Sunday, June 21, 2015

Oooh, Burn! Slam! Shred! Eviscerate!

My friend A shared this image, which she got from something called "Solidarity: A Socialist, Feminist, Anti-Racist Organization."  I commented, "I love poppet magic.  It's so rational."

Someone else didn't know what poppet magic is, so I explained.

Poppet magic is when you make an image of who or what you hate (or take an image that already exists, as here), and damage it -- stick pins in it, burn it, whatever -- in the belief that the damage you do to the poppet will be done to the person. It's ancient and found in many cultures.

So: if I burn a flag, I burn the country it represents. If I tear up a photograph of a person I hate, I do him/her damage. Now, I can imagine good reasons to burn a Confederate flag or any other, but I think that what's going on in this picture and this meme is poppet magic. It's anything but rational.  I demand better from people and a movement who are really interested in working for justice and a better world. I demand it, but I don't get it. What I get is the mirror image of the other side. And that's not going to work. It's certainly not going to get my allegiance, or my support. Just my scorn.

Of course, my scorn and a dollar will get me on the bus. But if this is the best that the people who are nominally on my side can come up with, we're doomed. It's masturbation, which is an honorable practice, but doesn't reproduce justice.

Maybe I'm not being entirely fair.  Burning the rebel battle rag isn't the best that people who are nominally on my side can come up with.  There are people -- like Ta-Nehisi Coates -- who have something intelligent to say.  But A doesn't post Coates; she posts the image above.  And too much of what I'm seeing online on liberals about the Charleston murders is not up to Coates's standard.  It's the usual Us. v. Them / Stoopid Conservatives politics-as-spectator-sport crap that doesn't do anything but let liberal white people feel superior to the Reichtards on the other team.  (It looks like the flag in the photo is being burned by young black men -- but the audience that's visible appears to be mostly white.)  And memes are easy, much easier than thinking.  As A. E. Housman said in his classical-scholar mode, "Three minutes' thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time."  If you try thinking about a meme, you'll encounter resistance from others.

Now, of course, the Charleston killings are upsetting.  For most Americans, especially white Americans, they do not touch us personally.  I would never tell the friends and families of the people murdered by Dylann Roof how they should react.  But I feel free to be more critical of the way the rest of us react.  It often seems (I think Walter Kaufmann noticed this) that people reserve rationality for trivial matters, but throw it out the window when things get hairy.  (There's no time to be rational now -- we have to throw a hissyfit!)  F. G. Bailey's concept of the moral mind might be relevant too: it means getting up and declaring one's principles in order to establish oneself as a Truly Good Person and Citizen, a performance that has its social uses but will only take you so far.  At some point one must set one's moral mind aside and apply one's rational civic mind to the problems that face us.  I'm still waiting for my fellow white Americans to do that in significant numbers.