Know Thine Enemy: The Media
by NORMAN SIMMS
October 18, 2012
Here is the first fistful of fatuity. The entire series, expected to take at least another twenty-seven years to compile and execute, will be cross-referenced and self-correcting in response to enthusiastic audience comments.
Ambiguity. Like equivocation (q.v.), ambiguity stands betwixt and between, but rather than just being a mode of diversion and duplicity, it can also indicate the not-yet-crystallized situation in which we find ourselves, so that any attempt to come down on one side or another is a distortion of reality. But while circumstances may not have come into focus and require patience and meditation to work out what needs to be done, moral ambiguity remains a trick of the eye (trompe l'œil), a cop-out and a failure of the imagination (q.v.).
Clue. This is the red thread you follow when you go into the labyrinth so you know how to get back after slaying the Minotaur. It is your lifeline that ensures an escape route, an exit strategy. It also now-a-days means a piece of seemingly trivial evidence that nevertheless leads to the solution of a crime or any other mystery. To Sherlock Holmes, it is elementary, that is, a piece of circumstantial evidence that could not be denied-some fragment or trace of the perpetrator's presence at the time of the criminal act. The clue, then, has to be interpreted, after it is analysed back into its constituent elements. It is not proof positive until it matches with two other kinds of evidence: ocular proof, the report of two corroborating eye-witnesses, and ethical proof, the personal witness of character by someone who has known the accused for a substantial period of time and can vouch for his bona fides, his good faith credentials. It is not often that we find the smoking gun, and yet even then someone must know how to read the smoke signals to decode the message.
Cunning. For the ancient Greeks, there were three kinds of knowledge: (a) logical reason, (b) rhetorical or forensic arguments, and (c) cunning or mētis. In the first instance, postulates were set up as hypotheses and inferences drawn step by step by various rational means; in the second, the speaker creates probable scenarios and contexts into which facts, opinions and probabilities are so placed as to create the illusion of truth; in the third, most ambiguously, skills and understanding are used, often by oblique and delayed means, to obtain something wanted, to outmanoeuvre an opponent, catch a fish or ambush an enemy. Cunning is the use of reason, instinct and insight to achieve your goal by patience and deception, and hence requires knowledge of the natural world, historical circumstances and your own inner strengths and weaknesses. Cunning is the knowledge you need when faced by an opponent stronger and better-placed than yourself. It may be used for good or evil.
Disingenuousness. The illusion of naïve, innocent goodness that disarms the critic and the accuser, so that no matter how often it is shouted that Israel will be wiped off the face of the earth and the Zionist entity totally annihilated, many still believe the Iranians want fissionable material for peaceful purposes; or think of the poor Palestinians have only goodness in their hearts and pain their souls, even as they shoot off thousands of homemade rockets and mortars into schools and hospitals in the Promised Land. The child whose face is covered with chocolate says: "Me? I never ate the Hershey bar."
Equivocation. This is what the Jesuits were accused of doing before they were tossed out of many European countries and the let back in, evicted again, and then began to reform themselves. The equivocator says (or does) one thing and wants you to believe he is saying (or doing) something you approve of, not what he is really sneaking in, creating a fait accompli you cannot wriggle out of. The offender takes the words and images and even the apparent values of Human Rights or Peace or Environmentalism but twists them around, turns them inside out, and stands them on their head, so that before you know it you have let the cuckoo lay its eggs in your nest, created legislation that no longer permits you to live and believe as you think is right and proper, and forbids industries and medical experimentation that will sustain the economy and save lives.
Hint. A kind of clue (q.v.) or synechdoche, that figure of speech that gives you the part for the whole (not just the wheels but the whole car), the container for the contained (boil the kettle-ouch! All that molten copper on the table), the producer for the product (killed by a gun, when it is the bullet exploding inside the body that is fatal). This is close to metonymy, where one name stands for another: London spoke to Paris before calling on Washington for help. The hint, however, is usually off on the sides, in the fringes, almost off the radar, and seems harmless and irrelevant until it is pointed out, usually in hindsight. The sign of things to come, like the child who pulls wings off flies or ties tin cans to a puppy's tail may soon become a bully at school and a serial killer in a movie theatre.
History. This means not only knowing the facts about and understanding the motivating energies of the past, since we live in history and it lies as much around and before us as it does behind us, but also its substance, texture and powers. In ancient times, historia has amore legal meaning: it was the story told by a lawyer in order to prove his client's innocence by replacing the false scenario constructed by the prosecuting side based on insufficient evidence, speculation and negative characterization of the defendant. That older sense remains in the word histrionics, meaning exaggerated dramatic performances or oratorical displays, bamboozling an audience with pompous words, rolling periods, and ambiguous allusions.
