I do not deserve your kind words, Reverend Kishkumen, but I cannot fail to admit their soothing quality as I gaze upon the Altar of Victory—or rather its smashed remnants, drizzled in illiterate at attempts at obscene graffiti about the police here. But Mike and his comites
are pretty harmless guys, although I have to admit that some of their speed traps are a bit devious. Anyway, the Senate House I built for myself here on my Parowan estate had only this altar as its shrine, and now amid its fragments and the ruins of my ambition I munch on Wendy's and philologize, because there is nothing else to do when Relief Society is not meeting here in Parowan. The only other consolation I take amid this sand-scape is that you take my little nugae
with enough interest to offer compelling challenges to some of their loftier implications.
Kishkumen wrote:Surely the mere belief in the existence of Satan and demons will have a different impact at different times and contexts. For many people and communities, it is probably not that big a deal. Even when it gets to the nature of Satan, there will be a broad range of beliefs. The Latin American Satan is not necessarily the New England WASP Satan, etc. So, I would differ with you perhaps in thinking that there can be differing community impacts and not just differing individual impacts.
That is fair. An example comes to mind, one which shows how even within this dualistic belief structure, conflict can arise.
Islam has Satan, invoked against in a kind of apotropaic charm before washing or at the start of prayer or Qur'an recitation ("a3udhu bi-llāhi min ash-shaytāni rr-ajiim...") or a hundred other times and places, but yet Satan, under either that name or the name Iblis, is not nearly as prominent a feature of Islamic theology, and certainly not Islamic practice, as in Christianity. To attribute all that much power to Iblis/Satan would be to diminish the absolute power of God, in the Islamic way of thinking, whereas Christianity—and Mormonism in particular—seems to grant Satan a great deal of power, albeit temporary. And while Islam has the concept of satans (plural, shayātīn) that tempt and afflict humans through their whispering to the mind/heart towards sin, I don't think the practice of exorcism of these Satans has been incorporated on a mass scale or become a prominent feature of any of the strands of it, although I know it is part of Islamic folk religion in many places. So I must agree with you here, and I can think of a one small example of how this can collide, despite the best efforts and intentions of individuals. When Americans or Europeans interpret the title of the official state enemy of the Islamic Republic of Iran ("The Great Satan," the sheytān-e bozorg
), they will interpret it in a way that I don't think is meant: that America plays the role of the Christian conception of Satan, making Iran a cosmic hero and doing the work of god in battling the devil, whereas I think it is much less grandiose in its meaning in an Islamic context, where demons are primarily dangerous for their seductive influence as tempters. Khamenei actually elaborated on this in a speech some years ago. Understood in terms post-Qajar history (or even Qajar history, come to think of it), it is a symbolic slur that defines western power (economic, cultural, political, military) as essentially a destructive temptation to which previous regimes had succumbed (a not inaccurate read of modern Iranian history). The current regime will have none of this: no western aid, no western advisors etc., because all of these are mere blandishments that will only subjugate Iran. They are temptations.
But Americans and many Europeans have interpreted it as a statement of apocalyptic intent, even if they have completely disregarded it as an irrelevant slogan. In this case, a certain view of what Satan means has had effects on how a belligerent Iran has been interpreted and approached. Hawks tend to interpret it not merely as an aggressive statement, which it obviously is, but in Christian terms (even if they are not Christians: it's just what's out there in the culture)—the implication in those terms is that Iran is daily working out how to eradicate Satan, because that is what a fanatical Christian would be required to do. Christians fight the devil, so that is obviously what Iran intends to do as well, in this way of thinking. Doves, on the other hand, imagine that the Satan rhetoric is not serious, and consequently they are unable to understand that the current regime in Iran cannot tolerate any interference from western governments, even if well-intentioned—that would be the negation of its self-identity—and Iran with its current state is not ever going to join the international system, such as it is, unless it does so on its own terms, which is something even the doves in the west apparently cannot tolerate. All attempts at discovering the mysterious "moderates" in Iranian politics are thus a game of self-delusion because there are no such moderates within the bounds of this thought-world—just as there are no American "moderates" willing to allow some aspects of ____ jurisprudence at the Supreme Court, provided it is not "extreme"! No, actually the people with the most power in the Iranian regime really do believe that America is a great satan, maybe the greatest ("they're sayin'' we're the greatest satan, and it shows in our ratings. All those other Satans—they're like a 3, maybe a 4, but no one cares about them; they used to be great but their ratings are terrible. Sad!"); they just mean something somewhat different from what people raised in a Christian or post-Christian environment expect. Nevertheless, there are real effects of this misunderstanding.
