This essay is not really about politics; it’s about how politics reflects mythology.
When 15th-Century European explorers “discovered” (a phrase used until only a few years ago) the “new world,” the power of myth enveloped their images of its indigenous inhabitants. Columbus initially wavered between the “noble savage” projection (innocent, generous natives) and its opposite (sub-human, untrustworthy). Quickly, the latter won out. “Indians” were shameless, naked fornicators and idolaters.
Perhaps more importantly, their notions of ownership condemned them in the eyes of the whites. In maintaining the land collectively, they were the original red communists. “They are fit to be ruled,” wrote Columbus; they could be trained to be industrious slaves. When this prediction proved unrealistic, the Spaniards responded with genocide.
The new story described essentially empty land. However, wrote John Locke, “…land that is left wholly to nature is … waste.” By the 1570s, allegorical personifications of America as a female nude appeared in European art. “Virgin” land evokes fantasies of defloration. Raleigh was clear about that: Guiana “hath yet her maydenhead.”
This is deliberately constructed mythic language. The indigenous people had, of course, worked the land for centuries. And it was hardly empty. The pre-1492 population of the Western Hemisphere was over 100 million.
Whites merged sexual and racial ideology to differentiate themselves from these people. Although the natives had never known prostitution or venereal disease, the process of “othering” required that they be perceived as unable to control their bodily impulses. Intellectuals debated whether they even had souls. Some argued that they were children, to be protected and civilized, while others claimed they were “natural slaves” (Aristotle’s term), set apart by God to serve those born for more lofty pursuits.
This is part of America’s creation myth. It sings of people who came seeking freedom, charged with a holy mission to destroy evil, save souls, carve civilization out of darkness – and get rich. R.W.B. Lewis wrote that this story saw “… a divinely granted second chance for the human race…emancipated from history… Adam before the Fall.”
Indeed, many were convinced that Christ would return in America and history would end. The millennium was at hand: “The Gospel hath crossed the western ocean.”
The story was so moving because the entire adventure was imagined in Biblical images. Columbus called his voyages the “enterprise of Jerusalem” and the Pilgrims saw themselves as Israelites, leaving Egypt/England for the “New Jerusalem.”
Unfortunately, however, a clear reading of the Old Testament reveals that the Exodus story is intertwined with the original invasion – and genocide – of Palestine, which like now, had an indigenous population that the invaders were intent on replacing through holy warfare. What do you suppose happened to the population of Jericho once the “walls came tumbling down?” Later, we recall, King David defeated the Philistines. It is more than a linguistic/historical oddity that the word for “Palestine” in Arabic is “Philistina.”
Three thousand years later, the English Puritans reasoned that since God had guided them in their crossing of the waters, they now had the sacred responsibility (license) to seize and utilize the land. From the start, our American stories of domination came packaged in the language of liberation. Everyone had a role to play: whites were the Chosen People, America was the Promised Land and Native Americans were the Philistines. This is the foundation of the Myth of American Innocence.
It is also the foundation for what I’m calling the Myth of Israeli Innocence. Ironically, the 19th Century Europeans who created Zionism were partially inspired by the American myth, which in turn had been inspired by the Hebrew story.
In a previous blog, (https://madnessatthegates.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=73&action=edit), I mentioned the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand. His book, The Invention of the Jewish People(http://www.amazon.com/Invention-Jewish-People-Shlomo-Sand/dp/1844676234), argues in part that these European intellectuals essentially created the myth of ancestors who been expelled from their homeland centuries ago in order to create the emotional climate for Jewish nationalism.
A hundred and fifty years later, our American responses to news of yet another Israeli attack on Gaza are crafted by several factors:
1 – An American political establishment and corporate media that have favored the Israelis in such a one-sided manner for over sixty years that we can only conclude that Israel has functioned during that time as a surrogate for the American empire.
