Briefing Note 11
The Re-Emergence of the “Chosen People” Myth
A Myth on which to base the Myth – the Moses Story The Myth behind the Chosen People Mythology of the English and Americans Fiona Doris
There is a myth that arguably has had more influence on Western culture over the last five centuries than any other. It is a myth of a people who escaped an oppressive captivity, spent some time wandering in the wilderness before they get a call from an all-powerful god. Their leader heads up a mountain for an encounter with this god. He learns that his people are ‘chosen’ by ‘god’ for a special purpose. Among all the peoples of the world these are the selected ones, elevated in importance above all others. The people are the Israelites, their leader is Moses and the story is of the Exodus. It is a pivotal myth in the Old Testament and, in spite of the bible being less read in modernity, it is a story most people in the West know.
What then, is the influence of this myth? It was in the sixteenth century that Henry VIII was concerned to establish the political independence of England from the papacy. He wanted another wife to produce a son! And divorce was not permitted in the Catholic Church. He needed to escape the hold of this Church. The bible story that suited their predicament was, of course, Moses. Henry needed to ‘escape’. And having escaped the myth provided an additional set of benefits. By analogy of Henry’s situation and that of the Ancient Israelites, there was the matter of ‘selection’ and ‘by God’. Here in the myth was England as the successor to the chosen people of God. The Bible, now available in English was “the” book, in English, not French, was the language, and the new religion Protestantism was the official religion of the country.
The Bible and particularly the Old Testament, was now about them, the English. With this choice an enemy emerged, Roman Catholicism and Judaism. In particular, the Catholic Church and Rome was the Anti-Church, the whore of Babylon, the Beast. The consequences of this were profound. The English people had a deep rooted attachment to the rituals and faith of their Catholic religion. The sacking of the monasteries was to change this in a brutal and cruel fashion.
What had happened is a powerful group of people had been enchanted with a myth. It had completely captured the imagination. As Ernest Renan put it ‘nothing great has been achieved which did not rest on a legend’. The fact that there were no facts behind the myth was less important than here was a story that made a fractured and troubled group of people feel good. And of course the most powerful of these people Henry VIII and his extremely significant aide and political genius, Thomas Cromwell.
The term ‘genius’ is not meant here in the sense of approval. While Cromwell’s genius was to play a major role in creating the first effective nation state, his techniques of the use of government propaganda, and mass deception did work, but often with diverse and malign effects. And they still are at work through to today! Cromwell was to rewrite English history. He was to establish the doctrine that the State was superior to the Church and the Church meant the Roman Catholic church. He was to introduce legislative changes that gave legal force to the glorification by the Tudors of the Monarchy.
There were two significant pieces of law initiated by Cromwell. The Act in Restraint of Appeal (1533) meant the English clergy no longer had the protection of Canon Law. They no more could appeal to Rome. The Act of Supremacy (1534) gave legal force to the superior position of the Monarchy. Cromwell effectively was to re-write a long history of Anglo-Papal relations. English authority was the source of liberty and all non-English jurisdictions ‘depredation’ and ‘usurpations’ and all foreign authority ‘despicable’ and tyranny and interestingly in terms of the Moses story ‘bondage’. And so enforce this newly crafted ‘national history’ any deviation from the new legally supported religious norms was now punishable as high treason. Here the punishment was to be hung, drawn and quartered (or if a nobleman, decapitated).
This new vision, this new national myth making was then supported by a well-orchestrated campaign of government propaganda. It was perhaps the first campaign of mass deception. The printing press obviously helped but what emerged was tracts, sermons and plays designed to stamp these new beliefs on the nation. The history of English Christianity was even re-written. There was an attempt to appropriate Celtic Christianity. John Bale’s history went back to Joseph of Arimathea who was said to have brought the gospels straight to England, not Rome on the instruction of St. Philip. This tied up with medieval legends which told that the guardian of the Holy Grail was burned in Glastonbury. The story of England became a heroic struggle between the native kings and alien invaders, the force of the Anti-Christ. English Christianity was of the purest type!
One of the important consequences of this had of nation building through religiously based myth making is that it does unite a people as a community, an imagined community and does give them a good feeling of togetherness. However, at the same time, the combination of nationalism and religion also divides us from those outside. In the case of the Tudors this meant Catholics and it meant Europeans.