My original point is just about whether actions that occur within a thought-world that includes Satan and his demons can be attributed to those beliefs per se in the absence of other factors, particularly on the scale of a whole society. Implied in that point is a question: what is the alternative? Would things be any different without this belief? I think the answer on a large scale is "no"—people will still meet harm and violence, just different people—yet perhaps a worthy corollary is that we should try all the same to be aware of how the "genetic" features of an idea can be activated in world of things and people, and critiques of the ideas serve that function. I just think its hard to evaluate the ethical value of ideas that are this abstract (and by abstract, I mean ideas whose component parts do not have real-world referents, even though I agree that adherents of an idea may not experience them as abstract. To me, though, their experience is irrelevant, and the abstract idea only starts to matter when it gets attached to real things and real people. I have to say that even cultures where the elites espouse a philosophical monism are not known for their humane treatment of other cultural groups, either. I wonder what many Alan Watts admirers and Zen-enthusiasts would make of the role which that cult played in the military culture that nearly destroyed east Asia in the 1930s and 1940s, killing nearly 20,000,000 Chinese. I understand the San Francisco version, imported into the US in the 1950s by some who had proponents of the Emperor's Holy War in the 1930s and 40s, is rather benign, but it was not always so).
Unfortunately, I am afraid this may be yet another banal observation. Yet no one who has read all the volumes of my letters can fail to notice that banality has been the default state of my existence, and such emptiness thus forms the substance of my thought.
Anyway, this is acutely difficult:
Kishkumen wrote:Would it be too bold to say that once activated, however, their potential impact is, to an extent, written into their code? Looking at what you have written more carefully, it seems to me that you are avoiding a software metaphor for a reason. At the risk of abusing a different metaphor, are they perhaps like epigenetic factors? I don't know that I see them as being so passive that they do no more than "condition what objects can or will be observed in a given cultural setting." What about what they are observed as? Or are there objects that are only objects because ideas allow them to be such?
Yes, I have long struggled with this. I am sure that, when he gets a break from the black toil of his colliery and after he clears his lungs a bit, the great Stakhanovite can solve it for me, as I am no philosopher, but for now I am not as sure about the validity of the second bolded part as I am about the first. Patterns of thought—ideas?—clearly affect how we do observe
certain objects. The problem for me is the link between the idea and the action. For example, the informal propaganda organs of the managerial and educated class in this country are going to great mental lengths to theorize statute toppling, statute removal, etc. As I say own kitschy Altar of Victory became a victim—a sad metaphor for the topsy-turviness of the times here in Parowan—despite my explaining to the Christians that I harbor no disrespect towards their god and despite suggesting as a compromise, in fact, to offer sacrifice to Jesus the Sun Christ (or whatever he is) on my little altar. Alas, they destroyed it—unlike Gratian, who had manners, of course, and was a true credit to his teacher and my friend—and only later did I learn how futile my attempts at reconciliation were. As I learned, their universe of theological discourse has room for only one being, though strangely he himself cannot be contained, and that one being, as it seems, was himself a kind of sacrifice. I can't say I understand it, but even if they had explained this bit of their Christianity to me and even if I then failed to understand it, I don't see what my Altar of Victory has to do with any of it. As you might agree, they observed this object as something completely different from how I observed it—but the smashing of it was clearly not motivated by an idea. They could simply have put it in storage until all such monuments be banned. Clearly, there were other forces stirring those more interested in action than theorizing. No one hitting a piece of bronze is wrestling with an idea.
And yet, the pencil twirlers at National Review and the like would have me believe that this is the result of ideas: if it hadn't been for those pesky left-wing professors, people with more cleverness than knowledge, we wouldn't be in all of this. It's the fruition of ideas that they've been teaching to students for 30 years, you see, that we are seeing. All this time, while they've been getting paid to think thoughts in thinkology over at the thinkery, they were not only reposing with health insurance amid a gang of adjuncts but they were actually subtly encouraging debtor-students to smash statues. Hmmm...I am a bit skeptical that very many of these bronze-wackers were paying much attention in class at all. The ones most likely to have done the reading assignments are the ones least likely to have thrown a statue of a guy who's been dead half a millennium into Baltimore Harbor, even if each of them holds the same idea about the statue in their respective heads, as they probably do. Something else besides ideas explains the Vandals.
I agree with you,then, but only up to the point of individual action. I can see how ideas motivate action, but I cannot see how they determine the form of that action.
"As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them."
—B. Redd McConkie