Black Lives Matter: America has mythologized the police (Op-Ed)

By JonCarl McGrady, editor in chief

Let’s talk about Alexander the Great.

Hold on, Alexander the Great is neither black, nor a police officer, you say. Well, you’re right. It ties in. Promise.

One of history’s most well known conquerors, Alexander’s legacy extends to the modern day as one of the most notable of a series of ancient conquerors who are viewed in the modern world as heroic conquerors, alongside the likes of Julius Caesar and Richard III Lionheart. One diversion I won’t pursue here is looking at the conquerors who are instead treated by history as villians—Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Attila the Hun, basically any conqueror from east of the dominant European power at the time is treated as a barbaric, horse-riding, nomadic tyrant, part of a history of Eurocentrism—but suffice it to say that many conquerors are viewed as heroes. 

Of course, they weren’t heroes. Alexander burned the entire city of Persepolis because he got drunk, Caesar genocided the Gallic tribes, and essentially all of them killed as many people who believed in other religions than them as they could. We don’t remember these parts, though, because of a process called mythologizing. This process wipes clean the flaws of ancient conquerors and emphasizes their strengths, to the point of making them into mythic heroes. Now, mythologizing isn’t inherently bad, and every culture has mythic heroes.

Sometimes the heroes are literally mythic, like King Arthur, Gilgamesh, or Hercules. Sometimes they are modern, but fictional, like Superman, Captain America, or Harry Potter. God, Harry Potter. J.K Rowling, what have you done? Other times, they are real, but they have been so distorted that it hardly matters. Having heroes like this isn’t bad. No one today is going to be offended that Caesar massacred the Gauls and is still being heralded as a hero, and no one will feel belittled if you wax poetic about the man who burned Persepolis. Honestly, most people reading this right now are probably wondering where Persepolis was. Persia, guys. Modern day Iran. Disappointed.

Anyway, as long as no one is offended by a culture’s mythic heroes, then cleansing away their crimes isn’t a big deal. I mean, it’s bad if your goal is to understand history, because it’s horribly misrepresentative and unhelpful, but most people who talk about how great Alexander was don’t care about ancient Persia. They care about how dedicated and strategically brilliant and decisive he was. Those are good traits, and the point of mythic heroes is to be emblematic of traits a culture values, which is why all of the bad traits get swept under the rug. Not many people want to idolize religious intolerance or alcoholism. 

It’s possible to tell a fair bit about a culture’s values from the traits of the mythic heroes it idolizes. For example, take the most important mythic heroes of  21st century America, people like Batman, Bill Gates, and James Bond. Admittedly, that’s a biased sample, but the theme of white men with cool technology and lots of money is pretty pervasive in modern mythic heroes.

So, Alexander the Great is a fairly harmless mythic hero. You could argue there are problems with Bill Gates like glorifying wealth, and James Bond is definitely sexist, but he’s also a fictional character which adds a whole extra dimension I’m not tackling here. However, some of our mythic heroes are very problematic.

George Washington. Thomas Jefferson. The founding fathers are critical mythic heroes for modern America, but here’s the thing. They owned slaves. The pain they caused, unlike the pain Alexander caused by burning Persepolis, is still real and raw today. To understand America, and to understand the problems with systemic racism and white supremacy in the country, we need to confront the fact that our foundation myth is inherently racist. But mythologizing doesn’t allow this, because racism isn’t something most people want to idolize, and mythologizing erases the mistakes and highlights the virtues. Mythologizing people like Washington and Jefferson is dangerous and hurtful.

One common thread with almost all mythic heroes—sorry, Bill Gates and Thomas Jefferson—is that they are warriors In most cultures, it is also important to have contemporary mythic heroes. Many can be ancient or fictional, but some have to be contemporary, which leaves modern America in an awkward position, because there aren’t a lot of warriors right now, and most people are against most of the wars that have been fought since World War Two anyway. So, America turned to the next closest thing. The police.

Look at how many movies and TV shows have been made about police. How many books have been written about detectives. How many news stories you read about heroic officers saving innocent victims.

I could go in depth and explain just how police check all of the boxes of mythic heroes, but that would require explaining all of the boxes mythic heroes are supposed to check. You can get the picture though. They save damsels in distress, face incredible danger bravely, pull off feats the common people can’t imagine, and sometimes even die in the effort.

Of course, mythologizing the police is a terrible idea. Many police officers do bad things, and the system as a whole is fetid and corrupt. Dismissing this in the pursuit of a mythic hero to idolize is horrible, and as recent events show actively kills people.

And that’s not even the worst part!

Mythic heroes require mythic villains. 

For every Superman there is a Lex Luthor, for every King Arthur a Mordred. A lot of times, there is a cast of less important, rotating villains, like the Bond villains, or the various foreign leaders Alexander defeated. The mythic villain the police face is obvious; criminals. You probably know many accused criminals—because proof is only incidental in mythology. Most of them aren’t bad people. Many of them were wrongly accused. None of them are mythically evil. 

Just as mythologizing heroes wipes away the bad, mythologizing villains wipes away the good. Mythic villains aren’t meant to be the morally ambiguous Severus Snape type. They’re Voldemort.

Mythologizing also essentializes. We need our mythic heroes and villains to be monolithic and iconic. Notice how mythic heroes don’t change in their stories. Alexander doesn’t develop into a different person when he decides to continue to India, Superman doesn’t have character arcs, James Bond literally resets actors when they get too old. Mythic heroes and mythic villains need to be easily identifiable types, but criminals are immensely diverse. Ah, but when you think criminal, do you think of a rich white woman who has been committing tax fraud for several decades? No, if you’re like most Americans, you think of a poor nonwhite man who has committed a violent crime and probably also does drugs. That’s not most criminals. 

This mindset extends to police. As I mentioned above, racism goes all the way back to the beginning of America, and if you really want to trace it, it goes all the way back to antiquity. There are tons of reasons for police racism, none of them good.

One of them is mythologizing, though. It leads to police searching nonwhite people more, because they look like mythic villains. It leads to officers opening fire on a boy reaching for his phone, because they are the heroes, and he is trying to kill them, surely. It leads to Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck as he begs for his life. We feel, emotionally, Chauvin is the villain in this situation. We think, rationally, Chauvin is a racist corrupted by centuries of hatred and a broken system. But we sense, culturally, that he’s a hero, and Floyd is a villain. That sense has, thankfully, been overcome by the emotional and rational appeals. No one is arguing Chauvin is justified, or very, very few are. He’s a killer and deserves to rot in jail.

But when a cop stops a black man to frisk them? Many people back the cop, and many more stay silent. Culturally, we are conditioned to back the cop.

This is insane.

This should not be the case.

But it is.

So, we need to do everything we can to change it. We need to fight this mythology, and recognize that is false and not based in reality. We need to tear down the police system, yes, but also our own cultural mythos. We need to really reckon with who we are, not genetically, not emotionally, not rationally, not even individually. We need to reckon with who we are culturally. Mythologically. And when we find that reckoning lacking—as we must—we need to cast aside our mythos and begin anew.

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