When History Rhymes

John Adams once said

“I must study war and politics so that my children shall be free to study commerce, agriculture and other practicalities, so that their children can study painting, poetry and other fine things.”

John Adams

We as a society have gone so far past that we’re heading back to when our children or grandchildren will need to study war again. The excesses of the powerful in the century or so before the French Revolution in all honesty have nothing on the excesses of the powerful in the current era. The French aristocrats weren’t half as nihilistic, for starters.

Decadent, overblown, idle twits who wouldn’t have a clue how to survive in a world that didn’t bow down to them that they were, the ones who had half a brain were, as far as I can tell, loyal to France and loyal to their kind. Sadly, as far as I can tell today’s decadent, overblown, idle twits seem to think that the “correct” thing to do is to destroy everything so that something better can magically arise from the ashes.

It doesn’t help that fiction has a tendency to give the impression that this is how the world works. Sure, authors will happily topple the Evil Overlord’s regime – which pretty much inevitably destroys everything in the process – but most of them including me have buggerall idea how to make the long, painful rebuilding process something to write about so it gets skipped in favor of a kind of assumption that some version of “happily ever after” happens somewhere along the line. Very few have stopped to consider that if corrupted government processes don’t get reformed and reformed properly you end up with another Evil Overlord sooner or later.

Now, I’ll admit that a mostly benevolent Evil Overlord who makes the effort to govern without mass purges of whatever happens to be the current flavor of the Undesirable is probably going to be a reasonably effective and non-damaging tyrant. The problem is that if said Evil Overlord doesn’t delegate his power (and risk being overthrown by someone who sees the delegation as a weakness), when he dies, whether by natural causes or enemy action (which could be argued as being natural causes for an Evil Overlord), he’s going to leave a honking great power vacuum behind him which will promptly generate a new Evil Overlord and a lot of fighting over the bits around the edges. Not to mention everyone who was the Evil Overlord’s enemy is going to try to carve up his former territory for themselves.

That way lies failed states and all manner of unpleasantness – and yet the modern aristos (who would likely cause any lamppost they were hung from to corrode from the sheer nastiness they exude) seem to think that they and their ilk will automagically be recognized as the leaders in the Brave New World they believe they’re bringing around by undermining and destroying the imperfect – but functional and frankly the best we humans have managed to produce so far – society we live in. Sorry kiddos, but it ain’t happening. Maybe you’ll get your dream of being recognized as the Right :ahem: Correct Sort for a little while, but every time a functional society and culture has been shattered from within – ever – the ones who did it came to the kind of bad end that involved public executions at best. At worst it involved the kind of drawn-out torture that make public executions seem like a blessing.

There is nothing to suggest that this rather fundamental aspect of human nature has changed: most people recognize that anyone who would betray their own kind – for whatever value of “own kind” you wish to give – is not someone a sensible leader or ruler wants to keep around. This is why spies have such a bad reputation, and why “traitor” is a dirty word. Anyone who will turn on their own is unlikely to have any moral objections to turning on their new master – and when that maxim is applied to those who proclaim that morality is relative, you’ve got a group of people who are likely to be, as Douglas Adams said in the Hitchhikers Guide books, first against the wall when the revolution comes. (I personally think they’ll be second. First are usually those in charge at the time. Once the new bosses are in place, they consolidate their power and eliminate the ones who turned traitor on the old regime).

The reason the American Revolution didn’t go through this ritual bloodletting was that it wasn’t a classical revolution. There was no tearing down of the existing society. Instead, the culture and societal structures were pretty much adopted directly into the new Government – something for which we all should thank a small group of extraordinary men. These men didn’t just fight the war, they spent a great deal of time making sure that if they won there would be a society – a nation – afterwards.

Yes, this is ridiculously oversimplified. I do that a lot – looking at the bigger than big picture where the trends show up. It’s why I get irritated when authors don’t give so much as a nod to the hard work that follows overthrowing the Evil Overlord.

Then I think, well, there’s been no shortage of countries that neglected to consider what happens when they overthrow a government, so why would an author realize it needs to be mentioned? At which point the even longer rant about inadequate education suppressing any desire or ability to think for oneself comes out and the whole thing gets ugly.

So enjoy the featured cat picture instead (Bugger curled up asleep on a quilt I made).

28 comments

  1. Too many fantasy authors (sci-fi has them too, but they seem more common in fantasy) assume that the Evil Overlord will be succeeded by Plato’s wise priest-king who can fix everything. And then he or she will be followed by another Platonic priest-king, and so on. They don’t remember that Rome had the four Good Emperors, but that Marcus Aurelius was followed by Commodus.

