September 1, 2020 Category: Religion

The Odious Utility Of Programatic Alterity:

Demonization of the other is a paradigm that resonates with all humans; as we are all, as homo sapiens, primally hardwired to be tribalistic. Consequently, we are predisposed to be suspicious–or even hostile–toward anyone who seems foreign (that is: different in some palpable way).  Such a frame of mind means thinking of all possible interactions in terms of us (good, by definition) vs. them (bad unless proven otherwise).  Behold: A splendidly simple way of seeing the world that triggers the lizard brain in all of us.

The allure of such framing stems not only from its simplicity, but from the fact that it ends up being ingratiating to anyone who espouses it.  It’s no wonder that exaltation of the in-group is a surefire way to galvanize those who see themselves as part of (whatever happens to be seen as) the anointed tribe; which is–as a matter of course–pitted against on out-group.

Once this “Manichean” worldview is brought to bear, the in-group is seen as interminably besieged by a menacing OTHER, and–whenever travails are afoot–assailed by the (alleged) depredations of the despised out-group.  The natural reaction, then, is: “We will continue to be imperiled lest some action be taken to ward of…THEM.”  Insofar as a siege mentality is engendered, members feel obliged to circle the wagons, as it were. Insularity invariably ensues.

And so it goes: A tendentious Manichean worldview cannot exist without a tribalistic mindset, whereby all things are couched in terms of us and them.

It is no secret that this cast of mind can be tremendously gratifying; as it offers the prospect of valiantly rising up against a dastardly foe (subsequently, the hope is, conferring glory on the victor).  In the interim, life’s casus belli is defined (as a plight); and members of the anointed group can bask in the warm glow of their false pride as they await the appointed hour (see my essay: “Brink Porn”).

As this can work for, well, ANY group (however defined), this way of seeing the world has universal appeal.  The danger, though, is that such divisive thinking can’t help but lead to confrontation; and eventually set the stage for demagogy.  Hence a charismatic leader can easily point to THE OTHER and declare–forebodingly: “All [y]our woes can be attributed to [insert scapegoat here].  So you need to trust ME to protect you (as I’m the one willing to take a decisive stand, on behalf of YOU).  I shall wage war against the demonized outsider; ensuring that we insiders ultimately come out on top.”  The implication is clear: “Arrogate to me sufficient power, and ‘we’ [the righteous] will triumph over ‘them’ [the depraved].”  According to this thinking: It’s not just tribal honor that’s at stake; it’s subsistence.

The trappings of this (seductive) mindset are undeniable.  Whenever there is a dire predicament, there needs to be a bold solution.  Whenever there is an injustice, a reckoning is in order.  Peril calls for drastic measures.  So to promote a tendentious agenda, one need only persuade people that they are in jeopardy; and that ANTAGONISM is what will set things aright.

In the midst of such contention, there is fertile ground for any aspiring demagogue.  There is a catch, though.  This perfidious ruse only works insofar as the audience can be made to feel insecure; and–above all–resentful.  “They’re out to get us” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as one ends up creating a vicious cycle of recrimination and reprisal–fueling the very antagonism such posturing purports to address.  Each side’s antagonism FUELS the other side’s antagonistic mindset, which serves to justifying its posture. {34}

Fear and anger are symbiotic; and both guarantee the defenestration of Reason.  Therefore, sowing neurosis is the best way to get people to rally behind a militant “solution”.  LASHING OUT is, after all, cathartic…even as sound thinking goes completely out the window. It is no surprise, then, that insecurity lay at the root of all sycophancy.

Neurosis hijacks our critical faculties, thereby hamstringing our ability to engage in sound reasoning. So long as people are kept insecure (psychologically and/or materially), they are much easier to manipulate. Insecure people (i.e. those experiencing trepidation) are far more susceptible to the trappings of false hope (a topic I address in my essay, “The Island”).

Here, we will survey the various incarnations of the Manichean worldview around the world, throughout history.  In each case, we will encounter a worldview that boils everything down to a simplistic, binary cosmogony: an enthralling waltenshauung that hits all the right buttons.  The Manichean worldview is a convenient way to make sense of an (otherwise bewildering) world.  In psychology, the use of a binary taxonomy to make sense of things is known as “dichotomous thinking” (alt. either/or thinking, all-or-nothing thinking, zero-sum thinking).  Thinking of everything in black and white terms undergirds such puerile framing: there’s us and there’s everybody else; and if you don’t fit, then you must be THE OTHER (which, must be held in abeyance). {5}  This approach often leads to the most virulent forms of tribalism, which is invariably predicated on reactionary thinking.

