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April 1997, Volume 4 Nr.8, Issue 44

Myth

Ever since human beings developed the ability to communicate with each other, they told stories which helped explain the universe about them. Some writers credit mythology for being the first step on the road to philosophy. One such author is Jostein Gaarder, who in his book, Sophie's World credits mythology for being the best available explanation at the time for such events as thunder, illness, good luck, creation, etc.

Gaarder goes on to say that as humans advanced, developing increasingly more profound and explicate vocabulary and thought processes, they somehow dropped telling simple stories to explain external events, graduating to asking the question, "Why?" Responding accordingly to paradigms which they developed based upon current reasoning trends in the prevalent philosophy of the time, they came to new conclusions. These new conclusions puported to be improvements over the old. However, then as today, new ways at looking at events and explaining them are often prone to error and subject to political forces that have everything to gain from their widespread acceptance. Examples include: The belief that the Earth is the center of the universe. Having its roots in Judeo-Christian mythology, this was an acceptable notion for thousands of years throughout human history. The belief implies that God made man in His image and likeness. Accordingly this placed the Earth, the home of this divine creation is the center of not only the universe, but of importance. A little bit of science goes a long way as does an invention or two. Galileo and Copernicus put that myth to rest.

Gaarder implies that pre-Hellenic people accepted myths as fact. Somewhat disingenuous, Gaarder's Nordic European prejudice is reinforced through the obvious scarcity of Eastern myths and non-existence of the Afro-centric. Certainly, people of that time asked questions about the stories they were told. It seems to me highly unlikely, as my wife JeanneE says, that they all simply accepted myth as fact and guided their lives pursuant to this acceptance. It is reasonable, however, to conclude that a significant number of people did.

In any age, regardless of current trends in explanation, whether rationalist, empiricist, dogmatic, religious, etc., there are those who will prefer accepting myths as factual explanation because it serves their purpose, requires little mental effort or resistance, meets some internal political or psychological need for self gratification and identification. Perhaps, it is more of an ego than a political need, a self-serving confirmation of righteousness.

In the prevalent societal philosophy of a given time people participate in the culture of the prevailing mythology, taking on the sense of its essence and structure. This provides some definition to their lives. We are the products of myths as much as myths are the products of what we are. The stories that we tell ourselves can become what we believe regardless how little truth they contain. In the interplay between nature and nurture that helps determine who we are, it is nurture that mostly contributes to the mythological constructs that we accept as our own. Parental stories, the myths that they told, play an important role in who the children become.

Urban Legend

One prevalent form of modern mythology is the urban legend. According to the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) found on the Internet newsgroup alt.folk-lore.urban, urban legend is defined to be those that:

appears mysteriously and spreads spontaneously in varying forms, contains elements of humor or horror (the horror often 'punishes' someone who flouts society's conventions). Makes good storytelling. Does not have to be false, although most are. Urban legends often have a basis in fact, but it's their life after-the-fact (particularly in reference to the second and third points) that gives them particular interest.

There are thousands of urban legends, some of them true, some false, nearly all stated without authority. Examples of false urban legends from the urban legend FAQ include:

  • A penny falling from height of Empire State building will embed in pavement.
  • Daylight sky appears dark enough to see stars from bottom of deep well.
  • Swimming right after eating will cause cramps and you'll drown.
  • Standing a hard-boiled egg on end has something to do with an equinox.
  • The Great Wall of China can be seen with the naked eye from the moon.
  • Hair/nails continue to grow after death.
  • You can catch a cold by being chilled.
  • Someone is crushed to death trying to shrink blue jeans by wearing in tub.
  • Albert Einstein did poorly in school.

Some examples of urban legends that are true include:

  • Many university buildings constructed in the 1960s look like prisons.
  • Studies indicate that the majority of US currency has traces of cocaine.
  • Hamburgers" and "Frankfurters" are named after cities in Germany.
  • Hebrew was considered as official language of the U.S.
  • People (mostly guys) have been electrocuted "relieving themselves" [editor's change in words] on a subway's 3rd rail.
  • Crotch seam rivet in original Levi's dropped due to pain from standing near fires.
  • Student gets tuition $ by asking for $0.01 from each person via newspaper.
  • In 1947 a moth was found in a relay of the Harvard Mark II machine, and taped into the logbook as the "first actual case of bug being found"
  • 800 ft. diameter asteroid passed within 500,000 miles of hitting earth in 1989.
  • Women workers in old watch factories got poisoning by licking brushes used for applying radium compound to watch faces.

