Friday, August 20, 2010

Science fiction, history and government.

I have just finished rereading H. Beam Piper’s Space Viking, which, apart from being a good space opera romp, is certainly one of the best historical analysis books I have ever read.

Like all good fiction writers, H. Beam Piper was a student of the human condition. Like other very good historians, H. Beam Piper had a simple but profound understanding of the various streams of cause and effect in human culture. Like a very select group of exceptional science-fiction writers, H. Beam Piper told stories that reveal an enormous amount about how and why human civilisation and government develops.
This has been a consistent theme of the very best of science-fiction writers, who are to the 20th century, what novel writers were to the 19th century: a disreputable breakthrough group that eventually achieved cult status and finally even universal respect as important part of the canon of human literature. The early luminaries in the field like HG Wells and JRR Tolkien are already treated with respect by good university courses. Many others will inevitably follow.

As a historian myself - with a side interest in philosophy and politics - I’m always more interested by those writers whose stories reflect a clear understanding of how and why things change in human society’s. John Wyndham may be famous for The Day of the Triifids, or the Kraken Wakes or the Midwich Cuckoos stories, but if you really want a creepy insight into fragility of human society you should read his far less well-known but very clever The Trouble with Lichen. (Which I know for a fact has been used as a university text, because I set it for one of the Deakin University courses I taught in the early 90s, in contrast with the more famous - but I believe less astute - Brave New World.)

A less incisive, but far more recognized contemporary of Wyndham, was Robert Heinlein. His understanding of history was less impressive, but his fundamental concept of human nature has made very telling points. Unfortunately Hollywood, when attempting to convert his books to films, has failed miserably on every occasion. In particular, the Hollywood mindset - even though draped around the action hero - clearly fails to understand that Heinlein’s version of the great man is moderated by Heinlein’s version of the interaction of all men. So you get the horrible film versions of good books such as the much underrated Starship Troopers. The appalling Hollywood remix of this suggested that Heinlein’s society was simply a fascist government. Nothing could be further from the truth. Heinlein’s critique of how incompetent bureaucrats and governments drag peoples into war for little purpose, was to suggest that after the failure in one of the great world wars the returning veterans replaced the government with a government by the only people who they felt could be trusted: those who had demonstrated a willingness to risk their lives for their fellow citizens… fellow veterans. The fundamental idea was that unless you are willing to put your life on the line for your fellow citizen, you should not get a say in the running of the State. This combines Heinlein’s great man concept, with the democratic principle that participation is a responsibility rather than a right.

Clearly it is inconceivable to modern Hollywood figures that democracy is anything but a right. Which just goes to reveal how far from reality of their understanding of the world is. Heinlein was in fact reflecting on the ancient Greek and Roman version of democracy, where to be a citizen required that you be willing to don armour, practice fighting in your spare time, and go out and risk your life with your fellow citizens to get a vote. In fact, only the people who spent the most money on armour, and took the greatest risks in the front line, could ever be expected to deserve election to high office. This is certainly not fascism. This is the ideal of democracy based on a balance of rights with responsibility.

Modern democracies started the same way. To be an active citizen in the French system, was based pretty much on the property franchise. Of the 350 people in the average French village, maybe 50 or 60 were active citizens, of whom the adult male half would be allowed to vote. The American system was even less inclusive, with your tax or property franchise being further limited by your race. Other versions of the franchise in other states, have always limited the voting class by social rank, race, religion, tax status, property, or finally that most stupid of definitions, age. (Modern students it seems fundamentally struck that some magic number makes you a good voter. But they seem to like the idea that an intelligent 14 year old who can pass a simple test, should get a bigger say in the society than a stupid 18-year-old who can’t. And they are often more impressed with the idea that of some service to the community, either a year of military service or a year of helping the Salvation Army to feed the homeless, should be a pre-requisite for voting by demonstration that you put other people above your own interest.)

In fact a close and sensible reading of Starship Troopers, would reveal an incisive attack on the concept put together 30 years later by arrogant and foolish ivory tower academics, who made facile comments about the End of History. Would that such people had had the capacity to understand the science-fiction of their childhoods. The world might have been saved a lot of heartache since.