For the present analysis, Greek myth serves as a helpful point of departure.  “Nemesi” was the ancient Greek term for retribution.  “Nemesis” was the goddess of divine retribution; and so was the antagonist of “Themis”, goddess of comity (that is: of natural order, in the peaceable sense).  Like the godhead of the Hebrew Bible, Nemesis was a vindictive super-being–known for meting out divine punishment to anyone who had the audacity to cross her.  And like Yahweh, her gripe was with impudence more than with injustice.  (The serpent in the Garden of Eden was not promoting evil, it was simply entreating the first humans to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and so to do what Yahweh had forbidden.)

Unlike the Abrahamic deity, though, this super-being was feminine, not masculine.  When personified, order tends to be depicted as masculine in authoritarian cosmogonies; in contradistinction with, say, an Earth goddess (see part III of my series on “The History Of Female Empowerment”).  The salient point is that retribution is predicated on there being some sort of (formally designated) nemesis.  Tellingly, “nemesi” (foe) was inextricably tied to “hybris” (hubris); reminding us that conceit is required in order to maintain this self-ingratiating disposition; and to get such an adversarial–nay, ornery–posture to make sense.

So we find that designating an ENEMY is stupendously useful for propagandistic purposes (that is: getting people to go along with an agenda); as certain parties can be useful of “enemies” (viz. being seen in a foreboding light).  In this sense, it is the PORTRAYAL that counts.  For the very positing of a nemesis galvanizes True Believers–creating an urgency that makes it easier to rally them behind a cause.  So enemies play a useful role in the prevailing narrative.  Indeed, agit-prop couldn’t work WITHOUT them!  The idea is to furnish the anointed group with a nemesis against which the in-group must wage some kind of epic battle; as this gives it a casus belli (read: a rationalization for an agenda that would otherwise be exposed as morally dubious).  Participants in this charade are thus furnished with a MISSION that justifies their existence. {6}

So the appeal likes in both affinity (a source of gratification) and utility (we need to save our own hides).

The demonization of THE OTHER goes back to the Akkadian Empire’s account of the dreaded “Umman Manda” [“horde from somewhere”] in the 3rd millennium B.C.  (They’re out there to get us!  So we need to beware.)  The portrayal of these nefarious OTHERS is typically as savages / barbarians.  Hence the Roman characterization of the Gauls and the Gaels / Picts; and then of the “Huns” of the Eurasian Steppes (which simply meant “people”); and then of the marauding Vandals and Goths at the perimeter of the empire.  The thinking here is as straight-forward as it is predictable: WE are sophisticates (who are “in the know”), and THEY are uncivilized brutes (who need to be tamed)…or staved off…or even eradicated…lest our existence be in jeopardy.  (See my essay on “The Siege Mentality”.)  The appeal to this captivating narrative is timeless; and–as we’ll see–transcends cultures.

So how does this characterization of THE OTHER work?  A hint comes from the architecture of most folklore.  Interestingly, when we tell / hear stories, we are sometimes as enthralled by villains as we are by heroes; and we sometimes confuse the two.  This dual nature is best illustrated by popular caricatures of the following:

  • Mobsters (from the Cosa Nostra in New York to the Yakuza in Japan)
  • Desperadoes of the “wild west” (American frontier in the late 19th century) like “Wild Bill” Hickok, Henry McCarty (a.k.a. “Billy the Kid”), Charles Earl Boles (a.k.a. “Black Bart”), and Jesse James
  • Financiers like Mayer Rothschild (of war-profiteering fame); James Fisk and Jay Gould (of railroad fame) {1}
  • Robber-barons like John Davison Rockefeller Sr. (of oil trust fame); Andrew Carnegie (steel magnate of Pinkerton fame); and Cornelius Vanderbilt (of shipping fame) {1}

Of course, by “fame”, we often mean “infamy”.  Notorious malefactors have played a key role in folklore since Azhi Dahhak[a] (a.k.a. “Zahak”) made an appearance in Persian folklore.  And so it went with Mordred, who served as the spooky foil in Arthurian legend.  The abiding infatuation with anti-heroes is reflected in the notoriety of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, King Lear, and Macbeth.  Even if the figures are downright reprehensible, our curiosity is piqued.  Hence the legacy of, say, the Castilian cynosure (and Roman Catholic fanatic), Tomas of Torquemada–a figure who has served as the model for countless villains since his role in the Spanish Inquisition.  In England, King Henry the VIII is the subject of endless intrigue.  In America, New York’s “Boss Tweed” of Tammany Hall has served as a template for the dirty businessman that ensnares our imagination.

