If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged. – Noam Chomsky
That’s a provocative quote, and it has serious implications. Is Chomsky being literal? If we take it at face value – culpability in the bombing of over forty sovereign nations since the end of World War Two, murder and torture of literally millions of civilians and indigenous people, CIA drug running and assassinations, environmental destruction and global warming – then anyone in government, military or corporate capitalism who knowingly took part in such activities shares the responsibility. And the storytellers, anyone of influence in education, religion, the history profession and especially “journalism” – who abetted such activities by subtly justifying them is also responsible.
Knowing that I write about how fear of the Other is a major theme in American myth and politics, a friend recommends another of Brooks’ NYT articles: “On Conquering Fear”. It references the Passover prayer book (the Haggadah) and offers “subtler strategies and techniques to conquer fear.”
Brooks tells us that in the Moses story, Hebrew married couples were immobilized by fear of Egypt’s Pharaoh. But by “challeng(ing) each other to see beauty in the other,” they “began to sense unexpected possibilities.” Once people started speaking to each other and telling stories to each other, they generated alternate worlds. Storytelling became central to conquering fear. A story isn’t an argument or a collection of data, he says. It contains multiple meanings that can be discussed, questioned and reinterpreted (and that’s exactly how we need to respond to Brooks).
Later, at the critical point when the Israelites face the crossing of the Dead Sea, they begin to sing – not in celebration, but to overcome their fear. Their “climactic break from bondage is thus done in a mood of enchantment.” So “the sophisticated psychology of Exodus” teaches that it is sometimes wise to confront fear “obliquely and happily, through sexiness, storytelling and song.”
I sincerely praise Brooks for a fine article. In this age of heightened – and manipulated – fear, we could all appreciate this message. Perhaps the only way to transcend the paranoid imagination is by turning toward the creative imagination through art and ritual.
But we can’t consider what this article says without acknowledging what it doesn’t say. This is my responsibility as a mythologist to you as the reader. Then it becomes your responsibility to think mythologically, to train yourself to identify the subtle ways in which media gatekeepers continuously manipulate our dominant narratives to revive the myth of innocence. So let me unpack it, if you don’t mind.
First of all, consider the massive irony that an article about facing fear was penned by a persuasive media giant who has supported all of the American empire’s military adventures with all the usual fear mongering and has written countless other articles that have helped to ratchet up the level of fear in the culture. The media watchers FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) include Brooks in their list of “Highly Placed Media Racists.” Why? Because his “reasoned, moderate” essays often reference outright, unreconstructed bigots.
If his article has any wisdom to offer, remember the old joke that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Now let’s look at the text of the article, which constantly refers to the myth (remember that there is no actual archeological record for it) of the Exodus. I offer two points to consider:
One: the people in his story who experience fear are the Israelites, not the Egyptians. Stories of Jewish fear are familiar to us, quite justified from Roman to medieval persecutions to the Holocaust, all the way to the current moment when antisemitic (as well as anti-Asian) crimes are peaking once again.
However, the article, published during the debate about Iranian nuclear weapons (a debate that never mentioned Iranian fear of Israel’s nukes) subtly reinforces the dominant media theme of Israelis and their constant fear of Arabs, especially Palestinians. Yes, I know that Egypt and Saudi Arabia are currently Israel’s allies, and Iranians are not Arabs. But we are talking about images, not objective truth. We’re talking about narratives that, like almost all foreign policy issues, are constructed for domestic consumption, not for Iranian diplomats, but for fundamentalist voters in Red states and Jewish donors in blue states.
I’m not nitpicking here. This toxic narrative is a constant in our media, and it completely inverts reality. What is reality? The actual, overwhelming fear of Israeli violence that all Palestinians experience, every single day of their lives. It’s an ongoing form of bone-crushing, cumulative, epigenetic trauma that in our society can only be compared to the similar anxiety felt by all Black men driving cars who encounter the police.
Let’s be clear about this. Inverting reality is one of Brooks’ primary functions as a gatekeeper. Can you imagine him telling a story with the same “anti-fear” theme, but with Palestinians as the subjects?
And, before I’m accused of being a self-hating Jew, let me remind you that this is not really about Israel. It’s about Israel’s function as a surrogate for an American foreign policy that has remained remarkably consistent for fifty years, regardless of who has been President. And it’s about mythic narratives, including the remarkable similarity between the myth of American innocence and the myth of Israeli Innocence.
