The Island

August 26, 2020 Category: Religion

“Faith sees best while in the dark.”  –Soren Kierkegaard

“We have fed the heart on fantasies / The heart has grown brutal from the fare.”  –William Butler Yeats

“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”  –Steve Jobs

It is no secret that people can be manipulated / exploited.  History has shown us that integral to manipulating / exploiting people is ensuring they are (blissfully) unaware that they are being manipulated / exploited.  It is commonly supposed that this must involve devious machinations of some sort–whether by an overtly dastardly villain or by a sinister cabal that operates in the shadows.  But this is a mistake; as it is a crude caricature of how things usually occur.  Subterfuge needn’t be the ambit of odious parties of the sort we find in comic books, triller novels, and fairy tales–where the nemesis takes on palpably monstrous incarnations for the sake of titillating dramatization.  As Hannah Arendt noted, “evil” is most insidious in its more banal forms.

Those in power often instill a sense of buoyant expectancy in the masses as a way to ingratiate themselves with the rank-and file…and thus in order manipulate them.  This stratagem accounts for the prevalence of promised rewards in most theologies.  The key is that the best way to control people is to convince them they are not being controlled; and–by the same token–the best way to exploit people is to distract them from the fact that they are being exploited.  (In social media terms, people are under the impression that they are using Facebook even as Facebook is actually using them.)

A metaphor for this existential heist can be found in the 2005 film, “The Island”.  The idea is presented in a straight-forward manner: “Just keep your head down, do as you’re told, and YOU TOO might someday be chosen for…THE ISLAND.”  This captivating narrative serves as an apt illustration of the social architecture of false hope. {1}

There is a caveat that bolsters the anticipation of the Promised Land: “If your life sucks, don’t sweat it.  Because, gosh darn it, it’s eventually gonna be FANTASTIC.  Just hang in there; and follow these instructions.  TRUST us.  We have your best interests at heart.”  The “it’ll all be worthwhile in the end” schtick can be stupendously successful when people are in dire straights, and desperately need a reason to persevere in the face of tribulation.

The moral of the story: “Stay in line, and all will be will.  But get out of line, and you may forfeit your chances to win the ultimate prize.”  This should sound familiar–as it is how strict disciplinarians ensure children remain well-behaved.  In this Pavlovian scheme, the oft-advertised Paradise serves as an irresistible carrot…or, that is, the PROMISE OF a carrot, which will be given only once…and at some unspecified time in the future.

Such is the nature of false hope.  The prospects needn’t be real; it is the ILLUSION OF hope that does all the work.  It is the BELIEF IN a fata morgana awaiting those who toe the line that behooves people to toe the line.  “The Island” illustrates how this works quite well.  For the willing captives (who–it is crucial to understand–saw themselves as protectees), the carrot was an island paradise–replete with sun, surf, and carefree living.  As it turned out, there was no more potent a ruse for ensuring they remained compliant; as their entire lives amounted to a mundane existence of a highly-regimented daily routine.  Their lives were strictly choreographed “for their own good”, all while being cooped up in an underground compound (seen as a kind of holding place until they would finally–at long last–be delivered to the longed-for destination).  For the denizens of this subterranean North Korea, the idea of a tropical island under a blue sky, with pristine beaches and sublime sunsets, was exactly what the doctor ordered.

In other religions, the carrot may be an open-air seraglio in a lush garden, replete with splendorous raiments, a delicious buffet, and an unending orgy with a coterie of angelic concubines (see my essay on “The Brief History Of Heaven And Hell”).

Spoiler alert: The Island doesn’t really exist.

The name of the game is to keep everyone’s hopes alive.  Nobody wants to bungle their chance to be admitted to the magnificent hereafter (“akhira” in Arabic)…where, they’re assured, they’ll get to see their (departed) loved ones once more.  (Gee-wiz!)  “Just hang in there.  This worldly life (“duniya” in Arabic), trying as it may often be, is only temporary.  It’ll all be worth it…if, that is, you play your cards right.”  The result of this elaborate charade is a population of groveling supplicants waiting for their celestial Godot (see my essay, “Brink Porn”).

Tragically, this devious scam works like a charm.  It is testament to one of the simplest and most effective Machiavellian ploys ever devised: Distract the rabble with something mesmerizing, and they’ll be putty in your hands.  As was shown in “The Island”, when this boondoggle is well-orchestrated, one can corral a pliant flock in whatever way one wishes.

