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The Despot

10 mins read

The title song takes the glory in Metallica’s Master of Puppets, their third album released in the spring of 1986. A powerful ballad hammering home a point about substance abuse and the inevitable destruction of one’s life. James Hetfield’s screaming “Master”, Kirk Hammett’s second half solo, Lars Ulrich’s melodic drums and the late Cliff Burton powering the bass. It is a song that is as much Americana as apple pie. On that album is a lesser known track, Disposable Heroes, which doesn’t get much play – it’s been played live only seven times in the last decade. Whereas Master of Puppets makes indirect references to its concern (“chop your breakfast on a mirror”), Disposable Heroes takes a more direct approach on its subject matter: the casualties of war.

The commodity that his human life is front and center in the song. Prideful soldiers going to war in honour and returning hollow and broken: “soldier boy, made of clay, now an empty shell”. And when they are truly broken they’re disposed and replaced: “finished here, greeting death, he’s yours to take away”. Hence, Disposable Heroes. Why that song comes to mind today is because we have two broad categories of people at the moment. Those who can afford to stay at home and hopefully wait this out and those that have to step outside and face the music at risk. They’re the bus drivers, the grocery store cashiers, the medical workers, the garbage men, and the list goes on. These are the people who the rest of us are relying on to maintain our civilities, for without them our society along with our decency may crumble. The song offers a stark contrast because much like the soldiers who march into battle and are commoditized, these people do the same and must not be. They are sacred.

The dictionary definition of the word hero is, “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” I don’t know what noble qualities they possess or any outstanding achievements these people have had, but they do have courage, especially if courage is to be defined as action in the face of fear. I respect that more than anything in these times. Of course, necessity forces action. My cousin stocks shelves in supermarkets and he has to go to work – there are no VPNs and work-from-home policies that can shield him. He’s not propping up patients in hospitals but he is making sure there are enough chips in the aisle so we don’t feel that sickening feeling of gazing at empty shelves. Also, it feeds his family. Whatever their reasons to step outside they are vital and appreciated and must be remembered. It makes me feel fortunate that I am (so far) in a position of comfort relative to others and that the most I’ve suffered, relatively speaking, are minor inconveniences.

In general, Canadians have only felt peripheral impacts of the pandemic which is raging in Italy, Iran and New York. While governments play catch-up we can continue to support the containment efforts and the impact on people. Here is a list of organizations which you can donate to help, and help is needed because this is not a contraction, recession or depression. This is a global economic shutdown and its impacts will be felt far and wide for months if not years to come. You are extremely lucky if your employment is not affected by this and for every lucky person there’s a dozen unlucky ones who’ll need a lot of help.

Disease is a great equalizer. It hits everyone hard. The rich may have access to advanced medical care, transportation and shelter, but they still rely on the underbelly of society to supply it, which can be problematic. Narrowing the equality gap has long been considered a challenge for capitalism, but for the disease it’s child’s play. It is far more effective than any economic or political idea when it comes to problem-solving because it is impartial, equitable, and in a sense, beautifully pure and indiscriminate in its ruthlessness. The opposite of #FlattenTheCurve might be #NarrowTheGap. I am rambling again.

I admit that I am a fraud. I have always loved Fyodor Dostoevsky’s writing and I profess to people that he is my favorite writer. But I actually haven’t read all his works! On the unread pile was one of his lesser-appreciated works, Demons. It’s a bit of a drab to start, mainly because it lives on the opposite end of the societal spectrum as some of his other works. As the plot thickened and depravity battled discipline, I did come across this passage which I present for the reader so he or she may be framed for the next item up for discussion:

“Reason has never had the power to define good and evil, or even to distinguish between good and evil, even approximately; on the contrary, it has always mixed them up in a disgraceful and pitiful way. This is particularly characteristic of the half-truths of science, the most terrible scourge of humanity, unknown till this century, and worse than plague, famine, or war. A half-truth is a despot… such as has never been in the world before. A despot that has its priests and its slaves, a despot to whom all do homage with love and superstition hitherto inconceivable, before which science itself trembles and cringes in a shameful way.”

This passage has meaning to me because it is describing the loophole present in one’s thinking which we will jump through to preserve ourselves. The half-truth described offers up a comfortable and safe space for us to convince ourselves to not question our current thinking or behaviour, especially if it comes from an entity that we trust and deem to be on “our side”. You only need a slight sprinkle of science and mathematics to make any absurd stance seem reasonable to someone who is susceptible to half-truths. It is the formula that nourishes hate and contempt. The denial of the virus’s spread, the racism towards people of Chinese origin and the neglect in preparation – these are all results of actions where a half-truth hoodwinked another reasonable human being into acting against not just their self-interest but humanity’s.

Of the machinations employed by people to gain power, half-truths may be the most effective of them all because questioning them requires effort. It requires you to consider some of the truth, sidebar it, explore further and see the totality as what it is, and it can be a lie. If you stop at the first node in this reasoning because it is true and assume the rest to be true, you have very likely evaluated a false proposition to be true. In other words, we have to dig deeper. When a writer on this site offers up basketball analysis it is supported by at least some rationale and defense of that rationale which is quite often challenged. It makes for a healthy community, but only if the writer and readers are digging deeper and challenging. If there is no challenge and half-truths are graduated into contemporary thought and eventually policy, we are in trouble. It is not without foresight that Dostoevsky described half-truths as despots.

I will not dive into the word “preserve” I used in a previous paragraph as that may be a subject of a post when we’re back to using typewriters. I’m kidding. Relax. We’ll be celebrating May 24 weekend at Nathan Phillip’s Square. In hazmat suits. Joking. I’m joking. We’ll be totally fine. Taste of the Danforth is going to be sick.

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