October 6, 2003
"I went away thinking to myself that I was wiser than this man; the fact is that neither of us knows anything beautiful and good, but he thinks he does know when he doesn't, and I don't know and don't think I do: so I am wiser than he is by this trifle, that what I do not know I don't think I do."
Doubt is a result of questioning one's givens and having them come up short. A person's character is shaped by how he or she handles personal doubt. (2) It is vain to expect any great light to shine on the world and enlighten us. The world is fraught with doubt for the thoughtful; much of what we believe is shaky at best and based upon what we want to believe. For example, children want to believe that their parents are right and that their preference for one political position, or another, is the correct one. Unfortunately, some people refuse to grow up, stubbornly clutching on to childhood beliefs for a lifetime. Such individuals tend to be blissfully unaware that holding unexamined ideas to one's breast may create results reminiscent of Cleopatra's fate when she clutched the proverbial asp to hers.
Thinking and questioning one's "givens" is hard work. It requires intellectual muscle, but that isn't the major task. The major task is finding a way -- a willingness -- to wade through emotion and passion, account for it in one's thinking, and move on. In a figurative sense, one must plug his ears and bind himself to the mast of his vessel -- Odysseus like -- to stay the call of the Sirens. It isn't easy. Familiar prejudices beckon the unwary; behind these prejudices lie the rocks of destruction that if unheeded, destroy the independent thinker and expose him or her as a mere ideologue -- a "court historian," or even worse, a political hack. (3) The task for the individual thinker, then, is to create an environment that allows him/her to seek truth, while allowing for the irrational. Not wanting to become a modern day Pentheus, (4) one cannot deny either the Apollonarian or Dionysian thought processes with impunity. This is not necessarily a paradox, but it may sometimes seem so.
Standing astride one's givens are "essential lies" that represent directional ideals and forbid question, while remaining contrary to experience and reason. Essential lies are cultural artifacts that block thinking and, therefore, facilitate deception. In order to become free, individuals must first be willing to confront essential lies and then proceed to question long-held views, or "givens." Again, this is hard work. It takes a certain level of intelligence to perceive the problem and definite character to take on the task.
"But how?" one might ask, "can you identify an essential lie?"
It's easy. As Saul Alinsky stated: "The action is in the reaction."
There are two methods. First, work back through the directional ideals taught in childhood, whose validity is on a par with the Easter Bunny and/or the Tooth Fairy. Second, question what thoughts or lines of inquiry are forbidden by tradition or law. Essential lies can be identified by the response of those in authority, whether the authority is petty or grand. Persons who question an essential lie will strike "pay dirt" every time. The quest is not without substantial risk, however, as the reaction may vary from mere sarcasm, to arrest, or outright violence against one's person.
Jesus may have said "the truth will set you free," (5) but that doesn't necessarily apply to speaking truth to power. Speaking truth to power may lead to one's proscription and death. Jesus, himself, is a good example, but there are others: Socrates, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., to name three.
Those who depend upon essential lies to support their zeitgeist are prone to viciousness in order to protect (prolong) the lie. This is because essential lies create a house of cards that may tumble before persistent questioning. For the credulous, the thought that those in authority have been lying, or "misleading," is more than they can stand. These are the people who have their minds shrunk-wrapped in the flag and they are very dangerous. Arundhati Roy explains:
"Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people's brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead. When independent-thinking people (and here I do not include the corporate media) begin to rally under flags, when writers, painters, musicians, film makers suspend their judgment and blindly yoke their art to the service of the 'Nation,' it's time for all of us to sit up and worry." (6)When people suspend judgment, they are putting their brains on the shelf. Unlike Socrates, they don't know and don't want to know. Instead, such people allow untruths, misleading statements and outright lies to go unquestioned. Sadly, this is where a good many Americans now stand. The Bush II Administration misled the country about the real reasons for the Iraq war. As the real reasons begin to surface, many Americans are still reluctant to confront the lies of the political class, or their own poltroonish behavior in accepting them. All this in spite of the fact those American plans for dominating the Middle East (and the World) have been available on the worldwide web for a decade. (7)
Shrunk-wrapped brains, indeed!
But, perhaps the point may be made with more common, less threatening examples. OK. Here are three:
In God we trust.Most Americans sense these things aren't true, but in the interest of getting along, pretend otherwise. If they were deemed to be true, the populace would pay more than lip service to them. Alas, such is not the case. A nation comprising more lawyers than the rest of the world combined is not about to trust in God, equality, or majority vote. It is not my intent to get into a long discussion over these three. There are plenty other essential lies around and each individual can identify his or her own. The point is that people profess to believe in things they know aren't so. (8) They repeat the lies to others, who nod and pretend to agree, knowing all the time that these things aren't so. This is the paradox that wraps around the third essential lie, above. Democracy requires individual participation and character. Most people don't have the stomach for it. This includes the political class who quickly seek judicial nullification when a democratic vote goes the wrong way.