Even more staggering is the possibility of sustaining the illusion of free will.  If one can control what people want, then one doesn’t have to MAKE them do anything.  They will eagerly do as one wishes; and FEEL as though they have made their own decision.  This is what makes scams to dangerous: a faux sense of empowerment even as one is being demeaned / exploited. {16}

Those who have even a rudimentary understanding of con-artistry can see through such smokescreens rather easily.  Yet therein lies the rub: In order to even TRY to see through a smokescreen, one must recognize that the smokescreen exists.  (Illusions don’t readily announce themselves as illusions; lest they not be effective AS illusions.)  After all, much of the point of the facade is to ensure the facade does not appear to be obfuscating anything.  Pretense only works when it isn’t seen as pretense.  (And as any cosmetologist will attest, the most tactful application of makeup makes it look as though one is NOT WEARING makeup.)

The allure of an illusory freedom (the Koranic “horriya”) is elementary.  It constitutes freedom from want, from confusion, from disorganization, from uncertainty, and from unpredictability.  In the film, “The Island”, everyone is fed very well, and has a comfy place to sleep each night…all while in holding.  There is no insecurity; only calm anticipation.  For this ruse to work, structure is paramount.  The ruse is that the governing corporation is “protecting” the residents from the farcical evil the corporation itself concocted.  This is reminiscent of god’s statement in the Koran that he will provide refuge from the evil of that which he himself created: the ordeal that is worldly life (“duniya”; ref. the opening of Surah 113).  Shaded pavilions as reprieve from the scorching heat; sumptuous feast to satiate hunger; plenty of wine with no hangovers to quench any thirst (while presumably offering a pleasant buzz); and–of course–plenty of fucking.

The anticipation of eternal bliss is enough to get people through the day…and help them sleep at night.  We might recall the tragically-deluded members of the People’s Temple.  Unfortunately, the case studies of this duplicitous motif are numerous: Haredim, Evangelical Christians, Salafis, Mormons, Branch Davidians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, etc.  As far as supplicants are concerned, “We’re here of our own free will.  All is well.  We’re taken care of and don’t have to worry.”  And what of the top-down control?  “The powers-that-be have our best interests at heart.  Their unimpeachable authority is for our own good.”  In each case, the captives perceived their candy-coated prison as their Argo to salvation.  The message is loud and clear: Better days lie ahead, just be patient.  (And don’t get out of line.) {17}

In this duplicitous scheme, the message from the powers-that-be is: “Do as we say, and everything will turn out well.  Just hang in there; stick with the program…and things will eventually pan out.”  A sense of urgency can be inculcated with the perpetual assurance that “salvation is just around the corner” (see my essay on “Brink Porn”).  With this being incessantly drummed into supplicants’ heads, they will eagerly acquiesce to the imposed regimen–no matter how draconian.  (Sometimes, the more draconian, the better; as compliance signals fealty.)

As it happens in the real world, “the Island” takes many forms.  It can be “the American Dream” or what Liu Mingfu called “the Chinese Dream”–either way: a socio-economic hoax. {11}  It can be a right-wing libertarian utopia (think of Ayn Rand’s “Galt’s Gulch”).  Or it might just be a vision of fame and fortune–as with the countless get-rich-quick schemes hawked in late-night info-mercials.  The key is to provide tantalizing imagery–to SHOW what it’s like for those who have purportedly “made it”.  The message is always the same: “This too could someday be YOU.  Imagine!”

Much of world’s sanctified folklore has offered its own version of “the Island”.  Throughout history, theologies have proffered their own info-mercials–dating back to the Sumerian tales of the garden-paradise, “Dilmun”.  In Late Antiquity, Augustine of Hippo posited the “City of God”: his own take on the Hebrew “Yahweh-shammah” [“Where God Dwells”], which was often equated with Zion / Jerusalem.  This was essentially what came to be viewed as “Kingdom Come” (alt. Kingdom of Heaven; Kingdom of God). {3}

The common thread is a utopian destination–typically in the form of a verdant (celestial) garden, where there are no worries, no suffering, and an endless supply of euphoria.  It is usually located in an otherworldly place (accessible only to a chosen few).  Members of the Heaven’s Gate cult were convinced that, in dying, they would be magically transported to the “Next Level” via alien spacecraft.  (THEIR path to “akhira”, they believed, awaited them behind comet Hale-Bopp.)  Indeed, it was the eager anticipation for ascending to the “Next Level” that impelled them to take their own lives.  Such a leitmotif is captivating, which is why it crops up in so much fiction:

  • In James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon”, it was “Shangri-La”
  • In George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, it was “Sugarcandy Mountain”
  • In “Pinocchio”, it was “Pleasure Island”
  • In “The Giver”, it was “Elsewhere”
  • In the Brasilian series “3%”, it was the “Offshore”
  • In the film, “Logan’s Run”, salvation was delivered in the form of “Renewal”

