There is not a single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population. – Moshe Dayan
Independence Day, 2015. Who or what is America independent of? The king of England? Outmoded standards of religious intolerance or centralized authority? Our own democratic principles? Common decency? Independent – or ignorant?
This is a greatly updated version of a previous blog. It is not really about politics; it’s about how politics reflects mythology and mythologies grow out of politics.
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. The Spanish 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 quickly proved unrealistic, the Spaniards responded with genocide.
A century later, the English contributed another aspect of the evolving narrative. America was empty land. However, wrote John Locke, “…land that is left wholly to nature is … waste.” Since no one was using it productively, so they claimed, it was still “virgin.” By the 1570s, even before the English arrived, allegorical personifications of America as a female nude appeared in European art. And in the European mind, “virgin” land evokes fantasies of defloration. Sir Walter Raleigh was quite 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. Church intellectuals debated whether they 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 soon end. The millennium was at hand, because “…the Gospel hath crossed the western ocean.”
The story was a hopeful one that evoked the oldest of mythic themes: the New Start. But it was so moving to the white invaders because they imagined the entire adventure 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.” They were living out, in real time, the mythic stories that had fed their imaginations for centuries.
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 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?” The Biblical Jehovah had little concern for the Other:
Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”(Gen 18:23-25)
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 call the myth of Israeli Innocence. Ironically, the 19th Century Europeans who created Zionism were partially inspired by the American myth, which in turn had recollected the Hebrew story.
In The Invention of the Jewish People, the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand argues that these early Zionists deliberately created the myth of ancestors who been expelled from their homeland centuries ago in order to invite 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 media that have favored the Israelis in such a one-sided manner, with unrelenting, racist demonization of Arabs 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 America’s refusal to do anything about the Holocaust until it was too late.
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. But for history to offer them some refuge 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.