Dean Shomshak on “The Myth of Imperial Evil”

Fellow Exalted writer Dean Shomshak—who, unlike me, is a thoughtful, knowledgeable, well-educated person—is currently experiencing computer troubles, and so was not able to post his response to yesterday’s blog entry. So I’m giving him top billing today. With no further ado, here’s Dean:

For sure, empires create myths of their own benevolence, and people who benefit from that empire’s rule have every reason to believe the myths. But I think one must also view allegations of imperial evil with critical skepticism, too, as a modern myth — the creation of a moral narrative for reasons of personal emotional satisfaction. (How many people are willing to give up the comforts of living in our modern empires, because those comforts were not created with clean hands? But if you are loud in condemning the source of those comforts, you can pretend you escape complicity and are better than the common herd.)

The big critique, I think, is this: Evil compared to what? People in pre-state societies do not live in peaceful Paradise with wonderful civil rights and tolerance for the nonconformist. As Jared Diamond points out in The World Before Yesterday, the New Guinean highlanders he knows (and loves) lived in conditions of virtually constant war before the Australians established imperial hegemony, suffering casualties that — in proportion to the population — make the bloodiest wars of modernity look modest and restrained. Or look at the bloody anarchy in the Central African Republic. For a historical example, the Romans brutally suppressed revolt in Judea, but Judea was a snake-pit of murderous infighting among religious and political factions. (One favored tactic was to stab random people in crowds as a way to terrify the populace and show the Romans couldn’t protect them. They didn’t have car bombs and suicide vests, so they made do with what they had.)

For internal abuses, consider the ghastly ways many pre-state cultures treat women, such as “honor killing” or genital mutilation.

It’s easy to list the abuses of empire because empires tend to document everything, whereas tribes and villages do not.

This is not to say that pre-state societies are all horrible in every way and you should therefore accept the mailed fist of empire, no matter what. (In his book, Diamond argues that we state-dwelling moderns could stand to cultivate many of the traits he sees in traditional cultures.) But it’s morally and intellectually lazy to say that because empires have done bad things, therefore empires are all horrible in every way.

One great benefit of empire is that they often make finite demands. Obey and pay your taxes/tribute, and they often leave you alone otherwise. It’s also easier to obey, or pay off, one master than several. Empires often suppress bandits, pirates and other entrepreneurs of violence, if only because they don’t want competition for the loot. Sometimes, the oppression to which conquered people object is that the empire won’t let them rob and murder their neighbors, the way they always did before. (Greek city-states invited Rome in to help them throw off the yoke of imperial Macedon. Then they were furious at the Romans for not letting them go back to making war on each other.)

Successful empires offer carrots as well as sticks. By insisting on their monopoly of violence, they can create space for trade, scholarship, art, and all sorts of broadened horizons — at least for those willing to live under imperial rule. The Pax Romana wasn’t just propaganda. Allied but independent kings willed their countries to the Senate and People of Rome instead of their own sons. The Mongol Yoke was never gentle, but it reopened the Silk Road (to the great benefit of Europe). The anarchist Bakunin complained that citizens of the 19C German imperial capital of Berlin were too comfortable with their “Excellent music, cheap living, very passable theater, plenty of newspapers in the cafes… if only the Germans weren’t so frightfully bourgeois.” He particularly cited the sign outside a tailor shop that bore a Prussian eagle and the couplet: “Under thy wings/Quietly, I can do my ironing.”

Creating such a space of safety and prosperity, even if it’s only for some people, is not a small or worthless achievement. The most successful empires have provided such attractive carrots that their cultural influence goes on for millennia: See China or Rome for examples. (Asking when the Roman Empire fell is a complex question. One arguable answer is, “Not yet.”) Conversely, the empires that rely only on violence can vanish with remarkable thoroughness: A mere 200 years after the fall and replacement of Assyria, which was brutal even by Middle Eastern standards, Xenophon could not find anyone able to read the Assyrian monuments he encountered in his Anabasis. So, it’s also not just a matter of saying “What alternative to empire?” Empires can vary a lot in their balance of menace and enticement.

Bringing this back to Exalted: When I wrote the short guide to the Scarlet Empire that appeared in the 1st ed. ESC, Geoff Grabowski took pains to explain that he did not want the Realm to be a stereotypical Evil Empire — no fantasy version of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, please. OTOH, he did suggest Syria under Hafez al-Assad as a potential model for the Empress’ divide-and-rule strategy. (And, I suppose, the threat of ruthless violence held in reserve if people get out of line. IIRC, Assad suppressed a revolt by using poison gas against the city of Hama.) Not cartoonishly evil compared to Nazis, perhaps, but very far from sweetness and light.

(I am reminded of a friend’s observation about the famous “Rules for Evil Overlords” list: An Evil Overlord who followed the rules would no longer be an Evil Overlord, but merely an Unpleasant Accountant. Which is far more dangerous to a hero, though far less fun.)

So yes, show the Realm ripping wealth from the satrapies, with the legions ready to destroy cities if the country rebels. Let the Empress have been an Unpleasant Accountant. But I’d also like to see the Realm suppressing banditry, demanding that neighboring city-states stop attacking each other, ending a local god’s psychotic demands on its worshippers, and building aqueducts so the tributary people get clean water for the first time. That’s an empire a Dynast could promote and defend without being either a knave or a fool. But someone could oppose that Realm without being a knave or a fool, either.