    Granted, Mercedes Lackey fixed the problem in book one of the Valdemar series with a literal act of gods, but that only worked for Valdemar. I fudged things in the Cat series with the Azdhagi by having the Pack act a few times for the collective good. Unless we authors let readers know from Day One that there’s an outside (or gentically coded) check on how low a ruler can go before something intervenes, readers are going to get really ticked when we pull a deity or Pack Law out of our authorial hats.

    1. I think a few too many authors let their inner desire for a wise priest-king show a little too much. Too often the Good Ruler isn’t merely good, he’s a paragon among paragons with godly wisdom and rarely makes a mistake.

      And yeah, readers do not like getting hammered by the Deus ex Author.

  2. Today’s decadent, overblown, idle twits have, like aristocracy, been told since birth that they are special just for breathing. But unlike aristocracy, who were more or less confirmed by society to BE somewhat special, today’s decadent, overblown, idle twits also been indoctrinated to believe that the society which tells them they’re special is horrible (even whilst giving them the best of everything), AND that they have the power to change it (into what is never really specified, but it’ll be better because their class won’t exist, or something). It’s little wonder that they all behave as if they’re a literal deus ex machina.

    My nonhumans went through their own cycle of bad dictators followed by a massive upheaval and a “mostly benevolent” tyrant (who was mostly well-liked because he was good at his job and laissez-faire in the expected ways, but his utter ruthlessness in his personal life eventually brought him down) … and chaos after his death, tho that began to sort itself out once their natural social hierarchy was free to function again. And then came along the extinction threat, and it was just amazing to see these folks (who fight among themselves at the drop of a hat) drop their lingering civil war and turn as one to face it. I’d had no idea they’d react like that. Subliminal telepathy is a marvelous and peculiar game-changer.

    1. Ooh, sounds kind of interesting. And yeah, when you’ve got an absolute ruler of any stripe, chaos is the usual result if they die without a clear heir.

      1. Which can be so ugly that you end up declaring that nothing in the law actually prohibits a woman serving as a king. . . .

        Not just in Xanth. Some people really have declared it’s King Jane.

        1. And this courts attention from the Gods of Perversity… my nonhumans normally follow a sort of primogeniture (tho a bit more complex than merely the eldest of whatever sex, since it’s designed to prevent bloodlines from dying out), but occasionally a preference (or rarely, law) emerges for either male or female. This tends to have contrary results, such as when the sole acceptable heir says no-way-in-hell and goes missing, or all you can produce are the wrong gender. 😀

          1. I’ve got a world where some things are female line and some male line and some are strict primogeniture — firstborn to firstborn, and if the firstborn dies without an heir the line dies out regardless of siblings — and some strict ultimogeniture.

      2. Indeed… there would have been a clear choice of succession, except for a prior rift (or why you should not disown one heir before securing another)… well, my bad guy made that mistake once, but by the next round had discovered how to make himself his own heir… that actually worked (tho had the general public known how it was done, there’d have been a galaxy-wide hue and cry), but getting the third generation self-heir had a fatal glitch… the moral is, even if you’re the absolute ruler of your universe, don’t come back on the guy whose life you ruined and expect pleasant cooperation with your self-perpetuation scheme. 😉

  3. There is nothing to suggest that this rather fundamental aspect of human nature has changed: most people recognize that anyone who would betray their own kind – for whatever value of “own kind” you wish to give – is not someone a sensible leader or ruler wants to keep around. This is why spies have such a bad reputation, and why “traitor” is a dirty word.

    Related/overlapping, this is why there are so many variations of the loyal-to-death-and-beyond retainer hits so hard when it’s done right. You get the drama of a traitor– not fulfilling the expectations of those around you– with the above and beyond hit of loyalty when there is nothing in it for you.

    They also make awesome villains that you can respect for being incorruptible even when they’re trying to kill you and destroy all you’ve built. 😀

    1. Absolutely. Of course, in my view the best kind of villain is the one who is a decent person but has goals that are utterly incompatible with the hero’s goals. So you can have loyalty and whatnot, but you have someone with a different moral framework (different culture – there’s a long, long rant on that that will happen one day. Suffice to say that not all cultures value the same things, and some of them place little to no value on individual lives or people who are not part of said culture) who is noble and loyal and inspires loyalty… It makes defeating them both necessary and much more satisfying in a narrativium sense.

      1. What’s his name, Oscar something, that great line– Forgive him, Horatio; he is a barbarian and confuses the fashions of his tribe for the laws of nature?

        Part of why I love scifi and fantasy so passionately is because they can do an honest, open job of setting up different standards so you can try to see how they work–it’s also why I dislike the preachy stuff so much, because it “cheats” by treating unlike things as the same, even when I can’t put a finger on WHY it’s wrong.

  4. Agree, agree, agree. And of course, none of these folks want to get their hands dirty and they sneer at those who do yet they demand that they be comfortable and clean and fed at all times. You made me think of comic books or comic book movies where the city is destroyed and then in the next issue, it’s back! Where do they get their contractors? Where do their contractors get their supplies and subs?

