The Citizen and The Barbarian

The Citizen and The Barbarian

Sane people don’t want to police their neighbors over their own health choices, like whether or not to wear a mask. And sane politicians would never shut down their entire country over the flu. Sane politicians would never condone violent mobs running and destroying cities.

Yet here we are.

I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m kind of tired of the empty commiseration. Everyone I talk to, when COVID-19 or Black Lives Matter come up, just wants to vent. The world is upside-down. Crazy. Insane. We’re living in clown-world. Etc.

Everyone has an opinion, and among those who are reasonable, the opinion is more or less the same. But no one has an answer. Our governments have revealed themselves not merely to be wholly unaccountable, but actively hostile. Mayors and governors will deputize the citizenry to police mask-wearing… except when it comes to violent rioters, burning down and looting cities, whom they tacitly or even explicitly support, and refuse point-blank to address the contradiction where health-concerns regarding mask-wearing and “social distancing” are readily apparent to everyone.

What is most galling about modern politics is the lack of effort in the lies. No one believes that Jeffrey Epstein killed himself, yet no one has gone to jail or even been investigated for his murder. The completely disbelieved “official story” — that he hung himself in his prison cell — is sufficient to keep any accountability away. This kind of superficial, half-hearted excuse-making seems to be the way that most policies and movements are justified today. George Floyd, for example — the man whose death inspired widespread rioting and looting over the past two months — appears not to have been killed by the police, but died of cardiopulmonary arrest, and not asphyxiation — meaning his death was not directly related to the officer’s neck hold (indeed, reports indicate that Floyd was having difficulty breathing long before he was even arrested and restrained). High levels of methamphetamines, fentanyl, and other drugs might also have had something to do with his condition. 2-3 milligrams of fentanyl can be enough to kill, with the most common symptoms being respiratory depression. Floyd’s autopsy report showed 11 ng/mL of fentanyl in the blood, which is consistent with levels of fentanyl which have hospitalized or killed others. And that’s not to touch his cannabis (5.6 ng/mL), meth (19 ng/mL), and morphine (86 ng/mL) levels.

In short, the whole situation appears to be bullshit. All of this national anger and outrage was whipped up over a lie… just like every other supposed white-on-black trigger for national outrage since Trayvon Martin tried to kill George Zimmerman back in 2012.

There is no epidemic of white-on-black racism in America. And COVID-19 is the flu, in all but the most technical of ways: its symptoms, its rate of transmission, and mortality rate are all more or less comparable to the average flu. If you are a healthy person who isn’t morbidly obese and gets out in the sun regularly, the coronavirus is not going to kill you. If you catch it, you probably won’t even know before your body fights it off.

Yet refuse to accept this official narrative and you can be turned away from work, from the store, even hunted down and harassed by social-media vigilantes.

This kind of soft vigilantism is tacitly endorsed by the powers that be. In fact, more overt and physical violence is often explicitly endorsed by these same powers that be. Those who were elected to uphold and protect the law are, seemingly systematically, undermining the law, selectively applying it and ignoring it with selective discretion.

It isn’t totally clear who is behind it. But it is clear that that “who” isn’t you or me.

So what is to be done about it all?

The short answer, I think, is to become a barbarian.

The word “barbarian” comes from Greeks who thought that outsiders just sounded like they were saying “bar-bar-bar.” The barbarian is a barbarian precisely because he speaks a different language. He does not speak the language of the Polis, and is therefore more difficult to understand, and to communicate with. This makes the barbarian more difficult to control.

The controlling ability of language is of chief importance here, because today — perhaps as in any other time — the principal tool of political control is actually not violence, but language. Violence is certainly at the end of the line, but the violence of the state would stand no chance against a sufficiently displeased citizenry. The monopoly on violence of the state is only possible because of its perceived legitimacy — and this legitimacy is maintained through ritualistic manipulation of words.

Our politicians — the priests of our civic religion — speak in a particular vernacular. They utilize a very specific mode of language, a language which must communicate to over 300 million people. This is no easy task. To accomplish this, they use particular phrases that are designed to induce a particular common emotional response while providing the least amount of informational content (this is to avoid causing a diverse political constituency from actually finding points of disagreement).

As an example, consider the word “democracy.” This word seems to be specific enough, but how would one define it to a stranger unfamiliar with the concept? It is more than merely a “representative government,” which is a very loose conceptual definition of a “republic”; a “democracy” implies voting of some kind. But voting about what? One’s political representatives? The laws? Both? Voting on at least some things, but perhaps neither of these? Is it still a “democracy” if one votes indirectly, by voting for the people who will then vote for the actual representative or law in question?

All of these questions are key technical matters which have a tremendous impact on how a state is run. Yet if all of the above variations could be plausibly described as a “democracy,” even to the point where no ordinary citizens actually vote directly about anything of substance, then of what use is the word?

To ask that question — what is the use of this word? — is to misunderstand whom it is useful to. Its ambiguity is precisely its utility to the politicians who seek to retain power, so long as the emotional response is uniform.

And besides esoteric political nerds, who isn’t for “Democracy?”

“Democracy,” “freedom,” “human rights,” “America,” and many other words have this ambiguous quality, and not all of these ambiguous words in the political language are positive in their connotation. “Racism,” “hatred,” and “fascism” also have a universal reaction, despite their broad variety of often mutually-exclusive interpretations. George Orwell famously complained about this exact problem as it related to “fascism:”

It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.

George Orwell, “What Is Fascism?”