Not that Robert Heinlein delved into the nature of politics. A product of the American imperialistic nationalism of his generation, he only toyed with the flaws in democracy. (See Revolt in 2010.) Most of his characters only flirted with the nature of government, though the discussion of the process of setting up a government is quite well covered by The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

More recent American science-fiction writers have done better. Lois McMaster Bujold has looked at a wide variety of cultural imperatives, and consistently brings down a logical government structures based on the peculiar circumstances of the society she is dealing with. These range from her amusing purely male homosexual culture in Ethan of Athos, to the diverse governments of semi-feudal Barrayar, semi Chinese imperial Ceteganda, semi-piratical confederacy of Jackson’s Whole, and the semi-utopian Beta Colony: all in the Miles Vorkosigan series.

Bujold leads a pack of modern American writers to have become increasingly suspicious of the vagaries of democracy. They seem to be well aware that all political systems have weaknesses, but they certainly do not have the uncritical smugness associated with their American science-fiction forebears. Eric Flint for instance, in his amusing 1632 series, throws very democratically oriented Americans backing to post-feudal Europe where they have to contend with the rise of absolute monarchies. The series seems to be heading into accepting the necessity - and indeed superior flexibility - of constitutional monarchy with a universal franchise parliamentary democratic component.

Even more interesting are David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, where the benefits of the Constitutional Monarchy are clearly outlined. Though Weber has an equally impressive and incisive analysis of the weaknesses associated with hierarchical structures, and upper houses of Parliament based on hereditary privilege. (I have posted here on the flaws of completely replacing such his system with a weakened solution, but his points are well made.) Apparently these modern American writers are less than impressed with the idea that democracy is always the bet thing for all people, or indeed that it will ever work without very specific conditions and safeguards.

This comprehensive analysis of developing political theory, through the unusual testing of fictional scenarios, is probably better political analysis than that coming out of most university history, politics, or even philosophy departments. Compare it to a populist modern philosophy from Marxism’s fantastic and appalling theories, to Rawls’ horrible neo-Platonic (and therefore genuinely neo-fascistic - though many appear not to notice that) Theory of Justice. The modern university student would get a much better education on civics and citizenship from a few select science-fiction works than from the vast majority of supposedly serious texts from the post war period to recent ‘scholarship’.

Interestingly, the franchise in Weber’s Star Kingdom of Manticore is extended on the simple basis of positive contribution. The principal is that anybody who can fill out a simple one-page tax return (possibly of the most optimistically fantastic concept in his books), will get a vote, as long as they have contributed one more dollar per year to the tax system than they have taken from the government in benefits, for at least five consecutive years. This is a vastly simplified variation of the original French concept of active citizenship.

What this does avoid of course, is the issue of people who do not deserve to have a vote. The bread and circuses crowd, who are not contributing to society, and who unfortunately are not happy to be simply leeches on the system, but to vote on every occasion to damage a system that they think owes them an endless bounty. Webber appears to be referencing an idea most clearly stated in H Beamer Piper's Space Viking when he compares a far future demagogue (Makann) to Adolf Hitler:

The barbarians are rising; they have a leader, and they are uniting. Every society rests on a barbarian base. The people who don’t understand civilisation, and would like it if they did. The hitchhikers. The people who create nothing, and don’t appreciate what others have created for them, and think civilisation is something that just exists and that all they need is to enjoy what they understand of it - luxuries, a higher living standard, and easy work for high pay. Responsibilities? Phooey! What do they have the government for? And now, the hitchhikers think they know more about the car than the people who designed it, so they’re going to grab the controls…. Makann says they can, and he is the leader.

