Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Good Republic, Good Empire: Liberty

First time seeing this? Start here.


In the previous section, we discussed security and safety; now we'll talk about liberty. This inevitably leads to a quote by Benjamin Franklin that many people get wrong, so we'll get it out of the way now by publishing the original version, adjectives and all: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Adjectives change everything. Now, empires tend to get thought of as totalitarian places in which citizens are cogs or drones whose sole purpose is mindless service to imperial interests, but is that true? Using three of the most "savage" empires of human history and the ideas of universal education, feminism, and multiculturalism, I'll show how empires were not massive sweatshops (for the Emperor!) and were instead havens of amazing liberty (for the people).

Let's start with a definition. Liberty is an interesting word because it does not necessarily mean "to run wild and free." Instead, liberty is about exercising one's agency or free will in society and the world. On a personal level, it means to be able to carry out actions through informed choices and accepting responsibility for those choices; on a societal level, it means systematically ensuring equal opportunity for all members of the society, who are presumed fundamentally equal.

One of the first steps to ensuring liberty, even in the modern world, is education. Education is so pivotal to liberty that it exists as one of the most fought-over rights in the world. In some places in the world, the fight is about allowing young girls to go to school; in others, it is about whether to teach evolution in science; and in sixteenth century Germany, it was about providing schooling to children not born to wealth or entering the priesthood. Anything less than unilateral access to education creates inequity, so it says a lot that one of the first places in the world to have mandatory, universal education was an empire--the Aztec Empire.

The Aztec Empire, which stretched from the Gulf of Mexico down south to the Pacific Ocean, provided universal education for everyone. And I mean everyone. Regardless of gender, rank, and station, the empire educated its citizens. Even the children of slaves, who were not born slaves because slavery is not hereditary, were educated. Admittedly, boys and girls received different educations, but the basic liberal arts package of history, religion, and civics were provided to all. Most boys also attended a military school to learn how to fight and wear outrageous outfits. Noble children attended a calmecac, a kind of temple school similar to the church schools of Europe, to learn the art of governing and the secret knowledge of the religion, but meritocratic scholarships existed for working class Aztecs which allowed them to raise their social status through education. Universal education flourished in the Aztec empire and gave agency to its citizens over a hundred years before the idea even penetrated the (pre-Enlightened) European mind. 

Another step to ensuring liberty rests in the equality of the sexes. Though the Aztec empire did educate its women, it did not allow them many roles in government or religious life. The Mongol Empire, however, did.

The Mongol Empire is probably best remembered as an unstoppable tide of savage horsemen that tore across Asia, through the Middle East, and slammed straight into the Eastern Europe, thus frightening the many despotic kings and warlords of Europe. They are also remembered, through the travelogues of its foreign visitors, for having extremely strong, powerful, and capable women who enjoyed significant liberty. One of the side effects of the Mongols' humble origins as steppe nomads is that every single member of the community needed to help ensure the survival of the tribe. This meant that women could not afford to be subordinated and were instead tasked with the essentials of controlling the economy and herding the animals. 

As equal partners, women in the Mongol empire were trained for the military and even had the right to own property and to divorce. They were so confident and unbowed by the men that a Middle Eastern physician wrote of Kublai Khan's mother, "if I were to see among the race of women another who is so remarkable a woman as this, I would say that the race of women is superior to the race of men." Marco Polo described another Mongol woman, the warrior Khutulun, as so strong and brave that in all her father's army no man could out do her in feats of strength. In Marco Polo's tale, Khutulun, dubbed the "wrestler princess," refused to marry a man unless he could first defeat her. Many tried, but none succeeded. Even when a desirable bachelor prince presented himself and wagered a thousand horses for the privilege of fighting her and her family begged her to throw the fight, Khutulun fully exercised her liberty and bested the prince too. It was only later, when she realized the harm her unwed status caused to her father's political position, that she made a decision to marry a man of her choosing without wrestling him. 

The final element to ensuring liberty is tolerance, particularly in vast empires. Sorghaghtani Beki, Kublai Khan's mother, recognized this when she allowed the various regional religions of the Mongol Empire -- Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and so on -- representation within the Horde. She also recognized that it was easier to rule and to attract capable administrators by allowing ethnic and religious rights and freedoms to conquered peoples, an idea inherited by the world's first "great empire," Achaemenid Persia.

Despite being often remembered as a place of oppression and as an opponent to western civilization thanks to the literature left behind by Greek writers and Frank Miller, the Persian Empire actually existed as a diverse and multicultural empire that exercised tolerance of the many ethnicities and religions of its myriad peoples.

Cyrus the Great and his descendent, Darius the Great, were staunch advocates of the idea that cultural, religious, and racial tolerance be core tenets of the empire. The Achaemenid emperors did this by allowing the satrapies of conquered peoples to maintain their cultural and religious values and laws and to be governed according to their traditions and customs. It is a privilege rarely afforded in human history, but one which sets apart the truly successful empires from the shorter-lived and ill-fated ones. Cyrus the Great was so accepting of foreign culture that he, during the conquest of Babylon, paid homage to the temple of the local Babylonian god, Marduk. He also financially and politically supported the return of the many ethnic groups held captive within Babylon to their original homelands, an event most remembered through the accounts in the Hebrew Bible, which states that Cyrus went even further and aided in the reconstruction of ruined temples and the return of lost artefacts of worship from the treasury, all at his own expense. The Jews hailed him the "Lord's anointed" and sometimes the Messiah, and the Greeks called him "a worthy ruler and lawgiver." 

