What History Should An American Know?  

Posted by T. Greer in , , ,

A Serbian Gypsy Family at Ellis Island. 

"Gitanos Augustus" by Augustus Sherman (1917), displayed at Statue of Liberty National Park.

 Image Credit: Wikimedia.

What history should an educated American be expected to know?

The most recent issue of Democracy Journal includes a long essay by Eric Liu on "cultural literacy," a term coined by E.D. Hersh for the title of his 1988 book on "what every American should know." Mr. Liu likes Hersh's approach, but argues it must be updated to better fit multi-cultural, 21st century America. As Liu states:
The decades-long [culture] war is about to give way to something else. The question then arises: What? What is the story of “us” when “us” is no longer by default “white”? The answer, of course, will depend on how aware we are of what we are, of what our culture already (and always) has been. And that awareness demands a new kind of mirror....

First, Hirsch, a lifelong Democrat who considered himself progressive, believed his enterprise to be in service of social justice and equality. Cultural illiteracy, he argued, is most common among the poor and power-illiterate, and compounds both their poverty and powerlessness. Second: He was right.

A generation of hindsight now enables us to see that it is indeed necessary for a nation as far-flung and entropic as ours, one where rising economic inequality begets worsening civic inequality, to cultivate continuously a shared cultural core. A vocabulary. A set of shared referents and symbols.
Yet that generational distance now also requires us to see that any such core has to be radically reimagined if it’s to be worthy of America’s actual and accelerating diversity. If it isn’t drastically more inclusive and empowering, what takes the place of whiteness may not in fact be progress. It may be drift and slow disunion. So, first of all, we do need a list. But second, it should not be Hirsch’s list. And third, it should not made the way he made his." [1]

 I encourage you to read the entire thing. The essay has been making the rounds on social media. I'd like to make three brief points in response:

1. Liu devotes a great deal of space to convincing his fellow progressives that an America whose citizens know their history is better than an America whose citizens do not. It is interestingand a tad bit depressingthat pieces like this are necessary. It should be obvious that a broad base of shared historical knowledge is a prerequisite for democracy, and that such knowledge is helpful in a few other domains as well. That the author must spend so much time justifying the mere idea of shared historical knowledge is discouraging.

2. The most interesting (and most divisive) topic up for discussion is what kind of history educated, culturally-literate Americans should be expected to know. This cannot be answered until we have a clear picture of how this historical knowledge will be used. Ancient historians like Plutarch viewed the study of history as a form of character developmentthrough studying the lives of great men of the past, the student would find inspiration and patterns he needed to become a more virtuous man in the present. Moderns are more prosaic: personal enjoyment and class signaling are probably the most common reasons history is studied or cited today.  These reasons are all narrow and private; none are compelling enough to demand historical literacy from every American who participates in the public square. 

Most other reasons given can be boiled down to one of three claims:
  • a) History helps one understand contemporary events from the long view. Some trends are only visible on long time scales; other crises make no sense without a thorough knowledge of the events that preceded them. Historical context matters; all politics is white noise without it.
  • b) History helps one understand today's world as others understand it. History is a living thing. The words and actions of dead men echo through time, popping up in poems, speeches, songs, and books many years later. Most importantly, people's perceptions of the past influence how they think about the future and how they act in the present. One cannot navigate the words and treatises of today’s thinkers—nor those of worthies now gone—without background knowledge of the events, people, and ideas they reference. 
  • c) History helps one understand how society actually works. This approach differs substantially from the other two. They are tethered to the world as it is - or as it is perceived - now. This approach suffers from no such limitations. It does not aim to tell the story of humanity, but to explore history and discover the dynamics or recurring patterns that make history what it has been and what it may be. We all have theories of cause and effect that we rely on to make decisions and predict what consequences these decisions will have. The data that these mental models are built upon is history.
I have discussed these categories in an earlier post on world history and its textbooks. Those curious about how each shapes the way world history is presented and understood in general surveys may find it of interest. But these categoriesand the purpose each is built aroundare also quite useful for the challenge Liu presents. Looking at potential items for the list of "21st Century cultural literacy terms" Liu would like to build in their light can help us prioritize what should make the list. 

Some items might be surprising. To pick one example: the history of the Roman republic is far removed from 21st century America. At first glance it is unlikely to make it on the list. However, it is quite important for reason b), as the people who created the institutions that now govern America did so specifically in reference to the Roman experience. It is very hard to understand what the founding generation did and said without a bare knowledge of what Rome was, who its major figures were, and a basic idea of how it slid from republic to dictatorship.  

3) The other notable thing about Liu's essay is its acute focus on all things American. Americans ought to prioritize their own history and cultural heritage—it is in America they live and with Americans they all must deal with it. But what about the rest of the world? Do words like “Mencius,” “Ancien Regime,” or “Partition of India” have no place in civic literacy? These words and concepts don’t appear too much in American politics—but they appear in the politics of other places regularly. Americans have trouble seeing the world as others see it. Basic cultural literacy may be the best place to start changing that.


[1] Eric Liu, "How To Be An American," Democracy Journal 37 (Summer 2015). 

A map of "Khmer Krom," territory once dominated by 
Khmer speakers before it was conquered by Vietnam in the 18th and 19th centuries.  

Image Source: Douc Sokha, "​សហគមន៍​ខ្មែរក្រោម​ថា​រកឃើញ​ឯកសារ​ជាង​៤០០០​ទំព័រ​ ទាក់ទង​នឹង​ការ​កាត់​ទឹកដី​កម្ពុជា​ក្រោម​ឲ្យ​វៀតណាម​​", Vod Hot News (15 February 2015)
Americans are rarely disinterested observers when watching elections held in foreign climes. The further outside the Western world Americans roam the more lopsided their views tend to be. Those Americans who are familiar with Cambodian politics are overwhelmingly supporters of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), opposition party to Hun Sen’s one man autocracy, the Cambodian People's Party (CPP). In terms of human rights, the CNRP’s hands are far less bloody than Hun Sen’s regime, while the party’s young, media-savvy, and loudly democratic base are just the thing needed to melt the tender heart of any Western activist. But it is not hard to detect a realpolitik slant behind American interest in the CNRP. There is a feeling, more common to observers who focus on the larger diplomatic and military events of the entire region instead of Cambodia specifically, that a CNRP led Cambodia would be a Cambodia more amenable to American interests. In a broad sense this is probably true. The young masses of Cambodia—the CNRP’s main voting demographic—are great fans of America, and the party’s foreign policy platform strikes a far more balanced tone than the unabashedly Sino-centric foreign policy favored by the CPP. Democrats stick together, the story goes: if push comes to shove a truly democratic Cambodia would favor democratic America over authoritarian China.

The problem with this rosy vision is the diplomatic controversy forcing Phnom Penh to choose between the United States and China in the first place. The South China Sea is the wedge issue of Asia. Without the sea’s territorial squabbles it is unlikely the United States would be courting the poor, rick-shaw filled capitals of the region at all. China’s pressing interests in the South China Sea are natural and obvious. The United State's are remarkably less so, but now that American prestige and ‘credibility’ has been placed on her ability to deter China from island building and reef stealing, the contest is set. All that remains is for the lines to be divided. In such a contest between global giants humble Cambodia is a more useful ally than it may seem—as was made apparent in 2012, when Cambodia took advantage of its position as chairman of the annual ASEAN summit to completely sabotage proceedings in China’s favor. America and her allies cannot afford many more diplomatic disasters like 2012. Thus they look to the growing influence of the CNRP—which weilds greater power than any opposition group has since Hun Sen's bloody 1997 purge of the royalist FUCINPEC party
for hope.

