In international politics there exists a curious paradox involving a multifaceted human personage called Publius and a cunning tortoise called Tony.
In this paradox, the principled Publius, who has a reputation as a hero for bravely standing up to tyrants and preventing them from carrying out unjustified military campaigns, finds himself being drawn into a dangerous situation when Tony begins talking about a high-speed dash to war that everyone is required to take part in.
The famous land-dwelling reptile presents Publius with a dossier about an evil Babylonian monster and his weapons of mass destruction, which the antiwar hero, who believes in getting all the facts before making decisions about armed conflict, feels obliged to read from cover to cover.
Tony thus has the chance to begin the race behind Publius’s back, so he fires a gun and goes careering off to war in a flash, and is only pursued much later, when the advocate of peace finishes reading the intelligence report and tries to catch up with the tortoise to tell him about the gaping holes it contains.
By this point, it is clear that Publius’s good nature has been taken advantage of in two crucial ways: he has been tricked into giving the gung-ho tortoise a head start, and, by being made to believe that he can avoid catastrophe simply by catching up with the leader and engaging him in a rational debate, he has been made to enter the race against peace without knowing it.
The paradoxical element of the story is that poor Publius can never catch up with the leader due to the contradictory way in which the latter advances, which is a kind of regressive progression or high-speed obstinacy propelling him into an unreachable space of pure supposition.
In the time it takes Publius to point out to the tortoise that there seem to be no weapons of mass destruction, Tony has advanced further along entirely hypothetical lines by saying he is sure that the Babylonian monster has the intention of possessing them, so he must be treated as if he already has them.
When all the dire predictions about civilian deaths, military deaths, greater regional instability, an increase in the terrorism threat to Publius’s homeland, and a loss of trust in all tortoises have come true, it seems that the pigheaded creature doesn’t have a leg to stand on, let alone to run on, so the peacemaker feels confident he can finally catch up with the reptile and get him to face the truth.
But Tony, who is as cunning as a fox and as slippery as a snake, still manages to advance just far enough to remain out of reach…
When Publius covers one metre by pointing out that the proven lack of weapons of mass destruction deserves, at the very least, some sort of expression of regret, Tony manages to soldier on another half a metre by saying that he admits the reasons for initiating the armed race were wrong, but he won’t apologise because he didn’t believe he was wrong at the time he initiated it.
The subsequent 1 cm advance of Publius, who calls attention to the fact that there was ample evidence at the time that darting into battle was a bad idea, corresponds to a 5 mm crawl by the maddeningly thick-skinned creature who says: ‘The intelligence that we had was intelligence that I believe any sensible or reasonable prime minister would have said there is a clear WMD threat here.’
Here Tony takes his rationalisations to a new level of absurdity by countering the double accusation that he was wrong to believe he wasn’t wrong with a double fabrication: a belief that anyone in a position that no one other than him could have occupied would have believed he was right – which is like calling on an imaginary and idealised version of yourself as a character witness to find yourself innocent of war crimes.
By choosing to justify an unjustified belief with another belief, which then has to be proved to be unjustified in order to prove that the first belief was unjustified, Tony always remains one step ahead of the long-suffering Publius, because he can make his beliefs about beliefs stretch into infinity, allowing him to run away from responsibility for his actions forever.
Even though Tony is effectively saying that he was not only wrong to do what he did, but that he was doubly wrong, the antiwar hero of the story cannot catch up with him to make him see this, because the deployment of the manifold belief or the self-replicating conviction allows the crafty tortoise to flee into smaller and smaller spaces, until he eventually enters the quantum level of reality, a bizarre place where rational logic no longer applies. In this surreal world, Schrödinger’s Chesire cat can be both responsible and not responsible for his decisions at one and the same time because to be sincerely wrong is to be right, and the justification for military action against a foreign monster can be that he is too powerful while the military strategy is based on him being weak.
The tortoise who started the race towards bloodshed manages to exempt himself from it while also remaining in pole position, as its untouchable leader, by hiding behind a crooked hunch that he allows to harden into a shell of blind religious faith, an inflexible mental structure protecting the fantastical space he calls home.
Feeling unbeatable, Tony proudly says of this strategy of unwavering faith: ‘It gives you strength if you come to a decision, to hold to that decision.’
With his head firmly stuck inside his own body, seeing nothing but his imaginary world, the inaccessible animal is even able to conceive of a way in which it is Publius’s fault for being angry about his apparent lack of remorse for starting an unjustified war:
‘I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you may ever know or can believe,’ Tony states following the publication of a damning report into his pursuit of armed conflict, implying that if Publius thinks the old reptile hasn’t expressed a sufficient amount of sorrow and regret, it is because Publius’s belief in his sorrow and regret isn’t strong enough – his opponent must have faith that Tony’s deep regret exists in the same way that a religious believer must have faith that a loving God exists.
Although Tony appears to be increasing in size and power due to the expansion of his property empire, it is only his outer shell that gets bigger, while the sorry little creature squirming inside it becomes increasingly puny and isolated with each desperate attempt to maintain its unreachability.
The defence of the withered entity, whose famous smile has now grown into an expression of deep anguish, soon comes down to nothing more than the basic assertion that he has done nothing wrong because no one can prove that he knew he was doing something wrong when he did it, which is like someone saying: ‘Yes, I’m stupid, but I’m so stupid that my stupidity extends to stupidity about my own stupidity (except when I need to refer to it as an excuse), so I cannot be held accountable for anything stupid I’ve done.’
The best Publius can hope for is to bring an end to the paradox by establishing which level the tortoise’s stupidity rests upon: is Tony a stupid liar, someone foolish enough to believe that Publius will fall for him acting stupid? Is he someone too stupid to appear stupid, who lacks the intelligence to avoid acknowledging the idiocy he’s meant to be too dumb to see? Or is he a stupid idiot, someone too brainless even to be aware of, or learn from, a self-declared acknowledgement of his ignorance when he accidentally makes it?
Once the deluded tortoise has nowhere to hide other than his shell of fantasy, Publius is able to get close enough to peer into the creature’s bizarre world of blind faith and unending non-apologies, and he sees in a moment of absolute horror that instead of an end to Tony’s foolishness, it’s self-deceiving tortoises all the way down.
[This article was produced by the team of literary subversives at the Dark Meaning Research Institute.]
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