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Sword and Sorcery in Afghanistan
The rules of the universe, the mind of God and the laws of physics are all one in the same. It would be foolish to believe that there once was a time on this planet in which those things were actually magic. Yet it is actually what all believed before the advent of scientific rationality.
It its absence, the boundaries of the ‘time of magic’ were simply the limits of the minds of simple men. If a tribal chief said that past yonder mountains was a land of devils and darkness, that boundary would be established for his village. And what would be in the valley of plenty? Everything his people needed at the tiny scale of an inbred ethnicity, a culture without education and an identity rooted in blood and soil. A full and complete primitive society, where the only horsepower was horse power, or the power of shackled slaves.
We all understand the tales of sword and sorcery, of economies of beads and cattle, of wood stove chemistry, of the predictive analytics of entrails and astrology. They remain fit entertainments for modern adolescents. The reason it is foolish to believe that these are the motive forces of the world has everything to do with the great powers now harnessed by the understanding of our evolved rationality. The primary consequence of which is the ability to sustain populations of humans unthinkable in the ‘time of magic.’
One of the more recent evolution of rationality in the area of warfare and of economy has to do with levee en masse. What can be done with the directed forces of able bodied civilians under capable direction is a force that no tribal society could reckon with. It’s rather popular to toss around charges of genocide when the aim is to recast history as a struggle between races, but all warring parties are capable of surrender. It’s as basic a human gesture as raising your hands. So what full and complete primitive society is going to compete? What blood and soil magic, what revered ethnic heritage, what tribal racial identity is going to stand a chance against a power that extends borders to earth orbit with GPS satellites?
Look to the news. As American forces exit Afghanistan in jets, the little tribal chiefs trickle back and recall the era of magic. The primitive impulse of such human adolescence never goes extinct.
I have just started the Apple TV+ production of See. It is a post-apocalyptic tale of a diminished humanity living the wake of a plague that left everyone blind. It is well-acted and masterfully produced, invoking a world of humans living with only four senses. The fifth element is Vision, and it is considered evil by these superstitious, but we know that there is one man who possesses it, and so do his twin offspring, born to a woman sworn to a tribal leader. They raise their seeing twins in secret, for they will possess the power to change that world - they have the power of vision and all that entails, including the possible evils of the prior golden age.
When this was first advertised, I passed. Since then I have read Manchester’s A World Lit Only by Fire. I have also been considering what I perceive to be the core principles of the philosophy of science and the meaning of individuality absent the desire to engage in that process of scientific or personal discovery. The answer seems to be capture, or to put it boldly, slavery.
One of my rules is to never underestimate the intelligence of people in power. I am thinking of amending that to swap intelligence with cleverness which might entail skill or paranoid foresight. Either way, those in power have a great deal of control over what we can know about them and their plans. Often they know a great deal more than they can ever say - this is part of maintaining the necessary fictions that consolidate the nation, or the organization, or the tribe in the wilderness. We all face the wilderness, the unknown, the untamed, the brutal surprise. It is far easier to build a wall of myth, than to tell people that they can indeed handle the truth. These walls of myth are defended by sword and sorcery. The sorcery is the secret methodology of the concealed truth. The sword is as it ever was.
So where the truth is occluded purposefully and the myth becomes a tale, and then a narrative and finally an oath, then individuals become prisoners of that sorcery. They must dare to defy it, or to discover its secret methodology. For this, they may face the sword. And without a tribe of their own, an understanding of the power of discovery is left to rot. It is swatted out of the mouths of impudent children. It is tattooed on the foreheads of apostates and witches.
This is what we face in Afghanistan. This is what we face in America. This is what mankind faces when it bothers to lift up its face to see.
Somebody said something that blew me away. They said that the President could change his mind. It almost sounds unthinkable that such a thing could occur. The disaster of our exit from Afghanistan and the inevitable decline of our (former?) allies into the clutches of the Taliban’s version of Sharia could be reversed. It is all too obvious that the presence of vision was all that held the future in place. It didn’t have to be a grand vision, but a simple acknowledgement of the power we have assembled in our democracy. Our consumer economy of Walmart is not a grand vision, but it is superior to the economy of opium production. Our vision of equality, crippled as it is by various provincial concepts of ‘equity’ doesn’t need to be perfect to be superior to the practice of boy rape in Afghanistan.
I don’t expect the President to change his mind. He wasn’t elected for his vision. He was elected to replace a man perceived to be a maniac. But the sword and sorcery of the Taliban is now evident in a way we refused to see a few short weeks ago. We refused to see the reality of that place because so many of us are engaged in making myths of our own and working through the methodologies that will fix things in place for good, or so it has been hoped. Americans are trying desperately to subjugate other Americans by telling tales, erecting narratives and aiming towards enforceable oaths. Some about race, some about gender, some about Western civilization itself.
Those individuals in our society that recognize the power of discovery, of vision and openness to criticism, of learning lessons from experiments that may fail, these are the ones who will save us. They will save us from our adolescent selves and our desire to believe in magic. They will save us by reminding us to look up and see, to think clearly and to choose wisely. They will save us by pointing out errors and flaws until we get the habit ourselves of speaking the truth rather than hiding behind the walls of myth. This is the only way forward. In fact, it is the only way that we may keep what we have. The childish fantasy and addiction to magic and superheroes and messianic leaders is always with us. Never underestimate the capability of people in power to bring us back to that level.