The point of listing all these urban legends is emphasizing that humans love to tell stories. The stories grow and get passed around and become part of folklore. Just think how often you may have heard a fish story or a war story. The problem with myths and folklore such as those listed above is that they often become part of a belief system that is detrimental to the well being the individual, group of people, religion, society or country. The myth, with ego justification and projection becomes prejudice.

During the McCarthy error a myth successfully propagated was "Under every rock there is a Communist." During Ronald Reagan's reign, this myth was updated to demonize the Soviet Union, calling it the Evil Soviet Empire. If we blindly and unconsciously accept myths without question, we easily become Marionette puppets manipulated by the puppeteer telling the story.

We've come to the point in modern society, in the communication age, where there is more dissemination of more information to more people in more places faster than at any other time in human history. It is also true that much of this information is accepted as true by a public lacking in critical thinking skills.

The public long ago partly because of mass media saturation, has given up questioning what it sees and hears. Instead, it would rather accept any myth that fits into the projected stereotypes which satisfy the ego's need to blame. Thus, illegal immigrants are responsible for our economic problems. Jews are the cause of our problems. Long hair people are drug users. Teenage welfare mothers gobble up much needed resources. The Persian Gulf war was a war of liberation. Gay people cannot be trusted as teachers. Trickle down economics will benefit the working class. Ad infinitum.

Schools, especially elementary school are institutions where in many cases, critical thinking skills take a back seat to the propagation of myths through an agenda designed to instill conformity, all the while operating under the guise of perpetuating individuality. I have seen an eight-year-old girl branded as strange by a teacher because "she dresses different and does not eat meat." Our son, Dylan studying a unit on Vietnam, came home reporting that, "Americans began burning the flag after the war" and that "Woodstock had nothing to do with Vietnam."

Pete Seeger is one of this country's most beloved and renowned folk singers and storytellers. Pete has personally been affected by McCarthy myths. Pete was blacklisted as an entertainer for his political views. A good example of school-spread myths can be found in Pete Seeger's popularized song written by Tom Paxton, What Did You Learn in School Today which is a litany of myths that most of us have at one time or another accepted:

What Did You Learn in School Today
Tom Paxton (1962)

Chorus:

What did you learn in school today
Dear little boy of mine
What did you learn in school today
Dear little boy of mine

I learned that Washington never told a lie
I learned that soldiers seldom die
I learned that everybody's free
That's what the teacher said to me
That's what I learned in school today
That's what I learned in school

Chorus

I learned that policemen are my friends
I learned that justice never ends
I learned that murderers died for their crimes
Even if we make a mistake sometimes
That's what I learned in school today
That's what I learned in school

Chorus

I learned our government must be strong
It's always right and never wrong
Our leaders are the finest men
And we elect them again and again
That's what I learned in school today
That's what I learnt in school

Chorus

I learned that war is not so bad
I learned the great ones we have had
We fought in Germany and in France
And some day I may get my chance
That's what I learned in school today
That's what I learned in school.

Imagine! What if for just a moment the question itself were changed. Isaac Isadore is a Nobel prize winning physicist. His mother did not ask him each day as he went to school, "What did you learn in school today?" Instead, she asked him: "Did you ask a good question today?"

Market Myths

People cling to their myths. Each of us has a pet belief in which and with which we choose to be associated. Folks on the far Left may chose to believe that Socialist countries can do no wrong. Folks on the Right prefer to believe that unbridled capitalism benefits all. There are folks who place their faith in the stock market and as long as the profit ticker keeps running up, pay little attention to the market's operating myths of acquisition.

Take retirement funds for example. There are dozens, if not thousands, of mutual funds in which we as working class Americans can invest. One of the most highly profitable is the textile, clothing and apparel industry. Recently, Vermont Public Radio reported about the clothing company called The Gap. This company had drawn up a worker's bill of rights so that the people in Central America who manufacture the clothing could have worker's rights and protection. Those who had stock in The Gap benefited from the company's increased profits operating under the assumption that worker's rights were respected. The truth was however, that the rights were never translated nor delivered to the factories where the workers could see and read them. Thus, the stock profits came off of the backs of products made by "14- and 15-year-olds working 12- 14- even 21-hour shifts under slave-like conditions."

Why is it that we choose to ignore the facts, believing instead the lie-based myths without question? Are people so jaded that it matters not where the profit comes from? I for one do not think so. I believe, that if people were made aware of the exploitation of children and women in sweat shops, they would not buy the products. No one tells them. I would argue, however, that it is just as important to be an educated consumer as it is to be an educated investor. We need to find out where our money is going.

