Positively Medieval

by Tim Newell



Serfs. The divine right of kings. Profound ecclesiastical influence in affairs of state. Crusades. Topics from next semester's survey of medieval history? If only. Try the U.S. presidential election of 2004.

It's not original to state that the conservative politics of the George W. Bush version of the Republican Party are regressive. Its warmongering and its espousal of the proto-totalitarian Patriot Act are but two examples illustrating this. But it was not until the recent election cycle played out that it became apparent just how much our country has regressed under the Bush administration.

In "What is conservatism and what is wrong with it?", his stellar analysis of conservatism, Philip E. Agre demonstrates and explains that the goal of conservatives is, as many have observed, to return us to "the good old days". However, the good old days that are meant are not the commonly assumed 1950s, when people had respect and moral restraint (that is, Negroes did not run for the Senate and women asked their husbands how to vote) but rather the archaic days of inherited hierarchy based on the tradition of aristocracy. In other words, the Middle Ages.

Let us consider the Middle Ages for a moment. Provincial kings and feudal lords rule their plots with an impunity supported by their perceived divine right to rule. Serfs labor for the benefit of the king, who rewards them by magnanimously allowing them to keep some of their harvest while he distributes most of what he does not keep among the lords and earls who keep him in power--men whose support of the divine right of kings goes only as far as the king's bribes. Serfs accept this lot because nothing else is available to them--and if they consider another alternative, the church, which holds dominion over their souls as surely as the king holds dominion over their bodies, reminds them that to disobey the king is to disobey God himself. And numerous of these serfs, fueled by outrage preached from the pulpit and the emptiness of their servile lives, march off to the Middle East to kill the infidel or die for their faith while trying.

So where are the serfs in 2004? A serf is one who works for the benefit of one greater (hierarchically) than himself, receives little benefit in return, and never thinks to change this condition because he knows no other way of life and because he has been fed with fear of things he does not recognize or understand. His isolation makes it impossible for him to do anything except perpetuate his serfdom. His life is, in the words of John Locke, "nasty, brutish, and short". In the 2004 election, President George W. Bush's victory came from carrying states in the Bible belt, breadbasket, and upper Midwest. Of the states that Bush carried, only five have a percentage of residents with a bachelor's degree (or higher) that exceeds the national percentage. Of the states that Bush carried, only one has an average teacher salary that exceeds the national average. Of the states that Bush carried, over half have a percentage of families in poverty that exceeds the national average. And of the states that Bush carried, nineteen rank below the average median household income for the three full years of Bush's presidency. So, who supported George W. Bush for president in his second attempt? Certainly his corporate lords and earls, their favor curried by tax breaks for the wealthy and the corporations they run, supported him, but these people make up a small percentage of voters. Where did the rest of the support come from? As the statistics show, the support came from the poorer, less-educated states, states that obviously did not benefit from his first term in office and seem no more likely to benefit from another term. Why is it that these states' residents, in the classic, damnable serf tradition, continued to hold the hand that held them down? Why did they support a system that is built against their self-interest?

For the Medieval serf, it was the fear of God and his divine avatar on earth, the king, that kept him in lockstep with the system that was killing him. For the modern, downtrodden voter it appears that the case was much the same. Much as the Roman Catholic church dominated the mind of the Medieval European, so the largely Protestant, evangelical coalition of the religious right (along with an activist Catholic Church), having hijacked "morality" as a term that only conservative Republicans can use for their own purposes, set the President up as a veritable hand of God on earth and framed the election in such a way that a vote for John Kerry seemed equivalent to a vote for Satan himself. It is well-documented that Bush, and those around him, including, it now seems, many thousands of voters, see him as one divinely placed in his position as President, barely distinguishable from a Medieval king. To wit:

President Bush: "I believe that God wants me to be President."

White House official Tom Goeglein: "I think President Bush is God's man at this hour."

George Pataki: "He is one of those men God and fate somehow lead to the fore in times of challenge."

Christian broadcaster Jane Parshall: "I think that God picked the right man at the right time for the right purpose."