It wasn’t the [Great] war that put Hitler into power. It was a fact that the ruling class of his nation, the people who kept things running, were discredited. The masses, the home-made barbarians, didn’t have anybody to take their responsibilities for them… What they have on Marduk is a ruling class that has been discrediting itself. A ruling class ashamed of its privileges and shirking its duties. A ruling class that has begun to believe that the masses are just as good as they, which they manifestly are not. And a ruling class that won’t use force to maintain its position. And they have democracy, and they are letting the enemies of democracy shelter themselves behind democratic safeguards.

A later character follows the tale:

There’s something wrong with democracy. If it worked, it couldn’t be overthrown by people like Makann, attacking it from within by democratic processes. I don’t think it’s fundamentally unworkable. I think it is as if you are what engineers call bugs. It’s not safe to run a defective machine till you learn the defects and remedy them.

It may just be that there is something fundamentally unworkable aboutt government itself. As long as Homo Sapiens is a wild animal, which is always been and always will be until involves into something different in 1 million or so years, maybe a workable system of government is a political science impossibility, Just as transmutation of elements was a physical science impossibility as long as they tried to do it by chemical means. We’ll just have to make it work the best way we can, and when it breaks down, hope the next try will work a little better, for a little long

Personally I believe it is a great hope for the future that Democratic Triumphalism appears to finally be headed into the waste bin of history along with Marxism, Communism, Fascism, or many of the other fantastically utopian experiments on government that have been attempted in the last quarter millennium. Clearly some modern American writers have seen through the infantilism of their early educations, and are grappling seriously with how you make a stable system of government that would work for the sort of society that you might actually desire to live in.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: democracy is an important component of the system as long as there are plenty of other safeguards. Democracy within a government actually performs the function of a whistle on a steam engine, as a brilliant high-pressure release valve. But no one should ever believe that the part of the machinery that makes the most noise is the most important part. Democracy has to be balanced against both the interest groups that are vital to the economy (usually represented by an upper house), and the long-term perspective which in practical terms can only be properly represented by some sort of hereditary component within the system.

It is fascinating to watch some of the most creative and forward thinking people in our culture feeling their way towards a solution which undermines the facile twitterings of an obsolete and overly smug western education system. If only such ideas had broken through before the latest attempts to impose overly democratic republics on patently unsuitable environments… Like Iraq and Afghanistan…

We can only hope that future western political leaders are better read in Sci-Fi.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Historical roots of Western Sexism

I was presenting heraldry at a girls school recently, and they asked me why it was so sexist? Why the Cadency (symbol for which son you are in the family), was only for sons? I jokingly responded, “Well it is mainly a French system, so perhaps we should blame the French?”

This immediately brought up the question, “So do other places do it less sexist-ly (sic)?”

The interesting thing is that other places do. The further north you go in Europe, the more liberal the heraldry laws, and indeed the inheritance laws become. In fact not only did England and Sweden and the Netherlands have Queens in their own right –something unimaginable in southern Europe – but Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden have even changed their monarchy’s to have the oldest child inherit regardless of sex!

I shot a slightly apologetic glance at the teacher, and suggested they could have, “the polite version, or the politically incorrect version?” The teacher said, “What’s the polite version?” To which I could point out that the Northern European states had a greater tendency towards traditional Germanic legal practices, which prized women’s roles more highly, whereas the Southern European states reverted to Roman law which was far more sexist. The teacher then glanced at the clearly fascinated class, and amusedly asked for the politically incorrect version. To which the obvious answer is that the North is Protestant, and the South is Catholic.

Guess what sort of private girl’s school I was at?

The point is interesting. It could be suggested that the South is more sexist because it is more Roman Catholic. It could be suggested the South is more sexist because it is more Roman in Law. It could be suggested that the South is more Roman Catholic because it is more Roman Law. It could be suggested that the Roman Catholic Church is more sexist because of Roman Law. Or it cold be suggested that both Roman Law and Roman Catholisism are more prevalent in the South because of other issues, such as a warmer climate?

This last is fascinating. Climate clearly has an impressive effect on human civilization. All the great Ancient civilisations developed in nice warm river valleys in the Middle East or China, spreading along the nice warm coast of the Mediterannean. This is of course, because living in a nice climate that does not require much in the way of clothing or other resources to survive, leaving a lot of spare time for developing a culture, compared to those poor bastards who are stuck in snow four months of the year and spend most of the rest of the year trying to accumulate enough food, clothing, firewood and shelter to make it through.