Even the most sanctified folklore has employed the motif of a Paradise in a far-off land…a place that only THE ELECT might find.  Medieval Europeans dubbed this fata morgana, “Cockaigne”.  Medieval European sailors told of “Fiddler’s Green”.  Here are 62 more examples of this leitmotif in sanctified folklore:

  • Vedic legends of “Videha” and of “Sveta-Dvipa” [White Island, the abode of Vishnu].  Hindus also posit “Svarga” [alt. “Vaikuntha”; “Paramapadam”].  {5}
  • Jain legends of “Saket[a]”.  Jains also posit “Siddha-sila” [alt. the “Deva Loka”].
  • Buddhist legends of “Jambu-dvipa” [Island of the Jambu trees].  Buddhists also posit “Khembalung”, “Tushita”, and the (Sukhavati) “Pure Land”. {12}
  • Tibetan legends of “Shambhala” (with its city of “Kalapa”); as well as the mythical Mount Potalaka.  Tibetans also posit “Nghe-Beyul Khembalung”.
  • Tamil legends of “Kumari Kandam” / “Kumari Nadu”
  • Chinese legends of “Penglai” / “Horai”
  • Korean legends of “Asadal”
  • Japanese legends of “Takama-ga-hara”
  • Siamese legends of “Muang Thaen[g]” and “Ko Kaeo Phitsadan” [Magical Island]
  • Malay legends of “Gangga Negara”
  • Sumerian legends of “Dilmun
  • Akkadian legends of “Aratta” (a place of gold and jewels; home of Inanna).
  • Assyrians told of the mythical Cedar Forest in the Far East (ref. the Epic of Gilgamesh; likely Elam or Dilmun), at the far end of which there is the mountain known as “Mashu”. {6}
  • Persian legends of “Kaaf-kuh” / “Kuh-y Kaaf”.  Ancient Persians (i.e. Zoroastrians) also posited “Frashokereti”. {2}
  • Ancient Egyptians posited the afterlife paradise, “Sekhet-Aaru” [the “Fields of Aaru”; i.e. Reed Fields].
  • Ancient Greek legends of “Themiskyra” [in Pontus, fabled city of the Amazons] and of the blissful gardens of “Erytheia” (the Red Isle, associated with Tartessos).  Ancient Greeks also posited the “Elysian Fields” (as with Homer); or as Virgil later dubbed it, “Elysium”.  Hesiod posited “Makaron Nesoi” (Isles of the Blessed). {7}
  • Judaic legends of “Gan Eden” and of “Ophir”.  The first Hebrews also seem to have told of “Olam Haba” (a precursor to “Gan Eden”).
  • Practitioners of Kabbala posit “Shamayim”–comprised of seven layers.
  • The earliest followers of Jesus of Nazareth (members of “The Way”) spoke of “Shamayin” (the Syriac derivative of the Aramaic, “Shamayim”, which was also used in Classical Hebrew).  Nicene Christianity eventually adopted the Koine Geek moniker, “ouranos”.  This is what Christians now refer to as “heaven”.
  • Pre-Islamic Arabian legends of “[w]Ubar”
  • The first Mohammedans adopted the Syriac Christian notion of heaven, dubbing it “Jannah” (as it remains in Islam today).
  • Turkic / Altaic legends of “Uçmag”
  • Mongol legends of “Ötüken”
  • Gothic legends of “Arheimar”
  • Celtic legends of “Annwyn”
  • English legends of “Avalon”
  • Welsh legends of “Cantref y Gwaelod”
  • Irish legends of “Hy-Brasil”.  The Irish also posited “Mag Mell” (a.k.a. “Tir Na nOg”).
  • Norman legends of “Ker-Is” [a.k.a. “Ys”]
  • Spanish legends of “Cibola”
  • Frisian / Dutch / Flemish legends of “Luilekkerland”
  • Norse legends of “Vineta”.  The Vikings also posited “Valhalla”.  {4}
  • Finnish legends of “Pohjola” (a local to the far north) and Vainola
  • Slavic legends of “Buyan”
  • Dacian / Romanian legends of “Solomanari” [a.k.a. “Sholomance”] (purportedly located somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains)
  • Maori legends of “Hawaiki”
  • Polynesian (esp. Hawaiian) legends of “Kahiki”
  • Yaruba legends of “Ile-Ife” / “Ife-Lodun”
  • Toltec legends of “Tollan”  {9}
  • Aztec legends of “Aztlan”.  The Aztecs also posited “Tlalocan”.
  • Mayan legends of “Xibalba”
  • Incan legends of “Paititi”
  • Taino legends of “Aumatex”
  • Iroquoian legends of “Saguenay”
  • Inuit legends of the “Land of the Moon”
  • Following Theosophists, Wiccas posit the “Summerland”

These are ALL variations of “The Island”–a magical place to which we ALL aspire to end up in the “hereafter”.  The enticing gimmick continued into the modern age–each time, yet another version of “the Island”.  (Edgar Cayce, for example, referred to it as the “Plane of Venus”.  For more versions of an Edenic “hereafter” in a celestial realm, see my essay: “A Brief History Of Heaven And Hell”.)

