Dragon Hunting

Illustration by C.C. J Ellis

Dragon Hunting

Dragon hunting has never, to my knowledge, been deemed the sport of kings since the requisite skills are not confined to any class of people, royal or other. Rather, the know-how is reserved for gifted souls. They know where to grab the dragon. Not by the head. By the tail.

I wish I had the dragon-hunter’s skills. By “dragon,” I mean anyone who uses means – unfair, unholy, or uncanny – to control others. It would be of the greatest utility to be able to discern the dragon’s visible methods and concealed intentions before the subverting of unwary minds could be carried through.

The lore of the ancient Greeks included the legend that, if a wolf looked at you before you could discern him, you’d be turned to stone. The legend is referenced in The Republic, Plato’s dialogue on political justice. In the midst of that dialogue, a man named Thrasymachus bursts in, declaring that anyone who hopes to understand “justice” by talking about it is wasting time: “Justice,” he says, is the name given by the strongest party to whatever serves his perceived interest.

Thrasymachus is shocking, with his shouting, his uninvited intrusion, and deliberate incivility. He breaks the rules of social life.

Socrates responds coolly:

If I had not seen this wolf

before he saw me,

I would have been turned to stone.

Taking Socrates at his word, how did he do that? How did he see the wolf in time?

At the January 6 Hearings, now being shown on C-Span, Vice President Pence reportedly said to the Secret Service agents who were then pressing him to vacate the Capital in the vehicle they’d provided:

“I’m not getting in that car!”

The Vice President’s decision to remain in the Capital building, despite the mob howling for his murder, made it possible to register the Electoral College results on the due date, despite his President’s historically unprecedented and illegal calls for the Vice President to halt the proceedings. (I recall seeing the President say to the mob, while finally telling them to disperse, “I love you. This day will live forever!”) For the most part, the Secret Service seems to have been working for Trump, not for Pence. To one friendly agent who was attempting to reassure him, Pence said, “I know you and I trust you. But I don’t know who’ll be driving that car.”

This is what is called seeing the wolf before he sees us. It takes more than sang foid (a cool head). I wish I were confident of having what it takes.

More than once, I have seen intelligent, learned and civilized people come under the spell of a cunning manipulator. Right now, I’m reading the biography of Jacob Taubes, international, polycultural, philosophico-theological pied piper, whom I wrote about in an earlier column. Why did he fail to get me under his magic spell when so many others succumbed? He didn’t have anything I wanted. Erudition without purpose didn’t interest me. Wit that went nowhere didn’t amuse me.

With what ingredients does a manipulator mix that magic spell? Some years ago, in an institution to which I formerly belonged, which was devoted to sacred purposes, a newcomer turned out to be a predator. Among the women, as is said nowadays, he behaved “inappropriately.” Although most women were repelled, oddly enough, the manipulator managed to secure the confidence of a woman who had been outspokenly and consistently straight-laced in her old-fashioned piety. When this woman saw that I was wholly committed to ousting the predator, she actually stopped speaking to me! Her one-woman ostracism continued for months, even after the bad actor was gone. Then one day, she snapped out of it.

What changed her? All I know is that when, on the occasion of a death in her family, I passed her on the stair and stopped to express my sympathy, at that moment, she forgot whatever had been causing her to place me beyond the pale. Without a backward glance, she became her old self again. The spell was broken. It didn’t acquire its power by an argument and it didn’t depart under the force of an argument.

Whatever understanding I do have comes from my own direct experience of the syndrome. Here’s what I wrote about it in my forthcoming Confessions of A Young Philosopher:

“’Brainwashing’ is popularly believed to be remote from ordinary experience. It first came to public attention when American prisoners of war in North Korea confessed to crimes that obviously they had not committed. So it got to be associated with physical coercion and exotic locales. The root method does not require any of that, however. A would-be controller has only to persuade her target to act in ways that deviate from the person’s normal sense of style, propriety, or rightness. That departure once made, the victim will be inclined to explain or defend each atypical backstep in ways equally unfamiliar. So, step by step, with each deviation and retroactive rationalization, the manipulator’s desired reshaping of another’s self is accomplished. At the end of the descent, the targeted person will no longer be able to recognize herself.”

If you can see it first, you’ve got the dragon by the tail. Otherwise, the dragon has you.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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