Saturday, December 5, 2015

The problems with holiday myth-making

Raising kids as a white, Judeo-Christian American, I have definitely gotten caught up in all the myth-making of the holidays. Santa is the top deity, of course, with the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy right alongside. These three are so prominent that DreamWorks tried to launch a movie franchise treating them like a Justice League/Avengers superhero team. (The result was, I thought, bizarre, though lots of people bought the DVD.)


But I can see why they thought it would work. The way this secular pantheon grows in breadth and detail reminds me of the world-building of Marvel and Lucasfilm. We riff on these legends—or at least media and consumer products companies riff on these legends—because parents will apparently spend money to enhance their plausibility for a few more years.

Now, it's one thing to buy an Iron Man lunchbox or a Millennium Falcon bed. But Santa and friends are something closer to demigods. We aren't telling our kids that Han Solo is watching us and sneaking into our houses to reward our good behavior with expensive toys. (At least, I'm not.) 

But conventional Western grown-ups cultivate this quasi-religious faith in holiday myths with the full intention of spoiling it before the age of ten.

This is puzzling. Evidently a lot of people think that the pain of disillusioning our kids when they outgrow Santa and friends is worth the supposed "magic" and "joy" they experience before the revelation.

But as my kids enter the disillusionment transition, I'm making uncomfortable connections to illusions I still hold dear. Not just the religious ones, which for me fell away fairly gently in my 20s. It's hard to break an illusion that others want you to keep, and that your own brain loves so much. It’s hard to break an illusion that if you are a good boy, you get presents...or, more accurately, that if you have presents, you must be a good boy. 

I was raised in the 70s, which was the era of Free to Be You and Me and Sesame Street and “The Great American Melting Pot” and unisex Legos. Even superheroes were for no-nukes and women's lib.



I got an upbeat picture of America as a tolerant place, where the idea of diversity was something to be excited about because we were on the right track. We used to call that “centrist,” if I remember correctly.

I was also taught in school that this country had made some mistakes, that there were bad people over the years who were defeated by good people and we are now much better. Much more true to who we are.

My kids are being taught that too. The Cliffs Notes of American history go like this: first Thanksgiving bla bla bla Declaration of Independence bla bla bla Civil War bla bla bla Martin Luther King bla bla bla Obama!

Underneath this narrative was an implication it’s taken me decades to become aware of: that as a white boy growing up in America, this country was for me.

And I grew up infatuated by stories in movies and books and TV shows about quests. These are obsessively centered on white American heroes. Hollywood makes dozens of expensive movies about good white men and the diverse male sidekicks who love them and sacrifice their lives for them and the one or two threatening hot women who ultimately concede that we are the best.

As a member of the majority along with the content creators, I wasn't prompted to think about racism much. If the realization emerges into consciousness (as it should, if you seek an education), then the signals all around immediately tell us white males to turn around, deny, make yourself feel better. It’s better than it used to be! You’re not a racist! YOU’RE A GOOD PERSON!

Well, as a marketing professional and a parent, I get it now. It is really convenient to keep certain truths hidden from donors and young people. Parents are supposed to protect kids’ “innocence,” which can either mean don’t talk about corruption and evil or just don’t say the words “penis” and “vagina.” It’s how every parent feels, wanting to create comfort and safety and magic but knowing it’s not all real.

The urge to flatter yourself: it’s deep in the heart of the human psyche, visible in our so-called monomyth and the very backbone of the stories told all over the world for thousands of years. It may have been an evolutionary advantage to create a culture based on a myth of your superiority to others, motivating generations to live up to a glorious legacy, and conquer inferior foreigners and exploit their labor.

The curious thing that’s happened in the modern world is that tribes now strive to unite vast numbers of people. The idea that humanity is equal is just a few hundred years old in the west, and has yet to be fully put into practice. And so our myth in the liberal west is in an awkward position. We simultaneously say we accept everyone, and that we are superior to everyone else. 

But it’s that very narrative that is the last battle we have to fight. We must release the need to be a good person, to be affiliated with the forces of good, to justify our actions and our history. 

Our illusions, including the holiday ones, prop up so much that we value in our lives—our wealth, our leisure. But they also enable so much that destroys things just out of our view, from the stability of our neighbors’ families to the livability of our planet. When we stay silent, the consequences are more than hypocrisy. Industrialized inequality isn’t a faraway problem; it pollutes our very air and water.

We will have to stop lying about the one important thing that everybody lies about: that we are independent of each other.