Even the remnant artwork from the Persian period acts as testimony to this liberal attitude of cultural tolerance. In the reliefs depicting the celebration of the Persian New Year, all delegates from the different satraps are depicted as the same height, with no man taller or stronger than the other to any other, including depicted Persians. 

How Liberty relates to the Dominion:
"Liberty is actually a big thing in the Dominion. As easy as it is to be human-centric when imagining the galactic empire, you have to remember that there are other member races involved, most notably the Draken. The Draken are a conquered species who have their own society and beliefs which have, even following the Ancestral Decree, remained mostly untouched. Nobody really stops them from sacrificing boars on massive altars dedicated to their ancestors, for example, and they've even got the option of involving themselves in the highest echelons of government if they want to. Men and women in the Dominion are equal as well, though I'll wager there are more women commanders in the military than there are male... just a hunch. After all, there's the legendary Tresayne Toria to consider, right?"

Good Republic, Good Empire: Life

First time seeing this? Start here.

Or, alternatively, Security and Safety.

Empires, especially vast ones, bring order because order is necessary to successfully administrate large territories. In the ancient world, the establishment of order had several side effects, one of which was the beating back of the dangers of a chaotic, uncivilized wilderness of bandits, raiders, opportunists, and nature. In those times, typically only the strong triumphed; if you were weak, too bad: the safety and security of your life was only as good as you could enforce it. Empires changed that paradigm by creating systems in which the strong were also obligated to protect the weak.

A vivid example of that shift in paradigm is outlined in Plutarch's Lives and comes from the waning Roman REPUBLIC (not yet the Roman Empire) in 70BCE through the privately-owned Fire Brigade of Marcus Licinius Crassus. Crassus, one of the richest and most powerful men in Rome, organized his five-hundred slaves into a Fire Brigade, not for the public good, but his own. When a building was on fire, he'd send his slaves to douse the flames, but only after the owner of the property sold it to Crassus for a mere fraction of its true worth. If the owner refused, Crassus left to let the building and all surrounding properties burn, then returned later to buy the land for an even lower amount. Worse, it was alleged that Crassus maintained a second brigade of slaves, an arson brigade, whose task it was to start fires. In this way, Crassus exerted and grew his economic strength over others to take what he desired, more land, and ruined many lives in the process.

Enter Augustus, First Emperor of the Roman Empire. After a devastating fire in Rome 6CE, Augustus took Crassus' rather crass undertaking, augmented it with fire-fighting techniques and technology from Egypt (another empire), expanded it to cover the entire city, and institutionalized it as part of a consolidated public safety service that all citizens could benefit from. The Vigiles Urbani, or City Watchmen, did not only fight fires; they also patrolled the streets day and night to maintain order and combat crime.

The Roman Empire safeguarded the lives of its citizens through other systems too. The relative peace and order established within Rome in Augustus' time was expanded outward through the construction of great roads and the maintenance of a patrolled road network, rest stops, and garrisoned fortifications. Merchants and travellers were afforded the rare privilege of safe passage throughout the empire, a privilege sadly lost again after the fall of Rome. The empire also provided public welfare in the form of a corn dole for those unable to afford food and through public bathhouses to protect the citizenry (and thus the city) from disease and plague. Augustus' reign is so known for its unilaterally available services to the people that even the framers of the Constitution of the United States remarked that they wanted to inaugurate an "Augustan Age."

Sounds pretty august, huh?

My assistant, Albrecht Silver, a native Cassian, on how this relates to the Dominion:
"Order's a huge part of how the Dominion operates, and it has to be because we're not just talking Cassus and a few outlying systems when discussing Dominion space -- we're talking an entire galaxy with hundreds of worlds and a vast array of species. That's a whole lot more room than people who've lived on a single planet their entire lives can even imagine, and much like the "Ancient World" the Historian here was mentioning, it's plenty of dangerous space filled with pirates, outlaws, and hostile... well, everything. Yet, through diligence and order, the Dominion keeps it safe for its citizens to travel through and to do business in. Even in war, the Dominion normally talks first and uses overwhelming arms later, which keeps the soldiers mostly safe too. So say what you like about them, but so long as you're imperial, the Dominion'll do what it can to keep you alive and well."


Good Republic, Good Empire

For the first mini-series of posts, I'll be tackling the idea of Empire because our understanding of what empires represent fundamentally influences our Wildstar experience. For one, it affects our choice of faction--Exiles or Dominion--and our expectations of those factions. Something I've noticed from discussions among fellow Wildstar enthusiasts (and several of my students) is that most associations with empire point straight in one of two directions--Darth Vader and Adolf Hitler--and a single conclusion: that empires are synonymous with oppression.

Not correct.

Yes, it's easy to understand why this view is so prevalent. Yes, even Carbine Studios is a little guilty for perpetuating the idea of "Good Republic, Evil Empire" despite continually stating that the Dominion are not the "bad guys" of the game. No, there's so much more to an empire than militarism, oppression, "intimidation, political intrigue and (impressive) military conquests," particularly for a star-spanning empire such as the Dominion. To illustrate this truth, I will use historical examples to discuss the idea of the Good of Empire under headings inspired by the precepts of another "star-spangled" hegemonic empire:


For further reading, I also recommend this defense of Star Wars' Galactic Empire: A Case for Empire.