An Eye for an Eye makes the whole world blind ...
Sent: 9/24/2001 10:48 AM
From: Joe Breskin
To: !Robert Force

Sent: Monday, September 24, 2001 10:48 AM
Subject: Where I am sitting today

It was pointed out to me day-before-yesterday by Paula that the I-Ching was written in times as troubled as these, and the framework for the discussion it invites was similar. 

But I still see this as the first skirmish in a war between ancient and modern memes. Between the global infection of shopping-mall America and the ancient memes still reflected by some of the people who have apparently found it necessary to take a "religious" stand against it. And these are very different memes than the ones that infect the kids protesting WTO, or Earthfirst! cutting down power transmission towers to a uranium refinery, and yet the symbols and the targets are exactly the same and the reasons they are targets are the same.

It almost comes down to asking people to stand up and be counted - O.K. folks -who is infected by which meme?
Who is willing to die for which cause?
Whose meme allows them to enter into alliances with whom?
If the numbers are big enough, even the stupidest leaders should be prepared to back down ...
unless they are operating in a largely delusional world created by their meme infection.

So, before I can pretend to understand what is going on, or going to happen, I feel like I "need" to see a demographic map - a histogram display that gives a clear indication of the % of total population in each country in the world that subscribe to what might be called "fundamentalist" religious views - where a significant number of people are willing to die as saints or martyrs for their religious beliefs. I see this as a critical map.

It occurred to me yesterday that the state of war, or the definition of warfare, could be as simple as a temporary suspension of our ethics, of the normal rules under which a society operates, and a shift to a model based on the premise that the glorious ends will justify the horrible means.

The greatest beauty (and horrible and beauty are not oxymoronic, if the ends justify the means) of the terrorist's exercise at the WTC was the web of connectedness it revealed. Even beyond showing that strategic missile defense and most of the Pentagon's budget was absurd - both obsolete and unnecessary and ineffective - if all you needed was box knives to use any existing scheduled public transport device - be it a bus, an airplane, or a ship - as a weapon as effective any ICBM, it clearly showed us that nearly everyone in America was connected to someone who was injured or killed.  And from that lesson we can project a consequence of retaliation that radiates out from that center, be it Afghanistan or Pakistan or anywhere, and imagine/realize that every death we cause in our misguided attempt at revenge surely creates hundreds or thousands of new enemies.

Hence Ghandi's line: "An eye for eye only ends up making the whole world blind."

By the way: a "meme" is a word virus - not a word macrovirus like people send over the internet, but a communicable disease transmitted through human language or human behavior. Dawkins would perhaps take issue with "darkness" implicit in the disease model, but I believe it provides a better, broader fit than his gene-like model. Our immune system grows from it's experience and exposure to viruses, just as our understanding of the world, and our collection of filters that prevent us from experiencing the world, are acquired from experience.

There is little or no evidence that I have encountered that resistance to specific infections is acquired through experience and passed to subsequent generations through genes. Typically meme infections have sets of symptoms, hence I believe that a meme creates a sort of identifiable pattern of altered responses in infected individuals: a syndrome.  "Jesus Christ as personal savior" is a meme. So are "sainthood" and "martyrdom". And "good and evil". And the Bill of Rights.

Richard Dawkins (who I once believed coined the term) says: Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leading from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.

Memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking -- the meme for, say, 'belief in life after death' is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of people all over the world.

So, I initially assumed that people who did not know the word meme would either discover its meaning from the context I had developed around the word, or Google it. Googling meme history gets you: which offers (in part):
"Considerable controversy surrounds the term "meme" and its associated discipline, memetics. In part this arises because a number of possible (though not mutually exclusive) interpretations of the nature of the concept have arisen:
  1. The least controversial claim suggests that memes provide a useful philosophical perspective with which to examine cultural evolution. Proponents of this view argue that considering cultural developments from a meme's eye view as if memes act to maximise their own replication and survival can lead to useful insights and yield valuable predictions into how culture develops over time. Dawkins himself seems to have favoured this approach.
  2. Other theorists have focused on the need to provide an empirical grounding for memetics in order for it to class as a real and useful scientific discipline. Given the nebulous (and in many cases subjective) nature of many memes, providing such an empirical grounding has to date proved challenging.
  3. A third approach, exemplified by Dennett and by Susan Blackmore in her book The Meme Machine (1999), seeks to place memes at the centre of a radical and counter-intuitive naturalistic theory of mind and of personal identity. "
But what I still totally fail to understand is why a few hundred of people with in-flight magazines in the pockets of the seats in front of them and hard pointy objects like ballpoint pens in their pockets could not figure out how to disarm a few people with box knives.

Joe Breskin
346 Hudson Point
Port Townsend, WA
(360) 385 3771

Additional/related thoughts 03/20/2004:

Two and a half years after 9/11 The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press published the results of an interesting poll of global attitudes a year after the American attack on Iraq. The report does not provide the basis for the map I requested above, but it does provide some extremely useful worldwide demographics that give a good indication of the size of the populations who do NOT appear to carry the fundamentalist meme infections.
©Joe Breskin September 2001
Link to a list of other journal entries