I'm not sure how it started. I think it was while watching Pinky and the Brain with a roomful of people. Children, teenagers, adults of all ages. All were laughing at the antics of a bulb-headed mutated lab mouse who wanted to conquer the world, with the aid of his dim-witted, hyperactive, worshipping sidekick. They failed every time with their Rube Goldberg plans, yet never gave up.
What nerve did this program touch? I thought about it for a long time. The cartoon had to be mythic, to be so hugely popular. I decided Brain was just a fictional version of every nut--Hitler or Stalin, for example--who wanted to conquer huge chunks of the world, if not the whole thing. His sin was hubris, or pride: arrogance and ignorance. Believing he could do no wrong, no matter how much wrong he did. The story that described him best was that of Satan, who thought he could be God.
Pinky? Pinky was Mass Man. Hyperactive, loud, not very bright, always thinking Brain knew what he was doing, no matter what catastrophes he led both of them into. Except for the fact he is more independent, think Homer Simpson turned into a mouse.
The cartoon, I realized, was profound. It embodied a great truth. Think of Bush and all those call him "my President." An arrogant, ignorant man leading his clueless worshippers over a cliff. The late Osama bin Laden and those who believe in him? Same thing as Bush and his. Neither side understands the other, but all are the same. An ignorant, arrogant Brain and a bunch of blind, dim-witted, Pinkyesque followers. Osama bin Bush. Dubya bin Laden. In many ways the same man, raised in a different culture and a different religion. Their followers are the same, too. Why should human nature be different on the other side of the world?
I noticed that Brain never apologized, ever. Bush has never apologized, either, for those non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction or for those over 1,000 dead Americans. Nor bin Laden, for his horrendous miscalculations that cost him his life, which I'm sure he never expected. Apparently he thought the US was militarily the same as the Soviet Union .
Those who never apologize believe they are never wrong. They're fanatics. Don't they in a sense believe they are perfect, if they never apologize?
Perhaps that's why humility is such a virtue. I don't think it means to humble yourself, or to grovel. I think it means to understand that one is imperfect, makes mistakes, and should apologize for them. And try not to make those mistakes again. And if you can't stop making them, quit your job.
Pinky and the Brain may have been the catalyst, but the ideas went beyond the cartoon. In real life, leaders afflicted with hubris always engage in black-or-white thinking. Bush sure does, believing he is engaged in a contest between Good and Evil. And I'm sure the other side thinks exactly the same thing, with the roles reversed. And there is no one more liable to murder than someone who is convinced he is absolutely in the right, and dealing with someone he truly believes to be evil who is trying to destroy everything.
Each side also believes God supports them, indeed, He talks to their leaders! I will never take seriously anyone who says God talks to him. In fact, I'll consider them for what they are--wackos. If anyone says God talks to him, he'd better make the lame walk and the blind see.
Bush claims he is a Christian, doing God's will. But he's engaging in mass murder and mass theft, having invaded and conquered two other countries. If he thinks that's what God supports, how exactly is anyone supposed to tell the difference between God and Satan?
If someone claims he is doing God's will, isn't what he's really saying is that his will and God's are one and the same? That's probably the greatest blasphemy there is: claiming Man is God.
It's not in the cartoon, either, but those who conquer almost always wish to do it for the victim's own "good." As both Jesus and Aesop noticed, all tyrants call themselves "benefactors." Bush wants to "drain the swamp" and install the leftist pipe-dream of democracy in the Middle East , no matter how many people he has to murder. And I'm sure there are militant Muslims in the world who think the whole world would be better off if it was Muslim. Each side is obviously raging about the speck in other's eyes, and ignoring the log in its own. You can only do that if you think you are pure Good.
I came to the conclusion one of the worst things anyone can do is to split people into pure Good and pure Evil. That only exists in comic books. In real life, it's more along the lines of Hubris and the Sacrificed: I am Good, you are Evil, so I am going to dehumanize and sacrifice you so only the Good will remain. But it never works out that way. It certainly didn't work for the Nazis and the Communists, who murdered an awful lot of people in the eternally hopeless quest to bring Heaven to earth.
Black-or-white thinking invariably leads to terrible problems. Those who define themselves as Good and others as Evil become paranoid, because they think the Evil is always attempting to destroy them. It used to be that 20th Century Paranoid Guy was convinced the Nazis and the Communists were going to conquer the world, now 21st Century Paranoid Guy believes "Islamo-fascists" are going to take over the planet. And I'm sure those "Islamo-fascists" are convinced we're going to conquer and destroy them.
The power of those defined as evil is always grotesquely exaggerated. They become larger-than-life, inhuman monsters who'll destroy us and conquer the world . . . even if they have no armies, navies or air forces. Iraq , a country with an economy the size of South Carolina , was going to nuke us and fly Drones of Death across the Atlantic Ocean . Saddam Hussein, a third-rate, tinhorn dictator, was supposed to be the new Hitler. His Republican Guard was supposed to be the new SS, walking on Styrofoam shoes across the Atlantic Ocean to invade the US . Only someone truly paranoid and truly deluded, and vastly exaggerating the strength of his enemy, could believe something like that.
There are an awful lot of problems that come from black-or-white thinking: hubris, scapegoating, paranoia, hate, self-deception, rationalization, exaggeration, dehumanization, murder. Paradoxically, those things are what comes of people thinking they're pure Good, and defining their "enemies" as pure Evil. It's what comes of people thinking God is on their side, and the Devil on the other guy's. You need only look at the actions of Bush, or bin Laden to see the truth of it.
Brain always failed to conquer the world, as has every real-life, would-be world conqueror. He always conked his head and staggered around dizzily. That's what the Greeks called hubris, followed by nemesis. It always happens when people think they are Good and everyone else is Evil. Hubris followed by nemesis is a wise lesson--from a cartoon, of all places--to which people should pay more attention.