This hope is misplaced. This has been clear for quite some time, but the controversies that have gripped Cambodian politics over the last two weeks makes this clearer than ever. The scandal—though unreported by all media outlets in the West—illustrates quite well how the dynamics of Cambodia’s inner politics are expressed in its international relations, and why a CNRP led Cambodia is unlikely to ever take the American line in the South China Sea.

The facts of the matter are these: on June 21st Um Sam An and Real Khamerin, MPs for the CNRP, led a group of some 250 monks, youth activists, and party members to inspect the border dividing Cambodia’s Svay Rieng province from Vietnam's Long An province. The stated intent of this expedition was to investigate whether or not Vietnamese government had been building on the Cambodian side of the border, as activists had claimed. On the way there—either several dozen meters within Long An or several dozen meters on the Svay Rieng side of the line, depending on who is telling the story—they were met by a hundred of so Vietnamese villagers, who blocked the road with brandished sticks. A scuffle ensued. Before the melee was over some 20 Cambodians and 7 Vietnamese were injured, including one of the MPs who led the expedition.

Then the Cambodian internets went crazy.

See, this was not the first time this had happened. Complaints of Vietnamese encroachment on the Cambodian border have been growing louder for a year now and nationalist protests have been staged several times in response. Never the type to let claims of Vietnamese perfidy pass them by, CNRP politicians were quick to make this top-profile scandal. A few weeks before Sam An and Khamerin's ill fated venture, another CNRP MP led his own highly publicized fact-finding expedition to the border (in this case to Ratakiri). His group was also met with a blockade, though here they were not blocked with villagers holding sticks, but soldiers welding electric batons and machine guns. (Some have suggested that the villagers who met the June 21st expedition were actually soldiers in plainclothes. Impossible to verify, but a real possibility—the optics of local villagers armed with sticks are far better than soldiers with AK-47s facing down unarmed monks). When the MP reported that he had been “attacked” by the soldiers, the results were predictable: the CNRP has accused the CPP of cooperation with the Vietnamese and refusal to protect Cambodian citizens from foreign invaders. CNRP head Sam Rainsy signaled how much traction he thinks his party can get from the controversy  when he declared the 2005 border treaty issued between Vietnam and Cambodia should be considered null and that the entire thing should be renegotiated with his party’s participation. Other CNRP members demanded that the government cease all efforts to demarcate the border until 2018, after the next election. That was all a result of the first confrontation between CNRP activists and Vietnamese border guards. After the second incident accusations of treachery grew to such a fury pitch that Hun Sen’s government was  forced into arranging border talks to press the Vietnamese government for concessions.

The emotion this issue generates is hard to understand if you are unfamiliar with Khmer nationalism and its ethnic prerogatives. Southeast Asia is a region of ethnic disharmony, but few of its prejudices—outside of Burma, at least—can match the feelings of distrust and disgust the average Khmer feels towards the Vietnamese. If readers recall how conservative Americans talked about the Soviet Union at the height of communist power, add the way their counterparts in modern Europe discuss Arab immigration now, and then throw in a dash of the type of humiliation that marked Germany in interwar years, then they will have a fair idea of how wild and vitriolic a force anti-Vietnamese rhetoric can be in Cambodian politics.

Cambodians remember the centuries of warfare that led Vietnamese armies to pillage the Khmer heartland and strip away more than half of its territory. Cambodian nationalists still pine for “Khmer krom” (ខ្មែរក្រោម, lit: “outside Khmer”), a term used to refer both to ethnic Khmer living outside of Cambodia and to the lands in the lower Mekong delta that were conquered by the Vietnamese two centuries ago. Relations between the two groups did not improve  during the period of French control, a time in which the Vietnamese were given privileged status and imperial policy supported Vietnamese migration to the Cambodian heartland. Things only worsened with the French withdrawal. Historically informed Cambodians are quick to point out that the Khmer Rouge was a creation of the Viet-Cong; the more conspiratorial of their countrymen insist that the Khmer Rouge’s massacres were directed by them as well. Conspiratorial or not, all Cambodians remember that 150,000 Vietnamese soldiers invaded Cambodia in 1978 and then occupied their country as foreign conquerors for the next ten years. During this time the spigot of Vietnamese migrants moving into Cambodia was opened once again, sharpening fears that Vietnam sought to permanently subvert Khmer autonomy. While both Vietnamese immigration and government influence has waned in the days since Hanoi ordered its troops to withdraw from Cambodian territory, distrust of Vietnam's government and disgust felt towards Cambodia’s Vietnamese minority remains. You can see this even in the Khmer communities of the United States; to walk the streets of an American Cambodiatown is to see half a dozen posters warning of Vietnamese aggression, or (if you speak Khmer) be pressed to attend activist get-togethers or make donations to fight Vietnamese imperialism. [1]

Many of these donations go straight into the coffers of the CNRP. Anti-Vietnamese agitation is a game the CNRP cannot lose. When the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge the man they chose to head their new puppet regime was none other than Hun Sen. [2] Hun Sen was able to hold onto power after they withdrew, and the party which he heads is a direct descendent of the party the Vietnamese created to rule Cambodia. Though this may seem like ancient history (the Vietnamese withdrew two decades ago), Hun Sen remains vulnerable to nationalist claims that he is still little more than a Vietnamese puppet.  His regime’s abuses are regularly blamed on Vietnamese designs—I have personal friends who insist that the soldiers who broke up the January 2014 election protests were all Viet—and everything from the Prime Minister’s fluency in Vietnamese to his refusal to deport all ethnic Vietnamese from Cambodia are used as irrefutable proof of his traitorous intent. There is a kernel of truth behind these accusations. Hun Sen has worked hard to nip anti-Vietnamese sentiment before it ever grows to explosive (or violent) levels, and he has proven extremely hesitant to rock the boat with his old—and in every way much more powerful—patrons in Hanoi. In fact, the decision to force the Vietnamese into border talks next week is an unusual and to my knowledge unprecedented departure from normal policy. Even if the meeting amounts to nothing more than political theatre, its mere occurrence is is a testament both growing to the power of Cambodian nationalism and the increasing influence of the CNRP in Cambodian politics.

Which brings us back to the South China Sea. The critical thing to remember in discussions of Cambodia's position on the South China Sea is that Cambodia’s relationship with Vietnam is the most important and most explosive issue in Cambodian domestic politics. Of the two parties it is the democratic CNRP that has taken the harsher line against the Vietnamese—one could say that it is their defining issue. Thus as long as Vietnam is party to the South China Sea disputes, the natural impulse among CNRP members will be to favor whoever opposes them. This isn’t mere speculation on my part. Here is what CNRP party chief Sam Rainsy had to say about the South China Sea last year:
“[W]e are on the side of China, and we support China in fighting against Vietnam over the South China Sea issue,” Mr. Rainsy told a crowd of about 1,000 party supporters at the CNRP’s provincial headquarters in Siem Reap city.

