Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

American Mythology: Every Culture Needs a Scapegoat

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

American Mythology: Every Culture Needs a Scapegoat

Article excerpt

This spring several national polls painted a stark portrait of an American public deceived. Absolute majorities of Americans said they believed that Iraq provided substantial support to al Qaeda before the Iraq war (including 20 percent who believed that Iraq participated in the 9/11 attacks); they believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or an active WMD program just prior to the war; that Iraq posed an immediate threat to the safety of the United States; and that most other nations supported the U.S. position in Iraq.

Political support for President Bush was directly tied to these myths. People who believed them tended to support the president; others did not. If the American people believed only what is demonstrably true, it seems, President Bush would not be re-elected.

Why do so many Americans believe what can be easily and irrefutably shown to be false? While one can well point to the administration's manipulation of the media, to the power of the conservative media itself and its "news by sound bite," or to general American ignorance, there are more fundamental reasons why we accept these myths.

In developing a theory of the origins of violence and culture, French intellectual Rene Girard discovered that in order to manage the violence and instability that arise within them, all societies blame (and then sacrifice) arbitrarily chosen scapegoats, a process that generates the needed social solidarity among those remaining. In other words, cultures keep the peace by projecting their evil onto specific individuals or groups, dividing the world into good and evil, and expelling (or killing) the "evil ones." This scapegoating violence can be as awful as the Holocaust or as banal as children excluding a playmate for the day.

But this scapegoating mechanism only generates its group cohesion successfully if the true nature of the process remains hidden.

Girard discovered that societies intuitively develop myths to cover up their arbitrary choices and maintain their solidarity. The Salem community believed that the women burned at the stake were "witches" who had brought evil to the community. European settlers in America believed that the native peoples were savages in a recently "discovered" and "empty" land, justifying their slaughter. …

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