11 October 2007

"True... from a certain point of view."

People who pose as "modernist" or "Enlightenment" giggle and guffaw at "pre-rational" ways of understanding the world. How, they ask, could Amazon tribes, or even the cultured citizens of the Roman Republic, believe that their stories about gods and superheroes and monsters were actually true?

Perhaps there are several values of "true". I remember arguing with a serious Christian (back in my Wiccan-missionary phase, which I cringe to remember), who said to me something like: "Do you think I'm stupid? I don't believe snakes can talk. But I believe the Genesis narrative is morally true."

Perhaps we can generalise that the mythic-life of a culture is seen by its participants as "true on a moral level". What happens in the stories which hold a culture together doesn't have to actually make sense by the physical laws of the universe or the social laws of behaviour, as long as it makes moral or narrative or symbolic sense. Even if we believe the Gods are real on some level, we don't expect them to behave by human rules.

To give this a concrete modern context: it is generally recognized that the whole "War on Terror" / Iraq occupation is not being fought on the rules of ordinary human reality. Previous wars had to be fought that way because if you lost, the enemy would actually occupy your country, steal all your food and sexually abuse your loved ones. But the worst that will happen to "the West" is a humilation and a loss of global bragging rights. In terms that Mad Larry would understand, it is a war for cultural and historical space.

Orwell had it right: when the State can wage war without fear to its own survival, it is under no obligation to actually pursue the war in a rational way. All it has to do is keep fighting, because the war is not about survival, but about being right, and in that case the goal is not to occupy territory or seize resources (although these are both part of a complete breakfast), but to generate the correct images. The images which will ensure that citizens of the "free West" continue to believe (on a "moral level") that their States (and the corporates behind them) are essentially benevolent and all-powerful, and that the only alternative is a blasphemous darkness and irrationality. As for those outside the state, as Caligula put it - "Oderint dum metuant", let them hate us as long as they fear us.

It does not seem too great an assumption that ordinary people see what they see on TV and hear in their cultural sphere as morally, not literally or physically true. They expect to hear from their TV news not hard facts, but stories which resonate with the ideas they have in their own heads about how the world operates - and they will not think to question narratives which have what Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness". The most important of these narratives is: "Our governments and bosses are the good guys, and I can ignore the horrible bits of life if I can feel I am on the right side in the great struggle for Truth, Justice and the (Insert my country here) Way." (Because if people didn't willingly believe that, in the absence of a credible alternative myth-for-life, life for many would be without obvious hope altogether.)

Accordingly - after 9/11, what you heard was "we had to do something" - not because it would bring 3000 New Yorkers back from the grave or prevent more deaths, but to restore the image that bad things like that didn't happen to the enlightened, prosperous good guys. See here for an analysis of what this meant in America (and to a lesser degree elsewhere) - a McCarthyist witchhunt of people who actually wanted to explain why people might restort to terrorism. People who wanted the war to make physical, concrete sense were indeed traitors - traitors to the essential myths of our society. How dare you hold the Gods of our Tribe to your laws of pathetic human reality, you reality-based community unbelievers?

The purpose of the War on Terror is exactly the same as the purpose of the Cold War - to cow all foreign and domestic opposition to capitalist imperialism, and provide an ideological justification for imperialism abroad and clawbacks on political and social liberties at home. It is being won to the extent that the official media-godforms (the enlightened West brings salvation to lesser countries with laser-guided bombs, and you can either cheerlead for it or be crushed as an Islamofascist or a "Crazy") continue to grab hold of the popular imagination.

But the point is that these myths are not based on stupid physical or social reality, but on the moral truths which bind our allegiance to the State and the corporations for which it stands. And as such, they have to be fought on that level. The corporate egregore [life-form created by belief] will stop existing the instant that the masses stop believing in it. Only a win for our side on the ideological/cultural field - a succesful "alternative life-myth" which seizes the masses - will make the elected politicians cut off funding, or encourage the troops to mutiny. (The Iraqi resistance understand this when they try to create their own media weapons.)

The movement against war - which is the movement against corporate imperialism - has to create our own myths, godforms, stories and icons. These will have to be based in messy physical everyday reality - only when you have a truckload of lawyers, guns and wage-slave labour can you just decide what you want to be true and make it so. Which will mean training ourselves to be able to tell what actually is real, what's not real, and what's the difference - which, in many cases, will mean throwing out the cherished myths which make up our membership of the Tribe of the Free, Enlightened West.