During his speech, Mr. Rainsy again used anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, and repeatedly referred to the Vietnamese and Vietnam as “yuon,” a word some consider derogatory to describe the Vietnamese.

“It [Vietnam] goes and invades everywhere, and it steals land from Cambodians because the illegal government is a puppet of yuon,” he said in his speech.

“The islands belong to China, but yuon is trying to occupy [the islands] from China, because yuon is very bad,” Mr. Rainsy said.

A few months later Rainsy reiterated his position on his official Facebook page (which in the internet based political culture of the CNRP is tantamount to giving a press interview):
My position vis-à-vis America, China and Vietnam

With regard to internal politics, more precisely the strengthening of democracy and the defense of human rights, we will continue to seek the support of America because we share the same values.
But in international relations, ideology has become secondary, even irrelevant, at a time when national and strategic interests are the determining factors in choosing friends and allies. Look at the evolving relations between Vietnam and the US: the two former enemies – one communist, the other one capitalist – have become good friends and allies.

And when it comes to ensuring the survival of Cambodia as an independent nation, there is a saying as old as the world: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

By siding with China in her territorial dispute with Vietnam in the South China Sea, Cambodia could increase its chance to secure a fair resolution to its own territorial dispute with Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand, which is part of, or adjacent to, the South China Sea. The objective would be to also internationalize the maritime conflict between Cambodia and Vietnam because, as a matter of consistency, Vietnam, in her relations with China, cannot call for the respect of international legal principles that she herself doesn’t respect in her relations with Cambodia. The international community, whose support Vietnam is counting on, cannot use double standards and turn a blind eye to Vietnam’s infringing on Cambodia’s territorial waters and islands.

Now the CNRP has—in English at least—distanced itself from Sam Rainsy’s rather heated rhetoric and adopted a more neutral position. But it isn’t hard to see where their hearts lie. Indeed, as the party’s spats over the border with Vietnam grow more intense we should expect their hearts to harden. From the CNRP’s point of view, the Vietnamese are doing to the Cambodians exactly what the Chinese are doing to the Vietnamese—but in place of airstrips and islands, the Vietnamese are building roads and irrigation ponds. It is ludicrous to expect the CNRP to support the territorial rights of a country who is violating their own. No amount of American aid or moral opprobrium can make that kind of political contortion possible. As Lynn Rees might say, the wheel of the mandala has turned. There is very little Washington can do about it.

If present trends predict the future, the CNRP will continue to grow in power and influence, and they will start to exercise substantial pull on Cambodia’s foreign policy. Yet that is the crux of the problem. The CNRP base loves American democracy—but it hates Vietnam much, much more.


Other posts at The Scholar's Stage on Cambodian Politics:

"There Will Be No Cambodian Spring."
T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 15 August 2015.

Other posts at the Scholar's Stage on the South China Sea disputes: 

"A Few Comments of China, Vietnam, and the HYSY981 Crisis"
T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 22 May 2014.


[1] Yes, this has actually happened to me. And I'm not Khmer!

[2] Things are actually a tad bit more complicated than this; Hun Sen was the second man he Vietnamese chose, elevated to power after the first passed away. 

[3] Kuch Naren, "Rainsy Says CNRP Backs China, Not Vietnam, in Sea Dispute," Cambodia Daily (11 January 2014)

[4] Sam Rainsy, "My Position vis-a-vis America, China, and Vietnam," Facebook Status Update (21 April 2014).

There Is No "Right Side" of History  

Posted by T. Greer in , ,

I read with interest Ta-Nehisi Coates' recent historical essay for The Atlantic, "What This Cruel War Was Over." The article is worth reading. It consists mostly of quotations pulled from Southerner declarations, debates, and editorials from the Civil War and late antebellum eras, all on the theme of slavery and the desperate need to preserve it. One example Coates gives is the words spoken by James H. Hammond (then a South Carolina senator) on the senate floor in 1858:

The difference between us is, that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our people, and not too much employment either. Yours are hired by the day, not care for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street of your large towns. Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South. We do not think that whites should be slaves either by law or necessity. Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race. The status in which we have placed them is an elevation. They are elevated from the condition in which God first created them, by being made our slaves. None of that race on the whole face of the globe can be compared with the slaves of the South. They are happy, content, unaspiring, and utterly incapable, from intellectual weakness, ever to give us any trouble by their aspirations. [1]
What is most astonishing about this quotation (and the others like it that Coates cites) is how completely alien this kind of talk would have sounded to a Southerner living two or three generations before Hammond's time.

One of the best books of American political or social history that I have yet read is William Freehling's The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854. The book is a true pleasure to read. This cannot be said honestly about most historical tomes published over the last few decades, but it is true here. Freehling also manages to fill his book with insights about the nature of power and politics that are applicable to places and periods far removed from the antebellum South--long term readers might remember how I've used his observations to make sense of patterns in contemporary Salafist-jihadist terrorism. One of the major themes of Freehling's work is the diversity of interests and opinions found in antebellum Dixie. The rough division between "north" and "south" we used today was much harder to draw in the American republic's earliest days. As Freehling takes great pains to prove, there were many souths within the South, each with a different interest and attitude towards slavery. Slavery's greatest defenders saw this with horror and dismay. They knew their peculiar institution would not be preserved into perpetuity until the many souths learned to act in concert as The South, united by a shared commitment to slavery. Creating this sense of unity and mission was a political project that took almost a century to complete. Surprisingly, their greatest challenge in radicalizing Southern society was the slave holding class itself. In the colonial and early antebellum eras the majority of southern aristocrats did not see slavery as something worth defending. 

For example, here is what Thomas Jefferson had to say about slavery near the turn of the 19th century:
"There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it... The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances. And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other.... And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest. -- But it is impossible to be temperate and to pursue this subject through the various considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil. We must be contented to hope they will force their way into every one's mind. I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation." [2] (emphasis added).
As in so much else, Jefferson's words were those of a hypocrite. Jefferson's life curse was to  pen rhetoric that was powerful enough to inspire idealists across the ages while creating a standard he could never personally live up to. Not that this mattered much in the eyes of his contemporaries; a plantation master was never judged on what he physically accomplished. It was a man's ideas and manners that mattered on the Tidewater, and Jefferson's ideas were shared by many. Most intellectual southerners living at the turn of the century would willingly admit that chattel slavery was a wretched institution. They defended it on grounds of precedent and social stability: their society had not chosen slavery, the argument went, but inherited it from their British fore-bearers, and now that it was around it could not be done away with in a stroke without much suffering and misery. But there was a common expectation that slavery would end sooner than later, as economic and social forces slowly made the practice obsolete. This is exactly what happened in the state of New York. Southern gentry of Jefferson's day expected that this would happen everywhere else--and that America would be better off for it. 

Open celebrations of slavery like the sort Hammond offered would not become common until the 1840s. By the eve of the Civil War they were the only "politically correct" things a politician from the Deep South could say about slavery. I refer those interested in the story of how slavery's most radical defenders were able to manipulate and mold southern society and culture until political elites across the region championed slavery as a positive good worth dying for to Freehling's book. The point I would like to make here is a bit more basic. The American south of 1860 was more racist, more despotic, and less tolerant of traditional Americans liberties like freedom of speech than was the American south 1790. If you had pulled Jefferson's grandchildren to the side in 1855 and asked them what the "right side" of history was, they would probably reply that it was the abolitionists, not the slavers, who were on the wrong side of it. 

