To understand who we are today, we need to understand kings, conquerors, and their dysfunctions, and what life looked like in their kingdoms. It wasn’t pretty.
For the past couple of decades – longer, if I include the background questions that prompted my ideas – I have been working on a book, Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths, with the working subtitle, Why we Follow Demagogues.
It’s the reason I started this blog. Modern media is pretty ugly; the pursuit of ideas and information has been largely eliminated. Even when ideas are profitable, that’s not good enough; it’s all about what turns the fastest buck. We can see this in broadcast and print journalism, but nowhere is it more worrisome than in the nonfiction book industry. Regardless of how rapidly books are declining, they are still the spine of our intellectual life.
But the media barons are destroying books, just as they are destroying newspapers, magazines, and broadcast journalism.
The greed and short-sightedness of the media moguls – and really, all of us – is one of the problems I want to talk about. So ironically, part of my book is about the threat to books, and to the life of the mind, from the perennial power-grabbers.
To get into a respected publishing house today, the publisher generally wants the author pre-marketed. There must be guaranteed sales from a ready audience that already follows the author. If you’re not a celebrity or a well-known academic, then you have to develop a following. A highly-respected agent told me that the best way to develop a following, is to write a blog.
Voiçi. But my real goal here is the book, not the blog. But I have to keep reminding myself of that. A well-written, interesting blog is much more time-consuming than just writing, and working on it prevents me from working on the book.
Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths
This is my thesis:
Some of the most celebrated figures in history were remorseless killers who viciously trained and bred our ancestors to uncritically obey authority.
Ambitious thesis, not to mention a bit wordy. But if I can make my case, it goes a long way toward explaining some very scary things in the world today. One of those scary things is our blind obedience to all sorts of demagogues, even when the demagogue is making no sense at all.
Here’s my three-floor elevator speech:
- Conquest is murder and theft.
- Conquerors are remorseless killers.
- Remorseless killers become kings.
- Kings designed civilization, and humanity, largely by crushing independent thought and action.
These points need more exposition, and we will cover them in future posts. But part of our problem is that we have these romantic and completely false notions about kings, conquerors, nobles, princes and princesses, knights, castles, and the myth of the peaceful, wisely-ruled kingdom. The truth is that until quite recently, the noble classes looked a lot more like The Sopranos than Walt Disney.
Well, not quite. Mobsters are often more respectable, more honorable, and more humane, than the monarchs of old. That will become more apparent as we go.
One insight for my argument comes from Adolph Hitler, easily one of the most significant figures in history. The atrocities of the Nazis, particularly toward the genetically ‘impure’ – not just Jews, but Poles, Roma, homosexuals, the handicapped, and others – was a shock to the modern world.
It should not have been a shock at all. Our histories have always been there, we only needed to read them without the romance of our traditions; traditions which were written and designed by the king’s courtiers, to stroke his ego. The only difference between Hitler and the despots of old, and even the despots of today is, a) the much-acclaimed German efficiency, which allowed for the quick dispatch of millions, in centralized locations, which concentrated the horror; and, b) that same duty-bound German culture which richly documented the same Nazi crimes.
In a weird parallel with some of our current events, the Nazis didn’t do anything other despotic cultures did. The real difference is that that the Nazis didn’t invest much energy in hiding their atrocities. They saw nothing wrong with what they were doing, and in fact, they were proud of it.
Other than those clerical attributes, Hannah Arendt was was right about the Nazis, and really, everyone: evil is banal. What Arendt, and almost no one in the modern world has recognized, is that evil was always banal. Hitler’s version of evil was exactly that: just one more version.
I argue that Hitler has been with us for the past 10,000 years. The modern one was simply a failed 20th century anachronism, the echo of the kings, conquerors, and psychopaths of old. Unlike the 20th century version, however, the earlier ‘Hitler of a thousand faces’ succeeded for millennia, and fostered a highly successful program of genetic purity. The conquerors’ selective breeding program, however, was not focused so much on physical and ethnic traits, as on behavioral traits. The perennial Hitlers have exacted from humanity unwavering devotion and obedience, not just in our words and in our bodies, but in our minds. We not only submit and comply to any crazy thing the king demands.
We also agree, we fervently believe what we are told.
This is why I have struggled on this blog to argue for the politically incorrect thesis of human genetic behavior. We are not genetic automata; I cannot emphasize that strongly enough. But we need to recognize that our genes constantly whisper in our ears. If we are to escape the horror of the past, we must learn to recognize the seductiveness, and persuasiveness, of that genetic voice. Once we recognize it, we can also recognize the seductive untruths it spreads, and design a new world.
Legacy of the Conqueror
The legacy from our centuries of cultural and genetic selection is vast. The problems, however, are all around us, to the point that we are the cliché of the fish in water: we have a problem recognizing what is everywhere. Melville said that nothing exists except in contrast to something else, and the saturating, suffocating culture of the conqueror leaves us with few places we can go for contrast or comparison. Like the fish, we can only begin to understand the reality of water by alternatively diving to the darkest, coldest depths of our history; and then ascending to the dangerously thin air of the highest of human aspirations.
That is where this blog has been heading. Now we will began to drill down on these ideas.
Marble head of Alexander courtesy of Wikimedia.