An email from a reader about my recent Columbus post put me in mind of this question, which got reinforced by a statement from the White House concerning State of Denial, the latest book by Washington Post editor Bob Woodward.
Here is the reader's comment:
Unfortunately I feel in attempts to make history entertaining to our youth they [educators and/or textbooks]... mythologize basic facts until they are no longer facts just a blur of the truth in some romantic fallacy...
And here is the title of a recent press release from the White House about Woodward's book:
Myth/Fact: Five Key Myths in Bob Woodward's Book
Both the reader and the press release use "myth" to mean a lie, but there the similarity ends.
The press release uses "myth" as a hard opposite of "fact": a myth, in this definition, has no truth at all. It is a flat lie, with overtones of absurdity, from a cynical source with money to gain from the myth's promulgation. This definition goes back to Plato and was picked up by St. Paul.
The reader uses "myth" to mean a twisting of facts used for ideological or educational purposes. In the case of Columbus the purpose is "romantic," to create a positive, entertaining, feel-good picture about the discovery of our country. This definition also goes back to Plato; Plato, idealist that he was, mythologized in this way as well.
I tend not to use "myth" in either of these fashions, because you can use other, better words besides myth to describe what's going on: in the first case, just saying "lie" would make more sense; in the second, I'd use the word "propaganda."
Myth, to me, is that complex of stories a culture has accepted and uses over and over again to come to terms with its reality. The stories are beneficial because they help a culture make sense of and cope with situations out of their control. Box offices bust when mythmakers hit stories on the mythological sweet spot.
Some basic American myths or mythological themes are contained in Robert Reich's Tales of a New America.
Whether the stories are true or not scientifically makes no difference in this definition; they contain heart-truths for those who embrace them, and that is enough.
As to propaganda and myth: sometimes, I agree, the two are indistinguishable. But I like to believe that there is a difference between telling a story and intending to deceive, and that's where I would draw the line, fuzzy as it may be.
Thanks to my reader for a thoughtful email, and happy myth-observing, everyone.