“To betray a belief is not by any means to have put oneself beyond its power; the betrayal of a belief is not the same thing as ceasing to believe.”- James Baldwin
Not long ago, it was possible to believe that our age was rational because it was tolerant and tolerant because it was rational. Today, every news cycle assaults us with how comical that was. The old hatreds, updated for a new millennium, have recovered their vigor and are out for conquest. What happened? There is no one, complete answer, but we can better make sense out of nonsense by understanding that irrationality does not lack reason, it has manufactured its own.
In 2014 Mark Lilla called ours an illegible age because he believed grand ideologies had lost their gripping power; but what is it for an age to be legible? What is it to read events? When we read a sentence, meaningless symbols are decoded into a message. Events become readable and “make sense,” when they are encoded as a story. We carry with us a storehouse of possible causes, effects and implications, built around characters and archetypes with sets of traits, statuses, inclinations etc. These equip us to turn the world into coherent narratives. This is not a conscious process. For rudimentary sense making, we extract patterns from what we observe and store these patterns as narrative devices. Through experience, we become more confident in our narratives and less likely to change them. Individually, we become invested in the idea that we understand the world. We assimilate new data, looking for where it confirms what we know and reinforces our narrative devices. As we assimilate our culture’s narrative building machinery we undergo a similar process. We hear stories, constructed ones and the ones that arise whenever a human speaks. These stories have characters, some explanations make sense and others don’t. We develop whatever set of narrative devices is needed to make the prefabricated stories we are hearing about the broader world make sense. We internalize these narrative devices and come to be convinced that “we,” the group, understand the world. We assimilate new data, modifying it as necessary, but even this modification is done through the sense making tendencies we’ve already developed. This makes for a conservative process. Millions of people hear similar stories and develop a similar “sense” of things. It grows and changes with them as they navigate the world over their lifetimes, they pass it on to grow and change over the life of their culture. But there is a definite bias against change, to jettison old narratives too easily is to risk falling back into childish confusion. To jettison a narrative is deeper than rational reconsideration, it is akin to trying to see without eyes. This continuity connects us to our cultural pasts.
This transmission is responsive to the cultural production of elites, but even the ability of elites to produce culture springs from their mastery of the narrative idiom. A writer writing to people who speak only English cannot make them speak French by writing in French. A narrative that does not already “make sense” can’t take root, it can’t be heard. And besides, the artist and the intellectual are not aliens to their culture, they grow from it. Even if they could make their culture precisely as they wish, they might not wish to. Artists and intellectuals simply adapt their inheritance to the moment. This, admittedly, highly speculative sketch is my attempt to answer the question: How can history make this cultural moment legible?
What makes bigoted narratives compelling is their root in the Western intellectual tradition, the Klan meeting and the classroom share a basic idiom. Even a liberal who would never don a swastika hears that a given state is becoming “Westernized” or adopting “Western style democracy,” and “knows” that this is good news. The liberal and the western chauvinist both “know,” that something special happened in classical Greece, that the European enlightenment was a moment of revelation, not just for Europe, but all mankind. True, overt Western chauvinism is unfashionable in some corners of academia, but, it remains for billions history’s deus ex machina, and, because it gives us the prevailing idiom, when speaking in the vernacular, it remains our default; because it is how one has always been able to speak and be understood. This leaves the mainstream discourse within easy striking distance for Western extremists and White supremacists. When the world gets hard to understand, they offer comforting narratives that affirm what “everybody knows,” and elevate it into a gospel. What follows will be a sketch of the history of this Western mythology, of how a super-national culture came to see itself as the pinnacle of human history, in order to show that liberal occidentalism and Western/White extremism are indelibly wed.
Long before “the West,” Christendom united tribes swearing fealty to the Roman pope. The 1000s CE saw an explosion of apocalyptic thinking as Christendom imposed sense on a changing world. Christian Byzantium was being eclipsed by Muslim (And non-Muslim) invaders from the east. A culture that saw victory in battle as manifesting God’s favor needed to account for the victories of non-Christians over Christians. The bible offered a code, it told of a false prophet and tied the fulfillment of human history to the final conversion of all mankind to Christianity. Muslims came to be thought of as followers of an anti-Christ figure (the Prophet Muhammad). When the caliph of Jerusalem destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Christ’s reputed tomb, in 1009, Jews in France and Germany were accused of warning the caliph that if he did not destroy the church, Christians would take back Jerusalem. In the apocalyptic view of history, Jews were guilty of deicide for the role of a few Jewish elites in Jesus’s crucifixion, making them the undying enemy of all things Christian.