Imagine if just a few people examined corporate myth and questioned whether it fit into their world view. That, is exactly what a few people did and the situation with The Gap changed.

The "Boston Wobblies joined a Dec. 16th protest at the Gap's Harvard Square outlet, distributing hundreds of leaflets denouncing the Gap's labor practices and serenading Christmas shoppers with anti-Gap songs. Many shoppers stopped to talk with Wobblies and other activists. Gap managers were so distressed by the protest that they began counter-leafleting with photocopies of a fax from corporate headquarters explaining that the chain was negotiating the issue."

Alternative Radio, a program aired on April 23, 1997, reported that a settlement was reached with The Gap. Independent human rights groups will investigate the factories for violations and serve as a watchdog group protecting worker's rights.

The Gap, of course is not alone. Nike is another example.

While Nike workers in the U.S. were paid between $8 to $11 an hour, Nike found it more profitable to go where the pay was $2.60 for a ten hour day such as in Indonesia. Of course the price for their shoes did not decline correspondingly. Nike made record profits. It was so profitable in fact that it could launch a multi-million dollar international ad campaign which included high paid endorsements. Basketball Star Michael Jordon was hired by Nike to be it's main spokesman, for a cool $20 million dollars.

Nike myths are spread mostly through television. In North America, the myth of the concerned corporation for youth is called P.L.A.Y. which is an acronym for Participate in the Lives of All Youths. Nike donates money and sports equipment to schools and communities. Doug Luellman, president of CUPE Local 474 challenges the myth, "We are not against the street hockey program, however NIKE is being hypocritical in its support of children's programs in Edmonton Public schools while exploiting child labour in its shoe factories in Indonesia and Asia."

In the science fiction series, Star-Trek, there exists a alien race known as the Ferengi. The Ferengi are interested profit...and...more profit. Perhaps it would be more honest if Wall Street would reveal a new set of myths based upon The Ferengi Rules of Acquisition, some of which are:

  • Once you have their money, you never give it back. (Rom, "The Nagus").
  • Only a fool passes up a business opportunity. Vung, Warchild.
  • Never allow family to stand in the way of opportunity. (Zek, "The Nagus").
  • Small print leads to large risk.. (Rules).
  • Greed is eternal. ("Prophet Motive", Arridor and Kol, "False Profits".
  • Anything worth doing is worth doing for money. (Rules of Netquisition' #1).
  • Anything worth doing is worth doing twice..
  • Never place friendship before profit. (Rom, "Prophet Motive").
  • Treat people in your debt like family--exploit them. (Ben Sisko, "Past Tense, Part I")

At least once a week, someone says to me while discussing a political issue such as affordable health care, peace and social justice, campaign finance reform, livable wages with dignity, that "one person is powerless, they cannot make a difference." I believe one person can make a difference. Which myth would you rather believe?

Examining Myths

Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." He also said, "Know thyself." We can see Socrates as referring to knowing and examining our myths. While it may be said that ignorance is bliss, I sense that if we ourselves accept ignorance then something dies in us and deep inside there is an unease, an unsatisfying dimension to our being, a malaise as President Jimmy Carter called it. To accept the myths of the status quo, or to at least not examine or question them is to want to be blissful and ignorant. The malaise therefore, comes from the inherent contradiction between that which we wish for and that which we are not. To be human is to examine. To do otherwise is something other. Stephen A. Fuqua, an Internet homepage publisher writes, "Without knowing oneself or examining oneself, there is no point in human life. The human who refuses to do this might as well be an animal, for that life form is pointless."

Jostein Gaarder, in Sophie's World writes that in order to be a philosopher we need only to ask, "Why?" This sense of wonder is described in both the Socratic and the scientific method of inquiry. This examination is what leads us to act accordingly. Perhaps, it is time.

Quotations

Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?

William James, 1842-1910

Doctrines have proven expendable; yet the legacy of faith persists.

Bernard Meland, 1976

Nobody ever went broke underestimating the tastes of the American people.

attrib. H. L. Mencken

Almost always the creative, dedicated minority has made the world better.

Martin Luther King, Jr. 1929-1968

It is my belief that nearly any invented quotation, played with confidence, stands a good chance to deceive.

Mark Twain

In all affairs it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.

Bertrand Russell

Mystery is another name for our ignorance; if we were omniscient, all would be perfectly plain.

Tryon Edwards

1997 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

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