    My sister lives on the east coast of Florida and it is not unheard of to wait MONTHS for a roofer because the last hurricane blew off every roof in a ten county area. I know how long our home improvements took and we weren’t competing with entire states of damaged properties.

    You quote John Adams about his grandchildren becoming poets and musicians. Well, maybe, but they may not be any good and they may not want to put in the work to get as good as their talents allow while at the same time, disparaging peasants who have real, God-given talents.

    Putting people on the dole doesn’t make them become artists and musicians and poets. Our societies have been proving that for decades.

    1. Actually, I look at John Adams quote as a more symbolic/metaphorical kind of thing. In a young, barely-there nation, war and politics are what’s essential to survive to have a next generation. Once you’ve got things secured enough that there isn’t an existential threat from someone going to war, people can focus more on the kinds of pursuit that make life better – “commerce, agriculture, and other practicalities” as it were.

      It’s only when you’ve got to the point where there’s a high enough standard of living for everyone that everyday folks have the freedom to pursue things that don’t bring any kind of tangible benefit. The artist, the musicians, the poets are in a very real sense a luxury that only becomes available to the common folk when the entire culture is at a level where it can afford to maintain a whole lot of functionally “useless” (in the sense that the benefits of the arts are spiritual rather than tangible) careers.

      It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at the national scale: in order to survive, the nation’s people must be warriors and politicians (because politics is war conducted with words rather than physical weaponry). In order to grow and become stable, the nation’s people must be producers of physical goods and of improvements to the way things are done. In order to be a cohesive people (self-actualized), the nation’s people must create their own art works.

      Unfortunately, what happens along the way is that after a long enough period of safety and prosperity, people tend to forget that their leisure is purchased by hard work and start getting decadent. We’re seeing the results.

      1. Yes, we certainly are. And you are correct. I didn’t think of what John Adams was looking at outside his door. I was thinking of today.

        1. Today I think we’re teetering on the edge of needing to go back to survival mode. I hope we manage to avoid that fate: while we could conceivably emerge stronger as a nation, the process isn’t one I particularly want to face.

          1. You mean you don’t look forward to going through the meatgrinder of history?
            I’d much rather read about it myself, while lounging on the patio with a refreshing beverage.
            Yet crazy people are practically begging for revolution. They must think it’s a video game where no one ever actually dies or suffers from injuries that last a lifetime.

            I hope and pray we can all avoid it.

  5. The problem/good thing is that America resisted these idiots so long we’re now faced with the equivalent of late aristocracy. They can’t find reality with two hands and a seeing eye dog.
    Not saying they’ll be easy to get rid of. Their very idiocy has put us through the insanity that’s 2020. But I believe we’ll emerge okay at the end….

    1. But I believe we’ll emerge okay at the end….

      ‘Sing sorrow, sorrow, but good win out in the end.’

      … K, Oedipus is really not a reassuring thing to be quoting right now.

      1. Lovely you are and kind
        to the tender young of ravening lions.
        For sucklings of all the savage
        beasts that lurk in the lonely places you have sympathy.
        Grant meaning to these appearances
        good. yet not without evil.
        Healer Apollo, I pray you
        let her not with cross winds
        bind the ships of the Danaans
        to time-long anchorage
        forcing a second sacrifice unholy, untasted,
        working bitterness in the blood
        and faith lost. For the terror returns like sickness to lurk in the
        the secret anger remembers the child that shall be avenged.”
        Such, with great good things beside, rang out in the voice of
        these fatal signs from the birds by the way to the house of the
        wherewith in sympathy
        sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end.

        Click to access e12.pdf

        Not the play I remember– it’s the home-life of the head king during the Trojan war, but the play I remember (English attempt to recreate what it would’ve looked like originally) had the Chorus chanting sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end.

    2. Actually… these idiots make late aristocracy look good. They parted with reality so long ago the cognitive dissonance of being slapped with reality is going to cause a psychotic break and probably kill them. The only real question is how many they’ll take with them (and frankly, I hope it will only be the fellow-travelers and enablers).

      I still believe we’ll come out of the mess intact. Somewhat damaged is probably inevitable, but intact.

  6. Happily ever after in most of those scenarios would be that they are still alive, have something to eat, and a roof over their heads. Everything else would be gravy!

  7. Even when one has a clear vision of the destination, getting a great mass of people from here to there – especially via revolution – is incredibly difficult. “The herd’s constantly shifting utopia” is not a clear vision.
    I just re-read a series with a space opera Marty Stu as our intrepid hero. I don’t mind the “our hero can do anything” part too much. The “I’m going to restructure a planet’s government in half a novel or less” and it works as planned part drives me crazy. It’s not quite as dreadful as that sounds, but it’s close. That said, I’m waiting for book 19 to come out, so it has good points, too.

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