We know this from the Australian Aboriginal experience. Tribes in the nice warm Northern Territories needed perhaps four hours of labour per day to gather enough food and other resources to be happy and healthy. That leaves a lot of time for culture, painting, corroberees, walkabouts, and dreamtimes. As a result we have extensive records of Aboriginal culture in the North. However Australian Aborigines in Tasmania, where it is cold and miserable most of the year, needed to spend up to fourteen hours per day collecting the necessities for survival. That doesn’t leave much time for culture, and unsurprisingly there are very few records of their having much culture. This is subsistence living at the edges, and it is not suprising that the Tasmanian tribes died out very quickly when hit by Eurasian diseases. (Willingness by Aboriginal males to swap a fertile female for a hunting dog probably didn’t help long term either. Jared Diamond talks in Collapse about the vanishing of certain Arctic tribes probably being more related to the women swapping to a new camp to be with better providers too, an early version of feminism voting with it’s feet perhaps?)

So perhaps it could be argued that nice warm climates where life is easy encourage sexism, and colder climates where life is harder can’t afford such silly luxuries? Certainly the least sexist Western societies were Germanic tribes like the Vikings, where a woman could demand a divorce, and a property split, at her convenience. Perhaps there is a relationship between working hard to survive, and lack of sexism? (Or perhaps it is baised towards societies where the men are away lots, and the women run things… Like Dark Ages Vikings, or early Medieval Crusaders.)

This also flags the point of laziness. The early civilisations to get off the ground did not keep their technological edge for long. The cold Northern European or Chinese areas may have taken a lot longer to get off the ground, but then they shot well ahead in technology, leaving the Southern areas far, far behind. The Northerners knew the value of labour saving devices to survive, and so became mass investors in Windmills and Water Wheels while the warm Mediterranean states stuck to the old methods. No surprise that the Ancient (China), Medieval and Modern (Europe only), industrial revolutions were a thing of the North. There could be a very good reason why the Germanic system is far less sexist than the Roman or Greek ones?

Mind you, that brings up the issue of the Orthodox Christians. They are more sexist than the Protestants, but have a wider range of perspectives than the Roman Catholics. Is it that some are Mediterranean, and some from the colder areas of the Balkans and Russia? Is it that some are from traditional farming communities, and some from Nomadic tribes - which have always treated women as lesser people? Do the northern and western farming communities of the Balkans and Russia have a more or less sexist approach than the southern and eastern mountain peoples and Cossacks? (There is no question that the Muslim areas are more sexist. I often comment to students that the Roman period had such good army surgeons that the Roman period is the only time in Western history that men have lived longer than women. I have to say Western history, because women have never lived as long as men in any Muslim society.) Certainly both the Byzantine (Medieval) and Russian (Early Modern) empires had female rulers in their own rights, which was not possible in contemporary Greece or Poland.

What other impacts can have an effect on sexism?

What legal affects for instance?

Australia has a much boasted ‘Harvester Judgement’ from the 1920’s which the Australian Union movement claims improved the standards of the working class immeasurably. What it did was to make a ‘one wage family’ a legislated possibility. Hurray! Who do you suppose got the one wage? Who do you suppose got to be barefoot and pregnant? Whose education standards were reduced because they would never need to work? Whose access to higher study was undermined because they would never need to study serious stuff, just go to University to fill in time until they were married? (No don’t laugh, I was accidentally awarded a pass BA instead of an Honours for my first degree. Of 140 graduates there were only 22 pass degrees… me and 21 Greek girls!)

What cultural effects for instance?

