Friday, September 23, 2005

Using One Myth to Interpret Another

asiapundit rounded up this post on looting in New Orleans by an American Expat in SE Asia. You know, of course, that when a piece of writing uses the phrase "moral compass" it will combine those special qualities of looking backward to a mythic but non-existent past, a poorly-thought out analysis that invokes one myth to explain another, and an assurance that the ethical nihilism of Christianity is the answer to all problems. Sure enough, we got the trifecta there. I can't understand why asiapundit felt this post was worth rounding up.

The post began with this image:

and noted:

One of the most powerful images from the aftermath of the Southeast Asian earthquake and tsunamis, was this one from Banda Aceh just days after the terrible tragedy. The photo above is that of a young man, a looter, who was beaten into submission and then paraded through the village square with a placard around his neck that says in Indonesian "Saya Maling" (I'm a thief).

Without the aid of the police or militia the photo shows the determination and the will of a altruistic, righteous and self-disciplined group of people desirous for the return of law and order to their society. A people who did not require the "whip of tyranny" a people who knew right from wrong.

Essentially, we have the myth...of the people in an altruistic state of righteousness and self-discipline who wanted law and order to return to their society. The juxposition of the Primitive unspoiled by the "relativism" of modern civilization, still in touch with primitive wisdom. This is the stuff of Hollywood, not serious thinking.

Alas, reality is too complex for analyses of this nature. American Expat did not trouble himself to find out whether the person with the picture was actually a looter or just someone in the wrong place at the wrong time, or some local crowd tricked into carrying out a vendetta for someone else. Having been both a victim and a witness of mob violence overseas, I can assure American Expat that mobs are not any better at finding the real culprit than the courts are, and are usually much worse. And further, the punishments they mete out rarely fit the crime (read here too). One might well ask who brought this man in? What was he stealing? Who were the witnesses and evidence? What was his fate? Such questions have fallen out of American Expat's analysis, because he is simply interested in exploiting one myth to interpret another, using the myth of the Righteous Primitive to interpret the myth that relativism leading to a 'moral decline' in the US.

Another striking thing about this is that it seems to make all the looting that did take place just disappear. Here Sri Lankan churches warn on looting. Wiki reports that the Sri Lanka government had to enforce curfews. ABC reports on looting in tourist areas in Thailand -- probably the innocent locals were corrupted by the hordes of American tourists that descend on Thailand. 400 looting incidents in Sri Lanka. Looting in Indonesia excused on the grounds that the people were desperate.

There's plenty more, but I won't go on. Suffice to say that people in both areas looted, not because they were liberals or conservatives or Americans or SE Asians, but because they were humans in dire straits. Remove that context, and you make thoughts like those contained in American Expat's post possible. What we are really looking at is the Myth of the Other Who Is Not Like Us -- the SE Asians denying that they looted with the best of them, attributing that behavior to the Americans, the white upper class Americans blaming the Other, blacks, for the looting, and so on. Just more myths interpreting myths....

Also fascinating is Expat's construction of law and order. Two points: where I grew up, mob justice was the opposite of rule of law. And second: the image he posted and asked no questions of was taken on Banda Aceh. The interesting thing is that the government of Indonesia had suspended the rule of law and order in that province in a brutal struggle against local rebels, with the usual extrajudicial killings, detentions without warrant, harrassment, and torture that both sides carry out in such circumstances. I won't even bother to ask what kind of civic society existed in the idyllic days prior to the tsunami, and what sort of law and order ruled it.

The crowning irony of this opening paragraph is that it links to a post on WorldNetDaily starts with a common myth about Christianity and American education....

What were those values that so upset them that they dedicated themselves to erasing them from the public square and people's consciousness? Well, they were such principles as "Thou shalt not steal," "Thou shalt not murder," and "Thou shalt not covet" – principles that had meaning in light of the biblical principle that the "fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom" and its wonderful corollary that the knowledge of Jesus Christ is the culmination of wisdom.

Since far too many people no longer adhere to those principles, there has been horrific stealing and looting in New Orleans after the tragedy that Katrina wrought. The response by the media is a call for government intervention. Without the principle of self-discipline, therefore, we are now at the mercy of the whip of tyranny.

I don't see much point in any observations on how stupid this myth of the modern American Fall is, but I would like to note this to Expat: the whole idea of Heaven and Hell is the very "whip of tyranny" you claim to abhor. There's a very great irony in someone arguing that Christianity supports some kind of primitive self-organizing social discipline. it doesn't. Christianity is about the absolute authority of its god, the kind that would make Stalin green with envy. When Christianity says "love" it means "power'", just as when Communism says "worker" it means "slave" and Fascism says "citizen" it means "subject." You all speak the same language of power and control to me, Expat, language that I reject utterly. The basis of self-discipline is not authority but autonomy. It is emerging from the nightmare of eternal authoritarian power to swear that never again shall one submit the autonomy of one's own mind to the judgment of another. Discipline of self begins with freedom of Self.

Expat also writes:

The damage to our country's image and reputation is severe. To many in Southeast Asia now the tragedy in New Orleans has shown that while America might be a rich country, it exists only one step above complete anarchy, barbarism and savagery. The disrespect for the rights of others and the lack of moral clarity have led many here to believe that America is nothing more than an amoral hedonistic society, a society now lost, completely devoid of any moral compass and set adrift on an endless sea of moral relativism.

I quite agree. A great disaster, the Bush Administration, has damaged our country's image and reputation. Our barbarism and savagery in Iraq, the lack of moral clarity that led us to illegally and immorally invade a prostrate nation based on the lies of our leaders, the hedonistic way the Republicans have treated our budget with the biggest deficits in history, and the hedonistic way our economy, our national environment, parks, and resources have been pillaged and looted, the the lack of moral compass displayed in the rampant cronyism that puts contracts into the hands of Bush's pals and gets incompetent political hacks appointed to important positions -- and the amorality inherent in the Administration's utter disregard of the problem of global warming. The callous disrepect we display for the rights of other nations and international norms and standards, and to our own people, exemplified by the sick, anti-American Patriot Act and the even more revolting recent court decision that permits the President to detain anyone, any time, for any reason, are exactly the kind of things I presume American Expat is talking about. I agree: the leaders of our nation definitely have lost their moral compass. Something needs to be done at the next election.

BTW, Expat, it's almost too obvious to mention, but that horrible American liberal Celine Dion is from Canada, a Roman Catholic from Quebec. Bet she's just a harbinger of creeping north of the border hedonistic liberal socialism, eh?

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