The Persistence of Myth

Harding, walking into a Baltimore speakeasy in 1921, selecting his intended companion for the night from amongst the crowd with the question "Who wants to sex the President?"  (Not really.)

Harding, walking into a Baltimore speakeasy in 1922, selecting his intended companion for the night from amongst the crowd with the question “Who wants to sex the President?
(Not really.)

It seems that a century ago, Warren G. Harding was considered handsome, and he behaved like quite the ladies’ man. Although he was married to an intelligent, capable, high-society woman, he had at least two mistresses when he was President. I can recall in U.S. history class in high school back in the 1980’s being taught that Harding fathered a child with one of his mistresses, that his relationship with that girlfriend inspired a different girlfriend to make an attempt on Harding’s life in a fit of jealousy, and that the media at the time connived with the President’s political aides and his family to keep it all hush-hush and out of the public eye.

It’s not particularly interesting, to me at least, to see modern science all but confirm that Warren Harding indeed did have an affair and a love child while he was President. I’ve assumed the truth of this claim since I was a teenager that this was the case about this fellow and long since abandoned the need to so much as pass moral judgment about it. Nor is it really all that interesting, to me, that modern genetic science has demonstrated this by showing substantial genetic similarities between known descendants of the Harding family and the descendants of Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, the daughter who was a product of President Harding’s affair with one of those two girlfriends.

No, what’s interesting to me is the attitudes of the Harding descendants, who resist the conclusions strongly (very strongly) suggested by the scientific tests. These are not evil people and they are not dumb people and they don’t seem to have any particular malice towards the Blaesing family who claims descent from their grand-uncle by way of the affair.

They grew up with a particular mythology about their famous and prominent grand-uncle, a mythology created nearly a century ago to protect his reputation (and his wife’s) according to the cultural standards of that day. They were told that President Harding was rendered unable to father children because he had mumps as a child, which is why Florence Harding, their grand-aunt, never had children, and that the salacious rumors about President Harding’s love life were just that: salacious rumors, concocted by someone for the sole motivation of selling books to profit from scandal. For them, that mythology is an important part of their perspective on the world, something that was handed down to them by their families.

So while there may be a whole lot of scientific evidence that the mythology is objectively wrong, and the cultural and political reasons for the creation of that mythology are now anachronisms, they’re still not about to change their way of thinking, and to them, this is just a little bit more evidence to be carefully considered but not nearly enough to shift the burden of proof. Evidence that comes with such a high degree of confidence as to be nearly the equivalent of an objectively-verified fact is insufficient to overcome such a mindset.

The modern-day Hardings are not ignorant people. They are, however, people. This sort of stubbornness seems to be what it is to be a person: we hold on to our socialization even in the face of demonstrations of its inadequacy, we rationalize in support our world views, we rationalize away things that challenge our beliefs.

You do this too. So do I. We’re all just like the Hardings. It’s just easy to see with them because we’re not the Hardings, and the issue is largely academic and irrelevant to people who aren’t in either of these families.

It’s hard to even see that you’re doing it, precisely because we find that the subjects of this reflexive psychological mechanism to defend the self against reality are things that are very important to us: religion, politics, family, history, maybe even our very morals. It may be fallacious behavior and irrational thinking and possibly even contrary to self-interest, and utterly infuriating to those whose differing perspectives butt up against it, but the ego seems to demand no less. This is probably near the root of why adhering to the principle of charity is so difficult for so many when faced with disagreements.

I think that’s just what it is to be a human being: we love our myths so much, we hold on to them even when we know they aren’t real — and this puts a barrier in the way of persuading others.

 

Photo source: wikimedia commons.

Burt LikkoBurt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California and the managing editor of Ordinary Times. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.

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14 thoughts on “The Persistence of Myth

  1. Well, my family is not a family with an important political legacy. So after I was an adult, most of the older members of the family spent more time telling me “what really happened”. Such as how my uncle (the oldest child of my grandparents) told me how he was 5 months “premature”. While giggling about it.

