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Archive for November 5th, 2012

Once in Persia reigned a King,
Who upon his signet ring
Graved a maxim true and wise,
Which, if held before his eyes,
Gave him counsel, at a glance,
Fit for every change or chance:
Solemn words, and these are they:
“Even this shall pass away!”
  –  Theodore Tilton

It has been my custom every Guy Fawkes Day (that’s November 5th for those of you outside the Commonwealth) to call for a rededication of the holiday from a time to burn rebels in effigy to a time to burn tyrants in effigy instead.  As I pointed out the first time and repeated the second,

Governments need to be reminded (at least annually if not constantly) that they only hold power by the sufferance of all the people, not merely the majority, and that the overthrow of any government by a disgruntled minority is always a possibility.  I would like to see most if not all politicians and their minions paying for their power and privilege by being forced to live in a constant state of nervous anxiety; maybe then fewer would choose that path and more would concern themselves with keeping all the citizenry happy rather than merely pleasing barely enough of the population to keep themselves in office.

Though the United States stopped observing the holiday after 1776, I think it might be especially meaningful here, considering that Election Day is always the first Tuesday in November and thus must fall within four days of the 5th (this time around, it’s tomorrow).  It would be a good thing for newly-elected or soon-to-be-elected politicians to know that all across the country thousands were burning their images on bonfires, with all the threat that implies; those who believe such rituals would have no power would do well to consider how nervous politicians get when one of them is shot, or the lengths to which they will go to protect themselves from criticism.

Modern people tend to dismiss rituals as relics of the superstitious past, thus demonstrating not only a poor understanding of group psychology but also a startling lack of introspection.  Any good anthropologist could give you dozens of examples of completely secular rituals which nonetheless have enormous power; the voting ritual is one (try saying “I never vote, it’s a waste of time” to a casual group and watch the irrational reactions; more on that tomorrow).  Another is the annual holiday frenzy which stretches from the end of this month until Christmas; despite the claims of conservative Christians, it has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus and never really did.  The lack of group rituals can also have deleterious effects on society; as I explained last Thursday, I think the main reason our culture has become afraid of its own collective shadow is that we no longer trouble to remind ourselves that all things must pass, and therefore ruin our lives in a vain attempt to avoid death.

That column addressed individual fears of personal death, but that isn’t the whole of the problem by a long shot; Western cultures in general, and the US in particular, have become so obsessed with the end of Our Way of Life, that we’re willing to discard everything good about it to avoid that end.  Just as parents who fear the remote chance of their children being abducted establish a mini-police state which destroys everything they remember fondly about their own childhoods, so have Western countries fearing the changes brought by technology, immigration, new ideas and the information explosion established real police states which are rapidly destroying everything that made Western culture great.  Countries which once accepted immigrants with open arms now brand them “criminals” or pretend they’re “victims” brought thither against their wills.  Countries which once enshrined the rights of individuals in their legal codes now enact restriction upon restriction against speech, assembly, privacy, property, dress, food choices, business practices and even thought itself.  In the United States, once the world’s greatest proponent of the freedom of expression, we’re now seeing a dramatic increase in both official and unofficial attempts at censorship, and even journalists and law professors advocating laws against free speech. The excuse tyrants use for all this is “safety” and “security”, and the reason the people accept it is fear.

The fear of cultural or national death is just as futile and unproductive as that of personal death because it is equally inevitable.  All things die:  organisms, species, habitats, cities, empires, worlds, stars and even the universe itself.  It is literally impossible to stop the process; entropy increases, and the only way to slow that in one area is to speed it up somewhere else.  For any given society, what that means is that governments fall, mores loosen, customs change, the genetic profiles of populations shift and the sum total of knowledge increases; the society ages and eventually dies, to be replaced by others just as individual humans are replaced by our descendants.  Like a human, a culture is not judged after its passing by when it died, but by how it lived; its legacy is defined by what it achieved, how it interacted with other cultures and how it treated its people…and if most of the Western nations keep on our present path, I sincerely doubt the opinion of posterity will be a positive one.

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