Someone writes down an idea in the words we all use. This is how things are communicated, since there are too many people to shout or gesture with rapid hand motions. Ideas take the form of equivalencies, where one thing is said to resemble another, including the nearly mystical form of metaphor. Equivalencies can be stacked in containership arrangements, where several ideas are associated with an equivalency. It is not unlike our databases, where many “x=y” formulations are arranged to portray any number of data types.
The rest of us must act on this idea; after all, it is now in the public eye, our reality over reality in which ideas take precedence over tangible objects and sensations. If it is said a large storm is coming, we need to know to protect our families, after all. But the idea as written takes precedence because it is a prediction, and because we know the others will respond. Even if a storm is not coming, we should stay extra hours in the shop and sell supplies, or go home early because everyone else is. There is something lemminglike to civilization itself in this regard.
Unlike our observations of the tangible, the idea as written can take many forms, including those that are extra-factual or include judgments and opinions, that vague area of idea classification which includes wants, preferences, and moral ideas. None of these extra-factual thought items are intended to correspond as exactly to reality as a pure statement of fact, such as “A storm was sighted off the cost moving inland at five miles an hour.” For example, noting that the storm is probably the revenge of the gods, or that we should be ready to care for those who cannot afford to escape the storm.
When we read ideas as written, we would be more cautious, except that our daily reliance on them makes them larger than life — more important than what we immediately know to be true, such as winds whipping our face as a funnel cloud darkens over the city. Even more, we are subjected to so many of these ideas from so many voices that we shrug off the burden as long as the day of filtering them into clarity and obscurity, mostly-true or partially-true. We will never find the full truth in ideas as written, because the only truth is what happens tangibly, but we live by the ones we find mostly-true, although this often happens after the event.
Yesterday we — and by that I say the end results of the long process of our sainted Democracy, the United States and its allies among the liberal democracies of Europe — we executed a man who is listed in our media as a tyrant, a despot, a dictator, an ethnic cleanser, a brute and a monster. We are told this is necessary, but that thought-idea is not so much factual, because the world would clearly have gone on had he lived, but judgmental. It was determined he was a threat, like the never-ending sequence of enemies our liberal democracy seems to generate.
Like a red flag before us, the accusations were raised. He genocided a small ethnic group unlike all of his neighbors, we’re told, but the fields of bodies reported early in the media ended up being ambiguous evidence. He ruled by brutal force, we are told, in a region where such things are required — and where we now rule by brutal force, including the use of high explosive in population centers. He was a small Hitler, a petty Stalin, a Machiavelli without conscience, and he either pursued nuclear weapons we cannot find, or used gas we have no evidence was used. The red flag waves; the equivalency determines his name equals bad; and we charge forward, and kill.
It is unclear what leaders do not rule by force and brutality. The American republic was born from a brutal revolution which involved the deaths of many participants and the starvation of civilians. Every firm foreign policy stance we’ve taken since has been backed up through force. Even more, it’s questionable that politics can exist without brutality, since every single person never agrees on the same issue nor can be swayed by propaganda, necessitating force. Much like the mechanics of the universe itself, the mechanics of humanity abhor a vacuum and love decisive action, in which we are little more than material swayed and often blasted into oblivion by its mechanism.
When we wave the red flag over Saddam Hussein, or Adolf Hitler, or Joe Stalin or Kaiser “Bill” von Hindenburg, we classify them as evil with our red flag as represented in the word equivalencies in our press with which our leaders seem to agree. Government and our media and our citizens somehow reach the same general conclusion which then bottlenecks and streamlines into a concrete decision. This red flag signals us to charge forward under the reasoning that by eliminating evil, we institute instead what is good, which resembles our liberal democracy where — unlike in the evil empire — we have freedom and prosperity and justice.
In the aftermath, we discover tangible things that make us regret how solid-sounding that red flag was in the first place. There is a lack of WMDs, or the recognition that Hitler’s elimination of the Soviets would have made Europe and the USA more stable, or even recognition that many of these evil leaders stabilized unstable situations, much how Saddam Hussein defended the third world against the first by unifying Iraq and insisting on a fair price for his country’s oil, making all of his citizens better off even if ruled with a strong hand by an educated minority. Uncertainty grows and we question too deeply our own stability and lack of evil, but as that thought lapses into memory, the red flag waves again.
