Wednesday, October 30, 2013

What is a Dictator?

    We in America like to think of democracy as being ‘good’ and dictatorship as being ‘bad’. But it is worth noting that in its most basic form democracy is the ability of 51% of the population to legally rob the other 49% blind. It can be argued that dictatorship, then, is the ability of the 1% to rob the other 99% blind. That neither happens that simply points out the complicated nature of the world in which we live.

     Robert Kaplan at Stratfor recently wrote an essay (subscription required) in which he explored the phenomenon of the dictator as head of state, and makes the shocking claim that not all dictators are card-carrying members of the Club of Evil.

    Kaplan’s thesis is state in paragraph six: “we recognize a world in which just as there are bad democrats, there are good dictators.” Geopolitics is complex. Things and people don’t always fit into simple categories. The astute observer of the world will look at more than how a leader came to power. How did that leader use the power; did his use of power make things better or worse for the state he ruled? Kaplan supports his argument that not all dictators are bad with examples of autocratic leaders who have made things better. One such was Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. He was clearly a dictator, but he also initiated meritocracy, good governance and world class urban planning.” Deng Xioping of China oversaw a dramatic rise in personal freedom and standard of living for the largest state by population in the world. Bashar al-Assad of Syria protected the minority Christian population from persecution by his fellow Muslims.

   Now, none of this makes these men saints or even nice people. But it does illustrate that good or bad governance can be accomplished by more than one political system. Governance, the act of governing, is morally neutral. It is what one does while governing that can be morally judged.

    One product of governance that can be achieved by either a good or a bad ruler, democratic or otherwise, is stability or order. Moammar Khaddafi, the late and unlamented despot of Libya, for all his faults or wickedness, provided a more orderly state than what Libya is currently suffering at the hands of the factions scrambling for control of the country. A steady or orderly state can carry on its business, even in conditions of limited personal freedom, and hopefully lay the groundwork for eventual improvements to the public good – personal liberty, opportunity to prosper and improved standard of living. Khaddafi may not have done this, but such things are for the time being much less possible, under a supposedly more democratic ‘system’ if such a term can be used in this case.

      Good fiction is realistic, so it helps to recognize what the real world is like when turning one’s attention to fictional worlds. There are plenty of examples of bad dictators, Emperor Palpatine of Star Wars and Sauron of the Lord of the Rings being perhaps two of the most well-known. But there are good dictators as well. The best example I know of in fiction of the good dictator is HavelockVetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork on the Discworld, created by Sir Terry Pratchett. Vetinari is unquestionably a dictator; he came to power by personally assassinating the previous Patrician (who happened to be insane). He spies on his own people and manipulates everyone. He practices the rule of “one man one vote” in that he is the Man and he has the Vote. Being in his presence makes most residents of the city uneasy and anxious, and Vetinari cultivates that climate of fear and unease, to keep the advantage. Vetinari is also responsible for the rejuvenation of the city’s banking and postal services, the reduction of street crime by organizing and regulating the Thieves’ Guild and the Assassin’s Guild. All of the city’s power brokers hate him, but they hate each other more, and Vetinari keeps it that way. The city works, and everyone realizes that a city without Vetinari would not work as well as it does, so they put up with him. Stability and the survival of the state are his main aims, and he will have them, thank you very much. So is Vetinari a villain or not?

    In the universe of Traveller, there are several Dictatorship type governments. Specifically they are the Self-Perpetuating Oligarchy (which I call Hereditary Ruler), the Charismatic Dictator, the Non-Charismatic Dictator, the Charismatic Oligarchy and the Religious Dictatorship.

     According to an article on Traveller governments I read from SJ Games, the term Charismatic refers not to the dictator’s popularity, but to the source of his authority. Kings and elected leaders have an external source of their authority – it comes from the society of which they are a part. Established law or tradition says who is the legitimate ruler, and if or when that ruler has to give up power. In contrast, rulers like Oliver Cromwell or Fidel Castro or VI Lenin appealed to personal traits, such as their moral righteousness or adherence to the right political cause or philosophy, to legitimize their rule. ‘Charismatic’ governments are all about the person(s) holding the power.A non-charismatic dictator is simply the successor or inheritor of a charismatic dictator's power - the first step in the transformation into a new tradition or legal system.

