Saturday, January 5, 2008

Talismans, Spells and Idols, Oh My!

Ten years ago if you had asked me if I believed the human race is smarter than it was ten thousand or even five thousand years ago, I would have answered, "Of course we are."

These days, I no longer believe it. We have more scientific and technical knowledge, but in many ways we still believe in the same concepts that "primitive" people believe in. We just use different labels.

Take talismans, for example. A talisman is a magical object that has an inscription on it. It's supposed to be protection against evil. Even in the 20th century German soldiers marched into battle with "Gott mit uns" inscribed on their belt buckles. That's a talisman.

When American soldiers placed a Bible in their shirt pockets over their hearts, that, too, was a talisman. I've heard stories – and I don't know if they're Urban Legends or not – in which soldiers lived because their Bibles deflected a bullet. Which reminds me of Woody Allen's joke in which he claimed a bullet in his shirt pocket saved his life when someone threw a Bible at him. What's the real joke, though – Allen's, or soldiers using the Bible as a amulet?

Those two examples above don't sound all that much different than when witch-doctors told African warriors that if they rubbed special ointments on their bodies the bullets of the British would bounce off of them. Hilaire Belloc had a well-known rhyme about such foolishness: "Whatever happens/We have got/The Maxim machine-gun/And they have not."

Probably the most well-known talisman that Americans believe in is the Constitution. It's nothing more than a piece of paper with words on it. And some people believe that it protects them against the depredations of the State, ignoring the fact the State is the one that interprets what the Constitution means.

There are people who actually believe that inscribed piece of paper, that magical talisman, will protect them against evil.

We're not all that much more advanced when it comes to spells, either. These days, it's called "propaganda."

The word "spell" means "a saying." It took me years to realize the double meaning of "spell": to cast one, and to make a word, which shows how closely related both are. Spells are cast by the use of words, in order to make people do what you want. And isn't that exactly what propaganda is supposed to do?

Incidentally, the word "enchant" means "to sing." Just more use of words.

I consider Hitler to be the best 20th-century caster of spells. He used to have a photographer take pictures of him practicing speaking, so he could improve his delivery. He got really good at it. I've seen motion-pictures of his speeches. I couldn't understand a word he said, but I could see – and feel – his charisma.

The above is why I consider charisma irrelevant. Clinton had – and has – charisma, and he appears to be a psychopath. Charisma is nothing more than trying to cast a spell on people. It's charm, as in a magical charm.

Modern propaganda techniques are quite sophisticated, but most of it can be distilled into what Hermann Goering said as he stood in the dock at Nuremburg: "The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and then denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."

For the past few months I have been puzzled as to how Saddam Hussein, who has been in power for some twenty years, the first ten as our ally, the second ten as ruler of a demolished country because of our attacks and blockades, has suddenly in the last six months – out of twenty years – become a threat to the US, one who is going to nuke us or poison us, even though it would mean his immediate – possibly nuclear – destruction. Either I'm under a spell, or else the people who fall for the State's propaganda are.

For all our vaunted sophistication, we also believe in idols. I think the worst one is government. I believe I understand why: people want security, and they think the government can give it to them. But it can't. All idols are false gods; they are monsters that require sacrifice, as the State requires sacrifice. In the 20th century that sacrifice to the State has been estimated to be 177 million people.

Someday, hundreds or maybe thousands of years in the future, people are going to look back at us and shake their heads and laugh. "Those foolish people," they are going to say, "they thought they were so smart, yet they didn't realize how backward they were with their foolish superstitions and their beliefs in talismans, spells and idols."

No comments: