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The Allegory of the Swamp by Prester John

Written by Subject: Philosophy: Anarchism

Swamps are smelly, uncomfortable, and full of dangers; but if you have lived in one all of your life, it seems normal to you. Also, if you had never ventured beyond the borders of the swamp, you would have no idea that anything better existed. If you tried to imagine life outside of the swamp, you would have no mental images to draw upon.

In my last essay (The Gospel of Radicalism), I hoped to convince you that the world is massively screwed-up, and that compliance with it will keep you screwed-up. My favorite analogy is that of living in a swamp. The swamp stinks and it is host to an abundance of dangerous animals, yet it can be survivable. Not exactly a nice place to live, but not impossible to live in either.

If I am correct, almost all of the great social arguments of our time revolve around organizing life in the swamp for maximum survival. But there is a far simpler, more elegant answer: Leave the swamp. However, when such an idea is proposed, people always say "Oh yeah, and go where?" They have no ideas of what any other type of life would look like. And so, they sit back down in the swamp, and try to stake out a bearably uncomfortable spot. Sure, thousands and sometimes millions of people are butchered every year in wars, certainly emotional damage is endemic, and yes, the world is desperately confusing and unstable. But it is the world they know, and they do not believe another world could exist. So they sit. They may be miserable, but they will not move.

There’s only one way out of this mess, but it requires things that most people don’t want to do: To think rigorously and to try truly new things. You don’t suppose that we could get out of this mess by using feelings, do you? Ten million Germans felt just fine about murdering all the Jews of Europe; half a nation of Turks felt fine about murdering a million Armenian women and children; and you can fill in the blanks for a hundred other slaughters. If the 20th Century could teach us anything, it is that reliance upon feelings is the most dangerous of foundations.

No, to get out of this, we will have to fly in defiance of our feelings, and think. The truth is that most people will do almost anything rather than this.

How did we rise out of starvation? By hard thinking, experimenting, and allowing human energy – the energy of correct thought followed by action – to operate without constraint. The same thing applies to a hundred other examples; figure them out for yourself. Unless you can find answers that don’t seem right, you’ll never get out. (If the correct answers seemed right to you, you’d already be out of the swamp.)

The only way to find such answers is getting down to objective facts, and seeing where they logically lead. Right now, the swamp feels normal to you. You’ve noticed the smell, and you’ve seen the crocodiles and snakes kill people. You want the smell and the killing to stop, but you don’t think anything exists beyond the borders of the swamp. You have no feeling for anything else, and you are afraid of the unknown. But if you ever want to get away from the smell and the killing, you’ll have to leave the swamp. Smell and killing are the nature of the swamp – they will not change, no matter how many leaders and their "New Plans" promise you otherwise. If you want to get to a better place, you’ll have to leave the familiar place. I don’t know if I can make it much simpler than that.

There aren’t any shortcuts. You’ll have to put two and two together, and do it doggedly, if you want to escape the smell and the carnage. If you are not willing to pay that price, you’ll remain sitting with the masses. It may be that you’ll be able to avoid the killing. And if you are lucky, you may be able to avoid some of the emotional damage. Or, maybe not. In any event, your children and grandchildren will end up in a stinking danger zone.

Your choice.


From Appendix A in "A Lodging of Wayfaring Men" by Paul Rosenberg, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial Share Alike license. © 2007, Paul Rosenberg.

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