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Monday, April 15, 2024

April 15, 2024: Mythic Patriotisms: The 1776 Project

[Up here in New England, the third Monday in April is a holiday, Patriots’ Day. But as I argue in my most recent book, patriotism is a very complex concept, and so this week I’ll highlight a handful of examples of the worst of what it has meant for how we remember our histories. Leading up to a weekend post on the state of mythic patriotism in 2024!]

On two ways that a project dedicated to “patriotic education” embodies the worst of mythic patriotism.

In a brief post as part of last year’s July 4th series, I highlighted the Trump administration’s now-defunct but still influential 1776 Project, and the ways that its concept of “patriotic education” have informed ongoing attacks on public education, educators and librarians, the discipline of history, and more. I’d ask you to check out that quick post if you would, and then come on back here for a couple additional connections of the 1776 Project to my own concept of mythic patriotism.

Welcome back! As I define it, mythic patriotism has two main layers, both of which we can see quite clearly in the 1776 Project. The more overt is a vision of American history and identity which relies on mythic narratives, ones that are at the very least centered on white communities and are all too often explicitly white supremacist. The 1776 Commission Report develops particularly mythic such visions of history and identity when it comes to the American Revolution and founding, and most especially the Framers—making the case, for example, that while many of them owned enslaved people they opposed and sought to end the system of slavery. Besides being inaccurate to the flawed realities of this group of men, this historical narrative likewise and even more frustratingly makes it nearly impossible to focus on a far more genuinely revolutionary community of American founders: the enslaved men and women who sought to use the era’s ideals to argue for their own freedom and equality. Idolizing a simplistic vision of the Framers in a way that overtly makes it more difficult to remember the presence and contributions of their inspiring African American peers exemplifies a white-centered, if not blatantly white supremacist, mythic patriotism.

Mythic patriotism doesn’t just rely on such visions of the past and nation, however—it also defines any Americans who critique and challenge those visions as unpatriotic and even un-American. The 1776 Commission Report does that most explicitly in its portrayal of “Universities in the United States” as “hotbeds of anti-Americanism, libel, and censorship that combine to generate in students and in the broader culture at the very least disdain and at worst outright hatred for this country.” The authors add that “Colleges peddle resentment and contempt for American principles and history alike, in the process weakening attachment to our shared heritage.” To tie together this post’s two points, I would highlight the word “our” in that final phrase, which to my mind subtly but unquestionably refers to a white-centered vision of American history, heritage, and identity. Besides being, once again, inaccurate to the realities of our foundational and diverse community, that vision is also entirely wrong when it comes to the potential effects, for students and for all Americans, of better remembering Revolutionary stories and histories far beyond those of the Framers. Eliding those histories in favor of simplistic myths about the Founding, and describing any scholars or educators who challenge those myths as “anti-American,” is the real peddling of resentment and contempt.

Next patriotism post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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