There is an obvious lesson here for all politicians and activists inclined to talk about "the right side of history" today. History has no direction discernible to mankind. Surveying current cultural trends is a foolish way to predict the future and the judgments of posterity are far too fickle to guide our actions in the present. 


[1] James Henry Hammond, in Congressional Globe, 35th congress, 1st session, appendix, p. 71 (4 March 1858). Hammond's speech is one of the more famous defenses of slavery as a positive good, but it is not the most sophisticated. For that see E.N. Elliot, ed., Cotton is King and Pro-Slavery Arguments, comprising the writings of Hammond, Harper, Christy, Stringfellow, Hodge, Bledsoe, and Cartwright on this important subject, (Augusta GA: Pritchard, Abbott and Loomis, 1860).

[2] Merrill D. Peterson, ed.  Thomas Jefferson: Writings (New York: Library of America, 1984), pp. 288-291.

"The King's library at Buckingham House" from The History of Royal Residences
by William Henry Pines (1819), plate No. 48

Image Source: Wikimedia
When the moment of decision arrives the time for study and reflection has ended. Decisions made under pressure often rely on heuristics, assumptions, and interpretive frames formed long before crisis arrives. Some of these are created through personal experience; others are gifts of genetic inheritance. But a large part of our inner model of the world and its workings comes from what we have read. This is why the strategist should read. Books allow strategists to learn the painful lessons of defeat without the sort of destruction that usually attends it, provide the conceptual tools needed to make sense of a complex world, and helps strategists spot patterns and trends that they might be able to leverage to their own benefit. But--and this is an important but--this is only true if the lessons, ideas, and narratives incorporated into their model of the world are themselves accurate depictions of reality. The fruits of false assumptions about human motivation, war, or politics incorporated in the worldview of the strategist are disaster.

The implication of all this is that one should choose carefully what one reads. This is especially true with works of fiction, whose events and characters are decided by the demands of narrative art, not the connections between cause and effect operative in the real world. The strategist must act in the world of the living, and there is no guarantee that interpretive frames built upon fictions will do him or her any good in it. In many contexts fiction is wonderful--but in the realm of strategy, fiction is far less wonderful than it is dangerous.

My thoughts on this topic were inspired by a short post written by Lt. Col Aaron Bazin, who currently works for the U.S. Army's Training and Doctrine Command. First published at the Strategy Bridge, Bazin's post is a book list titled "What Successful Strategist Read." The 'successful strategists' there referenced are the other officers and civilians who work for the Command and are bookish enough to gather together regularly as a reading group. The list is their creation, and together with the input gathered from a broader circle of professionals in the field, they were able to create a list of 100 or so titles. You can find the full list submitted for the project on this Google Doc page, but Bazin also aggregated the submissions to produce a "top ten" list of the works most commonly suggested:

"Books Critical to Read For Success as a Strategist,"

Source: Aaron Bazin,  "What Successful Strategists Read," Strategy Bridge (12 June 2015)
This list created a large buzz on the social networks I'm a part of, most of which centered on the choices of the fiction side of the list. The high ranking of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game was particularly controversial--controversy I helped stoke by linking to and referencing the essay I wrote a few years back on why Ender's Game did not deserve its place on the official Marine Corps Commandant reading list. I encourage curious readers to read my entire critique, but to summarize the main points in a paragraph: Ender's Game is not a realistic depiction of politics and war. It was never designed to be. This is because its subject is not strategy, but ethics. Orson Scott Card believes that morality is not found in consequences of our actions, but in the intentions that lead us to act in the first place. [And SPOILER NOTE] Ender's Game is a well written thought experiment designed from its first page to prove this point--in essence, it is an especially elaborate and compelling example from extreme cases that moral philosophers use when they write about ethics and morality. Card takes the most heinous and horrible crime of the 20th century--genocide--and imagines a situation where this crime could be committed innocently. To accomplish this Card needs to write a series implausible and improbable events into the plot of Ender's Game that push the boundaries of credulity. As the narrative's main purpose is to set up Card's grand thought experiment, this isn't a real problem. It simply means looking to Ender's Game for meaningful lessons about how conflict, diplomacy, or politicking work in the real world is a fool's errand. If anything, the novel's central lesson is something a strategist should never internalize. Card's ethics could be right in a philosophical sense, but they have little application on the battlefield. In warfare intentions mean nothing and consequence means everything. In our world there is no Commander Graff to whisk the strategist away when the consequences of his or her decisions lead to death or disaster. [/END SPOILERS]

That is my case against Ender's Game in a nut-shell, though I can understand why some of its other themes might make it popular with professional strategists. This is particularly true for the folks who first read the book shortly after it was first published. In a culture enamored with "disruptive innovation" and obsessed with "thinking outside of the box" it is easy to forget that these concepts are relatively new ideas. Ender's "the enemy gate is down" preceded both by two decades. A strategist should have something of a maverick mentality, and Ender's Game seems like a perfect case study in the art.

The problem is that it is nothing of the sort.

I was not aware of this until a few days ago, when a friend participating in this discussion forwarded an essay by Elizier Yudowsky on how to write good fiction that uses Ender's Game as a central case study. Yudoswky poses the following question: how does an author create a believable character who is smarter than himself? After all, if a writer was actually smart enough to create a fool-proof plan for his character to use to conquer the world or rob Fort Knox, why hasn't he used it already? He doesn't because he can't. The author is not actually a genius, and the stratagems of his novels only appear brilliant because authors uses a series of literary devices designed to fool the audience into thinking the characters they read about are true master strategists.  As Yudowsky explains:
Consider the dilemma faced by Orson Scott Card in writing Ender’s Game (the book, not the movie). Card can tell us that Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is a military genius and great at commanding ships, but this is merely telling. We cannot actually be shown how Ender Wiggin has arranged a set of ships into a 3D pattern, and see for ourselves that this is a more powerfully attacking 3D pattern than we’d have invented. (Especially in the book, as opposed to the movie!)  In order to show Ender being smart, Card had to put Ender in a situation that we as readers could understand was threateningly difficult, and then show Ender’s solution, which would be something we could understand, and see for ourselves was good or clever.
So Card establishes early in the book that when the enemy’s army is all frozen, the winning commander has four un-frozen soldiers open the enemy’s gate to ceremonialize the victory, after which the lights come on and the game is over. Card shows you this happening several times, so that it is there in your memory as a well-established fact. Then Card puts Ender up against two armies at once, odds that not even Ender can beat, gives the dilemma some time to establish plot tension… whereupon Ender gives up on playing by the rules, and just bulls through with five soldiers and opens the enemy’s gate immediately. It doesn’t have to be explained to you how this works. There’s no slowdown for exposition at the moment of climax. All the mechanical rules operating to declare Ender’s victory are already known to you; the story has already shown the ceremony several times so that it’ll be there in your literary memory at the critical moment when you’re shown Ender’s good idea and Card wants you to understand it immediately, without pausing in the story.
When you, as an author, have written similar scenes a few times yourself, it will occur to you that the only reason why this rule exists in the Enderverse - the real reason that a battle in Battle School ends with four soldiers pressing their helmets to the enemy’s gate - is because Card wanted to put Ender in an impossible fight, decided that Ender would fight two armies, asked himself “Now how the heck can Ender win?”, invented the victory condition, asked himself why commanders wouldn’t just vigorously defend their gates, and then decided to write (into the earlier parts of the story) that this was considered a ceremonial final move.