Imagination. Not too long ago, imagination was a faculty of the mind (closed to fantasy [q.v.]), an ability and a propensity to see, understand and recall things as images rather than as words or abstract ideas or concepts. Then in the Romantic Era after the French Revolution of 1789, the word overtook both wit (q.v.) and fantasy (q.v.) and became the name for creativity itself, and even for speculation (q.v.). The trouble is that for many people and in most instances, the older uncontrolled tendency towards irrationality and fantasy remain.
Irony. In his Nicomachian Ethics, Aristotle took two contrasting figures from Old Comedy as moral types of anti-social behaviour. On the one hand, there was the eiron, the ugly, old, deformed and stupid creature who actually was the most beautiful being in the moral universe of ideas, as well as evergreen with insight and perspicacity, harmonious in him or herself and in the world of nature that included the outer spheres of the cosmos, and thus the spark of divinity indwelling in human society. On the other, there was the alazon, the boastful, pompous, vain and pedantic character, forever misconstruing his or her own abilities, understanding, strengths and influence, and thus the comical monkey who rules the world of politics, science and social institutions. The eiron, who gives its name to the quality of irony, is a trickster, a satirist, and a Socratic teacher, so that this mode of indirection, obliquity and disingenuousness (q.v.) serves to make people aware of their faults, foibles and follies. The poor alazon, however, no matter how often you knock his top hat off, pull the rug out from under him, or open the curtains on his nasty acts never comes to realize what an ass he is. Sometimes, therefore, when you can't laugh him out of his moral turpitude it is necessary to cut off the offending limb, send him packing into the wilderness, or écrassez l'infåme (crush the little beastie).
Perfidy. The lover or diplomat who breaks faith sets the whole system of contractual relationships at risk and makes the niceties of law and justice suspect.
Sarcasm. The simplest form of irony is this biting (mordant) understatement or overstatement, virtually so outrageous there is way to take it literally. Without subtly or nuance, the words, images and tones used show how far the object of the sarcasm is from the literal sense used. Oddly enough, in our politically correct world very few people seem capable of distinguishing between the implied and the indicated. It has become a criminal offence to make other people feel bad about themselves, and all insults are in the ears or eyes of the person claiming victim status.
Superstition. There are several functioning definitions of this condition of knowledge. In the most common usage, a superstition is a hold-over of irrational belief or ritual that no longer is validated and confirmed by the surrounding environment, and the less it convinces the reasonable or common sense person, the more violently those in authority assert its truth and impose its conditions. Another definition that still inheres in the appearance of this word can be expressed as the ability of a person to see what he or she has not experienced but only heard or read about, has been taught is true, and now requires to be valid or everything else in the experienced world falls apart and loses its meaning. Just as Robert Graves once defined myth as "the other guy's religion," so superstition may be said to be what the other person calls his opponent's fantasies, while his own are natural, normal and beyond question.
Theory. Although we use this word mostly in the sense of a hypothetical, speculative postulation that has yet to be proved in fact and in practice, there is still a germ of its original meaning as a means of absorbing the divine powers of other people and places by observing their rituals and then reporting back what has been seen, the very words of this report transmitting some of the godly essence of the transformational or revelatory event. Thus to know something theoretically means to gain access to its meanings and power at second-hand. In our world, this can go beyond industrial, military or political espionage to learning the hidden agenda-or even the unconscious motives-of your enemy by studying their history, culture and religion. Weakness lies in assuming that others think in the same way and about the same things you do.
Wit. Before the Renaissance, the normal sense of wit was that of either mind in general or the senses in particular; then it became more and more specialized as the use of reason and was gradually demoted to a superficial and facile kind of cleverness, where the affinity of sounds and appearance replaced logical thinking and common sense. But once again, as the modern age approached, wit began to signify an ability to think quickly in response to pressing issues, a faculty of the mind to see distinctions (whereas fancy only saw likenesses, analogies and superficial equivalences). To be witty, then, comes to be a way of thinking beyond the square and yet keeping both feet firmly on the ground.
Norman Simms is the author of Alfred Dreyfus: Man, Milieu, Mentality and Midrash (Academic Studies Press, 2011). The second volume in the series, Alfred Dreyfus: In the Context of His Times: Alfred Dreyfus as Lover, Intellectual, Poet and Jew should be out towards the end of this year; and a third volume tentatively entitled Alfred and Lucie Dreyfus: Illusions, Delusions and Allusions is being prepared for 2013.