And, going back to the Old Testament, that book of instruction for this project in nation building the consequences for these ‘other’ people would prove to be ominous. We know from the Moses story that God instructed the Israelites to destroy all the Gibeonites. This like the flood story is surely a divine mandate to commit genocide.
Indeed, there is ample examples of biblical sanction to massacre genocide and enslavement, ‘in the name of the Lord’ and often at his divine command. With the Midianites, Moses orders that all men, every male and every married woman be killed and distributed to the victors, 32000 virgins (number 31). And when the people of seven nations are delivered to the Israelites they are ‘to smite them and utterly destroy them … nor show mercy onto them’ (Deuteronomy 7 1-2). As Clifford Longley puts it “the degree of callous brutality and blood thirstiness displayed – and reported without disapproval is shocking”.
All this background to the Tudors and especially the ideology, the view of their world and others, outsiders, is to have consequences, serious and dire for many other nations. One of the first to be impacted was its close neighbour, across the water, Ireland.
Edwin Jones – the English Nation: The Great Myth
Clifford Longley – Chosen People: The Big Idea that shaped England and America
Linda Colley – Britons: Forging the Nation 1707 – 1837
Briefing Note 12
Recording 2: The Myth Makers Playbook by Thomas Cromwell The Narrative Formula of The Moses Story and the Myth Maker (Tyrants) Playbook Sandy Dunlop
Henry VIII and the Tudor Dynasty
The Tudor dynasty (1485-1603) brought about dramatic upheavals in England. Its rulers arguably laid the foundations of the modern English state, but in a crucible of ruthless cultural and political division whose emergent mindset – of exceptionalist chosen-ness, and a fearful, intolerant othering of difference and dissent – would have far-reaching consequences for the entire world.
The Tudors came to power in 1485 with Henry VII, the last contender standing in the Wars of the Roses. This was the bitter power struggle that followed final English defeat in their long war with the French, and with it their loss of their continental territories. As king Henry VII was pragmatic in securing his authority against challengers, making diplomatic initiatives, and reviving the English economy through government intervention to support the wool trade.
In 1509 Henry died and was succeeded by his son, Henry VIII. This was the king who would cause perhaps the most radical constitutional disruption in English history – not according to any particular plan or vision, but out of an obsession with obtaining an heir (which, due to cultural misogyny, had to be male) in order to guarantee the still-vulnerable Tudor claim to power.
The flashpoint was Henry’s inability to get a son out of his first queen, the Spanish Katherine of Aragon (aunt of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, one of Europe’s leading powers of the day). Believing their marriage cursed, and frustrated by the Pope’s refusal to annul it, Henry came to decide that as king he should be exclusively sovereign over all his country’s affairs, thus bringing to an end a thousand years of the Roman Catholic Church as a parallel power structure.
The ensuing struggle sent devastating shockwaves through a society accustomed to Papal religious supremacy. Resistance was enormous, both popularly and amongst leading nobles, advisers and intellectuals. Henry got his way by relying on Thomas Cromwell, his ruthlessly pragmatic and continentally-experienced chief minister, who engineered the split from Rome along with the king’s desired split from his queen, and subsequently the full-scale destruction of the English monasteries – pragmatically, but always with the bottom line of terror and violent death for anyone who didn’t comply.
Like that, England was re-made. Henry VIII’s reign violently split the English and demolished centuries of established ways of life. In place of Catholic authority, the English king was now cast as an autocrat whose absolute authority was divinely-ordained. But when Henry died in 1547, so did the whim that had driven these shifts, condemning an unsettled England to decades of violent struggles between competing visions, interests and political egos.
Under Henry’s eventual son, the teenage Edward VI, Protestant reformers gained the ascendancy and drove Henry’s and Cromwell’s anti-Catholic reforms still further. But Edward died in 1553 after six years in power, after which Henry’s original daughter, the Catholic Mary I, drastically reversed all these changes, pledged England back to the Pope and exacted brutal revenge against Protestant dissidents, burning hundreds alive. In this manner, terror, traumatic violence, hateful othering, and insecurity amid ever-shifting power became soaked into the rhythms of a bitterly polarised English nation.