Is this cheating? Yes, but cut Orson Scott Card some slack! He can’t actually show us Ender being a great tactical genius the way a real-life version of Ender would be, because we’re not tactical geniuses. [1] (emphasis added)
It is important to remember here the reason Card needs Ender to be a tactical genius is not because he wants to teach us enduring lessons about zero gravity combat tactics, but because the premise of his novel calls for an innocent but unparalleled genius to be its protagonist. The Battle School does not exist to teach readers universal principles of strategy, politics, or leadership, but to demonstrate the in-universe brilliance of Ender Wiggin. This point can be generalized to all of the ideas, events, and characters of the novel--indeed, to all novels. Storylines are created by the author to manipulate the emotions and perceptions of the audience. This is true for even simple plot points like Ender's maverick tag-line, "the enemy's gate is down":
For a more organic example of cleverness, think of Ender’s slogan, “The enemy’s gate is down!” In zero gravity, Ender tells his troops, you should think of the enemy as being below you, so that you orient yourself with your legs toward them. This presents a more narrow profile, and means that the enemy’s laser guns (which Card has previously shown you!) will freeze your legs (according to rules we’re now already familiar with!) rather than your arms. This doesn’t have the literary artifice of the way Ender wins his battle against two armies; it’s a natural idea for fighting in zero gravity with laser-tag guns. In this case I expect that Orson Scott Card spent a day thinking about how to fight in zero gravity—-or maybe just a few seconds, depending on how smart he was—-and then came up with something that seemed to him like an actual good idea. And then, perhaps, he discarded it, and generated another good idea, continuing until he had the best idea he could give to Ender....
Orson Scott Card does get to specify as a story outcome that Ender’s idea actually works and Ender’s soldiers win their battles. This too is ‘cheating’ in the sense that it makes the story-Ender more intelligent than the actual cognitive work that Orson Scott Card expended to invent the “orient downward” idea. As a reader, you were probably thinking of “The enemy’s gate is down” as that awesome idea Ender had which worked great (because that’s what you’ve been shown), rather than one of twenty possible suggestions for how to fight in zero gravity, none of which have ever been tested.
But at least it’s not a pretentious or an obvious idea that the story shows us as working great. It’s not like Ender said “Try pulling the trigger twice in a row!” and nobody in-story had ever thought of that before. It’s not like Ender tried some ridiculously complicated plot (that is, any plot relying on more than three separate events happening without superintelligent or precognitive guidance) which worked by sheer authorial fiat, a la Death Note. Again, have some sympathy for Orson Scott Card: he can’t actually build a Battle School and test his ideas. It’s at least plausible that if you actually built a Battle School in zero gravity and had the kids fight, they’d do better by thinking of the enemy’s gate as being downward.
Remember the purpose of Ender’s Game is not to prove that Card is smart, any more than Card was trying to prove, by writing Ender, that he himself was a seven-year-old killer.  Ender exists as a tactical genius in-universe; the literary challenge faced by Card is how he can put that fact into text....
Closely related is the second sneaky artifice of only presenting the character with problems that they can solve. Orson Scott Card didn’t put Ender Wiggin in a battle chamber stark naked and alone, because Ender Wiggin couldn’t have won that challenge, so Card elected not to have that be what happened. Maybe Card considered several different challenges for Ender, besides the final battle against two armies, and only picked one that Card could figure out how to have Ender solve. Again, this is a way of creating an in-universe character who is apparently smarter, in-universe, than the outer cognitive work you put in; the author is solving one of many possible challenges, but the in-universe character is demonstrating their ability to handle whatever reality throws at them. [2] (emphasis added)
The problem with using Ender's Battle Room scenes to teach or inspire the "think outside of the box" attitude real strategists might need is that Ender's Game does not provide a realistic model for how maverick solutions are actually created or implemented. Card's model is designed to convince readers that Ender is a strategic prodigy, not demonstrate how prodigious strategy is actually created and used. The events and characters of the novel are literary devices and expedients whose purpose is compelling narrative. It is dangerous to try and pull out of such obvious artifice patterns or lessons that explain the workings of the real world. 

I have been picking on Ender's Game, but it should be obvious that this critique extends to fictional stories generally. Part of what makes the current obsession with Game of Thrones so nauseating, for example, is the insistence of many fans that it is a "realistic" depiction of intrigue or power politics.  An honest look at its storyline reveals that this is simply not true. Most of what happens in the show occurs because the writers wish to elicit a specific set of emotions from the audience, and the plot follows a predictable literary strategy that successfully does just that. The problem comes when viewers internalize plot lines designed for their emotional effect and use them as the frame through which they understand politics and power in the world outside of the show

 John Boyd's OODA Loop, diagram originally drawn by John Boyd, recreated by Patrick Moran (2008).

Image Source: Wikimedia

Readers familiar with the work of strategic theorist John Boyd (which should include the "successful strategists" who inspired this post, for he made it into their top-ten nonfiction list) will understand why this is a matter of such concern. Strategic theory is in essence a theory of decision making. What Boyd understood is that decisions are made in reference to the knowledge we have about the world and the narratives we use to make this knowledge cohere. A strategic actor oriented around incorrect narratives or ideas (or a strategic actor which cannot update these ideas to match changing conditions) faces a severe disadvantage in competitive environments like international relations or war. My concern is that too many of the models and ideas we use to orient ourselves are complete fictions.

Some genres are worse in this regard than others. Fantasy and science fiction ("speculative fiction") seem to be the worse offenders here, for they are the genres least tethered to reality. In these genres the presentation of politics and historical change have no restraints outside of the whims of the authors and tastes of the audience. In such novels the flow of politics and war are slaves to narrative art, and their role in the story is to manipulate the perceptions and emotions of the audience so that the author can make his or her selected themes resonate as powerfully as possible. These books are usually entertaining, often thought provoking, and occasionally are even edifying, but they are suspect sources for understanding how and why strategic actors interact as they do.

Similar criticism could be levied against military and historical novelists, or indeed, actual historians. When historians write their books they use many of the methods well known to authors of more fanciful tales, emphasizing certain facts or events over others to create powerful and emotional narratives. But there are limits to how far one can stretch the historical record. If you are familiar with the period of history in question the author's decisions to deviate from what is known or emphasize certain themes or events over others will be transparent and thus less deceptive. If understanding the cause-and-effect, post-and-counter riposte dynamics of strategy is our aim, then it is to these genres, which tell the stories of actual men and women who responded to actual strategic challenges, that we must turn. 

This is not to say fiction (or speculative fiction specifically) are of no use in the study of war. As Ender's Game evidences, discussions of justice, ethics, and values are natural and useful by-products of such books. These are things men and women who have responsibility for others lives must think about. Fiction also has extraordinary power to capture slices of the human experience that would be otherwise inaccessible. If you want to know why the Great War happened, then I turn you to a historian. If you want to know what the Great War felt like, then it is All Quiet On The Western Front or Farewell to Arms I recommend. 