"WAIT!" Someone might say, trying to defend one or more of the above. "It depends on what you mean by "God," or "trust," or "equal," or "democracy."
No! The truth is simple. Lies and sophistries are complex. Truth doesn't need a lawyer, or a court, to explain it, or uniformed assassins with guns to enforce it. If there is a need for lengthy explanations, backed up by force, the truth is gone. (9)
Should someone have the temerity to pursue directional ideals and demand that they be followed, as Martin Luther King Jr. did, he/she will be vilified and perhaps receive death threats. King, who believed that America should be a democracy, and trusted in God, proceeded to demand that all people be treated as equals. In other words, he asked Americans to live up to their expressed beliefs. For this he was vilified in the press, jailed repeatedly and finally shot to death (assassinated). As a result of his martyrdom, most American cities of consequence now have a boulevard and/or school named after him. Aside from that, however, and a plethora of speeches on an annual holiday, held in his name, the three directional ideals, above, remain unfulfilled.
So what to do?
First: Be willing to question authority and long-held beliefs. Hold on to ideals that pass personal examination and demand that they be followed. This is because if ideals are not followed, they become mere slogans -- essential lies -- which gull the public and allow them to pretend something is true when it is not.
Second: Know what you think and why you think it. It is one thing to question the culture, or rail against "society," but quite another to look inward at those things that underpin your "givens." A person does not have to be as brave as Mohandas Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr., but it is important to prepare the bedrock within, before seeking validation in a cause ready-made by others.
Third: Do right, but don't expect recognition and/or rewards. For the thoughtful person, a job well done is its own reward. Military pomp, finalized with shiny medals with colored ribbons affixed is for those who follow orders bravely, or become "useful" to the propagandists (as Private Jessica Lynch did).
Finally, stand for what you think is right -- alone, if necessary. An admonition by Mohandas Gandhi is apropos:
"There are moments in your life when you must act even though you cannot carry your best friends with you. The still small voice within you must always be the final arbiter when there is a conflict of duty." (10)Rachel Corrie would understand. (11)
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References and Resources
1. Plato, "The Apology," Great Dialogues of Plato, Revised Edition, Rouse trans., New American Library, New York. p. 496 (back)
2. A person who says he doesn't occasionally doubt his givens is either a liar or someone who isn't very smart -- take your pick. (back)
3. Palast, Greg, "Tragedy in New York: French Fried Friedman," http://www.GregPalast.com/, September 18, 2003. See also: d'Aymery, Gilles, "Julien Benda, The Failure of Imagination and Thought," Swans, March 31, 2003 http://www.swans.com/library/art9/ga153.html. (back)
4. Euripides, The Bacchae, Philip Vellcott trans., Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1961, pp. 216-217. (back)
5. The Holy Bible, King James Version, Gospel of St. John, 8:32. (back)
6. Roy, Arundhati, War Talk, South End Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2003, pp. 47-48. (back)
7. Taiara, Camille T., "Censored!," The Pacific Northwest Inlander, September 25, 2003, http://www.inlander.com/topstory/278731656913534.php -- see, www.projectcensored.org. Ms. Tiara is referencing The Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Many of the President's advisors are members of PNAC: Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, to name four. See also, http://www.newamericancentury.org/. (back)
8. It was Mark Twain who quipped: "We make fun of the schoolboy, but it was the schoolboy who said 'Faith is believing in something you know ain't so.'" (back)
9. I realize that philosophers have debated whether or not there is such a thing as "truth" for millennia. I take the Platonic position that there is such a thing as truth, independent of human cognition. Whether we figure it out, or not, is of no concern to the universe (or the gods, as the case may be). There are simple truths that allow us to function in harmony. When we make meaning complex, we stray from truth and suffer. Here's a personal directional ideal: "Be who you say you are." It sounds easy, but requires thought. If one can't be authentic, the rest doesn't matter much. (back)
10. Fischer, Louis (Ed.), The Essential Gandhi, Vintage Books, New York, 1962, p. 152. (back)
11. Rachel Corrie, an Evergreen College student, from Olympia, Washington, was an American peace activist in Gaza. She was crushed to death under a sixteen-ton Caterpillar bulldozer while attempting to stop the driver, an Israeli soldier, from destroying a Palestinian home.
After bringing Rachel's body home from the Israeli Occupied Territories, her parents contacted their Senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, who promised an investigation. That was the last the parents heard from their Senators. It is doubtful that they will hear anything further. American pols know which side their bread is buttered on. (back)
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