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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tlön, Iraq, Orbis Tertius

I've always been a fan of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Many of his stories are metaphors for religion and God; by taking these structures and beliefs and placing them in different contexts, Borges showed their absurdity.

Two stories have come to my mind lately -- Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius and The Babylon Lottery. Both show how a weird -- or even false -- idea can take over a culture or even the world, changing it forever. And not always for the better. In Lottery the idea is an unseen lottery that guides people's lives -- a lottery which may no longer exist, but people see messages from it in the random events that surround them (i.e., omens and prophecy), while Tlön is the story of a false encyclopedia entry for a fictional country (i.e., heaven) which eventually becomes so important to people that Borges tells us that "English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön."

These stories are about the absurd -- and dangerous -- power of religious belief. But they can also be seen as being about something that surrounds us every day. They can be seen as a metaphor for ideas that get away from us. These are the human inventions that grow beyond human control -- economies, for example. The concept of currencies and markets has created something so complex, so outside our control, that people who devise ways to affect them get nominated for the Nobel Prize. It's not like chemistry or physics, it's not a part of nature, but it's become an organic thing that people study. It's become as much a part of our world as the weather -- complete with forecasters who try to determine what it'll do tomorrow.

Yet, to a large extent, it only exists as a concept. All currencies really are are slips of paper and shiny metal disks. Economics is both earth-shatteringly important and absurd at once.

But, as I say, economics is only one example. Nations and borders are another. Nations exist as legal fictions in the most realistic of terms and borders are arbitrary lines drawn on maps. Viewed from space, the world isn't really a multi-colored patchwork of nations, like the globe on your desk. It's obviously one place, not a collection of places. Yet the idea of nations, like economies and The Babylon Lottery, can destroy lives and ruin cultures.

We're caught in one of the consequences of this absurdist concept. The occupation in Iraq is a consequence of it -- the idea that people living in one imaginary section of a map are more important and more deserving of peace, prosperity, and even life than those people in another section. We can see this in the broader war between the US and whoever the hell it is we're fighting there and also among Iraqis in the smaller map of Iraq itself. A lot has been made on the right and the media about a drop in the violence in Iraq. But this drop is largely a consequence, not a result.

Inter Press Service:

"I would like to agree with the idea that violence in Iraq has decreased and that everything is fine," retired general Waleed al-Ubaidy told IPS in Baghdad. "But the truth is far more bitter. All that has happened is a dramatic change in the demographic map of Iraq."

And as with Baquba and other violence-hit areas of Iraq, he says a part of the story in Baghdad is that there is nobody left to tell it. "Most of the honest journalists have left."

"Baghdad has been torn into two cities and many towns and neighbourhoods," Ahmad Ali, chief engineer from one of Baghdad's municipalities told IPS. "There is now the Shia Baghdad and the Sunni Baghdad to start with. Then, each is divided into little town-like pieces of the hundreds of thousands who had to leave their homes."

Ethnicity, another absurdist invention of people, is the cause here -- or, more specifically, ethnic cleansing. The patchwork map of the world is recreated on the ground in Baghdad, with each neighborhood now a separate place -- a place where outsiders aren't welcome. Everyone's settled into their nations in miniature, ready to fight those other nationals across the street if they get uppity. There is no "Baghdad." It's become even more fictional than it was before; it's just a name for a place on a map. No Baghdadis live there. There are only the pure and the impure, the residents and the interlopers, the faithful and the heretics.

Given this, it's hard to see how anyone can build a nation here and nearly impossible to see how we could help. Baghdad represents Iraq, shattered into fragments and, perhaps, impossible to repair. Once again, our inventions have gotten away from us, wandering through those streets, destroying lives, and splitting communities. There are no Baghdadis, no Iraqis. There is only "us" and "them." Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Persian, Arab, Jew, Christian, etc. There is no nation there, not anymore. The Iraqi government is only a diplomatic fiction -- it has no control over the populace and law is only a theoretical concept.

All this has cost us 3,861 Americans. No one really knows how many Iraqis have died and nobody knows how many Iraqis have been killed by Iraqis. Like the world economy and religious movements, events in the war we've invented have gotten away from us. They're beyond our control.

Iraq is Tlön.


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