Meanwhile, our intrigue with Svengalis explains the delicious infamy of Shakespeare’s devious Iago and M.G. Lewis’ cartoonish harridan, “Matilda”.  The devious, manipulative scoundrel behind the primary anti-hero is as old as the scheming Phoenician virago, Jezebel of Sidon.  The fascination with scheming women dates back to the devious Mycenaean queen Clytemnestra of Argos (in Greek lore) and the conniving Philistine temptress, Delilah (in Hebrew lore).  Also note the notorious Shulemite / Shunemite maiden who seduced King Solomon into worshipping the Canaanite god, Moloch.  In Germanic lore, the Svengali took the form of Mephistopheles.  Shakespeare epitomized the female Svengali with Lady Macbeth–a character we can’t help but both dread and admire. {2}

This gimmick continued through the Middle Ages, though a seductress was not always the culprit–as with the Sufi mystic, Zakariyya al-Ansari (vis a vis Mamluk Sultan Qaytbay); and the Sufi mystic, Khadir al-Mihrani (vis a vis Mamluk Sultan Al-Zahir Baybars)…on through Russian mystic, Grigori Rasputin’s bending the ear of Tsar Nicholas II.  The ongoing bewitchment with Svengali persists to the present day in halls of power around the world (invariably behind closed doors).  Some might call it diabolical; others simply consider it shrewd.  So long as there is a system, there will be those trying to “game” it.

The human obsession with villainy–at least insofar as NARRATIVES are concerned–leads to apocryphal tales as much as does our obsession with heroism.  Sometimes we render such characters far more sinister than they probably were–as with, say, Judas Iscariot.  Wherever there is a provocative story to be told, people will tell it…and others will be eager to listen.

The perverse intrigue of villains stems, in large part, from our fascination with the sinister.  Subversion can be oddly titillating.  It’s why we’ve always been enraptured by ghost stories.  (Who isn’t mesmerized by the prospects of a vampire or ghoul or succubus lurking somewhere out there in the darkness?)  Who cares if the protagonists were diabolical?  They achieved domination, after all.  And there is something exhilarating about conquest–no matter how brutal.  For we are intoxicated not only by power, but by STORIES ABOUT power.  Such characters–no matter how morally dubious–allow the darker angels of our nature to live vicariously.

Malevolence can captivate, and so has been used in some of the most riveting tales–from Shakespeare’s Edmund (as well as King Lear’s manipulative daughters, Goneril and Regan) to the cunning Hannibal Lector.  Our tendency to be fascinated by scheming rascals is attested by the infamy of Shakespeare’s preternatural, genderless rapscallion, Robin Goodfellow (a.k.a. “Puk”).  He’s up to no good, but we can’t resist rooting for him anyway.

Just as some villains can be romanticized (insofar as they tantalize us), anyone seen as THE OTHER can be vilified (insofar as doing so legitimizes our worldview and/or validates the image we want to have of ourselves).  In other words, even as we are sometimes infatuated with villainy, it can also be a tool we use to justify whatever agenda or self-image we may happen to have.

As it turns out, the light in which we cast people tends to reflect our own prejudices.  Many historical figures end up being either a hero or a villain, depending on the biases of the story-teller / target-audience.  Case in point: the Georgian potentate of Soviet Russia, Joseph Stalin.  Behold a brutal tyrant who persecuted–and deliberately starved–tens of millions of Ukrainians, Turkic peoples, Mongols, and other ethnic minorities (derided as “Kulaks”); yet was for a time revered as an exemplar of human greatness by tens of millions of Soviet apparatchiks.

Meanwhile, TO THIS DAY, tens of millions of North Koreans are brainwashed into thinking Kim Il-Sung was a valiant hero; and HUNDREDS of millions of Chinese sycophants are still under the impression that Mao Tse-Tung was anything other than a calamitous imbecile.  Even the most catastrophic of figureheads can be lionized if it serves a purpose (esp. bolstering the gilded legacy of the anointed tribe; abetting the interests of those in power).

All this stems from the fact that we are always tempted to demonize THE OTHER as it suits us.  When we want to feel better about ourselves yet are addled with insecurities, the temptation is strong to put others down.  THE OTHER is often named according to whether we think of them as ally or foe.  It is easy to romanticize the former whilst vilifying (and DE-HUMANIZING) the latter–as with the 20th-century Vietnamese peasant revolution, whereby the Viet-Minh were labeled the (more menacing-sounding) “Viet-Cong” by American Cold Warriors, who orchestrated a genocidal military incursion against them.  To this day, Americans forget that the pejorative “Viet-Cong” is a derogatory epithet concocted for propagandistic purposes to rationalize invasion. {9}

Derogation–nay, demonization–of THE OTHER is especially likely when tribalism predominates.  This involves demands for conformity along some dimension–be it ethnically or ideologically.  (Either is a basis for alterity.)  Accusations of heresy is a form of this pathology.  Hence, Christians see non-Christians as heathens.  In the Islamic tradition, there is the demeaning characterization of non-Muslims as “jahiliyyah” (the insistence that Dar al-Kufr are in a state of ignorance).  Such derisive nomenclature is used to identify out-groups who threaten the in-group’s exalted status, stymie its designs, or encroach on its territory.