The final use of fiction is its most common: entertainment. If it is only that, there is no great error in reading political thrillers or fantasy adventures--spending an evening reading such a book is no worse  than idling a few hours playing golf or watching a game of football. But the number of people who orient their internal model of international relations on the rules of golf or football is small. One can only hope that the number of strategists who have internalized the plot lines of Dune or Starship Troopers for their inner model of how politics and warfare is no larger. 

EDIT (22 June 2015): Diane Maye has written a rebuttal to this post that is worth reading:

Diane Maye, "Fiction For the Strategist," Strategy Bride (22 June 2015).
I'll likely post a longer response to her thoughts sometime later this week.


[1] Elizier Yudowsky, "Level 2 Intelligent Characters," Optimize Literally Everything (undated; accessed 18 June 2015)

[2] Ibid.

"Shanghai Celebrates the New Republic," from Dongfang Magazine, vol 8, no. 12 (1911)

Image Source: Wikimedia 

Political scientist Jay Ulfelder has an interesting piece up at Dart Throwing Chimp that questions the  importance of 'legitimacy,' a concept social scientists have long used to explain the rise and fall of governments and political regimes. This is not new territory for Ulfelder, but a new Brookings report on wealth, health, and happiness in China prompted him to return to it. To quote Mr. Ulfelder's post:
Well, here is a fresh piece of empirical evidence against the utility of this concept: according to a new Global Working Paper from Brookings, the citizens of China who have benefited the most from that country’s remarkable economic growth in recent decades are, on average, its least happy. As one of the paper’s authors describes in a blog post about their research:
  • We find that the standard determinants of well-being are the same for China as they are for most countries around the world. At the same time, China stands out in that unhappiness and reported mental health problems are highest among the cohorts who either have or are positioned to benefit from the transition and related growth—a clear progress paradox. These are urban residents, the more educated, those who work in the private sector, and those who report to have insufficient leisure time and rest
These survey results contradict the “performance legitimacy” story that many observers use to explain how the Chinese Communist Party has managed to avoid significant revolutionary threats since 1989 (see here, for example). In that story, Chinese citizens choose not to demand political liberalization because they are satisfied with the government’s economic performance. In effect, they accept material gains in lieu of political voice. [1]
 I first wrote about the relationship between Chinese economic growth and popular support for the  Communist Party of China (CPC) back in 2013 shortly after I returned from a stint in Beijing. I stated then that the idea the CPC's legitimacy rests on high growth rates "makes intuitive sense. But - and this is a big but - I have never seen anyone present evidence that this assertion is true.... Until then we should recognize this idea for what it is: a part of the received wisdom that is uncritically repeated because so many others seem to think it sounds right." [2]

 I stick by this passage. Two years have passed and I have yet to find any convincing evidence that a large percentage of the Chinese populace supports the regime because it has made them personally richer or happier. I still have not seen any survey data that could support such a claim, nor have I personally met a single Chinese man or woman who cites increasing personal wealth or happiness when asked to explain why they support or like their government. As far as I can tell, this is a just-so-story pulled from a weird mix of 17th century social contract theory and popular Cold War rhetoric that has been applied to a country and a people unmoved by either.  

 Ulfelder is right to see the Brookings report as another nail in this story's coffin. It is convincing evidence that the "wealth per capita brings political legitimacy to the Party" narrative is flawed. I am less convinced that 'legitimacy' itself is a flawed concept. Xavier Marquez describes one of the more compelling theories of legitimacy in the following terms:
Beetham (1992, 2013) attempts to improve on Weber’s narrow model of legitimacy by explicitly abandoning the idea of beliefs in legitimacy and instead speaking primarily about the congruence between shared beliefs and public justifications. On Beetham’s model, to ask whether a political system (for example) is legitimate is to ask not about whether people take the public reasons for action offered by a discourse of justification as their own private reasons for action, but (in the first instance) about observable features of the system that show congruence between shared beliefs and public justifications, such as whether the publicly recognized rules authorizing action are followed (and hence whether action is in accordance with valid authority norms), whether the justifications of the norms regulating authority appeal to widely shared beliefs (and hence whether action is in accord with valid evaluative norms), and whether those subject to authority publicly express their recognition of the relevant authority norms (thus providing evidence of their validity).

The key point in Beetham’s account is that legitimate relationships of domination tend to generate the evidence for their own justification. In his view, the justifications for the norms that govern a relationship of domination are not merely the manipulative rhetoric of the powerful – indeed, Beetham thinks explicit manipulation results not in persuasion but in cynicism, as happened in the communist states of Eastern Europe in the 1980s – but rather claims that are justified by the social facts generated by the system itself. For example, if the powerful claim that their position is justified because of their superior education or political intelligence, then to the extent that the relationship is legitimate, the system in which it is embedded will tend to differentially provide the powerful with greater education and opportunities to develop political intelligence than the subordinate; if the powerful claim that it is only by following the rules that the subordinate will get ahead, the operation of the relationship will make that claim credible. Legitimacy is institutionalized persuasion because legitimate systems manufacture credible claims. (Emphasis added) [3]
 Marquez has serious reservations about whether this conception of legitimacy has convincing "explanatory value," but I'll save these concerns for a later discussion so that we can focus on Ulfelder's more basic critique. One might restate this critique in reference to Beetham's theory of legitimacy as follows:

1. There is no 'congruence' between the claims the Party makes to legitimize its rule to the Chinese people and the social goods the Party actually provides.

2. Despite this fact, the Party's grip on Chinese society is as strong as ever.

3. "Legitimacy" therefore fails to explain China's political stability.

The problem with this critique is that it equates the "wealth per capita brings political legitimacy to the Party" narrative with the concept of legitimacy itself. The narrative is complete crock, of course, and any attempt to explain the Party's success with it is crock as well. This is because this is not the narrative the Chinese government or people use to legitimize the Party. When asked to explain why they support the Party or what they like about the Party's national leaders, the Chinese people do not speak about their personal wealth or happiness, but about the Party's efforts to fight local corruption and injustice, or its role in helping China, as a country and a nation, become wealthy, powerful, and respected on the international stage. Both criticism and credit are given to the Party for what it has done for Chinese society as a whole, not for what it does for individual Chinese. These same themes are also at the center of the Party's own propaganda campaigns and official literature.

This assessment is based off of my personal experiences in China, inferences from studies on Chinese political attitudes like Yang and Marquis's 2013 Weibo study or Pan and Xu's 2015 study on China's political spectrum, and work on Chinese censorship and media control, like that done by Daniela Stockman. I would like to see it rigorously tested by proper opinion surveys specifically designed for this purpose. [4] Any investigation of the "legitimacy" of the Party should begin with what actual Chinese people have to say about the legitimacy of their government. We cannot assess whether popular narratives and attitudes play a meaningful role in Chinese politics until we have a more accurate picture of what these attitudes are. The most popular Western narrative about the legitimacy of the Party is certainly wrong. But we can't nix discussions of legitimacy and the CPC until we discover whether or not Chinese narratives are any better.

[1] Jay Ufelder, "From China, Another Strike Against Legitimacy," Dart Throwing Chimp (14 June 2015).

