting about exclusive dominion over land, and rather sparse and insubstantial examples of peaceful sharing of common resources. The idea of a multicultural, pastoral, and pacific existence bears no more resemblance to historical reality than dragons do to actual animal taxonomy. It is a pretty story, a pleasant myth, and perhaps something intended to promote the worthy idea that civilized peoples today should tolerate and get along with one another while using natural resources in a wise and sustainable fashion. But in spreading this myth, even if he were doing it with such worthy goals, the President got his history, well, exactly and completely wrong.
Allow me to submit for your consideration the objection that in a world where substantial numbers of Americans don’t realize that Benjamin Franklin was never President and think that the Constitution establishes a “Christian nation,” reliance on historical myth as opposed to historical reality is a net disservice to the American people.