Gen. William Boykin: "Why is this man in the White House? The majority of America did not vote for him [in 2000]. He's in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this."

And, most chillingly:

President Bush: "I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation."

What sort of person makes any of these statements, in particular the last one? Only the kind of person who believes he can do no wrong because he is the active hand of the Almighty can say this, and the person who believes he can do no wrong is the most dangerous person in the world. Nietzsche might have philosophized that the person who saw himself above good and evil was the Superman, but most of us would call him "psychopath".

So why the support for someone exhibiting such repellant, Medieval hubris? Because people believed him. A recent issue of Newsweek shows a photograph of a young man holding a T-shirt that reads "God is once again speaking through a Bush." Clever. And terrifying. There are also documented cases of pamphlets being passed out in the predominantly less-educated states mentioned above that stated John Kerry's intent to ban the Bible if he were elected. The fact that no such intention existed nor, if it were true, could ever pass legal muster, went, apparently, unexamined. These people were manipulated because of their faith, and their religious convictions were cynically twisted to essentially force them into maintaining a system that does not benefit them. A whopping 76% of evangelicals polled stated that they had voted for Bush. How many of them had been made to feel that a vote against Bush was a vote against God? The Bible itself proclaims the deepest punishment for those who lead innocents astray. The evangelical Republicans, therefore, should be ashamed and afraid for their souls after the crap they pulled. Are they? It's difficult to tell beneath the gloating.

Although the evangelical coalition seems most responsible for setting Bush up as an earthly messenger of God's own will, the Catholic Church, particularly important in this election involving Catholic candidate John Kerry, played a kingmaker role as well. A Vatican spokesman called the re-election of Bush "a significant step". Toward what, one must wonder? Toward a return to the good old days of the medieval church, whose excesses were overlooked and whose political power was unmatched? A glance at the current state of affairs shows evidence of other "significant steps" in that direction.

The voters' guide at reminds voters that they should "not vote for candidates simply because they declare themselves to be Catholic". Read that "John Kerry'. In fairness, I had not visited this site prior to my research for this article, and the admonition is likely to have been there for some time. However, its particular poignancy in this election cannot be denied.

The "Catholic" section of (there is such a specifically targeted section) shows a picture of Bush shaking hands with the pope. The Vatican is protective of the use of the pope's image for light or commercial causes; this is nothing if not a commercial cause.

Finally, in returning to the voters' guide, one finds a lengthy section on voting one's conscience. What is the conscience if not one's personal sense of right and wrong? Yet the guide also states that many Catholics have not "formed their own consciences". Luckily, the guide is happy to do that for them, reminding Catholics that a conscience is only worth something if it conforms exactly to all tenets of Catholic teaching, including five "non-negotiable" issues, which are, predictably, planks of Dubya's national agenda. Catholics are explicitly told to be one-issue voters, though this flies in the face of the "vote your conscience" suggestion. It is no stretch to see the connection between this and the Medieval mass delivered entirely in Latin to illiterates who were not encouraged (nor able) to search for truth or conscience themselves, but to follow without question whatever the Church said in the vernacular.

So, led by the nose by preachers turned political hacks, the uninformed and the cowed and the screwed-over were convinced that their souls depended on not throwing out their divinely-inspired (though apparently logic-impaired) chief executive, even though the status quo offers them nothing while it fattens their masters. This is the very definition of regression. It is the image of the Middle Ages.

The old saw holds that knowledge is power. The Medieval serf had neither knowledge nor power enough to shape his own life. So learn. Learn and understand and refuse the yoke when they bring it for you. Your president and your corporate leaders and your spiritual guides have played you for fools to consolidate their power and condemn you to serfdom. Refuse the yoke. Disdain the shackles. They cannot force serfdom on you unless you let them.

Don't let them. Keep the Middle Ages in the past.

Tim Newell is a teacher of English and member of the National Education Association, which President Bush's Secretary of Education has termed "a terrorist organization."

Resources used in the writing of this article:

© 2002