Monday, 13 April 2015

Smashing icons

Icons - religious pictures and statues - had been multiplying in the east to the point where they rivalled the idols of polytheism. Shamed by the comparison with iconophobic and monotheistic Islam, [Byzantine Emperor] Leo [III] ordered their wholesale destruction. Iconodule (pro-icon) priests appealed to the Pope, and he responded by taking all images under his protection.
The origins of iconoclasm, as summarised in The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History by Colin McEvedy.

Well, that was back in the Dark Ages. These days, for most people, an "icon" is just a functional little graphic, part of a user interface / symbolic system that helps people navigate a computer, a piece of text, or a public space. That's what I thought, anyway. Looking at the news, though, I'm starting to think that there's still way too much Dark Ages-style icon veneration about.

In the news today, the Labour Party published its election manifesto with a pledge to keep spending in check and cut the deficit. Despite the fact that plenty of well-informed people pointed out that cutting the deficit isn't necessarily a top priority in the real world and, taken too far, may do harm to the real economy:
I said recently that there wouldn’t be another financial crisis until we had entirely forgotten about the last one. But it seems that politicians have already forgotten about it. The 2008 crisis was not caused by foreigners refusing to fund government deficits. It was caused by foreigners refusing to fund excessive private sector debt – debt that politicians now wish to increase in order to “fix the public finances”.
It shouldn't be very hard to understand that "fixing" the deficit isn't the same thing as  "fixing" the economy and that controlling the size of the deficit is just one consideration among many:
No government will be able to eliminate the deficit without cutting public service spending or raising taxes. Either taxes go up, or government borrowing continues into the next decade, or some public services disappear. To pretend otherwise is still as much the politics of La La Land as it was last year.
But ritual displays of deficit concern don't seem to be about anything real. Invoking the deficit looks more like a medieval act of public homage to a symbolic icon, rather than part of a rational discussion about managing one aspect of an actual economy. An aura of economic competence, like an aura of sanctity, can apparently be attained by ostentatious reverence towards the correct symbol.

In other news, 'Patients may be required to show their passports at hospitals under new Government guidelines to tackle health tourism.' There are good reasons to believe that "heath tourism" isn't a problem, or at least not a very pressing one:
Actual 'deliberate' health tourism was estimated by Prederi to cost between £20 and £100million - at most, 0.1% of the £100billion a year it costs to run the NHS. As Jonathan Portes of the Institute of Economic Research has said, the extent of deliberate health tourism has been "hugely overstated" and is in fact a "very small part of NHS expenditure". 
But, never mind the inconvenience to patients or the pointless extra administration for hospital workers, it's sending out a powerful message. The guidelines are an icon, a symbol, demonstrating that the people in charge are standing up for Hard-Working British Families and standing up against Shifty Foreign Freeloaders, coming over here, taking our hospital beds (even if they're not really). We like to think we're more rational than people in the Dark Ages, but the way our society venerates symbols that make us feel better, whilst dismissing evidence that might help us to make better decisions makes me wonder.

So I'm all for a bit of disrespect for icons. A bit of iconoclasm, even. But, hang on, there's some literal iconoclasm going on in the world today and the people doing it don't look all that rational, either.

To avoid any suggestion that I might approve of the superstitious bunch of noddies currently dynamiting world heritage sites in Iraq, I'd better make two things clear:
  1. I'm in favour of abandoning uncritical respect for symbols, especially ones which mislead people rather than helping us to think clearly. If the map looks nothing like the territory, burn it and get a better map. But that's just a metaphor. Don't go around smashing stuff up. Seriously.
  2. Unlike the iconophobes of Islamic State, I'm for not taking icons too seriously and I think the world would be a better place if we all cared more about what's real than about "sending out messages" that have little, if anything, to do with reality. The more superstitious among the jihadis presumably take idolatry very seriously and fear the spiritual threat that "idols" represent - otherwise, why waste so much time energy, dynamite and heavy construction equipment trashing them? Like ultra-devout Christians who fear the satanic nature of Halloween, they take symbols - even the ones they hate - way too seriously. The more strategic thinkers may have more instrumentalist agendas, but these probably aren't anything to be proud of, either - the main possibilities that spring to mind are promoting group bonding through venting rage on outgroups and their symbols and destroying all traces of other belief systems until There Is No Alternative to the ingroup's own narrow ideology.
Apart from anything else, if you get too carried away with symbols, you end up looking like an idiot. Sometimes an idiot who's so powerful that it makes no difference what the little people think of you, but an idiot, nonetheless. Think of the mighty Xerxes punishing the sea after a storm broke his bridge ('The bridging of the Hellespont is thus ... characterized as a conscious sin of subjugating the elements, when Xerxes ordered his men to whip the sea and have shackles sunk down in it after the storm had destroyed an initial bridge').

Or Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, AKA Caligula, waging a symbolic battle whilst ducking a real conquest:
And when he reached the ocean, as if he were going to conduct a campaign in Britain, and had drawn up all the soldiers on the beach, he embarked on a trireme, and then, after putting out a little from the land, sailed back again. Next he took his seat on a lofty platform and gave the soldiers the signal as if for battle, bidding the trumpeters urge them on; then of a sudden he ordered them to gather up the shells. Having secured these spoils (for he needed booty, of course, for his triumphal procession), he became greatly elated, as if he had enslaved the very ocean; and he gave his soldiers many presents. The shells he took back to Rome for the purpose of exhibiting the booty to the people there as well. The senate knew not how it could remain indifferent to these doings, since it learned that he was in an exalted frame of mind, nor yet again how it could praise him. For, if anybody bestows great praise of the extraordinary honours for some trivial exploit or none at all, he is suspected of making a hissing and a mockery of the affair. Nevertheless, when Gaius entered the city, he came very near destroying the whole senate because it had not voted him divine honours. He assembled the populace, however, and showered quantities of silver and gold upon them from a lofty station, and many perished in their efforts to grab it; for, as some say, he had mixed small pieces of iron in with the coins. 
That's the kind of nonsense you get when important people are too busy venerating symbols to give the reality-based community a look in.