[2] T. Greer, "Notes From Beijing: About that Chinese Social Contract...", The Scholar's Stage (24 August 2013).

[3] Xavier Marquez, "The Irrelevance of Legitimacy,"Political Studies (pub. online April 2015). An earlier version not hiding behind a pay-wall can be found here.

[4] Recents attempt to equate legitimacy with various political beliefs do not go into these specifics, and never discuss China's international standing or sovereignty. See, for example, Niel Munro, Jane Duckett, Kate Hunt, and Matt Sutton, "Does China’s Regime Enjoy “Performance Legitimacy”? An Empirical Analysis Based on Three Surveys from the Past Decade," paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association (Chicago, 2013).

I find this particular mysterious, for historians usually cite popular frustration over the governing regime's inability to protect and preserve Chinese sovereignty as one of (if not the) central reasons behind every major social protest or revolutionary movement (with the June 4th movement and perhaps the Cultural Revolution excepted) of the last 150 years of Chinese history. It makes sense for this to work in reverse, and patterns in Chinese censorship suggest that it might. The relationship between China's international standing and popular support for the regime is such a rich and obvious target for research that I can barely believe how little has been done with it.

Image Credit: Wikimedia
It is rare for me to comment at length on contemporary American pop-culture here at the Stage, where I usually reserve myself to discussions of cultural trends found deep in the past or far from American shores. But occasionally I will read a piece exciting or infuriating enough to drag me out of my usual silence. Yesterday Adam Elkus (blogger at Rethinking Security and Zero Derp Thirty, columnist at Slate and War on the Rocks) published one of these essays. It was given the link-baity title, "Why Game of Thrones is Making Us Stupid." An excerpt will give you sense of its main arguments:
Game of Thrones makes people stupid. It is not a guilty pleasure akin to Jackass or The Bachelor, where viewers understand that the show has no substantive content and merely consists of dick jokes or gawking at the sham of 20-30 women claiming to have a “connection” with a single, douchey playboy. It is a form of power pornography in which viewers watch human beings degrade, hurt, betray, abuse, and destroy each other and then compulsively compete to see how can the most clever gif or IMGUR image out of such depravity. They derive entertainment and satisfaction out of the show’s spectacle of power, domination, and cruelty and then turn such depraved fictional acts in a kind of cultural language and cultural shorthand that they communicate to each other with and even use to describe real-world horrors and cruelties such as the current wars in the Middle East. [1]
Readers who interact with me on other forums, comment threads, or e-mail groups where discussion of American pop culture are par for course are aware of how much I despise Game of Thrones, the books that inspired it, and the adulatory sub-culture that has sprouted up around it. It should not be surprising to find that I agree wholeheartedly with the tenor of all of Mr. Elkus's arguments, and the substance of most of them. Elkus's piece is long and far-ranging, and I recommend you read all of it. His thoughts on Game of Throne's invasion of American political rhetoric and culture--especially our inability to discuss atrocities that are occurring in the real world without dumbing them down to a series of Game of Thrones memes--is particularly on point.

There is one place where I disagree with Elkus. He describes the appeal of Game of Thrones in the following terms:
Game of Thrones is part of a genre of television that I roughly dub “Machiavellian porn.” We watch it not because we really find the acts so disturbing and despicable but because we want to see powerful men and a few select women outsmart, humiliate, hurt, and impose their will on others. Hence the rape scenes of Game of Thrones are a feature, not a bug. We watch men spend hours cruelly imposing their will and humiliating other men, and then they do so to women in another setting. And this is not exclusive to Game of Thrones by any means. Frank Underwood, for example, humiliates, hurts, and mistreats both his mistress and many of his political allies. Like competence porn, Game of Thrones no doubt fills some deep, sublimated need. Why everyone from the Reddit bro set to Oberlin Critical Studies majors delight in such a spectacle is beyond me, but I don’t imagine it is too different from how our supposedly uncivilized ancestors enjoyed bear-baiting, public executions, gladiator fights, and other similar spectacles. [2]
I am afraid this is altogether too charitable. There probably is some appeal in watching the clever and strong dominate other schemers who thought they were the clever and strong. Displays of mastery impress us. But there is much more to it than this--in writing the Song of Ice and Fire series upon which Game of Thrones was based, George R.R. Martin relies on a regular narrative pattern designed to produce a specific emotional reaction from his readers. It works like this: do everything possible to get readers emotionally invested in a character, and then abuse this character as graphically as possible. [3]

It is hard to describe viewers' attraction to this pattern as anything but voyeuristic. I use the word a bit loosely here--Game of Throne's promiscuity is one of its hooks, of course, but that is only part of the 'voyeuristic' impulse that drives the show. The allure of Game of Thrones is the allure of seeing the worst of humanity, viscerally depicted, without leaving the comfort of your living room. The extreme levels of violence, torture, and sex, or the constant betrayals and ‘plot twist’ deaths present in the story-line do not have any other motive than astonishment and emotional shock. Much like the Saw films, Game of Thrones allows the viewer to revel in depravity from afar. Game of Thrones is not as gratuitous as Saw and the other Gorno flicks, but its perversion cuts deeper because the viewer has a stronger emotional connection with the characters. This emotional manipulation is (from Martin's perspective) a brilliant device to keep readers turning pages and one of the undeniable draws of his series. Once it is established that any character is fair game for an unexpected rape, torture session, or grotesque death, the reader is compelled to keep reading to see if  his or her favorite character is not next on the chopping block.

The TV series follows the same narrative strategy as Martin's Ice and Fire novels, save that  atrocities are depicted more graphically and plot elements are regularly changed to become even more shocking or depraved than what is found in the original source material. (One imagines the writing team's conversations: “Lets see, Martin wrote about incestuous sex next to a dead body after a funeral in a church, huh? We need to make that more edgy. Hmmm…. I know, lets make it incestuous rape next to a dead body after a funeral in a church!)

Fans of the show do not react well when offered this explanation of Game of Throne's popularity. No one likes being called a voyeur, especially a voyeur of human depravity. Apologists are quick to arise, and their defense almost always revolves around one of two claims. The first is that Game of Thrones simply presents world as it "really" is, and it is this "realism" that both justifies the show's content and explains its popular appeal. Those who contrast the series with the tamer fantasy fiction of yore (especially Lord of the Rings) take this approach explicitly; the endless stream of "how Game of Thrones explains real world event X" articles are an implicit defense of the same point. The second defense apologists offer is that the viewers enjoy the series because its characters are complex, multi-layered, and compelling, and it is these elements of the story that keep viewership numbers high. Both lines of argument are really quite disturbing--far more disturbing than the claim that people enjoy Game of Thrones simply because it appeals to the baser demons of their nature--and offers a sad window into the worldview of America's chattering class.