Bottom line: Alterity is an integral part of tribalism.

When it comes to justifying the deeds of one’s own group, the key is to define THE OTHER as inherently inferior / evil; thereby legitimizing whatever measures are taken to–as it were–put them in their place (and thus securing the ordained status of the anointed group).  Such spurious categories are little other than specious caricatures deployed to de-humanize anyone who is operating counter to OUR interests…or even anyone who is not “one of us”.  For THEY are depraved (by dint of being not us) and we alone are righteous (by definition).

The best-known use of this divisive taxonomy was the Roman Empire vis a vis EVERYONE ELSE (esp. pesky interlopers on the empire’s vast perimeter).  It was also used by European imperialists in both Africa and the Americas vis a vis the indigenous inhabitants–who dwelled on the expanding frontiers of the Occident’s colonialism.  Denying a people its humanity was integral to colonial designs; as subjugation was rationalized by hegemonic nations who were inclined to paint their exploits as righteous.

The routine, it seems, involves positing an exalted in-group; and then designating a (vilified) out-group against which it must be pitted so as to justify its self-aggrandizement.  Thus Nazi thinker Carl Schmitt opined: “Tell me who your ENEMY is, and I will tell you who YOU are.”  This is indistinguishable from the credo of the Revisionist Zionist or the Cold Warrior…who convince themselves that they are merely the vessels of divine Providence.  Both defined themselves by who they are obliged to fight AGAINST, then wrapped their designs in the garb of Manifest Destiny. {4}

History is often written according to such simplistic categories.  That is: How we are inclined to think of “what happened” is couched in Manichean terms; and so based on false dichotomies.  Historiography tends to put this comic-book portrayal of the world into overdrive.  This is why the simplistic “good vs. evil” scheme is so popular in folklore and literature.  

The theme of hero vs. villain pervades the world’s cultures.  The Slavic godhead was “Deivos” (a cognate of the Sanskrit “Deva”, from which the Latin “Deus” was also derived).  Proceeding from him was a cosmic duality: “Belo-bog” (white god) and “Cherno-bog” (black god; a.k.a. “Tiarno-glofi” meaning dark mind).  The former represented the heavenly masculine (associated with light); the latter represented the worldly feminine (associated with darkness).  This is in keeping with the tendency to associate order (here, as the heavens) with the masculine; and to associate chaos (here, as the earth) with the feminine.  The former may be a sky-god; the latter is often associated with a roiling primordial sea (see my essays on “Mythemes”).  In Russian folklore, good is represented by the heroic protagonist, “Ivan Tsarevich”…who is pitted against the dastardly antagonist, “Koschei”.

There are the forces of good; and there are the forces of bad.  Its enticement lay in its simplicity.  In Islamic theology, we find the puerile leitmotif of the good angel and the bad angel–each perched on a different shoulder, bending our ear.  Thus it is “munkar” (associated with sinfulness; that which is rejected) vs. “nakir” (associated with goodness [“ma’ruf”]; that which is accepted).  The Koran instructs: Enjoin “ma’ruf” and forbid “munkar”…as if this clarified anything.  Alas, this way of representing temptation vs. rectitude is commonplace across cultures (see my discussion of Divine Command Theory in “The Universality Of Morality”).

And so it goes: The forces of light pitted against the forces of darkness.  Even as the real world is not divided so neatly, an easily-digestible Manichean account demands this clear-cut, binary taxonomy.  It’s as if everything were as simple as Jedi vs. Sith…or Strawberry Shortcake vs. the Purple Pieman.  It is not for nothing that cartoonish versions of the world reduce everything to a straight-forward story in which the forces of good are pitted against the forces of evil:

  • The Justice League (of DC superheroes) vs. the Legion of Doom
  • Lion Force (Voltron) vs. the Fleet of Doom
  • Starforce vs. Gamilons (Starblazers)
  • Autobots vs. Decepticons (Transformers)
  • G.I. Joe vs. Cobra
  • M.A.S.K. vs. V.E.N.O.M.

According to the wonderfully simplistic narrative on offer, the former are CATEGORICALLY good while the latter are CATEGORICALLY bad.  And that’s all there is to it.

This jejune conception of the world enables us to perceive things according to clear-cut categories.  Such binary thinking seemed to make sense when it was the Thunder Cats vs. the mutants of Plun-Darr.  However, once we grow up, most of us come to realize that the universe does not actually work in this manner.  Sapience allows us to discard childish musings, recognizing them as gross over-simplifications.

Granted, this modeling of human events came in handy when–as kids–we ran around the yard playing “cops and robbers” or “cowboys and indians”.  Yet, after adolescence, most of us learn that life is more complicated.  Generally speaking, maturity enables us to eschew puerility in favor of nuanced thinking.

