Sunday, April 29, 2007

Wizards & Warriors

When I read a depressing a New York Times article this morning, I had some reactions I’d like to discuss below. It was a grimly matter-of-fact article on child soldiers in Africa. Apparently several of the horrible wars ravaging the entire African continent are now being fought mainly by small children, brainwashed and pressed into service by amoral warlords bent on plunder. As if that weren’t bad enough, the article describes the children as really good soldiers, because they can be made to do almost anything and kill almost anyone, especially - and this is the part I’d like to discuss - if you wow them with tales of sorcery:

Child soldiers... are often drawn into these movements, or kept there, with magic and superstition.

In many armed movements, children are taught that life and death depend on spirits, which are conjured up by their commanders and distilled in oils and amulets. Magic can spur children to do unspeakable things. It also bestows otherwise lackluster leaders with a veneer of supernatural respectability. “The commanders would wear certain pearls and said that guns wouldn’t hurt us,” Mr. Beah recalled. “And we believed it.”

Later in the article:

Just this month, in a shantytown near Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, enforcers from a group called the Mungiki — essentially a street gang that uses teenage muscle — hacked up several opponents in an effort to control the minibus racket. True to form, their leader has told his young henchmen that he rolled to earth in a ball of stars.

You read that right. Ball of stars. So here were my two simultaneous, yet quite different, reactions:

Reaction 1) “That is so friggin cool.”

An amoral army of brainwashed child soldiers with machine guns, following witch doctors who control them with zombie oils and amulets. A minibus mafioso who claims he rolled to earth in a ball of stars.

Human behavior doesn’t get any weirder than that. That’s so beyond sick that it’s cool. An army of magically controlled child killers. It’s like something Conan the Barbarian or John Carter of Mars would have to deal with. Tarzan Versus the Witch King of the Mungiki. The whole thing is inhuman and horrible and messed up but damn if it wouldn’t be perfect material for a fantasy/sci-fi novel.

-This reaction came from the part of me that has been more or less the same since I saw the first Star Wars movie when I was 5 or 6. I know the difference between fantasy and reality, but when I read something like this I sometimes regress to the level of moral complexity that Spielberg and Lucas brought to Raiders, which is HURRR HITLER WUZ PURE EVIL LOL HE PROBLY HAD BLACK MAGIC DUDE THAT’S SO RAD. I still find cults, magic, religion, myth, and everything related to another world beyond our own to be fascinating on a fantasy/video game/role playing/adventure kind of level. I just do. Oh well. My second reaction was, I think, a little more mature.

Reaction 2) “So this is how every religion on earth began.”

This is the depressing truth about human religions. They ALL started in more or less this way. This is the burning bush. This is the voice from on high. This is how it worked, and how it still works: One man, slightly more clever than the other idiots around him, wanted to make his followers obey him more mindlessly. Wanted to make his soldiers kill more ferociously. Wanted to make his decisions unquestionable. Wanted everyone to WANT to give him their time and resources, no questions asked. So what does he do? He simply says something along the lines of “I CAME FROM THE SKY. I HAVE MAGICAL AMULETS AND OILS. DO WHAT I SAY."

And it works. Every time. It’s that easy. It worked when Abraham, Moses, Jesus, M_____d, Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, and all the others did it, and it will continue to work until the last human beings starve to death on a planet filled with pigs because they’re not kosher or halal. Sometimes the warlord himself doesn’t create the myth himself; sometimes it happens generations afterward. Most of those men were charismatic geniuses, or at least their advisors were, and were extremely clever at concocting parables, poetry, magic tricks, scriptures and other props to keep their charade going, but as we see from this article, you don’t even really need that stuff.

All you need to do is have a tiny spark of charisma, gather a group of people, and say some variation on “I came from the sky. I have magical amulets and oils. Do what I say.” And people will flock to you and do anything for you.

I hate the fact that our ancestors were so stupid, and I hate the fact that almost all of us now are still exactly as stupid. Folks, let me lay it out for you right here: A petty African thug who says he rolled to earth in a ball of stars is lying. We can all agree on that, right? And guess what? Followers who claim that a Jewish wizard was beamed into a virgin’s uterus from the sky 2,000 years ago are lying. Why is it so hard to agree on that?

Same with a certain gentleman of Arabic descent who will remain unmentioned here, and the same goes for the polygamous American crystal-ball treasure hunter, and all the rest. Obviously, I like a lot of religious ideas and art, I approve of many of the moral teachings passed down by many of these magicians, etc. etc. This post is just to point out the disgusting, manipulative “big man” complex that spurs on almost all prophets. In terms of their ultimately selfish motivations there’s really no difference between one prophet and another, aside from the longevity of their absurd ego trips, which depends on how convincing people find their confabulations. The African guy’s ball of stars story will probably only be believed for a few years...

...unless he gets a good writer to start on the Gospel of The Minibus Racketeer. Add a couple miracles involving AK-47s and rocket launchers, tack on few outlandish laws about how to properly treat pigs, foreigners and women, and hey presto a new faith is born.


Intrepidflame said...

I nominated you for a Thinking Blogger Award, for whatever that is worth. Someone gave me one (I think every asshole in the "blogosphere" has one, so why not you?)

Seriously though. Great post!Oh I guess you are supposed to give it to five people now. pleas don't make fun of me when you write about this phenomenon.

albtraum said...

Yeah, thanks, I just saw that on your blog! That's cool. I don't know five people but I'll figure something out. I barely know two people. And I'm one of them. Oh well.

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