Mongooses and Snakes

19 Feb 2021

I live in the Moscow-Pullman area, which are two small towns that sit on either side of the Idaho/Washington border. So that’s Eastern Washington and North Idaho. And I’ve lived here for a little over four years, now. And I’m wondering about what made me stay, because I came up here when I followed my wife, who came here for law school. After the divorce, I could have gone anywhere. If I had been single when I left Georgia, I would’ve probably gone straight to Portland or New York. And so I was wondering what made me stay. And, walking around here on these paths, it’s very clear that it’s the people. I definitely found a family here. But even before that, there was a culture, a culture in which people smiled at me. Not to say that they don’t do that in the South, they do it plenty. Though they definitely don’t do it in some other places I’ve been. A smile, I think, can come in many forms. Oftentimes, it can be forced, but the smiles here did not seem forced to me. And unlike the South, they did not come with as clear a set of invitations. You know, you’re in Georgia or Texas, you’re just being neighborly. And that does imply some things about the kind of relationship you’re expected to enter into with this person. And I’m sure that something similar is going on here. But just because I’m foreign to it, I haven’t quite sussed out what those things are. And I think part of the difficulty is that at least in Moscow, and this is less the case in Pullman, but it’s still alive there- this smile might turn into a half an hour long conversation. But here’s the other thing.

When I’m walking down the street at night, especially if I’m not on campus, if I’m in downtown Moscow- which is, you know, just one street about a quarter mile long- when I’m walking down that street, especially at night, or whatever, and there’s another person on that street, they don’t pick up their pace. They don’t seem to be scared. And I am a relatively short male in the United States. At the global average of five feet, seven inches. My skin color is brown. And I don’t think I’m particularly threatening. Everywhere else I’ve lived when I’m walking down the street at night, and there’s someone else there, they tend to pick up their step a little bit. And if they’re a woman, they might do it more than a little bit. And there’s this sense of fear. And now we’re playing some sort of hide and seek. Except I’m not seeking at all though by the time I hit my mid 20s- by the time I was like 23, or 24, I’d stopped being confused by it and started playing along. I would seek a little, you know, if you’re going to play the prey, then I will play the predator. Though, obviously, I’m not going to go out of my way to do it, I am not going to follow you down your turns, just so that I can give you a little scare, so that you can get the scare you were looking for. Maybe, maybe I’ll pick up the pace a little bit, give you a big old grin when you look back. But that dynamic was absent in Moscow. And I think that made a difference. Because here is a culture that does not seem to see me as a potential Other or a potential monster as easily as other cultures I might have been in.

I’m reminded of the fable or old folk tale that’s often told to children in Asia, in South Asia, and Southeast Asia, at least, and I think it’s spread along the Commonwealth by way of the UK, picking it up from India. But the story is this.

There’s an old Brahmin. Someone of the priest class. Not necessarily a priest, but someone of an elite family, we might say. And his wife- he and his wife were trying to have kids and they did not. So she adopted a mongoose to treat as her child to get that need for nurturing met. And this mongoose really appreciated being in a house with human beings apparently, and living as as a part of the family like a dog or, you know, any domesticated pet. Except not quite a pet because it’s a mongoose. And mongooses are hard to domesticate. You can tame a mongoose, but you can’t really domesticate one. I’m sure if you really wanted to, you could try it. Like that fox experiment with the silver foxes in Russia- where a breeder aggressively bred foxes for domestication. Their ears got more floppy. Their features became more puppy-like. They tended to urinate more uncontrollably, and so on. So I’m sure such a program could happen with a mongoose, but we haven’t really done it yet. And in this case, it was just one mongoose- not a line of mongooses- who was adopted into this Brahmin’s family. And after a while, they had a son- an actual human son. It was a successful conception and a successful birth. And the attention of the mother naturally switched away from the mongoose toward the child. One day, the Brahmin went out to do his business. And the mother left the child and the mongoose alone for a little while. And when she came back, she found the mongoose with blood all over his teeth. She also found him near where the baby was. And so she assumed that this mongoose, this first son of hers, was jealous of the child and had killed the baby. You know, the baby also had blood all over. And in her rage, she picked up a vase and smashed it over the mongoose’s head and killed him. Right after she did that, she had the clarity to look around. And notice that right next to the baby’s crib was a snake. A cobra that had been torn apart. As it turns out, the mongoose had been protecting the baby by killing the snake.

There is a pattern in any military, of noticing the difference between what soldiers do well in garrison and what soldiers do well in the battlefield. Thinking about David Hackworth, who’s definitely a battlefield soldier. Though, I think he would make the effort to tie his shoelaces properly, so to speak, and shine his shoes in garrison, if it helps the overall mission. There’s definitely a clear purpose to it. And the purpose is doing well on the battlefield. A story from his autobiography, About Face, talks about how some of his men (when they came back from the Korean War) started shooting some banks up. And this pattern, it’s, again, it’s a really old pattern. The people who are most likely able to defend you are the people who are going to do best in hard or violent situations. They are probably also the people that if you are not giving them something to do, might be most likely to become the monsters that you’re supposed to protect against. I think the Roman Empire shows this really well. At some point, the Praetorian Guard were the ones putting the Emperor in power. And once this happened, the populace is essentially being held hostage by the military in order for them to get the Emperors they wanted and oftentimes the Emperors they wanted were often the Emperors that raised their pay or gave them land.

