Thou Shalt Not Know

The original title for this entry was going to be “Thou Shalt Not Think,” but I decided it sounded too snarky and changed it at the last minute.  Besides, the chosen focus isn’t a knee-jerk diatribe against religion, which can wait for another time after having been baptized in bathos some wasted Sunday morning, but the problem of human ignorance.  Where does it come from, and why are we all essentially immersed in it?

That’s not to say we don’t know anything, which would be a gross exaggeration, but what we do know doesn’t seem to get us very far, and it’s hard for most of us to agree on anything because we’re all prisoners of our separate points of view.  My wife often hectors me for not being able to read her mind, as if that were a natural ability akin to blinking.  Can anyone truly read anyone else’s mind?  It’s hard enough at times to read your own, especially if you’ve been drinking and the handwriting’s particularly messy.

In his wonderful philosophical and literary study, Shakespeare’s Philosophy, Colin McGinn suggests the problem of epistemology (which I just had to look up to find means the study of knowledge) when it comes to deciphering one another, especially in the case of someone who sets out to conceal his true intentions, namely Iago in Othello.  Poor Othello is so duped by his lieutenant from the beginning that he refers to him as “honest Iago,” when you couldn’t find a more duplicitous fellow if you were the most widely traveled astronaut in the universe.

Iago is a special case–someone whose sociopathic confidence makes him so utterly self-contained that he has absolutely no use for a conscience, which would merely act as an impediment to his monomaniacal machinations.  There may be a little bit of Iago in most of us; all too often we get wounded if we’re too liberal with the truth.  As John Lennon would say, “Hey!  You’ve got to hide your love away.”  Or Romeo:  “He jests at scars that never felt a wound.”  Iago says he would not wear his heart on his sleeve for jackdaws to peck at (not to mention ace torture wiz Jack Bauer).  Instead, he concocts a net of fabrications in which to ensnare his all-too-susceptible prey, the hapless Moor whose jealousy engulfs him and makes him turn on his ridiculously innocent wife Desdemona, whom he apparently hasn’t even gotten to know carnally yet (carnal ignorance as opposed to carnal knowledge, the former being a virtue in many religious circles).

I haven’t read the latest news briefs on the manhunt for the Boston bombers; I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before they’re caught and they’re “brought to justice” (which promises to be as brutal as the evil they meted out in these medieval times).  I have to admit I teared up a little when I read a few of the excerpts from Obama’s speech, and I haven’t been big on weeping in at least a decade; that’s my wife’s department.

But it’s curious that the man behind the CIA’s controversial drone program, in which suspected terrorists are essentially assassinated along with whoever happens to be around them (in a flagrant display of punishment for guilt by association, or at any rate proximity), while perhaps feeling genuine grief and empathy for those victimized by the Boston attacks, has a serious blind spot when it comes to his own victims.

It’s too early to say whether the yahoos who planted the bombs at the marathon had any link to recipients of our generous and enlightened drone program (and yes, I have to admit, as a U. S. citizen and taxpayer, they’re my victims too).  They could just as easily be members of any of the myriad hate groups that pepper the new American landscape, or just a couple of Iagos out to fuck people up as a goof.  

George Lakoff wrote that the reason that the relentlessly aired footage of the falling World Trade tower struck by the hijacked jumbo jet on 911 was so traumatic was that on a metaphorical level, the building was an innocent bystander, and the plane was a bullet going into that person’s head.  The body that then fell (on an unconscious level) was that of the viewer.  

Maybe that’s why so many Americans turned into flag-waving zombies immediately afterwards, and Zombie-in-Chief George W. Bush issued his ultimatum about either being “with us or with the terrorists.”  (In other words, which terrorists would you prefer to hang with?)

During the Bush years (meaning Bush II, not Bush I), I became unhealthily obsessed with politics, so much so that I drove people around me crazy.  Since I’m not a political activist, the obsession proved both fruitless and bootless–I had no boot in which to store my fruit.  The only reason I mention this is that I read so many anti-Bush books that I can’t remember which one the following reference came from, or the name of the author, but he used the memorable phrase “compassionate narcissism” to allude to the sentiment felt by so many Americans after the 911 attacks.

The phrase implies that on some level we Americans hold American lives dearer than those of other people, which is what gets us–not to mention those other people again–into so much trouble.  Maybe this is a limitation we share with members of other nations; it’s just more conspicuous in our case because it’s our government and military that’s doling out so many of the drubbings.  Even though the United States has yet to suffer another attack on the scale of 911 or beyond, the supposed wake-up call turned out to be just another excuse to hit the snooze button, as revealed by the two illegal wars that followed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the war-ish situation in Pakistan, the torture saga, the wide-scale bombing of Libya (but hey, Obama said not to worry because we weren’t “at war” with that country so he didn’t bother seeking Congressional approval before letting the air force do its thing), and the various dust-ups in Yemen and Somalia, as well as Israel’s extravagant and repeated temper tantrums in Palestine and Lebanon.

Even though he’s singing about a different situation, Stevie Wonder’s lines from the song “Big Brother” seem apt:  “We don’t even have to do nothing to you/You cause your own country to fall.”  In this case–Stevie’s intended owner of the pronoun in the song notwithstanding–“we” might refer to Al Qaeda or any one of America’s enemies du jour.  As Pogo says, “We have seen the enemy, and he is us.”  That’s why our infrastructure is crumbling, men in expensive suits and limousines are making out like bandits (that’s not meant as a gay marriage reference, by the way, so all you Mike Bloomberg fans can put down your dukes), and fearful people with anger management problems are stockpiling guns in accordance with the out-of-control aggression meme.

As MLK said, “I’m tired of violence.”  

He’s not the only one.  An opinion poll I saw mentioned on the TV news shortly after 911 said a “majority” of Americans would support a disproportionate response, delivered in the usual fiery format, even if the number of innocent people who died was far greater than those who perished on September 11.  Hmmm, isn’t that not only flagrantly hypocritical, but suicidally stupid?  I can’t understand these over-confident leaders who think it’s “safe” to keep blowing the shit out of other countries without its eventually leading to deadly and indiscriminate repercussions.  Forget about morality and non-narcissistic compassion for a moment; what about enlightened self-interest?  (Besides, has a pollster ever asked you any of these questions, the answers to which are purportedly meant to shape U. S. foreign policy?)

So much for the wake-up call.

Let’s hope cooler heads prevail in the aftermath of the Boston massacre.  We don’t need to make any more new enemies in the Middle East.  And in the event that the bombers are domestic, the country has already become repressive and paranoid enough without having a surveillance camera lodged in every last person’s rectum to make sure our bowel movements are sufficiently patriotic.  (I’ll bet you already miss those porno scanners at the airport.)  Unfortunately, as long as we continue to dispatch our message in a violent manner, we’re going to suffer these same horrific side effects.  Maybe absolute protection from harm is impossible.

But, as Noam Chomsky says, one way to help stop terrorism is to stop participating in it.

Amen to that.


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