The simplest response to claims that Game of Thrones presents an accurate picture of human society is to point out that this is false. As Sady Doyle noted a few years back, Game of Thrones presents a highly selective view of the Medieval past:
Yes, it’s true; in Ye Olde Medieval Europe, female tweens were oft wed to the grown-ups. A Song of Ice and Fire is known for being “gritty” and “authentic,” so really, aren’t I just objecting to the realism? Reader, here are the things that George R. R. Martin changed about Ye Olde Medieval Europe, when he set out to write A Song of Ice and Fire: Religion. Geography. History. Politics. Zombies. Werewolves. Dragons. At one point, when asked why his characters were taller, healthier, and longer-lived than actual Medieval people, George R. R. Martin explained that human genetics and biology do not work the same way in Westeros as they do in the real world. So George R. R. Martin considered that he could change all of that while maintaining “authenticity.” Here’s what he left in, however: Institutionalized pedophilia. [4]
Doyle understates the point. Conspicuously missing from Game of Thrones's many royal deaths are the kind that littered the true middle ages. Few nobles of Westeros are killed by influenza, alcohol poisoning, or being thrown from their horse. Every one of Martin's unmarried female characters is raped (or barely escapes it), but if killing and pain must be portrayed, it would be just as realistic to have one of these heroines married off in peaceful circumstances, only to die nine months later as they gave birth. But death by something as mundane as fever or childbirth has no place in the world of Game of Thrones. Both the novels and the TV series are committed to a distorted depiction of a very small sliver of pre-modern life.

This is not to downplay the role of violence or the scale of atrocity of human history. Apologists are quick to point out that the Iliad or Biblical books like Numbers and Joshua depict events just as barbarous, and no one (outside of a few crazies at places like Columbia) objects to those.  But the comparison really works to Game of Throne's discredit. Barbarous and retrograde as they may be, the Iliad and the Pentateuch present a wider array of emotions and human motivations than can be found in all of the Song of Ice and Fire books combined. This is why they are still read all of these millenia later. They capture a enough of the human condition to resonate across centuries. This is an achievement Martin's shallow world of vice-driven characters could never hope to attain.

This is an important point worth emphasizing. This is a blog about history, politics, and strategy. My field of expertise is East Asian history--but more specifically, the role that war and empire has played in its history. Examining the atrocities and tragedies of the past is what I do. In this line of research it is easy to forget the real cost of wars and turmoil, to reduce suffering to statistics, battle diagrams, and theoretical abstractions. I fight this temptation by reading memoirs. My rule is that I read one at least once every other month. I find a personal account of someone who lived through the worst of what human beings have done to each other so that I do not forget what abstractions in the mind of strategists become in the world of flesh and smoke. I've read dozens of them. They are accounts of soldiers, diplomats, refugees, and survivors. They do not read anything like Game of Thrones. There are powerful--even beautiful--novels like Vaddey Ratner's In the Shadow of the Banyan that depict events far more horrifying than anything that has happened in Westeros, yet somehow muster an emotional range that exceeds what Game of Thrones can offer. There is a realness to these books that Game of Thrones cannot hold a candle to--and when you meet those who write these kind of books you realize how insulting such a comparison is.

Image Credit: Good Reads

 Some of these books are bleak. Others are much less so. Many are edifying. A few are funny. But none were meant to be entertaining. One cannot write honestly--that is, realistically--about these things with the aim of entertainment. Any depiction of torture, death, and rape designed to entertain is one far removed from reality.

This is not a problem unique to Game of Thrones. It is a flaw that pervades fantasy as a genre, and most of the other big authors writing today are guilty of it. [5] But the problem is worse for Game of Thrones because of the intensity with which its chosen horrors are depicted. This is what sets Game of Thrones apart from the Iliad or the Bible. Game of Thrones is gratuitous in a way Homer never could be. It is gratuitous in a way accounts of real world horrors never are. And yet we acclaim its authenticity and realism! A comparison with Tolkien here is actually quite instructive. Tolkien did experience barbarity and inhumanity personally. He knew humanity at its worst and most wretched, and he wrote Lord of the Rings in the midst of an even more ruthless conflict. He and his generation knew what words like ‘cruelty’ meant in a way that George R.R. Martin and his audience never could.

This is the most disturbing part of the 'realism' refrain. The viewers of Game of Thrones are mostly white, educated, and upper class. Of all of the demographics in America, those who watch Game of Thrones lead the lives which are furthest removed from the barbarity depicted in the show. Game of Thrones does not correspond to any ‘reality’ upper-class Americans have ever experienced. There is nothing in their experience which should lead them to believe that this is how human beings actually deal with each other. Violence is at global lows, prosperity at a  global high. Yet somehow modern Americans, living at the height of the richest, most productive civilization in history, have succumbed to the idea that “real” can only be found in the gruesome, the lewd, and the heinous. 

This dark inclination extends far past Game of Thrones, infecting most pop-culture items pedaled to the "mass intelligent." It applies with equal force to almost everything HBO and the other  high-end drama channels produce. AMC's award winning Breaking Bad is a perfect example. More so than the Game of Thrones leads, Walter White is a character educated, upper-class Americans can relate to. Like them, he is smart, white, and comes from a rather tame background. But unlike them he is thrust down into a world of violence and perversity that is utterly unlike anything they have experienced--or indeed, would ever want to. But the desire to see that world up close remains, and Breaking Bad, just like Game of Thrones, allows its viewers to experience the intrigues and evils of the underworld without having to bear any of its consequences. It is depravity voyeurism wrapped up in a neat, high end package. 

This is what separates Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and their sad lot from the less intelligent gorno flicks like Saw, which are designed to elicit a very similar set of emotions from its viewers. The complexity of the plots, cleverness of the machinations and power ploys of the leads, and superb characterization by the actors allow viewers to claim that the real allure of the show are its compelling characters and the story-lines, not its gratuity or darkness.  This is silly. If the story and characters were strong enough to stand up on their own, then why is the rankness (or the nudity) necessary in the first place? The answer is that these things are necessary. The depravity of Game of Thrones is a large part of its appeal. It is what shocks viewers, keeps them returning in suspense, and fools them into thinking they have a realistic depiction of the world before them.

Why they think it is realistic is the great mystery. It is an answer I have not found. We’ve reached a point where a story will not be hailed as authentic, deep, and “real” if it is not also dark, gritty, and violent. Why is a world of grisly barbarity the only setting for moral drama modern audiences find acceptable? Apologists who defend the books on the strength of its compelling characters and gripping storyline need to answer this question before their claims of Martin's literary brilliance can be taken seriously. The same question should be put to the loyal defenders of the more graphic and (frankly speaking) more perverted television version. It could be put to America's clever chattering class as a whole:

 Why this thirst for a ‘reality’ that is alien to the values and experiences of the audience? In 21st America, why do so many seek their escape in the dark ages?  


[1] Adam Elkus, "Game of Thrones is Making Us Stupid," Zero Derp Thirty (11 June 2015). 

[2] ibid.

[3] Much of what follows is taken from past comments I have written about the show in various forums, especially the comment thread of Razib Khan's post, "Game of Thrones Gets Too Real?", Unz Review (5 May 2014). This particular phrase is a slight reworking of something Peter Lee said in a twitter conversation on the same topic.

[4] Sady Doyle, "Enter Ye Myne Mystic World of Gayng-Raype: What the “R” Stands for in “George R.R. Martin,” Tiger Beatdown (26 August 2011).

[5] I remember reading Brian Sanderson's uber-novel Way of Kings shortly after finishing a series of memoirs from the Vietnam War and scoffing at the way the protagonist Kaladin reacts to the torrent of death that surrounds him. Anyone who has read anything by a former soldier will instantly recognize how ridiculous the character's response was to the events of the novel's opening chapters.