    It’s kind of fun to see an 80-year-old man giggle.

    About the only subject that’s taboo is exactly what happened that landed a different uncle in jail for molesting his grandparents. We do not understand ourselves as pure and good, but rather as outlaws and miscreants who are mostly good. This is a lot more comfortable, and indeed a lot more truthful, existence.

    Another cousin, once told me the frank story of how his “adopted” father was in fact his biological father, it’s just that his mother was married to another man at the time. She divorced him, married my uncle, who then went through legal adoption of his biological child.

    We probably do have some myths, I suppose. Everyone does. But I so appreciate the down to earth quality of them.

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    • Midwives used to say that “first babies are always early.” A lot of social conservatives think that in the days where pre-marital sex was more rare, couples had sex for the first time after the wedding ceremony. This wasn’t actually true. Most couples were allowed to start having sex after they became engaged. Birth control being less available and reliable back than resulted in many brides being pregnant by the time of the actual wedding ceremony. Sometimes visibly so. This wasn’t only for the lower and middle classes. Even in the upper class and aristocracy, where inherited wealth was still very important, couples had sex shortly after the engagement. Based on the relationship between Winston Churchill’s birthday and his parent’s wedding, Winston was probably conceived about a month or so before the actual wedding ceremony of his parents.

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  2. “and that the media at the time connived with the President’s political aides and his family to keep it all hush-hush and out of the public eye.”

    So the desire for access vs actually doing their job has been a component of the journalistic class since forever then huh?

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  3. I think there’s something similar to insistence that secession to form the Confederacy wasn’t about slavery. It’s not that (most) people waving the Confederate flag around hate black people—it’s that they love their culture and don’t want to believe that it was so, so bad.

    Ditto Japanese revisionism about the Rape of Nanjing.

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  4. I think this OP is spot on. One of the hard things is that it’s very difficult for us (i.e., me) to always know when we are thinking mythically.

    Also, “myths” don’t have to be false, at least not necessarily. It’s more that their value as a story to explain things supercedes whether they’re false or true. At least that’s how I look at it.

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    • That’s precisely how I have used the word “myth” in this post. A myth can have value based on its emotional power, and that can be a good thing.

      To offer an example, in the United States, we have a myth about the enduring wisdom of the framers of the Constitution. In fact, even people who are not US citizens see wisdom in their actions, so this myth seems to be well grounded in truth. But we elevate the Framers’ wisdom to something godlike in our mythology. The myth nevertheless serves us well: among other things, by causing people of all political alignments to pause for breath and thought when the constitution is invoked against them, and to exercise a degree of caution when assessing proposals to amend the Constitution offered for political consideration.

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  5. I don’t know if this is a myth as much as it is forgotten history from one of our least ranked Presidents. His mistress published a memoir after his death and from what I’ve read that memoir contained a lot of accurate details about the Oval Office ceiling. She also posed for pictures with her daughter from Harding. Funds were set up but eventually this went into the sands of history because all we really learn about Harding is “return to normalcy” and Teapot Dome (Harding died at the height of the scandal but before it could bring him down).

    I’ve also read that there were rumors that Mrs. Harding and a doctor allegedly poisoned Harding as a way to save him from disgrace (both his affairs and Teapot Dome) and once he allegedly answered the call of nature in the Oval Office fire place. In front of a foreign dignitary!

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  6. I think that’s just what it is to be a human being: we love our myths so much, we hold on to them even when we know they aren’t real — and this puts a barrier in the way of persuading others.

    That’s true even in the case of an individual’s self-mythology. Eg, via TPM, State CCer Cindy Gamrat had this to say about getting caught cheating on her husband and kids with another CCer:

    “I know that I have made some poor decisions as they relate to my personal life that do not line up with who I am or what I believe.

    Myths, man. They run deep.

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  7. Because no one has commented on it already, I feel that I must: the alliteration in the front-page excerpt is about as good as it gets.

    Also, this was a very good post.

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