ISIS, Assad, and the trickster god

What does it mean to say there is a negative force in the world?

We have images of negativity that we use to talk about the idea, Heath Ledger’s Joker being one of them, the Christian Devil being another, the Dark Side of the Force being yet another, but the Joker, the Devil, and the Sith are just stand-ins to help us comprehend something much larger, something much more significant.

Incredibly intelligent people have believed in this negative force (St. Augustine, for example), and if they didn’t believe in this negative force as some kind of personified Devil, they still felt compelled to pass the idea down through the myths and stories they told their children and grandchildren, whether in the forms of Loki, Coyote, or Pan, all of whom are stands-in for the chaotic aspects of our universe.

But hold on a second, and witness the mistake I just made: I equated negativity with chaos. We’ll have to unpack that a little bit.

There is no trickster god in the Christian pantheon, if only by virtue of there not being a Christian pantheon. The closest the Christians come to a trickster god is the Devil. In a monotheistic universe, where God is One and God is Good and God is Merciful and God is Great and God is a jealous God, there is no room for a trickster who would pull one over on God; there can only be defiance.

The problem with having this as a founding element of one’s worldview is that it disrespects chaos, and chaos is an essential element of our universe. Acceptance of chaos imparts an understanding that not everything can be controlled, and if you can accept that, then you hardly ever look at those who act out of control as acting defiant.  Instead, you respect that chaos is the nature of the universe and search for some kind of rationale to explain whatever behavior you don’t yet understand, some line of cause and effect that you can trace backwards until you’re able to find a situation where you can exert some influence and actually start to gain some element of real control.

I’m thinking of ISIS at the moment, and Donald Trump and the millions of people whose worldview he represents.

When we think of Loki, Coyote, or Pan, when we think of a trickster god, we generally think of someone who’s just a real pain is the ass. He may be charismatic in the moment, but in the long run, he causes nothing but trouble for everyone involved.

That doesn’t sound like ISIS.

But that’s because our concept of the trickster is wrapped up in personifications. What the concept of the trickster actually represents is the human experience of thinking one is right when one is actually wrong and then having the universe prove your mistake in some enthusiastic fashion.

The continued existence of ISIS demonstrates that, despite the military might its able to exert onto any surface of the planet, the United States still cannot completely control the world.

Donald Trump (and the millions of people whose worldview he represents) are angry at that fact. They cannot imagine a world where the United States is not completely in control. They saw the downfall of the Soviet Union as the end of history, the final victory of Western democracy over the Evil Empire. We now live in a mono-superpower world, where America is Good and America is Merciful and America is Great and America is a jealous Superpower, and there is no room for having any other country or entity get one over on us. To continue to exist when America tells you not to is defiance, and defiance must be met with swift and powerful violence: Loki being slammed into the wall by Thor, the Joker’s face being slammed into the table by Batman, Assad’s airbase being blasted with six dozen warheads by Donald Trump (and the millions of people whose worldview he represents).

In a worldview that equates chaos with negativity, defiance is not acceptable.

(And yes, I realize that I just conflated Assad with ISIS, but I feel comfortable equating a head of state who used chemical weapons on his own citizens with a Muslim military that primarily decapitates Muslims; I also have no problem equating both of them with a negative force in the world.)

But in a worldview where chaos is not only acknowledged as its own kind of force, but venerated to the point where it earns its own festivals and shares traits associated with the gods of the various arts, the actions of ISIS and Assad can be placed within a larger context, one with such complexity that our need to understand and control can only be met by the universe’s laughing contempt for our vanity.

There is a lot less action in a worldview that accepts the reality of chaos, not because it feels the need to exert less influence than a defiant worldview, but because it believes that one should only exert one’s influence where and when one is able to make a real difference.

If this was just a philosophical difference, then this would be merely academic. The problem comes when the person (and the worldview he represents) actually has real power and yet no understanding of how or when to use it.

The worldview that sees chaos as defiance uses its power (consciously or not) to smack down the defiant one. The other sees chaos as natural element of the system and so attempts to trace down its origin, biding its time until it knows its power will do the most good.

The first results in innocent bloodshed, as anger always does. The other results in feelings of helplessness; and yet, it also results in a commitment to put one’s best minds to the problem and to not give up until they discover a reasonable solution, and if such a thing never happens, it results in the guilt that comes from feeling that one might have saved someone if only one had been able to solve the problem sooner.

Both worldviews have negative consequences.

But that’s what it means to have a negative force in the world. It means to have disorder (in the sense of entropy and its negation of order) constantly chasing us down.

ISIS exists not because they are evil. They exist because the once-unified conception of Islam is breaking down into a variety of sects, each more atomistic, and hence more fundamental, than the whole from which it came. As an embodiment of Islam’s militaristic and world dominating underpinnings (rather than an embodiment of its merciful and peaceful underpinnings), ISIS necessarily confronts The Other with violence and negation.

The only rational response to such an entity is containment and education, the same as one would do to the outbreak of any disease. Yes, people will die because of ISIS, just as they die because of ebola and AIDS. We can influence the numbers, perhaps, as well as the timeline, but total and swift eradication is simply beyond our control.

Assad, for his part, exists not because he is evil. He exists because the world order created in the 20th century is falling apart, its march toward global unification fracturing into hundreds (if not thousands) of disparate ethnicities and nationalities, just as Syria itself is dissolving into dozens (if not hundreds) of disparate militias. “Syria” no longer represents a specific center of political power; the word “Syria” itself is an anachronistic relic of 20th century cartography whose signifier now marks a localized region of 21st century chaos.

The only rational response to the Syrian situation is to come to the aid of all those who have been tossed out of their homes by the whirling chaos of that all-encompassing war, to provide succor to its refugees and food and first aid to those still stuck inside. To join the battle with any larger mission is to find oneself caught in that swirl of chaos with no logical end or exit in sight.

To say that there is a negative force in the world is not to say that there is evil; it is, instead, to acknowledge that we do not, and cannot, live in utopia — and rest assured, if we don’t remember that, the universe will continue to teach us, again and again, and in enthusiastic fashion.