    In my Traveller universe (link goes to a page with subsector maps) there will therefore be both good & bad dictators, and good & bad democrats. There are also kings & patricians, republics and the ever-mysterious feudal technocracies (does anyone really understand what that is?).

· House Dirata (Dormarc-Ostrander) is all under the control of the Dirata family. Turf wars among the extended family are the cause of its instability.
 · The Talaveran Empire (Dothan-Talaveran) is ruled by a Hereditary Monarch, but benefits from input from the people through the aristocracy. Plus, it is one of the most religion-tolerant states.
· The Union of Socialist Worlds (Union Subsector) is run by a dictatorial council, filled by ranking members of the only official political party. The Union is officially atheistic, and endorses religious persecution.
· The Patrian Concordiat (Daktari Nebula) is a dictatorial autocracy under the control of the Patria family. The Concordiat is rife with all manner of corruption and abuse. Power is all that matters to the Patrians.
· The Kingdom of Onaji (5 Worlds-American)is ruled by the King, period. The king manages the centralized economy well and is tolerant of religion.
· The Litton Confederation (Solaris-Litton) is a stagnated bureaucracy. Regional interests trump effectiveness in Littonian politics.
· The Alliance of Dormarc (Dormarc-Ostrander) is ineffectual and corrupt. Its parliamentary system all but guarantees gridlock and a bloated bureaucracy.
· The Kamarov Republic (Solaris-Litton & Union) is for the most part an open society that encourages education. It is stridently secular-materialist, and is hostile to all religion.

Examples from the Independent worlds:

Mavramorn (Holtzmann’s Corridor 0605) Independent C-34374A-10 50 million people
The Mavramorn system is potentially very rich in natural resources but the local government isn't developing them. They are very jealous of their sovereign territory, and won’t let anyone else in to develop them. Figurehead president is a glorified bureaucrat, the real power is the Army & Navy Chiefs of Staff, who own or control most of the industry and public services. Mavramorn & Stavanger fought a brief war 100+ years ago, and the military heads came to power under wartime rules. The civil leadership is maintained in place to placate the populace with meaningless ‘reforms’.

Tucloas (Weitzlar 0308) C-2316A5-10 Independent 8.5 million people
Tucloas’ current King took the throne after a short but bloody civil war against the reigning monarch. He was an aristocrat and a distant relative of the ruling line, but thought himself the more competent administrator. After wiping out the royal family in a series of bomb attacks, he led his forces (stiffened by a large number of mercenaries) against the next closest relative of the former king, whose claim to the throne was distant enough to cause doubt and division within the armed forces. The new king is having trouble keeping his mercenary forces under control, and there are still loyalist forces at large.

Drexell (Daktari Nebula 0204) C-9327A5-12 45 million people
Drexell’s head of state is a figure known only as El Supremo. "El Supremo" is arguably insane. The listed law level applies to only some upper-class autocratic types. For everyone else, it's level 12. El Supremo is managed by his aristocratic 'secretaries' and 'ministers'. Off-planet visitors are restricted to the southern continent, away from the main bulk of the population.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On Biblical Interpretation

One day some of the brethren came to see Abba Antony,[St Antony the Great, the father of Christian monasticism] and among them was Abba Joseph. Wishing to test them, the old man mentioned a text from Scripture, and starting with the youngest he asked them what it meant. Each explained it as best he could. But to each one the old man said "You have not yet found the answer". Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, "And what do you think the text means?"
He replied, "I do not know".
Then Abba Antony said, "Truly, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he said: "I do not know".
From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

   I take Abba Antony's point to be that the starting place for understanding the Scriptures is understanding our own limitations and ignorance. Without proper humility, we will not 'find the way' to a right understanding of Scripture, as our pride will lead us instead to interpretations that make us feel clever, or give us license to do the things we want to do.