So it’s understandable I think, for people to have a hard time telling the difference between someone who has the skills or the mindset or all of the above to do dangerous things and someone who is dangerous. There probably really isn’t too much of a difference between someone who does dangerous things and someone who is dangerous. It’s just context. One man’s danger is another man’s protector.

Part of the appeal of Spider-Man, back in the day, was in the writers and artists playing with this trope. Spider-Man is designed to look kind of creepy by Steve Ditko. I don’t know how conscious that was, but that is what happened. He’s referred to as the Masked Menace or the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. J. Jonah Jameson, the newspaper editor, is one of the few main characters in Spider-Man that constantly hounds him for being dangerous. A danger to the people around him, no matter what he tries to do.

In our everyday lives, it’s easy to see the parallel to the police and the military, as well as the government itself. Both the police and the military allow us as modern citizens of nation states to kind of ignore the amount of violence that it takes- the amount of violence that one must threaten in order to keep everything running. And because we give up that responsibility, and place it in the hands of others, we often find ourselves in situations asking if these people are worth tolerating. If they become the monsters that they’re supposed to protect us against. And I don’t use the word monster flippantly. I think that there is a mechanism that we use in order to stop seeing people or creatures as full, worthy beings. And throughout time, we use various labels in order to kind of stop ourselves from seeing the human in front of us. And there’s a lot of cry about dehumanization. But in all these cries, I think that the people crying forget that the very act of labeling someone a sociopath, or a psychopath is kind of equivalent to calling them a monster, or a demon. What would you have used in the past, in order to declare someone Other?

For police, this one’s easy. You call them bastards, so that you can put the blame, the shadow, the unseen monster of humanity into this specific individual or group. This is a sort of scapegoating mechanism, where all these things that we do as as humanity in order to survive- the amount of exploitation, the amount of violence we threaten, and commit to each other in order to do well in this environment. All this is hidden in a scapegoat. Because that pain is very, very heavy to bear, we often find a container for it. In this case, in the case of all cops are bastards, we put some of it in cops and say, “Hey, they’re the ones responsible”. So I’m going to take a bit of this pain and put it all on them, so that I don’t have to deal with it in my everyday life as much, because I can just ascribe it to them. And as long as I avoid cops, or kind of preach against them, I don’t have to face this pain. And so I think, from that, we have a sort of clue. There is a class of person who deals well with a certain sort of pain. And we can say that these people are either Mongooses or Snakes. If they’re aligned with you, if they are on your side, then they are a Mongoose. If they are not aligned with you, if they are not on your side, then they are a Snake, a monster, the demon, a sociopath, a psychopath, a bastard cop, a poor, brainwashed soldier.

Part of this is the collective ensuring that those who stay in the collective- those who have this capacity, who have more capacity for this kind of pain, for this kind of harm, take responsibility. Because by demonizing- by othering people who end up on the monster end of the spectrum through continuously punishing snakes for not being mongooses or even punishing mongooses for maybe being snakes, we put responsibility on them. This puts the responsibility on people who might be mongooses or snakes to be mongooses. Because somewhere underneath if you are a mongoose, you know that the collective will turn on you very easily. And so you have to be sure that when you hijack another person’s decision loop (the feedback loop that happens between an agent and the environment), you know what you’re doing. Commonly, you frame this as an OODA loop: observe, orient, decide, act. When you hijack this loop (which is fundamentally attack, in a way) it’s either going to come across as leadership, which is wanted, which is what a mongoose does- or it’s going to come across as manipulation, which is unwanted. This is what a snake does. And there is no real way of checking in with the person you are doing this with before the fact. This is why consent is such a tricky issue. Because you, as the mongoose or snake, are expected to correctly know what someone’s future state will be, and act in their best interests. So this fear that leads the collective to be afraid of both mongooses and snakes kind of makes mongooses police themselves.

It means that as a mongoose, you accept a sort of loneliness. That you are going to protect that baby, even if- especially even if it means that the people you are protecting will turn on you and even destroy you for it. The collective needs its pound of flesh, for the amount of pain that it inflicts upon the world. Humanity will always find some sort of scapegoat. It is not yet ready to face all this pain individually and so they will shift it into people who are closer to it. And if you find yourself in a situation, where you are a snake or mongoose (and you can just as easily be a snake in one situation and the mongoose in another, of course, or one of the bystanders, a regular human being, in another situation, and in different contexts, you are different things). But if you find yourself in a situation where you are the mongoose, then you know that your job is to serve the collective as a willing sacrifice. You may know in your heart that if you kill a snake, you might be mistaken for a snake and killed for being a snake. But because the baby needs to be protected for the collective, you will do it and because the collective needs a scapegoat you might even be saving some snakes because the snakes are innocent in their own way. That cobra in that house was probably going about its own business. Eating rats and such. We don’t know whether the snake was actually about to harm the baby.

Snakes do not attack unprovoked.