Now words do not need to be perfectly conceptually captured and clearly defined in order to have a legitimate meaning. Among the small world of philosophers, I may describe something as “Nietzschean,” and without laboriously describing what Nietzsche was actually like, others will understand my meaning. This mutual comprehensibility is what makes the use of the term useful to the listener, and the term “Nietzschean” is useful, despite its direct meaning — “like Friedrich Nietzsche” — being completely tautological and unhelpful to anyone who hadn’t already read at least some of the German philologist’s works.

But this kind of intuitively-understood meaning — like an inside joke — cannot extend indefinitely to broad masses in a supermassive political state like the United States of America.

In such an environment, the politician — or, indeed, anyone who wishes to communicate in public without risk of being called to the carpet and having their reputation destroyed — is actually forced to speak in the vague vernacular of the Civilized American. That is, they must speak of their belief in Democracy, in Freedom, in Our Republic, in “We the People,” and of their disapproval of all things bad: racism, fascism, hatred, etc.

The point is not that these statements are wrong; perhaps racism really is bad, and perhaps there really is something interesting and good about democracy. But the problem is that as they are used (i.e., to mean completely different and mutually-exclusive things depending upon what is convenient), these statements do not convey any informational value.

All they convey is loyalty to the language itself, which is designed by the masters to retain their own power.

“Peaceful protests.” “Social distancing.” “Flattening the curve.” “Black Lives Matter.” All of these are informationally-void statements used not to convey information, but to prime an emotional response and to reinforce the established language of authority.

Consider “social distancing,” the term used by the powers that be to refer to the suggested (is it just a suggestion?) six feet of distance we are to keep from each other in order to reduce the spread of a recent Chinese flu that has been going around. What does this term mean?

The intended effect is a more rigidly enforced kind of “personal space” — in fact, the phrases are almost perfectly semantically interchangeable — but we already have a collection of associations with “personal space.” Personal space is, well, personal. How much space is required is subjective and contextual. The phrase sounds casual, which might leave people less concerned about the virus that we are all supposed to care about. By contrast, “social distancing” sounds more authoritative. “Distancing,” as a verb, is highly uncommon, and sounds like a general yet technical term (“avoidance” might have worked too, but is a little heavy on the negative feeling). “Social” is slightly more common due to the ubiquity of “social media,” but as a modifying adjective, still sounds official and authoritative — more so than “personal space.” The phrase conveys top-down authority.

And why six feet? Why not four, or seven? Have there been studies measuring the relative likelihood of this particular disease spreading based on proximity in feet? Given the difficulty we seem to have in getting a handle on its rate of spread in general, it seems unlikely.

But perhaps that doesn’t matter. Perhaps the critical part is not the precise distance, but the repetition of the same number.

“Six feet.”

“Six feet.”

“Six feet.”

It’s all about the language. And the language is all about inducing as uniform of a general response as possible while transmitting the least amount of information possible.

I don’t want to pretend as if there is no upside to being controlled in this fashion. You get all the weight of your civilization behind you, all of its amenities and, at least by default, its tacit approval. You probably won’t be on the chopping block. Start changing your words, and you may find yourself confronted… not by the state but, more likely, by the language of the state, coming from the mouth of its Law-Abiding Citizens.

Perhaps that, most crucially, is what a Law-Abiding Citizen is: the word is the law, and the Law-Abiding Citizen is one whom the word of the state abides in. He is, spiritually, a home for the state through the use of its language.

True Christians understand this principle. They speak a different language, using words like agape, the trinity, prayer, speaking of what they feel in their heart. The more nerdy ones might speak of the imago dei, or homoousion. Their language conveys their spirituality.

What spirit does your language convey when you speak?

The language of the “Barbarian” is not uniform. It all sounds like “bar-bar-bar” to the civilized, Law-Abiding Citizen, but the options are both wide and deep. Far broader and deeper than the state and its well-behaved citizens are able or willing to go.

The Barbarian, in his language, becomes unreachable to the words of the state. Their words fall flat on his sensibilities, if he even understands their meaning.

“Black Lives Matter!” “No, All Lives Matter!”

So the citizens debate amongst themselves.

“Matter? To whom? Is it not obvious that no lives matter objectively? My life matters to my friends and family, and theirs to me, and I have no delusion that any of these liars have the least concern about the value of my own life.”

So says the Barbarian to himself, perhaps contemplating the chess-game of words that some citizen has brought to his attention.

There was once a time where I might have said that retaining one’s place as a Citizen was the easier route, that the road of the Barbarian is harder and more challenging, that it was worthwhile in spite of the challenges, and not because it was the surer path. But I have begun to question this assumption, given the fear and anxiety among the good and loyal Citizens who have dutifully spoken the language of their masters. It does not look easier or more pleasant any more. Rather, it looks like one is forced to swallow the collective fears and pathologies as well as getting to enjoy the collective amenities and triumphs.

And here’s the punch: language is not just a tool of communication, but also of thought. Citizenry gives up a degree of personal agency in the most intimate of ways, and for what? To be emotionally yanked around by socialized distance and black lives mattering?

Here’s an alternative: Become a Barbarian. Find the people who matter to you, the things that interest you and seem important, and speak around these. Shun excessive engagement with the language of Good Citizenry, as if it were a spiritual obligation. Learn — or create — your own language; a language that conveys real meaning, and allows for true communication between people. This is the kind of language that permits truly profound thought, that cultivates intimate relationships, and which holds greater hope for a life lived in the direction you want to live… rather than on a path chosen — like the words you speak — by somebody else.

To paraphrase Heraclitus: The soul is dyed the color of its thoughts, but its thoughts are colored by the hues of their words. Think only in the language of your desired identity, in the voice of who you wish to become. Your perception and action are shaped by the words around you. To be a barbarian or a citizen is your choice. Day by day, what you hear and how you speak becomes who you are. Your discernment in language will make you into a poet or into somebody else’s non-playable character.

Choose wisely.

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