   Pope Francis, the current Bishop of Rome, in a recent interview, spoke of the necessity of doubt and uncertainty to our faith, because it leads us to humility. He says, "If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself." Read an article discussing the Pope's words here:

   While Pope Francis was not speaking specifically about Biblical interpretation, I think that what he says certainly applies. Many Christians in the West, under the influence of the Reformation dogma of Sola Scriptura turn to the Bible as a sort of substitute prophet; starting with an idea or intention of their own, they comb through the Bible and pull verses out of context to build support for that idea or intention. The same tradition that concocted Sola Scriptura also invented the idea that each believer is capable of correctly interpreting the Scriptures on their own. The result is obvious and all around us - disagreement, division and individualized faith are the hallmarks of American Christianity. This is the result of our insistence upon individual autonomy. We assume that we know, or can deduce using logic and reason, the mind of God.

   This stands in contradiction to the Orthodox understanding of the Scriptures and their interpretation. The Church as a whole (body) interprets the Scripture in and through the lens of our Holy Tradition. An individual may (and probably will) err, but the Holy Spirit, which is the Mind of the Church, guides the whole into all Truth. Many of the big heresies that have plagued the Church throughout her history were instigated by a person pulling his/her own interpretation of a verse or passage and insisting that everyone but them got it wrong. See Arianism for the uber-example.

"19 We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: 20 knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. 21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." 2 Peter 1: 19-21 (emphasis mine)

"The prophets hear God speaking to them in the secret recesses of their own hearts. They simply conveyed that message by their preaching and writing to God's people. They were not like pagan oracles, which distorted the divine message in their own interest, for they did not write their own words but the words of God. For this reason the reader cannot interpret them by himself, because he is liable to depart from the true meaning, but rather he must wait to hear how the One who wrote words wants them to be understood."

St. Bede the Venerable, On 2 Peter.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What I'm reading - The Revenge of Geography

The Revenge of Geography

By Robert Kaplan

Robert Kaplan is a realist. This book is about the physical facts of the world we live on and what those facts mean for cultures and nations. Take for example, the two oceans that insulate the isolationist United States from any credible threats and compare this with the non-existence of any mountains or other barriers around Russia that make its’ land easy to invade and the Russians perennially insecure.

Just as a child growing up is influenced in his development by local immediate factors like the composition of his family and his neighborhood; cultures exist in the context of their interaction with the geographical surroundings and their cultural neighbors.

America is the product of its European and specifically British ‘parents’. With coastlines on two oceans and abundant natural harbors on both coasts, America could hardly have done otherwise than become a sea power. Given our abundance of resources to export, it simply was in our national interest to be focused on maritime trade and the protection of the same.

Contrast this with Russia, which is not a sea power and can hardly become one, no matter how much it wishes to do so. Russia is almost completely cut off from the sea lanes by ice to the north and the expanse of South Asian nations in the other direction. Even Vladivostok, which does sit on the Pacific coast, is not as useful as it may seem as it sits thousands of miles away from 90% of Russia’s population. Distance matters as much as elevation and climate.

Difficult climates like the Russian steppes, Kaplan says, lead to more centralized authority – because that is what works for the survival of the nation. Humans have an appetite for power, but their environment shapes how easy or difficult it is to acquire it.

Kaplan applies these kinds of lessons from geography to all the world’s inhabited regions, looking for the physical factors that have shaped and continue to shape the life of the peoples & nations. For example, the Asiatic steppes produced nomadic horse clans because nothing else made sense there – the solitary homestead of the American Midwest could not have survived the poor soil and lack of navigable rivers.

