Politics and the Garden of Eden

It is comforting to lie to oneself. Comforting, but dangerous. At times, very dangerous. It is a matter of degree: a little bit is not so bad, but a great deal can be terrible, most especially when it affects other people.

When you lie to yourself, you're trying to avoid facts, not face hurtful truths. It is significant that one of the age-old meanings of the name "Satan" is "the liar." Does it mean not to lie to others, or not to lie to yourself? Perhaps you can't successfully lie to others unless you lie to yourself first. That definition, "liar," tells us something important about how dangerous it is to lie to yourself, because the first lie looks to be the basis of all others.

Very young children lie to themselves all the time. They don't even know they're doing it. Every parent has experienced, many times, having their youngsters deny responsibility for their actions and instead blame it on someone else: "You/he/she/they made me do it." It's not my fault; it's someone else's! They deny responsibility for what they did, and in doing so, lie to themselves and refuse to admit the truth.

When people lie to themselves, it is to maintain their self-esteem, to feel they are in the right, that they are the good guys. It is painful for some people to admit they're not only in the wrong, but have done terrible things to others.

When people lie to themselves, a lot of the time it is used to maintain this position: "I am right, and you are wrong." When people lie to themselves this way, when it's used to deny responsibility for what they've done, it always involves blaming others: "Since I didn't do it, someone else has to have done it."

Here's an example: To some people, 9/11 happened because the US is "good," didn't do anything to anyone, and so was attacked by those who are "evil" and therefore hate us for our "goodness." This is a simplistic, comforting but dangerous view.

This view ignores the fact the US has supported dictators in the Middle East for the last 50 years, no matter what oppression and murder they visited upon their people. It ignores the support of Israel no matter what it did to the Palestinians. It ignores the American troops stationed on what Muslims consider the holy hand of Saudi Arabia . It ignores the 10 years of blockade of Iraq that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands. It ignores the facts that 9/11 was blowback, based in large part on envy, resentment and revenge, (to "bring us down"), and not because of the childish and self-deluded notion of our being "good" and their being "evil."

In children's fairy tales, good and evil are portrayed in the whitest of whites and the blackest of blacks. It's because children can't understand the complexity of life in all its shades of grey. When they get older, they're supposed to understand those greys, and that everyone is imperfect, and no one is either all good or all bad.

What we've got then, is the belief that we are "good" and our opponents are "evil" as being similar to the child's dreamworld you find in fairy tales. It is based on lying to oneself and refusing the face the facts. In the adult world, hopefully more clear and realistic than a child's world, we're supposed to face the truth about all the complexities involved in those shades of grey--that no one has clean hands.

We're dealing with a child's level in which we are "good" and didn't do anything, and were attacked by the "evil" because we are "good," then an adult's level in which we were attacked because of what we've done to others. Revenge, resentment and envy make a lot more sense than cackling evil geniuses hiding, Smaug-like, in caves and plotting our downfall because they hate our freedom and "democracy." If they do, why haven't they done anything for the past 500 years? How did the US go from being the best friend Muslims had in the Middle East 60 years ago to being despised today? Did they just suddenly decide over here to become evil and attack us?

From Bush's many pronouncements, he clearly believes himself to be a Christian. Yet in many ways he looks at this conflict in a childish way: It's not our fault, we're innocent, we didn't do anything, we are good and they are evil. So I'm seeing a very puzzling contradiction: Bush calls himself a Christian, but Satan means "the liar," and Bush is refusing to face the facts and therefore lying to himself. So what exactly is he?

Don't think I'm letting our opponents off of the hook, because I'm not. Islam has a 1,000-year-old record of genocide, destruction and theft--the worst in the history of the world. Many Muslims deny this, of course. They, too, lie to themselves, to maintain their self-image of being good. But the fanatical ones haven't been a real threat for close to 500 years. It's what happened because the West chose liberty and the free market, and they didn't.

When people consistently blame their problems on others, psychologists call them "character disorders." It's a disorder of responsibility. It's the opposite of a neurotic, which is someone who takes too much responsibility. It's the difference between a cat, who always thinks it's your fault, and a dog, who always thinks it's his.

A character disorder has always caused more problems in the world than mere neurotics. The story of Satan, who blames his problems on everyone else, is the story of a character disorder. I haven't yet found any great, profound stories about neurotics, pace Woody Allen. It's because the cause of human evil in the world is those childish people who, lying to themselves and refusing to face the facts, deny responsibility for what they've done and instead blame everything on others.

Carl Jung, in a more mythic way, called that which we deny and project on others "the Shadow." It always involved unpleasant aspects of our selves that we won't admit. It's another name for scapegoating.

Since people are part of their societies, when enough of them engage in scapegoating, the whole society will suffer. In the 20th Century, the Communists and Nazis projected their problems on others, and tried to destroy those people in order to destroy their problems. What they tried backfired, led to the deaths of over 100 million people, and destroyed the afflicted societies.

The Greeks called this hubris, followed by nemesis: arrogance followed by destruction. Jung put it a slightly different way, but it means the same thing: when people (and societies) won't admit what they have done to others, and instead see themselves as good (indeed grandiose), those people and those societies will always be split. There will be at least two parts: the fragile, childish, grandiose part that considers itself completely innocent, and the disowned part it attempts to project onto others, whom they judge both guilty and evil, and try to destroy (think of the plot of Atlas Shrugged). This is what happens when people and societies lie to themselves and refuse to admit the truth about their imperfections and what they have done to others.

The opposite of arrogance (perhaps the greatest sin of all) is humility, what the Greeks called sophrosyne. It involves self-awareness of one's flaws, and understanding that one is not perfect. Such humility means not to project all flaws onto others, to not scapegoat them. It's the difference between the splitting that always comes with arrogance, and the wholeness that comes with true humility.

There is an old saying that everyone knows: "the truth shall set you free." Being enslaved to hubris, seeing yourself as good and others as evil, projecting all your problems onto them and ignoring what you've done to them, is not the truth, and it will never be the way to be free. To ignore this is, to use another old saying, to sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind.

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