“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet; So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d, Retain that dear perfection which he owes Without that title.”
In this famous passage from Act II Scene II of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the Bard espouses the idea that the name of something doesn’t define its essence. The philosophical debate over language and reality, form and function, has been ongoing for millennia – from Plato and Aristotle to postmodernists and deconstructionists. I’m generally not someone who believes in the power of labels to define reality, but some labels are indeed important.
One such type of label that is increasingly salient in the modern day is the geonym, or place name. Geographic nomenclature is deeply political, with place names having significant cultural and propaganda value. In scholar Benedict Anderson’s 1983 book Imagined Communities, the author describes nations as groups of people who self-organize into a limited, sovereign community based on some shared feature. Language is one of the prime features of an imagined community, and the names of places and institutions reflect the political and societal realities of the nation. They are deliberately intended to convey civic meaning and serve a particular purpose in uniting and consolidating the shared community around a common orientation.
The idea of a ‘national divorce’ – a parting of ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states into separate national agglomerations – has been floating around the conservative ecosystem recently, especially on the fringes of the too-online far-right. This idea has bubbled up several times over the past decades on both sides of the aisle – usually when a preferred presidential candidate loses an election. From the 2004 election spawning ‘Jesusland’ versus ‘United States of Canada’ maps, to the radical right-wingers pushing secession after the re-election of Barack Obama in 2012, to the talk of ‘Calexit’ just days after the shock 2016 victory of Donald Trump, secession memes have been rife in 21st century American politics.
Adversaries of American foreign policy deliberately muddy the distinction between cause and effect to promulgate their isolationist ideology, bolstering and excusing our authoritarian foes in the process.
The Greek thinker Aristotle, one of the leading lights of the ancient world, was a ‘renaissance man’ thousands of years before the term was coined. His polymathic abilities ranged from biology to ethics to political science to philosophy. In his musings on theology, Aristotle coined one of the most famous arguments for the existence of God, using the fact that all effects have a cause to posit an original cause which itself had no precursors. This ‘unmoved mover’ was the deity (or deities) which created the universe in which we live; it is the cause of all other causes, and all effects could eventually be traced back to its divine spark. The ‘unmoved mover’ argument has been used by theologians in their treatises, philosophy professors in their classrooms, and college students in their late-night, alcohol-fueled discussions. (Not to speak from experience, or anything.)
Aristotle’s argument has resounded through the ages and influences a wide variety of fields and intellectual debates, even when it is not acknowledged as doing such. The idea of an underlying cause which animates the world and all events in it is a powerful one, and can be found just as commonly in malign conspiracy theories as in benign organized religion. In the realm of foreign policy, the proponents of the ‘unmoved mover’ argument are far closer to the former than the latter.
Antisemitism has been in the news lately after the antics of Kanye West and Kyrie Irving pushed these hateful messages to massive audiences. We’ve heard these anti-Jewish sentiments condemned as awful and despicable, but a deeper examination is necessary. What really is antisemitism and why does it matter? How has it evolved and shifted throughout history? How does it operate as a conspiracy theory, and why has it been so prevalent for so long? Is anti-Zionism antisemitism? How do different communities espouse these similarly prejudiced beliefs? And, most importantly, what should we do to confront these noxious ideas?
All these questions and more will be answered in this episode of the Rational Policy podcast. If you want to understand antisemitism so as to best rebut it, this is the show for you.
Memes are an incredible tool of information exchange; unfortunately they are just as often a fount of misinformation.
We’ve seen lying with statistics. We’ve seen lying with maps. Now, in the heat of the most serious nation-on-nation conflict in decades, we’re seeing lying with memes.
The meme above, although not new, has been rocketing around social media over the past few days in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It pops up almost any time someone criticizes the invasion for its brutality or advocates for a strong Western response. The accounts posting it – mainly the useful idiot crew – are garnering thousands of positive responses, all decrying the United States for imperialism, militarism, and atrocious human rights abuses, if not outright war crimes. If you took these folks at face value, you would think that the US was, in the words of one prominent progressive commentator, “the greatest source for evil and destruction since the fall of the Third Reich.” This sort of moral relativism is nothing new; authoritarian flunkies and anti-American stooges – see one Noam Chomsky – have been pushing these inane ideas for decades. Now these tactics have been updated for the 21st century, where memes are the ideological currency of the day. And although the rhetorical technology has changed, the inaccuracy and misinformation has not. The “USA Bombing List” meme is a case in point.