However, Kaplan is not a determinist; geography is not fate. Persons and nations can choose how they will respond to the world, but they will be influenced by geography whether they realize it or not. What your piece of the globe looks like tells us something important about you and the savvy observer will not let the modern talk of ‘One World’ obscure the enduring realities of geography.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

76 Patrons Writing Contest 2nd Place

BeRKA over at The Zhodani Base has announced the winners in this year's 76 Patrons Writing contest. I've won 2nd Place (second year in a row!) with my entry "Chapel Bells Chime"!
You can read it at the Zhodani Base, along with all the other fine entries, but I present it here for my readers.

76 Patrons – Chapel Bells Chime

Patron: the Betrothed
Skills required: Carousing, Liaison, Streetwise
Equipment required: none

Location: Titan,  Foreven 1429   A-642ABA-D  J    Hi In Po Capital

    A friend or relation of one of the PCs is getting married, and the PC and his/her associates have been invited to the big event, which promises to be a major event on the social calendar of Titan's capital city. The PC with the connection may, at the referee's discretion, be asked to take part in the planning of the reception, which will be a very large affair, with many hundreds of guests as well as media coverage.  A week prior to the wedding, the bride-to-be comes running to the PCs for assistance. The wedding might not happen, because her betrothed has disappeared! The patron is in a state of panic, and turned to the PCs because they “have experience with this kind of thing”. Local custom on weddings is very specific, owing to property transfer laws on Titan; a wedding is also a real estate contract. Therefore, it is imperative that the wedding happen on the scheduled date; rescheduling a wedding is a contract violation, which requires someone way, way up in the government or religious hierarchy to approve in order to avoid messy litigation. The PCs must work quickly to get the happy couple reunited in time for the big day.

Referee's Information
    This scenario will work just as well with either the intended husband or the wife doing the disappearing. The referee can impose tasks on the PC group to help with wedding preparations before the main event occurs – setting up security at the reception would be good camouflage for the actual mission. The PCs may be motivated by affection for the patron & intended, but reluctant PCs will be encouraged by members of either family offering cash incentives to find the missing person. However, if the PCs ask for cash payment, this should have social consequences for them once the word gets out. In any event, part of the PCs assignment will be to keep a lid on the fact of the disappearance while they investigate. The referee will determine what impact there will be on the six variables below if the news of the disappearance gets out.
Reasons for the disappearance:

1    The intended spouse has had a change of heart, or wimped out, and is now in hiding, waiting for the date to expire in order to get out of the marriage. The PCs can attempt to reason with the intended, but the intended will try to convince the PCs to not expose him/her, including offering bribes.

2    The intended has been in an accident (vehicular or recreational) and suffered a loss of memory or is in a comatose condition. Persons at the scene of the accident got the intended to hospital, but other than a routine police report, the accident did not make the news. The intended did not have his/her identification on hand at the time of the accident, so the hospital does not know who the person is. There are several hospitals in the capital city.

3    As in number two, but the intended died in the accident. The referee will determine whether the intended's remains have been located, and whether the accident was a natural disaster or a man-made accident. If the accident was caused by another person, that person may try to hide the body and disguise the accident scene to throw off suspicion of fault.

4    The intended has been kidnapped by a jealous rival who wants the a shot at the patron him/herself. The intended is unharmed for the time being, and is held in a location far from the capital. Once the intended is found, getting him/her back to the city in time for the wedding will be difficult. The referee is encouraged to engineer the trip as a race against the clock on the day of the wedding.

5    The intended has a nasty secret (financial trouble, previous marriage never ended, he/she is actually a spy) that suddenly is in danger of being exposed, and the intended is trying at the last minute to handle it. Once found the intended will ask the PC's help in clearing up the matter before the wedding date.

6    The intended has been kidnapped by a jealous rival of the patron, who wants the intended for him/herself. The intended may be brainwashed by the rival.  The rival may threaten violence against the intended or as leverage if confronted by the PCs. If the intended is rescued the kidnapper may attempt to break up the wedding.

In all cases, the referee must determine the flow of subsequent events.