Latin America, the saying goes, was born in blood and fire. The same can be said of Europe, the advent of which is often dated as the Frankish victory at the Battle of Poitiers (or the Battle of the Court of Martyrs as it was known in Arabic), when Charles the Hammer turned back the Umayyad Empire. In David Levering Lewis’ God’s Crucible, this founding myth is complicated by reference to two French scholars, who speculate on the riches which might have been conferred with a Muslim triumph: “astronomy; trigonometry; Arabic numerals; the corpus of Greek philosophy. ‘We [Europe] would have gained 267 years,’ according to their calculations” (174).
Lewis, pushing that counterfactual history to its limits argues that “the victory of Charles the Hammer must be seen as greatly contributing to the creation of an economically retarded, balkanized, fratricidal Europe that, in defining itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of religious persecution, cultural particularism, and hereditary aristocracy.”
The idea that “the West” as a cognitive map (pdf) is possible only through a process of negative definition ought to give every “Westerner” pause because it speaks to something fundamental in our relationship to ourselves and the world. There can be no Self without an Other; no me without you insofar as “I am” what “you are not.” Such a model of reality would seem to be thoroughly fundamental, perhaps a function of cortical wiring. But note that in the history of the world this opposition has always implied a hierarchy, whether between races or cultures. If “they” are terrorists, “we” are freedom fighters. If “we” are democratic, “they” are totalitarian, imprisoned by their irrational urges and instinctive hatreds.
Much of the present geopolitical situation is contained in this bipolar, Manichean mechanism. Its utter simplicity is taken for clarity, a clarity which ultimately underwrites the devastation unleashed since October 7, 2001– 3 days and 1,269 years after Poitiers– a day, it should be remembered, when the United States rained not only high explosives on Afghanistan but, as Donald Rumsfeld was pleased to announce, humanitarian aid in the form of food rations. Over the next two months something on the order of 12,000 bombs and missiles were dropped or launched. Midway through that period, in November, the US military began using daisy cutters.
“The West,” in the end, is a fiction. And the price of maintaining that fiction is generally paid by those people who are held to be outside of it.
de Steuben’s Battle of Poitiers. The Hammer is, of course, on the white horse.