My second point repeats one of the primary themes of my book. The grand tale of American exceptionalism — that America is the one nation divinely ordained to bring freedom and opportunity to the rest of the world — was originally born in Biblical terms. The seventeenth century myth likened the Pilgrims to the Israelites. The English Church and Crown represented Pharaoh and the Native Americans became the Philistines (which, by the way, is the Arabic word that modern Palestinians use to describe themselves: Philistina). Fear of those Native Americans, whether real or constructed, became the most basic factor in the American story.
In this manner America offered its original sin and contradiction to the imagination of the world. Our tales of liberation were bound up from the start with the original Hebrew invasion of Palestine.
The quest for liberation from fear justified that Biblical conquest and served as the template for Euro-American colonial aggression. In the “either-or” context of monotheistic narratives, it is a simple series of steps from difference to slavery to fear to escape to journey (a journey that has no initiatory significance) to arrival (rather than homecoming). But the steps continue: to invasion to conquest to colonialism to exclusion to ghettoization and eventually and inevitably to genocide.
In the process, some victims of history become perpetrators of the same crimes that had been done earlier to them, passing on the trauma to other people and the guilt to their own children. God commands and the invaders obey. Or do invaders create new myths to justify their crimes? Just what do you suppose happened to the indigenous population of Jericho once “the walls came a-tumbling down?” The Israelites, so recently liberated from slavery themselves, proudly tell us:
And we captured all his cities at that time and devoted to destruction every city, men, women, and children. We left no survivors. (Deuteronomy 2:34)
Is this myth? Ancient history? Irrelevant? I re-post this essay about a week after hundreds of extremist Israeli Jews, egged on by Benjamin Netanyahu, marched through Jerusalem shouting “Death to Arabs!”, attacking and wounding over 100 Palestinians. And speaking of gatekeepers, note how CBS chose to report the event: “Officers injured, 40 arrested in Jerusalem as hardline Jewish group and Palestinians clash with police during Ramadan.”
This religious rationalization of genocidal violence, the narrative of the Israelite conquest of the Holy Land, written at least a thousand years before the advent of Islam, became the ideology behind the crusades, colonialism, the invasion of the Americas and all of the subsequent wars of American history. Ironically, the 1948 conquest of Palestine took much of its energy from American “manifest destiny,” which, as I have shown, was itself modeled upon the Israelite conquest of the Philistinas.
But Brooks tells us that the Israelites feared Pharaoh. Again, we have to focus on what he doesn’t say: how sometimes we come to identify with our own oppressors, how the victims of Nazi barbarism became barbarians themselves. In Auschwitz and other death camps, the SS recruited many Jews as overseers who brutally controlled behavior among the prisoner population – until they themselves were sent to the crematoria. They were called “kapos,” a term that David Friedman, Trumpus’ ambassador to Israel, used to insult American Jews who dare to criticize this nation’s long-term, massively expensive ($3 billion / year) support of Israeli apartheid.
Am I nitpicking to remind you that Brooks neglects to mention that centuries after the Children of Israel escaped destruction by Pharaoh (and slaughtered the population of Jericho), their descendants would kill exactly 504 Children of Gaza through aerial bombardment in the summer of 2014? Or that, when they ran low on ammunition, Barack Obama quickly re-supplied them? Or that eight months later, not one of the 9,000 houses completely destroyed in that attack had been reconstructed?
I know, I know. Why focus on the negative? Of course, there’s no need to bring this dark stuff up in the context of a truly uplifting story. But do we have the privilege not to do so? The mandate of Depth psychology is clear: we must become conscious of the fullness of reality, both the awe and the terror. It tells us that the victims of history cannot conquer fear simply by singing or by projecting its source onto other victims.
Either we all face our fear or none of us can.
Brooks continues: “Eventually, the Israelites are able to cope with fear. This makes them capable of loving and being loved.” I say: May it be so. May we all take his advice. May Brooks take his own advice.
He concludes his article: by “challeng(ing) each other to see beauty in the other,” they “began to sense unexpected possibilities.” I say: We cannot truly see the beauty in each other unless we can see it in all the Others of the world. I say: May we all realize that our fear of the Other mirrors our fear of recognizing our deepest selves. May our collective, creative imagination make art out of our fear and our grief.
Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I’d like to see you in better living conditions.
Antonio Machado says:
What was your word, Jesus?
Love? Forgiveness? Affection?
All your words were one word: Wakeup.