The magical destination does not necessarily have to be in a hereafter.  The myth of “El Dorado” impelled Spanish explorers to engage in a wild-goose-chase for farcical city’s of gold (during the 16th century). {10}  For other Mahayana Buddhists, the vision is of a “Pure Land”.  For Pol Pot’s followers, it was a return to the glorious “Angkor”.  For Jehovah’s Witnesses, it’s going to be heaven here on Earth (a return of “Eden”).  The idea began in Judaic lore as the coming Messianic Age, as expressed in the Book of Isaiah (2:4 and 11:6-9; and explored in chapt. 53); then in the Book of Daniel.  It was then coopted for propagandistic purposes in the “Book of Revelation” by John of Patmos, thereby becoming a key component of Pauline (cum Nicene, cum Roman Catholic, cum Millenarian) Christianity.

However, “the Island” typically exists only in an otherworldly place (accessible only after worldly death) because the claim needs to be un-disprovable in order to “work” over a long period of time.  If it can never be corroborated, it is–by the same token–not susceptible being invalidated…EVER…by meddling inquirers.  (This is why no sane person is still searching for El Dorado or Atlantis.  They’re not there; and we can now SEE that they’re not there.)  Meanwhile, nobody could actually see whether or not there was an alien space-craft hiding behind comet Hale-Bopp…leaving room for a leap of Faith for followers of Heaven’s Gate, who were craving the fantasy that had been peddled to them.

“The Island” motif is timeless.  People are desperate for the hope engendered by the promise of the hereafter–which is why ANY book making the case will sell phenomenally well.  The Koran uses the schtick with its depiction of “firdaus” in the afterlife: a lush garden designed like a luxury resort in the sky.  The book’s authors even adopted the Judeo-Christian “Kingdom of God” leitmotif by rendering Paradise a KINGDOM, “mul’kan” (6:75).

The key to pulling off this scam is to have the vision of the promised destination relentlessly ingrained into the participants’ minds.  In the film, “The Island”, this is done via seductive video footage, simulcast on a jumbo-tron screen EVERY DAY.  In Islam, the same thing is accomplished by repeatedly reminding oneself of the promised reward (during “salat”) at regular intervals, each and every day.  (Psychologists call this “priming”.)

Pace the dubiousness of neuro-linguistic programming, conditioning oneself via routine affirmation can be astoundingly efficacious.  By incessantly reminding oneself of a given proposition, the chances that anyone might diverge from the designated “straight path” are mitigated.  For, just when one might consider “getting out of line”, one is yanked right back into the (fabricated) seductive ethos with the next iteration of the entrancing image.

And what of fear (to wit: the threat of punishment for getting out of line)?  If the false hope is powerful enough, there is no need to drum up fear; for hope alone can do the trick.  (I explore the use of fear to manipulate people in my essays, “Nemesis” and “The Siege Mentality”.)  Supplicants will willingly comply if they are sufficiently transfixed.  Remarkably, in “The Island”, the “carrot” worked so well, the corporation did not need to use any “sticks”.

The result is a highly-controlled state of affairs.  Everyone knows their place; and the established order is maintained without threat of subversion.  The constant message by which the plebians are inculcated is: “Don’t question it.  Accept it; because that’s just the way it is.”  The con job (what practitioners refer to as the “long con”) has worked since time immemorial.  And it has served as a theme for some of the most classic narratives.  For example, Frank Herbert’s “Dune” illustrates how those in power use religion to manipulate society.  (The “Missionaria Protectiva” was largely about controlling people en masse; and moving the levers of power as they saw fit.)  Those in the thrall of the engineered fantasy are rendered pawns in the larger game.

The peddling of false hope is not limited to religion; it can be used politically as well.  The quasi-plutocracy that the United States has become (since the mid-70’s) placates the rabble by hawking the so-called “American Dream”.  We’re told that “it’s morning in America” by leaders who deign to “keep the hope alive” and instill “false pride” in those entranced by notions of Exceptionalism and divine Providence…even as those same leaders plunder society–ensuring that the well-positioned few can accumulate ever more wealth for themselves at everyone else’s expense; and do so in perpetuity, with impunity.  (“This too could be YOU.  So just play along, and someday, the spoils WE have may somehow “trickle down” to the rest of you.”)  Hence the political Stockholm Syndrome that plagues the United States.

Thoroughly bamboozled, denizens of the underground compound in “The Island” were persuaded to never challenge the established order; and to play along with the prescribed routine–under the impression that it was in their own best interest.  Those in charge were in charge because they DESERVED to be in charge; and everyone was believed to be all-the-better-off for it.  Call it “trickle-down deliverance.”

To reiterate: The authorities in “The Island” convinced everyone that EVERYTHING was being done for their own good.  (The use of “We’re doing it for your own good” is standard in political propaganda and religious apologetics…just as it is for, say, domestic abuse.)  In the story, until we meet our iconoclastic heroes, it did not not occur to ANY of the residents that they were being manipulated or exploited.  (Understandably, the thinking went: “Too much curiosity killed the cat.  Why jeopardize my chances of getting to THE ISLAND?”)

The unwitting captives were constantly monitored by “the powers that be”…just to ensure everything was copacetic.  “Don’t forget, we’re keeping tabs on everything you do each day.  So watch your step.”  (Sound familiar?)  The authorities offered constant reassurance to their subjects: “Don’t worry, we’ve got it all under control.”  Of course, that was the problem: They had EVERYTHING “under control”. {1}  The hoodwinked denizens of the compound remained blissfully ignorant, day in and day out.

The only ingredient missing in “The Island” was the use of SEX as a “carrot”.  There is nothing as effective as the prospect of sex when it comes to the manipulation of men–as any well-compensated female “exotic dancer” will attest.  Strippers needn’t perform any sexual favors in order to swindle a man out of hundreds of dollars.  Usually, it’s like taking candy from a baby.  How so?  At strip clubs, men pay for a whimsical IDEA, not for an actuality.  The fantasy is all the female performers need provide.  This reveals something fundamental about male psychology: It’s the PROSPECT OF the yearned-for spoils that work; whether or not the expectation is realistic. {13}

We don’t need to watch beer commercials or see cologne ads to be reminded that the mere NOTION OF sex persuades–and can hold sway over men in profound ways, regardless of how illusory the prospects of it REALLY HAPPENING might be.  For this reason, women have been able to use their sexuality to control men since time immemorial–from plebeians to Roman Emperors.  (Rumor has it, some temptresses have even had American presidents eating out of the palm of their hands.)  It’s not for nothing that wily seductresses populate folklore–from Delilah in the Hebrew Bible to Matilda in M.G. Lewis’ “The Monk”.

Add the prospects of a carnal dream-come-true to the mix, and the enticement becomes extremely difficult for men to resist–be it a disaffected Bedouin during the Dark Ages or a U.S. Senator last weekend.  Unlike in “The Island”, this particular (highly potent) ingredient is not missing in the Koran; it is one of its primary features.  “The Island” is an apt metaphor for Islamic eschatology in spite of the fact that sex is not one of the things being peddled.  But when the target audience is horny men, hawking coitus with buxom concubines is a surefire way to catch their attention.  It’s surprising that MORE religions don’t employ this carrot.

We should bear in mind that life is riven with let-downs and set-backs.  Throughout human history, there is no phenomenon that has occurred more than dashed hope. {14}  It is a daily occurrence for most of us–from not making a traffic light to a pivotal interaction not panning out as well as we had wished.  It does not help when anyone deliberately contributes to this existential trammel by generating false hope in others.

That the human condition is besot by such dispiriting hinderances should not deter us from embracing life–THIS (the only) life, in THIS (the only) world.  After all, it is much more difficult to accomplish goals without a positive mental attitude.  The trick is to maintain positivity in the midst of adversity…without allowing oneself to become quixotic.  Measured optimism ensures one will not become delusive.

Sooner or later, all humans come to realize that–in many situations–it is difficult to discern where hope ends and delusion begins.  But there can be little doubt that religion regularly engenders the latter–typically, under the auspices of the former.  Level-headed religionists are often aware of this pitfall.  They therefore remain cognizant of how their Faith informs their highest aspirations, and are vigilant of the point at which Faith needs to be reigned in.  As we navigate the slings and arrows of human existence, it is important to bear in mind that it’s not about what purportedly becomes of us in some after-death “life”; it’s about what we become in this life.

Rather than being thought of as a destination; heaven might instead be thought of something one forges with other people.

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