Alas, a tribalistic mindset gives us an excuse to remain callow into adulthood–that is: to be fanciful while pretending to be “in the know”.  Dogmatism invites us to be unscrupulous whenever it suits our favored worldview; so nothing could ever possibly refute the consecrated conceptual framework.

Yet in the real world, good-ness and bad-ness don’t work this way. {5}  This was illustrated in the revamped incarnation of “Battlestar Galactica”, where humans (ostensibly good) were pitted against the Cylons (ostensibly bad).  As it turned out, this was a false dichotomy.  We came to learn that BOTH were eminently human.  The difference is that one was homo sapiens and the others were androids.  (The same point had already been made in 1973 with Michael Crichton’s “Westworld”, rebooted in 2016 on HBO.)

We homo sapiens are suckers for a compelling narrative; and are partial to elegant formulas; especially when those formulas are self-serving.  Who are the “good guys”?  WE are.  Who are the “bad guys”?  Anyone who is different from us; especially if they hamper our agenda.  These categories are not seen as circumstantial; they are taken as DEFINITIVE.  Semantically, “good” and “evil” are fungible, allowing story-tellers to qualify things according to their narrative of choice…which is invariably self-ingratiating.

An illustrative case is 17th-century Maratha warrior-king, Shivaji Bhonsle of Raigad–who is considered a national hero by India’s Hindus even as he was portrayed as a pirate by the Mughals and British colonialists.  Just as he was a heroic figure to the former, he was a thorn in the sides of the latter.

The promulgation of a burnished legacy often demands a portrayal of each that is evocative in the desire way.  We often forget that who we call “good guys” and “bad guys” sometimes says more about ourselves than about who we are labeling.  This proclivity is universal.  If one watches, say, a Thai film about the golden age of Ayutthaya, one will find the Burmese depicted as savages and the Siamese as sophisticates.  Were the Burmese to make a film about the same events, the depictions would surely be reversed.

That which has been ordained by god is whatever one makes it.  Hence the formulation of “Manifest Destiny” in the Americas as well as Adolf Hitler’s iteration in his manifesto: “My Jihad”.  Merely asserting it suffices for an (allegedly) unassailable justification. {8}  Such self-serving taxonomic perspectivism applies to the bespoke characterization of organizations as well.  Note the pejoratives used for propagandistic purposes against the “communist forces” arrayed against imperialism, over the worse of the Cold War.  Already mentioned was the nefarious “Viet Cong” [PLAF], a label use for Vietnamese peasants.  Other examples include:

  • The nefarious “Sandinistas” [FSLN] for Nicaraguan peasants {10}
  • The nefarious FMLN for Salvadoran peasants
  • The nefarious FARC and ELN for Colombian peasants
  • The nefarious “Tupamaros” [MLNT] for Venezuelan and Uruguayan rebels
  • The nefarious “Zapatistas” [EZLN] for Mexican (Maya, Chiapas, and Tzotzil) peasants
  • The nefarious FLN for freedom fighters in Algeria (protesting French colonialism)
  • The nefarious ANC for black South Africans (taking a stand against the U.S.-backed Apartheid regime)
  • The nefarious UGT and CNT-FAI for Spanish / Catalonian socialists (taking a stand against Franco’s fascist regime)

The pattern is consistent: The rank and file fighting back against systems of domination / oppression.  While some of these groups sometimes resorted to terrorist acts to further their cause (an opprobrious measure, irrespective of the merit of the ends; see footnote 3), their frenetic–often spasmodic–invocation of “communism” / “Marxism” had little bearing on the credence of the points Marx actually made; nor did it having much to do with the merit of anarchic principles (as nominally conceived). 

And there are also:

  • The (vilified) PLO for Palestinians defying Revisionist Zionist colonialism / persecution {11}
  • The (vilified) PKK for Kurds vying for independence from Turkish rule.
  • The (vilified) ETA (later, PNV) for Euskadi (a.k.a. “Basques”) fighting for independence from Spain.
  • The (vilified) Tibetans and Uyghurs vying for independence from China.

When surveying the myriad examples, a common thread can be discerned.  The plight of the Kurds for a sovereign Kurdistan, for example, is analogous–in several important ways–to the plight of the Palestinians for a sovereign Palestine.  It has to do with self-determination on a tract of land that has been theirs for many centuries. {12}

This self-serving taxonomy is reflected in the simplistic archetypes: righteous warrior vis a vis barbarian.  These labels–nothing more than convenient caricatures–often have the same referent.  Which is adopted depends entirely on one’s vested interests.  As is well-known, disparate accounts of important events often won’t concur on who’s good and who’s bad.  Was British mariner Frances Drake a marauding pirate or a valiant commodore?  How about Andrea Doria of Genoa?  Shall we think of the Ottoman / Barbary hero, Khayr ad-Din of Mytilene as the heralded “Kapudan Pasha” or as a nefarious corsair?  In 1831, when Nat Turner led a slave rebellion in the American antebellum “South”, he was guilty of sedition.  So was he a hero or a traitor?  Depends on who you ask. The same goes for Nelson Mandela vis a vis Apartheid South Africa or Simon Bolivar vis a vis colonized Latin America.