Mary’s sister Elizabeth I took power in 1558, committing England to Protestantism once and for all, if with relative moderation. But by then the damage was done. These unresolved struggles would fester on, bursting apart in bloody civil war a few decades later and leaving a centuries-long tail of anti-Catholic prejudice. More profoundly, the experience arguably birthed English modernity in a mindset of xenophobic arrogance and a violently exceptionalist sense of superiority over the different, the dissident and the foreign: a worldview that would sprout into terrible configurations as the English took to the seas and began their growth into a global empire. The implications of the emergence of this mindset for the Irish people was to prove to be profound.
Recording 3: The Irish Impact of the Chosen People Myth The 17th Century History of Ireland: Penal Laws and Oliver Cromwell’s cruelty Tom Fitzgerald
The Myth of Chosen-ness – Moses and the Myth Makers Playbook
Last week we covered the Tudors and the impact of the introduction of the new “Myth of England” involving the re-write of English History, the legislative changes led by Thomas Cromwell and ruthlessly implemented along with a campaign of mass disinformation, or government propaganda. The Myth on which it is all based is analysed below. The playbook of Thomas Cromwell is then outlined.
The steps in the Moses Myth are as follows:
It was the appropriation of this myth by the English and then by the American Settlers (Puritans) that created a very strong transformational analogy between their situation and that of the ancient Israelites. They were “Chosen People”. They were selected by God for a purpose and this was fundamental to humanity. This was the mythic bedrock on which a whole series of historical developments were based:
- Emergency of the nation state
- English isolation from Europe (now Brexit)
- English Civil War between Oliver Cromwell and Charles!
- Overthrow of James II
- Separation of America from England
- American Civil War
- Destruction of the American Indian
But even more significant this myth became the basis for significant political and cultural action and upheaval. It is worth spelling out what Thomas Cromwell did using myth, history (re-written), legislation and the powers of the State. Here is the Playbook.
The Myth Makers Playbook
Based on Thomas Cromwell
|1|| CLARITY AS TO THE OVERALL VISION, BASED ON A MYTH|
Acquisition of ‘power’ central, but works only if based on a believable vision rooted in a known myth.
|2|| FIND EXEMPLARS ON WHICH TO BUILD|
Marsilius of Padua;s Defensor Pacis – idealises power and authority of State over Church and Moses and Israelites.
|3|| CREATE NEW LEGISLATION AND ENACT|
1533 Act of Restraint of Appeals
1534 Act of Supremacy
|4|| CREATE ENEMIES AND BLAME ENEMIES|
Roman Catholicism seen as Anti-Christ, Beast, whore of Babylon and a master of disguise
Establish test, proof of obedience and punishment
|5|| RUTHLESS PUNISHMENT FOR NON-COMPLIANCE|
Teachers, Preachers and especially iconic figures e.g. Thomas More, Richard Reynolds
|6|| RUN CAMPAIGN OF MASS DISINFORMATION / STATE PROPOGANDA|
Tracts, Sermons, Play and all the techniques of mass deception
|7|| RE-WRITE HISTORY, EVEN FABRICATE HISTORY|
Engage scholars, legal experts to re-write history or re-frame history.
|8|| KEEP REPEATING THE MESSAGE|
Keep saying the same thing over and over until it becomes accepted
This playbook first enacted by the brilliant political and cultural strategist, Thomas Cromwell, has it seems, become the Playbook for Tyrants and Dictators or today those seeking to set up an illiberal democracy. Now moves have been added. The classic moves of a would be authoritarian in modernity include:
- On Media
Use denial, distraction, deflection and any way of dividing people through fear/hatred.
- Spread Disinformation
Make anything up but ensure it is sufficiently believable (a lot bar!) to your base and keep repeating it until it is believed.
- Ruthlessly quash dissent
Get rid of any independent thinker, writer, painter and any independent media outlet.
- Politicise independent institutions
Politicise Judiciary, Police in particular and if possible, the Armed Forces
- Corrupt Election
The prospects of doing this are many, it’s basically the election only you can win.
- Delegitimise Communities
A community is on where ordinary people have to live together harmoniously, respecting differences.
- Squash humour and satire
These are time honoured ways the less powerful have expressed dissent.