In 1096, Pope Urban II issued a call throughout Western Christendom for warriors to drive back the Muslims who had ruled Jerusalem since 637. The original text of this call has been lost to history and is known only through a series of summaries that circulated whenever the church needed to call up manpower. These summaries got more sensationalist as time went on. By 1107 the popular account of Urban’s call was prefaced by “his” recounting of the horrible crimes of “the vile race of Turks” and “vile Persians.” One summarizer imagined Urban saying: “And what can I say about the appalling treatment of women, which is better to pass over in silence than to spell out in detail?” These summaries reflect an evolving discourse around Islam and Muslims, as chroniclers justified reports of crusader atrocity, in advance, by writing pretexts for them into the mouth of an iconic pope ex post facto. Some may argue that such language reflects the world before political correctness, where enemies were routinely demonized. But the tenor of crusading rhetoric reflects the reverse dynamic, Christendom evolved into hate, not out of it. In fact, as late as 1076, Pope Gregory VII maintained genial correspondence with an Islamic ruler from north Africa saying: “We believe and confess, albeit in a different way, the one God.”
Jews, seen as allied with the same devilish forces that had handed over Jerusalem to Muslims to begin with, were brutally attacked and exterminated throughout France and Germany as part of a centuries long Crusading culture. Over the next 300 years, Latin Christians learned to think of themselves as heaven’s agents on earth, protectors of the holy land from “vile races,” in short, God’s own people. Western Christians “discovered” that their relationship to God “entitled” them to control far off lands and their inhabitants, and they established numerous crusader states. Eventually, the crusaders would turn on Byzantium itself, sacking Constantinople and dividing the spoils among themselves. While these lands mainly enriched the nobles who controlled them, scholars have demonstrated their bounty for the imagination of Christendom, which came to see itself as guardian of the true faith, whose knights assured the safety of pilgrims and checked the brutality of “heathen” peoples. The importance of this process is elegantly illustrated by the fact that both the French and English national epics are drawn from crusader literature, The Song of Roland and the tales of Arthur and the Round Table.
By the 1100s, it was commonly believed that Jewish leaders in Spain drew lots to determine which country would host their yearly ritual execution of a Christian child. Child murder and host desecration were convenient charges as Jews came to be associated with money lending, filling a gap left by the church law forbidding Christians to charge interest. Rulers enriched themselves by confiscating Jewish property in response to reputed perfidy and the masses found it convenient to believe accusations leveled against the communities to which their creditors belonged. When rulers started to occasionally protect Jewish communities from hostile forces, in exchange for payment, and relied upon Jewish moneylenders as sources of capital, this enhanced the belief that elite malfeasance was the result of rulers being too closely allied with conspiring Jewry. Once the death of God was laid at their feet, any nonsensical tale could seem reasonable. Here we find the birth of the antisemitic conspiracy theory.
In the 1400s, the monarchs of reunited Spain sought to sink Catholicism into their new state by forcing the realm’s Jews and Muslims to convert or go into exile. Those remaining were suspected of continuing to adhere to the faiths of their fathers. Rooting out this deceit was a major preoccupation of the Spanish inquisition. Even where heresy could not be found, conversos, the Christian descendants of Jews or Muslims, often five generations removed from their last non-Christian ancestor, became the victims of persecution and exclusion. Those with non-Christian ancestors were reviled as heretical because they lacked limpieza de sangre or “purity of blood.” Finding heresy in the bloodline constituted an unprecedented departure from the primacy of faith over ethnicity. This novel persecutory technology would prove invaluable as Spain built colonies in the “new world.” It is too simplistic to propose that race and racism in the West began in this one place at this one time. After all, Spanish “blood,” obsession was driven in part by slanderous pamphlets published in northern Europe that castigated the supposed Blackness of Spain, due to its 7 centuries of occupation by North African Moors. In alleging the genetic impurity of the peninsula one English chronicler alleged: “we must not think that the Negroes sent for women out of [Africa,]” thus implying that unions between African men and Spanish women must have been the norm. Spain, because of its unique diversity, nevertheless offers a tantalizing opportunity to observe where Europe was on the eve of its conquest of the Americas.
Christendom begat Europe and Europe begat Whiteness. In my next essay, I will discuss how the idea of Christendom grew into the idea of Europe, which grows into Whiteness, which grows into the idea of the West as we know it today. This will complete the argument I laid out at the beginning, that the idea of Western chauvinism is merely a more extreme version of the Western exceptionalism most in the Western world take for granted as the grand narrative of history.
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