The Law of Conquest
The sun was shining and I'd had enough of human misery for the moment. I picked up my camera, went out, and walked a couple of blocks to take this picture of a statue high up on a recently restored building on the corner of rue St. André that had caught my eye a couple of weeks back.
Since I began to see through the spell that says that domination (and thus subordination) are natural and inevitableto be accepted as a form of political 'weather' that we must learn to tolerateI have begun to see the Law of Conquest'Might is Right', 'Winner takes all' being celebrated in innumerable public places. Very often it's a man on a horse like here in Venice. Elsewhere, surprisingly often, it is one man crushing, stabbing, or bludgeoning another, like these images from my recent CD-ROM. People met in committees or coffee house and had discussions and commissioned artists to make these monuments, paid money, lots of money, for them. That's to say, at a deep psychic level they were buying images of what they believed to be true.
But back to the statuary... I often follow intuition on these matters and apart from the bright new gilding on this statue I wasn't sure why I found it so interesting. Closer study shows that it is probably a depiction of St Michael patron saint of Brussels. I dug a little deeper and found St Michael described as follows:
“Michael is our sword and our shield against evil. He is heaven's defender... Slayer of Dragons.... he is said to have been a friend of Lucifer before the fall of the Angels but became the Christian war cry against the Christian enemies, including Satan. Michael... . was taken up as patron by many of the military orders that formed around the Crusades... In the book of Revelation it is Michael who leads his heavenly armies against the Dragon (Revelation 12:7). ...He is the patron Angel of Israel... he is usually pictured in armor, carrying a lance or sword, often with his foot on the neck of a dragon... Saint Michael the Archangel, as leader of the heavenly army, was viewed as the patron of every Christian knight. Men went to Michael for protection in battle.....”
Something about this takes me by surprise. I hadn't much associated angels with the celebration of force and yet there it is. I have to get used to thinking of St Michael as the patron saint of bullyingas a match, if you likefor Jesus as the patron of subordination.
Ah... it's only history you say... and its true, it is history but it matters because we all have our history with us. In the UK “St Michael” is one of the dominant brands, for Marks and Spencer, (As I write this I'm wearing a “St Michael” shirt). What else is history but these stories that we tell each other to justify and rationalize our power and privilege? Or the lack of it? And the St Michael story is a story about the inevitability of enemies that have to be crushed, of intrinsic evil that has to be vanquished. Much easier I fancy, to vanquish, than to be good.
This unexpected opening of a yet another doorway to spirituality as a vehicle for the use, or channeling of force, makes me inclined to explore some more of the hidden fundamentalisms that we inhabit and that inhabit us.
As elsewhere in g.o.r.i.l.l.a., I tend work from the visual through to the inferences, or meaning that images or intuitions carry. Put another way I often have a gut feeling, an intuitive zizz, that an event or an image carries more than it surface appearance suggests.
How does this sit with our theme of inquiring into the phenomenon of domination? When driven by distress, spiritual beliefs can cement in place the building blocks of a 'literal truth', that once out in the world has to be obeyed, has to be defended, has to be imposed on others (This is not a polemic against spirituality, quite the reverse, spirituality as ongoing open-ended inquiry into the sacred has great intrinsic value). Spirituality allied with a belief that force and coercion are legitimate for the propagation and defense of the faith have proved to be poisonous like few other mental substances. Not only that, at the present time such beliefs are close at hand, even in the driving seat in several of the governments that are insisting we join their new world order. In a timely way, when I opened today's copy of the London Guardian here was an article by George Monbiot "Their beliefs are bonkers, but they are at the heart of power - US Christian fundamentalists are driving Bush's Middle East policy".
So how do we open this up further? How do we feel our way to loosening the bonds that tie us to over-rigid commitment, say to biblical truth? And how do we do it without 'attacking'? As I write this, my mind settles on this image, the front page of a UK newspaper, the Daily Express for Thursday September13th 2001, two days after the attacks that demolished the World Trade Center in New York. Making the presumption that Christianity is universal, its headline, over a picture of the devastation says 'Let us Pray'. A curious request to make of a nation that pays only lip service to Christian beliefs i.e. something to be deployed when there is a baptism, a wedding, a funeral. And people did indeed pray including the UK Prime minister and his wife, Kofi Annan, and Bill and Hilary Clinton.
What makes this Daily Express front page such an entrancing masterpiece of domination is the permanent everyday feature of its mast head, a crusader complete with sword, chain mail, and a shield with a cross on it.
Its been there on the top of the Daily Express since I was a child, it's part of the landscape, the psychic wallpaper. But how do you think it might look to someone not entranced by the idea of crusades as a good thing i.e. people who have been the victim of crusades, or who have chosen, wisely or not, to carry the collective history of Western (i. e. Christian) oppressionfor example Osama bin Laden?
The Twin Towers attack was an appalling atrocity, a moment in history like few others. The Daily Express and other responses to it at the time and later have brought to the surface and made visible like never before (at least to me) the stories that powerful elites tell each to justify and rationalize the use of violence to gain advantage and keep privilege. The notion of crusade, 'war of the cross', is an example. Before someone close shussed him, President Bush even talked of a 'crusade', for example here, talking to troops in Alaska . John Hanchette of the 'Niagara Falls Reporter' opens out the story very well
A search of google.com, for 'Crusader' brings up 454000 pages, I even recall having an indemnity policy with a 'Crusader Insurance Company'. The notion of 'crusade' is a popular and potent story that we in the west tell ourselves when we want to evoke a sense of the collective orchestration of the forces of good against evil. Here is recent religious example . But as John Hanchette so eloquently reminds us, in a world where populations of believers are no longer so remote from each other, people who were, and are still being oppressed by the crusades of hostility to Islam, especially in the Middle East, have another take on the idea. They see it as an icon of domination evoking the collective memory of invasion and butchery by Christian armies seeking to impose western i. e. Christian values and notions of 'freedom', as here in these images of the crusades by Gustave Doré that were popular in the 19th century and continuing today in this currently available crusader computer 'game'. Scenes full of knights and advanced technology of all shapes and sizes, who like President Bush, insisted that 'our cause is just, our cause is noble and we will defeat the forces of terror' even if, as in both sectors of history, it involves killing large numbers of civilians.
If you want to see how the crusades live on in us look no further than the way they introduced a couple of psychosocial innovations that are still with us. The First Crusade appears to have been orchestrated by Pope Urban 11 as a way of setting up an external enemy on which to direct extremely destructive local enmities; as the limits of extreme warlordism were being reached in medieval Europe the crusades demonstrated the economic value, if not virtue, of colonizing far away places, (the Doge of Venice financed the Crusade against the Constantinople in exchange for half the booty); lastly by coupling the Chivalric tradition to military action, the crusades consolidated the dissociation commonplace in Europe at the time, and subsequently in later imperial conquests, of technocratic 'knights' who celebrated violence and who spent their lives fighting, plundering, raping and pillaging, while claiming the high moral purposes of Christianity.
For more detail I recommend the book about the period I have been reading for weeks past, Barbara Tuchman's “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century” and Dr. E. L. Skip Knox's History of the Crusades