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Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Late-Night Thoughts

I just had a theory hit me. This is the theory of the conservative thinker. This is not necessarily equivalent to a political conservative, though it does apply to them perhaps a little bit more than most other groups. Anyway, the theory is fairly simple. A conservative thinker is someone who cannot understand the difference between symbols and what they represent.

A simple example: the swastika. To most people in our culture, the swastika is a symbol of hatred and death, thanks to the Nazi's use of it on their flag. Try to convince them otherwise, and you may be called crazy. Yet, in Asian, specifically Indian, tradition, it is an overwhelmingly positive symbol. Even this evidence may not dissuade a westerner conservative thinking. The swastika is a symbol of Nazis, and therefore it is always Bad.

That's simple enough, but it gets much more interesting when words are considered symbols. I've been thinking about this word and its symbolism for a long time, and it's kind of the impetus for this post: freedom. Yes, good old freedom! Everyone loves freedom, right? And we invaded Iraq to free the Iraqi people, therefore we did a Good thing. This is, by the conservative thinker's logic, an unassailable argument, and they simply cannot understand when someone disagrees. There are two mistakes here. The first is thinking that the word freedom, a symbol, is what it is supposed to symbolize. The second is thinking that the definition of the word freedom determines the reality of what freedom is.

I'm not sure if that makes sense to anyone but me. Here's what I'm thinking: the invasion of Iraq was the brainchild of neoconservatives who grew up in the Cold War and internalized the American way of thinking about this war. It was: America is a democracy that allows civil rights, voting, etc, where the USSR does not. Those things are political freedoms. Therefore, America=freedom, freedom=good, and thus America=good. This becomes dangerous when the symbols take over. Let's detach freedom from any sort of definiton, and see where that takes us. We know what America is, we know what good is, but we don't know what freedom is. But we know they all equal each other, so freedom=America, and the American style of life, with our democracy (an equally important buzzword) and capitalism and such. And this isn't just freedom, but this is Goodness.

Now comes the fun bit.

Let's attach a new definition to freedom. Let's say that "freedom" and "Christianity" are interchangable. Why did the terrorists attack us on Sept. 11? Because they hate our freedom. Hmmm. Suddenly this makes sense. This is where that General whose comments last weeks about the War against Terror being a war against Islam comes into play. He forgot to change Christianity to freedom. And he got in trouble, not because he was saying anything incorrect, but because he didn't play the game. Everyone understands that "freedom and democracy" means "Christianity and capitalism," even if they can't say they know it. It is the inability to understand that symbols can be manipulated that allows people, by and large conservative thinkers, to get away with thinking things that normally would be considered terrible.

I should note here that conservative thinkers are not limited to political conservatives. Continuing with the Iraq war as an example, try to imagine how many people were anti-war, not out of a great understanding of the issues but because they are Democrats trained to oppose the Republican President, or progressives trained to oppose American empire. And of course, the media trains people to continue to see the world as symbols. The idea of a political left-wing and right-wing exists only because of this propensity for conservative thinking. I would say that the media has accelerated this propensity, actually, but a subject to go into much greater depth.

I am certainly not immune to this. But I try to think, if I am formulating an opinion on something: am I saying this because I think it is true, or am I saying this because I think I am supposed to be saying this?

It's been a while since I dropped a post like this, hasn't it? Feels kinda good.
- Rowan Kaiser, 4:35 AM
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