Friday, February 22, 2019

The People & The Gods

Great Seal of the United States (obverse).svg
     (Not a government publication)

- I don't know about you, but I have a problem understanding who are these people doing all the evil in our country: the one's deporting refugees, fighting wars under false pretenses, taking bribes. I'm reluctant to accept the explanation from Plato and say they have no consistency, are hypocrites, actors on the stage, changing roles one after another, acting in different scripts. Say it really is so. Is it also true of our leaders' racism that it is similarly put on and taken off more or less at will, really only an excuse for subordination of employees or servants? Or is racism something deeper?
- Something deeper.*
- But then, how do superficial people have depths?
- When we say we have sympathy for another's suffering we are not remembering when we ourselves suffered, and then, seeing someone in the similar circumstances, putting ourselves in their place, suffering with them.
- So what are we doing?
- Something like we do when we give a name to a chair having developed a habit of perception after repeated perceptions of its different parts.
- When we see someone suffering we are as it were collecting together the different sights, naming the whole of what we see, saying to ourselves, 'Suffering!'
- Yes. We don't need to do the remembering of our own like experience and then project ourselves into another's circumstances. 
- So a racist, who feels antipathy rather than sympathy, isn't remembering numerous encounters with the hated race, only saying to himself: Again it's one of them!
- Yes. 
- Like a method actor, a superficial politician, when he finds it to his advantage to be racist, plays this role having as it were already put in rehearsal time, the product of which is the racist attitude, though without implying it will continue longer than any other behavior the politician puts on and takes off at will.
- Yes.
- Then next tell me how, as when a kid I learned what my mother meant when saying the word chair and tapping on one with her fingers, our president, for example, learned how to be a raciest in this, call it "portable" fashion. Can you do that?
- We're in luck here. We can have the benefit of seeing the same behavior writ large, seeing what goes on individually and in private, put clearly on show among the many in public.
- Like seeking what justice is for the individual by looking for justice in the state: referring here of course to Socrates in The Republic
- We can see the genesis of racism in public in our time's populist movements. Populists tell a story, the standard story of ritual: the audience collectively follows the story's events. An old weak god engages in battle with an enemy (invading from outside or secretly working within our country), dying in the fight and then reborn a new powerful god. Let me emphasize here that in the building of the background to racism, we are dealing with something altogether different from building the background to really seeing an object or a sympathizing with a real person's suffering. We're not developing knowledge, more like anti-knowledge, the production of forgetting. 
- Go on.
- Two characteristics allow the ritual participant to exit the ritual with a sense of new strength: forgetting of old self as represented by going through death and rebirth, and the collective reenacting of the story. Weakness is left behind at the death of the old god, and strength, a feeling of security is felt in passing through a familiar sequence of actions in the company of people like ourselves doing the same, replacing the forgotten feeling of weakness the ritual was entered into with. Clear?
- Yes.
- Ritual works. That it does is a fact of social human nature. 
- Forgetting an old weak self fits right in with the gaps in consistency constant in politician behavior.  
- Yes, Now, unlike learning to name something real or sympathizing with the pain of an actual other person, the suggestion of "what ought to be done with these people" is enough to perform the ritual. Neither any experience with these people nor the populist rally are necessary. Our times have seen anti-Semitism growing in places where there are almost no Jews. A racist need experience not even one case of actual fear and threat from an unfamiliar sort of person, to take the suggestion, and immediately construct in imagination others like himself (our president's favorite phrase, "many people say") feeling the same as himself, carrying this through in repeated interior story telling, imagining the enemy vanquished, one's self reborn in the process, strength renewed. With work only of the imagination, without any prior threatening experience of people different in appearance or behavior, slaves can be bought, indigenous people uprooted, blacks killed by police, subordination of many sorts created and maintained.
- I think many people - as our president would say - would object to your idea that ritual is this destructive thing that creates racism and is behind populism. What about a ritual of coffee drinking? Where's the harm in that?
- Nowhere. To the coffee drinker, the disturbing experience, the enemy within, is his tiredness, which is overcome by the imagined and repeated ritual drinking experience. The stimulant in the coffee, or without that, simply the awareness of taking up arms against tiredness, does the job of suggesting that a ritual sequence has been initiated, thus bringing about security of doing the same thing as is always done at the same time of day. Stories of the immortal gods of polytheism are different: they express not our physical, but spiritual rebirth. The many gods allow the telling of many different stories, adapted to the different situations of life and seasons of the world. Polytheistic ritual is occasional, a tool used when feeling weak, otherwise not. Not so monotheism, which arrives to turn upside down the way ritual works. All of life is now considered to be a single ritual, one that is no longer a story of battle between gods - there is only one - but ritual itself is broken up into separate parts. Enactment of a drama of death and rebirth becomes impossible. To get strong now you make a life - real life - in accord with a set of rules for right action.
- The first monotheists being the Jews, with their ten commandments and numerous other rules.
- Yes. And in this single ritual only the rules of action are specified: the correction of behavior is mandated but is not taken further: no end to a ritual story is allowed, this expressed by the prohibition against worshiping idols or images.
- If we are Jews, we don't learn the names of our vanquished (if only in imagination) races. 
- Correct. The openness allows the Jews freedom of interpreting their rules. They judge themselves on whether they've followed the rules, not relying on outside judgment of any defined group or individuals, not granting any reality to the named world, the foreseen conclusions of the ritual. And what comes next in this story of monotheism?
- The Christians, obviously.
- Obviously. They reverse what part of ritual remains continuously in operation, what part left open. Leaving open to forgiveness the Jews' better or worse obedience to rules, they focus instead on the end of the ritual, on being in a state of strength and goodness, on having the right thought, the right relation to the world.
- And Islam?
- Both rules and relation to the world defined at the same time. 
- No openness.
- None. You have to obey the rules, and in any case, it's all been written by god in advance.
- I take it you don't admire this kind of single ritual life.
- I don't. 
- But both Judaism and Christianity have some openness to recommend them.
- Yes.
- So which do you prefer? I ask, knowing your Jewish background.
- Both stories have their advantages and disadvantages. 
- The first monotheism emphasizes goodness, the second love. 
- Yes. Both are powerful models of human life. It seems to me we're better off with doing what we're doing here, trying to understand the world without a drama of weakness and strength looming in the background and without recourse to the symbolism of gods.

Further Reading:
Beverly Hills Jews
Killer Metaphysics
How Do You Make A Computer Not Want To Be A Computer?
The Dalai Lama And Jean-Luc Godard

Nazi Rally In New York
* See: Merleau Ponty, 'The Phenomenology Of Perception'. And see: Fyodor Dostoevsky, 'The Brothers Karamazov': “The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself.”