Icon, The

An argument summarised in one ready-made idea: a silver bullet, often of the kind which thinks the job is done when it has found someone to blame. Icons are words or phrases which act as a substitute for—or which distract attention from—the argument, crowding out reflection.

Once fixed on the iconic word, the argument is over: “reform”, “diversity”, “competition”, “qualifications”, “level playing field”, “equality”, “transparent”, “fair”, “democratic”, “accessible”, “vibrant”, “modernising”; or “selfishness”, “greed”, “violence”, “privilege”, “elitist”, “exclusive”, “discriminatory”, “fascist”, “sexist”. With the use of ‘hooray words’ and ‘boo words’, writes the philosopher Jamie Whyte . . .

You can win at least the sentiment of agreement without having to say anything that might be held against you later. Or without even having to know what you mean yourself.I1

Such icon-words are like the hubs in a centralised, scale-free network: once they are established, an idea has to connect with them if it is to get anywhere. The icon packs a busy future into a word:

Declaration of Iconic Principle:
Harmonisation/rationalisation/centralisation/regulation will make life better for millions of our people.

Blame for Failure:
Regrettably, there is opposition/sabotage from a minority who remain stuck in the past, but this only strengthens our determination.

Uplifting Conclusion:
Therefore, by its progress in the face of such difficulties, the Principle is proving its quality and the need to press ahead fearlessly.I2

In its material sense, an icon is a painted or carved image, a picture or a figure to assist in religious reflection and ceremony. To the Old Testament Hebrews, icons were images of the ancient deities of Canaan, and they were used in ecstatic festivals in the name of Baal, aka Dionysus. This pagan rivalry with God was one of the long-running themes of early Jewish history, and the depths of horror with which multiple idolatry was regarded are suggested by the words used to describe it: “vanity”, “iniquity”, “wind and confusion”, “the dead”, “things of naught”, “carcasses”.

The temptation to stay loyal to the dance and icons of the old gods was difficult to resist. The alternative called for some hard thinking. Judaism is a religion of constant reflection, embedded in the emotions. God is not a model for good behaviour and, for the people of Israel, he was the God of both Love and Wrath, both of which were needed by the embattled Judaic state. There was clearly potential for confusion here, and the rabbis’ task of explaining it called for advanced skills, not only in joined up thinking, but in joined-up emotions, ranging from delight, tenderness and yearning to bitterness, anxiety and betrayal. What came out of all that was a stunning, emotionally-rich culture, making the connections between thought and feeling, between mind and body. Friedrich Nietzsche reminds us of the importance of this, presaging the psychologist Antonio Damasio in our own day (Spirit):

Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, there stands a mighty ruler, an unknown sage—whose name is self. In your body he dwells; he is your body. There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom.

It seems the rabbis knew what they were doing. What they invented was a habit of reflection and feeling, a culture rich in self-awareness, comfortable with emotion, steeped in humour, designed to make you think. When that weakens, the icon fills the space.I3


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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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