The whip and the road

I would not read this BBC story ( ) about two men who survived Tuol Sleng prison, Phnom Penh, as warning against certain kinds of torture or evil government. I would read it instead as reminder of the tendency of human beings to burn all in the quest for their version of utopia. Western, Eastern, Northern, Southern, each and all will sacrifice the Other and then parts of their own peoples to install a better future. It used to be possible to overcome some empires, dictators and tyrants and plot and plan their overthrow or assassination; with each passing decade, with the refinement in technology and the sheer human and economic numbers involved, the calculations for throw and overthrow are not likely to be made by individuals or local groups.

And in all that neutralized (in tone and political statement) story this matter-of-fact sentence is what I would choose to highlight:

‘”If those guards hadn’t tortured a false confession out of me, they would have been executed – I can’t say I would have behaved any differently [in their position],” [Chum Mey] says.’

This is the truth, I think. The blunt everyday evidence to stand beside the Stanford Prison Experiments and William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies. We do not like to talk about these things. We prefer to believe in sweetness and light. Or prefer that when we will make our mini and major empires we shall do it better and more honorably than this. Our souls are surely not like this, not if we adhere to Law or Religion. Surely, if we believe in something higher, our actions will be better. Surely we learn, and progress and evolve.

And yet, I think we merely see what is in front of us, the part of the moral compass that presents itself to our field of sight.

I once quoted elsewhere from a frivolous book: “True pain is like black ink. Enough of it can blot out a man’s soul. If you’re willing to use it, you can write whatever you wish in its place.” In that book these lines were spoken by a character who had been tortured in such a way that he bore no outward marks, and who had ‘sold his soul’ to avoid further pain. Allow me to generalize. Many of us do as the character did. War or sport or the war of life: ’tis all the same. Cumulative trauma exists, and half this hopeful world reels between the black reality of their pain and the unreal reality of the world-machine.

I first quoted that because I was struck by the metaphorical similarity drawn between soul (after ‘intelligence,’ the next most ‘untouchable’ attribute of the ‘human’) and ink-n-paper (in a world where we have grown accustomed to insisting on writing/patenting/publishing/material proof). Allow me another moment to ask metaphysical and utterly visceral questions. Is pain a reflection of soul, i.e. that it is but an illusion? Maybe, but even a monk doing penance knows how the body hurts. And a child knows joy. As for the rest of us: you can wear a person down over the years such that you break their will to resist and fight, to stand tall or act fairly. I have not read or speculated enough to agree if ‘aatma’ is ‘void.’ I suspect every organized and folk religion in the world will give you a different version of the nature, form and characteristics of the soul. And thereby prove or disprove the co-existence of pain with soul. I am irreverent, so I believe none of them until experience tells me true. I do not know about ‘soul,’ but the human can definitely be broken. Just like a horse under rein and spurs.

I know men and women can be broken and redirected at least half against their will. And sometimes, if they are beaten enough, they will be like the horse that attacked whatever it saw on the road in front of it whenever it felt the whip on its back. It could not see behind it (what had trained it, what drove it) but it could see what was in front, and it began to associate pain with what it could see. We can be like that, too. Too easily. Therefore news like this is important, and voices and words such as Primo Levi’s and Wilfred Owen’s and all the rest unknown to my mainstream mind are important, because after training by trauma we need to relearn what it is exactly that hurt us and what we cannot see.

On the taboos and permissions of community belonging

Brief notes on the limits and rigidity of our communitarian taboos. Linked together by the following memes:

Chaos and instability are limited by delineation of taboos. The divided parts become either sacred or profane in a complex social symbolic system. The parts may have crowning examples, essences of the collective identity — a person, an exalted object, a concept. The shape of taboos at any time marks the weakest and strongest links in a hypothetical social fabric.

1. From October 11, 2014: On anti-statism.

Many in the world of letters find it prudent and convenient to identify as anti-statist (and as some sort of minority group member or supporter). In order to avoid charges of empty word-trade, these folks display behavior where attacking the idea of a state precedes supporting all those who attack existing states. I am bothered by the implications: a state is composed of history, geography, demographics, economics, and politics, of the culture of a region and its changing peoples. If Robert Kaplan’s “The Fear of Greater Chaos” is to be believed, many states have fallen to other regimes (religion, drugs, etc.). More will follow. Why it is so important to pull down before local/indigenous restorative socio-economic-political structures have had a chance to develop? What will take the place of the shell of the state, with its nominal safety and security, its benefits of citizenship, its role as an appeals court and whipping boy for the grievances of its population? No supra-state body will entertain the responsibility of those people. Unless those peoples who support the world of letters against their own state regimes know what they’re doing, where they’re going, and what they will do after tearing the house down. Some of them do. The next question is: what is waiting to take the place of all that is falling down?

