(Apart from economic and military superiority, of course.)
America has become the world’s leader because of all nations it has understood and utilised mythology.
Stupid people will tell you that it’s what you say that counts. Clever people will say a picture is worth a thousand words. The best and most effective communication is non-verbal, and it’s something the Founding Fathers understood very well. Oh, they had a way with words too – the US Constitution remains one of the greatest pieces of philosophical writing. But what they really gifted to their new nation was an understanding of why mythology was so vitally important to ancient cultures – because it transmitted simple ideas directly to the subconscious where they could take root and spread.
This kind of communication has unbelievable power. Competing philosophies – however well expressed – simply don’t stand a chance. Marx and Lenin could speak endlessly with eloquence, but the minute one American leader saluted before a fluttering flag, they were doomed.
The mythology of America is now so entrenched we barely recognise it is a mythology. But wherever you are in the world, you know what the US is all about…without discussing it, without even thinking about it. This mythic element is so rooted in the nation, it’s been developed for the last 230 years not by successive governments, but by the people. It’s responsible for the global success of US movies and TV, and food and drink, for the mythology is encoded in every single product, driving that economic power.
Britain understood this in the days of the Empire, but no longer. Hitler grasped it, and understandably Germany will go nowhere near it again. No other nation today is empowered by mythology, for good or bad. The ideas they represent are weak and untethered.
Fantasy readers will appreciate this for fantasy deals in the currency of symbolism. It is dream-fiction, where symbols live and breed, as opposed to the shiny, hard fact-fiction of SF. In ancient times, when all fiction was fantasy fiction, mythological, symbolic communication was the only game in town because it was so effective at passing vital, life-lessons down the generations.
The rapid decline in the cachet of the US Government around the world in recent years is directly attributable to this. Opinion surveys reveal that across Western nations there has been a massive shift towards a negative view of the US leadership – 90% opposed in the UK, across the political spectrum – from what appeared to be an entrenched positive view. Put simply, when you have communicated an idea so effectively and powerfully for two centuries, any actions in opposition to that idea are instantly laid bare. You can’t hide them behind rhetoric and real politik.
But that is a hugely positive thing. The mythology abides. It crushes weaker philosophies, even when those philosophies attempt to wrap the mythology around them. That is why those opinion surveys reveal that the same people who dislike what America is doing in the world are still drawn to the ‘idea’ of America.
(Cross-posted to LJ, MySpace and JoR)