Agit-prop generally makes use of binary taxonomies–designed to categorize allies and enemies according to their amenability to the agenda-at-hand.  That is: Categorization of “good guys” vs. “bad guys” is often done to serve one’s own interests.  U.S. foreign policy during the post-War era has provided a vivid illustration of this. {13}

And so it goes: A hero to some people is often a villain to others–as we find with the categorization of “terrorists” vs. “freedom fighters”.  Which was Che Guevara?  How about Ho Chi Minh?

Often, we are so entranced by our own (self-ingratiating) narrative, we are blind to our own hypocrisy. Nelson Mandela was on the U.S. terrorist watch list until 2008.  Yet PRIOR TO the end of Apartheid, Mandela was considered a terrorist…even as Saddam Hussein had been TAKEN OFF the list (until he became persona non grata in 1991).  Such a juxtaposition is instructive when assessing spurious taxonomies.

To get such taxonomies to seem plausible, one is forced to elide much of what actually transpires whenever it does not fit with the anointed worldview.  This entails tweaking the official record so as to comport with the desired narrative.  Such is the nature of engineered “memory / forgetting” in maintaining a compelling narrative vehicle for the promulgation of one’s ideology.  Thus anything the in-group does is–BY DEFINITION righteous.  The U.S. does not engage in terrorism!  Really?  But what of Iran Air 655? {13}

In the Occident AS WELL AS in the Muslim world, many have been earnest to demonize the Mongols–depicting them as some sort of savage OTHER (e.g. the barbaric “Mongol hordes” raping and pillaging their way across the known world).  This is a historically erroneous caricature that I dispel in my essay on “The Universality Of Morality”.  Yet it is no secret WHY this disingenuous portrayal has been embraced.  It helps make OUR OWN histories seem to make more sense.  (In reality, the Europeans, mired in the Holy Roman Empire, were more barbaric–and more uncivilized–than was the Mongol Empire.  In fact, the Mongols were FAR more sophisticated–and FAR more PROGRESSIVE–than Europeans during the Dark Ages.)

The binary thinking that makes the Manichean worldview so enticing is–it turns out–precisely what makes it defective.  Alas, such thinking is inevitable whenever tribalism is afoot; as its appeal lay in the fact that it is designed to serve one’s interests–which is simply to say: it can be used to rationalize ANYTHING.  That it is question-begging poses no problem.  (Note that cult activity is like Novocain for cognitive dissonance.)  For there are good guys and bad guys; and we need only designate who’s who in order for everything to make sense.  In such a scheme, whatever the former does it must be good; and whatever the latter does, is must be bad.  Hence: In making moral judgements, we don’t merely look to what the purported “good guys” do in order to determine what’s right; and whatever their adversaries do in order to determine what’s wrong.

In reality, doing the right thing is a function of the thing done, not of the identity of those doing it.  (It’s doing good that makes people–whoever they might be–good.)

Alas.  Our penchant for tribalism is part of our universal human nature; which is to say it is an adaptation, courtesy of biological evolution.  Understanding this, it is easier to see why in-group vs. out-group thinking emerged as a survival mechanism.  In pre-historic times, anything foreign MAY WELL HAVE BEEN threatening.  This was often a matter of practicality: OUR way of life and YOUR way of life likely reflected different adaptation matrices.  When it comes to rituals, tribes in different environments likely adapted to accommodate different (biological) pathogen vectors.  So when we encounter a different way of life, we are rightfully cautious–and may even say that you are doing things (and thinking about things) in the WRONG WAY.  For if WE were to do that, we–being who we are–might run into problems.  And so it went: Divergence from the norm meant risky.  Therefore a tribalistic mindset was brutally pragmatic.

Meanwhile, different tribes generally operated under different circumstances; so due to sheer accident of history, they likely developed along different MEMETIC pathogen vectors–a contingency that led to the adoption of some dogmas instead of others (hell as an intolerably cold place as opposed to an intolerably hot place).  In the end, foreign BELIEFS (e.g. believing in a sun-god instead of a moon-god) may have been seen as threatening as foreign PRACTICES (not just doing things to appease the wrong god, but eating the wrong food).  Holding THE OTHER in abeyance, then, was somewhat prudent.  And the “doing things differently means doing things wrong” approach was a good rule of thumb.