One doesn’t mind a cosmopolitan world, a world republic with world citizens, all equal and nice. It just isn’t likely to happen. Mimetic empires are vastly more likely.

2. From June 1, 2015: On ‘males,”men,’ taboos and religious platforms:

So many reading this bit of news about the IS’s indoctrination of young males right now.

This reader refuses the adamant innocence of those who are outraged at children being corrupted and made to fight, and of those who insist that this is another bit of propaganda for Islamophobia. She is more interested in this quote in the article: “Many people are just male and not men. Those taking up arms and fighting for the sake of God and defending Muslim women’s honour are men.” Because it illustrates so compactly the reasoning behind the anger and sense of victimization haunting many voices that identify themselves as Islamic in this century.

Interesting, is it not? That a boy may repent of his extremes and his weals but will still be roused to anger by any perceived lessening of the weight of that cluster Islam-honor-right? That manhood is defined within the scope of gender and religion so explicitly? Men fight for something, and women and God are fought for. The simplicity of moral manichaeanism. ‘People’ (unqualified singular common noun, as if all the world could only be Muslim, and not many peoples) may be born male but cannot become men nor be recognized as men without fighting for honor.

Would that boy allow that any enemy man might also fight for his women and God and honor? He might perhaps admire a brave man’s death, one who died without crying out. The warrior culture, it is supposed to be. Or do ‘infidels’ by definition not have honor until they can translate their reactions into a code recognizable by violence, perpetual aggression and steadfast refusal of communal parity tolerance? Are Muslim women the only ones who are targeted in the entire world? Are they minorities everywhere, as a percentage of the world’s population?

I wonder that on perfectly level platforms in civilian life, the very identity of being Muslim is enough to guarantee both perfect victimhood and perfect resurrection as the ‘one who fights back.’ This is a very modern psychological figure — the resurgent, revived hero/heroine. We LIKE those who fight back, and detest those who won’t. We like those who step up, seize the fire, brandish the club, and want to rule. Or rather, ‘Americanized’ thinking likes such psychology. So it is perhaps ironic that it is America that is targeted as the evil head of all things plaguing Muslims anywhere. And America that is the breeding ground for the attitude that militant Islam’s civilian cohort emulates and projects.

It continues to bother me that the logic behind the indoctrination of younger fighters and the impact of their ‘pure’ fight against ‘the oppressor’ on the heart of every believer in every country is only allowed to be discussed as an affective logic that is both ‘medieval’ (codes of honor, death for religion, the protection of virtue, the earning of merit by dedication and trials-by-fire) and ‘modern’ (the idealization of childhood, the righteous anti-imperial rage, dreams of the recovery of Islamic empire).

We tend think in so many ‘worlds,’ explicitly or implicitly –Islamic world, Christian world, and a Jewish world, Hindu world, or Buddhist world, or Zoroastrian world, or Baha’i world. The news we like to hear is the news of community, a chosen selection of a chaotic total globe. An imagined reality binds us within the chaos, makes us hopeful and warm in kinship and allegiance.

And each world is walled in with what we can say or do and what we cannot. Our taboos are postmodern, that is, eclectic in their preference for some past century or other, this or that past regime or golden age. With this century’s greater freedom to choose among and be mobile across spaces and experiences, we compile our preferred reality, the substitute for the mythical ideal kinship community we did not and still do not have.

What are our new zones of discursive untouchability, then? What kinds of political speech and resistance define the links in our social community (or breaks therein)? What is sacred, what is profane? And when confronted with the sacred, why it it taboo to counter it with the sacred? Religiosity as the core of identity is spoken about as a reaction to profane imperialisms. And in response to ultra-religious anger, witnesses appear compelled to resort to profane, civilian, pedestrian languages of law and ethics, languages which have already been brushed aside as oppressive, western, and insulting. Religion, once removed into a realm beyond the common law, beyond planetary good, beyond equitable justice in the present, can no longer be touched or countered with anything. It does not belong to this world, and is therefore unassailable and incorruptible. Caliphates and nations and international communities of religious kinship are but the shadows, the reflections of transcendent taboos.