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One Man’s Terrorist…

December 6, 2009

A recent and fantastic Op-Ed by Tony Horwitz draws some excellently eerie parallels between today’s Islamic fundamentalist terrorists and antebellum abolitionists, which should give pause to even casual observers who haven’t quite come to grips with the doubletalk inherent in our modern political dialogue.

Brown was a bearded fundamentalist who believed himself chosen by God to destroy the institution of slavery. He hoped to launch his holy war by seizing the United States armory at Harpers Ferry, Va., and arming blacks for a campaign of liberation. Brown also chose his target for shock value and symbolic impact.

Of course, it’s all too fitting that the phrase that takes its place as the epigraphical title of this post seems so tritely true that it no longer has any impact in the real world debate on how to address the problems posed by terrorism.

The problem brilliantly illustrated by this parallelism is that we no longer analyze current events through ideological or philosophical lenses.  There is a profoundly blithe and blind nationalism at work (symbolized by Sarah Palin and followers, as I alluded in an earlier post) that abhors actual inquiry into the actual content of a given position.  The Ideas underlying the Issues are only addressed with a Manichean framework: “democracy,” “freedom,” “patriot” = good; “fear,” “terror,” “fundamentalist” = evil.

I pause to note that the founding fathers themselves considered “democracy” a dirty word and endeavored to prevent America’s devolution into either oligarchy (rule by the rich) or democracy (rule by the unenlightened, factious masses).  Meanwhile, in the sometimes-dubbed “post-historical” present, the last-men that make up our polity can’t even define the basic terminology used in political philosophy; and we let these people “rule.”  I’ll assume (perhaps erroneously given breeding patterns) that the problem isn’t that we aren’t as smart or as talented as the founders; we’re just apathetic. People don’t inform themselves on large-scale issues because they either assume their random and arbitrary source of information is reliable a priori or because “my vote doesn’t count anyway.”  More to the point, people don’t even realize that they, and many many other people, are making world-changing decisions with a total lack of real knowledge.

We live in an age capable of hosting dozens of “Enlightenments” simultaneously thanks to the profusion of information and the channels of its dissemination, but nobody bothers to verify an idea or notion even though such inquiries are easier and more democratically available than ever.  There is no direct conflict on an ideological level in politics.  Nobody tries to convince people to adopt an idea; it’s about adopting a candidate, and the question examined by the media becomes which of two candidates can look and sound sleeker while grandstanding and making the real deals off-camera and outside the uncomfortable view of those who supposedly hold ultimate power.  To use another metaphor, the static is too easily capable of drowning out the signal for those who don’t bother to regulate the interference.  The fact that people do not even think to resort to reliable channels of information and education shows that doublethink and doublespeak (e.g., “Wikipedia is totally unreliable,” “if it was important, I’d hear about it,” “patriots always support the president,” etc.) have firmly taken hold of our society.  But Orwell predicted the wrong mechanism of thought-control; Huxley had it right.  When nobody is actually and honestly looking where they’re headed, the last men don’t need strong men to corral them.  They’re happy to simply go where they’re told.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Careful Observer permalink
    December 6, 2009 9:47 pm

    Unfortunately, the NY Times article was unavailable for non-subscribers. Nevertheless, I agree with your sentiment of the uncritical eye of the American observer and that Huxley perhaps holds the closest assessment to what is unfolding in American life. What is one to do?

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