2 – A fundamentalist-Protestant Christian establishment whose expectations of Armageddon and fulfillment of “prophecy” require this violence to hasten the coming of the “End Times.”
3 – Residual guilt, perhaps, for the Holocaust.
4 – Fifty years of unrelenting, racist demonization of Arabs.
As a result, most Americans tend to see Israel as the innocent victim of crazed, Muslim terrorists. But this essay is not really about politics. As always, I’m interested in the myths that we unconsciously enact.
All of the above factors rest upon and help sustain the most recent expression of the mythic framework I’ve been describing: “empty,” unutilized land; victimized people in search of a homeland; a city on a hill; the highest of ideals; the best of intentions – and significantly – ferocious savages – Others – who attack the good, innocent people of Eden for no reason whatsoever.
We’ve seen this all before. It seems so familiar at the gut level because it is one of the foundation myths of Western culture, of America, and with curious circularity, of Israel.
The crazy course of the 20th-century produced a population of genocide survivors, the truly innocent victims of the Holocaust. For history to offer them some healing it was necessary to revive the old narrative, in the Hollywood version popularized by the movie Exodus.
To do so, however, it had to victimize a second population – the actual indigenous population. In a place where the land was already occupied, the healing of the Jews meant the extremely violent exile of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. To justify this new crime, it was necessary to demonize them.
(A historical side note: I have heard that some descendants of the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 still hold the keys to their former front doors, just as many Palestinians hold the keys to their pre-1948 homes.)
And it was so easy to demonize the Palestinians partially because the Jews really had been victimized, but also because the Western World in general and the American public in particular had long been steeped in the mythic narrative of Promised Land. The narrative of the Promised Land, however, requires a kind of pseudo-innocence that is generated in the context of black-and-white, “us-or-them” thinking. This form of innocence – undiluted goodness and purity – requires an evil Other to be measured against.
In order to construct a mythology that demonized the Palestinians, it was necessary to elaborate the narrative of Jewish victimization. Uri Avnery, the Israeli writer and peace activist, wrote that the Israeli army is filled with “teenagers who are indoctrinated from the age of three in the spirit of Jewish victimhood and superiority.” Victimhood and superiority, of course, are contradictory terms that can only be resolved by recourse to mythic thinking.
Now, decades later, despite having the fourth largest army in the world, and despite the obscene disparity of casualties between Israel and the population of Gaza, most Israelis believe their own propaganda. They are racist, violent and fascist, and they are deathly afraid of the Other.
This is why the political expression of this myth is so hard to disentangle. We all remain stuck in this endlessly repeating tragedy not because there are no political solutions, but because we can’t perceive the myths that invisibly determine our responses to history.
And when we can’t identify the emotional ties generated by mythic narratives, we can’t perceive how politicians manipulate us.
As long as we insist on our own purity and innocence, we must have an Other to project our darkness upon. And the longer we require the Other to do this, to dwell in our own underworld, the angrier he/she will get. The Other who is actually ourselves, but whom we refuse to acknowledge, will turn deadly, because he will feel like he has nothing to lose.
Update: I wrote this essay in January 2013. I wrote the final sentence in a poetic mode, referring back to the mistreated god of The Bacchae, and toward the simple psychological truths of repression, projection and what we might call eruption. In July of 2014, in the midst of the bombardment of Gaza, I found these quotes:
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri sounded a defiant note, when asked about defence minister Yaalon’s remarks of further action to come. “Our backs are to the wall and we have nothing to lose,” he said.
“In Gaza we have nothing, and we have nothing to lose,” Abed said. “Let us live in dignity, and you will receive quiet and love in return.”
After the cease fire I found this one:
“If we don’t witness a change for the good in our lives over the next few weeks, another war will erupt soon,” Hilo firmly pronounced. “It’s impossible to live this way any longer. We have nothing to lose any more. People hoped that after the war, something would happen. We’d feel change in the offing, we’d finally breathe, but nothing has changed.”