All this seems to work out well for our tribalistic proclivities; as tribalism is consummate with this modus operandi.  According to our primal intuitions, foreign practices are just plain wrong; while the way WE do things is THE BEST way.  Hence the supposition that “OUR way is THE ONLY (acceptable) way” was a quasi-reasonable assumption to make (in strictly practical terms) thousands of years ago.  In this sense, a puritanical mindset (replete with conformity and hyper-traditionalism as virtues) was not only self-ingratiating; it was a safety measure. {31}

Such thinking makes it much easier for US to rationalize the belief that WE are getting things right; and even more gratifying to suppose that we are uniquely special, and thus somehow superior.  The problem is that EVERY tribe, insofar as it indulges in self-exaltation, succumbs to this temptation.  For it works from EVERY PERSPECTIVE.  As Nietzsche noted: “At the bottom of all these noble races, the beast of prey, that splendid blond beast avidly prowling about in search of victory and spoils; the Roman, Arabian, Germanic, and Japanese nobility; the Homeric heroes and Nordic vikings, they ALL shared this craving.”  Nietzsche lamented the fact that the pompous cynosures of each tribe tended to conduct themselves as if they were kings of the jungle (i.e. lions).  He rebuked such hubris.  (The Overman was not conceited.  He was an autonomous being, not a panjandrum; and honored others’ autonomy as much as his own.)

However, civilization has changed much of the equation.  And the development of civil society has changed virtually ALL of the equation.  Yet with many of those (once-valid) concerns well-behind us, we are still strongly inclined to give into our most vindictive nature.  Justice is still seen by many as retributive, not restorative–a matter of the good guys triumphing over the bad guys.  In other words, justice is about US WINNING, and THEM LOSING.  But how are we to justify vindictive-ness?  Well, we prize things like honor (of the group) as well as loyalty (to the group); and so relish the exhilaration of that intoxicating thing: glory.  In other words, we sanctify our own hubris; passing a vice off as a virtue.  Again: “nemesi” was inextricably tied to “hybris”.  Alterity stems from conceit; and so retribution is a hubristic act.

The upholding of tribal honor is inseparable from vindictiveness.

As mentioned, alterity invariably involves some degree of dehumanization, and even demonization.  Hence the characterization of the Mongols as barbarian hordes; and the subsequent etymology of the derogatory label, “mongoloid”.  Also note the etymology of “Tatar” (someone who is violent), a pejorative that was used to refer to an entire array of ethnicities (the Turkic peoples of the Eurasian Steppes).  

De-humanizing the out-group is a universal phenomenon.  Consequently, it is a cast of mind that transcends culture; and is the source of structural inequalities.  This accounts for the skewed architecture of the power structures with which we must all contend–exigencies that both reflect and reinforce our deep-seated biases.  Note, for instance, the story of “Gattaca”–in which mankind was divided into the “Valids” and the “Invalids”.  The former were people who MATTER, and so those with access to the perks of society.  The avenues of opportunity were open ONLY to those designated as “Valid”.  In Pierce Brown’s “Red Rising”, it was the “Golds” and the “Reds”.

It is easy to justify campaigns against THE OTHER when one dismisses them as less than fully human (primitive savages).  In America, Chinese laborers were dismissed as “coolies”, Native Americans were “Injuns”, while African slaves were dismissed as “coons” in the antebellum South.  Muslim Arabs refer to non-Muslim Arabs as “Nawar”.  The British referred to Indians as “wogs”.  During the Vietnam war, Vietnamese peasants were referred to as “gooks”.  In Judeo-Christian terms, THE OTHER is ascribed the “mark of Cain”…or some other INNATE DEPRAVITY.  The examples are endless.  The modus operandi is the same in every case: To exalt the in-group (e.g. the volkisch ideal) while vilifying–nay, dehumanizing–anyone who stands in its way.  Divine ordinance is invariably invoked as a rational for this.  ANY invidious taxonomy involves imputing to an entire group (usually an ethnic group) the depravity of a small subset–as if said depravity was INHERENT TO the group.  We find this with Revisionist Zionists associating all Palestinians with Hamas (i.e. militant Salafi fanatics); or Donald Trump associating all Latino immigrants with criminality.  The idea is to blame all problems on whoever has been designated the antagonism in this scheme.  Such a stratagem is standard for any Messianic movement–be it Nazism or Christian Dominion-ism.

Every instance of this divisive scheme involves “feindbild”: the demonized caricature of THE OTHER, posited in order to justify the characterization of them as inferior…and oftentimes as the enemy (that is: as a force against which WE need to wage a righteous campaign).  When it comes to tribalism, such unabashed mendacity is par for the course.  Providentialism is endemic to Messianic movements; for it is the ultimate form of self-righteousness.  The license we accord to ourselves is “Manifest Destiny”; and is justified by claims of Exceptionalism (WE are uniquely special.)  “It is part of god’s plan” / “It is god’s will” / “We are doing god’s work” (call it DGW Syndrome).  The moment a group supposes that it has the imprimatur of the godhead, it has carte blanche to do whatever it sees fit; and to do so with an unmitigated sanctimony; as the privilege it accords itself is unimpeachable.  (Dare you question GOD?)