One of the side effects of the Russian Revolution was the legalisation of abortion. (This was a very short term ‘reform’ because within three years it was so clear that the effect on the birthrate was astonishingly disastrous, that it was re-criminalised.) Or we could take an example from the French Revolution where ‘no-fault’ divorce allowed women to leave just by claiming what we would call ‘un-reconcilable differences’. (Again short lived, because Napoleon threw it out.) Both these cultural impacts had drastic short term effects on sexism that seem promising from the modern perspective. (Though both might have led quickly to a counter-swing that actually left women worse off in the long term).

What about cultural affects that actually lasted?

Napoleon didn’t renounce the other Revolutionary social reform of ‘equal inheritance’ of all children. This replaced Primogeniture (eldest son inherits), which admittedly looks old fashioned to modern eyes until one realizes that before primogeniture even healthy kingdoms like Charlemagne’s vast empire had to be split between various sons, who then split it between their sons, etc. Various scholars have pointed out that the effects of equal inheritance on monarchical states (the vast majority of states in all human history), is devolution, insecurity, violence, chaos, poverty, disease and death. In economic terms – whether Kings or other landholders – primogeniture is the only proven way to improve the health and wealth of the culture.

So when Prof McPhee mentioned in a recent lecture that ‘equal inheritance’ was a positive result of the French Revolution, I immediately queried whether that had entrenched rural poverty and steadily reduced the size and viability of farms. He explained that the French had very quickly adapted to agreements whereby although one child would ‘own’ the farm, all the children were entitled to a share of it’s produce. (Which apparently means that farms never fall below subsistence, but that families can rarely increase their holdings or improve their lot. It certainly explains to me why British Tommies marching through France in World War One were astonished at how backwards and poverty stricken French farms appeared. I suspect that only a combination of urbanization and falling population have really improved that since.)

Which brings us neatly to Prof McPhee’s point about the real French coping strategy. Birthrates dropped, immediately.
Now the interesting thing about that is that clearly a dropping birthrate is usually an indication of improving education and opportunities for women. So perhaps it was just a result of the Revolution anyway. On the other hand the birthrate has remained lower than most of Europe even after other nations got into mass education, so maybe it is to do with this unique approach to inheritance. However the long-term implications of a reduced birthrate have led to a steady decrease in France’s influence in European affairs (starting with unprecedented defeats by just one other European nation – rather than a coalition as in previous wars - in 1870, 1914, 1940, etc.); and a comparative fall in standards of living compared to some other European countries – particularly Scandinavia, the Low Countries and Germany.

So what are the possible effects on the status of French women, and on sexism towards them? France is a partly northern European, partly Mediterranean culture. It is now largely Catholic not Protestant. It is certainly more Roman in law than Germanic – despite the ‘Franks’ being originally a Germanic tribe. It has legislated rights for women going back to the 1790’s (though noticeably it was considered shocking when De Gaulle autocratically decided French women would be allowed to vote after the Second World War). It is wealthy and well educated, and has a low birth-rate. On the other hand it has made up for its low birthrate by importing many North-African’s, who are mainly Muslim. So we see a debate on whether women should be allowed to wear the Hijab for cultural or religious reasons, when it is clearly a sexist statement culturally, and a political statement in a decidedly separated church/state environment.

The answer appears to be that well educated white French women have lots of rights, but poorly educated dark-skinned French women have far less. Is this a political, legal, religious, historical, cultural, ethnic, or climate based division? Or is it a combination of all of the above?

The correct answer in any circumstance is of course: select which apply for any time or place.

Sexism can be affected by technology, famine and food supply, as easily as by culture, war and persecution. Legislation plays an unpredictable part, and often has unexpected consequences. The interesting thing about western sexism, is that there is enough cultural variety, technological development, and economic change, to see what variables can be brought into play.

Now it will be interesting to see how pushing some of those variables into other cultures affects their attitude to sexism. Watching some northern Afghan women in business suits in parliament while some southern ones still face public stoning for being seen without adequate covering, is decidedly interesting. Did Suttee die out because of British enforcement, or as a result of European example, or just because of improving economic conditions? Or is it still desired by large elements and likely to raise its ugly head again if the more extreme end of Hindu nationalism gains more ground?

What does the varied reasons for sexism tell us about the human condition?

Can we get better?