Westworld, Part II: A New Year's Appraisal of Good, God, and Evil In Allen West's America
Much attention has been paid in the media to Allen West's mistrust of Muslims in general, but very little has been said about the origins of that mistrust and of West's disdain for Palestinians in particular. Which is too bad. The roots of West's animus are explained in some detail on his campaign site, and they are bizarre. "I do not support the creation of a Palestinian state...," West writes. "I do not support any division of Jerusalem. If I recall from history and the Old Testament, David, Son of Israel built Jerusalem and his son Solomon made it great. The muslim [sic] claims to Jerusalem are built upon a very contentious story concocted by muhammad [sic], and of course the latter conquering of the city, even by Salahaddin."
Supposing the Bible is a trustworthy historical record, which it isn't, and even supposing it is morally acceptable to eject a family from its home because of a region's historic religious allegiance, which it isn't, West is setting an impractically high standard for historical justice. So high, in fact, that it invalidates West's election to Congress -- because, by that standard, Florida's 22nd District is already spoken for by animistic, pantheistic Native Americans. And if West's feelings toward the Ais, Mayaimi, and Tequesta Indians are less tender than his feelings toward Israeli Jews, we ought to know why.
Genesis Chapter 16, verses 11-12 states, 'And the Angel of the Lord said to her (Hagar): Behold you are with child, and you shall bear a son, and you shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has heard your affliction. He shall be a wild man; His hand shall be against everyman, and every man's hand against him. And he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.'
Ishmael of course became the beginning of the Arab people, and God's word is immutable truth.
Jewish and Christian readers will recall that Hagar was the handmaiden of Sarai, wife of Abraham, who was "given to" Abraham by Sarai because Sarai could not conceive. Hagar was, in other words, a slave. That West, an intelligent black man, would use such a passage to argue for the marginalization of Arabic peoples betrays either a surprising ignorance of history or else a troubling immunity to facts.
West's rationalization relies upon a literal belief in the Great Flood, in the time of Noah. According to the Bible, Noah's sons, Shem, Japheth, and Ham, repopulated the Earth when the waters receded. Unless West is kidding in the above quote, it is plain that he clings to the once-popular notion that each of Noah's sons spawned one of the three basic "races" of humanity. Shem's children became the Jews, Arabs, and other Middle Eastern ethnicities; Japheth's children became the Indo-Europeans; and the children of Ham became black Africans, afflicted with the "curse of Ham." Abraham and Sarai were descendants of Shem -- "Shemites" or "Semites." Poor Hagar, the raped handmaiden, was a Canaanite -- a descendant of Ham. Black, in other words.
So the story of Hagar and her cursed son, Ishmael, is a warning against the mixing of races. As such, it has been a keystone of racist and pro-slavery arguments for centuries. In Pictures of Slavery and Anti-Slavery: Advantages of Negro Slavery and the Benefits of Negro Freedom, pro-slavery polemicist John Bell Robinson cites the same passage as proof-positive of the Bible's veracity and pro-slavery tenor. "If slavery was a sin against God," he wrote, "was this not a good time to make it known?
Here was a messenger directly from the throne of the eternal God; yet he utters not one word against the institution of slavery, but tells Hagar to return to her mistress, and to submit herself under her hands... It has now been thirty-seven hundred and seventy years since the angel talked with Hagar as above; and from thence unto the present day, the descendants of Ishmael have been against every man, and every man has been against them... They are universally thieves, robbers, and and murderers; after committing their depredation, they can retire into the desert with such precipitancy that they cannot be caught... The Abysynnians, Persians, Egyptians, and Turks have endeavored to subjugate those Bedouin Arabs... but ultimately all was abortive... [the Arabs] remain as living monuments to the truth of the Holy Scriptures, and of the disapprobation of God to any mixture of blood with the descendants of Canaan.
If West truly believes that "Ishmael is the beginning of the Arab peoples" and if he believes that "God's word is immutable truth," then he believes that the Arabs are cursed because they are mulattos. Which may explain his intense dislike of Barack Obama.
Of course, Ishmael is not "the beginning" of the Arab people, any more than Noah's son, Ham, fathered all black Africans. When Noah allegedly built his Ark, Africa was already inhabited. And though the population of Africa has known more than its share of trials -- many of them due to the divinely mandated racism of West's Bible -- a cataclysmic global flood was not one of them. Black Africa didn't hear about West's god until much, much later.
Human craziness knows no bounds, but I cannot quite bring myself to believe that Allen West hates mulattos. Nor do I think he really considers himself a descendant of Ham. Normal people rejected or forgot about the racialist interpretations of the Old Testament a century ago.
But the story of Hagar is a useful metaphor, for those who like biblical metaphors. As West must. He is a devout Christian, after all -- which is why it's interesting to consider that, of the nearly 800,000 words in the Bible, the ones he elected to quote on his website focus not on charity, divine love, stewardship of the Earth, or the brotherhood of man but on a generational curse imposed upon an infant because his enslaved mother was stupid enough to be raped by a Shemite. I'm sure West's editorial selection in no way represents the depth and breadth of his theology. But it certainly speaks to his enthusiasms.
Those enthusiasms are moralist and martial. Last night's docile performance on Fox notwithstanding, West has not been shy about his feelings for those with whom he disagrees. He hates them -- "them" including, inevitably, the 41 percent of voters in his own district who cast their votes for Ron Klein -- and he is not afraid to blur a fact, distort a history, or conjure a strawman to elicit a similar antipathy among his fans.
As West has made abundantly clear, he believes there are right and wrong kinds of Americans, and the mark of that righteousness is neither citizenship nor patriotism but the approval of Allen West and those who love him. In his Jupiter address, West discussed the inhabitants of Islamberg village in the same breath as illegal immigrants because, like Mexicans, these New Yorkers have no place in Allen West's America, where every disagreement is a war and complex questions of ethics and governance that have confounded the thinkers of three millenia are answered in the bluntest terms of good and evil.
Citizenship, said West in his Jupiter address, quoting Teddy Roosevelt, is "predicated upon the person's becoming in every facet an American. And nothing but an American." But what's an American? In nearly every speech, in nearly every interview, West offers his definition in the negative. Yes, an American must be a hard worker. Yes, an American must be independent and brave. Yes, an American must love her country. But it's for naught if she's a Palestinian sympathizer. She's not American if she's also a Muslim. She isn't American if she's a liberal or a socialist or an inhabitant of Massachusetts' Fourth District. An American cannot have a certain kind of bumper sticker.
It is unclear whether Allen West has thoroughly considered the implications of his exclusionary conception of America. He is a student of history but a poor one -- doubly so if he believes that Noah is humanity's most recent common ancestor. Yet even if his brief Bible lesson was a fib, West's knowledge is decidedly piecemeal, and his conclusions are often laughable. (During his Jupiter speech, West blamed the fall of Rome on illegal immigrants. It is a heartbreaking irony that Rome's fall had far more to do with the Empire's post-Constantine intolerance of religious diversity.) He may not realize that, by labeling every dissenter a traitor, he echoes not his beloved Founding Fathers but leaders of far grimmer revolutions.
Allen West may mellow. He may not. He may run for president. It is indisputable, however, that Florida's 22nd has elected a representative whose conception of the United States is so small that it cannot even contain the multitudes of his own district. The United States is vast, perplexing, containing an infinity of perspectives -- far too many for any politician, or even a poet, to understand. I wish West would read less Old Testament and more Whitman, Tocqueville, and Wilde. Those men may not bring him any closer to understanding what America is, but he might at least learn that he'll never be wise enough to know for sure.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.