Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Good Republic, Good Empire: Liberty

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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?"

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