Michael Crichton wrote in his best-selling “State of Fear” that the media and government conspire to generate a never-ending series of apparent threats. He reasons that they do this for two reasons: first, the media must generate some compelling news-entertainment content, not unlike a new sequel to a popular theme, and second, that government benefits best from the events that mobilize nations along a singular path of action: either threats of enemies, from the right, or the ability to big-heartedly give to the unfortunate and thus feel fortunate, on the left. The carrot and the stick, fear and warm fuzzy feelings of goodwill and self-importance, constitute the most effective way of controlling any population.
When our great-grandfathers went off to fight the first World War, they were assured it was a “war to end all wars” and that once the dastardly Hun, portrayed as impaling babies on bayonets and burning whole towns alive, was conquered all would return to normal. Instead they embarked on the most costly war in European history, destroyed cities and savaged the life of the best of their generation, while vast profit was made by those who sold material and services to the war machine on both continents. Two decades later almost exactly, the process repeated again over the unfinished business of the first, and it was once again the “free nations” against the “oppressor.”
Ever since then, a sage observer might note, our wars fit the same pattern: a demon emerges and is assumed to be doing what he does from purely evil reasons, as if he just “likes” genocide and mass murder and mayhem, with no interpretation of the reasons why this person might act as they do — it’s enough for us to know he limits freedom, and since we’re the freedom people, we don’t like that. It’s an easy sell to claim that freedom perpetuates itself, and there is never a need for strong leaders, and therefore that any leader who is strong must be destroyed. And so we troop off to fight in Cuba, in Viet Nam, in Korea, in Panama, and in Iraq. When we cannot directly fight, we send in the CIA or cruise missiles.
In each case, as with Saddam Hussein, we see on close examination that we are fighting symbolic enemies. While there was reason for the United States to retaliate against someone after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in order to show a lack of weakness, we picked someone with ultimately no connection to those acts. We bullied a nation we could fight instead of the enemy we could not. Before the first bombs fell, our media and government were screaming forth categories of negativity in which to confine Hussein, to dehumanize him and to remove any consideration of the reasons why he might act as he did. Hussein was the red flag, not an actual storm. The storm is elsewhere.
To use that convenient equivalency known as metaphor, we can compare this to a bullfight. We the citizens act based on the information we receive and try to do what we consider right. This means slashing back at evils, and promoting goods. It means charging at the visible portion of those evils, which we see as a red flag. And once the flag has whipped through its arc, and we have charged upon the symbol of evil and driven it down, we get stuck in the back with lances that drain our vitality. Our casualties, our ruined economies, our shattered faith in nations and each other and a pervasive depression stay with us. With our lifeblood draining, we look up wearily, and the flag is there again, and we charge to repeat the process.
This cycle will not cease until we end it by stepping outside of the bullfight and confronting not that matador, the elected symbol of our path, but those who have set up the stadium and take the ticket profit. We cannot end this cycle by using the means granted to us, by charging at red flags or goring the matador. We, the people, must choose an end to the bullfight as an institution. This starts by not charging at red flags, which begins in us understanding that what others designate as a symbol may not represent the reality of the situation.
Ancient philosophers warned us about democracy, saying that while it provided a comfortable living, it separated reality from “public appearance,” or a world of symbols which are easily manipulated by others for purposes of control. While we depend on these symbols for warnings of storms, we must educate ourselves to realize that the symbol is not the storm, and if red flags keep appearing in front of us, we are being used as beasts of burden for the slaughter — and someone else is profiting. That profit does not reflect our interests, or our continued well-being. It is our doom, much as a tired bull festooned in lances is eventually drawn to a last charge so the sword may show its mercy.
In the final count, our symbols which once warned us of storms of evils have become our greatest confusion. They hide the biggest storm of all, because it is not a tangible object but a wave of unsettled fear and insecurity within us. This storm that brews is our collapse from inability to govern ourselves. It is easier to charge at symbols, and trivial to manipulate symbols for profit, but this means that our leadership has been replaced by a cycle of flags and no one is watching the storm. While we are distracted with a reality of our own creation, reality is surging from outside — and within — to overwhelm us.