The Myths We Make Up

August 17, 2014

![Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis]( =700x)

The picture above is a painting by Rembrandt. It is called "The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis". He was the one-eyed king of the Batavians, who were a Germanic tribe. The painting depicts Claudius Civilis as he prepared to rebel against Rome.

I saw this painting when I was at the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam and found the description of it very interesting. In 16th century, the Dutch people were trying to break out of Spanish rule, and that's when someone invented the myth that the Dutch were descendants of the Batavians to reinforce all the traits that would be helpful in that struggle: our ancestors were independent, our ancestors were heroic fighters, etc.

Maybe it worked. The Dutch put up a fight against the Spanish for eighty years until they finally gained their independence. The Eighty Years' War earned the Dutch their independence, but it didn't change the fact that the story of their descendance from the Batavians was pure fiction.

This was interesting to me because it's a relatively modern case of a myth that a people told themselves to reinforce values that they wanted to see in themselves. Precisely because of its modernity, we have historical evidence we can refer to that proves the whole thing was a pure fabrication.

But what if the myth was older? What if there was no evidence of it being a pure fabrication? How many things do we believe about where we come from that are absolutely not true? Or even if they are, do any of our collective histories say anything about us, really?

I bring this up because I had a bit of an anti-nationalism rant on Facebook recently, and it met with some... disagreement. My point in that post was that if we presume that a compatriot's achievement somehow reflects positively on us, we are deluding ourselves. As Canadians, for example, if we feel more proud of Chris Hadfield than another person of equally great achievement, the only reason for that is that we (subconsciously) want his achievement to reflect positively on us, because of our shared trait of nationality. Anyone who is aware of the many lazy tendencies we have as humans should not be shocked at the notion that our instinct would be to feel good about ourselves without putting in the hard work. And to me, feeling good about myself because of someone else's achievement is always delusional, whether that person is alive today or was alive 500 years ago, or 2500 years ago.

This also doesn't mean that we don't celebrate great achievement. It just means that how we feel toward someone's achievement should not be dependent on what traits we share with that person - specially if that shared trait is as broad as something like nationality. When someone's nationality does factor into how we celebrate their achievement, then we're not just admiring that person's achievements, we're congratulating ourselves for something we didn't do.

The self-congratulations shouldn't surprise anyone. We're a species of feel-good stories. From the stories we've historically told ourselves about our origins, to the stories we tell ourselves about death, we're constantly busy making ourselves feel good in absence evidence that we have something to celebrate. Like the Dutch people, every nation has a narrative that tells its people they should be oh so proud to be a citizen of that country. If this was a rational belief, you'd think statistically there'd be at least a handful of countries in the world where people would go "You know what? This country kinda sucks. Let's not be proud of it." Please show me such a country if you know of one. I don't think you can find one, and I think that is reason enough to take another good look at these narratives for our own countries.

When people feel so proud of their nation when the evidence is pointing to the other direction, they naturally start propping up heros. They find compatriots who have great achievements and they say "Look! Here's the evidence that we really are as great as we say". My response to that is "YOU aren't that great. He/she is the great one, and his/her achievement says nothing about you."

This is emotional intelligence. It is about being aware of the negative tendencies of your own mind. We learn early on that we shouldn't easily give into anger or jealousy. Having a tribal mindset is another unhealthy human trait that we should try to be aware of and resist where possible. And wouldn't it be much better if we knew that when we suffer from the cognitive dissonance that occurs when our beliefs conflict with reality we should reevaluate our beliefs?

Are we going to succeed in extinguishing all our innate negative tendencies? Certainly not.

Should we try? I think so, and I'll risk being the asshole who holds a mirror up to others when they're deluding themselves, and I hope I can surround myself with people who show me the same courtesy.