It is not for nothing that Pope Gregory VII dubbed his plans for the first Crusade “The Lord’s Project”.  He died before the campaign would be undertaken; but the theme prevailed, thanks to the zealotry of the Frankish pontiff, Urban II.  According to this delusive thinking, we hear echoes from Deuteronomy 19:1 and 20:16–18: “Your god is going with you.  He will fight for you against your enemies and give you victory”…reverberations of which were found in the Nazi mantra, “Gott mit uns!” [“God is with us!”]  Such thinking has been found in Iranian-Iraqi war propaganda as well as the rallying cries of the mujahideen in Afghanistan during the 1980’s.  “God is on OUR side; which means that our adversary is AGAINST god; which means that we are justified in whatever measures we deem necessary to triumph.”

Any attempt to reason with zealots afflicted with DGW Syndrome is utterly pointless; as they have disqualified themselves from meaningful conversation.  God’s will is easy to invoke; all one has to do is assert it. {7}  For the DGW rationalization to have purchase, one need only assert it with gusto.  All deliberation is–conveniently–brought to an end.  For the notion of “hakimiyya” (Arabic for god’s sovereignty over all things) is unassailable.  It’s the ultimate trump card.  For it enables anyone to invoke the DGW rationalization for any reason at any time, irrespective of what one might be doing.  Once one is convinced that one is acting on god’s behalf, WHATEVER one does is automatically given legitimacy.  By being proclaimed in this manner, an act is justified.

And so it goes: With the claim of divine ordinance at one’s disposal, ANYTHING goes.  For one need only ascribe the godhead’s approbation to one’s deeds–whatever those deeds might be.  Of course, those doing this are apt to invert the justification–holding that the diktats are what they are, so “Hey, what else are we to do?  Our hands are tied!”  But what it REALLY going on is the anointed agenda is entirely man-made; and the imprimatur of the godhead is ascribed POST HOC (and ad hoc).  One can thus write oneself a blank check, carry out one’s agenda, and pass it off as simply obeying a higher power.  The perk is that one needn’t question the agenda.  (For WHO ARE WE to question an omniscient super-being?)  The fact that the super-being being invoked is a creation of our own imagination needn’t be a problem.  We thus find ourselves on a theological Mobius strip.

The appeal of Exceptionalism lay not just in self-aggrandizement; it lay in the fact that ANYONE can employ it.  It has fungible utility; and so can be used as the substrate for any ideology.  Put another way: The conviction that we’ve been ordained by GOD to do whatever it is we’re determined to do is the ultimate omni-rationalization.

More to the point: Once one fashions oneself as some kind of holy warrior (“mujahid”) within one’s own Faith, commissioned by the Creator of the Universe to carry out his dirty work, any factors outside of the deity’s unimpeachable will invariably become moot.  Ergo, per the DGW framework, ANY agenda can be made righteous.  “I’m doing god’s work” is the easiest card in the world to play.  In reality, it is only ever a matter of ascribing divine sanction to whatever one fancies.

How is the DGW syndrome to be addressed?  As E.O. Wilson has pointed out, “A good first step toward the liberation of humanity from the oppressive forms of tribalism would be to repudiate…the claims of those in power who say they speak for god, are a special representative of god, or have exclusive knowledge of god’s divine will.  Included among these purveyors of theologic narcissism are would-be prophets.”

It does not follow that because there is an innate proclivity for being tribalistic and dogmatic (and thus for engaging in cult activity), mankind is doomed to a life of tribalism and/or dogmatism (and thus of faulty taxonomies).  We all have the wherewithal to rise above our primeval drives; to transcend our tribal dispositions and awaken from our dogmatic reverie.  Religionism is not our unavoidable fate.  Step one is to revisit the caricatures we so covet; and cease thinking of the world in strictly ways that merely suit our own interests.

It is tempting to make sense of the world in terms of good forces vs. bad forces acting in the cosmos, vying for sway over human minds.  In other words: There is good and evil within all of us.  This ideation is found in the Testament of Asher 1:5.  As Alexander Solzhenitsyn so aptly put it, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”  In his novel, “Steppenwolf”, Herman Hesse addressed these antagonistic aspects of the soul–struggling with one another for primacy.  The same theme was used by Shakespeare in “Coriolanus”, by Goethe in “Faust”, and by Dostoyevski in “Crime and Punishment”.  Every human has the capacity for both probity and perfidy.  The point, then, is to ensure that the “better angels of our nature” prevail.

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