Dean Shomshak

PS: On the subject of Virtues, I recommend reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Blake’s distinction between contrary values (which oppose each other while both being true and through their dialogue of opposition limit each other’s extremes) and negations (values which declare themselves absolute and demand total rejection of their antithesis) is useful for this discussion of imperial power, as well — except there are at least three competing values here, of imperial hegemony, local culture and personal freedom. A trilemma, if you will. Haidt, meanwhile, finds six “moral foundations” influencing personal judgments. They sound a lot like Virtues to me — and, vide Blake, capable of creating horrible abuse if any of them is declared absolute and negating the others.


Speaking of Syria: The current troubles show, I think, that humanity has made a little social and moral progress over the centuries. From what I know of Middle Eastern history (admittedly, I am not an expert with a degree) the way Bashar al-Assad now fights Syria’s civil war would pass without comment in other lands; and there would be no reason but self-interest to care which side won, because it would only be a struggle between rival gangs of thugs over who got to rule and tax whom. In the current struggle, one side claims it does want something better, kinder, and more just than to become the new ruling clique of thugs. And while not enough people outside Syria care enough that they can push their governments to intervene, significant numbers of people are calling bullshit on Assad’s claim that there’s no option better than him.

Even this amount of progress is not guaranteed to endure. But I think humanity has made a more just and peaceful world than in the past, and there are grounds to suppose that we can make the world even better for a greater proportion of humanity. To get there, though, I don’t think it’s useful to “blackwash” empires past or present by pretending they never do anything *but* exploit and oppress, and pretend that the world would be Utopia without them. I hope that in his list of brutalities, Stephen intended merely to call bullshit on the self-serving, whitewashed myths that empires tell about themselves, and not to propound such a counter-myth. But I know that some people do.



  1. The problem here is that Jared Diamond is a pretty shoddy anthropologist. He tends to make incredibly broad claims based on insufficient proof, and he’s been accused of fabricating evidence:

    I don’t know anyone who says that empires are all bad, just that the bad so greatly outweighs the good that they may as well be. Empires support a privileged minority at the expense of an exploited majority. I mean Dean’s saying we’ve made a more just and peaceful world. Just and peaceful for who? King Leopold gave the Congolese a new railroad and some ferries, but he slaughtered them in their millions and he enslaved and mutilated countless more.

    And even when King Leopold was cleared out, the US got together with Belgium and assassinated their first democratically elected president. There’s still tons of awful shit being perpetrated in the name of empire. France is still fucking with North Africa. America was propping up Mubarak’s dictatorship and describing him as a source of peace and stability in the region only a few years ago.

    “Pre-state culture” is just such a broad category that it’s basically meaningless, and it’s as if Dean’s implying that one day, when they’re grown up, they’ll be states too. The primitives will finally be civilized like us. And then there’s the fact that Dean’s ascribed all sorts of horrible practices to these “pre-state cultures”, like honour killing and genital mutilation, without giving us any evidence that this is a uniquely “pre-state” problem. It’s awful, condescending shit.

    And he wants to talk about “social and moral progress” – by whose standard? There’s just so much wrong with this article.

    1. There’s some things wrong, yeah. I don’t think any of the flaws defeat the point, though; Jared Diamond is one example among many, talking about “pre-state cultures” certainly has some very unfortunate implications, but honestly, what other term can you use to cover as broad a spectrum as “not empires”?

      As for social and moral progress… Honestly, I’d agree with Dean that humanity has, on aggregate, improved. I’m not interested in debating that though, because it’s tangenital to the point. Even Dean only really brings it up in a postscript.

      Yes, so many empires were awful, and even the better examples (the ancient Persian empire ruled with a comparatively light hand, for example) don’t outweigh the bad, but the regimes they overthrew were usually also unpleasant. Empire vs not-empire is not a good vs evil struggle. It’s a matter of picking which evils you prefer to deal with.

    2. There’s so much wrong with your post too. King Leopold did not just give the Congolese “a railroad and some ferries”, and it was not just King Leopold, who’s hardly representative; it was a dozen empires coming to a hundred places that sometimes lacked the wheel and going: this is a wheel, this is a wheelchair, this is an alphabet, this is a furnace, this is steel, this is a fire extinguisher, this is mosquito repellent, this is elephant repellent, this is quinine, this is a smallpox vaccine, these are glasses, this is a telegraph, this is a railroad, et cetera et cetera et bloody cetera. That’s twelve off the top of my head, and I could probably name a hundred such things; I dare you to name three Belgian Congo-level nasty incidents.

      As far as I can tell, Mubarak was a source of stability, so what’s wrong with calling him one? He ruled for 30 years; since then Egypt has had something like three governments in four years with constant fighting between those who want the military back in power and those who want islamic fundamentalists in power.

      This is not to defend Jared Diamond, who’s a dick.

  2. Hm. It’s possibly worth noting James Scott’s review of Diamond in the London Review of Books as well:

    (The basic problem he observes is that we don’t have direct evidence of the life-styles of non-state cultures prior to the formation of states — all we have are contemporary hunter-gatherer societies to draw on, and since those aren’t survivals from pre-state times, but have been formed as a result of acting on and reacting to and fleeing from states, there are some problems with the inferences Diamond — and Stephen Pinker, who also comes in for a bit of a kicking — make.)

    That’s not to say that you should have no nuance, of course (as someone who often plays Dynasts, I’m very opposed to that). But there’s a tendency to overplay the bright side of being ‘civilised’ because we’re usually viewing the process from the point of view of the ‘civiliser’; it is possible to produce a nuanced view of things that shows that it often rather sucks from the point of view of the civilisee, even though there are some unpleasant aspects to their culture. A good fictionalised example of how to handle this might be Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and its sequel, Arrow of God.

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